The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

St Joseph Patron Saint Of The Peace Process

Television news provides no more than a kind of child's picture book of almost wordless moving images calculated to stir the emotions rather than the intellect - Ronald Payne

Anthony McIntyre • 14 December 2004

It can't be easy to create a useless documentary about Joe Cahill, but DoubleBand has managed it. This reworking of a biting Eamonn McCann dismissal of Brendan Anderson's book on the life of the former Provisional IRA boss should be about as much as last week's hagiographical eulogy broadcast on RTE merits. Its content is certainly deserving of no more. Its construction, however, invites a longer look as it offers a window on the world of media in the era of the peace process.

How has Cahill achieved in death something which eluded him in life - a candidacy for sainthood? Anderson made him the Venerable Joe, and then DoubleBand takes matters a step further by making him the Blessed Joe. The journalism employed in the Holy Joe enterprise up till now falls far short of serious despite its chosen topic having had such tumultuous consequences for so many. Consequently, to invite The Hole In The Wall Gang to complete the process of sainthood, while not disrupting the narratorial flow thus far, might seem a touch profane in the midst of such sacristy.

Hidden History - Joe Cahill: IRA Man went down well in those parts of West Belfast - the same parts where it is believed decommissioning of IRA weaponry never took place - that viewed it. The most negative comment emerging from Sinn Fein quarters to come my way was that the programme was bland and said little that was new. A former prisoner praised RTE for at last having caught itself on to the point of giving a republican perspective on events. While that impression failed to leap out at me from the television screen, I would be hard pressed to make a case that RTE has not been beguiled by the peace process. Former Fine Gael leader Michael Noonan openly stated what has long been observed: 'even distinguished reporters kind of just nod their heads.' No better example than that of Pat Kenny's 'Mate Mate' Show. A begrudger alone would contend that Gerry Adams did not perform remarkably well on it last Friday. He carries himself with considerable aplomb every time he is on it. But that hardly excuses the presenter drooling over him.

Elsewhere, outside of Sinn Fein environs the response to the Cahill eulogy was different. 'Adulatory', 'pious nonsense', 'sucking up' - all terms that figured in viewers' descriptions of the depiction of the one time gallows contender.

But such is the poor health of public broadcasting, made anaemic by the vigour being drained from it by the needs of the peace process, it was entirely consistent for RTE to broadcast a 'mockumentary' that scoffed at serious investigative journalism and which came replete with all the intellectual creativity that would flow from a pencil with a rubber at either end.

Billed as 'for the first time, the dramatic history of the real Joe Cahill', the outcome of this production was to reinforce another myth of the peace process - that Joe Cahill was in some way pivotal to it, a conscious actor who understood it and was central to its every meander, rather than being, as his critics would contend, a mere stooge of Gerry Adams. For labouring through this homily for an hour our reward was hardly the real Joe Cahill.

Some interviewees who were on, such as Marie Moore, had virtually nothing to say. Danny Morrison came on screen to inform the audience that chunks of Joe Cahill's life would remain undisclosed. No one would quibble with the former Sinn Fein Publicity Director on that. But what possessed the documentary makers to use up time just to tell us that there are aspects to Cahill that we may not know for quite some time? It would have been more purposeful to have filled in those gaps in the existing knowledge rather than tell us what we know already - that such gaps exist.

If we set aside the contributions of participants like Martin McGuinness and the 'pro-Joe' lobby, without in anyway prejudicing their validity, it is noticeable how a diverse collection of others, both commentators and political activists alike, were heaved into the Joe pot and stirred by the camera until the most bland and insipid of stews emerged. Ed Moloney, Tommy McKearney, Ruairi O'Bradaigh, Richard English and Eamonn McCann were weaved into the programme's underlying structure, and their sharp edges buffed down and marinated to the point of maximum flatness. The end result was a seamless narrative that managed to draw from a cacophony of diverse tones only one republican voice - Joe was a pretty sound sort of guy, a fatherly republican esteemed by his wider republican family whose role in supporting the new departure was crucial. A multiplicity of voices distorted and distilled down to a single echo chamber of the Gerry Adams line that without Joe Cahill there would have been no peace process.

The counterweight to this was not other republicans or even commentators but former members of the British security forces who fought against the organisation Cahill once led - Ken Maginnis and Kevin Sheehy. The viewer was invited to believe that here was a hero of the peace process whose main critics were old resentful securocrats still hankering for victory over a man who had come to embrace a constitutional path.

