The Propaganda of Peace

To coincide with BBC One Northern Ireland broadcasting Ads on the Frontline (23 May at 21:00 BST) we have published this extract from Greg McLaughlin and Stephen Baker’s book, The Propaganda of Peace: The role of culture and media in the Northern Ireland peace process. In it the authors argue that a series of advertisements commissioned by the Northern Ireland Office to publicise the confidential telephone number, marked a shift in government thinking, initially about paramilitaries but also about Northern Ireland generally. In the NIO advertisements, the image of loyalists and republicans changed from that of psychotic criminals to ordinary family men and women; and Northern Ireland was transformed on screen from a place of violence and dereliction to a desirable commodity in the global market place, capable of catching the eye of tourists.


The confidential telephone service was set up by the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) in the 1970s to receive anonymous information from the public regarding paramilitary activity. It was publicised through a variety of media but of most interest here are the television advertisement campaigns. The early campaigns were strictly anti-terrorist in orientation and fitted into the wider British propaganda framework. Terrorism had no political content or context and the terrorists themselves were portrayed as ruthless, psychotic criminals. For example, A Future (NIO 1988) features a young man reflecting on the future for his wife and child in a community dominated by paramilitary violence. What, he asks on his odyssey around his troubled city, have these ‘hard men’ ever done for him? ‘They’ve left me with no job and no hope, they’ve wrecked where I live, they’ve hijacked our cars, they’ve fed off our backs, and when I saw their kind of justice, I thought there’s gotta be something better than this.’ This voiceover accompanies images of a war-torn urban environment: bombs exploding, punishment shootings in back alleys and paramilitaries collecting funds in local pubs. The lighting is dark and the atmosphere foreboding, an effect heightened by a crime thriller score.

The NIO continued the service into the 1990s and the period of the peace process but the new circumstances brought a perceptible shift in emphasis in the advertisement campaigns. One only has to note the dramatic visual contrast between the despair of A Future and the biblical message of hope in A New Era, from 1994, in which the traditional symbols of conflict and division are transformed before our eyes into images of peace and prosperity. A paramilitary gun morphs into a starting pistol for the Belfast marathon; security bollards turn into flower displays; a police cordon turns into ceremonial tape for the opening of a new motorway; and two Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) constables reunite a lost child with his mother, confounding the controversial history and nature of the force.7

However, we want to focus here on two adverts from 1993 – Lady and I Wanna Be Like You. This is because they broke most radically from the traditional formal conventions of the confidential telephone adverts shown up until then and since. Far from the usual montage of propaganda images and messages, these ads were constructed as mini-domestic dramas that represented the paramilitary with a more human face, thus situating him in a more ambiguous position in society.

Lady tells the story of two women whose lives are blighted by violence. The ethno- religious identity of the women is not made explicit: they are both portrayed as victims. One is a widow whose husband is murdered by a paramilitary. The other is married to the paramilitary who is imprisoned for the murder. A female narrator intones, ‘Two women, two traditions, two tragedies. One married to the victim of violence, one married to the prisoner of violence. Both scarred, both suffering, both desperately wanting it to stop.’ As with A Future, Lady is about the impact of violence on domestic relations except, in this instance, violence is presented as equally tragic for the paramilitaries as it is for their victims.

I Wanna Be Like You also reflects upon the cost of paramilitary violence to family relations, specifically those of father and son. There is no voiceover narrative to this film. Instead it is accompanied by a version of the Harry Chapin song, ‘Cat in the Cradle’. It presents a man’s journey over a number of years from paramilitarism to his recognition of the futility of violence. In the beginning, he neglects his family, ends up in prison and eventually sees his son grow up and follow in his footsteps as a paramilitary. The son in turn becomes remote from the father and is shown gunning down a man in front of his child, emphasising the cyclical nature of the violence. The son eventually loses his life to violence and the advert closes with the image of his father grieving at his grave.

