Jude Collins

Monday, 31 May 2010

Never mind Laws - I've got Osborne in my bedroom...

I was reviewing the newspapers on BBC Radio Ulster’s (sic) ‘Sunday Sequence’  yesterday and the resignation of David Laws came up. Did I feel sympathy for him, William Crawley wanted to know.  ‘Not one bit’  was my response. The man has a double first in economics from Cambridge,  he’s a former vice-president and Managing Director at  JP Morgan,  and Head of US Dollar and Sterling Treasuries at Barclays de Zoete Wedd. You think he’s going to be short of a bob? Or that he’ll not continue to be a big Liberal Democrat wheel, just as Peter Mandelson continued to be a big Labour wheel after each of his several disgraces?  I think not.

But I woke up this morning and realized David Laws isn’t the problem, it’s George Osborne. Laws is just a distant figure but I have Osborne in my bedroom. All over it. Or at least all over the walls, in the form of Osborne and Little wallpaper. Creepy. More galling is the fact that by buying that wallpaper, I’ve put money into the pocket of a vastly rich twerp who’s married  to the daughter of Lord Howell of Guildford and is getting ready to hammer the life out of public service provision and hard-working wage-earners in Britain. 

All of which should drive any right-thinking person on the neighbouring island towards Labour.  Until, that is, they hear the news that the champion of the common man, the working-class bruiser who gave credibility to Tony Blair’s Oxbridge cabinet,  the man who responds to an egg on the chest with a punch in the face,  has just been offered and greedily accepted a place in the House of Lords. It’s true what they say – you couldn’t make it  up. 

Friday, 28 May 2010

Just a little prick

Is it me?  A few weeks ago I visited my dentist. Normally I'm on time or early but on this occasion I came panting to the reception desk four minutes late. Stood there waiting for the receptionist to return. And stood. And waited. Some three minutes later the Unsmiling One arrived and spoke. “Mr Collins, you’re late for your appointment.  X [my dentist]  has started working with the next patient.You’ve missed your appointment You were supposed to be here at 3.40. ”  I try not to grind what teeth I’ve left and ask “What time is it now?”  “It’s  after ten to four”.  I look at my watch: it says 3.47.  I tell her this and and add that I was waiting about three minutes for her. Then, daringly, I add “The last time I had an appointment here I was kept waiting over twenty minutes. Shouldn't it cut both ways?”.  The Unsmiling One gives me a look and tells me she’ll speak to X. “Take a seat”.

 Much whispered conferring between UO and X. They peer round a door at me, whisper some more. Eventually X emerges, white coat, green mask, professional. “That’s all right – I’ll take you but you’ll have to wait a while – I’m with another patient”. “That’s good” I tell him. And then I make my second mistake. I add “But I think you should know that I wasn’t ten minutes late, I was four.  And I was waiting at the desk for another three”.  X looks at me, face now red and sort of annoyed-looking. ‘Yes, but you WERE late!’ And he strides away and half-bangs a door behind him. 

Twenty minutes later I’m in the chair getting  a filling,  which he precedes by giving  me THE most painful injection I’ve had in years. Coincidence? Or could he possibly have made it really hurt? Maybe not, although we'll never know. It certainly was a humdinger of an injection, leaving me groaning and panting in the chair.

There are two lessons here, I think.  Dentists (and doctors) can make you the patient wait  as long as they want, and do so on a regular basis.  You the patient on the other hand must NEVER keep the dentist/doctor waiting. If you do you’ll be sorry. I know I was. 

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Cushy number

Few topics generate more heat and expose more ignorance than education. A couple of years ago I was on a radio panel with the everything-pundit Newton Emerson, who announced that talk of difficulties or even crisis within our schools was nonsense,  our school system was very good and was operating perfectly well.  I asked him if he’d had much experience of schools in the last year, and he told me that yes indeed, he’d been back into his old school  a couple of months ago. For how long? For an afternoon, and he saw nothing but classes functioning perfectly well.  I tried to persuade him that his old headmaster, who’d supervised his tour, was unlikely to show him the knuckle-draggers class, but Newt wouldn’t hear of it: he’d been in a school, he knew the score.  Crisis, what crisis?

And now today we have a shock-horror report about how many sick days teachers here in the six counties  take (ten per year, on average) and about the number of substitute teachers that are employed. Again I’m tempted to ask of those bleating about reducing the number of sick days: have you been in classrooms recently? Have you any idea what teachers have to endure from some of their pupils?  I have and it's not pretty.  Not to mention the mountain of course work and general bureaucracy they must struggle beneath. The wonder is that there’s so little sickness among teachers. As for substitute teachers: when a teacher is away for whatever reason – illness,  in-service training,  field trip -  his or her classes have still to be taught. To teach them you need teachers. These teachers are called substitutes.  Now it might be more desirable that pupils are taught by their own teacher or it might not. It all depends on the quality of the original teacher and the sub. But taught they must be, and whoever teaches them is entitled to be paid. And if retired teachers are drafted in to do that job rather than young unemployed teachers, that’s because subbing is, even by teaching standards, a helluva hard job, and those who do it earn every penny they get.  If you don’t believe me, try it sometime. You’ll emerge weeping and clutching my garments, saying ‘What a fool I was, Jude! You were right all the time – it’s hell in there!’

And that’s the crux of it. Those who haven’t taught can’t begin to imagine what it requires in terms of energy, judgement, knowledge, courage, compassion, firmness…The list is endless. If you find yourself whining about teachers, pause long enough to ask yourself ‘Would I do their job?’  An honest answer will end your whining and provoke feelings of deepest gratitude to those who, day after day, discharge the most valuable yet undervalued job in our society:  the education of our young.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Two into one...Forget it.

