Jude Collins

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Crime and reward

Former U.S President Bill Clinton (C) poses for a photograph with two women, watched by Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness (L), as he leaves the University of Ulster, Magee Campus, in Londonderry, Northern Ireland September 29, 2010. Clinton was on a short visit to the city designed to support the peace process and promote economic growth, local media reported.   REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton (Northern Ireland - Tags: BUSINESS POLITICS)

I did a bad thing yesterday – I lied to the security forces…Oops. That’s not what we call them now, is it? The PSNI.  I was in Derry doing  a number of things, including checking why no copies of Tales Out of School  are available in Easons and arranging for more to be shipped in quickquickquick,  when a person, um, in a position of authority in the community asked me if I was going to see President Clinton give his talk at Magee College. When I said I hadn’t been invited, this otherwise respectable person immediately hatched a conspiracy whereby we would both pretend I was important and I would try to  ride into the hall on the coat-tails of his invitation. For a brief few seconds it looked as though it wasn’t going to work: a young and honourable PSNI officer said I needed a letter of invitation and not just a testimonial of decency from  my accompanying respectable person. Then an older, more corrupt PSNI officer leaned in and effectively said ‘Look at him – you don’t seriously think a geriatric like that is going to be a threat?’ and I was in.

The hall was bursting with bigwigs. In front of us were John Hume, Pat Hume, Reg Empey, Danny Kennedy, that young guy who’s currently Mayor of Derry, Mark Durkan, Raymond McCartney worthies by the yardful. Then the on-stage big cheeses came in -  the Vice-Chancellor of UU Richard Barnett,  Declan Kelly the US man,  First Minister Peter Robinson, Deputy First but-bloody-well-co-equal Minister Martin McGuinness. Richard  Barnett said he was delighted to welcome back Clinton; Peter Robinson said he’d been told to speak for no more than ninety seconds and then spoke for three minutes. Martin McGuinness recalled a happy event last week when he and John Hume (gesture towards the Nobel Laureate) were honoured to attend (look, I just report what happened, OK? I don’t write the script) were honoured to attend ‘the launch of Jude Collins’s fine book  Tales Out of School ‘.  I think he linked that to education and economic development but I can’t be sure -  I was at the bottom of a deep tank of even deeper smugness struggling for breath at the time. What is this man McGuinness doing as Deputy First Minister? It’s past time Ireland reverted to a life-time monarchy with full book-recommending powers.

Clinton looked old and almost frail – he’s been through some tough medical times in recent years. When he started his speech was tentative and his gestures cautious, as though afraid he might damage something. Then he took the glasses off the top of his nose (it’s a lot less red than it used to look), began to speak as though off-the-cuff (although I’m sure it wasn’t) and suddenly he was, if not the old Clinton, then near enough, near enough. He was informed,  clear and best of all, specific about how economic recovery here might take place, or at least begin. On the way out afterwards I told Raymond McCartney that I thought the speech should be made a model for politicians here, particularly the inclusion of specific proposals for action.  Raymond nodded. 

Outside, my co-conspirator  and companion tapped me on the chest and rolled his eyes. “I give up. You’re the only one in the hall there under false pretences and you’re the only one in the hall who’s singled out to have his book plugged!”  The feeling you get inside when you break the rules and then within minutes receive public commendation is of course a shameful feeling and, like absolute power, absolutely delightful.  

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

'He's a drunken moron, and so say all of us'. Or nearly all...

Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen gestures at the launch of the Grangegorman Development project in Dublin, September 21, 2010. Cowen said on Monday he would stay in his job and continue economic reforms despite facing the first public calls to quit from within his party since a radio blunder last week. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton (IRELAND - Tags: BUSINESS POLITICS)

A man I knew studied Logic at university. He was pretty good at it too, got top marks, but the day he left university, he swore he’d never bother with the subject again.  When I asked him why, he said ‘Because nobody else uses it’.

He must have felt justified in his decision if he's been following the coverage of the Brian-Cowen-and-Morning Ireland affair. First there was Fine Gael’s Simon Coveney tweeting that the Taoiseach sounded half-way between drunk and hung-over, then the interview was  replayed and picked over by the deeply brainy pundits of Dublin 4, and finally Jay Leno on his US TV show got a few laughs by referring to ‘the prime minister of Ireland’ as a drunken moron.

Logic? We don’t do logic in these matters. I was asked for a comment yesterday on BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback  and I said there must have been two interviews, because the one I heard featured a throaty Taoiseach who said ‘Good Friday Agreement’ when he meant to say ‘Croke Park Agreement’ then corrected himself immediately. Was he up late the previous night singing and doing his impersonations of well-known figures? Apparently so. Does that mean he’s a bad leader? No. Could his critics have deduced that he’d been up late the night before from his Morning Ireland  performance? I very much doubt it.  But that didn’t matter. They denounced him for conduct unbecoming a Taoiseach, for speaking in public with a husky voice (Cowen’s voice is always husky) and for briefly saying ‘Good Friday’ instead of ‘Croke Park’. And finally all was capped by the Jay Leno ‘drunken moron’ remark. Logical? Cheesh.

What’s happened is that the people of the twenty-six counties want  someone to  blame for all their woes, they figure Cowen fits the bill and so they do their level best to kick the stuffing out of him. As a result, he's punished for something he didn’t do (disgrace the nation) because of something he might or might not have done (screwed up the economy).

And as if that wasn’t sufficiently anti-logical, we now have word that a backlash of sorts has set in and quite a few Irish people are feeling defensive about the Taoiseach. “It’s not nice to be calling our Taoiseach a moron!” they say.  The cherry on top of the irrational cake: Cowen gets lambasted for something he hasn’t done and forgiven because the Irish people want exclusive rights on kicking him.

Sometimes we’re a small-minded, crooked-thinking shower. Fianna Fail may not be everybody’s ideal political party, but if we're going to put on the black cap and pass judgement, shouldn't it be on how he's handled the economy rather than how he's handled his non-existent hang-over?

