Sunday 25 August 2019

Eoghan Harris: 'Ireland can be a pivotal broker between London and Brussels'

Cartoon by Jim Cogan
Cartoon by Jim Cogan
Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

Last weekend, I headed for Ardfinnan, Co Tipperary, where my sister Brigid and her husband Fintan McIntyre farm a small holding in sight of Slievenamon.

Being of simple tastes, I spent most of bank holiday Sunday sitting outside Pat Donovan's Heritage shop in Cahir, facing the square, accosting and being accosted by readers of the Sunday Independent.

Reassuringly, most readers seemed to agree with the Irish Independent editorial last Saturday, warning: "This is not a contest on who will blink first but rather whose eyes are open as we breach the cliff edge."

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I broke off these musings to have a chat with Martina Power sitting nearby, who told me she had had 14 children, looked young enough to have 14 more, and gave me a laugh about her mother's habit of wiping under teacups while guests were still drinking.

Then I tuned into Marian Finucane where Daniel McConnell, Ray Bassett and Jim Power all confirmed the Cahir view that the backstop, so seductive at the start, was becoming a boulder.

The main dissenting voice was that of Jonathan Powell to whom the panel showed a baffling deference given his sentiments seemed similar to Sinn Fein's.

Powell first set off alarm bells for me when I studied his too-relaxed body language in the famous photo of Tony Blair and himself at No 10, sprawled chummily on sofas with Adams and McGuinness.

He confirmed my fears when he later wrote that his only regret was not shaking hands with Adams and McGuinness. Really?

Powell is now a full-time peace processor who told The Guardian on October 7, 2014, he thinks the term terrorist "isn't a particularly useful term to define a group".

Again, really? Not even for the IRA gang which planted the bomb in Enniskillen or the Glenanne gang which murdered Catholics in a pub?

In his memoir, Great Hatred, Little Room, he also told us that Adams and McGuinness were "much more articulate and interesting than most other Northern Ireland politicians".

Again, really? More articulate than Seamus Mallon or David Trimble or John Alderdice?

During Powell's bad advice not to adjust our position on the backstop, I became distracted by a car problem in Cahir square.

A big man with a flat battery, whose car was blocked by one facing him, walked up and down in frustration carrying jump leads while the woman with him vaped like Hiroshima.

Time to act. Donning my captain's cap - any hat conveys instant authority - I told him to collect three lads from the corner and push his car backwards on to the main road while I stopped traffic with my cap.

This scheme worked splendidly. As we paused to draw breath, Ms Vaper suggested we push the heavy jalopy 200 yards to her car, parked at the Cahir Arms.

Reflecting that the whole thing reminded me of the backstop, I gave the love-lorn Mr Jump Leads a level look, and suggested it would be easier if Ms Vaper drove her car to us instead.

After the happy couple had departed in clouds of chemical smoke, on Martina's parting advice I went to the Shamrock Pub where I had sweet collar bacon and cabbage with a genuine homemade apple tart before facing back to the politics on my iPhone.

Fortified by full stomach, I studied the selection of abusive tweets about me.

These are compiled by my loving wife Gwen who has a gift for finding tawdry tweets from academics and journalists which can be filed for future use in cold dishes they will not relish.

There were two sordid constants. First, a subtext of sheer sectarian hatred because of my belief in reaching out to unionists.

Second, the smear that I am a traitorous Tory hack sucking up to British media. In fact I have turned down scores of UK media offers.

Last week, for example, I emailed the BBC and the Daily Mail to explain that, although I disagreed with my Government, I was not going to give it grief on British media while it was locked in battle on the backstop.

Thanks to the freedom of speech given to me in the Sunday Independent, I prefer to fight my backstop battle at home because I believe robust public debate is vital to Irish democracy.

But we don't do debates in Ireland. We do dogma.

Bank holiday Monday, I went to a talk on Geoffrey Keating, the great 17th Century Irish historian, given by a scholar who is also some kind of saint. Here's the backstory.

My sister Brigid goes to Irish classes in Duhill conducted by Seosaimhin Nic Eachaidh from Co Tyrone, who wanted to organise a talk on Keating. Brigid's friend, Dr Ann Buckley of TCD, who had agreed to do it, was forced to cancel last Thursday.

Ann gave Brigid the name of Dr Bernadette Cunningham of the Royal Irish Academy who was on leave. Brigid left text messages without much hope. What saint would travel from Galway at short notice to a small rural community hall on a bank holiday Monday?

But Dr Bernadette Cunningham of the Royal Irish Academy, a leading authority on Keating, arrived at Duhill Community Hall in good time to deliver a tour de force talk of accessible scholarship to the appreciative audience who packed the hall.

Tipperary's glow grew last week. Leo Varadkar reached out to unionists in Belfast, and gave Sinn Fein a reality check on what a united Ireland might mean in practice. Meantime, Sinn Fein struggled vainly to explain what was wrong with Fintan O'Toole's plan for them to put their Westminster seats to work.

But the glow faded last Friday morning when I woke to read tweets by Tony Connelly and a column by Stephen Collins, both strongly bigging up no backdown on the backstop.

Connelly's 11-part tweet was presented as a read of the Irish Government's position, but to me seemed more like his position.

Stephen Collins put his normal pluralism aside to pen an attack on Brexiteers which, like so many similar pieces in The Irish Times, seemed to me to breach the thin line in the public mind between Brexiteer bashing and Brit bashing.

RTE and The Irish Times are so heavily invested in the backstop that everything they say must be filtered through that prism.

But my low spirits were lifted when, by some serendipity, my flying visit to Fields in Skibbereen coincided with that of Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe.

Without wishing to do Paschal damage, he has been my favourite Fine Gael politician since we sat in the Seanad together, swapping ideas from Aristotle to Lyndon B Johnson.

My own quite good UK sources say the Brits were hugely impressed by him during his recent visit.

The Irish Government could do worse than commission him to carry out a mission, which I think is quite feasible as follows.

Instead of Ireland allowing events take their lethal course, instead of being the potential victim of poor relations between London and Brussels, why not make Ireland the pivotal broker between Brussels and London in a process to secure an orderly British exit from the EU?

Paschal Donohoe, steel hand in velvet glove, was born to broker such a vital mission for our country.

Sunday Independent

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