They say those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it.  Having taken a hard look at the history of the SDLP,  Maggie Ritchie is determined not to repeat it.  John Hume may have put the interests of peace before party health but Maggie's going to do nothing of the sort.  Declan O'Loan had hardly uttered his words yesterday about the desirability of a single nationalist party when instruction came  from the top telling him not just to shut up but to eat his words.  Dutifully Declan did so: what he'd said about a single nationalist party wasn't party policy and he accepted that.  O'Loan should have known better in the first place.  His party  wasn't prepared to offer even the most basic of co-operation in Fermanagh/South Tyrone recently, so why would they want to merge with/be swallowed up by Sinn Féin?

That's OK, though, and kind of symmetrical as well, because Sinn Féin don't fancy a merger either. John O'Dowd was on the radio this morning and said so twice.  He even managed to get  a dig in at the disarray in which the SDLP is caught. What his party wants, O'Dowd  made clear,  is not merger but the most basic co-operation in places like Fermanagh/South Tyrone and Belfast South. 

What neither party explained was WHY they didn't like the idea of a merger.  Maggie Ritchie, a month or so back, made mumblings about nationalist co-operation amounting to 'sectarian politics' - 'And we're not prepared to go down that road'.  John O'Dowd dismissed the 'sectarian politics' tag as well but also made it clear that his party wasn't for merging with anybody - it just wanted to talk about co-operation and planning for the future.  

The one thing neither the SDLP nor Sinn Féin has done is give us a single convincing reason why they should not have a merger.  But the answer is obvious, and not very pretty.  Both parties have a system in place, with jobs and power at stake in the event of a merger.  Just as none of the parties in the south is keen on Irish unity, because it would mean the upset their carefully-constructed political systems. 

Ireland unfree will never be at peace?  Sounds like some parties, confronted with even the prospect of Irish unity and freedom,   go weak in the lower limbs. Party first, nationalist vote maximisation a distant second. Until they can explain why they're agin a single nationalist party in the north, we have to conclude our politicians' pursuit of Irish reunification is really just a pretend-race. 

Monday, 24 May 2010

Flouncing out of your faith

I never thought I’d say it but even in a subject like clerical child abuse there’s laughter to be found.  Thanks to a website called  Countmeout,  Catholics who want to leave their Church because 5% of its priests have been guilty of child abuse can now do so officially…   What’s that – you didn’t think you needed to go to a website,  you could just stop?  Well yes, but that’s so …undramatic.  Sign up at the Countmedownandout site and you’ll get to exit with a flourish.  Don’t worry if you  left the Catholic Church years ago – as far as I can figure, that makes no difference. You just go back and do a retake.  If you don’t, the Catholic Church will go on counting you as a member.   ‘Haven’t seen Mickey  Doherty for, ooh, twenty-three years now but  here,  he’s still one of our congregation, don’t I send him collection envelopes every month?’ Another reason for signing up with the Itsaknockout site is, they say, if you believe in the separation of Church and State in Ireland.  You thought you could believe in the separation of Church and State and still remain a Catholic?  Well silly you.  According to  CountthebeadsImeanclicks , you've been labouring under a serious misapprehension.  But the best bit is that the site lets you formally renounce your Catholic faith and still check in for the key bits!  If you were baptized a Catholic – and you’d have to be if you were going to renounce your faith, wouldn’t you? –  that doesn’t change -  indelible mark on the soul and all that.  Marriage? No problem  either -  renouncers can get married in the Catholic Church as well.  Best of all,  they can  get buried alongside people who, unlike them,  went on being Catholics throughout their dull,  undramatic  and un-site-signing-up lives.  Or even those dreary people who left the Church and didn't announce their actions online.  All gain and no pain, then, eh?  For God's sake, get  thee to an I-am-no-longer-a-Catholic site quickly, before you get knocked down by a lorry or something. 

Sunday, 23 May 2010


Two things have cheered my weekend so far. One was the glorious weather: once I feel the sun on my back, I begin to get positively disposed towards life, fellow-humans, animals,  and nearly every life form providing it doesn’t fly  up my nose or get stuck in my eye. The second was the item topping the news on several channels: that sting video of HRH Fergie  swallowing wine at a sharpish rate while assuring the unseen conversation partner that half a million would be a reasonable price for the sale of her ex-hubby – OK,  not actually selling HIM, but selling access TO him. Cue lots of shocked people, several from the News of the World who organized the sting, saying she had let down her husband, the monarchy and sales of NotW… Well no, not that last one, but the others for sure.  The most side-splitting was that the sale would maybe damage HRH  Andy’s role as a UK ambassador for, well for sort of you know selling UKplc and that sort of thing. Not to be confused with being funded for poncing all over the world visiting interesting places and having people who should know better fawn on him.

They say the British people like having the monarchy because it provides them with a real-life soap opera. The line between soap and farce  is getting thinner every day, I’m happy to say.  

Friday, 21 May 2010

Cracking an Orange nut

I’ve expressed my admiration on a number of occasions for John O’Dowd. He’s a big, unflappable, highly-capable Sinn Féin politician and some day may be among the line-up as successor to Gerry Adams. However, last night he was on television and he was made to look clumsy and ineffective.

In part that’s because he was up against Eamonn McCann, an old classmate of mine and the possessor of a very sharp mind and an eloquent tongue.  In part it’s also because the subject under discussion was a  draft bill  (see blog a few days ago) which in its present form would forbid fifty or more people gathering to protest in a public place without giving thirty-seven working days’ notice.

O’Dowd tried to defend the bill on three fronts. One, he said it was aimed at coping with unwanted Orange marches in nationalist areas. Two, he said the idea of thirty-seven days’ notice came from the resident groups affected by the marches. And three, he said it was only a draft bill, subject to revision after consultation.

