Sunday 25 September 2016

Let's do the decent thing, first time, and say Yes to love

Published 17/05/2015 | 02:30

Illustration by Jim Cogan
Illustration by Jim Cogan

Most Irish people love politics. Or at least an election, even when they don't vote. But they have some peculiar priorities.

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As the referendum campaign picked up speed, we took notice of Cameron's comprehensive victory across the water. But few people could tell you anything about the results from Northern Ireland just up the road.

Leaving out lowering the age of presidential candidates (I am for it) let's look at the referendum, the results in Northern Ireland and the Carlow-Kilkenny by-election.

* * * * *

Last week, I was worried lest the Yes campaign lose from a combination of arrogance and abstraction. But now, I believe the referendum will be carried by a comfortable margin for three reasons.

First, while some of the Yes ideologues continue to irritate Irish people with PC lectures, the gynaecological fixation of some of the No campaigners on women's wombs is far more creepy.

Second, as I advocated a few weeks ago on Newstalk, the Yes campaign has stopped advancing abstract arguments and shown us actual loving couples like Eamon Farrell and Steven Mannion, whom we saw on the Claire Byrne show.

The Yes campaign has also belatedly realised the power of personal testimony. Twenty years ago, Patricia Redlich told me "when we publicly speak for ourselves, nobody can contradict us".

Diarmaid Ferriter has correctly identified personal testimony as the most cogent tool of the Yes campaign. In particular, I am convinced that Pat Carey, Tom Curran, Justin McAleese and Ursula Halligan have made a huge impact.

But finally, I believe the referendum will be carried by what I call a reflex of decency. The same reflex that led to us amending Articles 2 and 3 - which helped persuade unionists to embrace the peace process.

When we gave into fear and failed to follow that reflex of decency in the Divorce Referendum of June 1986, we soon regretted our repressive reaction.

Sean Mac Mathuna's story, Prisoner of the Republic, sums up that shameful time better than any history.

I still recall the scene in the Pearl Bar. Men and women, trapped in loveless marriages, sitting in silence with slumped shoulders.

Like the Ancient Mariner killing the albatross, we knew we had done a hellish thing and it would wreak us woe. So we later changed our minds and felt a lot better.

Let's not go back to that bitter-mouthed Ireland. Let's do the decent thing first time out. Let's say Yes to the future.

* * * * *

The NI results seemed to pass below the radar of pundits in the Irish Republic. So you may not know that Sinn Fein suffered a serious setback in their prediction that their green tide was sweeping over the whole island of Ireland.

Southern media just about mentioned that Alasdair McDonnell of the SDLP beat the well-funded campaign of Sinn Fein's Mairtin O Muilleoir.

An Phoblacht had proclaimed that Sinn Fein's main focus in the election was to hold Fermanagh-South Tyrone against the UUP's Tom Elliot.

But Elliott will now be exposing the Provos' effort at ethnic cleansing by murdering eldest sons of small Protestant farmers - directly to Westminster.

He will be ably supported by Danny Kinahan, a liberal UUP member, who gives the lie to the republican Trot stereotype that all unionists are nasty bigots.

Sinn Fein's electoral failure was further eroded by a squalid episode. Gerry Kelly, Sinn Fein's runner in north Belfast, sent out leaflets stating that Catholics were at 46.9pc and Protestants at 45.6pc, a constituency breakdown on tribal lines.

Significantly, it did him no good. But at least it led to something seldom seen in Sinn Fein - an act of good authority.

Sean Fearon, former chairman of Sinn Fein at Queen's University Belfast, denounced the leaflet as "an absolute disgrace and the very antithesis of what republicanism represents".

Given the spurious appeal of Sinn Fein to the suffering working poor, you might have expected Government politicians to point out the Sinn Fein setbacks. But no.

Senator Jim D'Arcy was the sole exception. Last week, in the Seanad, he lashed into Sinn Fein about the Kelly leaflet, wrapping Wolfe Tone round their hapless heads.

"Is this what it means to be an Irish republican?" he demanded to know. "What about the ideals of Wolfe Tone with regard to the unity of Catholic, Protestant and dissenter, or the ideals of the Proclamation, cherishing all the children of the nation equally?"

Minister Charles Flanagan should take his cue from Senator Darcy in dealing with the Sinn Fein's most recent ploy: to use Tory criticisms of the European Court of Human Rights as a cover for reviving the pan-nationalist alliance.

As it struggles to absorb the shock of Fermanagh-South Tyrone, Sinn Fein would love to work up the dopier deputies in the Dail to the alleged danger David Cameron poses to the Human Rights Act in Northern Ireland.

Flanagan should firmly calm down the DFA mandarins - whose hand-wringing only benefits Sinn Fein - for two reasons.

First, Cameron has every right to be concerned about the abuse of the Human Rights Act as seen in the constant release of rapists, murderers and jihadi terrorists.

Second, Cameron is really seeking reform, not abolition of the Human Rights Act as he has no hope of getting the latter through.

Finally, apropos the referendum, Minister Flanagan might also remind the mandarins of the reactionary record of the late Justice Brian Walsh who served on the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg from 1981 to 1996.

During that time, Walsh ruled against both Jeff Dudgeon and David Norris, who had sought reform of laws criminalising homosexual acts. He had an equally poor record on IRA extradition. Bad politics is a seamless robe.

* * * * *

Lastly, the Carlow Kilkenny by-election. A long way from the leadership race between Cameron and Milliband. But even here, it helps to look lively.

Alas the favourite, Bobby Aylward of Fianna Fail, is only marginally more inspiring than David Fitzgerald of Fine Gael, who appears to lean on old loyalties rather than political charisma.

Patrick McKee of Renua has plenty of the latter. Although some way down the field, he strikes me as a politician with potential. Energy of his sort is easy on the eye.

Below the chief contenders, an interesting conflict is developing between the reformers of Renua and the populists of Sinn Fein.

The result of this mini-contest will tell us a lot about the next general election. About who is best poised to harvest the rising tide of discontent among the working poor.

And it might also tell us whether, as in the UK, there is an aspirational class of working poor which is looking for a national conservative leader with charisma. Guess who?

Sunday Independent

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