The British Press, War Machine And Its Colonial Nostalgia.

Following recent events in Ireland, Rosa Gilbert finds British journalism struggling with ‘legacy issues’ of its own.


Martin McGuinness’ death on 21st March gave a number of commentators in the British press the opportunity to drop the niceties and decorum that some of us had expected of them since the peace process led him to the office of Deputy First Minister.

Noman Tebbit enjoyed describing how he should burn in hell while article after article described him (without scarequotes) as a terrorist and murderer. Just a week later a British soldier called Alexander Blackman had his sentence reduced from murder to manslaughter after a huge public campaign backed publicly by the Daily Mail who raised almost a million pounds for his legal case. Despite being caught on video shooting an injured, unarmed combatant in Afghanistan, knowingly breaking the Geneva Convention, the British press never referred to Blackman as a war criminal or murderer – even though he had originally been convicted of murder.

By way of expanding on this theme, this article is a brief and preliminary attempt to expose how and why the British press works hand in hand with promoting the British war machine and its colonial nostalgia.

Where other institutions have attempted to deal with the past in Northern Ireland, the attitudes of British journalists remain stubbornly placed in the past. Despite insufficiencies and fragility that have emerged most visibly in the last few years, the Belfast Agreement of 1998, marking the end of the conflict known as ‘the Troubles’, included all the constitutional elements in Britain and Ireland necessary to bring a cessation to hostilities. It also attempted to provide for an impressively large number of eventualities relating to security and policing, justice, democratic institutions. However, the institutions established to deal with the ‘legacy’ of the conflict in Northern Ireland have been on the whole inadequate. The Historical Enquiries Team which was set up in 2005 to review the cases of unsolved murder committed during the Troubles faced criticism from the independent police inspectorate in 2013 for not investigating deaths caused by the police or military with sufficient rigour. Unsurprisingly this was largely down to the fact that members of the investigations team were drawn from RUC personnel, many of whom retired after its reorganisation as the Police Service of Northern Ireland under the 2000 Police Act. The Legacy Support Unit which was tasked with providing documents to the coroner’s office – who, in lieu of judicial reviews and inquiries, were carrying out inquests into murders committed decades ago – was similarly staffed by ex-RUC Special Branch members.

Thanks largely to cuts to the policing budget of 7% in 2014, the HET which, despite its partiality and inadequacies, had revealed crucial information about a number of incidents that had initially been hidden by the RUC, was dissolved and responsibility for its caseload transferred to the much smaller Legacy Investigations Branch of the PSNI. And so the one imperfect but functional method of providing families with information about what happened to their loved ones, a vital element of the reconciliation plank of the Belfast Agreement, ground to a halt. Amongst other issues such as the DUP’s refusal to allow an Irish Language Act, the provision of which was agreed upon in the Belfast Agreement, the lack of progress with legacy investigations has been one of the major stalling points of the current negotiations between the political parties in Northern Ireland. Undoubtedly it will prove to be a sticking point between the new and completely unprecedented Catholic/nationalist majority in Stormont and Theresa May’s Brexit plans – the Historical Enquiry Team, along with the Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland, had been established following a series of landmark judgments by the European Court of Human Rights (McKerr group v UK). These judgments showed that the UK government had violated its obligations under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (right to life) by a) not investigating adequately the lethal use of force by State agents in a number of cases, b) not implementing certain judgments in Northern Ireland that were implemented in the rest of the UK.

But if you were absorbing the British print and broadcast media in recent weeks, you might be forgiven for not appreciating this startling problem for the devolved assembly and executive in Northern Ireland in their attempt to continue power-sharing rule under the sovereignty of the United Kingdom and British crown. When British politicians and the press bother to alert themselves to the continued existence of Northern Ireland, they concern themselves with two themes: the issue of the border, and the now decades-long moral panic that the second largest party in the province has been run by erstwhile senior paramilitaries. The death of Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness, who served as their Deputy First Minister for the last ten years and was instrumental in bringing the Provisional IRA towards ceasefire and decommissioning, has provided a new generation with an insight into the absolute poverty of the British media in its reporting on Irish matters.

To prove how little the demographics of Fleet Street journalists has changed over the decades, the same, sensationalised language of the 1970s and particularly the 1980s has resurfaced, the perpetuation of which is vital for the perversion of the historical record that keeps the cogs in the media outrage machine turning – if the Provisional IRA can be written off as terrorists, godfathers and murderers, there is no need to understand how and why thousands of young Irish men and women joined an armed insurrectionary movement in a period of otherwise relative peace in Britain and Ireland. Whilst the Belfast Agreement demanded the reconciliation between the main political actors in Northern Ireland, and former IRA volunteers rather remarkably made peace with ex-loyalists, police officers, soldiers and prison guards, there has been no similar reconciliation between the British media and ex-combatants. Republicans especially feel aggrieved over the reporting of the conflict, and from reading the reaction to McGuinness’ death it’s easy to see how.

It wasn’t simply that print and broadcast media was partisan or treated republicans unfairly, it was an instrumental figure in the interpretation and trajectory of the conflict. From early in the 1970s, the RUC and British Army had a co-ordinated media policy overseen by the Information Policy Co-ordinating Committee based in Stormont Castle, and the British media consumed and regurgitated their output uncritically. One example of how this operated is the tragic incidence of the McGurk’s bar bomb in Belfast in December 1971, Belfast’s deadliest attack during the Troubles. The day after the attack, the BBC was quoting senior RUC sources who stated that forensic scientists believed the bomb had exploded inside the building; the Times repeated it the following day and called it an IRA bomb, and the day after that the Defence Secretary repeated it in the House of Commons. The narrative was set – those inside the pub had died, but as they were handling or protecting explosives, were they really innocent? In fact the police were lying, and the army media unit knew this. The forensic evidence and an eyewitness account proved that the bomb was left outside the pub – indeed, the car that dropped off the bomb was allowed to drive around the most securitised part of Belfast with no trouble. A loyalist sectarian attack was passed off as an IRA “own goal” by the RUC with help from the press, validating the security policy of pursuing and interning republicans instead of loyalists. By uncritically echoing the propaganda pushed by the RUC and British Army, the British media was culpable in smearing innocent victims as terrorists, and allowing their loyalist murderers and the police who colluded in the cover-up – and probably the deed itself – to get away with it. At the same time, they participated in the minimisation of Irish Catholic grievances as well as the vilification of the republican struggle.

There are some notable exceptions to this; the Times Insight team did significant work in lending their audience to the claims of “ill-treatment” in detention centres which we now know amounted to torture (although in the 1980s they misreported on the 1988 Gibraltar killings and helped to smear the key eyewitness). However, exposure of these claims, whilst meritable, can only go so far within the framework of British media reporting on the Troubles. As long as Irish Catholics were seen as a suspect community, and any republican as fair game, it was unlikely that British popular opinion would be adverse to them being subject to what was euphemistically called “slap and tickle”.

Whilst Bloody Sunday has rightly received attention in Britain, largely thanks to the Saville Inquiry’s vindication of the innocence of the victims, the Ballymurphy Massacre just five months earlier is not so well known. As Operation Demetrius – the arrest of the first round of internees – got underway on 9 August 1971, an enclave of West Belfast, besieged by the 1 Para British Army unit conducting arrest swoops, was the site of local protests against the siege, followed by the execution by paratroopers of ten unarmed civilians over the course of 36 hours (another died later after suffering a heart attack). The Daily Mirror’s report of this event from August 12 described the massacre as “IRA ‘suicide attacks’”; two days later it repeated the security forces claim that they have “virtually defeated the hard core of IRA terrorist gunmen” since the start of Operation Demetrius. Most of those arrested in that first swoop weren’t IRA members, let alone “gunmen”; one of those murdered in Ballymurphy was a priest who had been shot twice whilst administering the last rites, one man was shot 14 times in the back.


The passing of Martin McGuinness has seen adult journalists and commentators screeching all manner of hyperbolic claims and holding him solely responsible for IRA attacks on mainland Britain. Of course these are chosen for the maximum impact on the British public rather than an accurate insight into the functioning of the Provisional IRA, beyond the fact that McGuinness never denied his IRA membership nor condemned its acts. And yet, the epithet of “ex-terrorist” has helped to define the more wearying trope of the reportage. The more liberal-minded, particularly those like Alastair Campbell and Tony Blair, who have a vested interest in buffing up their role in the peace negotiations,  emphasised this aspect of McGuinness’ personality as a former baddie turned good through his engagement with British politicians – all that was needed was a bit of compromise and reason, and the gunmen would down their weapons. McGuinness went on a “journey”; he “turned” towards politics; Theresa May separated the “earlier part of his life” to his recent years; journalists contrasted the Provisional IRA lethal attack on Lord Mountbatten in 1979 (whilst McGuinness is said to have been IRA Chief of Staff) against McGuinness’ 2012 handshake with the Queen.

The problem with this narrative is that it allows selective grief – we can mourn for the peacemaker whilst still despising the IRA man – without accounting for the subtleties and inherent contradictions that can be garnered from engaging with the historical record of the conflict in Northern Ireland.

This approach towards the republican movement does two crucial things. Firstly, it ignores the very early adoption of political strategies and participation in negotiations. During the 1972 IRA negotiations with the British Northern Ireland Secretary Willie Whitelaw, McGuinness participated as a senior figure. According to the Daily Telegraph in September 1972, attempts to ‘end the campaign of terror have been supported by the Provisionals’ Londonderry Brigade. The Londonderry Provisional leader [McGuinness], in hiding in Buncrana is strongly opposed to Mac Stiofain’s fanatical commitment to uniting the 32 counties by “victory through violence”.’ Secondly, it presents the earlier McGuinness – the violent murderer, the terrorist – in a way which distorts the chronology of the causes and outbreak of violence. To paraphrase Gerry Adams, unlike ‘Marine A’ Alexander Blackman, Martin McGuinness didn’t go to war, the war came to him. But focusing on Irish Catholics’ experience of the police and British Army in Belfast and Derry in the late 1960s would run the risk of assuaging the public of the notion that the British state was more than a neutral arbiter intent on making peace.

In 1982 when McGuinness & Adams had assumed the leadership roles of the republican movement and were pursuing the so-called “armalite and ballot box” approach, the pair, along with Danny Morrison, were banned from Britain under the 1974 Prevention of Terrorism Act, having been invited to London by GLC leader Ken Livingstone who to his credit defied his party leader Michael Foot to do so. As Home Secretary, it was Willie Whitelaw, one of the negotiators during McGuinness’ trip to London in 1972, who had the responsibility of signing the exclusion orders. This was done upon the advice of Kenneth Newman, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and former RUC Chief Constable. Three years later the government intervened to halt the screening of a BBC film ‘At the Edge of the Union’ because of its part focus on Martin McGuinness. The Daily Mail was not at all alarmed about censorship of the press. In an article titled ‘How the IRA must love this BBC hypocrisy!’, the tabloid asked “what, one wonders, would the last war have been like if the sort of people who run British broadcasting had been manning the airwaves then? Would Hitler and Himmler have been interviewed on the grounds that it was important to ‘understand the issues’? The parallel is not so absurd. The IRA is at war as surely as Hitler was.” The Soviet news network was slightly more alarmed by this state intervention, recognising that the row over this censorship showed that the BBC was under the government’s [editorial] control.

Whitelaw’s hypocrisy was repeated by Douglas Hurd a few years later in 1988 when, after succeeding Whitelaw as Home Secretary, he announced the broadcast ban which stopped television and radio companies carrying interviews or direct statements from proscribed paramilitary groups, but also from representatives of Sinn Féin, Republican Sinn Féin (who had recently split from Sinn Féin) or the UDA, and anyone who supported or promoted these organisations. Ten years earlier, in February 1978, Hurd had met Gerry Adams and Danny Morrison in West Belfast for a BBC programme called Spotlight. A week later, Adams was arrested and charged with IRA membership. A few months earlier, in December 1977, the Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Airey Neave had stated in the House of Commons whilst it moved to renew the Emergency Provisions legislation that the “terrorists” were “not glorious Republicans but bloody murderers”. Neave wanted something done about the “godfathers” who were still at large, in particular Martin McGuinness who he complained was “still around”.