Sorry, John – it doesn’t stand up. Because you have a problem – and God knows the intrusion of Orange marchers into nationalist areas is a septic problem – doesn’t mean that you can use whatever instrument you like to remedy it. A small nuclear weapon would probably work to  remove an intruder from my house, but that doesn’t mean it would make sense. And the fact that the residents suggested thirty-seven days’ notice doesn’t mean it’s a good idea,  any more than demands by victims of sexual abuse that Sean Brady step down make sense because they come from victims.  As for this being only a draft bill: why draft it that way in the first place?

This does seem to be a classic case of using a sledge-hammer to crack a walnut. With the number of cuts and closures coming down the pipeline in the months and years ahead, those affected have the right to respond in as fair and flexible a way as possible. Sinn Féin should go back, not so much to the drawing-board as its conscience on this one. 

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Leg-raiser rant

What a funny little fellow Kevin Myers is.  As a young man he was a reporter in Belfast for The Irish Times and he has never got over it.  Ever since he seems compelled, at weekly intervals,  to take a verbal trip to the north and West Belfast in particular. There he cocks his leg and sprays his contempt of all things nationalist.

He was in  energetic leg-cocking form the other day in his Irish Independent column, describing  the mood in West Belfast as  one of “semi-permanent hysteria sustained by a diet of mood-altering myths”.  That’s odd – I was in West Belfast last week and I completely missed the hysteria - disappointingly everyday, in fact. Mind you, I don’t understand how something can be ‘semi-permanent’ anyway  - isn’t permanent supposed to be like pregnant -  it either is or it isn’t?

Anyway,  little Corporal Kevin was in this particular lather because  West Belfast had had the temerity to elect Gerry Adams to Westminster. Well yes, that’s democracy in action, but if the population are in a state of hysteria and not right in the head (all those mood-altering myths), surely they shouldn’t be allowed to make important decisions?  Better leave it t to some insightful, intelligent person like, um, leg-cocking Kevin. 

The heart of his column was that neither the men of 1916 nor the IRA during the recent Troubles had achieved their goal of a united, independent Ireland. The reason,  Corporal Kevin figures, was because they acted violently. Between them and Paisley, he says, a futile period of blood-letting was endured.  I’m still trying to digest the wisdom of this notion when, in his last paragraph, the Independent's sage   produces his crystal ball:

“All they [nationalists] need is another Paisley and another triumphalist 1916 commemoration.  They have the latter, slated for 2016. Is another Paisley gestating in Ulster’s toxic womb? We have six years to find out.”

I hate to say it but sometimes even a  little leg-cocker can stumble on a truth. Because what Kevin seems to be saying, after you’ve washed away the toxic spray,  is that Ireland unfree will never be at peace.  I doubt if Pearse could have put it better.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Where one or two ...well no, where fifty actually are gathered...

Some things are hard to believe and I’m struggling with this one.  On 20 April, the First and Deputy First Minister published a draft bill about assemblies, parades and protests.  In brief it says if fifty or more people plan to gather in a public area, they’ll have to give thirty-seven days’ notice.

The first group you think of when you read something like this is the Orange Order. Anything that would help encourage that lot to think again about their essentially anti-Catholic organization and marches which flaunts its existence in areas which are opposed to it, is welcome.  No one has yet explained how this proposed bill would do that but I’m certainly open to being informed. 

The snag is, it won’t simply catch Orange bigots in its net. It’ll affect trade unions, campaign groups – anybody  or group who wants to express their legitimate views. Particularly in these times when governments are flexing their muscles to make deep, painful cuts in public services, it’s outrageous that a bill might be passed that would restrict people from expressing their views on such cuts.  What’s more, if this proposed law had been in place, the demonstration of solidarity with the Roma people attacked by bonehead loyalists would have been impossible, as would the occupation of Visteon factory, demonstrations against water charges, and loads and loads more.  The penalty if found guilty?  Up to six months in prison and/or a hefty fine.

I’m not wildly surprised that the DUP have been involved in such a bill – their attitude to working people is pitiful. Why else would they keep supporting an education system which penalizes  Protestant working-class  dhildren more than any other group?  I’m frankly astonished that Sinn Fein should have been involved in such  a bill,  given its strong working-class community roots.

What can you do? You could contact your local MLA,  or even your non-local MLA,  and let them know that you’d like to hear the argument for such a bill. Until someone provides me with evidence to the contrary,  it stinks. 

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Clerical child sexual abuse (again)

I’ve just come off the phone from talking on the Stephen Nolan Show about clerical sexual abuse of children. Dear God, but I’m weary of listening to and talking about this topic. The latest flare-up of air-time is the statement from Cardinal Sean Brady that he doesn’t plan to retire and will have a coadjudtor bishop working alongside him in the coming years. 

That seems to me a pretty clear signal that he’ll withdraw gradually from his duties as cardinal, thus showing that decisions within the Catholic Church are made by its members rather than public agitation, and at the same time soothing the fevered nerves of those who’d have not only Brady resigning tomorrow but the Pope as well.

I made two points on air about the Brady decision. One,  except he was possessed of extraordinary insight, Brady acted within the thinking of the time ( the 1970s). Around that time it was OK to take a child and beat him with a leather strap on the hands, sometimes as hard as the teacher felt was appropriate, and no one or very few thought it was  child abuse. That’s how things were  then. Likewise Brady I assume acted within the thinking of his time with regard to charges of sexual abuse. They were kept confidential (a different matter from saying the children ‘were forced to make a vow of secrecy’) and they were seen as near to incredible.  The second point I made was that the whole matter  revolves around Cardinal Brady’s conscience. Only he knows whether he acted in good faith, whether he discharged his duties then knowing they were not enough and that he should have stepped outside the structures and informed the civil authorities. Only he knows, and it’s a bit presumptuous for abuse victim Marie Collins (no relation)  to declare that if Cardinal Brady’s conscience told him he was acting in a moral fashion, it was wrong. It also shows a shaky grasp of the connection between conscience and morality. If Cardinal Brady had acted against his conscience, no matter what the circumstances, he would have been morally guilty. I presume Ms Collins and no on else would argue that the cardinal acted wrongly because he acted morally. 

