Northern Ireland Information Service: Visits

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This page consists of an extract from David Miller Don't Mention the War: Northern Ireland, Propaganda and the Media, London: Pluto Press, 1994, p. 118-22 and is reproduced by permission of the author.

Media facilities such as those above are mainly laid on for local and Belfast based national journalists who are already covering Northern Ireland regularly. Organising an entire programme of briefings, meetings and events is aimed more at London and especially overseas journalists. Even small organisations in the civil liberties or human rights field, on occasion set up rounds of briefings for relevant opinion leaders or journalists. Sinn Féin will offer interested journalists the opportunity of staying for a few days in the home of a local nationalist family. But it is official sources who actually employ Information Officers exclusively to organise such trips. In addition the Northern Ireland Office, the Central Office of Information, the Foreign Office, the Industrial Development Board and the Tourist Board are all in a position to provide expenses paid trips to Northern Ireland for appropriate journalists or other opinion leaders. On occasion expenses can even include intercontinental flights.

'Providing a Balanced View of Britain'?[1]

The Overseas Visits and Information Studies Division (OVIS) of the Central Office of Information, organises and pays for visits to Britain and Northern Ireland by politicians, business people and 'influential media figures' (COI 1989:23). The Information service at Stormont has had a Visits Officer since at least 1965. In 1988 the NIO organised a total of 55 individual visits and 15 group visits including 172 people in total. Between January and early August 1989 a further 95 people had been on NIO visits.[2] The Northern Ireland Tourist Board and the Industrial Development Board also organise a large number of visits for journalists and others.[3]

The Northern Ireland Office organises at least two types of visit to Northern Ireland. First there is the trip to show the nicer side of Northern Ireland and second, there is the political tour which includes briefings with politicians, civil servants, the Army, police and others. Journalists in Northern Ireland tell apocryphal stories of the business men who were taken on the wrong trip round areas of high unemployment and poverty. In 1970 Stanley England described the routine of a visit to the Newsletter.

The usual length of stay is three days. We try to pack in as much as we can in the time available' says Stanley. It is also part of Stanley's job to see that the visitors are made comfortable and entertained. The best hotels are used and each evening there is a dinner party at which guests can relax and converse informally with influential Ulstermen (Newsletter 27 November 1970).

Daily dinner parties would be complemented by a tour round the:

'other side of the picture, the progressive aspects of life - new industries, our advances in housing, education and agriculture'... A typical tour would include visits to the Belfast shipyard, a linen factory, Craigavon, a dairy farm and the New University (Newsletter 27 November 1970).

More than twenty years later sponsored visitors to Northern Ireland continue to be shown the 'progressive aspects of life' by the Facility Visits section of the Information Service, now staffed by two Information Officers. The itinerary of one tour for Japanese business people:

included stops at a couple of Japanese owned factories, where the local managers duly said no, they had never had any security worries - but yes, the labour costs were incredibly low (The Economist 30 June 1990).

Conducted by 'an irrepressible Mr Richard Needham, the minister for the economy' (The Economist 30 June 1990):

the working day ends with a tour of Belfast. Mr Needham provides the commentary: 'You can have a quiet time here although we still have the occasional terrorist threat'. A security car drives at a discreet distance in front of the bus. Sectarian areas such as the Falls Road are avoided (Burns 1990).

The tour 'wound up with a dinner in their honour in Stormont's parliament buildings' (Economist, 30 June 1990):

Oysters, Irish stew and Irish coffee are on the menu. Mr Needham draws on the history of the Japanese and their tortured relations with the neighbouring Koreans to try to convey a sense of the complexity of it all. Few of the Japanese appear to understand the comparison. 'I would just like to correct the minister on one point: our civil war was 100 years ago' says Mr Yoki Okabe, senior managing director of the Sukimo bank in London (Burns 1990).


The evening allowed visitors and hosts to sing 'Danny Boy' with enough spirit to rival the Mitsubishi Heavy Industry male-voice choir (The Economist 30 June 1990).

One of the three British journalists present recounted what happened next:

at the dinner Needham launched into a rendering of Danny Boy, which the Japanese just couldn't figure out at all, but we had all been given copies of a typed version of Danny Boy and were all expected to sing this together. I've never been so embarrassed in my life actually (Telephone interview July 1992).

