Northern Ireland Information Service

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Microphones-2-.jpg This article is part of the Propaganda Portal project of Spinwatch.

The Northern Ireland Information Service is the Press and PR department of the Northern Ireland Office.

According to one account of the history of the NIIS written in 1997:

Eventually the Northern Ireland Office took closer control of information. This did not stop misinformation, particularly over state killings, in which the NIO occasionally participated. But it did ensure that misinformation was used more judiciously and efficiently.
With the change in strategy the sophistication of official public relations increased. Although the Red Menace scare remained a useful tactic throughout the 1980s, more energy was put into portraying 'the province' as 'getting back to normal' and leaving the 'terrorists' behind.
More and more money was spent on glossy brochures and promoting and marketing Northern Ireland. One key example is the twice yearly NIO magazine Omnibus, first published in 1993, which is distributed free to thousands of readers around the world.
It includes positive stories about Northern Ireland, many written by well-known journalists and celebrities. Nowhere does it mention that it is published by the British government. Instead the more anonymous 'Northern Ireland Information Service' is listed.
Production values are extraordinarily high and have increased in the last two years using heavier and glossier paper and expanding its pagination from about 45 to 62 pages.
The 1980s also saw a range of quasi-autonomous bodies set up which engaged in public relations work on behalf of the government. One of the more recent is the Community Relations Council which pushes the line that the problem in Northern Ireland is nothing to do with the British government.
Such indirect Public Relations is complimented in mainstream politics by a change towards more sophisticated 'spindoctoring' at the NIO. This has been especially marked since the advent of the 'peace process'.
Now misinformation consists less of issuing outright falsehoods, than in putting spin on material which would otherwise be unflattering or hard to sell.
Perhaps the key example is the way the government handled the revelation in late 1993 of talks with Sinn Fein.
John Major said in Parliament that such talks "would turn my stomach". The head of information at the NIO, Andy Wood, in a statement that must now make him blush, scoffed that such reports belonged "more properly in the fantasy of spy thrillers than in real life". Sir Patrick Mayhew, choosing his words carefully, said: 'Nobody has been authorised to talk or negotiate on behalf of the British government with Sinn Fein." This was interpreted by the media and everyone else as a denial of the talks which are now a matter of record.
Yet in the peculiar world that is Whitehall openness such a statement is not regarded by the head of the British Civil Service as misleading.
Sir Robin Butler told the Scott Inquiry that: 'It was a half-answer, if you like, but it was an accurate answer...It did not deny that there had been contacts. It simply did not cover the point." It was "not designed to mislead".
This kind of spin on official statements has become a familiar part of political debate and is one factor which decreases trust in a shaky peace process. Misinformation remains a key part of government approaches to the media, albeit in a more sophisticated and less easily found out form.
Information strategy is now an integral part of the policy-making progress. If there is to be real progress towards peace, the duplicity of the Whitehall spindoctors will need to be acknowledged more candidly than it has been so far.[1]


Case Studies


  • Northern Ireland Information Service, nd, Northern Ireland Observed, Belfast: NIIS.
  • Northern Ireland Information Service/Arts Council of Northern Ireland (1985) Images: Arts and People in Northern Ireland, March, Belfast:NIIS/Arts Council
  • Northern Ireland Office (1980a) H-blocks: The Facts, October, Belfast:NIO
  • Northern Ireland Office (1980b) H-blocks: The Reality, November, Belfast:NIO
  • Northern Ireland Office (1981a) Day to Day Life in Northern Ireland Prisons, March, Belfast:NIO
  • Northern Ireland Office (1981b) Scope for Further Improvements in Prison Life, July, Belfast:NIO
  • Northern Ireland Office (1981c) H-blocks: What the Papers Say, July, Belfast:NIO
  • Northern Ireland Office (1981d) The Tragedy of Terrorism, October, Belfast:NIO
  • Northern Ireland Office (1985a) Life Sentence Prisoners in Northern Ireland: An Explanatory Memorandum, January, Belfast:NIO
  • Northern Ireland Office (1985b) Armagh Prison Strip Searching: The Facts, Belfast:NIO
  • Northern Ireland Office (1989) 'The Day of the Men and Women of Peace Must Surely Come..., July, Belfast:NIO