Would the cardinal's resignation make a difference? Hard to say but certainly not to the recurrence of clerical child abuse. The Catholic Church in Ireland now has structures of accountability and protection in place that mean your child is probably safer in the company of a Catholic priest than with a member of any other profession in Ireland.  Sean Brady's staying or going will make no difference to that - except your aim is not child protection but a clerical head on a plate. 

Monday, 17 May 2010

Sisters could do it for themselves?

What's the silliest thing you heard in the wake of the election results?  My favourite was a comment from an ex-politician. With no trace of irony, she expressed satisfaction that Maggie Ritchie, Arlene Foster and Naomi Long had been elected to Westminster.  "I think they can achieve great things working together!"  was the judgement.  I'm not sure who this is most insulting to,  the members of the SDLP, DUP and Alliance parties  or to women.  If you're a woman, it suggests, you can't possibly have political ideas beyond the all-girls-together ideas engendered by dint of being a woman. If you're an SDLP/DUP/Alliance party person,  you might want to wonder what the point in political parties is, if half the population put their sex  (OK, OK,  gender then, gender)  ahead of any party loyalty.  Do note I'm not saying that there shouldn't be more women in politics. All you have to do is look at the British Conservative party hierarchy and you see the talents of women aren't being tapped. But to say that the core loyalty of women is to other women, simply on the basis of whether they tick M or F on a government form, is hilarious and wrong-headed in equal measure.  What's more, any attempt to push that agenda is doomed to failure, as seen in the quickly-rising-quickly-falling Peace Women of the 1980s and the equally ephemeral Women's Coalition of the 1990s.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Alex steps out

In recent days I've been berated by a number of people for the things I say about the SDLP. "You've a good word for everybody but never a single good thing to say about the SDLP!" one man told me, and for a heart-stopping moment I thought he was going to hit me, but then I remembered he was an SDLP supporter and didn't believe in violence.  But it made me think, I must say. Maybe I HAVE  been too negative about the Stoops.

Let me see if I can right the balance. As every unionist in South Down now knows, Maggie  Ritchie has been elected to Westminster, and while she won't be resigning her MLA seat  ('Double-jobbing my bottom'),  she will be passing the Minister of Regional Development portfolio to Alex Attwood (after all, he did support her against the Demon Doctor).  So will little Alex do a good job, do you think?

As Bill Clinton might have said, it depends on what you mean by the word 'good'.  The acid test of Maggie's tenure as RD Minister was in North Belfast, and if you ask the  many overcrowded Catholic families waiting for housing in that area,  they'd tell you she was as useful as a gelding on a stud farm. But if you were to ask those who lean towards the Alliance view of the world, or even the DUP view of the world, you'd find they thought she did a grand job. Certainly she didn't give any green light for social housing that might have imperilled Nigel Dodds's shaky majority, and she didn't build houses in an area where unionist voters might be upset.  It's a long way from North Belfast to South Down, but word travels fast in unionist circles.

So whither little Alex? Who knows? He may follow the lead of his leader and continue to lean towards Alliance ('No good in creating bother in a sensitive area') and the DUP (['Keep those bloody Shinner voters out at all costs').  Then again, he may figure there are relatively few unionist votes that'll help him staunch the vote-leakage machine that is the SDLP in West Belfast ,  and build loads of houses for Catholics, on the grounds that it's not all that long a way from North Belfast to West Belfast and desperate circumstances require desperate measures.

So now - who says I don't say good things about the SDLP?  My guess is that little Alex will do the right thing as RD minister in North Belfast, even if it is for the wrong reasons.  One thing is sure - if he does do the right thing, he'll shout it from the newly-built housetops. In very long sentences, of course.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Protecting the powerful

Are you public-spirited? No, me neither.  When I hear of have-a-go heroes who attack yobs with their umbrella or copy of The Times I ask myself “Why?”  Why is this man risking life and limb and probably other parts as well, to confront these law-breakers?  Isn’t that what we pay the police handsome salaries to do?

So when I saw the front page of that venerable organ The Irish News today,  I felt once again out of tune with the organ’s zeitgeist.  “Shoppers disarm raider” it declared, and followed with a blow-by-blow account of how a lad was overpowered at a Spar on the Glen Road as he tried to grab money from the till. When they asked the lad why he did it, he gave a disarmingly honest answer: “I had no money”.   What the VO calls “the brave actions” of the customers follow a similar incident in a bank on the Lisburn Road recently, where customers overpowered another chap and kept him helpless until the cops arrived.

Why do they do it?  Do the robber-overpowerers think that Mr Spar doesn’t have enough money? That they have a civic duty to protect the banks’ loot? You may be sure if the shoe were on the other foot – if the homes of the have-a-go heroes were being burgled – there would be no screech of tyres announcing the arrival of rescue teams from Mr Spar or Mr Bank.   In fact, although I don’t say it out loud In case the VO or some such should hear me, the term ‘have-a-go-hero’ might be better reserved for the guys trying to get their fists in the till.  Isn’t the right-wing press always urging those on the dole to get off their backsides and do something?   If these doomed efforts to redistribute wealth don’t show initiative of a high order,  I can’t think what does.

