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And so it continues… Coolacrease… amateur historians and denial November 18, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in History, Media and Journalism.
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Another weekend, another column by the indefatigable Eoghan Harris. And consequently another post by the frankly fairly fatiguable me…
This Sunday he is writing once more about Coolacrease and the Paul Quinn murder. He suggests that:

Last week I argued that the link between the killing of Paul Quinn of Cullyhanna in October 2007, and the killing of the two Pearson brothers at Coolacrease, Co Offaly in June 1921, was that both were carried out by people using the cloak of the IRA to cover what, in any normal society, would be seen as a cruel and criminal act.

I think that’s a telling admission. The term ‘normal society’ is replete with significations. Ireland in 1921 was not a ‘normal society’. The North in 2007 is moving towards ‘normality’, but still has a way to go. And it is this essentially – and I use the term advisedly – bourgeois sensibility that to me explains much much more of his political meanderings than any other factor. Because it is as one with the effectively vicarious and voyeuristic finger wagging of someone looking into a situation unable to contextualise that situation either in a socio-political or cultural milieu. I’ve spoken before of the condescending and patronising words about Protestants, thankfully missing in this piece.

Yet there are other patronising and condescending words for finally we are told what the response should be…

Likewise, decent local people were not wise in accepting the dubious assistance of the Aubane Historical Society in casting a cloud over the Pearsons. Instead of an ecumenical service of atonement — there was no clergyman at the Pearsons’s burial — we get increasingly incoherent attempts to explain away the murders. The latest lunacy on Indymedia is that the Pearsons were shot in the groin because IRA executioners were “inexperienced”!

‘An ecumenical service of atonement’. Well, there’s something to conjure with. A disputed historical event. Insufficient evidence to come to a clear determination as to guilt or otherwise and Ireland in 2007 is told that ‘atonement’ must be made. I disagree fundamentally. Incidentally it seems to me quite possible that an IRA unit might well be ‘inexperienced’ in such matters, it wasn’t quite a Maoist peasant uprising, but nor was it a well drilled standing army, and his point sits oddly with a later paragraph where he says:

Let me predict that the more decent locals let Aubane dictate how they handle this atrocity, the more the story will refuse to die. Because many Irish people simply do not believe that a pacifist Cooneyite family like the Pearsons would shoot and wound a member of the North Offaly IRA — who, by all accounts, were a maladroit bunch that most likely shot one of their own members in the dark.

Well come on now, we’re told they’re bloody executioners in one passage and that they’re a maladroit bunch in another. I can live with ambiguity and gray areas, but on all other issues the good Senator can’t.

But returning to atonement. This proposition seems to me to misunderstand the point of atonement and to enter into a process by which guilt is ascribed collectively. To my mind those who were guilty of murdering the Pearsons, those who know what happened definitively on that and the preceding days, were the ones who had to make atonement or come to terms with their acts. Not a community or polity, either local or general, some 90 odd years later. To do so would be to ascribe a certainty to the situation which we cannot determine. It would be an utter falsehood. A lie.

A lie shaped politically to cast a shadow across what was by any reckoning an already sufficiently bloody history which needs no further exaggeration or hyperbole.

And it would also be as gestural in its own way as the pointless and revanchist attacks on the PSNI policemen these last two weeks.

You’ll have gathered I loathe gestural politics from whatever direction.

Meanwhile, talking about Tom McGurk’s article in the Sunday Business Post last week he suggests:

Finally, I can see why naff Irish nationalists need to believe the fiction that no sectarian act was ever committed by the Old IRA in the Irish Republic. But I can’t see why Northern nationalists would want to deny that our Southern grandfathers could be as gruesomely sectarian as any of the gangs that roam South Armagh — a point brilliantly made in a polemic by Danny Morrison a few years ago.

So I was bit baffled when Tom McGurk, a Northerner who makes no secret of his nationalism, came out so strongly in last week’s Sunday Business Post against RTE’s Coolacrease programme. In doing so, he leaned far too heavily on a long article by Pat Muldowney published in Indymedia, home of hardline nationalists.

He then sallies forth with his boilerplate accusation about Muldowney.

More seriously, McGurk misleads us in the following two sentences. “University of Ulster academic Pat Muldowney — whose new book on the period will be published soon — is also said to be angry. As a historian, Muldowney is astonished that the programme ignored the only surviving documentary evidence of the incident — the officially recorded inquest into the killings.”

