The role of the media in the Northern Ireland conflict

Gegham Baghdasaryan

Journalism and peacebuilding

I had an argument in Belfast with Brian Rowan, a journalist specialising in security issues, about the role of the media in long-running conflicts and, in particular, in the Northern Ireland conflict. During a conversation with the group of experts from Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nagorny Karabakh, Rowan had lamented the fact that the media in Northern Ireland did not have a peacebuilding mission. I ventured to disagree with this interpretation or rather with the notion of endowing ‘the fourth estate’ with the additional function of peacebuilding.

Recalling the traditional purpose of the media – to inform, educate and entertain – I insisted that, in conflict situations or prolonged and bloody disputes, the fundamental and perhaps only role of journalists is to conscientiously inform the public, so that people have access to objective and comprehensive information about the events taking place.

During his 26-year career with the BBC, Denis Murray extensively covered the peace process in Northern Ireland. In 1997 he was awarded an OBE in recognition of his services to broadcast journalism. In a paper entitled ‘Reporting on negotiation, shaping public opinion: the Northern Ireland experience’, Murray writes:

“It is my confirmed view that journalism … does not shape public opinion … Facts do that – and the role of the journalist is to report those facts. This may seem ludicrous now, but there was a body of opinion in Northern Ireland in the 1970s that firmly believed that ‘there’d be no trouble if you boys weren’t putting it on TV’. It was as though broadcasters and newspapers were doing the paramilitaries a favour by reporting bombings, shootings and so on. This sort of view reached its height with then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s ‘oxygen of publicity’ remark, which showed a fundamental misunderstanding of what motivated and sustained paramilitaries and ultimately led to ‘broadcasting restrictions’, in other words, effective censorship.”[1]

On the other hand, international expert in conflict analysis Clem McCartney points out that any argument about the communication of facts must define what ‘the facts’ are.[2] In his view:

“The majority of news agencies don’t reflect society as a whole, but provide a mirror image of the section of society which buys a particular newspaper or which they would like to attract. They reinforce existing settled opinions and limit opportunities of encountering other points of view. Thus ‘feedback loops are reinforced’. In addition to the issue of facts, the media must also ask questions about the reasons. In my opinion, it is easier for journalists to fulfil the expectation that they will cover the arguments comprehensively than that they will preserve neutrality.”[3]

The role of journalists during conflicts is a controversial issue. Many inter-governmental institutions and international journalism organisations have repeatedly emphasised in their declarations the important role of the media in the constructive coverage of conflicts and the prevention of inter-ethnic hatred (Declaration of Principles on Tolerance, adopted by Resolution 5.61 of the General Conference of UNESCO of 16 November 1995;[4] Declaration of the UN General Assembly on a Culture of Peace).[5] Dusan Reljic devotes a separate chapter to this role, entitled ‘Consensus (consociation) democracy and “constructive journalism”’. In it he writes:

In an ideal world, the media should at least attempt to orient its reporting style towards the creation of peace, instead of intensifying prejudices that in turn heighten conflict.Such ideal journalism is a critical part of the consensus democracy concept, and represents the proper role of the media in conflict prevention and resolution … Nevertheless, it is too simplistic to expect the media as an entity to feel collectively obliged to actively promote the peace and development of civil societies.”[6]

Where does journalistic neutrality end?

Discussions about the neutrality and impartiality of journalists are always relevant, but of varying significance, depending on the context of particular events. Veterans of the journalism profession believe that journalists and the media must always maintain impartiality. This approach places a huge burden of responsibility on the shoulders of journalists, obliging them to rise above their human and civic sympathies. It negates the fact that journalists are also people of flesh and blood and products of their own time and place.

It seems to me that the theory about journalistic neutrality and impartiality may work in ordinary, everyday situations, where there is really no room for compromise, but not in extreme circumstances. According to Clem McCartney, the factor that should determine a journalist’s decision is what they can do better than anyone else:

“It is possible that publicising real-life stories is something which can only be done by journalists. For example, a lecturer is not in a position to apply their theoretical knowledge to a crisis situation and so it makes sense to involve journalists. It depends to a great extent on whether the journalist is the only person present at the scene. If someone else is there who can protect the individual being attacked or who can debate the issue at hand, then the journalist is free to decide whether or not to cover the story. However, if no one else is present, then there is a greater obligation for the journalist to get involved. Furthermore, there are situations where a journalist finds themselves alone against a large number of people and the only possible course of action is to try and record or film what is happening.”[7]

Although Clem McCartney has a point, in my opinion, an even more important factor is public perception. How will the neutrality and ‘civic inaction’ of the journalist be perceived by public opinion? Depending on the situation, the journalist may consider it more important to fulfil their civic duty, without prejudice to their professionalism, because, even without them, the event is already receiving sufficient coverage and they would not, in essence, be able to change anything by simply duplicating something already placed on record by other media sources. However, many professionals believe that, by taking part in a civic action, a journalist no longer has the right to report the same event, because of the clear ‘role conflict’ or conflict of interests.

