Media: US papers prepare to pull out of Ireland

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The Independent Culture
THE BRITISH press has long held that the American public's apparent sympathy for the Irish Nationalist cause is down to ignorance. Misty-eyed Irish-Americans know little about the conflict, and so contribute to bodies such as Noraid, the republican fund-raising body.

Only now, perhaps, is that British propagandist line coming true. As 30 years of Troubles in Northern Ireland hopefully draw to a close, we shall shortly have a situation in which no US newspaper is prepared to locate a full-time correspondent in Ireland.

The Boston Globe is about to shut down its Dublin bureau. Kevin Cullen, widely regarded as the most astute observer of Irish affairs in the American media, is being re-assigned to London and given the awesome brief of covering the whole of Europe. A sharp reminder of Ireland's humble place in the new world disorder? Or simply backtracking by one newspaper that isn't sure how big to play Irish stories, because it isn't sure just how Irish its Irish-American readers are?

Boston, Massachusetts, is the undisputed capital of Irish-America: almost a third of the city's population claim Hibernian ancestry. This is where the Kennedy clan hails from. Boston's mayor, Ray Flynn, is a leading member of the powerful lobby that persuaded President Clinton to tackle the Troubles.

Matt Storin, editor of the Boston Globe, says too much can be read into the decision to ditch the Dublin bureau: "It's really just a matter of economics," he said. "We are primarily a regional newspaper, with just six foreign bureaux. We're proud of the coverage we've given to Ireland in what's been a fascinating year. But I wouldn't expect our interest in Ireland in the years going forward to be quite so intense. I think we can keep pretty good tabs on it from London."

Rather curious, when you consider that 44 per cent of Americans claim Irish ancestry, and Ireland's "Celtic tiger" economy has been largely created by US hi-tech multinationals seeking a tax haven.

One leading Dublin economist has even talked of the "American tiger". Cullen still enthuses about the myriad Irish-American connections, which extend well beyond the sentimental matter of ancestry: "Ireland is the only international story that is local in Boston," he says, pointing out that fully half of the US companies operating in Ireland have New England roots. "Look at cultural links, look at Angela's Ashes and Riverdance. Senator George Mitchell is a [Boston] Red Sox fan."

America's most prestigious daily, The New York Times, has no shortage of resources and claims to give its readers "All the News That's Fit to Print". Yet it fits in news about Ireland on a fairly sporadic basis, and does not maintain a full-time correspondent in Dublin.

It depends for coverage on James Clarity, a "superstringer" veteran correspondent who worked in a number of the world's hot spots for 31 years before returning to the Times's foreign desk in Manhattan. He took up residence in the Irish capital seven years ago, but he's not a full-time correspondent.

When the Troubles were at their height, The New York Times was providing its readers with more unbiased reporting of Northern Ireland than most British newspapers. Its correspondent, Jo Thomas, was initially sent to Northern Ireland in 1984, via London, and soon became fascinated and appalled by what became known as the "Stalker Affair" - the shoot-to-kill policy that left three men dead in Co Armagh, and ultimately ended the career of John Stalker, Deputy Chief Constable of the Manchester police. Thomas's persistent digging rapidly incurred the wrath of British officials, who decided to freeze her out on the information front.

But the American press coverage of the Troubles has always been more complex than simply following an anti-Brit, pro-Nationalist line.

The Boston Globe's Cullen took a lot of stick early on from republican sympathisers at home, for refusing to pander to their prejudices and preconceived notions about the "armed struggle" in the severed six counties. He was even accused of being a British intelligence agent by what he refers to as "Noraid nuts".

Cullen is one of the most level-headed commentators on Northern Ireland on either side of the Atlantic. And he has consistently refused to invoke apocalyptic cliches every time tensions flare.

He is always careful to remind his readers that Northern Ireland is not, and never will be, another Bosnia. He has described the Troubles as a "choreographed conflict" that is coming to a close. "The `war' has been over for four years," he says. "It's a bit like the end of the Vietnam war - the republican leadership are looking for an honourable exit."

More interested in real people than politicians ("I am sick to death of writing about Ian Paisley"), Cullen has found himself becoming fascinated by "seismic social changes" in southern Ireland that are making the Republic, in his opinion, "more and more a mini-America".

Yet, if American newspaper readers were at one time better informed about Ireland during the "war" than their British counterparts, it seems likely that, now there is an exodus of US pressmen from the country, they will be left in misty-eyed ignorance about a rapidly modernising nation.

Feedback to rbrown@indigo.ie

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