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This is the text of a chapter published in The Contested Identities of Ulster Protestants, edited by Paul Burgess and Gareth Mulvenna.

Over the last four years I have been invited on about twenty occasions to meet with groups of Belfast loyalists and to provide them with training in presentation and interaction with the media. Sometimes my role has been simply to give them a talk about how the media functions; more often I have workshopped them in mock interviews and press release writing.

Some of these groups have been mixed, with members of different loyalist groups and even occasionally republicans present. Mostly they have been groups from one or other of the distinct loyalist factions, either UDA or UVF. Usually the group has consisted of between four and eight people, more men than women and across a wide range of ages from about thirty to over eighty.
This experience of meeting and interacting with these groups has led me into a better understanding of Belfast loyalists than I might otherwise have.
Some of the people I have met have been in other groups that have interacted with professionals and members of other communities. They have invariably always been brought together by a funded community group or charity or local government scheme.
Some of the meetings I have had have coincided closely with eruptions of protest or violence which people attending the groups have been helping to plan or have been engaging in.
One of the consistent impressions made by these groups, across all of them, is a sense of grievance. These loyalists feel that they have been cheated. They believe that republicans are more favoured by the political establishment and the media.
They believe that the main Unionist parties have deserted them.
They distrust the media which they believe is only ever interested in belittling them.
Though they hold these convictions strongly they are not often persuasive or even well reasoned in the arguments they make in support of them.
Further, they are suspicious of those who do make strong reasoned arguments and often react as if some trickery is at work in the use of language which contradicts them.
They speak often like people who know they have been disadvantaged but don’t quite know how or by whom.
I was not surprised then by the reaction to the decision by Belfast City Council to limit the flying of the Union flag over City Hall and other public buildings. Loyalists rallied in ardent protest around an issue which was coherent and simple.
They argued that they were represented as British people by the Union flag and demanded that it be restored permanently.
The weakness in this argument, as a political move, was that it could not be met with the concession they demanded. A more politically astute movement would have sought an attainable goal.
Still, hundreds of people came out on winter nights to block traffic in Belfast, to confront the police and to risk ill health, injury and imprisonment. Many in the city responded with a sense that these protesters were stupid, committing themselves to a cause of no material value to themselves. They could not, however, dismiss them as lacking in energy and resolve.
It may be that loyalists have been outflanked by the peace process. Having endorsed it they find that they have no role within it. All that is required of them is that they be silent. Republicans who, like themselves, killed and bombed to make themselves heard, and thereby indispensable to a process for ending killing and bombing, now have partnership with Unionists in the Northern Ireland Executive.
Loyalists see a huge disparity of outcome here. That disparity arises primarily from the fact that Republicans attract votes while Loyalists do not. An irony for them to confront is that many of them do not vote at all and of those who do, most vote for parties other than those which represent loyalism.
Indeed, only one political party currently does represent loyalism and that is the Progressive Unionist Party, an offshoot of the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force. The Ulster Democratic Party which advanced the interests of the Ulster Defence Association has died for want of support.
The histories of the parties which sought to represent loyalism are fractious, tensions often having strained relations between the political activists and the militants.

I will try to represent the broader experience of meeting many groups with examples of things I have heard more than once. That way I hope I will be describing fairly representative behaviour and attitudes.
In no group, for instance, did I encounter any sectarian abuse directed at me or even voiced as contempt for Catholics in general. I did encounter comments about foreigners ‘taking our jobs’ but I also often heard thoughtful comments about the need to foster community relations.
It may be that the groups I met are not representative of loyalist community attitudes in that many of them will have been through the grant application processes for support from the state and public bodies. They will have been well exposed to more liberal cultural values that would not tolerate sectarianism or racism. But how then did any of us learnt to be more accommodating of difference other than by contact and discussion?
There is Billy. Billy is about thirty and he’s skinny. He gives the impression of being more naturally angry than playful. Presumably he wants to be here, but maybe someone has told him to come. When I ask the group for their opinions about the media he tells me this story.
“The Sunday World says I am a drug dealer and I can do nothing about it. I’ve spoken to my solicitor and he says he can do nothing about it.”
I ask him if he is a drug dealer and he says he isn’t.
I tell him that if a paper said I was a drug dealer I would sue. I could lose work through allegations like that being made against me.
“But you need money to sue and they’ve got bigger lawyers.”
No matter how long we discuss it he will not accept that the situation is other than that he is innocent and helpless. And what do I know? This may be how things are.
More likely, I suspect, he does have a place in the drugs business, though perhaps smaller than that attributed to him by the newspaper.
A similar issue arises during an exercise with Frank.
We have discussed a possible news story of interest to the group and I have set out the elements of it on a flip chart.
The story is that a fictional character, John K, has been arrested. His arrest has prompted press speculation that a supergrass trial may be under preparation. John K is a community worker. He served fifteen years in prison for a double murder in the early 1980s.
“How do they know that?” says Frank.
“Know what?”
“That he done time.” They don’t, of course. This is a fictional exercise.
“Well, newspapers and broadcasters keep files. Or maybe they just googled his name and it came up.”
“You see, that’s the bit I can’t stand”, says Frank. “They rake it all up on us but there’s no one saying what Gerry Adams did.”
“They might if Gerry Adams was arrested.”
But his main point is this: “They – the media – shouldn’t have the right to go back into your past. That’s private.”
“It’s hardly private”, I say, “if the past includes a prison sentence for murder.”
“But now he hasn’t got a chance when his case comes up.”
I tell him the case is not sub judice until John K is charged.
I talk the group through different possible media responses to the arrest of John K and ask them to consider whether they want to contact the media and try to contribute to the unfolding story.
I ask them to imagine an editorial team in a newspaper discussing how they might follow up the report of the arrest of John K.
Perhaps an editor will ask a security correspondent to write an analytical or speculative piece about the history of supergrass trials and their limited success rate. A reporter might phone round people in the UVF and ask them if people are going into hiding to evade arrest. A political correspondent might write a peace asking how this might or might not affect the peace process.
“Fuck them”, says Frank. “They are just making it up. And they twist everything.”
Then there is Keith. Keith is about twenty five. He might have been to university. He is comfortable in the company of Frank and Billy but he speaks better than they do and nothing in his manner is brusque or unnerving.
What would Keith do if he wanted to influence this unfolding story about John K and the possible supergrass trial?
“My big concern here is that we are getting trial by media and I want nothing to do with it.”
Well, I suggest, you might say that you don’t want people tried by the media. You might say that in a press release or letter to the media.
“Why would they listen to me?”
“Because they don’t have anything at all yet except speculation. Any quote from a concerned party might fill out a story.”
“Then the best thing for me to do is make it harder for them to have a credible story by staying out of it.”
This is a more reasoned approach than Frank’s but arrives at the same conclusion: have nothing to do with the media because no good can come of it.
This is the point at which I get them to write a press release. Some of them don’t see the point. Keith takes my side however and reminds them that this is a training exercise. He explains to me: “If it came to it, we would never be the ones to write a press release anyway. It would come from further up.”
The press release we devise is a statement from an imaginary loyalist group calling on the media to be more restrained in its coverage of the arrest of John K. He has not been charged with anything yet his past is being raked over and this has the potential to jeopardise his prospects of a fair trial. Besides, he is a respected member of the community and this is distressing for his family.
I get Diane to read it over. “Shouldn’t we say that this is internment?”
I say, “That depends on how you want to pitch it. Do you want people to read you as political campaigners for reform of the justice system or do you want to focus on the media. I would keep it simple and focus on the media.”
They agree to this.
Now we imagine that the press release has arrived on a news desk and a reporter phones you for further information. What are you going to say to him?
“I’m going to tell him to fuck off”, says Frank. “You’ve got the press release; that’s all you’re getting.”
What do others think?
Keith says: “We pooled our thinking on the press release. We made tactical decisions about how to pitch it. We don’t want to get drawn into other discussions or say any more. So Frank’s right. We don’t talk to the reporter.”
“If you say anything more they will just twist it.”
My plan is that they should talk to the reporter politely, using first names the way reporters always do.
I role play it for them: “Thanks very much for calling, Jean. We appreciate your interest in this story. What can I do for you? Our big concern is trial by media. If John K is going to be charged then let him have his trial in court by due process. It isn’t right that some of the papers have him damned already, is it?”
I’m asking them if it would hurt to be civil to the reporter and at the same time to stick to the line of the press release.
“I get it”, says Frank. “They twist it their way; we twist it ours.”
I say it is all about strategy and that appeals to the part of him that imagines he is a soldier.
Even though they have to be careful, in this approach, not to feed the reporter suggestions of other angles on the story, they don’t have to shut down the interview rudely.
But they also have to learn to anticipate what angles the journalist might find if they leave the agreed script. This requires them to think like a reporter and to do this they have to break out of their assumption that a prime objective of the media is to make loyalists look stupid.
They also have to recognise that every story fits into the context of the wider news agenda. The reporters will be asking themselves how this story fits into others.
We act out the conversation with the reporter and I show them where things can go wrong for them.
Reporter: “Do you think these arrests are unsettling the loyalist paramilitaries?”
Wrong answer 1: “Yes, some people are getting very annoyed and who knows what they’ll do?”
Possible headline: “Increased Threat from Loyalists Following Supergrass Arrest.
Wrong answer 2: “Well it’s made a lot of people nervous and they’re lying low.”
Possible headline: “Old Killers Back On The Run.”
Right Answer: “My primary concern is that the media shouldn’t presume John K is guilty and should know better than to risk prejudicing his trial.”
Possible headline 1: Touchy Loyalists Lecture Media on Justice: Look Who’s Talking!
Possible headline 2: Let Law Take It’s Course, Say Loyalists.

