Friday 13 December 2019

Eoghan Harris: Time to stop nitpicking -- say sorry and then shut up

Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

NATIONALIST apologists argue the one way. Point out some big wood -- sectarian attacks on Protestants -- and they start to beat about a small bush. What they will not do is stop nitpicking, say sorry and shut up.

Confronted by the cold facts of the shootings of 13 Protestants in Dunmanway, the first healing step is to say sorry without buts or bluster, shut up for long enough to show you are sincere, and only after a decent interval say whatever can be said by way of mitigation.

Allegations about sectarian actions by the old IRA got rough rejection. Historians like the late Peter Hart got a hard time. Last week I got a touch of the same lash.

Fr Brian Murphy OSB, a prolific critic of Peter Hart's work, finished a letter to this paper about issues arising from An Tost Fada, as follows: "It is important that light be allowed to heal the scars and wounds of sectarian darkness that emanate from the pen of Eoghan Harris."

Naturally the editorial end of the paper drew my attention to that sentence. I would have been within my legal rights to have it removed as possibly defamatory. But I decided to let it stand. Because I think it says more about Fr Brian Murphy than about me.

Fr Murphy's first response to An Tost Fada should have been the same as that of the Roman Catholic Bishop of Cork, Rev John Buckley (and a man who knows the words of the Boys of Kilmichael), who wrote to Canon Salter in warm terms to congratulate him on his testimony.

In the spirit of Bishop Buckley, Fr Murphy should have first said something positive about An Tost Fada before proceeding to first pick some nits with me and then finish up by making nasty accusations. So let me reply in the same robust fashion.

Fr Murphy's letter starts two hares, which have nothing to do with the issues raised in An Tost Fada. First, he says the fact that the first Dail Eireann appointed three Protestants to the National Land Bank proves the "Irish republican movement had no sectarian agenda".

So? I never wrote that the institutional Irish republican movement was sectarian. I do not believe that the first Dail or Sinn Fein or even the IRA were sectarian. I simply said there was a sectarian side to some specific IRA actions. Which there was.

Leaving that aside, what on earth has a National Land Bank got to do with Dunmanway murders? Canon Salter's

father was driven from Dunmanway because the local IRA wrongly thought he might be a spy. Land had nothing to do with him leaving.

Fr Murphy's second hare is to cite the "evidence of Robert Beamish, a director of Beamish and Crawford", whom he quotes as telling Lloyd George on August 4, 1920, "that the Protestants of the South had no fears on grounds of creed!" (Fr Murphy's exclamation mark).

Let me start with something dangerously close to a nitpick. Fr Murphy gets the name of the director of Beamish and Crawford wrong. It's Richard, not Robert Beamish. And Richard Beamish was indeed part of a delegation of southern unionists who met with Lloyd George in August 1920 in support of Dominion Home Rule, and he did say these hopeful things about the position of southern Protestants.

But that was in August 1920. Nothing bad had happened to Cork Protestants at that stage. But what Fr Murphy leaves out is that Beamish would not have been likely to say the same thing to Lloyd George two years later. Not after two senior members of the Dominion Home Rule League, including its secretary, had been shot dead as 'spies' in Cork.

Shortly after Richard Beamish made his hopeful statement in August 1920, Cork IRA units under Sean Hegarty, Florrie O'Donoghue and Martin Corry began to systematically shoot Protestants. Between the summer of 1920 and the start of the Civil War, 33 Protestants were shot in Cork city proper, and another 40 were put to death in the area around the city.

That's a total of 73 Protestant victims. During Kristallnacht, in Nazi Germany, 91 Jews were killed. If the murder of 91 Jews could terrorise the entire German Jewish community, it is not hard to imagine the impact of killing 73 Protestants on the comparatively small Cork Protestant community.

As an act of Cork pietas, I want to put a few things about Richard Beamish on the record. My generation would have heard their grandparents speaking affectionately of "Dickie Beamish". Even his republican opponents respected him as a public-spirited Corkman.

In spite of the murder of 73 of his fellow co-religionists, Richard Beamish bravely decided to give the new state a go. In the 1923 General Election, he stood for the Progressive Association in Cork. As proof of his high standing in the community he was elected TD.

Beamish sat in Dail Eireann until 1927 but did not contest the election of that year and returned to his first love, local Cork politics. He was elected alderman in 1930.

But his public spirit reached its limit when Fianna Fail came to power in 1932. Men like Martin Corry, with Protestant blood on their hands, were now coming to power.

Disillusioned, Beamish left for England early in 1932. His story is emblematic of southern Protestants in general. They did their best to put the sectarian murders behind them, stayed in civic life, and only finally put their heads down when tribal nationalists took prominent parts in public life.

Let me remind Fr Murphy that Christianity demands the clarity of truth. Far from my writings fomenting sectarian feelings, all the feedback shows that An Tost Fada has been widely welcomed by Cork Catholics and Protestants as a major step towards healing historical wounds.

But even if the two communities found some truths hard to hear, we would still have a duty to lay them bare. Only the truth can flush away the poisons of the past. That is why I feel we owe such a huge debt to the late Canadian historian Peter Hart.

Thanks to Hart's classic book The IRA and its Enemies, we are freeing ourselves from the festering folklore of nationalist agitators. Thanks to Hart we are no longer prisoners of those who peddle lethal legacies, such as the lie that the Dunmanway Protestants were shot as spies.

Canon Salter's truth-telling did some service to his own community. But it did a deeper service to Irish society as a whole. It reminded us to look out for those who are left out: the minorities, the marginalised, the socially mute.

And in the week that was in it, the week of Cardinal Brady or the BAI report on RTE, Salter's testimony reminds us never to stay silent when we should speak out.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss