Researching Censorship

Niall Meehan, head of the Journalism & Media Faculty, Griffith College, Dublin, is said to be researching censorship in Ireland. This is a worthy exercise and I am hardly alone in looking forward to the finished product. Of all the obituaries penned for the grand censor Conor Cruise O’Brien, Meehan more than most provided a very robust account of the life of the late writer. He stripped away the layers of liberalism that Cruise O’Brien had become swathed in and depicted a figure much more draconian than the short term political memory of obituarists would ever retain.

Elsewhere Meehan has been busy pursuing the historian Peter Hart. This pursuit is much less about censorship but a belief on the part of Meehan that Hart has been guilty of serious errors in his history constructions. In each case the overall point of Meehan’s concern is his professed objection to the truth being revised, filtered, refracted or simply suppressed. Whether through distortion or censorship, for Meehan the issue is ‘how Irish history was turned into propaganda.’

The challenge for Meehan is of course to avoid being led onto the blind spots that so often limit the vision of those flushing out the censor. It would be a disservice to his anti-censorship ethos if for any reason he were to succumb to the darkness, thereby failing to find that censorship is much more pervasive in Irish society than any probing of Conor Cruise O’Brien and his cohorts might reveal.

For both the neutral and hostile observer the interest will be on the degree to which Niall Meehan pursues all censors with the same vigour. It has already been alleged by one of his critics, a former student of his, that ‘Meehan's notes on censorship - his specialist subject - lacked balance.’ The neutral will be disappointed and the hostile delighted if he simply chases the censors that pollute his political space while dropping his vigilance when it comes to scrutinising practices closer to home. Given Niall Meehan’s iconoclast stance against Cruise O’Brien, his scepticism towards the work of Harte, and again the refrain from his former student that he is a ‘prolific letter writer on Sinn Fein-linked subjects’ there will hover a suspicion that his focus on censorship will confine itself to those who have made the journey of Sinn Fein a turbulent ride. There were certainly enough of them doing just that. And Meehan would be wholly justified in taking umbrage at the draconian policies practiced against the party.

Yet such a narrow focus would lift the lid on only some of the censorious policies and practices that have turned history into propaganda. There is enough evidence out there, easy to find with little effort, which would show how the poacher often turns game keeper. Sinn Fein, for example, has routinely practiced the censorship it ostensibly set its face against. Regrettably, suppression of alternative viewpoints is a key component of a more pervasive anti-intellectualism that has featured so strongly within republicanism in Ireland. Professor Tom Garvin once pointed out that republicans can end up being the most enthusiastic of censors. Garvin’s observation only stings on first hearing. A quick follow up usually suffices to confirm the validity of his charge.

If Niall Meehan’s goal is to research only some of the censorship that plagued Ireland there is nothing wrong with that although he should state that to be so. It is important that we know something about censorship rather than nothing. If, on the other hand, his goal is to take the censorious beast by both horns rather than only one, then it is inconceivable that the range of epistemological areas gored by the horns would not be investigated with equal rigour.

History is propaganda when it is falsified in the service of some political goal. How the question of Gerry Adams’ relationship to the IRA will be handled by Niall Meehan will be instructive in respect of this. There is a widespread view that this is an issue deliberately clouded by Sinn Fein for the purpose of allowing propaganda to trump history. Moreover, is there a single recorded case where any journalist or academic has stated that Adams has never been a member of the IRA? Whether he was or not is hardly the point. It is the manner in which Meehan’s research methodology approaches the issue that shall determine the seriousness with which his conclusions will be treated.

Another area that would prove most revealing for Niall Meehan’s research is one where the issues of truth distortion and censorship dovetailed perfectly when in 2003 Sinn Fein angrily accused the media of being involved in a securocrat plot to undermine the peace process when it revealed the identity of the senior British agent Stakeknife as one, Freddie Scappaticci. A former leading member of the Provisional IRA’s security department, Scappaticci had wreaked havoc within the ranks of the organisation for decades. His exposure was a serious embarrassment to the Sinn Fein leadership. There was indeed a concerted attack on the truth at the time in which some elements of the media to their shame were involved. In An Phoblacht/Republican News, for instance, one Dublin journalist writing under the nom de guerre Adam O’Toole battled valiantly but vainly to stop readers reaching an honest conclusion.