In all of these exercises it is emphasised that these tips on how to interact with the media do not guarantee fair coverage or predictable outcomes. However a long term relationship developed with the media through being civil and tactical builds up credit for those who engage, as reasonable people.

My sense is that even after some effort to persuade loyalists of this some were still resistant. The understanding within loyalist communities is that the media will always undermine them.
A corollary of that is that other groups, particularly Sinn Fein get treated more gently by the media.
Could it be, I ask, that Sinn Fein are just better at this stuff than you are? In which case the better image within the media is a reward for their persistent endeavours.
Some of these sessions were conducted during the flags protests. Several incidents in the media response to these protests were cited against me as evidence that the media is always unsympathetic to loyalists.
Inexperienced spokespeople were mauled in aggressive interviews.
So I suggested another exercise in which I would play – indeed overplay – the role of a radio presenter mocking and haranguing each of them in turn.
I advised them to agree and rehearse the line they would take in the interview and resolve not to be deflected from it. “If I say, ‘What gives you thugs the right to block the road?’ you will say, ‘The important thing here is the sense of insult felt in our communities.’ If I say, ‘Who they hell are you to complain about police brutality when you are only brutes yourselves?’ you will reply, ‘Our main concern is for the free expression of British identity in the institutions of government and the removal of any sense that one community here has scored over another.””
We played out these roles with me, at times, shouting at them and twisting their words, in some sessions dealing with the fear of supergrass trials, in some with the apprehensions about republican dissidents, in some with the flag protests. In all cases the issues we worked on were suggested by the loyalists themselves. My role was to show them what angles a journalist might take on these questions, and how they might direct the discussion back to their perspective when the only other alternatives were to disengage or get angry and lose the argument.
This exercise introduced a heightened level of drama and playfulness into the sessions. These exposed a division between those who could enter into the game with confidence and those who could not. I am always struck in these sessions by how rarely one can anticipate which will be good players.
Sometimes the more bullish men – the Frank types – were good at this, sometimes they were not. Sometimes the Diane was adept or thought she was but simply couldn’t play well enough not to be deflected. But this comes out in a lot of media training, the discovery that the people in a group best able to defend its interests may not be easy to identify and may often be the ones least inclined to take on the job.
There is a danger in these exercises that participants will conclude that they were right all along to fear and suspect the media.
As one put it: “The only thing that makes a story for them is us cocking up. We organise a street festival and bring in Catholic kids or whatever and they ignore us. Ten thousand people enjoy a parade and the media focuses on one incident of trouble.”
But their understanding of how the media comes to find the trouble at a parade is often naive. They speak as if they think the media may have flooded a parade with reporters looking for negative incidents to report. They overestimate the resources of the media. They tend to view it as a managed conspiracy against them and they make little or no distinction between the various outlets. Media, I tell them, is a plural noun.
Actually, I tell them, the media is also under resourced and, being human like yourselves, often as incompetent as yourselves.
Frank says: “How did they find out about that incident or this other incident?”
“Someone told them.”
“Who told them?”
“A man with a camera in one case. Maybe the police in another. Sometimes the reporter doesn’t even leave the office, just phones the police and asks if there was trouble and then just reports what the police say.”
“This is corrupt”, says Frank. “It is loaded against us.”
He thinks anyone can phone a reporter and tell any lie about loyalists and get into the media.
What I want him to see is that he could have a relationship with the media himself, if only to be called on occasionally to offer his own perspective.
I say, “Sinn Fein faced the media for decades being asked only about bombings and shooting and they developed a thick skin and a winning smile. You could have done the same. You still could.”

