Brave journalism reveals Northern Ireland's underbelly

WE take for granted in this country - not unreasonably - the right to walk into a shop and buy whatever newspaper we choose. I have the privilege of writing this column. You have the privilege of taking it or leaving it.

Straightforward? Well, as in so many things, that depends on how you define "this country". If the territory includes Northern Ireland, the same rules do not apply for reasons which lead to wider scepticism about the basis on which "peace" and "normality" are now established.

If the routine of recent Sundays is maintained, hooded men will walk into a newsagent's shop somewhere in Northern Ireland this morning. They will terrify the staff, order the removal of a particular newspaper or else simply set fire to the offending publication. They will threaten to shoot newsagents and they will intercept delivery vans.

The newspaper at the centre of this activity is the Sunday World and the purpose is to help along the boycott which has been declared against it by Loyalist paramilitaries. Genuine boycotts require public support but this one is based on the simple principle that if you cut off supply then there can't be demand.

One of the depressing features of this story is that you probably haven't heard about it previously. If some gang of politically-connected thugs was setting fire to newsagents shops in Hampstead or Stockbridge, it seems likely that it would be a major national story. When it happens in Belfast, nobody wants to know.

Yet, for the past 30 years, the Sunday World has been practising some of the most courageous journalism in these islands. Week in, week out, it exposes the gangsterism, violence, perversions and hypocrisies of Northern Ireland's politics. It fearlessly names names and investigates heinous crimes long after others have chosen to forget them in the interests of the "peace process".

The paper is scrupulously even-handed in its exposures. Following the Canary Wharf bombings, it was the first newspaper ever to name the membership of the Provisionals' Army Council - including, of course, Adams and McGuinness. Nobody has ever sued. Recently, it named the money launderers who helped the Provos rescue 12m from the Northern Bank robbery and identified, without equivocation, the McCartney killers.

But what the godfathers hate most about the Sunday World is that it laughs at them. True to its tabloid format, it has always been strong on exposure of their sexual peccadilloes, of which there are many. Like the DUP candidate at this year's General Election who hired a rent-boy. The latter promptly went to the Sunday World, was wired for sound and recorded the immortal question as the pair met in a hotel room: "I hope you're a Prod?"

The current fatwah began last month after the Sunday World ran stories about the North Belfast "Brigadier" of the UDA, one Andre Shoukri. The paper claimed that he had blown 10,000 in one day in three betting shops. Shoukri called a meeting of Loyalist paramilitary leaders and the one thing they could agree on was action against the newspaper.

However, the Sunday World responded in the only way it knows - more stories designed to get as far as possible up the noses of the paramilitaries. Last week it named Shoukri as "the brains behind a bungled bombing" when the UDA got the wrong address and, instead of petrol-bombing an alleged informer, attacked the home of an innocent disabled man.

We all want to see peace prevail in Northern Ireland. But there is a danger that a price of declaring peace has been to turn a blind eye to very nasty things that continue to happen. The paramilitary organisations on both sides have long since been political fronts for gangsterism and racketeering. All of that cannot simply be swept under the carpet in the name of peace.

In 1999, the Sunday World offices in Belfast were fire-bombed. The next day, Mo Mowlam visited the scene. She talked to the staff, thanked them for the necessary and courageous work they were doing and subsequently wrote to them individually. It is impossible not to contrast that response with the almost total official silence that has greeted the current campaign against the paper.

Exposure of Northern Ireland's filthy underbelly does not come without risk. The paper's Northern editor, Jim Campbell, was shot and wounded. In 2001 one of its reporters, Martin O'Hagan, was murdered in Lurgan by the Loyalist Volunteer Force as he walked home from the pub. Not many journalists in "this country" work under these shadows.

Incidentally, if you read last week's Sunday World you would be among the first to know that "in the next few weeks the IRA will play another PR card when they perform a dramatic act of decommissioning". Or that it will be designed to divert attention from the return to Ireland of the Colombia Three - "who trained terrorists to be more efficient murdering butchers".

Even-handed - and true.

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