The bosses  are pleased, of course, when the public risk death or injury to protect the bosses’ loot.  Just as I’m sure BBC bosses were pleased when sports reporter Stephen Watson saw  Jerome Quinn typing uncomplimentary remarks about the Beeb and hurried to tell his bosses. The kind word for people who take their life in their hands to see no one interferes with the money of the super-rich is misguided, and the polite word for people who go blabbing on their colleagues  to the bosses is tout. 

Friday, 14 May 2010

Let's put the past behind us - OK, chaps?

Seems  a lovely chap, doesn't he? Fresh-faced, nicely-greying hair, tall, the kind of fellow who inspires confidence and even warmth. But then that's Owen Paterson's job. He's the new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and it's his assigned role to project a pleasant front for the British government in this part of Ireland. 

And he's not just nice-looking - he's nice-talking as well. Saying all sorts of cheerful, pleasant things.  Like, the new British government won't be carving into the £9 billion they hand out every year so our little north-eastern statelet can stay afloat. Before the election, his  boss David Cameron said that when he was elected, the first place he’d get stuck into when saving money was the north of Ireland, far too much public economy there. But Mr Paterson says that was all a mistake, what his boss Dave said was 'hijacked' and used for party political purposes. You got that? Dave didn't really mean it. Probably a joke that got misunderstood. 

No, good Ulster people, fresh-faced, nice-haired, tall Mr Paterson says, your £9 billion is safe. We’ll keep sending it. At the same time,  the north has "a huge dependency on public spending" and  "that is completely unsustainable". I hope that's clear.

And to underline his uber-niceness,  Owen ( I somehow feel the new British viceroy would like me to call him Owen)  has talked about his monarch. As you'll see from an earlier blog, the monarch-in-waiting-and-waiting--and-waiting visited us here the other day, giving a section of our population an opportunity to wet themselves with excitement at the possibility of meeting an enormously wealthy man who hopes to become head of state, not by dint of anything he ever did, but by dint of the family he was born into. But I’m not talking about him.  I’m talking about  the Top Woman in this awfully lucky family.  Not the Commander-in-Chief of the Parachute Regiment but the Commander-in-Chief of the British armed services. The lot – Army, Royal Navy, Royal Air Force.  Guns and tanks and fighter planes and battleships. She's their top person. Anyway, Owen thinks it would be "tremendous" if the monarch were to make an official visit the twenty-six counties, where she could meet the Irish president and her husband ( the Irish president's husband , that is – she has of course already met her own husband. His name's Philip. He's Greek.)  What’s more, Owen says,  his monarch "does have a bit of an interest in going to Coolmore stud". Owen appreciates and empathises with this no end because he's a horsey man himself. "I do compare notes on racing with the Taoiseach" he says.

So that's it, then.  The north will still keep getting £9 billion a year, except that this kind of thing is unsustainable.  Owen's monarch would have a tremendous time if she came to the south of Ireland, because she'd get to meet Mrs and Mr  McAleese plus some busy stallions down at Coolmore stud. And Owen isn't just tall and nice-haired and attractive in a Toryboy charming way,  he’s actually terribly like ordinary Irish people such as Brian Cowan because he likes betting on horses.

Listen to me, people, for God's sake. Isn’t it time we stopped this nonsense about wanting Britain to remove its 5,000 heavily-armed troops from the north-east corner of our country? And ceased this nineteenth-century nonsense about wanting a re-united and self-governing country?  You’ve no idea how tremendously pleased Owen’s monarch, Owen’s monarch’s son AND Owen himself would be if we did. The past could be all forgotten, we could all hug then head for the races with Owen and Bertie and maybe Her Majesty and have a little flutter.  What are we WAITING FOR

Thursday, 13 May 2010

It's Show Time

The Commander-in-Chief of the Parachute Regiment was in Belfast yesterday. (You remember the Parachute Regiment - the ones that shot dead fourteen innocent people in Derry in 1972).  You may have caught a glimpse of him on TV, being welcomed by Mary Peters and Lord Mayor Naomi Long, who did a nice curtesy before the Commander-in-Chief of the  regiment.  The royal person then gave the winning rosette to a sheep breeder from Glenarm, who said it was a pleasure to have met the C-in-C. Apparently the prize-winning animal reared up as the royal person presented the award. He also met the top civil servant in the Department of Agriculture . Michelle Gildernew was unavailable, having a prior appointment with a cup of tea and a newspaper.   President Mary McAleese is to attend a breakfast hosted by the Department of Agriculture at the show today.

What's the Parachute Regiment man doing at the show? For that matter, what's Mary McAleese doing there?  Well, it's meant to reassure all sides. The Parachute Regiment C-in-C's presence tells unionists - and there are a lot of them in the Ulster Farmers' Union - that the link remains, the Royal Family loves them, no need to be afraid. The Mary McAleese visit is intended to reassure nationalists that things have moved on, there's a sort of parity, in this case of heads of state, and although it's not here yet, the holy grail of a re-united Ireland is on its way.

You could argue that such things are window-dressing: what matters is that this corner of Ireland is ruled from London, and that nothing will change until a majority in the North want it changed, and there's no sign that this will happen in the foreseeable future.  It's a convincing argument, and essentially that which dissident republicans make. But consider this: if, thirty years ago, Ian Paisley had been told that the Irish president would be guest of honour at Balmoral Show, that a former prominent IRA leader would be Deputy First Minister and voted most popular politician in the statelet, and that if you drove from the six counties into the twenty-six or vice versa, you wouldn't see a sign or a poster of any kind to tell you you'd left one jurisdiction and arrived at another - would the Big Man not have fallen to the ground, twitching? And when he recovered, would he not have led a massive entourage to Belfast City Hall to denounce this sell-out?

