Wednesday 22 October 2014

Eyeless in Gaza, but an Eagle Eye in Skibbereen

Published 20/07/2014 | 00:00

Illustration: Jim Cogan

Field's coffee shop in Skibbereen functions like the crossroads of former days. People freely accost me to argue about anything from Gaza, to ambushes of the War of Independence, to the recent Cabinet reshuffle. But Rachel Field did not abuse her position by challenging my pro-Israeli views in her family's coffee shop.

She got me at my gate in Baltimore instead. And her well-researched indictment of Israel's retaliations, pointed up by the presence of her two handsome kids, had me hard-pressed for an adequate answer. Because there is no arguing about the disproportionate deaths of Palestinian children.

But I doubt people would switch sympathies if Hamas rockets kill a larger number of Israeli children - as will eventually happen when Iran supplies more sophisticated missiles. That's because ideological convictions, including my own, are almost impossible to alter. Thirty years of polemics about the pros and cons of the Provisional IRA's campaign taught me that.

In that time I never met anyone who changed their mind because they were convinced by the arguments of another. People do change, but they do so in their own time, and only after a long moral marinade. And it takes a major atrocity to make them publicly acknowledge they have privately changed.

The Kingsmills massacre and the Warrington and Canary Wharf bombs played a major part in altering the Republic's ambivalence about the Provisional IRA's campaign. Atrocities, not arguments, caused the change. After that it took the peace marches to allow people to publicly acknowledge the changes they had made in private.

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This brings me to Joan Burton's reshuffle. Among the many reasons I admire Burton was the prominent part she and her family played in the famous peace marches. Before that we had worked well together on the Mary Robinson campaign in 1990.

It was Burton who solved one of my major problems as a media advisor. This was how to reach working class males. According to the polls, they saw Robinson as a remote figure lacking the common touch.

Burton knew this was not the real Robinson. She suggested I bring Robinson and a camera crew to the Inchicore ironworks where her father Johnny worked. The resulting party political broadcast, showing Robinson smiling through the sparks of the flaming foundry and bantering with sweaty male workers, put an end to that particular male prejudice.

Pluralism runs in the Burton family. Paul Burton, Joan's brother, led the massive marches of the Stop campaign after the Provisional IRA broke their ceasefire in 1996 with the Canary Wharf bomb. He also caused a special trophy to be cast in the Inchicore Works for the winners of a pioneering Gaelic football game between the PSNI and an Oireachtas team.

Despite the best efforts of Enda Kenny and Jimmy Deenihan, the Northern peelers roundly beat the politicians. The PSNI team was captained by Peadar Heffron, a fluent Irish speaker. Tragically, he was later badly maimed by a bomb planted under his car by the dissident IRA.

Given that background, I was baffled by Burton's appointment of Alex White as Minister for Communications. This poses potential problems at two levels. First, at a time when the print media is struggling to survive against commercial competitors like RTE, it seems partisan to appoint as communications minister an ex-RTE radio producer, many of whose former colleagues have risen to senior RTE positions.

Second, neither in RTE nor in the Seanad, can I recall White ever making an attack on Sinn Fein. Rather the reverse. During the recent Labour leadership campaign he said he was willing to do a coalition deal with that party, and he had earlier done a deal with Sinn Fein to secure his seat in the Seanad in 2007.

Back in the 1980s, White was also a leading light in the campaign to abolish Section 31. This is retrospectively presented as a campaign about press freedom fought against supporters of the Workers' Party in RTE. But that narrative is nonsense.

Those of us in RTE who supported Section 31 did so 10 years before any talk of peace, when the Provos just wanted an RTE platform to preach war. And we did so against the policy of the Workers' Party, which opposed Section 31. No wonder White and the Student Princes got on so well later in the Labour Party.

Nothing in White's political past suggests he will stand up to either Sinn Fein or RTE. Burton has made a bad appointment. So bad that I can sincerely say, bring back Pat Rabbitte.

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For the past week I have been riveted by Jamie Moynihan's Memoirs of an Old Warrior, excellently edited by Donal O hEalaithe and published by Mercier. Although I am critical of many aspects of the Old IRA's campaign, I would not be human if I was not moved by the heroism of young men like Moynihan, because this Cuchulainn of Cuil Aodha took part in almost every one of the many skirmishes in the Muskerry area.

But the ambush at Cuil na Cathrach, 10 kilometres west of Macroom, in February 1921, was no skirmish but a major action. Some 253 IRA volunteers took on a force of nearly 400 Auxiliaries, inflicting 28 casualties with no loss of life on their side. A stirring story, all the stronger for the soldierly tribute which Moynihan pays to the courageous Auxiliary commander who led his men from the front until shot dead,

"Major General Seafield Grant, commander in chief of the Auxiliary forces in Cuil na Cathrach that morning, was a leader of fearless courage. He measured up to the bravest traditions that England could claim for any of its officers. Bullets tore the road around him and bounced off the rocks on that winter's morning, yet he stood calmly surveying the situation and the position while his men dived for cover or died where they fell on the road.

I must admit it was the only time in the heat of battle in the War of Independence that I was distracted from the job in hand, for a few seconds, as I stared across the road where he stood defiant in the face of the instant death that threatened and surrounded him… a few moments later Major Seafiel Grant fell dead, riddled with bullets.

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Some of the same patriotic and pluralist spirit can be found in the programme for the Skibbereen Arts Festival in West Cork. Brendan and Declan McCarthy have produced a programme that is popular without being populist.

My three highlights are Jim Kennedy's Starlight Serenade on Lough Ine, the Fastnet Rock trip and the annual Canon Goodman Concert in memory of the famous 19th Century Irish-speaking Church of Ireland clergyman, collector and uilleann piper.

A few years ago I heard Micheal O Muircheartaigh give an erudite speech, clearly the result of many hours of research, before unveiling a fine memorial to Canon Goodman which can be found under the arch of Abbeystrewry Church in Skibbereen.

Last week, I was talking to the chairman of the committee at the time about O Muircheartaigh's superb speech. But he shook his head when I remarked that the committee had got good value for money that day.

"Didn't charge a penny. He just asked for a bed for the night." Greedy RTE grandees should hang their heads in shame.

Sunday Independent

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