Jude Collins

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Now and then


It's as well we can't see the future, or that we can't see the present from the future. The dangers springing from the first are obvious, since few of us would like to know the day we're going to be fired from our job or let down in love, much less the day we're going to die. The dangers of the second showed after a brief scan of today's Irish News. That paper is stuffed with selections from official documents, hitherto kept secret, about official reaction to the events of 1979. For example, the British Foreign Office told Thatcher that Charlie Haughey had hardline republican views (wrong) and that his name was pronounced 'Hockey' (wrong again). It also revealed that in 1979, John Hume suggested the use of internment (again) as a way of stemming successful attacks by the IRA (the killing of eighteen British soldiers at Warrenpoint, the killing of Mountbatten in Donegal). The British brushed his proposal aside, not because they had moral objections to putting people in prison without a trial but because they didn't think Hume had thought the matter through. What, I wonder, would have been the reaction of the Irish people in 1979, if they could have somehow propelled themselves to the present day and looked back, to discover that the leader of nationalism in the North was urging the locking up of nationalists and republicans without trial?

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Mary at Christmas


I've been listening to Joe Duffy's 'Liveline' on RTÉ Radio One. All this week Joe's show is based in Áras an Uachtaráin, with President Mary McAleese leading the charge to try and awake optimism among all those Irish people who are suffering seriously from the recession. Now I'll yield to no one in my admiration for Mary the Second. I've met her and in fact worked with her on a TV programme about Queen's University, when she worked there. She's highly intelligent, highly articulate and, as far as I could tell, highly moral in all her dealings, including how she treats every single person she encounters. And I think it's a very good idea to try to ignite a positive mood in the twenty-six counties: if you think you can't do anything to improve your situation, you won't. But (you knew there was a But coming, didn't you?) it's got to have a practical edge, otherwise it may plunge people even more deeply into despair. When I was listening to the programme, the most notable speaker was a young guy from the North who had found himself going blind and responded by training for and eventually going to the South Pole. This was held up as a model for the rest of the population, especially those in a state of economic distress . If he can pick his life up and make progress, so can you.

Good intentions but I kept putting myself in the shoes of some poor punter who's lost his job and is sinking under the weight of it all. Would he be saying to himself "Fantastic - since hearing that blind guy, I'm inspired to go out there and get me a job!" Or is he more likely to say "What the ****'s that guy going to the South Pole got to do with me trying to get a job for which there are 500 other applicants?" Alas, I suspect the latter. Motivational sessions are fine but only if they end in some practical advice or provide an example of good practice IN A SITUATION RESEMBLING YOUR OWN. Surely a smart woman like Mary knows that?

That said, as they say, she has a lovely speaking voice.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Suzanne (and Nick) take you down



Caught up in the sobbing despair of this year's Christmas travel and the financial apocalypse that our politicians have allowed to happen in 2009, it's easy to forget we have reasons to rejoice in our blessings. One example: the quality of the press, both in Britain and in Ireland. Despite the temptation to be caught up in public controversies, they maintain a steely objectivity, never stoop to sweeping judgement or personal abuse, always cover and analyse controversy with a calm presentation of facts.

Take today's 'Observer', for instance, where Nick Cohen covers the Liam Adams case and related matters. Not for Mr Cohen the easy jibe: 'Irish nationalism cannot break from the dire illusions of the past'; [Gerry Adams's] unexpected baring of a soul few suspected he possessed'; 'Keeping child abuse private has all but destroyed Irish Catholicism';'[Gerry] Adams ... was at the top of a movement that killed children'; 'the south [of Ireland] doesn't want the north'.

You may be tempted to say 'Ah, but that's a British newspaper. You'd never get that calm presentation of facts in an Irish newspaper'. Oh no? Well here's Suzanne Breen in an article in today's 'Sunday Tribune':

'Gerry Adams' [sic] position as Sinn Féin president has been made untenable by revelations of the lies he has told'; 'he [Gerry Adams' drove his vulnerable niece to Donegal to confront her father who was living there. They sat down to tea and Mikado biscuits'; 'Why didn't the Sinn Féin president swiftly distance himself from his brother and his spiralling public profile as a youth worker?''Gerry Adams' [sic] disturbingly inadequate response to his brother's suspected abuse makes him politically toxic, he is stripped of all credibility and moral authority'.

Now I'm not claiming that this quality of detachment can be maintained all the time. In the last paragraph of her full-page article, Ms Breen briefly stumbles: 'Of course, he [Gerry Adams] shouldn't be held responsible for his brother'. But with the exception of that tiny splash, you can see from the examples I've given how dry-footed and objective Suzanne stays .

I'm not saying the British and Irish press are perfect. Some people say their coverage of the sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy had too much bandwagon condemnation and not enough analysis, but of course that's a filthy lie. The truth is, British and Irish journalism has a forensic, facts-based brilliance that's the envy of Europe. You see it in its treatment of the Catholic Church, its treatment of Irish culture, its treatment of Irish nationalism. You see it particularly when it's faced with a story that has links, however tenuous, to Irish republicanism. When that happens, the Irish and British press know exactly what to do.

Friday, 25 December 2009

Peace on earth and pass the ammunition



I usually manage to avoid QE2's Christmas Day message to Her country and Her Commonwealth, but this year I came into the living-room and there it was, on, before I'd time to grab the zapper and zap it over to The Incredibles or whatever rubbish movie was playing on another channel. For a full ten seconds I stood goggling as the mother of all the Windsors told me about the importance of supporting 'our troops', and clips of British soldiers in desert-type gear paraded or patrolled or made soldierly synchronised movements.

It's hard to think of area where more double-think goes on than that relating to armies and soldiers. If I had a son in an army - which mercifully I haven't - I wouldn't be proud of him, I'd be worried. Worried all day and all night that he'd be sent far from home, into somebody else's country, to become the object of the hatred of the local people, who would (odd creatures) have the belief that their country shouldn't be occupied by trained killers from hundreds or even thousands of miles away, and who might try to translate that hatred into killing my son. If I was asked, I wouldn't say I was 'proud of the job he's doing', and if he were - God forbid - killed, I hope I wouldn't come out with an obscene lie and say that 'he died doing what he loved'.

You'll get British people, or people who think of themselves as British, who are at great pains to explain to you the distinction between the wisdom of a particular campaign waged by Britain, and the pride they feel in their 'boys' and the debt they owe them, as they wage that campaign. Not being a Daily Mail reader myself, I can't get my brain to do the back-flips required for accommodating that one. Soldiers are trained to do two things. They're trained to kill and they're trained to threaten to kill. That's why they carry guns. Even were the campaign a just one, how could any parent look at a son who was once small and smiling, and feel proud that he had now become big and trained to mete out death? And were the campaign unjust - Iraq, Afghanistan or Ireland - the double futility and perversity of a son's death must be near to overwhelming. Except, of course, you let the Daily Mail do your thinking for you.

Yes, I know. It's Christmas Day. I should have more to do than be tappy-tapping on about QE2 and her nationwide message. Just as QE2 should have more to do than come on TV to commend trained killers for their 'work', on any day of the year, but particularly on this day that celebrates the Prince of Peace.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Low and lower



As I write it's Christmas Eve and I'm reluctant to intertwine the arrival of the saviour of the world with the stinky world of journalism, but there are a couple of examples of how stories should NOT be reported that cry out to heaven for comment.

Stinky Story 1: The Irish Times a day or two ago had an article which, in keeping with that paper's anti-republican stance, tries very hard to link the secret world of child sexual abuse with the secret world of IRA operations during the Troubles. The implication is that the same sort of thought process goes into both areas of activity and the same sort of thinkers work well in both. Since the article doesn't tell me that the writer is a qualified psychiatrist/psychologist, I'm not going to conclude, as some might, that his article shows him to be a complete idiot. I'll settle for guessing he's a half-wit.

Stinky Story 2: This one's from yesterday's Daily Mail. Ah yes, the Daily Mail, the comfort blanket for all those who enjoy slippping into a nice warm prejudice at some point in the day. "Revealed - The full chilling story of how Gerry Adams lied to protect his paedophile brother - and helped him work with children". Got that? None of this rubbish about being innocent until proven guilty - 'paedophile brother'. And the bit about 'helped him work with children' - you know, helped the paedophile in his pursuit of prey.

