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5 January 2015

The minister who won't be cowed by Sinn Fein 'fury'

Fine Gael TD Charlie Flanagan

Fine Gael TD Charlie Flanagan, the Irish Foreign Minister, has several qualities that should recommend him to unionists: he's not in thrall to diplomats, he likes straight talk, he deplores anti-Britishness, he's not afraid of defending unpopular causes and he's combative. Oh, and he can't stand Sinn Fein.

Some of those characteristics landed him in a bit of trouble last week as a result of what became known as the "C-word tweet".

First, he tweeted part of a letter he had written to the Sunday Independent in 2004. After 15 years as a TD, in 2002 he had lost the seat he would regain in 2007, but he was not keeping quiet.

The letter was sparked by the Northern Bank robbery. "Shades and shadows of the Weimar Republic now ominously hanging over our country," he said. "Our Minister for Foreign Affairs" (the very green Dermot Ahern) "looks forward to SF holding ministerial office in our Republic... No thanks." The letter, he said last Tuesday, was "still very relevant today".

On New Year's Eve, he tweeted an article by the journalist Colm Keena warning the Irish electorate against "putting anger or fantasy before policy" by supporting "those who would promote rancour in political debate".

"There is no magic wand formula", commented Flanagan. Warming to his theme, he then tweeted that "2015 offers Ireland the choice of Constitutional politics, or Cult politics".

The rapid-response Sinn Fein unit is on duty round the clock, so Padraig MacLochlainn - a Donegal TD, born in Leeds, who is proud of the IRA activities that landed his father in jail for almost 10 years - responded with, "Hopefully cult politics doesn't make a comeback".

He attached a photograph of uniformed Blueshirts, members of a Right-wing organisation set up in 1932 to defend pro-Treaty politicians (whose parties would become Fine Gael) from persistent physical intimidation from the rump of the IRA.

It was dissolved in 1934 and some of its members fought for the fascists in the Spanish Civil War: 80 years on, Fine Gael members are still occasionally referred to as Blueshirts as an unfair shorthand for fascists.

"I think that was a spelling mistake," said one of Flanagan's supporters apropos his tweet. "Yep," responded Flanagan, cheerfully, "left out the 'n'."

As Gregory Campbell knows, when given the opportunity to seize the politically-correct ground, Sinn Fein don't hang about. Flanagan "should apologise to the citizens of Ireland for making a comment that is unbecoming of the office he holds", tweeted MacLochlainn, solemnly.

Flanagan immediately made an announcement: "I made a New Year's statement warning people of the dangers of cult politics and the choice for the next general election will be cult politics or constitutional politics. I regret if people took offence. I'm not going to comment any further."

Fortunately, sane people rallied to defend Flanagan, with one of them helpfully tweeting a 1940 IRA statement of praise for Germany in bringing about "a free and progressive Europe". And Sinn Fein supporters produced such crude abuse that, in embarrassment, the party abandoned the fight.

Flanagan is a brave man. There are no votes in defending Israel, but in 2013, when he was party chairman, he told a journalist that Israel "has been demonised by an Irish media slavishly dancing to the Palestinian drumbeat for decades [yet] Israel has a far better and more progressive record on human rights than any of its neighbours." He added: "The truth must be told."

His support for Israel is particularly impressive since his own father was a notorious anti-Semite.

Lest anyone think Flanagan was cowed, on New Year's Day he tweeted telegrams between Winston Churchill (then Chancellor of the Exchequer) and WT Cosgrave (then the Free State prime minister) cordially wishing each other and each other's countries prosperity in 1926.

While all this was going on, as so often, Gerry Adams was focused on himself. The previous week he had announced he was suffering from "hot flushes".

On New Year's Eve, he reported: "Just back. Banjaxed. Hungry. Soaked. Sweating - 2 many layers! But the walk was iontach [marvellous]. Our country is very beautiful. So am I."

Now, that's what I call an embarrassing tweet.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards