Radharc: Viewing Northern Ireland through International News Media and Cinema


For three decades Northern Ireland was an international 'hot spot,' where violence raged between inhabitants: those who wanted to be united with the Republic of Ireland to the South, and those who wanted to remain a part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. News and cinema treatment of the province revolved around this violence.

Now, international media hail the people of Northern Ireland as taking an enormous step toward peace. An agreement drawn up in Stormont was ratified in May 1998 by a majority vote in Northern Ireland and the Republic. On the 25th of June the people of Ireland — North and South – elected a 'Northern Ireland Assembly'. Parties which previously condoned violence to achieve their ends denounced violence and ran candidates for election into the Assembly. Experts, journalists, and audiences around the world have dared to hope that 'the Troubles' are over.

There are several oversimplifications involved, from the notion that violence has by and large ceased (it hasn't, or at least hadn't when I was there in March, and I understand that even watchful Americans at that time were unaware of continued strife in Northern Ireland), to the belief that peace comes when party and political leaders say it comes. This is continuing in a long tradition of oversimplification, and 'selective articulation,' regarding Northern Ireland.

As it is suspended geographically between the land masses of the Eastern and Western Hemispheres, the isle of Ireland is also suspended between the 'First' and 'Third' Worlds. Irish admit that the Industrial Revolution 'skipped' Ireland; revenue for both parts of the island comes primarily from agriculture and it is likely to stay that way. Most live in small villages rather than in cities, and many are poor by 'Western' standards. Nonetheless, the Irish are Northern and Western Europeans; they are 'white'; and, in Northern Ireland itself, they are part of one of the most powerful nations in the world. Nationalist Irishman Sean MacBride took advantage of this suspended position when he headed Unesco's International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems. In Many Voices, One World, the MacBride Commission outlined its goal of 'a new global communication order,' which, though somewhat simplistic, was an important basis for ensuing debate about intercultural communication.

Ireland has also had a long history of people leaving it; millions have emigrated in the last few centuries and the United States for instance has a significant (and powerful) Irish community.

This unique combination of factors leads to a unique portrayal of Ireland, and especially of Northern Ireland, with its volatile recent past. In this paper, I will focus on the portrayal of Northern Ireland. Overall I will follow the outline of Jaap van Ginneken's book Understanding Global News, looking at what is considered worthwhile to mention about Northern Ireland; which media and media markets decide that; who reports and frames the situation for mass consumption; who are given voice in international markets to express views on the subject; when Northern Ireland became a newsworthy arena; and where most international reportage about Northern Ireland originates. Next will be a more extended discussion of the language and images used to frame Northern Ireland and its conflicts; in these sections I will address some academic and cinematic presentation, along with news presentation. Finally I will take a look at some of the effects of this presentation, on the people of Northern Ireland and the international community.

Considered 'of note' in Northern Ireland

Ireland's contributions to modern media have largely been overlooked. The Irish were among the first to use radio as a broadcasting tool, rather than just a point-to-point 'wireless telegraph.' In the Easter 1916 Rebellion, rebels used a radio to get word about their struggle to any ships in the area, hoping that news of it would reach the United States. Thus, one of the first-ever radio 'broadcasts' was used in the cause of Ireland's independence from Britain, with a specific audience in mind: Americans.

When the Irish gained their independence, six counties in the north of the island remained part of Britain, forming the province of Northern Ireland. About forty per cent of Northern Ireland's population want to be united with the South, and they have used every kind of media tool at their disposal to get that message across, especially to that powerful American audience.

The attitude of the government in the Republic was historically that the British government in England was all that was keeping Northern Ireland apart from the Republic. (Whyte, 119) This ignores the opinion of sixty per cent of Northern Ireland's population. The Republic's government has since reassessed this position, but it is still what many average individuals in the U.S., and the rest of the international community, believe to be the case. Most of my peer group in New York, for instance, tend to think that nearly everyone in Northern Ireland wants a united Ireland and only mainland Britain's imperialistic self-interest is keeping North and South apart. Despite (or because of) my close attention to news items and available information about the situation, I too believed this to be the case until an Englishman told me otherwise; with skepticism I followed this up with research and a visit to the province, which confirmed his statement.

