Eoghan Harris

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Eoghan Harris: Etiquette is not an app that can be downloaded

Published 30/09/2012|05:00

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WHY am I not writing about the 100th anniversary of the Ulster Covenant? Because nothing turns off readers in the Republic like Northern Ireland. Likewise, Nordies care little about the doings of the Dail. Last week I felt the same.

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That's because I believe the main policy of the four major parties -- and RTE -- is to find "distractors" to divert public attention from the core problem of Irish politics: how to cut the huge public sector pay and pensions bill. That heavy health pay bill is the principal cause of the continuing crisis in the health service. And it resulted, however indirectly, in Roisin Shortall's resignation.

The media also like minor distractions. Like the Taoiseach playing with his phone while the Pope was speaking to statesmen. (Benedict is more beady-eyed than you might believe so I bet he fantasised about calling out the Swiss Guard to eject the egregious Enda Kenny at the point of a pike.)

All four Dail parties are afraid of the paper tiger of the public sector. So they rushed to pretend the pay problem in health was really just a personality problem. RTE backed them up because it too is part of the public sector pay problem.

RTE was also thrilled by the promotion of its favourite politician: former radio producer, Alex White. David McCullough described White as "a safe pair of hands". But the speed with which he stepped into Shortall's shoes, while they were still warm, argues he should be called a safe pair of feet.

Roisin Shortall's resignation, however principled, helped the Government to bury all the bad news: the allowances scandal, Colm Keavney's hiring habits, and, above all, the bad news that Germany would not help out with our bank debt. But it could not bury the Taoiseach's blustering behaviour.

More and more Enda Kenny looks like the Bill Murray character in Lost in Translation or, as my wife calls it, Lost in Procrastination. Last week I told Newstalk's Sean Moncrieff I loathed that film because it features two characters who commit mental adultery, but are too cowardly to run the risks of a real adult relationship.

Likewise Enda Kenny, despite his massive majority, will not risk reining in the public sector. He does not behave like a Taoiseach by leading his troops in the field. He behaves like a President by flying high above their heads, waving at crowds, playing with his phone, and generally behaving like what my father would call a "gillick", a gormless person.

Just when I thought Kenny could not get worse, he jibed at Gerry Adams about Dolours Price's allegations. Now if the Taoiseach needed a stick to beat Adams he should not have borrowed it from Dolours Price. Because her politics, judging by her interviews, are not far removed from those of the Real IRA.

Admittedly, Adams has questions to answer. He is morally responsible for many of the dark deeds done during the Provo campaign. But his advisers should have told the Taoiseach not to trust allegations by Dolours Price -- who detests the peace process -- against Gerry Adams, one of the architects of the peace process.

True, some of my friends refuse to discriminate between Adams and Price. They recall Dr Johnson's rejoinder to Boswell, dismissing any difference between two poets he disliked. "Sir there is no settling the point of precedency between a louse and a flea."

But moral life comes down to discriminations: the difference between shooting an unarmed policeman (as the 1916 men did), shooting at armed Auxiliaries, and abducting, torturing and murdering a mother of 10 children.

Dolours Price admits she took part in the abduction of Jean McConville. Even if we believed her allegation -- that Adams ordered the operation -- she is still responsible for her own repulsive actions. She says she volunteered for such tasks; so she cannot claim she was only obeying orders.

But there are deeper moral distinctions between Adams and Price. Adams did dark things. But he also made some amends. He belatedly accepted the Provo IRA could not intimidate a million Irish Protestants into an Irish Republic. And he called off armed actions.

Dolours Price, by her own account, also did bad things. But, unlike Adams, she rejects reality, shows no remorse for her role in Jean McConville's death, rejects any talk of peace, and wants to continue the armed struggle.

So who are we to believe, Adams or Price? My own answer is dialectical. I believe neither of them completely. Both of them are delusional, but in very different degrees.

Gerry Adams gave up his major delusion about uniting Ireland by force --although he still suffers from minor delusions, like believing he can debate economics. But Price still suffers from a major apocalyptic delusion that could cause destruction and death.

That is why the Taoiseach should not have taunted Adams with Price's accusations. He did not need Price to make a moral point. He should have challenged Adams about Jean McConville long ago. He dodged doing so during the Presidential election.

Kenny also showed poor judgement by jibing at Adams during a row about Minister Reilly. It showed the same lack of seriousness and sensitivity to context he displayed during the Papal speech. Good behaviour is not an app he can download.

Fine Gael's funking, Labour's greed for gravy, and Fianna Fail's floddling gives Sinn Fein a golden chance to make ground. And yes, this is my second week being nearly positive about that party. But no need to panic.

My position on Sinn Fein can be summed up in two words: "watchful waiting". Significantly the phrase comes from the treatment of cancer. Prostate cancer is sometimes just monitored by regular blood tests, PSA tests, to make sure the cancer has not become aggressive.

There is nothing speculative about these tests: the PSA is either in the safe zone or not. The same goes for Sinn Fein. I am not interested in metaphysical speculations about that party's possibly sinister motives. Unlike its media supporters, I will judge it not by what it says, but by what it does. Watchful waiting.

Let me finish with a word on the Ulster Covenant. Back in the Eighties, when trying to understand Unionists, I bought a ceremonial sword

cheaply at a Dublin auction. The inscription on the hilt said: "Presented to Company Commander Charles E Murphy, by the UVF, Cootehill on the occasion of his marriage, 7th April, 1915."

The Ulster Covenant contributed to the cycle of violence that resulted in the Easter Rising, War of Independence and Civil War. At the end of it, Britain had sold out Southern unionists like Charles Murphy, and the Free State had sold out Northern nationalists.

That hard history is the subject of Jude Collins's recently published, Whose Past is it Anyway? The Ulster Covenant, the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme. The book contains interviews with some 20 people, as diverse as Enda Kenny, Danny Morrison, Tim Pat Coogan, Nuala O'Loan, Roddy Doyle and myself.

In the background to the book is a big question. Was it worth it? My own answer is no. But we can still rescue a lot from the ruins.

Sunday Independent

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