Friday, May 13, 2005

Is that your best shot?

Robin Livingstone:

The real question is not how come the SDLP losses were so small this time round – rather it is, how come the Shinners can keep forging ahead in the face of such overwhelming odds?

Let's be honest about this – the past four months have seen the most sustained and hostile onslaught ever launched against a political party in Ireland. It was the media equivalent of global thermo-nuclear war. It started off with the battle of the Northern Bank – a factless free-fire zone in which every legal and moral principle that supposedly governs the orderly running of society disappeared in a cloud of acrid, black smoke. Standing today amid the deafening silence, the smoke of battle long since cleared, we can only look back in awe at the ferocity of the attack – and at its total and utter lack of substance.

Where now the Co Cork banknotes that Bertie told us he was convinced came from the Northern Bank raid? Where's the white van, where are the Bulgarian bank accounts, the Cheltenham megabets, the Moscow mafia, the West Belfast builder's yard, the Black Mountain subterranean vaults, the false walls, the £100 in Northern notes for a tenner, the South Armagh hand-outs, the holiday development in the Maldives, the mystery Lithuanian money men?

The answer is that we're now just supposed to forget about them, in the same way that we're supposed to forget about 'Stormontgate' and Castlereagh. Because all of these have one thing in common – they are incapable of being proved or disproved and they existed only to make political capital. And wasn't it wonderful to see that when the UUP and DUP got themselves into embarrassing scrapes in the final days of the election campaign, they were able to kill the debate by claiming that they were limited in what they could say because of legal considerations. Clearly, they hoped that we would fail to recall that, for them, legal considerations don't come into it when the subject under discussion is republicans.

Then came the murder of Robert McCartney which, if we believe the current consensus, cost Sinn Féin its Mountpottinger seat. I happen to agree with that one – I think that a number of people did refuse to come out and vote for Sinn Féin because they were appalled at the part members of the republican movement played in the McCartney murder. But I also believe that as many, if not more, refused to come out and vote for Sinn Féin because of the way that certain long-standing members of the republican movement were treated in the wake of the killing.

The McCartney campaign is gently running out of steam now, not because the need to find the killer is any less urgent, but simply because the elections are over and the media is getting bored with it. The vote by the European Parliament to give the family money to fight a civil case threw the issue briefly back in the spotlight this week, but how many journalists accompanied the family abroad this time? Had that Euro funding vote taken place six weeks ago newsrooms all over Ireland and Britain would have emptied in the rush to catch a flight to Brussels. Now they're happy to take 50 words from a stringer and a five-second clip from a freelance cameraman. And I wonder if the McCartney sisters asked themselves on the flight home where all their friends had gone. Probably not, just as they probably didn't ask themselves a while back as they stood in front of a vast bank of reporters and cameras, why us? What makes a knifing outside a pub more newsworthy than, say, a pretty young woman abducted and murdered by loyalist paramilitaries in Co Down?

I'm glad, if the truth be told. If the McCartney family wants to battle away in the same way that countless other families do, then good luck to them and the Andytown News pages are open to them not just for a few weeks or months, but for as long as it takes. They know now that fighting for truth is a hard station, but I can tell them from personal experience, and so can countless others, that it's a million times harder when the media's attitude to the victims is 'slap it up them'.

But I'm sick of decent people having their names dragged through the mud, people who fought and suffered for their principles in whatever way their conscience directed them. I'm sick of the way good and honourable people became collateral damage in a war of black propaganda waged by dark and powerful forces whose footsoldiers are money-grubbing, word-counting hacks who wouldn't know a scruple if it jumped up and bit them on the arse.

If the upshot of the Northern Bank and the McCartney onslaught is that this time round a teacher in South Belfast feels incapable of giving a Shinner a number 5 or 6 on the ballot paper, then so be it. But when the next politically convenient 'break-in' or 'bank robbery' takes place – and, believe me, one will – or when next the media gets into a lather about one killing and not another, then perhaps more people will stop and think. About the law of diminishing returns, perhaps, or about the boy who cried wolf.

Couldn't agree more.


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