Jude Collins

Wednesday, 30 June 2010


LONDON - AUGUST 04:  (L-R) Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams (C), fellow party member Katriona Ruane, party negotiator Martin McGuinness and  Mary Lou McDonald arrive at 10 Downing Street, August 4, 2005 in London, England.  British Prime Minister Tony Blair has had seperate talks with Sinn Fein and the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) who said that they would require a 'prolonged period of assessment'.  (Photo by Bruno Vincent/Getty Images)
I was talking with two friends the other day when the subject of education came up. “Caitriona Ruane has made a complete and total hames of the whole thing!” one of them declared. So I asked my friend if he knew what Ms Ruane had done or not done that made her responsible for the hames, and whether or not the inaction or actions of others, including the DUP, might have contributed to the hames. He allowed in the end and in so many words that he didn’t know the answer to any of these questions.

The vilification hurled at Caitriona Ruane has had many sources. One is that she succeeded Martin McGuinness, a man well capable of handling abuse or anything else hurled at him. Caitriona Ruane, to her misfortune, is a woman, and so fair game for a certain class of unionist politician. She’s also got a southern (actually a western) accent, which grates with a certain kind of northerner. Thirdly, and for this Sinn Féin must carry some responsibility, she’s a poor performer on TV. 

And it’s the third of these that has allowed so many people who have no idea what she did or didn’t do to declare that she’s made a total hames of things.  In ways it’s understandable, really.  Her mission to move the north from its antiquated, socially divisive and tragically wasteful system of putting children in different schools is a noble one, and that has provoked opposition from those whose first instinct is to resist change, as well as the many who yell their opposition for reasons of self-interest, stupidity and/or a desire to clobber a Sinn Féin politician. My guess is that,  her weak TV presence aside, she’s doing a decent job.  But it’s just a guess. I’m open to revision, if someone can present me with facts that show otherwise.  That’s F-A-C-T-S, please, not parroted prejudices. 

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Tree-hugging and other embarrassments

SAN FRANCISCO - NOVEMBER 13: Gerry Adams, Irish President of Sinn Fein, plays hurling November 13, 2008 on Treasure Island in San Francisco, California. Adams is in San Francisco to speak about the current Irish peace process.  (Photo by Kimberly White/Getty Images)
It’s understandable, I suppose. If  you’ve been depicted by the media for thirty years as Satan’s spawn,  while maybe dozens of people who would gladly kill you live within a mile or two,  you’d be happy to reach a stage where some redress of the balance is possible. But the documentary on Gerry Adams that I watched last night went a bit too far.

I don’t mind his contribution to the Middle East peace process: he speaks up for the million and a half people of Gaza, imprisoned in a piece of land “the size of County Louth”.  It’s right that he should be respected by Protestant clergymen for the work he has done in bringing about peace, even if they insisted on referring to it as “a journey”. But the bit where Tony Blair described a peace process conference at one of these country houses, and how he came out  one morning and found Gerry hugging a tree – I mean, COME ON, Tony. Martin McGuinness didn’t help by talking about a photograph he has where Gerry is hugging one side of a tree and Tony the other. Then there was the bit where Gerry was in his back yard doing a bit of planting or seeding or something, in little pots and trays... It was more like an At Home With Anne Widdicombe.

Politicians deserve to be judged by their ability to do the job,  and for a very long time the Sinn Féin president was judged with wild inaccuracy because of media and political bias.  When the history is written, Adams will emerge as a giant figure in late twentieth-century Ireland. The documentary gave us some sense of that, but bulb-planting and tree-hugging and doing a daft poc fada with a hurley stick on a mountain-side is like watching James Connolly demonstrate how to make the perfect omelette.     

Monday, 28 June 2010

How not to win in politics

June 27, 2010 - 06096559 date 27 06 2010 Copyright imago BPI Fabio Capello Manager of England Hands His Head After A 4 1 defeat by Germany PUBLICATIONxNOTxINxUKxFRAxNEDxESPxSWExPOLxCHNxJPN men Football World Cup DFB National team international match Bloemfontein Mangaung Single Disappointment Vdig xsk 2010 horizontal Highlight premiumd Football. 
The English team’s eye-watering failure in the World Cup has been put down to a number of things, prominent among them the fact that they were a divided camp. Fabio Capello was supposed to be the tough man in charge; then the team began to wobble and  John Terry jostled his way to a microphone to say that ‘im and lots of the lads thought Fabio was talking through his Italian orifice. But then the lads mentioned declared they weren’t part of  Terry’s gang,  and so it went on. A team riven in several directions was certain to end up limping home, defeated again.

Which brings us to politics in our own dear little six-county split from the province of Ulster. The two unionist parties – the DUP and the UUP  – are making moves to at least have some sort of electoral pact for next year’s Assembly elections. The UUP’s deputy leader Danny Kennedy says it’s necessary to stop the growth of Sinn Féin.  

It looks as though Maggie Ritchie shares his concern. The SDLP leader says she can see “no credible argument” for getting closer to Sinn Féin. She admits that her party and the Shinners have the same religion, similar cultural interests,  they both believe in Irish unity – but apart from that, they’ve nothing in common.  Unfortunately she doesn’t mention what are the important matters on which her party differ from Sinn Féin and which make electoral linkage impossible.

The truth about the English team is that they’re rubbish but suspicion and sectional interests make it impossible for them to improve.  The UUP and the DUP haven’t become as one (yet) because the UUP figures the DUP wants to gobble them up, and it doesn’t fancy the journey through Peter Robinson or Nigel Dodds’s alimentary canal. Likewise the SDLP, for so long in decline, doesn’t relish the offered embrace of Sinn Féin because it’s convinced Sinn Féin wants to squeeze the life out of it. It’d rather see nationalism reduced to limping impotence than go on so much as an electoral date with Sinn Féin. John Hume may have put peace before party interests but Maggie Ritchie isn’t going to make that mistake.  If you don’t believe me, ask Declan O’Loan. 

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Green thoughts in a green shade

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 25: A woman smells a flower in the rose garden at the annual Chelsea flower show on May 25, 2010 in London, England. The Royal Horticultural Society flagship flower show has been held at the Royal Hospital in Chelsea since 1913. This year will be the 87th show here and was originally known as the Great Spring Show and was first held in Kensington in 1862. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
I wonder if there’s a cut-off point for becoming interested in something? Like, say, gardening. Yesterday I  dug the little three-metre strip that runs along the left-hand side of our driveway. It wasn’t easy. There are Things that have their roots in there that go down until they touch the  upper floors of hell. Then there’s the hedge that overshadows the strip and that needs brutal mutilation if it’s to be kept from leaning over the little strip and blotting out every last bit of light. Finally there’s the earth in the strip: it’s mainly dust and bits of old plastic, as far as I can establish. Certainly that’s what comes up when I dig and lever clear with my fork. (When I was young we called it a grape, and it was used for cleaning out the byre once every six months or so. Now it’s a fork.)

So I dug and twisted my fork and levered plastic bits and twisted hell-roots and mouldy earth-bits onto the driveway, saying “Holy shit!” and “Oh my God!” and “My back really hurts...”  until at last the strip was, well, actually, it was gone. Or the earth from it was mainly gone. All I had now was a three-metre strip of nothing, because my trusty fork had levered the entire contents onto the driveway.

So I went to the local garden centre and got two biggish bags of Multi-Purpose Compost, but the woman at the cash desk told me they’d cost £6.99 and if I got the same amount in one big bag, it’d cost only £3.99. Flushed by my exertions and  this amazing bargain, I hurried home and emptied the big bag of Multi-Purpose Compost into the little three-metre strip, then levelled it off with my fork. It looked wonderful. Like something from a gardening catalogue.

I came in and had a shower and cracked a tin of Guinness Extra Stout and thought about Rock Hudson in The Big Country,  where he puts his fist in the soil and lifts a handful of it towards the sky  and shouts “The good earth!” while the music soared.  Maybe I could become like that. Work on, transform my entire garden. Get the hedge straight and neat,  use the chain-saw to put manners on the clematis,  put Lawn-Gro on the lawn and make it nice juicy green rather than beige-brown and faint-yellow, and just generally have a garden that’d draw the eye of passing motorists and pedestrians who would stop to greet me and express admiration as I bent over yet another task in a  garden where every last detail was as neat and perfect as a Constable painting.

In fact the transformation would start today only there’s the England-Germany game  on TV.  You’ve probably heard. And after that the Argentina-Mexico game.  Meanwhile I’ve moved the car so when I look up from the TV, I can see the strip with its  chocolate-brown, smooth-surfaced,  weed-free elegance stretching all of three metres along my driveway. And when there’s a lull in the commentary, if you read my lips, you’ll find they’re saying  quietly “The good earth!” 

Saturday, 26 June 2010

People who should be certified

28th February 1880:  The cartoon on the front cover of 'Harper's Weekly' - 'We are starving in Ireland - the Herald of relief from America.' The Great Famine (1845 - 1849) was caused by the failure of the Irish potato crop and British government inaction. 1 million people died from starvation and disease and another million fled as emigrants to Britain and North America during the Irish Famine.  (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

I have a friend who was born and grew up in Ireland, then emigrated to Canada. In his mid-thirties he was faced with a choice.  Strip away the rhetoric and it came down to this: he became a Canadian citizen or he lost his job. Now he liked Canada a lot and wanted to live there,  but instinctively he was reluctant to give up, as he saw it, his Irish identity.  When I pointed out to him that becoming a Canadian citizen wouldn’t, couldn’t  erase his Irish identity – it was knit into the fabric of his life, regardless of how many oaths of loyalty he took to his adopted country – he cheered up briefly. “Except” I added “Ireland declares war on Canada. Then you’re really screwed”.

I thought of him today as the newspapers inform me that Ireland is considering issuing a ‘certificate of Irishness’ to those who qualify.  It’s not clear what degree of Irishness is required but those who can establish or have established for them that their roots are Irish will get the certificate.  Apparently there’s a real interest among the Irish diaspora, especially in – yes, right first time – the United States.  

It could be a money-spinner. If even a fraction of the 40 million people in the US said to have Irish ancestry apply, and if the certificate issued costs, um, let’s say €10 a head,  that could be a nice little earner, not to mention the reinforcement of the Irish diaspora as  a source of tourism and investment.   It’s an undeniable fact: there are people – again, more often than not American – who like framing their achievements and hanging them in a place of honour.

Sorry, but the whole venture makes me want to put back my head and screech briefly.  Surely being Irish has to do with, yes, your ancestry, but also the interest you take in Irish culture, your familiarity with the country and its people? Getting a certificate for framing proves only that you’re  hung up on hanging things,  and that you’d be well-advised to get a life while there’s still time. 

Friday, 25 June 2010

I'm not just me, you know

I was talking to a man last week and all the time we were talking (or he was talking - it was largely a speaker-listener relationship),  he kept impressing on me...well, impressing on me his own importance. I was told about a number of high-powered projects he had been involved in,  about other projects he is currently involved in,  about a number of important people he knows. No, not knows - is close to. Meets at their clubs. Has to his place for dinner. It got to the point where I was reluctant to mention an event or individual of any standing because I knew that somehow, he'd find a way of explaining how deeply involved he himself was with that event and/or how the individual of standing was actually his best mate.

What is it that prompts people to talk in this I-was-speaking-to-Salman-Rushdie-the other-day' way?  I put this question to three friends of mine  last night (you wouldn't be interested in them, they're of no standing worth mentioning) and two of them agreed that such people are pompous dick-heads who deserve to have their backsides kicked regularly to bring them down to earth.  That's a tempting suggestion but maybe a bit unfair. My guess is that it's a case of insecurity. People like my man last week have a subconscious fear that if they present just themselves to the world, without frills so to say, that won't be enough,  the world will be dismissive or laugh at them.

