Jude Collins

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Down at the dump

LEEDS, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 19:  Overflowing refuse bins litter the streets in the Headingley area of Leeds on October 19, 2009 in Leeds, England. A strike by bin men in Leeds is now entering it's sixth week with many streets overflowing with rubbish bags creating a public health hazard. The strike centres on a proposal to cut the workers wages by GBP 5000 due to recent equality legislation.  (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
I went out to the dump yesterday. Or the Recycling Centre as it’s now called. There was a line-up of at least twenty cars waiting to get into it, all with the same thought as ourselves: to get shot of the VAST accumulation of empty cardboard boxes and wrapping paper and old, no-longer-wanted electrical appliances.  It was a bit like a ‘security’ check back in the bad old days: creeping forward, stopping, creeping forward again. Back then, after a hold-up of maybe half an hour, you’d approach a big sign saying ‘Don’t blame us for the delay in your journey: blame the terrorists’. 

That wasn’t the sign at the Recycling Centre yesterday.  The sign there said ‘Physical or Verbal Abuse of Our Employees Will Not Be Tolerated’, or words to that effect. It’s a sign you see quite a few places these days, and in some cases they’re needed. There are indeed people serving the public who would turn the most placid member of the public into red-eyed shrieking madness  inside five minutes. But the Recycling Centre isn’t one of them. I don’t think I’ve ever been out there when I wasn’t helped in every way. Most of the time I didn’t even have to ask: one of the men would approach me unbidden and offer assistance. Since I’ve decided in my old age that I should compliment people if I truly believe they deserve it, I suggested to one of the men working there that  the sign was surely unnecessary. Oh indeed it was, he told me. There are people who think it clever to be aggressive with men who work in conditions most of us would shrink from and who do their job efficiently and cheerfully.

Our entire society is built on the backs of people like these. People who work at what we’d consider menial jobs, who get badly paid and who suffer the sharp edge of any economic recession. The rest of us, working in jobs that are relatively well-paid and that we like, don’t know we’re living. As to respect,  we readily offer deference to such as the Windsor family, people whose jobs  are cushy and massively well-paid; and some of us then think it’s clever to berate those who perform a vital service in conditions that literally stink.

Maybe there’s a political party out there with a vision of a society with equality at its heart. If so, we should get ready to give them our vote in 2011.

Monday, 27 December 2010

A run for your Stephen's Day money

“Life,” a wise woman once said to me, “is a matter of contrasts”.  Too true.  We don’t appreciate silence if we haven’t experienced noise, we don’t enjoy a drink if we haven’t gone thirsty, and we don’t appreciate the outdoors if we haven’t been stuck inside for days and days and days and days. Ever wonder why the Boxing Day and New Year’s Day sales are such a time-honoured tradition? It’s because people have been lodged in the bosom of their family like a bullet lodged in a lung for what seems like six months; when an excuse presents itself to get out and see other people, a world beyond the suffocating perimeters of the family home, most of us are away like a newly-released wildebeeste.

Which is I’m sure part of the reason why I like going to Greencastle every St Stephen’s/Boxing Day.  That’s Greencastle in Co Tyrone, about ten miles from Omagh. Every year for twenty-five years now, the day after Christmas has seen the gathering of hundreds of athletes to compete in the Greencastle  5-mile Run. Did I say athletes? Some are, like the guy I met in the queue for tea and sandwiches and buns after the main event. “I feel like drinking 100 pints the night” he said. “Or maybe 120”. Not only had he starved himself of any alcohol on Christmas Day, he’d been off the sauce for some six weeks as he trained. That was why he clocked a time of around 30 minutes for the race. Quite right -  that is a mile every six minutes. A heart-stopping pace. At the other end of the spectrum you’ll get youngsters from ten upwards, or oldies like myself from 65 upwards. (Make a note of that ’65 upwards’ phrase. I’ll be coming back to it.)

So yes it is partly a matter of contrasts: sleet stung our eyes  and the wind whipped through our souls as we headed into exposed countryside. There was snow in the fields for miles around, and on the slushy road the slap of rubber soles, grunts of exertion, gasps of near-despair as mile followed weary mile and we hit that fearsome section three-quarters way home where the road suddenly ascends what feels like vertically and you think your heart is going to burst in your chest  and come flying out like shrapnel, spraying fellow-competitors, if you don't stop this punishment very very soon. 

But then suddenly you’re going down the long slope towards the finishing line, then you’ve hit the damp mat and are standing half-bent, hands on knees, wheezing like a whale, and local volunteers are pressing bananas and bottles of water and clipping the little run-timer chip from your shoe and you’re out of the cooooold and into the warmth of the hall and wolfing down sandwiches and buns and cake and tea and the happy atmosphere of a community that knows its own identity, its own strength, and has for twenty-five years delivered this radical seasonal tonic for hundreds of people.  On the drive home  with my dearest daughter I’m weary and heavy-eyed and spent but once more grateful to Greencastle and  run organiser Oliver McCullagh. On a wind and snow-daubed hill-side they’ve worked their annual magic again.

That ‘over 65’ phrase?  Well you see in the prizes there's this Men’s 65 + category... (Blushes modestly and stumbles off-stage, carrying a rather stylish Nike running top.)  

Friday, 24 December 2010

Body and soul

Marcus Hyde of the Scum of the Earth church stands a vigil for the homeless in front of the Denver City and County building four days before Christmas in Denver on December 20, 2010.        UPI/Gary C. Caskey Photo via Newscom

Well, that’s it.  All material activity done for the day. Final gifts bought for people whose sizes we should know by now but don’t.  Final extra layer of food bought for those whose stomachs might feel the need for a third helping of soup, ham, turkey, brussel sprouts ice cream, mince pie. Final purchase of extra wine and beer for those who might feel the need of a last anaesthetic against the late Christmas-Day blues.

Which leaves just the spiritual activity of Midnight Mass which will, as usual, be held at 9.00 pm.  Don’t laugh. The choice of 25 December as the date of Jesus’s birth is an arbitrary one in the first place, so whether  we celebrate it three hours before the official start of the day when he might or might not have been born seems hardly worth sniggering at. I’d like to think that our church, like a lot of Catholic churches nowadays, pushed the time of the Mass back to 9.00 pm so parents wouldn’t have to go to bed at 1.30 a.m. and then have their stomachs bounced on around 6.15 a.m.,  but I suspect it’s linked instead to the old Catholic habit of chaps who wouldn’t normally darken a church door getting tanked up and fierce sentimental and rolling into church after the pubs shut to wipe back a tear and bawl in awful disharmony as the choir launches into ‘O Holy Night’,  delivering the line ‘Fall to your knees!’  with particular conviction.  Nine o’clock Mass filters out the boozers, who are replaced by sober people who wouldn’t normally darken a church door turning up, because …? 

