28 DECEMBER 2002, Page 29

The Sun and the Telegraph are collaborating

with Blair's cynical scaremongering


Amost everyone assumes, whether they are pro or anti, that Britain will go to war against Iraq. President Bush seems set on invasion whatever Hans Blix and his team of inspectors do or do not find. Tony Blair would appear certain to follow: the Foreign Office believes that at least a token presence is necessary if we wish to retain our status as a permanent member of the UN Security Council and to feed the illusion that we are still a second-rank world power; while Blair cannot easily resist the blandishments and endearments of George W. But there remains the little matter of British public opinion. Could even Mr Blair go to war if 60 or 65 per cent of people were opposed? Probably not. It follows that public opinion must be softened up. We have to be conditioned into believing that war is both inevitable and just, and that it forms part of a wider strategy against the forces of international terrorism. And the message is delivered via our dear, compliant media.

Much of the press needs no persuasion. The Sun and the Daily Telegraph have made up their minds that Saddam Hussein is harbouring weapons of mass destruction which he intends to use against us at any moment. But even the newspapers which harbour doubts (e.g. the Daily Mail) or are openly opposed (the Daily Minor and the Guardian) are sucked into the plot. For months we have been treated to stories variously leaked by Downing Street, the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence about the probable involvement of Our Boys. I have lost count of the number of graphics I have studied which show pictures of imaginary British planes, ships and troops in the Gulf. each identified by a small Union Flag. Of course the graphics are always different. One moment, we are committing a full armoured division, the next offering a few marines and some special forces. But the effect is the same. Our rulers know that there is nothing that so softens the heart of the British journalist as the prospect that our servicemen will be asked to fight. It kills debate.

And then the government has been creating a climate of fear which is surely calculated to confuse the threat of Saddam Hussein with that of al-Qa'eda. I do not deny there is a danger of a terrorist attack. I fear there will be one sooner or later. But does that threat justify the degree of government-sponsored scaremongering? Last month, on the eve of the UN vote on Iraq, the Home Office mysteriously released two versions of a counter-terrorism assessment which were supposed to make our blood run cold. There have been stories of probable smallpox epidemics, anthrax attacks and sarin gas in the Underground which cannot have been entirely dreamt up by overimaginative journalists. The threat usually includes alQa'eda by name, but Saddam Hussein is rarely excluded.

A characteristically spine-chilling story appeared in the Sun on 19 December. The paper informed us that Tony Blair had revealed, on the previous day, that 'British intelligence services have already foiled alQa'eda terror plots in the UK'. (How many? When and where?). The Prime Minister 'admitted that Britain will remain at risk of attack for years to come'. The paper then wheeled out an unnamed official who intimated that 'Mr Blair has also been told that the terror warlords are determined to launch a smallpox or sarin gas attack in the UK. Sources also confirmed that attacks using -dirtynuclear bombs have been planned.' Interestingly, the Daily Telegraph reported on the same day that 'a senior government source' revealed that we have no intelligence of a smallpox attack'. Was this the same official in a rather different mode?

I imagine that any sensible sceptic would be persuaded, if evidence were produced, that Iraq is stockpiling 'weapons of mass destruction' for use against the West. Proof of a link between Saddam and al-Qa'eda would also be decisive in most minds. But at the moment we have neither. Much of the press is beyond reason, but I hope that over the next few weeks the more openminded newspapers will examine the government's claims about Iraqi weapons, and question the stories of imminent terrorist attacks. The British people are entitled to some say in this affair. For Britain, war is not, in fact, inevitable.

The Independent's David McKittrick is one of the most respected journalists in Northern Ireland. This is as it should be. Mr McKittrick is knowledgable and moderate. He is a lucid writer. It is no doubt right that he should be regarded by many out

siders as the doyen of political journalists in the province.

On one matter, however. Mr McKittrick has proved less than wholly reliable. One of his abiding journalistic preoccupations over the years has been the steadily rising proportion of Catholics in Northern Ireland. This is indeed a very important subject. As a result of their higher birth-rate. Catholics now comprise more than 40 per cent of the population whereas not long ago they constituted a third. Some republicans have hoped that the figure will soon surpass 50 per cent. They believe that the arithmetic of deaths and births may achieve what the armed struggle could not — a united Ireland.

Mr McKittrick has been an influential commentator in this area. On 11 February this year he wrote an article in the Independent of which the headline was Protestants losing majority in Northern Ireland'. The piece told us that 'the numerical supremacy of the Protestant over the Catholic population has dwindled to no more than a few percentage points'. Various demographic experts were lined up by Mr McKittrick. One of them reckoned that 'if the Protestant majority has not already disappeared, it will do so within a few years'.

Last week the 2001 census results were published. Roman Catholics are still growing a little faster than Protestants, but the rate is slowing. Any idea that they might soon outnumber Protestants is destroyed by these figures.

According to the census, Protestants account for 53 per cent of the 1.7 million population, with Catholics at just below 44 per cent. A small minority of Catholics is likely to continue to join the Protestant majority in opposing a united Ireland. The implications of these figures are therefore very grave for republicans.

How did Mr McKittrick respond to having his theory deflated before his eyes? He was not cowed. In a front-page piece in the Independent, he told us that 'the number of Protestants in Northern Ireland has lunged to a record low'. This, of course, is true. What Mr McKittrick did not point out is that the census offers a much rosier outlook for Protestants than was vouchsafed by his own analysis of 11 February. In an inside piece, though, he did concede that 'the numbers will relieve Unionists, many of whom had worried that the Catholic figure would be much higher'. Particularly if they had been reading David McKittrick.