Ben Lowry: Let us hope that the brilliant Eoghan Harris keeps on writing
The columnist Eoghan Harris has been sacked from the big selling Irish newspaper, the Sunday Independent.
Harris was a withering and relentless critic of Sinn Fein and the IRA, and roundly loathed in some quarters for his unceasing attacks on them.
The ‘Sindo’ has a tradition of being fiercely hostile to the republican movement, which is one reason it has always sold well in two largely unionist parts of Northern Ireland that I know well, North Down and East Belfast.
It is still stocked in almost every shop I ever use in those two areas. It is not of course only unionists who buy it in such places — I know more than a few nationalists who do — but it is certainly a significant part of that sale.
Times change and the paper has become gradually less hostile in tone towards republicans.
Harris was sacked for running an anonymous twitter account in the name of Barbara Pym.
For a long while I really did believe it was written by a very intelligent Anglo Irish woman, as it claimed. The account used a photograph of what seemed like a beaming socialite who was part of the horsey set.
One of the best books I read at school was Good Behaviour by Molly Keane, which is about the declining Anglo Irish aristocracy a century ago, in the run up to independence. I of course knew that such people still existed, despite the decline (which became all the more marked post 1921), but was intrigued to think that such a person might now dare to be as outspoken as Pym.
Harris was not just anti republican but a brilliant and fascinating commentator on Irish life and culture, having been a documentary maker.
I first met him in 2007 when I reported on an Ulster Unionist Party dinner in Belfast where he told his audience they should merge with the DUP. Then later at the Queen’s visit to Dublin in 2011.
At the 2007 dinner, Harris told UUP guests: “Paisley and Robinson have moved onto your territory and effectively claimed it. So what are you going to do about it?”
He said that “if you decide to soldier on, I think the future is pretty plain”.
Ulster Unionism could endure but it was doubtful it would ever retrieve its former glories. But in a merger with the DUP – to form a new party – it could “flourish”, he suggested.
Peter Robinson had offered talks on a unionist electoral pact, but Harris said to the UUP: “Why not take the initiative from what is still a relatively strong position and become the proactive party for a new united unionism?”
And to the DUP, too, he warned they were “not invincible” and must recognise there was no strategic basis for two competing unionist parties.
Speaking after the address, the then UUP leader Sir Reg Empey told me: “The UUP has always brought people to talk to us who challenge us rather than people who tell us what we want to hear. That has always been one of the distinctions between us and the DUP.”
Reading back that advice, much of what Harris said was prescient, particularly this week when the travails of both UUP and DUP.
He now has cancer.
I very much hope that he has continuing success in fighting it, and manages to write on, and give his army of readers more of the immense pleasure he has done over the decades.
• Ben Lowry is News Letter deputy editor
Other articles by Ben Lowry below, and beneath that information on how to subscribe to the News Letter:
• Ben Lowry May 1: Unionism can’t just be about managing long-term defeat
• Ben Lowry April 17: DUP still has to choose between managing this disaster or total rejection of it
• Ben Lowry April 10: His enduring marriage to the Queen was key to our understanding of Prince Philip
• Ben Lowry Mar 20: We have made it through the worst of the dark, dreaded winter lockdown
• Ben Lowry Mar 20: MLAs lost control of abortion by rejecting modest law reform
• Ben Lowry Mar 13: Scotland tunnel isn’t fantasy, but something kids of today might see
• Ben Lowry Mar 6: The cost of victims’ pension has ballooned without explanation as to why
• Ben Lowry Feb 20: We still lack answers as to why IRA funeral got special treatment at Roselawn
• Ben Lowry Feb 13: Peter Robinson has long experience of what is and is not politically feasible
• Ben Lowry Jan 30: At last, clear reason for UK and unionists to stop being weak towards Ireland/EU
• Ben Lowry Jan 16: The Irish Sea border was imposed because UK knew unionists would take it
• Ben Lowry in 2020: Last night unionists celebrated a move towards Irish unity
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