Optimistic or maybe simplistic Catholics will tell you it’s because, although the non-door-darkeners may have given up on God,  He hasn’t given up on them, and so they put in their annual appearance. Less starry-eyed Catholics will tell you it’s because the non-door-darkeners kinda like a bit of tradition and sentiment, that the choir and the prayers and the crib and the bell, book and candles fit in nicely with the turkey and  the plum pud and the presents and the board games and the snooze after the Christmas dinner.  Who knows who’s right?  Maybe it’s not completely important. Maybe what matters is that door-darkener and non-door-darkener,  believer and non-believer,  drunk and sober  all get united once a year for one short period in a gossamer hope that maybe, given half a chance, humankind could do better. That’s an important hope to bring to birth, if only once a year.

Happy Christmas.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Fantastic Mr Fox

Braehead Arena Glasgow 05/03/2009 Davis Cup Great Britain vs Ukraine As wintry weather returns to the UK a Fox arrives early at Braehead Arena, Glasgow presumably to collect his tickets for Great Britain's Europe/Africa Zone Group I Tie. With the weather in Ukraine currently minus 1 degree and snow forecast - the Ukraine team should feel at home! Photo Patrick McCann/Fotosports International
I saw a fox the other night.  I was down in the kitchen  at 4.00 a.m.,  marveling at how cold the tiled floor felt under my bare feet and how bright the moonlight was on the snow in the back garden. Then as I stared through the kitchen window I saw a shadow – maybe more an outline than a shadow – moving from the middle of the garden to the line of cursed Castlewellan Golds that separate my garden from the man next door’s.  Two things told me immediately it was a fox: the low-slung movement of the creature – it went forward in an unhurried way, head thrust out, rest of the body following; and the tail, normally bushy but tonight, with the temperature around -10 C, the shape of a small Christmas tree.  It wasn’t rushing but it wasn’t dawdling either – heading back to its den, maybe, after a night hunting for food.  I imagined the bright eyes, the sharp snout, the small vicious teeth: a complex, ruthless, family-centered creature. The God who made this animal left no room for sentimentality or anthropomorphism.  This was closer to William Blake’s ‘Tiger, Tiger, burning bright/In the forests of the night’ – a thing of wild, untamable, dangerous beauty.  In the morning I saw where he’d come into the garden through a small gap in the hedge between me and my neighbour on the other side. His tracks in the snow were small, measured, unstoppable.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Christmas? Hold the bah, hold the humbug...

BERLIN, GERMANY - DECEMBER 22: Shoppers carry shopping bags two days before Christmas on December 22, 2010 in Berlin, Germany. German retailers have announced strong Christmas sales that are coming on the heels of a robust German economic recovery from the global financial crisis of 2008-2009. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

I’ve just helped do a  three-and-a-half hour shopping venture,  read my email, helped  make (are you noticing a serving-man motif here?)  a raspberry sponge-cake, and am now about to head for Aldergrove (aka Belfast International Airport) to collect Son No 2 and his girl-friend  Tiffany. Do I hate all the fuss and fatigue of Christmas? Well yes. But I hate the back-water of being retired even more, so I’m prepared to put up with a few tired limbs for the sake of having the people who now run the world ( I mean of course the people in their 30s-40s-50s in general, not specifically my ex-children) come swirling back into my life, however temporarily.  I once did a BBC Radio 4 broadcast about my three sons and how it seemed they were planning to kill me, by being hung-over and grizzled and grown-up and occupying too much space in my house during the holidays, whereas I still have a mental picture of them as pre-pubescent, sweet-faced children who didn’t drink, didn’t swear, went to bed early and were always asking delightfully-unexpected questions. I don’t think I’ve ever had more positive feedback on  anything I’ve written. Positive, with one exception. My daughter pointed an accusing finger in my face and yelled she wasn’t surprised her brothers were trying to kill me, given that I’d just done my level best to air-brush their sole sister out of existence.

Which reminds me. As soon as I come back from Aldergrove, I’ve got to spend an hour exercising in the University of Ulster gym,  in preparation for the Greencastle (Co Tyrone) 5-mile run on St Stephen’s/Boxing Day.  My dear daughter, still very much in existence, says I must. She’s running on 26th as well, she needs the exercise and I am putty in her hands.

Christmas. I think I like it.  

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Long ago and far away

I was scheduled to do an interview for Don McGurgan in Omagh yesterday, remembering what it was liking growing up in Omagh, particularly at Christmas-time. Alas, the weather intervened and even though like everyone else I'm wildly excited about the new road between Dungannon and Ballygawley, I decided to stay put in Greenisland. I'm sorry because Don's project looks like a very interesting one ( check it out on http://sweetomaghtown.com/). But it's got me thinking about Christmas back then, over a half-century ago. (My fingers almost snapped off in surprise when asked to type that last sentence.)

There were twelve pairs of shoes laid out the night before so Santy could put his presents where they belonged. At the Christian Brothers' School, the talk was all of stockings. "Where do you hang your stocking?" the teacher would ask us, and like everyone else I would say 'On the bedpost'. I suspect most of the boys in my class did nothing of the sort, any more than myself. But I wasn't thinking of them, I was thinking of me. I couldn't say we didn't have stockings. Actually we'd plenty of them - I'd five sisters and a mother - but none that you could possibly put anything into other than a leg. The same applied to the main course on the big day. "We eat a turkey" I parroted along with all the others, when asked. We ate nothing of the sort - we had a goose. We kept turkeys (delicate, stupid creatures with not enough brains to come in out of the rain) but we sold them a week before Christmas. It was a goose that gave its life for us and very nice it was too. But I hadn't read Charles Dickens then and goose was another guilty Christmas secret I kept quiet about.

On Chrismas morning, while it was still dark, we'd pile into my father's Austin 8 car. Don't ask me how you fit twelve people into a small car but somehow we did. I could be wrong but I think Mass started at eight o'clock. We're talking Latin Mass here - Latin from the Introibo ad altare Dei to De profundis clamavi ad te, Dominum. What's more, Christmas Day was the one day of the year when you got three Masses for the price of one - all priests were 'allowed' to say three Masses, and they did. Three in a row. A lot of sensible Omagh people figured one was enough, but my father always had an eye for a bargain, whether it was a springing heifer or a spiritual matter, and he stayed for all three. So we did the same. The priest, to give him his due, didn't waste time - at the end of the first Mass he'd go reeling straight into the second without waiting to draw breath, then likewise with the third. The whole thing was over inside  an hour but it was still a lot of end-to-end praying, especially when the chapel was cold and we still had to open our Christmas presents.

