Ruth Dudley Edwards: The silencing of Eoghan Harris is fresh blow to free speech

On Friday Twitter explained why it had permanently suspended a Twitter account in the name of Barbara Pym that had been founded and run by the Sunday Independent columnist Eoghan Harris and friends.

Tuesday, 11th May 2021, 12:23 pm
Updated Tuesday, 11th May 2021, 2:47 pm
Ruth Dudley Edwards, @RuthDE, the author and commentator, who writes a column for the News Letter every Tuesday. She is author of 'The Faithful Tribe: An Intimate Portrait of the Loyal Institutions' and her most recent book is 'The Seven: the lives and legacies of the founding fathers of the Irish republic'

“Using technology and human review in concert,” pronounced Twitter gravely,— “we pro-actively monitor Twitter to identify attempts at platform manipulation and mitigate them.”

Twitter’s gibberish is supposed to explain why it closed down a pseudonymous account (members of the team feared for their safety) that had issued tweets some complained were abusive.

Since I’m routinely called by obviously fake Twitter accounts innumerable variations on “ugly old evil Nazi West Brit Prod-loving/traitor/bigot/witch/hag/crone//liar/c***”, I’d love to know why obviously abusive, vicious, hate-filled messages are tolerated yet a valuable account that many of us who cover Northern Ireland went to often for information, stimulation or just a laugh is axed.

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Harris’s purpose, he says, was to reassure working-class unionists and loyalists that many people in the Republic “had no agenda against them, and no designs on them, and no malign intentions”.

The account tweeted much that was positive, but also robustly — even harshly — criticised those the team thought supported or appeased IRA apologists, or journalists who failed to ask hard questions about the fascist republican threat — recently, for instance, Sinn Fein’s dodgy finances and their sinister hoovering up of information on voters. Some of Harris’s colleagues were included.

To the distress of many who think SF a danger to the stability of Ireland north and south, Harris has been sacked over this by the Sunday Independent, where he has been lead columnist since the 1990s.

Shinnerbots are celebrating and some claim I was part of the team.

I was not.

I admire Harris and share many — though not all — of his views, but I run my own social media.

I was recommended Barbara Pym’s tweets and intrigued that the name of a dead English novelist in the tradition of Jane Austen had been borrowed for an account defending the Northern Ireland Protestant loyalist working class against bullying apologists for violent republicanism and the contemptuous soft nationalists who dominate the Irish media.

I was amused by the rumour it was run by Harris, who is as unlike a gently spoken, middle-class, English spinster as you could find, although, like Pym, he’s a bit of a genius.

Harris’s life has been dominated by his exploration of different political positions in his passionate desire to find a solution to this island’s divisions.

I encountered him first in my teens, at a conference of Irish history students in the early 1960s, when he was in his Sinn Fein and Catholic phase.

Scheduled to speak briefly in response to a paper on the Irish revolutionary period, he delivered a lengthy harangue so brilliant and mesmerising that even though I so disagreed with everything he said I had to sit on my hands to ensure that I wouldn’t applaud.

I heard gossip over the ensuing years — how he became temporarily a Marxist, how when Sinn Fein split he became an adviser to the official IRA, how in the 70s he was a major influence in weaning them away from violence but abandoned them when they refused to become social democrats, how in RTE as a producer he had waged such a ruthless war against supporters of the Provisional IRA that the station became known as anti-republican, and how at various times he became a volunteer adviser to a wide range of politicians including Mary Robinson and David Trimble.

Robinson, the Labour presidential candidate in 1990, described how Harris convinced her and her husband that she could win if she broadened her appeal. “You have to have seen Eoghan Harris in full flow to appreciate the experience: the breakneck pace, wit, revelatory insights that had us going, ‘Yes, of course.’ There was genius in it.”

He was crucial also to her acceptance speech, with the famous line that she had been elected “above all by the women of Ireland … who instead of rocking the cradle, rocked the system.”

Harris wrote much of Trimble’s superb Nobel prize speech — which should be read in every school in Ireland — including: “Ulster Unionists, fearful of being isolated on the island, built a solid house, but it was a cold house for Catholics. And northern nationalists, although they had a roof over their heads, seemed to us as if they meant to burn the house down.”

I first heard from Harris in 1994 when in an English newspaper I wrote a political article attacking governmental appeasement of the IRA and he helped me to be published in Ireland.

We bonded as two of the few Irish journalists who had bothered to get to know and care about Northern Protestants. He is consumed with devotion to his causes and often falls out belligerently with people who won’t do what he wants, as he has a few times with me, but accusations of misogyny are preposterous.

Sinn Fein, who are focussed on greening the media, rejoiced when Kevin Myers was cancelled.

They use the libel laws north and south to intimidate their critics.

The silencing of Harris is another major blow to free speech.

How sad that, yet again, some journalists seem pleased.

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