Afterthought: Some journalists might fear that work like this with loyalists encourages them to manipulate the media and evade awkward questions. That’s true, but it would only be bringing them a little closer to the level of competence in evasion and manipulation that is evinced by all other political groupings. It is the job of the journalist to work back through that to get at the story. An open society relies on their ability to do that. But in a milieu in which it is necessary for political groups to tool themselves up with the skills to defend themselves in the media little is served by one faction being conspicuously inept.

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Sinead Morrissey DLThis is a recording of Sinead Morrissey reading her rewrite of a canto of Don Juan as a satire on the financial speculation and threatened the Euro and the machinations to save it, primarily at the expense of Greece.

The recording was made at the Mountains To Sea festival in Dun Laoghaire on September 13, 2014.



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This is a recording of a debate organised by The Fred. The proposal, led by Green Party councillor John Barry is that Belfast can never be a cycling city.
He was opposed by Thomas MacConaghie.

I chaired and there was a great animated audience.

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Museum of the Troubles

Unionism has been strangely inept in the face of the confident republican assertion of the value of its tradition.

We saw this in the response to the Castlederg commemoration of the IRA dead and we see it in the discussion about the Peace Centre agreed for the Maze site, which the DUP is drawing back from.

History is now at the heart of political discord in Northern Ireland but nobody is talking about what that history was or what it means.

Republicans argue that there are two narratives and that Unionists just have to learn to live with the fact that the IRA dead are as worthy of respect in this society as the fallen of the Somme.

And Unionism won’t engage with the argument.

We see now the fruits of a hope that history could be forgotten.

To be fair, even John Hume, one of the founders of the Peace Process, envisaged that a line could be drawn on the past.

All funded public art in Belfast now is anodyne, avoiding all reference to history, with the one exception of the Titanic, which seems to represent a feeling that this city has suffered, while avoiding any mention of recent grief and loss.

And in the housing estates we get localised versions of history played out in murals.

Tourist brochures here say nothing of the Troubles and for want of proper investment in Troubles tourism, which could educate thousands every year, we get vivacious amateurs cornering that market. 

In publishing and drama and in broadcasting we get a general avoidance of the Troubles, largely on the understanding that no one wants to read about them anyway or see them on television. Which may be right.

But perhaps they should be encouraged to read about them and talk about them and be nudged out of an apathy about a past which defines us before ignorance about it chokes the political process.

Former IRA gunman and bomber Gerry Kelly is a prime example of a republican who is proud of his past and would repeat that past if the circumstances required it. And presumably he would, himself, be the judge of whether they did nor not. He believes that the IRA has worked wonders in transforming this society for the better. It may have been a slip of the tongue when he told Nolan that the IRA had won us the vote, but no one picked him up on it. It’s as if engaging with the detail of the Troubles would be the most tedious route to take in any discussion.

But if we avoid that discussion, the narratives of the paramilitaries and their marvellous achievements will prevail.

If Unionism doesn’t want this, it should not only be campaigning for a museum at the Maze but getting involved in shaping it.

I would go further and build a substantial exhibition displaying every element of the Troubles.

