Jude Collins

Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Peter's pence of profit

Gordon Brown Hosts Talks With New First Minister Of Northern Ireland

Sometimes I feel sorry for Peter Robinson. I felt sorry for him when he did his famous Clontibret raid, swooping over the border to break windows on the main street of that little village, only to get caught. Next he knows he’s white-faced and staring down the throat of a jail sentence in the priest-ridden state to the south and is weak with relief when all he’s handed is a very hefty fine. He wasn’t cut out to do midnight raids, little Peter.

Often, looking at him over the years, I've felt sorry for him that he'd got a red-mouthed, demonstrative wife like Iris. Chalk and cheese. Oil and water. Flamboyance and anally-retentive restraint. And so, you might say, it’s proved. He wasn’t cut out to handle a wild woman, little Peter.

And now the BBC are targeting him for that property deal. It seems Peter and his red-mouthed woman bought a bit of land adjoining their back garden for £5 and sold it again for £5. You can hardly fault them for that. Mind you, at the same time they also sold part of the back garden for over £450,000 because it provided access to a major housing development. One of the people involved in the deal was a man called Ken Campbell who later ‘lent’ Mrs Robinson £25,000 to set up her teenage lover in a café. What's more, Peter didn’t get round to telling the House of Commons he owned the land and he forgot to tell Castlereagh Borough Council as well. Ooops.

His defence is that the strip of land wasn’t essential for access to the housing development. Could well be the case but that’s not really the question, Peter. The question is, was it the best means of acccess to the property development? If it was, £450,000 may have been worth every penny.

So why do I feel sympathy for little Peter this morning? Because a lot of people are going to lump the not-telling-the-Commons-and-Castlereagh bits with the £5-for-land-that-got-them-£450,00+ bit. That kind of money for a bit of your back garden makes most of us go a shade of purple with envy. The bit about not telling the Commons or Castlereagh seems minor almost in comparison. But it shouldn’t. As far is can be established, little Peter and his red-mouthed wife did nothing illegal when they bought and sold the bit of land plus part of their back garden. Yes, they made a huge profit, but that’s the way the market works. Don’t blame Peter or his red-lipped lady – blame the people who allow unfettered market forces to grind out such grand sums. If it'd been your back garden, would you have said 'Oh no thanks, take that £450,000 away, it's a bit grubby'?

No, if you want to nail Peter to his garden fence, nail him for not telling the Commons or Castlereagh about his involvement in said deal. That appears to be where he’s fallen short morally and legally. That and Ken Campbell's generosity with the £25K to Iris. And even then, I still can’t suppress a twinge of sympathy for the little man. His old boss Paisley Senior is fuming with him, the Westminster elections could prove very nasty for his party, and he could well find himself replaced as party leader by Nigel Dodds. Or (omigod) Ian Óg. He wasn't cut out to suffer such public disembowelment, little Peter. Give the boy a break, would yis?

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Cruelty, betrayal and truth

Consider this: what if Jean McConville had been a man? A single man, say, in his late thirties or early forties. And what if that man, let’s call him John McConville, had been passing information to the British army and/or the RUC, during a period when the IRA was at war with those forces. And supposing the IRA became aware of this, warned McConville to stop his activities, he refused to do so, and was shot dead. Would you – would I – view the McConville case differently than we do today?

The latest claims in Ed Moloney’s book that Gerry Adams was responsible for the death of Jean McConville, the mother of ten children, brings us to a series of basic questions about violence. If you are a pacifist, then Mrs McConville’s killing – any killing – is wrong, full stop. But most Irish people aren’t. Most Irish people believe that Padraig Pearse, James Connolly and the others who fought in 1916 were patriots and their actions heroic. Fast forward fifty-plus years to the 1970s and you’d be hard pressed to separate the IRA of the 1970s from the IRA of the early part of the century. Not everybody does, of course, but it’s a safe bet, at a distance from the horror of bloodshed, history will draw major parallels between the two campaigns. And in such campaigns, what is the fate of those found to have been passing information to the enemy? Death. Grim and cruel, but if you accept the campaign as justified, this treatment of informers follows inevitably.

But maybe some informers should be spared? Say married informers or informers with children? Again, the logic of such a campaign cannot allow for such humane considerations. The passing of information is ruinous to the campaign, often costs the lives of those mounting it, so no exceptions to betrayal can be permitted. And if it was a woman who passed the information rather than a man? To make exceptions because of the informer’s sex would equally make no sense.

And so we come back to Jean McConville. If she was shot dead because she comforted a dying British soldier, her death would be barbaric. Fr Alex Reid did as much some twenty years later and no one would dream of suggesting his actions merited death. But if – IF – she were passing information to the British army and/or the RUC, the fact that she was a woman or a mother would, in the grim logic of war, make no difference.

