Monday, January 15, 2018

How Pirate Radio Brought Down an Irish Government

Charlie Haughey the then leader of Fianna Fail and Taoiseach called a General Election to be held on June 11th 1981. Haughey had taken over as leader of Fianna Fail from Jack Lynch and inherited a twenty seat majority. Even if his Fianna Fail party had never achieved the landslide of his predecessor Lynch in 1977, his party were hot favourites to return to power but enter pirate radio and H Block Radio. At the height of the 1981 the hunger strikes in Northern Ireland were taking centre attention with the media. The crisis in the Maze Prison saw the election of Bobby Sands as an MP to the British House of Commons who died on hunger strike after 66 days on May 5th 1981. The following month Haughey called a General Election and the H Block movement ran or supported nine candidates in the General Election but because of the strict implementation of Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act these candidates were denied access to the broadcast media. The Broadcasting Act and in particular Section 31 of the Act was implemented by Fianna Fail Minister Gerry Collins and strengthened by Fine Gael Minister Conor Cruise O’Brien in 1977. The legislation prevented candidates of illegal paramilitary organisations such as The I.R.A. and Sinn Fein appearing on the airwaves. In many of the constituencies where these candidates ran, their campaigns set up pirate radio stations and broadcast their campaigns.

The H Block candidates garnered 15% of the first preference vote. As a result Kieran Doherty in Cavan Monaghan who would later die on Hunger Strike and Paddy Agnew were elected as TD’s. In Cavan Monaghan in 1977 the seat split was 3 Fianna Fail TD’s and 2 Fine Gael members. Although Doherty finished second in first preference votes he was not ‘transfer friendly’ and waited until the transfer of the eliminated votes of Fine Gael candidate Robert Fausset to be elected without reaching the quota. The constituency breakdown was now 2 Fianna Fail, 2 Fine Gael and Kieran Doherty. After the following election in February 1982, the pre 1981 status quo was restored with 3 Fianna Fail TDs and 2 Fine Gael TD’s.

In County Louth Padraig Faulkner of Fianna Fail was automatically returned as he was the outgoing Ceann Comhairle of the Dail. It meant effectively there were just three seats up for election. In 1977 the results saw Fianna Fail win three seats and the final seat going to Fine Gael. Although he was incarcerated in the H-Block he was not on hunger strike, Agnew topped the poll and after transfers was elected on the seventh count. The election of these two TD’s numerically denied Charles Haughey a route back into power. This allowed a Fine Gael Garret Fitzgerald led coalition along with the Labour party to come to power.
In the subsequent election in February 1982, Agnew did not run and the Louth constituency returned to 3 Fianna Fail and one Fine Gael TD.

In his book 'Down Down Deeper and Down, Ireland in the 70's and 80's’ Eamonn Sweeney wrote
‘Altogether, H-Block candidates averaged 15% of the first-preference vote in constituencies they contested. This was a remarkable performance, given that they had been without money, television exposure (or radio due to censorship laws) or any sympathetic media. It was probably beyond the wildest dreams of even their director of elections, Daithi O’Connell  who said the day before the election that "if the H-Block prisoner candidates get between 2,500 and 3,000 votes they will have put up a credible performance’



While Doherty and Agnew were both elected others who ran included Mairead Farrell who was a candidate in Cork North Central and in 1986 along with Sean Savage and Daniel McCann was shot dead on the island of Gibraltar by members of the British Army S.A.S. in a convert operation. Joe McDonnell who stood in the constituency of Sligo/Leitrim died on hunger strike on July 8th 1981, Kevin Lynch who died August 1st and Martin Hurson who stood in Longford/Westmeath died on Hunger Strike on July 13th 1981. In a number of the constituencies while no H Block supported candidate was elected their campaigns split a ‘republican’ vote taking votes from Fianna Fail and allowing the main opposition party Fine Gael to pick up a crucial extra seat in these constituencies.

Pirate radio had been widely used by the main political parties with many candidates being interviewed live on current affairs programmes. The Fine Gael/Labour coalition failed to hold onto power and another General Election was called for February 1982 and by now super pirates like ERI in Cork and Sunshine Radio and Radio Nova in Dublin were topping the ratings and while many illegal stations adhered to Section 31 and refused to let Sinn Fein leaning candidates access to the airwaves political instability continued as Haughey returned to power with the support of Independents like Tony Gregory but once again by November that year his Government had collapsed and another general election would return a stable Fine Gael led coalition. But by November 1982 RTE were issuing ultimatums to politicians of all parties that if they appeared on pirate radio they would not be allowed onto the national airwaves.


The Haughey Government had fallen and but the Fine Gael/Labour coalition only lasted until February 1982 when a proposed tax on shoes brought down the Government. The candidates were still using the pirates especially those broadcasting in the rural towns.  Fianna Fail went one step further than advertising on pirate radio stations they set up one of their own. Election Radio broadcasted for the duration of the campaign on 102 MHz and was set up with equipment borrowed from Eamonn Cooke at Radio Dublin