Jude Collins

Friday, 30 April 2010

Political parties and window-dressing

I remember 1992.  I was in the company of a senior SDLP politician and, as is the way of SDLP politicians, he was ignoring me because there was someone more important in the room. It was a few days before polling day for the Westminster elections and the senior SDLP man was explaining to the more important person that he should watch the returns in West Belfast  - there was going to be a dramatic result. 

He was right – Joe Hendron won the seat, defeating Gerry Adams. The senior SDLP man didn’t explain it to the important person, but Hendron was elected because a number of thousand unionist voters in the Shankill area voted for Hendron as the only available way to block Gerry Adams. There was much rejoicing among SDLP supporters. Five years later Adams won the seat back.  It wasn’t clear if the unionist voters from the Shankill got sick voting for a taig or if Sinn Fein found new voters to come out for them.

Next week in South Down it’s expected (but by no means certain) that Maggie Ritchie, the SDLP leader will defeat Caitriona Ruane of Sinn Fein and take the seat for the SDLP.  If she does so, the accepted belief is that she will do it with the help of several thousand normally-unionist voters in the constituency, who would see it as the only way to block Caitriona Ruane.

Fair enough, if a little temporary. It’s perfectly legitimate to go with your usual opponents. ‘My enemy’s enemy  is my friend’ and all that.  And it’s clear that Maggie Ritchie sees herself as closer to the unionist parties than she does to Sinn Fein.  Which, given the attendance of the SDLP man Thomas Burns at a mid-east gig with the British Army,  shouldn’t surprise us at all. But it does tell you something about the SDLP’s position on the constitutional question. Those who are staunchly unionist know that for the SDLP,  the question of a re-united Ireland is really just a piece of window-dressing which occasionally they put on public display, more often consign to a small dusty box at the back of their shop. 

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

You mean they don't head the ball?

Jerome Quinn is mad as hell with the BBC and he’s not taking any more. Well actually, he’s taking a case against them, because he says they discriminated against him on the grounds that he came from a ‘Catholic and irish background’.

It’s a tangled tale. Jerome (like myself an Omagh man) claims the BBC, besides downgrading him as a GAA commentator, was opposed to the GAA in general, promoting sports enjoying a largely Protestant/unionist following like the Northwest 200 motorbike race. He even says there was manipulation to make sure that a GAA player didn’t become the Sports Personality of the Year in 2008. The BBC for its part says Jerome was on websites, slagging off the BBC and generally giving out – anonymously – about his employers. In 2008 Jerome was removed from the BBC’s The Championship programme; in 2009 he was removed from the Sunday Sportsround Radio Ulster programme.

It’s hard to tell with these thing but I suspect Jerome won’t win his case. But win or lose, he’ll have done a valuable service: he’ll have focused public attention on the BBC in Belfast and how they handle things Irish, especially the coverage of sports. It is true that we get an amazing amount of footage of dreary Irish League games and obscure women’s hockey games, with a crowd consisting of about 73 people and a small dog. It’s also true that if there isn’t a team from the north of Ireland playing, you can kiss goodbye to any hope that the BBC will televise a Gaelic football or hurling match. Sports interest stops with the border.

Which makes you want to dive onto the couch and smother your face in a big cushion when you hear BBC presenters saying tut tut, isn’t it sad the way people here will insist on mixing sport and politics?

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Same old same old?

Six-Month-Old Baby Gorilla Makes Public Debut At San Francisco Zoo

How do young(ish) people here vote? I ask because a couple of days ago I was listening to two thirty-somethings talking about the debate between the political leaders in Britain and the debate between the political leaders here. Their conclusion: the debate in Britain was far superior because the debate here dealt with the same old things. They lamented that politics here was stuck in the past; one of them pointed out that the Alliance Party was a ‘non-sectarian’ party and yet people here don’t vote for it in sufficient numbers to make a difference.

I can identify with that. When I was in my early twenties, I thought the old politics in the North was a bore, that concern with partition and Irish identity were two of the most backward-looking of concepts. It took almost twenty years for me to realise, slowly and grudgingly, that I couldn’t have been wronger. In retrospect, I think my rejection of constitutional and national identity issues had more to do with kicking against the values of the previous generation than it did with any careful examination of those issues. If the generation ahead of me was for it, I was agin it.

