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Even when it’s not about Sinn Féin, it’s about Sinn Féin… March 24, 2023

Posted by guestposter in Uncategorized.

Anne Harris has another piece in the IT. It starts with a sort of kind of defence of Leo Varadkar’s of the cuff comment about interns in the US this last weekend. She tries to make a case about speaking truth to power, and not hiding inconvenient truths and so on and so forth. But in truth this is a bit half-hearted on Harris’s part because, well, y’know, she had to admit it’s wasn’t the place. 

His problem, the perennial one, was timing. Not his delivery timing – the line certainly “landed”. Nor even because he spoke just hours after sharing a panel with Hillary Clinton. But rather because we have entered the ante-chamber of the Belfast Agreement commemorations. There is the strong sense in which this St Patrick’s season was a dress rehearsal for that commemoration.

But guess what the column immediately pivots to?

First up the spectre of febrile nationalism stalks the land. Oh yeah. That’s right. An agreement that was arrived at on the island where there was no end of compromise is reduced in Harris’s mind to one where:

Like 25 years ago, a febrile nationalism is the order of the day and the modus operandi is hyper-sensitivity to any jarring note. And that apparently means imposing a collective amnesia around the failings and foibles of the main participants (no such hyper-sensitivity, apparently, applies to Bertie Ahern, whose money misdemeanours were excavated and covered in contumely in recent weeks).

Really? It was a more formal occasion, and in truth, and this is no defence of the man, Ahern received a standing ovation for his troubles when he was protested at at a… well… formal occasion. 

Then we’re into a dissection of Clinton, which however deserved again sort of misses the point given he’s faced that time and again since and during his Presidency (and one could argue that the US political process did sanction him at the time, however insufficiently). 

The other point is that it’s quite some stretch to paint an off the cuff comment, meant humorously (one imagines) as speaking truth to power and making some grand point. Frame it another way. Suppose Leo Varadkar, of all people on this planet, sought for whatever reason to cut through the supposed collective amnesia about the ‘failings and foibles’ of one of the main participants – though why just pick one escapes me. Is he best placed to do so? What point is the Taoiseach of the Republic of Ireland meant to make in an off the cuff comment that adds to the political process that delved into that issue in the US capital, however flawed in so many ways that process was at the time? Harris’s framing makes it sound hazily plausible until a seconds analysis is brought to bear. 

But again, there’s the subject of the column and then the real subject of the column…

St Patrick’s week in Washington seems to bring about a collective regression, a green metamorphosis, where every morning is “top of the morning” and a comfortable southern-Irish bourgeoisie sentimentalises the suffering of emigrants. The panoply of the upcoming Belfast Agreement commemoration clothed the week, but also exposed a gaping hole. The faces of unionists Jeffrey Donaldson and Doug Beattie sometimes seemed the loneliest in the crowd.

So true. So very true. The real victims in this ‘febrile nationalist’ commemoration of an Agreement that whatever else it did did bring calm to the North. And even the old reliables can’t be trusted not to become nationalist and…er… febrile. 

Even Mary Robinson, at the Georgetown University panel on women and the peace process, got sentimental about government displeasure at her visits to republican west Belfast and the stratagems involved in shaking Gerry Adams’s hand “in a corridor” away from the cameras. It was left to Liz O’Donnell to acknowledge that there was another party to the peace process, one who arguably took the greatest risk for peace, without whom there would have been no Belfast Agreement.

Which is sentimental in a different way and fairly risible at that. For mentioning Jeffrey Donaldson in almost the same breath is ahistoric since Harris seems to have forgotten he left the UUP over the GFA/BA. The UUP did take huge risks, or a section within it did, and great credit to them (though Trimble’s trajectory subsequently is one that suggests near enough immediate regret on his part at the path taken. But that does nothing to diminish his truly historic achievement). But to suggest that they took the ‘greatest risk for peace’ is absurd. Everyone in the process had something to lose. Some had more, some had less. Isn’t it enough to suggest that political Unionism in 1998 made the correct choice, as did Republicanism and Nationalism and leave it at that? 

A further thought. For all the talk about how the centre was hollowed out in the North and Sinn Féin and the DUP appropriated it pushing everyone to the supposed extremes, there’s remarkably little consideration on the path those like Foster and Donaldson took. Because while on one side SF supplanted the SDLP as the political voice of Nationalism and Republicanism on the other a layer within the UUP shifted to the DUP on foot of the GFA/BA. That’s a very different dynamic and yet few seem to analyse it in any great depth. 

Let’s consider this. Sinn Féin and the SDLP and their voters, clearly agreed with the GFA/BA and sought to work it. A good number of the UUP were somewhat willing to do so. By contrast both a political layer within the UUP and a tranche of UUP voters both shifted to a DUP who were emphatic that they did not agree with the GFA/BA and did not seek to work it. And one can look at the lamentable track record of the DUP in government subsequently to the cosmetic changes to the GFA/BA later and see that even with an agreement they could call their own they remained in effective opposition to working it. 

Yet here we have Anne Harris arguing as if Jeffrey Donaldson and the party he represents as somehow representative of Unionism in 1998, which simply isn’t true. And he certainly did not take any risks for peace whatsoever in that year. Nor did the DUP. 

So we are into a very contemporary framing – and again one that seems to confuse the UUP with the DUP, as if the two are one and the same. An odd lack of nuance there from someone so keen to write about matters to do with Northern Ireland. Harris writes about how Bertie Ahern had to ‘mind’ David Trimble. And so on to Varadkar.

Varadkar’s outstanding achievement in Washington was to keep his head when all around were losing theirs. Ignoring the chivvying of Senator Chuck Schumer, one of Washington’s most powerful speakers, he refused to put pressure on Donaldson to accept the Windsor Framework, insisting on the importance of “listening to the DUP. That we hear their concerns. They are the largest unionist party and that matters.” In Washington last week, that was not what many wanted to hear. But it’s what many needed to hear. 

But to what point, given the DUP has yet again said No? That’s not 1998. And it wasn’t even 1998 in 1998 with reference to the DUP and Donaldson. Not even close. So what particular lesson is being conveyed here? 


1. Colm B - March 24, 2023

Anne Harris has zero moral authority to talk about anything – Aldershot.


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