Jude Collins

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Malachi and his moral high horse

You’d think that with our history of injustice, from discrimination to internment to Diplock courts to the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four,  we’d be careful about declaring someone guilty without clear evidence. Well, you’d think wrong, then.  I’ve just finished reading an extended assault on Cardinal Sean Brady by Malachi O’Doherty, and in the course of it he describes him (Doherty does Brady)  as a man of moral ineptitude,

Now I kind of like Malachi – always have. There’s something about his terrier quality, his pint-sized spunkiness that appeals. And agree with him or not, he can write -  a gift not always possessed by the clergy-assaulting ranks to which he belongs.  But he’s full of the brown stuff on this one because his argument is based on one presumption: that Fr James Chesney was involved in the Claudy bombing and other violent activities.

There’s no evidence of that. There’s the word of a Special Branch officer who claims that he was all set to raid Fr Chesney’s home when his superiors pulled the plug on it. There are RUC claims, reported by Al Hutchinson, that say  Chesney was actively involved in IRA operations. But nowhere does anybody produce a fragment of evidence that Jim Chesney was involved in a single violent act.

And yet several times in the course of his article Malachi lashes both Cardinal Conway and Sean Brady for their response to the Chesney affair. Cardinal Conway was guilty of ‘a gross violation of innocence’. He (Malachi, not Cardinal Conway) declares Fr Chesney to have been ‘a murderer’, ‘a mass murderer’ and insists Cardinal Conway knew this to be so.  And he (Malachi, not Conway or Brady) believes Brady should have resigned long ago if, well, if he doesn’t agree with Malachi about child abuse as well as the Claudy case.

Was Fr Chesney a member of the IRA? I don’t know. Neither does Malachi. Thousands of young men at the time were members of the IRA. But whether Jim Chesney was or was not, no one is entitled to get on a high moral horse and declare him a member, let alone a mass murderer, except they can adduce evidence to support their claim.  That’s what a system of law – innocent until proven guilty -  is about,  and that’s what moral integrity as distinct from moral relativism demands.

You’ll notice that on several occasions above my syntax became so clotted, it may have seemed I was talking about Malachi when I was in  fact talking about William Conway or Sean Brady. So it’s just as well I didn’t borrow the title of Malachi’s article for this piece, or the confusion between the two clergymen and Malachi might have deepened. The title of Malachi’s piece was ‘A Moral Dullard’. 

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Figueres and private property

Is stealing morally wrong? As I child I was taught it was. You couldn’t even get forgiveness in Confession if you didn’t first give back whatever you’d stolen, which in my book made it a seriously-stupid sin. After an experience in Figueres yesterday, I’m not so sure it’s a sin and I’m certain it’s not worth the effort.

Figueres is  across the Spanish border from Perpignan;  you’re still in Catalonia but there’s a stronger Spanish flavour.  It’s a nice little town with two claims to attention. It’s the birthplace of Narcis Monturiol Estarriol who invented the submarine,  and it’s the birthplace of Salvador Dali who had a slightly weird moustache and did a lot of very weird paintings.  People queue for over an hour to get into the Dali museum;  hardly anybody queues to check out the submarine man.

Anyway, we were in the Dali gift-shop  - always the most crowded place in any cultural location  - when I bumped gently against a woman. She murmured ‘Perdone, senor’ and that was that. Or it was until three minutes later, when I swung round to say something to the present Mrs Collins only it wasn’t the present Mrs Collins by my side but the perdone woman and she wasn’t just by my side, she had her hand in my bag. Or had she? Almost as soon as I registered her hand was in the bag, her hand wasn’t in the bag and she was talking to her friend. I checked:  keys, phone, satnav, all safely in the inner zipped compartment where I’d placed them.  Nothing gone. So I told the p Mrs C, in a loudish voice, what I thought had happened. About  twenty seconds later the Spanish woman and her friend made an unhurried but firm exit from the shop. We followed, equally unhurried but firm. The Spanish woman and her friend dawdled at a shop window for  3.5 secs, then with a quick backward glance, set off down the street. We followed. They quickened their pace and turned a corner; we trotted after them.  When next seen they had done some real speed work and were disappearing at the end of the street, again with that non-furtive-but-definitely-checking glance over the shoulder.

And that was it. I’m not sure what we’d have done if they’d turned round and come back – probably started to sprint away ourselves.  Was this woman Catalonia’s worst pickpocket?  Maybe.  If she hadn’t been dipping into my bag, why did she and her friend clear off soon afterwards and go barreling down a number of streets at near-Olympics pace?  The p Mrs C and I  gathered our breath and agreed I’d been guilty of tempting a Spanish woman to break the seventh commandment.

There is another explanation. Somewhere in Figueres today, two respectable middle-aged women are telling their friends about the near-escape they had after being chased for no reason down a series of streets by a pair of clearly-crazy but frighteningly-fit old gringos.  

Is stealing morally wrong?  I dunno, but  considering the high level of skill required, not to mention the physical and emotional expense, I’d hate to have to do it for a living.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Cars and being young

Machete premiered in Los Angeles, CA on August 25, 2010. Pictured: Don Johnson Fame Pictures, Inc
One of the good things about being on a house-swap is you get to drive someone else’s car.  This is good for a number of reasons but especially because it reassures me. I find that despite what the present Mrs Collins says,  I’m not the only one who eats food in the car and lets little bits, crumbs and broken crisps particles and the odd M and M fall down into that little gulley between the driver’s seat and the gear-stick, to lie there for months on end. I’m also not the only one who regularly cleans the outside of his windscreen but leaves the inside because it’s harder to do, until a light, scummy surface develops and you don’t notice it until you reach forward one day to give the inside of the windscreen a wipe with the back of your hand and find your knuckles come back smudged grey.

Driving my counterpart’s car has also taught me quite a bit about French drivers.  Unlike the Italians who are only marginally less mad than several million bushes, French drivers are generally courteous. They don’t cut you off, they don’t tail-gate you, they don’t  nip in and grab the parking space you were waiting for several minutes to occupy. They’re a decent driving people but they do have one irritating habit.  They horn-fart.

It happens at traffic-lights. If you’re in front of them and you don’t get out of there quicker than a greyhond with electrodes attached to its genitals, they start horn-farting. This involves using the horn in a high-pitched, staccato way. Think of a fat man breaking wind in a I-wish-I-hadn’t-had-those-beans manner. Not so much mmmbaaaaaaaaaaaaamp or  even paaarp-paaarp-paaaaaaarrrrrrp    as peerrmp-peeerrmp-peerrmp-peeerrmp-peeerrmp-peeerrmp-peeerrmp-peerrrmp. If  you’re not too upset  and find time to glance in your rear mirror, you’ll see the horn-farter lifting both hands off the wheel to give you an Arsene-Wenger throwing-invisible-balls-in-the-air shrug before going back to his flatulent horn.