I’m not sure as many younger people today think that way. The Troubles and their aftermath have changed a lot of things, including how people see the value of being Irish and the indignity of being ruled from London. But there’s a possibility that, as the memory of the Troubles fades, more and more younger people will adopt an outward-looking political viewpoint which, while good in itself, undervalues the importance of identity and control in one’s own country. Younger people may find it chafing that our politicians keep on addressing the same old issues. The way to change that is not to divert public concern to other areas but to resolve the old issues. All the distracting tactics in the world won’t work if the gorilla continues to sit sprawled on the living-room couch, nostrils distended, eyes glaring.

Monday, 26 April 2010

'Have you stopped beating your wife?' stuff

I knew Mike Nesbitt’s first wife when she, like him, used to work for the BBC in Belfast. She was a lovely young woman and I always thought it a pity their marriage didn’t work out. But that’s her business and his business, and nobody else’s. You wouldn’t think that, though, the way the media have been handling it. On The Politics Show on BBC TV yesterday, Nesbitt's family arrangements were raised on the grounds that Iris Robinson had been forced to step down as MP because of the revelations about her personal life. Again on BBC radio today it surfaced. What next? The PC police going round to check if MPs are dropping litter? Not using low-fat milk? Having lustful thoughts?

Overall, Nesbitt handled himself rather well on The Politics Show. Mind you he had only Keith Harbison, the TUV man and Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP man, to contend with. Harbison sounded like a student debater who’d wandered into the wrong room; little Jeffrey sounded…well, shrill, if you want to know the truth. At his best Jeffrey speaks in a Daniel O’Donnell voice so you find yourself thinking ‘This man has found peace with his Maker; he speaks from a pure heart’. Then somebody lobs Jeffrey a spin-bowl and before you know it he’s shouting and gesturing and sounding like a man who’s worried he’s standing on political quicksand. Compared to him, Nesbitt sounded grounded, reasonable and authoritative. Sounded. HIs content, alas, was the usual UCUNF ‘Let’s get more integrated with the mainland’. Appalling BUMF.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Big and sure-footed

Is there a more accomplished TV performer in this election than John O’Dowd? The Sinn Féin man looks like someone who might get up and put his fist through your face but you may be sure that’s not what makes political opponents avoid him. O’Dowd has two great strengths: he’s fluent and he’s unflappable. It doesn’t matter what the topic or what the circumstances, O’Dowd brings to it relaxed confidence and clarity of expression. A bit like Nick Clegg, when you think of it. Like Clegg, he knows how to ground a discussion in particulars. In the British leaders’ debate last Thursday, Brown and Cameron were flailing about, struggling to locate a point of difference between them. Clegg grabbed the issue of Trident, costing £100 billion (can you believe these sums?) and said it made no sense. Similarly, O’Dowd was part of a slightly self-conscious group of politicians gathered by a lake in Fermanagh the other evening. I doubt if presenter Noel Thompson did it deliberately, but he bowled O’Dowd a ball which begged to be whacked out of the park: which of the national parties would O’Dowd like to see elected? Ha ha ha haaaaa! The big Shinner opened his shoulders and the ball was a tiny dot, disappearing into the rushes on the other side of the lake. Presumably when Noel said ‘national’ he meant the main British political parties? Right. In that case, it was strictly a matter for the British people, who they decide they want to govern them, just as it SHOULD be a matter for the Irish people to decide who THEY want to govern them. Game, set and match, or whatever the cricketing equivalent is, to O’Dowd. People sometimes like to conjecture on who in Sinn Fein might be equipped to succeed Gerry Adams when he finally steps down as leader. That won’t be for a day or two but when it comes, the Sinn Féin party would do well to take a long, careful look at the man with the bruiser looks and the unflustered eloquence.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Being bitten and biting back

Sinn Fein Leader Gerry Adams Speaks At Nat'l Press Club
OK, OK - I got it wrong. I predicted that Gerry Adams would say 'First of all' between five and ten times in the course of the UTV debate last night and he didn't. At least not in the second half, which was the part I saw. In fact it was Reg Empey and Margaret Ritchie were the ones I heard use the phrase. How can you have a 'First of all' when a programme is more than half-over?

