Friday 31 October 2014

In its Section 31 debate RTE failed to provide a word of reasoned defence

National broadcaster's exclusion of certain voices on legislation shows lack of fairness, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 02/02/2014 | 02:30

Former U.S. diplomat Richard Haass reacts at a news conference in Belfast following the end of talks to resolve divisive issues that have hampered the Northern Ireland peace process which have broken up without agreement, December 31, 2013. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton (NORTHERN IRELAND - Tags: POLITICS)
Former U.S. diplomat Richard Haass

The Haass talks are so last year. But still, apparently, they rumble on. It's like finding the last Japanese soldier still fighting the war on a remote Pacific island. It all seems frightfully important to him. The rest of us have moved on. The latest "news" is that a deal is close on tackling so-called legacy issues, and that the British government, in the shape of Secretary of State Theresa "jolly hockey sticks" Villiers, is willing to fund . . . well, whatever pointless new agencies are set up to keep the restless locals from killing one another over "flegs", or Irish language street signs, or who gets the comfiest chair, or whatever else today's scandal happens to be.

It's a forlorn hope. Like every tantrum-throwing toddler, the North thrives on attention. Giving it to them just makes it worse. Politics, alas, is the business of doing things, even if those things make other things worse in the long run, so the sensible option of "ignoring them and hope they go away" has never been tried. It's particularly galling that the usual suspects are now demanding the Haass proposals be implemented in full when there's not the slightest chance of any of them actually abiding by the spirit of the deal even if they were universally adopted in a blaze of glory.

Here's a reminder of what the Haass proposals actually say: "To all those who may have relevant information, including individuals, members and former members of paramilitary organisations, members of political parties and other non-governmental organisations, and current and former employees of the governments of the United Kingdom and Ireland, we urge you to step forward with whatever information you have that may provide a degree of comfort to all those who lived through the conflict."

That's clear enough, isn't it? Truth, honesty, integrity. All of which Sinn Fein said they fully supported, whilst criticising unionists for not getting with the project with the same enthusiasm. Fast forward then to Thursday's Morning Ireland where Gerry Adams was asked if Section 31 was justified because Sinn Fein was the political wing of a private army: "If you look through the record, I've always made it very clear that Sinn Fein is not the political wing of anything." And he's entirely right. Look through the record, and this is indeed what the SF leader always said. Moreover, Sinn Fein "is not" the political wing of the IRA, insofar as those words are kept in the present tense, because it probably makes little sense anymore to think of Sinn Fein in 2014 as the political wing of an illegal army.

But in what way can this possibly be said to be in accordance with the Haass principles for dealing with the past truthfully and openly in order to bring comfort to those who suffered during the conflict? On the contrary, it was a textbook example of using truth to promote untruth, because Sinn Fein was indeed the political wing of the IRA. That's not a contentious statement. It's simply a fact, and that Gerry Adams was able to use facts to discredit facts is exactly what supporters of Section 31 said would happen if Section 31 was lifted. Adams even used the classic tactic which supporters of Section 31 said he'd use when asked why SF should have access to the airwaves when they caused so much death and destruction: "Well then, why interview the British Army? Why interview the RUC?" Answer came there none.

I was never a supporter of Section 31, because I'm a believer in free speech red in tooth and claw, and dealing with the consequences afterwards, however bad; but I respected those who were, and last week's Morning Ireland report on the 20th anniversary of the ban's end confirmed all their worst fears, as those who considered it ludicrous and offensive were given a free run of the airwaves to advance that view, entirely unchallenged. It wasn't a live debate either, but a pre-recorded segment too, so there were no excuses for allowing the dominance of one viewpoint.

No one spoke longer than Gerry Adams, who didn't waste the opportunity: "It perpetuated the conflict. It protracted any process for peacemaking or bringing the conflict to an end. It misinformed people. But the big, big injustice is that Irish people were not deemed by the Irish establishment to have the right to receive information, to have the right to form an opinion based upon that information." It was like listening to an ad for Sinn Fein. Section 31 protracted the conflict – not those who actually carried out violence. It was what misinformed people – not an organisation like the republican movement which thrives on lies and propaganda.

There was not one word of reasoned defence of Section 31 by any other voice. David Davin Power told some anecdotes of the RTE newsroom; a journalism teacher at DCU said his pupils "can't believe that this existed". But from those who could have given an historical context to Section 31 and why they felt it served an important weapon in the State's arsenal against subversives, there was Not One Word. This is public service broadcasting, is it? This is RTE's commitment to fairness and impartiality?

Section 31 was presented as if it was a laughable uncivilised historical perversity, like putting unfaithful women in the stocks or "poof" jokes on Are You Being Served?

The greatest irony, though, is that the case against Section 31 was automatically assumed to be valid because banning Sinn Fein from the airwaves suppressed free speech; but you can suppress free speech just as effectively by voluntarily excluding certain voices from the airwaves as by legislation. Imagine an item on Morning Ireland last week which discussed Section 31 without including the views of anyone who opposed it. It's unthinkable.

If RTE wants to know what free speech looks like, head to Twitter where an invitation to send questions to a Sinn Fein representative under the hashtag #AskSF on Friday led to a stream of irreverent and pointed interactions with ordinary people who had plenty they wanted to ask Sinn Fein and were enthusiastically taking their chance to do so publicly. It was invigorating and lively and life-affirming. RTE could learn something.

Irish Independent

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