Tuesday 17 September 2019

Ireland through a grimy windowpane

Aengus Fanning

TIM Pat Coogan bears the scars of life lightly. A veteran of a thousand battles in newspapers and politics, he is as engaging as ever, as vital, and as fond of the vivid soundbite as he was when he was the youngest editor in the country and had brought the Irish Press to sales of 104,000.

He is proud of his role as anenlightened pathfinder for women in journalism, and of his discovery and promotion of sometimes awkward talents like MaryKenny, Anne Harris and Rosita Sweetman.

The old warrior surveys today's newspaper landscape with a sombre eye. "I think there is a big threat over it from foreign competition," he said, as we stood, appropriately enough, in the Garden of Remembrance. "There is a certain inertia in our response to the challenge of the growth in Ireland of people like Murdoch, both in print and television, and to Lord Rothermere's Daily Mail. "These are profound threats which call for a lot of investment and thinking ahead by the Irish controllers of the print media," he continued. "You've only got to look at the pricing - I mean, you can buy the Guardian and the Irish News together for not much more than the cost of buying an Irish morning paper.

"There is a limit to the price you can keep passing on to the public. I don't like to see the strains that are visible in the industry now, with the dirty linen being washed in the Times.

"One of the things the Irish Press taught me is that if an institution which is so much the soil and the history of Ireland as the Press group can go down, nothing is automatic. You can't take tomorrow as holding any promise - you've got to work today for tomorrow."

Coogan is similarly gloomy about crime and corruption. "It is like looking at a lovely landscape through a dirty window. When I came to the Evening Press in 1954, do you know how many murders there were in that year? Two!

"Now they've invented a new category to deal with it. They call it 'proveable homicides', which means there are a lot which are not proven. Old people not safe in their homes, shootings . . . we never hear anyone talking about the weekend shootings, it's just a matter of course that somebody will be shot or stabbed.

"But you must acknowledge the venality and the corruption of which the tribunals are a symptom," Coogan declared, before pausing for further rumination. Then he continued moreoptimistically.

"I think you also have to recognise the way we progressed from the state we were in in the early part of the 20th century and late 19th century. There were 20,000 families in Dublin city, huge Irish Catholic families living in the one room in the most awful conditions with every form of disease, incest, murder, rape, diarrhoea, dysentery - all those terrible diseases, diphtheria, TB and so on."

Now, as we prepare to take over the EU presidency, Coogan hopes that because of our "very skillful" diplomats, it may well fall on us to be the ones to sort out Europe's problems and get the Constitution through.

"We may not, of course, but the change, the light years of change, that we've made - even though there were terrible detours along the way, all the unnecessary bloodshed of 1916 to the end of the Civil War, and partition - if Home Rule had been introduced, none of that would have happened - but despite all that and the 30 years of the Troubles, we have managed to preserve a stable democracy.

"Above all, I think you must look at the 1960s and early 1970s when Lemass and Whitaker transformed the country and put us on track to the Celtic Tiger, particularly with the free education. Everything came from that," he insisted. "Education is the bread of the future and we should be concentrating on that again today to the exclusion of all else.

"And we have this independent-minded electorate. The Barron report has, rightly, caused terrific controversy and outrage that the Government did so little in 1974 to investigate the bombings, closing down the investigation after only 12 weeks.

"But that couldn't happen today because of the qualitative difference in the electorate. Remember how docile we were, and respectful of authority, right through the country, and in 1974 the bombings happened. The educational reforms that Donogh O'Malley put in train hadn't had time to bite. The kids were still in school - theyweren't out voting, they weren't speaking their minds, they weren't protesting.

"Vatican Two hadn't really worked through the society. At the first Vatican Council, the Council of Trent, when 'papal infallibility' was put through, somebody was writing to a French colleague saying that the Irish bishops believed that the Pope was infallible.

"Your man wrote backsaying, 'Not alone do theythink the Pope is infallible,but they believe their parish priests are infallible - and they'll beat you if you say otherwise! "That continued when we were boys and young men. But that has changed too. Some babies have been thrown out with the bathwater, because some of the respect for deep kindness and charity, and so forth - and public order, like not murdering your neighbour, not ripping off the nation's assets - that's gone too with the weakening of general morality, so we have to say there is a hidden cost to progress."

I asked Coogan about what seems to be the relentless rise of Sinn Fein, north and south.

"I'd wonder how inevitable it is in the south," he replied. "Iwas talking to a very reliable Fianna Fail source, and based on his predictions he reckons they'll have 10 seats at the next general election - they'll double the present five.

"But that, I think, is related to the protest vote and to the tribunals - it's not to their own economic policies or anything of that order, whereas in the North there was the reaction to the God-awful system which was imposed on the people by the unionists, then the counter-reaction which the troubles brought on, and above all the reaction to Maggie Thatcher's very short-sighted policy towards the hunger strikers.

"The hunger strikers and Bobby Sands made Sinn Fein, and then they suddenly realised that people would literally come down from the hills and vote for a Sinn Fein candidate, and the light went on over Gerry Adams' head. He entered politics and never turned back.

"They were 25-hour-a-day workers, they had much more passion and fire, whereas the SDLP was largely a one-man band - or a three-man band: John Hume, Seamus Mallon and, to a degree, I suppose, Eddie McGrady. And, of course, a very fine woman, Brid Rodgers.

