New Irish newspaper draws fire

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The tough Irish newspaper market has been flung into turmoil with the launch of newcomer, the Daily Ireland…

Launched on February 1, Daily Ireland is published by Nuachtain, better known by the name of their flagship title the Andersonstown News, headed by former Sinn Fein councillor Mairtin O’Muilleoir.

The new paper employs 40 staff and has an initial target circulation of 20,000 with offices in Belfast and Monaghan.

Backers include Peter Quinn, former president of the Gaelic Athletic Association and Irish senator Mary White.

Quinn is involved with two weekly Dublin newspapers published in association with the Nuachtain and previously invested in Ireland on Sunday.

According to Daily Ireland’s editor Maria McCourt, although the newspaper is a tabloid it has a "clean design reminiscent of a broadsheet. In terms of news we want to achieve readability and credibility.”

McCourt who formerly edited the weekly South Belfast News explains: “We’ll be aiming to take readers from both the Irish News and the Daily Mirror.”

The launch comes only a year after Trinity Mirror’s sale of the News Letter to the 3i venture capital group, backed by former Mirror Group chief, David Montgomery.

Critics see the new title as the Irish republican Andersonstown News being re-launched on a national basis.

Asking a person in Northern Ireland which newspaper they read is tantamount to asking who they vote for, or worse what religion they are, as these divisions are replicated in the press.

Nationalists favour the Irish News and unionists the News Letter or Belfast Telegraph, though the Belfast Telegraph enjoys considerable cross-community support due to its extensive recruitment and classified advertising sections.

Belfast Telegraph editor Edmund Curran says: “Sinn Fein in particular feels that the media doesn’t treat it fairly and see a sympathetic daily as advantageous.”

Writing in the Spectator, Stephen Glover bemoaned the fact that, “a publisher loyal to Sinn Fein”, had received £750,000 in funding from the British government since 1999.

The group applied for further funding of £5 million from the government but was turned down. Ulster Unionist MP, Sylvia Hermon objected, demanding a review of the compatibility of the group with state aid.

O’Muilleoir dismissed concerns and says Daily Ireland is “virtually entirely privately funded.”

It is estimated that one third of the capital is coming from US investors.

The history of the Andersonstown News is unlike that of any other newspaper in Ireland.

Launched on November 22, 1972, it was initially an openly political publication published a republican front organisation called the Andersonstown Central Civil Resistance Committee.

The story of the newspaper mirrors that of Sinn Fein, growing in popularity amongst the nationalist community and seeking acceptance by the mainstream.

Now published twice-weekly alongside sister titles the North Belfast News and the South Belfast News, the Andersonstown News has come a long way from its anti-establishment roots.

According to commentator, Liam O’Ruairc: “It’s a corporate enterprise and its central aim is to be profitable. The paper’s prior support for “No Rent” and “No Rates” wouldn’t go down well with the estates agents advertising in its pages today. Its move to the mainstream parallels the growth of the republican movement as a bureaucratic institution. Both are now concerned with the ‘new Catholic middle-class’.”

Signalling this mainstream acceptance the newspaper moved from its cramped offices on the Andersonstown Road in the 1990s to a purpose built centre located in an industrial estate on the outskirts of west Belfast.

Staff started work in the Belfast district of Andersonstown in early January.

Undeterred by the grim surroundings of an industrial estate, one reporter says “The atmosphere is great – they’re a really nice crowd.”

Editor Maria McCourt adds: “The paper will give a lot of young journalists with experience on weeklies an opportunity to work on a daily.”

Daily Ireland will be serious competition for the Irish News, the main nationalist daily in Northern Ireland, which has a steady circulation of 50,000.

Unlike the Irish News, a Northern Irish title, Daily Ireland is being pitched as an all-Ireland newspaper, however it will be limited initially to Northern Ireland and border counties such as Monaghan and Cavan, moving to all-Ireland distribution at an unspecified point in the future.

Irish News management is clearly feeling threatened and is getting its retaliation in first – the newspaper now features a daily page in the Irish-language and is switching from its present Berliner format to tabloid, though editor Noel Doran insists that: “the plans were announced six months before Daily Ireland was announced.”

Doran is adamant that the Irish News will survive: “We’ve been publishing continuously since 1891. Plus, they’ve made a lot of being a ‘national’ newspaper but the fact remains that it will only be available in 12 counties – about a third of Ireland.”

He continues: “It will certainly be competition, but we’re already competing with the Belfast Telegraph, the British tabloids and to a lesser degree, the southern papers.”

The fact that the Irish News is generally seen as a moderate, highbrow voice may signal his being overly optimistic.

Just as the nationalist electorate has switched its support from the moderate SDLP to Sinn Fein, a populist republican newspaper could make significant inroads into the Northern Irish media.

Doran disagrees: “Things change but we’ve been a constitutional nationalist paper since before both the SDLP and Sinn Fein’s foundation. The fact that the field of constitutional nationalism is more crowded than before is good for us.”

Edmund Curran is not particularly concerned about newspaper’s emergence: “It won’t have any effect on the Telegraph. Overall, it’s hard to say – it’s a very crowded marketplace. It will be competition for the Irish News, but remember the Irish News is very serious. If the Daily Ireland is perceived as a true tabloid then it will really be competing with the Daily Mirror,” says Curran.

There are now 18 morning dailies available in Northern Ireland – an area with a population of 1.6 million – and it is clear that the British imports in particular have deep pockets. The Daily Mirror in particular features extensive local sports coverage – competing directly with the Irish News and Belfast Telegraph.

Curran feels that the tabloids’ perceived impartiality on political issues is a bonus to them.

"British tabloids outsell the local morning papers, which reflects that people’s tastes are wider than before. It would be dangerous to assume that a political position alone will sell a paper," he argues.

What effect the paper will have on the press in the Republic is less clear. Ireland does not have a distinctively nationalist daily.

The Irish Times and Independent News and Media-owned Irish Independent and Evening Herald are perceived to be anti-nationalist.

Ireland is littered with failed newspapers: Ireland on Sunday failed to find a market until it was bought by Associated Newspapers, becoming a ‘Celtified’ edition of the Mail on Sunday.

Despite selling 150,000 copies it remains a loss-making operation. March 2003 saw the launch of Dublin Daily which closed after just 90 editions.

The Irish Press, founded by former Irish president, Eamon de Valera, was the quintessential nationalist title, but despite this clear readership it closed in May 1995 amid questions surrounding finances.

Republican writer Danny Morrison is confident Daily Ireland will succeed: “Sinn Fein polls very well in border counties. There is a readership with an appetite for it, but they will have to resist being dominated by Belfast,” says Morrison.

Irish Independent deputy editor Michael Woolsey disagrees: “If this paper had any impact in the South at all I’d be surprised. It will be perceived as northern and I know that the Irish News sells poorly in the south. Being an ideological paper won’t help it overall – if it sold a thousand copies in the Republic, it would be doing well.”