The Thatcher government’s broadcast ban was not unprecedented. The 1922 Emergency Provisions (Special Powers) Act allowed the Minister of Home Affairs in Northern Ireland to ban papers, films, books. But as studies of the BBC and Northern Irish media have illustrated, there were soft forms of self-censorship within media organisations which reduced the need for external, state censorship. Some of the programmes censored by the BBC Director General included those on topics such as the Stalker/Sampson ‘shoot-to-kill’ incidents and following cover-up, and the Birmingham Six judgment. For consecutive ministers, relying on internal checks wasn’t enough in the clamour for more firm control of the press output. Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Roy Mason wanted a three-month blackout on reporting of terrorist activity, even – remarkably – if he were to be assassinated by the IRA. However, once Sinn Féin became an increasingly popular electoral force during and after the 1981 hunger strikes, there was a clear need to deal with the political respectability with which Sinn Féin were able to promote themselves. During the 1980s the reliance on self-censorship became insufficient and Douglas Hurd turned from making BBC programmes about Sinn Féin to legislating them.

Before he passed away, McGuinness resigned his position as Deputy First Minister, clearly in ill-health. This prompted a great number of tributes and praise of his career from Sinn Féin supporters, an image circulated of him wearing a wide-brimmed hat and three-piece suit imposed on top of the famous depictions of the leaders of the 1916 rising. Photos circulated of McGuinness with Nelson Mandela.  The parallels with the icon of the South African anti-apartheid resistance and its post-Apartheid peace and reconciliation is a recurring theme of Irish republicanism, based on similarities in state repression (emergency laws, curfew, police massacres), the resistance (civil rights, armed struggle and international solidarity) and in the attempts to transition to post-conflict society. This comparison between McGuinness and Mandela has infuriated the Daily Mail who published an article after his death with the title “The Irish Mandela? You must be mad! The day his mask slipped and I saw McGuinness the monster” – the mask slipping turned out to reveal that McGuinness had sworn to some British soldiers trying to search his car.

The tabloid press’ collective amnesia over figures like Mandela serves a purpose and we would do well to remind ourselves of Lenin’s description of this tendency in the opening paragraph to State and Revolution, but it wasn’t long ago that British aristocratic lawmakers were condemning McGuinness and Mandela as of the same ilk. After detailing his despair at the apparent travesty of independent, post-colonial African states during a debate in the House of Lords in November 1985, Lord Burton went on to extol the virtues of apartheid South Africa, in particular defending the regime’s press censorship: “Is there anything wrong in gagging the voices of a lot of terrorists? Her husband [Mandela] could have been out of jail now had he renounced violence. Our own Government was quite rightly unhappy about the BBC film on that violent man Martin McGuinness, who was portrayed as a nice comfortable family man playing with his children on the sands of the seashore. Why should the BBC be the voice of the IRA or the ANC?”

Indeed, the commenters on the Daily Mail website at least were consistent in their criticism of the headline which they were furious with for sanctifying Mandela. In 1961 Mandela formed the armed wing of the ANC – Umkhonto we Sizwe (The Spear of the Nation) also known as MK – later recalling that he had come to the conclusion that “it would be wrong and unrealistic for African leaders to continue preaching peace and non-violence at a time when the government met our demands with force”. According to testimony and historical research, Mandela was a senior member of the SACP and part of a small group that prepared the ground for the move from a policy of non-violence to armed struggle on behalf of the SACP, whilst the MK remained formally separate from the ANC despite the crossover in membership of the armed and nonviolent wings. Without being overly simplistic, there is a striking resemblance in the roles played by Mandela and McGuinness in arguing for a competent guerrilla warfare strategy against the violent repression of the hitherto peaceful civil rights campaigns.

But there is a more urgent consequence to this depiction of McGuinness et al that goes beyond mere infidelity to the historical record. As long as both these portrayals – reformed terrorist or unrepentant murderer – of characters like McGuinness or Adams remain, both the Westminster government and the unionists in Stormont are repeatedly forgiven for not taking the legacy commitments outlined in the Belfast Agreement seriously enough to be implemented. Both portrayals position the republican armed struggle as needlessly violent and without cause, rhyme or reason. It helps to perpetuate the justification of British military and loyalist violence in Northern Ireland, and continues to condemn the victims of state violence. Whilst Sinn Féin have been rightly criticised for their political judgment in recent years, the reaction in the press to McGuinness’ death has shown the ignorance of Northern Ireland’s past, present and future.


Rot Behind the Magic Door

As RTÉ abdicates responsibility for production of children’s programming, Mark Cullinane takes us through a deeper cultural, institutional and potentially terminal malaise at the national broadcaster.


Once the initial frisson of hazy nostalgia for Wanderly Wagon, Bosco or The Den (choose your generation) subsided, one could be forgiven for reacting with a shrug to the news last November that, owing to a worsening internal financial situation, the public service broadcaster RTÉ would soon shutter its children’s television department and outsource all future production.

Although the decision to put out to tender all programming for a whole chunk of its audience came as a bolt from the blue even to staff at the coalface of kids’ TV in Montrose, for a public increasingly accustomed to the reality that ‘economic recovery’ is in fact perfectly compatible with wholesale cuts to public services, this may have appeared as a mere surface wound- especially for an organisation whose generous remuneration of those at the top of its star system is common knowledge.

For some of us, the indifference was surely tinged with more than a hint of schadenfreude. After all, here was the public broadcaster, desperate to make efficiencies, hoisted upon its own petard; its act of self-privatisation serving as both example and consequence of its thorough internalisation of neoliberal common-sense.

And given what an impediment the broadcaster’s special editorial brew of national boosterism, middle-class liberalism and instinctive deference to political and economic elites has been to a bewildered and disillusioned general public trying to make technical and ethical sense of the political, economic, social and cultural dislocations of recent years, it’s hard to be roused to speak up in defence of the 21st century Morbegs that never will be. In any case, they’ve already said that it doesn’t mean they’ll be spending any less on children’s programming and that it won’t affect their commitment to Irish-made children’s content – so really, why care?

So it was perhaps to a less than receptive audience that Bosco, the face of Irish children’s television in the 80s and 90s, emerged from their box to deliver a stinging video riposte to the suits in Montrose for selling out the children of Ireland.

But you don’t need to succumb to rose-tinted (or rosy-cheeked) romanticism about the quality of the broadcaster’s children’s output- past or present- to see something troubling in new Director-General Dee Forbe’s readiness to cut loose the only non-profit kids’ TV unit in the country and gift-wrap its funding for what are euphemistically known as the ‘indies’.

The short-term casualties are, of course, the already precariously-employed freelancers who look likely to lose their jobs early in the coming weeks. If murmurings in Montrose reported in The Irish Times are anything to go by, these are likely to be just the tip of the iceberg as the broadcaster scrambles to respond to growing losses induced in part by weaker than expected advertising income in 2016.

But the existential questions begged by sacrificing a key plank of the broadcaster’s institutional legitimacy may well come to be deeply regretted. For the prize of scraping a pass on the statutory minimum annual spend on independent productions, never again can RTÉ assert its public service status and ethos as a reason why any class of programming simply must be made by it alone. Waving the white flag over internal provision for that part of the population seen as most urgently requiring shielding from an exclusively commercial media environment signals loud and clear that RTÉ feels that its public service obligations can be fulfilled just as well from the substantial distance as mere publisher of other people’s work.

Indeed, saving money on pesky staff and equipment and bestowing commissions on eager ‘indies’, thus currying favour with what Forbes describes as public service broadcasting’s commercial ‘frenemies’, fits closely with RTÉ’s now well-established organisational strategies for survival in a post-broadcast world. This ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’ approach appears, as I’ve previously argued, less as a tactical rapprochement with large and powerful private media industries and is more an index of its utter absence of ideas about what could and should be distinctive about a modern public media enterprise. While seeing no essential differences between public and private provision warrants at least full marks for consistency with the broadcaster’s default editorial line in its political reportage, the ongoing efforts of many of these ‘frenemies’ in intensive legal and lobbying efforts at home and in Europe to arrest the development of public media suggests that such a strategy of self-abnegation is unlikely to serve it well.

Having failed so far to bring about sudden institutional death by persuading European legislators and courts to reclassify publicly funded broadcasters as- get this- illegal state aid, private interests are likely to settle for second prize- the hollowing out of public media institutions by transforming them into glorified funding bodies for private production houses with the commercial nous, financial muscle and contacts to push to the front of the queue. A glance across the water at the BBC suggests what lies just a little further down this particular slippery slope, yet the reportedly rapturous reaction to Ryanair chief Michael O’Leary’s anti-public service and anti-RTÉ tirade at a recent Fine Gael fundraiser serves as a reminder that Ireland’s political class will almost certainly not rush to the defence of RTÉ’s organisation integrity in anything like the manner with which it continues to defend its egregious sweetheart tax arrangements with Apple.

The current outsourcing issue is likely to be a canary in the coalmine for what seems likely to be a slow-motion transformation into a Channel 4-style publisher-broadcaster, albeit one with a large public subvention. In the abstract, such a transformation doesn’t sound so bad. Diverting ever more programme funding away from its Montrose studios could mean less of the stuffiness, insularity and perhaps even the political caution that permeates so much of its programming (even if it’s undoubtedly the case that the worst offender, the news and current affairs department, would be the last to face the chop).

There’s even a case to be made that a publisher-broadcaster model is perfectly compatible with radical visions for a democratised and democratising public media that softens or even mutes its editorial voice and focuses instead on becoming an authentic and accessible platform for public expression.

But the cold economic logics that explain why it has embarked on this particular path- cost savings and the placation of domestic commercial media producers- tells us quite enough about the eventual destination to surmise that this is no royal road to becoming a ‘people’s publisher’.

In raising the question of whether the new Director General Dee Forbes, recently poached from Discovery International, had anything to do with the recent outsourcing decision, Bosco was onto something important: the alignment of interests between commercial media players and the strategic direction taken by senior RTÉ figures with close industry links. For example, amid the selection of grandees on the RTÉ Board (the word ‘entrepreneur’ features in the online profiles of no less than four of the ten current members), the new Chairperson Moya Doherty was founder of Tyrone Productions, only resigning upon taking up her new role in Montrose, while Stuart Switzer, Managing Director at Coco Television, retained his position even while serving on the RTÉ Board up to 2015. The current Channel Controller of both RTÉ 1 and 2 is Adrian Lynch, who founded and managed Animo Television until his appointment to RTÉ in 2014.

All three companies are major beneficiaries of RTÉ commissions and feature prominently in the broadcaster’s most recent annual report of its spending on independent productions. No need to allege any legal impropriety here; just look at the revolving door.

Commissioning briefs for interested independent producers that emphasise the attractiveness of programme proposals that entail low-costs per programme hour, which come with external funding already secured or which are amenable to commercial sponsorships amply demonstrates the commercial as well as legal imperatives underpinning its expanding commissioning activities. They also offer a reminder that it is the big production houses with economies of scale, institutional contacts and administrative know-how who are best placed to benefit from the opening up of RTÉ’s schedules to tender.

It’s also worth asking why there’s such an air of inevitability around RTÉ’s increasing commercial alignments. The broadcaster’s current balance-sheet travails are just the most recent example of what have been regular internal financial crises whose roots lie in political-economic forces that go well beyond the more immediate and oft-cited threats of Sky, Netflix, Facebook, Brexit, or whatever you’re having yourself.

Much of this may be attributed to the original sin of the dual-funding mandate which has since RTÉ’s inception left it deeply vulnerable to the ebb and flow of the advertising market, to say nothing of the pervasive cultural impacts on programme commissioning and production engendered by commercial imperatives. This has been sustained and exacerbated by long-term governmental policy, which when not actively undermining its revenue generation capacity á la Ray Burke in the early 90s, has obstinately refused to ease the broadcaster’s dependence on commercial income to the point that the imbalance is more than double the average amongst European public service broadcasters and almost four times that of other Western European PSBs that also benefit from funding through a license fee. RTÉ executives continue to extol the virtues and necessity of the dual-funded regime even as the wreckage mounts and in the face of clear evidence that, as once articulated by the liberal columnist Fintan O’Toole that it is a worst of both worlds scenario that confers ‘all the susceptibility to political caution of a state organisation with none of the protection from market pressures’.

The myriad impacts of commercial imperatives in Irish broadcasting were memorably excoriated as far back as 1968 by three rebellious programme producers who had resigned from RTÉ in protest. But they had seen nothing yet: their critique came from a time before New Public Management and before the state (and later RTÉ itself) dispatched regular waves of management consultants- Stokes Crowley Kennedy, Logical, KPMG, NewERA- to help ensure that the broadcaster evolved in lockstep with the neoliberal turn. Current developments regarding children’s television in RTÉ should be seen in this context of a longer term project of managed privatisation at Montrose, and indeed serving as a mark of its successful internalisation.