But that’s the one thing that reports into her death avoid. The loss of a single human life is a horror, but the refusal to deal with all the facts surrounding it is a betrayal of truth.

Monday, 29 March 2010

Quis custodiet?

It’s hardly good news for any Catholic that so many revelations of child abuse are tumbling out of the closets these days. One thing is good, though: the Church has finally got round to pointing out that there are media people who are less concerned for victims of abuse and more concerned to put the boot into the Church. The media of course deny this: I heard the Irish Times’ Patsy McGarry on radio this morning, disproving any such claim by pointing out that specific documents show a link to the Pope, so claims of media bias or invention can't be true. Sorry, Patsy. There’s a difference between saying that the whole question of child abuse is a media invention and saying that some media elements are using the scandal to put the boot into the Catholic Church. There are probably lots of historical and psychological reasons for it but there are indeed people in the media, particularly the Irish media, whose natural or learned reflex is to lash out at the Catholic Church and its clergy in any given situation. I'd be more than slow to say the Irish clergy have always been a gentle and Christian body of men, but that's different from carrying a festering hatred of the Catholic Church and imagining that it makes me look informed and sophisticated.

When you see how sparingly reason is used in presenting the child abuse scandal, the notion of the fourth estate as a bulwark against tyranny begins to look laughable.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

I've just come from a walk round the revamped Ulster Museum beside Botanic Gardens in Belfast. There's a lot of glass and chrome, a heavily-populated gift shop and cafe (always the most attractive places in museums and art galleries), some impressive displays of Irish silver from the eighteenth century, Ming dynasty-style pottery stuff from as far back as the seventh century, a Gilbert and George painting of massive dimensions (which includes a fairly massive depiction of Gilbert's - or is it George's - private parts) and some works by Sir John Lavery, including one of his wife, who was the model for a painting of the Virgin Mary in a Belfast church and who had a fling with Michael Collins during his sojourn in London. It's an impressive space and an impressive display of work, although I often think that the first museum/gallery to instal free electrically-controlled wheelchairs will make a fortune. But what I didn't see - with the exception of some work by Willie Doherty, showing scenes of urban sectarianism and decay - was work that reflected the Troubles. That's sort of amazing, when you think of it. Thirty years of massive social and political upheaval, to the point where the very state teetered on the edge, and there's little or no reflection of it in the artistic work displayed. Why is that? Is it that, for the gallery-going middle-classes, the Troubles weren't much more than an inconvenient blip, which has now ended. Or it could mean that nice museums don't feature mindless violence. Or maybe that murals are difficult to lend to a museum. Whatever the reason, you'll find more reminders of our troubled past in Stormont than you will in the Ulster Museum.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Cream for top cats

A general view of Fans at the All-Ireland GAA Final between Galway and Kerry

I wouldn’t describe it as a dog returning to its own vomit but I find myself drawn to news items about the University of Ulster, especially the Jordanstown campus. This morning they’re in the news because they’ve launched a Gaelic games academy. Martin McGuinness was there, praising UUJ for its advanced facilities and opportunities ‘not just for the cream of GAA talent. It will also promote the sport at all levels through coaching for local schools, both on and off the campus’.

That’s good to hear and, if true, is a reversal of the way UUJ acted in the past. When I was a wage slave on that site, I made regular use of the campus swimming pool. In fact, when I was interviewed for a job there back in 1979 and they asked me had I any questions, that was my first one: ‘Have you a swimming pool’? They had and it was an excellent one, and I used it constantly. All four of my children learned to swim there and I used to nip down to it for a quick plunge at lunch-time. Then, without consultation, the university closed it. Why? It cost too much. The fact that it was a wonderful facility for students, staff members and local schools, including Special Needs schools, made no difference. Some of us mounted a campaign of protest which got media attention and annoyed the authorities but it made no difference in the long run. The pool was closed and we were told it was part of a major development for ‘elite athletes’. A bit like the 11+, when you think of it: good for the top performers, a disaster for everyone else.

So well done, UUJ, for the new Gaelic games academy. Don’t forget to publish an annual report showing how you’ve served the local schools and local people, OK?

Thursday, 25 March 2010

I'll be the judge of that

FIFA World Cup 2010 Qualifying Play Off soccer match, Ireland vs France - First Round

One of the basic questions asked when analysing any media text is 'What is the source of the text?' In other words, the value or validity of a newspaper article or a TV programme is to a considerable extent dependent on who produced that article or programme. This matter of authorship has been almost totally ignored in the snowstorm of comments on the recent clerical child abuse cases in Ireland. Yesterday, though, I received a copy of a letter which is on its way to the Irish Times: whether that fine organ will have the courage to print it remains to be seen.