Even when it came to providing some pictorial backdrop the footage selected was of bombings from which Cahill was far removed in terms of personal culpability. Bloody Friday occurred almost a year after Cahill had left Belfast in the wake of a press conference in the immediate aftermath of internment.

It is here that the programme makers revealed that whatever their agenda it certainly was not balance. In the view of many of his comrades, Joe Cahill in August 1971 deserted his post as leader of the Belfast Brigade. It was common knowledge in Belfast republican circles at the time that Gerry Adams called for Cahill's resignation from the IRA because the volunteers in the city had lost confidence in their O/C. Men who were told by Cahill in 1971 they would see him in four days time had a long wait. Over two decades later he returned. While in the Republic he came across the late Albert Price, father of the republican volunteers Marian and Dolours. Cahill asked what Price was doing in Dublin, only to be met with a deadpan put down, 'I'm a coward Joe, just like yourself.' The manner in which Cahill was elevated into the prime leadership spot in the Belfast Brigade was also a source of resentment amongst his colleagues. Sean MacStiofain, his predecessor as the Provisional IRA's first chief of staff, informed his Belfast commanders that Easter 1970 would be an ideal time to recapture the spirit of 1916 by launching an armed insurrection. The city's leadership, aware more than most of the dire problem of weapon shortage, thought he was living in cloud cuckoo land and resolved to remove him and replace him with Dave O'Conaill who many Belfast republicans had known from Crumlin Road prison a decade earlier. Cahill, in the view of his colleagues on the staff of the Belfast Brigade, informed MacStiofain of the plot. Subsequently, when the Belfast IRA's leader, Billy McKee - a much more central figure in the heady formative days of the Provisional IRA - was arrested in the spring of 1971, another of the 'plotters', Seamus Twomey, who was set to replace McKee was by-passed. MacStiofain rewarded Cahill by appointing him leader of the Belfast IRA, which at that time earned the incumbent of the brigade O/C spot a place on the army council.

Other republicans resented DoubleBand's presentation of Cahill's non-role in the IRA's 1950s campaign. Rather than him merely taking no part in it as the documentary suggested, his critics contend that the Belfast IRA failed to play any part in the campaign because Cahill, as O/C of its then Belfast battalion, 'refused to fight.' As a suitable cover he allegedly concocted the fiction of an informer in the ranks which he sold to the GHQ. The latter then had the task of crafting the excuse of being sensitive to the sectarian passions that an IRA campaign in the Northern capital might unleash. The man allegedly selected as a convenient scapegoat was a 'solid IRA volunteer.'

As for Cahill's centrality to the peace process, nobody I ever met in the IRA took their cue from Joe Cahill in relation to it. And I discussed it with quite a few of its members. Volunteers confronted with uncertainty as the IRA slipped into ceasefire mode in 1994 looked to others 'in the know'; people 'we can trust' as a sort of beacon to guide them through difficult times. Martin McGuinness, Gerry Kelly, Brian Keenan were all sources of reassurance that things would not go down the Suwannee. Not once did anybody refer to Joe Cahill. Some familiar with events of the time claim that Cahill switched his support from war to peace solely on the basis of being offered free and safe passage to America.

Now, none of these perspectives on Cahill need be true. But that they exist and managed not to feature in a documentary on his life seems bizarre and begs the question, what were the motives of those involved in making the documentary? They can hardly claim not to have been provided with all the above material and more to boot.

When I was first approached and asked would I agree to be interviewed for the programme I assented after being told that one of the intentions of those behind it was to produce a countervailing view to 'Brendan Anderson's hagiography'. Dolours Price agreed to take part on the same basis. Other people, not republican, suspicious that an element in the DoubleBand team was determined to be nothing more than a Sinn Fein cheerleader had their apprehensions allayed by DoubleBand undertaking that the presence of myself and Dolours Price would ensure that a proper balance was achieved. On that understanding they agreed to take part.

As it turned out neither of the so-called 'critical voices' appeared. There is no reason for anyone interviewed for such a programme to feel that they should automatically appear in it. Often these things are a judgement call for those tasked with editing responsibilities. Dolours Price has since been informed by one of the DoubleBand team that both her and my own interview were 'poor.' That may well be true. It is possible that we have little experience in being interviewed, that neither of us really knew the subject matter, and that our views were represented by far more articulate and knowledgeable contributors able to tell us there were things about Joe that would not be brought to the fore. But if it were true, it didn't seem to sit well with DoubleBand telling me on the day of the interviews that they were delighted with the contribution, and then as I was about to leave the studio, asked me to step back in to do one more 'very revealing' session. Perhaps the interviewers had as little experience as myself in these matters and wrongly presumed my 'poor' contribution was high quality. Why, I wonder, are they making documentaries?

