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The Belfast blindspot: How Britain still doesn’t get Northern Ireland

Few predicted that the Irish border would become the defining issue of Brexit – but then again, the British media never really understood the Troubles.

In August this year, a man was shot dead in County Down; a bomb exploded in County Fermanagh; armed men posed for cameras in a north Belfast street; shots were fired at a house in Omagh, County Tyrone; and police in Belfast were forced to allow an illegal bonfire to be set alight after retreating in the face of threats. It is doubtful that anyone in England, Scotland and Wales read about these incidents – with the notable exception of the BBC’s online news service, there was little coverage in the UK of each event.

Since the outbreak of the Troubles, the British press has paid little attention to the reality of life in Northern Ireland. Nor, consequently, has the public. Nowhere has this been clearer than throughout the Brexit process. Northern Ireland and its border were barely mentioned by Westminster politicians ahead of the EU referendum in 2016 – yet even as the region and its ministers, most notably the DUP, have assumed greater importance than anything else in negotiations with Brussels, the press remains detached, in part explaining how many have got things so wrong.

Another under-reported development this year was the flying, in loyalist areas, of Parachute Regiment flags and banners declaring support for one of its former members, Soldier F, who is facing murder charges related to the killing of 14 innocent people on Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972. The provocative act should be seen in the context of increasingly violent activities by loyalist paramilitaries and, in nationalist areas, by republican dissidents – but once again, the news passed under the radar of Britain’s press.

It took an extraordinary event, the killing of the young journalist Lyra McKee, to break through the apathy. Her death at a riot in Derry in April received appropriate media coverage. August marked the 50th anniversary of the deployment of British troops in Northern Ireland and the outbreak of the Troubles – and, on the whole, it passed the media by. This is how it has always been: brief moments of light amid long periods of darkness.

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The longest period of darkness began in 1921 with the foundation of Northern Ireland itself. The “statelet” was created specifically to placate Protestants opposed to Britain’s plan to disengage from Ireland; they were given six counties, two-thirds of the ancient Irish province of Ulster, to rule through their own parliament based at Stormont. The Protestant majority was allowed by Westminster, and by the UK media, to do as they liked. They ensured that Protestants got most of the available jobs, all the best housing and all the key votes.

For 45 years, during which the Catholic minority suffered discrimination while the Protestant majority cemented its hold on all the political, social and industrial levers, Britain’s politicians and journalists turned a blind eye. Then, in the summer of 1966, several national papers sent journalists to Belfast to cover a visit by the Queen. They were shocked at what they found. The Sunday Times’s Insight team produced a lengthy analysis headlined “John Bull’s political slum”. Here was “a part of Britain where the crude apparatus of political and religious oppression – ballot rigging, job and housing discrimination, and an omnipresent threat of violence – comfortably co-exists with intense loyalty to the Crown”.

The paper introduced its readers to the baleful figure who was to play a leading role in Northern Irish politics for half a century: the Presbyterian cleric Ian Paisley. He was engaged, they said, in rousing Protestants against “the first glimmer of liberal leadership in Ulster” as its prime minister, Terence O’Neill, sought to offer Catholics hope of political and social reforms. The Guardian’s young reporter Brian MacArthur (later a Fleet Street editor) wrote, “In Ulster, it is frequently difficult to believe one is still in the twentieth century.” Having witnessed Paisley deliver a tub-thumping anti-Catholic speech at a hillside rally, MacArthur said he looked “like a rugby league prop forward” and spoke “like Hitler”. A Daily Mirror report called Paisley a “rabble-rousing Protestant extremist”.

In 1967, the Times sent a news team to Belfast to report on housing discrimination and found an electoral system “weighted against Catholics”, whom it portrayed as Ulster’s “second-class citizens”. And in January 1969, the assault by a Protestant gang on People’s Democracy marchers at Burntollet Bridge in Derry won headlines.

It was the prelude to seven months of increasing tension and violence as the plight of nationalist Catholics gained considerate coverage. When the 21-year-old republican activist Bernadette Devlin was elected as MP for Mid Ulster in April 1969 (she remained the youngest woman elected to Westminster until the SNP’s Mhairi Black in 2015), Ulster could no longer be ignored.

Events moved fast. Terence O’Neill resigned as Stormont prime minister in April and his replacement, James Chichester-Clark, found himself caught between civil rights campaigners on one side and Paisley’s Protestant extremists on the other: the former demanded political and social change; the latter defiantly opposed any reforms.