Appearance is crucial in these debates ( cf G Brown, N Clegg and that Tory posh boy). The good knight Reg used to look frighteningly thin on TV but recently he's fattened up to a respectable level. Except now he appears to have a head that's completely different, depending on which side it's viewed from. Left profile, fine, commendably normal. Right side - OMIGOD. No doubt a trick of the camera but it looks as if his head has been stretched into a terrifying oblong shape. Maggie Ritchie was in her usual red (another preference she shares with Sarah Palin) but then the camera kept shooting her against an equally red background, so all that was visible was this little non-fat face bobbing on a sea of scarlet. Peter, of course, looked as if he was trying to swallow a boiled sweet, especially when asked a tricky question;Gerry Adams sported a freshly-shampooed beard-n-hair, plus newish glasses that somehow soften his face. Now if he could stop fiddling with that bloody pen...

But hey, enough about that. That venerable organ The Irish News may dwell on such trivialities (it's critical of G Adams this morning - says he doesn't know how to pronounce 'Westminster', which indeed is very un-middle-class of him) but we should focus on higher things. Right - the big question. Who won?

Well, it's probably easier to ask 'Who lost?' Peter Robinson looked tense and even a bit wild when under pressure about that £5 land deal, so in the unionist camp, the UUP or UCUNF or whatever they're calling themselves these days came out on top in that little tussle. In the nationalist camp, Gerry Adams should have been correspondingly under pressure on three issues: the LIam Adams alleged child abuse case, his own non-membership of the IRA and his party's non-attendance at Westminster. Showing qualities that Houdini would have applauded, Gerry said people were everywhere sympathetic regarding the whole child abuse thing, he wasn't disowning the IRA but he wasn't a member, and the SDLP were Westminster abstentionists because they were too lazy to go there, not too principled. And Oh, Gerry added, wasn't the SDLP's Tommy Burns hob-nobbing with the British army in Afghanistan - that's the British army, he added, lest we forget, that did its damnedest to nobble the Saville Inquiry?

There are football teams that are adept at turning defence into attack in a sudden surge into their opponents' territory. Last night Gerry Adams gave an impressive one-man display of same. By the time 'That's all we've time for' was sounded, it was the lady in red whose gob was stuck in the open position, not that belonging to the mean with the well-shampooed beard.

A clear debating win, then, for the good knight Empey and for G Adams, MP. Will this translate into votes for their respective parties? Ah now - who knows? An awful lot will depend on people like you, gentle Reader.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Better to stay silent and be thought a fool...

NFL: London City Views

Cheesh – the population of these islands, particularly Britain and the north of Ireland, will be spoilt for choice tonight. There’s the Brown-Cameron-Clegg Dingdong Round 2 (the red and blue corner boys will be throwing everything bar the corner stool at Clegg this time). Then there’s the little local matter of P Robinson, G Adams, R Empey and M Durkan…Oh no, he’s gone, it’s the woman in red, what’s her name, Maddy, no Maggie, that’s it, Maggie Ritchie (watch and marvel as the UUP and the SDLP pretend not to raise family matters with Peter and Gerry but somehow manage to remind viewers about Iris and Liam just the same). And then, of course, there’s Liverpool in the semi of the Europa Cup.

It is exciting. Will the magic dust still sparkle and tingle around little Nick as much tonight as a week ago? Can David possibly wear as much make-up as last week? will Gordon do that funny thing with his lower mouth again, or is that, like violence, a thing of the past? Will Reg wave a £5 note in Peter’s face? Will Peter faint or break the habit of a lifetime and smile? Will Gerry say ‘First of all’ seven times or just five? And will Maggie repeat her claim that by withdrawing their man Maskey in South Belfast, Sinn Fein are really making it HARDER for the SDLP to win that seat? ( No, don't try explaining it - my head hurts. I suspect Maggie heard Rafael Benitez say his team will play BETTER , not WORSE after their 24-hour overland journey to Madrid and thought 'If that fat furriner can get away with the likes of that, why can't I get away with the likes of this? )

And what a pity the whole debate demands silence - no clapping, no shrieks of approval. How wonderful if the lady in red were free to celebrate if she scored a debating point: 'Hang on, guys, while I pull this red jumper over my head and run around the studio yelling'Sucks-boo to you, you hairy-faced Shinner scum!" And she would, too, believe me. Inside that tightly-controlled little body there's a veritable volcano of emotion, begging to be let out.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Action not words

DUP Leader & Sinn Fein President Meet With Tony Blair

Maybe we shouldn’t expect it. I’ve seen Laurence Olivier, a demi-god when he had a Shakespeare script to deliver, reduced to a silly windbag when he delivered his own thoughts and words. And John Lennon was a pretty good lyricist but he talked tripe when he was interviewed about politics. So no, we shouldn’t have been surprised when Fearghal McKinney appeared on the BBC’s ‘Politics Show’ on Sunday and showed himself to be next to tongue-tied on most of the questions asked of him. Even if he had been able to field them, his opponent, Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly, was at his side to slice him – verbally – into very small pieces. You might want to encourage Fearghal by pointing out that he’s only starting off in politics and that Gerry Kelly initially was just about as tongue-tied as Fearghal is today. True, true. Unfortunately, as Kelly pointed out, Fearghal isn’t really making a career switch from the media to politics: he has as much chance of winning in Fermanagh/South Tyrone as Gerry Kelly has of becoming president of the US of A. Here today, gone in a couple of weeks.

And now, as if that hadn’t shrunk the SDLP chances in Fermanagh/South Tyrone enough, there’s this evening’s news that Alex Maskey has withdrawn from the South Belfast race – AND that the news was delivered in Fermanagh/South Tyrone. Ouch, ouch and yarooh, you cads, that hurts! Having made the verbal offer of a nationalist voting pact and been rebuffed, Sinn Fein have now gone in for a spot of unilateral disarmament. If Maggie Ritchie’s rebuff of the Adams overture looked churlish and anti-nationalist a few days back, there must be another word for what it looks like, now that Alex Maskey has given the good Doctor MacDonnell a clear run…Ah yes, now I remember. Self-harming. That’s the word. Really really really self-harming. Well done, Maggie and Fearghal.

Monday, 19 April 2010

First on stage: little Eamon

Dublin Rally

My God – is it that time already? The Sunday Tribune has a photograph of Eamon Gilmore, the Labour Party leader in the south along with Maggie Ritchie, the SDLP leader in the north. Eamon is twisting his fingers like a man who finds himself somewhere but can’t think of an excuse to be elsewhere; Maggie is gazing into the middle distance and has her mouth shaped as though she’ s either about to say something rude or is thinking what it’d be like to suck a large popsicle. But the truly arresting thing is Eamon’s speech to the Labour Party faithful.

“It is time, in my view, for a fundamental review of our constitution. There is much about the constitution that has served us well but it is a document written in the 1930s for the 1930s… Let us set ourselves the target to have it [ a new constitution] ready for the 100th anniversary of the 1916 rising, that seminal moment when our state was conceived”.

Well good man, Eamon. Nothing like lighting on something that can cause a big a amount of fuss but not necessarily too much money. But could I mention one or two things, before you call that big ‘constitutional convention’ you talk about?

1. If the constitution was ‘for the 1930s’, how come it’s only now that you and your Party have got round to pointing this out? I mean, the 1930s was…Good God, eighty years ago! We’ve heard of delayed reaction but this is a bit excessive, isn’t it?

2. I love that ‘seminal moment when our state was conceived’ talk – sort of romantic and sexy at the same time – but presumably the ‘our state’ you have in mind is the twenty-six counties. Mmm. You know, I'd never thought of Padraig Pearse dreaming into being a twenty-six county state when he drafted the Proclamation back then.

Still, let’s not be to hard on little Eamon. He’s the first but you may be very sure he’s not the last of the south’s party leaders who will be clambering awkwardly onto the good ship 2016 over the next six years. When you’ve been busting a gut for thirty years or more to avoid all talk of nationalism, let alone republicanism, it requires a change of mental costume before you can come on-stage and start declaring yourself a child of 1916, an admirer of the men who engaged in violence back then so that Ireland might take her place among the nations of the earth. By the time we get to 2015, there’ll be standing-room only, high-profile politicians elbowing each other and telling anyone who will listen “Of COURSE we’re republicans! Always have been. In fact, all that stuff in the north over the past thirty years and more – it only LOOKED like republicanism. In fact it was ANTI-REPUBLICAN, if you understand republicanism truly. Which we do, because we’re republican to the marrow of our bones’.

Do you think has Eamon read '1984'? You know, all that ‘War Is Peace’ and ‘Black Is White’ stuff? Or maybe he’s busy re-writing it to make it more directly applicable to the 26-county state that Padraig Pearse fathered?

