Ruth Graham from ‘The Vacuum’ interviews Danny Morrison about his time as national director of publicity for Sinn Fein. ‘The Vacuum’ is a free monthly paper, with a circulation of 10,000, published in Belfast. Each issue is themed and contains critical commentary about the city and broader cultural issues. This article was published late November, 2008
RG: How did you become interested in communications and public relations?
DM: Well, I was mainly interested in writing but I was also interested in building transmitters. Between 1968 and 1969 there was a group of us who were amateur ‘Hams’ or ‘Pirates’ and when Radio Ulster went off the air around midnight, we came onto their frequency on the Medium Waveband with our transmitters. Looking back on it, that was an indication of being interested in communications as well.
In 1971, I remember borrowing money off my sister to buy a typewriter. My intention was to use it to write fiction but the first thing I wrote on it was a letter to the Irish News complaining about the shooting of a civilian by the British Army on the New Lodge Road.
In my late teens I was interned in Long Kesh and I was asked to write statements on behalf of the prisoners. Then in July 1975, during a lengthy IRA ceasefire, I was asked if I would edit Republican News, so I jumped in there and tried to modernise the paper.
The British Government tried to close the paper down and arrested the van drivers, the typists and most of the editorial board. They also arrested the entire executive of Belfast Sinn Fein. I was the only one who escaped the initial arrests, so in 1978 I was editing Republican News whilst on the run, then I was arrested, charged with IRA membership and conspiracy and sent to jail. The charges were dropped after 3 months but the outing in court forced us to become public. Up until then if you had come to see me from the Guardian or any other paper, I would have given you a false name. Even when I was writing for Republican News, the name Danny Morrison didn’t occur in print. Once we were charged we thought, “frig it – they’ve already given out our names”. So when we got out of jail, I was publicly the Editor of the paper and at the next Ard Fheis I became the National Director of Publicity for Sinn Fein.
Republican News and An Phoblacht merged in February 1979 and I became Editor of the newly merged paper and remained as Editor till 1982 when I stood for the Assembly elections and was elected in Mid Ulster but I was Director of Publicity up until 1990 when I was arrested and charged in relation to the alleged kidnapping of a police informer, Sandy Lynch. This is currently the subject of an appeal. I was lured to that house to organise a Press Conference so my interest in publicity cost me an 8-year jail sentence!
We had very few resources but we did have people like Danny Devenny and Gerry Adams. In 1975 I asked Gerry Adams to start writing for Republican News and he did the ‘Brownie’ Column. Danny Devenny (who was an artist and was in jail with Adams) illustrated it with cartoons and when he came out of jail we brought him onto the Editorial board of Republican News. He had a flair for posters and this added another dimension to our publicity. Danny was arrested and jailed when the offices were raided … again through his involvement in publicity.
We managed to get a number of scoops. Brigadier James Glover who was the Commander of Land Forces wrote a secret assessment of the IRA and we got our hands on it and published it in An Phoblacht. Brigadier Glover’s assessment of the IRA contradicted everything that British propaganda was saying … that the IRA was run by Godfathers, mindless thugs and hooligans … he painted this different picture that provided a fascinating insight. He said that the IRA was a well-organised, efficient, military organisation, that the members were dedicated, highly committed, highly trained and drawn mostly from the working class. He also said, “the IRA do not fit the picture depicted by current Government propaganda.” It was magnificent stuff.
Because we were under the umbrella of the Republican Movement we had access to IRA exclusives over the years. For example, when the H Block escape took place in 1983, we had exclusive access to Bik McFarlane and Seamus McIllwaine both of whom had escaped. All that helped sell the paper and made it sexy.
The first port of call for the international media was always the Republican Press Centre on the Falls Road. The room that the journalists used to come into was dingy and freezing but the story they were after was the Republican story and that was our advantage. They could certainly go up to Stormont and be wined and dined but to them that wouldn’t have been as edgy as coming to us and saying, “Can you put us in contact with such-and-such who escaped from jail?” or, “can you get me a visit to Bobby Sands?”
RG: It’s interesting that during the times that you were trying to bring PR into the Republican Movement you were battling against increasingly sophisticated state propaganda …
DM: Oh unbelievably … One of the most consistent features of us being interviewed on radio and television was that we were treated as hostile subjects. In a way that backfired, because the grilling that we were given actually improved our performance. It was a kind of training and it got to the stage where I never feared any interview on any subject because I was always trying to read the mind of the journalist on the other side of the microphone. I tried to anticipate the question before it came up and have the answer ready.
It’s an interesting to remember that RTE introduced Section 31 of the Broadcast Ban on Sinn Fein back in 1973 and the British Government didn’t introduce its Broadcast Ban until 1988. During the 80s there was a campaign to end censorship in the South and the journalists were saying, “Let us at them and we will destroy them. They are surrounded in myth because we can’t interview them.” This was their appeal to the Government.
