News Eoghan Harris

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Muslims and Jews are also heroes of the Great Famine

Published 06/04/2014 | 02:30

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Last Tuesday, a Labour friend (I have a few) texted me to ask whether I thought there was any anti-semitism behind the criticisms of Alan Shatter. Who can say? But although I am one of Alan Shatter's strongest critics, I have been watching out for anti-Jewish bigots since the beginning of the controversy.

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That's because I am what Hitler would call a Jew-lover. While I cannot claim that some of my best friends are Jews, I do claim that all of my best friends are defenders of the state of Israel. Like me. Google my name and "Jews" and "Israel" and you will see the stick I get for putting the boot into Israel's enemies.

Mind you I get stick for putting the boot into the IRA too. In the past, mock coffins have been leaned against my front door, pickets placed on my house, and posters on political websites demanded I be done to death. Defending Israel or Irish democracy is sometimes not for political sissies.

However, I was sickened by the vile visitation to Shatter's home. I believe most Irish people were sickened too. But I also believe that giving bigots big publicity feeds their fascist fantasies. Better ignore them and carry on political business as usual.

But that brings me to a core problem. How can you constantly criticise a Jewish minister without raising legitimate fears of latent anti-semitism? Conversely, how can you let a Jewish minister down too lightly in a crisis, without feeding fascist fantasies about Jews controlling the media?

My answer is that you must have clean hands on Israel before you beat up on a lone Jewish politician. Some of Shatter's critics do not have clean hands in this regard. And even some Labour Party backbenchers, who voted confidence in Shatter, could do with a good hand-wash as well.

But I think my hands are clean enough to criticise Minister Shatter without being accused of having a hidden agenda. He was one of three Dublin Jews elected to Dail Eireann in 1981. From the start I liked and admired both Ben Briscoe of Fianna Fail and Mervyn Taylor of Labour, true Dubs with no airs.

But I did not develop the same warm feelings for Alan Shatter of Fine Gael. This had nothing to do with him being a Jew, or a member of Fine Gael, or even a legal eagle. Put it down to class prejudice on my part, but I bristled at his arrogant South County Dublin aura, and sense of entitlement he exuded, just like Roman Catholics of the same class.

On the plus side, I always admired his raw courage. So I was both surprised and appalled when he adopted victim status from the first day of the Dail debates, claiming that his critics were "personalising" the discussion.

Whatever about the strident contributions of some "socialists", the contributions of Fianna Fail speakers like Micheal Martin, Billy Kelleher and Michael McGrath were restrained and rational. The heckling came from the government side.

Even the normally abrasive Niall Collins was nowhere near as cutting as John O'Donoghue when criticising Nora Owen. I suspect that Shatter's supporters arrived expecting a faction fight and were frustrated when speakers like Timmy Dooley stuck to a forensic pursuit of the facts. The polls show the success of Fianna Fail's decision to accept the knockout blow provided it could first inflict deep wounds on the Coalition.

Paradoxically, in spite of my political antipathy to Shatter, I was pleased that he survived after he got the loathsome letter. The Jew-loving part of me again. But why doesn't the Taoiseach keep him out of trouble by setting him a task which requires ruthless and reckless courage, like real reform of the public sector?

* * *

Let me turn from Alan Shatter's preoccupation with his own political survival to the selfless work of Jews during the Great Irish Famine. Last week, Jimmy Deenihan, Minister for the Arts, designated those foreigners who helped feed us as Famine Heroes. They ranged from Sephardic Jews in New York to the Sultan of Turkey.

Lionel de Rothschild, the famous Jewish banker, set up the British Relief Association, the biggest and best organisation at sending food at speed to Ireland. Within a few months Rothschild had raised £400,000, a huge sum of money, equivalent to nearly £40m today.

Rothschild also reached deeper into his own pockets than almost all the Anglo-Irish landlords put together. In 1850, a Dublin newspaper remarked that during the recent famine Baron Lionel de Rothschild

and his family had contributed "a sum far beyond the joint contributions of the Devonshires, and Herefords, Lansdownes, Fitzwilliams and Herberts, who annually drew so many times that amount from their Irish estates".

As a result of Rothschild's efficiency, the paddle-schooner, HMS Scourge, was swiftly dispatched to West Cork and landed 96 tons of food for starving Catholics and Protestants at Schull in February 1847. If I were making a movie of the Scourge's life-saving landfall, both Jewish and Muslim banners would fly from its mastheads. Even if not historically true, it is morally true.

Ironically, West Cork, one of the worst areas in the Great Famine, featured in a scene of the Shatter saga. Helen Collins, great grand-niece of Michael Collins, and a famous family law expert, is based in Skibbereen. On March 12, Minister Shatter launched Helen's lucid book A Short Guide to Divorce Law in Ireland. That launch was cited last week in the official list of reasons for Shatter's failure to read the Callinan letter.

British Jews were fast with famine relief in 1847. But Daniel O'Connell had prepaid our political debt the year before by securing repeal of the archaic British law "De Judaismo", which prescribed a special dress for British Jews. Addressing them he said: "Ireland has claims on your ancient race: it is the only country that I know of unsullied by any one act of persecution of the Jews."

But O'Connell's clean sheet was only because the Jewish community of 200 souls was too small to attract attention. As a result of the Russian pogroms, however, Jewish immigration into Ireland increased towards the end of the 19th Century. By 1901 there were nearly 5,000 Jews in Ireland. But there were still only 120 Jews in Limerick when, in 1904, Fr John Creagh of the Redemptorist Order, incited Roman Catholic mobs to boycott and burn Jewish shops.

As a partisan member of Fine Gael, Shatter should note that Arthur Griffith, a Fine Gael icon, supported the Limerick boycott in his weekly paper United Irishman.

He should also note that Joe Briscoe – son of Robert Briscoe, the famous Old IRA activist and Fianna Fail TD – rejected victim status. Briscoe described the Limerick episode as "an aberration in an otherwise almost perfect history of Ireland and its treatment of the Jews".

Readers may wonder why I do not also ask Alan Shatter to note the infamous speech of Fine Gael's Oliver J Flanagan TD, during the Second World War when he advocated "routing the Jews out of the country"? Well mostly because my old friend, Fergal McCabe, who discussed the speech with Flanagan in later years, tells me the old politician bitterly regretted his remarks. Rather than make a cosmetic apology, he stoically felt the shame should follow him to the grave.

Let me finish with a suggestion to the Taoiseach that would satisfy Paddy's passion for historical irony. Why not move Minister Shatter sideways, and give the Justice portfolio to Oliver J Flanagan's son, a sensible country solicitor, a social liberal, and Shatter's strongest defender these past months: Charles Flanagan?

Sunday Independent

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