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Standing accused

Protesters Speak Out About Priest Abuse In Wisconsin

Here - read this excerpt from an article in today's Guardian newspaper and tell me what your immediate reaction is:

'There is something deeply disturbing about the all-too-predictable manner with which one malicious accusation can destroy a priest's reputation, career and ultimately his way of life...We live in a world where even informal hints of wrongdoing can spin out of control and destroy careers. The most flimsy of accusations are sufficient to incite a bishop to suspend a priest while the case is investigated. But even if the case is dismissed as having no foundation in reality, the accused priest still has to contend with the 'no smoke without fire' brigade. Moving to another parish is one option for the exonerated priest. Unfortunately some leave the priesthood altogether. False accusations against individual priests have a frightening impact on the profession as a whole. In a sense the status and reputation of the whole profession is on trial when one of their members stands accused. Time and again priests tell me of their concern about being accused of inappropriate behaviour or of sexual misconduct'.

I'm going to guess you felt indignant as you read this - why focus on the wrong done to the clergy rather than to their victims? You might even have been a bit surprised, that someone should have written in defence of the Catholic clergy. There are dozens, maybe hundreds of articles condemning the impact of clerical sexual abuse; virtually none on the impact false accusation may have on individual priests and Catholic clergy in general.

And the truth is, this article isn't considering falsely accused priests either. It's actually dealing with accusations against the teaching profession - I've simply substituted 'priest' for 'teacher', 'bishop' for 'head-teacher' and 'parish' for 'school'.

So why don't we see articles drawing attention to the equally damaging effect of false accusation on priests? Because an atmosphere verging on witch-hunt has been created. The great majority of journalists have run with it, listing the clerical sins of abuse and cover-up, joining in the cries of condemnation. None of them that I have read has had the courage to admit the possibility of false accusation, let alone explore its effect. Shame on those priests who've abused innocent children. Shame on those journalists who've been afraid to even whisper the words 'False accusation'.

Friday, 16 April 2010

How to sell a book

Last Minute Sales For Borders As They Close Their Doors For The Last Time

Ed Moloney ( or 'Maloney', as that venerable organ The Irish News today calls him) is a funny man. Funny-peculiar, that is, not funny ha-ha. Ed's consuming passion at the moment is to shift copies of his book 'Voices from the Grave'. That's understandable. You've worked long and hard on a book so of course you want to sell as many copies as you can. Ed's lever to get public attention this time involves reported death threats against Anthony McIntyre. McIntyre, who detests Gerry Adams and the Sinn Fein leadership, conducted an interview for the book with the late Brendan Hughes - you know, the one where he says that Gerry Adams among other things ordered the killing of Jean McConville. Moloney/Maloney says he knows who the people are who made the threats (he doesn't say how he knows) and if they 'touch a hair on Anthony McIntyre's head...I will spare no effort in exposing those responsible'.

Dramatic stuff, eh? Especially the 'touch a hair' bit. Visions of Ed as a hovering guardian angel, protecting McIntyre from any and all evil. He's had practice in the role. About six years ago I wrote an article for Daily Ireland in which I suggested that McIntyre was using the emotion surrounding dead republicans to point an accusing finger at the Sinn Fein leadership. Well. Before I could say 'hack' this emotional, slightly confused email from Mr Moloney/Maloney hit my inbox, telling me what a worthless, pointless person I was, how I really shouldn't have the temerity to write about this subject and that I had put McIntyre's life at risk by what I'd written. What's more, if anything were to happen to McIntyre, he Moloney/Maloney would make sure the world knew that I was to blame, because I'd written what I'd written.

Sound familiar? Of course it is. Ed's back doing his guardian angel act again, this time in the hope that it'll give some uplift to book sales. His fears for his collaborator ignore the fact that over several years McIntyre used his web-site 'The Blanket' to slag off the Sinn Fein leadership and its commitment to politics. Had anyone annoyed by what he said wanted to attack him, they could easily have done so at any time over the past ten years. They haven't and they won't. But dealing in reality doesn't necessarily sell books, hence the stern warnings about touching a hair on McIntyre's head. It's funny-peculiar, if you consider that my article back then commented on McIntyre's use of dead republicans to attack Gerry Adams and the Sinn Fein leadership, and here we are today with Moloney/Maloney using the voice of another dead republican to, that's right, attack the Sinn Fein leadership, and the supposed threat to another republican, Anthony McIntyre, to boost sales.Did I say it was funny? I take that back. Not funny-peculiar, not funny ha-ha. Just plain sad.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Two big fat lies

Right – let’s nail the first big lie (well the first one I’ve noticed) in this election campaign. Let’s nail it nice and tight and permanent to the barn wall and then let’s throw buckets of cow-dung at it. The lie is that electoral pacts = sectarian head-counting.

