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Hacks, hamsters and hush puppies

Is journalism helping or hindering current public discourses?

It has been interesting to watch communities in the Republic as they begin to protest against – ahem – unexpected arrivals in their locales. The people objecting to fundamental changes in their neighbourhoods are very diffident in how they phrase their concerns. The words “I am not a racist. I know someone from x”, or a variation thereof, often appear.

The phrase has been niggling at this writer for a while. There was something vaguely familiar about the sentiment and phraseology that rang a bell in my distant memory. Then, I remembered. It is a variation on a theme that northern nationalists (of the constitutional variety) had to employ when discussing the political situation in the North while fireproofing themselves against accusations, by the same Dublin meeja we have today, that they were sectarian or aiding republican violence and were, in fact, “Hush puppy Provos”.

In the context of the North, the phrase was practically a mainstay in conversation, in public for politicians and in private for ordinary nationalists, to ward off evil southern media, a media that was heavily influenced by strong anti-nationalist sentiment at that time.

It became the verbal equivalent of blessing yourself before leaving the house, a short Hail Mary that you might be spared the slings and arrows of hostile hacks. Of course, the “Hush puppy Provo” slur was a way of poisoning the public discourse on contentious issues, of questioning someone’s bona fides and legitimate concerns.

Now, it has entered the southern discourse in a slightly different form. No longer do you have to protect yourself against from hacks and their hex by saying “Some of my best friends are Protestants”, but you have to say “I know someone from Poland”.

The Unfinished Revolution: the official IRA and the Workers’ Party (Penguin) by Brian Hanley and Scott Millar is a good study of this particular phenomenon. It is an eye-opening account of the role of the official republican movement and its influence in “the fields of politics, trade unionism and media” which “never achieved its objectives but had a lasting effect on the landscape of Irish politics”.

The official republican movement, or The Officials, as they were widely known, began life when a split occurred in the IRA in the 1960s. Crudely put, one grouping of the republican movement became known as the Provisionals, or Provos, with a paramilitary wing known as the Provisional IRA and were more nationalist and militarist in their mentality. That faction later followed a political course in the 1980s and morphed into the Sinn Féin that Mary Lou McDonald leads today.

The second grouping also had a paramilitary arm, the Official IRA, and engaged in violence in the North but declared a ceasefire years before their Provisional rivals. (That is not to say that they disbanded their armed grouping immediately.) They began a political campaign, putting candidates forward for election under the banner, eventually, of the Workers’ Party.

Allied to that political push were journalists who were party members and promoted the party line wherever they could. That party line became profoundly anti-nationalist in sentiment and was hostile to anyone, politician or indeed journalist, deemed too ‘green’. The aim was to control the public conversation about the North in the Republic and to ensure that an anti-nationalist and pro-unionist agenda was the dominant discourse. Control was the name of the game.

However, did all the influence actually help or hinder people and politics in the North? They were violent times and there needed to be space in which to talk, respectfully but honestly, about what caused that violence. Did the Dublin media provide that space or allow for honest reflection? Many Northern nationalists would answer no. There is a world of difference between saying “I think it is wrong that I am being discriminated against on the basis of my religion” to “I support gunning down the neighbours” but that nuance was not always acknowledged widely in southern commentary.

Similarly, registering a peaceful protest in the area you call home against government-imposed measures and their decision to ignore your community’s long-term needs and rights, is not the same as declaring yourself a xenophobe.

Had the Dublin media, print and broadcast, been more honest in their dealings with the North, would things have become a little easier? Could things have been resolved a little earlier?

It is difficult not to hear echoes from those times in the media’s current coverage on events in the Republic. That is not, I stress, to equate emergency accommodation with bombs and bullets. It is simply to note the failure of the mainstream media, once again, to reflect accurately and honestly the concerns of those who used to be known as “the plain people of Ireland”.

Journalists need to be braver you say. Ah, you watched the All the President’s Men, didn’t you? You think journalists are brave? That Redford guy has a lot to answer for. Hacks are hamsters, not heroes. That is not meant to be disparaging, simply descriptive. The vast majority of journalists spin their own little hamster wheels because that is all they allowed to do. It is a hierarchical business where most journalists, honest hamster hacks, will never get within earshot of the Editor, throw their fedora on the desk and holler: “Stop the presses. I got a scoop that will knock your socks off, boss.”

They write what they are allowed to write and what is acceptable to write.

Now you know how the Nordies felt.

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