This issue was also touched on by Denis Murray when he talked about his personal experience and neutrality:

“The Omagh bombing in 1998[8] is an instance where, if the reports by me and ITN Correspondent John Irvine were closely analysed, you would not find emotive language or personal opinions. However, I would presume that not even the most casual viewer would have been in any doubt as to what we felt, entirely from our tone of voice. I am frequently asked how it was possible to remain ‘neutral’ or ‘unbiased’; to which the answer is always the same: staying politically neutral is not difficult. Ask anyone who’s ever covered the Dáil (Irish parliament), or Westminster (UK parliament) or wherever, and you’ll find that we all have people in every party that we like or respect, or both; and people in every party whom we dislike or disrespect. I found it much more difficult to remain neutral after acts of violence, especially after it should have been obvious to the paramilitaries that armed force was pointless … The very idea of neutrality is, I firmly believe, essential to public-service broadcasting in these islands. Reporters telling the truth, analysing the facts as best they can, and the trust that is implicit between a particular news programme and viewer are indispensable.”[9]

In relation to this, Clem McCartney points out that the BBC, about which Murray is speaking, plays an unusual role in the British media landscape:

“The BBC Charter states that its broadcasting should be ‘independent, impartial and honest’. BBC employees do not actually talk about ‘neutrality’. Instead they use a different word: ‘balance’. In contrast, most media outlets have an editorial line which means that they are not striving for balance. One argument is that, in order to reflect a multiplicity of points of view, there must be diversity of media outlets. Denis Murray also demonstrates that the majority of journalists are party to the mass consensus and are therefore not impartial. To some extent, the issue is that journalists themselves are not aware of their bias, which is often reflected not in decisions relating to the selection of facts, but in a single word or tone (I am not referring here to the comment by Denis Murray about his tone of voice in Omagh).”[10]

Evaluation and self-evaluation

Denis Murray also sought to identify the unique features of his Northern Ireland experience:

“If peace processes round the world have taught us anything, it is that they are all unique – there may be similarities, echoes and resonances between conflicts, but no single one is identical to any other. That is not to say that lessons cannot be learned from one situation to another. For instance, the Northern Ireland peace process has several elements that might be regarded as universal prerequisites: a desire on all sides to reach agreement, or at least to end conflict; international involvement, in the form of arbitrators; a preparedness to keep going; and at least some kind of media scrutiny.”[11]

But does everyone agree with this assertion about media scrutiny? The journalists are certainly in agreement. For example, Brian Rowan describes how very few people managed to talk with all sides of the conflict:

“In 1994, when the republicans announced the ceasefire, they only invited two journalists. Many of these organisations were closed ones. But we didn’t simply pass on their pronouncements – we checked them by various methods. Everyone wanted to use us and the politicians wanted to blow the results of the peace process out of all proportion, although it took them 18 months after Good Friday to form a government. Of course, we made mistakes too and had to issue apologies.”[12]

How are the activities of the media viewed by the public? Kate Turner, Director of the organisation ‘Healing Through Remembering’, an initiative promoting reconciliation with the past, talks about the indifferent attitude of the media to peacebuilding as a whole and the activities of her organisation in particular. For instance, she says that the media is not interested in her organisation’s reports. Turner also talks about the different approaches taken by the media to the same incident and makes an interesting observation: “The same material appears on the front page of one paper but on page 18 of another.”[13] In her opinion, the media narrowed the scope for compromise: “The media shouldn’t have been used as a tool in the negotiating process. Mitchell was against the public disclosure of documents.”[14]

Seán Farren, a member of the SDLP and negotiator in the peace process, notes that in a democratic society the media is accessible to all. He believes that the Church and the media are two nationalist institutions that were against violence. “The national media supported us,” he says. “The responsible media reported the peacebuilding activities of our party properly, but the real problem was the tabloids whose main objective is blood and sensation.”[15]

