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John-Paul McCarthy: Mary Robinson gives credit for the Park where it's due

Several images from Mary Robinson's absorbing memoir, Everyone Matters, will endure.



We'll remember her assault on the 'subtle violence' of Bunreacht na h-Eireann's sectarian clauses. Her classy defiance when interrogated by a meddling cleric who didn't like her Protestant husband. Her courage when faced with a dying sibling who blew her a kiss before slipping the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God. And her eloquent inaugural address that reduced old liberal lions like Garret FitzGerald to tears.

I was eight in 1990 and can only experience that year in books. But her pointed use of the phrase "Northern Ireland" on inauguration day -- one of many two-fingered salutes to the Haughey faction -- as well as her extension of what she called "the hand of love" to unionism did more than a little to create the Ireland which I enjoy today.

Before reading her memoir, I never quite understood how she caught the eye of Eoghan Harris: Cork-born Marxists and Dublin 4 liberals usually preferring to address each other with sidearms. But her memoir shows that she hooked the Jim Carville of Irish campaigns with her pluralist resume.

Having resigned from the Labour Party in solidarity with mainstream unionism after the Thatcher-FitzGerald diktat in 1985, Robinson satisfied Harris's 'bloody shirt' test. The fact that she had been a student of Owen Sheehy Skeffington and that her husband was an expert on Edmund Burke caricatures helped.

Several books show how Harris pioneered new campaigning techniques in 1989 for Proinsias de Rossa's bravura 'Breath of Fresh Air' European campaign. Among his many ploys was to hire professional fashion photographer Mike Bunn to shoot moody black and white photographs in French film noir style. These were used so successfully at bus-stops that the Irish Press reported two girls wondering when the film started!

Robinson recalls the impact of Harris's intervention in her campaign via a lecture he gave her summarising the de Rossa model: "He treated us to a stunning intellectual analysis of how to run the campaign. You have to have seen Harris in full flow to appreciate the experience: the breakneck pace, the wit, the revelatory insights that had us going. 'Ah yes of course.' There was genius in it."

Robinson also credits Harris with helping her write her rousing acceptance speech where she paid tribute to "those who stepped out from the faded flags of the Civil War" and particularly to "the women of Ireland, mna na h-Eireann, who instead of rocking the cradle, rocked the system..."

Robinson's handsome acknowledgement of Harris's central role in her campaign has come too late to save him from a series of sour biographies. These played down his well known blueprint, the three classic party political broadcasts for television which he made by persuading technicians to work for free, and his crafting of her famous acceptance speech.

By and large, her biographers choose to either damn him with faint praise, or give a prize to everybody in the hall. But John Bowman's recent book, Window and Mirror, took that tradition to an uglier level via sneering cartoons mocking Harris's role.

Referring to a resonant John Waters' article in the Irish Times after Robinson's election, Bowman wrote: "At no stage in a lengthy article did it state that Robinson and her team had used Harris's advice, or had given him any official position..."

Now that Robinson herself has publicly confirmed Harris's crucial role, will Bowman correct his skewed account in subsequent editions?

He also needs to correct his account of how Harris was forced out of RTE. Bowman says Harris "finally left the station in 1990 in the wake of the Presidential election which had been won by Mary Robinson".

This anodyne description deprives Harris of the credit for sacrificing his permanent and pensionable job in RTE to work for Mary Robinson.

Bowman must have had some inkling that Harris paid that high price because further down the page he quotes from Bob Collins's RTE Authority minutes: "The Director of Personnel had written to him (Harris) immediately after the Irish Times article, informing him that he 'was being removed from the payroll'."

Why would Bowman the careful historian belittle Harris's role like this when other journalists like Stephen Collins, Shane Coleman and John Waters all acknowledge the huge impact of his Robinson blueprint?

Bowman ignores Harris's blueprint, published in Emily O'Reilly's book Candidate, which any objective reader can see is the document which drove the campaign.

My own favourite bit is where Harris tells Robinson to broaden her default liberal message because citing Supreme Court precedents wouldn't play well in Mahon or Iveragh:

"I tell you this because you have some hard choices to make, and one of them is not to listen to every Tom, Dick and Harry -- and especially Dublin 4 dicks. On your team you need some who are racy of the soil, who have a feel for Catholic cultural mores, who are at home at a noisy Fine Gael function, who could watch a hurling match with relish, and who know who Packie Bonner is."

Within three years of reading that, Mrs Robinson was listening to Amhran na bhFiann being played in the court yard of Buckingham Palace.

Jim Carville, eat your heart out!

Sunday Independent