Perhaps Americans' belief that most Northern Irish want a united Ireland reveals a nationalistic sympathy springing from the United States' own break from Britain two centuries ago. People with whom I spoke in Northern Ireland told me that the Irish Republican lobby is very strong in Washington, New York, and Hollywood, with so many expatriates from the Republic living in the U.S. These are each likely causes of the overwhelming focus in U.S. and international mass media on the Republican or Nationalist cause. Whether portrayal of Nationalists is or is not favourable (films, for instance, are generally sympathetic, but skirt away from condoning violent methods), it often ignores Northern Ireland's majority who are in favour of union with Britain. The BBC and BBC Worldwide has the task of being Northern Ireland's first broadcast outlet. The BBC has tended to believe in a need for self-censorship in Northern Ireland, and this wa its policy for some time, which meant that the situation was buried for the rest of the world as well. It was only in certain extreme cases, such as the first outbreaks of violence in the late 1960s or the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, that the world paid much attention to Northern Ireland and its Troubles. The hunger strikes were 'a form of protest which was calculated to win maximum news coverage,' writes Cathcart. 'Apart from its intrinsic interest to the media, the hunger strike provided the pretext for a variety of sympathetic demonstrations which were newsworthy.' Soon every news bulletin carried something about the strike, and news of it flooded the world – a public relations disaster for Britain. (Cathcart, 240)

The hunger strikes and the huge amount of coverage of them are now said to have further polarised the Unionist and Nationalist communities in Northern Ireland. In Interpreting Northern Ireland, however, John Whyte writes that the focus on polarisation and division, which has generally been that of mass media, may miss the point. 'Most authors have asked, "why is there a conflict in Northern Ireland?”, but it is also possible to ask the question "why is the conflict not worse?”' (Whyte, 15) In many studies, Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland have shown much similarity in moral convictions, cultural practices, and everyday life which would probably surprise most media consumers.

Another focus of the international community is on Northern Ireland as a colony. While many outside of the UK view Northern Ireland as a colonial situation, Whyte points out that it may not be so simple. A possible alternative to the colonial view is to see it as an 'ethnic conflict zone,' consisting of two opposed communities. He writes that such zones 'often offer more intractable situations than colonies do. A colonial situation can be ended by the departure of the imperial power, but an ethnic conflict may remain as long as the two groups exist.' (Whyte 179) Perhaps a mistaken assumption of international media is that Northern Ireland is the last colony of the British empire – automatically calling up progressive ideals of decolonisation and self-determinate independence – rather than a community which is internally divided.

Media markets which dominate the discourse

The 'Anglo-American Axis' dominates discussion about Northern Ireland. British media have the best access to the province; since Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, British media are its 'home' organisations. Next in access are media from the Republic of Ireland, but the Republic is a poorer country and unable to export media products on the scale that Britain is able.

Unable, that is, without help. As stated before, there is a large expatriate Irish community in the world's most powerful media market, the United States. This community has served as a strong political lobby for the Republic and the Northern Ireland Nationalist cause, which is supported by the Republic's constitution. It has also aided Nationalists in their propaganda battle. 'Relatively few Americans know or care much about the troubles in Ulster,' writes journalist Herb Greer. This supposedly provides a blank canvas for Nationalists; 'this general ignorance and indifference has guaranteed a transatlantic success for IRA propaganda, both at a popular level and in the media, which tend to reflect the IRA version of Anglo-Irish history.' (Greer, 142-143)

Films such as In the Name of the Father, The Devil's Own, Some Mother's Son, and Michael Collins, all to some degree sympathetic to Irish Nationalism, were distributed or produced by American companies. Some of them were made in the Republic of Ireland, by Irish people, and then brought to the world by U.S. conglomerates. Three of these films will be discussed further below. Now it is important to note that not one of these last four major international releases which concern Northern Ireland, directly or indirectly, were made in the province. The BBC prides itself on being 'balanced', and British by and large do not want to identify with the Unionist community in Northern Ireland. This, combined with the Irish / American viewpoint, means that the overall picture the world sees is painted with Nationalist colouring.

Reporters of the 'crisis'

As mentioned, the primary medium with a large audience reporting on Northern Ireland has been the BBC and its export service, BBC Worldwide. The BBC has maintained a long tradition of self-censorship in its Northern Ireland reportage. In 1948, its Director General wrote to the BBC Controller Northern Ireland that 'Northern Ireland is the only region in the BBC in which, out of exacerbation from broadcasting, people might kill each other and that you must avoid.' (cited by Cathcart, 146)

Twenty years later, the Troubles began in earnest, and the BBC could not avoid people killing each other. To deal with this 'crisis,' the BBC sent to Northern Ireland several reporters from London, who had never before visited the province, to supplement the skeletal crew of local correspondents. According to Martin Bell, one of the London reporters, there was 'a general sense of responsibility of the effect of what you report. If you get something wrong, you can very well be responsible for a riot – and you know it.' (quoted by Cathcart, 212)

As in most situations, the reporters who present Northern Ireland are usually from the nation of their audience. Americans cover it for America, Germans for Germany, and so on. 'Parachute journalism' is, to some degree, in effect; though Britain and Ireland have bureaux and several correspondents residing in Northern Ireland, other nations do not. This may partly because it simply has not been safe; journalists are often targeted in such situations, and even going to the store on the corner has been known to be hazardous in some Northern Irish towns. The perspective of journalists, therefore, is somewhat shallow.

