can't be easy to create a useless documentary about
Joe Cahill, but DoubleBand has managed it. This
reworking of a biting
Eamonn McCann dismissal of Brendan Anderson's book
on the life of the former Provisional IRA boss should
be about as much as last week's hagiographical eulogy
broadcast on RTE merits. Its content is certainly
deserving of no more. Its construction, however,
invites a longer look as it offers a window on the
world of media in the era of the peace process.
has Cahill achieved in death something which eluded
him in life - a candidacy for sainthood? Anderson
made him the Venerable Joe, and then DoubleBand
takes matters a step further by making him the Blessed
Joe. The journalism employed in the Holy Joe enterprise
up till now falls far short of serious despite its
chosen topic having had such tumultuous consequences
for so many. Consequently, to invite The Hole
In The Wall Gang to complete the process of
sainthood, while not disrupting the narratorial
flow thus far, might seem a touch profane in the
midst of such sacristy.
History - Joe Cahill: IRA Man went down well
in those parts of West Belfast - the same parts
where it is believed decommissioning of IRA weaponry
never took place - that viewed it. The most negative
comment emerging from Sinn Fein quarters to come
my way was that the programme was bland and said
little that was new. A former prisoner praised RTE
for at last having caught itself on to the point
of giving a republican perspective on events. While
that impression failed to leap out at me from the
television screen, I would be hard pressed to make
a case that RTE has not been beguiled by the peace
process. Former Fine Gael leader Michael Noonan
openly stated what has long been observed: 'even
distinguished reporters kind of just nod their heads.'
No better example than that of Pat Kenny's 'Mate
Mate' Show. A begrudger alone would contend that
Gerry Adams did not perform remarkably well on it
last Friday. He carries himself with considerable
aplomb every time he is on it. But that hardly excuses
the presenter drooling over him.
outside of Sinn Fein environs the response to the
Cahill eulogy was different. 'Adulatory', 'pious
nonsense', 'sucking up' - all terms that figured
in viewers' descriptions of the depiction of the
one time gallows contender.
such is the poor health of public broadcasting,
made anaemic by the vigour being drained from it
by the needs of the peace process, it was entirely
consistent for RTE to broadcast a 'mockumentary'
that scoffed at serious investigative journalism
and which came replete with all the intellectual
creativity that would flow from a pencil with a
rubber at either end.
as 'for the first time, the dramatic history of
the real Joe Cahill', the outcome of this production
was to reinforce another myth of the peace process
- that Joe Cahill was in some way pivotal to it,
a conscious actor who understood it and was central
to its every meander, rather than being, as his
critics would contend, a mere stooge of Gerry Adams.
For labouring through this homily for an hour our
reward was hardly the real Joe Cahill.
interviewees who were on, such as Marie Moore, had
virtually nothing to say. Danny Morrison came on
screen to inform the audience that chunks of Joe
Cahill's life would remain undisclosed. No one would
quibble with the former Sinn Fein Publicity Director
on that. But what possessed the documentary makers
to use up time just to tell us that there are aspects
to Cahill that we may not know for quite some time?
It would have been more purposeful to have filled
in those gaps in the existing knowledge rather than
tell us what we know already - that such gaps exist.
we set aside the contributions of participants like
Martin McGuinness and the 'pro-Joe' lobby, without
in anyway prejudicing their validity, it is noticeable
how a diverse collection of others, both commentators
and political activists alike, were heaved into
the Joe pot and stirred by the camera until the
most bland and insipid of stews emerged. Ed Moloney,
Tommy McKearney, Ruairi O'Bradaigh, Richard English
and Eamonn McCann were weaved into the programme's
underlying structure, and their sharp edges buffed
down and marinated to the point of maximum flatness.
The end result was a seamless narrative that managed
to draw from a cacophony of diverse tones only one
republican voice - Joe was a pretty sound sort of
guy, a fatherly republican esteemed by his wider
republican family whose role in supporting the new
departure was crucial. A multiplicity of voices
distorted and distilled down to a single echo chamber
of the Gerry Adams line that without Joe Cahill
there would have been no peace process.
counterweight to this was not other republicans
or even commentators but former members of the British
security forces who fought against the organisation
Cahill once led - Ken Maginnis and Kevin Sheehy.