The close conjunction of these two sentences might lead the casual reader to form the impression that Muldowney is a University of Ulster academic historian. In fact Muldowney is a lecturer in mathematics at the university, and thus an amateur historian when it comes to weighing evidence. This causes him — and thus McGurk — to make elementary errors when evaluating evidence.

I’ve said it before. What historical track record does Harris have that he considers himself in a position to throw brick bats at Muldowney? No more or no less than Muldowney, I would suggest. McGurk rather wryly noted that:

[the documentary makers were] Assisted by Senator Eoghan Harris, who apparently is an expert on the matter…

But it’s also worth pointing out that far from the pollyanish view of the WoI that Harris suggests Nationalists have McGurk also wrote:

Only the naive or those with a dinner party view of history could imagine that there were no sectarian incidents or acts of land grabbing as an empire was taken on.

The War of Independence was a vicious and largely localised war, with local IRA units – dominated by local families – enjoying little centralised organisation or direction. At the end, the winners wrote the story.

Local scores were settled – as the Republican courts, after they were set up, were to discover. But were militant Republican roots not embedded in the land war and its secret societies?

Equally, in the rural campaigns, wasn’t the land always going to be the perpetual subtext to everything else? After all, was this not a dispute engendered by an historic act of dispossession?

Note the phrase ‘dinner party view’…

Harris, though, continues to argue that all the evidence that Muldowney presents is suspect.

But Muldowney’s (and McGurk’s) interpretation is merely a terse summary by the Court of a one-page RIC Inspector’s report which simply summarises all the rumours rife in a local community which is clearly shocked by the Pearson shootings and anxious to find some acceptable motives for the atrocity. The RIC Inspector’s report on the rumours runs as follows

“Possible motives: 1. The acquisition of Pearsons land (para on this). 2. Revenge by Sinn Fein. It is said by the County Inspector Queen’s County that the two Pearson boys a few days previously had seen two men felling a tree on their land adjoining the road. Had told the men concerned to go away, and when they refused had fetched two guns and fired and wounded two Sinn Feiners, one of whom it is believed died. It is further rumoured when the farm house was burning, two guns fell out of the roof.”

Firstly, Muldowney is as entitled to ‘interpret’ this as Harris is. The historical record remains contested (note too that Harris entirely ignores the IRA’s own investigation).

And to anchor this in the present political context consider what Harris writes about a more contemporary resonance…

On reflection I realise that there is a further link. In both cases a shocked society took refuge in denials which protect associates or descendants of the perpetrators. Official Ireland sacrificed Paul Quinn to the peace process in order to protect Adams & Co. The Pearsons were sacrificed to national and local pieties — the claim that they were subjected to a “proper” IRA execution.

Again, a complete overestimation of what happened in Coolacrease. But worse an overestimation of what happened in South Armagh.

The Government and the Opposition were wrong to accept Sinn Fein assurances that the South Armagh IRA were not the perpetrators — a fiction that Lord Laird blew apart in his detailed description of how eight of the attackers wore surgical gowns and gloves, the grim garb of the IRA butchers of South Armagh.

Have the Goverment and the Opposition done any such thing? The IMC is fairly clear on the matter suggesting that associates or former or current members of the IRA may have been involved. I’m no apologist for the South Armagh IRA, quite the opposite, but I’m fairly certain that the murder of Paul Quinn reflected no larger political agenda (and having seen other paramilitaries fade away in inglorious circumstances why are we expected to believe that such events could not take place). And oddly enough so is Lord Laird who says that the IRA Army Council did not authorise any such happening. Which makes one wonder why there is this wish to play fast and loose with the facts, such as they are…

Harris argues that…

Denials do more damage than the original atrocity. When those in authority avoid naming names, decent people despair and fall dumb, the community closes in around the dirty secret, and civil society is clouded until the original offence against the moral order is brought out in the open and atoned for.

