Sunday, 29 November 2009
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.