Thursday, January 30, 2014

Section 31 and Visa Denial

Censorship is about closing down dialogue. It’s about influencing and shaping public opinion. It is about persuading citizens to sustain the status quo. Sometimes censorship can be very public and written into law and enforced. Other times it can be more subtle but just as insidious. Ireland north and south has experienced both.

Censorship is about denying citizens their right to information and persuading them to embrace or acquiesce silently to injustice. Censorship is about control.

In his 1996 song ‘Yellow Triangle’, dedicated to the victims of the holocaust, Christy Moore’s lyrics warn of the dangers of censorship and of apathy. It is based on a poem by Pastor Martin Niemoller who spent 8 years in Nazi concentration camps.

“When first they came for the criminals I did not speak
Then they began to take the jews
When they fetched the people who were members of trades unions
I did not speak

When they took the bible students
Rounded up the homosexuals
Then they gathered up the immigrant’s and the gypsies

I did not speak
I did not speak

Eventually they came for me and there was no one left to speak.”

In the north during the years of conflict official and unofficial censorship had the objectives of supporting Britain’s war policy; defending discrimination; demonising a whole community; covering up the murder of citizens through the use of state collusion with unionist death squads; and excusing the use of torture and repressive laws.

Censorship and the control and manipulation of the media was applied equally ruthlessly in the 26 counties through Section 31.

Section 31 was a key element in a censorship and demonization strategy going back almost 30 years. Section 31 was introduced by Fianna Fáil in 1971 and was then tightened by Labour Party Minister Conor Cruise O Brien. It was renewed annually by Irish governments. It ensured that people in the 26 counties received a totally one-sided account of the conflict in the north and of its consequences for the whole of the island.

Section 31 reinforced partitionism and prolonged the conflict. It meant that Sinn Féin members were prevented from speaking on any issue. The RTE Authority was sacked, some journalists lost their jobs or were moved to less important positions, and the RTE management of the day imposed a harsh regime of self-censorship.

When Sinn Féin won elections our opponents – the losers – were interviewed. Republican voters were disenfranchised. British Army, UDR accounts of incidents were broadcast. Sinn Féin or local accounts were ignored.

Sinn Féin’s Larry O Toole, who was also a trade union leader, was banned by RTE from speaking about a strike in the Gateaux bakery in 1990. There were countless other examples. The atmosphere in RTE was reminiscent of the McCarthy era in the USA with the NUJ reporting in 1976 that journalists were afraid to question the government on its policy in respect of the north.

Visa denial in the United States was also about censorship and the denial of information. It meant that U.S. citizens were not able to receive information about the situation in the north which the British government insisted was an internal matter for it to deal with.

This favoured Britain’s military and political aims. From partition, but especially during the war years the British implacably opposed any international directly, and especially US interest or involvement in the north.

The attitude of successive Conservative and Labour government’s was best summed up by Quintin Hogg, a senior Tory Minister who was asked by Irish Times journalist Conor O Clery “if the intervention by Irish-Americans such as Senator Edward Kennedy on Irish issues made any impression on the British government. His face reddened and he slapped an open palm on his polished desk. ‘Those bawstards’, he cried. ‘Those Roman Catholic bawstards! How dare they interfere!'

But dare they did and 20 years ago this month an important step change took place as Sinn Féin and our political allies in Irish America succeeded in persuading President Clinton to provide me with a visa to enter the USA.

This was a key part of our peace strategy. We knew that the Irish cause needed to be internationalised. Within the USA there was a huge Irish American community that had a strong sense of its Irishness and a desire to challenge British propaganda in the U.S. Many were involved in justice campaigns around the Birmingham Six or the Guildford Four or Plastic Bullets or the MacBride campaign for an end to discrimination in employment against Catholics. They also wanted to see a real and lasting peace achieved. It was natural that we would look to Irish America for help.

In 1993 Bill Flynn, who was then the chairman of the board of Mutual of America Life Insurance Company, convinced the National Committee on American Foreign Policy to host a conference on the north in New York. They invited all of the party leaders from the six counties, including me.

To say that the British opposed the invitation is an understatement. However the Irish Ambassador to Ireland Jean Kennedy Smith and her brother Ted Kennedy along with a host of Congressional members, including Ben Gilman, Peter King, Tom Manton, Richard Neal and others lobbied for the visa.

On January 14th 1994 I applied for the visa to attend the conference which was organised for February 1st. The British government began an intense private and public campaign to keep me out. The British Embassy and its ambassador Sir Robin Renwick worked round the clock arguing that a visa for me would be a diplomatic catastrophe.

Two weeks later on January 29th President Clinton announced his decision to authorise the visa. It was to be a restricted visa for two days only and I had to remain within New York. But it was still a visa.

The British government’s handling of the issue ensured that my visit was a huge international media event. But that’s a story for another day.  The lesson of all of this is that censorship should always be opposed.

“All censorships exist to prevent anyone from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently, the first condition of progress is the removal of censorship.”
George Bernard Shaw

Twenty years ago this month the then Irish government Minister Michael D Higgins, with the support of his Taoiseach Albert Reynolds, announced the ending of Section 31.

Censorship in Britain was widespread throughout that period  and was formalised in Thatcher’s broadcasting ban which was introduced in October 1988. This was eventually lifted on September 16tgh 1994.

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