Wednesday 17 July 2019

Paisley and Provos - two sides of one tribal coin

Illustration by Jim Cogan
Illustration by Jim Cogan
Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

William Faulkner famously said the past is not even past. And the past was a living presence at the Kennedy Summer School in New Ross the weekend before last. Not least because Baroness Nuala O'Loan was there to remind us that the Northern problem could return, red in tooth and claw.

That is why the next general election is so crucial. A result that sees Sinn Fein riding high could tempt that party into the kind of posturing about a united Ireland that would undo any gains made so far. So it is vital that Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Labour conduct campaigns that reflect that reality.

Actually, I was in New Ross to talk about the art and craft of national political campaigns. So far I have seen four types: commercial, charismatic, crisis and consolidation. A fifth kind - a campaign that produces real change - is something I have not seen so far.

Commercial campaigns are dominated by ad agencies as in the 1977 General Election. Charismatic campaigns include those of de Valera, Garret FitzGerald and Bertie Ahern. Crisis campaigns, such as the 2011 general election, are usually followed by consolidation campaigns, conducted by whatever government party had to clean up the mess.

The 2011 election was a crisis campaign. Fine Gael should have done far better. But Phil Hogan let Labour off the hook in the last week. Indeed, I remember texting him to ask why Rabbitte and himself did not rent a room.

Looking ahead, we can predict a consolidation campaign for the 2016 general election. Indeed Michael Noonan has used the word "consolidation" twice since last weekend. As Shane Coleman pointed out recently in the Irish Independent, the next election is the Government's to lose.

But if current recovery continues, if Enda Kenny conducts a tough campaign to achieve an overall majority, and there is no truckling to Sinn Fein's green agenda - then Fine Gael should be able to govern without worrying about Sinn Fein.

The only thing that could upset Fine Gael's rosy future is a new party led by Lucinda Creighton. But she and her colleagues are spending far too much time in debate. As Napoleon advised: "first engage the enemy, then find out."

* * * * *

Nuala O'Loan's lecture 'History Repeats Itself' was the highlight of the Kennedy School. Aristotle says the crucial component in any speech is the character of the speaker. And no photograph captures Nuala O'Loan's aura of natural authority.

She was speaking in the shadow of the death of Ian Paisley, and First Minister Peter Robinson saying Stormont was not fit for purpose. And she asked and answered the question: what is the core problem in Northern politics?

"I think that it lies in sectarianism. The parties are divided on sectarian lines on so many issues. At the root of it all lie three issues - the past, flags and parades - which have divided us for so long."

But O'Loan is not one to point out problems without an attempt to remedy them. She called for one totally independent investigative, fully empowered and fully resourced body called the Investigation Commission, with a remit to examine any Troubles-related cases involving death up to 2006, the date of the St. Andrew's Agreement.

Speakng of Jean McConville, she did not shirk the concrete detail where the devil is. "They told the children that she had run away with a British soldier, and for nearly 30 years they denied any role in her death. Yet, they finally admitted that they shot her dead, one lonely night by a beach in County Louth."

Baroness O'Loan does not deal in bromides. She said that while truth and reconciliation were the cornerstones of future peace in Northern Ireland, the relationship between the two was problematic. "It can be very hard for people to admit the truth, to acknowledge the truth, even to learn the truth, when it is a truth which they find so difficult to accept. So truth is not easy."

* * * * *

The saccharine reactions of many southern commentators to the death of Ian Paisley showed how the peace process has distorted that sense of truth. In private life Paisley was a decent and compassionate man. But his political legacy was lethal, and his last-minute conversion came far too late.

Far too many commentators fell for Sinn Fein's crocodile tears and maudlin messages in the book of condolences. Of course the Provos had to praise Paisley. They lived off the same tribal life-blood, these Siamese twins of sectarianism.

Sarah Carey in the Herald shared my problem with the pundits who portrayed Paisley as a kind of prodigal son. She reminded us that Gusty Spence showed real remorse, but Paisley never confessed his sins. Paisley frequently called on the Provos to repent but refused to do so himself.

On the day he became First Minister, he brushed aside the bloody rhetoric of his past. "That was yesterday. Today is today. Tomorrow is tomorrow." Another glib refusal to show remorse for his reactionary role in stoking sectarian fires.

Aristotle says you should pardon people. But only when they act "because of conditions of a sort that overstrain human nature, and that no one would endure." In the absence of unbearable pressures, justice comes before forgiveness.

But Tommie Gorman's nuanced report on Paisley's passing revealed that in one sense, justice was not denied. He pointed out that Paisley personally paid the price for delaying his conversion. He had only that one happy year and by then had lost the faculties to allow him enjoy more.

* * * * *

The broadcaster John O Donoghue, who died last weekend, was also a public figure. But his legacy was benign, from his brilliant start in broadcasting, to his last loving years, surrounded by a family which relished his relentless passion for learning new things and passing them on.

Back in 1966, John became one of the three public faces of 7 Days, the first foot-in-the-door current affairs programme on RTE. There were only five on our tiny team - John O'Donoghue, Brian Farrell, Brian Cleeve, Dick Hill, Lelia Doolan and myself - but we were fit for purpose and fought the good fight.

None of us were over 40. Wordsworth's lines "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive but to be young was very heaven" summed up how we felt. Lelia Doolan's fine prayer, composed for John's funeral mass, is also a prayer for public service broadcasting.

"All the endless and painstaking work that is grist to the mill of the political public service broadcaster was second nature to John - polymath and pioneer. He was a model of the kind of passionate-dispassionate, witty, truth-seeking explorer who is modest and trustworthy, and the cornerstone of intelligent, humane public service. He understood the value of irony; was always engaging and engaged; archeological in pursuing the nub of the matter, with courtesy, always without an agenda, always without rancour. May that brave and zesty spirit of his never die - and especially in broadcasters with dimples who love parties! Lord and Lady hear us." Amen to that.

Sunday Independent

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