Belfast Telegraph

Eoghan Harris: Our lives are deeply entwined with our Northern Protestant neighbours and we must reach out

Dublin commentator Eoghan Harris argues that after the betrayal of the DUP by Boris Johnson, it's time for the Republic to offer unionists meaningful support

Eoghan Harris
Eoghan Harris

By Eoghan Harris

Last Wednesday, while sitting outside Ramen restaurant in Dun Laoghaire, Patsy McGarry of The Irish Times stopped by and we spoke of St John Newman's motto: Cor ad cor loquitur. Heart speaks to heart.

Happily, there has been a welcome return to "heart speaks to heart" between Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland.

Unhappily, there is no love left over for Northern Protestant unionists: what little they will get will most likely be confined to this column.

Time to do the tots on my profit and loss account.

First, given the time factor, Boris Johnson had no choice but to "betray" the unionists if he wanted to get Brexit done by October 31.

Rory Best's summary of Ireland's victory over Samoa summed up Boris Johnson's game: "It was not pretty, but pretty effective."

Second, the same crushing time factor meant that Boris Johnson could not give the DUP enough time to tease out the crucial issue of consent.

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Clearly the DUP felt there was a bit more to be done when they left Downing Street last Wednesday, not realising time had run out for fine-tuning.

Had they been given a bit more time I believe it is likely they would have arrived at the same position as David Trimble.

Trimble, in a typically terse statement, showed how to put a positive spin on a deal about which I suspect he had private reservations.

"Yesterday's agreement is a great step forward. Whilst, previously, the people of Northern Ireland were to have an agreement imposed on them, now we have a mechanism for the consent of the people of Northern Ireland. This is fully in accordance with the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement."

For a year I have been far out on five limbs. Let me hang small lanterns on what I got right and a large one on what I got wrong.

First, contrary to those who called him a clown, I predicted Boris Johnson would be a formidable Prime Minister who would not budge on the backstop. Check that correct.

Second, contrary to the consensus, I said the backstop must be tweaked. Check. Credit to Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney for accepting that a backstop rose by any other name smells just as sweet.

Third, again contrary to the political and media consensus, I said bilateral talks were the way forward. Check that correct too.

Fourth, long before any Irish commentator, I predicted Boris Johnson would win the next British general election. Check that prediction as it's currently still on target.

But I was badly wrong about the only prediction that really matters to me, that Boris Johnson would not betray the unionists.

Gwen, my wife, begged me not to make that prediction. Deep down I knew she was probably right. So why did I still go ahead?

I've been pondering that for the past two days, trying to pin down my own elusive emotions, and have reached two conclusions.

Basically, my desperate desire not to have Northern unionists isolated overcame my distrust of every modern British Prime Minister beginning with Harold Wilson, who wanted to pull British troops out even if it ended in civil war in Northern Ireland.

Mostly my stance was dictated by disgust at the tribal antics of the Green Hibernian gang who echoed ancient tribal tropes by repeatedly telling us the unionists were money-grabbers who would ultimately sell out for gold.

Last Thursday Arlene Foster put that charge to bed by taking a principled and politically lonely stand against Boris Johnson's deal when all she had to do was ask for money.

That degrading pot of gold charge was everywhere on Twitter and even surfaced in more august publications. George Parker in The Financial Times spoke of the DUP "haggling" over money with Boris Johnson.

But the charge of money-grabbing surfaced most crudely on the Pat Kenny TV debate last Wednesday.

Commenting on the deal, Liam Halligan of The Daily Telegraph said: "The DUP can be bought off, everybody knows that."

His barb was greeted with evident enjoyment by a studio audience that seemed to mostly represent only one political tradition.

Taking his cue from the crowd, Michael Harding went further, baiting the decent media innocent, Jim Wells MLA, and telling us the DUP were "intellectually retarded".

This predictably got him a round of applause for the wrong reasons from the wrong people.

Even The Irish Times was not immune, wrongly telling us there would be a financial package as a "sweetener for the DUP".

Let me turn from that sordid scene to name a few people who behaved well on media in the past week:

First comes Miriam O'Callaghan, followed by Tommie Gorman, Matt Cooper, Ivan Yates. Kate O'Connell also reached out on The Tonight Show when Diarmaid Ferriter said he had no sympathy whatsoever for the DUP.

How could any Irish republican not have sympathy with Arlene Foster, who saw her father crawl into their farmhouse covered in blood and the driver of her school bus targeted in an IRA bomb attack?

Suppose positions were reversed, and we were a Roman Catholic minority of a million in a small Catholic region, on a partitioned island with a Protestant Free State on the other side of the border.

Suppose the Protestants, with a majority on the island, began to butcher our fathers and brothers.

Can you imagine how bitter our memories would be?

Given our capacity for self-pity I am certain we would not have been as willing to reach out, as Jeffrey Donaldson has repeatedly done.

By now most unionists oppose Boris Johnson's deal. But their technical objections are only products of a more fundamental fear.

Ian Acheson, a native of Co Fermanagh, movingly outlined these fears in The Spectator, which is worth quoting from at length.

"The fact that unionism on the frontier is usually missing from the Brexit story is in large part due to a ruthless and cynical IRA campaign that attacked vulnerable and isolated Protestant communities there and decimated them.

"Professor Henry Patterson in his book, Ireland's Violent Frontier, views this campaign in the 1970s to mid-90s as a form of targeted ethnic cleansing, designed to force Britain to negotiate with Sinn Fein.

"This onslaught against a community of people - often settled in border regions for longer than white people have been in North America - resulted in the British Government establishing permanent border Army posts to try to halt the slaughter."

In defending the DUP from the tribal trolls of Twitter, media and academe, I still have confidence in the fundamental decency of ordinary Irish people.

The Irish Times poll last Monday showed that nearly half those polled wanted a compromise on the backstop.

This reflects a feeling I repeatedly encountered in conversations all over Ireland during the summer: most Irish people don't like permanent bad blood between the peoples of Britain and Ireland. Our lives are entwined.

But they are equally entwined with our Northern Protestant neighbours.

Today, the Orange Lily and Easter Lily are dying in sour sectarian soil.

The task of republicans, no matter how often rejected, is to find better ground for these fragile flowers.

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