Tuesday, September 18, 2018

THE ROLE OF POLITCAL PIRATE RADIO STATIONS IN IRELAND

THE ROLE OF POLITCAL PIRATE RADIO STATIONS IN IRELAND
Delivered by Eddie Bohan at the Sarah Lungberg Summer School 2017

All pirates by their nature are political pirates as they seek to change the status quo of the airwaves.

The use of pirate radio to disseminate political propaganda goes back to the first embers of the Irish state. Former Government Minister Conor Cruise O’Brien quotes
“It was of course illegal, both under the domestic laws of the state in which occurred and under the international radio regulation then governing wireless telegraphy. It was also war propaganda, the transmission of words to win support for violent action, and like most war propaganda it was designedly inaccurate and misleading. The painful conclusion is I think inescapable broadcasting was conceived in sin. It is a child of wrath. There is no knowing what it may get up to.”

Pirate radio has had a profound influence on Irish politics and Irish history and these pirate radio broadcasts have ended a Government’s ability to retain power and hastened the end of a controversial politician. Without pirate radio Albert Reynolds, Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowan may never have held the position of Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister). Bold claims but facts back these up.

When Charlie Haughey called a General Election in June 1981 even if his Fianna Fail party had never achieved the landslide of his predecessor Jack Lynch in 1977, his party were hot favourite to return to power but enter pirate radio and in particular H Block Radio and Sinn Fein Radio. At the height of the hunger strike crisis in the Maze Prison and following the election of Bobby Sands as an MP to the British Parliament, the H Block movement ran or supported nine candidates in the June 1981 General Election but the as a result of the strict implementation of Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act these candidates were denied access to the broadcast media. In many of the constituencies where these candidates ran, their local campaigns sourced transmitters and set up pirate radio stations to broadcast their campaign message and more importantly to encourage voters to come out and vote for their candidates.

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 the election of Paddy Agnew denied Charles Haughey a route back into power and a Fine Gael Garret Fitzgerald led coalition came to power.

Pirate radio had by the late seventies and early eighties spread through cities, towns, villages and even parishes as a not fit for purpose 1926 Wireless Telegraphy was deemed flawed allowed illegal stations to flourish. The stations had been widely used during the campaign by the main political parties with many candidates being interviewed live on current affairs programmes. Despite their illegality, the professional pirate stations were ratings successes especially amongst the younger population. The Fine Gael/Labour coalition failed to hold onto power and another General Election was called for in 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.

Margaetta D’Arcy of Radio Pirate Woman in stated in an interview that they were breaking real taboos by ignoring censorship. ‘The political climate at the time was one of increased demonization of subversives. Government policy insisted that Sinn Fein be totally isolated and boycotted. Not only did the broadcasting act exclude its members from the airwaves but local politicians were forbidden by their parties to sit on committees with democratically elected Sinn Fein councillors. When giving airtime to Mary McGing we were effectively smeared as a ‘Provo front’ by every mainstream party in Galway.

Radio Pirate Woman on 107mhzFM was a feminist radio station that broadcast sporadically since March 8th 1989. The idea of Margareta D’Arcy the station has been located in Galway broadcasting by women for women and she also took on controversial subjects including travellers rights and Republican causes. The station earned the wrath of the Government of the day in its first year by broadcasting interviews with Republicans in contravention of Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act.
Radio Saor Connemara - 188m was a pirate broadcaster set up in Connemara by a pressure group who was demanding an Irish language station. The title of the station translated as ‘Free Radio Connemara’ and broadcasts began on March 28th 1970. RTE had failed to increase the amount of airtime given to the native tongue as they were trying to accommodate all sections of society. It would be another two years before the Gaeltacht got their own legal station when Radio na Gaeltachta went on air on April 2nd 1972.

The west of Ireland wasn’t the only area demanding Irish language broadcasting and more pirates took to the air. In Dublin Radio Na Phobail on 200m opened in a blaze of publicity in December 1980. Broadcasting from studios located on Harcourt Street, the station was intended to be an all Irish language and music station. Unfortunately the station suffered from low power and technical setbacks and disappeared from the airwaves in the summer of 1981.

