RTÉ WERE REFUSED an exemption which would have allowed it to broadcast interviews with members of Sinn Féin during the 1983 British elections.
Papers released under the 30 Year Rule document the decision-making process at Cabinet level.
Under Section 31 of the Broadcasting Authority Act, television and radio stations were forbidden from broadcasting the voice of Sinn Féin members to block organisations that “seek to overthrow the State through violence, incite crime or endanger the State’s authority in any way”. The law was implemented in 1971 to limit the IRA’s access to media.
In Britain, the rule was subverted by the BBC which used actors’ voices and dubbing techniques to repeat interviews and speeches word-for-word. This was not allowed in Ireland as the government maintained the ban covered such actions.
In May 1983, RTÉ sought an exemption to the rule for the duration of the elections in Britain. The broadcaster said its editorial staff was put on the back foot in terms of covering the event because the BBC and IBA planned to allow participation by Sinn Féin.
The chairman of the RTÉ Authority said the restrictions placed his journalists in a “very invidious” position, not only because of its rivals’ tactics, but also because of the “very widespread availability of [BBC] signals throughout the Republic”.
He also told the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs that his reporters in Belfast would be constrained because they were precluded from conducting interviews.
Not for nothing…
Minister Jim Mitchell had plans to allow the exemption once the party made a public declaration that they accepted the “authority of the State, its institutions and disavow the use of violence for political ends”.
A year previous, the Supreme Court had overturned a High Court ruling which would have quashed the rules prohibiting broadcasts. The presiding judges said there is a constitutional obligation on the State to ensure that the organs of public opinion are not used to undermine its authority.
In the view of the court, which was referenced in a memo from the Department of Posts and Telegraphs, it was “clearly the duty of the State to intervene to prevent broadcasts on radio or television which were aimed at securing or advocating support for organisations which seek by violence to overthrow the State”.
In the same year, Sinn Féin passed a motion that all candidates are “unambivalent in support of the armed struggle”.
Mitchell agreed with some of the reasons about why the ban should be temporarily lifted. He said the general aim would be to allow “maximum freedom” in broadcasting and that restrictions on that freedom should only be imposed for “grave reasons”.
However, in a memo to the Taoiseach’s department, he said he believed the the ban should continue to be imposed unless Sinn Féin acceded to his request.
He also mentioned that it was “embarrassing” that British authorities were allowing the broadcasts but added that this did not justify a similar action in Ireland.
The issue was discussed at cabinet on 24 May 1983 and it was decided that the Minister should refuse the request without question.
Mitchell issued a statement to explain his decision, outlining that he “took account of the support for violence required of Sinn Féin candidates”. He quoted the Supreme Court judgement which highlighted that “a democratic State has a clear and bounden duty to protect its citizens and its institutions from those who seek to replace law and order by force and anarchy, and the democratic process by the dictates of the few”.
The Sinn Féin broadcast ban was lifted in 1993 as part of the Peace Process.
For further study, see National Archives 2013/100/1045