Analysis: the infamous clause of the Broadcasting Act was a contentious issue during coverage of the Troubles in the 1970s and 1980s

Many myths and misunderstandings have surrounded the infamous Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act, which banned members and affiliates of paramilitary organisations from the Irish airwaves. A number of myths have been dispelled, such as that it was ‘created' by Conor Cruise O'Brien, or that actors’ voices were substituted for those of figures like Gerry Adams on RTÉ news bulletins, but some misunderstandings have remained difficult to dislodge

Contrary to popular belief, Section 31 was not created in the 1970s, but featured in the Broadcasting Act of 1960 that established RTÉ. It empowered the relevant Minister to prevent the broadcast of "any particular matter or matter of any particular class". This, theoretically, gave the Minister the scope to ban anything s/he chose from the airwaves. Few objections were raised by Opposition TDs at the time, though some regarded the power as unnecessarily arbitrary.

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From RTÉ Archives, John O'Donoghue from Seven Days in 1971 on the introduction of a directive to Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act and what it means for Irish broadcasting

The Minister for Posts & Telegraphs Michael Hilliard declared the provision would only be utilised in "exceptional circumstances", so as to prevent broadcasts that were "inimical to the national interest". This promise was indeed kept, with no directive issued for over a decade.

The Troubles and 'exceptional circumstances'

The outbreak of violence in Northern Ireland in 1969 brought ‘exceptional circumstances’ to the fore. In December of that year, the anti-Treaty IRA split into the Official IRA and the Provisional IRA and both were accompanied by political adjuncts, Official Sinn Féin and Provisional Sinn Féin respectively.

From late 1969 onwards, RTÉ’s radio and television service regularly featured statements from these organisations and often included interviews with the Chiefs of Staff of both IRA groups. The Fianna Fáil government came to fear that RTÉ was glamorising paramilitary organisations whose objectives included the destruction of the Irish State itself.

In September 1971 then Minister for Posts & Telegraphs, Gerard Collins, issued a directive prohibiting the broadcast of ‘any matter that could be calculated to promote the aims or activities of any organisation which engages in, promotes, encourages or advocates the attaining of any particular objective by violent means.’

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From RTÉ Archives, Brian Farrell interviews Conor Cruise O'Brien for Seven Days in 1973 about Section 31

The problem, however, was the directive’s vagueness. It was open to various interpretations, and might even impede the station’s ability to report on foreign political conflicts. Attempts by the RTÉ Authority (the station’s governing body, now known as the RTÉ Board) to elicit more specific wording from the Minister proved fruitless.

Recognising the Government’s desire was, at the very least, to prevent paramilitaries from appearing on television, one reporter, Kevin O'Kelly, adopted a novel approach. In November 1972, O'Kelly interviewed the leader of the PIRA, Seán Mac Stiofáin, and subsequently read a transcript of the discussion on air.

The Government were furious. They claimed RTÉ had facilitated a 'blatant attempt to circumvent' the directive, and demanded the Authority outline new procedures to prevent a breach from reoccurring. When the station failed to quickly outline new measures, the Government sacked the entire Authority five days after O’Kelly’s broadcast.

It empowered the relevant Minister to prevent the broadcast of "any particular matter or matter of any particular class"

Despite some claims to the contrary, O’Kelly was not imprisoned for breaching Section 31. While the journalist would subsequently spend two nights in prison, this was for ‘contempt of court’, when he refused to formally identify Mac Stiofáin as his source during the prosecution of the PIRA leader for membership of an unlawful organisation.

Enter the Cruiser

From November 1972 onwards, RTÉ was more careful to avoid the presence of, or statements by, known or suspected paramilitaries in broadcasts. The same methodology was not applied to political affiliates however, with members of both Official Sinn Féin and Provisional Sinn Féin continuing to make regular appearances.

Complaints from the new Minister for Posts & Telegraphs, Conor Cruise O'Brien, to RTÉ in 1974 were met with the response that the broadcaster had a duty to ensure balance in its reportage. Focusing on Provisional Sinn Féin's denials of PIRA's involvement in the murder of Senator Billy Fox, O'Brien argued caustically that it was a peculiar form of 'balance’ to appear to give equal weight to the views of the Government or the Garda Síochána and to, what he described as, 'the civilian front of a political murder-gang’.

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From RTÉ Archives, RTÉ News interview in 1974 with Minister for Posts and Telegraphs Conor Cruise O'Brien about changes to the Broadcasting Act

The breaking point came in October 1976. Following the murder of Garda Michael Clerkin by the PIRA, RTÉ again broadcast an interview with a Provisional Sinn Féin spokesman who denied Provisional involvement. In response, O'Brien issued a new directive banning spokespersons of specific organisations from the airwaves entirely. This included both IRA groupings, any other organisation also classified as unlawful in Northern Ireland, and Provisional Sinn Féin. Contrary to popular perceptions, the directive did not apply to the organisation then registered as ‘Sinn Féin’ (in other words, Official Sinn Féin, which is now the Workers' Party).

As the OIRA had been on ceasefire since 1972, and Official Sinn Féin were by then publicly opposed to violence, they escaped the ban. Provisional Sinn Féin was the only named political party affected at that time. After its emergence in 1986, Republican Sinn Féin was also banned from the airwaves.

Somewhat contrary to the perception that he single-handedly instituted a draconian censorship regime, O'Brien also oversaw new legislation which sought to prevent abuse of such powers From 1976 onwards, a minister could not prohibit the broadcast of 'any particular matter’ at any time, but only that which was ‘likely to promote, or incite to, crime or would tend to undermine the authority of the State’. Moreover, directives were limited to twelve month periods, and subject to review by parliament which, tellingly, never voted to annul these bans between 1976 and 1994.

Opposition to Section 31

Understandably, the restrictions disgruntled paramilitary groupings and their affiliates, but were also opposed from the outset by many journalists, broadcasters, and civil liberties activists. However, campaigns to have Section 31 removed failed to gain significant purchase amongst the general population.

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From RTÉ Archives, Joe O'Brien reports for RTÉ News on moves by the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) in 1987 to challenge Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act in the European courts

Although Charles Haughey briefly contemplated allowing Provisional Sinn Féin onto the airwaves in the early 1980s, such considerations were discarded in the aftermath of the PIRA's killings of Irish Army Private Patrick Kelly and trainee Garda Gary Sheehan in 1983.

However, a lack of active public support did not stop some from attempting legal manoeuvres. In 1982 a Provisional Sinn Féin election candidate unsuccessfully appealed to the courts. The Supreme Court determined that his party was "an integral and dependent part of the apparatus of the Provisional IRA", a terrorist organisation which was dedicated to overthrowing the State by force.

Consequently, the Court not only upheld the ban, but indicated the Government had a 'duty' to keep Provisional Sinn Féin spokespersons off the airwaves. A later appeal by journalists to the European Commission of Human Rights in 1991 also failed, with the Commission essentially contending that Section 31 was a necessary measure in Ireland’s efforts to defeat domestic terrorism.

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From RTÉ Archives, first RTÉ interview with Gerry Adams after the Section 31 ban was lifted in 1994

The restrictions continued until January 1994, when a renewal order was not issued by then Minister Michael D Higgins. However, both those who praise and those who criticise the President for this decision should temper their plaudits and protestations, as it was not his decision alone but that of the Government. Indeed, it is arguable that the ban would have remained in place for a little while longer without the commitment of the then Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, to bring the Provisionals in from the 'political cold', and to smooth the path of the nascent peace process.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