But it was yesterday afternoon that I had my most absorbing encounter with a French driver. The sun was shining with its usual four-o’clock intensity and I was sitting at the traffic lights near where we’re staying.  The light was red and I was half-musing over how clever it was of the French to put a small  light half-way up the traffic-light stem so you don’t have to twist your neck to peer up to see if the signal has changed, and how smooth the surface of even their minor roads are compared to ours, and how a  big ice-cream cone might be nice later, maybe vanille et chocolat. Then next thing I'm aware that a car – a small black muscular-looking car – has emerged from a side-street near the lights.  It is crossing the road slowly, as though the driver might be going to nudge gently into the side of my vehicle. But he doesn’t.  Instead he points the nose of his car at a space I have left between me and the concrete base on which the traffic-light is planted.  Having pointed, he is now driving slowly but relentlessly  towards that small space.

I am frozen, speechless.  He’s going to bash into my front wheel and we’ll both be immobilized and here for hours. He’s going to horribly scrape my front bumper and he won’t have insurance and it’ll cost a fortune. He’s going to…

But he doesn’t.  He drives the two right-hand-side wheels of his car up onto the concrete base on which the traffic lights are mounted, so for some five seconds his car is at an angle of about 35% degrees. Then as he levels out and pauses for the next stage, I see him up-close.

If I say he looked like Theo Walcott’s very tough older brother, it’ll probably be misleading. He was tough-looking, true, but in an assured, relaxed way. As  our gazes met  this breacher-of-every-highway-code-ever-invented raised his eyebrows two millimeters and his chin four.

I wouldn't have thought it possible for so much non-verbal information to be conveyed with so little effort.  The tiny movement of the features and head said ‘That was a particularly tight space I’ve just manoeuvred through – thanks for leaving it, friend’.  At the same time,  with no malice it was saying ‘Hey, you sit there like a stunned sheep staring at a red light if you want to, grandpa, but there ain’t a chance in hell I’m gonna. I’m Theo Walcott’s tough older brother and I got things to do and places to be, so screw rules and screw traffic lights and screw you too, grandpa, if you think I’m going to sit around obeying any  mother-obscenitying highway code'.

And then he was gone, roaring across the space, through red lights, past other stationary drivers gawking at him, off up a hill and into the hot early evening. Seconds later  the  air was filled with the sound of breaking wind  -  peerp-peeeerp-peeerp-peeerp – as the law-abiding drivers tried to cope with the fact that a wild free spirit had just shown them how you could if you liked flaunt authority,  how you could if you liked live life with a calm contempt for rules, and how you could if you were young and tough go roaring off towards pleasure, leaving horn-farters and old foreign grandpas glued to rules and regulations at a traffic intersection.

I’ve been trying to reproduce that chin-and-eyebrows movement in the mirror since, but I don’t think I’ll ever get it.   

Thursday, 26 August 2010

The Rose of Tralee and the need to bum-clench

Is The Rose of Tralee the most toe-curling, buttock-clenchingly embarrassing TV programme ever devised by humankind, or a brilliant and uniquely-Irish festival that taps into something important about being Irish at home or abroad? Maybe (to be balanced for once) both.

The bum-clenching bit used to be reflected in the sweaty embarrassment of the man doing the emcee thing over the couple of nights. I still remember with a faint nausea the sight of Gay Byrne trying to chat up the contestants, ending with him getting down on one knee and getting dangerously close to fetishism as he removed their shoes so they could lep about and do some high-kicking Irish dancing. Then there were the shots of the proud mum and dad in the audience, grinning in an embarrassed, everyone’s-looking-at-us way, the tales of work with mentally-handicapped children and dedication to world peace, and did I mention how maaaaaaaaahhhh-ingly silly the male escorts looked when the camera turned on them?

Against that there’s the fact that the competition skips the bathing-suit bit. It does put a decent emphasis on the young women having personality as well as looks. Gay Byrne is gone. It brings much-needed revenue into Kerry. Some of the young women are good-looking, confident and smart to a level that does produce something like pride that Ireland (or at least Irish people) can produce such quality. The Festival tells us much about emigration and how people who’ve emigrated still maintain the ties that link them to Ireland. And as important as anything, like the ‘Back to school’ signs in the shop windows and the political conferences, The Rose of Tralee tells us the summer is just about over and it’s time to turn thoughts once more to autumn chill and darker nights and, yes, omigod, can that be …Christmas up ahead?

We need such signposts to help us make our way through each year. As summer festivals go, The Rose of Tralee is a lot less ugly and threatening than some.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Considering Claudy

Victims and relatives (from L) Colm McClelland,Tracey Deans, Mary Hamilton, Mark Eakin, Marjorie Leslie, Gordon Miller, James Miller, of the 1972 bombings of Claudy speak during a news conference in Claudy, Northern Ireland August 24, 2010. The government, the police and the Catholic Church colluded to protect a priest suspected of involvement in a 1972 bombing in Northern Ireland that killed 9 people, a report said on Tuesday.The Police Ombudsman's eight-year probe revealed a cardinal was involved in moving Father James Chesney out of Northern Ireland, highlighting anew the way the Church hierarchy shielded priests from allegations of criminal activity.  REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton (Northern Ireland - Tags: CIVIL UNREST CRIME LAW POLITICS RELIGION)
As the clamour over Claudy swirls and booms, let me list five points about that event in 1972. I know they will have no impact on those who smell a chance to further discredit the Catholic Church and republicanism, but I still believe making them might bring some hint of reason into discussion of the case.

1. Comparisons between Claudy and Bloody Sunday are invalid. What made Bloody Sunday stand out was the fact that the fourteen killings were inflicted by the forces of the state, whose job it is to protect citizens, not kill them. The IRA, a subversive force, has never claimed any such role.
2. Fr Jim Chesney (if allegations are true) was not and is not the only clergyman to support violence as a means to political ends. We might list off the many Protestant clergymen over the decades who’ve stirred the sectarian pot, particularly in Belfast, inciting young men to violence. Better, though, to focus on army padres. Such men don’t spend their days trying to dissuade the soldiers with whom they come in contact that they should beat their swords into ploughshares, learn to love their enemies rather than train to kill them. Instead, they bless the soldiers in their warlike endeavours, sustain them in battle and hail their heroism when the battle-smoke has cleared. No moral distinction can be drawn between such unequivocal support of those engaged in violence and the alleged actions of Fr Chesney.
3. The Claudy deaths were the result of IRA bungling, not calculated intention. Had the intention been to inflict maximum casualties, no attempts would have been made to warn the authorities. That still leaves those who brought in the bombs morally guilty of behaviour that might (and in their case did) result in terrible death and injuries. But their level of guilt is exactly comparable to those who planned and executed explosions where warnings were successfully given and no one was killed or injured.
4. The fact that Fr Chesney was a Catholic priest should not shock us. Admittedly the Catholic Church has never been supportive of the IRA and throughout history it’s been consistently opposed to violent outbreaks of Irish nationalism. Its non-violent stance loses credibility, however, when we look at the Church’s attitude to the British army in Ireland. The Church has never condemned as immoral either the British Army’s commitment to violence as a way of resolving political issues or its presence on the territory of a neighbouring state. So if they are true, the allegations that Fr Chesney supported political violence puts him out of step with the political-violence grouping he supported, not with the notion of supporting political violence.
5. Finally, politicians such as Ian Óg Paisley and Gregory Campbell, who responded to the Saville Report and the Ballymurphy Massacre campaign by calling for the book on the past to be finally closed, cannot now do other than urge people to leave behind the allegations of blame and cover-up over Claudy.

