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Eoghan Goal

In the end Harris destroyed himself

By Frank Connolly

You couldn’t make it up. For over four decades, the man used his influence and power in the media to attack and demonise anyone who had the temerity to question whether there was something inherently rotten in the North of Ireland.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Eoghan Harris used his position as a producer in RTE to shut down programmers who wanted to expose the injustice and oppression experienced by nationalists before the Troubles erupted in the early 1970s, and the collusion between security forces and loyalists that followed in the dirty war with the IRA and other republicans.

The simple weapons employed to shut down commentary were Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act and the self-censorship that deterred journalists, across much of the media in the South, from investigating issues that would lead to Harris and his ilk labelling them as fellow travellers of Sinn Féin and the IRA.

On leaving RTE, he plied his trade with the Rupert Murdoch-owned Sunday Times, whose executives and editors sympathised with his view that the conflict stemmed mainly from republican violence and, in much of its journalism, ignored the hidden role played by the British intelligence services, the RUC and loyalist agents in murder and mayhem.

From there, Harris graduated to the Sunday Independent, where he continued to attack anyone in public life who dared to challenge the orthodoxy that ‘Ultranationalist Provo-lovers” in the Irish news media generally and those he termed “hush puppies” in RTE continued to secretly promote what he believed were the “fascist”- type plans of republicans to wipe out Protestantism in the North.

Under the ownership of Sir Anthony O’Reilly and the editorships of his former wife, Anne Harris and her late partner, Aengus Fanning, he continued in the role of ‘useful idiot’ for a political and financial establishment whose interests were hardly threatened by his ravings. Along the way, they recruited others who were content to echo the word according to Eoghan Harris, who always held himself in great regard.

He boasted of how he had cleansed the political groups, including Official Sinn Féin and later Sinn Féin-the Workers Party, of their outdated and sectarian goal of a socialist republic.

In his sermons from the mount, Harris tried to convince readers that his was the only truth and regularly reminded them of his conversion from the heady mixture of radical socialism and republicanism of his younger days. He boasted of how he had cleansed the political groups he influenced, including Official Sinn Féin and later Sinn Féin-the Workers Party, of
their outdated and sectarian goal of a socialist republic.

He named and shamed those he thought were flirting with the enemy and became an essential tool for an establishment that shared the same objective of ensuring that radical left-wing politics, particularly of the republican variety, would never take hold. Along the way he advised bastions of rectitude such as the Fine Gael leader John Bruton, Ulster Unionist Party leader, David Trimble and the unsuccessful presidential candidate and former garda, Derek Nally. In 1997, Nally was forced to distance himself from comments by Harris who depicted the ultimately successful candidate and north Belfast-born, Mary McAleese, as a “toxic time bomb” during the campaign.

Along the way he advised bastions of rectitude such as the Fine Gael leader John Bruton, Ulster Unionist Party leader, David Trimble and the unsuccessful presidential candidate and former garda, Derek Nally.

In recent years, he promoted and reportedly had the ear of Fianna Fáil leader and fellow Cork man, Micheál Martin, who seemed to parrot key lines from the Harris script as they anxiously observed the spectre of Sinn Féin haunting the land.

Since the IRA ceasefires and the Good Friday Agreement, Harris has continued to berate anyone who suggests that the logic of the settlement is to allow nationalists and republicans, north and south, to pursue the objective of a united Ireland by exclusively democratic and peaceful means.

In more recent times, it appears that the weekly rants by Harris in the Sunday Independent became more obsessive and manic in direct proportion to the growth of Sinn Féin and the wider movement for a unity referendum, led mainly by professional writers, lawyers, business people and human rights activists and others in Ireland’s Future.

When the new owners of his own newspaper, after Independent News and Media (INM) was bought out by Belgian group Mediahuis, began to recognise that its commercial interests were not necessarily well served by the toxic journalism of Harris, he seemed to become even more agitated.

He must have been particularly incensed when the newspaper ran a seven-page special following the death of John Hume in August 2020, which amounted almost to an apology for its treatment of the former SDLP leader when he was engaged in discussions with Gerry Adams in the early 1990s which laid the ground for the peace agreement.

Harris aimed his fire, in particular, at journalists from the North whom he perceived were not devoting the energy he expected into attacking Sinn Féin, and anyone else campaigning, postBrexit, for the Irish and British governments to make preparations for a border poll, as envisaged in the 1998 Agreement.

It has now emerged that Harris, possibly with some friends, took to Twitter anonymously using the hash tags Barbara Pym, Dolly White and Northernwhig to spread misinformation and bile on those whom they considered to be soft on their political enemies.

Derry-born, Aoife Moore of the Examiner, Alison Morris of the Irish News and now Belfast Telegraph (owned by INM and now Mediahuis), Belfast film maker, Sean Murray and incredibly, Francine Cunningham, the Strabane-born wife of Mediahuis publisher, Peter Vandermeersch, were all subjected to abuse of varying degrees in the tweets.

