Introduction to the Exhibition
My name is Diarmaid Hough and I am a Modern Irish History MA graduate from University College Dublin (UCD) who is currently working with the National Museum of Ireland as a clerical officer. I was always interested in history from a young age, with my experience learning Irish History in secondary school at Summerhill College, Sligo really making me commit to the study of History. From there I went onto study History at undergraduate level at Trinity College Dublin in 2015, graduating in 2019, and pursuing a post-graduate degree in Modern Irish History in UCD in 2019, graduating in December 2020.
This digital exhibition is based upon personal research conducted for my MA thesis, ‘Section 31, the Irish State and the Media: The Relationships which defined RTÉ Broadcasting during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, 1968-1990’. The exhibition forms part of my final submission for the Professional Certificate Level 8 Digital Methods and Data Literacy Course being run by UCD.
My supervisor for this project is Professor Gerardine Meaney.
Rationale for the Exhibition
The Troubles in Northern Ireland is a conflict that has preoccupied Irish public consciousness since the late 1960s, continuously shaping and defining the development of Irish society, both North and South of the border.
Being born in 1996, I missed the majority of the Troubles but, growing up in Sligo in the 1990s and 2000s my childhood, in some ways, was heavily defined by the Peace Process. I have memories of trips to Enniskillen for pre-Christmas shopping sprees and school adventures with the Peace III initiative, making the social and economic consequences of the Troubles a normalised reality for me. The Peace Process is complicated, continual presence in Irish society which cannot and should not be ignored, which makes the current issues in Belfast and Derry all the more frightening.
My family still tell stories of the 1980s and early 1990s, of being stopped on the border by British Army patrols that jumped out of ditches, and of being made stand in the cold November rain whilst armed men searched the car and tore through shopping bags. It is that familial connection which drives me to try and understand the Troubles as a substantial part Irish and Northern Irish history. I am, however, very aware that as we as an Irish society move further from the Troubles historically, we will begin to forget what it was really like then, and why peace through communication and cooperation is the only way to progress forward together.
Acknowledging this personal connection, and inspired by knowledge of the influence the media can have on public perceptions of historical events (specifically looking at the most recent US General Election and the battle against Covid-19 disinformation), this project looks to examine the impact of Section 31 of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland Act, 1960 on RTÉ’s coverage of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
The Exhibition Structure
The project will look to curate a selection of different media materials which capture key events highlighting the use or enforcement of censorship legislation under Section 31 during the Troubles period. I understand that Section 31 and the history of Irish broadcasting legislation is a long and complicated story, but I hope that by using a combination of visual imagery, contextualising historical text, interactive links to additional sources, and the inclusion of extra resource links, that this project will help guide newcomers and seasoned scholars alike through Section 31’s impact on Irish broadcasting.
I have chosen a WordPress blog format to act as the digital exhibition space for my project as it provides the capacity and functionality to combine text, audio and visual elements, thereby providing a unique and inclusive experience to all audience members. When I think of the Troubles, my mind instantly imagines black-and-white pictures and 1970s news broadcasts. Without imagery, the Troubles becomes an increasingly grey, complicated topic populated with opaque characters and monotone discourse. However, utilizing WordPress’s blogging format and variety of curation options available, I am allowed the space to express that connection between imagery and historical context.
The variety of hierarchical heading formats, the block editor, and the ability to insert ‘alt text’ description of images, WordPress allows me to curate and present an exhibition which is accessible and inclusive to a wider audience, including those accessing the exhibition on mobile devices. Curated images and videos can be accompanied by sections of text analysis which will contextualize the historical events being presented, breaking up the exhibition into manageable, digestible sections.
Additionally, with the possibility of embedding or linking additional external sources or data such as YouTube videos and digitised archival material, audience members can actively engage with the exhibited materials whilst also being able to further their own learning through the pursuit of material and information beyond the scope of the project. In this way, this exhibition will act as a gateway into the complicated topic of Troubles era media, with captivating imagery being accompanied by historically accurate data and information.
But why Section 31?
For any attempt to understand the history of the Trouble’s to succeed, the person doing the researching needs to understand the policies and cultural phenomenon which affected cultural, political, and religious trends throughout the period. One of the most important mediums through which the fabric of Irish society was changed during the Troubles was television broadcasting.
The Ireland of the 1960s was a changing nation. Telefís Éireann (later renamed the Radio Telefís Éireann Authority (RTÉ) under the Broadcasting Authority (Amendment) Act, 1966) was launched on New Year’s Eve 1961. Historian Ronan Fanning describing its introduction as a ‘window on the world never before open to [the Irish public]; and that window opened a strange and exciting vista which neither state nor church authorities could any longer hide their gaze’. (Ronan Fanning, Independent Ireland (Dublin, 1983), pp. 199-200.)
