This morning, I’d noticed that Michael Gove had tweeted an article – presumably while intoxicated – from The S*n which reheats an old anti-Corbyn accusation. The article, which I won’t link to here, claims that Corbyn “aided campaign to free IRA assassin who served 20 years for trying to kill a cop”. There is no depth to which Gove will not plunge.
Let’s go back nearly 20 years when Gove wasn’t an MP (happy days), but was writing for the Rupert Murdoch-owned Times. The right-wing press in this country have continued with the notion that the war in Northern Ireland is ongoing and have used the conflict as a means to smear Corbyn for his efforts in finding a peaceful solution. I found this article written by Roy Greenslade in The Guardian in 2000, in which he says:
The rightwing papers’ coverage of the bloody loyalist feud in Northern Ireland has been slanted to fit the old myth that republicans are the root of all evil
Greenslade is referring here to the Loyalist feud that followed the Good Friday Agreement in 1999. Remember that the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has close links to the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF), which is an alternative name for the UVF, and the Red Hand Commando (RHC). The last two Tory governments, were supported by the DUP in a confidence and supply arrangement, which seemingly elided the party’s connections to Loyalist paramilitaries for the sake of expedience. In any case, it was a relationship doomed to failure from the outset, because the DUP does what the DUP wants when it wants.
Greenslade observes that British newspapers don’t give readers the full story, and Tories like Gove rely on voters’ ignorance of past events, which then begs the question: if people have no knowledge of British post-war history and the low intensity conflict in Northern Ireland, known euphemistically as ‘The Troubles’, then why take time and trouble to smear a man like Corbyn as an ‘IRA sympathiser’, especially when Thatcher government’s support for Loyalist death squads is well-documented? The only answer that I can come up with is hubris.
Giving readers a historical perspective takes up space and draws heavily on the time – and, of course, the expertise – of the journalist. It is therefore costly and, given the cult of youth that pervades so many papers nowadays, there are often too few people around editorial floors with a working knowledge of post-war modern history.
Perhaps the most pernicious reason for our ahistorical press is its political agenda. When events call into question a policy line avidly pursued by a paper, throwing into doubt the trenchant “advice” offered to readers down the years, then it proves convenient to ignore history altogether.
Since coming to power in 2010, the Tories and their allies in the media and elsewhere have been trying to rewrite history to suit their false narratives.
A combination of these factors, with the last undoubtedly the most prevalent, occurred in the coverage of loyalist gang warfare in Northern Ireland last week. Right-wing papers suddenly found themselves in a tricky situation because the story did not fit neatly into the previous 30-year pattern of events.
In that paradigm, all the troubles in the “province” stemmed from malevolent republicans. In recent years, with the IRA ceasefire and Sinn Fein’s incorporation into elected office, these papers have opened a second front by pouring scorn on the concept and the practice of the peace process.
Yet the vast majority of republicans have remained stubbornly faithful to the ballot box, making it difficult for the hostile Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, Times and Sun to continue with their anti-peace process propaganda war.
Unlike those Loyalists, eh? Remember, the DUP didn’t accept the Good Friday Agreement and have pretended ever since that the low intensity war is still happening. Greenslade again:
Then along comes Johnny “Mad Dog” Adair and an opportunity of sorts is gratefully accepted. The usual suspects – Ruth Dudley-Edwards, Michael Gove, Bruce Anderson – were wheeled out along with their unnamed leader-writing sympathisers to hammer the government.
The outbreak of internecine strife on the Shankill was, according to Anderson in the Mail, due to politicians having created “a moral vacuum in which such madness can fester”.
And there, of course, is the return to the central agenda: it’s all the uppity republicans’ fault after all. The Daily Mail nodded in agreement, referring to “the government’s endless concessions to republicans”.
Not willing to accept that the fault for Loyalist internecine violence rested with the paramilitaries themselves, leader writers like Gove et al instead blamed Republicans. Greenslade again (my italics):
Gove in the Times blamed John Major and Tony Blair for appeasement. The Telegraph referred to the Northern Ireland secretary, Peter Mandelson, as living in an “Alice in Wonderland world” and claimed that Adair “ruled the roost because of the Belfast agreement”. So far, so bad. Even on this single point, no historical context was allowed to peep through. No mention, for instance, of the people of Ireland having voted overwhelmingly for the agreement, which stated categorically that prisoners would be released.
The Times, unlike the Telegraph, did at least praise Mandelson for Adair’s arrest. But its columnist Gove led the way in offering a scandalous justification for the Protestant paramilitaries’ gangsterism. Their hostility towards the peace process, he dared to claim, is fuelled by the fact that Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness is in government.
Gove, like many in his party, see nothing wrong with reviving the cycle of violence that so marred civil and political life in the Six Counties for nearly 40 years. For them, it’s a price worth paying, just so long as they get the Brexit they crave.
Gove’s efforts and those of his colleagues rely on the average Brit’s total ignorance, not just of their own history, but that of Ireland. This was brought into sharp relief a year ago when Priti Patel said that the government should use the threat of food shortages to force the Irish government to drop its demand for the so-called ‘backstop’ in the Brexit negotiations. Aside from the residual imperialism expressed in this statement, Patel and Gove’s cavalier approach to history and memory is dangerous.
But the Tories don’t care. For them, history only matters inasmuch as it’s just another narrative than can be endlessly rewritten to suit their political objectives. This 2016 article from the Belfast Telegraph revealed that the government provided UDA-linked groups with funds from what it calls ‘ the controversial Social Investment Fund’.
Among those with huge influence over how the £80 million SIF budget is allocated is notorious Bangor UDA criminal Dee Stitt, who last week posed for photos with DUP First Minister Arlene Foster.
Other key players include the UDA’s former leader in the Maze Prison and Lisburn commander Adrian Bird, and convicted UDA gunman turned failed DUP council candidate Sam ‘Chalky’ White. All three paramilitaries were appointed to SIF steering panels, which recommend how cash is handed out, with DUP and Sinn Fein approval.
During the past two years Stitt, Bird and White have successfully lobbied for more than £5 million of taxpayers’ cash being spent on UDA-linked projects that pay their wages in Belfast, Lisburn and Bangor.
The Tories, Michael Gove in particular, have some explaining to do.