Connor Cruise O’Brien, the Minister of Post & Telegraphs who had introduced the original censorship, came back with a statement that basically said, ‘catch yourselves on … they will run rings around you and they will only gain support.’ Their argument wasn’t for fairness, impartiality and proper standards of journalism … acting as the Fourth Estate, mediating between Government and whatever other forces there are in society … their attitude was “We’ll do the job for them.” Cruise O’Brien didn’t trust them to do that.
That’s not to say that we haven’t done deplorable interviews. Like any other party we’ve shot ourselves in the foot on many an occasion and sometimes it was personally and emotionally difficult, like after Enniskillen: there was no way that I’d do an interview immediately after it; not because I was trying to evade the brutality of what had happened but because people hadn’t even buried their dead at that stage and to speak then would have added an additional aspect of callousness. Regardless of how you portray yourself at an official level, deep down inside you cannot justify everything that has happened in the conflict. Because you are part of an organisation, for a variety of reasons, you stick by the regiment. What I’m saying might sound like a gloss to people who are opposed to the Republican Movement, but you knew that what had happened wasn’t a reflection upon what was desired and that within the Republican Movement there were a lot of people who had suffered, been to jail or lost brothers or sisters and that the struggle itself had emerged from what we considered to be an unjust situation.
One of the biggest criticisms I had of the media was that, in a sense, it was they who presented and forced us into appearing to be proxy IRA spokespersons. I would call a press conference on public transport, poverty or pensions, Adams would get up to speak and the first question would be, “the IRA said such-and-such last week; what’s your response?” We supported the IRA but we wanted to show that there was much more to Sinn Fein than a group that seemed to be in a junior position to the IRA.
This suited Thatcher very well when she introduced the Broadcast Ban in 1988. She said she wanted to cut off the oxygen of publicity for the IRA but it was actually the media that had forced us into that situation. They never allowed us to talk about social or economic issues.
Some of the media have this ‘holier than thou’ belief in themselves and I’ll give you an example of this hypocritical attitude.
Bobby Sands died on 5th May and during the 7 months of the Hunger Strike our office was open 24 hours a day and we basically slept on the floor. We had been expecting Bobby to die for 2 or 3 days and around midnight I decided to nip home. Around 1.20am a fellow came to the door to tell us that Bobby was dead. I went straight back to the office where we had 4 phones going at once and a queue of journalists outside. In the streets there were gun battles, bin lids banging, rosaries being said at one corner, petrol bombs going off in another, smoke and gunfire all over West Belfast. We worked intensely throughout the night and I was running on adrenalin. Around 6.30am, Richard McAuley who worked alongside me said, “the BBC are here and want an interview” I went outside and it was Kate Adie. Her first question was, “How do you feel now that you’ve helped to kill your best friend?” and that was the tenor of the rest of the interview. I went at her hammer and tongs, then it ended. She said, “Thank you Mr Morrison”, got into her car and effed off.
I asked Richard what he thought and he said, “Danny that was the best interview you have ever done.”
Soon after, I got a phone call from Clive Ferguson of the BBC asking for an interview. I told him that I’d just done an interview. He said, “Yes, but there were problems … we really think you should do an interview though … it’s important to get something out.” When I got down to the BBC I said to him, “I just did an interview with Kate Adie” and he said, “Yes, but the film didn’t come out”. This was all off-camera and I said, “Clive, in your experience, how many times have you known that to happen?” Now, he didn’t say ‘never’ but he mouthed it. I believe that because I got the better of her she ditched that film.
Now, fast forward 15 or 20 years. I read her autobiography, ‘The Kindness of Strangers’, in which she describes the hunger strike as “Bog-trotting stuff.” She writes about sneaking into Bobby Sands’ wake “in a headscarf and scruffy anorak”. She said he looked like a banana and as if the local embalmer had used furniture varnish on his face.
Earlier she compared the British army – pink-cheeked lads, squat and muscly – to the locals who were pasty-faced, lank-haired young women, with pushchairs of mewling children. And skinny fellas with bony shoulders and pipe-cleaner legs. All the older women smoked and their skin was shiny from anti-depressants, and their voices were loud and raucous.
She doesn’t mention interviewing me or the interview not coming out.
This was a woman who was a senior reporter for the BBC with a responsibility to mediate and report the truth about what’s going on. What this autobiography reveals is a mentality and a prejudice that do a disservice, not only to us but to the British public, because it was their sons in the British Army that were getting killed. She did not describe what was going on … she perpetuated a false analysis of this conflict.
RG: With all that was against you and with so few resources how do you manage your PR in such a sophisticated way?
DM: It was a learning curve. None of us went to University or trained in media. It was all done on the basis of observation.
RG: Did you have anything to do with the image side of it? Did you ever advise Gerry Adams what to wear?
