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Tuesday, 19 November 2013
Monday, 18 November 2013
So - President Michael D Higgins is to visit Britain and call in on the British head of state for a chin-wag. Well, more than that, really. This is the first time the Irish head of state has made an official visit to Britain. Aren’t you excited?
Much was being made of it this morning on BBC Raidio Uladh/Radio Ulster and on RTÉ. Conor Bradford talked about the visit “closing the final chapter” in relations between the two countries, and on RTÉ Ming Campbell was talking about how the cordial coming together of Michael D and Elizabeth II would reflect the closeness that exists between the two populations.
There’s truth in that. We do share interests - sport, literature, language, media - with our nearest neighbour. But how is it that umpteen commentators at the time of QE2’s visit to the south and now commentators on Michael D’s visit to Britain will talk about the event in all sorts of ways, talk about the improvement in relations (we were reminded this morning how overjoyed the nation was when QE2 said the cupla focal and Mary McAleese mouthed ‘Wow!’) and yet no one will dare mention the one thing that has marred relations between Britain and Ireland for near a century now: the north. We were even told the civil war was fought, not over partition but over the oath to the British monarch.
Maybe it’s like the point that was raised at that Strabane debate on Thursday last: now would be a very bad time to have a border poll because it might inflame loyalists. Is that why the core matter - Britain’s claim to jurisdiction here - is avoided: it might upset the loyalists? I get very worried when I hear people talking about closing the final chapter with a presidential visit. It’s like looking at a great six-inch stab-wound and saying “Ach here, sure I’ve a bit of sticking plaster, no problem”.
Maybe I’m naive. Maybe it’s all about softly-softly. Maybe Basil McCrea’s urging of the right to raise taxes here is, whether he realises it or not, another tiptoe step towards Irish people finally running Irish affairs. But Michael D’s visit still has a whiff of Basil Fawlty to it: don’t mention the border.
Saturday, 16 November 2013
"The information in that book is completely chilling. It's an appalling set of allegations and of course these allegations have been backed up by the work of the journalist Anne Cadwallader who has had them verified. There are legitimate accusations of war crimes that need to be properly investigated. That is actually what the British government itself found … but it hasn't effectively answered them. They need to be answered."
Well actually not quite David Cameron. The British prime minister is talking about Sri Lanka, it’s not ‘information in that book’ but ‘images in that film’, and it’s not ‘the journalist Anne Cadwallader’ but ‘The UN special rapporteur’. And finally it’s not ‘the British government’ (are you kidding?) - it’s ‘the Sri Lankan government’.
All the rest, though, is straight from the horse’s mouth. Dear David is a bit like our own Michael D - big on the need to condemn horrors as long as they’re far from home. So why would he be so incensed about events thousands of miles away and tight-lipped about similar stuff happening here? Because he might have to do something about the stuff nearer home, that’s why.
But listen, David. Don’t worry. If Blair got off with saying he was sorry for the Irish Famine /An Gorta Mor, you could probably pull a similar trick with the 120 cases listed in Cadwallader’s book. I mean, you worked it with Bloody Sunday victims so why not with the Murder Triangle people? At the same time I really really really hope you don’t. Get off with it, I mean. If the Sri Lankan government is a horror-show for involvement in the killing of its own citizens, your government should be getting it in the neck too, old boy.
Friday, 15 November 2013
Well. That was interesting. And fun. I’m talking about the debate about/discussion of a (re)united Ireland in Strabane last night. There was what looked to me like a full house to hear the various speakers, including Minister of Education John O’Dowd and a brace of senators from the other side of the border: Senator Jimmy Harte from Donegal and Senator Mark Daly from Kerry. There were two representatives of unionism - Paul Wyatt from NI21 and Terry Wright from ConservativesNI. And last but a long way from least, Joe Byrne from the SDLP. Your humble scribe was in the chair ordering people about. For two solid hours the discussion continued, passionate at times but never tedious. The audience required no prompting to fire sharp, sometimes jagged questions.
So - did it solve anything? No. But that wasn’t the intention. The intention was to raise issues for and against the reunification of Ireland and yes, there was an imbalance between nationalists/republicans and unionists, but guess why? Because the Ulster Unionists and the DUP chose to send no one to present their views. Despite that, a great range of issues were raised. Here’s the five I found most interesting.