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Look out - dangerous myth about

 SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 03: Band members perform during the last dress rehearsal for the Edinburgh Military Tattoo at Sydney Football Stadium on February 3, 2010 in Sydney, Australia. The event will be the largest Tattoo ever staged with over 650 more performers than ever staged in Edinburgh at the Edinburgh Castle-themed venue. (Photo by Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)

Our book club met last night to look at Muriel Spark’s  novel Memento Mori. The book’s about a group of old people who keep being rung by a mysterious caller. The voice on the other end of the phone tells them ‘Remember you must die’, causing a range of reactions.  I was probably the only one in the group who unreservedly enjoyed reading it. Many reasons were given for disliking it but I think the principal reason was that the book deals with death and most people don’t like thinking about that subject.  The result was that even though the novel has a wonderful array of eccentric characters, even though the plot is turbo-charged, even though the dialogue is by turns hilarious and chilling,  most of those in our group had a response that was at best lukewarm. Their preconception of  what reading a novel about death would be like eclipsed the actual experience.

I thought of that this morning as I read a review of The Big Fellah, a play  just opened in London. It’s about Irish republicanism and The Guardian’s theatre critic Michael Billington, in the final paragraph of his review, makes the statement “Irish republicanism is wreathed in myths”.   Hardly an original declaration.  In fact, Irish-nationalism-as-myth is a view so often stated it’s hardened into fact and is even shared by a considerable number of Irish people. You want irrational, myth-wrapped political violence? Come to Ireland.

Sorry, chaps. Not so, or certainly not uniquely-so. Go to the graves of Allied soldiers in Normandy. Visit the Kennedy graves in Arlington Cemetery. Watch on TV the Edinburgh Tattoo or Remembrance Sunday services. Every country weaves myth around its military exploits, transforming them from terrible blood-letting into self-sacrifice, courage and heroism. So to select Irish republicanism for the  award of Unique Weaver of Self-deluding Myth, as Billington lazily does,  is  misleading, and it’s a preconception that warps the view of individuals and events here. You see it in unionist response to the prospect of Martin McGuinness becoming First Minister, you see it in review of plays such as The Big Fellah

Of course Irish history and Irish republicanism have their share of myth.  But the English and in some instances Irish habit of seeing Irish nationalism as uniquely steeped in myth is a holier-than-thou habit based on an obvious lie. 

Monday, 27 September 2010

PAW? Pshaw.

30th September 1871:  English naturalist Charles Darwin (1809 - 1882) propped up on two cushions and in the wheeled chair he used for propelling himself round his work room.  Vanity Fair - No 152 - Men of the Day No 33 - 'Natural Selection' - pub. 1871 Original Artwork: Cartoon by 'Coide'.  (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
This is Positive Ageing Week in Ireland. PAW for short. I’m not clear what it involves but the general message is that being old/older should be seen as a Good Thing.

Spare us such steaming deposits of self-deception. Old or older age is about looking and feeling worse and worse, and being nearer to dying.  There’s no changing that, not even if you put umpteen smiling oldies on TV to say they’re having a wonderful time.  Yes, being old is better than it was. I’m 68 and I’m in generally better health than my father was at this age. But would I rather be 58 or 48 or 38? Three guesses.

PAW might be a good idea if they got a bit more specific. A good starting point would be to outlaw age discrimination,  making it illegal for example to fire  practically everyone when s/he hits sixty-five. It wouldn’t be allowed if race or religion was involved, so why should employers be allowed to do dirty on grounds of age?  The usual retort is ‘Yes, but as you get older you get less physically and mentally capable of doing  the job’.  I couldn’t agree more. So let’s devise tests that’ll establish if someone can do the job. If they can’t, there’s the door. If they can, then they’re entitled to hold onto their job, or at least to be free from dismissal on the grounds that they’ve reached a certain age.

Mind you, I like young people. They’re better-looking and generally more fun than oldies. They’re more open to new ideas, most of them,  and have an appetite for life that’s enviable. But being young isn’t enough. You could be 35 and hopeless at your job or  65 and brilliant at it. Or vice versa.

As for politics...Put it this way. The new UUP leader Tom Elliott is 46,  Sinn Féin’s president Gerry Adams is 62.  Now close your eyes and think hard: if Elliott were a republican, would he make a better Sinn Féin leader than Adams? I rest, as the barrister said, my case. 

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Little difference in a large room?

Nobel Peace Prize 1998 John Hume and Nobel Peace Prize 1976 Betty Williams attending the 9th World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates, held at the Hotel de Ville of Paris, France, on December 11, 2008. Photo by Malkon/ABACAPRESS.COM Photo via Newscom Photo via Newscom
ST. ANDREWS, UNITED KINGDOM - OCTOBER 11:  Martin McGuinness, chief negotiator of Sinn Fein arrives at St Andrews for multi?party negotiations attempting to restore devolution to Northern Ireland on October 11, 2006 in St Andrews, Scotland.  (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
The launch of the deathless Tales Out of School:St Columb’s College in the 1950s  took place in Lumen Christi College (the old St C’s site) last night and it was a hum-dinger of an occasion. For a start, we had a packed attendance – around 150, I’d say – in what was the old refectory and is now the Senior Study of L C.  What’s more, we had considerable emotion as thirty or so old boys met up with each other for the first time in decades, frequently prefacing their remarks with ‘Jesus!’  as the identity of an old schoolmate was revealed. Thirdly, we sold virtually all the books we had (but we can get more, we can, we can. Cross my palm with silver and yours will be winging your way inside hours). And finally, we had probably the two most significant political figures to emerge from Derry in the past half-century in the one room.

John Hume was in fine form. He delivered a sure-footed 5-10-minute speech in which he was eloquent in his praise of his old alma mater and eloquent in his praise of my book which he urged everyone to buy. If you ask me, they should give him a second  Nobel Peace Prize. Maybe take back that daft one they gave to David Trimble. Even he – Trimble – knows he didn’t deserve it, and after last night, Hume deserves at least two.

Martin McGuinness was in equally buoyant mood. He said (look, I’ll go into the next room while the rest of this sentence is completed, OK?) that he’d admired my writing and broadcasting contributions for a long time, that I was (oh dear) ‘honest and fearless’, and that I spoke up in support of him when it was by no means an easy thing to do....OK, I’m back. Was someone talking about me?

So what divides the SDLP, embodied in John Hume, and Sinn Féin, embodied in Martin McGuinness? Well,  the SDLP is older (always a liability, in politics as in life).  It’s more conservative (John spoke in support of the 11+,  Martin spoke indirectly in favour of change). And significantly, it’s no longer the stronger party (John Hume is retired, Martin McGuinness is at the apex – or near apex – of his political career).  And when you have power, your chances of shaping events are higher.

