When Irish Lips Are Moving

THE actors who used to lip-sync Irish Republican Army spokesman Gerry Adams's lines for him may be out of work. It's not fair, really.

To understand how this unfairness might come about, you have to know how broadcasting is accomplished in England and Ireland. Ireland first. Ireland is divided in two, north and south, and has two separate broadcasting systems. In the south, the Republic of Ireland, we have RTE (Radio Telefis Eireann), a state-controlled system with two TV and two radio channels. The programs on these channels are subject to Dublin's guidelines.

In the north, Northern Ireland or Ulster, there are two state channels provided by the BBC and two independent channels, Ulster Television and Channel 4, all subject to London's guidelines on content.

Most citizens in both areas can get all of these stations plus some independents through cable or microwave transmission. Or they can buy satellite dishes, which pick up hundreds of channels from the sky.

In the early 1970s the Republic of Ireland banned members of the outlawed IRA from talking on the airwaves. This rule, Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act, meant that no member of Sinn Fein (the political arm of the IRA) could talk on Irish radio or TV. They couldn't talk about anything - rose-growing, peat-digging or, most restrictive of all, football and Ireland's chances in the World Cup. In one embarrassing incident, a milkman being interviewed about milk delivery was cut off midsentence when the interviewer discovered that he was a card-carrying member of Sinn Fein.

There were similar daft incidents. But the IRA still got their views on the airwaves. There are no restrictions on the newspapers, which could be freely quoted on the air. Thus we could see leaders of the Sinn Fein. We could see their lips move. We could hear a reporter say that Mr. Adams was, as usual, blaming the British for forcing the IRA to blow up a restaurant full of people, but we weren't allowed to hear Adams say it in his own voice.

But as of Jan. 19 all that has changed. The present Dublin government has decided not to renew Section 31. Thus in the Republic of Ireland we will be able to enjoy (not the right word) Adams explaining away IRA terrorism. We will be able to hear Adams say ``We never wanted this war,'' ``It was forced on us by the violence of 800 years of the British presence in Ireland,'' and so on.

In the North, on the BBC and Ulster Television, British rules apply, and Adams still may not be heard. Britain didn't introduce censorship of the IRA until 1988, 16 years after the Dublin government. Whitehall's rules said that, except during Ulster elections, the IRA (and other terrorist organizations) could not be heard on British television and radio.

But the British journalists and broadcasters fought this censorship with a clever scheme. It worked like this. The British government forbade Sinn Fein politicians to speak on the air, but the broadcaster could speak the words at the same time as the film of the speaker was running. In time this became more sophisticated with the use of actors who could skillfully lip-sync Adams's and his chums' pronouncements defending IRA terrorism. Viewers could enjoy (wrong word again) hearing the words in a very clear and realistic Irish accent.

Which makes a farce of the whole business of guidelines. In any case, the realization has finally set in that suppressing statements by potential terrorists only increases the likelihood that they will commit terror. Terror by both sides, the IRA and the Protestant Ulster Volunteer Force, is not undertaken to win a war (unwinnable anyway) but to gain publicity. It's done for column inches and soundbites.

In Northern Ireland, journalists have debated whether reporting the violence was not feeding the desire for retaliation, but since no one has ever put a blanket on all media reporting this theory has never been tested.

So now, as of Wednesday, we in the Republic of Ireland are able to enjoy (really the wrong word) Adams defending IRA violence in his own voice. And the British are expected to drop their censorship rule fairly soon, and then we will see what results. But what will those poor actors do who used to provide Adams's voice for the Britain and Ulster news programs?

It's not fair, is it? Especially since, as these hard-working thespians might reasonably point out, Adams has one of the most indecipherable Belfast accents known to exist. Alas. Another Irish muddle. He was much better understood before he was allowed to be heard. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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