Faint hope for voice of Irish independence

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The Independent Online
ONE OF Ireland's principal voices is silent. The Irish Press, the morning newspaper that for more than 60 years has spoken for nationalist opinion in general and the Fianna Fail party in particular, closed five weeks ago after a long-running financial crisis ended in a journalists' occupation. It may never reopen.

With its distinctive masthead proclaiming "The Truth in the News," the Irish Press and its evening and Sunday stablemates have since 1931 survived strikes, near-bankruptcies, epic controversies and Brendan Behan. But the papers, founded by Eamon de Valera, the War of Independence republican leader and creator of Fianna Fail, are drowning under debts of pounds 19m, and face extinction unless new investors are found quickly.

The papers closed on 25 May and the liquidation of the company was scheduled for last week, but three journalists succeeded in persuading an Irish judge to take the less drastic course of appointing a High Court examiner to look again at the situation. Later this week the examiner will advise if any new investors are willing to save the titles.

There is a huge tradition to save. The Irish Press was born into a still- seething post-Civil War political cauldron, when de Valera would be routinely taunted on election hustings with calls of "Murderer," "Perjurer," "Spanish bastard", or worse, "Who fed the birds at Ballyseedy?" a reference to a Kerry Civil War atrocity when Free Staters murdered republicans by tying them to a bomb.

De Valera decided he needed a newspaper of his own to counter other Dublin papers' anti-republican bias and unveiled his plan at his Fianna Fail conference in 1927. He got pledges of $500,000 during a 1928 American tour, then, after a legal furore, tapped further unspent funds pledged in 1919 by Irish-American independence supporters, by getting donors to re-assign them. These were later controversially translated into effective de Valera voting control of the paper via a secretive trust.

Built on the site of a theatre where the Catholic emancipator Daniel O'Connell launched campaigns,the Irish Press met fierce opposition. Rivals pressured newsagents into selling only their titles. In the Dail it was tagged a "republican rag" (later "Pravda" by the Fine Gael leader, James Dillon) amid calls for its suppression.

It was allowed on provincial newspaper delivery trains only from 1937, when the competition was conned by a Press ruse - a photograph of its only truck in a different location each day, suggesting a huge new dispatch fleet to outflank rivals.

First editor Frank Gallagher's directives to staff illuminated early attitudes: "Be on your guard against the habits of British and foreign news agencies who look at the world mainly through imperialist eyes," he directed.

The Press went after women readers, took on women reporters, and employed a Workington-born journalist who produced the first comprehensive coverage of Gaelic games, so incisive that a Gaelic Athletic Association president flattened the sports editor for mentioning a row deemed "in-house".

Irish language content helped forge national appeal. Its New Irish Writing gave a platform for emerging literati. In the 1950s Brendan Behan was a celebrated columnist. Perennial management stinginess meant he was paid only three guineas per article.

De Valera nepotism, however, set in early. The founder's son, Major Vivion de Valera, was appointed a director in the 1930s while still at school. Though he made mistakes, Tim Pat Coogan, editor of the Irish Press from 1968 to 1987 and author of a celebrated history of the IRA, says he was intelligent, able to listen and learn, "often over a bottle of Jameson at his house".

"He ran the place with an oil- can in his hand. He was a widower who would sometimes sleep in the office. He had a way of explaining how the Irish famine would return and the country collapse if you got an extra pounds 50 a year," Mr Coogan said.

The upstair-downstairs mentality worsened. Directors got free executive meals. Staff lacked even a canteen. Refreshment was in the adjacent Mulligans pub - a veritable news agency of gossip that is almost as celebrated as the Press itself - which serves no food either.

The present Press headquarters was gradually rebuilt in the 1970s, entirely on internal saving. Mr Coogan recalls: "I remember bringing Harry Evans [then Sunday Times editor] on a tour of the place. Beneath this bulging canvas to stop rubble falling was a group of 'trolls' with dust on them. That was the Irish Press subs' desk. Above them they had a banner: 'Welcome to Short Kesh'."

Mr Coogan blames the group's gradual collapse from the Eighties on poor management and under-investment. "The place had become sclerotic and inward- looking," he recalls. "It needed a new broom, innovation and marketing. Instead, it got Eamon de Valera [the founder's unworldly grandson as boss]."

Although the Irish Press had won a wide readership providing news coverage sometimes days ahead of rivals on key stories, Mr Coogan departed in 1987 as management disastrously turned the morning broadsheet tabloid.

The original authoritarian guiding hand in time undermined viability. "Old de Valera was very cunning," says Mr Coogan. "He set it up as three divine persons in one god - god the controlling director, god the managing director and god the editor-in-chief.

"So all these things passed to this very slight figure [the young Eamon]." An industrial chemist with no previous newspaper experience, he was nicknamed "Major Minor" by Dublin wags.

Through the 1980s, journalists vainly hoped the de Valera dynasty would sell out and let more expert owners in. Instead, introduction of computerised direct input was botched, as was a plan to sell the premises, upgrading plant with the profit. Critically, with wages low and morale lower, top journalists left in droves.

Income from the Reuters flotation was dissipated in losses. One director, lawyer Elio Malocco, who had married into the de Valera dynasty, embezzled company libel funds. Last month he was jailed for five years.

Meanwhile, huge executive salaries swollen by additional directors' fees, free holidays, meals, cars and other perks had become "a scandal bigger than British Gas," says Mr Coogan.

The abortive 1989 partnership with the American Ralph Ingersoll, a publisher with little national media expertise, ended in further circulation falls and litigation. By last year Irish Press sales had fallen to 38,000, from 91,000 in 1983 and 150,000 in its early 1930s heyday.

Closure followed the Press directors' defeat in a ruinously expensive court battle with Mr Ingersoll. The Irish Supreme Court set aside a pounds 6m damages award against the US publisher and pounds 2.75m compensation for alleged "oppression" of the Irish partners. There had been little chance that the American, whose media empire built on junk bonds collapsed four years ago, could afford the damages.

A dispute that journalists allege was contrived by management brought matters to a head. Directors fired a senior journalist for commenting on the papers' predicament in another paper, prompting a brief occupation of the premises, which was followed by closure.

Press directors last December won a temporary lifeline through a pounds 2m investment from the dominant Irish newspaper publisher, Tony O'Reilly's Independent Newspapers, which took a 24.9 per cent stake. The stake was recently investigated by Dublin's competition authority. Dr O'Reilly owns 43 per cent of Newspaper Publishing, publishers of the Independent on Sunday.

Now Independent Newspapers and the Irish Times are considering sharing a new greenfield printing plant to slash overheads of all the Irish titles. Many suspect, however, that only the Sunday Press might be resurrected by this strategy.