Martin was also a bit more daring in the things he said, though that’s not quite the same as saying he was better received by his audience. He noted that he hadn’t attended St Columb’s – in fact was never in the front gate before last night. But he had been round the back, he said. He’d been sent up as a young lad, during the famous Battle of the Bogside in 1969, to get sulphuric acid from the science labs to help with petrol-bomb making. While John praised his teachers and his education in St Columb’s, Martin spoke highly of most of the Christian Brothers who taught him in Brow of the Hill school (next door to St Columb’s) and lowly of some others – notably one Christian Brother whose days were said to have ended in Africa, either by falling off a mountain or being eaten by a lion. Martin seemed to indicate he’d give his vote for the lion.

It was funny, it was frank and it was very Martin McGuinness. Whether a difference in speaking style and in educational philosophy represents a major gulf between the two nationalist parties, I’m not sure. With the election of Tom Elliot as the new UUP leader, it’s maybe time the two nationalist parties sat down and defined for once and all the major issues  (other than self-interest) which keep them from becoming one.  It’d be terrible to think that the task of improving this part of Ireland and uniting the entire country should be kept back by dopey political selfishness, wouldn’t it?

PS. You got all that? Right. Now go out and buy/order up a copy of Tales Out of School. THIS INSTANT.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Iris and Peter: a private affair?

LONDON - JUNE 06:  Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson arrives for talks in Downing Street on June 6, 2008 in London. Democratic Unionist Party  leader Peter Robinson succeeded the Rev Ian Paisley as First Minister yesterday at Stormont.  (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

Poor Iris.  The First Minister’s wife has returned to the north of Ireland, we’re told, with on one side her ever-loving husband and on the other a nurse.  Peter Robinson is reported in the Guardian  newspaper yesterday as pleading for people and especially the media to leave them alone. The picture accompanying the report shows a grinning Peter at his desk in happier days with Iris standing beside him.  Her right hand is placed lovingly over his right hand, her left hand is at the back of his neck, massaging or God knows what,  and her head is thrown back, hair tumbling, as she laughs helplessly.

Sorry, Peter. It doesn’t work.  The photograph in question shouts aloud: “Look at us!  A loving couple! See how well we get on, the fun we have!”  If you’re going to have photographs like that taken which highlight your relationship with your spouse, you can’t complain if the interest is maintained when things get less lovey-dovey, and tears and betrayal take over. That’s just how we are. We shouldn’t be concerned with the private lives of politicians but we are. And if politicians thrust their private lives at us, as the Robinsons did, they really shouldn’t complain when our appetite for tit-bits refuses to go away.  Besides, Iris’s story carries an intriguing mixture of sex and money that bridges the gap between the private and the professional.  Of course the media will go hunting after it again, of course the public will lap up what’s offered.

And should we say ‘Poor Brian Cowen’?  Actually yes. I don’t like Cowen or his party, and in fact I stand to win a £1,000 bet if they do badly in the next general election. Providing that is Eoghan Harris wasn’t lying through his teeth when he took the bet with me in front of approximately  600 people in West Belfast  a couple of years back…Where was I? Oh right. Brian Cowen has been put through the mangle over the past week about his hoarse voice and verbal slip-ups in an early –morning interview on RTE. In fact the slip-up lasted approximately 1.5 secs, when he then corrected it. Yes his voice was hoarse, as is my own early in the morning; and whether he had a few jars the night before or not I don’t know. He was HOARSE, for God’s sake. You’d think he’d taken a 19-year-old lover and got him £50,000 from a friendly businessman, the way some people go on.

The moral to be taken from all this is that you should never believe the media or politicians when they say the economy is the only thing on the general public’s mind. We’ve room and appetite for a whole lot more. 

Monday, 20 September 2010

Greatest Irish Embarrassment ever

Bono (Paul Hewson) singer of the Irish rock band U2, performs on stage with guitarist The Edge (David Evans), bass player Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Junior on drums at the Stade de France, in Saint-Denis, near Paris, France, on September 18, 2010. The band is on tour in Europe with their '360 Degrees'-tour. Photo by Christophe Guibbaud/ABACAPRESS.COM Photo via Newscom

Sometimes I despair of the American people –  their latest lunacy shows up in nominating the likes of Christine O’Donnell as Republican candidates for their mid-term elections, not to mention several other Tea Party loopers. Not content with one Sarah Palin, they’ve now cloned what looks like and sounds like a second. Yes, it’s good to see Americans concerned for the welfare of their country; but do candidates have to have a lobotomy before they can rise in the Republican party?

I was seething with contempt until  I watched TV on Friday night and then opened the Venerable Organ this morning. Mother of God, what’s this?  It’s some people lining up to propose their nomination for The Greatest Irish Person.  They don’t say ‘The Greatest Irish Person Ever’ but that’s what they mean.  And they are? Oh God forgive me for writing them but here they are:  Bono,  John Hume, James Connolly, Mary Robinson, Michael Collins, Michael Flatley.  OK, OK, I made up the last one – there are just five. But in the name of God and the dead generations from which Ireland receives her old tradition of nationhood, have we sunk to this? 

John Hume is a man I admire -  that’s why, with Martin McGuinness, he’ll be joint guest of honour at the launch of my new book ‘Tales Out of School: St Columb’s College Derry in the 1950s’ at Lumen Christi College, Derry on Wednesday  22nd at 7.30 pm. (If you’re going to plug, plug shamelessly.) But John as the greatest Irish person ever? And then there’s Bono. He’s done a lot for the developing world, I’m told. He’s also done a nifty side-step so he doesn’t pay Irish tax on his media millions. Plus hundreds of Irish priests, nuns and laity have devoted their lives to the developing world – do they get nominated? Ah no.  They don’t front a pop band that never recorded a single song you could whistle or hum.  As for Mary Robinson: I’m struggling to see how someone who resigned from the Irish Labour Party because she thought the Anglo-Irish Agreement was unfair to unionists could be the greatest Irish person ever. Michael Collins and James Connolly? Well yes,  they’re worth considering. But did you see who was proposing them on TV on Friday night? Joe Duffy did the pitch for James Connolly (funny,  I’ve never heard Joe, in all his decades on TV, espousing a socialist position) and (I can hardly bring myself to say this) Michael McDowell is proposing – brace yourself – Michael Collins. 

