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Bloody Sunday, election, Irish, Ireland, British, Ulster, Unionist, Sinn Féin, SDLP, Ahern, Blair, Irish America

Harris promises campaign to redefine republicanism

(Liam Clarke, Sunday Times)

Could Sinn Féin and Christian churches become new projects for Eoghan Harris, a newly appointed senator in the republic? Speaking as part of a panel at the West Belfast festival last Wednesday, he proclaimed his intention of re-creating and redefining republicanism for the 21st century and referred on a number of occasions to the importance of Christian values.

The Christian bit was a surprise. The last time Harris wrote about spirituality it was to recommend the message of Tibetan Buddhism. All the same, he has a strong record of spotting and shaping trends in public opinion.

He doesn't always get it right, of course. While working as an adviser to Fine Gael he famously introduced an off-colour comedy sketch by Twink into one section of party leader John Bruton's televised address. Overall, though, his record is impressive. He generally calls Irish elections right and often throws in his lot with the winning side.

Harris spotted Mary Robinson's potential to win the Irish presidency when few others did, and gave her the crucial advice she needed to kill off her frumpy, woolly jumper image. He groomed Proinsias De Rossa for government and, in the most recent election, spotted the fact that Fianna Fail could win and intervened to give Bertie Ahern crucial backing on the Late Late Show. Last week a Red C poll for the Sunday Business Post showed one-fifth of Fianna Fail voters said they had been influenced by his statements.

That's why the notion of a Christian republicanism emerging in Ireland cannot be discounted. Neither can Harris's bold prediction that Sinn Féin will lose all its seats to Fianna Fail in the next Irish general election and that the party should concentrate its efforts on the north. It was bitter advice, especially since Gerry Adams, who masterminded Sinn Féin's southern election strategy, was sitting in the audience.

The statement brought Dr Jude Collins, a University of Ulster academic and former Daily Ireland columnist, to his feet and Sinn Féin's defence. Collins waved a £100 note (assuring everyone it wasn't from the Northern Bank) and offered to bet Harris was wrong. Harris took the bet. "What odds will you give me? I suggest you start at 10-1," said Collins.

"I'll give you 10-1," Harris replied. "I'd have given you 100-1 if you had asked for it." Collins, no mean debater, was left asking if he could have 100-1 after all. "Not now you can't," replied Harris, laughing.

The suspicion that Harris might be right about Sinn Féin's fate deepened when Catriona Ruane, Sinn Féin's Mayo-born education minister at Stormont, predicted Sinn Féin would go from strength to strength, but then refused to put any money on it. Harris goaded her: "In the southern election you were put out of business." Ruane told Martina Purdy, the BBC journalist chairing the event, that she didn't gamble.

Adams, who won money from Barney Eastwood when he took his West Belfast seat from the Social Democratic and Labour party's Dr Joe Hendron, also kept his hands in his pockets.

The next step in Adams's strategy involves a breakthrough in the south. That is why he did not take a ministry in Stormont. Instead, he visited every constituency in the last Dail election and dominated Sinn Féin's slots on RTE's party political broadcasts.

Last week, though, Sinn Féin's contribution to the debate looked increasingly tired and formulaic. The party appeared lost and fell back on slogans. One man in the audience proclaimed, with a cheer, that the British Army had admitted "the IRA was unbeatable".

Edwin Poots, a Democratic Unionist minister who might have been expected to react with apoplexy to that boast, instead gave an unemotional account of the main phases of the IRA campaign before pronouncing evenly that "by the late 1980s the IRA was stuffed". He said it was no surprise they hated Special Branch so much, given the extent to which it had infiltrated the IRA.

Poots went on to praise Adams for giving Ian Paisley most of what he had asked for. Harris also praised Adams for his "epic" achievement in bringing the IRA campaign to an end and weaning his supporters away from the gun.

Harris went on to refer to his key role in weaning the Official Republican movement away from violence and said it made him admire Adams's skill in achieving the same thing with a larger movement.

It wasn't all sweetness and light. Martin Meehan, an IRA veteran from Ardoyne, described Harris as an embarrassment, accusing him of being ashamed to admit he had taken the IRA oath. Meehan, a republican legend in his day, compared his life of violent struggle and his years in jail to that of Harris, drifting from one political home to another.

The directness of Harris's reply was cruel. "What's bothering you is that you did not get what you wanted to get after 30 years. Now you are taking out your spleen on someone like me who copped on early that this was a dead end," he said, denying he had ever joined the IRA.

Several IRA veterans, including Jim "Flash" McVeigh, the last OC of Provisional IRA prisoners in the Maze, sat in the audience. Not one of them stood to say the campaign had been worthwhile or that their years of violence, jail and sacrifice had been justified by the outcome Adams had negotiated. Harris's advice was to move on, put it behind them and focus on the political opportunities ahead rather than the wrongs of the past.

There are no signs Sinn Féin is prepared to take this advice just yet. Today (Sunday) Adams will be the main speaker at a "March for Truth", which culminates in a rally at Belfast city hall. Held under the banner of the National Hunger Strike Committee, it will attempt to conjure up the sense of purpose felt by republicans during the 1981 hunger strike, by wearing the black armbands used back then by supporters of the prison protest.

In the past, holding such an event in the centre of Belfast, highlighting collusion by the security forces with loyalists and ignoring the fact the IRA killed half of those who died in the Troubles, would have sparked outrage from unionists. Today, even in the August silly season, commentators are predicting neither trouble nor much interest.

When Adams was interviewed about it on the BBC a caller asked him how he expected to be taken seriously when he called for a truth commission when he wouldn't even admit he had been in the IRA. Judging by the debate, Sinn Féin activists are in deep denial. They won't even admit where they are politically.

If you don't know where you are now, it's going to be hard to find a way forward.


August 17, 2007

This article first appeared in the Sunday Times on August 12, 2007.