- The famous Belfast Telegraph poll which showed that just 3.8% of the northern population care about a united Ireland got a fairly severe mauling. For a start, as Senator Mark Daly pointed out, given that the margin of error in such polls is + or - 3%, that would lead to the conclusion that maybe NOBODY in the north wants a united Ireland. Er, shome mishtake shurely? A woman in the audience cited figures which suggesting a minority of people in the north now view themselves as British. Conclusion: opinion polls like these are in the end a waste of time. To borrow a cliché, there’s only one poll that counts.
- The main reason cited for not holding a border poll seemed to be that it would annoy loyalists and unionists. Think about that for a minute. We won’t hold something that is provided for in the Good Friday Agreement in case it would upset a particular group of people: that is, the kind of person who was outraged at ‘our flag’ being ‘ripped down’ and used stones and bottles and other missiles to support their argument. As one of the panel pointed out, all those involved with the Good Friday Agreement committed themselves to pursuing their political goals through peaceful means. So should an implicit threat of violence from a minority within unionism be enough to make the idea of a border poll a non-starter? Because that’s what we’re saying when we say in effect “Oh no, don’t hold a border poll now, that might well inflame/upset loyalists!”
- It’s past time we started looking at exactly what a reunited Ireland would cost. To do that, we need to know not just the size of the block grant of, what is it, £10.5 billion? We also need to know (i) how much of that £10.5 billion actually comes here and doesn’t wander off elsewhere en route; (ii) how much do we pay into the coffers of Westminster. John O’Dowd claims that the Treasury in London is refusing to cough up exact figures regarding both these matters. Until we get answers to these two questions - and they are simply questions of fact, not opinion - then it’s next to pointless talking about how much better or worse off financially we’d be in a reunited Ireland.
- Should we be thinking of a united Northern Ireland before we start talking about a united Ireland? At least one member of the audience thought we should. Certainly the Stormont Executive is riven with splits of various kinds, as was evidenced by some of what Joe Byrne had to say. But maybe those splits are the product of a state that’s finding it harder and harder to explain what it’s for. And which may have an even harder time justifying its stand after the Scottish referendum next year.
- The debate last night was a precursor of the Strabane/Lifford mini-referendum on a united Ireland, to be held inside the next few weeks. My initial reaction to such polls -this one and the one in the Crossmaglen region - was that they’re obviously held in strongly republican areas, so what’s the point? I'm not so sure any more. Even the experience of participating in such a poll puts the notion of a real border poll firmly into the public consciousness. You may agree with it or disagree but it’s hard to avoid thinking about it, for or against.
In summary, we need two things: clear, unambiguous, independently-verified information about the actual size of the block grant and the size of the tax money which goes out of here each year; and more discussion like last night, where we think about our reasons for supporting union with Britain and reasons for not supporting union with Britain. Maybe London will continue to keep a padlock on the required information. Maybe after all our discussion we’ll still be as far apart on the constitutional question. But we owe it to ourselves to get the information and then make a judgement.
Thursday, 14 November 2013
I remember a couple of decades ago having a conversation with a senior SDLP man. For some reason the question of organisations came up and the SDLP man said something that’s stuck with me. The best of organisations, he said, still depends on, is made or broken by the quality of the individuals who make up that organisation.
I found myself thinking about that this morning as I gird my loins (such as they are) for a visit this evening to Strabane, where I’ll chair a debate (in the Fir Trees Hotel, 7.30 pm) about unifying Ireland. There’ll be a range of speakers from different parties (no, I don’t think the DUP will be there, Virginia, or the UUP) including one very interesting party: N21.
Yes, yes, I’ve heard all the gut-busting jokes about a political party naming itself after a road, about the 21 representing the number of people in it, and the rest of it. What’s significant for me is that its leaders are Basil McCrea and John McCallister. Of all the unionist politicians I’ve met, I’ve found myself warming most to these two men.
I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s just that they strike me as decent likeable people. Maybe it’s that you don’t get the impression they’re sizing you up, taking your political temperature with a mind as open, in Heaney’s words, as a steel trap. They seem to respond to others as human beings. And what they appear to be doing with their new party is something that could ultimately be very good or (from a nationalist/republican perspective) very bad.
