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Friday 22 August 2014

Eoghan Harris: Reconciliation requires more than cosmetic handshakes

Eoghan Harris

Published 01/07/2012 | 05:00

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DREW Nelson, Grand Secretary of the Orange Order, will address Seanad Eireann next Tuesday. As I listen, I will look back on my long relationship with the Order. Long enough to earn me the moral right to have reservations about that handshake.

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Fourteen years ago, I was invited to speak to the Ballynafeigh Lodge in Belfast. It had taken me years to win that trust. But to most of my colleagues, it merely emphasised my eccentric belief that the Orange Order was as Irish as the Gaelic Athletic Association -- which was still operating the ban.

Drumcree drowned out any chance of me getting a hearing. In Dublin, distinguished journalists were mocking Orangemen with "chamber pots on their heads". Racist jibes about Afrikaners filled the airwaves.

But to me, the 1998 Ballynafeigh invitation was a big breakthrough. Eleven years before, in 1987, I had failed to persuade RTE to reach out to the unionist and Orange tradition. My proposals for doing so, in a document called Television And Terrorism, were rejected.

Television And Terrorism had two aims. First, to alert broadcasters that the Republic's consensus against terrorism was a "leaky consensus". That meant that the Republic rejected IRA terrorism while it was going on, but got an attack of amnesia as soon as it stopped.

That being so, I predicted that Sinn Fein would run rings around RTE broadcasters if we lifted Section 31, which kept IRA propagandists off the air. Last week, a Labour parliamentary secretary, Noel V Walsh, told Newstalk that lifting Section 31 was the making of Sinn Fein. Let's hope that Labour TD Alex White, who led the RTE campaign for its abolition, was listening.

Today there is again a leaky consensus about remembering IRA atrocities. So while I am all for moving on, I am also all for putting up two firewalls: against airbrushing IRA atrocities away and against accepting Sinn Fein's sullen refusal to say that the armed struggle was wrong.

The second aim of Television And Terrorism was to persuade RTE to reach out to the unionist and Orange traditions. To that end, I attached an appendix titled 'A 20-point programming plan to explain Protestant fears and accelerate change in the southern consensus against terrorism on a sectarian basis'. A sample of three points shows that it was 20 years ahead of its time.

A programme explaining the progressive role of William of Orange in creating a Dutch Republic against the Spanish and their Inquisition, so as to place in context the historical Protestant fears of 'popery'. A series on Luther, Wesley and other great Protestant divines. A frank and funny examination of what Protestants and Catholics thought of each other growing up North and South and the myths and fantasies on both sides.

As a republican, I really believed that those in RTE who also claimed to be republicans would support a pluralist plan. Instead, they ignored the pluralist part of the document and denounced its support for Section 31. This began a process of alienation that ended with my enforced resignation from the station in 1989.

Luckily, I found a new forum in the Sunday Times. In 1993, I began writing a weekly column that continued until 2001. As the paper had a respectable unionist readership it was the ideal instrument to reach out to northern Protestants. And from the start, I consciously tried to stand in their shoes.

At first, this was simply an exercise in political empathy. I wanted to show northern Protestants that a southerner could see the world from their side. But first, I had to gain their trust.

Being attacked by advanced nationalists was the surest way to do that.

To get unionists to lower their guard and listen to what I had to say, I took up positions which were anathema to my tribe. Mind you, I had plenty of practice.

Chief among my controversial positions was to treat the Orange Order as a rational response to particular historical pressures. These ranged from the massacres of 1641, to the Spanish Inquisition, to the sectarian slaughter of first-born Protestant farmers in Fermanagh.

As I said, this started as an exercise in political empathy. But the more I saw the world through the eyes of northern Protestants, the more I admired their stoic courage. Finally, but most important of all, my admiration was followed by affection.

This matter of affection brings me back to that handshake. Contrary to what most of the media believe, the handshake had good and bad sides. If it was a genuine gesture of reconciliation by republicans, it must be respected.

But was it genuine? I do not believe so. Sinn Fein is currently conducting a campaign to reach out to unionists. But there are two reasons to regard this campaign as cosmetic.

First, as Davy Adams pointed out in The Irish Times last Thursday, certain party members are still behaving in a sectarian fashion. Last week, a Belfast employment tribunal found that Conor Murphy, a former Sinn Fein minister, had discriminated against Alan Lennon (who had applied for the post of chairman of Northern Ireland Water) because Lennon was a Protestant. Sinn Fein appear to have used the handshake to distract from its failure to condemn Murphy's actions.

Second, Sinn Fein has never said sorry for the suffering the IRA caused to northern Protestants. For example, it has never specifically expressed remorse for the sectarian murders of 200 Fermanagh Protestants, where eldest sons were targeted in a campaign that was close to ethnic cleansing.

Sinn Fein has no real empathy with northern Protestants. It makes goody-goody gestures because they advance Sinn Fein's agenda with an amnesiac southern middle class. But there is no real change of heart, no real empathy, no real affection for northern Protestants.

That is not to say such gestures have no significance. As Aristotle says, virtue is a habit. The habit of handshaking with an empty heart may free up following generations to make gestures with a good heart.

Meantime, as someone who was taking flak as a "neo-unionist" over 20 years ago, I am entitled to keep a beady eye on Sinn Fein. And to argue that the Seanad's invitation to Drew Nelson is far more sincere than Sinn Fein's publicity stunt with the Queen.

Any snob wants to meet the Queen. Only real republicans want to meet members of the Orange Order. All credit then to Senator Paddy Burke, cathaoirleach of the Seanad, and Senator Martin McAleese, who jointly came up with the daring notion of inviting Drew Nelson.

To this day, I still cherish my parting gifts from the Ballynafeigh Lodge: a pot of King William orange preserved marmalade; a baby bottle of Bushmills; a keyring with a cheerful little Orangeman with a bowler hat and black boots; and a lodge tie, with diagonal red and cream stripes.

The tie is tempting. But it doesn't go with my striped shirts. Like the leader of the Seanad, Senator Maurice Cummins, I will still be true blue next Tuesday.

Sunday Independent

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