It's the same urge that drives people to use titles. The most obvious example is Catholic priests who can't  speak of fellow priests or even themselves without the title 'Father': 'That man there is Father Mickey Murphy and I'm Father Joe Soap".  The medical profession is famous for it - "This is Dr  Wilson"  - and likewise the academic world: 'I'd like you to meet Professor Jones".  The person him or herself won't be enough,  there's a need to buttress with titles.

Similarly with my man last week. The unfortunate individual feels he must impress on the world how elevated is his place in it, because if he doesn't  people will dismiss him as a mediocrity or even a nobody.They might even snigger at him.  So like the Wizard of Oz he constructs his facade of connections and enterprises. No, it's not ass-kicking the poor man needs. It's tummy-rubbing, preferably from a plump motherly figure, who'll tell him he's a grand little man, and  if he could just believe in himself enough to take the leap, it's amazing  how people will like and respect  him.

Alternatively, of course, he could stay exactly the way he is and go on emphasising the important connections and the mighty projects he's involved with. That was the suggestion of my third friend when we talked about it last night. "You think he should go on talking about his important friends and his major project-involvement?  You want him to go on boasting? For God's sake why?"   "Because I find him hilarious" my third friend replied. "And God knows we all need a good laugh".

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Long to reign over us?

Britain's Queen Elizabeth waves as she arrives on the fifth day of racing at Royal Ascot in southern England June 19, 2010.  REUTERS/Luke MacGregor (BRITAIN - Tags: ROYALS SPORT HORSE RACING)
 So QE2 plans to visit the south of Ireland next Spring. That's something to look forward to, isn't it? As we struggle through January and February, the cuts biting ever deeper, weary from the rains of March and the showers of April, we can turn to each other and say "Don't forget - Her Majesty is coming!" 

The way the English commentators see it, it's really a question of people growing up - or to be exact, the pesky Irish doing so.  “After writing so much over the years about fighting, divisions and enemies, perhaps the next chapter in Anglo-Irish history will be entitled simply 'neighbours'”. 

See? You thought it was about political division  and domination when all the time it was really just a neigbourly difference of opinion.  What’s more, we must thank no less a man than David Cameron for paving the way for QE2.  It seems his speech in the House of Commons was so open and honest about Bloody Sunday, it’s washed away all the ill-feeling and sense of grievance on the part of the Irish.  All right, Cameron did argue that Bloody Sunday was an aberration and other than that the British Army did a sterling job in the north during the Troubles, but sure people were clapping so hard  by then, they probably didn’t hear that bit.

So that’s it – all friends now and don’t mention you know what and get out the red-white-and-blue bunting from the attic. There’s just one slightly dark cloud. If Richard Bruton had succeeded last week in his little heave to remove Enda Kenny as leader of Fine Gael,  he would very probably have had the privilege of meeting QE2 next April.  In which case he’d surely have found a way of smuggling in his brother John, the former Taoiseach. Your remember John Bruton?  He was the man who, as Taoiseach,  welcomed Prince Charles to Ireland and declared it to be “the happiest day of his life”.  One can only imagine the orgasmic delight he’d have taken from an encounter with QE2.

Still, not to worry. There are sufficient Irish politicians with similar passion for royalty ready to take his place.  I just hope Her Majesty is understanding and forgiving about that silly neighbourly spat we had in 1916.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Enger-land, Enger-land....

June 19, 2010 - 06055924 date 18 06 2010 Copyright imago Color Sports Centre for Life Times Square Newcastle showing England vs Algeria PUBLICATIONxINxGERxSUIxAUTxHUNxPOLxUSAxONLY Football men World Cup National team international match Public Viewing Fanfest Party supporters Spectators England premiumd Vdig 2010 horizontal.My son's girl-friend is English and every so often she expresses bewilderment and just a touch of irritation at the attitude of Irish - and Scottish and Welsh - people when England are playing football. "If Ireland or any of the other home countries were playing, we would be supporting them completely" she says.

So why, as the sun comes up on a morning when England could be sent limping home in disgrace from the World Cup,  do so many Irish people want to see Slovenia succeed?

In part it's the English media.  Give them a sporting centimetre and they'll take 10,000 metres. If England succeed today,  it's only a matter of time before we begin to hear the drum being banged about England as potential finalists and maybe World Cup winners. But if we're honest it's not just the media. There are other reasons why we love to see England get kicked in the groin (metaphorically speaking).

One is that England (OK, Britain, but we all know it's really England) have over 5,000 heavily-armed troops here. If there was a poll tomorrow I'd say at least 70% - maybe much higher - of Irish people would say they want these troops off their soil.  Part of Ireland's hostility to England in sporting fixtures comes back to a distaste for the unwanted military presence of England in Ireland.

Another reason is that England/Britain rules the north-east part of Ireland. To say that this is accepted by all Irish people in the Good Friday Agreement doesn't change the fact that an awful lot of Irish people resent strangulated pronouncements from the likes of Owen Paterson while he holds onto the real political power over the six counties of the north.

A third and final reason links directly to the history of relations between Ireland and England - and between Scotland and England, and Wales and England.  English people like to think of the United Kingdom as a friendly coming-together of people who share values and live close to one another. In fact the union came about through the bludgeoning of Scotland, Wales and Ireland.  That's a polite word for the ruthless use of force in making sure that Scotland, Wales and Ireland  acceded to Britain's wishes on the matter. So while the smaller countries may be incapable of mounting military or political resistance, they can at least jeer from the sidelines when they see England's vaunted power receive a thrashing on the field of play.  So that's why I tell my son's girl-friend 'It's to do with history'.  She doesn't look as though she believes me.

