Jude Collins

Sunday, 31 January 2010

Speaking of sectarian...

I was on 'Sunday Sequence' this morning with former Presbyterian Moderator John Dunlop, who accused me of being sectarian. At least I think he did. It was after I'd been asked my take on the on-going (ever-going?) Sinn Fein-DUP talks. I said that many nationalists/Catholics were more than dismayed that the DUP should have chosen by way of fig-leaf/parachute the right of the Orange Order, an anti-Catholic organisation, to march where it wasn't wanted. Mr Dunlop said (I think) that to say the Orange Order was sectarian was a sectarian remark in itself. Mmm. That sounds a bit like '1984' to me, where the Ministry of Truth is the propaganda centre for the government (or the modern-day tendency to call your war planners The Department of Defence). It's also a pretty good example of blaming the victim: 'What, you're saying I'm a bully because I came into your house and slapped you around? Well ask yourself what kind of person are you? The truth is, by accusing me of bullying, you show you're a bully yourself'. No, I don't understand it either.

What is it, I wonder, about radio (and more so TV) discussions, that they mustn't go on for longer than ten minutes? It must be the entertainment element of broadcasting dominating the information or education. We hadn't begun to explore the question of the DUP- SF talks, partnership, the Orange Order, parades, the Irish Language Act, and several other issues when the time was up (starting and finishing, I noticed, with John Dunlop. Equal time?). Maybe listeners or viewers would find it hard to take, but I do think that any attempt to explore such issues in even remotely-thoughtful mode requires time - an hour would leave a little bit of room for complexity.

Saturday, 30 January 2010

The view from Dublin

Strewth - will this never end? They're still up in Hillsborough - or is it Stormont? - locked in verbal battle. Which unfortunately encourages the simple-minded to say 'They're just like a bunch of children! Why can't they get their act together?' In fact, of course, there are those, particularly south of the border, who long for the good old days. I heard Ruairi Quinn, the former Labour Party leader in the south, who expressed fond hopes that the SDLP and the UUP would resurrect themselves and we'd get away from this sterile government-by-extremes. Mercifully, Susan McKay was part of the same in-studio debate and she disabused him of his wan notion. I sometimes think there's a strong class element involved here, particularly with regard to Sinn Fein (it used to be something similar with the DUP - remember the 'Decent people vote UUP' campaign? - but they've imported more and more graduates into their ranks). The implicit notion is that if you leave the lower orders to organise something, they're more likely to wind up in a fist fight, whereas if you give the job to decent, solid middle-class people, they'll get it done and done in a reliable, civilized way. So even though the electorate have seen fit to cement Sinn Fein in power-sharing (of a sort) here, there are those in Dublin who can't quite stop hoping that those nice doctors and lawyers and ex-teachers which the SDLP has in abundance will somehow, some way, some day make a comeback and bring things back onto a civilized plane. But then I suppose if you see any frank admission of nationalism or unionism as a form of tribalism (the RTE panel used that a lot today), you're bound to be discontent with the way things have gone.

Friday, 29 January 2010

The dog with the Orange tail

As I write, I'm listening to the voice of Alex Attwood of the SDLP speaking on the radio. He's saying he figures that a deal is near and likely. When someone as obscure in his phrasing as little Alex can come out and say that, the end must indeed be nigh...Oh, hold that. He's just said that some backwoodsman might jump in and wreck any deal. And then 'I'm sorry, Stephen - I have to go - there's some business I have to do'. Time to put an armlock on the projected backwoodsman.

What amazed me is that, on 'Hearts and Minds' on the BBC yesterday, it was revealed that the DUP and the UUP had had a meeting at Schonburg House (HQ of the Orange Order) back last December. I'm not amazed that the Orange Order is up to its oxters in other things than religion and culture; I'm amazed that the BBC produced it. They've just given Sinn Fein a hugely effective weapon in support of their argument that the Orange Order (cliché alert) tail is wagging the unionist dog.And this in the wake of a speech reported in yesterday's papers, where Sammy Wilson of the DUP was castigating the BBC for being too favourable towards nationalists. I have my grievances against the BBC and against particular individuals in it, but hats off to them on this one. No wonder Danny Kennedy of the UUP was more spluttery and inarticulate than usual last night when asked to explain this Orange-sponsored meeting.

As things stand, I don't know how Sinn Fein could have done much better in recent daysl. If there is no deal, the two governments will publish their proposals and these will include a date for policing and justice devolution. So Sinn Fein will end up agreeing with the two governments' proposals and the DUP will look like the walk-away party. If there is a deal, Gerry Adams's statement last night about the idea of a Garvaghy Road or Lower Ormeau Orange parade being ludicrous has firmly nailed Sinn Fein colours to the mast, so it's impossible for any agreed deal to include same.

If I were Sinn Fein, I'd be clicking my heels a little bit this morning.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

We Are The People

‘We are the people’: I used to think that was a football chant but it’s not. It’s the by-word of unionism and it was on display yesterday.

Peter Robinson warned that if any party ( read ‘Sinn Fein’) walked away from its obligations under power-sharing, ‘it would experience the full wrath of the community’. What he meant, of course, was that Sinn Fein might experience the full wrath of the unionist community. You may be sure they won’t experience the wrath of the nationalist/republican community. A great number of nationalist and republicans are ahead of Sinn Fein in their frustration with the DUP, who have for a number of reasons ( most of them beginning with the initials JA) decided to present power-sharing in a minimalist light, as a series of scores they have produced while putting one across on Sinn Fein.