"But when these people went, what did they have? I mean, you saw the woeful performance of the SDLP right in the heart of west Belfast, the Falls Road - Dr Joe Hendron, a very impressive politician, but whatever way his campaign was run by him or by his 'When it comes to it, there are two sides in politics, an inside and an outside, and both Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein want to be inside'

managers, they didn't transfer. They wouldn't vote for Sinn Fein, they wouldn't pass them on to the other nationalist candidate.

"As a result of that, you now have a DUP representative on the Falls Road. It may not be all bad because she is a woman, and the more women get involved in politics the better, but it is certainly an aberration as we understood it.

"Now that would never happen with Sinn Fein. A ruthless machine, planning ahead, ploughing ahead, they go through every combination and permutation. They talk the thing through, not once but a hundred times, before they do anything.

"I see Sinn Fein today as the Fianna Fail of the North - the way Fianna Fail were more radical than Cumann na nGael in the 1930s. They got tired and they seemed to be more 'Free State' than nationalist or republican, and de Valera was able to present himself as being the great republican.

"I see Sinn Fein getting a purchase down here as a protest against the actions of some Fianna Fail and Dublin politicians - it's seen more as a radical alternative - and out of disgust, because people don't see Fine Gael or Labour as the automatic alternative.

"It's for that reason that Sinn Fein are coming up in the south. It's a different ball game in the North. If they do get 10 or 12 seats down here, they could very nearly hold the balance of power.

"A lot is made out of Bertie Ahern's statement that he wouldn't go into power with Sinn Fein, but nobody seems to remember that Gerry Adams said they wouldn't support Fianna Fail either.

"But when it comes to it, there are two sides in politics, an inside and an outside, and they both want to be inside."

I asked Coogan whether he believed that there wouldn't be an absolute end to the threat of violence until Ireland was united. He answered: "Well, as long as Ireland is divided of course you'll have a physical-force tradition. The actual question of decommissioning is very unwise.

"When the State was founded down here, the IRA didn't hand in their guns and we got on with it. Fianna Fail emerged out of the republican element the way Sinn Fein is now emerging. Remember, it's a long time, nine years, since the ceasefire of August 1994, so it is quite evident - it is known to our security forces, it is known to the British and American security forces - that the war is over.

"I think we should get on with that instead of trying to pull at the sore. I don't think, even if they did decommission, that the unionists would even be satisfied. I think some of them would then demand some proof that the IRA itself had disbanded. I don't know how you could do that, but I think they have already raised their voices over that.

"To my own knowledge, there was a very dangerous position after the IRA's last act of decommissioning. Because it isn't that they didn't decommission much - they said they decommissioned far too much in the eyes of their own following. Indeed, it was a huge act: an awful lot of stuff got blown up and said goodbye to - then they got nothing in return.

"At that stage, Adams' leadership could very well have been called into question, and the whole thing could have gone. I knowGeneral de Chastelain, I find him a very impressive man. He is one of those soldier diplomats, he knows a lot about human nature, and he likes Ireland. He walks the streets, literally - talks to the ordinary man in the street. His word should have been accepted.

"Now I'm afraid that if Jesus Christ came down and said that the IRA had both decommissioned and disbanded, the brethren would put on their bowler hats, retire to the Ulster Hall or some place, and after four or five hours of solemn conclave come out and, by a vote of 55 to 45, say, 'That was very interesting, and thank you very much, Jesus, but in the particular circumstances in Northern Ireland, we now need to put that in writing for Muhammad. "And I think it will be ever thus. If they have a reason, or anything they can use, they will fudge it."

Coogan believes that a big mistake has been made "in imagining Paisley would automatically deal".

He went on: "I don't think he will. I think it will be a long while before you get a deal. But I think that behind him there are people in the DUP who will do a deal with Sinn Fein. I was talking to Aidan Hennigan the other day, the doyen of the Irish correspondents in Westminster, and I asked him if he ever remembered a unionist politician standing up and making a speech which majored on thefollowing words: children, thefuture, investment, Europe, international.

"They don't think like that. They don't talk like that now, because they still have this thing about decommissioning - the link with England, or something - but they've got to start thinking in terms of their own people."

Finally, I asked Coogan who he would choose as the great figures of Irish history. "Michael Davitt, Connolly, Michael Collins, Yeats, Lemass, Whitaker - not an awful lot. A fellow editor, Sean O Faolain, the editor of The Bell. What he did in the war years - indeed, through the years of censorship - is quite extraordinary. That little publication was the only light shone on this dark, censorship-ridden era.

"There was a time when your predecessor, Hector Legge, had Frank O'Connor writing for the Sunday Independent under the name Ben Mayo because, if the directors had known, he would have been gone, and probably Hector with him.

"We know what a good writer Sean O Faolain was. But he took time off to attend to the dreary business of getting the magazine to the press, quarrelling with contributors, sub-editing, fighting libel, writing very brave stuff, and printing very intelligent stuff that stands the test of time. I think I admire him.

"And I think Douglas Gageby, too, for his contribution to Irish journalism, deserves credit."

Tim Pat Coogan's latest book, 'Ireland in the 20th Century', is published by Hutchinson at ?30

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss