No-one who was around in April 1993, and in the weeks and months that followed the allegedly accidental – but more likely deliberate – revelation that the SDLP leader John Hume and the Sinn Fein President and IRA leader, Gerry Adams had been meeting for secret peace talks, can forget the reaction of The Sunday Independent newspaper in the weeks that followed.
Assuming that the aims of the talks were not about achieving ‘peace’, but to create a pan-Nationalist monolith that would trundle the Unionists into a united Ireland, the Sindo went into full scale offensive mode.
Hardly a weekend passed thereafter for at least a month or two without the paper publishing a series of violent and often offensive articles targeting Hume for his naivete, misplaced ambition, stupidity, gullibility and credulity for entertaining the notion that Adams and the IRA could be talked out of violence.
Leading the charge each weekend was Eoghan Harris, former RTE bureaucrat cum censor-in-chief, Workers Party idealoge and scourge of everything Irish Nationalist – but he was by no means alone. Some weekends The Sunday Indo could have wallpapered the average Irish living room with diatribes against Hume.
We know now an awful lot more about the reality behind these talks – and what absolute garbage the Indo had published. Hume wasn’t really talking to Adams, i.e. trying to persuade him to embrace peace; he was there to represent the interests of the Irish government and give whoever was in power in Dublin political cover to help deliver a deal that in principle had in large measure already been agreed. He was also there to provide the good housekeeping seal of approval to sceptics abroad, especially in Washington.
Nor were the talks leading anywhere near Irish unity; quite the opposite. The outcome of the process, of which the Hume-Adams dialogue was but a small part, would see the Provos accept the principle of consent for Irish unity, accept the legitimacy of the policing system in the North, allow the decommissioning of its weapons and the creation of a power-sharing government at Stormont in which Sinn Fein ministers would play an active part.
Most crucially, all this won, with Sinn Fein approval, the endorsement of the Irish people in twin referenda in both parts of Ireland, an act that could be said to supercede the last all-Ireland election, the 1921 UK general election which created the Second Dail, the last all-Ireland parliament, at least in name, and from which the IRA took its legal cum moral authority to use violence to eject the British from Ireland.
The Hume-Adams talks were part of a process that led not just to the end of the Troubles but, arguably, the eclipse of Irish republicanism.
But as I say, no-one knew any of that or could foresee all that would happen back then, least of all The Sunday Independent.
In the last few days that rather squalid and woefully misdirected chapter in The Sunday Independent’s history was revived, first by an op-ed in The Irish Times written by the paper’s then editor, and Eoghan Harris’ former wife, Anne Harris and some angry responses published on the IT’s letter page by friends of Hume, including Sean Donlon, former Secretary to the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs and ambassador to the United States.
In her piece, Harris defended the onslaught against Hume thus:
What Hume, in the early stages of the peace process, did, was ask the Irish Republic to accept the IRA’s and Gerry Adams’s credentials on his say-so. The Sunday Independent, in sometimes furious debate, subjected those credentials to severe scrutiny.
An angry Sean Donlon responded, inter alia:
The Sunday Independent’s persistent and vicious attacks on John Hume were a serious mistake, an absolute disgrace and damaged the reputation of Irish journalism.
Another Hume fan, Sean McCann from Co Tyrone, recalled one of Eoghan Harris’ more embarrassing bloopers during the Indo’s onslaught:
Here is an instance of one such Sunday Independent “warning”, courtesy of Eoghan Harris: “If we persist with the peace process it will end with sectarian slaughter in the North, with bombs in Dublin, Cork and Galway, and with the ruthless reign by provisional gangs over the ghettos of Dublin. The only way to avoid this abyss is to cut the cord to John Hume”.
While it is very tempting to join in the baiting of the Indo, and to ridicule the ridicule-deserving Eoghan Harris, the perverse side of me – which some readers may have noticed is one of my abiding qualities – pokes my shoulder and points me in a different direction.
While the Indo offensive may have been, well offensive and ridiculously wrong, I would argue now that at the time, the attack on Hume was probably the best thing that could have happened to the still fledgling peace process.
I say this firstly, because the Sindo barrage helped divert initial republican grassroots perplexity at the Hume-Adams process into a tribal rallying event.
Provo activist suspicion at their leader supping with their most scathing and dangerous Nationalist adversary quickly morphed into something much more benign: a need to defend the tribe, and their leader, from the Sindo – and also those in the British and Unionist camps who had taken up the Indo’s refrain.
Provo supporters were soon to be seen on the streets of Belfast and Derry rallying to the slogan: Support the Hume-Adams Talks! Any doubts and suspicions about the talks were soon submerged in a wave of tribal and party loyalty.
But the furious response of the Sindo to the Hume-Adams dialogue did more. It provided an alternative narrative for the Hume-Adams talks, an explanation that served to further calm doubts and suspicions about the real direction of the talks.