The viewer was invited to believe that here was
a hero of the peace process whose main critics were
old resentful securocrats still hankering for victory
over a man who had come to embrace a constitutional
when it came to providing some pictorial backdrop
the footage selected was of bombings from which
Cahill was far removed in terms of personal culpability.
Bloody Friday occurred almost a year after Cahill
had left Belfast in the wake of a press conference
in the immediate aftermath of internment.
is here that the programme makers revealed that
whatever their agenda it certainly was not balance.
In the view of many of his comrades, Joe Cahill
in August 1971 deserted his post as leader of the
Belfast Brigade. It was common knowledge in Belfast
republican circles at the time that Gerry Adams
called for Cahill's resignation from the IRA because
the volunteers in the city had lost confidence in
their O/C. Men who were told by Cahill in 1971 they
would see him in four days time had a long wait.
Over two decades later he returned. While in the
Republic he came across the late Albert Price, father
of the republican volunteers Marian and Dolours.
Cahill asked what Price was doing in Dublin, only
to be met with a deadpan put down, 'I'm a coward
Joe, just like yourself.' The manner in which Cahill
was elevated into the prime leadership spot in the
Belfast Brigade was also a source of resentment
amongst his colleagues. Sean MacStiofain, his predecessor
as the Provisional IRA's first chief of staff, informed
his Belfast commanders that Easter 1970 would be
an ideal time to recapture the spirit of 1916 by
launching an armed insurrection. The city's leadership,
aware more than most of the dire problem of weapon
shortage, thought he was living in cloud cuckoo
land and resolved to remove him and replace him
with Dave O'Conaill who many Belfast republicans
had known from Crumlin Road prison a decade earlier.
Cahill, in the view of his colleagues on the staff
of the Belfast Brigade, informed MacStiofain of
the plot. Subsequently, when the Belfast IRA's leader,
Billy McKee - a much more central figure in the
heady formative days of the Provisional IRA - was
arrested in the spring of 1971, another of the 'plotters',
Seamus Twomey, who was set to replace McKee was
by-passed. MacStiofain rewarded Cahill by appointing
him leader of the Belfast IRA, which at that time
earned the incumbent of the brigade O/C spot a place
on the army council.
republicans resented DoubleBand's presentation of
Cahill's non-role in the IRA's 1950s campaign. Rather
than him merely taking no part in it as the documentary
suggested, his critics contend that the Belfast
IRA failed to play any part in the campaign because
Cahill, as O/C of its then Belfast battalion, 'refused
to fight.' As a suitable cover he allegedly concocted
the fiction of an informer in the ranks which he
sold to the GHQ. The latter then had the task of
crafting the excuse of being sensitive to the sectarian
passions that an IRA campaign in the Northern capital
might unleash. The man allegedly selected as a convenient
scapegoat was a 'solid IRA volunteer.'
for Cahill's centrality to the peace process, nobody
I ever met in the IRA took their cue from Joe Cahill
in relation to it. And I discussed it with quite
a few of its members. Volunteers confronted with
uncertainty as the IRA slipped into ceasefire mode
in 1994 looked to others 'in the know'; people 'we
can trust' as a sort of beacon to guide them through
difficult times. Martin McGuinness, Gerry Kelly,
Brian Keenan were all sources of reassurance that
things would not go down the Suwannee. Not once
did anybody refer to Joe Cahill. Some familiar with
events of the time claim that Cahill switched his
support from war to peace solely on the basis of
being offered free and safe passage to America.
none of these perspectives on Cahill need be true.
But that they exist and managed not to feature in
a documentary on his life seems bizarre and begs
the question, what were the motives of those involved
in making the documentary? They can hardly claim
not to have been provided with all the above material
and more to boot.
I was first approached and asked would I agree to
be interviewed for the programme I assented after
being told that one of the intentions of those behind
it was to produce a countervailing view to 'Brendan
Anderson's hagiography'. Dolours Price agreed to
take part on the same basis. Other people, not republican,
suspicious that an element in the DoubleBand team
was determined to be nothing more than a Sinn Fein
cheerleader had their apprehensions allayed by DoubleBand
undertaking that the presence of myself and Dolours
Price would ensure that a proper balance was achieved.
