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Eoghan Harris: Ivan Yates a role model for risen people in tough times

IVAN Yates is a reminder of our recent rural past: a provincial Protestant with deep roots in rural Ireland, a pragmatist with scant time for some of the more precious pieties of cosmopolitan Dublin, a former politician who still remembers how to press flesh. My late mother, from rural Roscommon, adored him when he first came into politics.

She would have adored him even more last week as he stoically travelled from studio to studio, laying out his sad story for all to see. Like many women who went to school in the rural Ireland of the Twenties, my mother was a repository of nationalist ballads and stirring Victorian Imperialist poetry. Last week she would have recited Henley's Invictus in Yates's honour.

By doing what almost no other public figure has done -- accepting responsibility for his actions -- Ivan Yates showed he was still master of his fate and captain of his soul. And his grace under pressure seems to have struck a chord. Last week people kept stopping me not just to praise him, but also to pay tribute to a certain rural Protestant tradition.

Naturally they began by praising Yates for taking personal responsibility, for his raw courage, for revealing his fear of losing the family house and modest farm. But what really intrigued me was how many mentioned articles I had written in the past in praise of the Protestant shopkeepers, farmers and artisans of provincial Ireland.

The Yates family tree is a short history of that class. His great-great grandfather, John Yates was an RIC man from Co Offaly who moved to Wexford in the 1850s just after the Famine. His son, John Francis was the first of the family to become an entrepreneur and made a small fortune. The family flourished and were noted as good employers and good neighbours.

Tragically, it was this provincial Protestant class which suffered most in the period 1920-23. In that time we allowed a few bigots to burn and shoot hundreds of them and drive thousands more from their farms and shops. After that we tried to forget what happened to them, helped by the fact that their sufferings were hidden in the shadows cast by Anglo-Irish castles (including Dublin Castle) in the popular Catholic- nationalist imagination.

By and large, Wexford was free of the worst of the terror. Maybe the events of 1798, as described in Tom Dunne's Rebellions, had largely lanced that local sectarian boil -- although not altogether as we later found out at Fethard-on-Sea. But the raw figures for the rest of the country cannot be rubbed out.

In the period 1911-26, the number of Protestants in the 26 counties fell by a massive one third (34 per cent) from 311,000 to 207,000, a loss of 104,000. Until recently we fobbed off these figures as representing RIC and British dependents. But there is now a broad agreement that at least 50 per cent of that total loss was an enforced exodus, caused by an IRA-inspired terror campaign of anonymous letters, burnings, raids and murders that frightened thousands of Irish Protestants from their shops and farms.

WT Cosgrave, the President of the Free State, speaking in the summer of 1922, faced facts. "In southern Ireland inoffensive Protestants of all classes are being driven from their homes, their shops and their farms in such numbers that many are in danger of being entirely wiped out." What this could mean for a city like Cork is chillingly described in Gerard Murphy's The Year of Disappearances, Political Killings in Cork 1921-22.

Unlike Cosgrave, we later found it hard to face these facts. Even a pluralist like Dr Garret FitzGerald, as recently as last October, could casually tell his Irish Times readers that southern Protestants opted out of political participation in the new State in spite of the Senate giving them a voice. Ian d'Alton, replying to Dr FitzGerald in The Irish Times, dryly pointed out that Protestants were hardly given a choice, and proffered a pithy summary of how Protestants might have perceived Irish society in post-independence Ireland.

"The Senate positions were little more than tokenism, heavily outweighed by a virulent proselytising and prescriptive Catholic nationalism. Remember the Tilson case, the Mayo librarian affair, Fethard-on-Sea? Do not forget the Army at the Eucharistic Congress, neutrality, the Angelus on Radio √Čireann, the appallingly biased history primers, the Cabinet skulking outside St Patrick's Cathedral at Douglas Hyde's funeral, the non-recognition of those who fought against the Nazi tyranny."

Despite his strictures d'Alton balances his criticisms by warning people like me not to wear rose-tinted spectacles. He accepts that in recent years Protestants did not engage in politics. But I still feel that we have not fully grasped the psychic effect of the trauma suffered by provincial -- as distinct from Dublin -- Protestants in the Twenties.

Here we have not been helped by our historians. Faced with brutal incidents like the Coolacrease murders -- I maintain they were murders -- historians have settled for huffing about the right of Dail Eireann to wage war, as if this excused the tribal brutalities in the Bandon Valley, Clifden Orphanage or the killing of two Protestant young men in front of their mother and sisters on their farm at Coolacrease.

Again and again, faced with some foul atrocity, professional historians have prematurely, and naively, adopted the line peddled by what RTE producers called "official explainers" even before we had time to register the trauma itself, or to empathise with the effect that even a single shooting could have on an isolated rural Protestant community. Coolacrease saw a callous and cruel murder and historians have a duty to deal with the moral issues involved.

I believe that what happened to Irish Protestants between 1920-23 is the last taboo in modern Irish history. And I also believe it is part of a European experience of denial that stretches from Spain in the Thirties to Vichy France in the Forties. In recent years this belief has been reinforced by the historical exhumations of historians like Peter Hart and Gerard Murphy.

The brutal truth is that the enforced exodus of more than 50,000 farmers, small shopkeepers and tradesmen, tore a huge hole in the fabric of our society. This was sublimated, just like the mistreatment of French Jews during the Second World War which was denied right up until Mitterand's time by a consensus of silence that stretched from the far right, through the French resistance right into the Elysee Palace.

After independence, Protestant beliefs got short shrift in the public sphere. Timothy Garton Ashe points out that under communism the people of Eastern Europe withdrew from public life to cultivate their private lives. The reluctance of Irish Protestants to engage with politics was a rational response to a period of prolonged marginalisation that began with what must have seemed like a prelude to a pogrom, in the period 1911-22.

But that was then, and this is now. Ivan Yates is a role model for Irish Protes-tants who do not want to retreat to a Protestant nun-nery. When he rises again, as he will, let us hope more Irish Protestants will rise with him. Because we badly need them in public life.

Sunday Independent