Paper drops fighting talk for broader view

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The Independent Online
ALAN MURDOCH

Dublin

Sinn Fein today relaunches its stridently combative newspaper An Phoblacht/Republican News, 25 years after its first issue.

The enlarged Dublin-based weekly highlights a redirection of Sinn Fein's strategy, the paper moving from a militarist past as disseminator of IRA news and propaganda into a more directly political role following the ceasefire.

The pages of AP/RN, as it is known to its supporters, explain how republicans insulated themselves from condemnation and unpopularity. Sinn Fein recorded less than 2 per cent of the national first-preference vote in the 1992 Irish general election.

AP/RN presented republicans with a fixed view of the world as colonial aggressors and quisling "Free State" allies versus Irish and other "national liberation movements". It cultivated the sense of an extended family of republicans, offering news for and of those in prison, and provided a public channel of sympathy to relatives of dead republicans. Even 15 years after an IRA member's death, the anniversary columns feature as many as seven in memoriam notices from friends and families.

To outsiders, its hallmark has long been the scathing banner-headline denunciation of British policy and until last year, its "War News" pages, providing the military leadership's own account of the latest IRA actions. These often detailed the way the attacks were carried out and the IRA unit's own assessment of damage caused.

"It was intriguing because you were getting an official briefing," recalls Gerry O'Hehir, editor of one of the relaunched paper's predecessors, An Phoblacht (The Republic) from 1975 to 1977. He received the details from a senior IRA commander. "You were being told what they were involved in. In my time they always claimed responsibility for everything, no matter how unpalatable it was."

In the Seventies, British newspaper correspondents waited for the latest issue outside the paper's Dublin premises for official confirmation of which actions had been claimed by the Provisionals.

"Administration was a disaster," admitted Mr O'Hehir, who severed his links with the republican movement in 1977. A total of 80,000 copies a week were printed before 1975 but sales were much lower. "People were taking 100 dozen and selling just 20, and the money was often kept in local areas' organisations."

New staff came in, including a Manchester-born accountant Mick Timothy, who later edited the paper from 1982 until his death in 1985. The mordant wit of his back-page column, seizing every chance to gloat over garda and British Army cock-ups, was its most subversively effective propaganda weapon.

Initially the Provisionals published two papers, both founded in 1970 - An Phoblacht from Dublin, distributed mainly south of the border, and Republican News, produced in Belfast, dealing primarily with the northern conflict.

After the emerging younger northern republican leadership emerged from prison in the late Seventies, the two titles merged in 1979. Danny Morrison, who coined the "Armalite and ballot paper" description of republican strategy, became editor from 1982 to 1985. Amid the political upheaval of the 1981 hunger strikes AP/RN sales rose above 50,000.

However, recent content, including an interview with the loyalist leader Billy Hutchinson, suggests a more liberal direction. Reports on aggressive Orange marches last month were accompanied by a report on a Protestant clergyman's efforts to keep his north Belfast church open despite arson attacks.

Micheal MacDonncha, the paper's current editor, said: "The whole peace process gives us room to expand. It is still a republican newspaper, but obviously there's room for more discussion. The range of subjects will broaden from being six-county-dominated to more national and international material, reviews and coverage of popular culture."

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