Maybe there's a new dawn coming when journalism of this sort will be used in media classes to show students how NOT to go about covering a story. But if we look at the Irish media's treatment of the Murphy Report and now the Liam Adams case, you can see that such a dawn may be a long time coming. Christmas, mercifully, will come with tomorrow's dawn, which means we're all safe for at least twenty-four hours. Nollaig shona duit...

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

The Great Whore of Babylon


I was on BBC Radio Ulster on ‘Sunday Sequence’ two days ago, discussing the Murphy Report and the fall-out thereof. The man discussing it with me was Wallace Thompson, who is secretary to the Evangelical Protestant Society, and who has issued a statement saying there needs to be a thorough-going investigation of the Catholic Church in the North, including the statement ‘If anyone in any other walk of life was involved in the sorts of crimes committed by priests and nuns, he or she would find no hiding place’. You got that ‘crimes committed by priests and nuns', did you? Not some priests and nuns – just plain priests and nuns. They’re all at it and all of the time, probably.

Wallace was very straightforward on the programme – the Roman Catholic Church was/is rotten to the core. I found myself getting a bit peeved with his universal condemnation, which I shouldn’t have, and I suggested that Protestant churches should equally be scrutinized, which I’m glad I did. From there on things got a bit tetchy and William Crawley cut us off after a few brief minutes. Some people I’ve spoken to said they thought he did so because Wallace and I might come to blows (no chance – Wallace is younger than me). Others - myself included – figured that RTE’s Joe Little had chuntered on in far too much detail earlier in the programme and so they had to cut back on what time they could give to us.

Because I’m a lazy bugger, I didn’t check the website of the Evangelical Protestant Society prior to the radio discussion. If I had, I’d have spotted a few straws in the wind re the Evangelical Protestant Society's views on Catholicism.

‘Rev. John McDonald, B.D. declares, "For a succession of fifty Popes not one pious or virtuous man sat in the pontifical chair. A system which has acknowledged and honoured such men to be each in turn its head, and still honours them, has fairly earned for itself the title 'Man of Sin'." Yet the ‘Man of Sin’ poses as ‘His Holiness’, an attribute which belongs to God alone, and he describes the Popish ‘synagogue of Satan’ as ‘the Church’.’

‘The spirit of Antichrist was in the world in Paul's day. “Even now", wrote John, "are there many anti-christs ..." (1 John 2:18). But when Paul wrote, the Antichrist had not been “revealed”. We hold that there are many forces in the world to-day which are diametrically opposed to Christianity, but that the Papacy is the Antichrist of Scripture.’

The message is clear. Wallace and his co-congregationalists will not be inviting Pope Benedict to address their Ladies’ Knitting Circle this year and ecumenism is a moral bog to be avoided if you value your immortal soul.

It might have been helpful if BBC Radio Ulster listeners had been clued into the EPS position vis-à-vis Rome before Wallace was allowed to launch his offensive offensive. (No, that’s not a misprint.) On the other hand, I had more positive feedback from that six- or seven-minute radio discussion than I’ve had for some time. For which small mercy thank you very much, Mr Thompson.

Monday, 21 December 2009

The family way


And so the Gerry Adams/ child sexual abuse saga rumbles on, gathering muck on its wheels. Today’s Irish News comes hard on the heels of Saturday’s Irish Times with a front-page story on Mr Adams’s (of COURSE they mispunctuated it as ‘Adams’ ‘ - what do you think they are, literate?) father’s abuse of his family – in Gerry’s words, ‘physical, emotional, mental and sexual’ and a four-page spread inside. The story also led on the RTE news last night and, I\m told, Channel 4 news as well. So why did Gerry Adams come out with these revelations about his father, and was he right to do so?

He came out with them, I suspect, because he was under media pressure from the case of his niece Áine, who claims that her father, Gerry’s brother, sexually abused her as a child. The media fell on this story like the proverbial ravening wolves, and clearly in some instances at least did their damnedest to somehow discredit Gerry Adams as well as his brother. It may be that Gerry, who can be a consummate media performer, decided to use the story of his father’s abuse as a spectacular addition to the Adams-and-child-abuse story, so increasing the chances that the media would respond to it in a way that’d show him in a favourable light. Certainly last night's RTE interview evoked sympathy for the Sinn Fein president and his siblings, and their efforts to cope with a father who appears to have been a destructive force.

But that second question: was Mr Adams right to reveal so much unfavourable information about his father? In terms of political self-defence, you could argue he was. Unfortunately, however effective this story proves for public perception of the Sinn Fein president, it also encourages the media in the belief that the private life of politicians here (or anywhere else) is legitimate prey for reporters.

Why should it be? Only if the politician is, say, a stout proponent in his political life of family values and then turns out to be someone who shows contempt for family values in his personal life, would his private life be of concern. We elect politicians because we believe they will be effective public representatives – that is, good at their job. Likewise with brain surgeons, dentists, accountants, plumbers, rat-catchers: we hire them because we believe they will be effective at the job they do, give us value for money. I have never in my life checked on the private life, sexual or otherwise, of my doctor, dentist, accountant, etc. In God’s name, why should I? I’m not looking for a boy scout or a saint to tend my teeth – I want a professional, and what he (or she) does the rest of the time I really don’t care.

Probing into the private life of politicians can be great fun and may even be what a lot of people prefer to the tedious examination of party policies, but that doesn’t make it right. So even though this story will probably end in greater public sympathy for Gerry Adams, he still shouldn’t have aired it.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Spin or no-spin?



Right. Have a look at the words of the following two people as reported in The Irish Times last Saturday.

Interviewee 1: “We have had no contact with the victim. We were there for Danny and for Danny only. They came along because they wanted to support Danny and they believed Danny. Nobody organised anything. We went because we hadn’t been able to contact him since he was found guilty. We wanted to shake hands with him – he’s our brother, our son. People followed suit. It was a spontaneous reaction. We had no idea that girl was going to be in court”.

Interviewee 2: “Now Áine was about 14 at the time, she was a wee kid, but she was always a very good wee girl and always, you know, I , I just couldn’t imagine a child like her making up such a serious allegation. And although I didn’t have you know, the the, the awful details of the, the wrong that was done to her, I think it was doubly done by Liam refusing, called her a liar and denying emphatically that he had done any wrong. Áine in this case is the direct victim, but child abuse has a whole ripple of other victims. You know, for me it’s like, you know, a permanent bereavement”.

It’s those “the, the”s and “I, I” s and “for me it’s like, you know”s, isn’t it? What has happened, as you’ve probably guessed, is that the reporter in the first paragraph has almost certainly screened the words of the speaker, eliminating ‘you know’s and repetitions and the rest of the wandering, self-correcting swing-around-the-houses extras that we all use in the spoken word. Ninety-nine per cent of journalists do this. It’s not that they falsify what was said – they just nudge the syntax and grammar into a form that makes it more readable.

In the second paragraph the reporter hasn’t done this. She’s simply given the words of the speaker in the raw form, with all the twists and hesitancies that the normal spoken word contains. But while we readily accept and sometimes don’t even hear such hesitancies in real life, in written form on the page it looks odd, suggests an uncertainty or maybe evasiveness on the part of the speaker.

The two reports appeared on the same page of last Saturday’s Irish Times. The speaker in the first story is Tim Foley, brother of the man sent to jail in Kerry for a sexual assault on a woman but greeted warmly in the court by about fifty local people. The second is from an interview with Gerry Adams about his niece Áine’s claims that her father, Gerry's brother, sexually abused her as a child.

The question is, in terms of reporting style, which speaker is made to look shifty, evasive, almost caught on the hop?

But hey – the Irish Times is Ireland's quality newspaper and would never slant its reporting against someone it didn’t like. The record shows that the Irish Times has always treated Sinn Fein the same as it has any other democratically-elected party. Like, I mean, right? RIGHT?

Friday, 18 December 2009

Sound-nibble...


