The Paper Wall, Censorship and Propaganda in the Anglo-Irish War

By: Tomás Aberneth

 Although its been out a few years, Ian Kenneally’s “The Paper Wall, Newspapers and Propaganda in Ireland 1919-1921” deals with issues of censorship, freedom of speech and propaganda that are as timely as ever.  The book reveals much of the attitudes of the British and self defined moderate Irish nationalists during the Irish War of Independence. 

It also reveals something of the attitudes underlying much of the current mainstream historical analysis of this crucial period of Irish history. 

 The book recounts the attempts, largely counterproductive, by the British to use coercion to prevent press coverage of the misconduct of the British forces during the Tan War.  Basic civil liberties, including freedom of  the press, were suppressed by the British.  Newspapers in Ireland were subject to censorship through the Defense of the Realm Act (DORA), then suppression and prosecution of the owners and editors of newspapers that printed anything unfavorable to the Crown Forces.  Republican or separatist newspapers were simply banned outright. Kenneally’s   book, however, does not focus on these small republican or separatist newspapers (sometimes called the “mosquito press).  Instead he focuses on three “moderate” nationalist or Home Rule papers, the Freeman’s Journal, The Irish Independent, and The Cork Examiner, along with two pro-British papers The Irish Times and the Times of London.  Even the three moderate Home Rule newspapers faced censorship, suppression and occasionally violent intimidation by British forces.  The Cork Examiner, among several other papers, for example, was suppressed for a period simply for printing a copy of the prospectus for the Dáil Éireann loan fund.   In late 1920 the owners and editor of the Freeman’s Journal were actually “court marshaled” by the British for publishing accounts of misconduct by the Crown Forces, accounts which appear to have been substantively correct.  The paper was fined and the owners and editor served jail time. 

 Newspapers that printed anything critical of British conduct or British rule during this  period also had to contend with “unofficial” reprisals.  The Freeman’s Journal’s telegraph wire to London was cut in apparent retaliation to coverage by the Journal of a successful IRA hunger strike.  Around the same time as the “court marshal” the Journal’s premises suffered a series of violent attacks, including one attack in which explosives were thrown into the paper’s office.  Kenneally reports that these attacks on the Journal by the British nearly crippled the Journal and did, for a time, hinder its reporting. 

 Kenneally points out that republicans were also engaged in attempts to suppress the press.  The IRA attacked the offices of the Irish Independent when that paper criticized the attempted ambush of Lord Lieutenant French.  In late 1920 the same Cork Examiner that had been suppressed by the British was attacked by the IRA , causing severe damage to the printing machinery. In Cork , the IRA also attacked the premises of the Skibbereen Eagle and the Cork Constitution.  The editor of the Constitution was “ordered” to leave the country, but refused.  Kenneally points out that at least some of the TDs approved of these attempts at suppression of a free press.  Overall, however, he finds that most of the attacks or attempts of suppression were the results of British actions during this period.  The lesson to take from these examples is still a timely one.  Men with guns have a tendency to use those guns to try to suppress information they don’t agree with. 

 These nationalist papers, therefore deserve credit for resisting these attempts at intimidation.  Journalists then, as they still do know in parts of the word, faced official crackdowns, arrest and imprisonment as well physical violence.  What was perhaps most surprising, however, was the strong stand that these moderate nationalist papers initially took against the partition plan contained in the British Government of Ireland Act of 1920.  These papers called the British plan to partition Ireland “offensive” attempt to “dismember” the country and rejected any plan that would break the unity of the country.  Of course, as we know, although Kenneally does not discuss in his book, the moderate nationalist press would not remain long steadfast in either its opposition to partition or in its commitment to fighting censorship of the press once the Free State came into being.

