The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Spot The Light

Anthony McIntyre • 21 December 2004

Border Bandits has a desperado ring to it which is probably why it was chosen as a title for the Spotlight documentary that recently shone its beam into the West Tyrone town of Strabane. When republican South Armagh refused to be paraded as a model of British defined normalisation it was labelled Bandit Country. The evocative inflexion signalled by banditry conveys a sense of society where the social law of gravity is lawlessness.

What made Strabane newsworthy, from the point of view of the programme makers, was its identification as the site of a high incidence of robberies over the past number of years. When the Blanket interviewed PSNI boss Hugh Orde and asked him about the campaign being waged against DPP members throughout the North he responded by saying he had on one occasion made a late night journey to Strabane to monitor the situation for himself. The Blanket hadn't specified Strabane; the town was already taxing the mind of Hugh Orde. A location meriting chief constable's time was nominating itself as a candidate for concentrated police and media attention. Not much to feign surprise at then when Spotlight turned up.

So did the much trumpeted BBC exposé leave the public better informed about what agencies were behind the Strabane incidents or was it the type of one eyed journalism we have come to identify as being generically inseparable from the peace process?

Border Bandits seemed preoccupied with the IRSP's Willie Gallagher. It left little room for doubt as to whom it had elected as prime suspect. Gallagher's own party has alleged that the programme makers 'deliberately and maliciously inferred through inference, innuendo, omission and half-truths that Willie Gallagher and the INLA were behind all of the robberies outlined in the programme.' Yet any one who is even remotely tapped into the sub-discourses in Strabane knows - as must the programme makers if they were serious in their investigative technique - that a number of armed organisations in the border town are suspected of being behind the robberies including two of the various self-styled IRAs - Provisional and Continuity. Watching this documentary would not, however, have led a viewer to conclude this. Featured on the programme was a young couple who had been held hostage during a robbery at a bank in nearby Lifford. No mention was made of the fact that during a subsequent bail application by a person charged in connection with the hostage taking and robbery it was alleged that the operation was carried out by the Continuity IRA. In relation to the Iceland robbery the local Strabane Provisionals are being openly slagged, 'buy one get one free.'

Like much journalism hobbled by the peace process it seems these are matters best not aired in public. Support the peace process and you can rob the country blind - oppose the peace process and both the police and media will hound you. But it can hardly be robbing per se that they are concerned about. Their concern is calibrated in direct proportion to whether those robbing support the peace process or not.

The manner in which the programme makers went about making the documentary raises cause for concern. According to local Strabane republicans the opening Spotlight gambit was to inform them that a documentary was to be constructed detailing community attitudes towards the PSNI and the DPPs. However, the IRSP allege that 'a contact in the BBC informed us of the true intentions of the programme' - which was to do a 'hatchet job' on Willie Gallagher, a former republican prisoner and a subject of documentaries stretching back to the 1970s. Shining the spotlight on murky areas within society is a vital function of any media worth its salt. Often, surreptitious methods have to be employed. But when the media oversteps the mark to the point that because of the methods it uses it becomes untrustworthy, it produces a situation whereby 'whistleblowers' and others who can increase public awareness will not come forward. No matter how honourable the motives of journalists on the job, trading trust in for a scoop merely clogs up the system of newsgathering further down the line. What is the next republican approached by Spotlight going to think?

Willie Gallagher readily accepts that a 'flippant' comment by him in the wake of a robbery at Strabane's Ulster Bank branch has brought a torrent of unwanted attention down on his head. His 'good luck' to the robbers remark was made, he claims, solely to rub the noses of the PSNI in it for having raided his home and arrested him. Nevertheless, the former republican prisoner and hunger striker was clearly angry at the BBC's Spotlight team which he alleges misled him. Gallagher argues he would have no problem appearing on documentaries and in fact assisted Spotlight's Kevin Magee on previous occasions. However, once he came to believe a 'hatchet job' was under way, he was not willing to place his head on the block for the axe man.

Gallagher was also scathing of Sinn Fein's Pat Doherty who appeared on the programme to bewail that despite the dogs in the streets knowing the identities of those behind the robberies the police had made no arrests. Which, in keeping with Sinn Fein's approach to virtually everything, is not altogether true. Local Sinn Fein Chairman Jarleth McNulty publicly complained in the media about the arrests of five Sinn Fein members for the Iceland robbery. According to Willie Gallagher, Pat Doherty 'knew before he was interviewed that the programme was a felon setting exercise against myself and either wittingly or unwittingly facilitated and contributed to that agenda.' Now why would that surprise anyone? Old Policeman Pat has consistently wanted the robbers that do not belong to his party brought to book. Hush - no mischievous probing; robbing for the peace process is okay. It is said that Policeman Pat's party will even force others to cough up the mortgage for you if you are caught.

Ultimately, Gallagher contends that 'British Military Intelligence and PSNI Special Branch have been involved in a concerted campaign of demonisation, marginalisation and isolation of anti-Belfast agreement republicans which has been aided and abetted by some sections of the media.' As a result, the IRSP fears that Gallagher is being set up for arrest or worse. Given the PSNI proclivity for going after republicans that will not shortly be queuing up to join it, the party's fears are understandable

Strabane is one of the relatively few non-unionist areas not to have fallen to Adams' nationalists. Recently the IRSP convened a rally which brought 1000 people onto the streets. Unheard of for an event not organised by the Provisionals. The INLA and the Real IRA clearly have a significant presence in Strabane. The only republican lifer released under the Good Friday Agreement to subsequently have his licence revoked without currently facing any charges is from the town. Strabane is also the hub of anti-PSNI campaigning. According to the IRSP five of its activists have been charged only to have the charges withdrawn at a later date. The party claims that this is tantamount to British state policing of anti-agreement republicans. It points to a host of other cases from Tyrone, Armagh and Derry where the PSNI falsified evidence to fabricate cases against anti-agreement republicans.

Many robberies take place throughout the North. But for some reason the policing function - in its wider sense which involves agencies other than the police - has homed in on Strabane. There appears to be an attempt to create a moral panic which in turn will heighten public tolerance towards state abuses as the policing agencies attempt to close down an obstinate area. It suggests that the British state, aware that the Sinn Fein leadership will finish off shafting republicanism, is determined to ensure that no republican acorns lie around from which republican trees might once again grow.

Against such a background, the media can perform a vital democratic function by monitoring the centres of power rather than merely serving them. Its outlets should address themselves to all abuses of political power and not merely manipulate representations of events through a peace process prism that shines light only on activities judged unhelpful to the powers behind the peace process.




Index: Current Articles + Latest News and Views + Book Reviews + Letters + Archives

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

21 December 2004

Other Articles From This Issue:

3rd Intl. Conference Against Isolation: Speech by IRSP Delegates
Liam O Ruairc and Gerard McGarrigle, IRSP

Spot the Light
Anthony McIntyre

Unionism in the Dáil
Dr John Coulter

Let's Get Penitent!
Brian Mór

Street Seen Sleeping Bag Appeal
Jon Glackin

Life Among the Ruins: The Peru Reader
Seaghán Ó Murchú

Listen to Sharon's Little Helpers
Paul de Rooij

16 December 2004

Failed Entity
Michael Benson

Out of the Ashes
Brian Mór

Identity Crisis
Mick Hall

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
Seaghán Ó Murchú



The Blanket




Latest News & Views
Index: Current Articles
Book Reviews
The Blanket Magazine Winter 2002
Republican Voices