Radio Na Gael on 222mMW & 90.2mhzFM went on air on Easter Monday of April 1984. The station broadcast a diet of Irish traditional music and continued on air until December 1986 when RTE sought and injunction against the station claiming that their name closely resembled RTE’s Radio Na Gaeltachta forcing the station to close.

The Broadcasting 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. The operators of the illegal stations did not wish to antagonise the authorities and they too refused to allow candidates representing these organisations to appear on their stations. The use of Section 31 became farcical when television began showing people like Gerry Adams being interviewed but using an actor to dub the voice. In the Cavan - Monaghan Kieran Doherty was a candidate and a prisoner in the Maze Prison in Belfast and along with others including Bobby Sands were on hunger strike. Doherty's local organising committee set up their own pirate radio station to circumvent the ban on their candidate and provide his campaign with some valuable airtime. Doherty and another IRA prisoner Paddy Agnew in Louth were elected on June 11th 1981 as T.D’s thus preventing an over all majority to the incumbent Haughey Government. Doherty would die on hunger strike on August 2nd 1981.

The Haughey minority Government fell and a Fine Gael/Labour coalition 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.

Radio Nova's first general election coverage was the February 1982 campaign although there had been an election in June 1981, Radio Nova had not yet established itself even though the political parties extensively used other pirate radio stations to get their various messages across to the voters. In February 1982 Radio Nova was used by the parties. Early in the campaign The Evening Herald reported that Fianna Fail were about to use Radio Nova for an extensive media campaign. The plan was that Nova newsreader David Harvey would interview a leading party candidate, Albert Reynolds, and that tape would be sent around the country to various radio stations for rebroadcast. The main opposition party Fine Gael condemned the Fianna Fail plans and the campaign was shelved. Reynolds did give an interview to Sunshine Radio.

Although officially most of the main parties avoided using the pirate radio stations under pressure from R.T.E., unofficially candidates still appeared on the stations and advertisements were ran. On one of Nova's current affairs programmes, Fine Gael candidate Jim Mitchell appeared along side the Provisional Sinn Fein candidate for the Dublin South Central constituency. This appearance of the Sinn Fein candidate was in direct contravention of Section 31. Nova claimed that this legislation only applied to R.T.E. but after the furore caused by this, Nova decided to refrain from giving further opportunities to illegal organisations.

Charles Haughey was back in power with the support of a number of Independents but the Government was short lived and the country went to the polls again in November 1982. Nine months is a long time in politics and so it was in Irish broadcasting. Pirate radio was now extremely successful not only in the capital but in regional cities like Cork, Limerick and Galway and even in smaller towns the pirate was king. The Mayor of Sligo Michael Carroll said of the pirates,
            ‘It may be illegal in the eyes of the law but it’s a great facility for the people of the town.’ Speaking in January 1982 Limerick’s Mayor commented
            ‘Some of them (the pirates) are giving a better service than RTE’.
But RTE had another trick up its sleeves when dealing with wayward politicians who in their eyes supported law breaking.

The main political parties had avoided using the pirates during the February 1982 campaign. The larger stations reduced their election coverage to news bulletins with coverage plagiarised from RTE's news service. The nearest many of the stations got to election coverage were advertisements ran advising people to go out and vote. As in other election campaigns, Sinn Fein opened their own radio station this time in Dublin but the station seemed to attract little attention.

As soon as the November 1982 election was called, the unions at R.T.E. issued an ultimatum to the politicians,
            "Go on the pirates and we at R.T.E. will permanently prevent you from appearing on R.T.E."
This was not a management decision but was taken by the unions who feared that the rising popularity of the pirates and the lacks of political will to tackle the problem would lead to job losses at the national broadcaster. The same ultimatum had been issued during the June election but had been ignored. A series of meetings between union representatives, RTE management and political handlers meant that candidates of the main political parties stayed clear of the pirates and their election coverage. The illegal stations were left with independent and community candidates to interview. For the bigger stations this was not the kind of election coverage that they had hoped for or that would draw large audiences. To be fair the candidates that they did interview would not have been granted airtime on RTE as the national broadcaster considered them to small to be given airtime.