Today, though, I'll be hoping for an England victory. Going down in a side-show match is really not good enough. What's needed is a big stage, a big trophy within touching distance. Then let them fail.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

TV Sport and the sickness of surfeit

June 22, 2010 - 06068973 date 20 06 2010 Copyright imago BPI A Female Honduras supporter PUBLICATIONxNOTxINxUKxFRAxNEDxESPxSWExPOLxCHNxJPN Football men World Cup National team international match Johannesburg Single Vdig 2010 horizontal Highlight premiumd Football.
I was on 'Good Morning Ulster'  ( why do they call it that when they don't serve one-third of Ulster? Answers on a postage stamp, please) this morning, talking about the amount of sport that's currently on TV. I like sport, particularly football (soccer) and football (Gaelic), but  at the moment we're like pate de foie gras geese, having the stuff rammed into us until we can scarcely breathe. Today, for example, you can get well over ten hours of continuous television football (soccer) and over nine hours of continuous Wimbledon tennis.  And that's not counting the three Sky Sports Channels that direct their fire at us 365 days of the year. To say you can change channels is beside the point: that's what the banks said when they kept dangling loans in front of us all, until the whole system collapsed in on itself. And not content with its own programmes, sport has started to invade and colonize non-sports areas. Last night on the BBC's Six O'Clock News we got a major item on what Frank Lampard said about what John Terry said about Fabio Capello; and I was just drawing breath after that when Newsline 630 came on and blimey, Donna Traynor is in a state of high excitement in Portrush, introducing us to every twig on every branch of the Graham McDowell (golfer) family tree. It's all driven by greed, of course: TV greed for audience share,  football club greed for TV revenue stream, footballer greed for a good chunk of the pie, until eventually the clubs at the top sicken and find themselves   creating annual debt that runs into tens of millions, while down at the bottom teams face collapse because nobody's interested in going to their games.

Televised sport is a marvellous thing, but somebody needs to shout into the schedulers' collective ear at least once every day: "LESS IS MORE!" Then maybe we could get back to watching Match of the Day and really enjoying it.

Monday, 21 June 2010

The past: first, put your knee on its chest...

The past -  pain in the arse, eh?  Full of what-might-have-beens and  dashed hopes and petty slights.  Full of a sense of loss – of loved ones, of what once seemed so permanent, of one’s own youth. The only way to cope with the bloody thing is to bend it into a shape that suits you and then try not to think about it too much.

That’s what some unionists are doing in the light of the Saville Report. They figure it’s time to cut losses and so they’ve bitten their lip and accepted Saville. It may have pointed the finger at the Parachute regiment for killing innocent people but at least it stopped there – it didn’t point the finger at someone like General Mike Jackson, who immediately after the killings busily drew up a totally misleading ( aka lying) record of who had shot at whom and what was whom carrying at the time when he was shot.  For unionists such as these, and the British government, what’s  now important is to say ‘Right, that’s it. We’ve admitted we did wrong – or rather, the Paras did wrong, we didn’t do a thing. So let’s leave it there and move on”.  In other words,  that’s enough examination of the past, we’re accepting the imperfect picture of it you’ve drawn, but don’t you try adding even more dark clouds, smearing the canvas with more blood”.  That was in essence what David Cameron said, what Gregory Campbell said and what Jeffrey Donaldson said,  although Jeffrey tried to wave a big club at any nationalist thinking of further past-exploration by saying that such exploration would have to involve an exploration of what the likes of Martin McGuinness did during the Troubles.

See? The past is a pain in the arse. What you must do is put your knee on its chest and prevent it doing you any more damage. If anyone objects, tell them you’ll examine THEIR past if they’re not careful...

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Coming north, looking south

So Enda Kenny is going to visit the north.  To what purpose?  Well, a clue lies in the people who’ll be travelling with him.  Fergus O’Dowd and Brian Hayes both voted against Kenny in this week’s leadership contest.  So while you might be tempted to think that his meetings with Peter Robinson, Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness, Maggie Ritchie, Reg Empey, Danny Kennedy and David Ford were to do with forging closer relations with the north, a desire  to put some flesh  on the bones of Fine Gael’s all-Ireland policy,  you’d be soft-brained to yield to such a temptation. Kenny is using the visit to show the southern electorate that he's got a unified Fine Gael party  behind him  (and if they believe that, they deserve him as Taoiseach).  

Fine Gael, like  Fianna Fail and  Labour,, don’t give a damn about the north. Or more accurately, they care that it may interfere with their internal twenty-six counties politics.  In the Irish Times today,  Garret Fitzgerald has a piece recalling his visit north shortly after Bloody Sunday. Like the present Fine Gael leader,  Fitzgerald acknowledged the existence of the north only when some crisis popped up which looked as if it might have repercussions for southern politics. In recent years, when southern politicians do address the north, it’s invariably to stress their concern for the plight of unionists, not nationalists. Mary Robinson, you’ll recall, resigned from the Irish Labour Party back in the 1980s because she felt the Anglo-Irish Agreement was unfair to unionists.

 If you’re a northern nationalist or a nationalist anywhere in Ireland, you’d do well to remember that southern politicians, other than Sinn Féin, have been taught to dislike the north, to  see it as ‘that place up there’, and they have learnt the lesson well.    

Friday, 18 June 2010

Nothing personal (?)

When I listen to politicians,  especially but not exclusively unionist politicians, I have to keep reminding myself that there’s nothing personal, it’s just business. So when Gregory Campbell presents the stony face of irridentist unionism, no sympathy for the families of those who were gunned down on Bloody Sunday, it’s not personal (at least I hope not).  And when Jeffrey Donaldson comes on BBC’s Question Time  (as he did last night) and refuses to be glad that the truth (never mind justice – Saville was NOT the delivery of justice)  was finally delivered about the Bloody Sunday victims, it’s not personal (at least I hope not).  In both cases it’s business – the business of keeping their electorate happy, so that next time they go into a polling booth and they see Gregory or Jeffrey’s name on the ballot, they’ll say ‘Ach aye, that’s that Gregory/Jeffrey, he said just what I was thinking, that time on TV – he gets my vote’.  It’s called pandering to the lowest common denominator as a means of getting re-elected. Gregory and Jeffrey at a personal level probably have feelings of real sympathy for the Bloody Sunday families. Don’t they? I mean....They do. Don’t they?   

