I see my old chum and gambling opponent Eoghan Harris is an unhappy man. Not that he ever was one for making with the happy face, but in today’s Sindo he’s really cross. It has to do with the easy ride he believes was given to Albert Reynolds at his funeral (Albert’s, not Eoghan’s). There was indeed much talk at the time of the work of Albert (with John Major) , and the Downing Street Declaration and how it paved the way to the Good Friday Agreement. There was also some talk, in particular from Albert’s family, of his vilification by political opponents.
Eoghan doesn’t like that. No, no, no, he says. If you’re a politician you’re not vilified – your actions are scrupulously analysed and if necessary criticised. Eoghan does a lot of criticising in his column today. He criticises RTÉ: “They carried on as if Sinn Féin’s credentials should be exempt from examination and acted as cheerleaders.” EH? You’re having us on, Eoghan, surely. I mean, R.T.É? Tell that to Martin McGuinness, whose presidential bid was hobbled by televised Troubles victims leaping out and accusing him of every sin in the catechism. And who could forget Miriam O’Callaghan’s “Have you been to confession?” question during the presidential debate? Or expunge the more recent RTÉ image of Enda Kenny and his front bench responding to Sinn Féin questions on the economy with indignant reminders that the IRA did little for the northern economy. No, Eoghan, I don’t think you’re on a winner there. It was different when there were, um, different political philosophies in place in RTÉ. Then RTÉ reporters like Mary McAleese were pilloried off-air for daring to sound positive about northern nationalism, let alone republicanism. And of course in the good old RTÉ days it was against the law to broadcast any member of Sinn Féin. Even if they wanted to talk about the best way to grow mushrooms.
Like many’s another, Eoghan wishes that a more thoroughly bad time had been given to the Shinners back then. “Eventually the Provisonal IRA would have been eroded by arrests and convictions in Northern Ireland. They would have been worn down to where the Dissidents are now.” Mmm. Interesting projection of an alternative future. Made a bit more unlikely by the fact that every British military commentator has conceded that at the time of the ceasefires, there was an acceptance that a stalemate existed. The IRA couldn’t push the British armed forces out of Ireland and the British armed forces couldn’t crush the IRA. Hence the ceasefires. Eoghan, bless him, believes that republicans “were on the ropes, militarily and politically, north and south”. A bit like Maggie Thatcher’s famous depiction of the republican Hunger Strike of 1981: “The last sting of a dying wasp”.
Politically at that time, Sinn Féin had begun a long march that would take them from nothing to becoming the dominant nationalist party in the north – and soon, maybe , the biggest northern party of any stripe. In the south, the party went from 2% of the vote to what they are today: a major political player. Even though it sticks in Eoghan’s craw he admits this to be the case. He even opens the appalling vista of Gerry Adams being Taoiseach after the next election, if a rotating system is adopted. If that doesn’t frighten the southern horses, nothing will.
The trouble with Eoghan is where he starts from. The IRA during the Troubles were engaged in “naked tribal aggression” and to say otherwise is “a huge historical lie”. He’s very upset because Albert Reynolds “gambled” and talked with Sinn Féin: who knows where that gamble of his will end? It’s given legitimacy to Sinn Féin, Eoghan says, and “it may put them in power. Who really knows what that means for the Irish Republic?”
Well you know Eoghan, I’d have thought its meaning was obvious. It means the exercise of something you’ve not mentioned in your column: democracy. Republicans for years were urged to follow an exclusively political path. They’ve done so and it seems the people north and south quite like having them as their representatives. Their political progress may be greeted with huzzahs or lamentation, but it’ll mean that the Irish people have given them an increased mandate. The cheeky devils.