Monday 16 September 2019

Eoghan Harris: 'Angela Merkel will be sorely missed by the European Union'

Harris cartoon Nov 4
Harris cartoon Nov 4
Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

Like all great leaders, Angela Merkel will not be missed until she has left the stage and we see the pygmies in her place.

Hearing the news she was stepping down, I thought of what a man in the crowd said watching the cortege of Frederick the Great pass by: "We're on our own now."

Merkel is not a liberal democrat. She is a Christian democrat. And she takes the Christian part seriously.

We saw that in her bravery in opening Germany's borders to a million refugees - a decision her enemies used to erode her politically.

But a hundred years from now, when that million has long settled into Germany, history will see Merkel as a moral giant.

In saluting her thus, I do not mean she is a goody-goody politician. I mean she is in the same league as Lyndon B Johnson.

Like LBJ, Merkel is a flawed human being who redeems the art of politics by using every political trick in the playbook to push for progressive reform - as she did with refugees and later with same-sex marriage.

Again like LBJ, Merkel is a mistress of politics as the art of the possible, as a choice of evils, and as the most noble profession of all when practised by a good human being who is not a hypocrite.

At the macro level, Merkel is the moral glue that binds a European Union beset by Brexit and populist pressures on all side.

At the micro level, she has shown the same skills. As a Christian, she first rejected same-sex marriage with conflicted sincerity.

But she pragmatically used a meeting with a lesbian couple to let her publicly change her perspective on gay marriage.

Merkel is the mistress of triangulation. She gave her party a free vote on gay marriage but she did not personally endorse it.

She can make major moves quietly, witness her handling of the fraught issue of sending German troops overseas.

Having started two world wars, Germany was understandably nervous about stepping in to stop other wars, particularly in the Balkans conflict.

Merkel broke the taboo by sending German soldiers to serve in the Balkans, Lebanon and Somalia.

She even said that she'd send German troops to guard buffer zones in the Jordan Valley in the event that this was required after an Israeli-Palestinian peace.

In short, she has no time for the amoral neutralist posturing we have loved since Frank Aiken's era at External Affairs.

But the most moving moment in her courageous career was her visit to the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset, in 2008, where she was the first person allowed to speak German.

Like De Valera on big state occasions, she dressed in black. She exuded what the conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott would call "humility without humiliation".

Speaking to a gathering where many had lost relatives in the Holocaust, she did not spare herself or the German people.

"The Shoah fills us Germans with shame. I bow before the victims. I bow before the survivors and before all who helped them survive."

She then showed Israel these were not empty words by flatly stating she was on Israel's side against Iran.

She got a standing ovation at the Knesset and she deserves a standing ovation from all Europeans for defending the elusive political value George Orwell called "decency".

Merkel is what in Irish would be called a "bean stuama", meaning a prudent or level-headed person.

This comes across in her calm judgment of her people. "I don't think Germans are particularly bad or outstandingly good."

Sean Lemass showed the same clear-eyed balance when he said: "If the Irish people have a fault, it's a tendency to feel sorry for ourselves."

Hard to imagine current politicians, or public intellectuals, having the humility to tell us that current wallowing in past victimhood is poisoning the national psyche.

Last week The Irish Times published an attack on England and English people that might have struck it as tribal if we were the target.

Earlier in the week, as the Peter Casey row rumbled on, Fintan O'Toole wrote that fascism lurked beneath the surface of Irish society.

Maybe, but the most dangerous form it has taken in the past two years is the current revival of Irish nationalism using Brexit as a populist cover.

Edmund Burke said he saw no way to indict a whole people. We should have taken more trouble not to indict English people ( or indeed unionists) for the choices of Tory Ultras.

The Irish Times has a duty of care to the rising generation not to raise the tribal temperature, which is always too ready to rise.

Like Peter Casey's supporters, the purveyors of anti-English polemics claim they are only saying what people think, that they are speaking their mind. But as a friend of tell-all Norwegian novelist, Karl Ove Knausgaard, told him: "You don't have to say everything that comes into your mind, you know. Kids do that. Adults can put their utterances through quality control first."

Time to put our own self-pity on filter. Time the majority showed the same stoicism as southern protestants like Canon George Salter, currently recovering well after a fall that broke his hip.

Canon Salter was the subject of Gerry Gregg's film An Tost Fada, which showed him returning to the West Cork farm, which the IRA forced his father to leave during the War of Independence, and receiving a lovely welcome from its current occupants.

During my 20-minute visit to Canon Salter in St Vincent's Hospital, he insisted in speaking entirely in Irish - and was delighted I brought him a volume from the Skibbereen District & Historical Society.

By some serendipity, that same day my sister, Breda McIntyre, sent me Decies, journal of the Waterford Archaeological and Historical Society, to which she herself is a contributor.

The current issue centres on the year 1918, when conscription was the big issue but John Redmond was still king in Waterford.

Alice McDermott reveals the extraordinary coalition of social and political forces that gave Redmondism its long legs, stretching from his election in 1891 until Eddie Collins resigned from politics in 1986.

Finally, a note on RTE absences. Absent from news reports was any mention of the Provisional IRA's ties to the gangster Whitey Bulger.

Luckily, Joe Duffy saved RTE's face on Liveline by letting Tom Carew take us on a tour de force through the sewers of that match made in hell.

Another absence was my own absence from RTE panels on the presidential election, despite my major role in Mary Robinson's election campaign of 1990.

Time was I would let this Putin-type censorship go. No more. So here goes.

In her 2012 biography, Everybody Matters, Mary Robinson gave me generous credit for my three major contributions: writing a detailed political blueprint, making three television commercials (for free), and writing the speech with the famous line about "the hand that rocks the cradle rocked the system".

To cut me out of panels featuring relatively minor players was a crass act of arrogant censorship.

Sunday Independent

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

Don't Miss