Sunday 15 September 2019

Eoghan Harris: 'Coveney rightly calls out Sinn Fein's cynical abstention'

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Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

Back in 1967, during a row in RTE, my mentor Jack Dowling told me that one of my faults was a failure to recognise unmanageable situations or unmanageable expectations.

After that I became more alert. By 1971, I was ready to accept Conor Cruise O'Brien's belief that we could not bully a million unionists into a united Ireland.

What we can do, however, is keep them in a state of perpetual fear which causes them to cling to Tory nurse for fear of something worse.

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Sinn Fein's perpetual pressure about border polls stokes the DUP's paranoia. But even moderate Remain unionists are critical of the loose language of the Irish Government.

Robin Swann, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party and a supporter of Remain, criticised the Taoiseach and Tanaiste's approach, on the eve of the FG Ard Fheis.

"Despite repeated warnings to tone down the language, and act like good neighbours, the brash behaviour of the Irish Government led by Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney may yet lead to a place where none of us want to go."

My own criticisms are about tone. I agree the Irish Government was right to seek a soft border. I do not agree it had to go about it in such a hard way.

Likewise, our media mandarins, so busy beating up on British Leavers, forget our most respected politicians had reservations about the EEC.

Eamon de Valera, speaking in the Dail in the 1950s, said he would never accept the European project because it would negate Irish independence.

Some of our pundits should note that today's Tory Brexiteers sound like a lot of Irish nationalists before we joined the EEC.

But while I can bear our mandarins beating up on the Brits, as a Wolfe Tone republican I have a problem with their tribal tones when denouncing the DUP.

Doing so is a waste of time. We have no political leverage over the DUP. But we have plenty of leverage on Sinn Fein.

Simon Coveney, like Senator Ned O'Sullivan of Fianna Fail, has rightly called out Sinn Fein's cynical abstention from Westminster as a betrayal of the Irish people.

Raul Hilberg, in his classic work on the Holocaust, Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders, reserved some of his harshest words for the bystanders.

Sinn Fein are bystanders. But they are not neutral. They are bystanders who sometimes take a hand as perpetrators, too.

Because Sinn Fein doesn't just sit on the fence and refuse to help the cause of the Irish Republic at Westminster.

On the contrary, the party continually pours poison into the body politic of Northern Ireland by going on about border polls.

Right now, instead of beating up on unionists, our media mandarins should be focusing on Sinn Fein's fence-sitting and exposing its alleged 'mandate' as a manipulative fraud.

So why did Sean O'Rourke let Eoin O Broin lecture unionists at length last Friday without taking him apart about abstention at Westminster?

Sean O'Rourke's show aside, and in spite of the Putin-style ban on my participation on political programmes, I am happy to note RTE's excellent coverage leading up to Theresa May's proposals.

Three moments stand out. First, Tommie Gorman's revelatory interview with Arlene Foster last Saturday.

Foster looked fragile. As fragile as her grip on a party which seems 'half in love with easeful death'.

None more so than the delusional Nigel Dodds, in deep denial about the growing British desire to cast unionists adrift.

Tommie Gorman's determination to be fair to Foster allowed her to lower her guard and gave us a glimpse of a good woman trying to manage the unmanageable.

What was not visible on the screen was Tommie's bit of TLC, which strikes me as a model of how we ought to behave to each other on this small island.

Foster was suffering from a bad dose of bronchitis and stuffed with antibiotics. As a chesty person myself, I know how shaky antibiotics can make you feel.

On top of that, she was running late for a clinic and hadn't eaten when she stopped at the Killyhevlin Hotel for the interview.

But she still showed her goodwill to the Republic by talking to Tommie first and letting the BBC, UTV and Sky wait until later.

As she sat down, tired and hungry, Tommie told her he'd asked the hotel to prepare a hot plate she could eat in her high-security jeep between the hotel and her clinic. No wonder it was a warm and insightful interview.

Second, Aine Lawlor's interview with Bertie Ahern and John Bruton on The Week in Politics.

What a feast of reason to listen to the reflections of two political adults who have not lost their vision and have no hidden agenda.

Supported by Claire Hanna of the SDLP on the link, they reminded us that the really bad side of Brexit was how it was ripping apart any residual goodwill from the Good Friday Agreement.

Finally, Claire Byrne, in Belfast, brought balance and light to a discussion - whereas a badly briefed Stephen Nolan in Dublin brought nothing but bluster.

That experimental swap brought home the gap between perceptions of Brexit north and south - and gave us a glimpse of the fears of decent unionists.

As Orwell says, it's harder to hate people when you meet them face to face - or when you see them on a television screen.

Now, I understand the economic impact of Brexit may matter more to you than Northern Ireland.

But economies can recover and with effort we will regain lost ground.

What concerns those of us who have been around a bit longer is the weeping wound of sectarianism, where Sinn Fein green is only a sign of gangrene.

We have to guard against the same Sinn Fein sepsis in the Republic. But what chance of that when Sean O'Rourke can listen respectfully to Eoin O Broin without breaking into disbelieving laughter?

O Broin, who is demented to be in government, was also nice to Leo Varadkar. He's never nice to Micheal Martin, who has his number.

This confirms my belief that Fine Gael and Sinn Fein will do a post-electoral deal.

So does the cosmetic motion before the FG Ard Fheis, purportedly giving the decision to enter office to an electoral college - but leaving the power-hungry TDs and senators in control.

This is the much-derided 'democratic centralism' of communist parties in all but name. It is meant to bypass those in Fine Gael with a delicate stomach for doing business with Sinn Fein.

Compare this centralism with Micheal Martin's Fianna Fail, whose rank and file members have the final say, and whose leader has set his face firmly against going into government with a party whose closets still conceal skeletons.

Last week, Martin spoke in Belfast in the kind of language that lets decent unionists listen without fear of the future. He said it was not his place to tell unionism what to do but he did add a home truth.

"What I can say, though, is that it is strongest and has the most impact when it shows a self-confidence in itself and tries not to find a constitutional significance in every issue."

Sunday Independent

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