Thursday 20 June 2019

Eoghan Harris: 'The Taoiseach and Mary Lou McDonald face hard choices'

Cartoon by Jim Cogan
Cartoon by Jim Cogan
Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

Both Leo Varadkar and Mary Lou McDonald are in denial about the hard choices they must make if their parties are to survive and prosper.

But while Leo Varadkar is free to save his party - and indeed his country - by flexibility on the backstop, Mary Lou McDonald has no such free choice.

The lurking godfathers in Belfast who lay down the party line are the last group who could face the reason for the collapse of Sinn Fein votes in the Republic: it's the North stupid.

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The truth is the Republic of Ireland will never vote for a party whose main policy plank is to make mischief in Northern Ireland.

The media have been listing all the minor reasons for the SF collapse and the leadership is eagerly grasping at these straws.

Yes, the party is too angry, has too many bullies and is competing with virtual full employment.

But none of these issues are as important as the albatross of Northern Ireland round Sinn Fein's neck. Here I am the only media commentator who can speak from experience.

That's because I actually helped to make Official Sinn Fein - The Workers' Party acceptable in southern government, winning seven seats in the 1989 general election with a Northern policy that looked for civil rights, not a united Ireland.

The Workers' Party prospered in the Republic because its Northern wing, the Republican Club, heroically opposed the Provos' sectarian campaign and focused on civil rights.

Many in the party opposed Tomas Mac Giolla's pluralist policy. Luckily his long life of struggle had taught him that to survive you must slaughter your most sacred cow.

That meant killing off the campaign against partition until Northern Protestants were willing to join us.

As soon as Official Sinn Fein stopped pressuring Northern Protestants it prospered, as I predicted it would. Here is why.

In my lifetime I learned there are three iron laws in southern Irish politics. First, the national question is the only game in town.

That does not mean the Irish people judge a party by how green it is, but how pluralist it is. They use it to find out if it's fit for office.

The other two laws - in which the political historian Tom Garvin found merit - are linked to the national question as follows:

Second, I said southern Irish people were "dumb revisionists".

By dumb I don't mean stupid. I mean that most people want nothing to do with making trouble in the North - but they keep that secret until they get into the polling booth.

Which brings me to my final rule - the Irish people pronounce a secret fatwa on parties who pump up the green rhetoric too much.

They don't mind a bit of Brit-bashing - Leo Varadkar did well for a while - but they don't like too much of it, or for it to go on for too long.

I believe that Leo Varadkar lingered a little too long and lovingly over the Brit-bashing and suffered from a mild middle-class backlash as a result.

Conversely, Micheal Martin - as well as Fianna Fail councillors like Paul McAuliffe, who take a hard line with Sinn Fein - did far better than sneaking regarders in Dublin.

Like Jack Lynch and Sean Lemass, Micheal Martin has flourished by rejecting Sinn Fein and holding fast to Wolfe Tone's pluralist dictum - that Irish republicanism is a unity of Protestant, Catholic and dissenter. By doing so, he stole Sinn Fein's united Ireland clothes.

The Foolish Faction in Fianna Fail are too thick to see how well Martin's policy has worked in middle Ireland. Contrast how the public reacted to his pluralist speeches against Anglophobia compared to its reaction to Sinn Fein's Northern posturing.

Two Irish Times MRBI polls contain the clue to Sinn Fein's collapse.

Between March 2019 and May 2019, support declined across most demographics. But the most significant fall was among younger voters in the 18- to 24-year-old bracket - down an enormous 24 points from 45pc to 21pc.

So what happened in that time? Lots and lots of Nordie stuff is what.

Sinn Fein was neither attending the Assembly nor at Westminster.

This meant it had to spend far too much time holding Northern press conferences about border polls and other Sinn Fein angsts that turn us off.

These Northern press conferences constantly featured hard-faced men standing behind Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O'Neill.

My guess is that many in the Republic reacted as a motorist might who stops for two female hitch-hikers, who suddenly step aside to reveal a furtive male who has been hanging back.

Fine if he's a normal looking lad. Not so fine if he looks like the kind of hard chaw you would not want sitting behind you.


Let me now turn to Leo Varadkar. Boris Johnson will soon be prime minister and the backstop will be laid back on the doorstep of Leo's leadership, ticking like a timebomb.

Johnson is a ruthless gambler - deadly dangerous to another gambler like Leo Varadkar who might be equally ruthless but who has to rely on EU cards holding up during a bluff.

Denis Staunton's London Letter in The Irish Times should cause the Taoiseach to take stock again of the backstop for his sake and ours.

Staunton's article is an acknowledgment that all the roads to an orderly Brexit deal lead to the backstop.

He says the three favourites to lead the next Tory government, Boris Johnson, Jeremy Hunt and Michael Gove, agree on one thing. Alas for Leo, that thing is that there must be a time limit to the backstop.

"All three have narrowed their demand to a change to the Northern Ireland backstop that would offer Britain an exit mechanism, a time limit or a guarantee that it will be replaced by alternative arrangements to keep the border open."

Although Staunton predictably pours cold water on the notion the EU might split, he admits that "senior EU figures" are musing in private about a lengthy time limit to the backstop.

But one of Staunton's "senior EU figures" might well be Michel Barnier who happens to be the European Commission's chief Brexit negotiator. But if Barnier is suggesting even a small compromise, surely it shouldn't be dismissed?


Dan Harvey's timely book on D-Day, A Bloody Dawn, reminds us that 70,000 southern Irishmen redeemed our necessary but distasteful neutrality.

But there's no use pretending that had the Germans invaded they would be short of anti- Semitic puppets among Irish nationalists.

The anti-Jewish mood is caught perfectly in Tom McCarthy's novel Asya and Christine, with Irish officers discussing what would happen if the Nazis arrived.

Daniel Goldhagen's classic work Hitler's Willing Executioners has an appendix of the planned atrocity in Ireland.

A map of Europe shows the Jewish populations marked for extermination - including Ireland with its 4,000 Jews.

If the Nazis had invaded and installed a puppet regime in Dublin staffed by nationalist anti-Semites, how many would have had the guts to hide our Irish Jews?

We had the moral luck not to have to answer that.

Sunday Independent

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