Today, all that is accepted, and the cavalcade of protest has taken an electoral form and instead sent the leader  of the DUP packing.   It may all be window-dressing, a massive attempt to get nationalists to accept the continuation of British rule here. But it might also be a series of straws in the wind, showing that we're on a slow drift to British withdrawal from here. Certainly that's what an awful lot of unionists, deep in their gut, believe.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Flowers and forgetting

It’s odd the associations that fix themselves in your mind. Every May when I see those small yellow whin-bush flowers flaring on hillsides and by the road, I think of Brother Skehan.  He was my teacher in the Christian Brothers Primary School in Omagh and he encouraged us all to bring in flowers, for arrangement in front of the Fourth Class May altar.  When you’re a nine-year-old boy in the 1950s, you try hard to please your teacher. So I informed my mother that flowers were important and must be brought. A sensible woman, my mother saw that our snowdrops and daffodils were gone, our garden was empty. “Go and get a load of those nice yellow flowers out the lane” she told me. They were prickly to pick but I managed a half-bucketload of them. She wrapped them in an old newspaper and I brought them in to class.

Brother Skehan murmured his thanks as he took them from me but I detected that something was wrong. It wasn’t quite the warm gratitude he showed to the Mullan twins and Martin Gallagher and the other well-behaved town boys when they handed over their flowers, most of them satiny tulips in nice white paper wraps.

That afternoon, I was half-way down the school yard after class when I remembered I’d left my homework book on my desk. Brother Skehan had gone but he’d arranged the May altar for the next day. Mary’s statue was surrounded by lovely white and red and pink tulips. No sign of my yellow whin-bush flowers. Then I looked in the waste-paper basket. There they lay, waiting for the caretaker man to come and dump them. My flowers had been a stupid, ugly failure.

It’s at this point that the usual commentators would jump in and denounce the brutal, unfeeling, child-abusing Christian Brothers, why couldn’t he have used my flowers, how unfeeling, how nasty. But hold. Brother Skehan, that incident aside, was a wonderful man. He rarely slapped. He taught us Irish songs and English songs,  D’Ye Ken John Peel  and Amhrán na bhFiann and The Green Glens of Antrim. He  taught us to play four-part harmony on the recorder. He taught us glorious prose like the Magnificat, which I can recite to this day. He taught us with gentleness and intelligence and humour.

So why do I remember my humiliation at his hands every May?  Because it’s easy to forget the good  which Christian Brothers like Brother Skehan did and easy to remember the hurts.  Ask Malachi  O’Doherty. 

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Kingmakers or easy meat?

Well - isn't it exciting?  One minute Nick Clegg looks like he's going to fall into the arms of David Cameron, the next he's heading for the manly embrace of, er, um,  A N Other. Alas poor Gordon, we didn't have time to know him well. Ian Paisley figured that as a son of the manse, Gord would be sympathetic to fellow Presbyterians here in the North.  Mmm.  He should have tried telling that to the Presbyterian Mutual Fund people.

Anyway we are, as they say, where we are - with the possibility that the MPs from the North will form a vital part of a coalition mainly made up of Labour and the Lib Dems. You can almost hear Maggie Ritchie  getting her best red frock from the wardrobe and her best debating-society speech for delivery shortly after swearing fealty to Queen Elizabeth II.  But if the baker's dozen from here are key to the formation of the next British government, have Sinn Féin shot themselves in the foot (if that's the metaphor I want) by abstaining? Are they outside the loop?

Well yes, they're certainly outside the physical loop - they don't go into the debating chamber of the House of Commons. Does that mean they don't count? It does - they won't help form the numbers that would put the Lib-Lab group over the majority line. But it'd be a mistake to see the baker's dozen as wielding massive influence, or even teensy-weensy influence.

Supposing a coalition of Lib-Lab-Scots-Welsh-Irish is formed. And suppose the baker's dozen from here  - or some of them - decide they don't like something - say, the cuts planned for here - and they pull out and the whole edifice collapses and there's another general election. That's not going to endear the North's representatives to the Brits of whatever political stripe. It won't do anything for the state of affairs here  either - the government that gets elected next time will be mad as hell at the North and will have the support of the British people in putting the boot into this sad little corner.

Don't think our politicians haven't figured this out - they're not that stupid. If they go into coalition with the Lib Dems and Labour  - IF  - and by the time you read this,  the Lib Dems may have gone scurryring back into the clammy Cameron embrace - they  will be prisoners in the cage created by themselves. Incidentally, the people from here least likely to break out of any coalition are the DUPers.  Why? Because the last thing they want is to bring to the forefront a thought that continually lurks at the back of the British electorate's mind: what in God's name are we doing, paying £8 billion in subsidies to this bunch of Irish nutters?

Monday, 10 May 2010

Who's on next?

There is one hot topic bubbling beneath the surface of unionism this week, and that is, who’s going to replace Peter Robinson as DUP leader when, as inevitably he will, he steps/ is pushed down. It’s an important question because though the Robinson defeat in East Belfast was a catastrophe for the party and their share of the vote in several other constituencies went down, the party still returned eight MPs,  three more than their Sinn Féin opponents.

I was talking to two unionists  - neither DUP people  - on the morning after the Westminster election and I suggested that Ian Óg Paisley might be the man.  He seemed to be having a hard time restraining himself from breaking into an Irish jig up in North Antrim on election night. Not only had he slain the TUV dragon Jim Allister, not only had he proved he could step into his da’s shoes, but word from East Belfast suggested a coming vacancy for leader of the DUP. Wasn’t this a case, I asked my two unionists, of cometh the hour, cometh the Paisley?  Both were emphatic that Ian Óg would not fit as DUP leader. Too abrasive, too many enemies. Instead, they both said, Arlene Foster would be the DUP choice.