I met some German journalists in Crossmaglen, South Armagh, which has been considered to be one of the hottest 'hot spots.' It was Market day, and they were doing a story on the Stormont talks for German television. Their camera followed the ever-circling army helicopters, and zoomed in on the town's Sinn Féin office and 'Sniper at Work' signs. They interviewed someone at the Sinn Féin office, and went their way. I was shocked that they were doing a story about 'peace' but turned their camera on images of war rather than on people laughing together in the market. I was saddened that they briefly interviewed the Sinn Féin worker about her party's role in the peace talks, but overlooked the people at the market, such as one man with IRA bullet holes in both legs who was now selling second-hand clothes and preaching about peace and reconciliation. I was noticing these things after only a week in South Armagh, not long at all; these professional journalists were there for just a couple of days.

The voices we hear

The people who have the chance to speak about Northern Ireland to the world are determined by the same axis which determines the discourse: namely Britain, and Ireland-through-America. From the beginning of Northern Ireland's existence, Britain had an obvious interest in controlling who got to speak to the masses there. The Government of Northern Ireland reserved the right to stop transmission at any time. No local radio talk was to be of a political nature, and Church leaders especially were 'subject to the closest surveillance.' (Cathcart, 22) Nationalist Irish tended to complain about BBC service, saying it did not relfect Irish culture. According to the Irish News in 1936, 'the main drawback about the Northern Ireland Station is that it remains un-Irish in character... anyone tuning in to Belfast might take it for just another English station.' (cited by Cathcart, 78)

The BBC has tried to remedy this, but later there were explicit bans on certain voices – literally. Soon after the beginning of the Troubles, no statement of a 'terrorist' was permitted to go on the air. This was also enacted by the Irish broadcasting authority, RTÉ. One IRA gunman said that 'we don't have the chance to present our argument because of the media ban against us. And it's not just we who are banned but Sinn Fein — a legal political party.... The British government can say what it wants, what we are — because our answer will not come across.' (Anonymous, 115) This interview was for Playboy, an American magazine... and a marginalised magazine at that.

Though this man and his kind were banned from speaking on the air, those who sympathised with him and were not evidently directly involved in violence let their voices be heard all the more, especially in the U.S. This was put into practice by Nationalists more than Loyalists; 'The foreign connections of the Loyalist paramilitaries are far less extensive than those of the Republican paramilitaries, reflecting a lack of sympathy for the Loyalist cause internationally.' (Guelke, 14) Guelke goes on to write that the Nationalist perspective is 'clearly the perspective that has by far the greatest influence on the views of the rest of the world. This is apparent from the coverage and comment that major events in Northern Ireland, such as the 1981 hunger strike, provoke.' (Guelke, 10-11)

When the world notices

The island of Ireland has a complicated history, with waves of invasions by Celts, Vikings, Normans, Anglo-Saxon tribes, and finally an organised English kingdom. The island was always filled with several small kingdoms, constantly in rivalry and wars according to history and legend. Then the English came, and the tribes already in the island resisted. According to the film Michael Collins, the Irish have been struggling for independence from the English ever since – for 700 years. In the film, when the British flag is lowered over Dublin and the Irish one is raised, the title character arrives seven minutes late to the ceremony. When the outgoing British commander complains that he is late, Collins says 'You kept us waiting 700 years; you can have your seven minutes.'

The Irish Nationalist conception is that the Troubles are only the latest round of this struggle. The last round was played out in Michael Collins, in which all but six counties of Ireland became independent from Britain. Now the Six, goes the Nationalist story, ought to be brought back into the fold and reunited with the rest of the island. This is the story that is told to the world. What it overlooks is that Ireland was only ever a united entity under Britain, as a united 'colony' – it was, again, a collection of small kingdoms before the English came. Historically, then, the situation is more complicated than the traditional Nationalist narrative would have us believe. It is also more complicated than international news would have us believe. 'From an international perspective the onset of the present Troubles in 1968 and 1969 was the moment when most people in the world first became aware of Northern Ireland's existence as a political issue….. international consciousness of the Northern Ireland problem was established in 1968 and 1969.' (Guelke, 1) Guelke says that this is because modern communications enables news to spread about the latest round of violence. It may have deeper reasons than that, however; as mentioned above, the BBC avoided conflict and controversy before that time, and a similar violent phase in the mid- to late 1950s, also in the age of television, was largely ignored.

Where does our information come from?