A rough 2017 beckons for a public broadcaster out of money, out of ideas and with few friends it can call on for support, whether inside the Dáil or in civil society. Don’t forget that (mostly) benign neglect was the best that successive Labour party ministers for communications in the last administration could offer- illustrating the void of vision for its future beyond managed decline even by those parties seen as having ideological affinities with public service broadcasting’s welfarist roots.

Neoliberal incorporation thus links the generalised crisis of public service broadcasting and the ongoing collapse of the social-democratic project in countries in their shared Western European heartland. But the fact that present circumstances at home have rendered politically impossible just about any changes to RTÉ’s funding settlement illustrates the consequences of public service broadcasting’s entanglement with the broader and escalating crisis of legitimacy of national political systems.

The long-mooted broadcasting charge, a direct replacement for the existing license fee, hardly heralds fundamental changes to the funding of public media. Designed to break the link between television ownership and license fee liability in the age of the internet, the new universal charge would bring into its net many current evaders (of which there are no shortage in Ireland), delivering a net increase to RTÉ’s coffers through reduced evasion and collection efficiencies even in the absence of an increase in the annual fee itself.

But this relatively modest measure to help shore up the public half of RTE’s funding mix has for years been long-fingered time and again for the simple reason that in the wake of the successful mass public resistance to the Irish Water project, no party of government has or likely will dare anytime soon to gift the opportunity of another mass charges boycott to a disaffected public who’ve just had a taste of people power and found they liked it. For all its crowing about resilient viewerships and a successful digital transition, RTÉ must know on some level that it is unloved. And despite the apparent challenges it faced in judging the size of the Right2Water rallies it reluctantly covered in its bulletins, they could hardly have failed to spot the many placards that indicated that Montrose was next in line for a dose of popular resistance.

That fear has been enough to quiet talk of new legislation to introduce the charge- it’s a wonder that the likes of Paul Murphy and Brendan Ogle haven’t been personally blamed for RTÉ’s latest funding crisis- but present events show that the status quo isn’t exactly a victory, either.

This is partly because to allow RTÉ to take its Faustian pact with the state and the commercial media sector toward its logical conclusion is in many ways precisely what the ruling class wants, and fits their vision for the future of public services. A public broadcaster without studios is quite consistent with public policy that is giving us libraries without librarians, rail tracks without trains, and houses without people.

Moreover, while RTÉ’s vision of public service is creatively moribund- notwithstanding occasional glimpses of life- this doesn’t render its political functions benign. With its news and current affairs department having spent the best part of the last decade narrating economic and political crisis in ways consistently sympathetic to the masters of the universe of capital, recent trainwrecks of editorial judgement involving far-right guests on the flagship Late Late and Claire Byrne Live programmes suggest that for its next trick public service broadcasting will follow its brethren elsewhere in the Irish media in sleepwalking into the banalisation of racist discourses; a regression mirroring the death throes of its political cousins in the European centre-left.

This enthusiasm appears to be driven by a combination of the imperatives of bums-on-seats audience maximisation, the idiosyncrasies of prevailing editorial conceptions of programming balance and free speech as well as representing some sort of effort to reflect purportedly changing public opinion (never mind that this latter imperative has proved far less effective in shaping editorial lines on the causes, consequences and long aftermath of the 2008 crash).

Regularly displaying a tin ear to public criticism, these moves are routinely defended in the end by recourse to journalistic authority. But flatlining levels of trust in journalism suggests that a great many of us have serious doubts about the basis of that authority, and by extension the whole public service enterprise as it exists today.

Fortunately for those on the inside- at least for now- RTÉ is ably protected from being forced to seriously respond to public demands by an alliance of institutional technocratic managerialism, professional journalism, and the state. Each has the means and motivation to wall off public access to venues where critical questions can be asked about the fitness of the media which acts in our name and extracts a due for the privilege. Sure, a basic infrastructure of accountability and participation appears present and correct, taking the forms of internal and statutory complaints processes, consultations, freedom of information requests, parliamentary questions and even an audience council. But these mechanisms are in practice subject to the evasion and co-option of political and media elites, or are simply toothless, seriously diminishing their capacity to crystallise and translate public will into institutional change. If RTÉ’s managed privatisation is to be halted and its remit revolutionised, alternative means will have to be pursued; their intransigence must be met with resistance of our own.

Fortunately, the present disruptions to normal service provided by the return of the political in both parliamentary and street forms have hinted at the power of concerted collective action against the apparatus and will of the state and its agencies. The democratic and democratising possibilities of public media are there to be reclaimed from the staid, statist and increasingly commercial hand of actually existing public service broadcasting- if we dare to want them.

And in its own, more modest way, Bosco’s acerbic response to RTÉ, in foregrounding the basic expectation license-fee payers have that their annual contributions should surely be enough to make a few programmes for children, invites us to take the battle for the heart and soul of publicly-funded media more seriously. Who’d have thought it’d take a puppet to take on the marionettes?

Beware The Risen Jumpers

For a long time leading to the centenary of 1916 a running battle had taken place between those who claim to support “constitutional nationalism” as represented by the Irish Parliamentary Party and those with loyalty the armed campaign on which this state was founded. The vast majority of commentary was a nonsense.

While there were many aspects, a central argument was the insistence that independence could have been achieved by the work of gentlemen legislators alone. The entire revolutionary period is considered something of an embarrassment but aside from a few million needless WWI deaths, the IPP was no stranger to regular violent protest outside parliament and were indeed responsible for a number of innovations in the Westminster chamber that were and would today be decried as a “stunt”.

It is fairly obvious that the counter revolution has won out so what struck me was just how anxious its proponents were over the last two years. Debate was started by a small group of people to defend a position that no one was really arguing about and yet they ensured it was thrust into the spotlight for months. Probably unwisely at this juncture.

It would be nice to think they are kept awake by questions of legitimacy but I suspect it is more to do with some underlying awareness of just how fragile their version of the world is.

How else do we explain the persistence of all this if not for fears about the precarity of their own position? Why was there such regime consensus and vigilance about the centenary being “hijacked”?

They have the run of the place unhindered for nearly one hundred years so what is it that spooked them so much.   You could argue they did succeed in taking space from more important considerations of 1916 but that is probably giving them too much credit.

Descendants of both nationalist camps however are united in their disdain for dissent. The Labour Party meanwhile are busy preparing proposals for a return to social partnership at a time when striking workers are winning.

Protest, if it is tolerated at all , must be ‘peaceful’ and political engagement must end at the ballot box. This week however many were outraged by people wearing a jumper in parliament.


Laissez faire died with the PDs it seems and Ciaran Cannon has demanded that TDs be sanctioned. For a jumper. When asked his own view on a referendum in February he didn’t  have the guts to answer the question. On Tuesday Houses of the Oireachtas broadcasting service resorted to bizarre camera angles in effort not to show the offending garments.

Elected politicians and a few jumpers. Deary me. There was no marching “mob”, no bad language, no water balloons or “missiles”, no alleged death threats, abuse or “false imprisonment”. All the rules regularly demanded were adhered to and yet people were fuming. It was reminiscent of last summer when many so called democrats were scandalised by Greek people having an opportunity to vote on the demands of international finance.

The opposition are routinely chastised for pushing the limit of constraint set down by government while many of the most outraged have no issue with the executive dictating to a parliament mandated to hold it to account.

Within this the media are trained to present pantomime contention in place of genuine conflict.  Many, many, of those who preach the gospel of parliamentary supremacy were very late in waking up to scandals in the gardaí, NAMA and IBRC. In 2014 newspapers were convulsed by revelations of gardaí collecting ‘intelligence’ on infants from the Travelling community despite Clare Daly disclosing the information over six months earlier. Finance Minister Michael Noonan was for months free to evade  questions from Catherine Murphy on IBRC and Mick Wallace on NAMA because the vast majority of political reporting took no interest. All these matters have since led to inquiries.

During a 2012 Dáil exchange it became quite apparent that the Dept of Taoiseach had breached the McKenna judgement during the Fiscal Treaty referendum. When asked to outline his departmental expenditure for the house and public, as he is required to do, Enda Kenny attempted to conceal nearly twenty thousand euro he had spent on  PR consultancy during the  campaign. When asked why the numbers he provided didn’t add up, the Taoiseach claimed the pages of his script got stuck together before getting extremely flustered and defensive.

It was farcical stuff, the kind Miriam Lord and others would normally feast on and yet for some reason not a single newspaper reported what happened.  The prime minister had seemingly spent thousands unconstitutionally during a referendum, made a complete shambles of trying to hide it, the press gallery was full and yet the public were never informed. Make of that what you will.

You cannot with any credibility centre Dáil Éireann as the only legitimate place to do politics, devote coverage to meaningless debates and then precede to ignore the uncomfortable business. If people can get away with something of that magnitude on the chamber floor, imagine what goes on in private. What happened that day held parliament in far greater contempt than any jumper, walk out, sit in or stunt.

Which brings us to the fact that throughout this past year many politicians and journalists have muttered darkly about the emergence of something called the “post-truth era”. At its heart this is a sort of self-defence mechanism.  Coping with no longer having a monopoly of influence. Spare a thought for those so used to being heard. Trust in all sort of people and institutions has collapsed but instead of self-reflection, the spectre of inflamed popular passions is conjured up as some sort of inexplicable outside phenomenon.  The saying goes that truth is the first casualty of war but the aggressors remain reluctant to admit it.

Across much of the world political organising is decried as “anti-politics”, “populism”, “anarchy” and whatever else. This has always been the case as the enlightened and the anointed cower before the mob. What goes unspoken of course is that the opposite of populism is surely elitism but it is implicit in the growing list of things labelled as such.

According to figures released in September, 90 families have become homeless every month so far this year, anything else you see would be populism.

At the Irish Times, habitual no hoper Stephen Collins is particularly weary of this siren call. It is not unusual among jilted Progressive Democrats to hold the intelligence of the electorate in contempt but more-so Collins resembles the Japanese soldier hiding up trees unaware the world has changed and his  own role it. Journalists talk about ‘new politics’ being current Dáil arithmetic rather than the result of it.

Outside the mainstream knockabout, reactionary forces also have quite successfully rebranded  feminist, anti-racist, LGBT activists as “social justice warriors” as a means of carrying out the same poison we have seen for decades. Whatever you have heard, make no mistake this is a campaign to undermine dissent. Egregious cases are used to seduce people into ridiculing ideas like content warnings, safe spaces, no platforming, etc, seemingly unaware that they are gleefully belittling political organising. The conservative press have been remarkably successful in exporting their slander of political correctness and it never occurs to people why or in whose interest so much energy is spent attacking student politics at the very time when  higher education  as a public good is being dismantled.

The world today is a grim place but the disparities in wealth or democratic deficit at root were certainly not caused by an absence of manners or deference to authority.  The ruling class in Europe succeeded in creating a new normal after 2008 which has decimated old certainties and safety nets. Those who like to think of themselves as the sensible moderate centre are directly responsible for creating conditions of current upheaval but just like the banking crisis itself, they have washed their hands of the results. This week Deutsche Bank teeters again. On the eight year anniversary of our own guarantee, we see all the same echoes of systemic risk in Frankfurt.

The past year of internal Labour Party politics in Britain is met with alarm and hysteria. Enormous effort was made to prevent people from voting in leadership elections which they are free and entitled to do. A glance at the rapid  rot of political parties around Europe only underlines the enormity of what is occurring in Britian but this peaceful democratic engagement, following all the explicit rules; getting involved, trying change the system from the inside, etc, is treated as end times.

In the United States, White America continues its latest terrifying round of paranoia and ignorance. The largest and most important civil rights movement in generations has arrived because thousands of people who follow the rules still end up dead on a policeman’s bullet.  In recent weeks a prominent football player started a peaceful, dignified and soon powerful protest. By now, thousands have joined him on one knee during the national anthem but this, this too is deemed unacceptable by enemies and supposed allies alike.

As seen during the marriage referendum and increasingly during the repeal the eighth campaign, those demanding respectability not only provide room to the opposition but probably aren’t all that interested the struggle to begin with. In the wake of 2008, many engaged in mass pseudo psychology about why the Irish were not protesting. Judging by most of the shrill commentary today, that was just how they wanted it to remain. Rules only matter to those who make them.


#repealthe8th | On the Importance Absence And Nuisance


On the launch of Telefís Éireann just over fifty years ago, President Eamon De Valera addressed the audience in one of station’s most remarkable broadcasts. Likening the power of television to atomic energy, this giant of Irish history expressed personal apprehension that “never before was there in the hands of men an instrument so powerful to influence the thoughts and actions of the multitude”.