By early August 1969, it was clear that the Royal Ulster Constabulary and its auxiliary force, the B Specials, were not only failing to keep the peace, they were working hand-in-glove with Protestant gangs who were intimidating civil rights activists and expelling Catholics from their homes. The British press was sympathetic, focused as never before on Northern Ireland, with several papers showing genuine concern for the nationalist population. Cyril Aynsley, the Daily Express’s Northern Ireland correspondent, wrote: “For far too long the Unionist government at Stormont… ignored accusations of gerrymandering, sectarianism, anti-Catholicism and nepotism.”

Peter Black, in the Daily Mail, argued that Britain was the villain: “The story is so awful that no Englishman with any sense of history can feel quite easy in Ireland. And the situation in the north right now is as mathematical as product of it as two plus three makes five.”

Cecil King, writing in the Times, raged against “the regime at Stormont” as an “ignoble creation”: a Protestant supremacy that “can only be maintained by discrimination against Catholics and the gerrymandering of constituency boundaries”.

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The Times and the staunchly unionist Daily Telegraph feared the consequences of Westminster overruling Stormont, but the former changed its mind after the deaths of five people and rioting in Derry, which followed an inflammatory Apprentice Boys’ march. On 14 August 1969, when British soldiers were deployed on the streets of Belfast and Derry, there was overwhelming press support. According to the papers, the terrified nationalist people were delighted to see the troops; TV bulletins showed women handing out cups of tea and plates of cakes while soldiers allowed young children to wear their helmets.

It was a heady period that with hindsight seems surreal, with peace on the streets and the press almost united in support for the beleaguered Catholics. But General Ian Freeland, the British commander who headed the military forces, was realistic, arguing that “the honeymoon period” would be short-lived. According to the Mail, “Every second that British troops remain there holding Catholics and Protestants apart is fraught with intense danger.” This was the first clear statement of what was to become an enduring media motif: the portrayal of the British army – and Britain itself – as the reluctant piggy in the middle between two warring Irish religious tribes. In what became a common theme, the Telegraph contended that the “disturbances” between Catholics and Protestants were “the product of naked sectarian hatred of the traditional Irish kind”.

Despite its criticism of unionists, the British press remained wedded to the union itself. A call by the Irish Republic’s prime minister, Jack Lynch, for UN intervention, was condemned by every paper. Lynch was “impudent” and “inflammatory” (the Telegraph), and “rash and provocative” (the Mirror).

His role as villain was soon supplanted by that of the IRA. Although the Official IRA did little more than issue threats – it was not until the end of 1969 that the Provisionals emerged as a force – the papers accepted unionist propaganda about republicans as riot puppeteers. The following July, with inter-communal riots resuming, the relationship between nationalists and the army broke down. After the imposition of a curfew in west Belfast, the Provisional IRA opened fire on the troops and the media narrative changed. The darkness returned.

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For the next 30 years, the media stood behind Britain’s army. After three years in which the discrimination against Catholic nationalists had been explored with a measure of sympathy, the community’s support for the IRA, even if only tacit, placed them in the enemy camp. Journalists also became dependent for information on “the authorities” – the army and the government – whose public relations departments grew ever more sophisticated. With rare exceptions, such as the Sunday Times’s reports on Bloody Sunday, crimes committed by the troops were ignored.

Down the years, there were many dramas for the press to feed on: bombing outrages, with those in Britain getting greater coverage than those in Northern Ireland, and hunger strikes in which ten Irish republican prisoners died. Death dominated the press discourse until the peace process of the late 1990s. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement finally brought the conflict to a conclusion, and as far as the media was concerned, Northern Ireland could be a British backwater all over again.

Power-sharing between unionists and nationalists lasted only fitfully until 2007, when Sinn Féin and the DUP agreed to form an executive for the first time, ushering in nine years of something that looked like functioning government. Its collapse in January 2017 as a result of the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal – a botched green energy scheme that cost the taxpayer £500m – was barely covered by British editors.

Despite sporadic sectarian clashes, the British media largely reverted to the pre-1966 habit of ignoring Northern Ireland. It was left to deal with its deeply divided society, where religious ghettos exist behind “peace walls”, schooling is separated by religion, and passionate disputes over language rights, same-sex marriage and abortion are unresolved.

Northern Ireland in 2019 is not as it was in 1921, nor as it was in 1969. But its society remains broken, a situation exacerbated by the failure of the British media to report honestly, fairly and consistently on a part of the United Kingdom that demands much greater journalistic attention.

This article appears in the 23 October 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The broken state