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Speech by An Taoiseach, Mr. Leo Varadkar T.D., Launch of The Sunday Papers Irish Times Building, Tara Street

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

I am honoured to be here to launch this important collection of essays, The Sunday Papers – A History of Irelands Weekly Press.  

However, I have to admit that before dipping into this book, I wondered why the launch was taking place at the new home of a daily newspaper, The Irish Times.  The answer, I discovered in Joe Breen’s illuminating article, is that for six years, from 1957 to 1963, The Irish Times had its own Sunday newspaper, the Sunday Review.  Unfortunately it didn’t stand the test of time despite exclusives with Elvis Presley and others.

Sunday newspapers have a special, perhaps unique role in Irish life. How many times on a Sunday morning does the radio discussion begin with the words: ‘Let’s start with the papers’?

Thomas Jefferson once claimed that he didn’t take a single newspaper and felt infinitely happier as a result. It reminds me of the advice Bertie Ahern once gave me: ‘Don’t read the Sunday newspapers!’ It is advice that is easier to give than to take!

I congratulate the editors, Joe Breen and Mark O’Brien, on bringing together the leading experts in their fields to discuss the history of Ireland’s Sunday papers. Sometimes the media helped shape history. For example, the 1916 Rising was disrupted by the infamous countermanding order published in The Sunday Independent.Sometimes historical events shape the media. In Felix Larkin’s insightful essay we learn that the Sunday Freeman, the stablemate of the Freeman’s Journal, was destroyed by the Easter Rising, never printing another edition.

I know journalists love awards. They love giving them out, and they especially love receiving them. I thought we could devise a whole series of historical media awards based on the material in this book. Winner of best newspaper slogan might go to the Sunday World.  When it was founded in 1973 it had the catchy and provocative slogan: ‘Are you getting it every Sunday’. And I enjoyed reading the chapter on its foundation by Siún Ní Dhuinn and Regina Uí Chollatáin. The award for worst celebrity endorsement might go to Jack Charlton. ‘Big Jack’ was hired as a columnist by The Sunday Press in the early 1990s in an attempt to reverse declining sales. Unfortunately when he was asked in an interview what Irish newspapers he read he answered honestly and said: ‘If I’m in Ireland I buy a few of the Irish papers. I do a column for one of them but I can’t remember its name’.  

Incidentally, there’s a warning from history in the article on The Sunday Press by the former news editor of The Irish Press and later RTE news, Ray Burke. For one-third of the twentieth century, The Sunday Press was Ireland’s bestselling newspaper, bought by two out of every three households. Not bad for a paper only founded in 1949, but its decline and closure contains a timely reminder about how quickly things can change.  

We see it in Mary Muldowneys excellent chapter on the rapid rise and fall of the Sunday Journal in the early 1980s. Or you only need to look at the rise and fall of The Sunday Tribune, examined so well in the essay by Pat Brennan and Brian Trench. In its heyday it had writers and journalists of the calibre of Emily O’Reilly, Deirdre Purcell, Vincent Browne, Fintan O’Toole, Colm Tóibín, Matt Cooper, Eamon Dunphy and many others who went on to become household names. The Sunday Tribuneprobably wins the award for only saying nice things about you when you are gone.

Towards the end of Garret FitzGerald’s administration in 1987 it ran front page headlines such as: ‘Garret, the Game is Up’ and ‘As the Country Braves the Snow, Garret Stays in the Bunker’. However when he resigned a few weeks later after losing the general election it ran with the front page headline: ‘Garret: we will not see the likes of him again’.  

Ed Mulhall uses his considerable expertise and experience to analyse the first decade of The Sunday Business Post.  The paper gave a start to many fearless investigative journalists, most notably Veronica Guerin, someone whose courage and determination is rightly acknowledged in a number of these essays. We also get a good insight into the development of the Irish edition of The Sunday Times¸ by Michael Foley, and the tensions and the challenges in that relationship. The award for most legendary editor probably goes to Aengus Fanning, who helped the Sunday Independent become the dominant force it is today, and the story is well told by Kevin Rafter.  

A special mention might also be given to another long-serving editor of the Sunday Independent, Hector Legge, who looms large in Mark O’Brien’s chapter. Legge was editor from the 1940s until 1970, and broke the story of John A. Costello declaring a Republic in 1948. In 1991, towards the end of his life, Legge gave an interview where he predicted that, morally, Ireland was ‘on a downward path that leads to the bonfire’. One wonders what he would make of Ireland today!

What has never changed throughout the decades is the need for quality journalism. Good journalism has never mattered more. And good journalists have never been more under threat. We live in an age where opposing points of view – or contradictory evidence or uncomfortable facts - are dismissed as ‘fake news’ and “alternate facts”. Where journalists can be silenced and disappeared for daring to speak truth to power or for asking awkward questions. Around the world we see that some are afraid of letting the people assess the facts. They are afraid of the truth being revealed.

For me, it does not show a fear of the media. It shows a fear of the people. A free, open and democratic press says something fundamental about the way a country is run. It says: we are not afraid of our own people. So it is a sacred responsibility. And one that brings with it great responsibility. A responsibility to scrutinise claims, assertions and statistics whether they come from government, a political party, an NGO, trade union or interest group. Just because they say something doesn’t mean it’s so.

A responsibility to cover personal stories objectively. By their nature, personal stories are emotive and subjective. It’s why they are so compelling and need to be heard. But it’s the journalist’s job to inject objectivity into the full story. A responsibility to respect due process.

We saw that recently in the coverage of certain cases, where the media became the story, instead of reporting on it.

There is also a responsibility on Government to protect against threats internal and external. For this reason, we established an Interdepartmental Group on the Security of Ireland’s Electoral Process and Disinformation, to analyse the threat of fake news and deliberate disinformation and the risks posed to our democracy. While the Group has found that the risks in Ireland are generally quite low, we will continue to be vigilant. For example, on Thursday we will hold an Open Policy forum on the regulation of online political advertising. And a responsibility on government to support journalism.

To conclude, I congratulate Joe Breen and Mark O’Brien and all the contributors on a welcome addition to the story of print journalism in Ireland. This in an elegant and important volume, produced to a very high quality by Four Courts Press.

I encourage you all to read it and, most importantly, to buy it.

Thank you.