Article for 30th Anniversary book – Norah Casey
The feel good factor generated by the Good Friday Agreement and the outcome of the referenda in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland soon faded. So by the time the Assembly elections took place a few months on, the parties and the politicians were back in the trenches. (The Irish Post June 27 1998). It was against this backdrop that I took over the reins at The Irish Post, the best, and worst, of times were yet to come. We learned quickly during those heady post-Agreement months that headlines heralding ‘peace’ were grossly premature and so a more considered view on the turbulent times in Northern Ireland emerged during the many months it took to get the peace process back on track. Unlike the rest of the media, however, The Irish Post never resorted to cynicism or inflammatory language – it remained constant in its support for peace and the process through which that might be achieved. That year, 1998, was extraordinary – even by Northern Ireland’s standards.
Testing times for Northern Ireland
The summer had been hardly typical. It had been dominated throughout by Northern Ireland with a roller coaster of media coverage that had gone from jubilation to shock and grief. The excitement of the Agreement, the referenda and the less exciting but nonetheless important Assembly elections were followed all too quickly by the first of many testing times for NI’s bid for self-governance. The standoff at Drumcree saturated the Irish and British press, ending tragically with the death of the Quinn brothers. But who could have predicted that the sporadic terrorist activities which followed the Good Friday Agreement would lead to an event such as Omagh. Sadly August 1998 is etched in people’s memories as the month the Omagh bomb exploded. In our edition of August 29 1998 (Omagh buries its dead while the media hunts for new headlines’) The Irish Post reviewed the terrible aftermath. The dead were buried and most of the injured back with their families trying to come to terms with the physical and psychological scars of the atrocity. The days since Omagh had seen unprecedented media coverage. The insatiable appetite of the press and broadcasters meant that the trauma of Omagh was never far away from minds and screens – the stricken faces of the families who buried their loved ones, the terrible injuries sustained by the victims, the personal stories behind all those lives who were lost. The Irish Post, for its part, covered Omagh in a reasoned manner – much space was devoted to Irish people in Britain who wanted to express their sympathy and support for the people of Omagh.
At the summer faded, NI was dominating the media yet again. The governments of Ireland and Britain sat in emergency session to pass the most important and far-reaching anti- terrorists legislation this decade. As the weeks passed a more considered view, post-Omagh, emerged of the detail of that legislation. And along with that consideration came criticism and scepticism. Chief among those who spoke out in the pages of The Irish Post was Kevin McNamara, MP for Hull North and former Labour spokesperson on Northern Ireland. He insisted that the measures should be dropped altogether after one year rather than be subject to an annual vote. McNamara, like many of his colleagues, was furious that such an important piece of legislation was being rushed through without due debate.
Certainly history would suggest that greater powers for the security forces has not been an effective strategy. Indeed abuse of those powers has led to serious miscarriages of justice many of which The Irish Post has campaigned on over the years. Nonetheless the British and Irish government believed that the public outcry following Omagh demanded tough action and a determination to root out those responsible.
Shadow Assembly meets for the first time
Omagh had proved a sobering influence on Northern Ireland’s politicians who were facing yet another important milestone in the peace process – the first business meeting of the Shadow Assembly. But there had been so many momentous strides forward that the media could be forgiven for its low profile handling of that Monday gathering. In any case the day, while extraordinary in the context of previous years, was by all accounts a bit dull. But then again even that description needs to be judged in comparison to the great excitement of previous meetings with walkouts, barring orders and heated arguments. Who would have thought that after those turbulent negotiations Northern Ireland’s politicians would sit together in preparation for self-governance. But there they were, Gerry Adams just ten feet from Ian Paisley, unionist and nationalist queuing side by side in the restaurant at lunch time – not quite exchanging pleasantries, but amicable nonetheless.
What the 108-strong membership of the Assembly was coming to terms with was the reality of government, which as any MP or TD could testify, is invariably boring and bureaucratic. And apart from the inevitable clashes around decommissioning and the establishment of the shadow executive the new members were treated to lengthy procedural debates, dull but necessary. First Minister David Trimble said it was a day for “nuts and bolts” – a comment, which led to a few caustic asides about being grateful that bolts were being included for a change.
