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McGuinness and the Media

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This week's handshake between the Queen and Martin McGuinness has been widely welcomed as another important milestone on the road to peace in Northern Ireland - and a real symbol of how far things have changed since the Troubles. McGuinness will follow up with a speech in Westminster, on British-Irish relations.

My family is from Belfast - both my parents were born there. We holidayed in Northern Ireland and Donegal throughout the 1970s, including in Mullaghmore - where Lord Mountbatten was assassinated in 1979; and Enniskillen - scene of one of the worst IRA atrocities 25 years ago this year, and where the Queen visited on Tuesday. I lived and worked in Belfast myself for five years, but left in 1994 - just as peace was starting to break out.

I met McGuinness in Washington DC in 2002. I was a diplomat at the British Embassy, and he was an Education Minister in the start-stop Power-Sharing Executive. McGuinness refused to base himself at the British Embassy, so instead a Northern Ireland Bureau was set up in Downtown DC - neutral ground, free from any overtly British symbolism. (I wonder if he would meet in the British Embassy now?)

I was struck then by his eloquence and easy manner, despite the baggage he carried from his previous incarnation as IRA Commander - the same manner he displayed yesterday, meeting the Queen.

I had also met McGuinness ten years before, in 1992, when we both took part in a Panorama studio discussion hosted by the BBC's Peter Taylor - who has reported on Northern Ireland for over 40 years. Things were very different then. It was the first time I had heard McGuinness speak since 1988 - when the Thatcher Government imposed a media ban on Sinn Fein and other organisations that supported terrorism.

But the Panorama viewers didn't hear McGuinness speak. His voice was dubbed by an actor - that was standard practice for years, part of Mrs Thatcher's attempt to starve the IRA of "the oxygen of publicity".

The ban was lifted in 1994, when the IRA announced a ceasefire. I knew quite a few of the actors who had done the voiceovers - many were drama students, trying to break into the Belfast theatre scene. I remember them being interviewed in the Crown Bar, on the day the ban was lifted, ironically bemoaning the end of their nice little earner.

Two decades on, it's hard to imagine the BBC and others operating a blanket media ban similar to the one twenty years ago. Many would argue that the Thatcher ban backfired, and actually made viewers pay more, not less, attention to McGuinness and others. Perhaps that's why it's never been tried again since.


Dermot Finch: Head of Public Affairs, Fishburn Hedges