Later that evening the station was blessed by Archbishop John Charles McQuaid.

While the role of RTÉ alone in driving social change has been over mythologised by John Bowman and others in recent years, there can be little doubting the effect mass media plays in shaping, advancing and limiting public attitudes. Denis O’Brien spent millions in his effort to take over Independent Newspapers, in compliment to his radio empire, while the malign  influence of Rupert Murdoch has warped expectation for millions of people.

In the political realm the use of mass marketing has come to be known as the ‘air war’. Political parties and government policy are sold just the same as cars, mortgages and dishwasher tablets. There is debate about whether this or the ‘ground war’ [canvassing, getting the vote out, etc] is a more effective use of resources but nonetheless, each year the amount spent by Irish politicians on spin doctors and media training continues to grow.

In 2012 for instance we learned that James Reilly and Frances Fitzgerald had used over 30, 000 in allowances on the services of the Communications Clinic. Every day there will be hundreds of people on air who have been trained to speak in a certain way, how to get their ‘message’ across regardless of questions posed or subject covered. Each week, Irish politicians of all stripes spend thousands advertising in local newspapers. We pay for it. In the US,  media campaign budgets dwarf the total spend in elections elsewhere. Deep pockets of supporters and opponents ensured over one million adverts were broadcast during the 2012 cycle. In more recent times the success of people like Donald Trump and Nigel Farage is rooted in their ability to stay in the headlines.

So then, having survived and later thrived during some of the most pivotal decades in Ireland’s history,  De Valera was correct anticipating a new front in the battle for hearts and minds. How well did he know that much of this would involve rewriting his own constitution.

Away from stage managed TV debates and the bright lights of modern public relations there is another aspect. Some years after De Valera’s warning, Oliver J Flanagan TD made the observation that “there was no sex in Ireland until Teilifis Éireann went on the air”. This was nonsense of course, but what Flanagan meant is that the medium provided a new space where uncomfortable and unmentionable topics where acknowledged.

Perhaps one of the best examples came later  when letters flooded into the Gay Byrne radio show following the death of Ann Lovett in 1984. At the time Byrne remarked that there were “too many letters. They couldn’t be ignored”. This is crucial.  Like Flanagan’s anxieties about sex, the media in this instance was really only communicating something that already existed but for various reasons remained forbidden. In the shadows and margins of respectable society  something is always waiting for its moment before bursting out to leave the world unrecognisable. The weeks following the death of Savita Halanpanavar saw similar outpouring where that awful tragedy encouraged thousands to share their experience, no two the same, both on the airwaves and among friends and family.

I sat up one night that week listening to replay of some radio phone-in show. Dozens of people spoke about Savita, about their own experience of maternity care and of abortion. There was no agitation or ‘debate’, just regular people with all sorts of stories spanning decades. Women who were speaking about events for the first time in their lives after hearing someone do the same fifteen minutes earlier.

Issues of secrecy, silence, stigma and shame loom large over both the social and legal framework of Ireland’s reproductive health regime. A significant amount of this has been enforced through absence.  Away from Article 40.3.3 alone,  when the constitution states that a women’s place is in the home it is not just buttressing the ideal of patriarchal family or primacy of motherhood.

While ‘the home’ is not necessarily the opposite of the outside world, for a very long time and even today it meant surrendering financial and a large degree of personal independence. This is not to say mothers were chained to the sink but barriers to participation in the public sphere are constitutionally enshrined as a baseline into which all other tributaries are supposed to flow.

Until the 1970s young Irish women were forced out of heavily gendered public employment in teaching, nursing, administration, etc, on becoming married. The last Magdalene Laundry closed in 1996 while countless other expectant women were given a one ticket out of the country. Enforced absence came in many forms and I needn’t tell you how lack of ability to control one’s own body  was a factor.

In February this year, Maria Bailey became the 100th women to enter Dáil Éireann since Constance Markievicz in 1918. Over one hundred men were elected the same weekend just as they have been in every election previous.

When news of Miss X broke in 1992, An Taoiseach Albert Reynolds stood in the chamber to make a statement on Ireland’s injunction of a fourteen year old girl. There were just eight women TDs at that time and two who tried to speak were ruled out of order by the Cheann Comhairle.

After over 21 years, a government passed legislation in line with that Supreme Court judgement. One which had been upheld by the people twice. From that January through May, no law in our lifetime was ever given so much time in parliament but it was not until the final stage of the final night in 2013, after months of supposed debate, that someone read onto the Dáil record part of evidence given by a then teenage girl during the X Case.

She had been absent throughout. She was not alone, government also excluded the D Case from consideration. Deirdre Conroy was absent until waiving her anonymity in 2013 stating that what happened to Savita Halappanavar “was the final straw”. Ahead of the 2002 referendum she had previously published an pseudonymous open letter the Taoiseach asking to be listened to. Here she was again three Taoiseachs later. Having already been to the European Court, there is no reason why anyone in her circumstances or any other should have to forfeit so much to be heard in Leinster House.

In public houses where there is considerably less drinking and antisocial behaviour, places long considered and marketed as the heart of Irish social life, women were routinely banished to a snug if they were served at all.

One way or another, women were absent. Through the law and much more, women’s views, experience and decision making was kept out of sight where it was less likely to intrude or contribute.

Returning to our national airwaves, the 1947 Radio Éireann annual report states that a programme called ‘Housewives Half-hour’ was among the most popular,

The circle of regular listeners now embraces every county in Ireland and a big number from England and Wales. Constant appeals are made for an extension of the time or a bi-weekly programme.

Nearly thirty years later in 1975, the first issue of Banshee magazine from Irish Women United declared

You’ve just read the daily papers. You’ve been listening to the radio. You are are probably about to watch television. Would you know from the attention devoted by the media to women that females make up fifty one percent of the population?

Did you notice any howls of justifiable outrage that Irishwomen are denied contraception, divorce and abortion? That we work for half the wages men get? That we rear families, a difficult job indeed, under conditions no trade unionist would tolerate in a factory – mothers get no pay, no paid holidays, no training for child rearing and often no home in which to rear children? They don’t even have the legal right to decide the religion, education or domicile of their children.

You’ve just spent the whole day learning nothing about women and no one cares what you think.

It was into this Ireland that the Eighth Amendment soon arrived.

Throughout the decade proceeding 1983, elements of the conservative catholic right had fought a nationwide running battle against what would become the Irish Family Planning Association.

In 1973 a man named John O’Reilly presented Dublin gardaí with contraception he had received by post. Accompanying the contraband were copies of two letters to the IFPA, one signed by an Eilish and another by Deirdre. John O’Reilly was then chairman of a little operation called the ‘Irish Family League’, his daughters were aged nine and ten . He had directed them to sign the letters which he posted in an effort to bring the forces of the law against the IFPA. Charges were brought by then Fine Gael Attorney General Declan Costello who some years later was the High Court judge that ordered the X Case injunction.

Under questioning in court O’Reilly’s daughters acknowledged that they did not understand what their father had asked them to do. The case was later struck out on the distinction that the IFPA had accepted a donation rather than sold the contraception. The ‘Irish Family League’ took their defeat and moved onto their next scheme. O’Reilly, a member of the Knights of Columbanus, would go on to become chairman of the Prolife Amendment Campaign and to this day remains at the top table of the Prolife Campaign. They have recently removed the page listing personnel from their website for some reason. Must be some mistake.

The history of these groups has been well documented so what I want to focus on is the operation and how, like the case above, these people use law, regulation, bureaucracy and plain old influence  to stifle and  censor.

Obviously, insertion of the Eighth Amendment itself is probably their biggest victory but we have seen a lot of activity in recent years and months that I think warrants proper context.

The first thing to take into account is that today just as in the 1980s, we are talking about a group of people who are insignificant in number but considerable in commitment. Take Senator Ronan Mullen, former press officer to the Archbishop of Dublin during events that led to the Murphy Report.

Mullen looks for votes on the basis that “I will be the one to stand up x, I am the only one who will speak for x”, “without me there will be no..” and so on. The first sentence on literature for this year’s Seanad election claimed “Ronan Mullen stands out in Irish politics”. I wonder why that could be? A minority view perhaps. Mullen stood in his first proper election in 2014 only narrowly out polling a catastrophe like Lorraine Higgins while Luke Flanagan got four times as many votes. The mythical prolife vote was unmoved from its slumber, it seems.

The Iona ‘Institute’ was established on the same basis. “Without us no one else would be putting this view across”. Just like the original Prolife Amendment Campaign, they all double bluff on one hand purporting to represent a large section of society while on other the claim to be the lone voice speaking out.

The antichoice side do not just oppose abortion but contraception and sex education too along with dozens of other issues under the umbrella of sexual permissiveness as one but very important  part of a much broader worldview. It is derisory to suggest that religious belief is not the foundation of their campaigning. For tactical reasons this will be dressed up in language of dignity and human rights. There may be others motivated by misogyny or anti-feminism alone but you cannot talk about  Irish anti-choice activity without putting the church front and centre.

This is not to say that the religious view is simplistic or unthinking, far from it. Much of the world is ordered by lines long set down in part by the church and the anti-choice standpoint forms part of a material and ideological structure as insidious and complex as its cousins in private property and capitalist social relations – which themselves are not at all  incompatible with a desire to see Irish society conform to a particular Roman Catholic ideal.

However while Irish capitalism is doing ok its ally in cloth is sort of in an odd place today. The tide they hoped to turn in the eighties has crashed down around them, slowly at first but then with ferocious speed. The world has changed rapidly and they have the siege mentality of panic and motivation characteristic of people who feel under attack on several fronts. A recent Irish commenter on a popular American conservative website described the impending referendum as “the Stalingrad of Irish Catholicism” hoping that “if the religious segment win and enter the political process more assertively thereafter there is a real chance Ireland will not go the way of the rest of Europe”.

It wouldn’t be Irish Catholicism without nationalism of course. As has so often been the case around the world at different times, women are bound up with ideas of nationhood and identity so Irish women find themselves caught in someone else’s fantasy for a place that never really existed.

Many of the main players see themselves as guardians of a particularly kind of Ireland. Much of it nostalgic but some is more current. Status is a big thing. The Prolife Campaign claims that the amendment is “regarded internationally as one of the key pro-life victories of the past 40 years”.  After the 2013 ‘Rally for Life’ Sean O’Domhnaill of Youth Defence proclaimed that Dublin “looked like the pro-life capital of the world”.  Prestige for Ireland in the Catholic world and themselves in the antichoice bubble is seen as important. The marriage referendum will have been a serious blow to whatever pomp that remains and the impending visit of his holiness will weigh on their minds.

Internationally, Irish antichoicers have had some interesting associations from extremely wealthy Americans to straight up neofascists in Britian and Italy. At home, rivalry between Youth Defence and PLC has lead to no shortage calamity, most famously a split in 2002 causing Youth Defence to go against the PLC and church in advocating a no vote on the Twenty-fifth Amendment. For a brief moment in 2013 they held united protests but within weeks were back to ploughing their own furrow.  They can regularly be heard encouraging people not to attend the other’s events.

I have often quoted this from a 1994 Nuala O‘Faolain column but it captures much of the thinking and is something that could be applied in many other cases. Looking back she observed that

“often at meetings, I would see that a certain kind of educated, middle-aged man in particular was enraged at being forced to listen to plurality of voices when no one was listening to him. I’m not saying that their anti-abortion feelings weren’t absolutely sincere but the rage was even bigger then the issue. They would still have been angry, even if travel and information and the whole lot had gone as they had wanted. It is Ireland they are disappointed in and their own place in it. It is the erosion of certainty that is threatening them. A lot of people in this country want to go back to the simplicities of an authoritarian era”.

Repeated opinion poll since 2012 show that those opposed to abortion in all circumstances is at best one in ten people. They have lost every referendum on the issue since 1992. How then can such a minority hold the rest of us back?

Essentially everything since the amendment plan was hatched has involved antichoicers being a  nuisance. Lawmakers were pressured so we got a referendum no one wanted in 1983. That amendment caused the country revulsions in 1992. Youth Defence came along to wreck everyone’s head before the very same people from PLAC pestered Bertie Ahern into committing to yet another referendum ahead of the 1997 election. Whether harassing women on the street or the elderly for money, the real story of Irish anti-choice activism has been one long pain in the arse.

