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Eoghan Harris: Starry-eyed ploughers and the sinister Northern star

Who is the real Martin McGuinness? The one who told us at the Sinn Fein ard fheis he "treasures" the Unionist tradition? Or the one who calls us West Brits? We need to know because one is Weimar and the other is Third Reich.

The Weimar Republic was destroyed by twin forces. Economically, by a recession. Politically, by the malign myth that Germany had been stabbed in the back, chiefly by German Jews.

The Irish Republic should reflect on the resonances. The McGuinness campaign also runs on a recession and a malign myth -- that the British ran a brutally repressive regime in Northern Ireland. Anyone who challenges this is called a 'West Brit'.

The phrase 'West Brit' is not just a joking jibe. In my childhood it was widely used by Old IRA veterans -- backed by bared teeth and a glinting guilty eye -- to dehumanise the Protestants they had burned out, driven out and sometimes murdered as "spies".

Calling Irish democrats 'West Brits' was McGuinness's second biggest mistake. The biggest was not to come clean, confess he had done many bad things, and express the same "abject remorse" as Gusty Spence of the Combined Loyalist Military Command.

Until he does, the Irish Republic, as a sovereign State, has the right to set its own political and moral standards. These standards can be separate from Northern Ireland which is a post-conflict polity, supervised by two governments. But we have no divine right to survive as a sovereign State if we do not say why McGuinness should not be President.

Last week we did not defend the Irish Republic. Day after day the propagandists of the Provisional IRA dominated the airwaves. Enda Kenny stayed silent. When Alan Shatter finally spoke he made a fool of himself, accusing McGuinness of something like a social faux pas.

Last Saturday, Marian Finucane asked me if McGuinness would be put under pressure by the media. I replied: not by RTE News and Current Affairs. In support of this I pointed out that in the recent General Election, RTE News had failed to ask Gerry Adams any specific question about Jean McConville.

They failed again last weekend to ask specific questions about the Derry murders of Patsy Gillespie and Frank Hegarty when McGuinness was a senior officer of the IRA in Derry. As I have been stressing for 25 years to no avail. I stress "specific" because Provo spokespersons love RTE presenters asking them abstract questions about their alleged membership of the IRA Army Council.

Back in 1987, in a media document Television and Terrorism I predicted that if Section 31 were removed the Provos would run rings around RTE presenters. RTE reporters would simply make a case, based on facts without flesh (which I called "factualism"), while Provos would tell a story of stirring dramatic power.

That is exactly what happened. But apart from the reluctance of RTE News to produce specific victims with specific stories, there are two further weapons in the Provos' propaganda armoury: The Cult of Pearse and the Cult of Michael Collins, the glamorous gunman.

Let me prove these propositions, starting with the buried bodies that everybody pretended not to notice at the National Ploughing Championships. McGuinness was cheered by the crowds. They will go on cheering until the media creates a mental picture of the corpses to which he is connected.

John Bruton showed the power of habeas corpus when he spoke of looking into the coffin of the slain Senator Billy Fox. So did the Cook Report when it recounted how McGuinness had repeatedly told Frank Hegarty's mother that her son could come home safely. RTE News is dodging its duty by not doing the same.

McGuinness is running a mass propaganda campaign. If we want to defend Irish democracy we must play hardball. This is no time for media sissies, simpering about "good taste".

A few years ago, the Sunday Independent ran a powerful picture of Det Sgt Jerry McCabe's bullet-riddled body. It brutally brought home to a generation grown up in peace that the armed struggle was no abstract freedom fight. It boiled down to the brutal butchery of Ann McCabe's beloved husband.

The Provos' supporters knew the picture had hurt them. The media hush puppies muttered about "bad taste" and "cashing in" and wondered "what the family would think". But Mrs McCabe blew them out of the water.

She said she had given permission for the picture of her dead husband to be used. She wanted to stand by her man, even in death. She wanted to show what the IRA had done to him. She wanted to defend Irish democracy.

Last week the only successful challenges to the Provo propaganda machine were those which produced the bodies, metaphorically speaking: Joe Duffy's radio shows; Michael McDowell on Frontline and Andrew Lynch in the Evening Herald. Fintan O'Toole penned a powerful abstract analysis in The Irish Times, but it lacked the visceral punch needed to create empathy with the victims.

Frontline proved my belief both in the power of specific victims and the danger of the Cults of Pearse and Collins. Michael McDowell came on thinking he could wing it. And was taken aback when Pat Kenny caught him in a cleft stick about the Cult of Collins.

This visibly flustered McDowell. But it also forced him to stop waffling about abstractions. He had to reach for something real, so he reached for the story of Jean McConville. For the first time that night we heard his righteous anger.

Like McDowell, O'Toole was also cornered: by the cult of Pearse. On Newstalk, Eamon Dunphy faced him with the fact that the 1916 men had no mandate. To which O'Toole had no real answer.

Last week, McGuinness gave a reality check to the cosy consensus of the Irish Republic. Enda Kenny will have to break his monastic silence, and tell us what he thinks about the armed struggle. He will also have to reflect on how the cosy Cult of Pearse and Collins may soon rebound on him.

So will Michael D Higgins who boasted that he had removed Section 31. Well, the chief beneficiary of that removal was McGuinness. Who will now force Higgins to say where he stands on McGuinness's IRA activities; as Gay Mitchell has done?

Above all Micheal Martin and Fianna Fail will rue the day they did not reject their republican rednecks. David Norris was their last chance to connect with a new modern Ireland. Sinn Fein will now step into their cowardly shoes.

Good riddance. Because you can be sure it was a Fianna Fail senator who called David Norris a "West Brit" when in a Seanad debate of 1990 he challenged the Supreme Court's stupid assertion that Irish unity was "a constitutional imperative".

Finally: Richard English in his classic Irish Freedom points out that first West Brit in Irish history was St Patrick -- born in the west of Roman Britain. We are all West Brits now.

Sunday Independent