Dublin lifts broadcast ban on Sinn Fein: Whitehall says decision on British law will have to wait

THE IRISH Cabinet yesterday decided not to renew its broadcasting ban on members of terror groups. The move is aimed at drawing Sinn Fein towards constitutional politics and will take effect when the present order expires next week.

The operation of a similar ban in Britain is currently being reviewed by Peter Brooke, the National Heritage Secretary. However, Whitehall officials said yesterday that any move to follow suit will have to wait for several weeks.

Sinn Fein's president, Gerry Adams, said yesterday that the lifting of the Irish ban was 'long overdue'.

The Dublin decision had a mixed reception in Britain. Michael Mates, the former Northern Ireland Minister, described it as 'very unfortunate'. He said it would put the Government in a difficult position.

However, Marjorie Mowlam, Labour's national heritage spokeswoman, welcomed the move: 'This is not a bargaining counter, but a civil liberties issue. Labour has consistently opposed the ban in the UK since 1988 because it is ineffective and prevents rigorous interviewing of Sinn Fein politicians by committed journalists,' she said.

The operation of the ban in Britain, which allows actors to speak the words of the Sinn Fein supporters, has been causing concern to some ministers. This is because the voices are being dubbed over by professional actors with such technical skill that people switching on in the middle would assume it is the actual voice of the subject.

This development was regarded by some ministers as a breach of the law in spirit if not in the letter.

The Prime Minister, as a result, asked Mr Brooke to conduct his review. This will take 'some weeks' so it appears there is no immediate prospect of the ban being lifted in the UK. Indeed, what lay behind the review was a wish, if anything, to tighten it.

Some MPs believe there could now be a relaxation that the Dublin government - however unwelcome to Britain - has taken this step.

In the Irish Republic the current order, under Section 31 of the 1960 Broadcasting Act, was first introduced 18 years ago at the height of the Troubles by Conor Cruise O'Brien, the then Minister of Posts and Telegraphs. It blocked political radio or television interviews with members of named organisations, including Sinn Fein, deemed to be supporters of paramilitary violence.

The end of the ban effectively opens the door to further political rehabilitation of Sinn Fein should an IRA ceasefire be declared.

A Dublin government spokesman said the ban, due to expire on 19 January, could be reinstated by the Dail at any time for an unspecified period if the political and military situation so dictated.

A spokesman for Michael D Higgins, the Arts, Culture and Broadcasting minister, said: 'The decision not to renew it does not preclude a review of the situation at any time. The legislation under which the order is made remains in force.'

Irish broadcasters will still be required to abide by Section 18 of its 1960 Broadcasting Act, blocking material deemed likely to incite crime 'or undermine the authority of the state'.

Dublin is convinced that allowing republicans an input into public debate is vital to drawing them out of their present ideological ghetto. The move was heralded before Christmas by the Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds.