Wednesday 23 January 2019

Eoghan Harris: Leo Varadkar's olive branch more important than Doonbeg

Eoghan Harris March 18
Eoghan Harris March 18
Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

Leo Varadkar's largely successful American visit was rich in raw material for my fat mental files on the incoherent interaction between media and politics in Ireland.

The incoherence is in taking the Taoiseach to task on minor issues like the Trump visit and Doonbeg, but letting him off the hook on major mistakes like his speech in Texas and not playing up his olive-branch speech in Washington.

The Taoiseach was perfectly correct to invite the president of the United States to Ireland. A snub would seriously annoy all Americans and not just the pro-Trump ones.

Our media finger-waggers should also lighten up about the Taoiseach's clumsy but harmless attempt to big himself up a bit with Donald on Doonbeg.

Clearly the Taoiseach was trying to engage with Trump at an American folksy level. As he is not naturally an Enda Kenny schmoozer he should be given full marks for doing his best for Ireland.

The Opposition was entitled to take its pot-shots - and Niall Collins of Fianna Fail took a few - but the media made too much of it.

Here they had a hidden agenda. Making a meal of Doonbeg allowed many in the media to throw a smokescreen over their own two major shortcomings.

First, it was a belated attempt at balance after an orgy of obsessing about Varadkar's every minor move - an obsession shared by the Taoiseach himself.

Many pundits are guilty of giving Leo Varadkar a soft ride so far, and they sense the public is fed up with it.

This belated balancing of the books won't last long. Like the Taoiseach himself, the media is in love with his photogenic image and, after this blip, is likely to go on leaving him lots of leeway.

Second, and this is far more serious, the tantrums about Trump hide the fact that most pundits in our media have donned a bilious green jersey in dealing with the DUP and a pair of rose- tinted spectacles when it comes to Sinn Fein.

What else can explain the failure of Irish media to give pride of place to the most important speech of the visit - the Taoiseach's belated offering of an olive branch to Northern unionists and Arlene Foster's relatively warm response to it?

As the Irish Examiner didn't report the speech and other media played down Foster's response, let me refresh my readers' dormant pluralist feelings.

The Taoiseach accepted some responsibility for unionist fears as follows: "I recognise that recent statements and actions by Irish nationalists, including the Irish Government, about Brexit have been seen as unwelcome or intrusive. If that is the case, I want to make it clear that it certainly was not our intention. I want to repeat that we have no hidden agenda."

Arlene Foster replied: "I recognise and welcome the acknowledgement that many unionists have felt that some actions and statements from the Irish Government have not been helpful."

She added something Irish media failed to register - the bad blood is recent and dates to Leo Varadkar becoming Taoiseach and Simon Coveney Minister for Foreign Affairs.

"In the past, I and other DUP ministers did build up good and productive relationships with our counterparts in the Republic which was to the benefit of both countries. I hope the Taoiseach's comments can represent a return to that more positive working relationship."

If our media really cared about peace it would have given headlines to Leo Varadkar and Arlene Foster's crucial exchange and played it up on RTE.

A fair-minded media would also have noted that Leo Varadkar's speech was an implicit recognition that Micheal Martin was correct to criticise the Government's failure to keep lines of dialogue open to the DUP.

Only Stephen Collins in The Irish Times noted that the Taoiseach was taking responsibility for the Government's reckless green rhetoric in recent months.

But most of the Irish pundits have been swaddled in green flags for some time now. Hence they play up unionist intransigence and play down the cause of it - Sinn Fein's provocations.

The proof of this was that I could find no full report in mainstream Irish media of Gerry Adams's brazen remarks at the Good Friday Agreement gathering.

Only The Guardian reported Adams's atavistic return to the old militaristic rhetoric - in the presence of an Irish Taoiseach.

Gerry Adams declared: "I believe the British government has no right to be in Ireland, never had any right to be in Ireland and never will have any right to be in Ireland."

He went on to undermine the stability of the Good Friday Agreement in unionist eyes: "It is an agreement on a journey. Not the destination."

For Adams, the Good Friday Agreement is only a stepping stone in a Trotskyite strategy of "permanent revolution".

Adams's provocations were missing from Suzanne Lynch's report in The Irish Times which only reported his reassuring bits.

In fairness to Lynch, she was one of the few journalists to note the importance of the Taoiseach's 'olive branch' speech on Sean O'Rourke, so perhaps some peace processor subbed her copy.

But mostly the Irish media failed to show that unionists had good reason to be recalcitrant by not reporting Adams's aggressive speech and its implicit threat to peace.

Furthermore, Irish media did not ask why there was such a change of tone between the Taoiseach's earlier speech in Texas - which worried Arlene Foster - and his olive-branch speech in Washington.

In Texas, the Taoiseach delivered a classic Dept of Foreign Affairs speech of the sort that drives decent unionists to believe the Republic is a rubber stamp for Sinn Fein. He said: "If we have to, we will have to press for a special arrangement for Northern Ireland that will treat Northern Ireland some way differently."

Even moderate unionists hear that as: "We will use the EU to lean hard on the UK to lean on you to force you out of the union to a place that suits us."

If the Taoiseach is being urged to make these demands by DFA die-hards, allegedly on behalf of Northern nationalists, he should remind them that this is akin to the bad old days of the German Reich demanding the right to represent the Sudeten German minority.

What is worse, he is coming across as using Brexit to make common cause with Sinn Fein.

An Irish Taoiseach has no business being even near the same bed as Sinn Fein. That is especially true as long as we suffer from ambivalence about Sinn Fein and the IRA.

The Colombian people are not as morally confused. The political wing of Farc, the Colombian equivalent of the IRA, failed to win a single seat in recent congressional elections.

That's because the Colombian people believe Farc was a murder gang and that its political wing should not be rewarded by seats in parliament.

But in Ireland the media seems happy to inhale the dark incense of the political wing of our local Farc.

No wonder the public feels it has permission to vote for Sinn Fein, a party which has never said sorry for the past.

Time for the Taoiseach to act like a leader and give up the green rhetoric.

Sunday Independent

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