Dermot Ahern, former Minister for Foreign Affairs in the Republic of Ireland, argues that:

“Journalists treated the negotiating process with understanding. Admittedly, they wanted to squeeze more out of us, but at the same time they understood how important it was. The media worked well, with the exception of the tabloids. On the whole, the public was well informed.”[16]

Eamonn McCann, author of The British Press and Northern Ireland, laments the fact that the majority of journalists rely heavily on ‘official’ sources and says it explains why their coverage of a particular story is sometimes so strikingly similar. He cites a former employee of the Mirror newspaper:

“In a situation like Northern Ireland our people would have to keep in close touch with the Army Press Office. It would be more or less part of their job to get to know the army press officer as well as possible and that in itself would affect their judgement a bit. Then one of their biggest preoccupations is not to be scooped by a competition. No-one on the Mirror would be sacked because he didn’t come up with a carefully authenticated and researched piece, written from local hard work. You do get sacked if the rival has a sensation about the IRA.”[17]

Denis Murray agrees to some extent with this position and yet emphasises the journalist’s right and opportunity to make choices:

“I had a really good working relationship with Tony Blair’s Communications Director, the reputed ‘king of spin’, Alastair Campbell … but one night he was briefing me – him in Downing Street, me on the mobile phone at Castle Buildings, Stormont, where the talks leading to the Good Friday Agreement took place. At one point, he said, ‘It would also be helpful if you said…’. ‘Hold it right there Alastair – if you tell me ‘the government policy is’, or ‘the prime minister thinks’, or ‘his personal spokesman says’, then I’ll report that, but I am absolutely not here to help.’ He laughed and said I was touchy, and I said ‘Damn right, I’m on a mobile phone in Northern Ireland!’ ‘OK’, he said, ‘the government view is…’. Now this is a harmless and mildly amusing anecdote, but it illustrates the point: I could report what Alastair said, but when required, would reach for the pinch of salt and analyse what he said in my own way.”[18]

Following meetings and conversations with journalists and people active in the social and political spheres in Belfast, Dublin and London, I came to the conclusion that the public was adequately informed about the peace process and that people had an understanding of the work of journalists.The well-known independent journalist Fionnuala O’Connor also talked about this with us: “Journalists were very rarely threatened. Only one journalist was killed during the conflict.”[19] On the whole, the journalists’ work was judged on merit during the peace process. It is significant that, after Good Friday, senior negotiator Senator George Mitchell wrote a letter to all the correspondents who had covered the course of the negotiations, thanking them for their contribution to the peace process simply by reporting the facts.

This is worth noting – simply by reporting the facts. For their part, the public encouraged a serious, responsible attitude to the negotiations – there was a call to reject anything that might have a negative influence on the talks. Denis Murray writes: “I think the public has every right to be informed about talks as they progress, but in the interests of ending conflicts, those talks should not be held in completely open parliament-style forums.”[20]

British and Irish standards

The Irish like to joke about how British newspapers boast of their high standards of journalism. According to the Irish, they encourage the British public to believe that their press is the best in the world, that it is the ‘guardian of liberty’. Yet, at the same time, as Eamonn McCann writes in his book The British Press and Northern Ireland, while editors and higher executives whiled away the time in contemplation of their own ethical purity, the job went on of managing and mangling the news from Northern Ireland. McCann writes:

“Most British people have a distorted view of what is happening in Northern Ireland. This is because they believe what they read. There have been honourable exceptions. But examination of reports reveals a clear pattern of distortion. The news has systematically been presented, consciously or not, so as to justify the assumptions and prejudices of the British establishment and to serve the immediate political needs of British Governments.”[21]

According to McCann, there was a clear tendency to blame the IRA immediately, without any kind of evidence, for every brutal outrage imaginable. The British press painted a picture of the IRA that was not based on any existing facts. This was due to the special relationship between the press and the army. McCann presents a series of examples, including the deaths of 17-month-old Angela Gallagher in Belfast and 14-year-old Annette McGavigan in Derry. Both wings of the IRA denied responsibility. The incident involving Angela Gallagher happened in a Catholic area and it is therefore logical to suspect (although no more than that) someone with republican sympathies, although additional facts were needed.

