Bobby Storey's funeral procession on 30 June 2020. (Credit: Belfast Telegraph)
Artillery Row

What do Sinn Fein have to do to get a break?

The national media has turned a blind eye to Ulster republican delinquency

If you live in Great Britain, the chances are you’ll not be aware of what happened at a recent meeting of Fermanagh and Omagh’s district council. But this takes some beating. The council passed a motion, enabled by Sinn Fein and the SDLP, that objected to the extradition of Liam Campbell on terrorism charges to Lithuania on the grounds that his human rights might be infringed. Campbell was held liable in a civil trial for the 1998 Omagh bombing by dissident Republicans that murdered 29 people and unborn twins in the town the council takes its name from. You could make this up, but you’d need to be on hallucinogens. 

To be fair, the council appears quite busy with motions of solidarity for everything from ‘Transmisogyny’ (don’t ask me) to US police brutality. Not bad for an organisation still largely constrained to bin collections and funerals – which we will come to later. But try to imagine the public outrage in the less rarefied parts of the United Kingdom if a council had passed a motion of support for such a creature. What would the media make of the inexplicable behaviour of those SDLP councillors – self-described constitutional nationalists – who put their names to such a foul encomium and in doing so pushed it over the line in front of their outraged Unionist colleagues? 

To be fair, this outrage has generated a fair few headlines in the Province and the SDLPs leader moved swiftly to slap down his errant councillors. Following SDLP leader Colum Eastwood’s reverse ferret on behalf of his party, the motion was defeated when it came to the full council yesterday. The muted national response to such grotesque behaviour is however emblematic of mainland, mainstream media’s tin ear when it comes to Northern Ireland.

Part of this lies in an unspoken ‘progressive’ editorial consensus that stories that might throw a spanner in the peace processor are to be avoided if possible or at least muted. The dogs of “war” are muzzled so the media caravan has moved on. Our blue chip national press, once as obsessed with the narcissism of local sectarian slaughter as its perpetrators, have packed up and gone home. Nationally employed Northern Ireland specialists have received their P45s. Wire services pick over the remains. Local commentators, unreliable narrators at the best of times, now peddle their shtick on national TV where once stood journalistic giants such as Peter Taylor and John Ware.

A cosy post-conflict narrative has emerged. The circular firing squad of the Northern Ireland Executive is unimprovable. The Belfast Agreement that made it happen is sacred and unimpeachable (and looking at its details would only confuse and tire us). This works chiefly to the advantage of Sinn Fein who seem quite happy to run Northern Ireland as an ethno-national Bantustan, into the ground if possible. They have weaponised social media into a cult of forgetting about the Troubles so morally perverse that the unschooled mainland Briton is at risk of thinking most of the victims of the IRA terrorism they celebrate to this day were murdered in the cause of human rights.  But while the victims remain uncompensated and ignored as collateral damage, the bombs, mostly, don’t go off. Only the occasional police or prison officer gets murdered. In one sense, you can hardly blame editors and programmers on the bigger island: full fat anarchy is so much more televisual than semi-skimmed peace. 

Thus, despite the valiant efforts of local journalists such as Sam McBride and Stephen Nolan, Sinn Fein’s Covid-19 debacle has predictably caused little fuss and that’s just the way they want it. To recap, Michelle O’Neill, Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister, having lectured the populace on the need to observe strict social distancing then took part in the Sinn Fein organised and stewarded funeral of a convicted IRA terrorist, Bobby Storey, where virtually every Covid regulation was broken. Thousands of people lined the streets of republican west Belfast to pay their respects. The cortege stopped at the iconic republican Milltown cemetery for tributes by senior republicans before eventually making its way to another part of the city for a cremation service. That event was plainly given priority, by an oddly complicit Belfast City Council, over eight other grieving families who were denied the same rights, presumably because their dead relatives wouldn’t be out on the streets rioting if they were denied a propaganda opportunity. 

Where are the acres of newsprint and the agonisingly sincere Lewis Goodall tweet?

Ms O’Neill, whose brass neck is daily burnished, insisted at first that she had broken neither the spirit or the letter of the Covid regulations. Eventually confronted by the inconvenient realities of what television viewers could see with their own lying eyes, Northern Ireland’s citizens received the standard sullen half-apology which is all they’re entitled to. Independent investigations will ensue, including the craven behaviour of Belfast City Council officials who apparently denied all knowledge of the cremation and then tried to throw junior officials under the bus. 

This appalling incident makes the obsessive national media mania that accompanied Dominic Cummings’s transgressions look like a drive to the opticians. Unlike Cummings, Michelle O’Neill is an elected representative and Deputy First Minister of a UK devolved administration. Members of Mark Drakeford and Nicola Sturgeon’s Government are unlikely to see themselves venerating terrorists at showpiece funerals or supporting motions expressing solidarity for mass murderers we’re socially permitted to disapprove of, such as the Omagh bombers. So where are the acres of newsprint? Where are the hours of Newsnight? The Channel 4 specials? Where is the agonisingly sincere, brow furrowing Lewis Goodall tweet?

You’re not going to see nationally the reaction such raw news material would cause anywhere else in the country. Northern Ireland remains a place apart for the press, the more so now the killing has stopped. The absence of most terrorism serves to do a lot of heavy lifting in this part of the UK. It provides cover for those administering a province where the normal rules of democracy and public accountability simply do not apply. There’s not even a formal opposition in the Stormont assembly. More importantly, it allows Sinn Fein to play the roles of constitutional arsonist and fire brigade simultaneously: breaking the rules when it suits them and to hell with the plebs. 

Sinn Fein are entirely rational to behave like this, because if the press continuously refuses to hold them to account, why should they behave in an accountable manner? Even the best and most democratic and constitutional and non-murdering politicians would become spoilt, if continuously indulged as little more than children. Sinn Fein are some distance off being the best anything.

“Sinn Fein are some distance off being the best anything”: Party leader Mary Lou McDonald (L) speaks flanked by deputy leader Michelle O’Neill (R) on the Stormont Estate in Belfast on January 10, 2020. (Photo by PAUL FAITH/AFP via Getty Images)

We should not lose sight of the fact that no one makes the press behave like this. No government edict or threat obliges them to turn a blind eye to Sinn Fein’s behaviour which they most certainly would not and do not turn to the constitutional parties. Does the barely hidden shroud, of a threat to return to all-out violence, which Sinn Fein waves if they don’t get their way, cause this media self-censorship? Who knows, but that shroud has become a terrible insulation against the proper media scrutiny they deserve. Of Northern Ireland, the national media have adopted the local aphorism, ‘whatever you say, say nothing.’ It does no one any good.

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