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Monday 22 September 2014

Gene Kerrigan: As a journalist, it isn't in your job description to pick a side

Branded an IRA sympathiser in newly released British state papers, Gene Kerrigan recalls those paranoid times

Published 01/01/2012 | 08:32

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The release of British state papers from 1981 has branded some journalists -- including me -- as IRA "sympathisers" back then. It's unsurprising that embassy diplomat PR Whiteway, drawing up his or her list 30 years ago, should imagine that Ed Moloney, Eamon McCann, Vincent Browne and I were Provo fellow travellers.

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What was it I wrote in Magill magazine in 1980 or 1981 that prompted Mr/Ms Whiteway to add me to the list?

On checking the files, I find that in 1980, I wrote nothing about the North. In 1981, I wrote two pieces, both on-the-ground reporting of specific events. First, the atmosphere as the hunger strike lurched towards an end, and Owen Carron was elected as Provo TD to replace the dead Bobby Sands. Second, a report on Ian Paisley's formation, in Newtownards, of a "third force", a masked, semi-military outfit (which never amounted to much).

Both reports were accurate and honest accounts of what I saw -- the clashes, the accusations, the sectarianism (nationalist, loyalist and state). But there's a clue in the state papers as to why such reports aroused the suspicions of Mr/Ms Whiteway. Most journalists, he/she says, were "bitterly anti-IRA".

In 1981, the Provos believed they could drive the British out. The British believed they could crush the IRA. Some of us didn't believe either result likely -- to crush the IRA required crushing the community in which they survived. The IRA violence was repulsive, the British cynical, the southern politicians operating double standards. There were no good guys.

The British attitude then (shared by the Dublin government -- and the Provos) was, you're either with us or you're against us. My position -- and, I suspect Moloney, Browne and McCann felt the same -- was that my job didn't require me to be with any of them. It's how I feel about politicians, too, to this day.

It's not bad company -- McCann, Browne, Moloney. My clearest memory of that evening with the "third force" in Newtownards is when Paisley loudly remarked on the presence of the media, and warned his audience of the hacks' IRA tendencies. (Mr/Ms Whiteway's paranoia was not unique.) Minutes later, I saw Ed Moloney being harassed by a foul-mouthed Paisley supporter, with others looking on. It was a dangerous moment. To either answer back or to ignore the loudmouth was equally likely to lead to a head-kicking. Frankly, I was frightened.

Ed leaned on his cane, sniffed, shook his head -- and in a tone of reprimand that equalled Paisley at his most censorious, he loudly snapped, "You have drink taken." The man was shocked and awed. Ed turned and walked away, as the chastened loudmouth swayed slightly and the onlookers lost interest.

I haven't seen Ed in years, but any list he's on is okay by me.

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