We saw an example of this again yesterday with Arlene Foster and later Nigel Dodds. (By the way, can there be a politician less attractive in appearance and demeanour than Nigel?) The DUP duo rejected the Sinn Fein assertion that they had agreed to the transfer of policing and justice at St Andrew’s. Oh yes, the British government and the Irish government might have promised its transfer, but the DUP didn’t sign anything on that score. Check the fine print, Shinner suckers – hahahahhaa. Chalk up another one for us.

Clearly that sort of approach can’t be allowed to continue. For all their claims to being realists, the DUP seem determined to forget that their party just two weeks ago was being ripped to pieces by a whirlwind scandal that is still thrashing and crackling in the background. In fact the better metaphor might be a slow-burning fuse. Once the financial irregularities begin to surface, the DUP will go from flinty integrity party to sticky-fingered pilfering party in record time. That, even more than Iris’s taste in young men, will do terrible damage to them.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Power-sharing my posterior

Well. That's it, then. No deal. Hard to believe, given the investment of time and energy and personal reputation Gordon Brown and Brian Cowen put into it. Both men were clearly sleep-deprived, satisfaction-deprived and sign-off-deprived. And Sinn Fein weren't looking too thrilled either.

So now what? It looks as though Brown and Cowen are hoping that there'll be second thoughts by ... Well, who? The impression they gave was that they hoped both parties would have second thoughts. But given that all parties - SDLP, Sinn Fein, British and Irish governments, Alliance - just about everybody has concluded that Policing and Justice should be transferred, should have happened long ago, and given that Brown named dates for that to happen - March for consideration, early May for putting in place - there's a hint that it's the DUP who are stalling over something in the two-governments' package.

We'll know on Friday, but the ferocity with which Mr Dodds called anybody who said the DUP had promised anything at St Andrew's a liar, you get the feeling that the party doth protest too much. It looks as though the two governments are hoping that the revealing - or threat of revealing - the reasonable terms on offer will make any party that doesn't buy in look like the one which brought the whole edifice down. At the moment the DUP look like the prime candidates for that slot, given their concern to pave a way for Orange feet to do what they do best - walk in nationalist areas where they're not wanted. And the way they've been repeatedly trying, with Dodds and others, to paint a picture with Sinn Fein as the power-sharing destroyers, I get the feeling they're a little ill at ease.

The most astonishing thing of all, of course, is the chutzpah of Peter Robinson. The man who presented himself as broken in that interview, the man who needed time off to look after his wife, the man who is fighting allegations that he failed to do what he should have as First Minister and reported to the authorities his wife's tricky little financial transactions - there he was striding about HIllsborough followed by a respectful DUP pack, including a submissive-looking Arlene Foster. Are the DUP hoping that their electorate will forget the flood of soap-opera headlines that the Robinson family generated during January? Even more amazing - could it be that THEY WILL BE PROVED RIGHT? Watch this blog...

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Not in their name?

It’s amazing how, if you look at them for more than two minutes, the issues that are being debated noon, night and morning up at Stormont become simple and straightforward. The devolution of policing and justice was agreed at St Andrew’s (despite what the supple-brained Edwin Poots claimed this morning) but the DUP don’t want to accede to such devolution if they think they can squeeze more concessions out of Sinn Fein. They want to do this partly because they enjoy squeezing Fenians and partly because they have hot-breath Jim Allister panting in their right ear. So they look for a big concession they can wave around as a prized counterbalance to such devolution. And what do they come up with? What do they think is the one thing that will win the approval of unionists and, more importantly, their votes? (If you’re of a despondent nature, look away now – this next bit is calculated to bring on a fit of the blue meanies.) The right of the Orange Order to march through nationalist areas.

That's the glittering prize the DUP crave. Now that is depressing. Does it mean that the majority of unionists really really want the Orange Order to parade in areas where it’s not wanted? Since I fervently hope not, I’ll tell myself that such sad sentiments are harboured by a much-courted minority of unionists, not the majority of the unionist people . If I’m wrong, then Charlie Haughey was right: this is truly a failed state.

Still - nil desperandum. In these dark nights of near-despair, there's always a shout of laughter to be had. It was provided this time by Alex Attwood at 1.30 a.m. In that schoolboy-solemn way peculiar to him, Alex explained that what was needed to get people real was the inclusion of the SDLP in the discussions. What was it Brendan Behan said? 'I have never seen a situation so dismal that the presence of a policeman could not make it worse'. Strike policeman, insert SDLP.

Monday, 25 January 2010

D- (for Democracy) Day

Today is decision-day at Stormont, we’re told, and I for one am glad. If I have a fear, it’s that Sinn Fein will do some sort of back-pedal and we’ll be in for more of the same: the DUP failing to play their part on agreed matters like cross-border bodies, an Irish Language Act, and now policing and justice devolution.

The party founded by Paisley, the master-underminer of governments, is doing all in its power to make it look as though, if there is a breakdown, it’s all Sinn Fein’s fault. Sammy Wilson was on BBC Radio Ulster and BBC Radio Four this morning, sounding reasonable and even a little sad that Sinn Fein weren’t playing their part, weren’t turning up for meetings last week, were closing their eyes to the major matter of parading. If you didn’t know the track record of Sammy and his party, you might almost believe some of the things he said.

Despite Sammy’s efforts, though, the British and Irish public have the crux of the matter fixed in their minds: the DUP are playing the Orange card. Except Orangemen are allowed to parade where they wish (like the Garvaghy Road), policing and justice will not be devolved.