The book also covers the pro-British press; the ultra-unionist Irish Times and the slightly more moderate Times of London.  The Irish Times not only did not criticize British suppression in Ireland, it continuously defended or excused the actions of the Auxiliaries and the Black and Tans.  It called, in fact, for more stringent measures to be used against the Irish people.  It often cast doubts on the culpability of Crown Forces in reprisals and outrages even when it was clear that the Crown Forces were in fact responsible.  The Irish Times let its political biases impair its journalist obligation to provide accurate news.   That the Irish Times was completely out of touch with what was going on around them can be seen by the fact that their editorial on the meeting of the First Dáil Éireann, the democratically elected national assembly of the Irish people, was titled “Cloud-Cuckoo Land”.  The Irish Times also demonstrated its lack of prescience when it declared at the same time that  “already popular opinion was beginning to rally to the side of the forces of order, sanity and law” just as the War of Independence was beginning.  Of course, for the Irish Times, the forces of “law” referred to British law.  An Irish National Assembly had lawfully declared Ireland an independent Republic.  For the Irish Times, however, the democratic will of the Irish people did not matter. 

 This, in fact, is what the Irish Times thought of the ability of the Irish to self-govern::

 “Can a people still in the nursery, mentally and morally be allowed to govern itself, either in much or in little?  If the thoughtful Irishman replies:’ This play-acting is only the work of a few youthful irresponsibles’, the world will say:  You give the children a majority of your suffrage:  You place them in control of your municipal affairs.”

Whatever the current status of  Irish Times, its bigoted attitudes and compromised reporting during this period was inexcusable and should be seen as a stain on its  journalistic record.  But statements about Irish people being in a mental and moral nursery are helpful in shedding light onto what was really behind the decision to impose partition on the Irish people against their will.

Simply put, the Irish “native” population was not considered fit to govern those who were of “British” origin, i.e the unionist population of the north-east of Ireland.  The so-called “two nations” theory put forward by revisionist historians to justify partition doesn’t explain why forcing the nationalist population of six counties in the north-east to live under unionist rule was more preferable to having unionist in the north-east of the country live united, federal republic.   Why in other words, did it have to be that the nationalist population and not the unionist population that would be in the minority?

Nationalists , moreover, did at least offer to implement safe-guards to protect minority interests, something that unionists notably did not do.  Kenneally does in fact offer quotes from the Irish Independent about safe-guarding minority interests in a united Ireland.  Kenneally also points out that the Independent “reminded its readers that no ‘Nationalist Leaders’ had emulated the ‘degrading standard set by Sir Edward Carson when he urged his followers to emphasize the religious issue.”  Kenneally is not reluctant to point out British misconduct in Ireland throughout his book and does not fit simply into a revisionist historian label.  Yet he does not explore some of the logical questions that his book raises as to the mindset behind partition.  Like many current historians, he seems to simply accept the “inevitability” of partition.  Indeed he refers to the entirely justifiable objections expressed by the Irish Nationalist press to partition as a “fixation”.  If anything, however, it appears that the Nationalist press understated the dreadful consequences of British imposed partition.

 But it was in their refusal to stand by the attempts of the Irish people to build a republican  counter-state that the papers such as The Freeman’s Journal, The Cork Examiner and The Irish Independent really let down the national movement.  None of these papers were as derisive as the Irish Times with its reference to the Republican Dáil Government as “Cloud-Cuckoo Land”, but none of them stood up forthright for the lawful government of the Irish people.  Of course, republican newspapers such as the Irish Bulletin, the newspaper of the Republic’s Publicity Department, were banned and their premises, whenever located, would have been destroyed.  This, however, does not seem to be the reason for the failure of the nationalist papers to stand for full independence of their country from foreign rule.  The Freeman’s Journal, for example stated just days after the first meeting of Dáil Éireann in January 1919, that if the Dáil were serious in their objective of establishing an Irish Republic then ‘we are on the eve of one of the most tragic chapters in the history of Ireland.’ So much for giving the Republic a chance. Throughout the Tan War these “nationalist” newspapers repeatedly stated not only their willingness, but their seeming desire, to accept so measure of Home Rule over The Republic. Kenneally seems to adopt the same point of view.  

 Of course the suppression of the republican press by the British authorities meant that the only choices offered up in the large circulation Irish press was either Home Rule or the continuation of British rule.  Then as now the mainstream press was intent on limiting the choices available to the Irish people.  All of the mainstream Irish press of course went on to support the Treaty and the Free State.  With both, of course, came the partition that these same papers had once deemed unacceptable.                