Today, Dáil Éireann is still populated by many politicians spooked because of bitter campaigns in the eighties and they are deeply reluctant to go within a mile of something believed to be contentious.  Throughout passage of the PLDP Bill in 2013, each one would rise to his feet in the chamber at atone that “this is a very divisive issue”. Most politicians, not least those preaching the gospel of laissez faire in all other aspects of life,  are completely indifferent but believe there are more votes to be lost than won on the matter. Anti-choice activists have exploited this by being loud and persistent enough to make most politicians believe we are still living in 1985.

Here is a list of organisations that made submissions on abortion to the Committee on the Constitution ahead of 2002.

Much of these would be one man bands but many are still with us.

Letter writing and lobbying is constant enough and during 2013 everything was thrown at politicians to prevent passing of the legislation. The was serious effort to publicly shame TDs locally which I thought was quite instructive. We should take lessons that after a campaign that included Enda Kenny receiving letters written in blood,  they only managed to syphon off six dissenting blueshirt TD who went onto to lose their seats this year.

This summer a mural on the Project Arts Centre in Temple Bar received worldwide attention after anti-abortion activists succeed in pressuring its removal. Echoes of 1977 when following complaints, Dublin Corporation withdrew a grant from the Project Arts Centre after the staging of two plays by the Gay Sweatshop theatre company. This summer it was planning permission rather than affront to national morality that got the Project Arts in trouble. What was most curious about the complaints is that a wall in Temple Bar had people writing letters from, er, Donegal. As the letters all arrived in succession, each touching on the same points of planning permission and public funds, it is patently obvious that the complaints were organised rather individuals acting independently.

Which brings us back to the media and one the greatest targets of anti-choice ink.

Writing in the Irish Times ahead of the referendum last year, Breda O’Brien informed us that

In 2009, GLEN had 348 media appearances – 179 broadcasts and the rest ranged from national newspapers to the Law Society Gazette. Almost one per day.

That is quite the statistic to compile. Media monitoring like this is serious dedication for people who claimed they were only concerned for the childer.

On the morning of June 24th this year after the votes were counted, thousands in Britain woke up and googled “what is the EU?” This came after a months long campaign and decades of coverage not to mention living in the bloody thing. Since the referendum there has been much recrimination about broadcasters’ insistence on false equivalence in place of anything resembling balance let alone the kind of useful information a public should expect. The BBC would wheel out fringe commentators as an equal and credible view despite the fact their claims were far outside any consensus let alone based on evidence. Any old dubious rubbish was fit for broadcast as counterpoint.

Here at home we are regularly confronted by the same seven or eight people, each one simultaneously an expert on law, medicine, finance, global politics and most especially, everyone else’s decision making. The have no obligation nor inclination to tell the truth. They have no respect for other people’s circumstances. They have no interest in what you think.

Listen carefully, you will hear them exclaim about one study or another that despite no one else ever encountering has turned the medical consensus on its head! You can get a copy easy on http://www.totallyrealscience/ Up next in studio, Cora Sherlock tells us how she is going to build a wall to keep the abortions out!

During 2013, anti-choicers polluted the airwaves with fear that three years on has never come to pass. Floodgates, arrrrrrgh. Fringe conservatives in Ireland then succeeded in having all sorts of scurrilous claims broadcast during the marriage referendum last year. RTÉ took an ultra cautious approach in who was allowed speak about their own real lives while hypothetical children were inescapable.  In this we the public were denied the full spectrum of human experience, shade and contrast was lost, so much more of that important issue went unsaid and as a consequence of what was permitted many people suffered. Though they lost comprehensively, the right succeeded in narrowing the debate to the extent that people found themselves exposed to and having to argue against absurd and damaging nonsense.

Since then, the Broadcasting Authority has been inundated with vexatious complaints any time a woman so much as breathes near a microphone. Reading through BAI judgements it is clear, just like Projects Arts, that complaints originate from a small group of people and often the same person under different names. There is a certain correct format in making a successful complaint and it is obvious that a small group of people have been instructed or coached. These complaints are not representative of public sentiment but again, causing nuisance is just enough.

Could you imagine our side writing letters to the BAI every time women are portrayed as untrustworthy, stupid or one dimensional?

To make matters worse, even though no referendum rules apply broadcasters have taken on cautious interpretations on these rulings in acts of  self-censorship that resemble the days of Section31. One effect of that occasionally still lamented piece of legislation is that women either part or perceived to be part of the republican or nationalist movement were absent from the airwaves. As a result, the particular perspective and experience of women during the Northern Ireland conflict often went unspoken. If you were a member of something like a housing, health or education campaign for example, Section 31 often had the effect of keeping these aspects out of sight. A version of this persists in Northern Ireland today where  women who must be silent for war, today  must be silent for peace. More absence.

The Iona ‘Institute’ was established in 2007 as a media pressure group and are far more mundane than most of us like to think. Essentially they exist to be on the end of a phone should a producer need someone to make up ‘media balance’. They contribute nothing.  During the 1980s, the ‘institute’ model was very successful for the United States in selling neoliberalism and wars. Our own little ghouls on Merrion Square adopted the same tactic. Professional bullshitters. No expertise no mandate armed only with well rehearsed bad faith arguments and ability to succeed as long as radio and TV producers keep picking up the phone.

Key to their activism is securing airtime completely out of proportion with the view they represent. They have a vested interested in creating false panic around bias, censorship and ‘silencing’ as it is one way to ensure media stay lazy in how programmes are formatted and issue are framed.

The one thing you will never hear the Iona Institute discuss though is religion. They will hold forth on issue of marriage, schools, abortion and whatever else they were never asked but it is clear that a decision has been made to leave Jesus at the door. In 2012, Ronan Mullen established another operation called Catholic Voices which is modelled on the Opus Dei front in Britain of the same name. They deal with the God stuff and “equip speakers with the knowledge and skills to communicate clearly and competently in the media”. So you have the false balance already present in the Irish media and then train people like you would a politician or scandal hit celebrity. Like Breda O’Brien and others, they will always just be introduced simply as a ‘school teacher’ or some such while the audience is none the wiser.

This is not the only coordinated attempts of media manipulation. At a poorly attended ‘Convention for Life’ in Dublin back in 2014, Niamh Ui Bhriain of Youth Defence promised “massive campaign” targeting advertisers at the Irish Times due to the paper’s roll in breaking the Savita story and subsequent support for the 2013 legislation. My inquiries suggest the campaign either didn’t materialise or had no discernible impact.

This tactic is regularly encouraged by Alive! magazine who recently enough suggested that readers(?) write to Avonmore Dairies in protest. Avonmore was then sponsor of the Late Late Show and one commercial break, we are told, included an avert for Durex. Thinking went that Avonmore could be spooked into making trouble for RTÉ because their brand was now somehow associated with contraception. Readers will have to make their own mind up about that one  but I suspect Alive! editor Fr Brian McKevitt was the only one at home getting bothered about condom adverts on a Friday night.

McKevitt plays an interesting part in this story. Anti-choicers are always keen to tell us about “the women who regret their abortions” but rarely does anyone admit that the group ‘Women Hurt’, whose trauma these people are so eager to exploit, was set up by none other than Fr McKevitt himself, a Dominican priest. Appearing on Liveline earlier this year after publishing an article which claimed beating children (one of his paper’s regular obsessions) “made them more successful in life”, on air he went to compare masturbation to drink driving.

Indeed, at times it seems “balance” doesn’t work in their favour. David Quinn was recently forced to publicly concede that the owner of a rogue crisis pregnancy agency farcically defending himself on Liveline was “… not doing a very good job”. More important was a segment on RTÉ Primetime in 2013, Dr Berry Kiely of Opus Dei and medical adviser to the Prolife Campaign appeared as ‘balance’ to Sarah McGuinness of Terminations For Medical Reasons.

I don’t want to patronise Sarah McGuinness with any of the usual words or comments but re-watching that clip after some time you can only admire the work she and others from TFMR have found themselves doing.

The Prolife Campaign on the other hand later complained that the discussion was unfair because Kiely couldn’t possibly be expected to come out of it in a good light. That in itself says more about their position and ironically enough too, the antichocie mantra of people being  responsible for their  own actions. But more than that again, it shows that in the face of life in its unpredictable variation and difficult complexity, when women are no longer absent, the antichoice message is exposed. They can only succeed when debate is underpinned by fictions like Irish abortion is not already a reality or one size fits all circumstances. Once they have to account for for real life, the whole thing quickly falls apart.

These days women are tweeting Enda Kenny about their period and throwing knickers on his dinner table. Women are coming with much more than personal trauma and their own souls to bare. They come now from every angle in full colour.

The other crowd no longer have a monopoly on nuisance.

They who once swaggered with confidence, hectoring government ministers who made sure to listen, cannot abide a mural on a Dublin side street. They have wrapped themselves in a comfort blanket that says there is a vast conspiracy. Even the Rose of Tralee is out to get them!  In their echo chamber, still assured of their own self-evident  truth they cry that if only we can get the message out. Once people hear the truth things will change, they say.

Easier that than accept that no one is listening.

During the marriage referendum Breda O’Brien at one point suggested that she and others are “whistleblowers”. Ludicrously attempting to paint herself in the same light those who had been lifting the lid on practices in an garda siochana but the best part is she genuinely believed the things she had to say were supposed to be revelatory.

They carry on as if people haven’t already heard it all and made their mind up. As if thousand of women are not already more equated with abortion and their own reasons than the prolifers ever will be.

The last thing Ireland’s anti-abortion fanatics want is women speaking for themselves because these people have always presumed to know best and could only maintain that conceit as long as they kept the women away.

#repealthe8th | March For Choice 2016


The fifth annual March for Choice is just over two weeks away on Saturday, September 24th.

This year’s theme is “Rise & Repeal – a comment on the failure of our Republic to fulfil the promise of 1916″. March coordinator Linda Kavanagh says “the Easter Rising sought Sovereignty and self determination for Ireland. Today, we seek the same control over our own bodies. No longer will the Irish State force us to self-administer health care by taking abortion pills, risking a fourteen year jail term, or spend thousands of euro travelling secretly to England. This year we, the women of Ireland, with the support of all those who care about equality and human rights, are self administering our independence”.

Organisers at the Abortion Rights Campaign are extremely busy  ahead of what is likely to be a record turn out for Ireland’s largest prochoice event. I would encourage everyone to spend some time volunteering between now and the day itself. There are plenty of small ways to contribute so please click here to find out how you can get involved.

Aside from this, the best thing people can do is talk to friends, enemies, family, strangers, co-workers, team mates, book clubbers, drinking buddies and pets about attending the march itself.

On the day cheap buses will be leaving from Belfast, Galway, Cork, Sligo, Mayo, Meath and elsewhere so get in touch. Dublin people remember to factor in a potential bus strike on the day.  Saturday, September 24th – save the date now and plan ahead.


More than  833 woman from Northern Ireland and 3400 from republic were forced to leave their home country and travel to Britain in 2015. In the coming years, women living in Ireland face having to leave the European Union itself, however, awareness and disgust at these facts continues to grow. It has been an eventful year with the 8th Amendment never far from the political agenda.  After the explosion of activity in 2012, the issue of reproductive choices in this country has slowly become mainstream.

Since Clare Daly’s bill on the X Case anniversary and particularly the death of Savita Halappanavar, reproductive rights is a question legislators increasingly expect to be asked. Many politicians remain scarred from 1980s so while their glacial progress and evasion remains completely unacceptable, the breakthrough after decades is testament to work being done.

Outside of Leinster House, conversations are happening around kitchen tables, people are attending meetings, work is happening at all levels in big and small ways. Personal and public displays of support are becoming commonplace rather than transgressive and perhaps most ubiquitous is the REPEAL jumper.

Anna Cosgrave the woman behind the idea says the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive and having sold out several times says demand is “telling of how pressing this issue is and how heavy it’s weighing on those that are effected”.  The project has certainly been a huge success in terms of visibility and giving people the sense of being part of something bigger. Those interested in more t-shirts, badges and bags can visit the ARC shop.

The activist landscape has been transformed. The depth and  plurality of support that exists now is the prochoice movement’s best asset but as our numbers grow, the first and most important action is listening to the women involved in both the campaign and in your own life.

We only need look at how a small number of anti-choice activists have redoubled their efforts to shut down discussion wherever it arises. This site will be publishing a more in depth focus on this in the coming days but we should note that nothing they have done so far prevented spontaneous applause in the Rose of Tralee dome of all places.

In the North, abortion became an election issue for the first time this May after two high profile court cases dominated headlines and talk radio. In April, a 21 year old woman without means to travel received a three month suspended sentence for using the abortion pill in 2014. Showing their true colours, anti-choice groups were quick to condemn the judge’s ruling for being “unduly lenient”. Just weeks later it emerged that a second woman is facing trial for buying pills online  for her daughter.

