Current Affairs Journalism Politics

Eoghan Harris: L’état C’est Moi!

Is there anyone who believes more in the preternatural abilities of the newspaper polemicist Eoghan Harris than Eoghan Harris himself? Judging by his most recent paean to his own ego, one suspects not. From his regular Sunday Independent blog column:

“Last Monday, on Newstalk’s Lunchtime with Jonathan Healy, I did a post-mortem on the General Election and made some further predictions. In doing so, I held firmly to my favourite Orwell dictum: not to repeat anything already said by anybody else.

Listeners responded with enthusiasm to my effort. It was Newstalk’s most popular broadcast for days.

Even commentators who did not agree with my analysis praised its edge, energy and effort.

David McWilliams generously tweeted to his 160,000-plus followers that he found it “interesting, trenchant and committed”.

Arising from that response, I have a question for RTE’s director general Noel Curran and managing director of news and current affairs Kevin Bakhurst.

Given I have been writing about Irish politics for the past 20 years, how can RTE justify excluding me from RTE and current affairs programmes?”

Hmmm. Well, I can think of a justification or two. Published in a 2009 edition of The Sunday Times, here is a lengthy extract from the “The Lost Revolution: The Story of the Official IRA and Workers’ Party” by Brian Hanley and Scott Millar, a detailed history of Ireland’s would-be communist revolutionaries in the Workers’ Party (i.e. Official Sinn Féin, i.e. the political wing of the Official IRA):

“In the summer of 1977, Paddy Woodworth, a member of Sinn Fein the Workers’ Party (SFWP), was waiting for a bus in Ballsbridge when Eoghan Harris and his wife Anne [ASF: Anne Harris, later editor of the Sunday Independent newspaper which employed Eoghan Harris for some two decades] pulled up in a car and offered him a lift. During the drive to Bray, Harris disclosed to Woodworth his concerns about some members of the party leadership.

Woodworth recalls Harris explaining that the party’s primary problem was that there were “green people [ie nationalists] still in charge”, including Tomás Mac Giolla, Seán Ó Cionnaith and Tony Heffernan, and until “we get rid of these people we will never make it as a communist party”.

Already sceptical of Harris’s influence, Woodworth was amazed at what he was hearing. Such an attempt to influence a party member against figures in the leadership clearly contradicted the party’s tenets of democratic centralism. Woodworth recalls feeling “really outraged, because we took the thing about being in a Leninist party very strongly, meaning if you were in a branch in Galway and I was in a branch in Clare I would not tell you about my views about Mac Giolla . . . otherwise you were factionalising”.

On arrival in Bray, Woodworth discussed Harris’s comments with John McManus, a GP and former Labour party member, who had joined Sinn Fein in Galway, where his wife Liz was a party activist. A few days later, Mick Ryan called to see Woodworth at the Project Theatre, where he worked. He was questioned about the allegations and, aware of Ryan’s seniority within both the Official IRA and the Workers’ Party, stressed that Harris had not meant “eliminate” when he had spoken of getting “rid of” the three men.

A letter requesting that Harris explain his accusations of members of the leadership being opposed to the “further development of our policies” resulted in two replies. In the first Harris, claimed that he was not a member of SFWP (an associate explained to the party’s ruling body “that the denial of membership was to protect his job” at RTÉ).

In a second communication, Harris denied making the remarks, attributing them to a “third party”.

A leadership delegation was authorised to inform him that any “recurrence would lead to him being disciplined”.

The fact that Harris was only reprimanded for a contravention that would normally have been cause for expulsion was a sign of his influence, but the incident also aided those opposed to him. Woodworth was later scolded by an RTÉ producer and SFWP member for having “single-handedly put a stop to political progress in the party for two years”.

SFWP had several secret branches including the Ned Stapleton cumann, named after a communist activist who had died in January 1973. Its members included Harris and Oliver Donohue, another RTÉ employee. Cynics dubbed it the Led Zeppelin cumann. There was a strong macho tendency among members, and several were involved in the martial arts.

The penchant for secrecy and conspiracy alarmed Woodworth. “It was very creepy. I frankly found . . . the Harris faction a far more frightening phenomenon than the IRA itself,” he said. The branch was active within RTÉ, with Harris as its central figure. Secrecy was essential because in the 1960s, concerns within RTÉ about the left-wing tone of some of its programmes led the station’s director-general to introduce strict restrictions on political involvement by the station’s employees.

Harris’s winning charm and sharp polemic gained him many admirers, and a nickname: “the thin blue flame”. However, even among fellow adherents there was some amusement at the leather jacket-wearing Harris’s regular declarations that he was a “Stalinist”.

While some found such dramatics ridiculous, for others Harris was the “driving force in the party”.