Simple soul that I am, I believe that if you use reason when addressing an issue rather than sloganeering or bigotry, you’ll acknowledge the rational argument behind the five points listed above. But then reason has rarely been employed by those opposed to republicanism and/or the Catholic Church.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Enemies and liars

BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND - JULY 12:  Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams (L) watches as PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) officers remove a sit - down protester on the Crumlin Road on July 12, 2005 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Catholic residents of the Ardoyne area and Republicans supporters held a protest over the Northern Ireland Parades Commission decision to let Orangemen partake in their annual Twelfth of July march though a nationalist Catholic area of North Belfast. (Photo by Getty Images)
OK, OK, I’m becoming a bore about Orwell, I know I am, but this’ll be the last reference to him (at least for a little while).

The great man says two things in the course of Homage to Catalonia that have lodged in my brain and have triggered some contemporary thoughts.

The first was his claim that he harboured no romantic image of the working man, unlike some liberals; but when it came to a clash between the worker and ‘his natural enemy’ the policeman, he Orwell knew which side he was on. The second attention-snagging claim he made was that most journalists ‘lie for a living’.

Let’s take the first one, that the police are the ‘natural enemy’ of the worker. Brendan Behan said that there was no situation so bad, the arrival of a policeman couldn’t make it worse. That’s generally true if the people involved are poor/working-class. The police are the muscular arm of the state; they exist to make sure that the laws of the land are enforced – or at least, that they’re enforced among the less-well-off. If you doubt me, think how many cases you’ve read which involve the arrest and prosecution of a working-class/poor person for theft. How much was involved? What penalty was handed down? Now think of how many occasions you’ve heard of the arrest and prosecution of people for white-collar theft…Not quite so many, eh? Just like the penalty handed down to such people is frequently less draconian. And maybe sometime do a survey of how many working-class people are in our jails and how many middle-class…You probably see that Orwell’s point still thuds home with telling veracity.

And the second one – that most journalists lie for a living. Orwell was talking about eighty years ago, of course, so that can have no relevance to journalists today, can it? … Well, that depends on what you call a lie. If you take a lie to be the flat statement of something that’s not true, well, most journalists tend to be careful about that sort of thing. Though mind you, if you consider the Troubles, the number of times journalists regurgitated as fact a self-serving, lying report from the British Army or the British government, you'd end up with a tidy total of down-right full-frontal lies. But generally with journalists, lying today involves the way they describe or treat events and issues: always it’s as though the status quo is the only possible option. Over the last twenty-five years, for instance, I can’t remember reading a single mainstream journalist who argued the case for a socialist state. Virtually all of them bought into the Thatcherite/Blairite premise that the market, with some light controlling, was what made the mare go. Any more state-controlled approach was bad for business and bad for decent citizens like their readers. Now I’ll give the acquiescing journalists credit for knowing that the market-is-king was only one way of looking at society, and a pretty seriously-flawed way at that. But I won’t give them credit for opening their little beaks and telling their readers that there were other, better ways and that we should press really really hard for them, if we hope to ever bring some semblance of equality to our society. I won’t give them credit for doing that because they didn’t open. In short, they lied by omission, which for people who like to present themselves as the guardians of democracy is a fairly serious failure.

The same of course goes for their presentation of the Troubles. The overwhelming number presented the conflict as some bad psychopaths who were intent on killing people versus the governments who were trying to protect us from them. Anyone with the feeblest grasp of history knows that’s bunkum but it didn’t prevent our heroic hacks from dishing it out for decades.

Funny, isn’t it, how what was true nearly a century ago is true today. That Orwell was some boy.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Top Gun twaddle

U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor aircraft assigned to the 90th Fighter Squadron out of Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, fly near Guam on February 16, 2010, during exercise Cope North. The U.S. and the Japanese air forces conduct Cope North annually at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, to increase combat readiness, concentrating on coordination and evaluation of air tactics, techniques and procedures. UPI/Jacob N. Bailey/U.S. Air Force

Ryanair fly here. As we sit on the balcony having our evening meal, the occasional harp-tailed plane drones overhead, on its way to Perpignan airport. Typical Ryanair, mind you - they don't fly from either Belfast or Dublin, so if Irish people like myself want to fly with them, you have to first get to one of their airports in England. I wasted a lot of time checking out possible connections before stumbling on the fact that Aer Lingus fly here direct from Belfast. Michael O'Leary may say insulting things about Aer Lingus but it looks like they've wiped his eye on this one.

Ryanair and Aer Lingus aren't the only planes to occupy the Catalan evening air. Yesterday and the day before, I was at the cheese-and-liqueur stage when a sound louder and more insistent than normal filled the skies. Six fighter jets in tight formation, with a seventh bringing up the rear, whined across the deepening blue sky. Passenger planes aren't allowed within three miles of each other but these testosterone-fuelled beauties looked to be no more than thirty metres apart.

Why? I presume it's something to do with acting as a unit if they're in a conflict situation. Like a squad of soldiers, they start off close together, go off individually or in smaller teams to do their dirty work and then re-group. Although it still seems to me terribly risky to have people flying so close to one another.

The other why of all this is more baffling. The French defence budget is roughly the same as that of Britain, which is an annual £40bn (mind you, that's not including the £130bn the British plan to spend to replace the Trident nuclear submarine programme). Why does either country spend so much money and who are they protecting their people from? In France, it goes back to de Gaulle. He looked at the Spanish Civil War, when the American politicians refused to support the Spanish Republicans because they figured it might cost them votes. De Gaulle vowed that France would not allow voters in the American Mid-West to shape its future and so he developed his 'force de frappe' - a nuclear strike capability that gave France, he argued, independence from the United States.The fighter planes I saw overhead the other evening are not capable of carrying nuclear weapons but they're part of that same mentality, one shared by Britain, that national independence demands a really strong - in the case of nuclear weapons, suicidally strong - war machine you can call your own.

It's all rubbish, of course.There's the hypocrisy of a country like Britain preaching to Irish people, for example, that they should resolve their differences peacefully. Meanwhile they themselves spend £40bn a year on ways to kill people. Then there's the notion that France or Britain could go it alone in a major war. They're both members of the EU, they both have close ties with the US. There isn't the remotest chance that an attack on a major European country wouldn't provoke a lethal response from the other EU members and the US. And we haven't even asked the most obvious question: who's going to launch a major attack on France or Britain?

The whole notion of national defence systems, and particularly go-it-alone systems, requires serious rethinking, particularly at a time when thousands are becoming unemployed because stupid and greedy people screwed up a stupid and greedy capitalist system. As things stand, the fighter planes that streak high above our balcony and the nuclear submarines that Britain is about to replace are cripplingly expensive and morally contemptible displays of Colonel Blimp thinking.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

The Catholic Church in Catalonia - still 'a racket'?

Orwell was dismissive of Churches in general and particularly the Catholic Church in Spain – he said most Catalans agreed with him and considered it ‘a racket’.  That was in the 1930s and maybe it was. It certainly sided with Franco and the Fascists.  Today we got a glimpse of it when we went to Mass in L’Eglise St Paul, on the campus of the University of Perpignan.