Tourist tax proposals
And while The Irish Post followed the momentous events in Northern Ireland the news from the Republic of Ireland just seemed to get better and better. But the booming economy and newfound wealth didn’t always extend to the Irish in Britain. (August 1 1998). Extra taxes on tourists were being proposed and The Irish Post led the campaign to scrap the proposals, which included airport and possibly hotel charges. Discerning tourists, we argued, may well choose alternative holiday destinations, the Irish in Britain didn’t have the same freedom. We pointed out that it was a particularly unjust and ill-conceived measure given that the revenue gained through taxing visitors was to be used to offset the drop in European Union funding. So while the citizens of Ireland had benefited a great deal from EU funding in a whole manner of ways, now that it may be withdrawn the Irish government was to ask foreigners and visiting Irish to pay extra. For whatever reason 1998 was a quiet holiday season in Ireland (not helped by the weather or the World Cup)! The tourist tax proposals have yet to be implemented.
Survivors of child abuse
Later that year (October 3 1998) saw The Irish Post embroiled in another scandal, the scale of which was only just emerging. It is not surprising that the extraordinary public apology by the Christian Brothers in early 1998 prompted thousands of victims of abuse to seek telephone counselling. Throughout the year The Irish Post had been inundated with heart rending tales from readers who had suffered all manner of abuse during their schooling. Many told stories of insidious psychological abuse which left them scarred for life. Physical abuse was widespread – ranging from canning to public beatings. But the stories that were hardest to tell, the letters that were the most difficult to read, were those which described unspeakable sexual abuse. The pain and humiliation of sharing those terrible secrets were evident in every line. Many of our letter writers had found the strength for the first time in their lives to tell these terrible stories.
The traumatic impact of this chronic abuse left many with mental health problems, phobias and personality disorders. Their graphic and painful accounts of childhood in the pages of The Irish Post left little room for forgiveness. Many wanted to see justice done. But justice is what had eluded most so far. One man wrote recently of his attempt to take action against his former school. He was been systematically blocked by bureaucracy every step of the way. Despite the fact that the school had admitted that the abuse had taken place and apologised for it, this elderly man, now in his 80s, was faced with the prospect of having to remember specific incidences, dates, names of those involved and any witnesses. He wrote to The Irish Post in despair, desperately looking for former schoolmates that could help him. The newspaper helped to facilitate the early meetings of a new group Survivors of Child Abuse (SOCA) co-ordinated by Mick Waters. We provided a special bus which transported child abuse victims to the first meeting of this group in Manchester and have followed its progress since.
Public apologies and encouraging people to speak out is only the first step on a very long road towards any sort of recovery for these people but the newspaper had provided help at a critical time and, hopefully, played its part in seeking redress for this vulnerable group. .
Networking the community
While many new challenges and campaigning issues emerged towards the end of the last decade some things remained important to the newspaper. The Irish Post has built up a strong reputation as the leading newspaper for the Irish in Britain with an influence and role way beyond that of a weekly publication. While there are many essential elements of The Irish Post that sets it apart from many other newspapers its role as a networker of Irish people has remained strong over its first three decades. In the issue dated October 10 1998 we reported on the reunion of mother and son at Knock airport. A tale which sparked off some heartrending correspondence from readers who were also adopted and who continued to search for their birth parents. That week we highlighted the wonderful story of two old army friends who met-up after 32 years apart thanks to The Irish Post. When John Sheehan had exhausted many other routes, even Cilla Black’s Surprise Surprise, he turned to The Irish Post. A small ad eventually proved successful with the daughter of his long lost pal phoning our advertisement department. That month the two had a long-awaited reunion – our photographer said he could hardly get them to stop talking long enough to pose for a picture!
Putting people in touch with each other is such an important part of The Irish Post that we launched a popular information exchange section a few months previous and regularly reported feedback from readers who had successfully found long lost relatives and friends. These were changing times for the Irish community in Britain, a time when it was easier to be Irish and to celebrate, rather than hide, that cultural identity. The Irish Post’s role in bringing people together was invariably in greater demand over recent years – as people grow older there desire to find those long lost connections grow stronger.
Sadly sometimes the newspaper is called on when there is a death in the family back home – a sad reflection on those who lost connections with sisters, brothers, parents and others over the decades here in Britain.