Are they right? Perhaps. But then have a look at some of the predictions by supposed experts prior to the election. Did many of them get it right? I know one eminent nationalist commentator who on the Sunday before the election confidently predicted that Michelle Gildernew would lose  in Fermanagh/South Tyrone and that the only threat to Peter Robinson in East Belfast would come from Trevor Ringland of UCUNF but that Robinson would see him off.

The thing about experts, besides their ability to get it wrong,  is that they have no shame. Remember Steven King? He was a key adviser to David Trimble in the years leading up to the UUP leader’s defeat.  Put bluntly,  he advised his boss into oblivion. So who did we get on election night  TV, dispensing his political wisdom to the nation? Yep – the triple-brass-necked Dr King.  The People Who Know are firm in dismissing the fruit of Dr Paisley’s loins. Don’t bet on it, guys. 

Sunday, 9 May 2010

I don't think therefore...

They're going to close the philosophy department at Middlesex university.  It's not making enough money, the head honchos figure.  The fact that, like hospitals or schools, universities aren't in the business of making money doesn't seem to have struck them.  To their credit,  eminent philosophers from all around the world, including Noam Chomsky, have petitioned that the university have a rethink. It is an outstanding philosophy department, they say. If it's closed it will be a loss not just to Britain but  to the rest of Europe and the rest of the world.

I think their argument is a little flawed. It shouldn't matter whether a university has an A* philosophy department or a philosophy department that scrapes a C+ rating.  Any self-respecting university should have a philosophy department - the best they can make it. Why? Because philosophy informs everything in life. It looks at questions like why we're here, what's the best use we can make of our time while we are here, and what makes for a society that encourages good use of limited time. You can't get much more useful questions than that.

There are, of course, people who don't want to encourage thoughts about such things. Like politicians. In fact, in politics the word 'philosophy' has become a dirty word. You must be a a non-philosophical pragmatist  (yes I know it's a contradiction in terms, but that's how the enemies of philosophy talk). And so we have parties whose only boast to the electorate is that they would run things better than the other lot.  With them it's not a question of what the purpose of the machine is, or where it's taking us, or whether it wouldn't be far better to put in place another machine entirely.  It's a question of being able to oil the machine and keep it humming merrily along.

Take political parties in Ireland. What does Fianna Fail exist for, other than grabbing power when the opportunity arises? Or Fine Gael? Or (God help us) Labour?  In the north, the unionist parties declare their allegiance to the crown, and that's about it. Alliance's philosophy is that we should be nicer to each other. And the SDLP  believes that...Well, on TV today, according to Alastair McDonnell, they believe in a united Ireland. Before the election they were pretty quiet about it, but now they are Irish nationalists.  Perhaps the only party in Ireland which can lay claim to a political philosophy is Sinn Fein, who argue for equality,  justice and national unity - in short, republicanism.  For their pains they've been pilloried, denounced as doctrinaire, out-of-touch and lots of other barbs which suggest that anyone with a political philosophy  is  a fascist.

Naturally it's in the interests of those who control society to keep people from thinking about the shape of the state. The more you can convince them that we've arrived at Nirvana, and the only thing now is to keep the big machine chuntering along without too many breakdowns.  That way, you'll have the ideal: willing workers without a thought in their heads.

Asking big questions about the organisation of the state and how that fits in with one's vision of how life in general  - those should be at the heart of  the third-level education given to thousandes of young people here. If we had a philosophically-literate population,  those in power wouldn't get away with the talent-show rubbish that passed for politics in Britain during the leaders' debates and the low-level cunning of their present negotiations.   Here in our own dear statelet,  we might hear less howling when people like the Shinners put forward  for discussion alternative models of government.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Reflections on an election


OK, OK - I'm a lazy sod. Also very knackered after staying up all night AND getting up at 5.45 a.m. to go into BBC Radio Ulster. ( Q: Was my journey really necessary? Don't ask.)  A few initial thoughts on the election.

1. The Alliance's capture of East Belfast and Peter Robinson's loss of same was, yes, jaw-dropping, seismic, the-earth-moved, etc.  But while it couldn't happen to a nicer guy,  I don't think that the loss of an already-wounded leader is going to send the DUP down the plug-hole just yet. I mean, any party strong enough to get Willie McCrea elected ....  Likewise,  Naomi Long's election, while an excellent achievement, doesn't mean there's going to be a resurgence of the Alliance Party and that we're all going to start looking for taigs/prods to hug. The event hasn't strengthened the DUP and it has done the Alliance Party loadsagood, but in the end it's one senior personality, not a party transformation. The Alliance Party still have only one MP, the DUP still have eight.

2.  Nationalism had a good outing - but again not something to be flinging greasy caps over the moon about (with the possible exception of Fermanagh/South Tyrone, about which more anon).  The SDLP kept their three seats, Sinn Fein kept their five. The notable things tended to be relatively minor although still important, on the nationalist side:

* Margaret Ritchie's talk about avoiding sectarian pacts is self-serving waffle. Under that definition, the pan-nationalist front that led to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement was a sectarian pact. Has she told John Hume yet?   Maggie refused to give Sinn Fein a clear field in Fermanagh/South Tyrone (i) because she dislikes Sinn Fein more than any unionist she knows; (ii) because she knew it would alienate all those unionist votes she needed to win in South Down. Nothing wrong with that but she should admit as much and stifle the flannel.
*  Ed Moloney and his pals in the northern and southern media did their best to declare Gerry Adams a liar, a murderer,  a cover-upper of child sexual abuse.  He was returned with a majority of over 17,000.  Either the people of West Belfast are singularly devoid of ethical stature or they know a shower of anti-republican fanatics when they see them.
* Gerry Kelly did a good job of slicing Nigel Dodds's 5,000 majority in North Belfast - down this time to 2,200.  It's a bit like having your bum tied to a conveyor belt and a bacon slicer whirring up ahead. It may not be time to start yelling yet, but it shouldn't be long.  Tiochfaidh ar bacon-slicer...
*  Sinn Fein's victory in Fermanagh/South Tyrone was invigorating,  full of suspense and an achievement that ranked alongside Naomi Long's. But Sinn Fein need to keep it in perspective. They're where they were before the election - marking time, essentially, if you don't count their topping the overall percentage poll by half a per cent.  That's good, but until they find a way to tap into the educated, professional nationalist class and run some of these people as their candidates (as well as used them to plan their strategy/write their policies), they're not going to make the major leap they need to really shake things up in this tormented little corner.

