Sunday 25 August 2019

Eoghan Harris: 'Mulling divorce, Irish, elections, but mostly Seamus Ennis'

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Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

To Munster, mostly Cork, letting my mind wander where it willed.

Along the way, I wondered how best to break it to Charlie Flanagan that he might well have to revisit the divorce referendum because of a flaw in the Irish language version of Bunreacht na hEireann.

I hope I'm wrong about this because Charlie - he is one of those lucky ministers best known by his Christian name - deserves a break.

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Charlie took over a Department of Justice that looked like a once half-decent garden that had been reduced to a jungle. And without much fuss he has made a fine start in clearing out the weeds.

When Charlie wins the divorce referendum, it may be open to challenge because of a strange discrepancy between the English and Irish language versions.

Even with my rusty Irish, I suspect the test for a divorce is harder to pass in Irish than in English.

The test in English says there must be "no reasonable prospect of a reconciliation", but in Irish it's "nach bhfuil ionchas reasunach ar bith", which means "no prospect of any kind", which is different.

If challenged, a court might well say: "Fine, there's no reasonable chance of a reconciliation here - but we can't say for sure there's no prospect of any kind."

As the Irish text takes precedence, it might even be argued that every divorce granted under the English language test is illegal!

Luckily, Charlie could fix it with a stroke of the pen. Just delete "ar bith".

But the larger question is why the divorce clause is more restrictive in Irish.

De Valera put serious people in charge of the Irish language text in 1937.

Liam O Rinn was a native Irish speaker and Maurice Moynihan had elegant, schoolmasterly Irish.

But they still made the fundamental mistake of translating the English text directly into Irish.

This meant they ended up with a weird kind of Germanic Esperanto where the verbs didn't come first as they do in Irish.

The resulting ugly coagulations are not confined to the divorce sections. Large sections of the habeas corpus clauses are incomprehensible to me because the verbs are in the wrong order.

Given the gaps between the English and Irish versions of Bunreacht na hEireann, think of what horrors might be hidden in EU treaty translations.

Given the constrictions of our Constitution, maybe unionists have a point in not wanting Sinn Fein to shove Irish down their throats - especially given our own dismal history of compulsory Irish.

While mulling over all that, it struck me that we don't have an Irish language act in the Republic.

If a cohesive society like the Republic doesn't have an Irish language act, why should a divided society like Northern Ireland have one?

Mulling some more: if the DUP was cunning it could solve the Irish language problem the way we solved it - using State money to shut up or soften the Irish language lobby.

The DUP should offer serious money to the voluntary Irish language sector which would help dispel our cosy prejudice that they are backward bigots without political cop.

As Jeffrey Donaldson did by laying a wreath in honour of Daniel O'Connell at Glasnevin last Sunday.

He also rejected the charge that the DUP was hostile to Irish, reminding us that Presbyterians played a major part in the preservation of Irish.

RTE's Six One did not report his emollient remarks, possibly because the pluralist Tommie Gorman was not on duty.

Later in the week, the equally pluralist Seamus Mallon threw cold water on a border poll.

Naturally, the SF trolls went ballistic, but they were well supported by ultra-green nationalists.

The SF trolls' favourite term of abuse was "bitter", an adjective also favoured by nationalist tweeters such as Patricia MacBride, one of the hard border hand-wringers invited by the Government to meet Angela Merkel.

Moving on, let me mull briefly over two TV shows. On BBC's The View, Martina Anderson, Sinn Fein's EU runner, made major supportive eyes at Naomi Long, leader of Alliance.

Why wouldn't she? Sinn Fein transferred to Alliance at twice the rate they transferred to the SDLP in recent council elections.

Contrary to what gullible commentators told you, Alliance is not some alternative new dawn heralding the rise of a liberal centre in Northern politics.

Alliance just weakened the real centre in Northern politics by taking votes from the UUP and the SDLP.

Accordingly, Sinn Fein sees Alliance as a party of what Lenin would call 'useful idiots', a Trojan Horse that can be used for 'dialogue' of the sort favoured by lions in dialogues with lambs.

Constitution centrist parties, like the UUP and the SDLP, have been bulwarks against extremism in Northern Ireland, just as Fianna Fail and Fine Gael have been in the Republic. Disturb at your peril.


Finally, my happiest mullings were of memories prompted by the current centenary celebrations of the doyen of uilleann pipers, Seamus Ennis.

So far the celebrations have rightly concentrated on the music rather than the man. But one also suspects the paucity of personal detail is because not many alive now knew him in his prime - as I did - when he was a man and not a myth.

Accordingly, I want to record two stories about a complex man who always struck me as an artistic aristocrat in the style of the blind piper Carolan - a man naturally comfortable with other aristocrats, whether musical or social.

Seamus played a small but important part in the election of Mary Robinson.

Coming up to the crucial Late Late Show, where she was to be joined by her husband Nick Robinson, there was some concern about how he would come across to the masses, him being a Protestant with an allegedly posh (that is cultivated) Dublin accent and this being 30 years ago and another country.

But I knew there was no danger of a fine raconteur like Nick coming across as remote. As media adviser to the Robinson campaign, I begged him to share his Seamus Ennis story.

Nick told the nation how, helping Seamus Ennis to draw up his will, he asked him who would inherit his fine set of uilleann pipes.

Seamus had thought about that. He told Nick he wanted his pipes to go to the piper who could play them best - and that piper was Liam Og O Floinn.

Nick paused, then quietly suggested that the presidency should go to the person who could best play the presidential pipes so to speak - his wife Mary Robinson. The audience rose to him and all over Ireland the nation nodded and said: "We'll get two good heads for the price of one."

Seamus Ennis also reminds me of golden days when RTE chiefs would let its poorly paid producers spend days soaking up culture from an equally cash-strapped genius.

After one long weekend in Doolin, we decided to stay on and Seamus joined us by bravely writing a cheque for a fiver on the Monday.

On Thursday, that good publican Gussie O'Connor murmured: "That cheque has come back, Seamus."

Seamus looked at him down his long nose and intoned gravely: "Put it back in again until it settles."

Sunday Independent

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