Ireland, however, was booming and even if the new improved Ireland wasn’t always welcoming to its returners there was a definite feel-good factor in the air. So much so that The Irish Post decided it was time to celebrate Ireland in Britain with the first ever major exposition. Expo Ireland was announced in late 1998 a year before the event was staged in September 1999. While many other countries enjoy an annual exposition at London’s larger exhibition halls there had never been a comprehensive commercial all-Ireland exhibition and show. The most important element of Expo Ireland, perhaps, was that it brought together the whole of Ireland in a way that had not been possible before.
There was a time when a major public demonstration of Irish tourism, food, fashion and crafts would not have been welcome but public opinion had changed enormously in the late 1990s. While the peace process had certainly been a major catalyst for that change there were other reasons why ‘Irish’s’ was seen as positive rather than negative.
The success of Irish pop bands such as Boyzone, the Corrs and U2 added to the surge of Irish popularity. With the continuing success of Guinness, Murphys and other Irish brand drinks, marketing teams quickly realised that all manner of homely Irish images would improve the take-up of their products. We were treated to no end of Irish music and accents, scenes from back home and hearty Irish lads supping pints in a succession of advertisement campaigns. New “Irish” pub chains began to spring up all over Britain with themed paraphernalia and decor. One of the most significant spin offs of these new pubs had been a significant increase in the number of Irish artist bookings.
This enhanced Irish brand image extended to the most unlikely of areas. Irish fashion underwent a renaissance in Britain with many top celebrities sporting some of the country’s best labels. Irish cooking was never more popular, with tourists flocking to some of the country’s more famous gourmet haunts. And even without the lure of good food and drink tourist numbers continue to increase impressively year on year, with Dublin one of the most popular European city holiday destinations.
Irish literature has always been held in high esteem and with new plays, poets and books coming out at a dizzying pace its reputation had been more than maintained. The Irish film industry also underwent resurgence not only in terms of Irish made films but the phenomenal numbers of international films now being made in Ireland. In short there was no aspect of Irish life, including the economy, that had not benefited from the new found popularity of Irishness in recent years.
Expo Ireland was a showcase for the many positive elements of Irish life. Some 17,000 people turned up over the two days (not all Irish) with record attendance for the major attractions such as Van Morrison, B*witched and the Saw Doctors. The show was an important milestone in opening up Ireland and Irishness to the wider community within Britain and it springboarded The Irish Post into a new era of event management. Since then The Irish Post’s company, Smurfit Media, has embarked on a series of high profile recruitment shows all over Britain. Some 10,000 people turned up to the London show early in 2000 with employers on hand ready to recruit potential applicants to the 60,000 or more vacancies created by Ireland’s phenomenal economic growth. What a turnaround for the Irish in Britain who flocked here during the first two decades of The Irish Post’s existence.
Campaigning against discrimination
It would be wrong, however, to imply that all was well for the Irish in Britain. The Irish Post followed all these positive developments introducing new sections and columnists to reflect the changing times but it was also at the vanguard to reporting discrimination and troubled times. One example of this was the enormous debate which was sparked off by our coverage of the ‘outing’ of Scotland’s anti-Catholic and invariable anti-Irish bigotry. The country’s famous composer James McMillan shocked Scottish society by his overt attack on this previously hidden bigotry. In a lecture titled ‘Scotland’s shame’, McMillan likened Scotland to Northern Ireland but ‘without the guns and bullets’. He claimed, rightly according to many commentators in the newspaper, that Scottish society harbours deep-rooted prejudices about Irish people and has done for decades. Papers released for the first time showed just what the Scottish hierarchy thought of its Irish community. We reported that the Public Records Office papers revealed that Scotland, and in particular the Scottish Presbyterian Church, pushed for Irish people to be deported during the 1930s – not for any great crime but because they were poor, tended to live in close communities and intermarry.
The Free Presbyterian Church provoked an outcry in The Irish Post (August 1999) when it suggested that Cardinal Basil Hume was more likely to be in hell than heaven – a destination that it predicts for all Catholics. The first step in overturning this overt bigotry has been taken and The Irish Post called on Scotland’s men and women of influence, like James McMillan, to speak out – to be prepared to make a stand against prejudice. Scotland is still by and large a closed society – it doesn’t like to wash its dirty linen in public and reacts badly to external interference. So change if it is to come must start from within and with the help of informed comment in The Irish post it may well happen.