Whatever their reasons for this insistence (prominent among which is the hot breath of Jim Allister on their necks), it’s an ill-advised choice as a deal-breaker. Nationalists of all stripes are aware of the role the Orange Order has played down the decades and centuries. The thought that the members of this sectarian and old-fashioned-bigots organization must be allowed to parade where they wish if unionists are to commit themselves to a ‘shared future’ is abhorrent to nationalists generally and, we hope, the Irish and British governments.

Meanwhile, the DUP has been trying to up the voltage on their life-support machine with their projected electoral pact with the UUP and the Conservatives. It’s an odd pact, particularly for the Tories. They’re firmly committed to fielding a candidate in every single constitutency, yet here they are arranging to stand aside so nationalist and republican candidates get defeated. No wonder the three prospective Conservative candidates who’ve withdrawn are said to have felt like vomiting when they heard of the pact moves.

It’s also useful to pause and ask yourself ‘Why this hurried unionist pact talk?’ Simple. If a unionist split were to lead to Sinn Fein emerging as the biggest single party and thus Martin McGuinness entitled to become First Minister, unionists would go into meltdown, would walk away from the Assembly and power-sharing.

It’s like something from Gilbert and Sullivan. The people who for decades denounced republicans for violence, who demanded that they abide solely by the decision of the ballot box, now make it clear they will reject the decision of the ballot box if it produces a face and a figure they don’t like.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Shut your eyes, switch off your brain, here comes the big picture

Have we been conditioned to react to world disasters in a particular way? I ask because I keep talking to people who tell me how upset they are by the pictures of the Haiti earthquake aftermath, how delighted they are at the sight of a baby being rescued, how proud they are that people around the world and particularly in Ireland are so generous in their responses to appeals for help. “The poor Haitians!” is the heartfelt cry.

As with so much else, the broader context is ignored. The grinding poverty of the Haitian people is put down to a series of tyrants who presented themselves as saviours of the nation and, once elected, turned despot. There is little or no mention of the fact that Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the former priest and hugely-popular President of Haiti, was twice removed from office by the machinations of the US and now lives in exile. No mention at all of the fact that while Cuba has sent over 400 nurses, doctors and medical orderlies to the scene of the disaster, the US has been busy sending in the military. You think this is explained by the problems of ‘disorder’ that exist in the country now? The disorder is a product of the failure to provide sufficient material help - medicine, not military.

So why should the US be so interested in Haiti, so inclined to think in military terms? Why go to the bother of subverting Aristide, who attempted to address the massive imbalance of wealth in his country? Why undertake construction in Haiti of what will be the US’s fifth-biggest consulate in the world? Yep, you guessed it. Haiti has considerable off-shore oil wealth. Now you know why the US wants to keep this small, proud country in a state of impotence and poverty, and reacts to its immediate needs by sending in the guns.

It might be worth factoring those elements into your response, next time you feel a lump coming in your throat as you watch Haitians scrabbling for food or lamenting the loss of a family member.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Sauce, geese and ganders

So – deal or no deal? It could go either way, if you read the signs. Both the DUP and Sinn Fein are making noises that they want a deal but it’s the other lot’s fault.

The DUP says blame the Shinners, they the DUP were up in Stormont yesterday waiting for republicans and they didn’t show. Sinn Fein says Martin McGuinness explained on Wednesday that SF would be conferring with its officers and there’d be no meeting. Are the two parties merely engaged in tactics, jostling for a position on the inside rail, or busy telling plain lies? This morning, Gregory Campbell was on radio insisting repeatedly that the DUP had given no commitments on policing and justice devolution in the St Andrews Agreement, while John O’Dowd and last night Mary Lou MacDonald made it clear that the DUP, in the St Andrews Agreement, committed themselves to the devolution of policing and justice. As to unionist community confidence, all the surveys show it’s there. So either Gregory Campbell is telling a lie or John O’Dowd/Mary Lou McDonald are telling a lie. I wonder which?

Certainly the DUP have now tied their agreement on devolution to a demand for parades renegotiation. What this means, essentially, is that the Orange Order can march in areas where it’s not wanted, like on Portadown’s Garvaghy Road. In yesterday’s Belfast Telegraph, Chris Donnelly had an interesting article. He was all for negotiation, which I disagree with. But then I came to the bit in his article which goes to the heart of parading here (daft bloody tradition anyway – personally I’d ban the lot). Young Chris says that providing unionists accept republican marches in predominantly working-class Protestant areas, then of course nationalists must likewise look at loosening up their areas for Orange marches. That’s the test, of course: are unionists willing to accept parity and equality, or must freedom of expression be confined only to those who wear an Orange collarette and thump a bloody big drum?

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Normalise yourself, please


Have you heard them? As the noise of the media storm against Gerry Adams continues, little voices have begun to squeak up, advising anyone who will listen that were Gerry Adams to quit the stage, preferably taking Martin McGuinness with him although that might be asking too much, such a retiring action would move us all closer to ‘normal politics’. That is to say, unionism would be faced with a decent Sinn Fein, a non-contentious Sinn Fein, a Sinn Fein that looked and sounded much more like Fianna Fail. It'd have left behind its violent past.

Or to put it another way, wouldn't it be nice if Sinn Fein would change and engage in 'normal' politics'? Do what other ‘nationalist’ parties do and confine their nationalism/republicanism to an annual rant at Bodenstown. Wouldn't we all be so much better off? Unionists would have no problem shaking hands with them, we could all concentrate on jobs and education and health, and irrelevancies like the 5,000 British troops stationed here and that big MI5 centre on the shore of Belfast Lough and the fact that London still holds the real power levers for finance and, ahem, defence – all that would be set aside as the silly old out-dated set of distractions they are.

