For well over a century it has been the common practice of the American press to employ correspondents from the United Kingdom, either resident there or in the United States, to report or comment on the current or historical affairs of Ireland. This was particularly true during the three decades of Irish insurgency and British counter-insurgency in the UK-administrated north-east of the island. As one might expect, the news reports filed under this editorial preference in the 1970s, ’80s and 1990s was rarely free of bias or partisan sentiment since they largely reflected the personal opinions of one side in a centuries-old struggle against colonial occupation. Namely, that of the occupier.
Compounding the lack of impartiality by Britain’s correspondents was the fact that many men and women working in the newsrooms of the US found it easier to understand and empathise with the UK’s deliberately simplistic presentation of the “Long War“ than with the historically complex explanation offered by Ireland. When diplomats and writers from the United Kingdom informed their peers – and admirers – in the United States that the “Troubles” were a “religious conflict between two warring tribes” kept apart by “British peacekeepers“ it was swallowed hook, line and sinker by otherwise sceptical journalists and editors in New York and Washington, Chicago and Los Angeles, and regurgitated ad nauseum for American readers and audiences. Though a handful of US reporters criticised the resultant lack of neutrality displayed by their newspapers or networks, arguing that it was akin to the US media looking to Iran for press coverage on Israel, the practice never changed and has carried on into the age of the internet.
Thus when it came to reviewing a documentary film on the life and death of Bobby Sands, the Irish republican hunger-striker whose death in 1981 – along with that of his comrades – arguably energised another decade of armed resistance to Britain’s colonial occupation of the partitioned Six Counties, the Daily Beast instinctively turned to a former UK correspondent, Tim Teeman. As you might expect his review of the movie, “66 Days”, is quite critical, judging it as “rose-hued“, “one-sided” and “lacking in nuance“. Praise, where it does occur, is accompanied by scolding caveats. However even the most blind of writers can accidentally stumble upon a truth or two:
“In 66 Days’s eyes, IRA soldiers like Sands appear to exist as liberation freedom fighters, seeking to jettison the oppressing British Army and their Government overseers from Northern Ireland.
That, for sure, is how Sands and other Irish Republicans saw it, and many others, especially in America, who helped fund the IRA.
But the IRA’s more memorable and resonant methods were to maim and kill–and not just British soldiers and politicians, but civilians too. This was not a peaceful liberation movement; how could it be given that their experience of the British occupation of Northern Ireland was oppressive and violent itself?”
And that last sentence is surely the most pertinent – and revealing. The “Troubles”, so-called, did not begin with the re-emergence of an Irish insurgency in the early 1970s or the splits in the Republican movement which saw the establishment of the (Provisional) Irish Republican Army in December of 1969. The opening shots of the war were fired in the first months of 1966 by former soldiers and policemen of a pro-UK terrorist faction known as the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). The first gun attacks, the first bombings and the first deaths were inflicted between 1966 and 1969 by Britain’s loyalists – official and unofficial – in Ireland. It was the actions of British separatists and the violent suppression and persecution of a largely pacifist Irish civil rights movement which led many young men and women to turn to the gun, initially as a weapon of defence not offence.
Given the circumstances, armed resistance in Occupied Ireland during 1966-2005 was no more illegitimate than armed resistance in Occupied Europe during 1939-1945. Or in apartheid South Africa from the 1960s to 1990s. Something Teeman acknowledges, despite himself, in the sentence quoted above. Finally, one doubts that any liberal-leaning journalist in the States or the United Kingdom would review a documentary on the life of Nelson Mandela by characterising his armed struggle against Boer-dictated oppression and violence as a “…bloody terror campaign“. Of course you could ask: which side were the IRA on during the war against racism and dictatorship in Whites-only South Africa and which side were the British on? In that answer lies the true history of Ireland’s British troubles.