Flexing political muscle
Every year Britain’s quiet seaside resorts are invaded by politicians. The column inches grow as the party conference season gets underway. A steady trickle begins with the TUC, followed by the Liberal Democrats but the serious media hacks conserve their energies for the big two – Labour and the Conservatives.
But what has this got to do with the Irish in Britain or The Irish Post? Not as much as it should is the honest answer. While there are certainly issues of relevance tucked away at the fringe of both of the biggies – most are concerned with Northern Ireland rather than the millions of Irish who live here. It is extraordinary that even the Labour Party has yet to seriously address the needs of this huge population of people. The problem here, unlike the USA, is that the Irish in Britain have yet to flex their collective muscle. American Presidents and political leaders would never ignore the Irish vote – Hillary Clinton’s bid for Mayor of New York may well hinge on the Irish lobby. In Britain, however, politicians have never had to win over the Irish community – indeed most probably remain ignorant of how many Irish people live in their constituency and what their needs are.
The Irish Post began a serious attempt to put the Irish in Britain back on the political map. Initiatives such as the All Party Parliamentary Group for Irish Affairs provided a strong lead on the Irish political agenda. The Irish Post had begun to question politicians on their Irish credentials with a series of interviews on potential candidates for London mayor. Many high profile names, Jeffrey Archer, Glenda Jackson, Trevor Phillips and all those who eventually did stand, were faced with an Irish Post photographer and reporter for an hour or so. For once they had to take seriously the Irish within their constituencies and to find out what their concerns were. It was an educative process all round.
London mayoral elections
In April 2000 the main candidates for the London mayor elections, Ken Livingstone, Frank Dobson, Susan Kramer and Steven Norris, agreed to meet with the Irish community in London at an event hosted jointly by The Irish Post and the Federation of Irish Societies. This was one of the most significant political events for the capital and the Irish community and it was widely reported by the mainstream media in Ireland. The hundreds present represented a broad spectrum of Irish people in London. The event was attended by representatives of all of the major Irish organisations and groups but ‘ordinary’ Irish people of all ages also turned up as did high profile business leaders. For two hours the candidates faced questions from an audience which was inevitably far more informed than they were – including Ken Livingstone. It was, by and large, a constructive and interactive session with the inevitable heated exchanges. Overall, however, those on the platform will have gone back to their political colleagues and constituencies more informed and, hopefully, more willing to listen to the Irish voice from now onwards.
It was an important step in overturning the political apathy towards Irish issues and hopefully a usefully forerunner to the next general election. Similarly the newspaper’s ‘ Irish people in public life’ series was an important strand in raising the profile and confidence of Irish people engaged in public duties. Real change, however, will take some time. As I watch the party activists speak passionately about one cause or another at their annual conferences I imagine a world where the needs of the Irish community are addressed with as much verve and vigour. The USA has proved it can be done. It remains for the community itself to mobilise its resources and focus its energies on overturning those decades of malaise within the British political establishment.
Meanwhile in Northern Ireland the peace process had faltered many times and was finally, but not irretrievably, suspended. By May 2000 The Irish Post was reporting some positive news for a change. The peace process looked like it was back on track following an IRA statement and subsequently, following a UUP council meeting, it was finally up and running again.
There have been many campaigning issues which The Irish Post embarked on towards the end of those eventful 30 years. For my part there are many issues which stand out. The hustings for the London mayor elections was significant, not just in terms of what it achieved politically but it also raised the profile of the Irish in Britain within Ireland. Ironically the only other issue which received more publicity was the newspaper’s involvement in the ‘alternative’ Rose of Tralee ball. In the early months of 2000 The Irish Post declared that it would not allow The Rose of Tralee festival board to decimate years of community involvement in this annual event. The effect was as if we declared war on the establishment in Tralee. Our intention was purely honourable in supporting hardworking volunteers who had kept something alive within our community tracing back even beyond the establishment of The Irish Post.
