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Haughey meeting with TV deflector group could give them 'veneer of respectability', officials warned

The Deflector Association of Munster strongly opposed the Government’s introduction of MMDS broadcasting.

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TAOISEACH CHARLES HAUGHEY was “strongly” urged to reject meeting with “illegal” TV providers in 1989 amid fears the State’s new cable television system could be compromised. 

The Multi-point Microwave Distribution System (MMDS) – a wireless communications technology  – was an alternative method of receiving cable television introduced in Ireland in 1990. 

As the Government geared up to introduce MMDS in 1989, concerns were growing from a group in Munster which, for several years, had helped people in rural communities receive multi-channel television, albeit without Government sanction. 

The Deflector Association of Munster – representing community groups from Cork, Kerry, Tipperary, Waterford and Kilkenny – was one such group. 

The Secretary of the Deflector Association wrote to Haughey in February 1989 requesting an “urgent meeting” with the Taoiseach over the upcoming introduction of MMDS. 

“We are representative of communities who helped themselves by setting up deflector systems…when in many cases the cable companies refused to provide a service because there was not enough profit in it for them,” the Secretary wrote. 

“We now find ourselves in a situation that in the near future our systems will be taken off the air to be replaced by a technically dubious one which has no hope whatsoever of serving many of the people already receiving a signal.

“Many of the people in the areas we serve presently receiving the deflector signal are poor or unemployed and cannot afford the subscription (£25 per annum) as it is,” the Secretary told Haughey, adding “we are certain…you do not wish to deprive people of this very popular service.”

‘An Additional Veneer Of Respectability’ 

Deflector systems in Ireland – which usually operated by rebroadcasting British television signals – were an important issue throughout the 1990s as tensions rose between rural groups using these TV systems, the Government and cable companies contracted to provide MMDS. 

Document released under the 30-year State Papers rule reveal that, ahead of MMDS’ introduction, Government officials were keen to distance the Taoiseach from Deflector organisations. 

In response to the Munster Association’s request for a meeting, Haughey’s Private Secretary advised that the Taoiseach “should not meet this group” for that it would “inappropriate” considering the “illegal nature” of the Association’s activities. 

The Deflector Association’s signal operated on Ultra High Frequency which at the time was the only spectrum left for conventional TV in Ireland. 

Deflector systems in the 1980s were subject to heavy penalties, Haughey’s Secretary said at the time noting that “prior to Christmas there was heavy pressure generated” by illegal system operators to be excluded from government penalties introduced in late 1988. 

Minister for Communications Ray Burke TD said in the Dáil that he’d be disposed to amending legislation “to allow the pre-Christmas status-quo to prevail in relation to these systems.”

In other words, wrote Haughey’s Secretary, “they remain illegal but subject to ineffective penalties” until MMDS came into effect. 

The Deflector Association – the Secretary wrote – claimed Burke’s comments as a pre-Christmas “victory”, that Deflector groups “had semi-legal status” as a result and were “using this to consolidate their position with the public”.

It is strongly recommended that the Taoiseach should decline to see this Association. In the first place, they are people who are acting illegally. Secondly, a meeting with the Taoiseach will give them an additional veneer of respectability and credibility. 

After MMDS was introduced in Ireland in 1990, Cable and MMDS operators were awarded exclusive licences for regions in Ireland, investing millions in establishing cable and MMDS networks.

Despite this, illegal Deflectors were allowed continue to operate after community push-back. In 1997, Tom Gildea, a farmer from Co Donegal, was elected an Independent TD on one single issue – the legalisation of Deflector systems following the introduction of MMDS. 

By the time, it was estimated there were 100 illegal operators in Ireland. 

One of the major Government concerns in 1989, documents reveal, was that the State could be exposed to claims for “significant damages” from cable companies if it failed to tackle illegal Deflectors effectively, Haughey’s Secretary wrote. 

And, in 1999, Irish Multichannel – Ireland’s second largest MMDS operator – took legal action against the State over this failure, seeking £100 million in damages. 

In 2016, MMDS transmission was switched off following a 2008 EU directive. The MMDS broadcasting spectrum was re-allocated for mobile and broadband services.

Following years of public pressure, Ireland’s Deflector systems were eventually licensed in 1999 with the last Deflector licenses expiring in December 2012. 

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