The activist response has been swift with three women in protest handing themselves in to the PSNI for procuring pills. Kitty O’Kane, Colette Devlin and Diana King in Derry say “we feel very angry that it’s illegal. We’re angry that women are placed in this situation. That women who can afford to travel to England can have a legal abortion but women who can’t afford to travel can only access nine week abortion pills for £60. We’re very angry about that. We’re very angry that women are being criminalised”. Police inquiries remain “ongoing”.

In July, record numbers turned out for a rally for choice in Belfast. Organiser Fionnghuala Nic Roibeaird believes “the increase is indicative of a growing hunger for change completely in keeping with this latest wave of feminism, not to mention the added drama of going head to head with Precious Life. Reports have stated that we outnumbered their march and that their usual upbeat character (the likes of the “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Amnesty has got to go” chanting) was nowhere to be found. I feel like we marched as the winning force and they marched as the losing force”.


She says “the situation is so close to achieving change, so much so that I don’t believe it would be foolish at all for some of the more mainstream, liberal organisations to drop their line of pushing for incremental change. The recent action of the Derry 3 handing themselves in is what we need more of. We need to brazenly and unashamedly break the law and let them know we are doing so”.

Recent years have finally started to see increasing acknowledgement of the Northern Irish situation in Britain and it vitally important that we too in the republic continue to build links and support with women in the north.

Awareness and information about the pill continues to spread. WomenonWeb can be contacted here while Bpas have just launched further aftercare services. For separate matters and information on that neglected area of sexual and women’s health, not least in light of further exposure of rogue counselling centres,  you can contact the IFPA in confidence here.

The issue of fatal foetal abnormality diagnosis has probably been the most prominent aspect this past year with families and even several TDs continuing to talk about their experience, making it likely to be the first dealt with under any post-repeal legislation.

The work of activists from Terminations For Medical Reasons has been so crucial in highlighting the treatment of thousands of women and families under the eighth amendment.

Speaking to Gaye Edwards of TFMR about the previous twelve months she says “unfortunately people continue to receive diagnoses of Fatal Foetal Anomalies, so one of our top priorities continues to be providing emotional support for those families, by telephone, text, messaging and in group meetings. We have also been on a drive to educate people about Fatal Foetal Anomalies, destigmatise the choice to terminate such pregnancies and move closer to repeal of the eighth amendment so that practical and compassionate legislation can be put in place to allow women to be cared for in Ireland”.

Undoubtedly the biggest breakthrough for TFMR this year was founding member Amanda Mellet successfully taking a complaint against Ireland to the United Nations Human Rights Committee. “In a landmark ruling, all 18 members found that her human rights had been violated and that she had been subjected to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment as a result of Ireland’s draconian abortion laws (Mellet -v- Ireland)”.

This ruling forced an apology in the Dáil from the health minister and a typically bumbling reply from An Taoiseach who insists the ruling is “not binding”. Máiréad Enright and others say otherwise  but in any case, this will add further pressure on the same politicians that so easily excluded the D Case from legislation just four years ago.

In the short term we get Irish solutions to Irish problems. Government have promised to “make arrangements” so that “services surrounding these events and instances should be improved”, but this ham fisted at best piecemeal offering comes after women have been facing this journey for decades and not least after members of Enda Kenny’s own governments have been aware of this issues for several years.

The general election this year returned perhaps the greatest number of prochoice politicians to Dáil Éireann. At least forty or fifty openly prochoice TDs in all, perhaps more when you include pro-referendum or pro-repeal which is a very strong foundation in a parliament that lags far behind the public.

Just before the summer recess, Mick Wallace’s Bill caused plenty of trouble both within Fine Gael and at cabinet. Building on Clare Daly’s work during the previous term, we are fortunate that this stuff is occurring in parliament with some frequency because otherwise it would be very easy for politicians and by extension large parts of the media and public services to ignore.


Enda Kenny’s coalition have established a citizens assembly that is, of course, more to do with the needs of politicians than anyone else. Government are seeking to outsource an issue they  view at best a distraction at worst nuisance. Little do they realise abortion only forms one part of campaign against the treatment of women should they become pregnant in this country.

The convention should be treated with utmost scepticism, however, it also important that anti-choice elements are not given inch in any battle. Official processes must be engaged with but as will become more and more important as we edge closer to a referendum, we should resist falling into the trap of fighting on someone else’s terms.

Contestation within the broader prochoice movement itself is likely to intensify over matters like campaigning, strategy, demands and so on. Leadership of the Yes Equality campaign have begun to acknowledge the mistakes of that referendum and it is important for people to realise that out of both necessity and practicality, many of the marriage campaign tactics should not be repeated. Be wary of anyone suggesting otherwise.

The issue of ‘balance’ as presently interpreted by the media needs to be tackled as a priority. This is not a 50/50 fight and we should not be expected to face disproportionate and scurrilous opposition on a regular bases. Broadcasters too need re-examine the format and framing  of debates and information provision in light of their own ongoing failures but especially the 2015 referendum and British media mistakes during the Brexit campaign.

When not combating outright lies and scaremongering,  the abortion debate in Ireland is already susceptible to becoming mired in legal and medical discussion where women making these decisions are often patronised if they are visible at all.

It is crucial that women’s rights are placed front and centre of every discussion and the wider campaign.  This seems bleedin obvious but just watch how quick women’s experience is sidelined.  This is what the march for choice is all about.

This is first in a number of posts between now and the march on the 24th. In the mean time you can check out a prochoice special of the Oireachtas Retort podcast available for stream and download below.

pics – Paul Reynolds

Oireachtas Retort is a space for original and occasionally incisive commentary on the relentless torment of Irish politics. If you find any of this useful, please click the brown envelope to donate!

The Long Betrayal – Lies, Direct Provision And The McMahon Report

Words by Subprime
Images by Asylum Archive


The McMahon Report into the Protection System and Direct Provision was published one year ago this week. Despite ample evidence to the contrary, the report has taken on an almost mythic status in some quarters as a panacea for the ills of Direct Provision. If only the report’s 173 recommendations were implemented, this tale goes, the horrors of Direct Provision would be a thing of the past. Trumpeted as a “Yes Equality moment” by then Minister for State Aodhán Ó Ríordáin this day last year, the publication of the report would “turn the page on the scandal of Direct Provision”.

Reality and the things Ó Ríordáin says are frequently at odds, however, and the report gathered dust for months before being quietly removed recently from the final Programme for Partnership Government (PfG), having been featured in an earlier draft. The report was in reality a weak, reformist document —  had it been implemented fully, Direct Provision would remain intact  —  and a quiet death like this was a fitting end for it. Unfortunately Ó Ríordáin couldn’t let sleeping dogs lie and decided make an issue of the new government’s failure to include a commitment to implement the report’s recommendations after having failed to do so himself as Minister for State in the Department of Justice.

Ó Ríordáin issued a statement claiming that the decision to remove mention of the report from the final PfG is “a betrayal of the thousands of people who have found themselves languishing in Direct Provision Centres all around the country.” On Twitter he said that the McMahon Report was “ the only chance that DP residents had.” This is ridiculous, even by Ó Ríordáin’s usual standards.

The working group process which led to the report was the real betrayal of Direct Provision residents.

The process and the report itself were so compromised and limited in their scope that, far from being “the only chance” for residents, they were used by civil servants and politicians including Ó Ríordáin to actively hamper efforts by residents and others to improve the system.

The bizarre notion that the McMahon Report would somehow solve Direct Provision is perfectly illustrated by a couple of recent news reports: Michael D. Higgins, reacting to the news that McMahon implementation was dropped from the PfG, told the Irish times that he had “noticed” the McMahon Report had not been featured in discussions on government formation. This statement was then picked up by, who twisted his words to claim the President had criticised the lack of a commitment to “end the Direct Provision for asylum seekers.” The site further stated that the “McMahon report into Direct Provision calls for an end to the system.” This is completely untrue and could be dismissed as bad journalism but unfortunately it appears that it is a fairly common view that both Ó Ríordáin and the McMahon working group had set out to end Direct Provision.

This narrative is the exact opposite of the truth. The McMahon working group came about during a time when Direct Provision system was experiencing protests in centres across the country. The process was used by the Department of Justice, with help from Ó Ríordáin, to suppress those protests, co-opt NGOs and block all attempts to change the system for over a year.

An Independent Working Group?

The July 2014 Statement of Government Priorities contained a commitment to set up an “independent working group” to report to government on “improvements” that could be made to Direct Provision and the wider asylum system. The group consisted of two sides: representatives of government Departments on the one hand and on the other, a group of asylum NGOs, some random “non-affiliated” political picks and a single refugee

The “independent” adjective was apparently just thrown on there to lend credibility to the group, or out of habit. It was never clear who exactly the group was meant to be independent of and the language of independence was mostly dropped (there’s no mention of the group being independent in the press release announcing its establishment, for example) except when convenient (when government wanted to avoid questions about the group’s progress.)

Being charitable, one could assume that the group was meant to be independent of government  —  except the majority of participants in the group were civil servants from various government departments. Or perhaps it was to be independent of actual government ministers  —  except for the fact that one of the draft plans was for Aodhán Ó Ríordáin to chair the group (which was apparently abandoned to avoid the perception of political interference in the group); government set the terms of reference and picked the group’s members; and ministers publicly discussed what they “hoped” would be in the final report, as the group was conducting its work.

In the end, the Department of Justice settled on ticking the independence box by installing an “independent” chairperson, former High Court judge Bryan McMahon. Despite the fact that Frances Fitzgerald met with McMahon to discuss the group before it first met and that they appeared in public together during the course of the group’s work, you could say that he meets the criteria for being independent simply by virtue of the fact that he is a former High Court judge, seemingly the only necessary qualification to chair such a group in Ireland. An independent Chairperson does not an “independent working group” make but I suppose the Department is entitled to some leeway in their implementation of government commitments.

In any case, it’s not government ministers or a retired judge who would care enough to engage in some kind of conspiracy to influence the group. Rather, it’s the Department of Justice as an institution who have the most invested in maintaining the status quo of Direct Provision and the asylum system.

It is their job, after all, to manage the state based on government decisions. A government decision 16 years ago mandated them to create Direct Provision and the establishment of the working group did nothing to change that decision.

The group’s terms of reference required that whatever the working group recommended, “the existing border controls and immigration procedures are not compromised.” Direct Provision is border control. It acts to dissuade people from travelling to Ireland to claim asylum by keeping those that already made it here in terrible conditions. If the working group was to truly and critically examine Direct Provision, it would have to look at this fact. To do so independently, it would require independence from the Department of Justice, the government department tasked with upholding government policies on border control. In this sense, the group was anything but independent as Justice was more prevalent on the working group than any other group.

Two actual Department of Justice officials sat on the government side of the plenary working group  —  Michael Kelly of the INIS and Noel Dowling of the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA) which runs Direct Provision. Then there was David Costello of ORAC, (formerly of Justice, soon to be in Justice again when ORAC is subsumed back into the Department.) In addition, three other Justice officials sat on various sub-groups within the working group, according to the final report, but others were involved in various capacities as the subgroups were something of a free-for-all. Four Justice also officials helped out as the group’s secretariat and the Refugee Appeals Tribunal was also represented on the group.

That’s a lot of people working within the Department of Justice and/or its semi-autonomous agencies who got to come to the table and help construct the report.

This doesn’t include Tim Dalton, former Department of Justice Secretary General, who for reasons unknown was included on the “independent”/NGO side of the group. This appointment alone should have been cause for objection and outrage from the NGOs represented on the Group  —  Dalton was Justice Secretary General as his Department set up Direct Provision 16 years ago. He would be contributing to a report that, if it were truly independent, could potentially criticise the very system he was responsible for establishing. There were no public objections by members to his appointment to the group. Perhaps there would have been objections to the fact that Dalton and the Chair of the group, Bryan McMahon, visited a Direct Provision centre together after the membership of the group was announced but before the first working group meeting. However, other members of the working group were not told that this trip happened so they did not have a chance to analyse this relationship.

I’m nitpicking here to an extent  —  I’m not sure anybody ever seriously tried to claim the group was independent. It was stated a lot, but didn’t seem to mean a whole lot. Its supposed independence was, as I said above, a useful way for government to long finger any discussion of changes to Direct Provision at a time when it was, from their cynical perspective, absolutely necessary for them to do so.

