Belfast Telegraph

Eoghan Harris: For Dublin politicians, reaching out to unionists is not just an act of moral good authority, it also makes political sense

Fianna Fail's Micheal Martin spoke for the true republican tradition of Wolfe Tone when he extended the hand of friendship to northern Protestants, writes leading southern commentator Eoghan Harris

The approach of Leo Varadkar (pictured) is in marked contrast to that of Micheal Martin
The approach of Leo Varadkar (pictured) is in marked contrast to that of Micheal Martin
Micheal Martin

By Eoghan Harris

Last week, we reluctantly realised that there would be no decent deal on the backstop without the consent of the majority of northern Protestants. I say "decent deal", because a substantial number of stupid people, many with academic degrees, are hoping Boris Johnson will betray the unionists. I say "northern Protestants", because the word "unionist" unlocks some primitive sectarian reflex in reactionary circles.

The terrifying thing is that the most tribal reaction comes from our college class, who fill social media with vile sectarian vapourings. Leo Varadkar fed this fever with asinine comments about not "abandoning" northern nationalists and Simon Coveney hoping for a united Ireland in his lifetime did not help calm fears, either.

How do they think their words are heard by northern Protestants? Put yourself in their shoes, a minority on the island, soon to be a minority in Northern Ireland? What would you do in their place, following a murderous IRA campaign, except put on a brave face and take a hard line?

Last week, as unionists struggled to find a backstop solution that would not amount to abject surrender, they heard two different voices from the Republic. Having bigged-up Leo Varadkar on the backstop, the print media continued to puff the macho stances of Coveney, Neale Richmond and Phil Hogan - useless stances that only forced unionists to dig in.

Luckily, RTE provided a platform to pluralist voices. First came Micheal Martin on Morning Ireland with a message he repeated all day. Rejecting the provocative phrase "Northern Ireland-only backstop", Martin, instead, spoke diplomatically of a "Northern Ireland-specific solution".

RTE's northern editor, Tommie Gorman, reporting on the Boris Johnson visit, concluded his report by plucking out Martin's pluralist message earlier in the day for emphasis. "Micheal Martin's comments about unionism having to be involved in the solution - I think they're on the money."

Last Tuesday, Bertie Ahern was equally emphatic - there could be no unilateral solution to the backstop that did not involve the majority of unionists.

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Proof of the power of pluralist words came swiftly from Jeffrey Donaldson on RTE News that night. "I welcome very much the comments today by the leader of Fianna Fail, Micheal Martin, and by the former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern. I think they were very significant comments, recognising that unionists have valid concerns that need to be addressed ... and I think these comments were very helpful."

Later, on Prime Time, Ger Colleran and Tommie Gorman provided a calm, pluralist contrast to the somewhat feverish verbal flights of Fintan O'Toole.

Later in the week, two other experienced players added fresh fuel to the pluralist fire, helping to warm up our chilly relations with unionists.

Henry McDonald, correspondent with the Guardian, author of Two Souls, a dark, but hilarious novel about Belfast in the 1970s, spoke to Hot Press. He was caustic about how media opponents of Brexit were bigging-up the dissident threat. "People are dishonestly ramping up the Brexit effect, saying, 'We're going back to war'. No, we're f*****g not. It's insulting. I find some journalists the worst offenders."

Seosamh O Cuaig, writing in the Irish language online journal Tuairisc, courageously took up the unionist cause. A founder of the Gaeltacht civil rights movement that led to Radio na Gaeltachta and TG4, O Cuaig was also a regular visitor to Derry in the early days of the Troubles.

He recounts how, in Derry, he learned how the Provos took over the civil rights movement - as confirmed in the BBC NI Spotlight documentary.

Today, still loyal to his Wolfe Tone republican roots, O Cuaig robustly rejects any attempt at imposing a Brussels backstop on northern Protestants. He writes: "Have we totally forgotten the philosophy of Wolfe Tone? We keep vowing we are for a united Ireland, but have we any notion of the empathy and brotherhood that unity demands?

Seosamh O Cuaig concludes by dismissing what he sees as cynical posturing by Mary Lou McDonald. "You can be certain she will give Brussels every help in hemming in the unionist people."

Micheal Martin, Bertie Ahern, Seosamh O Cuaig - these were the people who bravely acted with good authority last week. But not just with good authority. Reaching out to unionists was also good politics. Let me explain why.

Right now, some of the more stupid cheerleaders for a British-imposed backstop seem to assume that Boris Johnson will not need the DUP after a general election.

Two polls last week say otherwise.

Boris Johnson's personal popularity may not translate into seats. By taking Tony Blair's shrewd advice, Labour have given themselves time to get their act together - which means a tight election. And, if it goes badly, the polls suggest Johnson could be short between 10 and 20 seats. In sum, the DUP may be far from disposable.

So, if we want them to do a deal, we should stop demonising the DUP. Let's try talking to them with the civility we would show if speaking to northern Protestants on the Irish rugby team. The thing to remember is that even unionists like Robin Swann, who voted Remain, are viscerally opposed to the backstop.

In conclusion, let me contrast the leadership styles of Leo Varadkar and Micheal Martin in dealing with the backstop.

The Taoiseach showed a welcome hint of humility, by accepting he might have to support a "Confidence and Supply" deal with Fianna Fail. But leaders must also wield a leather whip. And he's tolerating far too much media chatter from Phil Hogan, Neale Richmond and Simon Coveney. Time he emulated Clement Attlee's response to the haranguing of Harold Laski and told Coveney and co he requires "a period of silence". In contrast, Micheal Martin has moved firmly to recover Fianna Fail ownership of real republicanism and the Belfast Agreement.

Last week, he spoke in the tradition of Sean Lemass and Jack Lynch, two leaders who laid down a clear path for republicans to follow. Lemass showed his mettle by going north to meet Captain O'Neill. In contrast, Leo Varadkar admitted to Gavin Jennings the last time he spoke to a DUP politician was to Jeffrey Donaldson at the Kennedy Summer School.

In the past, marching to Bodenstown, I revered the noble words of Wolfe Tone about uniting Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter.

But Jack Lynch spoke words just as noble during the marching season in 1970.

"There is no real invader here. We are all Irish in all our different kinds of ways. Let us not appeal to past gods as if past generations have said the last word about Ireland. We have the opportunity to say for our generation what's in our hearts and minds. I think that there is in us a capacity for good, for enjoyment, for beauty and above all for peace with our neighbours."

Eoghan Harris is a leading Dublin-based commentator. He writes a weekly column for the Sunday Independent

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