The very good thing they are intent on doing is something which I suspect chimes with the thinking of many garden-centre Prods. They don’t want to be cut off culturally or any other way from their Catholic/nationalist/republican neighbours, they want to make this state a place that treats everyone with dignity and equal respect, and they believe that the old ways of narrowness and bitterness are a sectarian cul-de-sac that needs its end-wall bashed in.
Which would be good. Anyone with half a brain-cell knows that sectarianism and bigotry take us nowhere. Instead, like revenge, it digs two graves: one for the person that’s hated and the other for the hater. It’s also the case that N21 have made that rapprochement a central plank of their policy. Were they to succeed, it would be a day of great rejoicing among nationalists/republicans.
Or maybe not. Because the ultimate goal, the holy grail sought by Britain and unionism over decades if not centuries has been to have a Catholic population here that is happy to remain British, is not sullenly passive but happily active in supporting the union. When that day arrives, there’ll be no need to garrison British troops here because on that day, nationalism/republicanism will have died.
The N21ers: charming or chilling? I’m still trying to make up my mind.
Wednesday, 13 November 2013
I believe in violence to achieve political ends. I should add, before some troll grabs that first sentence and uses it as a club to thump me: so do you. Why do I say that, Virginia? Bend an ear.
I pay my taxes, as I’m sure do you, to Her Majesty’s Exchequer. That money is distributed in various ways to meet various public needs. It also is sent to what is laughingly called the Ministry of Defence. Some £40 billion each year, so that guns and tanks and bombs and fighter planes and warships can be purchased and so that young men (and women) can be carefully taught how to kill their fellow humans, if H M government says it’s a good idea. There’s also the little matter of the replacing the Trident nuclear programme, which is reckoned will cost around £38 billion on its own. That’s for nuclear weapons which are designed to wipe out hundreds of thousands of men, women and children. Think the Omagh bomb and multiply it by about a zillion. We help with all that.
But of course it’s not only Britain (the third biggest defence-spending state in the world) that’s at it. Practically every country has an army. Even the south of Ireland has one. The line is, as their name suggests, that they’re for defence. So what part of defending the sceptred isle was that Royal Marine engaged in, when he pumped a bullet into the chest of a wounded Taliban fighter in Afghanistan recently? Was Iraq planning to invade Britain when Blair, in the face of opposition from millions of his own people, lied and then sent in British troops to back up the Yanks? For ‘Defence’ read ‘Attack’, or if that’s too much, make it War. The Ministry of War. At least that’s honest.
To quote my old class-mate Eamonn McCann, I’m a pacifist by instinct if not principle. But then to quote George Bernard Shaw, you know a man’s principles not by what he says but by what he does. I pay my taxes. So do you. We all believe in political violence.
Tuesday, 12 November 2013
It’s a safe bet that the appearance of Máirtin Ó Muilleoir , Belfast’s Lord Mayor, at the wreath-laying ceremonies this year will have taken the breath of many republicans away. It’ll also have given ammunition to those who say that Sinn Féin have sold out. Keep in mind: Remembrance ceremonies honour all British armed forces who have given their lives down the years. To say that the reputation of the British Army in Belfast over the past few decades has not been a good one would be an understatement.
But Sinn Féin have committed themselves to reconciliation between Irish people of every stripe here in the north. Actions like that of the Lord Mayor put flesh on the bones of that commitment. The big question now is, what reciprocal moves will we see from unionism?
There are two possibilities. One is that unionists will show respect for republican ceremonies of commemoration and for the flags and emblems associated with such commemoration. In short, they will meet generosity with generosity. The second possibility is that they will say “We’re glad you’ve come to your senses as subjects in the United Kingdom”, then sit back and wait for the next republican concession.
In either case, Sinn Féin have very firmly volleyed the ball into the unionist court. We’ll just have to wait and see how they respond. If the response is positive, we will have seen real progress in reconciliation between former enemies. If the response is negative, it’ll be hard for Sinn Féin to keep on giving with nothing coming back. In fact there are some who say that has happened already.
And no, Virginia, Máirtin Ó Muilleoir's appearance at the cenotaph ceremonies cannot be seen as a reciprocal gesture to Queen Elizabeth’s bowed head at the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin. The clue is in the Dublin bit - she wasn’t doing any head-bowing at Milltown cemetery or at the grave of Bobby Sands. In contrast, the Lord Mayor’s appearance was in Belfast, a place where the British army was responsible for some terrible deeds, including the deliberate killing of men, women and children.