Varadkar’s Orange Order visit cold comfort if he forms ties with terror apologists, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards
Published: 11 June 2018
The headline in Irish Republican News was ‘A rumoured alliance between Sinn Fein and Fine Gael appears closer this week after Fine Gael leader and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar launched the West Belfast festival, Feile an Phobail’.
And that’s what’s worrying about Mr Varadkar’s visit to Belfast, which, if you’ll forgive the cliché, really was a curate’s egg.
The best bit was the hugely successful hour he spent at Schomberg House, the headquarters of the Orange Order.
It was a gracious and much-appreciated moment when he bowed his head in respect at the memorial window to the 336 members of the Order who were murdered by republican terrorists during the Troubles; his speech acknowledged that loss and “the grief of those left behind”, and he showed genuine interest in the Museum of Orange Heritage.
When in the 1990s as a journalist I first began getting to know and like members of the loyal institutions, I soon realised that a combination of their demonisation by republicans and their own insularity had led to the traducing of an entire community.
Contrary to the prevailing view in the British Isles, their purpose in modern times is not to fight sectarian wars, but to acknowledge their pride in their own Protestant faith and enjoy a bit of pageantry.
But so hopeless were they generally at public relations that I found myself — a Dubliner from a Catholic background who now identifies as a Judeo-Christian atheist — having to explain their point of view in the media and finally in a book.
Still, in recent years, largely inspired by the late Drew Nelson, grand secretary from 2005, they have seriously tried to improve community relations.
One of the most enthusiastic comments on the Taoiseach’s visit was from P J O’Grady, the retired principal of St Patrick’s College, Bearnageeha, Belfast, now a close friend of David Scott, the Order’s community education officer, whose success in outreach to Catholic schools was marked in 2011 with the St Patrick’s reconciliation award presented to him by ex-Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.
Northern Ireland’s hopes for a happy future entirely depend on the developing of this kind of mutual understanding and respect for history and heritage.
Which is where I get to the bad bit of the egg, for the Taoiseach’s visit to Orange HQ was intended to balance his launch of Feile an Phobail.
I’m not blind to the faults of the Orange Order and to the crimes of some of its members, but as an organisation it neither encourages nor condones violence or hatred.
Sinn Fein, on the other hand, celebrates people who murdered for sectarian and political motives and it’s still doing it at Feile an Phobail.
It would be churlish not to acknowledge the energy and commitment republicans have put into making the festival such a success in the past three decades.
Not, mind you, without enormous sums of public money that have been steered in its direction by Sinn Fein councillors.
And, unlike the early days, much of it these days is propaganda-free.
Yet the fires of terrorist-worship are still being fanned, and the last time I spoke there I was shocked by the virulence of the anti-Semitism.
You can bet that ‘From Guerrilla War to Government — The Ballymurphy Story Tour’ will pander to allegations that amount to slander of the security forces.
And that Gerry Kelly and his chums will be cheered to the echo when they tell their stories in ‘The Great Escape’, about the Maze Prison breakout during which Mr Kelly shot a prison officer in the head and Dermot Finucane stabbed another three times — which almost certainly caused his subsequent fatal heart attack.
In all, 20 prison officers were injured, 13 kicked and beaten, four stabbed and two shot.
Among the vicious killers who escaped were those who, as Austin Stack pointed out, eight weeks later murdered Private Paddy Kelly in Ballinmore.
Unless the Press missed it, the Taoiseach did not denounce these events, which makes it sickeningly likely that he really is preparing the ground for going into government with terrorist apologists.
The bad bits of that curate’s egg stink.