Wish you were here
Julia Langdon, Political Correspondent of The Guardian, recently came to Ireland with a number of British journalists at the invitation of the Government. In this article she recalls the wonderful time she had.
Our text today is provided by Humbert Wolfe, a civil servant and minor English poet who wrote:
"You cannot hope to bribe or twist, thank God: the British journalist." He had a bit more to say on this subbject, but we'll come to that later. The point is that not much has really changed in this respect since his day (1886-1940). The British journalist remains strident in the defence of the independent, uninhibited, unrestricted right to write what the hell he or she likes - so long as the proprietor doesn't mind, of course, and it doesn't interfere unduly with lunch.
But neither does this prohibit the British journalist's pursuit of truth at others' expense. And so it was, dear reader, that a group of us accepted your kind invitation to Dublin at the expense of you, the Irish taxpayer, and were gently shepherded the other morning through the third channel at the airport. This is the one where all you have to declare is your interest and you get to drink gaelic coffee in. the Aer Lingus lounge, an experience preferable to being looked in the eye by a customs officer in any country, but nonetheless a mistake at halffpast ten in the morning on top of the airline's executive class breakfast (bacon and egg, sausage, tomato and black pudding).
We were a mixed bunch. All the heavy newspapers were there, with a sprinkling of leader writers, Irish "specialists" and other know-ails, and so too were the BBC, ITN, and a good collection from what is known in the street of adventure as "the pops". Our number included at least one who had never set foot in the Republic of Ireland and others with an interest as established as that of the BBC's political editor whose antecedents are not disguised. Someone engaged an Aer Lingus official in a conversation about how you get the cream to float on top. It was clear that our interests in the trip would be diverse.
The first stop was Iveagh House for a briefing with an official who, like the other characters to feature in this article, cannot be identified beecause of the terms on which invitaations on junkets of this kind are given and received. Not even half-tamed horses will drag the names from me so you will just have to use your inntelligence, put the clues together and work them out for yourselves, or alternatively ring up that man you know at the Department of Foreign Affairs and ask him. So this man, whom we will call, for the purposes of disguising his identity, "Mick ", gives us a cup of coffee, and a nice green paper folder and a pencil with Department of Foreign Affairs on it in Gaelic and a run-down on the New Ireland Forum. By now we have two copies of the smart little booklet that contains the opening speeches and we are yet to receive a third. "Mick " explains that he can't really tell us much about it because it is all going so well on the basis of complete discretion and secrecy - and besides he isn't himself a member of it, of course - but he refers us to the leak which appeared in The Irish Press, gives the date of it and, indeed, quotes extensively from it himself. He is also able to point out to us the areas in which the leaked document is wrong, misleading or in other ways incorrect, thus fuelling the suspicion that "Mick" knows more than he makes out.
The efficiency of the Department subsequently produces for us a ringgbound collection of press cuttings about the Forum. This has a number of items with headings like "Consensus The Key To A New Ireland", "PowerrSharing Key to Peace In North, Priest Explains", "Irish Language Seen As
Force For Stability", but sadly does not contain the unauthorised Irish Press leak.
On our side, we have all behaved very well up until now, sitting up straight, not chewing our pencils, nodding sagely with our hands on one side and asking questions to impress the others with our grasp of current Irish politics, then it gets round to lunchtime and we head off for a resstaurant that is obviously very chic indeed because it's hidden away in a back alley of the kind designed to ennsure that no passing trade would ever find it, even if they were to hear about it. There are other clues: an interior designed in pink and green, a lot of glass and plants and the warm wellcome given "Mick" by the proprietor, on account of the fact that he had been on the premises until the early hours of the same morning. There is also kir to drink, beautiful handdwriting on the seating plan and the cuisine is so haute that they take. the trouble to prepare sample dishes of tne two hors d'oeuvres and the two courses on offer so that if you ::0:1" know what you're eating at least yon know what it's going to look like beforehand. It is a French restaurant, named after its owner apparently, but how he manages to get the name of Patrick in France is a mystery.
off from a cabinet meeting on the nature of the austerity that he has planned for you, to meet us. We talk about the prospects for the first AnglooIrish summit for two years and about the perceived need within the Irish government for Britain to adopt a sympathetic and responsive attitude to the likely report of the Forum. All goes well until one of our number, who works for a newspaper which decency forbids me to name but which had a Canadian proprietor with a keen sense of empire in its most famous day, decides to mix it, why, he enquires, do the Irish talk about Northern Ireland as if it was their problem, when it is in fact British sovereign territory and therefore enntirely a matter for us and not'you?
At this gentle reader, I have to report that there was a distinct and alarmed shift in the posture of the very important politician. Your reporter was at the time facing the French waiters who were standing to attention opposite, ready to attend upon any tiny need. Even their eyes rolled. But maybe they were only in training? Or perhaps the reason they were there in the first place is because they have Irish wives?
There was an even more direct approach from the editor of one of our popular Sunday newspapers, a man famed in the hostelries of Fleet Street for his ability to state things in a straightforward manner, as befits a cockney. "Let's get this straight 'X'," he said, using the formal very imporrtant title of our host. Were we really to expect that the answer in the North was to be provided by some group, chaired by some college lecturer from Galway? 'X' did his best, kept his temper in check and his cool and rushed back to the cabinet.