That said, it was a so-much-better-than-expected election, both in process and in product. Isn't it lovely to think we'll have another one inside the next six months or so? Yipeee!

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

The truth? Do tell...

Interesting article in yesterday's Guardian newspaper, titled 'Heads demand fines for false complaints by parents'.  It's about the annual conference of head teachers in Britain, where they're fed up with some parents who have what they call a 'lottery mentality' - they chance their luck that they'll be awarded compensation for accusations they've dreamed up. The heads' union and other teaching associations want fines imposed for this kind of thing. The latest British figures show over 4,000 accusations were made against teachers in 2006/7, mostly claiming assault. One in 20 proved to be true.

Two things worth noting here, I think. One,  who was the idiot who said that teaching was a cushy job with short hours and long holidays? Just coping with youngsters in the classroom today, not to mention the mountain of paperwork every teacher is buried under, makes teaching demanding beyond the understanding of those outside the classroom. Add to that  the lying little creeps and their lying big mas and das who don't mind smearing innocent teachers if they think they can squeeze a bit of money out of it, and you have a job that only the brave can face day after day.  The second thing worth noting is this question: if some children  - 19 out of 20 if we go by the figures -  lie about being physically (or sexually) abused by their teachers,  isn't it equally possible that a lot of children (or ex-children) lie about being physically or sexually abused by Catholic priests?  Or is that one of those things that everyone is afraid to even suggest, in the present witch-hunt atmosphere?

Monday, 3 May 2010

Bums on benches

It's a wonder some of our politicians and a fair number of public commentators have any hands left, they've been wringing them so hard in recent days. The latest occasion for exasperation has been Sinn Fein's commitment to abstentionism. The politicians down Fermanagh/South Tyrone way insist that it's important to oust Michelle Gildernew  because she doesn't represent the people of the constituency, since she's an abstentionist MP. Read that last sentence again, would you? You'll see the sub-text: I detest the woman because she's an abstentionist, not because she's a Shinner. Pardon me a minute while I put the cat in the recovery position - he's just passed out from laughing...

That's better. So is Gerry Kelly telling the truth when he says Sinn Fein serve the people of their constituencies fully and that they go to Downing Street when the need arises to press the necessary British buttons? Well, part-truth at least. Sinn Fein do rather well when it comes to squeezing the Brits, especially when they've the DUP by their side. To turn them away would be like saying you hate integrated education. But the reason Sinn Fein abstain from Westminster is not because they've found a better way of negotiating for the North. They do it because they want to send a loud, non-verbal message: we're Irish republicans and we don't believe we should be trucking across to England to take an oath of loyalty to their queen and to sit in their parliament. Every time a Sinn Fein MP is elected, tens of thousands of people are reminded that Ireland should be allowed to govern itself. It's a simple message and goes straight to the heart of what is wrong here. The SDLP, which still claims to be a nationalist party, blurs its message every time one of its MPs swears fealty and becomes a small lost face in a sea of British politicians. Unionist voters know this, which is why they will do all they can not just to elect their agreed unionist in Fermanagh /South Tyrone, but will give their vote to the SDLP in South Down. Paper tigers are much easier to tame.  And if you want a succinct, visual version of what I've stumblingly said here,  check out  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O-62fOs2eWw&feature=player_embedded  

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Brown study

If I had a kennel, it would be filled with underdogs.  I'm not sure why, but when I see power being wielded,  I find myself tugged to the side of the person on the receiving end. So while I know it's none of my business who gets elected in Britain, I can't help but feel sympathy for Gordon Brown.  In the  by-now-famous Bigotgate encounter,  Brown is cast as the hypocritical, other-blaming oaf against the defenceless, rough-but-loveable-diamond  Gillian Duffy. The media have raised their sticks and laid into him with a will - what a bully, what a fraud, what contempt for ordinary people, what erratic emotional behaviour!  Well I'm sure the cudgel-swinging critics are faultless rational beings, but I've frequently emerged from encounters, sometimes personal and sometimes professional,  muttering 'What a bastard!' or 'I can't STAND that prat!' or 'I didn't want to talk to that berk in the first place!'  - all this seconds after having smiled and maybe shaken hands with the object of my wrath.  You can't always afford to tell people to their face what you think of them - and anyway, didn't someone say if you knew what your best friends really think of you, you'd cut your throat?  What amazes me is Gordon's restraint. In similar circumstances I'm sure I'd have taken my Anglo-Saxon vocabulary for an exercise run.  So enough of the 'What a ghastly man!' huffing and puffing from the right wing.  You think old Etonians like Cameron or old Westminister boys like Clegg are asking their aides to get the number of that nice council-house person they were speaking to last, so they can call him/her up and arrange to spend an evening together?  Between the toffs who run Britain and the working-class British people a great gulf exists. It's a necessary gulf, otherwise the underdogs would start swarming about and having daily contact with the overdogs,   and all the things that make Britain Britain would be at risk.