Actually, again I disagree. The original murders of the Pearsons, dispute or not, were the appalling acts, not a rather paltry dispute in the Irish media in 2007. That they happened in the context of a conflict provides scant exculpation. But that is the very point Harris time and again refuses to face up to. There was no clear ‘moral order’ in 1921. The British had seen to it that the democratic rights of the Irish were time and again stymied as they delayed any measure of Home Rule let alone independence. The response from this society to that delay, a delay set within an history that stretched centuries back and which included periods of ferocious repression, means that talk of ‘moral order’ seems willfully self-serving. Conflict is the absence, or near absence, of moral order and always will be. There are few enough ‘clean’ transitions from one national structure to another (perhaps the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc came close, but even there innocents were caught up in those events, and even today, as we have seen in Poland a long shadow has been cast). And to pretend that the shift from conflict to peace does not engender the most egregious and sometimes murderous contradictions, and that that is as true of 2007 as it was in 1921, is to be more than self-serving… that is also to be in denial.

Comments»

1. Mick Hall - November 18, 2007

When Harris criticizes these type of dreadful happenings, he does so in isolation of what led up to them. Tom Barry’s quote comes to mind here,

“The British dragged us down into the gutter in an effort to destroy us. And down after them into the gutter we had to go.”–Tom Barry

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2. WorldbyStorm - November 18, 2007

Long time since I heard that quote Mick…

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3. Garibaldy - November 18, 2007

Maybe you summarise your arguments and send them to the Sindo’s letters page. Might be interesting to see whether it’s printed. Although I wonder about the automatic labelling of this event as murder. It might well have been. But then again, it looks equally likely it was not.

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4. Garibaldy - November 18, 2007

Oh yeah, and on the amateur historian thing. Isn’t the I Met Murder on the Way book an account by an amateur historian too? Doesn’t seem to bother Senator Harris.

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5. WorldbyStorm - November 18, 2007

Indeed. I’m ambivalent about the ‘murder’ issue, but… I think that outside of the immediate context and the impacts it had on those involved or associated it is… and I don’t want to make light of what happened… not pertinent what description we put on it.

Incidentally, on a different tack I sort of agreed with what you were saying on P.ie.

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6. Starkadder - November 18, 2007

Harris is fogging the issue. There doesn’t seem to have been
sectarian or land-grabbing elements in the Coolacrease
affair.
But what is undeniable is that (I’ve said this on Politics.ie as well)
is that about thirty men somehow failed to to shoot two
men instantly, leaving them to slowly bleed to death.
If the IRA left them in this state deliberately, then it was
“mistreatment of prisoners” in violation of the conduct of war-in other words,
a war crime.
It’s the main point Muldowney is weak on. I can’t believe 30 executioners-no matter how inexperienced -would have left the victims still alive, or that the Pearson’s siblings would have thought they were okay.

Muldowney’s terminology is also loaded-the “Fascist” Pearsons
are pitted against the “democrat” Mick Heaney.

If Harris had sense, he would have made the “war crime”
element the focus of his critique, instead of the imaginary
sectarian or land-grabbing elements.

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7. WorldbyStorm - November 18, 2007

I agree to a point with you. The problem is that even in Harris’s lights he’s already said they were an inept bunch. More than likely in that context that the shooting was botched, or not even meant to kill, but to maim. Again, how can we tell?

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8. Simone Burns - November 18, 2007

People I think are still intent on allowing Harris’s obvious lack of any ability to objectively advance his arguments to cloud the reality of the important issues which he is touching upon – issues that are of central importance to progressive political debate about Irish history and present. McGurk is correct that the whole practicality of the republican project was enmeshed with issues of land, resources and religion. The question is are we yet beyond this stage? Are we to excuse Sinn Fein’s appalling response to the killing of Paul Quinn as ‘we’ve seen it all before’ – we have and look were this acceptance of conspiratorial, nudge, nudge, wink, wink politics has let us to – where a serving leader can attempt to close down tribunals enquiring into his clearly corrupt past. If you read the recent copy of An Poblacht you will find only one mention of the brutal murder of a young man from the Provo heartland of South Armagh in a constituency represented by the Sinn Fein Dail leader – that mention is an attempt to discredit Lord Laird. Here on a site for Left discussion we are caught into discussing every blathering of Harris on an event that it is genuinely impossible to reach a definitive position on which at the same time a party which aspires to being a part of this country’s Left is attempting to cover up for an extremely violent murder and fascist like control of a rural community (and not because they are at war with the Brits, or even funding a left alternative but because some fat c**t and his cronies want to keep on making money). Please don’t come it that there is no evidence that the Provos killed Paul Quinn – are we in the even more worrying situation that a new vast criminal conspiracy has suddenly emerged in the border region? There needs to be real discussion on whether we can afford for the Provos to stand down, would this just lead to a new ‘Fenian’ conspiracy arising? Can we afford a ‘Left’ party in this country to cover-up for a disgusting violent murder? These are real issues as Harris points out – there is a need to get out of the comfort zone of rabbiting on a about a failed revolutionary past.
The only thing of interest about Harris’s latest offering is that for a second week in a row he has failed to mention that saviour of Irish democracy Bertie – Trimble, Burton, Nally, Smullen and Goulding are now joined in the scrap yard of vehicles for the nut-jobs insatiable ego

