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.