Not that we should be working to an official version, something Mike Nesbitt seems to want, just the inclusion of every possible aspect of the story.

For the best answer to Gerry Kelly or the sentimental Loyalists is simply the fullest possible audit of the Troubles; an account of who did what. We have the closest thing to this in the book, Lost Lives.

But I am thinking of something like the Martin Luther King museum in Memphis Tennessee which provides a walk through history of racism in the southern states, video loops of newsreels, a bus like the one Rosa Parks refused to get off, posters and letters, leading to the balcony on which King died.

I would have the prison cell with the smeared walls. I would have models showing what a kneecapping looks like. I would have a fearsome paratrooper with blackened face kicking in a door. I would have the tally of actions to show the human complexity, all of which refutes the nonsense that this was a clash of military powers. I would have images of the Shankill Butchers, of the market stalls and counterfeited goods, of the honey trap women who lured soldiers to their deaths on the promise of sex, of the ordinary businesses blown up, the hair dressers and the bars, the taxi drivers killed in ‘dial a target’ operations. I would have the snipers and the bomb makers, the mercury tilt-switch bombs, the pirate radio stations, the letters and magazines and posters, the police and army suicides, the orphans and the ill.

I would play the taped confessions those shot as informers had to make before they died, and highlight the evidence on those tapes that the victims were rehearsed in what to say.

I would show the bombs with their timers nailed down so that couriers couldn’t stop them going off. I would show how half the IRA dead in the first years killed themselves carrying those bombs or with guns that went off in cleaning or training.

I would show what an affliction paramilitarism was on the communities that had to endure it.

I would have the journalism that got it wrong and the journalism that got it right, the smug politicians and the crafty ones, those implicated by action and by inaction. And the churches and the mediators and the go betweens, some with clean hands some not. The tricks of Special Branch and the cynicism.

We have tried leaving the past behind and it hasn’t worked.

Better now to resurrect the whole thing in a museum so that people know what it was that happened here.

And sure, tourists would pay to see it, wouldn’t they?

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Pardon Me

One of the shocks of the last week was that when our politicians are most exercised they are least credible.

It’s is just a fact of life in the new Northern Ireland that people have switched off their interest in the passionate wrangles across the divide. Those who have stopped caring may be naive and hopelessly disengaged, or they may be the hope for the future. One thing is plain though, when Peter Robinson is spluttering, red in the face, and cold eyed Gerry Kelly is chewing a brick, many of us, perhaps most of us, cringe and look away.

One of the most surreal moments of this turbulent week was the switch of themes on the Nolan show on Wednesday night. Stephen magisterially silenced the round table raging about letters to On The Runs to introduce Strictly Come Dancing judge Bruno. And a show that had started with portents of imminent political calamity ended up with the corpulent presenter break dancing on the floor.

If the two themes fitted together it could only be from the perspective that Arlene Foster duelling with the Sinn Fein appointed hit man was light entertainment too. And it was.

Arlene was on sparkling form. She has never been seen to rage so grandiloquently, with such verve and speed of riposte. A Bruno type critique of her would say, ‘You were magnificent darling, and your partner in this dance to the death was so sultry and simmering with such suppressed rage. Oh you killer, Mr Kelly. You could fell me with a look.’

This had all started with the collapse of the prosecution of John Downey of Creeslough, charged with murdering soldiers and horses in Hyde Park in 1982. Mr Justice Sweeney ruled that a letter to Mr Downey, telling him, wrongly, that he was not going to be getting his collar felt, was effectively a pardon. He said that it was more important to defend the credibility of the public servants who had signed the letter, assuring him that he was not a wanted man, than to seek justice by proceeding with the charge. And he said it so well that the prosecution declined to appeal.

This was a shock for the DUP and others.

The immediate implications seemed truly shocking, for it was revealed that 187 people had received such letters. These were people who had come forward to say that they were living away from home, out of the reach of the law, on the assumption that the police wanted to arrest them.

Now, if you or I asked the police if they wanted us for a crime, say a murder, we’d expect that to raise their suspicions about us. But if you have been an old provie, it seems more likely to trigger a compassionate response and an impulse to absolution.