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9. Starkadder - November 18, 2007

I admired Nally, and I thought the way Harris referred to him
as a “thick guard” after losing the election was disgraceful.

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10. Eamonn McDonagh - November 18, 2007

Simone gets it right

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11. Garibaldy - November 18, 2007

I too would agree with a lot of what Simone said. I have serious problems with any notion of PSF as part of the Left (as Ruane disgraceful behaviour relative to the classroom assistants is demonstrating) but equally we can’t really hold them to account for this particular incident. It was I think carried out by people who were or are in the Provos but if they were not acting as Provos, then they need to be dealt with as the criminals they are. And in fairness this is what the Provos has said. I also think that in the cities anyway the grip of the Provos has been and is being loosened to an extent that it is not comparable to 10 or even 5 years ago.

Nevertheless, Harris’ sleight of hand here needs to be opposed. The situation in 191-21 has nothing to do with the situation now. Any attempt to compare the two is superificial and nonsensical.

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12. WorldbyStorm - November 18, 2007

Simone, I think there are a number of problematic aspects to your comment. Firstly, how is it justifiable to argue that in 2007 the republican project is analogous to the situation in 1921. Yes, there are aspects of land, resources and religion, but the tenor of the conflict changed radically in that period, if only because in 1921 the state was nascent, although more fully formed than some give it credit, whereas in 2007 the RoI is extant, SF is in government in the North, we’ve been through massive sociopolitical changes etc, etc.

As to whether the SF response was appalling, I don’t know. They condemned it. They said people with information should go to the PSNI. What precisely are you asking that they should do above and beyond that? And frankly the link to Ahern is neither here nor there in this particular discussion.

I have to take issue with your point SF is ‘covering up’. What proof do you have for that. Indeed by your logic all parties are covering up that issue (including the broad spectrum of Northern and Southern parties and the IMC). And no disrespect, my first interest is Coolacrease and the distortion of history. It was Harris who attempted the linkage with Paul Quinns murder.

Which leads me to your next point about ‘Provo’s’ involvement in the murder. I don’t know for a fact that is the situation. I have no particular axe to grind in the matter. And – again no disrespect – neither do you. Nor does the IMC, etc. I find it enormously unlikely that as an ‘organisation’ PIRA was involved, since such activities could only be to their detriment. Whether individual members, ex-members or as the IMC so delicately puts it ‘associates’ were involved is a different matter again. But, as regards Laird, is he a credible source one way or the other? (and that’s to ignore the W Frazer link) Again, having no axe to grind I think not. That’s my judgement, you are fully entitled to come to another.

As for PIRA standing down organisationally (which I presume is what you are suggesting, rather than as an armed group which has already happened). I’m all for it. I’d call for it. I hope it happens soon. But to suggest there are clear, uncontested links between PIRA and the murder, in the sense that this was a sanctioned murder seems to me to be wide of the mark.

If you want to berate PSF over the head for all actions at all times on the part of members or ex-members or ‘associates’ which appear by sheer dint of logic to be unsanctioned and unsupported by that organisation or allied organisations is entirely your right, but it doesn’t – to me at least – seem entirely reasonable or indeed in the chequered history we’ve seen with other organisations that went through similar ceasefires and ultimate fragmentations to jibe with the history (indeed there is another rather different argument that only by maintaining a cohesiveness can PIRA avoid the drift to criminality that was seen in the various offshoots and splinters from OSF. That’s a difficult argument because it forces us to make unpleasant pragmatic choices that lead to, as I said above contradictions).

