Northern Ireland Information Service: Background Briefing Documents

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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. 123-4 and is reproduced by permission of the author.

Background Briefing Documents

'Official sources say', 'sources close to the Northern Ireland Office have confirmed'. These are the telltale phrases associated with off the record briefings. As well as face to face briefings with journalists, the Northern Ireland Office and the Foreign Office circulate written background material.[1] Since 1980, at least 123 of these documents have been issued (see Appendix I for a list). Produced by the Information Department or the Foreign Office, they are regularly sent to selected journalists in plain brown envelopes. According to a senior Information Officer: 'We would stand over them but we don't particularly want them attributed to the NIO' (interview, Belfast July 1990). Journalists working in Northern Ireland do not receive these briefings, which are mainly intended for use by overseas journalists.

Some sources in the Northern Ireland Office are sceptical about the value of this type of briefing document. In the view of one Stormont Information Officer, they are 'not worth a damn'. However, they have on occasion been reproduced unacknowledged in published material. Thus volume one of David Barzilay's four volume study of the British Army in Ulster (Barzilay 1973) includes large sections (on pages 119-124) of the Information Research Department produced briefing The IRA: Aims, Policy, Tactics. Once such writings are published, official sources can use them as impartial and independent commentaries. The authors themselves may then be called upon by journalists as 'experts' on 'terrorism'. In another example, in January 1988, one document 'The Provisional IRA: International Contacts Outside the United States' (FCO 1988) was drawn on by counter-insurgency journalist Christopher Dobson[2] Much of the information was inaccurate and, following legal action, the Foreign Office was forced to withdraw some of it. British author Liz Curtis was amongst those named in the document. However, the Foreign Office refused to remove her name from the briefing thus labelling her as an 'international contact' of the IRA (Guardian 11 May 1988, New Statesman and Society 1 July 1988).


  1. These papers, all produced by the Information Department of the Foreign Office, come in two main series: Background briefs about all aspects of government and foreign policy and Greyband briefs (after 1988, titled Northern Ireland Briefs) which are specifically about Northern Ireland. Each of the briefs bears the legend 'this paper has been prepared for general briefing purposes'. On the Background briefs are the additional words 'it is not and should not be construed or quoted as an expression of government policy. The first Greyband brief I have been able to trace appeared in October 1980 and dealt with the ongoing prison protests (Foreign & Commonwealth Office 1980). The Background Briefs go back as far as 1978. Significantly, this is the year the Information Research Department in the Foreign Office was disbanded and replaced by the Overseas Information Department. This in turn was replaced by the Information Department in the early 1980's. IRD was a covert propaganda department of the Foreign Office with close links to the intelligence community (Bloch and Fitzgerald 1983; Fletcher 1982; Dorril and Ramsay 1990 and Smith 1979). IRD officials were also seconded to the Information Policy Unit in Lisburn in the early 70's to help with this information work (Foot 1990). During that period, IRD produced several 'briefing documents' on Northern Ireland such as The IRA: Aims, Policy, Tactics. Briefings produced by the Information Department during the 1980's are the direct descendants of such material.
  2. see Irish Independent 2 May 1988 and Daily Telegraph 3 May 1988; cf. Dobson and Payne 1982.