That was the excuse – or one of two excuses – Maggie Ritchie used to reject Gerry Adams’s suggestion of an agreed nationalist/republican candidate in Fermanash/South Tyrone and in South Belfast. Sinn Féin, like the SDLP, had agreed that the unionist agreed-candidate pact in Fermanagh/South Tyrone was an example of sectarian head-counting, so clearly Maggie and the SDLP couldn’t stoop to such depths in response. And when I was on BBC Radio Ulster’s ‘Good Morning Ulster’ yesterday, Tom Kelly used the same line: the Orange Order was involved in the F/ST pact, so it was intruding religion into politics, ergo a sectarian head-count.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. Whether you're SDLP or Sinn Féin or anyone else. Number one, forming a political alliance may make your political opponents mad as hell but it’s still not sectarian politics. What divides people in this statelet is the constitutional question – should we break the link with Britain or maintain it? The fact that the overwhelming number of Catholics believe we should and the overwhelming number of Protestants believe we shouldn’t doesn’t make it sectarian. Being for or against the union with Britain is not a theological position. We're used to idiot journalists from Britain characterizing the Troubles here as a war between two religions, but people who live here should know better.

The second lie, linked to the first, is that Sinn Féin’s policy of abstentionism means poorer areas in the North are not properly catered for – another of Maggie R’s claims. The unspoken implication, of course is that attendance at Westminister will mean the interests of your area here are attended to. Oh really? One can only scratch the skull and wonder what happened to Derry. For the past ten years the former leader of the SDLP has been representing it, swearing the oath and taking his seat , and…Well, take a walk through Derry city any day. Amble down Shipquay Street, for example, in the heart of that city. The grass isn’t growing out of every building and not every shop is boarded up, but there’s an air of pessimism and neglect about the place. Booming Derry ain’t. If sitting in the House of Commons made a difference, shouldn't it have shown by now?

It’s debatable what difference Sinn Féin abstention makes (they’d say you don’t underscore Irish nationalism by swearing loyalty to the Queen of England) but there can be little debate about the impact of attendance by MPs from the North. Except, of course, that it gives English MPs someone to patronize.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

What a FOOL I've been...

Good news – I’ve heard from my old chum Noel Doran again. Noel, as you probably know, is not just the editor of that venerable organ The Irish News, he’s also one of my blog’s most faithful readers. This time he contacted me to point out that I was wrong, so wrong to suggest in a recent blog that The Irish News had linked Raymond McCartney’s past as a hunger-striker with his present as deputy chair of the recently-formed Justice Committee. The link had been established by a Sinn Féin press release the whole time! Well strewth. If that hasn’t taken the wind out of MY sails. There was me suggesting that The Irish News might like to keep Sinn Féin tethered to their prison-linked past and it was Sinn Féin themselves were doing the tethering. In fact it’s probably the other way round. Sinn Féin do all they can to hamper themselves and The Irish News keeps doing its level best to show Sinn Féin in a positive, up-to-the-moment light. And while Noel didn’t say anything about giving a leg-up to arthritic SDLP electoral ducks, I’m sure that’s the furthest thing from his newspaper’s mind. The Irish News as a pro-SDLP anti-republican organ? I can see now what a ridiculous notion that is. Clever Noel. Silly-billy me.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Then and now

Alliance Party leader Ford speaks to the press outside his Castle Buildings offices after he was elected as the first Justice Minister of Northern Ireland

That venerable organ The Irish News is this morning excited by the fact that Sinn Féin’s Raymond McCartney is to be the deputy chair of the new Justice Committee. This committee will keep an eye on the Justice Minister and see that he does the right thing in all cases. The VO is excited because, it reminds us, Raymond McCartney is a former hunger-striker who spent 53 days on hunger strike in 1980.

