By Ray O’Hanlon
"Nobody rewrites the history of the last 30 years better than Sinn Féin."
The "Drapier" political column in the Irish Times was not so much taking a swipe at the Shinners than expressing its concern that with all the fuss over S.F.’s arrival on the center stage of Northern Ireland politics, everyone would forget the crucial role that the dear old SDLP played in getting them there. Still, the comment on Sinn Féin’s chameleon-like ability to move with the changing times became even more pertinent the moment that Martin McGuinness became the North’s education minister.
Education has always been a delicate issue in the wee Six. For years, its privately funded and religiously exclusive grammar schools, Protestant and Catholic, have been a kind of Six County mirror image of Home County public-school elitism in England. The state-funded comprehensive schools were very much the poor relation, although that divide, real and perceived, has been narrowing in recent years.
Now along comes Minister McGuinness. According to reports, McGuinness is intent on breaking down all sectarian barriers in the education system. He will have his (home) work cut out for him. Ending decades of us-versus-them educational theory and practice might make decommissioning look like, well, student’s play. Don’t be surprised if Paisley’s lot comes up with a kind of "Protestant schools for a Protestant people" campaign.
As for Minister McGuinness. Here’s a Jimmy Breslin observation of the 19-year-old McGuinness from 1969, revived last Sunday by Nell McCafferty in the Sunday Tribune: "Put that kid in a white dinner jacket, send him coast to coast in America, and you’ve won your war here. He’s gonna be in government." Jaysus, Jimmy, you had the eyes of a prophet, so you did.
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O’Brien after O’Connor?
New York’s Cardinal John O’Connor will soon retire, thus setting in train the process of placing a new man in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the spiritual heart of Irish American Catholicism. A number of names have cropped up as possible successors. Most like O’Connor himself would appear to be Archbishop Edwin O’Brien, who heads the Archdiocese for the Military Services. O’Brien, like O’Connor, served as a military chaplain in Vietnam and is a native Northeasterner. Still, there are no guarantees that St. Patrick’s will retain an Irish-American pastor. Time will tell.
Meanwhile, in the week that sectarianism took a back seat at Stormont, its ghostly shadow cast a pall over Capitol Hill in Washington, where an unholy row has erupted over the sidelining of the leading candidate for the job of chaplain to the House of Representatives. Father Timothy O’Brien, a political science professor at Marquette University, was recently recommended by an 18-member bipartisan search committee to fill the vacant chaplaincy, a post that has never been occupied by a Catholic since it was created in 1789. As the leading candidate, O’Brien was interviewed by House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, the Republican majority leader, Rep. Dick Armey, and the Democratic minority leader, Rep. Richard Gephardt. This final interview seemed a mere formality. O’Brien was, according to Washington Post columnist Mark Shields, the "overwhelming first choice" of the search committee.
And then the announcement. O’Brien was out and in was Rev. Charles Parker Wright, a Presbyterian. Charges of anti-Catholic bias have been quick to follow. What had transpired in the post-interview conclave was that Hastert and Armey decided on Wright. Gephardt dissented but allowed his name to be attached to the official announcement. In recent days, Catholic members of the House have rushed to Hastert’s defense, proclaiming the Illinois congressman above reproach. Not quite the same has been said of Texas-based Armey.
Enter Fr. O’Brien. In the New York Times last Thursday, O’Brien reacted thus: "I hope and pray that the 1960 presidential election did do away with the idea of Catholics as not being fully American. I’m not convinced that that prejudicial view is gone, and I do believe that if I were not a Catholic priest I would be the House chaplain."
Sounds like a job for Ba, Bat . . . er, George Mitchell.
Lack of Clarity
The New York Times appears to have imposed direct journalistic rule from London. The dear old thing on 43rd Street has been devoting buckets of ink lately to the extraordinary developments on both sides of the border, but London-based correspondent Warren Hoge has been carrying the flag for the world’s most influential newspaper.
Dublin-based James Clarity, meanwhile, seems to have faded into the background. Hoge writes well, although there are times when he probably could do with a little more space in order to deal with the myriad complications of the peace process. For example, his front page story the day after David Trimble secured qualified approval for his party’s participation in the Executive did not include angry Sinn Féin reaction to Trimble’s new decommissioning deadline for the Provos. There was a quote from Gerry Adams, but it was several days old and had no bearing on the latest possible stumbling block. Trimble’s February deadline, and resignation threat, was also sidelined in a front page story on Friday, Dec. 3, in which Hoge referred to the "dismantling of paramilitary arsenals by May."
However, Hoge did address the Trimble deadline in a "Week In Review" report in last Sunday’s Times. Clearly, there’s been a lot fit to print of late and some of it just has to wait. "IF" understands. So many earth shattering revelations, so little space.
Meanwhile, the Times has taken a volley of diplomatic grapeshot broadsides. The plenipotentiaries of the Celtic Moggy saw fit to admonish the paper for a recent editorial headed: "The New Face of Northern Ireland." The concluding paragraph of the editorial was the problem. It read: "Now, thanks to Mr. Trimble, Unionism has caught up with the desire of its constituents for a more hopeful future, based on compromise and guarantees of majority rule and minority rights."
Eh, not exactly. The line about majority rule and minority rights failed "to capture the balance and originality of the Good Friday agreement," wrote Eamonn McKee, press officer at the Irish Consulate in New York. McKee concluded thus: "The spirit of compromise you salute is underpinned by a vision far more original and far-seeing than merely a kinder, gentler version of the old majority-minority relationship."
Nothing like a missive to the editor. Cheaper than a gunboat.