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Why President McAleese should really have kept her mouth shut over the Hunt Museum controversy

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Irish Independent 26 January 2008
By Bruce Arnold 

President Mary McAleese should not have spoken publicly about the ongoing row between the Wiesenthal Centre, in Paris, and the Hunt Museum. She should not have blamed the Wiesenthal Centre's director, Shimon Samuels, citing him exclusively for the allegations about suspected connections between John Hunt and various Nazi dealers.

It was wrong in any case and by any protocol standards that exist for the Irish Head of State, doubly wrong in that it was a selective and biased approach to a controversy which, as shown by Dr Samuels' subsequent statements, is by no means over.

All the allegations originally made by Dr Samuels came from Irish sources. He had no knowledge of the Hunt family and very little of the Hunt Museum before the museum received the award in 2003 which he then demanded be withdrawn. He has not given details of this. He has made various promises about substantiating his criticisms of the Hunts and we await further information, which this week he promised would be made public in 12 weeks' time.

By any standards we are still at the tail-end of a major controversy and there may well be stings in that tail. What had gone on before the intervention of Dr Samuels had been well-documented. Most of the allegations were in the public domain and the damage to the good name of the Hunts had been achieved by others without any clear proof being given.

President McAleese must have known much of this in general terms in the period up to early 2004, and, in the nature of State protocol, would have been fully briefed as a result of Dr Samuels' aggressive intervention, directed at her and calling on her to withdraw the award that she had presented.

Very wisely, she took no direct action and replied to Dr Samuel's letter within three days, saying she was "precluded from comment under the Constitution", and passed the letter to the Taoiseach, who passed it to the Minister for the Arts. The matter of what Samuels had said went, quite properly, to John O'Donoghue, the Minister for the Arts, who took action, writing to the museum asking them to examine claims by the Simon Wiesenthal Centre that some of its collection may have been looted by the Nazis.

However, he never asked the museum to examine the other claims, of close association with Nazis. The Hunt Museum then set up a small committee under Don Barrington, the former Supreme Court judge, who designated the correct route forward for the museum, which was to address the problem of provenance for all items in the collection.

While his main concern was with the museum and what it had inherited from John Hunt and his family, Barrington was also concerned with the need for the State to act properly and comprehensively. This meant, in particular, dealing with the innuendoes to the effect that the Hunts had been involved with Nazi dealers and that it was to be expected that Hunt Museum artefacts were likely to include looted Jewish art.

The State was lackadaisical and haphazard. What was much more serious -- as far as the good name of the State was concerned -- was the need to deal with the allegations against John and Putzel Hunt. This necessitated a careful investigation of security records held in both the National Archive and the Military Archive. No attempt was made to do this.

The little that was done followed no clear line and achieved no proper investigation. The Hunt Museum got on with checking and publishing, on the internet, the required provenance. It did so without adequate State help and with limited funding. In the face of this national misjudgement of the seriousness of the charges, it was hardly surprising that Dr Samuels continued with his criticisms and the general public assumed that there were things wrong with the Hunts, both of whom at this stage were dead and unable to answer the allegations.

A further dimension to the trouble was the fact that a good deal of the progress towards setting up and funding the Hunt Museum, some years before the controversy, had been inspired and directed by Tony Ryan. Among other things, before his resignation as chairman he had been responsible in 1998 -- with the support of the majority of the board -- for the appointment as director of the museum of Ciaran MacGonigal, despite objections by John Hunt Junior.

MacGonigal, after his departure, had published allegations of a fascist background which had never been disputed by the museum board and so it was perhaps not surprising that there was therefore little energy deployed in the business of clearing the names of John and Putzel Hunt in the wake of Dr Samuels' vitriolic criticisms.

The State, through the Department of the Arts, Tourism and Sport, continued to make a mess of everything connected with the Nazi allegations against the Hunts. It then handed the matter over to the Royal Irish Academy, which if possible made an even bigger mess, holding an investigatory seminar to which it failed to invite Dr Samuels.

Having made the whole situation worse, the RIA tried to walk away from what it had failed to do properly, which was to research the detailed wartime background of the Hunts and, through doing so, exonerate them. This work was done by others and published, though it still did not satisfy Dr Samuels and those in Ireland who were supplying him with unsubstantiated allegations.

A commitment had been made by the RIA, however, that it would investigate the military archives which covered the surveillance of the Hunts during the Second World War. This commitment was not honoured until the lapse was pointed out when, very belatedly, the clean bill of health for the Hunts was finally achieved.

Dr Samuels has not handled his side of things well. He relied on secondary sources, and not at all trustworthy ones, and he was abrasive and confrontational. He was also wrong. He happens to represent a voice that is out of fashion in today's Ireland, and that is the militant Israel-inspired Jewish habit of hectoring the world.

President McAleese may be forgiven if she takes exception to this fractious and aggressive individual but her exception should have been kept private. Her public and outspoken words at the Hunt Museum this week were embarrassingly one-sided and took no account of the sustained and incompetent performance of the Irish State, which accepted and then messed up on a solemn demand for probity and skill in investigating wrong-doing, wherever it originated.

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