There are many people out there who wish Niall Meehan well in his endeavour. They would not want to see him stumble in his quest to expose all the censorious elements within Irish society. Many of them were targets for the censors. They will assist him in identifying both the practices and the practitioners. They will even inform him of the real identity of Adam O’Toole.


  1. Just wanted to say thank you for your blogs over the last year.They are always a pleasure to read and comment on.Peace to you and yours for the next year.

  2. Niall Meehan is an SF member and a sometime journalist for An Phoblacht. Don't hold you breath in waiting for him to expose journalistic (mal)practice (censorship, airbrushing of dissent etc. etc.) at AP/RN

  3. Aricaiwdjts, thanks for the best wishes. Same to you. I hope the blog continues to bring you pleasure, agree with the contents or not

  4. Anonymous, if he is a journalist at AP/RN he has no record that I am familiar with of having tackled the censorship practiced by Sinn Fein which I referred to in the article. Disappointingly, that does not auger well for any serious study of censorship in Ireland.

  5. Best wishes for New Year AM

  6. Yes indeed. And if Adam O'Toole is revealed then perhaps the various authors, 'Martin Savage' et al, who have written about Peter Hart in An Phoblacht might step forward too. But Niall has never been very keen on putting his critical talents to work on the double speak of the SF leadership has he...its easier to re-fight the Tan War.

  7. Omar Little, if so he can hardly claim to be researching censorship in Ireland, but only some censorship in Ireland. Maybe he will be true to his word and let the integrity of his work rise above party politics. Ultimately if he fails to deal with Sinn Fein censorship, yet claims the final product is a work on censorship in Ireland, it will only be open to ridicule. A bit like the march two years ago through West Belfast for half the truth.

  8. Niall Meehan is an SF member and a sometime journalist for An Phoblacht.

    Is this in the public domain, something of common knowledge? Have there been articles in RN/AP under Niall Meehan's name? Surely Anonymous's(!) source is not that loyalist buffoon, Lord Laird, speaking under parliamentary privilege?

    the various authors,....., who have written about Peter Hart in An Phoblacht might step forward too. But Niall has never been very keen on putting his critical talents to work on the double speak of the SF leadership has he...its easier to re-fight the Tan War.

    Mr Little seems to be upset about
    people writing about Peter Hart. Mr Little tries some third rate sarcasm about re-fighting the Tan War which, of course, Mr Hart has no record of doing.

    I note, AM, that your blog carries the health warning, "All comments must be approved by the blog author". Rather ironical then that you write an article demanding that any critique of censorship in Ireland should be wide-ranging!

  9. NollaigO

    Perhaps Lord Laird was the source. I have no idea. But if it was a buffoon that would put Adam O’Toole in the frame. He was the buffoon who thought the allegations against Freddie Scappaticci were a securocrat plot. No wonder he does not want his identity exposed.

    Niall Meehan must surely be lauded for pursuing what he believes are distortions in Peter Hart’s account. It would just be a shame if he were to ruin it all by failing to address all censorship and distortion of the truth in his upcoming work on censorship. One thing is for certain – when it is published the question of his real commitment to exposing censorship will answer itself.

    I trust you comment on the blog ‘health warning’ is not the most intelligent observation you have ever made. Even a very poor journalist, or someone of limited intellect, knows the difference between censorship and libel evasion. If for example a fool using the name Adam O’Toole submits the comment that Scappaticci is innocent that would be nonsense but it would be carried. It is just a daft opinion. Now if a coward hiding behind the name Adam O Toole submitted a comment alleging that Niall Meehan was a war criminal who ordered the disappearance of Jean McConville, that too would be nonsense but it would not be carried on the grounds that it is clearly libellous. Pretty simple I would think. Or would you rather that no comments were subject to approval and that such libel be allowed to stand?

  10. Hi Anthony. I've been a fan of your blog from the start. I would be very interested to read your opinion of the revisionist arguments about the morality of 1916, the War of Independence, etc. For example, do you think Peter Hart's conclusions about the IRA's conduct in Cork 1919-1923 imply that the IRA's fight was immoral? I sometimes feel that most Irish historians expect the general public to repudiate our ancestors.

  11. Michael, I think there have been enough concerns raised about the work of Hart to merit a root and branch examination of his findings. I would be interested in addressing the issues you raised and if I ever get time might have a stab at it. There is simply no one view of anything or a one size fits all answer. I certainly believe the republican narrative on 1916 can be challenged. Whether successfully or not is another matter. We should never be afraid of a counter critique.