The current furore in the London press over an article by the veteran British journalist and newspaper editor Roy Greenslade in the British Journalism Review describing his sympathies with the Irish republican cause as a consequence of reporting on Britain’s “dirty war” in Ireland during the so-called Troubles of 1966-2005, particularly the Bloody Sunday massacre of 1972, is simply another example of that country’s inability to grasp with the forty year history of the conflict. It can be seen in the post-2010 insistence by right-wing commentators and historians in the UK that the Irish Republican Army was “defeated” in the 1990s and that the burgeoning peace process was the result of a British “victory” over the insurgency rather than the outgrowth of a military and political stalemate in the contested region, as most participants acknowledged at the time (or as a dispirited Boris Johnson wrote for The Spectator magazine back in 2000, the IRA “won” and the UK “connived in its own defeat”).
Such jingoistic revisionism handily ignores the record of backchannel negotiations by successive Conservative and Labour governments with their Irish republican opponents from 1969 onwards, or that the main impetus to ending what was becoming a generational war was the failure of the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement to deliver the security upper hand that then prime minister Margaret Thatcher had desperately hoped for and her subsequent – and quite bitter – acceptance that the road to peace lay through talks with those she latterly acknowledged in 1990 were engaging in “guerrilla warfare” under what they regarded as “rules of war”. Instead a small but growing cadre of unionist-imbued writers and newspaper columnists prefer to invent a dangerously delusional flag-waving myth of the Troubles that can be added to a list of Britain’s supposedly unbroken military glories alongside “standing alone” in World War II against the might of “fascist Europe”.
Which of course for the UK press makes Roy Greenslade, very much one of their own, an inconvenient figure with his talk of legitimate “armed struggle” and some home truths for the British people on their recent and less than glorious history in Ireland. One of the ironies of all this is that the political affiliation of the former editor of the left-leaning Daily Mirror has been common knowledge on both sides of the Irish Sea for over two decades. There is nothing particularly revelatory about it, no matter the paroxysms of vulgar outrage in the hibernophobic media circles of London. And I’m sure that regular readers of An Sionnach Fionn could probably name several other former senior British journalists, individuals prominent during the era of the Troubles, whose Irish republican sympathies – and perhaps more than sympathies – were equally well known.
In fact, while we’re at it, we could also name a number of British journalists, at least one of whom is still active, who made no bones about their partisan feelings when it came to loyalist or pro-UK terrorists in Ireland. Or in the preferred terminology of the British press, loyalist “paramilitaries”. Then there are the British correspondents who were quite prepared to use the protection lent to them as members of the press to sniff out information about the IRA or Sinn Féin in parts of Belfast, Derry and elsewhere, and feed that back to the UK authorities. And that is leaving aside the way Britain’s media as a whole acted as a knowingly deceitful and dishonest self-censoring propaganda arm of the British state during the northern conflict – which plenty of autobiographies quite happily boast about.
If one looks at the history of the colonial war that was the Irish-British Troubles, of deeply flawed right versus deeply flawed might, no one side emerges with an unblemished record and no one side can entirely claim the high moral ground. It was a grubby squalid war, of bloody insurgency and bloodier counterinsurgency. But it was also a contest of the incredibly weak versus the incredibly powerful, of those fighting a great historical injustice in opposition to those seeking to maintain a great historical injustice, and in that light Roy Greenslade was – and is – on the right side of history.