Belfast Telegraph

Press delete - after 47 years, An Phoblacht's 'war' is finally over

The IRA-supporting weekly newspaper, which once crowed about Provo atrocities, is ceasing print publication, reports Malachi O'Doherty

The demise of An Phoblacht says as much about the evolution of Sinn Fein as it does about the transformed media landscape.

The weekly newspaper comes out of a time when the IRA was widely feared and reviled. One simple, obvious reason for having a newspaper to explain and justify IRA operations was that no one else was doing it.

It is questionable whether the An Phoblacht of the 1970s would even be legal now, the war on jihadis having spawned new laws about the promotion of terrorism.

The IRA could speak then to the communities in which it operated with little interference.

There are a number of good reasons why a paramilitary organisation like the IRA would want its own paper, apart from just disseminating propaganda.

There were rival republican papers at that time, notably The United Irishman, which was published and sold by the Official IRA.

The two organisations were often murderously at war with each other, but the more routine competition over territory was expressed in newspaper sales. Sellers would be driven out of rival patches.

In my book about Gerry Adams, I have a story about Adams Snr confronting sellers of The United Irishman on the Whiterock Road in Belfast - Provo territory - and demonstratively tearing up a copy of their paper. Back then the Officials predominated in the Lower Falls and the Provos had Whiterock, and you knew where you were as much by the papers on sale as by the graffiti on the walls.

An Phoblacht carried a regular feature called 'War News'. This was the only media outlet which was describing the Troubles with that kind of vocabulary. For others, it was 'terrorism' or 'extremism'.

Now, even critics of the IRA lightly fall into using terms like 'war' and 'armed struggle', having absorbed them from the political discourse in the regular media over the last 20 years.

And the 'war' itself was defined by Adams as propaganda - armed propaganda.

When a group of IRA prisoners broke away from the Provos in the Maze in 1987, led by Tommy McKearney, Oliver Corr and others, they argued that killing people and risking the lives of 'volunteers' (another word no one else was using then) was not legitimate for propaganda purposes.

This was the most under-reported split in the IRA, but it was a serious ideological divergence from the Adams strategy.

An Phoblacht was, at first, a merger with the Sinn Fein paper Republican News. This represented part of the shift of control of the Provisionals from Dublin to Belfast in the late-1970s.

Danny Morrison, who had published Adams' Brownie column while Adams was in Long Kesh, was rewarded by being made the editor of the merged papers. A Republican Press centre was formed under the control of IRA GHQ and the operation extended beyond running An Phoblacht to developing a media service for a political party that intended to grow.

And, in any political party, the one who controls the party organ controls the party message and ultimately controls the party itself.

So, An Phoblacht was part of the project to build a political party that would replace the IRA as the cutting-edge of republican activism.

The paper would represent the violence on the street to the community as a war between Irish revolutionaries and British imperialists.

Having a paper to sell also helped the IRA extend its influence through those communities. Sellers and writers could be recruited. Not everyone who wanted to help the cause needed to shoot people or move bombs around; some could be diverted into social activism and the movement could grow among people who had no talent for violence.

And those same people could gauge how much real sympathy existed for the movement at street level; who was buying and who was not buying.

And, in time, the paper passed from volunteer sellers, who went round the pubs and clubs of the Falls, to being sold over the counter in shops and garages, becoming itself an indicator of the degree to which the republican version of our problems was normalised.

An Phoblacht was not a forum for totally free discussion of the issues. Even Morrison, the former editor, had an article binned (or "banged", to use his word).

This was after the West Belfast seat was retaken from Adams by the SDLP's Joe Hendron in 1992.

Morrison had argued that the IRA campaign and the political growth of Sinn Fein were incompatible and that the IRA had either to escalate, or withdraw and leave the field to Sinn Fein.

But this was not a discussion the then-editor thought should be aired in front of the ordinary reader.

The history of An Phoblacht is the history of Sinn Fein's transformation and growth under Adams, and it feels at least like an appropriate coincidence that it should close in the same year in which he is stepping down as president of the movement he refashioned.

At the start of that journey the Provisional movement was adamantly opposed to the reform of Northern Ireland, the six-county state.

It was suspicious of politics as a distraction from the immediate business of driving out the British and uniting Ireland.

But a paper and a party cannot thrive on a single concern. They face the same problem; they have to broaden to attract readers and voters.

An Phoblacht is no longer needed to knit a community together and the party is more concerned to be a national party now.

And there has been another revolution coinciding with its own retreat from revolution into party politics.

Sinn Fein now reaches more people through the internet than through its paper. A week is too long for most people to wait for the news when they can get it online.

Instead of paper sellers who can come back to the office and snitch on those who wouldn't buy a copy, they have their army of online activists, monitoring ideological heresies and homing in on critics like hives of nano drones out of an Ian McDonald novel.

And the messages of the party can no longer be ignored by the mainstream media. There is a clutch of community and provincial papers sympathetic to Sinn Fein, and the party is so big that it cannot be excluded by broadcasters committed to providing balance.

Adams and Morrison may legitimately consider that their work is done.

Malachi O'Doherty's Gerry Adams: An Unauthorised Life is published by Faber & Faber, priced £14.99

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