Despite a tougher government line, RTÉ continued to attract such radicals as employees, several of them with backgrounds in the official republican movement. Among those joining the station in 1974 were Patrick Kinsella, a former Dublin Comhairle Ceantair member, and Charlie Bird, who was told about a research job with Seven Days by Harris.

Former SFWP-aligned student activists, including former USI News editor Joe Little, were also gaining employment at the station. Harris had been on the interview board that had hired Gerry Gregg, a 22-year-old University College Dublin graduate who became enthusiastic about SFWP politics. “[I] wouldn’t have jumped until I went into RTÉ and the battle was joined; you were either Stick [ASF: The Official IRA and its associates] or Anti-Stick [ASF: The Provisional IRA and its associates],” Gregg said.

Other graduates were less susceptible to the party’s charms. Fintan Cronin joined the station in 1980, and recalls being approached shortly afterwards in Madigans pub in Donnybrook by Harris and asked if he would become involved with SFWP. Cronin was “suspicious of the Official IRA” but “not unsympathetic to their ideology”. When he informed Harris that he was somewhat “cynical about what they were at” he recalls the blunt response: “We need cynics like we need a hole in the head.”

The Ned Stapleton members had an influence on RTÉ’s output that belied their relatively small numbers. Producers Caden and Murray were also attached to the SFWP structures in a workplace that did not officially allow party political activity.

A number of SFWP members and supporters were active in the NUJ, including Padraig Yeates, Gerry Flynn and Woodworth, and there was mutual suspicion between them and what were termed the “Harrisites” concentrated in the Workers’ Union of Ireland (WUI).

Within RTÉ, the NUJ branch also contained a number of people formerly close to the Stickies, such as journalists Bird, Kinsella and Rodney Rice.

Today Tonight would become the station’s current affairs flagship, marked by a campaigning style of investigative journalism.

From its inception the show was associated with people seen as sympathetic to SFWP, among them producer Tish Barry, and programme editor Joe Mulholland from Donegal, a Francophile who had a keen interest in Marxist politics and knew some of the SFWP leadership, including Garland.

Although Mulholland never committed himself to movement discipline, he did recruit a number of young reporters and journalists to the programme who were closely aligned with the Ned Stapleton cumann. These included Gregg, who joined Today Tonight in October 1980, Barry O’Halloran, Joe Little, David Blake Knox and later Úna Claffey [ASF: Most of those named here remained influential journalists and producers with RTÉ for the next three decades].

Although a wide variety of views and strong personalities were represented within the programme staff, which also included Brian Farrell, Mary McAleese and Olivia O’Leary, cynics christened the programme Stickyline, in reference to the show it was replacing, Frontline.

SFWP influence within RTÉ was not confined to Today Tonight, and indeed Harris and other party members never worked directly on the programme. But critics complained that SFWP members were regularly interviewed on Today Tonight without their party affiliation being revealed. With SFWP members also involved in the production of RTÉ’s most popular programme, The Late Late Show, it was not unusual for activists to make appearances as members of the studio audience there as well. The H-Block hunger-strike issue led to bitter conflict. There were major arguments among the team that worked on Today Tonight about the prominence the issue should be given. SFWP members were quite clear that “some force had to stand up against the tom-tom drums” of nationalism, and that those politicians who opposed the strike, such as Gerry Fitt, should be given prominence.

During the first hunger strike a non-SFWP-aligned team — Forbes McFaul, Paul Loughlin and Fintan Cronin — had produced a programme that included hunger striker Leo Green along with victims of IRA violence. Belfast native Mary McAleese was a reporter on Today Tonight during this period and felt that her efforts to discuss the mood within Northern nationalism were ignored.

McAleese already knew and was hostile to the Officials, having met many of them while working in the Long Bar on Leeson Street, which had been owned by her father. Her cousin John Pickering was a Provisional IRA prisoner in Long Kesh and eventually joined the hunger strike himself. Though McAleese was not sympathetic to her cousin’s politics, she felt that any debate on the issue was dismissed as propaganda for the Provos.

The SFWP faction, who thought the coverage of the first hunger strike had been too sympathetic to the H-Block campaign, were unhappy with some of the coverage of Bobby Sands’ death. After these reports, McFaul and Cronin were taken off the story, and a team made up of Úna Claffey, Joe Little and Tish Barry sent to Belfast in their place. In June 1981, Little and Barry produced Victims of Violence, which concentrated on the results of Provo and INLA paramilitary activity and was eventually nominated for an Emmy award. After that the attention given to the hunger strikes by Today Tonight declined notably.

Cronin contended that “the coverage was determined by a Workers’ Party line, it was as simple as that”. Other critics of the party nicknamed the show “Today Tonight: the Workers’ Programme”.

