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.

Saturday, 8th May 2021, 12:09 pm
Updated Saturday, 8th May 2021, 2:56 pm
Eoghan Harris, right, at an Ulster Unionist Party annual dinner in September 2007 at the Reform Club in Belfast with Lord Laird of Artigarvan and the then party leader Sir Reg Empy. He told the UUP that the time had come to merge with the DUP. Pic Colm O'Reilly

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.

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Eoghan Harris, photographed in Dublin in May 2011 shortly after the Queen attended the Islandbridge memorial to 49,000 Irish soldiers who gave their lives in the Great War

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

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