This question can be answered by the same triad: Britain, and the Ireland / America combination. The BBC Worldwide has provided an immense amount of footage about Northern Ireland, and prides itself on its coverage of the situation. For the Irish / American side, according to Greer in his diatribe against the IRA, the IRA has 'received the greatest part of its moral, political, and financial support… from the gullible, ill-informed, and sometimes the malicious among the Irish-American community and those who trawl them for votes.' (Greer, 147) The moral and political support comes largely from sympathetic American coverage.

Another source that has asserted itself recently into the mix is the European Community. It is naturally concerned about relations between Britain and Ireland, two of its members, and the EC has spent a considerable amount of money to promote 'tolerance' and peace in Northern Ireland. There have also been a number of reports issued by the EC, always calling for a peaceful resolution. This, along with EU money for the Republic of Ireland to develop its roads and other public works, may have provided pressure for the political parties in Northern Ireland, mainland Britain, and the Republic of Ireland to work harder at the negotiating table.

Guelke writes that 'the international consensus about what would constitute the resolution of the conflict has had a powerful impact upon the expectations of internal groups in Northern Ireland and upon the stances of both British and Irish governments.' (Guelke, 2). He argues that most political pressure on those involved comes from the U.S. and the EC. The recent Stormont talks and resulting Agreement lend support to his argument; an American chaired the talks, and it was observed by several EC representatives.

The American perspective, for all the attention lavished on it by the parties in Northern Ireland, still remains far removed from the intricacies of the situation there. There are many different organisations – Sinn Féin and the SDLP (Social Democratic Labour Party); the UDA (Ulster Defence Association) and the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party), etc. – which, in American and other international media, are often bunched together into two diametrically opposed camps, or become incomprehensible 'alphabet soup.' The non-sectarian Alliance Party is hardly mentioned in anything other than British or Irish media. Irish and British media make more concise clarifications between, for instance, the moderate Nationalist party SDLP and Sinn Féin, and British and Irish people who have grown up with news of these parties know what all those letters stand for.

The language of the discourse

Even the terms which make up the acronyms of the 'alphabet soup' can be misleading if they are not properly explained. These are terms like Unionist, Ulster, Republican, Nationalist, or Loyalist. Journalists and academics have used a simple dichotomy of Protestant v. Catholic or Nationalist v. Unionist to describe the community divide in Northern Ireland. The situation is more complicated. Religiously, there are: Presbyterians, Catholics, members Church of Ireland (Protestant), 'non-believers,' and others. Politically, there are, most generally, 'Ulster Irish' or 'Ulster British,' but some Ulster Irish prefer not to be called Irish and some Ulster British prefer not to be called British. Some who are Nationalist call themselves 'Irishmen,' while some who lean toward the Unionist view call themselves 'Ulstermen.' 'Republican' and 'Nationalist' have different shades of meaning, as do 'Unionist' and 'Loyalist', though each pair of terms is usually considered to be synonymous.

Before 1970 it was exceptional to refer to the community in terms of a religious Catholic / Protestant divide, as is commonly practised now. Whyte mentions a pair of influential studies of 1971 and 1972 which used this classification, and then writes that he 'cannot think of a single subsequent… study which has not used the Catholic/ Protestant classification. The same evolution has, I think, been followed on the whole by the mass media and by politicians…. [but] the conflict is in the eyes of many political rather than religious.' (Whyte, 19) Now, writes Guelke, 'political differences within the province tend to be oversimplified through the equation of Protestant with Unionist and of Catholic with Nationalist.' (Guelke, 24)

Using political terminology would have its problems, especially for journalists. 'Once one starts using political classifications, a dichotomy is not good enough: one needs more categories, or perhaps a scale of attitudes. The religious classification on the other hand has the merit of being all-inclusive. Virtually everyone in Northern Ireland can be identified with one community or the other.'(Whyte, 20) In most international media coverage of Northern Ireland we hardly see the 'scale of attitudes' mentioned by Whyte, which includes a vast array of differing political opinion; we see two diametrically opposed ideologies, and the extremists of both sides.

It is easy for a foreign viewer to become confused when reporters assume that their audience understands all the terms involved. Nationalist speeches will, for instance, contain the word 'union' or 'united' far more often than Unionist rhetoric, because Nationalists are after a united Ireland, while Unionists are for remaining part of Britain. An American friend of mine, after she saw an American network news report about an act of violence by 'a radical Loyalist organisation,' had to ask me who 'Loyalists' were loyal to. She had seen a full journalistic report, but she still didn't know which 'side' had committed the act! (Loyalists in Northern Ireland are, by the way, 'loyal' to the Protestant community in Northern Ireland and to Britain.)

