At times there have been journalists brazen enough to claim that they would withhold reporting on anything that might prove damaging to the peace process. This never failed to strike me as having blurred the distinction between journalist and player. Eroding that crucial demarcation through withholding information is probably an infrequent act. A more common method is in the way a story is reported. I have no doubt that this type of activity is done for good reason, but not a good journalistic reason.

The sense that Sinn Fein is undergoing some turbulence is enhanced when people in the media trot out the type of arguments that the party itself makes when trying to avoid accusations that for all its shouting about change there has not been an awful lot of it. The party seemingly has changed more than the circumstances around it and needs the acquiescence of a compliant media to pretend it isn’t so.

Brian Rowan is not beyond making Sinn Fin uncomfortable. He did it last year at the West Belfast Festival with his allusion to the IRA’s key informer still at large and unmasked; a person who makes the notorious Special Branch tout Mark Haddock pale into relative insignificance. In today’s Belfast Telegraph, however, he appeared to be trying to save the party’s blushes as it wilts in the face of cutting republican discourse, by placing a magnifying glass over the word ‘change’ so that it looks like CHANGE; real and plenty of it:

Sinn Fein is in government with the DUP … policing has changed - republicans are on the different boards that are part of the new post-Patten accountability structure … Soon, Sinn Fein will have a voice and a say in appointing the new Chief Constable. That is how much things have changed.

Is Barney for real here? The Jimmy Simple column makes the same sort of claim every Thursday but people just laugh or cringe. But you expect it there. When a journalist indulges it all sounds like a step back to the days when Sinn Fein could not be heard uttering its own words, so an actor would step in and render verbatim what the muted Sinn Feiner was striving to convey to the audience. There may have been an arguable journalistic reason for permitting it then but hardly today when the party has much greater access to the media than those republicans it is at odds with and against whom journalists are defending it.

Undeniably Sinn Fein is in government with the DUP but as Fionnuala O Connor put it in April of this year:

In its own streets Sinn Féin cuts a less impressive figure than is healthy for political progress generally. Being haunted by its past is bad enough. The spectacle that Sinn Féin makes in Stormont must be a constant frustration, made worse by awareness that it will only end if others co-operate. A relentlessly triumphalist DUP seems to see no further than their own backyard and a dread, surely inflated and unrealistic, of their own lone dissident, Jim Allister. The coolest heads must know it is way past time to stop trying to humiliate republicans and start looking for areas of agreement, out of self-interest, if nothing else.

On policing there are more than a few Catholics on the boards but no republicans. In its entire history what republican has ever supported informing on republican activity to the British police? Cathal Goulding the one time chief of staff of the IRA can be found supporting the supergrass system in 1983 but for his sins was viewed as a former republican by Sinn Fein. Moreover, being allowed to have a say in the appointment of a chief constable seems a far cry from the days of ‘disband the RUC.’ Can Sinn Fein members shape the policies of the chief constable they have a say in nominating? The party has done next to nothing on the current policies of 28 day detention or the construction of supergrass. It failed to mention the firing of plastic bullets in Ardoyne until embarrassed into it by Mairtin Og Meehan.

Rowan’s views would have greater purchase if applied to the SDLP. In reformist terms it is easy enough to listen to the SDLP talk of the real changes that have occurred. It never sought anything other than reforms, killed nobody to get them and has been engaged in a peace process from the moment of its formation in 1970. In terms of the type of reforms advocated by the SDLP Northern Irish society has indeed come a long way through the internal settlement that came into being through the Good Friday Agreement.

It makes little sense to attribute the same success to the Sinn Fein project. Measured against the revolutionary goals Sinn Fein proclaimed to be in pursuit of, in the end what it actually settled for in terms of republicanism did not amount to a significant distance travelled. Whereas the SDLP always stood for an internal solution the Sinn Fein project on the other hand could be described as one of pursuing a solution wholly external to the existence of the NI state. Sinn Fein stood for the revolutionary abolition of the state and not its internal reformation.

If support for the peace process becomes more important than reporting it, then we will have no way of knowing its real value. How we come to understand it will not be informed by what it is but by how the agendas of key players need it spun. Suddenly the journalistic defence of protecting sources and the risks taken by journalists such as Suzanne Breen are rendered redundant because the peace process is valued more by journalists than journalism.

It seems that in some areas of journalism there is a view that the peace process should be protected from journalism. Surely, for the journalist it should be the other way round. Journalism should be innoculated so as to avoid infection from the peace process.

If progress on policing is as good as those who support the PSNI claim it to be, then the results will speak for themselves. Truth is they won’t. Republican critics of Sinn Fein, according to Brian Rowan, ‘want to portray policing as old policing.’ Reality check: they don’t need to. The PSNI is managing quite well on its own.


  1. I would not have believed an unspoken journalistic protection of the peace process existed until I noticed the very odd way serious security threats have become less and less reported. Even when there is an incident something else very unimportant passes off as main news. Liam Clarke seems to be one of the few who still poke and prod regardless though his style is rather antagonistic.
    Surprisingly no one has posted their view or experience of the peace process on