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Friday 19 September 2014

Eoghan Harris: Fair play is the least I should expect for my licence fee

Published 19/06/2011 | 05:00

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Last Monday, my wife Gwen called out to where I sat at the computer: "What's Tom McGurk doing on Frontline talking about the presidential election?" To which I replied, "He's waiting to remind people that I called Mary McAleese a tribal time bomb."

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A few minutes later, Gwen gave a yelp. "Omigod, he just dragged it in by the hair of the head!" The playback shows it was by the hair on the ham, too. Hammily is how McGurk broke into Pat Kenny talking about Mary McAleese and Albert Reynolds to ask: "What was it that Eoghan Harris called her again?", followed by an equally hammy pause until Pat Kenny ritually responded: "A tribal time bomb."

And that was that. The man who shot Bambi's mother. No context. No reminder that my remark came in the heat of the 1997 presidential campaign, after newspaper reports of a Department of Foreign Affairs document depicting McAleese as sympathetic to Sinn Fein, after Gerry Adams had endorsed her candidacy, and while the IRA were still murdering and maiming.

Here is a small sample of their crimes. On February 12 of that year, Lance Bombardier Stephen Restorick was cruelly shot dead at a checkpoint while chatting to a woman. On April 1, the IRA burned two Protestant homes in Dungannon. On June 16, two RUC officers, on patrol in Lurgan, were shot in the back of the head.

Against that background I had every reason to respond to the events as recorded by Patsy McGarry in First Citizen: "(On) 12 October 1997, a report by

Emily O'Reilly in the Sunday Business Post claimed that Mary McAleese was sympathetic to Sinn Fein. It was based on an internal memo written by Department of Foreign Affairs First Secretary Dympna Hayes following meetings she had with Mary McAleese in January and May 1997, when the IRA was not on ceasefire.

"The memo said: 'She (Mary McAleese) was very pleased with Sinn Fein's performance in the general election and confident they will be able to perform better in the local elections: she expects Mick Murphy, the Sinn Fein candidate in Rostrevor, her own constituency, to pick up a seat this time.'"

Not a big deal now but it was at the time, and that was the context in which I called McAleese a tribal time bomb. Not having a crystal ball, I had to call it as I saw it at the time. But as McAleese began to build bridges to Northern Protestants, I responded warmly in my Sunday Times column of November 5, 2000:

"Last Thursday morning, I tuned into Marian Finucane and was captivated by the charm, character, and clear intellect of her guest, President Mary McAleese. Was she the same politician I predicted would turn out to be a tribal time bomb? Was I the same spin doctor who, three years ago, fashioned a soundbite so springy that it still comes back at me like a boomerang?

"The answer in my case, and I suspect in hers, is much the same. Neither of us are now what we were then. To say so is not to make an apology for my past opposition to McAleese's presidential ambitions. Reincarnated in some other sphere, and forced to repeat my past history without benefit of hindsight, I would have to do the same.

"Three years ago I opposed McAleese for two reasons: she seemed too comfortable with Sinn Fein and, more importantly, she seemed to claim victim status. My fear was that McAleese as president would import into the republic the sense of victimhood which corrodes northern nationalism, just as the sense of siege corrodes northern unionism. She has left behind the northern victim baggage. In doing so she has allayed my fears and aroused my admiration and even affection."

From then on, I remained a firm supporter of Mary McAleese. True, there were times I was tested. In 2005, on Morning Ireland, she seemed to compare Unionists to Nazis. Even a later admirer like David Ervine admitted that "the damage is massive and the questions are massive".

John Cooney wrote in the Western People: "If the President fails to offer an apology to the Jews, the Government should seek her resignation for an act of ..... crassness on a par with De Valera's mark of respect to Hitler." But I bit my lip and let it go because I believed in the President's personal capacity for change.

Pat Kenny knew all that history. He also knew McGurk and myself had often publicly crossed swords over northern nationalism. So unless Kenny was suffering from memory problems so bad as to make him unemployable, he must have known McGurk was likely to bring up the "tribal time bomb".

Accordingly, as a professional broadcaster, he should have ensured balance by either (a) asking me on the show to defend myself or (b) putting the tribal time-bomb remark in the context of the leaked document from Foreign Affairs.

I pay Pat Kenny €160 per annum towards his salary of €630,000. The least he might do in return for my licence fee is try to be fair. Last Monday, far from being fair, he despicably filled in a feed line from McGurk and then failed to follow up with the basic balance which is the duty of every broadcaster.

I pay Noel Curran €160 per annum towards his salary of €250,000. As director-general of RTE, he is also editor-in-chief. He has a duty of care to citizens who are smeared out of context. And if Curran does not ask Kenny about last Monday, he is not doing his job.

RTE News and Current Affairs does not have a good record in my regard. But I do not allow this to affect my admiration for good programmes. Three times in the past six weeks I have written whole columns in praise of RTE programmes: Sean O Mordha's Heartland, Miriam O'Callaghan's report on Moneygall, and Donagh Diamond's demolition of Gerry Adams.

I could not be petty about RTE programmes because of some perceived slight by Pat Kenny. I do not suffer from smallness of spirit. I genuinely believe that good broadcasting is best served by balance and fair play.

Pat Kenny could have killed two birds with one stone by asking me to take part. Apart from putting "tribal time bomb" in context, I had more to contribute than any other possible panellist, having worked for Mary Robinson and against Mary McAleese in two presidential campaigns.

Naturally I would have had to accept any bruises the audience wanted to hand out to me. But I would also have been able to offer the original insight I reached back in 2000 when making amends to Mary McAleese, and which is more acute than anything said on Frontline last Monday:

"Mary Robinson merely set out to transform the presidency. Mary McAleese has also set out to transform herself. And the insight she has given us into her own spiritual growth will leave a more indelible mark on the Irish imagination than the transient imprints of politics."

Sunday Independent

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