Moore was subjected to misogynistic attacks which, she has said, led her to seek counselling and to make a complaint to the Garda about the tweets and, with Morris, has threatened legal action. Murray, an award-winning director of the well-received film, Unquiet Graves, about the loyalist killings and collusion involving the infamous Glennane Gang, has initiated legal proceedings against Harris in the Belfast High Court. In the Sunday Independent, Harris also attacked RTE over its decision to show the film. In tweets emanating from the anonymous BarbaraJPym account, he went further in the tone and language of his criticism of Murray.

In a recent statement, O Muirigh Solicitors said it had issued proceedings against Harris due to an “extensive and malicious campaign of online abuse from the Twitter account Barbara J. Pym over a period of twelve months. The Tweets sought to attack our client’s reputation and undermine his professionalism and integrity”.

“On various dates between August and October 2020 the twitter account ‘BarbaraJPym@barbarapym2 posted numerous outrageous and derogatory comments in relation to our client and the integrity of the documentary ‘Unquiet Graves’ which he directed”, his solicitor said after proceedings were served on Harris, at his south Dublin home in early June.

Investigative journalist, Paul Larkin, also felt the belt of Harris’s Sindo crozier after he wrote a review of books by historian Brendan O’Leary and novelist Eoin McNamee in The Irish Times on 25 March, 2021. Larkin was the author of the 2004 book, ‘A Very British Jihad’, which is a detailed and shocking expose of British security force and RUC collusion in dozens of UDA and other loyalist killings across the North.

Four days later on 29 March, comments posted on the BarbaraJPym twitter account referred to Larkin’s article as “provo, sectarian poison” and asked, “why was Larkin not asked to tone down the tribal rhetoric?”.

In his Sunday Independent column later that week, Harris took exception to Larkin’s piece which opened with the unremarkable claim that “Ireland’s journalist and intellectual class has singularly failed to tell the true story of Northern Ireland”, and argued that McNamee “captured the sense of febrile, dank corruption at the heart of what passed for civil life in the North far better than any other writer”.

Harris also decried what he termed “Larkin’s loaded language about unionists” which he said, “would cause raised eyebrows if directed at Irish Muslims”, claiming that Larkin referred to the political culture of unionism as the product of “febrile dank corruption” with a “dissolute heart” and “fake moral codes”.

Suspecting that Harris was also behind the BarbaraJPym tweets, Larkin sought information from the Twitter company in Dublin but his request for the identity of those behind the account was denied.

On 5 May, the editor of the Sunday Independent, Alan English, announced the decision by the newspaper to terminate Harris’s contract. Two days later, Harris confirmed to Sarah McInerney on RTÉ Drivetime that he was one of five or six contributors to the BarbaraJPym twitter account which, if true, would mean that others, yet unnamed, share liability for any damage found to have been caused by the offensive tweets.

Harris has lived at Seapoint in Blackrock, County Dublin for many years, first in a five- bedroom home he shared with Anne Harris in Trafalgar Terrace which was advertised for sale as “a fine period house” at an asking price of €3.4 million in 2006.

He claimed he was one of five or six contributors to the BarbaraJPym twitter account which, if true, would mean that others, yet unnamed, share liability for any damage found to have been caused by the offensive tweets.

By the time of his appointment to the Senate by Bertie Ahern and after he had helped the tribunal-embattled Taoiseach to keep his grip on power in the 2007 general election, Harris had moved up the road to a house in Seapoint Avenue which he has since shared with his current wife, Gwen Halley.

Saving Bertie’s Skin

In the wake of the Twitter controversy which cost him his lucrative tenure with the Sunday Independent, Halley told the media that she was involved in tweets issued through the Dolly White account.

Waterford-born Halley defended her tweets about people whose politics she did not like by stating that she came from a Progressive Democrat and Fine Gael background. Many will recall the golden years of the PDs in the late 1980s and one beacon of virtue, Martin Cullen, who led the party in Waterford before returning to Fianna Fáil and a subsequent colourful period in government during the early 2000’s. As a minister, Cullen was entangled in the electronic voting machine saga and allegations of cronyism before he later packed his golf-bag for Florida.

As he strolls down for his regular morning swim in Seapoint, Harris must be wondering how he got into a mess that included the bizarre and wildly inaccurate tweet on the Northernwhig account which dragged the wife of the man responsible for paying his presumably ample salary into a web of delusional intrigue.

Speaking about the defenestration of Eoghan Harris on the RTÉ business show a few weeks later, Peter Vandermeersch was asked how he felt about his wife, Francine Cunningham, being referenced in a tweet as my ex-wife. Mildly irritated, he replied. But, the publisher added, my wife was very angry. Mine too!