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Eoghan Harris: 'White papers on unity are only useless white elephants'

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Contrary to what Sinn Fein trolls say on Twitter, I care about my country, which includes all the people on this island - especially those who drive me mad like the DUP.

I say especially because the DUP, sore and raw from betrayal by Boris Johnson, and the loss of Nigel Dodds's leadership, has few friends.

Yes, it deserves grief for its gormless Brexit policy but there is no need to add my voice to the chorus of denunciation - in which too many harsh notes of tribal hatred can be heard.

Given the DUP is by far the biggest unionist party, I think it was partisan of Northern Secretary Julian Smith to blame it for failing to sign up for a settlement in talks which had barely started, and before it had seen a final draft.

Likewise, I disagree with well-meant calls from a few FF TDs who want the Government to draw up detailed plans for a united Ireland - which would only raise the tribal temperature in Northern Ireland.

That is why I hope TDs who favour citizens' assemblies, Border polls or white papers, take heed of what Colum Eastwood had to say last Sunday on The Week in Politics.

Asked by Aine Lawlor about a range of such matters, the new MP for Foyle was emphatically for making haste slowly.

He said: "I think the way that this discussion has developed over the last while has not been helpful. In fact, it has driven people back into their traditional camps."

He set out a more pluralist path: "It's about building a new future together with all of our neighbours, including those people who identify as British."

Eastwood saw no sense in a Border poll at this time. "We also have to be realistic about the opportunities for success in a Border poll and I don't believe we're ready right now to win a Border poll."

Charlie McConalogue, Fianna Fail TD for Donegal North-East, concurred with everything Eastwood said. The Donegal deputy added this sensible advice which should be heeded by other Fianna Fail TDs.

"If you don't want to be threatening, what you don't do is, whenever the door is slightly ajar, you don't give it a big shove."

In short, don't start throwing premature shapes about citizens' assemblies, Border polls and white papers, which only alienate our Protestant neighbours.

Later last week, Minister Heather Humphreys, a southern Border Protestant, well placed to come to accurate conclusions, echoed Eastwood's warning.

"This is not the time for that conversation, these things inflame sensitivities and we're already in a sensitive time."

The contrast between the common cautious position of SDLP, FF and FG politicians from Northern Ireland and the Border counties, with that of some FF TDs from further south, allows me to formulate an iron law for future comment as follows.

The further away from the Border Dail deputies are, the less feel they have for the facts of life on the ground.

Leo Varadkar and Micheal Martin are right to resist Sinn Fein-backed pressure to plan for unity at the present time because to do so feeds a dangerous Sinn Fein agenda.

The rock on which the present fragile peace rests is the Good Friday Agreement. Sinn Fein is undermining that rock by fomenting a spurious sense of urgency about planning for a united Ireland, using Brexit as an inviting umbrella

Accordingly, I believe that publication of Senator Mark Daly's white paper should also be postponed at this sensitive time for three good reasons.

First, Daly's white paper fits the definition of a white elephant: "a possession that is useless or troublesome".

Useless because it rests on the false premise that there is nothing wrong with talking about Irish unity at this time; troublesome because it will cause trouble.

Above all, it breaches what I call the Seamus Mallon principle: that there should be no pressure for unity before both sides in Northern Ireland massively desire it.

A white paper cannot paper over the sectarian divide; it can only follow the coming together of a band of brothers, north and south.

The publication of any white paper on Irish unity must follow an agreed unity by both unionists and nationalists, not precede it.

Those pushing for publication of white papers are suffering from a version of what Freud called "omnipotence of thought", namely the delusion that thinking something makes that something real.

And please let's have no more of the specious nonsense that publishing a white paper is only talking about unity, and what harm can that do?

But only a loutish bully would talk loudly about the joys of marriage to his sister who has just been dumped at the altar.

Second, in the aftermath of the Boris Johnson betrayal, we should be reassuring unionists we want to work the GFA in good faith, not dog whistling about Border polls and white papers.

Given the sensitivity of a betrayed unionist community, it would be a republican gesture for FF to postpone publishing any white paper on Irish unity for the foreseeable future - not to mention reassuring Middle Ireland that hawkish Haugheyism is dead.

Finally, working up pressure for Border polls and unity plans strikes me as a surrender to Sinn Fein's agitations - and I am not alone in thinking so.

Mick Fealty, of the Slugger O'Toole Northern-based website, made this mordant comment abut Sinn Fein on Sky News:

"The only party in Northern Ireland pushing for an early Border poll got a paltry 22pc at the polls."

He pointed out that Micheal Martin's alignment of Fianna Fail and the SDLP had appealed to republican "switchers" in Derry and South Down.

Referring to pressure for Border polls and unity plans, he wrote: "What they [switchers] don't need is to have FF members resile to an SF policy which has been firmly rejected by the electorate."

With that wise comment, I rest my case.

******

Roy Johnston, who died last week, together with Anthony Couglan of the Dublin Wolfe Tone Society, laid down the political foundation of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association.

Fifty three years ago, on August 14-15, 1966, I travelled to a secret meeting at Maghera, Co Derry, to read the Wolfe Tone Society's plan for a peaceful civil rights campaign.

As Roy had a severe stutter, I was deputed to read the document to the small gathering of academics, communist trade unionists and IRA commanders.

All of them agreed with Cathal Goulding, chief of staff of the IRA, that the peaceful strategy "would fall apart at the first sound of a bomb or a bullet".

That peaceful project was thwarted by unionist politicians like William Craig, by provocative marches led by Derry socialists like Eamonn McCann, which ended, as he expected, in police brutality, and above all by the Provisional IRA campaign.

But Wolfe Tone's vision of a brotherly Republic never died in Roy's heart; he remained to the end a Protestant republican in the noble tradition of Henry Joy McCracken. Condolences to his extended family.

Sunday Independent