Magazine article The Spectator

Why Is the British Taxpayer Supporting a Sinn Fein Newspaper Group?

Magazine article The Spectator

Why Is the British Taxpayer Supporting a Sinn Fein Newspaper Group?

Article excerpt

Whenever a new newspaper launches in any part of the world, a little voice inside one's head cheers. Naturally that voice is all the louder when the paper is in one's own country. So I rejoiced when I heard that a new daily title is under consideration in Northern Ireland. My enthusiasm was somewhat tempered, I confess, when I discovered that it has the backing of Sinn Fein, but it was not entirely extinguished. It is surely better for Sinn Fein to be in the business of publishing newspapers than firing bullets, and the planned title is a further piece of evidence that, whatever difficulties Northern Ireland may face, armed struggle is a thing of the past.

But, as so often in Northern Ireland, things are not quite what they seem. The group which intends to publish the new daily is seeking £3 million from the Northern Ireland Office. Not only that. The company in question, the Andersonstown Newspaper Group, has already received substantial government grants. Its publisher is Mairtin O'Muilleoir, a former Sinn Fein councillor in Belfast. The group publishes the pro-Sinn Fein Andersonstown News, the North Belfast News and the South Belfast News. By far the biggest payment it has received from government for these newspapers in the period 1999-2004 is £347,375. The Andersonstown Newspaper Group also has management responsibility for the publication of the Irish-language newspaper Lá on behalf of Preas an Phobail Ltd, which has itself received significant official subsidy, including one payment of £128,139.

It is an established feature of democracy that government does not support independent newspapers. How then can the payments to the Andersonstown Newspaper Group be justified? It seems that the company has attracted funds on the basis that it publishes community newspapers and provides much-needed jobs. It is unclear whether any other newspaper group in Northern Ireland, or indeed Great Britain, has received any government subsidy. On 13 July Lady Hermon, the pro-Good Friday Agreement Ulster Unionist MP for Down North, asked a Northern Ireland minister whether any other grants had been paid to publishers in Northern Ireland, and she awaits a reply. If it turns out that the Andersonstown Newspaper Group is the only recipient, the government will have some explaining to do.

There can be little doubt that the planned daily will be a vehicle for Sinn Fein. (It was to be called Ireland Today until a challenge came from Rupert Murdoch, who had registered that trademark. At the moment it is nameless.) Present at a recent unveiling of the project were leading members of Sinn Fein such as Gerry Adams, Bairbre de Bruin and Alex Maskey. Peter Quinn, a prominent Catholic businessman, delivered a strongly nationalist speech, and was followed by Mairtin O'Muilleoir. The paper plans to target the 160,000 Sinn Fein voters in Northern Ireland, as well as the 120,000 who support the party in the border counties. As well as seeking funds from the government, the Andersonstown Newspaper Group is hoping to secure investment from Irish Americans.

There are two strong arguments against the government offering grants. One is market interference. Northern Ireland has three dailies - the nationalist Irish News, the Protestant News Letter and the cross-community Belfast Telegraph. The Irish News, which has a circulation of about 50,000, would be badly affected by the launch of a successful new daily newspaper also aimed at the Catholic community. …

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