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Prosecute the killers?

LONDONDERRY, NORTHERN IRELAND - JUNE 14: A general view of the Bogside area of Londonderry where the Bloody Sunday killings took place in 1972 on June 14, 2010 in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. Tomorrow Lord Saville is due to publish his report into the killing of 13 people by the British Army Parachute Regiment on January 30, 1972. The cost of the Saville Inquiry, which commenced in 1998, is estimated to have cost GBP 191 million. (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)
I  was on BBC Radio Ulster’s ‘Talkback’ programme yesterday along with my good friend Brian Feeney.  Brian continues to act as faithful family retainer to the owners of the VO, in which he airs his views every Wednesday.  We were on ‘Talkback’ to discuss whether the British soldiers found guilty of shooting dead fourteen innocent civilians and injuring fourteen more on Bloody Sunday should be prosecuted.

Brian thought not, because...Well, I’m still not sure. He seemed to be saying that if the soldiers were prosecuted, this would make life difficult for British soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. When I suggested that not prosecuting foul deeds on the grounds that it’d put a damper on other British soldiers commiting foul deeds in other countries,  Brian said he wasn’t saying that. I’m still not sure what he was saying, I’m afraid.  The other reason he seemed to be giving  (notice how careful I’m being in my phrasing? ‘Seemed to be giving’) was that we’re a divided society here and this would agitate unionists. I used to hear the same argument used against mentioning the two dreaded words ‘United Ireland’.  A senior SDLP politician some years ago advised that the term shouldn’t be used for forty years, in order to avoid civil war.

Unlike my close chum Brian, I’m in favour of prosecutions.  I think it reflects rather badly on a state’s system of justice if it is confronted with what look like fourteen murders committed by the forces of law and order, and decides it’s in the public interest not to bring them before the courts.  The common objection by unionists is that  hundreds of paramilitaries, also guilty of shooting people, have been released from prison.  Leaving aside the amount of time some of them spent in prison,  we need to accept that guardians of law and order shooting innocent people is different from paramilitaries shooting innocent people. And if you can’t accept that differentiation, then there should be no talk of some victims of violence during the Troubles being different from other victims. If you believe that all combatants in the conflict, including the British army, are essentially the same, then as much should also go for victims.

But of course none of this line of reasoning will wash with those who’ve already made up their minds. In their estimation there is a line of Good to Bad,  with  the UDA and the UVF at the Slightly Not Good point,  the IRA at the Definitely Bad  point and the INLA at the So Bad They’re Bonkers  point.  At the other end we find the British army, the UDR and the RUC  very firmly under the indicator Heroic-In-Word-and-Deed.  

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

First joy, then questions

LONDONDERRY, NORTHERN IRELAND - JUNE 15: Families of the victims of the Bloody Sunday killings in the Bogside area of Londonderry leave the Guildhall building following the announcement of the content of the Saville Report on June 15, 2010 in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. The long-awaited report from the Saville Inquiry, which was set up in 1998 and is estimated to have cost 191m GBP, was announced by British Prime Minister David Cameron in the Commons today and stated that all victims were innocent.  (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)
I was among those in Guildhall Square in Derry yesterday afternoon and it was indeed a joyous occasion - the very sunshine seemed to join in the happy mood. First we watched David Cameron  on the big screen, saying he was ‘sorry’ for what had happened and that the actions of the Parachute regiment were ‘unjustified and unjustifiable’. Then we watched the relatives of the victims’ families, grinning with relief, tearing up the disgraced Widgery report and declaring ‘We have overcome!’  And yet I found a number of questions niggling at my contentment. They just won’t go away so  here they are. Maybe you can answer them – I can’t.

  1. Why do people keep talking about justice having finally been done? Fourteen innocent people were shot dead,  thirty-eight years later, the British government admits they were innocent,  and this is hailed as  justice?  
  2. The British government and army representatives are firm on the need NOT to prosecute the soldiers who killed the fourteen people. Yet such prosecution would be the only possible route to justice.  Truth is one thing, justice something quite different.
  3. We’re told that one important reason why prosecutions should not be proceeded with is that this would demoralise British soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Something wrong there, surely. To pursue justice would make life difficult for those who might have in mind doing the same kind of thing elsewhere in the world? Oh dear.
  4. Everybody in Derry, everybody in Ireland knew the truth of Bloody Sunday for the last thirty-eight years.  Why then are so many of them excited that the British government, having tried every conceivable alternative, including a whitewash report in the 1970s,  has finally admitted that truth? And does anyone think that  Owen Paterson and David Cameron are genuinely ‘shocked’ by the findings and now feel genuinely remorseful? Did they believe the Paras were innocent until now?
  5. Given Saville’s findings, when (if ever) will someone ask Prince Charles what he thinks? He is, after all, Colonel-in-Chief of that regiment.
  6.   On my way home, outside Dungiven, I noticed a grassy bank covered in little wooden posts and signs - like 'Keep Off The Grass' signs. I couldn't read what each said but in front of them - and there must have been well over a hundred - a bigger sign said 'Murdered by the British Army'.  Unionists like Gregory Campbell speak of the many other forgotten victims. What are the chances he'd include these in his victims list?
  7. If the majority of Irish people are nationalists – that is, they want a united Ireland – is it not odd that no one has suggested the British army, including the Parachute regiment,  shouldn’t have been in Ireland, let alone shooting Irish people?