Dear Editor,

Recent events have drawn to mind that night in November last. You will recall that Thierry Henry was guilty of a serious offence by deliberately handling the ball twice, in the World Cup play off between France and Ireland. This was a blatant abuse of the trust put him by society to act in a sportsman-like way. The person who had jurisdiction at the time - the referee Martin Larsson - lamely claims not to have seen the incident!

Apparently Henry has apologised but this is a hollow response to the victims nay the survivors of his misdeed – i.e., the Irish national team. I know that I am not a member of this team but still feel that I have every right to speak on their behalf in relation to the so-called “apology”.

To make matters worse, when the incident was reported to FIFA, the supreme leaders of football, there was an inadequate response by them, indeed a veritable cover-up. Apparently these good men said that they could only deal with a handball which denied a goal and not with one which assisted one. They also had the cheek to say that it was the responsibility of their representative at the match, the said Mr. Larsson, to make the decision.

I, for one, have not watched a football match nor entered a football stadium since this incident. Further, I will refuse to do so until the referee and the board of FIFA resign. The assistant referees say that they were not in a position to make a decision at the time and it was the responsibility of the referee. However this is to ignore the fact that they stand accused of being part of the governance of the match. They too should consider their position.

Finally the fact that I have not previously watched a football match nor attended a football stadium is irrelevant. In addition the fact that I have chosen not to support football by reason of disinterest, laziness or indeed opposition to the whole concept in no way disqualifies me from expressing my views as set out above.

Yours sincerely

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Know your enemy

The SDLP’s Dominic Bradley is annoyed with dissident republicans: “Their so-called cause is going nowhere and they are going nowhere, except to jail”. Now I’ve met Dominic Bradley and he struck me as an intelligent man with a nice sense of humour. How then can he come out with bone-headed statements like this? “Their so-called cause”: you might reject the dissidents’ cause – a united Ireland – or you might embrace it but reject their violent means of achieving it; but to suggest that they don’t have a cause is to invite ridicule. “Is going nowhere”: there can be few people in this society who want to go back to the violence we’ve gone through in the last thirty or forty years. But there can equally be few people who aren’t at least fearful that the dissidents’ campaign could gradually develop traction and go places few of us want to go. The past year and more would suggest that their cause is going somewhere, given the increased level and co-ordination that their activities are showing. Until a year or so ago we were assured they were tiny and were hopelessly infiltrated by the security forces. You hear a lot less of that kind of talk now. If you’re going to defeat someone, you need to start by making a cold-eyed assessment of his/her present strength and future potential. On that count, Dominic Bradley and his ilk are going nowhere.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

On not running

It looks as though the Conservatives have had their way with UCUNF nominations for South Antrim. The local UUP branch wanted to have Tom Watson, the mayor of Antrim, as their candidate, but the Conservatives gave it a thumbs-down because of Watson's views on gay people. Which are? Well, that's hard to say. Originally in 2006 he said he wouldn't want them as guests of his family's B and B; then more recently he's said that it was his wife's religious convictions that were the issue, that he personally would have no problem with accommodating the odd gay couple, and what's more he would work for his gay constituents, if elected, as energetically as anyone else. Well now. A kind of a classic case of one set of convictions running slap bang into another. The general view - the law, probably - would say you can't turn away a couple from your B and B or hotel on the grounds that you see homosexuality as a sin and would be in some way complicit in it when you provide a room for the couple. But not to provide it would be to deny them their legal rights. On the other hand, it does seem harsh that if Mrs Watson and/or her husband want to act out their religious convictions, they must abandon a source of their livelihood. That would mean penalising them for their religious conviction - surely wrong as well.

It'd all be so much clearer if Mr Watson had stuck to his views on gypsies. It seems he's not keen on them either. By now the liberal elements of the Conservative Party (Yes, Virginia, or sort of Yes at least, there may indeed be such a group) must be wondering what traditional Irishl bog-hole they've stumbled into.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Is 'Over the Bridge' over?

I was at a play on Saturday night, a play I’d heard about dozens of times but never seen - Sam Thompson’s ‘Over the Bridge’. It’s the story of the Belfast shipyards in the 1950s and the fate of a Catholic worker, Peter O’Boyle, who has the courage – or foolhardiness – to stand his ground when faced with the intimidation of the mob. The play was first produced in 1960 and was adapted for this production by Martin Lynch. It had most of the Lynch trademarks – vigorous action, rough humour, the use of pop songs. But in addition to the acting, what impressed me most was the play’s refusal to adopt the Alliance position. You know, where one side is as bad as the other, isn’t it a pity we all couldn’t like each other a bit more, let’s each take One Small Step to reach out to our neighbour, etc. None of that mush. The victim, no ifs and buts, was the Peter O’Boyle character, and he was a victim because of brute loyalist ignorance that hated anything Catholic or Irish, and that had its way because those more reasonable Protestants in the shipyard, with one exception, were incapable of standing up to the mob.

Thank God we’ve left all that behind us…What’s that? We haven’t left all that behind us? You’re kidding me.

Friday, 19 March 2010

Reflex venom

Pope Visits The Evangelic Lutheran Church Of Rome
I don’t even know the proper name for them – those websites where people put their comments on an article or an issue of the day. I probably should, since this site provides that facility (even though so few seem moved to write something, be that good or bad). But looking at other examples of it can make you feel …low. Sometimes it’s the atrocious spelling, sometimes the highly-individual notions of what punctuation is, sometimes the way the argument wanders about like a diseased rabbit. But over the last couple of days I’ve been shocked – and I’m not easily shocked – by the way the clerical abuses scandal has been addressed. There’s a tone of seething hatred – that’s the only apt word – of the Catholic Church and particularly the Catholic clergy. The comments on the Pope - ‘that old German fucker’ - were crude and sometimes racist, the slights resurrected from childhood were many, meanness of the tone of postings throughout was, um, degrading. Not of the Catholic priests attacked but of the people doing the posting. I risk sounding like an old fogey but it is sort of sad to see relatively young people carrying such simmering viciousness with them through life. If the same tone was adopted with any other race or any other religious grouping, I suspect the posters would be filled with indignation. But because it’s the Catholic Church, liberalism goes out the window and hatred assumes centre-stage where it squats, suffocating complexity and reason.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Kicking the bishops

Catholic Church Hit By More Abuse Claims

Does the media onslaught directed at Catholic Church leaders like Cardinal Sean Brady and now Bishop Seamus Hegarty constitute a witch-hunt? Well no, in that we don’t believe in witches today, so all literal witch-hunting was against imaginary evil. The evil of child abuse within the Catholic Church in Ireland appears to have been sadly real down the years. But insofar as a witch-hunt is defined as ‘a campaign directed against a person or group holding unorthodox or unpopular views’, then what we’re seeing these days is indeed a witch-hunt. The Catholic Church is deeply unpopular with a range of people: those who’ve been abused by members of the clergy, those like Wallace Thompson of the Evangelical Protestant Society who regards the pope as the Anti-Christ and want him arrested as soon as he sets foot in Britain, and those in the Irish media who were raised as Catholics but who now make their living in part by attacking the Church’s various institutions. To say that the Catholic Church holds unorthodox views seems absurd until you remember that religious belief and particularly Catholic religious belief is now seen by many in this country as old-fashioned, backward-looking, material for stand-up comics. As a practicing if undevout Catholic I could feel gloomy about the kicking my Church is receiving and the hounding of its leaders from office. But then I remember how Irish nationalism was considered in the early 1960s: old-fashioned, backward-looking, material for stand-up comics. Until suddenly with miraculous vigour, it re-emerged and shaped the last thirty years in this country. As the late Monsignor Faul once pointed out to me, only when Catholicism is to some degree suffering persecution does the faith of the faithful flourish and grow.

By the way, you have noticed how the same people who are anti-Catholic Church are very often also anti-nationalism?

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Shoe swaps feet

Hillary Clinton Meets With Northern Ireland's First Minister
It’s hard to listen to Martin McGuinness this morning and not think of that Japanese proverb. You know, the one that says ' If you sit by the river long enough, you will see the body of your enemy float by'. For years Cardinal Cathal Daly was the scourge of republicanism, denouncing their violence (although, notably, never state violence) and calling on them to examine their conscience and commit themselves to peaceful means, the only moral path for Catholics. As a prominent IRA man and later Sinn Fein leader, McGuinness would frequently have been the cardinal’s target. Today, Martin McGuinness is the one doing the pronouncing on the activities – or non-activities – of a cardinal, Cardinal Sean Brady. The Deputy First Minister has urged the cardinal to examine his conscience and think hard about his position, and that the only moral path for a Catholic leader is to commit to openness and honesty.

A leading Sinn Fein man calling on a cardinal to examine his conscience and act accordingly: who'd have thunk it?

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Being Irish - or British?

The hard-heads, it seems, got it wrong. You know, those no-nonsense people who urge everyone to abandon silly talk about flags and identity and where power should reside, and concentrate on earning a living and feeding your children. Eminently sensible people. Well, if the Belfast Telegraph is to be believed, the hard-heads have mainly bone between their ears.

The Conservatives Hold Their Annual Party Conference
Sport/Olympia: Special Olympics World Games 2003

Because a recent BT poll tells us that some 88% of people in the north of Ireland consider nationality an important or very important matter. It also revealed that the population of the six counties is split on whether the north will still be in existence in eleven years’ time – 41% think it will be, 41% think it won’t. However, the poll also reported one in every four Catholics saying they’d prefer the link with Britain were maintained.