Similar to most Masses these days, the congregation was around 50% oldies like ourselves, with the remainder composed of middle-aged people, young adults and a smattering of children and grandchildren. There were even two babies who arrived with their parents towards the end of the Mass and appeared to have been brought for christening. Christenings ain’t what they used to be. When my mother had her eight children, she had each of us baptised practically before we’d been sponged off. These infants looked fairly substantial  - between six months and a year, maybe. Limbo continues to be important as a West Indian dance involving a stick, less so as a place reserved after death for the unbaptised.

The church was warm in temperature and in tone too – the congregation were chatty and friendly, many clearly knowing each other. The Mass had one or two variations from at home. When the assisting priest and various Eucharistic ministers received Communion, they took it in their hand and waited until the others had been served, as it were, then all ate the consecrated wafer simultaneously. A nice touch, I thought. And when it came time for the Sign of Peace, kisses were frequent (I didn’t get lucky, alas).  Directly in front of me a grandfather and a grandmother leaned across their grandson and kissed each other on the mouth, which made the boy’s eyes bulge. For a couple of minutes afterwards he kept shaping his mouth in a kissing pout, as though trying to recreate the sensation in his head.

Do Catalans today consider the Catholic Church a racket?  None of those at today’s Mass appeared to. Nor did they look as if clerical child abuse scandals might dislodge their active membership.  They looked like Sunday congregations most places: an elderly group of people come together to try to make sense of an existence which, if viewed in temporal terms, is just a bit   short on length and meaning. 

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Home thoughts from abroad

One of the keenest and slightly guilty pleasures of doing a house-swap is the chance to check out other people’s homes. When we were in California two summers ago, I was struck by the scale of everything. As Sonoma County homes go our accommodation wasn’t palatial, but it had a scale and edge of luxury not routinely found in  Europe.  Our fellow-swappers in California were two attorneys.  Here in Perpignan we’ve swapped with two academics.  It’s hard to know what contrasts are down to personal taste and what to cultural differences, but here are a few I’ve noticed.

1.   No family photographs. In our house,  our guests will find them everywhere, many framed and hung. Our four children’s graduation photographs; our oldest son as a pre-teenager with his arm around his brother; our middle son in a plastic mac grinning beside Niagara Falls,  our youngest son grinning beside Bill Clinton – the list goes on. Here,  although our hosts have two children, not a single photograph. Maybe like many people today, they’re nervous that a photograph of their children will somehow lead to abduction, blackmail, who knows what horrors. Or maybe they just don’t like nosey paddies looking at personal snaps.
2.   No TV.  I’m pretty sure this is down to personal preference  - the French are no more TV-averse than any other nationality, as far as I know.  There is a DVD-player which I haven’t quite worked out how to use. In our house, our French guests will find hundreds of Sky channels, most of them ghastly, a DVD player, some Coen brothers movies and a few 30 Rock episodes.
3.   Lots of music.  There’s a big hi-fi system with muscular speakers and shelves of classical music – Mahler, Bach, the works.  In our place there’s a very compact ipod charger with a single speaker and Bob Dylan, Christy Moore, Dire Straits. Will their commitment to playing music mean their children grow up loving music?  Hard to say, although I do  now wish I’d filled our house with music during the growing years.
4.   Wi-fi.  Snap. Our house has wi-fi and so has theirs,  which is like finding the same magic portal in two places separated by nearly a thousand miles. We’ve exchanged passwords for gaining access so I’m able to post these blogs as if I were at home. The house has two desktop and one laptop computer but I’ve found  all three too tricky to use – unfamiliar keyboards, confusing messages in French warning me of something or other and blocking my access path.  Instead I use  my own laptop which works perfectly with their password.  And it strikes me that if I’d written the last few sentences twenty years ago, they’d have sounded like the ramblings of a madman.
5.   Clothesline. Snap. We’ve both got one. Ours is a rickety affair out the back which spins around in the blasts that come bustling up off Belfast Lough. Theirs is a neat little line with multi-coloured clothes-pegs,  tucked modestly into a corner of the balcony. At first I think they’ve cut their drying possibilities by half, since the wind can get at their clothes from one side only; then the present Mrs Collins reminds me that we’re on the border between France and Spain, where clothes dry inside half-an-hour.
And maybe that’s the biggest difference of all – the sun.  As I get older, the greyness of winter seems to go on and on, and I long to feel the sun on my back and face and any other part that can get it.  The downside of this is that sunny days leave my body and brain mildly bleached. To do more than wander around eating fruit, drinking cold beer and staring at the squeaky-clean blue sky seems a terrible imposition.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Say 'Barcelona' and you think of...?

Since I’m staying in Catalan country, I’ve started re-reading George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia.  He’s a writer I’ve always admired, ever since as a slip of a lad I did my MA  dissertation on his fiction. He writes with a clarity and honesty that’s irresistible, and Homage to Catalonia is Orwell at his reporting best.

Unlike Nuala McKeever,  Orwell understands what prompts people to take up arms.  The book is set in 1930s Barcelona,  during the Spanish Civil War, a short time after the Anarchists took over the city.  He describes the worker control of everything, the red flags, the fierce, excited pride that there are no more Senors or superiors,  only equals and comrades. Ever one to note the quirky detail, he reports that barbers in particular are passionate about the revolution.  Orwell went to the city to write on what was happening,  but within days of arriving found himself caught up in the fever of the city and joined up to fight the Fascists.

However – and this is the part I like – his admiration for the idealism of men committed to creating a better tomorrow is balanced by the honesty of his description of the war and preparations for it.  Volunteers barely in their mid-teens, hopelessly out-of-date equipment,  confused orders, hunger, cold, fear: for anyone tempted to think of war as a heroic endeavour, this takes the air out of that idea permanently.  Orwell doesn’t stop believing in the nobility of the vision; he simply shows that to realize the vision entails a heart-breaking amount of stink and terror.

Do the hundreds and thousands of football fans who pour into Barcelona to watch the big games know about Orwell? Care about him or his account of the Spanish Civil War and the fire of idealism it lit around Europe? Time has a way of  dimming great causes until they’re reduced to a small spark,  ignored by most people as they press on with their day-to-day concerns and amusements.  

Thursday, 19 August 2010

I love my satnav but does she love me?

29th June 1965: A poster with the famous words 'Big Brother is Watching You' from a BBC TV production of George Orwell's classic novel '1984'. (Photo by Larry Ellis/Express/Getty Images)
I've just finished reading a novel by Jonathan Coe called 'The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim', in which the central character is having a mental breakdown. Among his several symptoms is his attraction to/infatuation with the voice of the woman in his satnav.  I don't think I'm having a mental breakdown (cue a version of the old line from Dorothy Parker, when they told her Calvin Coolidge was dead: 'How can they tell?') but I do appreciate the nice woman inside my satnav.  She's got a north of Ireland accent and yesterday she led us unerringly  from Barcelona airport to our place in Perpignan. At the back of my mind as we obeyed her every prompting and took the second-left out of the roundabout and bore left and took a right turn and after two hundred yards took a sharp right, and anytime we screwed up the satnav voice was there again, as patient as ever, - at the back of my mind, I say, was the thought that if my every turn can be pinpointed by satellites from hundreds of miles up in the sky, via this soft-voiced satnav,  to lead me to my holiday destination, the same satellites could be used to report where I'm going year-round and whose house I'm calling into and maybe even what I say when I'm there? That's the thing with modern technology - there's a side to it that's a constant, practical delight and a part that's nightmarish.