The only medium which allows less scope for thoughtful analysis than radio is television. I was on ‘Hearts and Minds’ last night on BBC2, part of a two-man panel with Brian Feeney, and while the topic of (what else?) clerical child abuse was given seven minutes approx, it didn’t even begin to tickle the surface of the subject.

One example. I was trying to point out that the cover-up crime of the bishops might have been something more than callous abandoning of the innocent to the whims of a predatory monster in order to protect the Church’s good name. So I gave some figures about the likelihood of child abusers offending again (1-8% for treated low-risk offenders, 15-50% for high risk offenders).

Silly, silly, silly. If you don’t have a graphic that reinforces your spoken word, that’s going to be very difficult for the viewer to assimilate. On viewing the tape, it’s obvious that I should simply have said ‘Research shows that re-offending isn’t inevitable – most treated offenders don’t re-offend’. And repeated it a couple of times to drive the message home. So to be effective, you have to talk in short, punchy statements and repeat them. Television simply rejects complexity.

The other problem is length. Six to seven minutes is considered a reasonable period of time (outside of maybe Channel 4 News, you’d never get this on a news report – in fact three minutes would be considered very long. But for a topic as complex as the child abuse cases in Dublin diocese, that’s not nearly enough. Besides, it’s concerns like ‘God, he looks thin!’ that occupy viewer thoughts for the first thirty seconds or so, and in fact can keep distracting them from what's being said throughout the discussion.

How about a health warning similar to that they give on cigarette packets? ‘Believing that this discussion is either thoughtful or analytical could damage your mental health.'
PS 'Hearts and Minds' will have a new set in the New Year, so that'll be something else to distract us.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Community police service?


My mostrecent encounter with a British bobby happened nearly twenty years ago. I was in London to pick up a Sony Award for a BBC radio programme I presented , and I was heading for the Dorchester Hotel. Or I hoped I was. As usual I was a bit late, so I pantingly asked a friendly bobby the way. He looked at me, pulled out a little police radio-thingy from his breast pocket and said “I’m afraid I can’t – I’m busy now”. And he began to talk into his little radio.

I mention this because the latest survey shows that public confidence in the PSNI has dropped. Just 56% of people now think that our version of the British bobby is doing a good job; last April the figure was 64%. The UUP’s Basil McCrea showed his usual lightning ability to dissect a complex situation: ‘These statistics are heading the wrong way' he explained.

The whole question of policing here is both central and complex. It was early shots of the RUC batoning hell out of demonstrators that gave adrenaline and backbone to the Civil Rights movement, and reform of the police was a vital component of the peace process. But policing is still an issue that’s far from resolved.

Once Catholics composed around 5% of the RUC force. These days the figures for Catholics and Protestants joining the PSNI are near to equal. Unfortunately we don't have figures for how many of the new Catholic recruits are from the Bogside or West Belfast. My guess is that most of the recruits are middle-class. The areas which suffered most during the Troubles are not the areas supplying recruits to the PSNI. The Catholic middle-class may not have been the Prods-in-the-garden-centre who opted out of politics during the Troubles, but they experienced the Troubles as something relatively remote most of the time. Catholics in working-class areas experienced the Troubles up-close and personal. That’s why there are regular reports of mobs of youths attacking the PSNI in Derry and Belfast. It’s not their police service, it never was, and they’re telling the cops that with stones and bottles.

The Troubles obviously involve a clash between Catholics and Protestants, orange and green, but a class element has also been a crucial feature. In less affluent areas, particularly nationalist areas, the PSNI are still seen as middle-class muscle which keeps the scruff in their place. The fact that the police wear a symbol of the British crown in their caps isn’t lost on their attackers, either.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Restricted vision


It’s odd what we think of as alternatives in government and as extremes in politics. For example, we’re told that the DUP and Sinn Fein represent the extremist view, that having failed to succeed with an alliance of the middle ground (the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP) the British government has in recent decades turned to the ‘extremists’ to deliver peace and progress in the North of Ireland. Now that Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson have fallen out in public, much is being made of what divides them. But when you think of it, the fact that they’ve been able to co-operate in government for as long as they have and find broad areas of agreement suggests that, the constitutional question aside, they’re not all that different in their thinking. The same applies to the south's coalition of the Greens and Fianna Fail. What could be further apart than the earth-saving Greens and the property-pumping FFers? Yet they’ve managed to snuggle up and work together pretty successfully for some years now.

The sad truth is that the voting public has been persuaded to think of centre and left and right in very limited terms. There was a time, for example, when Sinn Fein’s core belief was the establishment of a 32-county socialist republic. You didn’t have to agree to it to see that it offered a different way of looking at human beings and how they might best work together. The claim wasn’t that the economy would be run more successfully by them, or that corruption of different kinds would be rooted out (although these were part of it), but that the state would be organized in a way that would put emphasis on people working for each other rather than simply for themselves and their families. You don’t hear much of that now from Sinn Fein. The claim is that duplicate systems North and South are wasteful and that the economy could be managed more effectively as one unit. The same kind of thinking is on offer in Britain. The Tories don’t offer some radically new vision of what that country could look like; they simply argue that they would be less wasteful of resources, smarter in their management than their Labour opponents.

Since (despite popular rumour) there are quite a few very intelligent people in Irish politics, it seems hard to believe at least some of them haven’t thought how much better things might be if they were able to establish a truly different form of government. Not just an Orange and Green one, but one which offered fulfilment in a range of ways beyond the purely financial. Why don't they preach them, then? That's easy. Because of the great, dark, overwhelming fear that haunts every politician and political party: failure to be re-elected.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Two angry men and a Taoiseach


Wee-hooo. There was me yesterday, highlighting the cross-border meeting in Limavady, and later in the day there was Martin McGuinness doing a very public parade of his grievances against the DUP generally and Peter Robinson in particular, and all the time even-tighter-than-usual-lipped Peter standing by his side and Brian Cowen kicking the wall in the background.

It wasn’t the way it was supposed to be. The way it was supposed to be was the way it was at the start of the meeting between the three men – all handshakes and chuckles. Then Martin decided to (verbally) empty both barrels into his colleague in government. So why did he do it?

Well, Sinn Fein’s Francie Brolly gave the answer. It’s to do with how long Sinn Fein’s support can go on settling for no signs of real progress. Despite what republicans have conceded – acceptance of the PSNI, acceptance of eleven rather than seven super-councils, acceptance above all of the principle of consent – that the north of Ireland will stay a part of the UK until the majority of Nordies decide they want things otherwise. With that growing sense among republicans that they were doing all the giving while the DUP kept backing away from giving, Sinn Fein needed a dramatic sign that they were mad as hell and weren’t going to take it any more. Yesterday in Limavady, Martin provided that sign.

Will it make any difference? It’s certainly provided an unexpected kick in the pants (or even in the softer parts) not just to Peter but to Brian as well. This was supposed to be a nice distraction from economic meltdown for the Taoiseach – he was to have appeared as the peacemaker, the man working for peace in the north while at the same time showing that Fianna Fail hasn’t forgotten its republican roots, its concern to smooth the road – literally and metaphorically – between north and south. There was nothing in the script about one of the power-sharing parties denouncing his colleague in government as a man given to doing solo runs and showing little sign of honouring the pledges made at St Andrew’s.

So having fired the verbal artillery, will Sinn Fein walk in January, if nothing is delivered? It's a close call but probably not, because something will be delivered, because nobody really wants a Stormont meltdown. Chances are there will be a deal that’ll save faces all round. Peter won’t give in to anything pre-Christma but will finally issue a cautious date come, say, mid-January, announcing that the DUP will go with the devolution of policing and justice around, say, Easter or maybe early Summer.

That should postpone the political divorce, although it won’t satisfy everyone. Jim Allister will use any such move to label his former colleagues as traitors to the unionist cause. And a lot of republicans will see devolution of policing and justice, not as a victory for republicanism but another act of betrayal.