Oh dear. Oh dear oh dear oh dearydearydear. The man who kept warning us against the demons of paramilitarism – sorry, against the demons of REPUBLICAN paramilitarism. The man who was never happier than when cataloguing the suffering that Irish republicans had visited on the north over the last forty years. The man who could barely sit in the same room with Gerry Adams without breaking out in hives. This same man now toasts Michael Collins, the most totally ruthless and the most totally successful guerilla leader Ireland has ever produced. And McDowell comes on telly and says ‘Isn’t he great, vote for him! ‘

No wonder Tom Lehrer said, when Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize, that satire from now on would be impossible.  Besides which, the whole idea of saying ‘This person is the GREATEST’ is dumb beyond words. Nobody knows what the criteria are, nobody knows how you compare a man of war (Collins, Connolly) with a man of peace (John Hume) or a man of self-congratulatory posturing (Bono). But do you know what?  It’s almost worth it, to see  that ghastly man McDowell flushed out for the double-standards excuse for an ex-politician that he clearly is.

Meantime, for God’s sake don’t vote in this dumb contest. You'll only encourage the Venerable Organ.

Friday, 17 September 2010

What's that smell?

They say if you want to sell your house, you should bake bread half an hour  before the prospective buyers arrive.  Brewing some coffee is good too but baking bread is best – the smell does something to people.

As I write this, I can see our back lawn through my window and it’s in need of a cut.  Mowing gets a bit harder each year but the effort needed is balanced by the increased sweetness each year of the smell that mowed grass  generates. Last year I did  interviews with twenty-two of my classmates from fifty years ago (since you’ve begged me to tell you I’ll admit it was for a book called Tales Out of School: St Columb’s College Derry in the 1950s and you’d be mad not to get it – we’re having a big launch on Wednesday 22 September in Lumen Christi College, Bishop Street, Derry with guests of honour John Hume and Martin McGuinness. Do come along if you live within, um, 500 miles)...Where was I?  Oh yes, when I interviewed my former classmates,  many of them mentioned the weeks leading up to Sports Day.  After night prayers we boarders were allowed a full half-hour to train for the big day. This mainly involved totally unsupervised, uncoached running around the school walks or queuing to leap over or more often through an improvised high-jump.  The time of year was late May and early June. Twilight was falling as we ran and gasped and leaped, and the air was thick with the sweet smell of cut grass. You’d be amazed how many noses and minds and hearts have carried that smell, the smell of tireless youth, for over fifty years.

It’s a primitive thing that goes right down into humankind’s early existence, when the smell given off by an enemy or a prey or a food could mean the difference between life and death. When we came home from Perpignan a couple of weeks ago, the house had that faintly musty smell a house takes on when no one has been in it for twenty-four hours, a mustiness that reassures and tells you you’re back. When I go for a jog there are cattle in the fields I pass, and the dungy smell from them triggers images of my father, brandishing his stick or banging a bucket with it,  calling plaintively to or cursing loudly at his cattle as he tries to make them follow his will. When I lift slices of bread from the toaster, I’m crouched by the fireside in our dining-room, squashed and elbowed by my big sisters as I try to get my slice of bread on a fork closer to the orange coals until it’s brown enough – or black enough – to cover in slathers of melting butter.

The cosmetics industry knows the value of smell and makes billions out of it. But it hasn’t yet twigged that yes, we like nice smells, but smells that have associations, that take us hurtling through time to an earlier, safer era – those are the smells that, deep in our soul and nasal passages, we love.  Now if you'll excuse me, I have a lawn to mow... 

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Still crazy after all these years

Official Papal visit memorabilia is displayed at St Paul's bookshop next to Westminster Cathedral in central London September 15, 2010. Pope Benedict XVI arrives in Scotland on Thursday for a four day trip to Britain, which includes taking Mass at Westminster Cathedral. REUTERS/Toby Melville (BRITAIN - Tags: RELIGION)

There’s a line in Macbeth  where  the sleep-walking Lady Macbeth keeps remembering the killing of King Duncan and cries out ‘Who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?’  The Pope’s visit to Britain has had a similar effect. A number of frenzied attacks have been launched against him and  the people making them sound as though they’ve gone a bit off their heads.

Take if you will Stephen Fry writing to the Guardian  newspaper to denounce the Pope’s coming to Britain as a head of state, and in the same letter arguing that the Pope in fact is not a  head of state. Take if you will Ian Paisley and the Free Presbyterians trudging up to Scotland to protest at the visit on the grounds that it will cost about a million pounds to the taxpayers while suffering temporary amnesia on the fact that last summer, three Orange marches in Scotland alone cost – yep, you guessed it  - one million pounds. And then there’s Norman Hamilton.

Norman’s the moderator of the Presbyterian Church here and a couple of days ago William Crawley backed him into a corner on BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback. William suggested that Rev  Hamilton’s attendance at a joint service at Westminster Abbey sat oddly with his refusal to meet the Pope afterwards and shake hands. Didn’t he see the Pope as a brother in Christ? It was like watching an unhappy mouse that’s been backed into a corner. First Norman ran this way, then that, then a third; in the end he sort of sat there quivering, babbling about the different pressures surrounding him. It made for ear-curdling listening.

This varied craziness tells me that when Christians say they love their enemies, they may be telling the truth, but they find loving  their fellow-Christians close to impossible. They claim to worship the same God, they claim to be followers of Christ, yet they can’t bring themselves to shake hands with the leader of over a billion fellow-Christians in case they might catch some doctrinal virus? Oh dear.

The Pope’s visit to Britain has flushed out a sentiment believed to be a thing of the past: anti-Catholicism.  It’s come to the surface in recent weeks and can now be found bright-eyed and spitting throughout Britain, slithering its way into letters by such civilized fun chaps as Stephen Fry, burrowing its way into interviews with decent skins like Norman Hamilton.

Don’t be too surprised if, any day now, you see a photograph of Ian Paisley doing a handstand and smiling broadly.  It’s not every day sectarianism gets the chance to fasten its teeth on a Pope’s neck.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Methinks the gentlemen doth protest too much

Iranian clergymen chant anti-U.S and anti-Israel slogans while they attend a rally to support Gaza near the Palestine Embassy in Tehran, Iran on December 29, 2008. (UPI Photo/Mohammad Kheirkhah) Photo via Newscom Photo via Newscom

I got verbally mugged yesterday. By three men of the cloth. Let me tell you about it.

UTV have a programme called ‘The Issue’ , hosted by Jim Dougal. This week they were discussing the Pope’s visit to Britain and I was invited to be in the audience at the Navan Centre outside Armagh.  So I went along and tried not to feel intimidated by the number of serious-looking men in round collars standing around outside the theatre where the programme was to be recorded. So in the course of the show Jim Dougal asked me what my thoughts were and I asked if maybe the pooled wisdom of the panel could help me: was there any research which showed that there was a higher incidence of child abuse by Catholic clergy than by clergy of any other Christian Churches, and was there any research showing a higher incidence of Catholic clergy abuse over that in the general population? The panel, which included the Rev Lindsay Allen, the Rev Lesley Carroll and Nuala O’Loan,  said they didn’t  know of any.  Why then, I wondered, was there an exclusive focus on the child abuse within the Catholic Church?