The second type of tour includes a programme of briefings and tours round other parts of Belfast not shown to business people whose investment is sought. Kevin Cullen of the Boston Globe has recounted his experience:

I found that I was welcome and that there was a desire to possibly plan my entire itinerary while I was there... In subsequent visits when I made it quite clear that it would be easier for me to arrange my own interviews and that I would appreciate the co-operation, with a couple of days notice, of having someone from the NIO at my disposal. I found that the co-operation wasn't as readily forthcoming (Untransmitted interview for Hard News 19 October 1989).

One senior Information Officer told me that the NIO organised interviews for journalists with 'everyone except the Shinners' (i.e. Sinn Féin), (Interview, Belfast August 1989). Enquiring about itineraries can also be a useful guide to the type of story a journalist is likely to write. If a journalist indicates that a visit to the Republican Press Centre is planned it is not unknown for startled journalists to be offered a Northern Ireland Office escort up the Falls Road. Roy Greenslade was told that the tour he went on would be 'warts and all: we do not go in for "snow" jobs' (Greenslade 1993b). This has been translated by Edward Daly, Bishop of Derry and referred to as 'the carefully planned and guided tours organised by the Northern Ireland Office during which they meet all the nice, safe, intelligent and very respectable people' (Daly 1989:7).

In practice journalists (and others such as politicians and academics) are briefed in two main areas corresponding to the two major strands of NIO public relations. The high quality of life and the marginality of the troubles are emphasised together with briefings about the security situation. Greenslade describes the visit of ten Commonwealth journalists as including lessons in 'the lexicon of surreality':

An official from the Belfast Development Office says in earnest 'This place isn't what you think it is. It is vibrant, a good place to live and work, with a good quality of life'. All the problems were in the past. Housing is no longer an issue. Inward investment is booming. The city centre has been regenerated. Traffic problems don't exist. Night life is thriving... The positive message was insistent "most people here have normal, happy lives. There is a high degree of normality" I noted the looks of bafflement [among the journalists). Had they flown into Leeds or Edinburgh by mistake. Perhaps they had disembarked in the Channel Islands. Excuse me, asked one, but what about the IRA bombings? Belfast's champion publicist was not fazed. Pointing to the new building opposite, he replied amiably: 'There was a small bomb there recently. As you can see it's all been repaired. When they bomb we build them back bigger and better then before.' With incredulity stretched we boarded the coach for a tour of the city that he said 'is definitely not a war zone' (Greenslade 1993b).

But on a tour of the war zones descriptions of the troubles started to impinge:

We had reached West Belfast and suddenly, finally, came the word that was to impinge on every briefing thereafter, like a sorrowful refrain from an Irish lament: the troubles were 'unfortunate'. He said: 'There are, unfortunately, small pockets of unemployment'. Around a corner: 'That police installation unfortunately has to be a bit of a fortress'. Moments later: 'unfortunately there are a lot of stolen cars in this area'. On the Crumlin Road, our coach shadowed by the jail on one side and the courthouse on the other, he shook his head at the fortifications and said: 'Unfortunately, some see our judges and prosecutors as targets' (Greenslade 1993b).

These themes are also elaborated in briefings given to journalists by government officials. But there are a number of ways of delivering such information.


  1. COI, 1989:23.
  2. Information from the Northern Ireland Information Service August 1989.
  3. Although it is paid for by the Information Dept of the FCO, OVIS was, until 1990, part of the COI with a staff complement of forty-three in London (COI 1990b) plus a Visits Officer in each of the regional Offices in Newcastle, Leeds and Bristol as well as one at the Welsh Office, three at the Scottish Office and two at the Northern Ireland Office (COI 1990c:32-34). In the year 1988-89 OVIS organised a total of 900 programmes for 2,500 visitors from 132 countries. (COI 1989:23) In 1989-90 there were 926 visits for 2,600 people. (COI 1990a:24). In addition there is the London Correspondents Service with a staff of six (COI 1990b) which organises visits for journalists resident in Britain. Figure 4.1 gives available data on trips organised by the Tourist Board and the Industrial Development Board.

    Figure 3.1

    Number of visits by journalists to Northern Ireland paid for by the NITB and IDB

    NITB IDB 1982/83 130 N/A 1983/84 >140 N/A 1984/85 200 N/A 1985/86 140 N/A 1986/87 200 47 1987/88 300 60 1988/89 400 96 1989/90 300 83 1990/91 >300 61 1991/92 300 108 1992/93 250 70 Key: N/A = not available Sources: NI Tourist Board Annual Report and Accounts, Vol. 39, 1986/87:11; Vol. 40, 1987/88:8; Vol. 41, 1988/89:9; Vol. 41, 1989/90:9; IDB, Annual Report and Accounts 1990/91: 89; 1991/92: 27; 1992/93: 33