However, as McCann writes:

Once ‘the IRA’ had been identified as the main enemy, all concern for fact melted marvellously away. The stories of IRA mass murders, IRA extortion and intimidation, IRA men training children to kill, etc. served to justify increasingly repressive measures to the British public. It was on this basis that the guardian, self-appointed keeper of the British liberal conscience, was able plausibly to support internment. It was as a result of such stories that politically the British Government could operate the policy.”[22]

But was the Irish media, which sympathised with the Catholics, irreproachable? Did the Irish media respond adequately to the fundamental issues of the times? Denis Haughey, a member of the SDLP, peace process negotiator and colleague of John Hume, the party’s former leader, recounts a curious incident:

“At a critical point in the negotiating process, when John Hume had had a meeting with US President Bill Clinton, the Irish news devoted a couple of paragraphs on the inside pages to this hugely important meeting and used the front page for ‘Bomb threat at Sinn Féin headquarters’. And all there was to this story was that one of Gerry Adams’ bodyguards, Cleeky Clarke, had seen a suspicious car nearby.”[23]

Before and during Good Friday

The 1960s were generally favourable in relation to the civil rights movement. Many media outlets sent correspondents to Belfast. In the Catholic areas, attitudes to reporters and photographers were good. The media supported Northern Ireland Prime Minister Terence O’Neill, whom they characterised as a ‘cautious crusader’, and there was almost no crude distortion of events.According to McCann, at one point the Mirror had 12 people in Derry. Few of them had any detailed knowledge of the real situation. Some of them wandered about the city, asking to be introduced to someone who had been a victim of discrimination or to an unemployed Catholic slum-dweller. McCann writes: “Despite the generally benevolent coverage of the Civil Rights campaign at this stage, one could discern already the tendency to blame ‘the IRA’ for any violence which occurred. It was assumed for example that the IRA was responsible for the explosions preceding O’Neill’s resignation. But this was comparatively mild and tentative stuff.”[24]

Eamonn McCann maintains that:

“[T]he real, sustained and systematic distortion began when British soldiers came onto the streets, and by the middle of 1970, when the troops were in almost constant conflict with Catholic working-class neighbourhoods, most papers had in effect stopped carrying the news. They were vehicles for propaganda. Some incidents were ignored. Others were invented. Half-truths were presented as hard fact. As far as the British press was concerned, the soldiers could do no wrong, but the other side, ‘the rioters’, received very different treatment.”[26]

McCann seeks to be as objective as possible:

To say that the press distorted the situation beyond all recognition is not to say that those who came onto the streets to fight British soldiers behaved in a manner which liberal opinion would find admirable. Of course not … But the great majority of the British people, dependent on the press to tell them what is happening in the North of Ireland, are by now incapable of forming a judgement about it, so one-sided has the reporting been.”[27]

In the wake of the emergence of the civil rights movement, the main focus of British government policy was on the ‘democratisation’ of Northern Ireland.

McCann writes:

“The increasing British investment in the Republic, the growing importance of the South of Ireland as a trading partner, made dangerously obsolete the traditional attitude of previous governments. For the first time in the history of Anglo-Irish relations, it suited the imperial power to balance between the Orange [Protestants] and the Green [Catholics]. This was automatically reflected in British policy towards the North. It was reflected too in the press. It offers an explanation of many pro-civil rights editorials, of the fact that the Catholic case received enormously more coverage than the Protestant case.”[28]

Denis Murray recounts a very interesting anecdote about the Good Friday talks and how the peace process was reported:

“At Stormont, a media centre was eventually set up in a car park, cabins, portable loos and all. A decision had been taken to exclude the media from the talks, but not from the proximity of where they were taking place. Towards the end, it became rather ludicrous, with politicians emerging to talk to the cameras half an hour before bulletin time. One of the most regular of these serial ‘spinners’ was John Taylor, deputy leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, who memorably remarked that he wouldn’t touch the deal on offer with a 40-foot bargepole. This led to endless fun for the hacks, with cries of ‘how long is your bargepole today, John?’ Another important element was the phone (obvious but vital). Very quickly, journalists attending the talks on a more or less permanent basis got the direct-line numbers of the various delegations, and they had our mobile numbers, which meant no party or government could control the flow of information. This modus operandi continued throughout the talks that led to agreement, and then afterwards in other talks aimed at implementation.

The only exception to this was at the US Ambassador’s residence during the Mitchell Review of autumn 1999. George Mitchell, having chaired the Good Friday process, was invited back to break the deadlock which had followed. His residence was in Regent’s Park in London and was very well protected. Here came the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP, at that time the main players in the political arena, and the media were practically left out on the street. One reporter who was there said it was the only time it was made clear that the media were not welcome and not tolerated.”[29]

Murray again asks the question: should the media be kept at a distance, allowed nearby or involved?

