The bracing blast of a dissident

In his coverage of Northern Ireland in this memoir, Kevin Myers was unflinchingly critical of British ineptitude


This article is taken from the April 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Over the course of 40 years Kevin Myers was a draught of fresh air in the often conformist fug of Irish journalism. In the way of draughts, he was persistent and uncomfortable for the “Official Liberal Opposition” of Kavanagh’s poem. He still is.

Burning Heresies, A Memoir of a Life in Conflict 1979 -2020 by Kevin Myers, Merrion Press £17.99

By 2017, the twentieth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement was approaching. Myers, angular and unclubbable, had reason to believe he had done the Irish state some service and that at least some of it had been recognised.

For decades he, with a few others, had unambiguously opposed the violence of the Provisional IRA. He had pointed to the direct connection between the savagery of the Provos and the “physical force” tradition of earlier Irish republicanism. Although in government north of the border and a growing force in Dublin, Sinn Fein was discomfited by this discussion of its past.

Meanwhile, the Irish government had overseen a mature commemoration of the 1916 Rising, the much-mythologised foundation moment of the Irish Republic. Myers had made a major contribution to the deconstruction of the image of the noble “Old” IRA and its valiant fight against the evil Brits. Notwithstanding the efforts of useful idiots like Ken Loach, a much more honest account of the Irish revolution had emerged, including its grubby, sectarian, elements.

Alongside this, Myers’s work to recover the memory of Irish soldiers who had served in the British Army in the First World War reached its apotheosis with the visit of the Queen to the restored memorial to them by Lutyens at Islandbridge. The then Irish president, Mary McAleese, introduced him to the Queen as “the journalist who kept the flame of this place alive for so many years”.

This work is well described here as are his overseas assignments, including tours as a war correspondent in Beirut and Sarajevo. He avoids the tendency to ex-post omniscience to which others succumb.

This work is well described here as are his overseas assignments, including tours as a war correspondent in Beirut and Sarajevo

In his coverage of Northern Ireland, he was unflinchingly critical of British ineptitude. He condemned, for example, the “murderous latitude” granted to the Paras. His respect for the British military tradition did not blind him to its failings. Similarly, his courage in describing the sectarianism of the IRA in West Cork in the 1920s did not prevent him skewering the furious quietism of the Southern Protestants of later decades. The latter is personified here by the Irish Times editor Douglas Gageby.

It was, though, for his opposition, relentless and damaging, to the Provisionals that he was most notable. For this, he has never been forgiven by them and their fellow travellers. For his volubility on the evasion and complicity of parts of the Irish political and cultural establishment in the squalid IRA campaign he was also never forgiven.

Alongside some recognition, there were prefigurations of his estrangement from Official Ireland. He was not invited to the 2014 unveiling of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cross of Sacrifice at Glasnevin cemetery. This was a hugely significant moment of recognition and one which he had championed.

Then came a clumsy article, written, as he describes it, on a topic insisted on by his editor at the Sunday Times: the pay disparity between men and women at the BBC — a topic marginal to his work and to his Irish readership, but one which proved his undoing.

A rather lame riff on the role of media agents in finding the market value of their clients included a reference to the fact that the best-paid women at the BBC were Jewish. In an early example of cancel culture, Myers was declared guilty of misogyny and antisemitism in an orchestrated campaign that led swiftly to his sacking by the Sunday Times and his public shaming.

It was no surprise that the Provo fellow travellers and mediocrities of Twitter ran to kick him when he was down. This, after all, is the usual situation of those against whom they wage the liberation struggle. The poison of the attack by Roy Greenslade and Sinn Fein’s other trolls was depressing but again true to type. What was astonishing was that RTE, the Irish national broadcaster, should glibly claim that Myers was a Holocaust denier, despite his lengthy track record of writing on the evils of the Nazi regime and notable (and rare) willingness in Irish journalism to defend the state of Israel. RTE dismissed a formal objection from a listener and the subsequent finding against it by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. It took sustained legal action by Myers before RTE settled out of court and issued a recorded admission that its claim was untrue and defamatory.

My wife and I run the West Cork History Festival at which Myers was speaking when the storm broke. I had determined weeks before that he should sit on a panel with Rabbi Julia Neuberger. That he participated in this immediately after having been told he had been sacked is greatly to his credit. For any fair-minded observer, Neuberger’s comments in the days that followed, defending him from claims of antisemitism while regretting the tone of the piece, would have checked wild claims of Holocaust denial.

One does not need to look far to find the official purveyors of radical chic in the Irish media

Myers was not the institutional dissident with which Ireland, like other places, is at ease. He also refused to affect the pious asexuality that is de rigeur among the male woke. On the contrary, he seems perhaps too pleased to share fond recollections of his sex life. These are both mortal sins under the new order. Perhaps this explains why several of the cardinals of the new magisterium felt that more than one belt of the crozier was required for Myers. It clearly rankles that so many of these attacks came from former colleagues at the Irish Times.

There is a wider point for Ireland here. One does not need to look far to find the official purveyors of radical chic in the Irish media. Brexit has provided a conveniently proximate, but external, focus for righteous indignation, in which all can participate while feeling edgy.

It has also seen Brit-bashing return to vogue. It is perfectly reasonable to find the Brexit project misguided and frustrating (I do), but the terms in which a response is couched need to be chosen with care. There are worryingly few for whom the unanimity and vitriol on this and related subjects are themselves cause for concern.

More broadly, Official Ireland owes Myers a debt. His excoriation of the hyphenating tendency in excluding non-republicans in Irish history made possible work and commentary that continues, including in the pages of the Irish Times. Whether he or those who do it would welcome the association is less important than the fact that his effort was not in vain.

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