This confusion is demonstrated in an amusing manner by the makers of one of the films reviewed below. In The Devil's Own, a U.S. judge sets IRA gunman Frankie McGuire up with a place to live and hide in New York. This American film's website calls the judge an 'undercover Irish loyalist,' missing the usual meaning of the word 'loyalist' in Northern Irish politics. (TDO Site)

Even terms like 'violence' and 'force' have to be examined; Guelke writes that people use the term 'violence' to imply disapproval, whereas 'force' has more acceptable connotations. When asked if they approved of the use of violence for political means, 80% of interviewed Northern Irish people said they strongly disapproved. They were slower, though, to condemn specific actions of paramilitary organisations, saying that 'force' was justified. Unionists say the IRA uses violence and British security forces use force, while Nationalists argue that the British presence is the source of all violence and organisations like the IRA use necessary force to expel the foreigner from the land. International media, in general, use the term 'violence' for paramilitary action but allow for the possibility that it is justified violence; they call British army action 'force,' but allow room for challenges to the legitimacy of that force. As minor as these shades of meaning may seem, this illustrates how words can have reversed meanings from one situation to the next – and especially from that of Northern Ireland to that of international mediated coverage.

Organisations also tend to be grouped together by international media, even if they have very different philosophies. Within Northern Ireland, 'Republicanism usually refers to the strand of Irish nationalist opinion that is distinguished from constitutional nationalism [based on the Republic's constitutional claim to Northern Ireland] by its advocacy of the use of physical force to end British rule.' (Guelke, 40) The Republican organisation made up of the Provisional IRA and Sinn Féin is the Nationalist group which receives the most international attention. It is not, however, the largest Nationalist organisation in Northern Ireland. The Social Democratic Labour Party (SDLP) receives more votes from Nationalists in Northern Ireland. The SDLP is a Nationalist party without an armed 'wing' – a phenomenon which is largely overlooked in international presentation. Instead it tends to be either bunched together with the Republican movement or ignored completely. Even Guelke, though he mentions the stronger political support for the SDLP, chooses to centre his chapter about Nationalism on 'Republican Perceptions' (my emphasis) rather than the more generally relevant Nationalist perspective. (Guelke, 40-61) It seems as if violent (or forceful) methods of the IRA do succeed in grabbing it the lion's share of media attention. That is all very well for Sinn Féin, but it severely misrepresents the bulk of Nationalists who do not condone the use of force.

In his following chapter about Loyalist perspectives, Guelke again follows the example of international media by focusing on the paramilitary Loyalist perceptions of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) rather than on general Loyalist or Unionist philosophy. Though he admits that 'among Loyalists, paramilitary organisations represent only a minority tendency', his argument for focusing on the UDA is that paramilitaries 'provide the closest equivalent' to the Republican perspectives he discussed in the previous chapter. (Guelke, 62) He is using, then, the classic journalistic method of 'balancing' his story. While balance is important, these two chapters provide a prime example of the larger trend in mainstream media to portray the extremes of opinion in Northern Ireland, and ignore the more moderate views.

Radharc – the images in our view

Moderates taking less dramatic action than the paramilitary organisations do not provide as interesting footage in international news. Radharc is the Irish term for 'view,' and this section will focus on the view taken by mass media of the situation in Northern Ireland, especially in three films.

The island of Ireland has some striking scenery. Bright green hills or dramatic seaside cliffs often jump to our minds when Ireland is mentioned. Hardly a photo is taken or a film made there without taking advantage of such sights. That goes for North and South, and the peaceful backdrop of rolling hills is often used to contrast with violence in the streets of Belfast.

This is clearly demonstrated in the films The Devil's Own and Some Mother's Son. Both the first and last sequences in each film contain the picture of a peaceful boat on the sea. The Devil's Own opens with then eight-year-old Frankie McGuire's father's fishing boat on the water, with green hills behind it. After a brief clip of Margaret Thatcher's acceptance speech in 1979 (courtesy of BBC Worldwide), Some Mother's Son cuts to almost the exact same shot used in The Devil's Own — this time it is the fishing boat on which IRA gunman Gerard Quigley works, with similar hills behind it.

The opening music in both films begins with peaceful sounds: the uillean pipes and penny whistle which most Western listeners associate with Ireland and its scenery. After the openings, the music changes tone. Heavy percussion is added — the bodrhan, an ancient Celtic drum. Shohat and Stam point out that African drums in films often signal menace, and that is exactly the function of the bodhran in these films. With the percussion comes violence: Frankie's father is shot, Gerard watches an explosion from his boat. Violecne shatters the idyllic setting, suggesting the disruption of an inherently tranquil land and lifestyle.