Stand by for increased Real IRA activity in 2010.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Big talk in a small town


Stand by. Big important meeting due today in LImavady. Brian Cowen is coming up to meet P Robinson and M McGuinness to, among other things, attempt a resolution of the DUP-SF stand-off that’s threatening the collapse of the Executive. It seems Robbo won’t move before Christmas (how could he and still get support from the DUP backwoodsmen, some of them MPs?). But the word is that something will be happening shortly after New Year, which will allow Robbo to save face and at the same time bring about the required devolution that will please Sinn Fein. I suppose that’s a more or less satisfactory outcome for all, but it may lead the DUP to conclude that when SF says ‘There must be movement before Christmas’, it’s OK to defy them. I think even SF and certainly a lot of the wider public would be surprised and dismayed to know how many republicans (and nationalists) are fed up with the DUP stonewalling and how widespread is the belief that the GFA has got FA for nationalists/republicans.

As if by way of evidence for this belief, Brian Cowen has declared in advance of the meeting: “The North-South Ministerial Council has its 10th anniversary this month and the meeting is an opportunity to reflect on all that has been achieved in those ten years”. There’s a temptation to fall back on the couch and emit screeches of laughter. What has been achieved through the N-S Ministerial Council in the last ten years? Not bloody much. Not anything. You think of anything? I can think of nothing. Yet Cowen can say that with a straight face and no one jumps up and shouts ‘Boiled bunkum, Cowen!’ We were told – by Sinn Fein – that the GFA was a vehicle that would take us towards a united Ireland. Either the wheels have come off or it’s travelling so slowly movement is imperceptible to even the sharpest naked eye.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Two funny women



Even the darkest debates have a ray of sunshine. The child abuse debate – well no, it’s not a debate, it’s an avalanche of criticism – has been brightened by the entry of that well-known guardian of Irish morals, Sinead O’Connor. Apparently she is upset about the reaction of the Catholic hierarchy and she’s calling on people to boycott Mass. She’s also a bit annoyed at the Irish government: ‘I also demand that brian cowan step down for his having no testicles in the matter.’ The lower case initial letters for Cowan’s name are hers, not mine. In fact her entire email is full of sentence fragments and odd punctuation errors. She’s a funny woman, but funny-peculiar, not funny-ha-ha. The last thing Sinead is is funny- ha-ha.

I was on BBC Radio Ulster’s ‘Sunday Sequence’ this morning, with another funny woman (funny ha-ha in this case): Nuala McKeever. We were talking about child abuse again and Nuala castigated me lightly for having suggested reform and a widening of the democratic element in the appointment of bishops in Ireland. She ended by saying that what was needed was the Church run by ‘women and children’. I pointed out to her that this was sexism, but she didn’t seem to notice. I didn't point out that the remedy sounded if anything worse than the disease.

We had Fr Vincent Twomey and Breda O’Brien on as well, from Dublin. They’re both pretty bright, informed people, but when I left I was more impressed by the ability of people to jumble things together than their capacity to tease out and identify. The whole question of recidivism among paedophiles wasn’t touched on, nor was the motivation of Catholic bishops when they moved abusing priests from parish to parish. Did they hope that the abuse would stop? Was that a reasonable hope? There was much talk of reform in the Church, but again, the extent to which we were talking about reforms aimed at eliminating abuse by clerics or reforms aimed at a more democratic Church wasn’t clear. I think people are so intent on expressing their horror that they're incapable of thinking logically.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Come together?



Why are there two nationalist parties? Why are there three unionist parties?

Some would say the big dividing line between the SDLP and Sinn Fein was the question of violence. Sinn Fein’s links to the IRA were always anathema to the SDLP who, like Daniel O’Connell in the nineteenth century, didn’t believe that Irish independence was worth the spilling of one drop of Irish blood. Sinn Fein disagreed and so the gulf between the two was established.

But that was until nearly fifteen years ago. Now the IRA appears to be truly a thing of the past, why aren’t the SDLP and Sinn Fein uniting to present a common front at, say, the next elections to Westminster? Three reasons, probably: one, few smaller firms want to be taken over by a bigger firm. Second– and perhaps more importantly – the SDLP are a middle-class party. They live in middle class areas, they put forward middle-class candidates (lawyers, doctors, accountants) for election. Sinn Fein’s core is working-class and their candidates tend to be the occasional teacher but more commonly men and women who look, sound and are working-class. The third reason the SDLP and Sinn Fein stay apart has to do with power. If you’ve got machinery and organization in place, it’s hard to dismantle that, because the new dispensation will mean change and change is always a threat.

As for unionism, the Alliance Party don’t want to merge with either of the two other parties, because it sees itself as a cross-community beacon of hope. Besides, they’re more refined than the rough-and-tumble DUP or even the slightly less rough-and-tumble UUP. And what about the DUP and the UUP – might they come together? Only yesterday there was a call from Ian Óg Paisley for an agreed unionist candidate in South Belfast and Tyrone and Fermanagh. “Think of the major boost it would be to the confidence of the unionist community to see Gildernew turfed out in Fermanagh/South Tyrone and Alasdair McDonnell given his marching orders in South Belfast” he says. Mind you, Ian Óg’s daddy built a political career by running against majority unionist parties, so it’s a bit rich for Ian Óg to now wring his hands at the effects of a split unionist vote.

So why is he doing it? Because the DUP in general is worried that it may suffer at the Westminster election in May, particularly at the hands of Jim Allister’s TUV. And because Ian Óg in particular is worried that he may suffer in the Westminster election at the hands of TUV top dog Jim Allister. Don’t forget, Allister plans to stand in North Antrim – the constituency currently represented by Ian Paisley Snr and long thought of as Ian Óg’s rightful inheritance.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Say the Word



Was Gerry Adams in the IRA? He says he wasn’t but most people believe he was. As it’s now some fifteen years since the IRA were active, it seems an odd point to get excited about either way. But Liam Clarke sounds excited. He says for Gerry Adams to appear in a Channel 4 programme about Christ’s forgiveness would be unacceptable while he continues to deny he was in the IRA.”That would be a lesson in hypocrisy, not repentance and healing” Clarke says. Appearing on the same Channel 4 programme is Alan McBride, whose wife and father-in-law were killed in the Shankill fish-shop bombing. He recently met with Gerry Adams and while he appreciated Mr Adams’s empathy and concern for the pain he had suffered, he told the Sinn Fein leader that this "doesn't justify at all" 3,500 murders, 40,000 people injured and the many young people who were incarcerated for involvement in violence.

It’s the use of the word “murders” that shows us what is going on here and makes us aware of the bigger, unspoken questions behind the demands for Gerry Adams to say he was in the IRA and apologise for the IRA’s violence. No one would say that the RAF flew missions over Germany during the Second World War and ‘murdered’ Germans, just as no one says that hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians were ‘murdered’ in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, or that Maggie Thatcher ‘murdered’ over three hundred Argentine sailors on the Belgrano. That’s because those killings, ghastly though they were, happened in a time of war, and violent acts in a war are seen as qualitatively different from violent acts carried out by a private citizen for his or her own ends.

If Gerry Adams could be persuaded to say he was in the IRA and – more importantly – to apologise for IRA violence over thirty years, that would rewrite the Troubles as unionists have always wanted to: several decades of mayhem perpetrated by republican murderers and psychopaths on an innocent civilian population.

There are two grim truths about the Shankill bombing, neither of which do anything to assuage Alan McBride’s pain and loss. The first is that it fits into a pattern of violent acts that occurred over three decades, when the IRA, in the name of Irish unity and self-determination, fought a low-intensity war with the British state. The second is that the Shankill bomb went off as the result of a blunder. The target was an upstairs meeting of UDA leaders which never happened, and the explosion was triggered prematurely. In short, the IRA probably hadn’t intended that Alan McBride’s wife and brother-in-law or any other innocent people should be killed.

It’s hard for someone like Alan McBride, who’s suffered so much, to see and accept these facts. It should be a matter of professional pride for journalists like Liam Clarke to include them in their analysis of what happened and is happening.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Bonny Ronnie


So – Ronnie Flnagan’s reputation is ‘in tatters’, according to Barra McGrory QC, who’s acting on behalf of the Hamill family. McGrory says the former RUC chief constable lied to the inquiry into the death of Robert Hamill, who was kicked to death by a loyalist mob in Portadown in 1997, and allegedly told a senior civil servant that Mr Hamill’s death could have been caused by his family cradling his head and so cutting off his oxygen. Oh, and he’s also alleged to have said that Hamill’s sister was on a trip to discredit the RUC when she demanded the truth about her brother's death.

