Analysis

Wednesday 30 July 2014

John-Paul McCarthy: A lesson in how to pay respects

Helmut Kohl's gracious tribute showed up the provincialism of events in Kenmare

John-Paul McCarthy

Published 21/04/2013|04:00

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Two resonant images framed the Thatcher funeral last week. The first one came to us from Kerry. Monday's Six-One News explored Margaret Thatcher's Irish ancestry. The Fianna Fail senator Mark Daly spoke for the ages when he planted himself next to a black marble slab bearing what looked like a cheap sticker of the 1916 proclamation. As the world looked on, he explained that far from being a conduit of world-historical import, the Kenmare-Thatcher axis was marked by "mutual indifference". Could this be true?

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Had the baroness's trip to Dublin Castle in 1980 gained no traction there? And what of her resurrection of the intergovernmental approach to Northern Ireland after Sunningdale? No dice.

Kenmare will not forgive her disobliging references to the Kerry Blue dog, itself "a very temperamental type of a dog", according to the senator. Rather like the baroness herself, right?

It's small consolation for the rest of us to remember that this kind of nasty provincialism is in our bloodstream. Maybe we just can't help ourselves. That famous Irish Press editorial from 1943 suddenly seemed highly salient again: "There is no kind of oppression visited on any minority in Europe which the six-county nationalists have not also endured."

The second image of last week happily voids the Kenmare farce. This was the image the former German chancellor, Helmut Kohl, offered the world via the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) website. Kohl is wheelchair bound after a stroke and a fall, but he showed that neither his intellect nor his manners need fear his physical infirmity.

Clad in a crisp black suit and wearing what looked like painful dress shoes, Helmut Kohl offered a startling tribute to Mrs Thatcher.

Speaking in slurred words, and with obvious embarrassment and great effort, Kohl said "Ich bin voller Respekt und Ehrfurcht aus der gemeinsamen Vergangenheit mit ihr". (I am full of respect and awe for the common past I shared with her.)

He continued: "Man konnte nur mit grossem Respekt von ihr reden, auch wenn man in der Sache selbst an diesem oder jenem Punkt anderer Meinung war." (One could only speak of her with great respect, even when one had a different opinion about this issue or that).

Considering the fact that Mrs Thatcher initially tried to block German unification in 1990, this was a rather stunning adieu from Kohl, someone who never pretended to like her personally.

Watching this short video tribute may have reminded Irish viewers of an earlier occasion when another physically infirm mourner added an extra dimension of solemnity to an important public occasion.

After Harold Wilson returned Roger Casement's body from Pentonville Prison in 1966, 83-year-old President de Valera left his sickbed to beckon these old bones home to Glasnevin Cemetery. That kind of Fianna Fail classiness has obviously been trampled down in Kenmare. But that said, we must be grateful for elderly German statesmen who put us back in touch with this kind of decency.

Kohl's reference to Thatcher's miscalculation on German unity reminds us of another important aspect of her character. Though no intellectual herself, she made time for intellectuals.

The famous Chequers seminar in the spring of 1990 on post-Cold War Europe resonates still. Mrs Thatcher wanted help in finding the requisite weight of voice here and she summoned a fairly serious scholarly Armada to lunch. She invited Norman Stone, Timothy Garton Ash, Hugh Trevor-Roper, Fritz Stern, Gordon Craig, and George Urban, the one-time head of Radio Free Europe.

Stone told her to her face that she needed to get over her 1930s' anxieties: "I said the unification was a good thing, in fact, the best thing that had happened in my lifetime; that there was no danger of a Fourth Reich or some such; that, even if there had been, the desperately low German birth rate would mean that the new Wehrmacht would consist of old age pensioners; that the German economy was not really such a powerhouse, and, my best line, that East Germany was not an accretion of strength, but, rather, 12 enormous Liverpools, handed over to the West Germans in a tatty cardboard box, with a great red ribbon round it, marked 'From Russia with love'."

This occasion rather shames us by comparison. Has any Irish Taoiseach ever had the self-confidence and imagination to set up a seminar like this? Not really.

The only obvious Irish parallel was when David Trimble invited Professor Paul Bew and Eoghan Harris to address the Ulster Unionist Party faithful on the decommissioning problem on two separate occasions in 1999. Bew sketched the likelihood of an Anglo-Irish Agreement Mark II if the UUP blundered, while Harris reminded them the Good Friday Agreement was an "amazing grace" not to be squandered lightly.

"Amazing grace" is as good in its way as Stone's "12 Liverpools", but both resonant images show what can happen when you work with leaders who respect readers.

Kohl saw much to admire in the lady. Kenmare can surely spare a small plaque for her ancestors.

Irish Independent

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