Wednesday 21 August 2019

Eoghan Harris: Sunningdale has hard lessons to teach Leo and Simon on North

'Sunningdale for Slow Learners'
'Sunningdale for Slow Learners'
Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

In spite of being one his most consistent critics, I would never belittle the dark brilliance of Gerry Adams, both as a political leader and strategist.

Adams can credibly claim to be the chief creator of the formidable Sinn Fein party machine which gathers for its annual oiling this weekend.

Adams is also the author of Sinn Fein's strategy: to get into government in the Republic while creating a rolling crisis in the North, ending somehow in an enforced united Ireland.

I believe such a strategy is more likely to end in civil strife. But I also believe Irish politicians are weak enough to walk into it because they suffer from two delusions.

First, they wrongly think Adams is on the way out when in reality he and the boys of the old brigade are still firmly in charge.

Second, they are still in thrall to Adams's greatest achievement: hiding the Provos behind John Hume.

Let's take these two in turn. Far from being a Robert Mugabe on the way out, Adams will continue to micro-manage two major tactical campaigns.

In the North a strategy meeting last January, in the Felons Club Belfast, addressed by Adams, decided that Martin McGuinness should step down as Deputy First Minister so as to bring down the Northern Executive.

Adams is also behind the astute move to accept a junior partnership in a southern coalition - astute because it looks both humble and "realistic" to Middle Ireland.

But it is Adams's current manipulation of the John Hume legacy that poses a terrible dilemma for Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and the leader of the Opposition, Micheal Martin.

They must choose between the Hume policy of drawing Dublin deeper into the North or take Conor Cruise O'Brien's advice to refuse that poisoned chalice.

Proof that the Hume policy still hypnotises both politicians and pundits was provided recently on The Week in Politics.

Nobody on the panel demurred when Fiach Kelly of The Irish Times said Dublin should get involved more in the North crisis.

That's because the belief that the Republic must be always ready to assist the agenda of Northern nationalists is deeply ingrained in Irish politics and media.

John Hume did the ingraining and thanks to his saintly status few dare to challenge his stance.

But that is precisely what Conor Cruise O'Brien began to do as far back as 1973-4 during the talks on Sunningdale, in the course of which a fundamental difference developed between him and Hume.

As a member of the Irish Cabinet, O'Brien began to have misgivings about Hume's policy of looking for a greater role for the Republic in governing Northern Ireland.

The core issue was whether the Irish Government should settle for a power-sharing deal in the North - or give in to John Hume's pressure to also push for a Council of Ireland that would give Dublin executive powers in Northern Ireland.

Looking back, in his Memoir, O'Brien recalls his reservations about the Hume policy at Sunningdale.

"I warmly welcomed the idea of a bi-partisan government for Northern Ireland. But I thought the Council of Ireland, with the implication of progress towards a united Ireland, might be a bridge too far."

He was shocked when Garret FitzGerald showed no understanding of unionist feeling.

"Garret answered, in a tone of cold superiority such as he had never used to me before, that Northern Ireland was no longer like that. The Protestant population would accept the Council of Ireland without difficulty."

Who had brainwashed FitzGerald into such a mad, delusional certitude - which would shortly be destroyed by the Ulster Workers' Council strike?

O'Brien knew the answer: "This I knew was a certitude he had derived from John Hume."

Simon Coveney might note that Peter Barry was later graceful enough to admit that O'Brien had been right to warn that the Council of Ireland was a bridge too far.

Later on, O'Brien also challenged Hume on what he saw as a peace process manipulated by the Provos. To which O'Brien's critics respond by asking what was the alternative?

The alternative was for the Irish Government and RTE to subject the Provos to a sceptical scrutiny at every stage - which they never did.

These two giants, Hume and O'Brien, still sit behind the Taoiseach's shoulder, offering him conflicting advice, as he ponders the problem posed by Sinn Fein, Brexit and the Northern talks.

He should start with Sunningdale because the debate between Hume and O'Brien is still relevant to the welfare of the Republic.

Luckily, Leo Varadkar can now read a first-hand account by Noel Dorr, then working for the Department of Foreign Affairs, whose new book on Sunningdale* tries, mostly successfully, to be fair.

The few failures are when he indulges in petty DFA point-scoring. He stresses that O'Brien was part of the Government that submitted the Sunningdale terms to the Dail. But O'Brien, always loyal to Cosgrave, was just doing his Cabinet duty.

In fairness, Dorr also records that O'Brien expressed his misgivings about the Council of Ireland to the Cabinet, where he was the sole sceptic.

Dorr is somewhat coy about where he stands on the Council of Ireland. But he is careful to quote its critics, so perhaps with time he sees the folly.

Leo could also learn a lot from Dorr's account, about the dangers of Northern nationalists recruiting the EU to batter unionists.

He records some hard-line proposals from the DFA for a joint Irish-UK approach to regional EU policy in the North - but under the aegis of the Council of Ireland.

Despite some DFA touchiness about the equal status of the British and Irish governments in relation to the North, Dorr is a reliable reporter who records the downside of the Hume hyperbole about the Council of Ireland.

He notes that the initial estimate of the Department of Public Service suggested that 20,000 civil servants might need to be transferred to work on the proposed Council of Ireland.

Referring to that mad figure, Dorr notes with restraint: "If it had become public at the time it might well have sunk the concept of the council on the spot."

He also gives a hint that Dublin politicians' professed respect for the unionist position on unity may not have run that deep.

"It is also true that even though the Taoiseach and Garret FitzGerald had some understanding of unionist fears and were prepared to engage in a Council of Ireland without seeking to predetermine the outcome, they also had more than a gleam in the eye at times about the possibility that the council might set the island on a long-term path to unity."

That green gleam of ambivalence allows Gerry Adams to manipulate the Republic's policy on Northern Ireland and whip up tribal passions on Brexit.

The green gleam may also have led to the graceless failure of RTE and first responders to thank England fully for supporting our rugby bid. England showed up - just as they did at Lansdowne Road in 1973.

*Sunningdale: The Search for Peace in Northern Ireland by Noel Dorr, RIA

Sunday Independent

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