The recent controversy generated by Marion Finucane interviewing Pat Magee on RTE has allowed the thorny issue of censorship to come out from whatever totalitarian stone under which it had temporarily sought refuge. Whatever one may think of Muiris MacConghaill's onslaught on both Magee and RTE there was at least a brazen honesty about the former RTE controller's advocacy of censorship. MacConghaill, to his credit, makes it possible to deal directly with his position.
On another level there seems to exist a form of self-censorship which is all the more insidious because it operates under the guise of openly reporting the news. In an Irish Times article on the 2nd of October, under the title 'Working for common good to transform relations' Mary Minihan, reported on the comments of Dr Martin Mansergh at the previous Saturday's European Cross-Border Co-operation Conference. Of specific interest were Mansergh's views on the Good Friday Agreement. The most germane part of Minihan's article referred to Mansergh saying that 'Democratic decisions by the people, and nothing else, will determine the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, which will not be changed over the heads of the people of Northern Ireland without their agreement and participation.' This view is all very true, to the extent that it has been reported many times before. Considered the most nationalistic in orientation within the senior diplomatic echelons of Fianna Fáil, Dr Mansergh's reiteration of this point will no doubt cause some reassurance within the Unionist community.
But there is a dimension to the activity of Martin Mansergh which requires deeper analysis of his observations on such matters. He was after all the main point of contact between the Dublin government and the leadership of the Provisional Republican Movement at key points in the peace process. So considerable were his talents regarded in this respect that he was retained by three Taoisigh. Over the years he has provided a remarkably candid account of what, from a republican perspective, would be the limitations of the peace process. In 1995 he pointed out that a definition of self-determination existed in which partition would remain. In 1998 he contrasted William Drennan of the United Irishmen with Wolfe Tone, claiming that the former's constitutional vision of republicanism as distinct from Tone's had triumphed in the Good Friday Agreement.
Evident in an account by Ed Moloney of the Sunday Tribune, but absent from that of Mary Minihan, was a further elaboration of this theme. Moloney reported Mansergh as saying:
‘There is no evidence, let alone inevitability, from international experience that limited cross-border co-operation necessarily leads to political unification... North-South co-operation ... left to itself will develop, I suspect, along the lines of a compromise between two schools of thought to be found particularly both in the business and the more middle-of-the-road sections of political opinion... On one side are those enthused by the potential of an all-Ireland domestic market and for example the Dublin-Belfast economic corridor, without prejudice to existing constitutional arrangements. On the otherside ... Northern Ireland given the chance will develop a dynamic economy of its own as a regional economy within the UK and the EU, parallel to and to a degree in competition with the Republic's economy, with North-South co-operation playing an auxiliary rather than a determining role.’
This is a clear demonstration that at the senior levels of the Dublin establishment there is no belief that the Good Friday Agreement is remotely transitional to Irish unity. Surely comments of such strategic significance by such a centrally placed figure should not go unmentioned in any serious report. While sub-editing, rather than the particular journalist, may be responsible the suspicion remains that a conscious attempt is continuously being made to suppress the public's access to information.
In this respect it is instructive that a number of days prior to Mansergh's comments, Jane Fort, the US consul in Belfast, contacted Trevor Birney of UTV to complain about a broadcast on the importation by the Provisional IRA of arms from the USA to Ireland. Pointing out that damage could be caused if the broadcast went on air she claimed 'in Northern Ireland I have generally found journalists have been supportive of the peace process'. The clear message was that generally journalists tailor the news to bring it into line with the requirements of the peace process and any journalist unwilling to conform is not being helpful to the pursuit of peace. To his credit Birnie chose moral courage over short-term pragmatism, ignored her and put out the programme as planned.
Authority's view of a particular writer's contribution or otherwise to the peace process should never be allowed to shape public access to information. As the Irish Times columnist Breda O'Brien has remarked: 'People who are outside the inner circles and who are beholden to no one can act as important critical voices, or as advocates for those who otherwise would not be heard.'
Journalists like Ed Moloney and Tom McGurk have both fought admirably against political censorship, underlining their case with the assertion that censorship in the Republic helped prolong the conflict in the North. Without a willingness to ignore the political imperatives of the powerful, writers merely become an extension of those wielding such power and accomplices to their abuses.