And that was that. Or it was until I emerged after the programme. In the lobby, I felt a hand on my arm and that’s when the verbal mugging began.  Two Church of Ireland clergy (one of whom remained silent but stony-faced throughout) and one Presbyterian minister informed me I had the wrong end of the stick.  There was no sexual abuse by Protestant clergymen, it was a vice peculiar to the Catholic clergy, and the reason was because they were celibate.  I asked how it was, then, that  there was considerable abuse among the wider population, from uncles, brothers, grandfathers, cousins of the victims?  I didn’t really get an answer to that but I was assured that they ‘knew’ there was no abuse to speak of among Protestant clergy and that it all came down to the celibacy issue along with the deliberate cover-up of abuse by the Catholic Church. No need to look for research on such matters: they just knew.

What shocked me a bit, in my innocence, was the absolutist, almost angry tone that the clergymen adopted. They weren’t discussing this, they were telling me. What’s more, they were telling me because they knew, not because they had evidence to support their argument.  Who knows – maybe they’re right on all counts. Maybe there are higher levels of child abuse by Catholic clergy than by their Protestant counter-parts.  But isn’t consideration of such matters supposed to be conducted in a rational, open manner – questioning rather than informing?

Clerical arrogance. Maybe that’s another sin not peculiar to the Catholic clergy.  

Monday, 13 September 2010

Waterside Half-Marathon: pain and after

As I was saying before Mr Paisley interrupted…I ran the Derry Waterside Half-Marathon yesterday. No, try again. I competed. No. I took part. That’s it. I took part in the Derry Waterside Half-Marathon yesterday. They say they had 1600 entrants but just 900 names are listed on the results board for the race. Still,  a pretty substantial entry.  The Waterside, as you probably know, is that part of Derry City where virtually all the Protestants have retreated to over the course of the last thirty years.  This is a source of genuine concern and embarrassment to the Catholic/Nationalist majority, who are keen not to repeat in mirror image the sins that were inflicted on them over  the decades following the establishment of the state, when Derry was a joke for its gerrymandering and discrimination.  So far they haven’t figured how to reverse the trend.

I suppose if I were living in Derry I’d know better who was behind the organization of the Half-Marathon and whether there was any significance to the fact that it all took place on the Waterside. You’d think with two bridges available, and a third footbridge under construction, someone would  have thought of symbolically reuniting Catholic/Protestant/Nationalist/Unionist/Cityside/Waterside in the course of the race. Alas not so. Maybe in the future. Meanwhile, I staggered through the 13+ miles, most of the way fearing that my gnarled legs would disintegrate, leaving me a helpless, whimpering heap while other runners ran round me. The present Mrs Collins took several pictures– a few of me before the race which I will put on Facebook, and a few after the race which I have already destroyed with one exception, for the very good reason that in them I look like Lazarus must have looked before they told him it was OK to start breathing again. 

For all that I’m glad I did it. This is the third half-marathon I’ve tottered through and in all cases there’s been a sense of camaraderie, of unity in pain, that’s kind of wonderful.  It doesn’t take away the pain but it makes it more bearable. It’s odd, really. We don’t appreciate warmth until we’ve felt cold, or light until we’ve stumbled in the dark, or rest until our sinews have been stretched to creaking, cracking point. Or, I suppose, peace until we’ve had war.

Derry. I  think I love the place. Did I mention I’ve a book about it coming out next week?

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Mr Paisley and the Pope

LONDON - JANUARY 31:  Dr. Ian Paisley, leader of Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party joins protesters against the incitement to religious hatred laws as they demonstate outside of Britain's Houses of Parliament on January 31, 2006 in London, England.  MP's are voting on ammendments to the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill.  (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

I got a phone call today  (just after running a half-marathon in Derry's Waterside, about which more – maybe – anon),  asking me to participate in a discussion tomorrow morning on BBC Radio Ulster’s  Stephen Nolan Show.  The topic?  The Free Presbyterians’ planned  protest against the Pope visiting Scotland this week.

Where to start? Maybe with the Free Ps’ complaint that the Pope has said that other Christian Churches aren’t really Churches.  I think they have a point there. I know the Pope is the theologian but I don’t know a single Catholic who would say he or she thinks Protestant denominations don’t belong to real Churches.  So I’m with them on that and not with the Pope. Although I speak as an ignorant yob, you understand, not a theologian.

But are those the reasons the Free Ps are  protesting?  Maybe it’s because they don’t like the idea of the Pope’s visit to Britain being funded out of the public exchequer.  If they are, I’m kind of with them there too. The claim that the Pope is a head of state and entitled to have his visit funded by the people hosting him…I don’t know. Not totally convinced. The Free Ps could have a point. If that’s an objection of theirs. Which it might not be.

To be frank,  I suspect the Free Ps – to be led, I’m told, by the Rev Ian Paisley – is that they and he see Catholics as doomed to burn in hell and the Pope as the Anti-Christ.  That's the big motivator behind their preparations with the placards and megaphones.  You’ll remember – or do you? -  Mr Paisley in the European Parliament roaring his Anti-Christ objections at Pope John Paul's visit to that institution in the 1980s.  Yes, the Big Man has changed in many respects since then, or at least done things most people thought he'd never do, but something tells me he hasn’t gone back on the Anti-Christ one. So which is worse, would you say: to suggest other Churches aren’t real Churches, or to pinpoint one Church and declare its followers are going to hell and that their leader is the devil himself?

While you’re pondering that one, let me tell you my opinion. If the Anti-Christ thing is the basic reason for Mr Paisley’s planned protest - and I'm convinced it is -  then religious bigotry is alive and well. No question of  the Christian doctrine of love moving the Big Man to accept that others are entitled to a religious view different from his. What's more, I believe that saying a particular faith group is on its way to hell and is led by a leader who is Beelzebub incarnate sounds suspiciously like incitement to religious hatred.  Am I missing something?