Hunger strikes and occupations


The working group was set up, intentionally or not, in order to stifle and displace mounting opposition to Direct Provision in the latter half of 2014. The group first met in November of that year and for the preceding three months, residents of various Direct Provision centres had been engaged in both spontaneous and loosely coordinated direct actions against the system.

Starting in Mount Trenchard, Co. Limerick in August, and spreading to eight centres during September and October, residents of Direct Provision railed against the system despite the best efforts of the Department of Justice and centre management to ignore, co-opt and intimidate them (armed Gardaí even came to Mount Trenchard to forcibly transfer three protesting residents to other centres, after the dispute there had already been ‘resolved’.) Actions included hunger strikes in Athlone, Portlaoise and Mount Trenchard; occupations of centres in Cork and Waterford, including a ten-day occupation of the State-owned Kinsale Road Accommodation Centre in Cork City; and a march on Enda Kenny’s constituency office in Castlebar by residents of the Old Convent centre in Ballyhaunis, Co. Mayo.

Residents used the protests not just to highlight and change the woeful conditions in the centres but also to call for the closure of the system, residency and a right to work for all asylum seekers and an end to deportations. In an effort to quell protests at various centres, Department of Justice officials told residents that the above demands were “non-local issues” which could not be addressed directly by RIA during protests but that they would be covered by the working group. This was untrue. The terms of reference for the group, drafted by Justice, did not allow the group to recommend the closure of Direct Provision and Frances Fitzgerald made it clear at the first meeting of the group that they had not been assembled to consider such an option.

The group did recommend an extremely conditional right to work in their final report but the government has no intention of implementing this and the Minister had ruled this out before the group even met. Similarly, an amnesty was ruled out before the group met, even though the report did recommended a conditional process whereby people in the system longer than five years would be given a form of residency. And, of course and unfortunately, stopping deportations was never going to be considered by the working group — they did, however, recommend that government legislate for increased powers of deportation, a recommendation implemented as part of the International Protection Act.

Avoiding action

The spectre of the working group allowed government to avoid debate on any Direct Provision reforms raised in the Oireachtas. On September 17th 2014, Ronán Mullen proposed a reformist Seanad motion which called on the government to allow a conditional right to work and to institute a review mechanism to grant those in Direct Provision longer than four years “compassionate” leave to remain in Ireland. (Four years is a ridiculously long cut-off point before we should be compassionate about people’s stays in DP but ironically even this obscene time limit was lower than the similar 5 year condition which made its way into the final McMahon Report.)

Aodhán Ó Ríordáin was on hand to counter this motion with a government amendment which welcomed the establishment of the working group. He said the “working group process… is a sensible one” which allows for “necessary change to be identified and managed effectively without the dangers which would be generated by peremptory actions.” In the same speech, Ó Ríordáin also decided to condemn protesting Direct Provision residents who were engaged in a process of unmanaged and dangerous change. While he said he “fully respect[s] the rights of residents to protest”, he could not “condone the targeting of individuals working in certain direct provision centres or the stopping of people going about their lawful work.” This is an astonishing attack on protesters by a Minister for State who supposedly respects their right to protest.

It’s not clear where Ó Ríordáin got the idea that certain workers were being “targeted” but he is perhaps referring to the demand of protesting residents in the Kinsale Road Accommodation Centre in Cork for the removal of a manager there. The grim conditions in the centre and the protest itself are discussed by one of the residents, Lucky Khambule in a recent rabble interview. In their list of demands, residents of the centre said that the manager in question “does not respect the people who are under his care” and that they were “intimidated by the manager calling Gardaí” and threatening to transfer them when they raised issues with him.

“Stopping people going about their lawful work” could also apply to the protest in the Kinsale Road where, at the time of Aodhán’s speech, residents had seized control of the centre and locked out management and staff. The irony of attacking protesters for impeding workers in the same speech in which he is denying Direct Provision residents the right to work is apparently lost on Ó Ríordáin. This method of protest, unlike the “sensible” working group process, was effective in winning residents immediate reforms. In the end, the residents of the Kinsale Road won many of their demands and the manager was removed.

Later the same month, Ó Ríordáin was in the Dáil to counter another motion on Direct Provision, from Thomas Pringle. This motion would call on the government to “abolish” DP and replace it with six months capped reception centres and a right to work after that time. Pringle, pre-empting the inevitable government response that that working group would solve all ills, laid out clearly the problem with this: “Everyone here who has an interest in the direct provision system can indicate what needs to be done because the experts have been informing us about the matter for quite some time.” There was of course, no need for a working group after years of reports ignored by government and the working group process was, Pringle said, “just another delaying tactic on the part of Fine Gael that will result in a much diluted version of what must to be done.”

Ó Ríordáin’s counter motion was identical to the one used against Mullen. He again took the opportunity to condemn protesting Direct Provision residents and this time also expressed his concerns “about the impact the protests can have on children and other vulnerable persons living in the centres.” Again the irony seems to be lost on him that he is smearing protesters while calling for the retention of a system that has an actual negative impact on children and vulnerable people.

It’s worth also comparing Ó Ríordáin’s comments to those of Direct Provision contractor Alan Hyde, in a submission to the working group, describing a protest the Birchwood centre in Waterford:

While protesting peacefully is a recognised constitutional right, the protesters in many cases took the law into their own hands… my employees were stopped from entering their place of employment… the majority of residents were casualities [sic] of the protest.

The Birchwood protest began after Ó Ríordáin’s two Oireachtas speeches condemning protesters so I’m not suggesting he lifted his comments from this submission but the simple fact that a supposedly anti-Direct Provision Minister would come up with the same talking points as did a Direct Provision centre owner should tell you all you need to know about the sincerity of Aodhán Ó Ríordáin.


I’ve written before about how the Department of Justice was concerned that some of the NGOs involved in the working group process might be presented with problems because the official stance of their organisations is that they are for the abolition of Direct Provision while the working group was not set up to end the system at all. They needn’t have worried. Of the five NGOs represented on the group, only two had previously campaigned against Direct Provision  —  the Irish Refugee Council (IRC) and Nasc. The remaining three  —  SPIRASI, the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) and the Children’s Rights Alliance (CRA)  —  had taken much more ambiguous positions on the system, consistently failing to call for its abolition. The UNHCR, also represented on the group, never came out against the system.

The IRC and Nasc got around the problem of their previous opposition to the system by releasing statements saying they were still in favour of ending Direct Provision even though they were joining the working group. Nasc’s CEO Fiona Finn said that although she was “disappointed that the terms of reference for the Working Group seem quite narrow,” she believed it was “better to be at the table and try to effect change than not to take part”. Nasc would “continue to push for an end to the system of direct provision… both within and outside of the Working Group.” The IRC released a statement entitled “The Irish Refugee Council will continue to advocate for an end to Direct Provision”. Then CEO Sue Conlan said that the IRC would be “advocating for an international protection system that Ireland can be proud of” while also “advocating for an end to the current system of reception”.

The problem with both of these statements is that they were made after both NGOs had sight of the working group’s terms of reference which did not allow the possibility that the group recommend the abolition or replacement of Direct Provision. The terms of reference as I’ve mentioned above tasked the group with recommending to government “what improvements should be made to the State’s existing Direct Provision [system]”. While this could be interpreted charitably as allowing the group to recommend an alternative to Direct Provision, there was no confusion from government about what they intended. At a roundtable of NGOs in September 2014, prior to the establishment of the working group, Fitzgerald had made clear that by “improvements” to the system she meant improvements and not “replacing it with something else or abolishing it.” This fact was again highlighted by the Minister and McMahon at the first meeting of the working group.

There was no confusion from other observers. Shortly after the terms of reference were announced, a group of academics described the objectives of the working group as “very clear. Direct provision will remain in place. Any suggestions for improvement will be governed by “cost efficiency”, continued ghettoisation and deterrence.” Highlighting the fact that only one refugee was appointed as member of the group, the academics said that the group as announced “further silences and marginalises asylum seekers who have to live with the damage that this system has inflicted upon them”. They supported the call by Anti-Deportation Ireland for the NGOs to step down and give up their places to people in the system.

The Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (MASI), a group of residents across multiple centres which grew out of the organisation developed during the Kinsale Road blockade and other centres, also called for the resignation of NGO working group members. They sent letters to the NGOs demanding representation and this was discussed at the second plenary working group meeting, as noted in the minutes.

The calls for resignations were ignored by NGOs. Asylum seekers would be represented officially only by the Core Group, an IRC funded group of asylum seekers and refugees. They had one representative on the main working group, Reuben Hambackachere, who from the minutes of the group seemed like the only person speaking truth at working group meetings. For example, he made the following contribution at the first meeting of the group:

In relation to the stated aim of the work of the Group — to show greater respect to the dignity of persons within the system, IRC Core Group representative expressed the view that the system of direct provision, which requires people to live in a controlled environment, is incompatible with the dignity of the person.

Sue Conlan and the IRC would later resign from the working group in March 2015 for reasons unrelated to the above. This kicked off internal discussions within the Core Group who fractured into two camps, those who wanted to also resign from the group in protest, led by Hambackachere, and those who wanted to stay on for the final couple of months and see what reforms could be won. In the end, Hambackachere lost out and he resigned from the working group, saying in his letter of resignation to the Chair of the group that he felt restricted by the group’s terms of reference to “legitimizing the current system with only a few tweaks…. My conscience will not allow me to endorse an exercise that has not truly reflected the voices of asylum seekers.” (He also wrote about his experiences in Village.)

Hambackachere’s resignation was in a personal capacity, the Core Group still remained on the working group. He was replaced by Stephen Ng’ang’a who sat on the group until the end and signed off on the final report. The Core Group had been badly damaged by their internal dispute. They started off as a small group of refugees and asylum seekers, backed by the IRC and unrepresentative of the wider body of asylum seekers and refugees in Ireland. They ended up as an even smaller group, and lost the institutional backing of the IRC. This was predictable and comes back to the demands from other asylum seekers for proper representation on the working group. The “community” of protection applicants in Ireland cannot of course be represented by any one group, especially not one tied to a specific NGO.

Apart from the issue of asylum seeker representation, the McMahon NGOs were compromised by the working group process itself. While the lines between Justice and the NGOs have always been blurry, not least in the eyes of many asylum seekers, the McMahon process was a radical departure from the earlier position where the NGOs at least paid lip service to the idea that they were antagonists of the Department. While individual NGOs had of course worked with government before this on various projects, including the first drafting of the RIA house rules, McMahon saw a group of NGOs come together with government to work together to plan the future of the asylum system and Direct Provision.

The co-option of the NGOs was noted in a recent article by working group member Ciara Smyth entitled “Chronicles of a Reform Process”. Smyth notes that one might take “jaundiced view” that the working group formulation, ie. NGOs and civil servants working more or less together towards a common goal, “might impede NGOs from adopting stance [sic] critical of government; the co-opting of NGOs onto the Working Group will certainly do so as far as the report is concerned.” Smyth’s article was written just before the publication of the report in June 2015. She was certainly correct that the remaining NGOs were indeed co-opted to the extent that they could not be critical of the government’s immediately obvious intention not to implement the report.

Another #YesEquality moment


The day after the report was finally delivered to government on June 23rd 2015, the Irish Times carried a story by Fiach Kelly quoting anonymous sources including a cabinet member. The story claimed that “700 migrants” had entered the state in just one month. An anonymous source then said that “those who are the focus of concern” are “in essence illegal immigrants and they are using the asylum process to gain entry to the country”. Fitzgerald was later asked about the 700 figure and it’s clear from her answer that nowhere near 700 people claimed asylum in any one month period in early 2015.

Apart from the outright lie that 700 people had abused the asylum system, the story also features anonymous concerns within “the Coalition” that “improvements in direct provision system, as well as a recovering economy, could make Ireland a destination country for immigrants.” The Irish Times had access to some of the report’s recommendations that same day as detailed in a separate article by Carl O’Brien — but they chose to run Fiach Kelly’s anonymously sourced article on their front page. In other words, they could have taken the opportunity to highlight the report’s recommendations but instead they chose to undermine it.

It isn’t that surprising that reactionaries in Cabinet and/or the Department of Justice would try to undermine the report’s release by planting ridiculous Daily Express style “migrant” scare stories in the press. It’s certainly not surprising that the newspaper of record would facilitate them. However, despite this clear evidence that the report was being and would continue to be undermined, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin’s optimism was not dampened.