Such appalling hagiography has its place - in the Sinn Fein bookshop. Few would be surprised to see it labelled as Richard McAuley Productions. So amazed was I after having watched it that I contacted one of those who worked on it the following day to inquire how the anti-hagiography ended up being anything but. To my amusement I was told that both I and Dolours Price were angry people, absolutists who would never be happy if we couldn't control everything and get our own way. I was told to get it off my chest by writing about it on the Blanket where only those who think like me would read it. It was great stuff; quintessential party hackery. Just like being hectored by an irate Tom Hartley. I waited, hoping to be called a rejectionist and an enemy of the peace process. Much to my disappointment that little music to my ear's morsel was withheld. I put the phone down feeling that whoever scripted the diatribe may also have scripted the documentary. The language from both had a sui generis of its own.

Imagine my lack of surprise when I later learned that my heckler appeared on British television claiming that the Provisional IRA were pleading; 'please, please, please can we give our weapons away.' A word of warning before anybody starts finger pointing; it wasn't Catriona Ruane or Mary Lou McDonald.

DoubleBand was to Joe Cahill what Fox News is to the war in Iraq. Embedded reporters have on occasion displayed more objectivity. Despite the programme makers' pejorative comments on Brendan Anderson's book, Anderson never portrayed his work as anything other than allowing Joe Cahill to tell his story. In some ways it had the feel of a favour being done for an old friend. In hagiographical terms this documentary was infinitely worse precisely because it was snake oil dressed up as the antidote to hagiography.

Journalism should be, as Stephen Richter argued, about 'having the guts to stand up to the "big guys," not to go with the flow, but to challenge the powers that be - that's the distinguishing criteria for journalists all over the democratic world.' Not here, however, where the peace process has corrupted journalism and produced journalists against journalism. On occasion some have taken to describing their own colleagues as 'JAPPs - Journalists Against The Peace Process.' Others have admitted they would not report on events unhelpful to the peace process. During the reign of Section 31 a self-flagellating few could be found demanding that they themselves be censored. They now worship at the peace process altar. The journalistic watchword has become 'hush' not 'probe.' Moral blackmail is now a virtue - speak up and we will endanger the peace process; and, as Eamonn McCann says, find ourselves 'marked down as irresponsible, a danger both to ourselves and to society as a whole.' Myths do not merely go unchallenged but are reproduced. Too many journalists behave as players, not reporters. The peace process is a malignant virus infecting the processes of intellectual autonomy. Its stifling oppressiveness has forced investigative minds to wade through a quagmire of ethical dung, the obnoxious fumes of which they inhale and breath out again as news. Orwell argued that in a time of universal deceit the only revolutionary act is to tell the truth. Irish journalism will hardly be the vanguard of that revolution.

On viewing Hidden History - Joe Cahill: IRA Man, I was reminded of an observation once made by Rod Serling: 'It is difficult to produce a television documentary that is both incisive and probing when every twelve minutes one is interrupted by twelve dancing rabbits singing about toilet paper.' Even with the bonus of being unhindered by the rabbits, DoubleBand still found the task impossible. On reflection those behind the production might consider Voltaire's comment, 'To the living we owe respect, but to the dead we owe only the truth.' DoubleBand delivered nothing to either.






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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
- George Bernard Shaw

Index: Current Articles

16 December 2004

Other Articles From This Issue:

Failed Entity
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Out of the Ashes
Brian Mór

Identity Crisis
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Lights, Camera, Inaction
Jimmy Sands

St Joseph, Patron Saint of the Peace Process
Anthony McIntyre

Breeding Ground for Racism
Dr John Coulter

Torture in Chile
Tito Tricot

The Broom Flower: Robin Kirk's The Monkey's Paw: New Chronicles from Perú
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11 December 2004

Post-Debacle Stress Syndrome
Anthony McIntyre

Keeping the Lid on Pandora's Box
Davy Adams

Paisley's Guide for Penitent Provos
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Dr No Says No, Again; Dublin Wrong to Back Photos
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A Way Out of the Impasse
Liam O Comain

'Eternal Elves of the West'
Seaghán Ó Murchú

Bobby Tohill vs. The Andersonstown News
Liam O Ruairc

Peace Comes Dropping Slow
Brian Lennon



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