* EVERYTHING'S ROSY...and for nearly two years after the IRA ceasefire it appeared that posters initiated by the Northern Ireland Office were actually right

Manipulating the message

Policy change that gagged army's dirty tricks brigade

Author David Miller gives examples of how smear campaigns and political manoeuvring damage the struggle for peace...

I T IS A LONG time since the headquarters of the British army was dubbed the Lisburn lie machine.

In those early days of the troubles, the army felt itself to be in control of the state response to rebellion and in propaganda matters wanted to treat Northern Ireland as just another colony.

The army had a large stock of professional experience in dealing with insurgency having been involved in 53 such operations between 1945 and 1969.

One well tried tactic was the use of psychological operations, which involved the strategic use of information, both true and false.

The Irish version of this took the form of the covert Information Policy Unit at Thiepval Barracks in Lisburn, which famously engaged in the manufacture of stories such as the explosive danger of women's underwear and the carcinogenic properties of homemade bombs. Red Menace scares were also popular since these could have the effect of aligning an international public behind British policy.

Later, Information Policy and key sections of the army and intelligence communities sought to undermine the elected (Labour) government.

However, the reputation of the Lisburn lie machine grew to be counterproductive for a government intent on changing strategy in Northern Ireland.

De facto political status was ended and the army role altered to support the RUC. The British set about redefining the conflict as a criminal conspiracy rather than a colonial insurgency. The use of black propaganda and manufactured stories was no longer useful if the image of the rule of law was to be maintained.

Control of information strategy was passed to the RUC in order to stem the tide of disinformation. But the RUC, too, proved adept at protecting its personnel by issuing false stories such as those about 'shoot-to-kill' operations or about the mistreatment of detainees.

Eventually the Northern Ireland Office took closer control of information. This did not stop misinformation, particularly over state killings, in which the NIO occasionally participated. But it did ensure that misinformation was used more judiciously and efficiently.

With the change in strategy the sophistication of official public relations increased. Although the Red Menace scare remained a useful tactic throughout the 1980s, more energy was put into portraying 'the province' as 'getting back to normal' and leaving the 'terrorists' behind.

More and more money was spent on glossy brochures and promoting and marketing Northern Ireland. One key example is the twice yearly NIO magazine Omnibus, first published in 1993, which is distributed free to thousands of readers around the world.

It includes positive stories about Northern Ireland, many written by well-known journalists and celebrities. Nowhere does it mention that it is published by the British government. Instead the more anonymous 'Northern Ireland Information Service' is listed.

Production values are extraordinarily high and have increased in the last two years using heavier and glossier paper and expanding its pagination from about 45 to 62 pages.

The 1980s also saw a range of quasi-autonomous bodies set up which engaged in public relations work on behalf of the government. One of the more recent is the Community Relations Council which pushes the line that the problem in Northern Ireland is nothing to do with the British government.

Such indirect Public Relations is complimented in mainstream politics by a change towards more sophisticated 'spindoctoring' at the NIO. This has been especially marked since the advent of the 'peace process'.

Now misinformation consists less of issuing outright falsehoods, than in putting spin on material which would otherwise be unflattering or hard to sell.

Perhaps the key example is the way the government handled the revelation in late 1993 of talks with Sinn Fein.

John Major said in Parliament that such talks "would turn my stomach". The head of information at the NIO, Andy Wood, in a statement that must now make him blush, scoffed that such reports belonged "more properly in the fantasy of spy thrillers than in real life". Sir Patrick Mayhew, choosing his words carefully, said: 'Nobody has been authorised to talk or negotiate on behalf of the British government with Sinn Fein." This was interpreted by the media and everyone else as a denial of the talks which are now a matter of record.

Yet in the peculiar world that is Whitehall openness such a statement is not regarded by the head of the British Civil Service as misleading.

Sir Robin Butler told the Scott Inquiry that: 'It was a half-answer, if you like, but it was an accurate answer...It did not deny that there had been contacts. It simply did not cover the point." It was "not designed to mislead".

This kind of spin on official statements has become a familiar part of political debate and is one factor which decreases trust in a shaky peace process. Misinformation remains a key part of government approaches to the media, albeit in a more sophisticated and less easily found out form.

Information strategy is now an integral part of the policy-making progress. If there is to be real progress towards peace, the duplicity of the Whitehall spindoctors will need to be acknowledged more candidly than it has been so far.

The misinformation of the past could usefully be illuminated as part of the investigations of a truth commission, for which there have been calls recently. This would examine previous practice and propose new standards for public communication and access to truth. This in itself would be a contribution to peace and reconciliation and it might make smears and dirty tricks harder to get away with in the future.

* David Miller is author of Don't Mention The War - Northern Ireland, Propaganda And The Media (Pluto) and co-editor (with Bill Rolston) of War And Words - The Northern Ireland Media Reader (Beyond The Pale).