And here's a vision to rock your eyeballs: if all that happened, unionists might eventually think about learning Irish and playing Gaelic games. See? Just close your eyes and stop thinking 'Constitution' and start thinking 'Normal'. You know it makes sense.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

You are strident, I am sweet reason...

Yesterday provided a rare sight on TV: a politician not personally under pressure standing up and saying he thought the media, or some sections of same, were reporting an issue in a reprehensible manner. The politician was Martin McGuinness and he made no bones about his opinion of the coverage around the alleged abuse involving Liam Adams, and the efforts being made by some journalists to affect the political process. If you’ve been reading my blog while even semi-awake over recent days and weeks you’ll know that I share that view. So the incident gets reported in today’s Irish News and how do they describe Mr McGuinness? ‘Strident’. I know I shouldn't be shocked that The Irish News don't appear to know the meaning of that word but I am. Do they read their own columnists and reporters? In fact, at 7.10 a.m. today it suddenly struck me what coverage of the Liam Adams/Gerry Adams case by the Irish media in general, north and south, resembles: it’s the response to John Hume meeting with Gerry Adams in the 1990s. That provoked a sustained strident-as-a-train-whistle screeches among the media meisters and so has this. At that time the enemy, as far as the Irish media were concerned was Sinn Fein, and today they remain the target of that same media.

For several reasons I'd rather not be in Liam Adams's shoes these days, but especially if I had been hoping that my trial, in the aftermath of the media barrage, would be a fair one.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Transfer and hollow out

Now that the air is thick with mud being lobbed in Gerry Adams's direction, it's easy to forget what the Sinn Fein project is. Long-term, the party has one central objective: a re-united Ireland, governing itself free from British intervention. Since that is in the hands of the majority in the northern state, it might seem a forlorn objective. So what are Sinn Fein up to?

They don't talk about it much but it's a similar strategy to that once propounded to me by the late Monsignor Denis Faul. He told me that he preached to his boys that the quickest route to achieving a re-united Ireland was by way of getting a good education and taking your rightful place in northern society. This, he figured, would be to dismantle the Orange state from within and it would eventually dawn on unionists: what's the point in having a state separate from the rest of Ireland, if it doesn't give us (unionists) a superior position to the taigs?

He may or may not have been right but that seems to be the Sinn Fein strategy. The most immediate instance of this at work is the transfer of policing and justice powers from Westminster to Stormont. It represents one more piece of the political furniture positioned in Ireland rather than England. Jim Allister is right on this one: Sinn Fein almost certainly have their eye on encouraging closer and closer ties between the Garda Siochána and the PSNI, until they become one police service. That won't happen without the consent of unionists; but like Denis Faul, Sinn Fein no doubt are hoping there'll come a time when unionists won't see the logic in maintaining a totally separate police service on such a relatively tiny island. Why bother if the PSNI is no longer the armed wing of a unionist oligarchy?

It's a seductive idea and working for it certainly beats doing nothing, which is what all the other 'nationalist' parties on the island have been doing about a re-unified country for the past forty years and more.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Not grinding axes

Yesterday in the changing room at the UU Sports Centre I eavesdropped on two men. (Actually they were talking so loudly, it was more a case of eaveasassault than eavesdrop.) They were talking about the Robinson affair and their particular contempt was directed at the hypocrisy of those who'd preach about sin while themselves merrily engaged in it.

Maybe that's why I find my patience getting frayed with a number of Irish journalists. Tom Kelly, for example, is writing in the esteemed Irish News this morning about how hollow it sounds when politicians blame the media for their downfall rather than themselves, and he goes on to commend the Irish bishops for at least accepting the blame for their own misfortune. He then says: 'While it's hard to distinguish between rumour and reality, it seems as if others in our political establishment may soon follow Iris into political retirement'. Those dull enough to not know who he's referring to are given a big fat clue by Kelly talking about Gerry Adams for most of the rest of his column.

There are a few things to keep in mind here. One is that people are innocent until proven guilty and the media are supposed to be the watchdogs of that dictum. You'd never guess it at times. A second is that guilt by association is a particular perversion of justice that must surely set all Heaven in a rage. And a third is that no-one comes from nowhere. That's to say, all journalists, myself included, write from a particular perspective. The notion that journalists hang up their political convictions when they switch on their computer or that there aren't political parties and politicians they detest and that this affects their commentary on same, is Grade A bunkum. It's patently obvious, for better or worse, that the majority of Irish commentators dislike republicans in general and Sinn Fein in particular, and they're perfectly entitled to their views. What sends out a smell that singes the hairs in the nostrils is when these same commentators pretend to be at all times dispassionate, telling it like it is, and not eager to take a hack or ten at republicanism when the opportunity arises and they feel safe to so do. As Norman Mailer wisely said, ' Once a newspaper touches a story, the facts are lost forever, even to the protagonists'. Faced with such stinkiness, you have a choice between weeping or laughing. As my letter in yesterday's Sunday Tribune makes clear (http://www.tribune.ie/news/letters/article/2010/jan/17/diarmuid-doyle-the-funniest-writer-in-ireland/ ), I prefer to laugh.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Say the word

In today's Observer newspaper, there's a reference to Martin O'Neill, the manager of Aston Villa, as 'the Northern Irishman'. Why is that, I wonder? If I was talking about Arsene Wenger, I don't think I'd refer to him as the 'South of France man' (or whichever region he's from) or to Rafael Benitez as the 'North of Spain man'. It's the same reason Linda McCauley of BBC Radio Ulster once informed me that a statement I had made was spoken 'like a true Ulsterman'. If I'd been really clever and bright and alert, I'd have told her she was totally right, since I'd been born, like my mother, in Donegal. That would have been an interesting reply, not just because it'd have shown me being alert and witty, not a normal condition for me, but because it would have knocked askew the use of language to support a state. People think that talk of 'The Province' and 'Ulster' and 'The Mainland' are merely linguistic matters but since words don't just express thought but help create thoughts and ways of seeing the world, they're a lot more important than that. And there was you, thinking the bit about a cold front covering 'all of the British Isles' was just a signal to pull on your flannel drawers...

