Twenty years on: The lifting of the ban on broadcasting Sinn Féin

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The voices of Sinn Féin members returned to the airwaves of the Republic of Ireland 20 years ago this week. BBC Northern Ireland reporter Kevin Sharkey, who was working in independent radio at the time, became the first broadcaster to conduct an on-air interview with party figures. He recalls the historic interview.

Reporter Kevin Sharkey was the first broadcaster to conduct an on-air interview with members of Sinn Féin
Image caption,
Reporter Kevin Sharkey (right) was the first broadcaster to conduct an on-air interview with members of Sinn Féin. Pictured are Martin McGuinness and Pat Doherty

"It is now time for peace in Ireland." With these words, Martin Mc Guinness became the first member of Sinn Féin to take advantage of the abolition of what was known as Section 31.

Under Section 31 of the Republic of Ireland's Broadcasting Act, it was forbidden to broadcast interviews or reports of interviews or statements by anyone speaking on behalf of a number of organisations, the most prominent of which was Sinn Féin.

It was introduced by Fianna Fail Minister for Posts and Telegraphs Gerry Collins in 1971.

Actor's voice

The ban was strengthened in 1977 by the hard-line Labour party minister, Conor Cruise O'Brien, to stop Sinn Féin and the IRA from getting their message across on television and radio during the Troubles.

A similar ban operated in the UK, from 1988, but broadcasters in Northern Ireland got around it by dubbing Sinn Féin speeches and interviews with an actor's voice, repeating the interview word-for-word.

That was not possible in the Republic of Ireland as the Irish government did not allow word-for-word broadcasts.

The Republic's national broadcaster, RTÉ, even refused to broadcast Sinn Féin members when they were talking about matters completely unrelated to the Troubles.

In one case, Sinn Féin's Larry O'Toole was not permitted to appear on RTÉ to talk about a trade union dispute with which he was involved.

The Irish High Court later found that this exclusion was not justified under Section 31.

Image source, PA
Image caption,
Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams speaking on BBC Radio Five Live to promote a book in September 1996

In any case, the ban was lifted, as part of the peace process, by the then Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, and the man who is currently Irish president, Michael D. Higgins.

In January 1994, Mr Mc Guinness became the first Sinn Féin figure to have his voice on the Irish airwaves. He was joined in the historic interview by the current West Tyrone MP Pat Doherty.

The big issue of the day for Sinn Féin was seeking clarification from the British government on the Downing Street Declaration.

Mr Doherty noted: "The peace project is now so advanced within the 32 counties of Ireland that the issue will remain top of the agenda".

Mr Mc Guinness told me: "The only way we are going to resolve this problem is by getting into the one room and sorting it out once and for all. It is now time for peace in Ireland."

What was unique about the interview, conducted on Highland Radio in County Donegal, was that it was broadcast into Northern Ireland and Mr McGuinness' heartland in the Bogside area of Londonderry where he and his colleagues were still banned from the airwaves.

That ban was lifted later in the year.