Distortion via simplification

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Gerry Adams on 60 Minutes.

 

One way to know that it’s Eastertide in America is the parade of Northern Ireland politicians that traditionally make pilgrimage here to: 1) receive yet another round of congratulations for “making peace” almost two decades ago; 2) accept checks from deep-pocketed American donors (in the case of Sinn Fein reps); and 3) go hat-in-hand for additional funds from the US government and investment from American companies. Most of the time these visits are largely ignored by the media here, and for good reason since they are by their very nature far from newsworthy.

This year was different in that Martin McGuinness, Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister, the former IRA commander who orchestrated the systematic bombing campaign that destroyed most of his native city of Derry in the 1970s and now serves as Sinn Fein’s deputy leader, pulled out of the annual trip in order to attend to a crisis at Stormont over welfare spending that his own party precipitated.

But while McGuinness wasn’t here, CBS’ long-running news program 60 Minutes made sure that Easter Sunday wouldn’t pass without hearing from Gerry Adams, the man who has led Sinn Fein since the mid 1980s and who is credited with (or blamed for, depending upon your perspective) orchestrating the IRA’s transition from armed struggle to conventional politics and thereby delivering the peace process. Adams’ interview, which you can watch here, garnered furious attention from the Northern Irish media, and especially from Adams’ numerous critics, who called him out for what was widely perceived as his selective and self-serving reinterpretation of events over the last forty-plus years and his own role in them.

To my mind though, what was noteworthy about the 60 Minutes interview was not what Adams had to say, but the way in which the interview itself and the reporting surrounding it revealed all of the lazy ways in which Americans tend to think about Northern Ireland, why it exploded into conflict, and what went on there during the long years of violence.

Veteran Northern Ireland journalist and broadcaster Malachi O’Doherty captured this far better than I can in a scathing piece published a few days ago in the Belfast Telegraph in which he pillories 60 Minutes for its lazy and superficial reporting.

Take the simple description of the period as “a war between Catholics and Protestants” and “one of the longest wars of the 20th century”. Reporter Scott Pelley talked of how the Catholics rebelled against British rule.

Different people from different perspectives will take issue with these simplifications in different ways.

I reject the use of the word “war”, though I accept that others use it. The rules of war did not apply; the ordinary civil law did, though it was flexed and contorted.

There was no general rebellion against partition by the Catholic population. The nearest to a broad movement of protest was the civil rights agitation.

Yes, most of the members were Catholic, but they were not motivated by Catholic theology. And they were arguing for British rights in a part of the UK.

Now, maybe that is all a bit too much to encapsulate in a short link in a documentary film, but was an untruth required in order to summarise history as journalism?

Catholics and Protestants fighting each other is a gross misrepresentation of the Troubles. It implies that the violence of republican and loyalist paramilitaries was endorsed by the wider communities.

That simply isn’t true. The republican movement was only ever able to win majority support among voting Catholics after the end of the IRA campaign. And the loyalist politicians were never able to represent more than a fraction of the Protestant community. Do these facts not matter?

If you want to see a full display of all of the ways in which we tend to get Northern Ireland wrong, watch the report, and then go to O’Doherty’s commentary. It is well worth reading in full.

The irony in commemoration

I left Belfast a week or so before Easter, and so I missed the annual commemorations in which Republicans remember the 1916 Rising and honor those who have fallen in the cause of ending British rule in Ireland. The YouTube video embedded above is an excellent example of the kind of official commemoration that Sinn Fein participates in and helps orchestrate. In watching the video it’s easy to pick out the faces of many of the party’s luminaries and well-known supporters amongst the ranks of marchers.

The pageantry is all there: bands, honor guard and color party in paramilitary attire, re-enactors wearing the uniforms and carrying the (dummy one supposes) weapons of the Rising, dramatic recitations of fiery speeches from the past.

What I find fascinating about these events (like the annual national Hunger Strike commemoration which I attended in 2010 in the village of Bellaghy) is the unacknowledged irony with which what has become a status quo political movement deploys the language of revolution and parades the images of generations of dead revolutionaries.

As a partner in the Stormont regime Sinn Fein administers British rule in Northern Ireland. This is a simple statement of fact. And yet the party apparently feels no contradiction between this present and the revolutionary past it celebrates and claims as its own. The party’s critics call this deep hypocrisy and naked cynicism. The party’s supporters argue that the revolution has entered a new phase in which the foundations of British rule are being systematically eroded from within the political system itself, both north and south of the border.

As an outsider I can’t, and won’t, try to argue which of these perspectives is the more honest or accurate. Frankly I believe there is truth in both assessments. Either way it is smart politics. But as an outsider I can’t help but be struck by the contradictions on display in commemorations like this. If you watch the first few minutes of the video above, you will hear the words that Patrick Pearse in 1915 directed to the “Defenders of the Realm” when he delivered his famous oration at the funeral of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, founder of the Irish Republican Brotherhood:

They think that they have pacified Ireland. They think that they have purchased half of us and intimidated the other half. They think that they have foreseen everything, think that they have provided against everything; but the fools, the fools, the fools! – they have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.

Today, for the moment, those Defenders of the Realm include Sinn Fein. A cynic might count them among Pearse’s “purchased half.” And Ireland still holds the graves of her Fenian dead.