Is it worth it? Does the world of GPS or whatever it's called come out as a boon  or a bane to our lives?  The trouble is we'll never know, or at least not until it's too late. The people who operate these systems are unlikely to tell us they're spying on us: the whole point of surveillance systems is not to let those surveyed know what's going on. But  a quarter-century-plus after George Orwell's 1984, our every move every day is trackable in ways that make his Big Brother look like a dim-sighted house-bound geriatric. 

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Psst, Nuala. A word in your shell-like...

BAGHDAD, IRAQ, JANUARY 26: Iraqi policemen investigate a car damaged by a suicide car bomb explosion near an Interior Ministry police forensics office on January 26, 2010 in Baghdad, Iraq. The bombing claimed the lives of at least 17 people, and comes less than six weeks before the parliamentary elections. The attack follows three bombings yesterday that killed at least 36 people and targeted foreign journalists and businessmen. (Photo by Muhannad Fala'ah/Getty Images)

I wasn’t at my best this morning, in terms of either physical appeal or mental alertness. That’s because myself and the present Mrs Collins had to get up at 4.00 a.m. in order to catch an Aer Lingus flight to Barcelona, so a French couple I’ve never seen (never spoken to either, although my present wife has, on the phone, once) can come and stay in our house for the next fortnight.  We’re staying in theirs, in Perpignan, over the same period. It’s a bit like the MAD system they used during the cold war: Mutually Assured Destruction.  You launch a nuclear strike on us, we’ll take you with us. You trash our house, we’ll trash yours...I exaggerate a little.  What’ll happen is that our French guests will leave our house cleaner than they got it and we’ll leave theirs in a similar condition.

But even through red-rimmed, pre-6.00 a.m. eyes I noticed the SDLP’s Declan O’Loan and his missus lining up to fly off to Malaga, and further back in the queue for our plane was another SDLP luminary, Dolores Kelly. Do I begrudge them their holiday? Far from it. When you’ve had to work as hard as they almost certainly have to keep the SDLP chin above water, you deserve a wee bit of sun on your exposed bits.

Oddly, when I arrived in Barcelona and was driving the 100+  miles from there to Perpignan, it wasn’t the SDLP I was thinking of. Looking at the red earth and deep green crops and the big-breasted, rolling hills, I was reminded of a similar drive I took a few years back through similar country in California – similar landscape, similar names, similar climate. No wonder the Spaniards took to the west coast of America – it must have seemed a bigger, better version of home.  In fact they liked it so much they robbed and slaughtered the native people with a relish and ruthlessness that still chills when you read about it.

So  then we arrived at our lovely  apartment in Perpignan and I checked out the wi-fi and found myself staring at an article in this week’s Belfast Telegraph, by Nuala McKeever. In the course of it, Nuala asks a  terrifically middle-class question: “What is the problem with the Government admitting that it is talking to people who think killing other human beings is a smart way to get what they want?” Now being middle-class myself I agree with her -  governments should talk to those committed to violence. But I want to curl in a foetal ball and hide in one of the cool cupboards of our Perpignan flat when I take in the implication behind Nuala’s question. To wit,  that the way to getting what you want is not by killing other people. 

Oh dear. Shall I tell you a hard, horrible truth, Nuala? You don’t get what you want if you don’t kill  enough  people. The Spanish conquistadors knew that. The generals who hewed out the British Empire knew that.  Harry Truman, the President of the US, land of the free and home of the brave, knew it when he gave the thumbs-up to the obliteration of hundreds of thousands of innocent Japanese at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And the guys behind the suicide bomb that killed over sixty in Iraq yesterday know it. 

Killing people is  indeed the ultimate assault on human dignity. But it’s how power is wielded in the world, and I can’t see any amount of middle-class tut-tutting or pretence changing that. Can you?  

Monday, 16 August 2010

Let's get down and tabloid...

UNITED STATES - CIRCA 1950s:  Little boy and girl reading comic strips outside.  (Photo by George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images)

If there’s one thing that’s damaged the fight against the illegal drugs trade over the years, it’s the dire warnings we’ve heard again and again about what marijuana does to your brain, and how once you take it you’re on a slippery slope that’ll end up with you crouched in a dank alley injecting heroin into your big toe. Young and not-so-young people knew  from experience that this was Grade A Claptrap,  and so they tended to be equally sceptical about the legitimate warnings against hard drugs.  Thus the anti-drugs campaigners weakened their own case with a stupid lie.

Anyone looking at the front page of the Venerable Organ this morning might find their thoughts turning to marijuana. ‘They’re targeting kids’  the headline trumpets, beneath a massive picture of two (very photogenic) children who were caught up in the Lurgan bomb at the weekend. Now I know the VO is desperate to counter the threat of English tabloids and a headline and a picture like this does pull the punters in. But are things really so bad the VO feels compelled to go down the Grade A Claptrap route?

Dissident republicans are NOT targetting ‘kids’, or even children. They’re targetting policemen and British soldiers, and through a combination of bad luck and their own ineptness,  they’ve very nearly killed these children. That was the last thing the dissidents wanted,  just as the slaughter in Omagh was the last thing the Real IRA wanted. They may be reckless but they’re not that stupid: they know that killing children is bad PR for them, which is why when it happens, it’s because they’ve bungled, not because they set out to target children or civilians.

Just like the anti-drugs authorities,  the VO this morning has shot itself in the bum. Keen to hammer the dissidents and boost sales, it’s gone for an omigod headline and what it hopes will be a tear-jerker picture. The thing is, if the front page is such ripe tripe, what should we expect inside?

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Man shot dead? Who cares...

There was a  man shot dead in Dublin over the weekend. Did you know that?  Did you know his name? Do you care?  He was shot while out walking with his partner and their children. In most civilized societies, that would have caused outrage.  In the twenty-six counties it's just another headline, with a heavy emphasis on the fact that the dead man had been known to the police and that he had been involved in several unsavoury incidents during his life, several of them drug-related.
There's something  shameful about this. Yes, the killing itself is shameful: the effect it will have on his partner and children is sure to be profound and long-lasting. But it's equally shameful that every time a killing like this occurs (and they've been happening in the south at the rate of one every three weeks for several years now. Maybe you remember when that hard political man Michael McDowell was Justice Minister and vowed he'd clean the whole thing up?) - every time such a murder happens,  the garda release information about the criminal links of the man killed and the media dutifully report this information. Don't for one moment kid yourself it's because the public have a right to know, we need an unmuzzled press, blah blah bloody blah. The sole purpose of releasing such information is to make people think "Oh well, he was a bad egg, a drug dealer, one more less to worry about".  They may not think it in those stark terms but that's the net effect. Did I say such garda-media collaboration was shameful? Try vomit-inducing. 

