Eoghan Harris: Northern Ireland by any other name simply stinks
Published 01/08/2010 | 05:00
Eamon Ryan is an excellent minister. He is also a modern Irishman. So as the minister responsible for RTE, he should require RTE News to stop calling Northern Ireland "the North of Ireland" or, worse still, "the North".
Calling somebody by their correct name is a sign of social respect. Conversely, calling somebody by a name they find offensive is the sign of a social lout and likely to cause trouble. The same applies to states and peoples.
Northern Ireland is the name of the other state on this island. Terms like "the North" (sometimes "d'North") "or the "North of Ireland" are gormless gibberish. There is no such political entity as the "North of Ireland", just as there is no political entity called the "east of Ireland" or "west of Ireland".
Not calling Northern Ireland by its correct name is offensive to the unionist tradition. That was also the view of the Northern employment tribunal, which last week threw out a claim by Jerome Quinn, a former presenter of Gaelic games, that he was the victim of sectarian bias after BBC Northern Ireland had sacked him.
According to reports in the Irish Independent and Irish Times respectively, Quinn was dismissed "for gross misconduct after posting anonymous criticism of the station's coverage on websites". He counter-claimed that his dismissal was caused by "Protestant and British prejudice".
Last week, the tribunal, chaired by Orla Murray , found that Quinn's claim was "disingenuous, misleading and evasive". It rejected his allegations that BBC sports editor Shane Glynn ("a protestant with a mixed-religious background from County Cork.") had a bias against Gaelic games -- possibly because coverage of GAA had actually gone up on Glynn's watch while soccer and rugby had gone down.
Apart from being amazed that BBC Northern Ireland finally found the bottle to take a stand against such tribalist time-wasting, I was struck by Quinn's response when questioned about his use of the expression "the North" to refer to the Northern Ireland soccer team.
He said he "had no idea this could offend a section of the community."
Sean Lemass took names seriously. In his book, Judging Lemass, Professor Tom Garvin tells us: "Lemass was quick to abandon the term 'six-county area' as a pejorative title for Northern Ireland, although he tried to avoid the entire sterile quarrel over recognition and nomenclature by a pragmatic acceptance of the facts of Ireland's constitutional condition of division."
Garvin shows the importance of Lemass's good example.
"The term 'Northern Ireland' gradually became official parlance. It is difficult, a generation on, to communicate how great a step this apparently symbolic gesture was in the early 1960s." But Lemass's line was not welcomed by all within Fianna Fail.
"Long before the famous visit of January 1965, Lemass was making conciliatory noises towards the North, both in public and in private. This grated on the nerves of some of the older men and it annoyed some of the younger people on the hard-line republican wing of the Fianna Fail party as well."
Unionists could easily conclude that RTE News shares the same views as the rednecks of Fianna Fail in the Fifties. Accordingly, Ryan should require the RTE Authority to require the head of news, Ed Mulhall -- reportedly a contender for the position of Director General -- to change RTE news practice, and call Northern Ireland by its proper name.
By rooting out old tribal thinking, Ryan will also discharge a debt to his late father-in- law, Jack White, who was assistant controller of programmes in RTE in my time. Jack was a brilliant broadcaster who pioneered modern current-affairs television coverage, with programmes like Division and 7 Days.
But Jack was also a Cork Protestant. According to Professor Robert Savage in his new book, A Loss of Innocence, Television and Irish Society, 1960-72, this was enough to put him on a secret hit lists of liberals drawn up by members of the Catholic laity in RTE. One such report to Archbishop John Charles McQuaid in 1962 described White as "a non-Catholic and one of the leading liberals here".
Savage says the hit list was discussed by an "agitated" McQuaid at a general meeting of the hierarchy in October 1962 and was then taken up with the Taoiseach.
Lemass did not like this kind of thing, but kicked for touch by asking Padraig O'Hanrahan, director of the Government Information Bureau, to look into it.
Lemass received what Savage calls "a vicious report from O'Hanrahan, denouncing White as a person "having no national outlook in the broadest sense of the word and has no loyalties and would think of Ireland as a place where those, like himself, who are 'liberal' in outlook, must suffer as best they may."
This was a travesty of the truth. Jack White was my boss. Like me, he was a Corkman who loved Ireland but was besotted by his native county. One of his favourite programmes was a film I made on the Fair Hill Harriers. Judging by her recent vivacious outing with Miriam O'Callaghan, his daughter Victoria, Eamon Ryan's wife, is cut from the same patriotic cloth.
Now I am continually told that these tribal times are in the past. Maybe, but some of the bad echoes still reverberate in RTE News's reductionist use of asinine alternatives to the term 'Northern Ireland.' It is time the national broadcaster became a republican broadcaster.
* * *
Bad news for those of you who may have been looking forward to my sitting in Vincent Browne's seat on TV3's Nightly News. I am not available. In spite of the delicacy of the jungle juice which I imbibe at three-monthly intervals in St Vincent's Hospital, I don't feel sharp enough right now to cope with more than 20 guests over four nights.
Luckily, there is no shortage of talented substitutes. Although neither Sarah Carey nor Kevin Myers had ever presented a current-affairs show before, they both gave us absorbing and largely fluff-free television over the past few weeks. And Myers will not mind if I say that Carey strikes me as a natural broadcaster.
Meantime, I must dodder around with the dogs. Mind you that won't stop me from doddering onto the Killarney train to catch the
Ceolteoiri Eireann concert, Celebrating O Riada, conductor Peadar O Riada and singer Sean O Se at the Malton Hotel tonight -- and yes, do check for last-minute tickets.
O Riada's legacy included having a good laugh and lifting the spirit of the Irish people. So I am looking forward to the lusty last song of the night.
After all the man who does not want to leap into action after listening to Sean O Se singing Mo Ghile Mear is a man who is ready to take up golf.