Friday, 10 September 2010

Lying big

If you read yesterday’s blog you’ll see that I admitted to telling lies on a …well, a regular basis. Not a daily basis, but when I felt that a lie might be more discreet or avoid hurting somebody’s feelings or even make me appear maybe a more considerate person than the rotten jerk I really am.  Today, a woman consoled me about this weakness of mine. She did it by talking about an article she’d read in last night’s Belfast Telegraph, and to say she didn’t think much of it would be putting it mildly. The article was by Julie Burchill and after I'd read it, I figured my untruths were pretty tiny and shrivelled. Here’s her opening paragraph.

“How very broad-minded this country is when we consider that the taxpayer will shortly be shelling out millions of pounds to protect a former member of the Hitler Youth, who believes Anglicans will burn in Hell, when the Pope visits Britain next week. Tolerant or what?”

Now like quite a number of writers who give me a pain in the face, there's something about Julie Burchill that I like …no, that I admire. She writes with the kind of briskness and colour that you need from a columnist. But she’s also, I’m afraid, telling lies.  The first paragraph alone tells at least one lie – the present Pope does NOT believe that Anglicans will burn in Hell  and Julie knows that. But the column's start wouldn’t have the same drive and style if she’d not included the Hell reference. So she lies and sticks it in.

Try this a few paragraphs down: ‘But if one is a Catholic, then surely double-speak and duplicity are second nature.’  Not a question, you notice. A statement. All Catholics are liars.  Not to be trusted. It reminds me of an interview I did with a prominent loyalist in the Shankill Road  some fifteen years ago. He greeted me with a steady stare and the loud greeting “Never trust a Fenian!” Julie would fit nicely into his club.

And this one, where she’s talking about Colleen Rooney: “Her husband has been acting exactly as Catholic men are expected to – choosing one woman to marry and another sort to have sex with”.  How does she know us so well, I wonder?

And finally: “Being a Catholic means always having to say you’re sorry – but also being guaranteed that you'll be forgiven to go on and do all the vile things you’ve done ad nauseam”.

The column is an example of what I'd call serious lying – not about an individual event or an individual person, but about a whole faith group of tens of millions of people. Anyone with even a feeble grasp of Catholic doctrine, not to mention contact with Catholics, would know that Burchill has stuffed her article with lies. They’d also know that if she'd written a similar column about Jews or Muslims or any other faith group, the papers carrying it would have been bombarded with protests. But hey, it’s just the Pope and it’s just Catholics – Julie can say what she wants and if it’s bad enough, it’ll be acclaimed.

And the Belfast Telegraph, which some simple souls believe spans the sectarian chasm here,  printed Burchill’s column. Was I dreaming when I thought there was a law against incitement to religious hatred?

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Pants on fire?

LONDON - AUGUST 04:  Martin McGuinness speaks to the press outside Number 10 Downing Street, August 4, 2005 in London.  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)

So Martin McGuinness told a lie. Or forgot that he’d met Fr Jim Chesney. If it’s the second – that he forgot -  then no blame can attach to him. I travelled over fifty miles yesterday to check if my laptop would work with a data-projector, and when I got there I discovered I’d forgotten to bring the laptop. Stupid. Incompetent. But not blameworthy.

And if Martin McGuinness told a lie? Well you know, I do that all the time and I don’t know anyone who doesn’t. I lie about how I’m feeling, I lie about my reasons for doing things, I lie about how big people’s bum looks in this. Discreet lies, lies that protect people from boredom or disappointment or disillusionment. Maybe just lies that avoid my appearing an even bigger jerk than people think me already.  How about you – do you always tell the truth, regardless? Mmm, I thought as much.

But but but, you say. This was Martin McGuinness lying about something very important – whether he’d ever met Jim Chesney. Oh really? What was important about that?  It tells us nothing new about Fr Chesney or the Claudy bombing. Not a solitary single thing.  That didn’t stop the Venerable Organ giving it front-page coverage today,  or BBC Radio Ulster’s  ‘Good Morning Ulster’ (yes, Virginia, the impartial BBC really does like that word ‘Ulster’) was breathless with excitement as it broadcast Martin McGuinness’s ‘admission’ that he’d met Chesney.

There are three points here. The Claudy people affected by the bomb are not going to get their loved ones back whether or not Fr Jim Chesney is found to have been among those who planned and executed the bungled Claudy bombing. And the efforts to implicate Fr Chesney are notable for their total absence of evidence that the priest was involved in the bombing or even a member of the IRA. And the attempts to make Martin McGuinness a part of the Claudy bombing picture are politically motivated -  a frantic attempt to dent the Deputy First Minister’s widespread popularity, even among some unionists, in the run-up to next Spring’s Assembly elections.  

Whatever you do, don’t for a minute think that the dead are at the centre of this controversy. It’s the living and how they can best be damaged. 

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Emma's da

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 08:  The six shortlisted books for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2009 are displayed in the Man Group headquarters shortly after being announced on September 8, 2009 in London, England. The shortlisted books for the prestigious prize are: AS Byatt 'The Children's Book', JM Coetzee 'Summertime', Adam Foulds ' The Quickening Maze', Hilary Mantel 'Wolf Hall', Simon Mawer 'The Glass Room' and Sarah Waters 'The Little Stranger'. The judging panel is made up of James Naughtie (Chair), Lucasta Miller, Michael Prodger, John Mullan and Sue Perkins. The winning book will be announced at a presentation in London's Guildhall on October 6, 2009. (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

This morning’s paper tells me the Dublin-born writer Emma Donoghue is favourite to win this year’s Man Booker Prize, with her novel called Room, about an 11-year-old who’s incarcerated for years in this tiny room. Sounds like a laugh a minute. I’ve never met Emma Donoghue but I knew her father, Denis. He was a young lecturer in UCD during my time there in the 1960s and we saw him as the epitome of cool. He was tall and young, he wore a black shirt (BLACK!) and he delivered his English Literature lectures with a slight American accent (he’d done his doctorate in the States).  Everybody agreed that he was marvellously brainy and that his lectures were profound but I never met anyone who, when pressed, could tell you what they were about. He had a way of delivering resounding statements that left us slack-jawed with wonder. I remember a lecture on Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida which he ended with the declaration “...And the sound we hear (pause for effect) is the clanging of the gates”.  Eh? What gates? What clanging? What’s he talking about? Our minds buzzed with such thoughts but none of us dared speak them out loud. “Bloody brilliant!” we told each other, nodding wisely as we left the lecture hall.