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Just SAY it

The present Mrs Collins and myself were on our way into the new George Clooney movie last night ('Up In The Air' - seven-and-a-half-out-of-ten movie - some thought, much pleasant mulch) and the woman at the ticket desk asks for £11. I've given her £10 so we're rooting for the extra coin when the present Mrs C asks 'Is there a pensioner rate?' I haven't asked because in the past, that applies only on non-weekend nights. But it appears there is - we need pay only £8 between us. 'Thing is, we're not allowed to ask you' the woman says smiling as she gives me my change.

Dumb or what? It's like Belfast Metropolitan College's approach to the Senior Citizen ( aka Oldies) reduced rate for evening classes: they've ditched it, because they say they don't want to discriminate against pensioners who now (for Irish classes anyway) pay the full rate. Listen, BMC, I can stand it. Just make clear that there's money in my favour and I 'll find a way to swallow the pain, OK?

At the risk of sounding like a Daily Mail editorial, there's a lot of it about. Football commentators on TV will go to any lengths to describe a black player other than to say he's black. The same goes for talking about disabled people and, it now seems, oldies - to draw attention to what often is their outstanding physical feature - blackness, wheelchairness, oldness -any number of verbal contortions are called up. I mean, good Heavens, until you mentioned it I hadn't even noooooottticed that you were black, unable to walk, old, because you see, things like that don't matter to me.

The sort of disgusting thing is that such a stance, if turned over, shows wriggling on its dark side little maggots of bigotry. They're not mentioning the person's differentiating feature - race, disability, age - because, deep in the non-mentioner's black little heart, s/he thinks being black/disabled/old is shameful.

God preserve us from the PC ponces.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Crystal balls

Every so often I’m struck by how little we know. I don’t mean in terms of knowledge generally or the amassed wisdom of ages past – every time I walk through a library I’m struck by that - I’ll never read 99.99% of what is there, let alone master it - but the knowledge of things to come. I’m sometimes introduced on radio as a ‘commentator’, with the implication that my comments will not just make sense of the present but point a beam of light towards the future. And it’s certainly true that in times of crisis or change, the one thing everyone wants to know is ‘What’s going to happen?’ Well, might I suggest you figure it out for yourself rather than approach a ‘commentator’ such as myself (and, I might humbly add, I amn’t the worst of them). A quick example from about three years ago and one from last week.

About three years ago: Eoghan Harris predicted at a ‘West Belfast Talks Back’ that at the next 26-counties election, Fianna Fail would ‘mop up’ the remaining Sinn Fein seats. I took a bet with him at 10-1, witnessed by about four hundred people, that he was wrong. If anyone would like to replicate that bet with me, I’m game. Harris is an uber-commentator. This example will show how little he knows.

Last week: my former column colleague in the revered Irish News, Brian Feeney, last week declared that there wasn’t a chance of Policing and Justice being devolved, that it was a dead duck, deceased, ex-, finished. Today there are indications that a deal may be done on p and j over this weekend. Mind you, if he does get it wrong – and I’ve £50 says he has – it wouldn’t be the first time. He bet a bottle of champagne (how awfy classy) that the Catholic population here would register in the high 40s at the last census. Smite your forehead and fall to the floor rending your garments: he lost.

I remember during August 1969 in the Bogside hearing a young agitator, rushing off to get some more ammo, shout ‘Don’t believe anything anyone says about what’s going to happen – except Bernadette Devlin and Eamonn McCann!’ The first half of his sentence was spot on.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Community confidence vs Damascene conversion

Isn’t it wonderful how the prospect of imminent political death concentrates the mind? There we were for the last nine months, being told that the transfer of policing and justice wouldn’t be possible until there was sufficient ‘confidence in the community’. Now, with the DUP facing possible power-sharing collapse, and elections to both Stormont and Westminster closing in like a blinding, bone-freezing snow-storm, it’s all-change. Well, not all – unreconstructed Yahoos like Gregory Campbell and Maurice Morrow still want to make transfer a lifetime or two in the future. But the rest – Sammy Wilson, Arlene Foster – by gum, they’ve got impressively business-like all of a sudden. The only question now is, will p and j devolution happen inside a couple of days or inside a couple of weeks? But don't look for mea culpas, DUPers beating their breasts (yes, Virginia, DUPers DO have breasts – ask young Cap’n Kirk) or admitting that talk about community confidence was backwoods masquerading as balanced. Ask yourself - is the confidence of the community (i.e, unionist community – taigs don’t count here)in the DUP's ability to run the ship and keep the natives under control likely to be stronger or weaker, now that they've heard the tale of the dark-haired lady and the butcher's son? Or ask Jim Allister.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Next, please