The ‘war of the roses’
The Rose of Tralee’s decision to sever links with the British Centres stemmed from an overspend and the request that each centre provide Tralee with £1500. When the Centres in Britain said they couldn’t raise that kind of money and spoke out about it in the newspaper the executive in Tralee declared, through the pages of The Irish Post, that it was ‘severing all links’ with them. We were left with no option and the ball was a terrific success. The down side was, however, the massive publicity that our stance created within Ireland with headlines declaring ‘a war of the roses’ and radio and TV interviews which further split the two sides. It was, we believed, something worth saving and the more positive outcome is a wonderful community based event which will continue in Britain.
Raising funds for Arlington
On a more personal note, the campaign we ran in later 1999, to raise badly needed funds for Arlington House, although it did not receive the same media attention, was a phenomenal success. In the heart of Camden lies a community of homeless Irish men – they don’t attract high profile visitors or funds. There is a quiet dignity about these men. They came here to work, at a time when Ireland had no work for them. Many supported their immediate and extended families back home. Their tale is typical of many Irish people, men and women, who took the boat to England many decades ago and found they could never return.
The Irish Post’s Aisling Appeal aimed to improve the lot of this forgotten generation of men.
The poignant stories of Arlington’s Irish residents which were published throughout the campaign graphically illustrated why these men felt they could never go back to the Ireland they used to know. Pride prevents them from getting in touch with long-lost relatives and friends – “what would they think of me now and where I’ve ended up one”, of them commented.
So they remain at Arlington – the only home they know. Some have been there for 30 or 40 years, many choose to spend most of their time in this cavernous building in Camden where they are safe and secure and in the company of friends. But there are those who could live independently. With help and support they could learn to live as part of the community once again. It was for that reason that the Aisling Appeal concentrated on two areas – helping those who choose to remain at Arlington have a better quality of life – and to help those who choose to leave to learn the skills to enable them to do so. Our fundraising efforts focused on refurbishing and refurnishing two rooms – it was a practical way in which we could help the care workers at Arlington House achieve those objectives.
The tale of Arlington is intertwined with the tale of the Irish Diaspora. When it finally achieved independence a charity was formed out of Arlington led by one of its former residents Joe McGarry. Joe went on to form Bridge Housing which has since become a wider housing charity Novas. It is a phenomenal story of triumph over adversity. Arlington has survived many threats and hurdles over the years. Sadly the numbers of Irish men living there has started to drop-off, ill-health catches-up quickly with those who lived and played life to the full. But we believed that with the help of the readers of The Irish Post, we could do something meaningful for those who are still living there – a small but significant contribution to the quality of their lives. To date our Aisling Appeal has raised nearly £30,000 and the two rooms we set about refurbishing are nearly completed.
The relaunch of The Irish Post
The Irish Post celebrates 30 years of serving the Irish community this year. Three decades that has seen enormous changes and challenges for the newspaper and the people it has sought to represent and inform. Over that time The Irish Post has stayed close to the needs of its readers providing news from home and from the community of Irish people in Britain. It has also provided a strong focus for Irish culture, music, language and dance, giving weekly sports news and coverage to community events. The Irish Post has grown with the times and adapted its editorial content to reflect the changing environment within which Irish people have worked and lived in Britain. It has retained a steadfast and loyal readership many who have stayed with the paper since it was first launched in 1970.
We would like to ensure that The Irish Post will be alive and strong in thirty years time and like many Irish organisations, we have invested a great deal of time and effort in how we might do that. During 1999 we thoroughly researched the needs of the next generation of readers – the children and grandchildren of our current readers. We commissioned research into how we could better serve our existing readers, what they liked and disliked about the paper and how they would like to see it improved. We have a clear mission – to serve our existing readers better and attract new and younger readers. We believe we have found that magic formulae in our new look which we launched in early 2000 to coincide with our 30th anniversary. We have also invested heavily in improving the newspaper – more pages, a higher quality paper, better photographs and and improved design. We have introduced new production systems to streamline our advertisement service, increased our staffing and ran a high profile promotion campaign to improve the visibility of the title. At the same time we redesigned our web site with a more user-friendly style (irishpost.co.uk) and have some exciting plans to extend our online services.
It has been an exciting time to be editor of The Irish Post, so much has changed, and yet so much remains the same. In 30 years time The Irish Post will still be alive and well, true to its original mission, speaking out, leading, moulding and provoking debate – but always there to service the needs of the Irish community in Britain.
Norah Casey, Editor-in-Chief, The Irish Post.