The way I see it, if you say something is in tatters, you imply there was a time when it was in undisputed good nick, elegant even. Maybe there was a time when Ronnie had that sort of reputation but I don’t go back that far. This is a man who in 1995 denied that there was collusion between police and loyalists during the infamous Burntollet ambush. He’s a man who was Duty Inspector at the Castlereagh interrogation centre, where (if we're to believe reports) prisoners were routinely stripped, beaten and deprived of sleep. This is the man who was in charge of the Headquarters Mobile Support Units, a shoot-to-kill section of the Special Branch which a lot of people blame for a lot of unnecessary deaths. This is the man who is alleged to have given the Garvaghy Road residents an assurance that there would be no Orange march down their road in 1996 if a token march was allowed in 1995. The residents agreed; in 1996 a march was forced down Garvaghy Road. This is a man whose attitude to human rights groups, especially those who criticize the RUC, is less than positive.

And of course this is the man who was interviewed by Jim McDowell, editor of Sunday Life, as part of a TV series called ‘Straight Up’. McDowell spent the interview apparently trying to enter an orifice of Flanagan's other than his ear, avoiding any remotely hard questions and opting for a cosy, chuckly chat about rugby.

So no, I don’t think Ronnie’s credibility is in tatters; in my book it continues to bump along the bottom of a very murky,very smelly pond.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Over to us


Lately there’s been a lot of hand-throwing-in-the-air and exasperated sighing from commentators and writers-to-the-paper about the incompetence of local politicians. ‘They’re a bunch of no-hopers – couldn’t run a sweety-shop!’ is the general consensus. You hear phone-in contributors saying the sooner they go back to direct rule from London, the better.

I think this is a classic case of the cure being worse than the disease. It’s certainly the case from a nationalist perspective that the people in Stormont haven’t achieved an awful lot. Some would say they’ve made things worse, with the 11+ confusion. But that’s to focus on the difficulties we face and to forget the bigger picture. Which is? That if we have self-respect, there’s no choice but to opt for local rule.

Take the man next door. He’s been a successful businessman, his place is always meticulously tidy, his garden is a wonder of proportion and productivity. I’ll bet if I could get a look at his bank balance, in terms of income and expenditure, it’d show as highly commendable. The truth is, he’s almost certainly a better organizer and runner of things than I am. The way he runs his home puts the way I run mine to shame. If he were to move in here tomorrow and start organising my affairs, he’d almost certainly make a better fist of it than I do.

So why don’t I let him? Because I’m grown-up, and for better or worse, grown-up people run their own affairs. It's not a question of which of us could do the job better; it’s a question of whose place it is to do the job. It’s my house, so be that for great or ghastly, it’s my job to run it.

Ditto our affairs here. There is of course a temptation to hand everything over to someone else, leave them to wrestle with the knotty difficulties that keep turning up. The years of direct rule have reinforced that kind of thinking: it was a lot easier to call Patrick Mayhew a fat condescending prat while at the same time allowing him to get on with running the place.

But that’s over and like it or lump it, it’s our job to make decisions for ourselves. We’re not talking easy or hard. We’re talking what do big people do. What they do is, they run their own houses and they run their own country. And even if it were worse than the job the man door might do, it’d still be better.

Monday, 7 December 2009

I'm with you, Domenica


However convinced you are that your opinion is the right one, it’s always nice to have it confirmed. So I’m quietly pleased to see an item in today’s paper that focuses on a woman called Domenica McGowan. She’s a psychotherapist who has worked with victims of sex abuse for more than twenty-five years and what’s more, she’s an atheist. “I have met countless survivors who have disclosed their experience of sexual assault by members of his [Ian Paisley Jr’s) apparently guilt-free Protestant Christian Churches". Her point is that Paisley’s call to the Protestant Churches, in the wake of the Murphy Report, to move in and sweep up huge numbers of bewildered and disillusioned Catholics, is essentially sectarian and contrary to the facts of self-abuse and where it is to be found - to wit, everywhere. “I believe there are many instances outside the Catholic Church where abuse has yet to be disclosed. Can I suggest a simple maxim Mr Paisley might want to consider adopting – better to remain silent and appear a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt”.

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Noli me tangere



I’m continually amazed at how adept people are at double-think, and I’m doubly amazed at the way they can double-think about political violence. Years ago, I remember talking to a friend of mine from Canada and I happened to mention that I’d met and talked to Martin McGuinness. “My God!” he said. “He was in the IRA. He must have killed people!” And he sort of took a step back, as though it might be catching and I might try killing him. I agreed that that what he suggested was a possibility, and pointed out that quite a few politicians had been responsible for killings: Thatcher for the lives lost in the Malvinas dispute, notably the crew of the Belgrano; Tony Blair and George Bush for the thousands who died in the Iraq invasion; and of course Harry Truman for the several hundred thousand who died in the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. He murmured something vague but it was clear that these people who weren’t just maybe killers but definitely killers didn’t seem nearly as horrifying to him as the possible killer Mr MrGuinness.

The same sort of thinking has surfaced today over a Channel 4 programme called ‘The Bible: A History’ that will be aired in February. It’s a series that will involve seven public figures giving their interpretation of the story of Christ. One of these figures is the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, who will “examine Jesus’s teachings on love, forgiveness and repentance through the prism of his own experience”, according to the channel. This has upset a number of the other public figures, notably the Conservative MP Anne Widdicombe. She discovered that Mr Adams would be part of the series only after she’d filmed her own contribution. She says she disapproves of his involvement.

The obvious question is ‘Why?’ Ms Widdicombe is a life-long Tory and has never, as far as I know, voiced any objections to the various warlike excursions on which her party or the Labour party have embarked, so we can only conclude that she doesn’t in principle object to political violence. If she sees Mr Adams as associated with republican violence, what is there about such violence that makes it different from the violence Britain metes out – and always has meted out – to those who oppose her? After all, Irish republican violence has at least the merit that it happened in Ireland, against foreign troops; most British violence has happened abroad, sometimes thousands of miles away.

Overall though, my brain simply isn’t supple enough to take in the kind of double-think that decorates some people for the amount of killing they’ve done and can’t bear to be anywhere near some other people they think might have been involved in killing.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Mr 10%


Of all the myths that the north of Ireland has spawned, the most seductive (and stupid) is the notion that both sides are equally to blame/one side is as bad as the other. This was the founding principle of the Alliance Party about forty years ago and its failure to progress should be reassuring. Sad to say, it isn't, for the very good reason that it's a view shared by most of the rest of the world. I know whereof I speak: from the late 1960s to the late 1970s, I lived abroad, and I discovered how easy it is to buy into the myth that what we have here are two tribes high on religion, hopelessly addicted to sectarianism and hatred. This of course airbrushes out Mother Britain, which is why she works so hard at maintaining that myth.

The latest example of it in action comes from the hysterically anti-republican commentator, Lindy McDowell. Faced with the fact that Martin McGuinness, deputy leader of Sinn Fein, has attracted the admiration of some 10% of Protestants here, she clambers down from her customary it's-all-the-Shinners-fault soapbox and climbs onto an Alliance-type one. How's that? Well, the way Lindy figures it, because Peter Robinson would be really worried if he attracted 10% of the Catholic population's admiration, because his followers wouldn't like that kind of thing, Martin McGuinness must be appalled that he's attracted 10% of Protestants, because - yep - his followers can't possibly like that kind of thing. Pssst, Lindy: republicanism means replacing the names of Catholic, Protestant or Dissenter with the common name of Irishman (and woman). Besides, if admiration were to turn into votes for Sinn Fein, it would trigger a referendum which would almost certainly take the north of Ireland out of the union with Britain and into a united Ireland.

Wouldn't it be funny if Martin McGuinness's saintly patience in the face of vilification were to reap the ultimate reward for republicanism? Maybe the guy who said 'Destroy your enemies - make them your friends' knew what he was talking about.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Calling all votes...