OK, that's enough about the Robinsons, it's getting a bit boring now, they're moving away from the sex and towards the tedious money stuff. Let's get back to what we do best - slamming the Shinners. The Irish News is view-hallooing as it continues its search for Arthur Morgan, the SF TD for Louth - or 'The Morgan', as it calls him for some reason. Clearly if he doesn't want to talk to the Irish News, there's something wrong with him or he's trying to hide something. And yet again there's a nice juxtapositioning of Gerry Adams alongside his brother Liam. It's beginning to get a bit like the 'Obama, Osama - spot the difference!' posters the right-wing used in the US presidential election. On BBC Radio 4, Suzanne Breen was on explaining that Gerry Adams wasn't to blame for his brother's 'alleged paedophilia' (I'll bet that's a relief to him) but that he was to blame for...did she say meeting him and being at a wedding with him, or did I mishear? And isn't that carrying the conjunction of accusation + guilt just a little far? If your brother was alleged to have stolen money or beaten someone up or even killed someone, would you cut off all ties with him? I'd have thought that's the very time you should rally to him. And except you were very dim, you wouldn't mix that up with saying you were all for the crime of which he was accused. I wonder do they teach logic as part of these post-graduate diplomas in journalism? Or even ethics? You get the feeling there might be a gap in the market for same.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

The six-week-long gang-plank

You know the DUP are in deep trouble when they appoint Arlene Foster as their interim First Minister. The problem with Peter Robinson, we were told, was that he was lacking in warmth and personal appeal. Maybe Arlene has loads of charisma secreted somewhere in the basement of her personality but she’s never allowed it to slip free that I’ve noticed. As to her abilities - if she made a rousing success of her ministerial portfolio, it’s not something that I’ve noticed. The truth is, the DUP have appointed what they hope is a safe pair of hands, to keep the rickety wagon on the road for six weeks while they draw their breath and begin to worry seriously about the electoral cliff-edge towards which they were – maybe still are – careening. I don’t see Peter Robinson coming back in six weeks or six months, except he’s got a Lazarus gene none of us has been aware of; and I don’t see Arlene reinvigorating her party. The fact is the DUP are screwed no matter what way they turn. If they refuse to concede policing and justice devolution, Sinn Fein are going to do something pretty dramatic, since their electoral fortunes may well turn on whether the nationalist/republican electorate have run out of patience with Sinn Fein patience with unionism (still with me?). ‘Enough is enough’ Gerry Adams said at one point during the weekend, regarding DUP foot-dragging on policing and justice devolution. You betcha. A lot of nationalists/republicans share that sentiment and they’ll be looking for signs that SF isn’t a doormat, as the Westminster elections loom. If the DUP do agree to policing and justice, the traumatized unionist electorate may well declare ‘Enough is enough’ – of making concessions to republicans – and they’ll migrate en masse to the thistle-thick pastures on offer from one Mr J Allister.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Why whistle?

I was speaking to someone last night about – what else – the Robinson affair, and she raised a point I hadn’t considered and haven’t heard others consider: who was behind this political landmine which has sent the DUP flying skyward, clutching its more vulnerable bits? On the face of it the man responsible – certainly given the majority of air-time on the BBC’s Spotlight programme – was Selwyn Black. He was introduced as a former RAF chaplain and he himself argued that he’d blown his whistle because ….Well, can you remember why he said he blew his whistle? There certainly was an implication in the programme that it was because he was being used to tend to matters personal – Iris’s relationship with young Cap’n Kirk – rather than matters political, which is what he was hired for. There was also a strong indication that he blew the whistle for conscience reasons – that he couldn’t bear to see corruption at work within the north’s government. “This goes right to the heart of government in Northern Ireland” he said, or something along those lines. Mmm. If I had been in his position, would I have seen what occurred as a matter of such gross corruption I’d have felt compelled to blow the whistle, knowing it would bring down the party by which I was employed AND conceivably the whole peace process? Probably not, but then I have perhaps a more calloused conscience than Mr Black. One thing’s for sure: Jim Allister must be longing to meet Mr Black – assuming he hasn’t met him already – and shake the hand of the man who gave the biggest political leg-up that’s ever been delivered in the history of this state.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Oh Doctor, I'm in trouble...

Two little items deserving attention in the papers this morning. It appears that Peter Robinson lost the RUC guard on his house because of his (illegal) incursion with several companions into Clontibret in Co Monaghan. At which point a number of RUC people, voluntarily, mounted guard. Did you know that's what the RUC were up to back then? The second item was the news - delivered in the course of a much-praised article - by Suzanne Breen that she'd been very friendly with Iris Robinson over the years, so much so that her (Ms Breen's) baby was dandled on Iris's knee and that Iris bought it a cute lil present with 'From Auntie Iris' or some such on it. So now I know how journalists maintain their even-keel, objective stance with politicians: they get them to dandle their children and have them referred to as family members. I expect Suzanne, in the interests of balance, has a Sinn Fein MP who dandles with equal fondness and signs himself 'Uncle Whatsit'.

No Robinson jokes! ...OK, just this one, then...

Peter Robinson goes to the doctor. "Dunno what is the matter with me" Peter tells him. "Completely out of sorts". The doctor nods sympathetically and checks his chest, takes a blood sample, finally looks at his eyes and light dawns. "Ah, now I see what your problem is. You've got something in your iris". Ba-boom.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Tea and sympathy

Try not to burst into applause when I say this (it'll wake the baby) but I once had afternoon tea with Peter Robinson. I was doing an interview with him about something or other some twenty or more years ago and we sat in the conservatory and chatted. He seemed a polite if not wonderfully fun person to be with, and in the latter stages of our conversation, Iris served us tea and scones and smiles. Of our conversation, I remember nothing - not a single thing. Of Iris, I remember only dark hair and red lipstick. And that's it. That's my brush with the two most famous people in ireland at this particular moment. No wisdom, no insight, no dazzling light in a dark corner.

