Leading Article: Time to get rid of a farcical ban

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THE removal by the Irish government of the ban on broadcasting interviews with Sinn Fein and paramilitary groups has a legal and practical effect on Britain's hapless measures to stifle what Baroness Thatcher memorably christened 'the oxygen of publicity'.

It is bound to undermine the British government's arguments in two cases due to come before the European Court of Human Rights, in which a Sinn Fein councillor and a group of journalists are challenging the ban. It has hitherto proved useful for government lawyers to point to the strict rules imposed for the last two decades by the Irish government's order under section 31 of the Broadcasting

Authority Act. The United Kingdom's measures could truthfully have been represented as mild compared to those enforced by its partner in the Anglo-Irish Agreement. That comparison no longer applies.

The practical result is that when the Irish order expires next Wednesday, Irish broadcasting organisations may transmit interviews with Gerry Adams and his apologists, and these interviews will be seen by the substantial number of viewers in Northern Ireland who choose to watch or listen to the news from Dublin. It thus reverses the situation that applied before Lady Thatcher's edict of October 1988, when Sinn Fein enjoyed greater freedom of the airwaves under British rule than it did south of the border. Then the country was assured that there would be no deals with terrorists. Now it is told the Government has been talking to the IRA.

Such a paradox surely means that the ban is redundant. It was imposed in haste and enforced through farce. The spectral voices of actors, repeating the pronouncements of this or that spokesman for violence, merely serve to endow their banalities with the mystique of the forbidden. It is to be hoped that Mr Adams and his ilk will face tough cross-questioning from Irish journalists, and we await the day when they may face the more aggressive of Britain's breed of television interviewers or, indeed, a sceptical studio audience.

The ban was of dubious legal justification. Unfortunately, broadcasters never felt that it should be tested in the courts of this country, for that would have called for a token breach of its provisions and a predictable storm of parliamentary condemnation. Yet it was politically inept, too, giving the impression both at home and abroad that the United Kingdom could not continue to sustain an open democracy while fighting terrorism with all its might. The question today is not whether but when this self-

defeating measure will be