Eoghan Harris: ‘Sinn Fein won’t restore the North’s Assembly without pressure’

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Eoghan Harris: ‘Sinn Fein won’t restore the North’s Assembly without pressure’


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Sinn Fein is not free to restore Stormont and Irish media is too invested in demonising the DUP to force change on the shadowy figures in the Felons Club who decided in January 2017 to wreck the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Sinn Fein is not free because twice in the past 12 months it looked as if Mary Lou McDonald had been humiliatingly pressurised into reversing her own previous positions.

The Felons Club figures don’t want a deal: they want to pull the two governments into bullying the unionists.

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McDonald gave the game away last Friday when she built failure into the talks even before they started.

“If it is a thing that these matters can’t be resolved through talks then clearly the intergovernmental conference and the two governments will have to intervene.”

The only way to force the shadowy figures to change course would be massive media pressure on Sinn Fein on the eve of the General Election in the Republic.

But Brexit has given southern media a tribal taste for demonising Arlene Foster and thus distracting us from the delinquencies of Sinn Fein.

Dr Johnson said that once the world has started using you badly it will go on doing so – as Arlene Foster found out last week.

Forgotten was the fact that Foster had shaken hands with Michelle O’Neill at Martin McGuiness’s funeral, and gone into the Creggan to speak movingly about Lyra McKee.

Foster’s problem with getting fairness from southern media was summed up by Martyn Turner’s cartoon in The Irish Times last Wednesday.

A bloody red hand-print marches from a figure in a balaclava across frame towards Foster and Michelle O’Neill standing close together, then cleverly turns into a skeletal hand which taps Foster – but not O’Neill – on the shoulder.

Foster’s face is twisted in a scowl but O’Neill looks like a bushy lipped teenager on her way to a first dance.

A cartoonist can plead parole. But there was no excuse for the mainstream media joining in the social media smear campaign alleging that Foster had sourly failed to clap in response to Fr Magill.

The Irish News let down its normally high standards by carrying a front-page photograph taken in the split second after Mary Lou McDonald had belatedly started to clap and just before Foster stood.

But the photo, showing Foster sitting, while everybody else is standing is belied by the full video.

Clearly politicians in the front pews didn’t realise what was happening behind them until the wave of applause reached them.

Mary Lou McDonald waited nearly 10 seconds in confusion before belatedly deciding to stand and clap.

Foster also probably felt that by simply standing she was accepting Fr Magill’s reprimand to politicians and that applauding would come close to hypocrisy.

Once again only Tommie Gorman stepped out to speak for pluralism. On Morning Ireland, he disproved the false “Foster failed to clap narrative”, describing her explanation as “100pc genuine”.

He pointed out that politicians – citing Foster in particular – didn’t want to appear to be “jumping on the bandwagon”.

He also cited Foster’s earlier interview which showed her as conciliatory and constructive.

Far from dragging her feet, Foster offered to restore the Assembly immediately, while holding parallel talks on issues like the Irish language.

Foster’s offer caught Sinn Fein on the hop. Mary Lou McDonald started fudging.

At this crucial point most of the Irish media, instead of praising Foster and pressurising Sinn Fein, went into “a plague on both your houses” mode – as if Foster and McDonald were both dragging their feet.

Miriam O’Callaghan was the sole exception. In an incisive and well-informed interview with a dry-mouthed McDonald, she showed that Sinn Fein had not moved an iota.

Sometimes I think that Tommie Gorman and Miriam O’Callaghan are the only two journalists who understand that giving out about unionists is not just unfair but useless in practical terms.

Southern media attacks on the DUP are as self-indulgently pointless as attacks on Trump – neither the DUP nor Trump read them. But taking the Sinn Fein party in the Republic to task gets real results.

Micheal Martin seems to be the only politician to grasp that we have a lot more leverage on Sinn Fein than on the DUP.

“Mary Lou McDonald’s performance demonstrates that the needs of the public continue to be secondary to the political strategy and internal direction of the Sinn Fein organisation.”

By “internal direction”, Martin is clearly referring to the cynical figures in the shadows who stymie those in Sinn Fein who might want the talks to succeed.

*******

The Royal Irish Academy did nothing to dispel tribal prejudices in celebrating the 30th anniversary of Professor Joe Lee’s magnum opus Ireland 1912-85: Politics and Society.

In fact, Lee’s colleagues completely failed to focus on the book’s treatment of northern unionists.

Unionists are demonised as ”Herrenvolk”, which would mean that some of those who then played rugby for Ireland were South African racists: “By any of these criteria, more than half the area of the geographical province of Ulster had a Catholic majority. But why should a Herrenvolk deign to notice numbers? (p4)”

Prof Lee is a brilliant economic historian. But his book’s depiction of unionists, published in 1989, when they were under the Provo lash, compares poorly with Tomas Mac Giolla’s final speech as President of the Workers’ Party the previous year.

“This party wants to talk to the Protestants of Northern Ireland… Every faction in Britain from Thatcher’s Tories to Livingstone’s Trotskyites seems to want to talk around them or behind their back, or talk them into a corner or a cul-de-sac, as if they were some primitive tribe whose redundant religious rites and curious cultural riches should be sanitised and studied; as if they were exhibits in a museum rather than a living people – a living people whose courage and endurance has seen them take the genocidal butchery of some 200 small farmers and workers in Fermanagh without retaliation, and who gave an awesome display of tolerance and forgiveness as they knelt among their dead after Enniskillen.”

These generous words prompted Ken Maginnis, unionist MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, to respond that “Mr Mac Giolla has been keeping the good wine to the last”.

That kind of reciprocal respect and empathic effort at pluralism, common in the 1980s, now seems like a distant memory.

But I will be recalling these better days in a talk titled Saying No To Irish Nationalism – Reflections of a Revisionist, on Tuesday, April 30, at 7.30pm in the Garden Room of the Medieval Museum, Waterford.

Tickets are available in advance from the Medieval Museum or the Bishop’s Palace.

*******

Feargal Quinn’s family can rest assured that his long life deserved all the admiration he received in death. Sitting beside him in the Seanad, I never stopped marvelling at his sense of public service.

He never forgot the poor – and in fact this year he was named the Philanthropist of the Year. Ar dheis De go raibh a anam.

Sunday Independent

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