Why does the venerable organ choose to do this? Who knows? Maybe the VO would say it’s because there’s such a contrast between the anti-establishment life-and-death stance of McCartney thirty years ago and his position today as part of the establishment, intent on seeing justice dispensed and law-breakers punished. Striking indeed but as I’ve said in another context, it’s based on the notion that things normally stay the same. They don’t. Places change, problems change and people change. Their bodies change, their understanding changes, their goals change. It’s called maturing and flexibility. Consistency is a wonderful virtue, but if you show consistency by continuing to read, say, The Irish News, even though your living room has caught fire, what could be hailed as a virtue becomes a self-immolating vice.

But the IN article has a far more important purpose: to keep Sinn Féin tethered to its past. If you can keep reminding readers that what may look like a respectable political party has its roots in violence and prison sentences and a fever of social and sectarian division, well hey, it might help give a leg-up to Mark Durkan, Margaret Ritchie and God knows how many other SDLP arthritic ducks.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Violence and after

A forensic officer examines the scene at the Palace army barracks on the outskirts of Holywood in Belfast

The bomb that went off near the MI5 headquarters in Holywood last night didn’t do much damage but it does bring into focus a number of issues.

One seized on greedily this morning by Alban Magennis of the SDLP is the comparison between the dissident republicans, who it’s presumed planted the bomb, and the IRA campaign of the 1970s and 1980s. Alban, with an eye on the Westminister election, declared both campaigns - the IRA and the dissident republicans - equally futile. He may be right. Maybe if there’d been no violent campaign against the British army and the RUC, we’d have the same power-sharing Executive that now operates from Stormont. But it’s hard to rid oneself of the suspicion that the IRA’s threat of violence and actual violence had considerable bearing on the startling differences in the old pre-Troubles Stormont set-up and what we now have.

The second issue is, what sense does the dissidents’ campaign of violence make, if any? All political parties, including Sinn Fein, would answer ‘None’. If the heavily-armed IRA wasn’t able to dislodge the British, what hope the puny Real IRA or the Continuity IRA? It’s a good point but it depends on things not changing, which of course they do, all the time. At present the Real IRA can make little military impact on the British army or the PSNi or the other elements of the crown here, as they would see it. But that was the case with the IRA in the early days of the Troubles. Then, largely owing to British insensitivity, stupidity and cruelty, nationalist public opinion or a significant section of it swung in behind republicanism. Don’t be too sure that, over time, the Real IRA won’t win similar backing, especially if, as so often in the past, the British have failed to learn lessons from history.

The third point, and one I’m sure the dissidents are very clear about, is the tradition of armed resistance. The Real IRA and the Continuity IRA are incapable of dislodging or even threatening the British army, so in that sense Martin McGuinness is right to say they are militarily useless. But their existence in however peripheral a way preaches a key lesson very loudly, and it is that Britain in Ireland responds only to armed action. There are a lot of nationalists, and maybe unionists too, who believe that to be the case. What should be done, if that belief is true? Ah – sin sceal eile...

Sunday, 11 April 2010

They are the greatest?

9th World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates in ParisWhat was it Churchill said about democracy - the worst imaginable system of government apart from all the others. Or words to that effect. A quick check of a number of Irish politicians, north and south, makes you wonder if Churchill wasn't being too complimentary. And a look at the Ten Greatest Irish People list compiled by RTE's Ryan Tubridy show would make you wonder if the general public isn't so much incompetent as totally crazed.

I mean - did you know that Phil Lynnott of Thin Lizzie is on the list? His version of 'Whiskey in the Jar' is great, but isn't it a bit of a step-up from that to listing him as one of the top ten Irish people ever? And Adi Roche? You remember Adi - she ran for the Irish presidency and got nowhere. She was and probably still is a campaigner for the children of Chernobyl - she's even been referred to in some quarters as The Angel of Chernobyl - and I am full of admiration for people who show such commitment and concern. But one of the ten top Irish people EVER? Come ON... James Connolly and Michael Collins feature in the top ten - makes some kind of sense -but not Padraig Pearse. Where's the logic in that? And did I say John Hume was among the number? It'd be a mean-spirited person who wouldn't admire John Hume, as an individual and as a politician, but above, say, de Valera? Or Daniel O'Connell? Or Parnell? John Hume worked fearlessly and tirelessly for civil rights, and he was an effective leader of the SDLP while they were a serious political force, and he helped bring about an end to the war between the IRA and the British forces in the north. Rather more than singing 'Whiskey in the Jar' but not really the sort of thing that puts him right at the top of the Greatest Ever tree. Put it like this: was John Hume a greater politician than W B Yeats was a poet?

