This year marks the 25th anniversary of the lift of the broadcast ban on Irish nationalist political party Sinn Féin appearing on British networks. We take a look at the ban and the legacy it left behind.
On October 18th, 1988, British Home Secretary, Douglas Hurd, issued a statement to the Independent Broadcasting Authority, banning the broadcast of statements from representatives or supporters of eleven Northern Irish organizations, both political and military. Though the ban affected both unionist and republican groups, many felt that Sinn Féin, the Irish republican political party often associated with the Provisional Irish Republican Army, was the main target of the restrictions. It was also the only legal political group included in the ban, which extended to non-violent topics, including party politics and platforms.
Hurd claimed that eleven groups targeted used TV and radio to “draw support and sustenance” for their terrorist activities, and that it was necessary for the government to deny them access to the wide-reaching platform. Then prime minister Margaret Thatcher praised the restrictions, believing they would “deny terrorists the oxygen of publicity.” Many conservative politicians agreed with her, believing the media offered Sinn Féin and the IRA too much exposure, and that Sinn Féin in particular could use TV and radio broadcasts to defend the IRA’s violent actions. Lord Tebbit, Tory party chairman, believed the British public found it offensive to see Sinn Féin leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness appear on television in the wake of IRA bombings.
The ban came after a particularly violent period in the Troubles—the 1987 IRA bombing of the Enniskillen Remembrance Day killed ten civilians (instead of British soldiers marching in the parade, the purported intended target), and set off a series of attacks and retaliations between nationalist and republican paramilitary groups.
How did Sinn Féin, the largest nationalist party in Northern Ireland, and the third largest in the Republic of Ireland, get included with various paramilitary organizations in the British broadcasting ban? Since its inception, the democratic socialist party has been inextricably linked with the IRA and at the outset of the Troubles, the Provisional IRA.
In 1905, Dublin-born writer and politician Arthur Griffith founded Sinn Féin, Irish for “ourselves” or “we ourselves” (though often mistranslated as “ourselves alone”), a left-wing republican party. Though Griffith did not participate in the Easter Rising of 1916, many members of the organization did, and newspapers dubbed the events the “Sinn Féin Rising.”After the Rising, republicans of different parties coalesced under the Sinn Féin banner, and in 1917, the party committed itself to working toward establishing an Irish Republic. In the Irish general election the following year, Sinn Féin took 75 of Ireland’s 105 seats, and in 1919, the party’s MPs proclaimed themselves the Irish parliament—Dáil Éireann. During the war for independence, Sinn Féin supported the Irish Republican Army, and many party members, including Griffith, were instrumental in negotiating the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, which signaled the end of the war with Britain and established the Irish Free State. However, the Treaty came with one major caveat: the six counties of Northern Ireland, where a loyalist majority ruled, could choose to opt out of the new Irish Republic, which they did in April of that year, partitioning Ireland into North and South.
The Treaty divided the party and the new country, as well. No sooner had Ireland won its independence than it dove headfirst into a brief and bloody civil war between the Irish Free State (those who supported the Treaty) and the Irish Republic (those against it). Though it lasted less than ten and-a-half months, the Civil War turned often turned friends and family members against one another and is believed to have claimed more lives than the preceding War of Independence.
From the two sides of the Civil War came two new Irish political parties that continue to dominate the country’s government today. After the Free Staters, who had the financial and military support of Britain, won the war, they formed Cumann na nGaedheal, which governed Ireland until 1932 and in 1933 merged with smaller political groups to form the center-right party Fine Gael. Anti-Treaty Sinn Féin members continued to boycott the Dáil, and in 1926, Eamon de Valera suggested that the Oath of Allegiance be struck from parliamentary requirement (the oath required all parliament members to both swear allegiance to the British monarch and to acknowledge common citizenship between the Irish Free State and the UK). The motion did not pass, and de Valera resigned from Sinn Féin and began his own party, Fianna Fáil, taking with him a large number of party members and crucial American financial support.
From then on, Sinn Féin has had a tumultuous history. In 1970, some party members proposed that they end their longstanding policy of abstentionism and take seats in the parliaments of Ireland, Northern Ireland, and the UK. The motion did not pass, and dissenting members split off to form their own party, which they dubbed “Official Sinn Féin,” eventually changing their name to “The Workers’ Party” in 1982. In Belfast in the 1970s, the original party morphed into more of a protest movement after British police led a mass arrest and internment of over 300 people suspected of being involved with the IRA. The party was legalized in 1974 by Northern Ireland’s Secretary of State, and Gerry Adams began to come to the fore, urging the party to turn its focus to politics and to unify its platforms. Adams was elected party leader in 1982, and despite his disapproval, Sinn Féin eventually abandoned their policy of abstentionism from the Irish Dáil.
Despite its turn toward electoral politics in the 1970s, the party is seen as the political wing of the IRA, including the Irish government, which alleged many party leaders had also held seats on the IRA Army Council. Party leadership denies these claims. Republican pamphlets from the early 1980s supported this, claiming that while the IRA waged its war for Irish nationalism, Sinn Féin acted as its political voice. Even as recently as 2005, then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern called the IRA and Sinn Féin “both sides of the same coin,” when the party was officially ostracized for suspected involvement in violent and illegal activities.
