Wednesday 20 February 2019

Bertie Ahern and Newstalk puncture RTE's Brussels balloon

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Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

Bryan Dobson is not just a distinguished broadcaster; he is adjunct professor of public broadcast journalism at Limerick University.

But if Professor Dobson wants an example of fake news for his students he should show them RTE's Six One News report on April 28.

Its top news teams were in raptures reporting Enda Kenny's imminent coup in getting a declaration on a united Ireland.

Dobson did his part, standing before a map of Europe. Tony Connolly was breathless in Brussels.

Clearly the team felt they had a scoop. In fact, they had been suckered by the Taoiseach's spin doctors.

They had sold RTE news an old banger dating back to the GFA of 1998 with a fresh bright green spray job.

The next day, we got more of the same. Kenny came through a door punching the air pointlessly. Tony was still excited.

Sharon Ni Bheolain summed up the comfortable consensus of most of the Irish media by asking Tony "any concerns likely to be British-based?".

She is not alone in seeing Northern Ireland as some kind of binary problem between us and the Brits.

Because, until Bertie Ahern briefly broke the mould, the binary view was - and still is - embedded deeply in the Department of Foreign Affairs.

The DFA's default negotiating position is that the Northern Ireland problem is primarily between us and the Brits.

The democratic position - and I would argue the moral one - is that the problem is primarily between us and Northern Protestants.

RTE shares the default DFA view, with its codicil that Sinn Fein's take on the peace process must be preserved at any price.

That was why RTE missed an important peace move - as distinct from peace process move - in the week leading up to the Brussels "unity" bluster.

For two days running, Arlene Foster risked the wrath of her wilder DUP members by reaching out to Northern nationalists.

Firstly, she visited Our Lady's Grammar School Newry, and tried out her few words of Irish.

The following day she took a bigger risk by writing a piece for The Irish News which supported a soft border.

RTE failed to publicise Foster's pluralist moves. Instead, it pumped hot air into the "unity" balloon. To the delight of Sinn Fein, frantic for a distraction from Foster's flanking movement.

Luckily, The Irish News, which deals in real news, gave Foster positive front- page coverage.

Furthermore, it called on Tom Kelly, perhaps the most politically experienced of all Northern nationalist commentators, to tell us what he thought.

Kelly was very impressed. "It's clear that Arlene Foster is making a genuine if somewhat belated attempt to build bridges across the political spectrum. Brexit is a good starting point, and engagement on the Irish language is extremely welcome."

RTE rewarded Foster's reaching out with a slap in the face in the form of a wild weekend party celebrating Kenny's successful spin.

Sanity did not return until last Sunday when Paul Cunningham, on the Week in Politics, sounded the first sceptical notes.

But it was Ahern who cut the cable on the hot air balloon in an incisive Newstalk 106 interview with Ivan Yeats.

Acting with great good authority, Ahern rubbished the notion that there was anything new in the unity declaration and warned against border polls.

Ahern, with further good authority, added he did not believe Fianna Fail would not (and he clearly implied should not) go into coalition with Sinn Fein.

As the week went on, two print commentators - Shane Coleman in the Irish Independent and Stephen Collins in The Irish Times - brought the Brexit unity balloon back to earth and found it empty.

Coleman and Collins both noted that the unity uproar had clouded the belated but brave efforts of Arlene Foster to reach out to nationalists. Coleman, the first print commentator to catch up with the real world, remarked: "To herald the agreement on automatic EU entry for a united Ireland as hugely important hardly makes life easier for Arlene Foster."

He concluded that "a little more sensitivity from our Government in that respect wouldn't go amiss".

The following day, Collins was also alerting readers to the downside of waving the Tricolour in Brussels in the face of unionists.

"The focus on the united Ireland aspect of the EU negotiating position also created a problem, by serving to fuel unionist suspicions that there is some dark plot afoot to force them into something against their will."

Collins went on to note the bad timing of the unity uproar in Brussels.

"Ironically, the Brussels summit coincided with a distinct softening in the line being adopted by DUP leader Arlene Foster in relation to Brexit."

Finally, Micheal Martin saved the Dail from disgrace by praising Foster's attempts at amity and castigating Sinn Fein.

Back in Northern Ireland, two sharp commentators were noting how Foster's softer line was causing that party some serious strategic problems.

Tom Kelly presciently noted what no southern pundit has seen so far - that Sinn Fein is struggling tactically to respond to Foster's new moves.

"Sinn Fein has still to find anyone within their ranks capable of matching the generosity of the late Martin McGuinness to reciprocate such moves."

Kelly did not have to spell out that the problem could be summed up in two words - Michelle O'Neill.

Behind that is a bigger question: has O'Neill been instructed by Adams & Co not to negotiate seriously to set up the Executive?

Later in the week, again in The Irish News the shrewd Newton Emerson probed deeper: "The question for Michelle O'Neill is whether her party will ever return to Stormont."

At last I have some company in my scepticism. For weeks, I have been alone in arguing that Adams coldly scuttled the Executive and will not bring it back any time soon.

Any such belief is anathema to the DFA mindset. So we have to ask whether Charlie Flanagan has the bottle to defy the DFA, make common public cause with Foster and expose the anarchic Adams strategy?

To do that, Flanagan would have to be his own man. But only a handful of foreign ministers have followed their own stars.

Bertie Ahern's critics will hate to hear this, but acting as his own foreign minister, Ahern has the best record in defying the DFA mandarins in order to reach out to unionists and treat them as neighbours, not pawns.

Let me select just one example, taken from George Mitchell's memoir.

In November 1997, when Foreign Minister David Andrews, following the DFA dictat, said publicly that any Strand 2 cross border bodies would have "strong executive functions not unlike a government".

David Trimble objected to this sly piece of pan-nationalism. In April 1998, Ahern repudiated Andrews - who gallantly did what had to be done for peace and apologised. Against DFA advice of course.

Time Flanagan defied the DFA and denounced bullies, be they Saudis or Shinners.

Sunday Independent

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