Then it was back home and ripping the bundles stuck in my shoes or beside them. Annuals were big for me -  'Film Fun Annual' and 'Radio Fun Annual' and 'The Hotspur Annual'. After that it was a matter of killing time until at last - AT LAST - around maybe half-past two there'd be a shout that dinner was ready. It came served on the Good Dishes that were used only on Christmas Day. There'd be soup and turkey and spuds and peas and gravy and orange juice and a second helping of spuds and another wee bit of turkey and sherry trifle and rounded off with tea and Christmas cake, great raisin-studded, icing-capped wadges of Christmas cake, until we were so full we creaked when we breathed. After dinner there would be arguments about who got to sit nearest to the fire, until our parents eventually got fed up and chased us - the Wee Ones - outside to run around and play. Sometimes a few of the youngsters from Watson Park, the all-Protestant pre-fab housing estate across the fence from us, would come over and show us what they'd got from Santy. It seemed sort of scary that they hadn't been to even one Mass that day, when everyone knew that not to go to Mass on Christmas Day was a mortal sin.

Then it would get dark and we'd come back in and look forward to tea and more Christmas cake and mince pies, not because we were hungry but really just for something to do.Then there'd maybe be a game of snakes and ladders with my sisters or a rigged hand of rummy (it must have been - I always lost) In the end we'd stumble to bed, half-suffocated by the heat of the big fire, tired already of our presents, bloated with food and drink, and half-longing for the next day when a more normal world would start again, where you had porridge for breakfast and stew for dinner and jam and bread for supper.

Christmas was good then, if for no other reason than that someone else had to order your world for you. But it was a bit disappointing as well. How could it not be? In the end, the weight of expectation placed on it was so crushing, we felt half-relieved to escape back into the ordinary.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Abortion: time to face a central question

WASHINGTON - MAY 13: Anti-abortion demonstrator waves plastic baby dolls in the air to get the attention of U.S. Senate staff members while protesting the nomination of U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court outside the Dirksen Senate Office Building May 13, 2010 in Washington, DC. If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, the former Harvard Law School dean would be the first justice to join the high court without prior judicial experience since William Rehnquist in 1972. Kagan was selected by President Barack Obama to replace retiring Justice John Paul Stevens. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Here we go again. Like the Troubles, abortion in Ireland is a topic that practically everyone is happy to pile into but which virtually no one likes to  look at.  Let me explain.

This week in the south of Ireland, three women who took cases to the European Court of Human Rights got a judgement. The cases of the first two were dismissed, the Court deciding their human rights hadn’t been infringed; the third case was accepted, the Court ruling that the woman was offered no clear procedure that’d have given her access to the limited abortion services available in the south.

Since then, we’ve had people like Audrey Simpson of the Family Planning Association in Belfast lamenting that the ruling didn’t go far enough, that  women should have the right to choose abortion if they wish; and people like Breda O’Brien in the Irish Times  saying that Ireland’s health service is among the best in the world for maternal mortality figures so there really isn’t the need for abortion to be legalised by a change in the Irish constitution. Both women failed to focus on the central question.

Because the abortion debate has a core – a frightening core – and one that must be confronted by anyone talking about it. The issue is simple: is an embryo human life from the moment of conception? If it is, then it’s hard to see how opponents of abortion could possibly be excessive in their protestations. At a Humanist Society debate I was involved in last week, Audrey Simpson cited the cases of anti-abortion people shouting ‘Murderer!’ at women on their way to have an abortion: she was heavily critical of Catholic Church authorities for not punishing those who shouted the abuse. Similarly, the display of pictures of foetuses and accounts of what actually happens to the foetus during an abortion have been condemned by pro-abortion activists as in bad taste.

Why? If anti-abortion activists believe the foetus is a human being, then to shout ‘Murderer!’ or show photographs of the foetus or its destruction is surely to act in a restrained fashion. If you believed  a  medical centre was taking innocent children and killing them, to shout ‘Murderer!’ or show photographs would be seen as a pathetically weak response. “Why didn’t they call the police?” you’d say. “Or if the police wouldn’t act, why didn’t they go in there and stop these murderers, by force if necessary?”  It’s hard to think of an action, however extreme, that wouldn’t be justified to protect innocent youngsters from being systematically killed in their thousands every year. But that’s what anti-abortion people believe is happening at present to children in the womb. Restrained isn’t the word for their response.

As to pro-abortion people: their stance is that the foetus is not a human being. In that case,  it makes no sense to talk  about a decision to abort as a serious moral decision, best left to the woman involved.   If the foetus is just a collection of cells,  morality doesn’t come into it. Aborting your foetus should have no more significance than blowing your nose.  

Friday, 17 December 2010

Peter Robinson Redux?

So  - is Peter Robinson the Bill Clinton of the north?  Now I’m not suggesting that Peter has any of Bill’s  appetite for interns. For a start,  he doesn’t quite have Bill’s personality or pulling power. In fact a year ago Robinson looked like a dead man walking: those suspect deals about the sale of land, and his wife Iris’s colourful love-life with a 19-year-old lad whose entreprenurial skills impressed her so much, she got a business acquaintance to stump up £50,000 so the lad could get going with his idea for a café on the Lagan Tow-path. To make matters truly awful, Peter gave an extended TV interview in which he tried for the sympathy vote in a way that made the death-of-little-Nell scene in Dickens read like knock-about comedy.   This man, we told each other, will not lead the DUP for very long.  When he lost his Westminster seat to Naomi Long,  the political funeral bell appeared to have tolled.

But is he now doing a Clinton and emerging from his own ashes just in time to sweep to election victory again? There he is the other day, on TV with Martin McGuinness, explaining what a good deal we all got with the budget.  He looks in possession of all his faculties, he looks as cheerful as someone with his features ever can look, and, unlike Brian Cowen in the south,  he  doesn’t look at all like a man who might be pushed from his leadership position before the next election. Maybe the anti-Robinson snow-storm is over. Maybe he’ll retain his grip on the leadership, lead his DUP troops into the May election and re-establish the DUP as the most dramatically-successful political party the north has ever seen. If Bill did it, why not Peter?

But wait. Let’s extend that Brian Cowen comparison. There was much talk of Cowen being toppled so Fianna Fail could go into the coming election with someone less open to public contempt. Talk, but no action. It now appears that Cowen will still be at the helm for the election in March. Similarly, Peter will definitely lead the DUP troops into the May election.

And the outcome? Well, the road not taken is always a difficult one to interpret, but   it’s a safe bet that Fianna Fail will do badly in March. Maybe not as badly as some think but badly nonetheless.  The party will look at the damage and after a respectable time-lapse, it’ll decapitate Brian Cowen.

