Sinn Fein broadcasting ban lifted twenty years ago today

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On this day twenty years ago, the British government lifted the broadcasting ban on voices of Sinn Fein and paramilitary groups which had been adopted six years previously.

The ban had proved hugely controversial as journalists and the media argued that it made reporting on issues in Northern Ireland near impossible.

The ban was implemented following an intense few months of Troubles-related violence, including the Ballygawley bus bombing.

In October 1988, Home Secretary Douglas Hurd announced a ban which prevented the UK news media from broadcasting the voices, though not the words, of primary target Sinn Fein and ten Irish republican and Loyalist paramilitaries.

At the time Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher applauded the ban saying that it would “deny terrorists the oxygen of publicity”.

There was uproar at the decision especially as three years previously the National Union of Journalists had held a one-day strike, over the temporary blocking of a documentary featuring Martin McGuinness, which saw them walk out in protest that the BBC’s independence was being undermined.

The restrictions were even applied to television drama, with Tom King, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, even ordering Channel 4 to cancel an episode of a US drama which featured a story about a fictional IRA gunrunner.

Mother Ireland, a documentary about women and Irish nationalism that included an interview with Mairead Farrell, who had been shot dead in Gibraltar, was also banned.

In 1994, Thatcher’s successor John Major was under pressure as the Irish government had repealed their own similar legislation. However, his Conservative party were adamant that Sinn Fein should not be given the publicity they thrived and they felt were not entitled to.

In May of that year the National Union of Journalists went to the European Commusion of Human Rights arguing that their freedom of expression was being breached by the British government, but the case was rejected.

Following the declaration of the first IRA ceasefire, the UK ban was lifted a fortnight afterwards on September 16 1994. Martin McGuinness gave a direct interview to Ulster Television shortly afterwards.

Gerry Adams said, “Over 20 years of political censorship has served to stunt any hopes of a resolution of the conflict. It has denied the right of information. Good riddance.”

 

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