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Being there

30th January 1972:  An armed soldier attacks a protestor on Bloody Sunday when British Paratroopers shot dead 13 civilians on a civil rights march in Derry City.  (Photo by Frederick Hoare/Central Press/Getty Images)
I’m going to Derry today although I’m not sure why. There’ll be thousands of people there, so it’s not as if my presence would be missed. At these things I usually get a lousy view, my feet hurt and  a round-trip of 150 miles is less of a thrill than it once was. But I feel it’s somehow the right thing to do. When Bloody Sunday happened thirty-eight years ago, I was in Canada. I remember I manufactured a couple of protest posters and hurried to join a protest march. As usual I was a little late so I asked a small group of people if they’d seen the march. Big mistake: they were a group of loyalists/unionists who had gathered for a counter-demonstration. I remember one of them taking my placard and reading it – it said something like ‘British army out of Derry’.   ‘It’s the IRA should be out of Derry and out of Northern Ireland!’ I felt distinctly uncomfortable, but then one of the group said ‘Leave him alone, he’s all right’ or words to that effect. I hurried away and never did locate the march.

Like the people on the original Bloody Sunday march and the people shot, I was innocent in those days. I now see that the British army, when ordered to do so, will kill anyone at any time of the day or night, in secret or, as on Bloody Sunday, out in the open with thousands watching. And when they’ve finished they’ll have officers such as Mike Jackson busily constructing an alternative version of events where the British army was fighting armed and aggressive terrorists. 

I saw Gregory Campbell on TV last night, yet again complaining of the cost of Saville and declaring that this represented a massive effort to rewrite history. No, Gregory. This is to correct the rewrite which Jackson and his men thought they could get away with thirty-eight years ago.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Yesteryear and tomorrow

BRIDE END, DONEGAL - MARCH 16: A road sign points the way to Derry on March 16, 2010 in Bridge End, Ireland. The Bloody Sunday Inquiry chaired by Lord Saville was established in 1998 to look at the shooting dead of 14 civil rights marchers by the British Army in Derry, Northern Ireland on January 30, 1972. Lord Saville and his fellow judges have spoken to 921 witnesses during the longest legal proceedings in British and Irish history. The report is due to be sent to the Government by the end of March 2010. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
Have you heard about the satirical Israeli video, where the  Gaza supply ship people are portrayed as terrorists pretending to be peace people? It seems the Israeli government energetically promoted it, sending it to key people throughout the world before saying, ooops, we shouldn’t have done that, it’s not an official Israeli video,  oh gosh,  how careless of us. 

When I heard about it, I thought of the energetic way the British government sent its version of Bloody Sunday around the world 38 years ago. I was living in Canada at the time and a local columnist was a Belfast man called Shaun Herron, who it later emerged had loyalist paramilitary connections.  Herron didn’t mention this at the time but he did mention again and  again in the days following Bloody Sunday that he had trusted links within the British secret service and that he knew for a fact that the people shot by the British army HAD been carrying weapons at the time. I remember writing in protest to his newspaper, the Winnipeg Free Press, and being denounced by him as typical of a certain type of shrew-like Irishwoman (the sad little man had assumed from my first name that I was female).  The British, with all the centuries-old assurance of which they are capable, always aim to impress on the world their desired version of events. Perhaps tomorrow’s release of the Saville Report will change all that but I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were you. 

Friday, 11 June 2010

Our boys

DERRY, NORTHERN IRELAND - MARCH 16: The grave of Hugh Gilmour who was killed on Bloody Sunday in 1972 lies in the Derry City Cemetary on March 16, 2010 in Northern Ireland. The Bloody Sunday Inquiry chaired by Lord Saville was established in 1998 to look at the shooting dead of 14 civil rights marchers by the British Army in Derry, Northern Ireland on January 30, 1972. Lord Saville and his fellow judges have spoken to 921 witnesses during the longest legal proceedings in British and Irish history. The report is due to be sent to the Government by the end of March 2010. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
Who can blame him? When you’re in a hole at home, you naturally want to divert public attention abroad. So David Cameron, faced with the kind of cuts that would have made even Maggie Thatcher wince, has declared his intention to double the allowance of British troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. He’s also made sounds about bringing his boys home at the earliest possible date.  All this on the same morning that we get a leak from the Saville Inquiry report, due out on Tuesday. Apparently some of the soldiers ( yes, you heard aright, Grandmother -  some) will be found guilty of unlawful killing (no, Grandmother, they didn’t say ‘murder’).  I think we get the message.  There were some British soldiers who lost the head on Bloody Sunday, so talk of a trail leading all the way to Downing Street is out, out, out. At the same time some soldiers will be found guilty of ‘unlawful killing’, and the hope is that will appease the restless natives of Londonderry.  I mean,  if you don’t accept that, as a body of fighting men, the British Army is probably the most effective and most honourable in the world,  what’s the point in talking to you? 

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Abortion ads on TV? You know it makes sense

A still image from an advertisement by sexual health services provider Marie Stopes International is seen in a photograph released in London May 20, 2010. An advert offering abortion advisory services will be screened on British TV for the first time next week, provoking opposition from anti-abortionists and religious groups. Sexual health services provider Marie Stopes International said its campaign, which uses the slogan Are you late? , aims to confront the taboo of abortion by offering non-judgmental advice on unplanned pregnancies. REUTERS/Marie Stopes International/handout (BRITAIN - Tags: POLITICS HEALTH) NO SALES. NO ARCHIVES. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS

I spent Sunday last in the bowels of the BBC,  ‘helping’ them with a pilot TV programme which I think is to be called ‘Sunday Morning Live’ and is to replace ‘The Big Question’ hosted by Nicky Campbell (I’d no idea there was a programme called ‘The Big Question’ before Sunday, or that the insufferable Nicky hosted it).  Anyway, one of the topics they asked us to be ready to provide views on was the matter of abortion – specifically, should abortion ads be allowed on TV.