For the next six months, it’d probably be helpful if each time we hear Ian Óg Paisley speak, we imagine a little bubble coming out of his head with the words ‘It’s the election, stupid’. Between now and next May, Ian Óg’s every public utterance will be aimed at the voters of North Antrim.

His latest pronouncement expresses his satisfaction at ‘an end to the once all-knowing and powerful hand of the mother church in Ireland’ and urges Protestant churches to get in there and convert these bewildered Catholic misbelievers to the Protestant faith.

Now I know it’s a striking image: Ian Óg perched crowing on the corpse of the mortally-wounded Catholic Church, but like with Mark Twain, the reports of its demise are much exaggerated. Most Catholics know that we are all sinners and there but for the grace of God go I and/or Ian Og Paisley. Their faith is in Christ and the doctrines of the Catholic Church, not in its frail and sinful, or even in many cases the strong and good priests and bishops.

What Ian Óg is intent on doing is setting up the tired, sad, sectarian vision of a Catholic Church locked in struggle with the Protestant churches: eternal damnation with one, eternal salvation with the other. Ian’s daddy was doing that kind of thing as far back as the early 1950s, when he sought to save the soul of a misguided young Catholic woman. Like father, etc.

The Murphy Report excites dismay in many Catholic hearts but it’s not dismay with the Church’s doctrine and core beliefs: it’s with a number of corrupt priests and bishops who have engage in or covered up paedophilia. Is Ian Óg suggesting that were Catholics to move into the Protestant churches, they’d be moving into a paedophilia-free zone? That’s not what the research into child sexual abuse shows. Paedophilia exists in every area of society. Catholic priests have no monopoly of evil.

No, Ian’s not really thinking of all the Catholic souls to be saved from eternal hell-fire and subservience to the Anti-Christ; he’s a man with a constituency on his mind called North Antrim and a man on his mind called Jim Allister.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

The Murphy Report


The newspapers, radio and television are once again sagging under the weight of a 'Priests are child abusers' report. This one is the Murphy report and details how reports of child sexual abuse by priests in the Dublin diocese were covered up by the Catholic bishops and by the gardai of the day. No one in their right mind would want to see a child sexually abused (or anyone else for that matter), but there's something unedifying and undiscriminating about the way the media are handling the story.

A few questions that spring to mind:

1. What is the nature of paedophilia - is it a straight-forward crime or a condition? This is crucial, if we're to judge the legal or moral guilt of those who perpetrated these actions. If they freely chose to commit the crimes, they deserve to be punished, probably by imprisonment. If they suffer from a psychological condition, they're not free to choose and deserve not prison but hospitalization and treatment.

2. What is the nature of the evidence that made the people who wrote the Murphy report confident that things happened as those who brought charges claim? Is there material evidence? Is it the word of the accuser against that of the accused? An important distinction to draw, for just as the accused can be guilty of vile crimes, the accuser can be guilty of lying.

3. Why are people surprised that the Catholic hierarchy seem to have been engaged in cover-up? All institutions instinctively do this when attacked - universities, schools, broadcasting corporations, local communities. It doesn't make it right but it does make it common.

4. Is it true that most instances of child abuse - over 90% - occur within the immediate family circle? If so, shouldn't abuse within the Catholic Church be set in that context? That is to say, that there are as likely to be abusers among the ranks of, say, journalists, as among Catholic priests?

5. What constitutes child sexual abuse? If an adult strokes a child's face or kisses them, is that abuse in the same way that forced sexual intercourse is abuse?

6. Child sexual abuse is particularly shocking in that it is the violation of an innocent, defenceless person. Are blanket attacks on Catholic priests, including the majority of priests who appear to lead selfless, dedicated lives, another instances of abuse of innocent, defenceless people?

The last time I raised questions like this I received abusive emails for not joining in the undiscriminating condemnation of the Catholic clergy. In other words, if you're not for us you're against us. Now when did I last hear that forced choice being voiced?

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Something's happening but you don't know what it is/Do you, Mr Jones?


At my Philosophy for Beginners class last night, I got talking to the woman beside me. She figured that even though the lecturer took the first seven lectures before he got round to establishing eye-contact, the lecture series was wonderful and she can't wait to follow up with more only in more depth. She told me she'd just finished a five-year part-time degree.'What in?' quoth I. 'Irish Language and Literature'. That's the third person - all women - who did that course that I've been in conversation with in the last month. This woman said she had no Irish at all in her secondary or primary education. So when she decided to study Irish, she had to take first GCSE and then A Level before embarking on the degree programme. What sparked her interest in the first place? Her mother. She - the woman and presumably her mother - is/are from Ballymena, and her mother's speech was littered with colloquial and dialect words which were Irish in origin. In addition, the whole issue of place names and their Irish origin began to intrigue her, and she figured there was a vast cultural storehouse to which she'd never been given the key and she needed to find out more. So she studied for five years and got her degree. Her day job is as a solicitor. When she tossed in the fact that she was from a Presbyterian background, I suggested she might be getting the odd sideways glance about Ballymena when they noticed she was studying Irish. 'Probably, but it was OK, because I live in Belfast'. Oddly enough, one of the two other women who did an Irish degree was also Presbyterian in her background. Is there something happening that we're not aware of? And if so, what does it mean?

Monday, 23 November 2009

After life's fitful fever...



“What if the roads are flooded?” the present Mrs Collins asked before we set out. “They won’t be flooded” I told her, adding by way of emphasis “For God’s sake!” Sure enough, there was no flooding for the first fifty miles of our 350 + -mile drive from Stranraer to Cambridge. But there was flooding as we skirted Cumbria, and plenty of it, and the local road-and-traffic reports kept breaking in on the radio to tell us about yet another half-dozen roads that had been closed. At one point on the M6, either side of the road was a temporary lake of flooding, and at a number of points we had to drive through (mercifully shallow) water. Next day, having completed the 10-hour drive, we opened our newspaper to read about the bridge in Cumbria that had collapsed, taking with it an on-duty policeman. Despite all that, the route through Scotland and England was a feast for the eye: it was rain-free, the English countryside had its usual big comfortable fields and carefully-kept villages, and there was a real sense of being in a foreign country.

We stayed at a place between Cambridge and Huntingdon. Oliver Cromwell was born in Huntingdon and I had a vague notion he was buried there as well, so I had half-planned to drive out and have a look at his grave on Saturday. However, a quick Google established that he was in fact buried in Westminster Abbey, but was exhumed twenty years later, his head removed and his body hung for public consideration (Message: don't kill kings). Where his head is now remains unclear, as does the whereabouts of the rest of him. I’m trying very hard to think of someone in Ireland who might feel upset to hear these posthumous details.

Instead of seeking Oliver, then, we visited the American Cemetery outside Cambridge. No, I didn’t know there was an American cemetery there either. It’s over thirty acres and was gifted by Cambridge University to the US. The light had just begun to fade when we arrived, making the place even more sombre than it doubtless usually is. Nearly four thousand American servicemen are buried here, most of whom died in the Battle of the Atlantic or during air raids on Europe. The white crosses are arranged in gentle arcs and look simple and sad against the Autumn trees. There’s a kind of Washington Wall along one side of the site, listing the names of all buried there, plus another thousand who were lost and whose bodies never were recovered. The statue figures arranged at intervals along the wall have the same bulk and brute strength Soviet statues used to have back in the old USSR. I suppose in death, there’s little difference between Russians and Americans, just as there’s little difference between those servicemen buried with a white cross marking their grave (99.9%) and those identified by a white Jewish star. The feel of the place is one of generous space and simple dignity. I suppose it’s necessary to give your war dead an honoured resting place if you hope to get recruits for the next round of slaughter.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Big scoop




You can see why people are getting impatient with the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA). That’s the body that fights, on your behalf and mine, organized crime and terrorists. If SOCA sees someone who looks as if he might be an organized criminal or a terrorist, they can do a wonderful thing. They can go straight to the High Court and ask if they can freeze that person’s assets, please. Once the High Court says ‘Yes, of course you can, fire ahead’, then everything that person owns – his house, his bank account, his car or cars - all gone. Frozen. Out of reach. Sisyphus stuff.