On that understanding they agreed to take part.
it turned out neither of the so-called 'critical
voices' appeared. There is no reason for anyone
interviewed for such a programme to feel that they
should automatically appear in it. Often these things
are a judgement call for those tasked with editing
responsibilities. Dolours Price has since been informed
by one of the DoubleBand team that both her and
my own interview were 'poor.' That may well be true.
It is possible that we have little experience in
being interviewed, that neither of us really knew
the subject matter, and that our views were represented
by far more articulate and knowledgeable contributors
able to tell us there were things about Joe that
would not be brought to the fore. But if it were
true, it didn't seem to sit well with DoubleBand
telling me on the day of the interviews that they
were delighted with the contribution, and then as
I was about to leave the studio, asked me to step
back in to do one more 'very revealing' session.
Perhaps the interviewers had as little experience
as myself in these matters and wrongly presumed
my 'poor' contribution was high quality. Why, I
wonder, are they making documentaries?
appalling hagiography has its place - in the Sinn
Fein bookshop. Few would be surprised to see it
labelled as Richard McAuley Productions. So amazed
was I after having watched it that I contacted one
of those who worked on it the following day to inquire
how the anti-hagiography ended up being anything
but. To my amusement I was told that both I and
Dolours Price were angry people, absolutists who
would never be happy if we couldn't control everything
and get our own way. I was told to get it off my
chest by writing about it on the Blanket
where only those who think like me would read it.
It was great stuff; quintessential party hackery.
Just like being hectored by an irate Tom Hartley.
I waited, hoping to be called a rejectionist and
an enemy of the peace process. Much to my disappointment
that little music to my ear's morsel was withheld.
I put the phone down feeling that whoever scripted
the diatribe may also have scripted the documentary.
The language from both had a sui generis of its
my lack of surprise when I later learned that my
heckler appeared on British television claiming
that the Provisional IRA were pleading; 'please,
please, please can we give our weapons away.' A
word of warning before anybody starts finger pointing;
it wasn't Catriona Ruane or Mary Lou McDonald.
was to Joe Cahill what Fox News is to the war in
Iraq. Embedded reporters have on occasion displayed
more objectivity. Despite the programme makers'
pejorative comments on Brendan Anderson's book,
Anderson never portrayed his work as anything other
than allowing Joe Cahill to tell his story. In some
ways it had the feel of a favour being done for
an old friend. In hagiographical terms this documentary
was infinitely worse precisely because it was snake
oil dressed up as the antidote to hagiography.
should be, as Stephen Richter argued, about 'having
the guts to stand up to the "big guys,"
not to go with the flow, but to challenge the powers
that be - that's the distinguishing criteria for
journalists all over the democratic world.' Not
here, however, where the peace process has corrupted
journalism and produced journalists against journalism.
On occasion some have taken to describing their
own colleagues as 'JAPPs - Journalists Against The
Peace Process.' Others have admitted they would
not report on events unhelpful to the peace process.
During the reign of Section 31 a self-flagellating
few could be found demanding that they themselves
be censored. They now worship at the peace process
altar. The journalistic watchword has become 'hush'
not 'probe.' Moral blackmail is now a virtue - speak
up and we will endanger the peace process; and, as Eamonn
McCann says, find ourselves 'marked down as irresponsible, a danger
both to ourselves and to society as a whole.' Myths
do not merely go unchallenged but are reproduced.
Too many journalists behave as players, not reporters.
The peace process is a malignant virus infecting
the processes of intellectual autonomy. Its stifling
oppressiveness has forced investigative minds to
wade through a quagmire of ethical dung, the obnoxious
fumes of which they inhale and breath out again
as news. Orwell argued that in a time of universal
deceit the only revolutionary act is to tell the
truth. Irish journalism will hardly be the vanguard
of that revolution.
viewing Hidden History - Joe Cahill: IRA Man,
I was reminded of an observation once made by Rod
Serling: 'It is difficult to produce a television
documentary that is both incisive and probing when
every twelve minutes one is interrupted by twelve
dancing rabbits singing about toilet paper.' Even
with the bonus of being unhindered by the rabbits,
DoubleBand still found the task impossible. On reflection
those behind the production might consider Voltaire's
comment, 'To the living we owe respect, but to the
dead we owe only the truth.' DoubleBand delivered
nothing to either.