I suggested to two young(ish) unionists today that I thought Peter and Iris were getting a fairly harsh deal. It wasn't as if Iris had pilfered hospital monies intended for the purchase of wheelchairs and had passed the cash to her teenage lover. And it's not as if Peter covered up the knowledge that his wife had stolen a million from an ailing orphan. In fact, if you'd told me that there was a rule which said you had to inform the authorities if you'd received a certain level of money, I might have had to admit that I didn't for sure know that.

That's not to say that I'm sorry to see the DUP get it where it hurts - let's not be hypocritical about this whole thing or even a part of it. The more disorganised unionism is, the better possibility that the nationalist/republican side of the see-saw will rise, and God knows the n/r side is in need of a correcting boost. Iris Robinson is the proverbial toast, politically speaking. Peter Robinson is damaged terribly by the actions of his wife and his own link with them. His efforts at a pre-emptive strike with the famous 'I am shattered' interview clearly hasn't been enough. If anything, with its cutesy 'You're my dad and I'll always look up to you' card in the background, it has exploded in the First Minister's face. It's starting to look increasingly as though Peter is also terminally damaged. However, given that the Westminster elections are just a few months away, his party may decide to hang onto him. A new broom would look business-like and fresh but there again, it might seem an even more open acknowledgement that the DUP is in running-around-whimpering crisis mode.

Macmillan knew what he was talking about when he said what mattered in politics: "Events, dear boy, events", didn't he?

Friday, 8 January 2010

Dangerous truth-teller

Is there a journalist in the north of Ireland with a clarity of vision to match that of Eamonn McCann? He was on the Pat Kenny Show on RTÉ Radio 1 today and he made three points that I haven’t heard anyone else make.
Point 1: suppposing the Robinson case had involved a 59-year-old man and not a 59year-old woman, and that man had promised a dying father he’d look after his teenage daughter, and within a short time of the father’s death the 59-year-old man had been found to be sleeping with the teenage daughter – what would have been the public response? And are double standards operating in Iris Robinson’s case? (OK, that’s several questions but they’re all related).
Point 2: while it’s touching to see hard-bitten journalists so moved by Peter Robinson’s quivering lip during his interview and while the emotion and sexual aspect of the case are colourful and engrossing, these things are not of central importance. What is important is the financial aspect of the case, and we’re finally coming to that now.
Point 3: how appalled are the DUP heartland people likely to be at the sight of their leader having to go to Martin McGuinness today and explain himself, justify the legitimacy of his actions? Will this be something up with which they will, to paraphrase Churchill, be unwilling or unable to put?

Maybe it’s McCann’s clear way of presenting ideas, or maybe it’s the freshness of the ideas themselves, or maybe it’s because he’s a former classmate of mine and I like him, but it seems to me he rarely fails to deliver on big issues like this. Incidentally, he doesn’t believe Peter Robinson can survive this crisis. I’m less sure. Either way, the DUP faces an appalling vista: the name being mentioned as a possible successor is ...Arlene Foster. Like I said: an appalling vista.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Twist and squirm

Well. Where would you start? Religion, sex, politics AND money – there aren’t many headline stories that carry the kind of wallop Peter Robinson’s TV interview carried yesterday. The almost unanimous reaction of the press and other politicians (so far) has been of sympathy for Peter Robinson and for his wife. There are, however, a few questions that require answering. Whether they’ll ever be answered remains to be seen.

1. A TV clip shows Peter Robinson, on the day after his wife’s alleged suicide attempt and confession of her adultery, performing with total equanimity and even cracking jokes in the Assembly. This contrasts strikingly with his demeanour in the interview yesterday – voice hesitant, apparently near to breaking down at times. Why was he apparently not upset at the time of these revelations and very upset about them ten months later?
2. According to newspaper reports, a BBC Spotlight journalist delivered a series of questions to the Robinsons at Stormont yesterday, relating to financial matters, matters that will be looked at in a soon-to-be-shown Spotlight special programme. Is there any connection between this event and the sudden interview Peter Robinson held with selected journalists yesterday?
3. Will we hear more about Iris Robinson’s alleged suicide attempt? What form it took, who found her, what was done? These questions seem worth asking, as without the reference to her suicide attempt, the account of Mrs Robinson’s infidelity would look much more stark.
4. Why did Peter Robinson feel the need to come on TV and tell of his wife’s infidelity? If all the politicians whose spouses are unfaithful were to come on TV and tell the public, they’d have to form a very long queue. But then they see no reason to do so and neither do I. What sense of justice consideres a politician to blame for his or her spouse's infidelity?
5. Is this simply a sex story? If it is, then the journalists should butt out and leave the Robinsons alone - and Peter Robinson should never have called the interview he gave. Or is the interview some kind of diversionary tactic, to deflect from a financial story that is coming up?

Whatever the answer, it’s all certainly given the north’s politics a mainline injection of adrenaline. Given the DUP’s holier-than-thou attitude down the years (remember the refusal to sit in the same studio as Sinn Fein?), it’s hard to resist at least a small sip of the glass marked ‘Schadenfreude’.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Twist and shout

I used to wonder what the term 'feeding frenzy' meant. Now I know. The Irish papers, particularly but not exclusively those in the north, are full of commentators making little leaps in the air and emitting high-pitched, orgasmic sounds, in an effort to express their deep-in-the-intimate-regions delight at what they see. Or think they see.