Sounds good? You betcha. OK, there are tedious people who criticize it. People like Mr Justice Collins, who ruled last April at the High Court that this way of going on was absurd, unfair and a breach of fundamental human rights. But he got over-ruled so it doesn’t matter what he said. Thanks to the Assets Recovery Agency (SOCA’s predecessor) the assets of Tom (Slab) Murphy were frozen a while back back , and in recent days SOCA has frozen the assets of Sean Gerard Hughes.

All well and good, but irritating for those of us who believe that the law should act more swiftly and in, what’ll I say, in a more all-encompassing way. As things stand, Mr Murphy and Mr Hughes have been temporarily stripped of all they possess without a trial - but what about all the others? These men are from South Armagh, and as we all know that’s Bandit Country, which means it’s full of people acting in either a criminal or a terrorist capacity, or both at once. And those that aren’t are busy aiding and abetting those who are.

What must happen, and happen quickly, is that SOCA must stop scooping people in ones and scoop the lot. Take over a big football stadium - say the Crossmaglen Rangers place – and confine the lot of them there. And, naturally, freeze their assets.

Yes, it is great that SOCA can by-pass the tedium of the courts – all that arguing and my learned friend nonsense – and just grab people’s property and possessions; but it's costing £400 million a year and we’ll get nowhere if we don’t think big. Let’s see SOCA freeze every asset in South Armagh, scoop the entire population of the place, and watch the blessings of law and order return to our Province. Willie Frazer standing in a draughty South Armagh farmyard yelling for Tom Murphy to come out is no substitute.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Robert Redux


I recently read a report of a speech by Robert McCartney and I found myself thinking of Steven King. You must remember dear Steven. He was an adviser to David Trimble...No, look, you MUST remember David Trimble. Ginger-haired chap, used to lead the Ulster Unionists...You've never heard of the Ulster Unionists? Well, they used to be a political party, only David Trimble their leader, under careful advice from Steven King, led them into a political bog where they sank with little trace beyond a few gurgles from Reg Empey and Sylvia Hermon. But the impressive thing was that nobody pointed at Steven and shouted 'Some adviser you are!' In fact Steven appeared regularly in public after the debacle and showed no embarrassment that under his advice, a once-dominant political party had been reduced to a couple of shell-shocked survivors.

Mind you, the UUP experience was positively rosy compared to Bob McCartney's party. I can't even remember the name of it now - the Really Really Unionist Party or some such. Showing the consummate leadership skills for which he's well-known, Bob first alienated most of the people in his own party and then alienated the voter to the point where he thought it best to leave politics a couple of years ago. But there he was a short while back, appearing at the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) conference, explaining to them what a Marxist fool Caitriona Ruane was to try to introduce comprehensive education here. As evidence of the excellence of grammar school education, he modestly pointed to himself. One might choose to see that as an argument against grammar school education, but that's not how Bob intended it, I would guess. He went on to point out that the North gets better GCSE and A Level results than any other part of the UK. Maybe somebody should take Bob aside and explain that it's not what grammar schools do to the people who attend them that's under discussion, it's what grammar schools do to the two-thirds of the population who find the doors of said grammar schools barred to them, on the grounds that they're not smart enough. Bob also underlined that he came from a two-up, two-down terraced house in support of his argument. Odd, to see a skilled barrister make the elementary mistake in logic of arguing from the particular to the general. Yes, some children from working-class background do succeed by taking the grammar school route. But check the figures: overwhelmingly, your best ticket to a place in grammar school is to be middle-class. But then, that's the whole idea, really: schools that keep the scruff out. So good man, Bob. Climb the ladder and then pull it up after you. Rhodes Boyson would be proud of you.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Cars and memories


I’m preparing to drive the length of England in nine days’ time – starting at Stranraer and going all the way down to Cambridge. According to Mapquest, the journey is around 350 miles and it’ll take just under six hours. I wonder if anyone has told them I’ll be driving a Toyota Yaris? It’s not the biggest car in the world and while it’s got a near-1400 cc diesel engine and is Tardis-like in being bigger inside than it looks outside, it still doesn’t compare with the bigger cars and truly big trucks that dominate the motorways of England. Already I’m making comparisons in my head with a similar journey we took in the 1970s, when we drove from Newcastle-upon-Tyne down to London in a second-hand Renault 4. There’s the same sense of second-handness, of limited space and of vulnerability, even if both cars allow you to sit up high and look down on the world, which is a pleasant change after my low-slung and allegedly sporty Audi. In fact, since I started driving this Toyota Yaris, I’ve given serious thought to getting rid of my absurdly big and pretty thirsty Audi and getting something near to this one. A LOT less expensive to buy, only £35 for a year’s tax, more comfortable, less damaging to the ozone – what’s not to like, except you feel your car should reflect your thrusting manhood.


We’re bringing the car down to my daughter in Cambridge. I bought if for her, taxed it, insured it – did the lot. Which is - another parallel – almost exactly what my father did for me when I was about twenty-three. Except he bought me a Hillman Eight which had a steering wheel that Charlie Atlas would have had a job turning and it cost all of…£100. These days I’d hardly get away from filling my Audi with much less than that. I remember how excited my father seemed, handing it over to me – it seemed a little odd. But now I’m feeling the same surge of excitement and pride, that I’ve been so astute as to locate such an excellent machine at such a reasonable price. Except, of course, that it might just fall apart on her which she would find highly inconvenient and I would find highly expensive.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Henry and our history


I remember Henry Kelly. Yes, that one – the one who presented ‘Game for a Laugh’ and ‘Going for Gold’ on TV. When he went for this red-nose, mass-market end of things, there was a cry that he’d abandoned serious journalism, what a loss. I also remember him at UCD in the early 1960s, where he was part of the Jesuit-educated, middle-class glitterati who ruled the Literary and Historical Society roost and had such fun making witty speeches in the big lecture hall in Earlsfort Terrace. Flash forward several years and I remember him again as a young journalist in the Pearl Bar in Dublin. He was the Irish Times’s anointed Northern reporter, and he was telling anyone who would listen that ‘There’s a gun for every rumour and a rumour for every gun up there’. (No, I don’t know what that means and I suspect he didn’t either). Anyway, Henry has popped up again in the Irish Times this week, doing that thing which hints at self-obsession: quoting himself. “I asked whether there had ‘ever been anything in Northern Ireland so bad it was worth smacking a child for?’ “ In this recent article he pulls back a bit from that but he does make clear that in his view, southern reporters like himself were far too prone to take the nationalist side and should have been more sympathetic to unionists.

Hooray for Henry. He’s now joined – or rejoined – the ranks of such as Kevin Myers and Colm Tóibín and countless other southern pundits who live to reject nationalism and put their arm around the shoulders of unionism. All that stuff about decades of discrimination and bigotry: ach sure there was no need for all that violence, the unionists with Captain Terence O’Neill were ready to give Catholics an even break only then the IRA started killing people and having got the taste for blood, wouldn’t stop.

I suppose if you repeat a perverted version of history often enough, people will come to believe it. Better still, you’ll begin to believe it yourself.

Friday, 6 November 2009

It's the uniform, stupid


I hate this time of year, partly because winter comes lolloping in on a wave of rain and wind (can you have a wave of wind?) and partly because it's the time when people talk a lot of poppycock about poppies. There's nothing can be done about the rain and wind but it's really time something was done about the poppies.

Poppy-wearing originated in the US but was quickly adopted in Britain and has assumed its most concentrated form there. Fair enough. It's a natural thing to want to remember those who have fought for their country, especially if you believe that fighting and killing is a heroic activity and the only way to achieve political ends. And to give credit where it's due, the British do that kind of ceremony very well; even for an outsider it can sometimes be quite moving. The poetry helps as well.