During the November campaign one of the Dublin pirates was accused of a political 'con'. Sunshine Radio played a tape of an interview with Albert Reynolds T.D. but the station failed to inform the listeners that the interview had been recorded during the previous election campaign. As a result Mr. Reynolds could have been banned from R.T.E. but for the fact that Sunshine Radio later admitted that they omitted to inform their listeners that the interview was recorded at an earlier campaign.

At a press conference given by the Fianna Fail party at their headquarters on Mount Street during the campaign, a pirate radio station journalist who was attending the conference was asked to leave after R.T.E. staff attending the press conference objected to his presence.
            "Journalists turning on journalists" was how one newspaper described the events. This incident was characterised by a newspaper cartoon portraying the pirate radio reporter hiding under a table doing his report. Some of the pirate stations did try to recover some of the lost ground when the election count was taking place but the pressure had taken its toll and pirate stations would not be able to cover elections in the future to the same extent as they had in the past.

H Block Radio - 298mMW
Subversive organisations, paramilitaries and their political wings struggled to get their message on the airwaves as Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act forbade their appearance on radio and television. In 1979 through to 1981, IRA prisoners jailed in Belfast’s H Blocks were protesting seeking political status which the British Government of Margaret Thatcher continually refused. Their protest ranged from dirty protests when the smeared the cells with their own excreta and a number of hunger strikes. On December 6th 1980, Sinn Fein launched H Block Radio in Dublin to spread their propaganda but the station was sporadic and vanished from at airwaves in spring 1981. The group changed tactics after this by invading established pirate radio stations and broadcasting their material until they were ejected by Gardai.

Radio Na Fianna Eireann - 257mMW
This was the station name used by supporters of the IRA who seized the studios of Radio City on Capel Street. The seizure took place on April 23rd 1981 and ended when the Gardai forced their way into the premises.

Radio Sinn Fein- 295mMW
A station set up in the Leitrim constituency during the June 1981 General Election. The station was on air from June 18th -28th of that year. The candidate for that election was Joe McDonnell who died on hunger strike at the Maze prison.

Radio Sinn Fein - 200mMW
A station set up in the Waterford constituency during the June 1981 General Election. The station was on air from June 18th -28th of that year. The candidate for that election was Kevin Lynch who died on hunger strike at the Maze prison.

Radio Section 31 - 88mhzFM
This station was organised by supporters of a paramilitary organisation in January and February 1988 as members of prescribed organisations were banned from the national airwaves.

Gnomes of Ulster - 1556khzAM
Located in South Belfast GNU opened on June 20th 1972.This station seemed to have no political motivation the operators of the station found the name for the station from a Dutch anarchist group. Also known as GNU Radio

Radio Big Jim - 227mMW
This station was also known as Radio Ajax and went on the air after BBC Radio One went off the air from a location in Belfast.


In 1970 Saor Radio Connemara attempted to demonstrate the need for an Irish language radio stations aimed at the native speakers especially in the Connemara Gaeltacht. The Government eventually set up Radio Na Gaeltachta under the umbrella of RTE in 1972. In 1987 a similar campaign was initiated to have a television service created.  Operating from the community hall at Rosmuc, Co. Galway, Telifis Na Gaeltacht broadcasted programmes solely in the Irish language. The station went on air on Friday October 2nd 1987 and on that opening weekend broadcast programmes specially made for the station by filmmaker Bob Quinn. On opening night a gala concert held at the Community Hall was broadcast live on the station. That first Sunday saw the transmission of a special Mass from the local parish church dedicated to the memory of the late musician Sean O'Riada. The stations transmitter was built by Dubliner Norbert Payne and had a radius of fifteen miles. The idea for a pirate station dedicated to the native language came following a visit by some locals to the Faroe Islands off the coast of Scotland. This Danish controlled territory set up their own illegal television station Gothab TV following Copenhagen refusal to give them a station. Irish language television did not legally arrive in Ireland until 1996 when T na G (Telifis Na Gaeltacht) was launched.

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