News Eoghan Harris

Saturday 30 August 2014

The State visit to Britain gave a big boost to Sinn Fein

Eoghan Harris

Published 13/04/2014 | 02:30

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Queen Elizabeth II greets Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness (left), First Minister Peter Robinson (2nd left) and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers (3rd left) as Irish President Michael D Higgins looks on (right) during a Northern Ireland-themed reception at Windsor Castle, during the first State visit to the UK by an Irish President. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday April 10, 2014. See PA story ROYAL Ireland. Photo credit should read: Luke MacGregor/PA Wire
Queen Elizabeth II greets Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness (left), First Minister Peter Robinson (2nd left) and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers (3rd left) as Irish President Michael D Higgins looks on (right) during a Northern Ireland-themed reception at Windsor Castle, during the first State visit to the UK by an Irish President. Luke MacGregor/PA Wire

PRESIDENT Higgins performed his public duties to perfection. His speeches were superbly structured and spoken – although he might have reminded Queen Elizabeth that her ancestor, Elizabeth the First, published the first prayer book in Gaelic, to instruct the Irish in the Protestant faith.

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Sabina Higgins was superb too. To adapt Kipling, she walked with queens without losing the common touch. Dignified but also down-to-earth, she wore Irish designs as elegantly as if she had spent her earlier life on the catwalk.

But as the week went on I began to feel bewildered, manipulated and finally angered by the complicity of politicians, mandarins and media in promoting an amnesia about the past, present and future agenda of Sinn Fein, the chief beneficiary of the state visit.

Let me start with bewildered. Many in the Irish media carried on as if we had just ended a long war with Britain. Actually only a minority of IRA terrorists were at war. And we have no problem being nice to the British. Our problem is being nice to Northern Unionists.

But I also felt manipulated. Mostly by the British and Irish backroom teams who shamelessly issued the invititation to Martin McGuinness; and by how satisfied Sinn Fein must have been that the resultant coverage fed their blatant, voracious and successful desire for media attention coming up to the European and local government elections.

Last Wednesday the Irish Times reported that at the banquet in Windsor Castle "Enda Kenny and British Prime Minister David Cameron were seen in extended jocular conversation with Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness".

Extended jocular conversation. Whatever about Cameron, who just wants the problem off his plate, how could Kenny carry on an "extended jocular conversation" with the predatory figure of Martin McGuinness, dressed up like Little Lord Fauntleroy, not a spot on his white gloves, as if he had nothing to do with the 2,000 killed by the IRA?

Not only that, McGuinness will leverage that image in the local and European elections. Floating voters may take that jocular conversation as a sign it is safe to vote for Sinn Fein. Coalition councillors may not see the joke.

According to David McKittrick's Lost Lives, the Provos killed 84 children. I could weakly write "were responsible for the deaths of 84 children". But plain words might prick the conscience of a rising generation which will regard "extended jocular conversation" with McGuinness as permission to give Sinn Fein first preferences at the European, local government and General Elections.

By the end of the visit I began to feel anger too. President Higgins repeatedly referred to the need for "honesty" in history and announced there would be "no attempt on either side to affect some kind of forced amnesia". However, amnesia marked his final address in Coventry when he referred to the Luftwaffe bombing of the city – but left out an earlier IRA bombing.

But if there is to be no "forced amnesia", why did the President not mention the IRA bombing of Coventry in August 1939, a few weeks before Britain went to war with Germany, which killed five people? Given the Queen's acknowledgment of some discrimination suffered by the Irish community, the President should have balanced that by paying tribute to the British people who behaved with restraint during the IRA's bombing campaigns in Britain from 1939-1995.

At the risk of annoying those who think amnesia should apply to one side only, here is what happened in Coventry. At 2.30 on the afternoon of August 25, 1939, an IRA bomb exploded in the carrier basket of a bicycle which had been left outside a shop in Broadgate. Among the five people killed was Elsie Arnot, 21, who was engaged to be married and was buried in her wedding dress.

As a left-wing politician, the President might also have pointed out the links between the Coventry bombing, the IRA and Nazi Germany. Sean Russell, who became chief of staff of the IRA, believed a bombing campaign in Britain would help in forging links with Nazi Germany.

David Donoghue, in his chilling book, The Devil's Deal: The IRA, Nazi Germany and the Double Life of Jim O'Donovan recounts how Russell recruited top IRA bomb-maker Jim O'Donovan to do the dirty work. From his comfortable position as manager at the head office of the ESB in Dublin, O'Donovan watched his devices spread death and destruction across British cities in 1939.

After meeting O'Donovan in Hamburg, the Abwehr arranged to write to him in code at his fine house, Florenceville, in Shankill, set in 1.5 acres of gardens – proof that then, as now, senior ESB managers were well paid. To the end of his well-pensioned life, O'Donovan remained without remorse about his callous bombing campaign.

He also had no regrets about the prospect of Ireland becoming a puppet state of Nazi Germany, which would have meant the murder of our tiny Jewish community. He said that Nazi Germany "would have been very generous indeed" and that Ireland would "at last become a place worth living in".

But while I believe the President failed to follow his own advice about "forced amnesia" in Coventry, it would be churlish of me not to mention a small but significant act of Presidential good authority. I refer to his remark that he would support England in the World Cup.

Those of us who keep a beady eye on political websites can already see the positive and pluralist effects of the President's remarks on young football followers. The Provo posters who infect these sites are already on the back foot. It helps that President Higgins is respected as a real football fan.

Last year he enhanced his high standing with fans by his humble behaviour at the funeral of Eamon (Chick) Deacy, a former Galway United and Aston Villa player, who died suddenly. Big crowds turned out for the removal and there were long queues to view the coffin.

President Higgins could, without complaint, have availed of his status to avoid the queue. Instead, he quietly took up his place at the end. This gesture was deeply appreciated by Galway soccer fans. They will heed his World Cup remarks.

A final word. Given the leading role played by the Irish Guards in the Presidential visit, it was a pity that no mandarin prompted the President to mention the late Lance Corporal Ian Malone of the Irish Guards, who died in an ambush on the streets of Basra in April 2003, beside his best friend Christopher Muzvuru, from Zimbabwe, the first black piper in the that famous Irish regiment.

The funeral that followed marked another milestone in the road to the Royal and Presidential visits. Lance Corporal Malone's body was brought home to Ballyfermot. Comrades from the Irish Guards in full uniform carried his coffin through the streets – the first time British soldiers have been seen in uniform on the streets of Dublin since 1922. As the cortege passed by, members of the Garda Siochana saluted.

Lance-Corporal Malone's gravestone in Palmerstown cemetery carries a carved Latin phrase, which is both the regimental motto of the Irish Guards and a rhetorical question, which has been asked and answered by the President's visit to Britain: Quis separabit? Who shall separate us?

Who indeed ? We know who might try. And we should stop indulging them. As our Northern neighbours say: not an inch.

Sunday Independent

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