Wednesday 11 December 2019

Donal Og 
and the true meaning of public service

Illustration by Jim Cogan
Illustration by Jim Cogan
Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

Last weekend, I went to the GAA grounds in Skibbereen to watch Donal Og Cusack conduct a hurling class with over a hundred boys and girls under 10. Twice as many parents clucked proudly around their
progeny. A scene to lift the heart.

As a bonus, I learned a little more about life than I would from interrogating the internet about the dull doings of Dail Eireann. Talking to parents, I realised that Irish people do appreciate public service when it comes in the form of figures like Donal Og, who looks after players both on and off the field.

Cusack is also a superb columnist, so I added my own words of admiration for his compassionate column on Luis Suarez in the Irish Examiner. Like all great journalism, it prompted me to change my mind. No wonder it is 'most shared'.


Many people also accosted me to say the good word about Tony O'Reilly - something the Irish Times might note. The tone of its coverage on the collapse of O'Reilly's fortunes sold him short, particularly his principled stand against Provo propaganda and his sacrifice of his fortune to try and save jobs at Waterford Glass.

The Irish Times coverage misreads the position of most Irish people on wealth. There is no begrudgery of billionaires who create
jobs. But last week I heard a lot of anger expressed about the engorged pension of Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, and other politicians who rarely risk their money in order to create new jobs for others.


O'Reilly is an avid reader of anything to do with Irish history. The first and only time I ever met him was briefly before I joined this paper. As I was part of a long line to be greeted, he said only three words. But two of them mattered to me more than I can say: "Ah, Souper Sullivan."

As O'Reilly reads every word in this paper, I hope he enjoys a story about the legendary IRA leader Ernie O'Malley, author of On Another Man's Wound, that came at the end of an elongated conversation I had with a former Tipperary hurler, Eddie O'Donnell, which began with Eddie's deadpan observations on the energising effect of the Kilfenora Ceili Band on women of a certain age.

According to Eddie, mature women watch demurely as the band takes its seats on the platform. Then a double tap, the band is off at full blast and suddenly middle-aged women are up and letting it all hang out, dancing as lightly as they did long ago as young girls.

From there, Eddie edged the conversation seamlessly around to the story of the alleged deathbed reconciliation of Ernie O'Malley, as told by a comrade of the IRA leader whom we shall call a pious friend. As O'Malley was famously agnostic and anti-clerical, everybody was afraid to call a priest as he lay dying in Talbot Lodge in Dublin.

Finally, in desperation, his deeply religious comrade called on a literary-minded Jesuit to do his best. But after a biting response, the priest was forced to exit the room in a hurry. The Jesuit stood baffled for a moment, but then had a brainwave.

Taking out his big rosary, he stuck the large crucifix around the jamb of the door so the dying O'Malley could clearly see Christ on the cross and said quietly: "Tonight you are lying on this man's wound." A silence followed. The Jesuit went away. But the next day, according to the pious friend, O'Malley made his peace with a local priest. Maybe.


If Ruairi Quinn had resigned three years ago, I would be penning words of praise. We worked well together on the Mary Robinson campaign. During which, I warned him that Pat Rabbitte's faction would run the Labour Party should any future merger take place.

But Quinn never seemed to notice the absence of any ideology among the former Democratic Left faction. After the merger, he seemed to fall under the spell of Pat Rabbitte's political persona as a cute hoor of the Left who could be cuter than Fianna Fail. They also shared an obsession with the Sunday Independent.

My problem with Quinn began at the last general election. As a leading member of the Labour Party, he should have urged it to tackle the two big challenges facing a principled party of social democracy: to emulate Bertie Ahern's 2007 success in making sure Sinn Fein did not capture the urban working class, and to protect the most exploited part of that class - those who work in the private sector.

Accordingly, Quinn should have dissented from the greedy position of the former Democratic Left group which was anxious to drive the Labour Party into Coalition. In particular, he should have taken on Rabbitte, who was cosying up to Phil Hogan and arguing against Labour going into opposition.

But of course Labour had other options. It could have had the best of both worlds by agreeing to support a minority Fine Gael government from the Opposition benches - but on the basis that the burden of the recession would be borne fairly by all sections of the working class. But that would have meant reining in the real fat cats of Irish society - the public sector and the professions.

A principled programme for government would have meant tackling the highest-paid political class in Europe, freezing increments to civil servants, severely pruning the pay and pensions of the semi-states, abolishing all the quangos - which alone would have saved us two billion - and taking a scalpel to the scandalous fees of consultants and managers in the HSE.

But Labour went for the government gravy train. As he heads for a well-pensioned retirement, Quinn should ask himself a hard question: did he challenge the sick system whereby the suffering workers of Bausch & Lomb are taxed to pay increments to some of the highest-paid public sector employees
in Europe - who also 
enjoy permanent and pensionable employment? No, he did not.


Let me finish, however, by paying tribute to Quinn's measured view of Israel. He was one of the few politicians in Dail Eireann who understood how the horror of the Holocaust shaped Israel's history. The foul murder of three Jewish teenagers followed by the equally foul murder of a Palestinian boy have their roots in Auschwitz.

Our rotten roots go back in time too. John Bruton is right to point out the bad seeds were planted in 1916. Indeed, the Hamas murders of the three Israeli teenagers recalled the IRA's murder on March 10, 1971, of three young, unarmed, off-duty Scots soldiers in civvies who had been drinking in Belfast city centre: two teenagers John McCaig, aged 17, and his brother Joseph, aged 18, with their 20-year-old friend, Dougald McCaughey. The names McCaig and McCaughey are Gaelic. The dead boys were descendants of Ulster Gaels who had moved the 12 miles east to Scotland from North Antrim. A stone was placed at the scene of the triple murder on May 28, 2010 but has been defaced many times since. Some hearts are harder than stone.

Sunday Independent

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