So was John Taylor (aka Lord Kilclooney) right when he said that around 30% of Catholics are in fact unionist? If you think the BT poll is an accurate reflection of the population at large, yes. However we know that people often tell pollsters what they want to hear. Sinn Fein, for example, consistently is rated lower than its actual performance in elections.

So which is it? Are the signs that a united Ireland is on its way or that the union with Britain is being cemented in place? The truth is, nobody knows. There is, though, a way to find out.

The Good Friday Agreement allows a referendum on the constitutional question every seven years. So far, none has been conducted. The sooner one is organised and conducted, the better, in my view. If returns indicate a wish for a united Ireland, then all bets are off and we’re in a totally different political landscape. If returns indicate only minority support for a united Ireland, it would be helpful if we could find out why people voted for and why against. But it really has come time for everyone in the north to face up to the facts in this area. John Taylor pronouncements or Belfast Telegraph polls are interesting and even fun, but we all need some hard figures and clear motivations to work with.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Victims and judges

I was on ‘The Stephen Nolan Show’ on BBC Radio Ulster this morning and found myself thinking about Colm O Gorman, Andrew Madden and Marie Collins. The latter two were on the show also and if you tried, you couldn’t find people less suited to sit in judgement on the action or inaction of Cardinal Sean Brady back in the 1970s. Why? Because all three have been victims of clerical abuse. They’ve been wounded, hurt; and when you’ve been hurt, it makes it very difficult to near-impossible to think or judge on a similar case in a dispassionate manner. If a clerical sex abuse case were being tried, none of the three, I suspect, would be allowed to sit on the jury. So while it’s impossible not to feel sympathy for the three in question and for all those who’ve been abused, it’s foolishness on a gigantic scale to ask them to judge guilt or suggest punishment for involvement in similar cases. Judges, like surgeons, need to be dispassionate, uninvolved. If they’re not, they make poor judges and surgeons. So wouldn't it be great if journalists could stop asking questions of the people least qualified to give a valuable answer?

Saturday, 13 March 2010

United we stand?

Northern Ireland's Assembly Re-Elects Trimble
“’Tis the eye of childhood fears a painted devil” Shakespeare said, and he could have been thinking of a number of current unionist leaders. That not-so-secret-after-all pow-wow at Hatfield House between the DUP, the UUP and the Tories was prompted by the unionist stuff of nightmare: that Sinn Féin might become the single biggest party here. It’s always something, isn’t it? It used to be that Sinn Fein might overtake the SDLP; unionists managed to stave that off for a while by voting for Joe Hendron in order to block Gerry Adams’s election in West Belfast. Then the cry was “Imagine if Gerry Kelly became Minister for Justice!’ Oh holy Jeez, let’s do anything to stop that happening. Now that that’s been removed as a threat, at least for the time being, we’re on to ‘Sinn Fein could become the largest party and Martin McGuinness could become First Minister – oh holy Jeez, let’s do anything to stop that happening!’ So the DUP eyed up the UUP and the UUP eyed up the DUP, and then they both decided that it’d be better to risk the painted devil of Martin McGuinness as First Minister rather than have to hunker down and sit thigh-by-thigh with their ghastly fellow-unionists.

Don’t feel bad, guys. If you think you hate each other, check out the SDLP feelings for Sinn Féin. And remember how Winston Churchill felt when he was first brought into parliament by an older party colleague. “Well m’boy” the senior man said. “There are your enemies”. And he gave a sweep of the hand towards the serried ranks behind them. “Surely you mean over there” Churchill said, pointing across the chamber to the opposing party. “Aren’t these people behind us our colleagues?” “Precisely” the older politician said.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Leaking talent

Football - Northern Ireland v Hungary International Friendly
So now the IFA has decided it had better get inclusive. It’s been inclusive all along, of course, despite the odd death threat against Neil Lennon and the fuck-the-pope chants at Windsor Park, but now it’s going to get inclusively inclusive. As a starting point it’s been suggested that they ditch the Queen (well, not QE2 herself, just the anthem in which she features) at the start of soccer internationals.

The reaction within unionism has been swift. Ian Óg Paisley (who as you may have heard is running in North Antrim) believes that ‘the national anthem should not be seen as offensive, it is the neutral anthem of hte nation and it is something that I don’t think we should ever concede’, TUV leader Jim Allister (who as you may have heard is running against Ian Óg) has similar thinking: “Attempting to remove the national anthem is bringing politics into football. The national anthem is the national anthem and this is the national team”. The UUP’s David McNarry says “Removing the national anthem from the start of football matches is not party policy nor is it under consideration as long as I remain the party spokesman”.