Because if a system of justice means anything, it's that everybody is equal before the law and every life is held to be of equal value. I remember raising this question with a young barrister in the south who'd been involved in defending a well-known drug dealer. Had he no qualms of conscience about working to get bail or even acquittal for a man that he strongly suspected was in fact guilty? On the contrary, the barrister told me. He welcomed cases like this because they tested the state's commitment to justice. It's relatively easy giving the innocent and the loveable their day in court. It's much harder to make sure those who might well be guilty are given their day as well, and are provided with the full protection of the law. Only when that's available to such unsavoury types and the best case made for them can you say you have a  justice system worth having. 

Which is why when I hear a newsreader say 'The dead man was known to the police',  I feel slightly ill, and I ask myself why it is that the people of the twenty-six counties are angry only bankers and politicians. The garda and the media are attacking the very notion of a justice system for the state, and I can't think of anything more damaging to the public good. 

Friday, 13 August 2010

You're late? Piss off.

This Is A Shot Of An Elderly Woman Reading Through A Handheld Glass. The Woman Suffers From The Effects Of Cataracts, Loss Of Transparency In The Lens Of The Eye. Partial Or Total Blindness Results. Cataracts That Occur In Old Age Are Referred To As Senile Cataracts. Elderly Woman W/Cataracts Reading Through Handglass
That story of the flight attendant who grabbed a couple of beer,  shouted he'd had enough of flight attending and being insulted by the public, then activated the emergency chute and slid down it to disappear over the horizon...What a guy, eh? A free spirit,  fed up with the ugly, complaining, never-satisfied public. No wonder they've started a website to hail him as a latter-day hero.

But hold. There's another side to this kind of interface. A woman I know, in her mid-70s, suffers from crippling arthritis. Just over six months ago she had an appointment to get her feet done by a chiropodist person or whatever they call feet people these days, in the local hospital. The day as it happened was one  of deep snow and slippery roads, so by the time her daughter got her to the hospital she was eight minutes late for her appointment. The foot woman's reaction?  No, you're  eight minutes late, that's it, forget it. The 75-year-old pleaded extenuating circumstances, like the snow and her arthritic condition, and that on almost every occasion she'd attended prior to this, she'd  been kept waiting half an hour, three-quarters of an hour. Shouldn't there be a quid pro quo?  Not a good idea. The feet woman told the prospective patient that in that case, she'd leave explicit instructions for her next appointment: keep this woman waiting  eight minutes. By this time, the 75-year-old was pretty upset, a fact noted by her daughter when she arrived after parking the car. She tried to remonstrate with the feet woman, you're not supposed to give vulnerable people like my mother a hard time...Big mistake. Inside minutes the daughter had been reduced to tears. Eventually the feet got done, but at a high emotional cost for mother and daughter.

When they got home and recovered somewhat,  the woman and her daughter wrote separate letters of complaint to the Hospital Trust about the bullying treatment they'd been subjected to. After six months had elapsed - you heard me, six months  - the 75-year-old got a letter telling her the feet woman apologised for what had happened. The 75-year-old wrote back and said she didn't want the feet woman disciplined or dismissed or anything else, but she would like an apology in person. The abusive treatment had been meted out face-to-face, the apology should occur in similar circumstances, not second-hand in the post.  So did the Trust write back saying they were arranging it and they'd be in touch? Hah.  Not a peep. Over and out.

What am I saying? I'm saying that while the public can be hard to put up with - we've all seen and heard insufferable passengers on flights - there are those dealing with the public who are equally insufferable, and in this case insulting to the brink of abuse.  The fact is, the feet woman's wages are being paid by the public - you, me, the 75-year-old. So when's the last time you heard an  employee tell the boss off and then keep him/her waiting over six months before a second-hand apology gets delivered by post?  And did you know that after a six-month period,  it can be difficult-to-impossible to take legal action against someone?

I'm all for the free-spirited man, beer in hand, zipping down the chute to freedom. But I'm even more for the less-glamorous case of the 75-year-old woman. Ain't nobody going to set up a website and get her so much as a half-decent apology.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Call me Paddy...

Aug. 12, 2010 - 06310570 date 11 08 2010 Copyright imago Kevin Kilbane of Ireland disputes A decision International Friendly Republic of Ireland v Argentina 11th August 2010 PUBLICATIONxNOTxINxUK Football men National team international match Dublin Action shot Single Vdig 2010 vertical Highlight premiumd.
I spent yesterday evening switching between the Ireland vs Argentina game  on Sky and the England vs Hungary one on ITV. Neither game seized me by the throat  (I missed both Gerard goals) but the Sky Sports commentator managed to nudge me away from the Ireland game he was covering and towards the England game. Not because I’m more interested in England than Ireland but because the Sky man would keep mangling Irish names.  Did you know that the Republic has a player called Key-oh? Or one called Faw-hee?  That’s Keogh and Fahy when pronounced properly. The Sky man had the former Republic of Ireland player Ray Houghton beside him, which should have resolved any Irish name pronunciation, except that Ray's from Scotland and is probably a bit shaky on Irish names himself. It’s like that player Arsenal had some years back.  Key-own he was called, played at full-back.

Ignorance? Laziness?  Probably  a bit of both. Plus that unfailing English notion, sometimes buried but never quite dead, that foreign names are deliberately weird and need to be modified so that, well, ordinary civilized people can understand them.

I’d be more critical of English delusions of superiority except that a considerable number of local radio announcers still don’t know how to pronounce  ‘Magherafelt’.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

There was this Kerryman...

So there was this Kerryman whose daughter was visiting from England…You’ve probably heard about it. The daughter, a British soap opera actor, had modeled in an England football team shirt. Her father’s reaction was to tell her she was a Protestant bastard.  The daughter told this anecdote on an RTE talk show, prompting the host  to smile and the audience to applaud. Cue public indignation.

Let’s first put the thing in context.  The father in question is  a Kerryman and this is essentially a Kerryman joke, which comes out of the tradition of the broader Irishman joke, in which the Irishman invariably says or does something illogical and a bit foolish but with a trace of truth in it. So naturally when the audience heard the word ‘Kerryman’, they got ready to smile indulgently.

Now, skip over the bit about the man calling his own daughter a bastard and concentrate on the use of  the word ‘Protestant’ when he meant ‘English’.  This too has a context,  historical this time.  A major component of England’s strategy to subjugate the Irish in the nineteenth century were the Penal Laws, which aimed to replace the Catholic faith with the Protestant. The head of the British state is also the head of the Church of England. So there’s a strong religious mix in the dealings between England and Ireland. It’s the race memory of such things that’s at the back of the Kerryman’s Protestant/English short-hand.
Plus the Kerryman’s situation is one that’s constantly faced by the Irish parents of children who’ve emigrated to Britain and become absorbed in the general population there. Nationalists themselves, the parents see their children adopt the symbols and loyalties of Britain, a state which was and remains the main blockage to Irish independence. Naturally there’s a sense of loss and even betrayal.