The DUP came out accusing the government of lying to them and others, like former Policing Board vice chair Dennis Bradley, emerged quickly to say they had known about the scheme all along and that they understood that the DUP had too.

Peter Robinson said that he would resign if there wasn’t a full judicial inquiry. Arlene Foster over-interpreted this for Nolan as a determination to resign if the letters were not rescinded.

Sinn Fein fielded Alex Maskey and Gerry Kelly to say this was all a fuss over nothing. These letters constituted individual arrangements with the NIO. No one had the right to see them, but they weren’t pardons, as such.

The Downey letter, however, had clearly worked to the same effect as an actual pardon, making a prosecution impossible, but the answer to that was that it had been issued by mistake.

There was another telling media moment when Wendy Austin yesterday spoke to Victims Commissioner  Kathryn Stone and journalist Chris Ryder and others. She assumed this was Ms Stone’s first experience of Stormont being on the brink. The point: it is old hat to the rest of us. For years this was all Stormont did: teeter.

The difficulty for Peter Robinson this time, despite his demand for an inquiry having been met, was that few really believed the substance of his grievance.

Facebook started to throw up evidence of past knowledge of OTR compromises.

The Queen’s mercy had been extended, paradoxically,  to the killers of Captain Herbert Westmacott, fourteen years ago! And the BBC had reported it. Jail breakers Angelo Fusco, Robert Campbell, Paul Patrick Magee and Anthony Sloan were told they wouldn’t even have to complete their two year sentences. The largesse of the government towards IRA men on the run had clearly extended to actual convicts, not just suspects. And everybody knew.

But there was evidence too that other old provies got no bye-ball, like Seamus Kearney, convicted in December of killing RUC Reserve Constable John Proctor as he visited his wife and new-born son in hospital.

There is obviously no blanket pardoning; but it is equally obvious that letters of clarification function like pardons when they are read in court, if they have been mistakenly issued, that is, to someone who is being sought by the police, like John Downey.

At least we will have an explanation of all that in May. It will have to be a good one.


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I’m lending my support to the blogger Alan Murray who is seeking legal aid to advance a claim of wrongful arrest against the police.
Alan was charged with harassment of people he had named in his amazing blog about the ruination of the Holy Land area of Belfast.
In all justice, he had to be acquitted or the right of bloggers and journalists to comment on public affairs would have been endangered.

If you are a working journalist who agrees with me on this, please sign the letter below and we’ll give it to lawyers supporting Alan Murray.

The acquittal of the blogger Alan Murray in July 2008 on Harassment Charges is a source of great relief to journalists. A conviction would have implied a threat to the freedom of journalists to do our job. Every time we criticised politicians or other persons of public interest, we would be looking over our shoulders lest we be cautioned or prosecuted by the police.
The bail conditions placed upon Mr Murray, subsequently overturned, were so draconian that he was not even allowed to mention the complainant on his blog or attend public meetings at which the complainant was present.
The police were exercising their powers to restrict free and legal expression and compounding the impression created by the unwarranted prosecution, that Mr Murry’s blogging was a danger to others. This is an especially sinister abuse of power by the police.
It is a matter of considerable concern that despite the acquittal of Mr Murray, other bloggers have been arrested under the Harassment legislation.

The use of Harrassment legislation against innocent bloggers exercising their rights to free expression is a matter for grave concern by all bloggers and journalists and all who value the freedom to report and comment on public affairs.

We believe that Mr Murray’s case against the PSNI for wrongful arrest, false imprisonment and malicious prosecution has merit and is very much in the public interest.

Signed:- Malachi O’Doherty

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Get me out of here!

I’ve been writing about the horrors of starting school

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Waiting for War in Benghazi

I called my guy in Benghazi again tonight. It was harder to get through this time.
He describes people who are afraid and excited at the same time, waiting to be attacked.

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Benghazi is peaceful for now and my contact describes how volunteers are tidying up and a committee has been formed to administer the city. But there is a dispute between some who think that they should return captured weapons to the commandos and trust them to provide protection and those who fear that once the weapons have been returned the commandos will attack.

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A phonecall to a protester in Benghazi, recorded on Sunday 10.45 pm from Belfast. Apologies for the poor quality of the sound.

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