The issue was raised because some bright unionist spark thought that devising a rousing pop tune like ‘Ireland’s Call’ for rugby would be a neat way of helping nationalists (and, presumably, republicans) feel at home in Windsor Park and elsewhere. Or at least that’s the reason that was given. In fact, the problem is that the Northern Ireland soccer squad has begun to leak players to the Republic of Ireland soccer squad at an alarming rate. Ambitious, not to say patriotic young nationalist footballers in the north see the south’s team under Trappatoni as a team that’s maybe going somewhere, plus of course they might want to play for the team they’ve spent their boyhood supporting. But no one in unionism is allowed to say that. They’re all united on the official line that it’s got to do with making the fenians feel more welcome at Northern Ireland games, although not so welcome that they’d want to tamper with the melodic rendering of Her Majesty. On that they’re firmly united.

Now if they could find a similar rallying call for the Westminster election in May, they might be able to kick Michelle Gildernew and Alastair McDonell out of Fermanagh/South Tyrone and South Belfast respectively. So far, their mutual loathing of each other has made any such alliiance impossible.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Maith thú, a Dhaithi

Daithi McKay seemed to irritate Wendy Austin yesterday. The Sinn Féin MLA was on BBC Radio Ulster’s ‘Talkback’ explaining why he had asked for an inventory of all statues, paintings and symbols in the buildings and on the grounds of Stormont. It was, he said, to establish how many of those were devoted to unionist leaders and figures from the past, and how many to nationalist and republican leaders and figures. Wendy sounded a little tetchy as she asked why he couldn’t have counted them himself, wasn’t it a safe bet there were more unionist representations but so what, people were more concerned with bread-and-butter issues, weren’t they, like health and education and jobs?

Nice try, Wendy. But you see, most people realize that the public are capable of thinking about more than one thing. It’s possible to be concerned about the education system and health provision as well as caring that cultural artefacts represent all major groupings in the community. And yes, John Hume’s da was right to say you can’t eat a flag, but then why would you want to even try? As McKay pointed out, visitors to Stormont are frequently taken aback by the overwhelmingly unionist feel to the place. Outside of the Sinn Féin offices, is there even one painting or statue that unambiguously celebrates the nationalist/tradition in this part of Ireland? I’m as tight-fisted a blogger as you’ll find, but fifty pounds to the first person who can direct me to three such artefacts.

There are those who denounce Daithi McKay as a trouble-maker, a stirrer-up of antagonism who should leave well enough alone. But then, that’s what a lot of people used to say about John Hume in the early days of Civil Rights agitation.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Do you like what you see, big boy?

What do Mike Nesbitt, Fearghal McKinney and a blonde draped across the bonnet of a car have in common? Quite a lot actually. The blonde in the advertisement for a 3.0 litre dream machine has nothing to do with engine efficiency or road-holding powers; she’s there to take your mind away from such things. The UUP have selected Nesbitt to contest Strangford and the SDLP will shortly select McKinney to contest Fermanagh/South Tyrone. Why? Certainly not because of their political experience - neither middle-aged man has ever worked in politics. Admittedly, they’ve both reported on politics here over the last twenty years, but my postman’s been delivering my bills for more than twenty years and he still knows nothing about finance. No, the selection of Neskinney is interesting only for what it tells you about the UUP and the SDLP, and how they view the voting public. The choice of Neskinney tells you that neither political party has faith in its policies. ‘If we put the focus on our party’s political roadmap, we’re finished. So let’s get a Personality up front, have the focus fall on them instead’. And what does the selection tells us about the UUP/SDLP’s view of the voting public? It’s obvious. They’re prepared to wager their party’s future on the belief that, faced with a car-buying choice, the public will ignore the limo and decide on the chassis quality of the blonde standing in front of it..

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

A house divided

90th Anniversary Of The Easter Rising Remebered In Dublin
Has partition worked? It all depends on what you mean by‘worked’. Judging by the responses in some quarters to Gerry Adams’s speech at the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis on Saturday night, partition has been spectacularly successful. ‘He kept talking about the north’; ‘He has such a northern accent’; ‘I hate when he speaks in Irish’: that kind of response could be heard among southerners who, if you asked them, would still classify themselves as ‘nationalist’. On the northern side, some ‘nationalists' talk and think in stereotypes about southerners, believe Dublin is all right for a weekend but the people there talk in a ridiculous brogue, and don’t feel at home until they get north of Newry.

