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the broadcast ban

When Gerry Adams was played by an Oscar nominee, and the IRA weren't allowed talk about sausages

The UK’s broadcast ban was brought in 30 years ago – but lifted by 1994.

THE UK BROADCAST ban on Sinn Féin spokespeople, introduced 30 years ago, didn’t come entirely out of the blue.

There had been tensions between the government and journalists for years over how to cover the North – and there had even been something of a flashpoint just a few years previously, when BBC staff protested over the decision not to broadcast the documentary ‘At the Edge of the Union’.

The programme, which included scenes of Martin McGuinness’s family life, had been criticised by Home Secretary Leon Brittan, who said that transmitting it would be against the national interest.

The governors of the BBC held a meeting, and ruled that it couldn’t air. Staff, complaining of censorship, staged a one-day strike. The documentary was eventually aired, with only minor changes.

Douglas Hurd, the Conservative minister responsible for bringing in the ban on Sinn Féin and ten other organisations across the North in October of 1988, told the House of Commons:

Those who live by the bomb and the gun and those who support them cannot in all circumstances be accorded the same rights as the rest of the population.

Gerry Adams IRA Coffins Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams, pictured in 1988. PA Archive / PA Images PA Archive / PA Images / PA Images

The UK ban applied to the IRA, INLA, UVF, UDA and others in addition to Sinn Féin politicians. It covered face-to-face interviews on TV and radio – and broadcasters were initially left to their own devices when it came to interpreting the new rules.

Before very long, news producers and other programme makers arrived at the device of simply having an actor speak the part of the interviewee.


Over in RTÉ, by comparison, the rules were far more restrictive. Betty Purcell, a former reporter and producer at the national broadcaster, remembers how staff were told to obey “not just the letter, but the spirit” of the Section 31 ban.

Posts and Telegraphs minister Conor Cruise O’Brien had toughened existing restrictions in 1976 to ban spokespeople from Sinn Féin and other groups.

“RTÉ expanded that to include all members of the party,” said Purcell.

That resulted in “ludicrous incidents” whereby the leader of a strike at a Dublin Gateaux factory, Sinn Féin’s Larry O’Toole, was banned from speaking about the strike. On another occasion, said Purcell, a witness to fire in Donegal was not allowed on air.

“It was like a blanket of fear over the whole organisation,” said Purcell, who later brought a case against the legislation to Europe.

Journalists in the UK were “determined to oppose the ban” when it was brought in, she said.

They just took it as a freedom of expression issue, they didn’t have a lot of the baggage that had been used against me and others – were you a Provo fellow traveller? Were you dodgy on terrorism? Were you dodgy on violence? To them it was a work conditions issue and a freedom of expression issue.

There was a strong belief among ministers in the UK that something had to be done to prevent the Sinn Féin leadership from using the media to defend the actions and promote the cause of the IRA.

ed green / YouTube

Danny Morrison, who ran publicity for Sinn Féin in the 1980s and who is credited with coining the phrase “an armalite in one hand and ballot box in the other” argued that the ban was  ”a weapon of war used by the government”.

“There was total confusion” over how the new rules should be observed, Morrison said.

For years, as a result of the ban, viewers in the UK simply watched interviews with the likes of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness more-or-less as normal – except with actors reading their lines from a transcript.

Stephen Rea, who was among the actors to voice Adams in interviews, later told the Irish Times he tried to speak the lines “as clearly and neutrally as possible”.

Even so, according to Purcell, the practice of employing actors to get around the rule may have worked in favour of Sinn Féin.

It was probably hugely beneficial. Stephen Rea’s mellifluous and gentle tone could be heard intoning the words of Gerry Adams, who, as we know, has a much harsher Belfast accent.

The Hume-Adams talks were making progress throughout the period of the late 80s and early 90s – meaning an end to the conflict was beginning to appear more likely.

That, combined with the fact that the continued use of actors made the ban ripe for parody, made the rules look more and more untenable.

At one point, a BBC interview with Adams was broadcast on CNN in the US without anyone noticing his voice had been dubbed.

Britain’s Independent newspaper reported how, in 1993, the Sinn Féin leader had given an interview about the progress of his talks with John Hume in which he appeared, according to observers, “nervous, defensive and unconvincing”.

According to the paper:

Tony Hall, the BBC’s head of news and current affairs, believed the actor’s steady delivery crucially denied viewers the opportunity to judge Mr Adams for themselves.

A documentary about life in the Maze prison also underscored the absurdity of the restrictions.

The rules meant that programme-maker Peter Taylor was able to interview republican and loyalist prisoners in a personal capacity.

However, he had to switch to an actor’s voice when the IRA’s spokesman began to complain about the size of the sausage rolls.

An attempt to bring the British government to court on the issue, backed by the National Union of Journalists, failed in May 1994 – even though the Irish ban had already been lifted since the start of the year.

At that point, Adams had been allowed to visit the US after being granted a visa by the Clinton administration.

Joe Dwyer / YouTube

The IRA declared its ceasefire on 31 August of the same year. Just over two weeks later, the UK ban came to an end.

“The lifting of the ban ends one of the most embarrassing attempts to censor coverage of the most important domestic political story of post-war years,” Channel 4 CEO Michael Grade said.

Paul Chinnery, a solicitor who had unsuccessfully challenged the ban in Europe, observed:

We’re pleased that the government and Prime Minister now feel the British public can be trusted to listen to the words of Gerry Adams.

Read: RTÉ refused an exemption on Sinn Féin broadcast ban >

Read: Boris Johnson is directly related to this mummified Swiss woman >

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