For instance, just two weeks after the Hume-Adams dialogue was revealed, the two men issued a joint statement which included the following four sentences:
We accept that the Irish people as a whole have a right to national self-determination. This is a view shared by a majority of the people of this island though not by all its people. The exercise of self-determination is a matter for agreement between the people of Ireland. It is the search for that agreement and the means of achieving it on which we will be concentrating.
Those of you who were alive at the time, or have long memories, may recall that there was a great deal of debate about the meaning of these cryptic sentences and much mystification surrounded them. It is obvious now what they mean: Sinn Fein will accept the principle of consent.
But at the time, even though there were niggling doubts, most of those of a republican bent, who supported the Provos, were just incapable of accepting what stared them in the face, and most of those who did understand decided to keep their mouths shut. But to stay that way, they would need evidence, otherwise their loyalty and silence could be seriously eroded.
And that is why The Sunday Independent’s war in 1993 against John Hume assumes such importance. Not only was it a driver towards pan-Nationalist unity and a rallying point for Gerry Adams’ supporters, but it provided an alternative narrative which doubting Sinn Feiners gratefully grasped.
Adams’ talks with John Hume were, according to the Indo, not the beginnings of a sellout but a clever plot to wrong-foot the Prods and, using the strength of pan-Nationalism, lead the North into an all-Ireland republic.
How do I know, responded your average Provo when asked. “Because Eoghan Harris says so, because Anne Harris says so, because the entire staff of The Sunday Independent’s op-ed page says so, that’s why, and they’re all as mad as hell. And if they’re angry, then I’m happy.”
That’s why Sean Donlon’s and Tim Atwood’s letters to The Irish Times should maybe instead have expressed gratitude to Anne Harris and The Sunday Indo instead of anger.
Although she didn’t know at the time, and maybe would resist the logic of this article today, she helped keep the peace process afloat when it sailed into dangerous waters.
Here’s the link to Anne Harris’ op-ed in The Irish Times, and below, two of the letters published in the same paper slating Ms Harris for her paper’s campaign against John Hume:
Sir, – In “History will judge O’Reilly as a man of principle” (Opinion & Analysis, October 3rd), Anne Harris makes it clear that her agenda is to defend the Sunday Independent’s coverage of John Hume’s peace initiative in the early 1990s.
She takes it on herself, tabloid-style, to define Mr Hume’s approach as to “ask the Irish Republic to accept the IRA’s and Gerry Adams’s credentials on his say-so”.
If her newspaper had followed accepted journalistic standards and based its coverage on the available evidence and information from those centrally or marginally involved in the pursuit of peace, she would have realised that Mr Hume’s approach was rooted in principles which he had first set out in The Irish Times on May 18th and 19th, 1964.
He remained faithful to these principles all his political life.
In particular, his commitment to non-violence was never diluted.
His success in persuading the IRA and Gerry Adams to take the non-violent road created the Belfast Agreement and subsequent agreements. Yes it is a bumpy and sometimes pot-holed road but it is working.
The Sunday Independent’s persistent and vicious attacks on John Hume were a serious mistake, an absolute disgrace and damaged the reputation of Irish journalism. – Yours, etc,
Sir, – I wish to challenge the comments by Anne Harris about Nobel laureate John Hume.
First, I believe Tony O’Reilly was not only a colossus of Irish and global business but an unwavering supporter of non-violent constitutional nationalism throughout the darkest days of the Troubles.
I, however, do take grave exception to Anne Harris’s commentary on John Hume.
I defend the freedom of the press and a journalists write to criticise, challenge and oppose.
However, the actions of the Sunday Independent in the 1980s and 1990s were not normal “democratic discourse” but were a vitriolic campaign aimed at undermining and discrediting John Hume in his efforts to end violence.
Who can forget the scalding attacks in the Sunday Independent in 1993 when half a dozen articles attacked John Hume, culminating in a nasty cartoon which depicted blood dripping from John’s hands?
These attacks did take a personal toll on John Hume but also galvanised his peace efforts.
I remember the heart-breaking image of John Hume breaking down when the young daughter of one of those murdered in the Greysteel atrocity said: “Mr Hume, we prayed for you around my daddy’s coffin last night. We prayed that you would succeed in the work you were doing, so that no one will ever have to suffer in the future what we have suffered.”
It was clear that the people of Ireland, North and South, wanted the terrible violence to end and rallied behind the John Hume and his endeavours to bring peace. Indeed the Sunday Independent published a poll which showed that 72 per cent supported the Hume-Adams talks.
Anne Harris should reflect on these facts and the words of The Irish Times which stated that Ireland “owes no greater debt than to the man who insisted that living for Ireland is better than dying for it; that it is more challenging of the human spirit to learn to live with one’s adversaries than to subdue them”, and concluded, “John Hume has wrought the very basis of Ireland’s future”.
Perhaps on reflection Anne Harris will have the good grace to apologise to John Hume, as some other Sunday Independent columnists, such as Eamon Dunphy, have done. – Yours, etc,
Cllr TIM ATTWOOD,