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13. Simone Burns - November 18, 2007

Paul Quinn’s local MP has not even been to see the family while attempting to blacken the boys name and claim no ‘republican’ involvement ditto his southern counterparts – just read their publications to see what the scene is – also I do not expect people to take stuff written on a blog as the truth but I can categorically state to you that members of the Provo Republican Movement have specifically stated to me they believe that the South Armagh Brigade as an organisation was involved in this killing – and no I wouldn’t be taking that info to the Gardai because I can assure you they already know. As for me claiming that the situation in 21 and now are the same – no – but the same ideological and organisational institutions continue to exist and I think it would be far more fruitful to debate whether we can really see an end to ‘fenianism’ now or will this institution of Irish political activity be with us for another generation. As for the situation with OSF, you may or may not recall that when faced with similar activity the armed group associated with that party ensured it’s members where disciplined for such actions or in a specific case made amenable to the police – what I think we have here is a clear indication of the moral bankruptcy of not only PSF but yes also Fianna Fail. You are doing no one any service by making foolish claims that because PSF have said help the police that is good enough – please, that is on the same scale of subterfuge that claiming that just because Harris makes a connection between this killing and the Pearson incident it is bull. Of course there is interesting historic links – I boy physically confronting whiteboy/Defender/IRA/Provo members, then probably after some kind of republic court hokum being killed in a rural community, not the same but interesting parallels. As a socialist I was always of the opinion that the here and now was more important than past events – that is why the most intresting thing about Harris and these issues is the link he is making

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14. WorldbyStorm - November 18, 2007

You are joking about the OIRA, aren’t you – and I’m still not certain about your FF ref, unless it’s part of the old shibboleth about FF splitting SF at the turn of the 1970s? But let’s go further. Will the family meet with their local MP? How can we take it as read that the ‘local members’ are telling you the truth? I’ve already stated that I’d support fully a stand down in organisational terms by PIRA, although I’ve also noted counter arguments that might indicate why such a stand down might not be welcomed by security forces, and the society, on either side of the border.

As for my making ‘foolish’ claims. Perhaps you’re right, but I have to ask you, what do you expect PSF to do? You don’t say. Do you expect them to exercise ‘influence’? Or do you expect PIRA to act extra-judicially? Is the latter not simply a part of the illegality that you and I disdain? How do you expect the former to be implemented without the latter? And how can you be certain either way, whatever about your contact with a ‘Provo’.

And again no disrespect, if you look at the two events, they are actually radically different as I’ve already pointed out, one happening in an island wide liberation struggle, the other happening at the tail end of a period of violence as there is a transition to a normalised polity. The idea that they represent ‘a boy physically confronting…’ is rather tenuous.

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15. WorldbyStorm - November 18, 2007

If I may extend on my scepticism re OIRA. When I hear about the saintliness or even ‘straight-dealing’ of any paramilitary group my most cynical tendencies tend to engage… Paramilitary groups are, almost by definition, incapable of operating along any sort of coherent lines or according to straight forward moral principles. They’re a rag bag of ideology, pragmatism and brute force. As a former member of the WP during the 1980s and early 1990s my cynicism tends to be enormous.

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16. Simone Burns - November 19, 2007

Just to clear up I personally do not ‘distain’ illegality – I believe such a term is problematic – I do condem murder and those who cover up for murder.

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17. Wednesday - November 19, 2007

Paul Quinn’s local MP has not even been to see the family

That’s at their request.

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18. WorldbyStorm - November 19, 2007

Simone, that’s fair enough, but you have to expect that the points you raise will be treated by those of us with histories on the ‘left’ and some experience of the dynamics you hint at within the context of that experience. If illegality is problematic as a term to you, that does tend to make me wonder why you are so absolutely certain about this issue and why you don’t see that making absolute determinations on what happened is at this point near impossible. I don’t know you any more than you know me, but I don’t feel that your proposition of ‘cover-up’ is justified either by the analysis you put forward or the broader information we have. Now, again, I could be completely wrong about this. But I’d tend to wait until all the information is in.

