Monday 17 June 2019

Eoghan Harris: Empathy is the only way to a unity of people on our island

'No, I am not going to make a meal out of Mary Lou McDonald’s woes. I am not the kind of pious columnist who arrives late on the battlefield to bayonet the wounded.' Photo: Frank McGrath
'No, I am not going to make a meal out of Mary Lou McDonald’s woes. I am not the kind of pious columnist who arrives late on the battlefield to bayonet the wounded.' Photo: Frank McGrath
Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

Given Peter Robinson's wake-up call to unionism and Mary Lou McDonald's volte-face on border polls, I am extra grateful to Eugene Downes, director of the Kilkenny Arts Festival, for inviting me to talk about the Duke of Wellington and Daniel O'Connell next Saturday.

Researching Catholic emancipation revealed both men grappling with two sides of a problem that has not gone away - the real fears of the Protestant minority on the island.

Wellington knew that Protestant resistance to Catholic emancipation was fuelled by a minority's well-founded fear it might be massacred in a Roman Catholic rebellion.

Well-founded because Ulster Protestants were massacred in 1641 and southern Protestants were burned to death in a barn at Scullabogue during the Wexford Rising of 1798.

O'Connell could not help a Catholic emancipation campaign being sectarian by its very nature - but he condemned Wexford atrocities and did his best to bury Catholic and Protestant animosities in a common Repeal campaign against the British government.

Following him, I have consistently condemned IRA actions leading to mass exodus by rural Protestants during the period 1920-22.

Even today Bishop Colton of Cork tells us that some rural Protestants worry whether the centenaries of the War of Independence and Civil War will raise the tribal temperature of their Catholic neighbours - as happened during H Blocks.

Roman Catholic nationalists find such fears hard to fathom unless they try to look at us through Northern Protestant eyes.

Empathy is exhausting. There are days I want to give up and relax into a diatribe against the DUP when it does stupid things like dismissing Robinson's call for reflection.

But empathy also teaches me that the chorus of nationalist support for Robinson has the reverse effect to the one we want - it shuts minds rather than opens them. This is an issue Northern Protestants must work out on their own.

The best help we can give Robinson is to empathise with unionist fears and do our best by difficult deeds or good authority words, to show they can trust us.

Empathising means trying to enter the mind of a Protestant family isolated on its farm in West Cork in 1921, or Fermanagh in 1981.

Multiply that by a million and you get a glimpse of what might be going on in the mind of the Protestant minority on the island.

Why should they trust us in a united Ireland? After the border campaign of 1956 and the Provisional campaign of recent years?

Yes, we had a brief break from IRA pressure and a few wonderful years of goodwill after the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

That ended with Sinn Fein expanding its demands to identity issues and the election of Leo Varadkar as leader of Fine Gael.

In unionists' eyes there is no great gulf between the green rhetoric of Mary Lou McDonald and that of Leo Varadkar.

Look at Sinn Fein through the eyes of the most emollient unionist and you see Mary Lou McDonald, nominally leader of Sinn Fein, forced into a shameful volte face by someone with their hand on Sinn Fein's remote control.

No, I am not going to make a meal out of Mary Lou McDonald's woes. I am not the kind of pious columnist who arrives late on the battlefield to bayonet the wounded.

Indeed, I was saddened by the contrast between the happy woman I saw reach out to unionists last Monday and the humiliated woman I saw last Tuesday, as defensive as a battered wife.

Likewise, look at Fine Gael through unionist eyes. Leo Varadkar took up the reins of Taoiseach by talking about not "abandoning Northern nationalists". To what?

In recent weeks in the Sunday Independent he was talking about "enforced partition". But the only alternative to "enforced partition" was a Balkan-style ethnic cleansing with both Catholic and Protestant victims.

Meantime, in Glenties, Frank Flannery, a former (how former?) Fine Gael adviser was promoting a SF-FG coalition deal.

Now look with Northern Protestant eyes at RTE and what do you see? With the sometimes sole exception of Tommie Gorman, you see a mostly tribal Montrose.

The most egregious example is RTE's habit of regularly calling on extreme unionists like Sammy Wilson to speak on RTE, rather than moderate DUP figures like Jeffrey Donaldson, who made a rare appearance last week.

If RTE is really a national broadcaster, rather than a nationalist broadcaster, why is Sammy Wilson on RTE so often rather than Donaldson - who contrasted Leo Varadkar's green rhetoric with the calm approach of Bertie Ahern?

How would we like it if BBC Northern Ireland regularly featured the Healy-Raes speaking about gender issues in the Republic rather than Simon Harris or Stephen Donnelly?

RTE's motives in calling so often on Sammy Wilson are murky to say the least. Regularly bringing on such a maverick loads the dice and demonises unionism.

Is RTE current affairs pursuing a tribal binary policy of promoting Fine Gael and Sinn Fein while marginalising Micheal Martin of Fianna Fail who is calling for less green grandstanding?

The Irish Times is often no better. Like RTE, it, too, marginalises Martin but for reasons that have more to do with historical snobbery.

The Irish Times has always found it hard to be fair to Fianna Fail - even though Ahern and Micheal Martin are far ahead of Leo Varadkar in avoiding green blather and bluster.

For the past year, it has failed to face an awkward fact to which I continually drew attention - that Leo Varadkar and associates like Jim Daly were signalling a post-election deal with Sinn Fein, which in unblinking unionist eyes counts for a lot more than cosmetic visits to the Orange Order.

In the same period, The Irish Times did not fully and generously register that Micheal Martin was leading from the front on pluralism and welding the door shut on any deal with Sinn Fein.

The fact that a leader of Fianna Fail is less given to green rhetoric than the leader of Fine Gael does not fit The Irish Times playbook. The result is a kind of cognitive confusion that has led to partial reporting in three areas.

First, surrendering to the glitter of Varadkar has led to self-censorship - the paper failed to react to his extraordinary statement about enforced partition.

Second, prejudice against Fianna Fail means The Irish Times has not given Martin his due as a fearless leader who is not afraid to kill sacred cows.

Finally, The Irish Times gave too soft a ride to McDonald after Adams stepped down. Last week it was trying to catch up. Better late than never, but best not to be late at all.


Last week I felt I might be suffering from Famine fatigue until I saw Rua Breathnach's epic play Welcome to the Stranger in Skibbereen Town Hall.

The stranger was Asenath Nicholson, a brave American Protestant woman who toured Ireland alone in the Famine.

The play, dedicated to the late Liam O Muirthile, with a superb local cast, draws you gently and with grim humour, into the lived experience of the Famine.

Sunday Independent

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