The 1980s saw the rise and rise of IBRG as a local and national grassroots campaigning organisation that exposed not only the racism and discrimination facing the Irish in Britain but drew the links between those issues and Britain’s ongoing occupation of the North of Ireland. IBRG challenged the British government’s attempt to control the debate around their role in the North of Ireland.
The arrest of IBRG President Dr.Maire O’Shea and a number of other IBRG members in early 1985 had repercussions for the organisation being involved in the mainstream media and illustrated how reactionary elements within the Manchester Irish community were prepared to go along with the censorship of IBRG.
The Irish Line radio programme for Radio Manchester was created in 1983 and run by IBRG members and unpaid volunteers, Eileen Murphy, Declan O’Neill, Tony Farrell and Peter Ledwith.
It was a weekly mix of items including music, sport and “What’s On.” Reflecting IBRG policy it did not shy away from the political issues of the day, and over the two years it included interviews with National IBRG Chair (and Salford councillor) Jim King, the Irish Foreign Minister, GLC Leader Ken Livingstone and Father Raymond Murray, a human rights campaigner from Armagh in the North of Ireland. Issues covered included strip searching, the Birmingham Six and the Prevention of Terrorism Act.
Early in 1985 the BBC erased IBRG’s name from a poster advertising the programme, removed a credit to IBRG from the programme’s introduction and excluded two questions from a taped interview with Bridie Gaskin, Irish-born chair of the Manchester Social and Democratic Party. One question asked why she had joined the IBRG, while he other was on the SDP’s policy on the presence of British troops in Ireland. Finally the BBC cut out in its entirety an interview with an IBRG delegate to the International Women’s Day in Armagh.
In July 1985 the programme was given a summer break. It did not return: none of the presenters were told that the BBC had taken this decision. The presenters wrote to the Irish Post (the main newspaper of the Irish in Britain) to express their concern about the way in which the programme had been censored and finally got rid of. Their letter ended “We do hope that Irish Line does not become yet another casualty of the British media’s reluctance to deal in any depth with any Irish issue.”
Following letters and articles in the Irish press and Manchester’s radical press City Life magazine in August 1985 the Acting Station Manager of BBC Manchester Donald Kerr replied. He accused the presenters of “naivety” and that they had to be reminded that “the aims of the programme were to reflect the cultural and social life of Greater Manchester’s 150,000 Irish people”. He reiterated that it was not a political programme, “nor a platform for the presenters.” The presenters replied criticising Kerr for not replying to their allegations of censorship but instead “ resorting to vague assertions about not letting Irish Line be a platform for propaganda.” They also asserted the right to decide what concerns the Irish community in Manchester and that reporting on social and cultural events of the Irish community must also include reporting on issues such as the Prevention of Terrorism Act “which has resulted in over 5,000 Irish people being arrested, many of them Manchester residents.”
Irish Line was replaced in the autumn of 1985 by a new radio programme called Come Into the Parlour. The IBRG presenters were replaced by members of the Irish community much more acceptable to the BBC. One of them was Tom McAndrew, a leading member of the reactionary organisation the Council of Irish Associations. The new programme was happy to broadcast listings for striptease shows, “Irish jokes” were acceptable as well as a Royal Wedding special. It represented the old guard of the Irish community with an “Uncle Tom” attitude to being Irish which was anathema to the progressive Irish who could be found in organisations such as IBRG.
Censorship locally and nationally in the media on Ireland would worsen in the 1980s. In 1985 a BBC documentary called Real Lives; the Edge of the Union which included interviews with Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein and Gregory Campbell of the DUP led to the Home Secretary asking the BBC governers to withdraw it. BBC and ITN journalists went on strike in protest: the amended film was finally broadcast in October 1985.
1988 saw the the introduction of the Broadcasting Ban which prevented the voices of representatives from Sinn Féin and several Irish republican and loyalist groups banned by the British government from being broadcast on television and radio in the United Kingdom. This censorship permeated any organisation that wanted to speak out on Irish issues – IBRG representatives were often invited to speak by the media only to find that instead of discussing an issue such as a new report on discrimination against the Irish community they were asked to comment on the latest IRA bombing.
Censorship did not stop people wanting to know about what was going on in the North of Ireland, particularly when the government tried to ban it. Mother Ireland was a film commissioned by Channel 4 from Derry Film and Video Collective in 1989 which examined the history and myths that surround the idea of Mother Ireland. It included interviews with women including Mairead Farrell who was shot dead by the SAS shortly afterwards in Gibraltar. The filmmakers stressed at the time of the interview they were unaware of her involvement in the IRA. The documentary fell foul of the Broadcasting Ban.
The Northwest Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom organised a public meeting for people to make their own mind up. It was chaired by Granville Williams of the CPBF and Bernadette Hyland, Vice National Chair of IBRG, was one of the speakers. Over 200 people turned up to the screening. IBRG took part in annual pickets of the BBC to oppose the ban.
Over the years IBRG got better at publicity – ironically as the British state clamped down on any debate around their role in the North of Ireland. IBRG went onto produce its own magazine an pobal eirithe, as well as continue to organise public meetings, campaigns and conferences.
The limits of archiving an organisation is shown in that the folder for the Irish Line controversey includes only a sheaf of press cuttings but there are Minute Books from Manchester IBRG in the archive. Michael Herbert’s The Wearing of the Green; a Political History of the Irish in Manchester includes a comprehensive summary.
Read more about IBRG at the Irish Collection at the WCML