From #aras97 to #aras11: has the media decommissioned?

Áras an Uachtaráin - residence of the Irish President, and soon to be home to Northern Irish beesSome more of the commentary on the 1997 Presidential campaign. While many new media tools are available for #aras11, the behind-the-scenes briefing and leaks are probably no different (the end products are summarised here by Mick). While politics inevitably includes a deep interrogation of individual candidate’s past utterances, the contribution of the media to the shape of past election campaigns tends to be kept below the radar by the, eh, media.

Similarly, northern commentators, for long briefed by the NIO and security ‘sources’, don’t tend to be reflective when it comes to reviewing the intimacy of ‘security’, politics and journalism in the north. It is not only politicians that should often be reminded that they shouldn’t believe their own propaganda. The major anti-McAleese leaks in 1997 are dealt with below. Whether she was being briefed against by the usual NIO types isn’t clear, but wouldn’t be a surprise. Obviously, the Norris campaign has been de-railed by a leak once already.

An article in The Sunday Times on October 26, 1997 (the week before the election) by Liam Clarke and Chris Ryder had the headline Unionists deliver snub to McAleese and was based on the results of a poll taken at the Ulster Unionist party conference (no polling methodology provided). The overall result given by Clarke and Ryder was that:

The findings of the poll will undermine McAleese’s claims to be a “bridge builder” in the province.

Which they go on to interpret as:

The distaste for her candidature did not seem to be a simple sectarian reaction.

They also included a quote from a rising star in the UUP, Peter Weir:

“She has actually become a hate figure to many Ulster Unionists”.

On the previous Sunday, Maeve Sheehan, Clarke and Jan Battles had a piece entitled SDLP linked McAleese to Sinn Fein in the same paper:

The Department of Foreign Affairs was told in April by a senior SDLP figure that Mary McAleese, Fianna Fail’s presidential candidate, was “pushing a Sinn Fein agenda” and should not be trusted…

The accusation is contained in a leaked document from a foreign department dossier, and is a serious embarrassment to the Irish government, which has just ordered a garda investigation into leaks…

Brid Rogers, an experienced SDLP councillor, made the comment about McAleese to an Irish government official. Last night she said she was aware of the leaked documents but refused to comment on her conversation with the foreign affairs official. She also refused to comment on whether she now considers McAleese to be a Sinn Fein supporter.

This episode of the leaks intended to damage McAleese dominated the latter end of the campaign (at one stage a long-time aide to Gay Mitchell was questioned over it). The deft use being made of the leaked documents was also visible elsewhere in that last pre-election edition of The Sunday Times of 26th October. John Burns wrote (Mary, Mary) that:

Those who dislike McAleese personally, or her politics, see the election as a different type of litmus test: is the republic mature enough to reject a candidate who antagonises Unionists?

He also provides more detail on the nature of what (and who) was briefing against McAleese:

Last Sunday McAleese accompanied senior Fianna Fail politicians to the annual commemoration of Wolfe Tone at Bodenstown. Once again she was on the run from journalists; this time they wanted to question her about a leaked department of foreign affairs memo which quoted Brid Rodgers, an SDLP councillor, accusing McAleese of “pushing the Sinn Fein agenda”.

Rodgers’s accusation grew out of a complaint about the allegedly poor coverage the nationalist Irish News was giving to the SDLP. This, she believed, was because Jim Fitzpatrick, its editor-in-chief, had formed a triumvirate with McAleese and Alex Reid, a Redemptorist priest. “Their main objective,” Rodgers said, ” is promoting a new nationalist consensus which owes more to Sinn Fein than the SDLP. All three are in regular touch with the Sinn Fein leadership.”

The agenda, as Rodgers saw it, was to build a bridge between Sinn Fein and the nationalist middle class in Northern Ireland. If the IRA would abandon violence, the Catholic middle class would steer the pan-nationalist consensus into a much tougher stance against the British government.

Burns also includes quotes from John Alderdice, then Alliance party leader.

“She made it clear she wanted to be a bridge in the peace process, but she is in danger of becoming a wedge,” he said on Monday morning. “If she were to be elected it would not be seen as a positive contribution to the peace process. In the interests of the peace process it would be better if she withdrew.”

In it’s last pre-election edition, The Sunday Independent included Eilis O’Hanlon’s analysis that McAleese was unsuitable and:

…, the great mass of Irish people, finally comfortable in their identity and rightly proud of what they have achieved, can surely agree on this at least – that turning Aras an Uachtaráin into a fortress of outdated grievance would be a retrograde, self-indulgent and self-defeating step. An angry president is the last the country needs now.

On the same page, Anthony Clare’s analysis of the campaign could be dusted off and re-used by a number of candidates today:

…I have watched the unedifying spectacle of the inttellectual left baying and behaving with the kind of authoritarianism, intolerance and paternalism it so detested in the reactionary right…

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