DM: I remember heading down to do the first election broadcast wearing jeans and a sweater and somebody said to me, “You’ll have to put on a shirt and tie. People will be proud of you if you’ve dressed up. It will be like you are doing it for them.” So, before I did the broadcast I borrowed a shirt and tie and a different jacket. Up until then I wore DM boots, jeans and a duffel coat. I didn’t think in terms of a sexy image – that came about rather slowly and then it was a bit of a nuisance, to be honest.
The interesting thing was that Republicans were attacked by the media for wearing suits – “Look at them in their Armani suits – who do they think they are!” None of us had Armani suits but it revealed a lot about the attitude of the media. They thought that we came from the ghetto and that we shouldn’t be dressing like them: we should be sticking to our corduroys and denim. It revealed a real bourgeois mentality and superciliousness.
RG: At the time you were involved, PR was becoming more important in politics. Did you pick up any tips from the opposition … Saatchi perhaps?
DM: Oh no…not at all. We would just sit in the pub on a Thursday after Republican News was published, have a drink, look at the paper and listen to peoples’ comments. They liked letters pages and if there was a big IRA headline, it sold more copies. That wasn’t very sophisticated though and we wanted to try and create a serious political debate. Book reviews like The Women’s Room by Marilyn French sparked a barrage of letters on the abortion issue. We also did a feature on gay rights and that created a big debate.
I’m not sure what the sales for An Phoblacht are nowadays but they couldn’t be as high as they were then. It was a different era and there was a need for a party paper then; especially when Adam’s statements about the economy or detailed analysis of the situation wasn’t carried out in the media. Nowadays Sinn Fein has no impediments on RTE, BBC or UTV. Back then, a party newspaper had a vital role in terms of communications with your base and holding things together.
RG: Your comment about the ballot box in one hand and the Armalite in the other is often quoted. Is there another quote that you would prefer to be associated with?
DM: Oh … that’s the one that’s in the Oxford Book of Quotes. First of all I hadn’t planned to speak at that particular debate at the Ard Fheis. Bobby Sands had been elected and had died and the electoral law had been changed to prevent any other prisoner from standing. There were rumours that James Prior, the Secretary of State was going to hold elections to an Assembly but under our constitution the party had a self-imposed ban from taking part in such elections. We had decided that we wanted to have the option open to us so that we could read the situation and make a decision without having to come back to a special conference. We thought the Ard Fheis vote would be a cakewalk but a lot of people disagreed and didn’t want to go down that road. It looked like we were losing the debate. I got up to speak and that statement came out. In a sense, I was trying to play to ‘the gallery’, to IRA supporters. I was trying to say that yes, the armed struggle could continue but there is room here for an electoral campaign which would actually help the struggle overall. It also meant that we would be able to give something back to our supporters in terms of an electoral constituency service. The vote was swung, we won it and the rest is history.
RG: Sinn Fein PR is interesting because it’s almost like a double PR. It’s targeted to those inside the movement as well as those outside of it.
DM: Yes, that’s right. That’s why it can sometimes look bizarre to an outsider who solely judges it on conventional terms. It’s more complicated than that.
RG: Have you ever come across a book that was published in the 70s called A Handbook of Republican Relations?
DM: No … never come across it. We published a lot of books though. When we started to win elections the Southern Government were worried. One of their propaganda slogans was, “the IRA today are not like the good old IRA” … that is, the same IRA who bequeathed the 26 counties to us! We decided to respond in an unusual way and brought out a booklet containing the worst aspects of the IRA campaign from 1919 to 1921. For example, they shot an informer but he didn’t die and he was rushed to hospital then they went in and wheeled him outside and shot him dead! They shot a horse because it had been involved in delivering coal to the local RIC barracks! We called the pamphlet The Good Old IRA and when you looked at it in comparison to the IRA today you could say, “they were fuckin worse!”
In a way I’m still involved with publicity and still get passionate when watching somebody going to town on Gerry Adams or Mitchell McLaughlin on television. Before she joined Sinn Fein, Caitriona Ruane was the director of Feile an Phobail [West Belfast Festival] and she was being interviewed on RTE with Sinead O’Connor who had pulled out of one of our concerts at the festival. Sinead wanted to bring victims of IRA punishment beatings onto the stage and I had contacted her and said, “Sinead, this is more complicated that you think. You could be bringing someone who has killed a mother and her child onto the stage and her relatives might be in the audience. Is that what you want?” I’ve made up with Sinead since, but she called me everything and said I tried to intimidate her. She also got very nasty with Caitriona O’Ruane who was live on the programme with her. The interviewer said, “Now Caitriona, would you still be interested in inviting Sinead back to the Festival”. Your gut reaction after everything that had been said was, “Fuck Sinead O’Connor”. I was saying to myself, “Caitriona a, think very carefully. Just say, “yes”. And Caitriona turned round and said, “Yes, of course she’s welcome.” And that was the right PR response!