“Much as I’m in favour of disclosure, talks in public are unlikely to work – who is going to negotiate in public? For instance, I once asked the post-apartheid ANC Deputy South African High Commissioner to London what they had done when even being seen to talk about something would have been political suicide. ‘We went out in the bush’, was the reply. Negotiators (one suspects it was the two chief negotiators) would simply vanish off somewhere, thrash out a deal and bring back a solution.”[30]

The peacebuilding potential of different types of media

In the early 1960s the Northern Ireland conflict received extensive coverage on television. At this complex stage in its development, the extremely difficult relationship between the loyalists and the republicans was in the news headlines virtually every day. The drawback of this sort of coverage was that it generally only reflected the government position. The predominance of the government perspective came to an end with coverage of the ‘other’ Northern Ireland, reflecting the republican point of view and broadcast by the BBC. From that time onwards, all the efforts of the Irish were concentrated on combating the periodic introduction of censorship and on asserting their civil rights. In this way, a challenge was mounted to the main political forces, and television became the battlefield where each section of the population defended its rights. In the 1970s, in light of an even greater escalation of the conflict, the coverage of events in Northern Ireland was more restrained and cautious. There were also several instances of direct political pressure being put on television stations. Censorship was even stricter in the Republic of Ireland.

Nevertheless, reports on the lives of the peaceful population were widely broadcast, reflecting the full scope of the tragedy of the armed hostilities and their impact on the lives of ordinary people. For example, Peter Taylor, Paul Hamann and Arthur MacCaig presented contemporary ‘views from within’ on the conflict and the different sides. Over the next decade the topics of innocent people, political prisoners and peace in Northern Ireland came to the fore. A new form of television emerged in the shape of documentary films, which were widely broadcast in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In 1996 director Neil Jordan made a film called ‘Michael Collins’ about the 70th anniversary of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1921, which charted the whole history of the conflict during the 20th century. In the mid-1990s the central themes covered by the media were the temporary peace associated with the signing of the Downing Street Declaration and coverage of issues relating to peacebuilding, such as the disarmament of paramilitary organisations.

Turning to the role of radio, Walt Kilroy (Institute for International Conflict Resolution and Reconstruction, Dublin City University) observes, “Radio played a more constructive role because it wasn’t subject to the temptation to show bloody scenes. In addition, radio provided more opportunities for calm and engaged discussion.”[31] Clem McCartney adds, “Politicians are very interested in how they and their messages are covered by the media, and they want to hear what their opponents are saying. They can most easily do this by listening to the radio, but they also keep a close eye on TV.”

It is only recently that the role of new media has begun to be studied. The main distinguishing feature of social networks is the possibility to reach people who do not watch television, listen to the radio or read newspapers. According to Paul Nolan, Director of the Northern Ireland Peace Monitoring Report, republicans opposed to the Good Friday Agreement are particularly active on the internet. Moreover, they target young people specifically – people who did not see the turbulence and disorder. It is a simple calculation – the emphasis is on the ignorance and romantic leanings of the younger generation.

In other words, the struggle has moved into the virtual sphere, into a range of internet forums and social networks, although the aim is to motivate people and take them beyond the confines of virtual debate. Jeffrey Donaldson, Member of Parliament and DUP member (formerly a member of the UUP at the time of the talks), suggests that social networks help to achieve agreement within society; they have a direct influence on people, but, if you are going to use them, you have to know what you are doing – otherwise, the same social networks can turn into minefields.

Three-strand dialogue instead of two monologues

Today, walls between Catholics and Protestants still stand in the streets of Belfast. However, this did not impede the dialogue because, having learnt from experience, the politicians did not begin by pulling down these real walls. Instead, they concentrated on the invisible barriers in people’s heads and hearts, which were the source of the divisions. Besides, the politicians say that the local people are still against the walls being removed.

“It’s always better to talk than to fight,” Lord John Alderdiceasserts in an article entitled ‘Off the couch and round the conference table’. In his opinion, in a situation where communities are in violent conflict, they have virtually no capacity to listen to the other side and they only hear the things that confirm their prejudices and enable them to protect themselves. Alderdice writes:

“In the psychoanalytical world, we have no difficulty in giving value to talking and listening, but you will often hear people criticising parliaments as being ‘just a talking shop’, not fully appreciating that when the representatives of our communities in parliament are talking, they are in a very real sense exercising the alternative to violence.