So while Sinn Fein have a job on their hands to convert at least ten per cent of unionists to their way of thinking, they also face a mammoth task with many ‘nationalists’ on either side of the border. The difficulties with southern ‘nationalists’ was encapsulated in their belief that Sinn Fein shouldn’t waste time talking about political events in the north. The difficulties with northern ‘‘nationalists’ was caught last week in the reaction to Derry’s short-listing as a UK City of Culture. Republicans stressed the need for the city to go forward under the name favoured by the majority of its citizens and to do so with a full inclusion of Irish culture. ‘Nationalists’ in Derry said in so many words ‘Shut up about calling it Derry – Londonderry is grand if that’s what it takes, and who cares what culture is included as long as we get the nomination?’

The hard truth is that while few ‘‘nationalists’ would vote for a unionist candidate in an election, many are content to accept and even support partition if it fits in with their self-interest. In the years leading up to 1916, the Irish people needed a profound political shock to wake them to their true identity. As we approach 2016, the same holds true.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Normalising the abnormal

The Queen and Duke Of Edinburgh Attend The State Opening Of Parliament
I’m fresh from a very brief input to the Stephen Nolan Show on BBC Radio Ulster, where they were considering the question of whether the time is ripe for a visit to the south from Queen Elizabeth II (aka ‘The Queen’). Sam Smyth (late of this parish) was on from Dublin, providing the official Dublin 4 view that this would be good, the final jigsaw piece in the normalizing of relations between Ireland and Britain. Then a man called John came on and he said QE2 would be hoping to God they didn’t send her to the south because they ‘couldn’t even speak properly there’. He himself had a northern accent you could cut with a cleaver. When I pointed out that having 5,000 armed forces on the soil of a neighbouring country was hardly normal and as Commander-in-Chief of the UK armed forces, QE2 represented these ill-positioned people, John got very irate and told me to get my facts right, that QE2 was not the C-in-C and I was thinking of America. A classic case of what Freud called projection, where you get very upset and see in others the faults most central to yourself. Even an ignoramus like myself knows that as head of state, QE2 IS Commander-in-Chief. Poor John.

But there are several other good reasons why QE2 would not be welcome in Ireland on a state visit.

1. Expense. The south are on their financial knees. Why go down on their knees even further for a royal visit?
2. Unresolved murders. The Irish government is on record as saying that British security has been obstructionist in providing files to establish the truth regarding collusion in a whole string of atrocities in Ireland – the Dublin /Monaghan bombs, the Miami Showband killings, the Pat Finucane killing, Bloody Sunday – the list goes on. The royal visit as a sign that all is well would patently be an expensive lie.
3. Absurd trade-offs. President Mary McAleese has hinted that the transfer of policing and justice to the north would be followed by a royal visit. That kind of ‘one for you and one for me’ thinking is daft, especially when it suggests that we’ve reached the end of ‘normalising’ relationships between the two countries. We haven’t.
4. Inflamed animosity. If you want to sharpen anti-British sentiment in Ireland, there’s no better way than to parade a British royal. Leave aside the history of the crown in Ireland: the idea of backing out of a room because it contains an unelected head of state from a dominating neighbour sticks in the craw of even the gentlest nationalist. Prince Charles’s visit some years ago might have been the happiest day in John Bruton’s life but a visit from QE2 would leave most normal Irish people feeling a bit less euphoric.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Clothes maketh the man

Foot's First Cabinet Post
Say what you like, the English people know quality and dross when they see them. There’s a photograph from 1983 on the front of The Guardian this morning, showing former Labour Party leader Michael Foot walking his dog Dizzy on Hampstead Heath. He’s waving his walking stick in the air and is wearing what we used to call a donkey jacket – a short overcoat. The overall effect is of a slightly weird old guy dressed unfashionably gesturing in what might be a friendly but might be a threatening way.

It was the coat that really upset the English people. He appeared wearing it – or one like it – at a Remembrance Day service back in the 1980s, and there was a gasp of horror throughout England. It was dark green! It was too short! It showed disrespect to the dead of two World Wars! Not one in a hundred English people – maybe not one in a thousand – could have told you what Foot’s economic policies were but every one of them could have told you how he wore stupid clothes and looked like Worzel Gummidge and so could not possibly be a good prime minister. Net result: an extremely intelligent, well-read, eloquent man, with policies that included unilateral nuclear disarmament (which made perfect military and economic sense for Britain then and still does today) was rejected as an odd-ball and dumped on the scrap-head of history. And who did the English people choose instead? Right first time – the perfectly-coiffured Margaret Thatcher. Where would we be without the wisdom of crowds?

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Same old England fans, always bone-headed?