ANN ARBOR, MI - MAY 1: A protestor holds up an anti abortion sign outside the University of Michigan Stadium as people line up to get in to hear U.S. President Barack Obama's commencement address May 1, 2010 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. President Obama was at the University of Michigan Stadium to deliver the 2010 commencement address to the graduating seniors. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)The answer is,  if you think abortion should be legal, then of course it should be OK to advertise it on TV. Why not?  Why would you think something should be made available to people and then refuse to allow ads telling them where and how to get it?  What follows, of course, is that ads for those opposed to abortion should equally be shown on TV. Why not? If being opposed to abortion is an acceptable position, why shouldn’t those holding it be allowed to air their views on TV?  What’s more, anti-abortionists should be allowed to show what abortion looks like, using posters or slides or whatever images they choose, providing they’re authentic.  No rational person should be opposed to looking at the consequences of an action, particularly if that action is a controversial one. Objections in the name of ‘bad taste’ are flimsy and  mix  good manners with good morality, which is never a good idea.

Finally, if you believe that the testimony of those most affected by an action should be part of the debate (think of the central role accorded to victims of child abuse),  then maybe Andrea Bocelli,  Liverpool central defender Jamie Carragher and Denver Broncos’ quarterback Tim Tebow deserve to be heard.  The mothers of all three were advised by doctors to have their baby aborted.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

That Plato - spent far too much time thinking

350 BC, Greek philosopher Plato Aristocles (427 - 347 BC) with the philosopher and scientist Aristotle (384 - 322 BC). Original Publication: From Raphael: School of Athens - Vatican Stanzae (Photo by Picture Post/Getty Images)
What do you know about Plato?  Mmm, I'm the same. A few scattered facts, like the thing about people living in a cave and looking at the shadows on the wall instead of going out to the real daylight, and the fact that Socrates was his teacher, and the fact that when two people enjoy each other's company but don't have sexual feelings for each other it's a platonic relationship. But I expect all of the teachers who received Plato awards in the Waterfront Hall the other day know all about Plato.  Mind you, it wasn't for their knowledge of philosophy that they were rewarded: it was their teaching and administrative abilities that they got their trophies.  Just as well, really. Looking at the names I recognise the occasional past student of mine, and whatever their teaching abilities, their abilities at writing the assignments required by the course were less than spectacular.

But maybe it doesn't matter. I had  RTÉ's correspondent in Washington, Charlie Bird, as a pupil a long time ago. You couldn't have found a more charming lad - all the girls in the class and many of the boys  loved him (the boys platonically of course), but he was as weak a student of English as I encountered in my years of teaching. Yet Charlie done good.  Likewise it maybe doesn't matter if the Plato awards teachers are versed in philosophy or are able to organise their thoughts in a university essay. You could be a whizz at delivering essays and a dud in the classroom.  But somehow I still have a hankering for the teacher who is accomplished in the classroom but who also has a grasp of the theory of what they do, who has wider interests than just doing a good job with 4B this afternoon. The late Laurence Stenhouse had a term for it: the extended professional. Teachers who did the business in the classroom but thought beyond it, were interested in how the school was run, how it fitted into the community,  what notions of education shaped the curriculum - someone, in short, who thought and even wrote about the context in which they taught and was active in seeking to make that context the best it could be.

Because if you see the teacher's job as stopping at the classroom door, there's a terrible danger that those who get awards are energetic practitioners suffering from professional myopia. And that's bad news for everybody - teachers, pupils,  principals, vice-principals, governors and probably the care-taker's dog as well.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

In the club

Yesterday evening we had the final meeting of our book club for this year.  Most of us are former or current teachers, which is probably why we think of the year as beginning in September and ending in June.  The teacher thing may also go a little way to explaining our love of books.  We meet once a month in my place and it's always a happy, food-for-thought occasion.  We don't always engage in high literary criticism but it's surprising how often an honest reaction can find an echo in the views of other people in the group, and something that hadn't been thought about becomes clear.  The other thing that strikes me is the speed with which people like to test what they read against their own experience. It's not so much 'Is this character realistic?' as 'I can identify with that character because...' and an incident from life is produced that gives a clue as to the universality of the fictional character or episode.

I also like our meetings because, unlike a purely social gathering, it has a focal point in the book we've chosen to read. I'd describe myself as a fairly open-minded and consistent consumer of fiction, but since we  started this book club two years ago,  my range of reading has been extended beyond recognition. Authors and topics that I'd never have thought of exploring have been made available to me and I feel grateful for it.

And as I glance around the room and listen to the voices (sometimes in their excitement talking over each other) I feel confirmed in a belief I've had since I was a child and got my two books per week from the local lending library: anybody who enjoys reading fiction can't be totally bad.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Toys for the boys

BEIJING - AUGUST 16:  A detailed picture of a gun during the men's skeet shooting qualification event at the Beijing Shooting Range Hall on Day 8 of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games on August 16, 2008 in Beijing, China.  (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
Yesterday on  BBC Radio Ulster's (sic) 'Sunday Sequence'  they were talking about the number of legally-held firearms in the north, and today Tom Kelly in the Venerable Organ was on about the same thing. The Sunday Sequence discussion put the figure at 150,000; Kelly in the VO puts it at 200,000. The point is,  this society is weighed-down with weapons.  Even if you take the lower figure of 150,000,  that's a firearm for - blimey - every ten people in this statelet. When I wrote on this topic in the VO about ten years ago,  I was informed irritably that these guns were held by decent farmers  who used them for shooting crows. If that's true,  Alfred Hitchock should have filmed 'The Birds'  here: the skies must be thick with the buggers if farmers need all those guns to keep them under control. One fact that 'Sunday Sequence' and the VO don't mention is that the vast majority of the gun-holders are Protestant/unionists. That of course is easily explained: crows are instinctively drawn to Protestant farmland in much higher numbers than to land owned by Catholics.

Aside from crow-shooting,  what other use might the owners of the guns have for them?  For the answer to that, think about the 5,000 heavily-armed foreign soldiers based in this part of Ireland. What use might they have for their weapons?  The answer to that is also the  answer to the first question.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Guess who came to lunch?