In late 1985, Labour minister Ruairí Quinn told Hot Press that he believed that the Official IRA existed and that its Army Council had an influence over the leadership of [what was by then called] the Workers’ party. Worse was to come in March 1986, when a Today Tonight special examined the funding of paramilitary organisations in the north. The first segment of the 90-minute programme dealt with the Provisional IRA, INLA and loyalist groups. The second concentrated on the Official IRA’s connections to racketeering in the building industry, forgery and fraud.

RUC Chief Superintendent Bertie McCaffrey stated that it was the OIRA that had “started off” paramilitary involvement in racketeering and that they were “still very, very active in that sphere”. McCaffrey added that he believed some of this revenue was going “towards the political end of things”.

Brian Feeney, an SDLP politician, charged that “the Official IRA is engaged in the same activities as the Bolsheviks were before 1917, when Stalin was in charge of raising money for them . . . it was considered perfectly legitimate, before 1917, to stage robberies; [they] were called revolutionary expropriations”.

As no Southern WP figure was prepared to take part, Séamus Lynch appeared at short notice on a link from Belfast to respond to the allegations. A visibly nervous and annoyed Lynch alleged that the programme was the result of internal RTÉ politics. He stated that Pat Cox, the programme’s presenter, was on the verge of joining the newly formed Progressive Democrats, producer Mick McCarthy was a “republican sympathiser” and researcher Cronin had been seen in the company of “known” Provos in Belfast. Lynch denied any knowledge of the Official IRA and said anyone with evidence of illegality should contact the police.

When Cox was appointed general secretary of the Progressive Democrats shortly afterwards, Eamon Gilmore [ASF: Later the leader of the Labour Party and Tánaiste in the government of Ireland] asked: “If RTÉ allows the general secretary of the Progressive Democrats to make a programme about the Workers’ Party, will they now accord the same opportunity to Seán Garland to make a programme on the Progressive Democrats?”

The Today Tonight programme had been conceived in early 1985 by a group of RTÉ staff who argued that a Workers’ party “freemasonry” had stilted programming and silenced opponents “through an orchestrated campaign of gossip and innuendo”. The programme was initially to focus solely on Official IRA racketeering; but in the interest of balance, a concern of Mulholland’s, it was decided that other paramilitary groups’ activities would also be examined.

The project provoked interest outside RTÉ, with government representatives assuring the journalists of their full backing and the Department of Justice offering them armed protection during their research. McAleese, by now a former Today Tonight journalist, organised a meeting between Cronin and Charles Haughey, the Fianna Fáil leader, who expressed pleasure and surprise that the programme was emerging from a “nest of Sticky vipers”.

In the north, assistance came from an eclectic range of sources, including the SDLP, sections of the RUC and the Provos. While the WP’s enemies were adamant that the Officials’ activities should be exposed, particularly relishing the fact that this was to be done on a programme strongly associated with the party, leading WP members made polite inquiries with Mulholland as to why he was allowing such a programme.

Less politely, Cronin’s files in RTÉ were rifled through and his bank statements stolen; threatening calls were made to his home and to his mother, and RTÉ received bomb threats. As a precaution, very little of the programme’s research material was kept at RTÉ. The researchers were also followed, Cronin recalls: “At one stage Pat Cox and myself were in Buswells [hotel] and they had a guy walking up and down outside and [he] was identified to me as a member of the Official IRA. Another time a guy with a big bushy beard came up to us and feigned to pull out a gun.”

The team was also harassed while in Belfast: phone calls were made late at night to the reporters’ hotel rooms and files were stolen from producer Mick McCarthy’s room. On one occasion the research team hastily travelled back across the border after the RUC informed them they had intelligence that their lives were in immediate danger. The pressure had an effect, Cronin recalls: “We did think they would shoot us.”

The day before the programme went out, Cronin found himself face to face in the RTÉ canteen with a number of men whom he knew to be members of the Official IRA. The group had obviously been invited to lunch by sympathisers among the station’s staff. The same day Cronin’s wife’s workplace received a bomb threat.

The RUC was helpful to the programme makers, although one high-ranking officer informed them that a superior had instructed him that his interview — in which he accepted that much criminal activity previously attributed to the INLA had in fact been carried out by the Officials — could not be broadcast. The claim of an “unspoken RUC policy not to embarrass the Officials” by not naming people as members in court, was broadcast, but other claims, including one that armed OIRA men were sometimes allowed through RUC roadblocks, were not.

Cronin developed the view that the OIRA was “a protected species” in Belfast and that “their criminality was often overlooked by the NIO [Northern Ireland Office] and RUC”.”

Eoghan Harris freely admits his communist past (though he insists that he was, in his own words, never a Stalinist “…for one simple reason. Stalin was an anti-semite“. Of course, one could think of twenty million other reasons not to be an idolater of Joseph Stalin in addition to his distrust of Russian Jews). However neither he nor anyone else named in “The Lost Revolution: The Story of the Official IRA and Workers’ Party”, has yet to directly challenge its allegations.

Which tells its own story…

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