For the last three decades the national press in Ireland has been dominated by the publications of the Independent News & Media group (INM), a corporation formerly ruled by the controversial businessman Tony O’Reilly (or “Sir Anthony O’Reilly” as his newspapers were allegedly instructed to describe him following his “knighthood” by the British head of state in 2001 for “services to Northern Ireland”). Despite denials to the contrary critics regularly charged that the editorial pages of the Irish Independent and the Sunday Independent newspapers were little more than mouthpieces for the political, economic and social diktats of O’Reilly and his coterie of like-minded colleagues. He was to Ireland what Rupert Murdoch was to Britain, Australia or the United States, and with much the same cultural attributes (albeit on a suitably Lilliputian scale, despite his grandiose pretensions). The main effect of O’Reilly’s influence was the head-hunting and promotion of journalists and staff members within his media empire who agreed with or soon adopted his non-too-subtle pro-British, anti-Republican line in relation to the conflict in the north-east of Ireland and Irish history in general.
Through his newspapers, for two decades and more, articles and editorials were published attacking the central role of Irish Republicanism in the founding of our freedom and democracy, the historic opposition to British colonial rule on our island nation, the 1916-21 Revolution, indeed the very establishment of the nation-state of Ireland itself. Britain’s centuries-long invasion, occupation and annexation of this country and the accompanying ethnocide of the Irish people was rewritten as a history of a civilizing force liberating primitive tribes from their own innate savagery. The indigenous Irish language and culture was excoriated while the English supplanters were held up as symbols of modernity and progress. A faux Anglo-American vision of Irishness was promoted, a hollow façade free of any roots deeper than the 18th century and the era of the Anglo-Irish Ascendency, occasionally overlaid with the worse aspects of contemporary Plastic Oirishness.
Inevitably given the small and incestuous nature of the journalistic community in Ireland by the late-1980s news reporting as whole, from print to electronic, was now under the control of an establishment whose members were ideological clones of each other. When critics of the Irish media lamented its closed-circle “group-think” this is exactly what they were referring to. Men and women who think the same, speak the same, write the same. Indeed who attend the same restaurants and pubs, are members of the same clubs and societies, live in the same suburbs and commuter towns, send their children to the same schools, and even marry and divorce each other (and with alarming regularity it may be said).
When the Sunday Independent published its extraordinary editorial in the aftermath of the European and local elections condemning the Irish electorate and other media groupings for failing to subject Sinn Féin “to sustained close scrutiny as we have done for the past 30 years” it was one of the more explicit political statements to have come from the group-think in recent years. It was a revelation of how the people at the IN&M grouping saw themselves: defenders of the “Free State” Nouveau Ascendency against the Corner Boys and Mountainside Men of old. In its contempt for the workings of democracy and the plurality of representation the editorial view was in many ways typical of the stable of newspapers who regularly tried to promote their own “in-house” political parties while calling upon unelected “entrepreneurs” to be elevated to cabinet positions in the government.
Now the great O’Reilly has fallen from his lofty perch, and his business empire in mortal crisis, his former media acolytes are in damage-limitation mode paying off past largesse with sickeningly effusive defences of his career and character. However such is their panic that the old rules of yesteryear have been forgotten, the instructions to deny the influence of the man behind the curtain put to one side, and the implicit is being made explicit. From the Irish Independent:
“The one clear, consistent policy was that there was to be no truck with republicanism. That was not popular either. Despite what one hear nowadays, there was widespread passive support for extreme republicanism for a long time, from the highest to the lowest echelons of Irish society.
As well as campaigning against the IRA, O’Reilly was instrumental in cutting off much of their American money by setting up the Ireland Fund to provide an alternative for Irish Americans to contribute their dollars.
His style is patrician, his politics are moderate unionist, he is comfortable with both Irish and British nationality. The knighthood said a lot about him…”
Indeed it does, as does the acceptance and praise of his “Unionist” politics from within the journalistic establishment. For what is a Unionist?
“In the United Kingdom, British unionists are those people and political organisations who wish their constituent country to remain or in historical usage to become part of the United Kingdom.
In Ireland, unionism is an ideology which favours the continuation of some form of political union between Ireland and Great Britain.”