Both films use the image of peace from their beginnings, as an image of mourning at their ends. The ending music is again peaceful, but sadder. The boat at the end of The Devil's Own holds Frankie's dead body. Hunger striker Gerard Quigley is not on the fishing boat in the last shot of Some Mother's Son, because he is in a prison hospital, nearly starved to death.

In between these scenes, the films are full of gunfire, rioting, army tanks and IRA men in ski masks. It is in these scenes that the drama unfolds, that the action takes place: firefights in the streets of Belfast, IRA prisoners loudly singing fighting songs in jail, and funerals. These are also the kinds of images used in news coverage of Northern Ireland over the last thirty years.

In 1966, the BBC's Controller Northern Ireland was asked if the BBC projected a negative image of Northern Ireland. He replied that 'regrettably it was one's duty to report what was happening and if there were riots the world wanted pictures of them' (quoted by Cathcart, 204) The world got those pictures, and television crews made a pracice of pointing their cameras at army helicopters instead of town marketplaces. 'On television news programmes round the world, Beirut and Belfast project an image of being twinned cities of Hell.' (Guelke, 175)

'If it were like the movies, it would be so nice.'

The above quote is from an IRA gunman, who also said that 'none of us are supermen.' (Anonymous, 118) The Devil's Own concentrates on one IRA movie superman, McGuire (American actor Brad Pitt), who kills dozens of British soldiers and then goes to America to outsmart an American arms dealer and bring surface-to-air missiles to Northern Ireland. This is an American film, set mostly in New York City. While in New York, Frankie stays with unsuspecting police officer Tom O'Meara (Harrison Ford). Through Pitt's attempts at an Ulster accent and through the friendship that grows between the two characters, the movie tries to bring IRA action to a level at which fine, upstanding Americans can relate instead of condemning.

To its credit, The Devil's Own does some jujitsu with stereotypes. During Frankie's first meal with the O'Mearas, he asks what the food on his plate is. 'It's corned beef and cabbage,' replies Mrs. O'Meara; 'I thought that's all you ate over there.' 'No, never had it,' he replies with a smile. (Why Mrs. O'Meara would want to serve Frankie something that he had constantly, on his first evening in a new country, is a mystery.) The cultural footing of the situation is soon regained, when Tom holds up a bottle of Guinness and asks, 'You do have this, don't you?' Frankie nods: 'Aye… in fact, I was baptised in it.' The family laugh. Other cultural jokes are not so appreciated; when a friend of Tom's says, 'Did you hear about the Irish who tried to blow up a car? Burnt his lips on the tailpipe,' neither Tom nor Frankie laugh.

Frankie is often shown to have pangs of conscience. During the confirmation of one of the O'Meara girls, the camera focuses on Frankie's conflicted face as the priest says, 'Your life must at all times reflect the goodness of Christ.' When asked if he feels guilty about what he does, he replies, 'Aye, everyone has their ghosts.' Through this, he is shown as human, not a hardened killer like the British say he is. British intelligence officers get no such softening treatment, and are portrayed as merely being after Frankie's blood. Billy Burke, the American businessman who sells arms to Frankie and who is treated as the movie's true 'bad guy,' is only after money, contrasting American capitalist greed with Frankie's more noble reasons for killing.

The contrast between America and Ireland continues when Frankie tells Tom not to look for 'happy endings,' because 'It's not an American story… it's an Irish one.' These words are repeated at the movie's end, as Frankie lays dying in Tom's arms after Tom himself shoots him rather than let him return to Northern Ireland with his deadly cargo. This leaves the viewer with a choice of interpretation: either American story endings are frauds, or life in Ireland (especially Northern Ireland) is simply harder and more dangerous.

In Belfast even the children playing football in the street act as IRA spies, and during Frankie's childhood his father is shot in the middle of a prayer. In the O'Meara family, on the other hand, Tom and his wife are happily married with three pretty daughters. The family eat in a picture of togetherness, and of course no one gets shot at that table. We see one of the girls sleeping peacefully in bed. She happens to be faking her sleep, however; we can deconstruct some of these images of innocence as frauds, suggesting that even in this peaceful suburban haven, nothing is quite pure.

Tom O'Meara's character finds this in himself. He admits that if he were in Frankie's shoes, he would be doing the same thing as Frankie. 'I understand why he's doing what he's doing,' he says, and says that if his father had been shot in front of him, 'I'd be carrying a gun too, and I wouldn't be wearing a badge.' Brad Pitt expressed similar sentiments: 'If you'd grown up the way these people had, if you'd lived their lives, you'd be fighting the same fight.' This is the message of the movie; IRA gunmen are just like you and me, but have had different experiences which led them on a different path. (TDO Site)

This may be admirable for its efforts to promote understanding, but leaves no room for the majority of people in Northern Ireland who have grown up in the exact same circumstances, but have shunned violence. It also completely ignores the Loyalist point of view, following the trends I have mentioned earlier in most mass media treatment of Northern Ireland.