After the paramilitary ceasefires in 1994, the NIO commissioned a very different series of public films that moved away from the anti-terrorist message altogether. Broadcast during the summer of 1995, these made no mention of the confidential phone service or of terrorists or terrorism. Indeed, they appeared to have no specific purpose except to show off Northern Ireland as a place where people enjoyed life without fear of violence. Scored with some of the best-known songs of Van Morrison, a native of Belfast, such as ‘Brown Eyed Girl’, ‘Days Like This’, and ‘Have I Told You Lately’, the four films have the glossy look of tourist advertisements, marketing peace in Northern Ireland as consumer commodity. In the first film, Northern Irish Difference, babies and toddlers play at a crèche, oblivious to sectarian or cultural difference; in the second, Northern Irish Life, two boys from both traditions play on a beach and innocently exchange what would, in the conflict of the past, have been seen as sectarian badges of identity – King Billy for Glasgow Celtic Football Club! The third film, Northern Irish Quality, celebrates the sporting and cultural achievements of people like Mary Peters, George Best and Liam Neeson, while the fourth, Northern Irish Spirit, reminds people of the region’s stunning coastal and rural scenery. All the films in the series end with Van Morrison’s epithet from ‘Coney Island’, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time?’ and the on-screen slogan, ‘Time for the Bright Side’. The use of Morrison’s music in this series of films came with his explicit permission and blessing and reveals much about the heady, optimistic mood that gripped Northern Ireland in the hot summer of 1995.

When the IRA ceasefire ended in 1996, with bombs in London and Manchester, the NIO returned to the violent imagery of the early confidential telephone advertisements. However, the restoration of the ceasefires and the negotiations towards the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 brought a return to optimism. During the referendum campaign in May that year, the NIO distributed to every home a copy of the Agreement document, its cover showing the archetypal nuclear family silhouetted against a rising sun, symbolising the Agreement as a new dawn for the people of Northern Ireland. It was revealed later that the picture was actually of a sunset and was taken in South Africa, perfect dawns being difficult to catch in Northern Ireland. Still, these idealised, post-ceasefire images marked a radical departure from the violent imagery of 1988 and A Future, and even from the more positive advertisements of the early 1990s because they dispensed with the anti-terrorist message altogether and held out the prospect of real peace and a final settlement to the conflict.

Martin McLoone (1993) was one of the first media academics to take a serious look at these government films and spot the subtle change of message in their narrative and photography. As he has argued, they did indeed appear to prepare the public for negotiations with the enemy while at the same time suggest to the IRA especially that they had something to gain by laying down their arms. However, the films may also have had the effect of giving the media licence to explore the ongoing transition from war to peace in ways unthinkable just years before.


McLaughlin, Greg and Stephen Baker (2010) The Propaganda of Peace: The role of culture and media in the Northern Ireland peace process (Bristol: Intellect Books)

McLoone, M. (1993), ‘The Commitments: the NIO anti-terrorist ads’, Fortnight, 321, October, pp. 34–36




Tanya Jones argues that the time has well and truly come to stop investing in fossil fuels – and not just for environmental reasons. 

Exploratory drilling for oil in Woodburn, 2016

In an increasingly polarised and intransigent political atmosphere, locally, nationally and globally, it’s worth celebrating a campaign that uniquely speaks to left and right, unionist and nationalist, conservative and liberal, Brexiteer and Remainer.  Encompassing values of common sense, fairness, rationality, responsibility, compassion and hope, the fossil fuel divestment (sometimes described as disinvestment) movement is an opportunity both to shape the future for the better and to respond to the transformation which is already being made.

Simply summarised, divestment in this context is the process of ceasing to invest in the extraction, sale and burning of fossil fuels, and of encouraging those who invest on behalf of others to do the same.

There are two major reasons to divest, reasons that are interrelated but also independent.  Most people in the divestment movement recognise both, and both impel us to urgent action.  But either path can be taken,  disregarding the other, and the destination will be the same.

The first reason is that fossil fuels aren’t a good investment.

Good (gud) adj. 1. Right, sound, reliable, efficient…

The 2015 Paris Agreement requires governments to ensure that the global temperature rise (from pre-industrial levels) is kept well below two degrees centigrade, with an aim of keeping it to 1.5.  In order for this to be achieved, we need net greenhouse gas emissions of zero by the year 2050.

Such an outcome is simply incompatible with a continuation of ‘business as usual’ by the fossil fuel companies. In order to meet the obligations of the Paris Agreement, over 75 percent of fossil fuel reserves need to be kept in the ground.  But the sector’s business models are based upon assumptions which would create a temperature rise of at least three degrees, while ongoing oil production, if continued, would be compatible with a horrific eight degree rise.

Something has to give, either the profitability of fossil fuel companies, or the hope of maintaining a habitable world, and the commitments of the world’s governments to achieving it.  As government, industry, civil society and individuals take action against the sector, its assets will become stranded and ultimately useless.  That action is already happening, in legislation, regulation, business preference for clean technology and the increasing numbers of legal cases taken against fossil fuel companies, in relation both to the damage caused by climate change and to the companies’ misleading of investors.

Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, highlighted the economic risks to fossil fuel companies in a 2015 speech to the Lloyds of London insurers.  He spoke of the ‘tragedy of the horizon’, saying ‘While there is still time to act, the window of opportunity is finite and shrinking.’ Meanwhile within the past month it has been reported that oil companies are maintaining their dividends by increasing debt and that 89 percent of fund managers expect oil company valuations to fall as a result of energy transition issues.

Those who make investment decisions on behalf of others owe a fiduciary duty towards them.  In the case of pension fund trustees this duty is further enshrined in Article 18(1) of the EU Directive 2003/4/EC, which requires that assets be invested in the best interests of members and beneficiaries.

There has been a common misconception that trustees should not take ESG (environmental, social and governance) factors into account when making investment decisions.  It has now been authoritatively shown that this is incorrect.  Where ESG factors are financially material, they can (and arguably should) always be taken into consideration. If there are no such financial effects, these factors may still be considered by decision-makers where the scheme members share the concern and the divestment doesn’t involve a serious risk of financial detriment.

Trustees have a further duty to treat beneficiaries and groups of beneficiaries equally, including those of different generations.  This requirement of inter-generational equity makes it imperative not simply to seek short-term high dividends, benefiting current pensioners only, at the cost of future retirees.

Delaying divestment decisions can also be a breach of fiduciary duty, as devaluations can be much more sudden than expected.  A small drop in demand can create a large drop in prices, as was shown in 2016 when a two per cent fall in demand for coal led to the bankruptcy of several companies.  And once a new technology reaches a ten per cent market share, its rise to achieve a 100 percent share can be very quick indeed.  Fossil fuel companies have consistently underestimated the growth of clean technologies, and renewable energy is now cheaper than fossil fuels in most countries of the world.

Divestment is therefore, from the most conservative and financially prudent viewpoint, a necessity if funds are to maintain their value and provide a reliable return for this and the next generation of beneficiaries.

The second reason is that fossil fuels aren’t a good investment.

Good (gud) adj. 2. Kind, wholesome, salutary, morally excellent…

We know that the actions of coal, oil and gas companies are fueling catastrophic climate change, which is already causing hunger, sickness, homelessness and conflict, affecting the most vulnerable and least complicit of the world’s people.  Over four-fifths of the UK’s human-induced greenhouse gas emissions come from burning fossil fuels, and, as we have seen, the sector’s business models are based upon climate disaster.

Whether or not government, industry and civil society act effectively to curb the destructiveness of  fossil fuel companies (and they cannot afford not to), many of us feel that we have a personal responsibility to speak and to act.  Anyone who looks honestly at global poverty will recognise the centrality of climate justice; the principle that those who have done least to cause disruptive climate change should not be called upon to bear its terrible effects.  Anyone who, with or without religious faith, acknowledges that humans have exercised a pernicious dominion over the natural world, will want to transform that tyranny into a positive stewardship.  And anyone who looks with clarity at the future for today’s children will want to make that future one of health, peace and wellbeing.

For those of us who hold a vision of a world characterised by compassion and justice, one where people live lightly but well upon the earth, financial decisions must be a part of the journey we take.  The example of divestment from the South African apartheid regime showed how ethical investment policies can be both a powerful symbol of solidarity and compassion and also a significant driver of political and economic change.

It’s sometimes suggested that ‘engagement’, that is, retaining shares in fossil fuel companies in order to try to influence corporate decisions, is a better model than divestment.  Engagement can indeed be a useful tool in nudging organisations in the right direction, notably in the case of the Living Wage campaign.  But it has to be effective: engagement that doesn’t have adequate goals and clear deadlines is little more than a futile gesture.  The only adequate decarbonisation goal in respect of a fossil fuel company would be to persuade it to give up its core business altogether: scarcely a practical use of limited resources.  By contrast, engagement with sectors such as power utilities and transport has immense potential, leading to significant changes in the fossil fuel/clean technology balance without changing the core purpose of the company.

Over eight hundred institutions, with assets of over six trillion dollars, have already divested from fossil fuels, or are in the process of doing so.  They include New York City, the Rockefeller Brothers, the Church of Sweden, Trinity College Dublin, the Woodland Trust and the Catholic charity Caritas.  Reinvestment has been in a range of positive investments, from local projects to large scale funds. Case studies suggest that institutions that have divested are doing well, both financially and in terms of their cohesion and relationships, well-placed to face the future.

Here in Northern Ireland,  Fossil Free NI  is calling upon the Local Government Pension Scheme to divest from fossil fuels.  It is a campaign which, focusing on councils, is able to flourish despite the absence of an Executive and functioning Assembly, bringing a real potential for positive co-operation against the backdrop of division and uncertainty.   For now, and for the future, it may well be our very best hope.

Tanya Jones

5 May 2018