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Tuesday 2 September 2014

Eoghan Harris: Section 31 saved many young men of 20 from PIRA

Eoghan Harris

Published 08/01/2012 | 05:00

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CONTEXT was the first casualty of RTE News's coverage of the 1981 State papers. Last Saturday, David McCullagh reported with relish that the then Taoiseach, Garret FitzGerald, asked Paddy Cooney to lift Section 31 (which kept the Provos off the air) and thus put RTE reporters "on their best behaviour".

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McCullagh has written a history of John A Costello. As a historian, he should know the importance of context. He had a moral obligation to add that FitzGerald later changed his mind completely on Section 31 -- and left ample documentary evidence to show he had done so.

In his 1992 memoir, All In A Life, FitzGerald rejected the NUJ notion that RTE reporters could deal with the Provos: "The claim, frequently made, that if free expression were allowed, the potential damage from the publicising of extreme views would be countered by skilled journalistic handling, including interviews with IRA spokesmen, has no obvious foundation."

FitzGerald took Ian Paisley as an example.

"I have yet to see any interviewer in a quarter of a century 'cutting him down to size' and the same was, in my view, true of at least some interviews with the IRA or SF spokesmen, before they were banned on RTE."

He repeated these views two years ago at the 2009 McCloskey Summer School.

"FitzGerald in favour of internment and broadcasting bans against extremists in certain circumstances", says the headline in the Irish Times reporting his speech from Carlingford, Co Louth.

But long before 1992, FitzGerald had concluded that Cooney was right to refuse the Provos access to the airwaves.

This was not just Fine Gael policy. For more than 20 consecutive years, from 1972 until 1994, every political party, except one, had voted to renew Section 31. The sole exception was the Workers Party. Yes, contrary to the myth, the Workers Party was actually against Section 31.

That is why it is nonsense for nationalist propagandists to keep repeating the lie that those of us who supported Section 31 in RTE were acting as factional agents of the Workers Party.

On the contrary, by supporting Section 31, we were acting against the policy of the Workers Party. We did so because it was our personal, political and moral belief that lifting the ban would damage Irish democracy.

Apart from the NUJ, we were not alone in that belief. Most RTE staff quietly supported Section 31. Until the late Eighties (when Trotskyite supporters secured a majority), the two biggest unions, the FWUI and the ITGWU, which represented 90 per cent of RTE staff, refused to pass anti-Section 31 motions -- indeed such motions never even came before the branch committee of the ITGWU in that period.

I sincerely believe that Section 31 saved us from civil strife. Back in 1981, we were still 12 long bloody years from the first Provo peace feelers, called 'Hume-Adams'.

But if the Provos had access to the airwaves during the H Blocks protest, "many young men of 20" would have been sucked into their killing machine.

In RTE, the NUJ's opposition was somewhat nominal. The real challenge to Section 31 came from a minority of radio producers. The two most prominent activists against restricting Sinn Fein spokespersons were Betty Purcell and Alex White, both of whom had been active in Trotskyite grouplets as students in UCD.

As Patrick Smyth of the Irish Times recalled, writing last March: "Alex White and Seamus Healy were at one stage members of the much smaller LWR (League for A Workers' Republic), the former had long parted company with it before he joined Labour."

Purcell, too, had been active in Trotskyite student politics.

As late as 1991, while working as an RTE editor, Purcell took a case against Section 31 to the Commission of Human Rights. She lost on the grounds that the commission upheld the right of a democratic country under "existential threat from a terrorist conspiracy" to ban members of such a conspiracy from access to the publicly owned airwaves.

Last week, Purcell was still repeating the old myth about the Workers Party being behind the pro-Section 31 supporters. She told Mick Heaney of the Irish Times that those who opposed the Workers Party line were "name called and pilloried".

But as far as victimisation goes, it was the other way around.

Producers like Purcell and White who opposed Section 31 went on to enjoy long and comfortable careers in RTE. By 1994, when Michael D Higgins lifted the Section 31 restriction, their supporters controlled the trade unions. By contrast, those of us who had supported Section 31 were isolated in an increasingly nationalist culture and many left Montrose.

In my own case, I was continually chivvied to leave RTE following the publication in 1987 of my critique of the campaign against Section 31 called Television And Terrorism. In 1990, my advisory work on Mary Robinson's campaign was deemd problematic. While other political animals continued to flourish in Montrose, RTE made it plain I had no future.

Accordingly, I reluctantly left RTE in 1990. Reluctantly, because I believe I was reaching my best years as a producer. I had won a Jacobs Award twice, had written the script for a third, The Greening Of America, and my film in 1987 on mental illness, Darkness Visible, had received recognition and awards at home and abroad.

Since leaving, I have been marginalised by RTE News. But I was still baffled by John Bowman's brutal treatment of me in his quasi-official history of RTE, Window And Mirror. I was even more astonished at the attitude of a team, under his editorial supervision, which approached me to take part in a film, purportedly about RTE and politics, for TV50.

It soon became clear that the focus of the film team was not on my pioneering work on Seven Days or on Feach, nor on my political satires for Niall Toibin's If the Cap Fits or my Brechtian musical meditation on Irish-American politics, The Greening Of America, but on my alleged activities on behalf of the Workers Party

Judging by what other proposed participants have told me, my creative contribution to political Irish broadcasting, both in English and Irish, in Seven Days or Feach, did not feature in discussions -- only my alleged activities as an alleged agent of the Workers Party.

Naturally, I refused to take part in this film. Naturally, I shall not let matters lie. Meantime, I wonder how, in the light of his treatment of me in his book, John Bowman expects me to accept him as the appropriate editor of a film which intends to focus upon my political activities within RTE.

Furthermore, I am not reassured by a reference on p240 of Window And Mirror, where Bowman lauds my principal Section 31 antagonist, Betty Purcell, "as a colleague for very many years (who) shared many insights with me".

Indeed.

Sunday Independent

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