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Eoghan Harris: 'Marian's vibrant voice lifted our hearts and opened minds'

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Death has taken a dreadful toll on the great generation of broadcasters these last months, but came far too early for Marian Finucane.

Before I say my few words in her memory, let me take a brief look North before finishing off some bits and pieces I neglected last year.

Tommie Gorman gave Simon Coveney some gentle, good advice last week: tone it down a bit to help talks in Northern Ireland.

Tommie was talking about perception more than policy - moderate unionists feel Coveney behaves a bit like a colonial governor.

Coveney himself is notable for good manners - a big plus in politics - witness his decent, concerned call to a bruised Verona Murphy.

But it would help if he brought the same delicacy to his dealings with decent Northern unionists.

Unionist friends, who correspond regularly, clearly feel enormous pressure from Britain and Ireland taking advantage of the mistake the DUP made in backing Brexit. In 50 years I have never detected such dejection among unionists, who, paradoxically, feel both encircled and excluded by a coalition of British and Irish forces, political and cultural.

Psychologically, they feel their space to be both British and Irish is shrinking under pressure.

Thanks to our tribal media, most people in the Republic have scant sympathy for them. But it would be very stupid of us to sit back and enjoy their discomfiture - because there is nothing more dangerous than a cornered people. Their sense of being subverted is backed by a belief that Coveney has bought fully into the mind-set of the Department of Foreign Affairs.

To them, DFA private briefings of biddable unionists seem to echo Stephen Rea's advice to quietly prepare for an "inevitable" united Ireland.

The problem is that Sinn Fein doesn't do quiet. And there is nothing inevitable about pushing a million Protestants where they don't want to go - except lots of trouble, of course.

The DFA's mindset - and that of the Irish Times - came across clearly in the latter's coverage of the State papers of the Republic for 1989 and the UK (NI) for 1996. My own impressionistic rendering of the headlines would read something like: 'Self-pity, navel-gazing and amnesia about the IRA's murder campaign.'

Apart from one report of the IRA murdering informers who were innocent, a sample of the headlines shows nothing to bother Sinn Fein.

We get: 'Tory party adviser who is ''very struck" by rapport between Margaret Thatcher and Charles Haughey.' We get: 'Thatcher switches off when Northern Ireland comes up - Irish diplomat 1989.' We get: 'Former Northern secretary critical of Thatcher and unionists.'

The impression is of a patient Haughey putting up with that cranky-cow Thatcher being a nuisance about the IRA murder gang.

The smug condescension towards Mrs Thatcher, both in the DFA reports and the Irish Times coverage, is extraordinary in its lack of empathy with a brave woman who narrowly escaped death in the Brighton bombing.

She is treated like a child who needs constant tutoring by DFA special needs teachers.

Creepily, along with the condescension comes an equally pathetic longing for her undivided attention - a colonial cringe that would have given Freud a field day.

Hypocrisy has a field day, too. The Irish Government and the DFA are constantly whining about Thatcher's necessary security measures against IRA attacks.

But back in 1974, when the loyalists went on strike against Sunningdale, Garret FitzGerald and the DFA wanted all the security muscle the British possessed to smash the unionist strike.

In 1974, the Irish Government and the DFA wanted the British army to crush the loyalists, but in 1986 they didn't want the British army to crush the IRA. If that is not a double standard, then what is?

*******

Towards the end of 2019 I kept meaning to say why I don't think Martin Scorsese's The Irishman is a great film: let me catch up now.

Be clear, I'm a big fan of Scorsese, with whom I had a positive exchange about his moral handling of screen violence at a film seminar he held in UCD.

A truly great film will finally prove to be both a critical and popular success. But there are three reasons why The Irishman will never be a popular classic.

First, the protagonist Frank Sheeran, played by De Niro, is a passive character - and passivity is a capital crime in drama.

A character who is dramatically interesting is an agent, not a victim, of the plot, as Sheeran is. He must also be intelligent enough to think ahead - as Sheeran clearly does not.

Second, Sheeran does not change from start to finish - except physically, and that unconvincingly. Lack of change is also death in drama because it deprives a drama of tragic catharsis.

Finally, because the film conveys no sense of having a cathartic destination, it lacks internal tension, lags in the middle, ends limply.

Just about bearable on a big screen, I bet only aspiring actors would be able to sit through it a second time on television.

*******

Thanks to my sister Breda in the United States for a great Christmas gift: Cian Manning's Waterford City: A History, a brilliantly popular history of the second-oldest city in Ireland.

Without boring us or getting bogged down in irrelevant detail, Manning takes us smoothly, mostly in brief but comprehensive one-page entries, from the marriage of Strongbow to the Celtic Tiger.

In an enjoyable journey, punctuated by lively drawings, maps and photos, we meet figures as diverse as Noel Browne and Sybil Connolly. But for all his brevity, Manning does not miss a footprint or a ruin but to recall what matters most about it. A treasure for Waterford exiles which will open the eyes of those lucky enough to be still at home.

*******

Marian Finucane was a continuity announcer anxious to break into serious television when I asked her to present a book show called Paperchase in 1975.

As there were few women presenters on television at the time, this was regarded as a risky choice. But some male peers who simply saw her as a pretty face were soon disabused.

At the end of the run, struck by the power of her voice, largely wasted on television, I advised her to find a slot in radio where I believed she would flourish.

Later, she returned triumphantly to television, her broadcasting spurs bloody from battle with the big beasts of Irish reaction and repression.

Because Marian was a high-profile campaigner for women there is, as Justine McCarthy pointed out, a danger of pigeon-holing her in that one slot.

But Finucane was bigger than any particular slot, a cool and fearless striker playing on the same first division team as Terry Wogan and Gay Byrne.

Also, I noted, unlike many male broadcasters, she was never afraid to call out Sinn Fein or the IRA .

Great broadcasters exude energy at any age. Gay Byrne retained a boyish quality to the end. Likewise, in spite of her private griefs, Marian's voice never lost that bright, girlish gaiety that lifted the heart of her listeners. Ar dheis De go raibh a hanam.

Sunday Independent