Thursday 24 January 2019

Eoghan Harris: 'Varadkar and Martin must beware the green fever'

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Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

Green groupthink in Fine Gael and Fianna Fail are driving the twin follies of the backstop and the proposed FF-SDLP linkage.

Groupthink includes the delusion that being in a majority means you must be right and the reviled minority must be wrong.

But as some contestants on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? who asked the audience found out, there is no safety in numbers.

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In a healthy democracy, the danger of consensus is countered by making room for contrarian voices.

But there is no such healthy democracy in Ireland when the body politic is going through a bout of green fever.

RTE deprives dissenting voices like mine from access to the national airwaves.

A chorus of cheerleaders drown out the few voices arguing that the backstop was a bridge too far or that southern parties are bad news in Northern Ireland.

As an aside, I should admit that I do share one thing in common with the national consensus.

I believe in a united Ireland. But not for the same reasons as most Irish nationalists.

Like the late Conor Cruise O'Brien, I believe it would be better for unionists to do a deal before they are betrayed by the Brits.

The backstop brought out the worst in us.

Wearing a green jersey is now as compulsory as the burka in some Islamic states.

An army of green academics, journalists and media commentators is packing the terraces, waving their green flags and shouting down anyone who does not tog out for Team Ireland.

The recent release of State papers for 1988 reinforced that frightening tribal fever as the entire Irish media gathered to give out to Brits and unionists.

Margaret Thatcher, a woman of great grit, got a kind of personalised criticism.

Naturally we know better than great men like Mikhail Gorbachev and Vaclav Havel. Dr John-Paul McCarthy, in a review for the Irish language online magazine Tuairisc, quotes Havel: "There was a slightly extraterrestrial air about her but he admired her none the less for it."

Dermot Nally, secretary to the Irish Government and the chief adviser to successive taoisigh on NI from 1973, also rated Thatcher highly.

John Bowman's review of relations between Thatcher and Haughey in The Irish Times signalled his critical position from the starting title: "Declassified files help to correct 'distorting' narrative of Thatcher's memoirs."

Bowman told his readers: "There's a hectoring tone in her memoirs which distorts the reality of Anglo-Irish relations. She scolds Haughey for his 'thoroughly unhelpful attitude' and his 'astonishing' speech in the US in April 1988 which she characterises as 'a shabby case of playing to the American-Irish gallery'."

But, of course, that is exactly what the speech was, from the arms trial of 1970 to his opposition to the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, Haughey was a cynical gambler who, when losing, played the green card.

Bowman also recounts how Richard Ryan at the Irish Embassy in London likened Thatcher to a stubborn mule. During the difficult negotiations on the original Anglo-Irish Agreement, Ryan said she had "sat down between the shafts several times" and had to be "goaded forward towards the line".

In comparing this flawed, but brilliant woman to a mule, Ryan was reflecting his time. Bowman, who carefully picked out the quote from a mass of material without critical comment, might have noted Ryan's jibe strikes a sour note in the #MeToo era.

None of the many media reviews of the British state papers remarked that, in terms of character, Thatcher compared favourably with Haughey, an inveterate political scoundrel who indulged in green rabble rousing to distract from his own corruptions at home.

Likewise, all the media reports portrayed unionists as friendless paranoiacs, clueless about what was best for themselves - which curiously turns out to be what we wanted them to do.

But James Molyneaux, the UUP leader, singled out for special sneering, was a far more decent man than Charles Haughey.

Molyneaux commanded the platoon of British soldiers that liberated Bergen-Belsen. He had seen a far bigger and uglier world than Haughey, who saw himself as a Celtic Napoleon entitled to line his own pocket at public expense.

Given the tribal tone of most of our media in disparaging the role of heroes like Molyneaux simply because they were unionists, it's not surprising that Team Ireland has no time for second thoughts on the backstop either.

Let me be clear. Brexit is an extraordinary act of British self-harming and Leo Varadkar was right to oppose it - within reason.

Naturally, at first sight, he would have felt that building in the backstop was a brilliant wheeze by a team of mandarins in the Dept of Foreign Affairs.

Alas their green shades blinded them to the fact that when boxing in Britain they were also sealing us up in the same runaway train.

Like Leo Varadkar on the backstop, Micheal Martin's moves to link FF with the SDLP are also motivated by the best of reasons.

As he told Olivia O'Leary last year, there is "a large middle ground in the North who want bread-and-butter issues of the day dealt with competently by a government".

We can be sure that Martin, himself, is only interested in economic matters, not in raising rows about constitutional issues.

But inevitably the green faction in Fianna Fail will force him into a constitutional morass.

In predicting that any such link up will be lethal for Fianna Fail, I speak as someone who has studied Northern Ireland more than most southern commentators.

Based on a long lifetime looking at the facts rather than the rhetoric, let me make the following three points against any link-up.

First, Fianna Fail has nothing to gain and everything to lose. Thanks to a tribal electorate, the SDLP has been on a steady downward trend. The old military maxim still holds: never reinforce failure.

Second, it would be a retreat by Fianna Fail from being a Republican party, to a nationalist party - and make it unlikely to be accepted as an honest broker by unionists in any future moves towards a united federal Ireland.

Finally, looking south, any moves to involve the Republic organisationally, rather than rhetorically with Northern Ireland, makes Middle Ireland nervous, smacks of Soft Shinnerism and will damage the new trust that Middle Ireland reposes in Martin, reflected in recent polls.

The Hibernian rump in Fianna Fail who want to go north have as little idea of the territory as the hapless southern IRA columns of the 1950s. Above all, they refuse to face the following facts. Every successful southern leader was a pluralist with no green agenda - Jack Lynch, Sean Lemass, Garret FitzGerald, John Bruton, Bertie Ahern and Enda Kenny.

Green agendas destroyed Haughey. Green agendas are working against Fine Gael. Green agendas are destroying Sinn Fein's appeal in the Republic.

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