Ditto the DUP.  Holding onto the devil they know, the party will do better  next May than some might think or hope. Better but not good enough. The DUP will thank Peter profusely, sit quiet for a respectable period of time, then decapitate him.  They’ll say he’s stepped down for personal, family reasons but we’ll all know what happened. Then there’ll be a drum-roll, the curtains will part and through them will step the new leader, that most sparkling and charming of DUP men, Nigel Dodds.                                                               

Thursday, 16 December 2010

'Kitchen unit narrowly misses politician'

Any day now I’m expecting to see a headline saying ‘Kitchen sink narrowly misses Gerry Adams’. That’s about the only thing the media, north and south, haven’t thrown at him. Bloody Friday, Robert McCartney, the Hunger Strike, the Disappeared, his brother, the Northern Bank robbery, economic illiteracy...It’s been going on for so long, it makes you wonder why the Sinn Féin leader has gone out of his way to see that he’s on the electoral roll in County Louth. ‘I wanted to be able to vote for myself’ he said. Mistake, Gerry. Any day now, you’re going to come under fire for your shamelessness in voting for someone so wicked.

The one thing all these charges of wickedness share is an absence of evidence. The latest revelations coming out of Wikileaks is presented as proof that Adams and Sinn Féin were planning the Northern Bank robbery while talking to Fianna Fail. What proof? American diplomats, we’re told, believed the south’s Justice Depertment had solid evidence Adams knew about the plans to rob the Northern Bank... Um, chaps. Hate to say it but, er, – that’s not evidence. That’s this-man-I-know-told-a-man-I know-that-he-was-certain talk. In fact it’s inconceivable that if the Justice Department did have solid evidence showing Adams involvement in the Northern Bank raid, they wouldn’t have produced it and hauled him before the courts.

The same applies to the other charges – Bloody Friday, McCartney, the Hunger Strike, etc. In all cases there’s an assumption that Adams MUST have been involved. But no proof. And certainly no proof that he was involved in the incriminating, career-busting way his critics yearn for.

Malachi O’Doherty, in a piece in the Belfast Telegraph, says that the truth is, people in the north, because of his peace process contribution, don’t care, but that people in the south, with less peace process focus, may well damn him. As is often the case, Malachi’s half-right. People here don’t care...No, that’s not the right word – they don’t mind if Adams was involved in the IRA. For many more, involvement would be seen as a badge of honour. Adams himself has always been forthright in his support for the IRA. So what’s the big difference if he says “I wholeheartedly support the IRA in their struggle” or he says “I was a member of the IRA during their struggle”? Not a lot. The media love grabbing it between their teeth and shaking it about, but that’s it.

No, there are two reasons why the kitchen sink is in danger of being ripped out and hurled in Adams’s direction. The first is that an election will take place in the south of Ireland inside the next couple of months, and Sinn Féin look like they’ve already doubled their support south of the border. The second reason is that an election will take place in the north of Ireland in five months’ time, and Sinn Féin could well emerge as the largest single party. For some politicians and pundits, that’s an appalling vista X 2.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

God, sex and missing the point

‘Sexual relationships’ are two words I seldom use without thinking...No, sorry, that’s an old Donovan song, isn’t it? ‘Sexual relationships’ are two words that helped form the motion for a debate I was involved in on Monday night at Queen’s University: ‘That belief in God brings order and discipline to sexual relationships’. It was run by the NI Humanist Society, who clearly have a vested interest in doing down God and all his works and pomps, which maybe explains why my team, proposing the motion,  managed just two votes from an audience of some fifty people.

It was good fun, though. I haven’t been in a formal debate since I was about eighteen, so it was a challenge to squeeze what I had to say into five minutes. There were two points at which I got mildly irritated: one when an opposition speaker claimed I’d condoned child abuse, and one when another speaker declared that my use of the phrase ‘naughty bits’ indicated a fear of the grown-up words. (Not so. It was in fact a limp attempt at humour. I can say ‘penis’ and ‘vagina’ to a band playing, if called upon).

The other thing that impressed me was the reluctance of people to address the motion. Instead we got heavy fire directed at Christian Churches, particularly the Catholic Church, along with gruesome examples of the subjugation of women by patriarchal institutions. Perhaps if I were in feminist shoes I’d whistle a different tune, but I’m increasingly struck by the degree to which feminism alienates those who should be its natural ally. If you’re a man and you hear little but what bastards men are, you get to a point where you begin to wonder if the people doing the condemning are so hot-shot perfect themselves. Likewise, if critics of the Catholic Church keep hammering on about clerical child abuse and the oppression of women within the Church as though these were the norms, while ignoring the 95% of decent priests and the thousands of women who find fulfillment in Church roles,  it’s hardly surprising that Catholics like myself get a pain in their Catholic arses and start closing ranks against those who’d denounce their Church as a heaving heap of corruption.

And yet and yet. As I drove home (carefully), I found myself reflecting on a paradox that I find increasingly true: the people who are my opponents in terms of political or religious belief are often friendly, attractive people, while those with whom I’m in agreement on big issues can as often be, in personal terms,  as attractive as a blocked toilet. 

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

I confess and make a firm purpose of amendment

A young Chinese student walks past Rolls-Royce's flagship showroom in downtown Beijing December 12, 2010. While in traditional markets luxury car makers might still be feeling the effects of the global financial crisis of 2008, in China things have never been better with astonishing growth figures being recorded as the nation's new wealthy treat themselves to the world's most high-end-modes of transport.   UPI/Stephen Shaver Photo via Newscom

So I attended my Driver Awareness course today. They’re very tactful really: it seems I wasn’t so much speeding when they clocked me a few weeks back doing 39 mph in a 30 mph zone – I was just unaware. Mmm. I certainly wasn't aware there was a cop van stopped at the bottom of the hill with its speed camera pointed straight at me.

There were twenty of us in the King's Hall, Balmoral (dontcha just love the cute names we give things here?), which I calculate brought £1700 into the coffers of the PSNI or AA or whoever gets to keep the loot from our fines. Most of my fellow-criminals were greybeard chaps and virtually all of them had been caught, like me, speeding between 30 and 40 mph. The instructor was Gareth, and he kept saying things like ‘I’m not a police officer’ and ‘No problem at all’. His warm-up was having us tell the rest where we’d been caught (‘”We prefer to call it ‘detected’ “), after which Gareth emphasized that we had to be there in spirit as well as body (“ ‘Make a positive contribution’ - what does that mean, Laurence?”) .

The four hours were divided between three activities:

1. Gareth pointing at the screen and getting us to guess what some data-projectored facts and figures might be before he stuck them up there.
2. We criminals pointing Who Wants To Be A Millionaire-type tele-voter pads at Gareth’s computer, so it could collate our guess about some facts and figures regarding traffic mishaps. Where do most accidents occur, what contributes to them, that sort of thing. Once our projections were fed in and displayed, Gareth flashed the right answer on-screen.
3. Gareth displaying pictures and videos of places in England where accidents had occurred, so Lessons could be Learned.
How was it? Well, we all had to act converted in case Gareth turned nasty and denounced us as unreformed and told us to bugger off, the three penalty points would show on your licence after all; the powerpoints on several occasions featured barely-literate statements like ‘External factor effects our beliefs’ and ’20 mph mainly in town centre’s’ ; and Gareth wore a short-sleeve shirt without at any point explaining why. And yet the session, though about two hours too long, was good.