 For those not resigned to the partition of Ireland, the question is what lessons can be learned from the propaganda battles of the 1919-1921 period.  Republican publicists and journalists had a fraction of the resources of the British, they were constantly on the run,  trying to evade capture by the British.  Yet it is generally acknowledged, including by Kenneally, that they did a far better job than the British on the propaganda front during the War of Independence.  Kenneally gives the Irish credit for hewing closer to the facts than their British counterparts, which gave the Irish greater credibility in the long run.  Of course the Irish had one main advantage, the obvious justice of their cause.  The Irish were attempting to exercise their right to self-determination, the same right that supposedly been the cause of the victorious allies in the recent World War.  The British, on the other hand, were trying to justify the suppression of this right to self-determination.  The hypocrisy of the British position on Ireland was too obvious to pass unnoticed by any fair minded observer.  Had the British accepted the democratic wishes of the Irish people, there would have been no partition, no Civil War and no Northern Ireland. The reality that partition was imposed on Ireland against the democratic wishes of the Irish people and that is was based on conceptions of Irish inferiority does not change with the passage of time.  Whether or not the Irish people wish to accept a political entity that was founded in negation of their democratic wishes and based on ideas of Irish inferiority is up to them.   But the attitudes and mindset that lead to partition should not be sidestepped by historians of the period.

 Kennealy’s book does indicate that the Irish were more aware of the need to win  “hearts and minds” during the War of Independence than their British counterparts.  Effective government by the Dail counter-state was one of the most effective methods of gaining support for the Republican cause.  As Kenneally points out, it was this counter-state that was most damaging to the Union.  Kenneally quotes a Limerick unionist as follows:

 “Sinn Fein rules the Country and rules it admirably…The fact is that everybody is going over to Sinn Fein, not because they believe in it, but because it is the only authority in the Country; and they realize that if their lives and property are to be secured they must act with Sinn Fein”

 Conversely certain actions by both the British and Republican forces could and did generate negative publicity and weaken their respective causes. The brutality of the Crown forces, their willingness to target civilians, burn and destroy property, torture prisoners and disregard the rules of war was probably the primary reason why the nationalist press gradually moved closer to the Sinn Fein position during the course of the war.  This shift by the nationalist press likely influenced the general nationalist population, further alienating it from British Government in Ireland.  The fact that the British forces were operating in violation of the democratic wishes of the Irish people only made their conduct more egregious.  The IRA, in contrast, although lacking in some degree effective civilian control, was defending the Republic established by the Irish people.  Still, certain actions by the IRA, including their sporadic attacks on the press,  also roused concern from the nationalist press and undoubtedly made nationalist Ireland more anxious to end the conflict with Britain regardless of the terms.  The lesson to be learned from this period, therefore, is that any cause will be associated with, and can be damaged by, the methods used to advance that cause.

 The British have clearly gotten more clever and more adept in their propaganda efforts, witness for example, how effectively they stage managed the visit by Elizabeth Windsor to the Garden of Remembrance.  They have effectively co-opted the mainstream Irish and indeed world media. They have managed to push any discussion of the undemocratic foundation of Northern Ireland out of the discourse in their long term strategy of normalizing the British presence in Ireland.  For their part, therefore, Republicans will have to improve their own efforts.  First they must avoid any counterproductive actions that weaken their potential support.  How then, can support be garnered?  First the Irish people must be made aware that they do in fact have the right, if they wish to exercise it, to self-determination. This means bringing to the fore the actions and attitudes that led the British to impose partition on Ireland in the first place.  Also required is a positive vision for the future.  Eire Nua , a proposal for a federal Ireland based on the four historic provinces of Ireland, with constitutional protection of rights for all, is that positive vision.  Certainly, given the recent revelations about NSA and British GCHQ warrantless spying, and the use by the British of an “anti-terrorism” law to arrest the partner of one of the journalists who broke the NSA story, the need of the people of Ireland, north and south,  for strong guaranteed protections of their civil liberties is clearer today than ever.    If the right lessons from the past are learned, popular support can still be mobilized to challenge the status quo can and to offer up a positive vision of an All Ireland Republic.