With a new broadcasting medium now operating in Ireland, new legislation was required to control and regulate its use. The Broadcasting Authority Act, 1960 was signed into law on 12 April 1960 by then President of Ireland Éamon de Valera. This piece of legislation would remain the basis for broadcasting law throughout the Troubles and beyond, until it was repealed in 2009.
Former RTÉ Head of Current Affairs (1973-1975) Desmond Fisher wrote the following about the new legislation:
Given the particular circumstances of Ireland, still a comparatively young state, born in violence and immediately afterwards torn by civil war, with a continuing internal security threat, an unsolvable problem as regards in Northern Ireland, economically underdeveloped and sociologically unsettled, it was a remarkable liberal piece of legislation and, by and large, provided a sound statutory framework for the first fifteen years of the restructured broadcasting service as it entered the television age.Desmond Fisher, Broadcasting in Ireland (London, 1978), p. 27.
In saying this, the legislation was not perfect. One of the less fleshed out segments of the legislation was Section 31. Here the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs had underdefined powers to dictate for an indefinite period what could and what could not be broadcast by RTÉ. However, in the early years of the legislation, there was no need for the government to step in so this was not a significant issue. There existed, behind the scenes, a consistent pressure on programme makers to ‘go easy’ on government ministers, playing down controversies and avoiding ‘subjecting’ the Irish government to the ‘full rigors of a debate format’. (Betty Purcell, ‘The Silence in Irish Broadcasting’ in The Media and Northern Ireland: Covering the Troubles, ed. Bill Rolston (Basingstoke, 1991), p. 54.)
Unfortunately for RTÉ’s relationship with the Irish government, the first generation of television programme-makers viewed their job as being one totally committed to rousing the populace from passivity to self-awareness, with Telefís Éireann looking to challenge established institutions and traditional perspectives. (Maurice Walsh, ‘Media and Culture in Ireland 1960-2008’ in The Princeton History of Modern Ireland, ed. Richard Burke and Ian MacBride (Princeton, 2015), pp. 256-7.) RTÉ’s current affairs programmes, such as Broadsheet (1962-1963), acted as platforms from which journalists and broadcasters could hold Irish politicians accountable.
Combining this aggressive journalistic enthusiasm with broadcast coverage of governmental mistakes or mishaps was a recipe for disaster, and resulted in Taoiseach Séan Lemass issuing this declaration in the Dáil on 12 October 1966:
Radio Telefís Éireann was set up by legislation as an instrument of public policy and as such is responsible to the Government. The Government have over-all responsibility for its conduct and especially the obligation to ensure that its programmes do not offend against the public interest or conflict with national policy as defined in legislation. To this extent the Government reject the view that Radio Telefís Éireann should be, either generally or in regard to its current affairs and news programmes, completely independent of Government supervision. As a public institution supported by public funds and operating under statute, it has the duty, while maintaining impartiality between political parties, to present programmes which inform the public regarding current affairs, to sustain public respect for the institutions of Government and, where appropriate, to assist public understanding of the policies enshrined in legislation enacted by the Oireachtas. The Government will take such action by way of making representations or otherwise as may be necessary to ensure that Radio Telefís Éireann does not deviate from the due performance of this duty.Séan Lemass, Dáil Éireann Debates, 12 October 1966.
With the beginning of the Troubles in 1968 and issues such as the Arms Crisis occurring in the early 1970s, the Irish government could not afford to be undermined by its own national broadcaster. It was unacceptable, from a government perspective, to allow RTÉ to broadcast the ideas and thoughts of illegal organisations (like the IRA) on national television and radio, appearing in stark contrast to the words and actions of the elected government. This is the main motivation for Gerry Collins issuing the first ministerial order under Section 31 in 1971.
This battle between the rights of the broadcaster and the needs of the government continued throughout the Troubles until it was allowed lapse in 1994. Not only did Section 31 influence the editing and composition of every single RTÉ broadcast for more than twenty years, it also changed the journalistic culture within RTÉ as a broadcasting organisation. Section 31, therefore, is a key component that anyone interested in the media coverage of the Troubles needs to understand.
- Fanning, Ronan. Independent Ireland. Dublin, 1983.
- Fisher, Desmond. Broadcasting in Ireland. London, 1978.
- Lemass, Séan. Dáil Éireann Debates. Dublin, 12 October 1966.
- Purcell, Betty. ‘The Silence in Irish Broadcasting’. In War and Words: The Northern Ireland Media Reader, edited by Bill Rolston and David Miller, pp. 253-264. Belfast, 1996.
- Walsh, Maurice. ‘Media and Culture in Ireland 1960-2008’. In The Princeton History of Modern Ireland. Edited by Richard Burke and Ian MacBride, pp. 253-270. Princeton, 2015