A sizeable portion of the south’s population love royalty. Which is why a sizeable portion of the south’s population must have been pleased to hear that Ian Paisley and his wife were yesterday given a conducted tour of both houses of the Seanad in action. Apparently there was heated debate in both chambers during the Paisley visit, but the former DUP leader is reported as saying “I could take you to the Ballymena Town Council and show you how they do it. That there was a genteel performance”. Brian Cowen presented Eileen Paisley with a Tara brooch as a commemoration of her visit. Today the Paisleys  were given lunch at Áras an Uachtaráin by President Mary McAleese.

What is the purpose of this kind of visit?  Judging by the gift of the brooch and Paisley’s chuckling Ballymena comparison, you might conclude the idea is to emphasise the human face of the DUP.  A bit like those godawful TV programmes on RTE that Rhonda Paisley fronted in the early 1980s: you may think Paisleyism is a synonym for bigotry and sectarianism but look – we’re really just cheerful fun-loving Northern folk! 

It didn’t work then but maybe that’s because Paisley was still a major player at the time. Now that both he and Eileen  have been or soon will be assumed into the British heaven of the House of Lords,  he can be embraced (metaphorically speaking) even by Caoimhin O Caolain of Sinn Féin. One of two things.  Either this is  wall-paper to cover the deep cracks that exist in the north’s present arrangement,  or it’s a a slow shuffle of old enemies towards each others until they can eventually, painlessly, become as one.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Three ways to save £3 million

The cost of policing parades last year was nearly £3 million. At the best of times that’s a hefty sum; in the present stormy waters of recession it’s a criminal waste.  There are two ways this waste could be avoided. The Orange Order could accept that it’s their activities that are causing this drain on the public purse and agree to carry the cost themselves. That’s a logical solution.  If I were to tie up towns and villages  throughout the north for weeks and months on end,  it’d be a twisted logic that’d excuse me from having to pay for this kind of disruption.

But there is another and better solution: stop marching.  OK, fine, you like putting on a bowler hat and/or an Orange collarette. You like thumping a huge drum until your hands bleed, you like raising banners commemorating your political and religious heroes.  But do you have to MARCH when you’re doing it? Or maybe just march on the spot, if you feel in  need of exercise. But the idea that you must GO somewhere, as though you were suffering from restless legs syndrome, is bizarre.

There’s a third solution, but I’m reluctant to offer it because it’s too blindingly simple. With this strategy, you’d save the £3 million, you wouldn’t offend people in places like the Ardoyne, chaps’ hands would stop bleeding and  the rest of us wouldn’t have to take detours past towns and villages because there’s a band practice or a parade.  The solution is, give up on the Orange thing. The membership is shrinking, it’s provoked some appalling violence (remember the Quinn children in Ballymoney?) and for six months every year it chafes and abrases relations between the unionist community and the nationalist community.  So simply confine your love of William III and your gratitude to him for giving you your religion, freedom and laws to a nice big oil-painting in  your front room.

Yes I know. Too simple. Far, far too simple.  

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

If they'd stayed at home nothing would have happened to them

There’s only one thing more sickening than the Israeli attack on the supply ships bringing relief to Gaza, and that’s the response of some respectable journalists and commentators in the West.  I was listening to  Radio 4’s  Thought for the Day (hugely better than Radio Ulster’s [sic]  effort, as a rule) the other day and Bishop Tom Butler came on. He’s the Anglican bishop who, you’ll remember, got tired and emotional after attending a pre-Christmas party at the Irish embassy in London, and was later seen throwing soft toys from the back of his chauffeur-driven car shouting ‘I’m the Bishop of Southwark – it’s what I do!’ Anyway, Bishop Tom’s line on the Gaza relief ships being attacked by the Israelis and nine of their number being killed was that there was much to be said on both sides. He concluded that the people sailing in the relief ships might be as wise as serpents but they weren’t as innocent as doves. Sound familiar? It should do – it’s the Blaming The Victim game,  one that’s been played here for decades. It even featured prominently in the reporting of Bloody Sunday originally.  The fact is that Israel is visiting collective punishment on well over a million people because it doesn’t like the people they have elected, but they do so in the name of peace. In a way I don’t blame Israel – they’re a hard-line lot and they’re going to dictate things on their terms if they can get away with it. I blame the Western press who pussy-foot in their response to naked aggression such as the Israelis’ attack on the ships, and I particularly blame the US, who arm and support Israel and who have found ways to water down the UN resolution condemning the attack on the ships.  If  Western countries had  an ounce of integrity, they’d keep the pressure on Israel until it abandoned its blockade of Gaza.  And if Western commentators had an ounce of integrity, they’d stop trying to occupy a place in the middle of the road.  In case you hadn’t noticed, it’s a place that’s ultimately self-destructive.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Horrible or not so horrible? It all depends.

Picture this.  A man is walking along the Falls Road. It’s lunchtime and the place is busy with people shopping, chatting,  working. Suddenly  there’s mayhem  - shots ring out and passsers-by see two men firing point-blank at a man already lying on the ground. The man is rushed to hospital where he dies a short time later.  The gunmen are identified as members of the IRA and the killing is acknowledged as a revenge killing: the man in question had annoyed some senior IRA people.

Can you imagine the reaction? There’d be a crisis in Stormont,  unionist parties would withdraw in protest, IRA  acts of decommissioning would be declared bogus, there’d be a political crisis and the peace process would wobble and conceivably collapse. 

Last Friday at lunch-time Robert Moffett was shot dead on the Shankill Road by members of the UVF because, it’s said,  he annoyed some senior UVF figures.  Has any politician  - unionist, nationalist or republican - stood up and said UVF decommissioning was clearly a fraud? Has anyone expressed outrage that the UVF clearly still has its weaponry and infrastructure still in place?  Why is there no talk of ejecting the PUP from Stormont,  no declarations of support for the bereaved by prominent politicians, no high-profile trips to the US by grieving family members?

“Oh, but  this is different.  Sinn Fein are in government, the PUP isn’t”  - that’s the justification for the contrasting response.  And it’s a logical response, if you’re someone who believes that double standards help make sense of the moral terrain.  If you’re agin double standards, you may find the calm acceptance of a UVF murder sickening.