'We won't play by their rules… we'll invent our own'

This statement is uttered by the title character of Michael Collins, played by Liam Neeson. The film is about another Republican superman, a historic figure who fought in the Irish War for Independence in the late 1910s. According to the film, Britan's 'most troublesome colony had always been the one closest to it, Ireland. For seven hundred years Britain's rule over Ireland had been resisted by attempts at rebellion and revolution, all of which ended in failure. Then, in 1916, a rebellion began, to be followed by a guerilla war which would change the nature of that rule forever. The mastermind behind this war was Michael Collins.'

This film, unlike The Devil's Own, was directed by an Irish person, Neil Jordan. It does not focus on Northern Ireland, but does provides a bit of historic context for current Northern Irish Nationalism. The film begins with an attack by heavily armed British soldiers on a building in Dublin defended by rebels armed with nothing but small pistols. The rebels are captured, mistreated, and carted off to jail, with Irishwoman and outspoken Nationalist Sinead O'Connor singing in the background.

Collins decides to change tactics; instead of military strategy he trains men to use guerrilla techniques. They set a police station on fire and steal its arsenal, and they shoot British intelligence officers in the streets and in their homes. Collins' direct, violent methods are given more favorable light than (future Irish Prime Minister) Eamon de Valera's diplomatic notions. In the film, de Valera complains that 'Our tactics allow the British press to paint us as murderers. If we are to negotiate as a legitimate government our armed forces must act like a legitimate army.' Collins ridicules such ideas as 'the great heroic ethical failure.' He continues, 'War is murder, sheer bloody murder.' As it turns out, Collins' methods are the ones that make headway against the British, providing historical precedent and legitimisation for recent tactics of paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland, which are similar to Collins' strategies.

Hunger in the Maze

The hunger strikes of 1980-1981 in Northern Ireland's Maze Prison are well-documented, and were well-covered by news media, as mentioned above. Some Mother's Son is about the strikes, told from the view of the mother of a striking prisoner. Kathleen Quigley does not believe in violence as a means to any end, and is surprised when her son is arrested for trying to kill a British soldier and is exposed as an IRA man. The film shows her sympathy for — but never complete agreement with – her son's convictions. It also chronicles her growing friendship with another prisoner's mother, Annie Higgins, who is a staunch IRA supporter. The film moves the viewer, along with Kathleen, along a path from condemnation of IRA violence to a partial understanding of it.

Again, the film uses contrasts of 'innocence' and 'guilt.' As a group of girls are clogging (traditional Irish dancing form) in the Catholic school where Kathleen teaches, the beat of their feet against the wooden floor provides a dramatic sound backdrop for an attack on a British army unit by Kathleen's son and his comrades. Through film editing, innocence and terror are interspersed. The montage of stomping feet and exploding jeeps has a more sinister suggestion as well, however: two noisy, Irish 'traditions' are spliced together.

Like in The Devil's Own, British forces invade a family as they are eat together. Gerard and one of his comrades are taken to prison, where they refuse to wear 'criminal's uniforms' because they consider themselves prisoners of war. They wrap themselves in blankets. In reality, hundreds of IRA prisoners in the Maze were on a 'dirty protest' for two years before the hunger strikes, refusing to follow prison regulations and instead living amongst maggots and their own filth, with nothing in their cells but the chamberpots. The film does not quite show such horror; we see brown smudges on the walls but no maggots, and the prisoners are long-haired and bearded, but clean.

In the film, when Gerard sees his famous cellmate Bobby Sands, pale and wrapped in prison blankets, he says to him, 'you look like Jesus Christ.' This metaphor continues, especially later when Sands is starving on his deathbed, his face a greenish colour against bright white sheets. Sands and the other nine hunger strikers who died in the protest are emphatically portrayed as martyrs.

Some effects of media coverage of Northern Ireland

Guelke writes that 'the 1981 hunger strike proved to be a watershed in European perceptions of the Northern Ireland problem.' (Guelke, 158) The strikes, as presented to the European countries by their media, tended to make European countries sympathetic to the cause of the strikers, and helped caused them to align themselves more with the Irish than the British on the issue of Northern Ireland.

The result was that the situation became an international one, of international concern. 'This has worked politically to the benefit of constitutional nationalism,' continues Guelke. (Guelke, 164) Rather than providing a forum for new debate, he writes, internationalisation made ideologues more adamant about their positions, and more determined to bring international pressure to bear for their side.