And again, this is before we get to the point of making statements as Harris does that make no distinction between ‘members, former members and associates’ and an entire organisation. And again, I’m not attempting to present an apologia for PIRA, quite the opposite. But what you seem to be doing is proposing a ‘cover-up’ and by extension suggesting that that completely undermines PSF as an entity, when I’d argue that no such inference is logical or consistent either with the facts we know of or indeed the history of paramiltaries on this island as they fade away.

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19. Mick Hall - November 20, 2007

Wednesday

Thanks for that info, lets get a bit of reality into this, what would you do in a similar situation when having lost you son and the MP for SF knocks on your door? If the MP goes to the door he would be accused of being engaged in a publicity stunt, if he does not then the likes of simon will crucify him. [who otherwise makes some sensible points] About all this MP could do is pass a message on via a friend of the family giving his condolences etc.

Para-military organizations are never these slick outfit the media and books portray them to be, indeed national armies are not so we should hardly be surprised at this.

I have never personally met Harris, does he have a high opinion of himself, despite having had a go at him vigorously at times I still enjoy some of his work, although the guy has some strange bed fellows to say the least.

I really cannot see Mr Trimble as a savior of Irish democracy, indeed by his work defending the Union he has weakened it considerably .

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20. Niall - November 21, 2007

What is Harris’ motivation for wanting the majority of Irish people today to atone for the past? It seems to me to be aimed at undermining people and making them feel guilty and ashamed for things they have no control over. What kind of pathology is at work here? I think the only practical purpose it serves is to show Harris in a superior light. He is addicted to self-righteousness and the idea that he has moral authority over people.

His failure to call on the British, Unionists or indeed the Americans in more recent conflicts to atone for any of their actions is telling. He knows he has no influence in their company and the personal rewards for doing so – acknowledgement of his moral authority – would not be forthcoming. Doing so would not serve his psychological need for control over people’s emotional and intellectual states so he does not do so. His attacks are predicated not on the moral validity of the acts per se, but on what the reaction to him will be, so he focusses relentlessly on the nationalist sacred cow.

Ironically, if he was less one-dimensional in his approach he would appear more reasonable and perhaps win more people over to his point of view, but his need for immediate reaction has blinded him to this fact. Gestural politics are an absolute sham: the only people to gain from any act like this are contemporary protaganists like Harris who could feel themselves validated and wag their finger and say: ‘I told you so.’

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21. Starkadder - November 21, 2007

Niall, that’s a very insightful post. I think your comments
about Harris only criticisng Irish Nationalism (not British, US or
indeed Israeli nationalism) as a means
of manipulating people is spot on.

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22. Dublin Opinion » Blog Archive » The Strangeness of Documenting Fiction - November 22, 2007

[…] Not only that there was a blizzard of letters to the Irish Times about it, Pat Muldowney’s Indymedia articles were republished by Village and the Irish Times http://www.ireland.com/newspaper/opinion/2007/1117/1194550595305.html WorldbyStorm has been writing on it consistently, and consistently well, on Cedar Lounge Revolution. […]

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23. WorldbyStorm - November 22, 2007

consistently to the point of obsession…

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24. Wars Of Independence « El Nuevo Pantano - November 22, 2007

[…] the viewer the faces of many of those who are about to be exterminated. Perhaps someone should tell Eoghan Harris that this is the sort of thing that many countries, not just Ireland and Algeria, had to stoop to […]

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25. dingdongdoolies - March 20, 2008

Muldowney/McConway/Heaney/Martin/Indymedia et al discredited.

From Wikipedia:

On 25 February 2008, the Broadcasting Complaints Commission (BCC), an independent statutory body, with the responsibility to deal with all broadcasting complaints concerning radio and television broadcasters licensed within the Republic of Ireland, considered seven formal complaints regarding RTE’s Hidden History programme, The Killings of Coolacrease. Claims that the documentary was “unbalanced and misleading”, that important evidence was omitted, that there were “inaccurate facts amounting to an attack on a person’s reputation or honour” and that there was “unacceptable suppression of pertinent source material” were rejected by the BCC.

http://www.bcc.ie/decisions/feb_08_decisions.html

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26. WorldbyStorm - March 20, 2008

I’d disagree incidentally that they’re discredited, again that seems a zero-sum approach. It was entirely right and proper to raise criticisms about the programme, criticisms which went beyond the partisan source of some of them making them.

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27. Fast Cash Loans - June 29, 2013

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