Centre for Media Research

Back to Belfast’s ‘dark old days’: newspaper coverage and riots

In the midst of the controversy over the fying of the Union flag over Belfast City Hall, Ciaran Bartlett offers some historical reflections on newspaper coverage of political turmoil and riots in Belfast.


Currently, Northern Ireland is making headlines across Europe and America with Derry becoming the City of Culture for 2013. Simultaneously, however, protests in the greater Belfast area and elsewhere in Ulster, fuelled by the decision of the Belfast City Council to remove the Union flag from Belfast City Hall, have caused violence and tensions which have led the media to ask if we are indeed heading back to ‘the dark old days’.

This is a curious and, in my opinion, a much over-used and under-defined phrase. Seemingly, the term is used to refer to the very recent conflict in Northern Ireland, with some sort of mystical starting point around 1968. However, it is well-known that very similar problems existed in nineteenth-century Belfast when the city was expanding rapidly and becoming an extremely important industrial city in Victorian Ireland.

It may be possible to gain a deeper understanding of what and when ‘the dark old days’ actually were (and hopefully, our own times) by looking at the newspaper coverage of the riots in Belfast in 1886 in response to the Home Rule Crisis.

The history of public disorder, rioting and political unrest linked to cultural issues extends back far beyond the conflict that broke out in the late 1960s.  And we can detect similarities in the journalistic coverage of events in 1886 and 2012. To this end, Belfast’s newspapers, The Belfast Morning News (which exists today as The Irish News) and the Newsletter (which continues today under the same name) reveal how they reflected and influenced he city’s historic conflict at the time.

The Government of Ireland Bill (1886), known as the first Home Rule Bill was defeated in an early morning sitting the House of Commons on 8th June. It was defeated by 30 votes. Due to the time of the vote, the newspapers were able to report on the events in time for publication on the 8th. The report in the Morning News attempted to inspire a hopeful mood among its nationalist readers who had probably, as J. C. Beckett suggests, thought the passing of the Bill was virtually guaranteed after the 1885 elections. The Morning News feed its readers with references that they would easily understand, in this case, it used and referred somewhat rhetorically to history. It said that “from one point of view, the result is to be regretted”  and argued that the Bill was “the first time for 700 years that England was afforded the opportunity of solving the problem which her own misgovernment in Ireland had set to her”.  It concluded that England had missed the opportunity to “settle the Irish Question…once and forever”.

The writing in the Morning News was curt, expressing ‘regret’ and ‘disappointment’ on several occasions, stating that the Bill had the power to close forever the “little chapter of strife and friction” between Ireland and England.

Interestingly, the Newsletter’s coverage of the defeat of the Home Rule Bill is comparable to the Morning News’ jubilant reports of the overwhelming nationalist election victory in 1885.  It declared ceremoniously that “Mr Gladstone’s plot to sever the empire by granting legislative independence to Ireland was defeated”. Unlike the Morning News which carried a small table giving a concise break down of the voting results at the end of its reports, the Newsletter led with a large font headline: “VICTORY!” It went on to describe how “with feelings which we [the Newsletter] cannot doubt are shared by all our readers” that the “Home Rule scheme” which was “concocted by Mr Gladstone in conference with Mr Parnell has been defeated by a magnificent majority”.

With news of the defeat of the Bill in mind, serious rioting occurred in Belfast.  The Newsletter stated the following day that the rioting, which had been ongoing for five days, was to be “deplored”.  It described the veracity and increased intensity of the violence on the evening of the 8th, saying: “So outrageous did the mob become at more than one place, that the constabulary, after the Riot Act had been read, were compelled to fire upon the crowds”. These were very serious riots indeed. As a consequence of the defeat of the Bill, Gladstone had his government dissolved by Queen Victoria and further elections took place.

In my PhD thesis, I argue that the nationalist Belfast Morning News and the unionist Newsletter existed alongside one another in a sort of hegemonic struggle, each attempting to enhance the victories and soften the defeats of experience by their own political sides. When one newspaper’s politics was succeeding in Westminster, the editorial line could be reduced to gloating. However, when the same newspaper found itself at the sharp end of a political defeat, it would use politically strong, deliberate language and notionally invoke typicalities of various genres, including as I argue in my thesis, history, rhetoric and the gothic.

It is my contention that a similar model of explanation may be roughly applied to the modern counterparts of these same news outlets in Belfast. It must be noted that, in terms of language and inference, nineteenth century newspapers were (by and large) much more direct than modern newspapers. However, this case does make for some interesting comparisons. Though the hegemonic roles have been reversed somewhat in the reportage of the recent flag protests (with unionist politics being defeated so to speak in this instance), similar codes of journalistic practice, political hegemony and cultural exposition can be detected. Culturally, this may help us understand something of the much deeper historical roots of the so-called ‘dark old days’.

The Newsletter is producing a great deal of coverage of the recent flag protests focusing closely on the political reasons for protests and reaction to them, rather than on the violence itself. The Irish News focuses more closely on the violence and disruption caused by the protests and discusses the amount of women and children attending recent protests as a “calculated tactic to thwart police…and act as a buffer for loyalist paramilitaries”. While the Newsletter mostly refers to the protests as “demonstrations” or “flag protests”, the Irish News is inclined to refer to “loyalist protests” and “riots”.  This difference in language belies the subtle differences between the reportage in both newspapers; small but vital changes.

The struggle for political hegemony that characterised the behaviour of Belfast’s two main newspapers in the Home Rule Crisis in the 1880s can still be applied to those newspapers today, even when the ‘winner/loser’ roles are reversed as they have been in this example. While the modern counterparts are somewhat more guarded than their predecessors (in terms of language), I argue that the same tribal content can be detected, suggesting that the newspapers here both reflect and influence our society greatly.

As media scholars and practitioners, it seems vital for our understanding of the role of newspapers in our culture that we come to grasp the truer, deeper roots of the past in Belfast, lest we risk a return to the actual ‘dark old days’.



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