Here, however, in this little corner of Ireland, the poppy is without doubt a political emblem. If you wear it you're showing not just that you remember the heroic dead (after all there must have been a lot of heroic men fighting for Germany and other countries opposed to Britain down the years) but that you remember the heroic dead who fought in British uniform. Now, like it or lump it, those who wear British army uniform have a poor record in Ireland down the centuries, right up to near the end of the twentieth century. It'd be nice if unionists who believe in wearing the poppy could take that in. Wearing the poppy for nationalists is saying essentially 'We admire the heroic actions of the British army in conflicts down the decades including here', and the truth is, nationalists don't.

So assuming that half the people in the BBC in Belfast who appear before the cameras are nationalists (that's a reasonable assumption if we go by voting figures), how come EVERYONE who appears on the screen is wearing a poppy? Simple. They have to. If they don't, their working lives will be blighted. They mightn't get fired (then again they might) but they certainly won't have improved their career prospects, and as one who knows the BBC reasonably well, I can tell you that if you rub the nerves of those in power there the wrong way, you ain't going to go anywhere. Maybe I'm wrong, of course. If you think I am, check with Donna Traynor.

Meanwhile, it'd be nice if the University of Ulster could stop using its power-muscle to intimidate the Student Union up in Coleraine. The Union passed a resolution saying that they'd offer Easter lilies for sale this coming year and give the proceeds to charity. Uh-uh. Apparently that would lead to division in the workplace so it's not going to happen. After all, the Easter lily commemorates those who fought heroically and died for their country, yes, but they WEREN'T WEARING BRITISH UNIFORMS. See? There is a difference, stupid.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Justice and hysteria


So we’re going to have a northern version of the Ryan Report, checking out the abuses of children in Catholic (and maybe state-run) homes and institutions. Since the pursuit of child-abusers has now taken on quite a few of the trappings of a witch hunt (remember the paediatrician whose home was besieged by a mob who thought that was the same as a paedophile?), I hope (but don’t expect) that a number of factors will be weighed in the investigation:

1. A clear distinction is drawn between sexual abuse and physical abuse. Thirty, forty, fifty years ago, what we would consider physical abuse was commonplace and accepted. Part of it was the ‘clip around the ear’ that the local bobby was supposed to have administered to wayward youths, but far more prevalent was the physical punishment of children by their parents and by their teachers. I don’t suggest for an instant that it was good or even ‘didn’t do me any harm’ – I’m opposed to all physical punishment, by parents and teachers – but when uncovering institutional punishment, the tenor of the times really should be factored in, and if it isn’t, an injustice has been done.
2. The nature of any sexual abuse needs to be made clear. All sexual abuse is of course wrong, but if an adult forces a kiss on a youngster it’s a different thing from rape. Too often in newspaper accounts the degree of nastiness/vileness is obscured under a general ‘abuse’ title.
3. The nature of the evidence for abuse, both physical and sexual, should be made clear. If it is the testimony of those who suffered or say they suffered, is there sufficient triangulation of testimony so that conclusions of guilt are firmly founded?
4. The fact that charges of physical and/or sexual misconduct by adults against children are not always truthful – those who claim to be victims can and sometimes do lie. The evidence gathered by teachers’ unions show this. The unions also make clear – as if it were necessary – that once someone is tarred with the charge of paodophile or physical abuser, it’s uncommonly difficult to get rid of it, regardless of findings in the courts or elsewhere.
5. Finally, the cruelty of sexual or physical crimes against children by some members of religious orders should be set alongside the heroic and selfless work of all those members of orders who gave their lives to helping children. It’s a poor recognition of their sacrifice if the witch-hunt sweeps them up in its hysteria. The guilty should be punished, the innocent spared and the heroic acknowledged.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Radical Noam


I was talking to a close relative of mine yesterday morning and when I mentioned that I was going to a talk by Noam Chomsky in the afternoon, the response was a slight grimace and the judgment that Chomsky in recent times had become ‘shrill’. As it happens, nothing could have been further from the truth. I was in a lecture-theatre in St Mary’s on the Falls Road which had a video-link to the main hall where Chomsky was speaking, and you had to strain to hear what he was saying – not because the microphones were deficient but because he speaks in a voice that is more of a murmur than an enunciation. He’s a big heavy man, wearing jeans and a tent-like shirt, with curling white hair capping a big strong face. He did a commentary on American (i.e., US) policy from the beginning of the Second World War up to the present time, arguing that this consisted of at first sharing out spheres of influence in the world and then appropriating the lot when it became the ‘unipolar power’. American presidents? One worse than the other - Clinton was at least as bad as Bush, but he didn’t play an in-your-face game, so the Europeans quite liked him. As for Obama - he got three awards over the past year - the election, the Nobel Peace prize and an award from the advertising industry, with the third of these the most significant.

There are two ways you can react to someone like Chomsky, who directs his withering fire at so many targets. Either you dismiss him as a crank with a bee in his bonnet about everything established and mainstream, or you realize that the way of regarding recent history - the US big and exciting, bringing its wealth and civilization to the rest of the world – is a flattering construction, and that there are other ways of seeing the world. Ways that aren’t nearly as optimistic but have the benefit of being true.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Choice candidates



I was on ‘Good Morning Ulster’ (note that title if you’re living in Donegal, Monaghan or Cavan) yesterday morning and Mark Carruthers asked me a question I could have answered either yes or no to, with near-equal honesty. The question was “The two candidates for the SDLP leadership are very different from each other, aren’t they?” I could have said yes, since one’s a woman and the other’s a man; one’s married and the other’s single (a point rammed home in today’s Irish News, which shows a head-and-shoulders shot of Margaret Ritchie and a sofa shot of Alasdair McDonnell with his wife and four young children); one’s got a seat in Westminster and the other hasn’t. In fact I said no, they weren’t that different, in that they share perhaps the most important common denominator: they’ve both been around for some thirty years. When a leader takes over a political party, s/he needs to bring a sense of freshness, of new beginnings. David Cameron was able to do that in Britain; Gordon Brown wasn’t. The fact is the SDLP are a party with the flood waters lapping at chest level (as distinct from the UUP, who are experiencing that damp sensation in the region of the Adam’s apple), so it’s going to take something truly imagination-grabbing to get the waters to recede, or even stop from rising. A bold bread-and-butter move might do it, like resolving the scandalous shortage of houses for Catholics in North Belfast, or a strategy that’d convulse the cross-border bodies into something resembling meaningful life. Will Margaret Ritchie (who’ll probably win) or Alasdair McDonnell (who could conceivably win) deliver such a bold move? I doubt it. Even worse if you're an SDLP supporter: most of the people who’ll elect one or other of them doubt it too.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Good old boy


I did an interview with my old classmate Eamonn McCann today. He’s part of a group of over twenty former St Columb’s old boys, I suppose you could call us, who left St Columb’s College, Derry, in 1960 (or thereabouts).

There are people who go on from school to shine in the adult world while having been not particularly notable in their youth – I remember this being the memory of an English lecturer at St Patrick’s Teacher Training College, Drumcondra, who had taught the writer John McGahern. Eamonn wasn’t like that at school: he stood out from the start.

Not in a good way, in the view of some. Back then, just as now, he was always ready to challenge authority. Those who dislike him would say he did so because he enjoyed being bolshy. Those who like him would say he did so because authority needed challenging and he had the tongue and brain for the job. If I’m honest, at school he annoyed me more than once with the sharpness of his wit - we boarders didn’t like smart-arse dayboys, and we sometimes showed our disapproval in physical ways.

In the fifty years that have elapsed since we both left the College, I’ve run into Eamonn on a number of occasions, and read his writing and noted his contributions on radio and TV. Two things have impressed me. One is the originality of his thinking. No matter what the issue, he always seems to come up with an angle or a detail that I hadn’t quite noticed before. The second thing that I admire him for, and if anything my admiration is greater in this instance, is that he is grudge-free. In St Columb’s he more than once was on the receiving end, from staff and pupils, of what can only be called bullying. Were that me, I would remember it with a simmering rage. I’ve never once, including today’s extended interview, detected a hint of resentment from Eamonn.

I know people that bridle at the mention of his name and others who use coarse language. I don’t agree with all his thinking, particularly regarding the Catholic Church, but I know he’s one of the most intelligent and honest thinkers I’ve met. The fact that his views often provoke hostility says more about those who take umbrage than it does about their author.