He was also arrogant in a witty way. When I was doing my Master’s,  along with two or three others I got some group tutorial work with First Year English students. Denis Donoghue used to meet with us every  so often to see how our teaching was going. We used to tell him of our occasional triumph, when we’d managed to get the fairly stodgy class to become involved in discussion. I remember Donoghue’s reaction: ‘Yes, well that’s fine, but don’t forget: just because little Johnny at the back who hasn’t opened his mouth all term eventually says something, it’s not necessarily a success. Little Johnny may be a stupid bastard who’d have been better keeping his mouth shut in the first place”.

And when I was doing my Master’s thesis, he was my supervisor. Initially he was encouraging – “That’s good, that’s an interesting subject you’ve chosen” – but as time went on he seemed to lose interest and was less and less available for help. As a result my dissertation ended up being an appallingly limp creation. 

His daughter looks just like him (and, I believe, is nearly as tall) and she strikes me as an accomplished writer. But I’ll still be rooting for Andrea Levy or Peter Carey. Experience of their earlier work tells me they write with energy and insight and humour about topics that don’t make me want to go and slash my wrists in the bath.  

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Gorilla? What gorilla?

A young mountain gorilla from the Kabirizi family sits in Virunga National Park, just north of the eastern Congolese city of Goma, August 19, 2010. The world s remaining 720 wild mountain gorillas live along the volcanic range straddling the Rwandan, Congolese and Ugandan borders. REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly (DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO - Tags: ENVIRONMENT ANIMALS)

Oh dear, here we go again. First it was Irish President Mary McAleese, this morning it was the Lord Mayor of Dublin telling us that he looked forward to the visit of the queen to Ireland and that the Irish people had an affection for the British monarchy and would welcome her warmly. Let’s see if we can disentangle a few points.

The proposed visit will be an official state visit. That means QE2 would come as the embodiment of Britain.  Which means?  Well, that’s the issue. The phrase most often used is that the visit would mark ‘the normalization of relations between Britain and Ireland’. 

Well now. Is it normal for one country to partition its next-door neighbour?  If so, when do we get to divide Britain in two?

Is it normal for one country to have more than 5,000 troops stationed on its neighbour’s territory?  If so, when do we get to station 5,000 Irish troops in, say, Yorkshire?

Is it normal for one country to exercise legislative control over its neighbour? If so, when do we get to pass some laws governing conduct in, say, Lancashire?

The truth is, the Mayor of Dublin and the Irish president and the other voices assuring us that QE2 will be welcome in Ireland want  the Irish people to pretend that a big, hairy, smelly gorilla called British rule in Ireland doesn’t exist. It’s not there. Don’t mention it and you won’t see it. Instead, concentrate on the nice flowers in this vase,  admire these lovely light fittings, get this decent woman from London a cup of tea, would you, and show her some Irish hospitality. And if some members of the family start shouting that there’s a gorilla in the room and if some of them try to remove the gorilla by force, well then naturally we’ll denounce them as extremists who can’t move on, have no philosophy or programme and really should be locked up.

I hate to hark back to Orwell yet again, but wasn’t he the man who depicted a state where Lies were Truth, where War was Peace, where Black was White?  Orwell, thou should’st be living at this hour...

Monday, 6 September 2010

So what would YOU do?

It’s  a fascinating subject, the balance between strong leadership and responsiveness to grassroots concerns. People like to mock de Valera’s belief that when he needed to know what the Irish people were thinking, he went off and looked into his own heart; but sometimes the people  dismissive of Dev are equally critical of politicians  (early New Labour comes to mind)  who are forever referring to focus groups and opinion polls, and who shape their policies and even principles in response to them.

All politics is local and at the moment I’m experiencing a similar leadership-responsiveness tug.  Later this month, Wed 22 September,  in Lumen Christi College, Derry,  I’ll be launching a book – ‘Tales Out of School: St Columb’s College Derry in the 1950s'.  It’s a collection of interviews I’ve done with former classmates of mine in St Columb’s College.  That’s the only school in the world, you probably don’t need reminding, that’s produced two Nobel Prize winners, John Hume and Seamus Heaney. The book, however, has twenty-six interviews, mostly with, how shall I put it, the non-glitterati, the less-famous, the foot-soldiers who left St Columb's circa 1960.

My leadership-responsiveness tug-of-war comes from the fact that  over the weekend, two or three of my former class-mates have asked to know what other old boys are coming to the launch. One the one hand, it seems eminently reasonable that I should provide them with a list.  On the other, I’m convinced that the occasion will lose some of its emotional edge, its expectation, if I send them a list. And of course if I sent two or three requestees a list, I’ll to have to do the other 20+ involved.

Responsiveness: do what the two or three requestees have asked. Leadership: do what you think will make for a successful event. 

Politicians must face this kind of dilemma all the time. Not easy – except you’re Dev, that is.  

What would you do? 

Friday, 3 September 2010

When I hear the word culture...

BELFAST, UNITED KINGDOM - JULY 10:  Youths build a giant  Eleventh Night Bonfire on July 10, 2006 in the Shankill Road area of Belfast, Northern Ireland. The bonfires, which are located in Protestant communities all over Northern Ireland, are traditionally lit the night before July 12, which is the biggest day in the Orange Order's calendar. This is a time when they celebrate the victory of William of Orange over Catholic King James at the Battle of the Boyne.  (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
Sometimes I feel ashamed of Gaelic football.  Somebody will kick somebody, somebody will give someone else an elbow, and next you know two-thirds of both teams are falling over themselves to beat the bejaysus out of anyone they can get their hands on. Not exactly a lovely advertisement for Gaelic sport. And I haven't even mentioned the names of those GAA clubs that so upset unionists.

And then I see something like that article in the Belfast Telegraph the other day. It gave figures about how much it cost to treat people who managed to damage themselves or others in Eleventh Night bonfires over the last five years - somewhere around £3 million.  Mmm. Well,  I suppose you could argue that it is over five years and there is the question of tradition and culture for a section of the people who feel the things they hold dear are under threat.  Only then I notice a picture  of a recent Eleventh Night bonfire.  It's the usual massive pile of pallets, and it's adorned with flags. Irish tricolour flags. I count them - one, two, three, four. And I read the writing that's been daubed on the sheets that hang from half-way up the pallet pile. 'Fuck the IRA' it says. 'Fuck Sinn Fein'.  And 'Fuck the RIRA'.  And there's something about Bobby Sands as well but I can't read that.

