Reporting the divide? The media and the constitutional debate in Northern Ireland

By: David McCann

Northern Ireland’s political dynamics have always been some of the most turbulent in
the United Kingdom. Much of the division and disruption comes from the divide that
exists on the constitutional future of Northern Ireland. Should it continue as part of
the United Kingdom or would its future be better served unifying with the Republic of
Ireland? This contested environment is something that local journalists have to
navigate and operate in as part of their roles in explaining to an audience how this
debate is developing and impacting their daily lives.

A style of debate that visited Scotland in 2014 with the independence referendum
and the wider UK in 2016 with the European Union referendum has given rise to the
notion of the “Ulsterisation” of politics in other regions outside of Northern Ireland.
Yet many issues that have divided opinion (sovereignty and identity) relatively new to
England, Scotland and Wales have been the focal points of political debate in
Northern Ireland for decades. There are not just lessons for how Northern Ireland
operates, but also for the rest of the UK in beginning to analyse how different
institutions interpret, promote and analyse the debate around the future of the United
Kingdom.

That is why this blog post and my forthcoming report are going to focus on one of the
most important institutions in the UK. That is the fourth estate, otherwise known as
the media. The research will examine some of the existing literature on the topic of
the media not just in Northern Ireland, but also in jurisdictions including Scotland,
Quebec and the Republic of Ireland which have experience with referenda on issues
relating to sovereignty and constitutional reform. This examination will help develop
understanding of the roles that journalists have played elsewhere in vigorously
contested debates and the pressures that have been placed on them to report fairly
and accurately on competing claims. Furthermore, the literature review will seek to
highlight existing research on the approaches of the Northern Ireland media. Much of
this existing research is cast through a lens shaped by analyses of how journalism
operated in the conflict environment known as “The Troubles”. Regrettably, this has
not had the same level of attention in a post-conflict setting. My own report for the
Constitution Society will serve as a useful update in filling some of the gaps that exist
within our modern understanding of the media in Northern Ireland but also as a
signpost to where future research should go on this important issue.

The report will also draw upon perspectives from those working within the media in
Northern Ireland. Perspectives from print journalists who are working within the main
newspapers and those who shape political debates through their columns will help
this research understand some key questions. For example, what makes the
constitutional debate a story worth reporting on? What impact has Brexit had in
elevating this as a prominent issue within Northern Ireland? And, lastly, if we ever
get to a referendum on this issue, what should policy-makers be thinking about now
to ensure a robust and fair reporting of the issues?

Border poll debate and the makeup of the media

A referendum on Northern Ireland’s constitutional position, known locally as a
“Border Poll”, sits at the heart of political debate. The media regularly reports on
statements from civic groups, politicians and academics on the issue of when a
border poll could happen but also some of the structural issues that need to be
considered before any vote is held. The practical implications of Brexit, which have
had substantial political consequences for Northern Ireland have fuelled the need for
proper planning and consideration of the vast number of variables around
constitutional change. Little has been done to date to consider the role of the media
in this part of the planning. Northern Ireland still has one of the highest newspaper
readerships in the UK alongside one of the most vibrant and influential
commentariats. Unlike most of the media across the UK, which is traditionally divided
between left and right political narratives, the three main newspapers in Northern
Ireland are divided along constitutional lines. News and current affairs make up 51%
of the local output for BBC Northern Ireland. Alongside this, 72% of Ulster TV’s local
output is also focused in the same area. This does not include the current affairs
programming from networks from the Republic of Ireland such as RTE, Virgin Media
and TG4 which are also available to viewers in Northern Ireland. The research will
add to the knowledge of those outside of Northern Ireland about the unique make-up
of the media locally as well as how the constitutional debate has evolved and
progressed in recent years. Voter turnout figures demonstrate the degree of political
engagement in Northern Ireland and this research will help shed some light on
contemporary political life in this region.

Conclusion

My research for the Constitution Society will aim to add to what we know about how
the media operates in Northern Ireland, but also take the debate around the
constitution into some new territory. Focusing on the media allows for a different
analysis and interpretation of local political discourse. By getting the perspectives of
those who are analysing and shaping this discourse, the report will be a useful
addition to not just our understanding of Northern Ireland, but also to other
constitutional debates in other jurisdictions not just in the UK but in other parts of the
world.

David McCann.

Dr David McCann is a 2023 Society Research Fellow. He holds a PhD in relations between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland from 1959-72 from Ulster University. He has worked as a Lecturer in Politics and International Studies at Ulster University and as Deputy Editor of Northern Ireland’s biggest current affairs website, Slugger O’Toole. 

The Constitution Society is committed to the promotion of informed debate and is politically impartial. Any views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society.