That said, I still feel uneasy about using a person’s faith commitment as equivalent to political loyalty.  In the north of Ireland, the vast majority of Protestants are unionists and the vast majority of Catholics are nationalists/republicans; but to talk in Catholic/Protestant terms, as British and Irish media frequently do, is to suggest that our conflict centres on church doctrine. It doesn’t.  

In the end, the Kerryman’s failure was that he didn’t show concern for rather than condemnation of his daughter. Anyone who chooses to support the England soccer team when there’s an option to support another  must be experiencing mental instability.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Do you now or have you ever condemned...

CRAIGAVON, UNITED KINGDOM - MARCH 12:  Police officers continue follow up searches at houses in Craigavon near to where gunmen shot Constable Stephen Carroll on March 12, 2009 in Craigavon, Northern Ireland. A large security presence is under way following the murders of two soldiers and a policeman by dissident republicans in the last week.  (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

I’m not sure you’ll want to read this blog today. You see, the truth is, I haven’t condemned what happened at Auschwitz during the Second World War. And I haven’t condemned the annihilation of hundreds of thousands at Hiroshima and Nagasaki either.  You probably didn’t know that but now that you’ve heard, I expect you’re clapping your brow with one hand and pointing a shaking finger at me with the other as you gasp the words “You beggar belief!” 

That’s the headline in the increasingly-tabloidy  Venerable Organ this morning: ‘You beggar belief’  under a photograph of Independent councillor Martin Connolly, who has refused to condemn a bomb attack on his niece...

Hold on. His niece? So the reprehensibility is linked to his having a blood-relative involved?  Good news – I had no relatives involved in Auschwitz or Hiroshima or Nagasaki, so it seems I’m off the degenerate hook for not condemning them. Actually, I didn’t condemn them because I didn’t feel it’d make a bit of difference. Auschwitz and Hiroshima and Nagasaki have happened and condemning them won’t make them un-happen. Nor will condemning them make any difference to the men who performed the deeds, or to others who continue that tradition of great statesmen and generals ordering the slaughter of innocent civilians.

That’s why I felt Martin Connolly’s refusal to condemn the attack on a policewoman made sense, really. Why go through a pointless public ritual that will change nothing?  But now that I know there was a blood relative involved, that makes all the difference. Shame on you, Mr Connolly. As the VO with its instinct for a fresh phrase puts it, you beggar belief. 

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Only a game?

When I attended University College Dublin in the 1960s, the  boys from St Columb's College, Derry used to hang around together.  They were a bright bunch but they felt a little intimidated by the free-talking southern students, especially the ones from Dublin. So they (and include me, alas) used to gather at the radiator inside the main entrance at Earlsfort Terrace and scoff among themselves at the people who ran things in UCD -  Henry Kelly,  Anthony Clare, Sinead Cusack,  Patrick Cosgrove. These people dominated the L and H debating society, Dramsoc and  any other clubs and societies that required you to stand on your hind legs and address an audience. "Bloody idiots!" the Derry boys would mutter, then go back to doing the Times crossword or reading an old edition of The Derry Journal.

I thought of them and my younger self yesterday when I was out at Stormont at the Poc Fada competition. It was blessed with good weather, it was a good laugh, but most of all it was a good PR exercise by Sinn Féin.  It told anybody present that nationalists and republicans had finally arrived and were clumping all over the good lawns, once the sole preserve of solid members of the Unionist party.  There wasn't a unionist in sight, except you count the security man who asked some of those coming in "Are you here for ...the...event?"  Or maybe the  stony-faced cop who moved around not speaking but looking as authoritative as he could. But while you could argue the Event never happened because there were no unionists to witness it,  you may be sure they knew it had happened. It was on the TV, it was in the newspapers, it caught the media's imagination the way a good PR exercise should.

The kids playing hurling, the celebrity poc fada, the Edward Carson trophy - none of this changes the north's constitutional position within the United Kingdom. But Events like this have a subversive effect: they hollow out unionism as a dominant force.  If people you've been taught to see as your enemy begin to share all the authority and spaces that were once exclusively yours, it gets a bit bewildering. You begin to think that while their day may not have come, yours in some significant sense has gone.  What a pity we hadn't the gumption back in the Sixties to leave the sidelines and transform UCD in a similar, final way.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Good fences make good neighbours...

As a youngster I was fascinated by the philosophical notion of what is necessary before you can have an event. For example, if a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one there to hear it, is there any noise?

I thought of this yesterday as I was attacking the hedge between me and my neighbour. It’s a twisted, hard-core brute and even after I’ve gone at it for an hour or more with a heavy-duty electric hedge-cutter, it still comes out looking the muscle-pattern on a loyalist prisoner. My neighbour calls encouragingly to me as I stand tiptoe on a chair, trying to put manners on the top bit: “You’re putting me to shame with your work on that hedge!” I tell him he’s got the wrong man. It’s logically impossible to arrive at a number lower than the lowest number.

The thing is this: would I cut my hedge if there was no one there – if I had no neighbours? I’m surrounded by Protestants,  in whose genes is a historal drive towards order and cultivation. My genes tell me that Mother Nature wanted hedges and grass to grow, and there’s something perverse about slashing and strimming and hacking at her efforts. So although I pick up my heavy-duty hedge-cutter every so often, my heart and my history aren’t in it.  My father was a cattle-dealer and increasingly I see how wise he was. If you want vegetation kept under control,  set a dozen head of cattle grazing on it.

Meanwhile, I can’t help thinking: if no unionists are about,  will the Poc Fada competition at Stormont exist?  More on that tomorrow...

Thursday, 5 August 2010

The Main Event

I was at West Belfast Talks Back last night – the highlight probably of Feile an Phobail. I’ve been going to the event practically every year for the last ten years and each year when I enter the crowded gymnasium of St Louise’s Comprehensive College, where the event is held, my heart rises. Around five or six hundred people, crammed in, hungry to hear the views of politicians, at least one of whom will hold views sharply divergent from their own. Could there be a better advertisement for the tolerance and public-mindedness of the West Belfast population?

Last night’s panel was Ian Óg Paisley of the DUP, Barry McElduff of Sinn Féin, Naomi Long of the Alliance Party and Fintan O’Toole of The Irish Times. The man who merits applause, which he got, is Paisley. Like other unionist figures before him, he came into an audience which was 99% critical of him and his party: that requires a fair amount of courage. Not that he was treated with anything other than fairness by the audience – a number of his statements were greeted with applause.

The truth, though, is that not all of the speakers were effective. Naomi Long is a fluent and reasonable woman but I find her delivery washes over me in a pleasing, non-controversial way, leaving little trace behind. Ian Óg has some trace of the plain-speaking eloquence of his father but only some: essentially he’s a lightweight. He works hard at cultivating a laughing, laddish image, with talk of his motorbike and sporting events, but his ability to construct an argument is weak. Fintan O’Toole can construct an argument but he usually builds it so high, gives his views in such an over-wordy, abstract way, I find myself longing for the end of his sentence at the expense of the ideas he’s offering. Barry McElduff, though, as someone said to me afterwards, knows how to tell a story. Ninety per cent of the time when he addresses an issue, he finds a way to anchor it in real events. He also is unremittingly cheerful, which helps.