Which is? Well, they're convinced they see the Adams family and, by extension, Sinn Fein in a state of disarray, with claims being made about what the Sinn Fein president did or didn't know about his brother Liam and how often he saw him after he did know whatever he knew. An uninformed observer might conclude it was Gerry Adams who was guilty of sex abuse and not his brother, and that he was guilty of covering up his own crime. The fact that there is no evidence of either of these things doesn't seem to bother the Feeding Frenziers. They're too busy leaping and squeaking for such niceties. Latest titbit is that my old friend Ed Moloney is soon to publish a book which, we're told, will contain revelations about Sinn Fein that'll make the Denis Donaldson affair look like a stroll in the park. No doubt revealing these republican-damaging matters will cause my friend Ed deep pain, but I guess he figures it's his civic duty.

The other source of indecent delight for the media gurus is the state of the Catholic Church. "Meltdown!' they squeak. "Terminal damage!" "Rotten to the core!" Some 92% of priests in Ireland are innocent of any child-abuse crime but that's just a smokescreen, isn't it?

And so the FFers hurl themselves around the media yard, sometimes bumping into one another in their excitement. When the two organisations that you must detest appear to be in serious difficulty simultaneously, it's only natural to throw yourself in the air, tongue lolling, teeth bared, going 'A-ohhhh-oooo!' Or words to that effect.

Monday, 4 January 2010

Cardinal Daly and violence

“He was an outspoken critic of those who used violence to achieve political objectives” Taoiseach Brian Cowen said. “I pay tribute to his consistent opposition to the use of violence” DUP minister Arlene Foster said. “He was totally opoosed to violence” and “an outstanding critic of the armed campaign of the IRA” said Dr Stafford Carson, the Presbyterian Moderator. They were all, of course, talking about Cardinal Cathal Daly, whose funeral takes place tomorrow.

Of the many eulogies, the last by Stafford Carson catches the core of the late cardinal’s contribution to politics in the north of Ireland. That’s because Carson is half-right. Cardinal Daly was indeed an outstanding critic of the armed campaign of the IRA. He rarely passed on an oppportunity to denounce it and those associated with it as cruel and immoral. He also urged that they could attain their political goals by peaceful means. That part of Carson’s judgement is accurate. The other half – that he “was totally opposed to violence” is not accurate and in fact misleading. Missing from the late cardinal’s attitude to violence (surprisingly, given the man's formidable intellect) were consistency and context.

While IRA violence received repeated rebuke from the late cardinal, other instances of violence appear to have escaped censure. I can’t remember him condemning loyalist violence or RUC violence or British Army violence. Did I just miss it? Or perhaps he didn’t believe it was his area – perhaps he believed that Protestant churchmen should look after that end of things. Or perhaps he saw violence from those sources as somehow justified and acceptable. Whatever the answer, there is an inconsistency and a decontextualised quality to his attacks on political violence. His condemnation of IRA violence took no consideration of the events which led up to the resumption of IRA violence in the early 1970s and less consideration of the history of the British presence on this island during the twentieth century and before. In fact, Cardinal Daly's views on republican violence matched closely to those politicians such as Thatcher who branded republican violence as an inexplicable outbreak of criminal activity, to be treated as such. Sad but not surprising to say, Cardinal Daly, so vocal in condemning republican violence, had nothing to say about state violence, whether that was directed against other states such as Iraq and Afghanistan, or against its own citizens, such as nationalists in the north of Ireland.

For those who value peace above all else, an anti-violence stance has much to commend it; but if such a stance isn’t flanked by context and consistency, it risks being mistaken for hypocrisy.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Do you, Atheist Ireland, take the Orange Order...

What a strange people we Irish are. In the south, we have an organisation - Atheist Ireland - that is very upset at the prospect of not being able to be 'grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby intentionally causing outrage among a substantial number of adherents of that religion'. In the north, we have an organisation called the Orange Order, which forbids membership to Catholics, ejects any members it discovers to be married to a Catholic, ejects any members it discovers to have attended worship in a Catholic church, mocks the Mass as an idolatrous practice and insists on its right to march wherever it wishes, especially in those Catholic areas where it knows it will give most offence.

I know Atheist Ireland want to be able to offend every religion and the Orange Order are happy to limit their offence to the Catholic faith, but they really should get together. Such a cross-border union was surely made in heaven.

Friday, 1 January 2010

Baubles, bangles and beads

Oh dear. Oh dear oh dear oh dear. Another year, another Honours List. It's like a kind of mating call that goes out annually from Buckingham Palace , summoning to service pliant subjects who then hurry to the lawns of Buck House and do the needful. Strong Labour men and women, who've preached the gospel of equality and class solidarity for a lifetime, trot forward to grab the broken bits of mirror and the cheapo glass beads. Companion of the British Empire, Order of the British Empire, Order of the Bath? Oh, be still my beating heart! Well yes I did spend a lifetime preaching that imperialism was abhorrent and that the British people had much, historically, to answer for - but look, this'll get me to the garden party and I'll be able to take the wife and put the letters after my name when I sign into a hotel! ... In this little north-eastern corner, of course, unionists respond with retriever-like rapidity to the call of their sovereign - as do people who would describe themselves as nationalist. I'll have to kneel before the monarch? I'll have to back out of the room in case the sight of my arse would give offence to HM? No problemo. I'll walk on my hands and knees if that's what's required. Sure all this oul' nonsense about England and Ireland and being a subject or being a citizen, being ruled by Britain or ruled by ourselves - the whole thing's a cod. It's my firm belief that these nice letters after my name will do more to hasten the day of Irish unity than thirty years of political violence. Remind me to explain it all to you sometime.