Prior to the ban, reporting on the Troubles carried with it no small amount of tension, and relations between the media and the government worsened during the 70s and 80s. In 1985, the BBC refused to air At the Edge of the Union, a documentary film featuring Sinn Féin leader Martin McGuinness and Democratic Unionist Party’s Gregory Campbell telling their own stories and allowing viewers to draw their own conclusions about the Troubles. BBC staff staged a 24-hour strike to protest the censorship.
After Hurd issued the notice in 1988, confusion ensued. Broadcasters had little guidance in how to interpret the ban and many resorted to muting and subtitling the voices of those who were not allowed to be heard directly. TV stations frequently found themselves dubbing interviews and speeches of those affected by the restrictions, and networks quickly compiled a list of actors who were available on short notice to read and record voiceover segments. The practice became incredibly commonplace—one BBC interview with Gerry Adams was so well dubbed that when it appeared on CNN, American audiences did not realize that they had been listening to an actor and not Adams himself.
During the 1992 election campaign season, the ban was relaxed so that Adams could be heard on the airwaves in his debate against Social Democrat and Labour Party leader John Hume, but as soon as the votes were counted, the ban resumed. Even Adams’s remarks at losing his parliament seat were not aired directly.
Individuals could appear on TV undubbed and unsubtitled if the nature of their speech was unrelated to their political beliefs or paramilitary action. Sinn Féin councillor Gerard McGuigan was directly broadcast when speaking about an Ulster Defense Association attack on his home in 1992, as the comments were of a personal, not political, nature.
In addition to political parties and figures, the censorship extended to drama, documentary, and talk programs. Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Tom King, ordered a television channel to cancel an episode of an American show that featured a fictional IRA gunrunner, even though that episode had originally aired before the ban. A documentary about women and nationalism entitled Mother Ireland, which included an interview with Mairéad Farrell, a member of the provisional IRA, was censored as well. Bernadette Devlin, the civil rights leader and politician, appeared on an episode of BBC’s Nation speaking about the reasons for political violence, and much of her speech was muted and subtitled. Britain’s Independent Broadcasting Authority even forbade all commercial radio stations from playing the Pogues’ song “Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six,” which criticized how the British government and courts approached the threat of terrorism at home. (The Birmingham Six were six Irishmen who in 1975 were falsely accused of committing the Birmingham pub bombings, in which the Provisional IRA placed explosives at two different pubs in Birmingham, killing 21 and injuring 182. The accused perpetrators were coerced into confessions through relentless and often violent interrogation.)
The ban quickly took on a surreal, farcical quality; journalist Peter Taylor was allowed to make a documentary about inmates in the Maze Prison in which the prisoners were allowed to discuss their personal lives and existence within the prison. Strangely, though, only one section in the film was deemed subject to the ban and had to be revoiced: the IRA prisoners’ food spokesperson’s complaint about the size of the prison’s sausage rolls.
Detractors of the ban argued that the censorship had little to no effect on the ongoing Troubles violence, and the only real achievement was hindering the political efficacy of Sinn Féin, whose candidates were already legally required to officially renounce violence before running for office, as pointed out by the Independent. Then Channel 4 chief executive Michael Grade referred to the ban as “one of the most embarrassing attempts to censor coverage of the most important domestic political story of post-war years.” Politicians like Adams agreed with him, noting that a wholesale ban on certain groups not only denied citizens the freedom to judge the policies of different parties, but denied them also crucial information about both sides of the Troubles.
Many British journalists opposed the ban as an assault on free speech, regardless of their political sympathies. In early September 1994, Tony Hall, then head of News and Current Affairs at the BBC (he is now the company’s Director-General) wrote that the ban had not hampered the activities of Sinn Féin and the IRA, but instead had become a tool for them to manipulate by citing it as a reason for declining interviews. Hall also noted that it soured the reputation of British journalism worldwide—many correspondents working in countries like India, Egypt, and Iraq had the ban brought against them when protesting government press restrictions abroad. BBC Foreign Affairs Editor John Simpson worked in Baghdad during the Gulf War and recalled, “I don’t like to see this country appearing on the same side of the dividing line as Saddam Hussein on anything at all.”
In early 1994, laws in the Republic of Ireland that prohibited airing interviews with representatives of paramilitary groups lapsed. After that point, anyone in Northern Ireland who had access to the Irish State broadcaster, Raidió Teilifís Éireann (RTÉ), could hear the voices of those still banned on UK airwaves and TV stations. Later that year, Gerry Adams visited the United States, where he made a speech that was broadcast around the world, though it was still dubbed on British TV.
The government lifted the ban on September 16th, 1994, two weeks after the Provisional IRA announced a ceasefire. Broadcasters and journalists welcomed the news, believing the restrictions had been a massive embarrassment both in intention and execution.