The big thing it answered for me was my earlier-stated criticism: that I was doing 39 mph in a 30 mph zone, nobody leapt out and got killed, gimme a break, officer. Old Gareth had the figures for pedestrian survival rates at different speeds and sobering reading they did make. If you choose to stand in the way of a car going at 20 mph, the chances are 97.5% you’ll survive. Try standing up to one at 30 mph and your chances go down to 80%. Try 35 mph, and you get 50%. And try 40 mph and you get 10%. That’s going from 80% chance of survival at 30 mph to 10% chance at 40 mph. Big jump. And precisely the speed excess I was guilty of. The accompanying video wasn’t wild dramatic stuff either: just a specialist driver on an airfield runway, trying to stop at different speeds when faced with a cardboard cut-out woman. When the car hit her at 40mph, it really did do it in a terribly final way.

There was other stuff too, like what shape is the sign containing the word STOP (octagonal, since you ask), what speed you can do on a dual carriage-way (70 mph, not 60) and remembering what COAST stands for: Concentration, Observation, Anticipation, Space and Time. I used to write SWALK on letters to a girl in 1959, but since then I find acronym stuff seriously irritates me.

But happy ending: I’m a new driver-man now. Two miles from home, what do I pass but a cunningly-concealed cop van with - that's right - a speed camera pointed at the traffic, clocking criminals. I didn’t even have to touch the brake.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Who do these people think they are?

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 09: General view of broken window and thrown paint damage to Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall's car which occurred en route to the Royal Veriety Performace at the Palladium on December 9, 2010 in London, England. (Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Images)
“The Duchess was clearly alarmed”.  That’s what the British press are telling us, underneath pictures in today’s papers of Camilla with her mouth in a large O and Charles with his lips parted as well, although not so widely. Thank God for picture captions, I say. Left to myself, I’d thought Camilla was roaring her indignation against those daring to approach the royal car, let alone spatter it with paint, and I might have thought Charles was swearing colourfully at both Camilla and the yobs keeping him late for the Royal Variety Performance concert. As Boris Johnson made clear, there’s no possible connection to be made between the lives of the dizzyingly rich Charles and Camilla heading in their Rolls Royce towards a concert put on for their benefit,   and the lives of tens of thousands of British students soon to be plunged into decades of debt because their government needs university money to build bigger and better nuclear submarines. So what do these crazies with their paint think they’re doing?

The civilized world really is facing a crisis. Ordinary Joe Nobodies, people one has never heard of, are daring again and again to confront the respectable world of wealth and power.  It’s time to make an example of someone,  and thankfully that’s what’s being done with this Wikileaks person, I mean, you can’t have someone telling the citizens of the world what their governments are up to. The man’s done terrible damage already, exposing what world  leaders and diplomats said about other world leaders. It’s hardly surprising that the Republican right in the US  has called for his execution, preferably slowly and  in a public place, with trained ravens swooping to pluck out his eyes. The one redeeming feature of the whole shameful episode was the way companies like Amazon, Paypal and Visa rallied to the side of government and did their best to make life impossible for  Mr Assange and his fellow-traitors. Never let it be said that, faced with attack, capitalism failed to step up to the plate to protect power and privilege.

Now if the royal body-guards could show similar initiative  - what are your guns FOR, men? -  we could all get back to normalcy.   

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Joe Costello: the north's not getting OUR money

I was listening to RTÉ radio the other day when a Derry woman came on. She’s a journalist/presenter with RTÉ and nationalist/republican in her background. So it gave me a tiny jolt when I heard her referring to the south’s efforts to cope with the weather as an attempt to keep all roads passable “throughout the country”.

Pernickety? A silly hyper-sensitive response by me to the use of ‘country’ rather than ‘state’? It would be if besides reflecting our thinking, words didn’t help shape it.  By consistently and constantly referring to the twenty-six-county state as ‘the country’  or to the six counties as ‘the country’ (as in Stephen Nolan’s ho-ho catch-phrase ‘the biggest show in the country’),  the population is nudged another fraction of a millimetre towards acceptance of the present political arrangement in Ireland as something permanent. 

Words are powerful in other ways too.  Sometimes we use them to talk about Thing A, when in fact we’re really talking about Thing B. Step forward Labour’s Joe Costello. He’s the spokesman for that party’s transport policies, and he’s just announced that the A5 ain’t going to happen, when and if Labour get into power in the south. You remember the A5. That’s the road from Augnacloy to Letterkenny, running round Omagh and Strabane en route. Brian Cowan says he’s for it.  Now Joe says it’s no go -  the southern taxpayer won't help fund a road running through the north.

On financial grounds you might think it hard to fault the Labour man - over £400 million is a lot of money, especially in these straitened times. But you might also want to query him a bit on what he sees as ‘Ireland’. Is it the twenty-six counties? Does he see people north of the border as his fellow-countrymen? Is he opposed to partition or for it? Does he believe that the north and south working together is the logical follow-up for any party claiming to be even mildly nationalist? Or is Irish unity something to consign to the rubbish-bin of history? 

Joe's line is a slightly more subtle version of the “going north to shop is unpatriotic” cry we heard a year or so ago from a Dublin minister.  So this is as good a time as any to come clean. Guys, if you are pro-partition,  say it, and let’s see if the people of the twenty-six counties   agree with you in the coming election.  If you’re anti-partition,  shouldn’t you be seizing every opportunity to develop and implement projects  which show what Irish people, working together, can achieve?

The irony of all this is that the proposed A5 road would be a concrete example of border-blurring work AND a sound financial move. Besides benefiting Omagh, Strabane and Derry, it'd unlock Donegal from the economic Siberia it’s found itself in since the foundation of the southern state.  Win-win, I think they call it. 

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Michael, Joan and Pearse

I’ve seen only one brief clip of Pearse Doherty’s  budget  speech in the Dail yesterday, but I can see why it’s been attracting a lot of attention. On the RTÉ News yesterday, the Doherty clip followed on similar clips showing the response of Fine Gael’s Michael Noonan and  Labour’s Joan Burton to the government’s austerity package.  Since I’m not an economist, I’ve no reliable way of knowing if Noonan and Burton were talking sense. For all I know, between them they may have provided the key to unlocking the dungeon cell where the Irish economy is shackled to the wall. But judging solely on presentation,  Noonan  and Burton both were in the  C- category.  Noonan, poor man, sounds most of the time as though he is semi-sedated. It’s also hard to forget that he was once a disastrous Fine Gael leader and that the party’s present leader wobbled terribly just six months ago when the deputy leader tried to depose him. Watching Joan Burton perform, I kept being reminded of another decent but deeply unimpressive politician, Michael McGimpsey. Burton and McGimpsey share the same dolorous tone and undertaker looks. None of us can help how we look, I suppose. But  both Noonan and Burton, in the clips I saw, read from a script which they could have helped, with Burton managing to stumble over the bit she had to read out.