In stable, peaceful parts of the world, it is easy to forget why we have parliaments – places where representatives of the community talk (and also listen) to each other – and in violent communities, it is easy to dismiss talking in the face of the threat as an expression of weakness in contrast to decisive action. In Northern Ireland, we lived through 30 years during which political differences were expressed through violent actions rather than words; but while it is most obvious in those places where there are deep divisions, violence is in fact always an alternative to talking in any community. There are important questions about why such deep divisions exist in any community … What is beyond doubt is that when such divisions have led to serious, prolonged inter- and intra-communal violence, there is grave damage to the capacity to think, talk and engage in those group psychological relational processes we call politics. Politics is not so much the way that we agree across the gulf of our differences, but rather the way in which we can express our disagreements without killing each other.”[32]

In my opinion, it is dialogue – universal and unconditional – that is the key to success in the Northern Ireland peace process. When there was no dialogue, there was a clash between the monologues of the conflicting sides. Real dialogue is impossible without the support of the media and I shall explain why.

I would divide dialogue in Northern Ireland into three strands:

  • internal dialogue;
  • dialogue within society;
  • dialogue between the conflicting sides.

Three-strand dialogue must begin with individuals engaging in dialogue with themselves (with their conscience or alter ego); they must then talk with others like themselves and, finally, with the other side. This ‘three-strand’ or ‘three-entity dialogue’ is the mainstay of peacebuilding. Without an internal state of readiness for dialogue, it is not possible for there to be debate within a community, much less with the opposite side.

The role of the media in all these dialogues was invaluable – in the internal dialogue, in the conversations within communities and in the discussions between the conflicting sides. For the first stage of dialogue, individuals had at the very least to be as well informed as possible; otherwise, all the hackneyed phrases and stereotypes could have replaced the ability to think analytically. The second stage required a space that was provided by a wide range of media. Above all, in the dialogue between the conflicting sides, the media was indispensable.

In her thesis – entitled ‘The role of regional media in the development of ethno-political processes and bodies in Stavropol Krai’ – Karine Rushanian correctly identified a new tendency:

“The media are becoming active participants in socio-political relations by virtue of the emergence of new resources. These resources are well-founded innovations of policy, law and government in which the media plays a role as facilitator of public debate and moderator of public opinion. The media is a legitimate participant in socio-political processes through its reflection of political, democratic transition, including the democratic transition of ethno-political institutions.”[33]

The media and peacetime challenges

A sense of safety, equality, political progress and social cohesion – these are the new challenges and new indicators of the times, says Paul Nolan, Director of the Northern Ireland Peace Monitoring Report. This means new topics for the media – topics that should each be routinely covered as there are plenty of issues to address.

Judge for yourselves. In 2012 there were 313 suicides in Northern Ireland (compared with 59 people who died in road traffic accidents in the same year). The economic conditions are barely relevant, because the timeline shows that the rise in suicide rates began during the years of economic growth. Moreover, these unfortunate people are by no means young and impulsive – the statistics indicate that they are mature individuals aged between 35 and 40. Media coverage is not enough here – proper systematic research is needed.

Another problem is the divide between the political elites and the communities. As one of the people we talked to in Belfast said, the political actors have divided the power between themselves but not with society as a whole. The journalist Brian Rowan believes that, although the political elites have come to an agreement, little has changed within society. In other words, there may no longer be walls in the political sphere, but they are still standing in the public sphere. Jeffrey Donaldson MP says that this is not an ideal world and that the peace process is not finished. However, the situation has been completely transformed, which gives reason for hope. In his view, “The conflict is not about territory – that is, it’s not about mountain against mountain – it’s about people. This is why we need to start by re-establishing normal human relationships.”[34]

The conflict may be completely transformed, but this transformation is not itself the solution to the problem. In his study Conflict transformation: A multi-dimensional task, Hugh Miall draws attention to one very important point:

“Conflict transformation theorists argue that contemporary conflicts require more than the reframing of positions and the identification of win-win outcomes. The very structure of parties and relationships may be embedded in a pattern of conflictual relationships that extend beyond the particular site of conflict. Conflict transformation is therefore a process of engaging with and transforming the relationships, interests, discourses and, if necessary, the very constitution of society that supports the continuation of violent conflict.”[35]