And yet when I left last night, I felt vaguely dissatisfied. Was it that I hungered after the old days, when big issues like cease-fires and Agreements and cross-border institutions were still in the making? Maybe it was the absence of a strong, challenging view from those who spoke from the floor? None of those, I suspect, or none of them principally. The problem was that both the issues presented and the solutions offered lacked originality. Yes, in the past discussion focused on life-and-death matters. But what I felt was missing last night was a speaker who could address the audience with passion and clarity, and offer a fresh, an ORIGINAL solution to the given issue: ‘Here is the problem you thought intractable; here’s what needs to be done. Whaddyatink?’

Fire in the belly, ice-cool in the brain: maybe next year.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Doing a Darren Gibson

Darren Bent Tottenham Hotspur 2008/09 Darren Gibson Manchester United Manchester United V Tottenham Hotspur (Man Utd win on penalties (4-1)AET 01/03/09 The Carling Cup Final at Wembley Stadium Photo Robin Parker Fotosports International
One of the funniest things in sport this summer has been the futile efforts of the IFA to stop players from the north playing for the Republic. Darren Gibson of Manchester United is the best-known case. He’s from Derry and after playing at youth level for Northern Ireland, he opted to play for the Republic of Ireland. It didn’t go down well in Belfast. More recently the IFA took a case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne to stop Daniel Kearns doing exactly the same thing – and lost. At this stage the IFA are getting seriously worried about the speed of leakage. This past year alone, two other notable players – Marc Wilson and Shane Duffy – have crossed the border to join up with the Republic.

What the IFA fails to see – or maybe pretends to fail to see – is that this is about more than football. The truth is that half the population in the north feel no sense of loyalty to the Northern Ireland football team. I remember being in Lagan College, a Protestant-Catholic integrated school, on a day when the Republic of Ireland were due to play Northern Ireland. The youngsters were engaged in good-natured banter but their allegiances divided with laser-like precision: Catholics were rooting for the Republic’s team, Protestants for the Northern Ireland team. Footballers do have their careers in mind when they switch to the south – if you play for a team with a high profile and some prospect of success, you’ll have a higher chance of show-casing your talents. It’s also about the instinctive loyalty many northern players feel towards the south alongside a distaste for the sectarianism still rooted in the support base of the Northern Ireland team.

There’s a simple answer to the problem, just as there’s a simple answer to the decline of club soccer north and south of the border: get rid of the border. An island this size hasn’t the luxury of dividing itself in two and then trying to organize club and ‘national’ teams as if the other lot weren’t there. Whether the south’s body, the FAI, would be for such a move is uncertain; the top people in the IFA would certainly be implacably opposed. The Windsor Park lot would prefer their leaky tub to go down with all hands rather than join hands with the rest of the island. So they go on stabbing themselves, leaking top-footballer life-blood, and blaming everyone else for what’s happening. Clever. Very clever.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Dervla's Dilemma

Dervla Kirwan had a problem last night. She was featured on ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ and the producers clearly decided that they weren’t going to waste the fact that Dervla is Michael Collins’s great-grandniece. Dervla herself said she was very proud of the great man and of his brother, her great-grandfather, who also fought in what’s commonly called the War of Independence, although since it didn’t achieve independence, that’s an odd name for it. The thing was, Dervla wanted to get some vivid detail on her great-grandfather’s role in things, but she didn’t want it to be, um, too vivid. So she knew he’d been part of a flying column in West Cork, and she knew that he’d been involved in violent operations, so what did she choose to highlight? An encounter where he waved a burning brand to warn his comrades and so saved their lives. You get it? He was in the flying column to save lives, not to take them.

We got more of the same when Dervla pored over her forebear’s records. After the establishment of the twenty-six county state, her great-grandfather joined the Irish army, and on his records he had to fill out ‘Previous Service’. He wrote ‘I served in the IRA for three years’. Cue alarm bells. Dervla looks worried and says that that word, IRA, makes her feel uneasy. And she wanted to stress that the IRA being talked about was a very different IRA from that involved in the Troubles in the north and elsewhere over the past forty years. Not the same at all. Completely different. The old IRA fought for Irish independence and the more recent IRA fought for, um, well, Irish independence, yes, but in a different way, they shot people and killed them and exploded bombs, whereas the old IRA, um, shot people and…Look, they’re different. And yes, there was a Sinn Féin party back then, just like now, but that Sinn Féin party was different from the present one because they, well, they believed in Irish unity, a 32-county republic, whereas ….

It’s a hopeless, hilarious argument, trying to convince yourself and everyone else that, as my late mother-in-law used to say, the old IRA “were nice” and the more recent version was un-nice.

There are just two possible reasons why people march up this logical cul-de-sac. The first is that, because the IRA violence of the 1970s, 80s and 90s was more recent, it also looks a lot rawer. The second possible reason is that people see clearly the link between the goals and methods of the old IRA and the more recent one, but willfully close their eyes to the link because, as Dervla says, it makes them very uncomfortable.

Monday, 2 August 2010

The closest Sinn Fein come to having an intellectual?

Is Andrew Lynch right? In a review for The Sunday Business Post eighteen months ago, Lynch described Eoin O Broin as “the closest thing Sinn Fein has to a full-blown intellectual”. Two days ago I interviewed O Broin as part of Feile An Phobail, and while I can’t testify to the full-blown bit because I’m not sure what it means (and neither does Lynch, in all probability), if being an intellectual means you’ve got lots of ideas, O Broin is indeed an intellectual.

In the course of his talk the former Belfast city councillor made a number of interesting points, notably that the DUP are not the central obstacle to a reunited Ireland and a new republic. O Broin insists that the role of road-block is taken by Fianna Gael and Fianna Fail. The two southern parties would of course deny this, insisting that they are republican, but then the SDLP do the same thing so clearly that can’t be treated seriously. In fact, O Broin argues, FF and FG are passionately committed to maintaining the status quo – that is, partition.

It’s a persuasive argument, and the FF and FG position is understandable if not forgiveable. After all, the two parties have been in existence for close to a century now. If you and the people before you had laboured long and hard to built up a fighting electoral machine, with all the attendant memories and companionship and privileges, do you think you’d want to see all that dissolved with the arrival of a new, all-Ireland republic? The other side of that is, if Fianna Fail and Fine Gael were serious about their desire to end partition, there’d be a pan-nationalist front in Ireland that would expose the DUP as the nay-sayers that they are. The drive towards powerful cross-border bodies would become turbo-charged and, especially with the heightened consciousness of 2016 as the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising, there’d be a new attitude to what is possible throughout Ireland.

O Broin made one other point that particularly caught my attention. He said that securing a majority in the north for constitutional change was possible, but only if those seeking change stop thinking in terms of converting, say, 10% of the DUP. Think instead, he argued, of the 50% of Protestants who don’t vote. They’re clearly open to something better than what currently is on offer. It’s up to those believing in a new republic to present a vision that will win their attention and ultimately support.

Not bad for someone condescended to by a Sunday Business Post reviewer. But then as O Broin himself might say, he’s been patronised in his time by people of better judgement and higher standing than Andrew Lynch.