Doherty in the clip I saw didn’t say much of substance – it was largely bashing the government for their ineptitude and their willingness to protect those with most while penalising those with least.  But if we judge solely quality of delivery, he won by a country mile  - an A-,  I'd say.  He looks and is young, he sounds and probably is sincere, and in the bit I saw he spoke without notes. OK, maybe he spent the rest of his speech with his nose in a sheaf of papers, but not in the bit RTÉ showed.  It’s probably unfair but that kind of thing matters a lot to people. Against all the odds, David Cameron won the leadership of the Tory party because he spoke fluently for over half an hour without notes.

In one discussion website posting yesterday, a contributor suggested Doherty’s performance would be worth as much as 5% to Sinn Féin in the next election. I very much doubt that. But it’s another shoulder to a Sinn Féin bandwagon that  is beginning to make the enemies of republicanism feel faintly unwell. 

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Shame on me? Sorry, I'm shameless

A Porsche GT2RS is on display at the LA Auto Show held at the Convention Center in Los Angeles on November 17, 2010.   UPI/Phil McCarten Photo via Newscom

I should feel more shame. When you’ve done something you know is wrong, so wrong you’re going to be faced with public humiliation that has echoes of Mao’s China, where they used to take those who had transgressed and parade them in public wearing dunces’ caps -  when you’ve sunk that low, you should be drenched in remorse and wish the earth would swallow you up.  Brazen creature that I am, I feel none of that.

My wrong deed occurred a couple of months ago. I was driving on a side road that links two main roads, one that twists and then goes sharply downhill for about a quarter of a mile. The sign at the start of the road says 30 mph,  but somehow by the time I was half-way down that hill I was doing 39 mph. I know it was 39 mph, not because I saw it on my speedometer but because about three weeks ago I got a letter telling me the RUC, ooops, PSNi had clocked me doing that, and did I want a £60 fine and three points on my licence or  an £80 fine and a four-hour workshop where I’d be made aware of the dangers of speeding?  Since I don’t like the thought of docked points and since I’m a pensioner (oh God- did I say that?) and I don’t get docked pay for taking a half-day off, I’ve opted for the reformatory workshop and the £80.

Yes I know, speed kills,  it takes three bus-lengths or whatever to come to a stop if you’re doing 30 mph, I shouldn’t have been breaking the speed-limit, but ...I don’t feel a bit guilty. There was no danger of my hitting anyone. Yes, that extra 9 mph could have made a difference, but so could the amount of sleep I’d had, the attention I was giving to my radio, the cleanliness of my windscreen, the cleanliness of my glasses – there’s no end to the factors that can conspire to have bad things happen to us.  I’ve a mild sense that I’d probably have been better with  less press-on-the-gas but that’s it. Without being too overweening,  I believe I’m capable of making decisions about what speed makes sense in a given situation. I know the law doesn’t agree but that doesn’t alter my belief. Do I need a hidden cop camera to control me or I’ll turn into a public menace? I don’t think so.

In fact, some research suggests the opposite. In England, they’ve experimented with removing traffic lights at a particular junction. Result: not more crashes but fewer. Instead of amber-gambling to get through the lights, drivers became actively engaged in deciding who’d arrived first at the junction and who therefore should go next.  In short, decision-making power was devolved to  the individual.  I like the sound of that.

Maybe we should be active, not passive. Maybe there comes a point where we need to be allowed decide for ourselves the right and reasonable course of action.  Or maybe not. Maybe I’ll learn remorse and the shame of irresponsible actions after I’ve attended this rehabilitation workshop in the middle of the month. Watch, as they say, this space. 

Monday, 6 December 2010

Repeat after me: a war crime is a war crime, except when it's not

Well, it didn’t take long.  If you or I were about to jump on someone’s back and pummel them, we’d wait until they’d passed and then try not  to make it too obvious we were motivated by something other than selective indignation.

But not  Amanda Foreman. The ink was scarcely dry on the poll that showed Sinn Féin as the third most-popular party in the twenty-six counties  at 16%, and tipped by Paddy Power to get twenty or more seats in the next election, than Amanda had jumped onto the Shinners’ back and was clawing wildly. “Sinn Féin should never be able to escape Jean McConville’s ghost’  her headline announced in Saturday’s Guardian  newspaper.  Say what? Amanda, for the umpteenth time, describes in detail the last hours of Jean McConville, who as far as we know was abducted and killed by the IRA in the 1970s. The way Amanda tells it, the IRA killed her because “she had Protestant blood” and had tended a wounded British soldier.  On these grounds Amanda says Gerry Adams is “alleged to be a war criminal” and shouldn’t be allowed to run for a Dail seat in Louth in the next election. “Teach her story to future generations” Amanda concludes,   “and at least the moral debt owed to Jean McConville can be repaid. Jean McConville, Jean McConville, Jean McConville”.

Contrast this with the press treatment of another Troubles story from the same period.  For years a British soldier called Clifford Burrage claimed he had killed a young man called Michael McLarnon in 1971. He said he had done so because Mr McLarnon was carrying a rifle at the time, a fact  supported unequivocally by his commanding officer (BBC Radio Ulster last week played a recording of the officer's totally-certain Sandhurst tones). It has now emerged that  both Burrage and his commanding officer were lying.  Burrage in fact didn’t kill Michael McLarnon – another British soldier did; and McLarnon was shown to have been an unarmed, innocent victim. His family, far from calling for the prosecution of his killer or Burrage or his commanding officer,  merely dismissed Burrage as a ‘Walter Mitty-type character” and expressed their delight that their brother’s name has been finally cleared.

Central question:  why, in the absence of any evidence, is Amanda Foreman denouncing Gerry Adams as a war criminal, while neither her voice nor any other is raised to demand the trial of Burrage, his commanding officer or the murderous British soldier who actually killed Michael McLarnon?  I found myself puzzling over that until I remembered Bloody Sunday 1972, when fourteen innocent civilians were shot down in broad daylight by members of the Parachute Regiment in Derry.  The reason is because  the British army did the  killing. When that happens,  the very best you can hope for is a public 'Sorry'. Remember the almost pathetic gratitude of Bloody Sunday families when David Cameron apologized for the killing of their loved ones?  No prosecutions, no denunciation of the Tory party, no allegations of war crimes.

Writers like Amanda are very good on indignation, regardless of evidence, as long as it’s directed against  Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness, or anyone connected to Sinn Féin. Apply the same criteria to British Army killings, where the evidence is abundant and where proven lies have been used to protect murderers?  Oh really, now. Don’t be silly.