We went off for another session with another very significant official who had drawn the day's short straw in terms of an audience. It was bad luck on him that half the party fell into a wine-induced stupor as soon as we 53t down, a further quarter nodded off under the influence of a few statisics on the importance of agriculture to the Irish Gross National Product and the rest were belligerent in drink and prepared to challenge every word the man said about the super-levy on milk and, indeed, suggest that there ought to be a super-levy on the Irish for having milked the European Commmunity's agricultural budget dry. The poor man struggled on with homilies about "developing the milk potential" - which is keeping cows to you and me - but finally rounded on one of his persecutors, held him responsible for the British shortcomings in Europe and declared with awful anger: "You are not yourselves without sin." I can't read the rest of my notes.
By this time the men from the heavy Sunday newspapers are asking each other what we are all doing here and the men from the pops are beginning to enjoy themselves. There are two people among us who none of the rest of us know, who don't seem to work for the Departtment, don't ask any questions, don't talk at dinner, don't respond when I whisper G-2 in their hearing to see if they've been put out to watch us, and, as far as it was possible to ascertain didn't write anything afterwards. This was quite hard to work out, not knowwing who they were, but there were no visible articles about the current state of Irish politics which later appeared in the British press under names not recognised by your reporter. I tried my best with one mystery man by inntroducing myself: He responded with a smile and said it was a pleasure, but didn't volunteer his own identity and I had run out of bravado by then.
Off we go to Leinster House for a briefing with another very influenntial politician who is probably younger than all of the rest of us in the room and who is clearly very aware of the fact because he starts by saying: "As you can see I'm not 700 years old," and keeps going back to it as if he's still surprised to find himself - well, in touch, so to speak. We let him off quite lightly, on account of our ancient tradition of being kind to children and young politicians and besides he's too young to be answerrable for anything, really.
Also we are getting quite keen on the idea of being alone with ourselves for a bit and getting to the hotel and having a bath. Someone has heard that we are staying at the same place as the Sheikh who doubles as the Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister, which cheers up those of us who like a bit of luxury of the kind that Saudi Arabians are likely to expect. It proves to be a very nice hotel, indeed, albeit of the kind in which you could wake up anyywhere, and not be at all sure where you were. It also has a box of handdmade chocolates in the bedroom, which the lady next door much apppreciated for her services to cat nutriition during my absence.
Dinner at Iveagh House, where the menu is in French and Gaelic, and my neighbour, wlio had a hand in choosing the menu, murmurs his dissappointment that the kitchen has not seen fit to include "Bornbe Argentine" as the sweet. There are four or five courses and several wines - my only memory is of the oysters and the very nice claret. On my other side is a man who works for the Irish equivalent of the Saatchi Brothers, by the sound of it, with the dual responsibility of raising money and selling politicians. We are diverted by his revelation that he is an ardent monarchist, not least because several of us proclaim ourrselves as republicans - in the sense, that is, of believing that Britain could get along all right without the expennsive luxury of a royal family. At the end our host answers questions as well as he is able to understand them, which is not very well in the case of one of the colleagues who has had a few and whose speech is rendered incomprehensible by this fact accommpanying his habitual vowel sounds frozen as they are into British history. The man from the advertising agency proves to be teetotal and your reporter accepts his invitation to drink his claret, in the interests of continuing Irish austerity.
There is more of this the next day.
The first gaelic coffee comes at about the same time as the day before and is furnished by the army in Dundalk barracks, We visit the border in a convoy of landrovers: the officer in our vehicle observes that at least they didn't have to take as much trouble about security as they do when they get MPs on a visit. This does not in any way alarm one of our number. A man whose politics suits his righttwing newspaper, and who runs toowards the border as we walk the last few yards crying: "England at last". Those of us on the last visit of this kind in the depths of winter two years ago recall the charming Irish army habit of blacking up in order to be camouflaged in snow.
Lunch at the Old Dublin restaurant with a minister whose remarks bore no resemblance at all to the press release we were subsequently handed, headed "Address at a luncheon for a party of leading British journalists." Two more meetings with further leading figures in Irish political life, some of whom seem to be blessed with immorrtality and an apparent indestructiibility, and finally buffet dinner in the Martello Room at Jury's with what is described as "a broad spectrum of Irish journalists and commentators" which happily includes all your reporrter's old friends from whom it is possible to learn what is really going on.
Meanwhile the men from the heavy Sundays are still asking what it's in aid of and an earnest person from R TE produces a tape recorder and takes us all off to a corner one by one in purrsuit of the same truth. He asks me if I feel as if I have been bribed, to which the honest answer is "no". I wish I'd remembered then all the words of Humbert Wolfe. "You cannnot hope to bribe or twist, thank God: The British journalist. But, seeing what the man will do unbribed, there's no occasion to." At the airport the next morning I said farewell to one of the mystery men, who said he hoped he'd see me again in London. I skipped breakfast. •