Diarmaid Ferriter: Paddy Harte’s courage is still needed
The Fine Gael TD sought to open eyes on both sides in the North in the face of great hostility
Paddy Harte sought to educate his peers about the reality of the Border and highlight the scale of their ignorance.
Twenty years ago the late historian Keith Jeffery visited the Irish Peace Tower at Messines in Belgium, erected to commemorate Irish soldiers, nationalist and unionist, who died in the first World War.
It was a few weeks before its completion, and as Jeffery recorded at the end of his nuanced book Ireland and the Great War (2000), he witnessed young Irish volunteers on the site, deliberately drawn from both traditions in Northern Ireland, “dig some munitions, a shell and a bullet, out of the Belgian earth” which were then put aside to be destroyed, “one might say decommissioned: a pattern, perhaps, for more recent Irish history?”
It was tempting, in the context of the peace process and the Belfast Agreement of 1998, to write upliftingly of the importance of symbol and reconciliation; the end of old and beginning of new chapters. Jeffery was far too sophisticated a thinker to tie history into any such neat bows, which explains his tentative and questioning conclusion, but he was quite sure that the tower was “a deeply significant project”.
It was not, as often erroneously asserted, the “first official recognition” by the Irish State of the role played by nationalist Irishmen in the war, but clearly, in Jeffery’s words, “the scale of the recognition was greater and more unequivocal than ever before”.
The prime instigators of the tower project were former loyalist paramilitary leader Glenn Barr and former Fine Gael TD for Donegal North East Paddy Harte, who died this week.
Harte was a brave and straight-talking politician who, over decades, not only trenchantly denounced violence and insisted on the need for dialogue but also sought to educate his peers about the reality of the (hard) Border and highlight the scale of their ignorance. He was both a neighbour and a regular visitor to Northern Ireland, and had many contacts there.
When the Troubles erupted 50 years ago, Harte, a Fine Gael TD since 1961, arranged a meeting with his party leader Liam Cosgrave, but Cosgrave did not keep the appointment.
As Harte recalled in his memoir Young Tigers and Mongrel Foxes (2005) “I had reason to believe he did not want to meet me”; instead, he spoke to taoiseach Jack Lynch, who gave him his private number. “It struck me at the time how strange it was that the leader of the government could so readily make himself available to me, a backbench opposition TD, when my own party leader had shown no interest.”
At a subsequent meeting of his own party he had to listen to a discussion on Northern Ireland. “Some of the greatest nonsense and political piety I had ever heard spoken … there was no understanding, no sense of direction and no evidence of interest.”
He was also shocked “to hear the party leader say there were no votes for us in Northern Ireland when the lives of innocent people were at risk”.
To his credit, Harte, a committed ecumenist who valued his independence, continued to do his best to communicate unpopular messages within the party and publicly. He also persisted in keeping lines of communication open with Northern Ireland, insisting it was necessary to talk directly to those engaged in violence to encourage solutions. He even went as far as to bring an Ulster Defence Association member to Dublin, and entertained him in the Dáil restaurant.
There has been no shortage of depressing reminders of the depth of sectarianism in Northern Ireland
In 1976 he made a speech in UCD and criticised the compartmentalisation that went on in the Republic about the Troubles. “In the South, instead of helpfully concerning ourselves we have again developed a dangerous capacity of thought which enables us to disown the North if called on to contribute, and to claim it as our own when the occasion suits.”
What was admirable about Harte was the way in which he sought to open eyes on both sides even when there was great hostility shown towards his efforts. He shared nationalist aspirations for Irish unity, but the real challenge was “uniting people by trying to understand each other”.
The following decade fellow Donegal man Frank McGuinness’s play Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme was staged in Dublin, and as McGuinness was to recall “it was an eye-opener for a Catholic republican, as I am, to have to examine the complexity, diversity, disturbance and integrity of the other side, the Protestant people”.
It is timely to remember that now, in light of the tensions of recent months. North-South relations are at a low ebb, there has been no shortage of depressing reminders of the depth of sectarianism in Northern Ireland, and a new Northern Secretary, Karen Bradley, has to find her feet.
But whatever efforts the British and Irish governments do or do not make this year, the reality will still be, as Harte told his colleagues 50 years ago, “it is Northern Irish Catholics and Northern Irish Protestants who have to find the solutions”.