A week after being delivered to government, the McMahon Report was published on June 30th 2015. Ó Ríordáin lost the run of himself on Twitter that day, producing this classic tweet where he characterised the publication of the report as a “another #YesEquality moment”. He said that the publication of the report was an “important moment” and that “implementation must be a priority.” You have to admire his enthusiasm but the report was never going to be implemented. Fitzgerald’s rather less enthusiastic reaction to the report was to say that the report “will receives [sic] serious study and consideration.” There was a press conference to launch the report at 4.30pm that day at which Fitzgerald said she thought the “roadmap set out in the publication is practical in its ambition.” Before 6pm she had already refused to commit to implementing the report’s recommendations.

Time to Act

Though the government was clearly never going to implement McMahon, the NGOs who remained on the working group until the end never lost hope. Their dedication to the report was total. They came out with coordinated statements on the day of the report’s release. When government avoided discussing the report in the Dáil, the NGOs formed a group called Time to Act to call on the government to implement the report’s recommendations. But implementation never came. Government implemented a couple of previous announced recommendations – a waiver on prescription charges for Direct Provision residents and a scheme of third level supports for asylum seekers which was so limited that only two people qualified for it. But for months these were the only announced changes to Direct Provision on foot of the McMahon Report.

Fans of Ireland’s asylum system will notice I’ve thus far glossed over the fact that the working group actually dealt not just with Direct Provision but with the wider protection process. This is an intentional choice, for brevity and because the group was presented as and referred to by government as a “Direct Provision working group”. The group actually focused equally on or even gave more time to “improvements” to the protection process rather than on “improvements” to Direct Provision. These two issues although related could be separate but McMahon blurs the line between them.

Whether Ireland maintains open or closed border in theory has no bearing on whether or not it operates Direct Provision, a separate system or no reception system at all. However, the report proposes a single application procedure as a method of reducing time spent in the asylum system. And although the introduction of a single application procedure was already planned by the Department of Justice, government has seized upon the single application procedure as a “solution” to Direct Provision.

The single application was legislated for as part of the International Protection Bill last year. According to government, this Bill “responded to” 26 of the McMahon recommendations, primarily the recommendation to introduce a single procedure. Non-McMahon NGOs objected to how the Bill was constructed and to how the government rammed it through the Oireachtas just before the Winter recess in December 2015. Even McMahon NGO Nasc objected to it, saying that while the “Minister claims that the Bill implements the key recommendations of the Working Group, this is simply not true.” Despite these objections, the Bill became an Act, signed in to law by the President after being referred to the Council of State.

The Department of Justice recently released a document which which lists the status of the 173 McMahon Report recommendations. In a press release accompanying the release, Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald stated that she is “determined to implement this report in full as soon as possible.” This is impossible as things stand. Justice has decided that 5 recommendations will not be implemented. These relate to the right to work for asylum seekers after 9 months in the system and the establishment of an independent advisory board to oversee the system. These recommendations are marked “no longer applicable.” A brief information note at the top of the document explains that these recommendations have been superseded by “the passing of the International Protection Act 2015.” This is clearly at odds with the Minister’s statement that the report will be implemented in full and this was the the first and only time that the Department has stated officially that some McMahon recommendations will not be implemented.

Of the “implemented” recommendations, it appears that less than the amount stated have been implemented. In some cases, a recommendation listed as being implemented clearly has not been implemented. In many other cases, the ‘implemented’ recommendations are vague, subjective, or a continuation of standard practice. For example, one recommendation requires that “the good practice established through the [McMahon] Working Group of sharing and discussing information in a safe setting among key stakeholders be continued.” This is listed as an implemented recommendation but it’s not clear who the key stakeholders are or what constitutes a safe setting.

If the McMahon NGOs were honest they would admit that Justice’s claimed implementation of a number of the recommendations is completely false. Instead, they have over the past year consistently “welcomed” “progress” on implementation. Following on from their criticism of the International Protection Act, Nasc also mildly took issue with government’s announcement of a €6 increase in the weekly Direct Provision Allowance for children. Nasc’s Fiona Finn said that they “welcome any improvement” to Direct Provision but that the increase wasn’t enough and called on the government to implement McMahon properly. Tanya Ward of the Children’s Rights Alliance, another working group member, said that the increase “will barely cover the cost of a bottle of Calpol” but in the same statement, along with two other children’s charities, she acknowledged “the leadership of” Joan Burton “in securing this increase” and recognised “the support and commitment of Fitzgerald and Ó Ríordáin but said that the government must implement McMahon fully.

Why would government fully implement the report when NGOs are welcoming insulting “implementations” of the report that go nowhere near meeting its recommendations?

Despite a year of non-implementation, it emerged recently that the McMahon NGOs have been meeting with the Department of Justice over the past year, and will continue to do so. The Time to Act NGOs released a joint statement “welcoming” government’s “renewed commitments” for full implementation. They did not mention that government, presumably with their blessing, had ruled out a right to work for asylum seekers.

It seems that the NGOs who were involved in the group are happy to be drip-fed half-implemented recommendations, reassurances and lies from government. This would be fine if they didn’t claim to advocate on behalf of the people most affected by inaction. When they renewed their commitment to implement McMahon, government claimed that they had granted status to 1,500 people who had been in Direct Provision longer than 5 years. That is great for those people, but as of April there are still almost 1,000 people in direct provision over 5 years. There are 3,047 in the system for longer than 9 months, one of the government’s vague targets for a maximum stay once the single procedure is implemented. Rather than advocating for an end to Direct Provision, these NGOs have been praising government for removing some of the people in the system for the longest and implicitly condemning everybody in the system for a year or two to continued limbo.

Aside from Ó Ríordáin’s and the NGOs’ hypocrisy in calling for the report to be implemented, other people and groups who should know better are also making serious calls for implementation. For example, the Irish Association of Social Workers issued a statement recently which called on government to implement McMahon “without further delay.” I disagree. The current “delay” is one full year since the report was presented to government. In August, it will be two years since the Direct Provision protests of Summer ’14. Residents suspended some of their protests partly on the understanding (explicitly stated by the Department of Justice) that their concerns would be addressed by the working group. They were not.

The working group was ill-conceived from the outset, partially a response to protest by residents and to longstanding objections from all quarters against the horrors of Direct Provision. The work of the group was shaped and directed by a Justice Department resistant to even the most minor reform. The recommendations in the McMahon Report are impossible to fully implement.

It would be nice to believe that the government will suddenly decide to implement McMahon, but they will not. If the report was a true template for positive change then people should indeed campaign for its implementation, but it is not. It deserves to be forgotten about. The real crime is that people still push it as a “solution” to the detriment of real change. For the McMahon NGOs to continue to push it when it’s going nowhere compounds their betrayal of asylum seekers during the process.

Over fifty thousand people have been forced to live through Direct Provision over the past 16 years. Residents’ stories of horrific conditions and abuse from staff are no longer hard to find. There were plenty of reports before McMahon laying out the damage caused by the system. Government and the NGOs ignored all of this during McMahon and they continue to ignore it by slowly and incompletely implementing the report’s recommendations.

Direct Provision is in theory reformable, but only if you leave aside your morality and compassion. To anybody who sees its residents as human beings, the Direct Provision system is unacceptable. Men, women and children have been left at the mercy of private operators for years because of their immigration and financial status and because of the colour of their skin.

Government ministers, a retired judge and some well paid ‘humanitarians’ had the privilege of wasting almost a year of their lives compiling a white-wash report. Another year has now passed while they have sat on that report.

During that time, an average of about eight people will have died in Direct Provision. Hundreds of applicants for asylum here will have been introduced to roommates they don’t want and bad food they shouldn’t be expected to eat.

None of these horrors would be fixed by implementing McMahon  —  the only way to right the wrong of Direct Provision is to end it.

Oireachtas Retort is a space for original and occasionally incisive commentary on the relentless torment of Irish politics. If you find any of this useful, please click the brown envelope to donate!

Ireland, Abortion And #Brexit

Figures released by the UK Department of Health in May show women from the island of Ireland accounted for 82.6% of abortions provided to non-British residents last year.


That’s roughly nine women having to travel every single day and these annual headlines are an understatement. Not every woman arriving at a British clinic will give an Irish address while in other instances, women may have the option to travel somewhere else like the Netherlands. Even in the collection of statistics there are layers of invisibility and silence but nine women forced to leave their own home each day is nine too many and Britain remains the primary destination.

The task involved in arranging this journey has been covered in some detail here.

Have you been to the doctor? How far along are you? Do you know the further along you are, the more expensive an abortion is? Can you get a loan from a Credit Union? Or will you go to a money lender? Do you have anything you can sell to raise the money? Can you lie to your parents or friends to borrow money? Can you max your credit card? Do you even have a credit card? Are there any bills that you can get away with not paying this month? Have you gone through all your old coats and looked down the back of the sofa? How long will it take for you to get €1,000 together? Can you get an extra €20 off the Community Welfare Officer? Can you not buy coal for the next few weeks? Are you on the dole? Can you use your savings? Can you defer your year at college and save the money for your Master’s Degree again? Is it Christmas time? Can you return any gifts for a refund or sell them for cash?
And more pertinently.

Do you have travel documents? A passport is €80 and Ryanair will only let you travel with a passport. Can you get a Driver’s Licence? You’ve lost it? Aer Lingus will let you travel on a work ID. Your work ID doesn’t have a photo on it? You’ll need a passport then.

Are you an Asylum Seeker? Ok, then you need to get travel documents that will allow you to re-enter the state. Who is your solicitor? Is he or she pro choice? How much does he or she charge to help you with this?

In the republic, while already illegal, abortion has also been constitutionally prohibited since 1983. The North is still governed under the 1861 Offences Against The Person Act as the 1967 Abortion Act has not yet crossed the Irish Sea.

Women living the republic were eventually given explicit right to travel for a termination in 1992 and Irish citizens along with women from the north can avail of the Common Travel Area to enter Britain with minimal restrictions. This pre-EU agreement is likely to remain in the event of Brexit but given the prevailing climate and addition of an EU border scenario, movement between Ireland and Britain will be effected in other ways.

For this group, the worst outcome will hopefully be limited to uncertainty in the weeks and months following the referendum but we do not expect the ground to shift that dramatically.

It is worth pointing out in this context another example of the hypocrisy which reliably follows the abortion question. The referendum campaign and decades leading to it have regularly focused on the alleged pressure migration places on the welfare state at the expense of ‘taxpayers’. British services for the British and all that.  In the midst of all this chest beating sensationalism, women from Northern Ireland alone, who are no less entitled than those in Kent or Cardiff, are denied access to treatment on the NHS anywhere in Britain.

Ireland has also been a destination of increasing migration since the 1990s and these people, chief among them the British (!), accounted for over half a million residents at the last census in 2011. The split is roughly 50/50 meaning there are at least 250,000 women who may potentially seek an abortion at some time in their lives. While EU citizens make up the majority of this number, Britain outside the EU is unlikely to look as favourably on say, Lithuanians as they might the Dutch. How the issue of free movement for EU citizens is dealt with after the referendum is unknown but the cry that “we have lost control of borders” being a dominant campaigning issue is ominous. Tighter application process or controls can only be worse for women often in desperate situations of time and money.

The sizeable number of non-EU Irish residents from places like Nigeria and the Philippines already face restrictions and routine torment at airports. On top of crisis pregnancy, they, along with asylum seekers and the undocumented, will potentially face yet another layer of racist bureaucracy and policing in both Britain and at home. Take all we have learned about Irish women’s experience and add having to account for your movements or reasons for travel in the face of Irish immigration officialdom.

None of this is meant to be alarmist and rests firmly in the realm of speculation. In the event of Britain rescinding EU membership  the target of restrictions will tilt toward permanent visas and immigration rather than temporary visits in the short term however both are very quickly linked when one approaches the passport desk.  Increasing hostility at the boarder is certain and this is important to highlight in the reality of Irish abortion. As entry to Britain becomes more draconian, women who for reasons of xenophobia are seen as undesirable or suspect will be under further pressure to prove they are only staying for a day or so. Their personal, entirely legitimate reasons for travel are hardly suited for airport interrogations.

Regardless of outcome, this referendum coupled with refugee paranoia will only add increased burden so long as abortion access remains restricted on the island of Ireland.

The prospect Britain leaving the European Union is viewed as an unmitigated crisis in eyes of the Irish government but while prime minister Enda Kenny travels around Britain campaigning at the behest of business, finance and farmers, it is safe to assume the implications for Irish women have never crossed his mind.

In truth, the idea that Irish women may soon be forced to leave the European Union to access healthcare doesn’t bear thinking about.

Oireachtas Retort is a space for original and occasionally incisive commentary on the relentless torment of Irish politics. If you find any of this useful, just click the brown envelope to donate!