Football - Germany v England International FriendlyWhat would we do without Association Football?....I mean of course soccer. I could have said simply ‘football’, but Gaelic football players and supporters quite rightly object to that use of the term. After all, they are by a very long chalk the most popular football game in Ireland, so to refer to a minority football game like soccer as ‘football’ is a bit like declaring the hop-step-and-jump competition to be the definitive event in athletics…

Where was I? Oh right – soccer. It’s big at the moment and it’ll become increasingly huge between now and the World Cup, one hundred days hence. Last night the Republic of Ireland played Brazil and did OK in holding them to a 2-0 win. Trappatoni may not be a flair manager but he does produce teams that have backbone. Tonight England will face Egypt and a lot of us – including unionists – will be wishing our next-door neighbours could both lose and win at the same time. Lose, so we could all have a good laugh at the deflation of over-inflated England prospects; win, so we could have the prospect of seeing them go to the World Cup and crash on a grander, world stage. Remember Gazza’s tears? Just imagine if the whole England team were to be defeated by, say, the US, and twenty-two English eyes were to stop smiling and start exuding moisture simultaneously. Yes, you're quite right - I am a rotten sport.

And John Terry – should the crowd boo him tonight? I do hope so. Not because he had it off with the ex-girl-friend of an ex-team-mate (how far removed can you get?) but because it may unsettle him and add to the jitteriness at the back for England in future games. It’ll also show how stupid England supporters can be. Terry is rich and famous for his ability to kick and head a football, which he does very well, and for which he not surprisingly is applauded. What he gets up to off the field is entirely his own business, just as my brain-surgeon’s sexual life is no concern of mine while his surgery skills are.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

And so's your ma...

I’ve never quite understood why John Dallat didn’t run for the leadership of the SDLP. He’s a totally fearless politician who speaks frequently and clearly, and doesn’t mind taking on stronger opponents, whether those be loyalist leaders or unionist politicians. He has been doing his usual outspoken thing about the Knock Golf Club scandal and for his pains has been subjected to a favourite response from some DUP politicians.

I know something of what the SDLP man must be feeling this morning, since I’ve had a little bit of the same thing myself. On a radio programme about six weeks ago, I reminded listeners that the Orange Order, in its history and its constitution, was and is an anti-Catholic organization. The response of my co-interviewee, Rev John Dunlop, was to suggest that to make such a statement was to be sectarian oneself. Get the idea? Charge us with something and we’ll attach a nasty label to you, in the hope that’ll invalidate all you say.

So when John Dallat called for an inquiry into how Planning Servoce approved plans for four hundred new homes on the Knock Golf Club site, the response of environment minister Edwin Poots was to smear the SDLP man: “For Mr Dallat and others to attack my department officials in the way that they have is morally corrupt”. At which point his DUP fellow-member Jonathan Bell called “And sectarian!”

It’s an old tactic and, I’m sad to say, an effective one. The comfort is that it doesn’t work with members of the public who use their heads when they do their thinking. As for those who use another part of their anatomy to form judgements, they’re hardly likely to listen to John Dallat in the first place.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Have a degree (You will, you will, you will )

Track and Field: 12th IAAF World Championships in AthleticsKevin McGourty is not a bit pleased about Usain Bolt and in a way I can see his point. It’s not that he doesn’t think Bolt can run very fast, or that he envies the way Bolt does that leaning back thing with his arm pointing up the air when he wins yet another race. It’s that Queen’s University has plans to give an honorary doctorate to the runner. McGourty’s annoyed because ‘it is baffling that Usain Bolt, a man who has little or no connection with this island and none with the university itself, should be chosen at this time’. He goes on to say that the university for years ignored Gaelic footballers and managers.

Spot on, Kevin. But then you didn’t expect it to, did you? Queen’s isn’t called Queen’s for nothing. Of course all aspects of Irish culture were frozen out. It fitted into a pattern. You didn’t hear Stormont worthies celebrating the exploits of Armagh or Down Gaelic football teams back in the 1950s and 1960s and 1970s. And you didn’t hear of Gaelic football teams at all on the BBC Home Service from Belfast. If you wanted to get Gaelic games results, you went to Radio Eireann. You still see a hangover from that in today’s BBC coverage. Except a team from within the six counties is playing, even if it’s from Ulster in the shape of Donegal, Cavan or Monaghan, you have little or no chance of having the game covered live by either radio or television.

So don’t go rending your Antrim shirt over the Queen’s decision, Kevin. It’s part of a historical pattern. Maybe just be glad that the university has finally emerged from the political Dark Ages. That’s if you think giving honorary degrees is a good idea. Personally, I think the idea of handing out degrees to people who have never opened a book is spectacularly stupid. I like Roy Keane but when University College Cork awarded him a Doctorate in Law, I didn't know whether to laugh or scream. If universitites want to pin a medal on non-scholars in order to get some publicity, fine; but don’t say a doctorate is a five-year programme of study and then give them away to the rich and/or famous.

Maybe rather than deciding finally to pass a few honorary degrees the way of Gaelic games people, Queen's should announce a complete end to the daft practice. That would be an enlightened step.