So here’s my modest proposal for the next time a Shinner-bashing story erupts from the British or Dublin 4 press  (don’t worry,  there are lots coming down the line, as the south's general election approaches). Simply close your eyes and repeat two words to yourself: Michael McLarnon. Michael McLarnon. Michael McLarnon.  Alternatively, you could recite the names of the fourteen Bloody Sunday dead. If  you can remember them.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Don't believe all you read in the papers...

World Cup 14/05/2010 David Beckham presents England's 2018 World Cup bid book to FIFA President Josef Sepp Blatter Photo Fotosports International/EQ Images *UK only* Photo via Newscom
 I wanted England to win their bid for the 2018 World Cup. No, really. You’d have needed a heart of stone not to feel a twinge in your gut for poor Willie Windsor, David Cameron and especially David Beckham as yesterday’s decision was announced. All those millions of pounds and dozens of flights and hours of schmoozing – for what? Nothing. Russia got the gig, not England.  Willie W and David C  were upset because they don’t like to be associated with a loser; David C,  who unlike the other two knows and loves football was gutted, sick as a parakeet, proper devastated. The blame for this awful showing (England got just two votes, one of them from their own representative) is being placed on the media, particularly a BBC Panorama  programme days before the event, claiming all sorts of corruption within FIFA. If it hadn’t been for that,  we’re encouraged to believe, football would have been coming home.

Would it? It doesn’t do to over-estimate the power of the media. For years newspaper commentators in the twenty-six counties told us that Sinn Féin were finished south of the border. Beaten, done, a busted flush. One commentator, Senator Eoghan Harris, took a public £100 bet with me at odds of 10-1 that Fianna Fail would mop up the remaining Sinn Féin seats at the next election. Ooo-er, Eoghan. Yesterday a Red C poll indicated that Sinn Féin in the south have just passed out Fianna Fail, 16% to 13%. If those results were extrapolated across the state in the coming general election, far from mopping up Sinn Fein, Fianna Fail would win fewer than twenty seats and Sinn Féin would go from five to around twenty-five.

Will it happen? Unlikely.  Such a generalisation ignores the intricacies and quality of candidates in the various constituencies.  Things won’t be as bad as they look for Fianna Fail and not as rosy as they look for the Shinners. But clearly political earthquakes are on their way. Fianna Fail will take a terrible kicking in the voting booths, Fine Gael and Labour will benefit but not as much as they should, leaving Sinn Féin in a position to catch much of the disillusionment with Fianna Fail.

What does all this teach us?  That most of the world don’t like the English much, that most of the south can’t stand Fianna Fail, and that if the Sinn Féin electoral wagon continues to rattle along,  its gathering momentum will worry not just Fianna Fail,  but Fine Gael and Labour as well.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Philip Hollobone: the hammer of misguided minorities

I’ve just come from a discussion on ‘The Stephen Nolan Show’ on BBC Radio Ulster. The focus was the recent  call by Philip Hollobone, the Tory MP, for south of Ireland prisoners in British jails to be repatriated.  Since Britain has generously extended a large loan to the south of Ireland, the south should respond by taking back its citizens, he says.

There may or may not be a case for such repatriation throughout the EU but Hollobone’s contribution to the British House of Commons debate has less to do with that than with appealing the bigot/semi-bigot vote that appears to lurk in his Kettering constituency.  He has previous, as they say.  Last February, in a Commons debate, he said that  a Muslim woman wearing the burka was  ‘like walking around with a paper bag over your head’.  The Northamptonshire Race Equality Council called on the police to investigate Mr Hollobone for incitement to racial hatred (the call was rejected). Last June he introduced the Face Coverings Bill in parliament.And according to the TheyWorkForYou website, Mr Hollobone’s voting record in the Commons suggests he’s very strongly opposed to gay rights.

So this is the man who wants Irish prisoners repatriated from Britain. The sub-text of the statement is unmistakeable. It’s an appeal to those dark little thoughts that loiter at the back of some British minds about the Irish – that they’re violent, criminal, and of course thriftless and shiftless. Send them back where they came from. Enoch-talk.

As to such repatriation being a quid pro quo – we give you a helping hand to get out of your financial hole, you take back your citizens from our prisons – my cat has given itself a hernia laughing. George Osborne, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, has admitted that it’s in Britain’s interests to help support Irish banks, since an enormous amount of Britain’s financial dealings and exports are dependent on a healthy south of Ireland economy. Britain, quite rightly, is concerned with looking after No 1. That's what prompted the €7 billion loan, not altruism.  

Speaking of money. Hollobone argues that Irish prisoners are costing Britain too much. Were the repatriation thing to become mandatory throughout the EU, the many British prisoners in EU jails would return to their home country.  When he sees the bill for incarcerating his own repatriated criminals, David Cameron may wish to revise his  response to Hollobone's brain-wave: the British prime minister told Hollobone 'You make a very good point'.   

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Little Alex goes forward

They say the opposite of being loved is not being hated. It’s being ignored. This is particularly urgent if you’re a politician: the day the public forget who you are is the day they’ll stop voting for you. So with elections coming up here in May, politicians are busy digging their elbow into our ribs. Some of them –not many – are sufficiently young not to be laughed to scorn by posting messages on Facebook and Twitter. Others, like Edwin Poots and Peter Robinson, get attention by issuing statements criticising the GAA or attacking Catholic education. And then there’s little Alex Atwood.

I’ve always felt an affection for Alex. Somebody once said of Richard Nixon “Just think what that man could have achieved had he been loved!”; and when I see Alex’s little face tense up as the TV cameras approach, or hear him deliver over-long responses to questions as though he was still part of a particularly dull debate at Queen’s thirty-five years ago, I want to wrap my arms around him, give his tummy a rub and say ‘There, there, little man, we won’t let them hurt you, I promise’.

But of course Alex is a politician so the poor diddums has to go out there and shout ‘Look at me!’ with the best of them. His latest wheeze is to push for an extension of Sunday opening hours for shops. Alex says that some changes are needed because consumers ‘now have greater expectations’ which I think means they want longer opening hours. How does he know? Search me. Why do the birds go on singing. Why do these eyes of mine cry?

But Alex does tell us he’s considering bringing us into line with shops in Britain. Well, why not, sure don’t we live in a post-nationalist era. In England they can open on Sunday for six continuous hours, whereas here it’s just five. An hour, Alex figures, will make all the difference. It will ‘boost the local economy, benefit the tourist industry and support regeneration of town and city centres. This would be very useful in the current economic environment and going forward’. Jeez. Going forward, eh? That’s the mistake the south made – they didn’t go forward. They should have skipped that IMF loan and talked to Alex first.

To calm fears that he’s gone all red-eyed and radical, Alex reassures us: ‘I believe a review would be a timely and balanced way to go forward’. See? I told you – or rather Alex did. Going forward. That’s the key.