Friday, 9 April 2010

Defumigating Fermanagh

I've been away for a few days and it's reassuring and dismaying in equal measure to come back and hear the flat northern vowels being exchanged once again. But I never know I'm really back until I hear a politician saying something truly funny. Tom Elliott was in good form this morning, reassuring anyone who'd listen that the selection of agreed unionist candidate Rodney Connor for Fermanagh/South Tyrone was about bread-and-butter issues. Ah, home sweet home, I thought. Where else would you have a candidate selected on the basis that they are a unionist accepable to both sides of unionism, then projected as answering the needs of the people of F/ST to have a 'working MP' - i.e., one who attends Westminster after swearing the oath of loyalty to QE2. And there was me thinking it had something to do with expunging the smell of republicanism and in particular the memory of Bobby Sands's victory in the 1980s. Not a bit of it. It's all about getting jobs for the area, and schools and so on, and you know how effectively that can be done by an MP from the north going into the Mother of Parliaments and saying 'Please, Sirs, we want more'. Margaret Ritchie, apparently, is upset that the unionists have made it 'a sectarian headcount'. You bet you are, Mags. Especially as it's going to make the SDLP candidate look like the one who either hands the seat to unionism or risks doing so. Meanwhile in South Belfast, Alastair McDonnell's underwear must be drenched in sweat: a similar agreed unionist candidate would soon put paid to his puny 1200 majority.

Sunday, 4 April 2010

A friendly word in my shell-like

Piers Morgan Launches First News Children's National Newspaper

I've been neglecting my blog - and everything else - over the last few days because I've been editing a series of interviews about St Columb's College, Derry, which I'm hoping to have published in September. But I wasn't so busy I didn't find time to write a letter to the Irish News. One Dr Joseph McBride had a letter in the paper, in the course of which he accused me of 'supercilious condescension' or something along those lines, so I felt the need to respond. Now normally writing to a newspaper is like St Paul writing to the Colossians - there's never any letter back. Not this time. Before you could blink I had my old friend Noel Doran, present editor of the Irish News, emailing me. He wanted to tell me that my letter would probably be in his esteemed organ this coming week but that they'd have to edit it a bit, as the good doctor to whom I was replying was not a medical doctor as I had presumed, but a Doctor of Philosophy. (What is it, incidentally, that drives men to let the world know they are Doctors, whether philosophical or medical? Some little insecurity there, I think - that's my diagnosis.) And my editor-friend also confessed that he'd had a peek at my blog and I should know it's five years, not ten, since I left the Irish News to join the doomed ship Daily Ireland. Old Noel seemed to feel this invalidated my remark about the Irish News people being more disposed to pluck out and chew their eyeballs than have me writing for them again, although he didn't actually explain how that worked. Anyway, I explained that I spoke in metaphor, so don't expect any headlines like 'TOP HACK HACKS AND CHEWS!!!'

My dear friend Noel was right about five years, not ten, though. Put my mistake down to my feeling like it WAS ten years since I enjoyed the womb-like wamth of Lr Donegall Street. And don't tell me I should go back on my hands and knees. I've already TRIED that.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Judges and victims (and a doctor)

Procession Of Judges Marks Start Of Legal Year

I find myself all a-tremble: this morning, after an absence of some ten years, my name appears in The Irish News. Not, alas, as a columnist (they’d sooner pluck out their eyeballs and chew them than allow that) but as someone mentioned in a letter to the editor. One Joseph McBride - who sees the need to prefix his name with ‘Dr’ - has denounced me as adopting ‘an attitude of supercilious condescension’ towards victims of clerical abuse. That’s because I suggested on a UTV Live programme a week or so ago that victims are not the people best fitted to pronounce on guilt or innocence of alleged offenders, let alone declare a fitting sentence.

Well, Doc, maybe you were asleep or greasing the cat’s boil while the TV programme was on. My contention then and now is that objectivity, detachment are necessary for any rational judgement. If I were to accuse you of punching me on the nose and breaking it, would you be happy to see me also appear as a member of the jury? Or as judge in the case? To argue that victims of clerical abuse shouldn’t be involved in delivering a verdict or a sentence is so different from adopting an attitude of ‘supercilious condescension’ towards them, I'm baffled as to how or why my doctor friend has chosen to link the two. But maybe they didn’t teach basic logic at the medical school he attended.