DUP's attitude to RTÉ shows how far North has come

 

Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness keen to honour RTÉ Northern editor Tommie Gorman, writes FIONNUALA O'CONNOR

A GLITTERING glass wall now winks sideways across the street at BBC Northern Ireland. RTÉ's new Belfast office makes the bigger broadcaster look tired. Brian Cowen, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness turned up to launch it affably in a next door hotel last week, the Taoiseach more proper and impersonal than the two Northerners. But Cowen's investment of time in the trip was as eloquent as the State broadcaster's investment in a high-prestige new headquarters. Other media organisations may have scaled down. Political managers North and South have a different perspective.

To watch the Taoiseach work the room when the speechifying was done, the SDLP's Margaret Ritchie at his side, then settle into conversation, elbow on the bar and face intent, was to see Southern politicking move North.

Cowen's initial words in Irish were a chunk of unapologetic fluency with no following verbatim translation. Most DUP people make a point of seeming allergic to the least sound in Irish. Robinson, hands folded, regarded the crowd impassively. Like McGuinness he was there not only to mark a new age, but to honour a singular journalist, RTÉ's Northern editor Tommie Gorman.

Neither the DUP nor Sinn Féin could bear sight nor sound of RTÉ personnel a few years back. Part of the revolution in attitudes is undoubtedly due to Gorman's behind-the-scenes role in helping the DUP in particular across the line into powersharing. The three main speakers said as much, body language more eloquent still. A beaming McGuinness is a staple of new-look Sinn Féin; a benign Robinson is still a newish concept. Though the Deputy First Minister's first name did not cross his lips the jests were barb-free: he referred easily to the Taoiseach as "Brian", and called Gorman a remarkable, compassionate human being.

That set the bar high. McGuinness came up with one of his folksy rambles through a childhood listening to Radio Éireann, and fondly traced Gorman's career from youth to present day. He made no mention of the annoyance many older listeners feel about Radio Éireann's recent change of wavelength, much less past republican difficulties with RTÉ. It was Gorman who mentioned the war, though in elegantly minimal fashion. He told a story about the father of Ardoyne-born director general Cathal Goan, as Gorman noted - who during the loyalist strike of 1974 was forced to drive a bomb to the street outside, where he gave a warning. Not a flicker on the cheery face of the Deputy First Minister, whose associates for decades used the uninvolved to drive bombs to their targets for them.

In those days McGuinness's organisation called the national broadcaster collaborationist, traitors and lackeys for operating the broadcasting ban that Cowen's party initiated, and jeered remorselessly at RTÉ's reporters and crews.

Robinson's party liked to single out the same staff for mockery and abuse at public events, where supporters attacked them and smashed cameras.

New imperatives rule. This was hardly a representative turnout by republicans or the DUP, but they mingled as though born to it.

Robinson made no effort to disguise his chat with Martin McAleese, husband of the president - and friend to senior loyalist paramilitaries, whom the DUP leader must now coax to decommission, to end their embarrassing lag behind the madeover IRA.

Cowen signalled Fianna Fáil solidarity with the SDLP by standing beside Ritchie, the party's sole representative on the powersharing Executive, as he told a reporter that no, his party would not be organising in Northern Ireland any time soon.

As the drinks and nibbles circulated, the gathering of politicos, journalists, officials and assorted others relaxed into today's can-do conviviality. A working BBC journalist joked about going back across the road to the Portakabin housing political staff during renovations, leaving the new world - after an age scorning the poor Dublin relation round the corner in an unlovable concrete block, RTÉ's home since the 60s (which still holds this paper's Belfast office).

Through the bad years RTÉ staff sat precariously on the top floors, uneasily aware how close they were to loyalist Sandy Row, how convenient a symbol of the hated Irish Republic. Guests needed the lift button swiped so they could travel to the top floor. It was not pleasant to stand outside in the darkness fumbling for keys.

All is not utterly changed. An east Belfast shop has just unveiled a pre-Twelfth display of Tricolours for £5 - "Fenian flags to burn". But who can deny that the present, for all the contradictions, brazenness and lack of shame, is a far, far better place. We would not want to forget the past, though. Not only to honour the dead, the injured, the bereaved, but to measure how far we have come, and to keep our feet on the ground.