So forget those silly nightmares you’re having about your January credit card bill. Get down to the shops as soon as Alex pushes that legislation through. No need to thank him, either. Just make sure next May he gets your No 1. Going forward.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Believe me, I'm a politician. I mean I WAS a politician.

WASHINGTON - MARCH 15:  Irish Foregin Minister Dermot Ahern (L) shakes hands with U.S. President George W. Bush as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) (C) looks on after a meeting at the U.S. Capitol March 15, 2007 in Washington, DC. Bush will host PM Ahern Maerch 16 at the White House for the traditional 'Shamrock Ceremony' for the St. Patrick's Day holiday.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Rheumatoid arthritis is not a funny thing to have - three of my sisters suffer from it, and suffer is the word - so I'm slow to turn negative towards Dermot Ahern of Fianna Fail, who says he's not running in the coming general election in the south, because he's suffering from it. Rheumatoid arthritis, that is. His announcement carries a difficulty, though: his last public utterance didn't exactly built up a head-wind of trust. You remember his last public utterance, don't you? Q from reporter: 'Is the IMF here getting ready for a bail-out?' A from Dermot: 'No, they're not. Such reports are fiction.' So while it's not exactly the boy who cried wolf (as far as we know, all Dermot's other public utterances over his 24-year political career were totally truthful), it's tempting to think that he might be being a little economical with the truth when he says he's quitting for health reasons. And that he told the Taoiseach he was quitting over a year ago. And that he thought of standing when he heard Gerry Adams was going to run. And that practically everyone in Louth that he meets is ABA - Anyone But Adams.

Whatever the reason and whatever the truth about his medical condition, he's definitely quitting the stage, so the decent thing to do is to wish him well. And the next thing to do is ask 'What effect will his departure have?' Well, it could go one of two ways. Either his replacement by a less-well-known FFer will mean fewer FF votes in the general election or his replacement will mean more FF votes in the general election. It'll be fewer votes if the voting public are disappointed to see Ahern go; it'll be more if the voting public have decided to go ABA - Anyone But Ahern.
Time, as the BBC reporters like to say, will tell.

How much should you earn?

PARIS - OCTOBER 28:  French university students and striking workers attend a demonstration over pension reforms with a flag reading ' The Force without Justice' on October 28, 2010 in Paris, France. This is the seventh day of protest for French workers angry at the Government's proposed pension reforms. Nicolas Sarkozy, however, has not wavered in his plans to increase the state pension age from 60 to 62 and last night the National Assembly passed the bill. (Photo by Franck Prevel/Getty Images)

The VO is going a bit mad these days. And before you say ‘Nothing new there, then’, this is mad with a financial twist. Fresh from giving out stink about the cost of B and B for big-shots in the public service, today the Organ is focusing on the pay of top managers in the health service. It seems sixteen of them are paid over £100,000 – “almost three times as many as in the PSNI, where officers operate under death threat from dissident republicans”.

Apart from the confused syntax ( are they saying that the manager’s job is tougher in the PSNI because the cops on the beat may be under threat?), the VO takes as a given what is in fact totally not-given: that some jobs deserve higher pay than others. That’s not to say that some jobs aren’t paid more than others; they obviously are. What we’re talking about is, do they deserve it?

To answer that you’d need to know what you’re measuring when you say, for example, that a newspaper editor is worth more than a sanitary worker. The usual answer to that is ‘The editor is more intelligent than the sanitary worker’, or sometimes ‘It takes longer to become an editor than it does to become a sanitary worker’.

The first of these is a non-starter. There are things called intelligence tests, but since they measure only a small area of mental ability and even then they’re unreliable as predictors of future performance, they’re not worth the paper they’re written on. So since we can’t measure the difference in intelligence between the editor and the toilet cleaner, intelligence can’t be offered as a reason why the editor should get paid more.

The second – that it takes longer to become an editor – is generally true, although that might say more about the slow-learner quality of editors rather than the level of talent called for by the job. But even we say that editors are as quick on the uptake as toilet cleaners, does length of training mean you should be paid more? It takes approximately the same time to become a teacher as it does to become a doctor, but the doctor can look forward to a salary that’s over twice that of the teacher. So length of training can’t be the yardstick either.

What about saying we pay according to the value of a person’s work to society? (Let’s move away from editors, shall we? We’re talking about value to society.) A brain surgeon, you might say, is of more value to society than a toilet cleaner, and therefore deserving of his/her bigger pay packet. But answer me this: how many people have a brain operation every day? And how many use a toilet every day? If we’re going for the greatest happiness of the greatest number, the toilet cleaner wins hands down.

The truth is, it’s impossible to arrive at clear, unequivocal, agreed criteria for judging the worth of a job, and what someone should be paid for doing it. And since that’s impossible, the only just course of action is to pay everyone the same. ‘Nobody’s going to agree to that!’ comes the chorus. Not from the people generally. Just from the people who take home a fatter pay-packet, who know they can’t defend getting it and are terrified that someday, somehow, they’ll be found out.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Behind closed doors

The home page of the Wikileaks.org website is pictured on a computer in Hoboken, New Jersey, November 28, 2010. State Department documents released by whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks provided candid views of foreign leaders and sensitive information on terrorism and nuclear proliferation, the New York Times reported on Sunday. REUTERS/Gary Hershorn (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS IMAGES OF THE DAY)  
It’s a laugh, a good, belly-clutching laugh, because most of the time most of the people we elect as our representantives live in a different world. Even people as admired as Mary McAleese do things you or I wouldn’t do in a thousand years ( Mary caught a government jet from Dublin to Belfast the other week, with a government car to deliver her at one end and collect her at the other).  So when they get caught saying one thing in public and something a lot less discreet in private, it’s schadenfreude time.

It’d be even more fun if we could forget that our reaction is totally unfair. It’s certainly a pleasure to see the world of the big-wigs sweating over the reaction to their indiscretions. But if your house had been bugged over the past six months, would you be happy for the tape to be played to your friends and neighbours? Different contexts prompt different kinds of language; we smile and wish someone a good morning, but that doesn’t prevent us mocking  them to our spouse later in the day. And that’s OK. If we were all honest all the time, we’d drive each other mad and make the world unworkable.  What was that old saying about our friends? Ah yes: if we knew what our friends really thought of us, we’d cut our throat.

Besides, we knew all along what was going on at the highest levels of politics, didn’t we? Of course US diplomats are busy collecting information on those they come in contact with. All diplomats do.   Of course the London embassy was happy to supply information about the relationship between William Hague and Alan Duncan, who is gay and who shared a London flat with Hague at one time. Governments aren’t at all squeamish in their pursuit of information that could be of use to them, and like most of us they’re a lot less polite about friends and foes when they’re behind doors.  Anybody with a smattering of common sense would know that.

Mind you, it’s still great fun catching the great and not-so-good with their pants down. More, please.