Dublin links media ban to IRA ceasefire: Irish government's campaign to encourage Provisionals to end violence includes offer to end bar on Sinn Fein broadcasts

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The Independent Online
LIFTING of the Irish government's tough media censorship of Sinn Fein spokesmen will follow as an automatic consequence of an IRA ceasefire, Dublin has indicated.

Offering an end to the ban is part of a concerted effort by the Irish government to encourage the Provisionals to end their violent campaign. Its scrapping has long been supported in protests and public campaigns in the Irish Republic by Sinn Fein, civil liberties groups and media unions.

The Irish media restriction is more draconian than British censorship. It prevents any radio or television interview with Sinn Fein figures on political matters, whether the speaker's words are heard directly, or via an actor.

The present Dublin ban, imposed under powers provided in Section 31 of its Broadcasting Act, expires on 19 January. The Irish cabinet is currently considering a review of the ban from Michael D Higgins, the arts, culture and communications minister.

An alternative would be to use existing legal provisions requiring broadcasting controllers to exercise responsibility over programme content, to prevent statements encouraging violence.

The present order can be renewed or lapsed by ministerial order. It does not require a vote of the Dail, which is now in recess until 26 January.

Any earlier cessation of IRA hostilities could therefore result in the immediate lifting of restrictions on Sinn Fein figures. These were recently redefined in court judgements, allowing the interviewing of members in non-political situations such as industrial disputes.

Internal republican consultations are likely to take several weeks prior to a possible IRA army convention. A response may not therefore come before 19 January.

Until now the Section 31 order has been renewed annually for 12 months ever since its introduction in 1976. Mr Higgins told the Independent last night he had the option of renewing the order for a shorter period, but any decision would be a collective cabinet one. He added that he had personally opposed the present ban long before his appointment last February.

He said lifting the ban would create 'a favourable climate in a wider sense' to facilitate 'those people who want to move within the political process and distinguish themselves from violence'. Mr Higgins has been in regular touch with Peter Brooke, the Secretary of State for National Heritage, about broadcasting and other issues, but he declined to say whether he knew of any planned British censorship concession.

Section 31 could be discussed within wider Northern diplomacy aimed at ending the violence at tomorrow's Irish cabinet meeting. Yesterday the Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, confirmed that after a permanent IRA ceasefire it 'would be unrealistic to retain Section 31'. Aides said the two developments were now effectively tied together.

Earlier, Dick Spring, the foreign affairs minister, said it would be 'ludicrous' if Sinn Fein were involved in the proposed Forum after a permanent IRA ceasefire 'and (were) still banned from taking part in debate on the airwaves'.

On Friday, Mr Reynolds pointedly dismissed a Dail opposition contention that Dublin should go no further than the joint declaration in accommodating republicans. He said people expected him 'to go as far as possible, to try and take the next step towards a cessation of violence'.

(Photograph omitted)

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