In his paper ‘Ethnic conflict studies: The search for an academic paradigm’, Viktor Avksent’ev is also sceptical about the complete resolution of the issue:

“As desirable as it may be, the resolution of the Northern Ireland conflict will be difficult to accomplish in the near future. Its complexity, like the majority of ethno-political conflicts, lies in the fact that the majority of them, if not from the outset, then with the intensification of the conflict process, have traits of a conflict of values. Therefore, the most likely means of breaking the Northern Ireland deadlock may be a process that seeks to manage the conflict – that is, to effect its transition to a latent phase. This process will not eliminate the participants in or the substance of the conflict nor yet the fundamental differences. The main efforts of the conflicting sides will be focused on achieving constructive cooperation in changing attitudes around the substance of the conflict.”[36]

There is no one in Northern Ireland who has failed to gain something from the peace agreement, but there are a small minority who do not agree. These people have stood in various elections, but they do not have voter support and have not been elected. What should happen to them is another important issue for consideration. As former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern advised, “These people must not be isolated from society; they should have the right to express their opinion. Everyone should be able to be part of the peace and of political life. There must not be a vacuum. Armed people filled the vacuum with armed struggle.”[37]

Padraic Quirk, Country Director of Northern Ireland for the American NGO Atlantic Philanthropies, believes the most important challenges are to work on human rights, equal opportunities and restorative justice.

In conversation, Raymond Lavery, community worker, youth worker and loyalist activist, clearly outlined his view on the main issues: “We are part of the problem and we want to be part of the solution. We have to think not about who did live here but about who will live here.”[38]

According to Billy Hutchinson, community worker, leader of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), and former member of a loyalist paramilitary organisation and the Northern Ireland Assembly: “We need a decommissioning of mindsets as well. Arms as such are not a bad thing, as long as they don’t fall into the wrong hands.”[39]

Looking forward, this cannot be achieved without changes to the education system, so that the coming generation can live without walls. In an article for the Karabakh journal The Analyticon, exploring how education can support progress towards peace, Benjamin Mallon writes:

“First, there must be an honest assessment of the fact that education policy and practice contribute to the perpetuation of violence. The model used to establish the national curriculum is important in the light of the knowledge, skills and understanding advanced by it. Certain subjects which touch on historical and more recent conflicts must form the focus of the most assiduous attention in reforms of education systems … In the case of Northern Ireland, there are numerous examples of how initiatives or programmes for peacebuilding education are linked to elements of the official curriculum … Such educational programmes may vary in terms of methodology, but on the whole they are focused on the development of conflict resolution skills, strengthening social unity and promoting reconciliation. Some programmes concentrate on enhancing tolerance, while others focus on providing young people with opportunities for inter-community cohesion. In some cases, the aim is cross-border dialogue and organising meetings, often using information and communication technologies.”[40]

The Russian academic A. Matsnev, in his study on ‘Ethno-political conflicts: Nature, typology and routes to resolution’, looks at another very important point. In his view, a major role is played in a number of the socio-political reasons behind the Northern Ireland conflict by a sense of having experienced historical injustices and a feeling that the national achievements of the Irish nation have been trampled on. He shares the theory put forward by ethno-politics expert E. Kiss that “In the effort to reconcile nationalism and human rights, there is one key element which does not fit into the framework of political institutions. In essence, this is the need for an uncompromising, critical analysis of cultural and social issues.”[41]

All this represents not only new challenges for our times, but also new topics for the media. New approaches are needed for reporting on these subjects, but this is perhaps not the most important thing. As one of the journalists we spoke to put it: “We need to cover the peace with the same diligence we devoted to the Troubles.”


  • The public must be well informed about the conflict and its resolution; media access during peace processes is not an impediment and the confidentiality of the negotiating process must be kept within reasonable limits.
  • The media can be an effective mechanism in conflict resolution and can contribute to the peace process by reporting the facts. Some scrutiny of the peace process by the media is very important, but its main role is to inform the public efficiently and impartially.
  • Special political, economic and other conditions are necessary for the media to be able to fulfil its role. The role of the media in preventing conflicts, contributing to their successful resolution and safeguarding the peace can be evaluated on the basis of a framework of general social conditions, which define the work of the media and are reflected by it. The existence of independent media institutions is very important. In order to fulfil its mission, the media must have economic independence and political freedom. Political diversity would be a guarantee of economic diversity, which, in turn, would enable a diversification of media resources.
  • Without freedom of speech, the democratisation of society cannot happen – therefore, the media is an important element of democracy and must support it.
  • Dialogue is an essential condition in conflict resolution and social development, and provides fertile ground for the media to fulfil its role. Dialogue can and should be carried out on multiple levels, and the role of the media is important and indispensable at any level of dialogue.
  • The media can and should facilitate public debate and act as a moderator of public opinion.
  • Different sectors of the information sphere play different roles and have their own specific part in the process of conflict resolution. In particular, the most influential tool, both for good and for ill, is television. Radio has greater potential for calm and constructive dialogue and discussion. The new media and social networks help, by the most democratic means, to ensure public participation, although this also involves many new challenges.
  • As a moderator of public opinion, the media can and should assist in the elimination of divisions between political elites and society.


[1] D. Murray (2012). ‘Reporting on negotiation, shaping public opinion: the Northern Ireland experience’, in Preparing for Peace: Communications in Conflict Resolution, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), December 2012, p. 21, available at

[2] Interview, Clem McCartney, 26 June 2013, Belfast.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Declaration of Principles on Tolerance (UNESCO) (1995):

[5] UN Declaration on a Culture of Peace:

[6] D. Reljic (2004). ‘The news media and the transformation of ethnopolitical conflicts’, Berghof Research Center for Constructive Conflict Management, p. 4, available at

[7] Interview, Clem McCartney, 26 June 2013, Belfast.

[8] This refers to a car bombing in Omagh, County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, in which 29 people were killed in August 1998. The bombing was carried out by the Real IRA, a splinter group of the IRA opposed to the Good Friday Agreement.

[9] D. Murray (2012). Op. cit. p. 22.

[10] Interview, Clem McCartney, 26 June 2013, Belfast.

[11] D. Murray (2012). Op. cit. p. 21.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Interview, Kate Turner, June 2013, Belfast.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Interview, Seán Farren, June 2013, Belfast.

[16] Interview, former Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Dermot Ahern, 24 June 2013, Dublin.

[17] Cited in E. McCann (1972). The British Press and Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Socialist Research Centre, available at

[18] D. Murray (2012). Op. cit.

[19] Interview, Fionnuala O’Connor, June 2013, Belfast.

[20] D. Murray (2012). Op. cit. p. 24.

[21] E. McCann (1972). Op. cit.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Interview, Denis Haughey, 27 June 2013, Belfast.

[24] E. McCann (1972). Op. cit.

[25] Interview, Clem McCartney, 26 June 2013, Belfast.

[26] E. McCann (1972). Op. cit.

[27] Ibid.

[28] E. McCann (1972). Op. cit.

[29] D. Murray (2012). Op. cit. p. 23.

[30] Ibid. pp. 23–4.

[31] Interview, Walt Kilroy, June 2013, Dublin.

[32] J. Alderdice (2010). ‘Off the couch and round the conference table’, in A. Lemma and M. Patrick (eds.) Off the Couch: Contemporary Psychoanalytic Applications. Sussex and New York: Routledge.

[33] K. Rushanian (2009). ‘Rol’ regional’nykh SMI v razvitii etnopoliticheskikh protsessov i institutov v Stavropol’skom krae’ [‘The role of regional media in the development of ethno-political processes and bodies in Stavropol Krai’], available in Russian at

[34] Interview, Jeffrey Donaldson, June 2013, Belfast.

[35] H. Miall (2004).Conflict transformation: A multi-dimensional task, p. 4. Available at:

[36] V. Avksent’ev (2001). ‘Etnicheskaia konfliktologiia: v poiskakh nauchnoy paradigmy’ [‘Ethnic studies: The search for an academic paradigm’], Stavropol, p. 210 (in Russian).

[37] Interview, former Taoiseach of Ireland, Bertie Ahern, 24 June 2013, Dublin.

[38] Interview, Raymond Lavery, June 2013, Belfast.

[39] Interview, Billy Hutchinson, June 2013, Belfast.

[40] B. Mallon (2013). ‘Uroki konflikta i mira’ [‘Lessons in conflict and peace’], The Analyticon, available in Russian at

[41] A. Matsnev (1996). ‘Etnopoliticheskie konflikty: priroda, tipologia i puti uregulirovania’ [‘Ethno-political conflicts: Nature, typology and routes to resolution’], in Sotsial’no-politicheskiy zhurnal [Socio-political journal], М., 1996, No. 4, p. 53 (in Russian).


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