Wednesday 19 December 2018

Eoghan Harris: Let's keep our island safe for Cork boys and Derry girls

Eoghan Harris.
Eoghan Harris.
Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

As well as forcing us to hold our sides in helpless laughter, both The Young Offenders and Derry Girls show how television can dispel bigotry and prejudice.

But I am not alone in believing a cloud of tribalism hangs over Cork boys and Derry girls.

Andy Pollak, easily the most experienced worker in the field of reconciliation, believes the brooding danger of bloodshed is increasingly likely on this island.

That's because as the gap between Protestants and Catholics narrows, the chance of civil strife increases. A minority might keep the head down, but not two evenly matched groups.

Here we face hard choices. We say we support Northern nationalists. But they mostly vote Sinn Fein.

If we go on supporting Sinn Fein against Ulster Protestants we will destroy the pluralist peace process and court civil strife.

Last week we started down that dark path by lauding Mary Lou McDonald and spewing bile at Arlene Foster.

Let me show you why we should have reversed that: given McDonald a hard time and backed Arlene Foster's refusal to be bullied. Last Monday, on his radio show, Ryan Tubridy was reluctant to rain on the Sinn Fein ard fheis and seemed to resent print media doing so, as his sole comment reveals:

"She didn't get much of a chance to breathe, I thought, in the media before the foot went on to the head. Normally a party leader gets at least 48 hours of 'well let's have a look at you and well done'. She seems to get slightly more of a hammering than most."

Given Tubridy's softly-softly stance towards McDonald last Monday, as well as her smooth media skills, he should have made sure on last Friday's Late Late Show to ask her some seriously hard questions.

Hard questions have to be asked in a concrete context. Repeatedly asking McDonald about "Tiocfaidh Ar La" remains an abstraction unless you remind us that it was first shouted from the dock by Patrick Magee, the Brighton bomber.

Tubridy should also have challenged the Sinn Fein spin that McDonald has no awkward questions to answer because she joined Sinn Fein in 1998. Yes she does. Here are two:

"In 2005, seven years after you joined Sinn Fein, when Dubliner Joseph Rafferty was murdered by an IRA gang, did you publicly denounce the IRA?

"Did you denounce it in 2007, almost a decade after you first joined Sinn Fein, when an IRA gang tortured Paul Quinn to death by breaking almost every bone in his body?"

We will be told by pundits who skate the surface that Mary Lou McDonald played a blinder. Literally so as it seemed to have blinded so many pundits to the dark purpose of her party.

In contrast, the southern media's savaging of Arlene Foster recalled Orwell's 1984 where the proles gather around television screens every day for a Two Minutes Hate session.

Let me try to dispel that distorting tribal smokescreen and show you Arlene Foster's problem with the Irish Language Act.

First, that wise head, the late Maurice Hayes, a fluent Irish-speaker, described the Irish Language Act as "madness" and denounced the politicising of Irish as bad for the language.

Second, it was not just the DUP but the wider moderate unionist community that forced Foster's hand. Here is what the pluralist Doug Beattie of the UUP had to say in the Belfast Telegraph.

"My identity and culture are proudly represented by the Union flag, God Save The Queen, Ulster and Ireland rugby, Gaelic games, the shamrock, Guinness, St Patrick's Day, Derry and Londonderry, the sash my father wore, poets and authors, actors and artists, and Ulster-Scots and the Irish language."

Although he is clearly no bigoted Protestant, Beattie opposes a stand-alone Irish Language Act because it would further mark out sectarian divisions like painted kerbstones.

"It would see the likes of Portadown town centre festooned with dual English and Ulster-Scots signs, while areas such as the Garvaghy Road would be clearly delineated by English and Irish language signs."

Simon Coveney has long been out of contact with moderate Protestant opinion - and seems to resent Micheal Martin trying to hold a pluralist door open.

Last Thursday, RTE radio news reported: "The Tanaiste joined with Sinn Fein in criticising Fianna Fail's Micheal Martin."

Coveney attacked Martin (in his absence) in the Dail, for not automatically supporting Fine Gael's flawed policy on the North.

That kind of pan- nationalism terrifies moderate unionists and makes a deal more difficult.

Coveney's task was to make peace with unionists not nationalists. But he has antagonised most of them.

Last Thursday, on Morning Ireland, Gavin Jennings asked Coveney whom he had contacted after the talks broke down. This is his revealing reply.

"I spoke last night, as you'd expect, to Sinn Fein. Also the Alliance Party and the SDLP. I speak to them regularly."

Jennings interrupted to ask the crucial question: had he spoken to the DUP? Coveney: "I haven't spoken to the DUP since yesterday, but I will certainly try to speak to them today."

In short, Simon Coveney, whose task it is to make peace with the DUP - not Sinn Fein or the SDLP - is not on speaking terms with Arlene Foster.

That is not Foster's fault. Back in 2017, Arlene Foster spoke repeatedly and warmly of a soft border. She did so again at Killarney in January 2018 when she met Micheal Martin. She had no obdurate position and was open to overtures by Dublin.

But she did have a problem with an Irish Language Act because even moderate unionists believe Sinn Fein is using it as a political cudgel.

Instead of working quietly through back channels with the DUP (as Micheal Martin advised), Coveney fell back on the old Department of Foreign Affairs strategy.

This pan-nationalist policy has two prongs: sucking up to Sinn Fein and running to London for leverage against unionists.

Proof that Fine Gael was following the wrong party's playbook was provided when Pearse Doherty warmly supported Coveney's attack on Micheal Martin in the Dail last Thursday.

Doherty patronisingly also thanked Coveney and his "officials", another reminder that Sinn Fein treats the Department of Foreign Affairs as if it were on a permanent retainer. Quelle surprise.

Last week The Irish Times played down the fact that Fine Gael had over-promised both on Brexit and on a Belfast deal. But not Ivan Yates and Matt Cooper on The Tonight Show.

Matt Cooper mordantly remarked that McDonald's cry of "Tiocfaidh Ar La" might not have been seen as an olive branch by the DUP, while Ivan Yates grilled the emollient Eoin O Broin.

Finally, two predictions. First, Arlene Foster will do a deal as soon as Dublin stops running to London to lean on unionists.

Second, holding Sinn Fein's hand upsets unionists and decent people down here. Micheal Martin is smart enough to adopt the robust stance of Sister Michael in Derry Girls.

"If anyone is feeling anxious, worried or maybe you just want a chat, please, please do not come crying to me."

Sunday Independent

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