Thursday 29 September 2016

Beware the back-seat drivers of Fianna Fail

Published 24/01/2016 | 02:30

Illustration by Jim Cogan
Illustration by Jim Cogan

Last week, Heather Humphreys, the Irish Republic's Minister for Art, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, revealed that her grandfather, Robert Stewart, had signed the Ulster Solemn League and Covenant.

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Humphreys's speech was a watershed marking the maturity of the modern Irish Republic for two reasons.

First, because no fuss followed a revelation that a few years ago would have led to nationalist ructions.

Second because it left bigots on both sides without a leg to stand on - and delivered in Belfast it puts pressure on progressive unionists to respond.

Humphreys's grandfather, Robert, was only 19 when he stood up for his right not to be ruled by a Roman Catholic nationalist Ireland.

He had good reason to fear the Free State might be a repressive Roman Catholic state, as "fallen" women, abused children and censored authors found out.

Four years after the Ulster Covenant, further south, young Roman Catholics rejected the rule of the British Empire.

You don't have to be a starry-eyed romantic to feel that decent young Catholics and Protestants, doing their duty as they saw it, had integrity in common.

Heather Humphreys went on to remind us the roots of republicanism lie deep in Presbyterianism, a church that dispenses with popes and bishops and lets the laity decide democratically.

Heather Humphreys is proud both of her unionist and republican roots, living proof that we can reconcile the two great traditions on this island.


Micheal Martin is a powerful voice for the same pluralist republicanism as Heather Humphreys. That alone would fit him to be the leader of Fianna Fail. But he has two further attributes.

First, as Shane Coleman pointed out in the Irish Independent last week, he is by far the best communicator as party leader.

Second, he promotes the only sensible electoral policy for Fianna Fail - which is to wait for the results of the General Election before deciding on the nitty gritty of forming governments.

Two recent polls show that Martin's policy of ruling out coalition with Sinn Fein or Fine Gael has paid off with two lots of voters.

First, Middle Ireland finally believes what I said from the start - that Martin would never do a deal with Sinn Fein.

Second, Fianna Fail voters are also reassured that a vote for Fianna Fail will not simply be a vote to prop up Fine Gael.

In sum, Martin's strategy of wait and see is both sensible and democratic.

Not so the media dogmatism that demands Martin should announce his alliances in advance of a General Election.

Last August, I challenged a campaign by some Irish Times pundits to push Martin into doing a deal with Fine Gael long before the voters had spoken.

The title of the column was 'Silly Season Spooks a Foolish FF Stampede'. But six months later the media are still finding soft touches in Fianna Fail.

Last week, Mary Hanafin made a show of herself by telling the media that FF members had called on her to 'influence' party policy.

Let's hope what she said on Morning Ireland was not an example of that "influence" because it simply made no sense.

Hanafin said she believes Fianna Fail could "work with" Fine Gael. She then half took it back by warning that such a coalition could play into Sinn Fein's hands.

But since that's Martin's position anyway, what was Hanafin doing on Morning Ireland? Apart from grandstanding, having it both ways and generally messing?

Let me hasten to say I have huge time for Mary Hanafin. Or rather I had until she joined the team of back-seat drivers with big heads and bigger mouths.

High time Hanafin & Co stopped being fodder for a bored media and let Micheal Martin do what he does best: talk to Middle Ireland.


Minister Humphreys in her speech also called on Southern Protestants to tell their hidden histories.

Last week RTE told one of them, the story of Arthur Shields, in the first episode of Ar Son Na Poblachta.

Shields was one of the few Protestants to take part in the Easter Rising on the rebel side, fought beside James Connolly in the GPO, and was slow to surrender.

Like my grandfather Pat Harris, he was sent to Frongoch prison camp in Wales. Where he got a reality check.

Although they paid lip service to secular republicanism, when it came to the nitty gritty his comrades returned to their Roman Catholic roots, said the rosary and took Holy Communion.

Arthur Shields was no Orangeman. But he did have a spine. So the night before the 12th he wrote home sardonically that he was "thinking of taking up a lunch pan, and beating it as a drum to lead a parade".

Shields found the Free State a cold house for Protestants, socialists and liberals. Later on, he did not hide his distaste for the pietism of De Valera.

Like many Protestants he felt compulsory Irish was just another cultural stick with which to beat Protestants - and of course it made it harder for Protestants to get jobs.

Shields, like other Protestants, had reservations about the new Catholic nationalist state. As Professor Adrian Frazier observed: "They were ready to Hibernicise the colony, but they could not in good faith join in the State-organised, Savanarolan effort to Catholicise it and Gaelicise it."

Finally, in September 1938 Shields told Yeats he was leaving Ireland for good, because to get on in the Free State Abbey "you had to say your prayers in Gaelic".

Like his brother, whose stage name was Barry Fitzgerald, Arthur went on to a brilliant Hollywood career - ironically they mostly played priests.

My only quibble was that the programme seemed to think that Shields' socialism defined him more than his Protestantism. But the reasons for his alienation from Irish society suggest the reverse.

But Ar Son na Poblachta gave me joy for other reasons. For one thing it was beautifully dramatised, acted and presented.

For another, Shields's grand-niece, Susan Slott, seems not to have aged a day since she starred in the Greening of America, which I wrote over 30 years ago.


Last Monday, the second episode of the engrossing Cuimhni on mBlascaod series dealt with sex, love and marriage.

Sean Pheats Team O Cearna eschewed euphemisms when telling us about Kruger Kavanagh's advice on how to handle the first night of his marriage.

Kruger told him to go into the chemist in Dingle, get a tin of Vaseline and use it liberally to spare his bride pain.

Sean told us this without putting a tooth in it. Literally so: like so many of the islanders he lacked dental care.

As Bernard Cronin, from Castlemaine, pointed out to me recently, idyllic as their lives seemed, the islanders lacked proper medical and dental care.

Bernard was Mairtin Tom Sheainin's guest on Comhra last week. Having spent his life as a Kerry creamery manager, he knew a lot more about life than most academic anthropologists.

Sunday Independent

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