Perceptions in the UK and the Republic of Ireland are themselves varied, probably stemming from a combination of media, religious, and governmental institutions' influences. According to people whom I interviewed in mainland Britain, the fundamental schism was perceived as an Ireland / Britain divide. In the Republic of Ireland, it was seen as a North / South split, and in Northern Ireland itself most people with whom I talked viewed it as a Nationalist / Unionist division. I did not conduct a scholarly survey by any means; rather I was interviewing individuals who were primarily concerned with bringing peace and reconciliation to Northern Ireland. Even so, it demonstrates the differences in understanding held even by people who are after the same thing.

The BBC itself, which was put in a position to have a substantial effect on viewers in Northern Ireland, has been accused of exacerbating the conflict. Some sectarian marches, for instance, might not be so important to so many if the BBC were not covering them. Its coverage may also have helped polarise sides, as Republicans and Catholics accused the BBC in Northern Ireland of being Unionist-biased, and Unionists accused it of giving too much air-time to Republican terrorists.


Marches and riots, bombings and shootings, and now a peace agreement orchestrated by major Western governments, have dominated news of Northern Ireland in international media. These are the things that the world considers to be 'of note' in the province: the dramatic or disruptive. They are brought to world audiences mostly by British and American media machines. Journalists who investigate for the world are mostly outsiders to Northern Ireland, coming only when an important disturbance occurs. They primarily present to us the Nationalist viewpoint, whether because of a well-orchestrated Nationalist propaganda strategy, the Republican Irish community in the U.S., or recent trends in decolonisation and nationalism.

In general, the world has only been paying attention to Northern Ireland since the late 1960s, when fresh violence erupted and 'the Troubles' began; there is now a new wave of attention because of the Stormont Agreement, which follows much international pressure for which some nations now believe they can pat themselves on the back. The main nations involved are of course Britain and the Republic of Ireland, but the United States has played a large role in this, as have the nations of the European Community. These nations have also been the most influential in media presentation of circumstances in Northern Ireland.

The terms used in the situation, a jumble of connotative words, are confusing and may leave foreign audiences at a loss as to what is really going on; these words also tend to make generalisations and focus on extreme rather than moderate views. Visual and auditory views of Ireland also paint a simplistic picture, of a peaceful island whose people almost cannot help being violent, because of their environment of terror. Films, especially, have contributed to this notion, and have contributed also to an overall sympathy for Republican and Nationalist ideals, specifically in the U.S.

From these points can be drawn three more general conclusions. First, news and cinema presentation of circumstances in Northern Ireland come from three main sources: Britain, the United States, and the Republic of Ireland. Second, the Nationalist perspective, though the minority within Northern Ireland, is the province's strongest global export, and international opinion tends therefore to lean in that direction. Third, at least to some extent, media coverage has helped to divide the community within the province, as in the case of the debates that raged about the coverage of the hunger strikes of 1980-81.

The first two of these trends are likely to continue, during the vote on the first Northern Ireland Assembly and as the people of the island take more supposed strides toward peace. Whether media coverage will contribute to greater consensus or greater division in Northern Ireland remains to be seen, as does whether or not these recent developments will contribute to a truly new view of Northern Ireland in the global community and in the province itself.


Anonymous, interviewed by Morgan Strong. 'Violence by the Irish Republican Army is Justified'. In Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict, pp. 111-119. Leone, Bruno, ed. Greenhaven Press, San Diego. 1994.

Cathcart, Rex. The Most Contrary Region: The BBC in Northern Ireland 1924-1984. The Blackstaff Press, Belfast, 1984.

The Devil's Own. Directed by Alan J. Pakula. Columbia Pictures, 1997.

The Devil's Own Website (TDO Site).

Greer, Herb. 'Terrorism by the Irish Republican Army Is Not Justified'. In Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict, pp. 142-147. Leone, Bruno, ed. Greenhaven Press, San Diego. 1994.

Guelke, Adrian. Northern Ireland: The International Perspective. Gill and MacMillan, Dublin, 1988.

MacBride, Sean, ed. Many Voices, One World. Unesco, New York, 1980.

Michael Collins. Directed by Neil Jordan. Geffen Pictures, 1996.

Savage, Robert J. Irish Television: The Political and Social Origins. Cork University Press, 1996.

Shohat, Ella, and Stam, Robert. Unthinking Eurocentrism. Routledge, London, 1994.

Some Mother's Son. Directed by Terry George. Castle Rock Entertainment, 1996.

Some Mother's Son Website.

van Ginneken, Jaap. Understanding Global News. Sage Publications, London, 1998.

Whyte, John. Interpreting Northern Ireland. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1990.

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