You get the feeling that the people who constructed this bonfire weren't completely into the new dispensation where we all try to put ourselves in the other chap's shoes. Where we all join Trevor Ringland in taking One Small Step.  And in a way it's kind of refreshing, the frank, no-pretending, no-ifs-buts or here-hould-on-a-minutes  that usually get draped around expressions of political allegiance here.  But it's not quite so refreshing to think that public money - OK, the part of public money that is MINE - is being used to help these troglodytes continue in their knuckle-trailing ways. And then I think of the whole Orange tradition which is rooted in a celebration of the defeat of Catholicism and nationalism not once a year but for around nine months of the year, at huge cost in police time and attendance, and huge public inconvenience as band practices and band parades block off towns and villages, and all of it  paid for once again out of MY purse.

And  do you know, when I see that kind of thing, I suddenly feel that maybe the odd fraternal thumping in a GAA game, which is over in minutes and is confined to the field of play - maybe, when you think of it, and compare it,  a barney like that isn't really that shameful an affair. You want shameful? Shameful is getting your jollies by mocking and antagonising the other lot, and making the other lot fund your doing so.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Hot talk from Tony

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (L) and Quartet Representative Tony Blair arrive to listen to U.S. President Barack Obama, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, King Abdullah II of Jordan, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas deliver remarks after a series of meetings at the White House in Washington on September 1, 2010. Tomorrow begins the first direct peace talks in two years between Israel and the Palestinian Authority scheduled to begin at the State Department in Washington, D.C. UPI/Alexis C. Glenn Photo via Newscom
It seems not many politicians in the north of Ireland have a good word to say about the Tony Blair that emerges in his so-fresh-they’re-hot memoirs. That bit about how he sometimes stretched truth to bring about agreement here -  uh-uh. Deceptive. Devious.  Not what our straight-talking, good-living politicians here like at all. The DUP managed to sound morally disapproving and at the same time worldy and hard-headed in their response. They never believed half of what he said, Gregory Campbell says -  they insisted on action all the way, not words.  Reg Empey said his party never believed a word of the St Andrew’s Agreement promises and so  didn’t sign up to them.  Mark Durkan says…Pay attention at the back, please,  no nodding off…Mark Durkan says Blair “decided to concentrate on a two-party process involving the parties that were stuck on either side of the decommissioning question – the unionists and Sinn Féin”.  Which, for those of you still awake, means Durkan thinks Blair done wrong.

It’s a laugh, really.  Deeds, not words, Gregory?   That’s why Agreements are constructed the way they are. If a party does X, Y will follow. Action and consequence. Deed and result.  Day followed by night.  Any politician who’d  settle for less would be less not-hard-headed and more  very soft-headed indeed. And the fact that Gregory the Great pats himself on the back for not being soft-headed suggests that actually he…Oh never mind.

As for Reg and how canny he and his party were to keep clear of the St Andrew’s Agreement: the reason the St Andrew’s Agreement was seen as necessary was because he and his party, having put their names to the Good Friday Agreement, spent the next several years pulling back from it and clicking their tongues and rolling their eyes and sucking in their breath in a way that showed their heart was very, very far from in it.  Besides, if Reg’s party were so awfy clever, how come the electorate promptly did to them what a 90mph car  windscreen does to an insect?

Personally, the bit I found most interesting was where Tony said he got fonder of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness than he really should have.  What’s all that about?  He doesn’t say he got fonder of Ian Paisley than he should have. He got fond of Paisley just the right amount; but with Gerry and Martin, it was bigger than that, not spiritual at all, in fact Tony says he got kind of, ehm, you know, carried away. On a wave. Of affection.

Here, Blair. Less of the Mills and Boon language, if you don't mind. There’s only one place that sort of talk ends and that’s in tears. Or a twin bedroom. Ask William Hague.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

'Tis the season...

U.S. President Barack Obama is seen in the Oval Office through a window as he addresses the nation about the end of the U.S. combat mission in Iraq at the White House in Washington, August 31, 2010. Obama declared the U.S. combat mission in Iraq ended on Tuesday, but said the U.S. commitment to Iraq has not ended as he urged its leaders to quickly form an inclusive government.  REUTERS/Jim Young  (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CONFLICT MILITARY)392939 02: Martin McGuinness, chief negotiator for Sinn Fein, speaks to reporters August 7 2001 in Belfast, Northern Ireland as the region''s political leaders discuss the Irish Republican Army''s promise to disarm. (Photo by Hugh Thomas/BWP Media/Getty Images)
So anyway, I’m in a Barcelona hotel lobby on a brief stop-over before returning to the corner of Ireland that time but not Britain has forgotten. And  since I haven’t read a newspaper in nearly two weeks I pick up a copy of the global edition of the New York Times and I read this article by Paul Krugman.  You’ve probably been reading Krugman since you were an infant puking over  your mother’s knee but I discovered him only a couple of years ago. He does have a habit of cutting to the heart of the matter.

This article of his was called ‘It’s witch-hunt season’ and it was all about how someone like Rush Limbaugh, the right-wing radio lout, is considered a part of mainstream US Republicanism. Krugman says Americans shouldn’t be surprised that Limbaugh is rabidly anti-Obama: the Clinton years should have taught them how such people think.  Response to the Clinton presidency showed that “a significant number of Americans just don’t consider government by liberals – even very moderate liberals – legitimate. Mr Obama’s election would have enraged those people even if he he were white. Of course, the fact that he isn’t, and has an alien-sounding name, adds to the rage”.

So I sat in that Barcelona hotel lobby and I asked myself "Now why does that sound familiar?"  and in a trice, my thoughts had google-earthed across Europe to dear old Ulster. There, a significant number of unionists (I'll come back to that) don’t consider government by Sinn Fein – even very moderate Sinn Fein people – legitimate. Maybe you’re old enough to remember the gasp of horror that went up when Sinn Fein nominated Martin McGuinness to be Minister for Education?  There are those who'd claim that had to do with Mr McGuinness’s paramilitary past. Except the vitriol directed at his successor, Caitriona Ruane, is if anything more intense.  And have you checked recently the rage-levels recorded at the idea of Mr McGuinness becoming First Minister?

Krugman talks about ‘a significant number of Americans’  being irrevocably opposed to liberals  and seethingly opposed to a black liberal like Barack Obama. I hate to say it, but it's at this point that  the parallel between the situation in the US and the situation in the north of Ireland breaks down. Because it’s not a significant number of unionists who detest Caitriona Ruane and it’s not a significant number of unionists who see a red mist descend at the very idea of Martin McGuinness becoming First Minister. It’s all of them.  Like the marching season here, the witch-hunt season is a year-round affair.