Jude Collins

Sunday, 31 October 2010

A divided society? You betcha

Peter Robinson figures that Catholic schools are standing between us and an integrated society.  Sorry, Peter, there’s more to it than that. A lot more.

Take your daughter. Let’s assume she’s middle-class – been to university, has a degree, is working maybe as a teacher or a doctor or an accountant. And she announces she’s getting married to this chap. He works for the local council. He’s a bin-collector.   Your reaction? Right, none too ecstatic. That’s because Daughter has breached the line, the very very firm line, between middle-class and working class. In fact, if you had to choose between a chap who kicks with the other religious foot and one who kicks with the other class foot, nine times out of ten I bet you’d choose the religious foot difference.

I thought about this as I went for a walk around lunchtime today. It’s along the edge of Belfast Lough and in the sunshine, people appeared good-humoured as they walked along and chatted or called their dogs or just leaned on the rail, looking out onto the Lough and beyond, in the distance, Scotland. But while people were talking to those they’d arrived with, not a word was exchanged with those they met on their walk. Dozens of people, passing within inches of each other, not even establishing eye-contact let alone communication. And I was the same. Myself and the present Mrs Collins talked like billy-o to each other but we didn’t crack the invisible wall between us and all the other walkers.

After we’d finished the walk we went home. To suburbia. That’s the place where people keep themselves to themselves. I’ve been there thirty years now and while I know the names of most of my immediate neighbours, don’t ask me what they’re children are called or what they’re doing. And don’t ask me anything, once we leave the cul-de-sac. In short, there are people into whose living-room I could literally throw a stone and I don’t know who they are. And they don’t know who I am.

I know, I know. You don’t want to have people crowding in on you, living in your pocket or whatever the phrase is. But there’s something weird and sad about a society that organizes itself so that people pass each other by, live squeezed up against each other, and yet know and care next to nothing about each other.  There must be a better way.  Catholics and Protestants not meeting? You’re mistaking a clump of whin bushes for the forest, Peter. 

Friday, 29 October 2010

Put em up or else...

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 27: Prime Minister David Cameron wears a Royal British Legion poppy on the doorstep of Downing Street on October 27, 2010 in London, England. The annual Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal raises money to support members of the armed forces. (Photo by Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images)

Switch on your TV and you can’t miss it.  Since last week every presenter who inserts him or herself into the glass rectangle in the corner of our living-rooms has the crimson symbol pinned in place. It’s poppy-time again.

Our most famous poppy-wearer – and for a brief time, non-poppy-wearer – was/is of course Donna Traynor.  Thinking it was a woman’s right to choose, the BBC Northern Ireland presenter chose not to wear a poppy. It didn’t last long. Quiet management words were inserted in Donna’s ear and today the poppy is attached to her breast as to every other screen-visible BBC breast. It may not be always worn with pride but it’s worn without demur. Some say Donna was rescued from a false consciousness about the poppy; others that she was she told to either wear it or take a hike.

Some awful guff has been been written about people like her who dislike the idea of poppy-wearing. In the south,  the official line is that the state was guilty of a historic injustice by failing to honour those Irishmen who gave their lives in the two world wars and we must now do all we can to redress that.  In the north, unionist politicians like David McNarry tell us we owe a debt:

“Locally we also remember the bravery and sacrifice of the men and women of the Regular Army, the Ulster Defence Regiment, the RUC and PSNI who risked their lives to protect this community from anarchy and who are still engaged to this day in the fight against terrorism. Supporting the Royal British Legion’s Poppy Appeal and wearing the Poppy with Pride is a small token of our thanks and gratitude and a public way of saying ‘We will remember them’.”

Succinctly put, David. Firstly, we’re being urged to honour ‘the men and women of the Regular Army’ – that is,  of the British Regular Army, those Irish people who became part of the British Army and fought with it. Secondly we’re told to honour the UDR, the RUC and the PSNI.

I know it’ll come as a shock to David and others like him, but  those who believe in Irish independence from Britain have a logical difficulty with honouring those who fought world wars in the ranks of the British Army, an army that for decades and centuries has enforced British rule in Ireland.  And it’ll come as an equal shock to the Dublin 4ers to discover that those who believe in Irish independence as well as civil rights have a difficulty honouring the UDR and the RUC, who for decades were part of a system that ruthlessly repressed one-third of the north’s population.

The McNarry/Dublin 4 strategy is to paint those who disagree with them as recidivists, unreconstructed romantics who nurse a psychopathic streak. George Bush would have liked them: if you’re not for us you’re against us, and so a friend of murder.

Meanwhile,  on Donna’s breast the poppy sprouts, year after year.  The organisation she works for prides itself on its tradition of even-handedness and balance. Except, of course, you try to resist the party line. Then it’s ‘Get back on song or there’s the door’.

Will I tell you something really shocking? Not a single liberal voice in our society has been raised to denounce such Stalinist treatment.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Why did Gerry Bradley die?

Why did Gerry Bradley die? The 56-year-old ex-IRA man was found dead in his car at Carrickfergus Marina yesterday. He’d been prominent in the IRA during the 1980s and 1990s; last year the story of his involvement, told to VO columnist Brian Feeney, was published. Today Feeney is reported as saying Bradley may have seen the Brendan Hughes programme on TV a couple of nights ago, attacking the Sinn Féin leadership. He may then have felt the whole IRA campaign had been for nothing and taken his life. That’s a double or is it triple set of hypotheticals. If he saw the programme he may have thought X and Y, and if he thought X and Y he may as a result have taken his life. The truth is, nobody knows why Gerry Bradley died.

Can we say then why he got Feeney to write the book about his time in the IRA? He’s reported as saying ‘To put on record the truth of life in the IRA, before I die’. If that was his motivation, it was different from that of Eamon Collins (no relation), another ex-IRA man whose account of his exploits appeared in print before his death. I knew Eamon fairly well: he was a former mature student of mine at the University of Ulster, and at one point he asked me to help him write the account of his IRA experiences. I declined, someone else took him up on it and A Killing Rage sold well. What was Eamon’s motivation for wanting to get into print? Because, he told me, he saw no reason why ‘some people should get everything ‘ and he should get nothing. Put bluntly, Eamon was hungry for fame and wealth. It’s a common condition.

Let’s try a third question, then: why do people want to read about IRA exploits? That’s easy: because they like to experience violence at a safe remove. You could call it violence pornography or paramilitary voyeurism, but by whatever name there’s something of it in all of us and it’s a sad, shameful urge. But if longing to peek through the curtains and thrill to violence and death is depraved, what word would you use for those people who arrange for us to indulge our warped tastes?

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Paedophile Priest: it's easier to say than 'paedophile clergyman', isn't it?

EDINBURGH, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 15: Therasa Albrecht (L) Barbara Blaine (C), and Barbara Dorris (R) hold pictures of them as children on the steps of St Mary's Metropolitan Cathedral on September 15, 2010 in Edinburgh, Scotland. A protest was held today outside the Church by three women who were sexually abused by Priests in their childhood. The women belong to SNAP, (the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), and are calling for the names of Catholic clerics involved in sexual offences to be made available to better safe guard children within the church. Victims are travelling from around the world to protest against or seek reconciliation from the Pope during his upcoming state visit. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Well, better late than never. Some slightly-less-lazy hack in the VO came up with the news yesterday that the Free Presbyterian Church didn’t bother respond to a Department of Health audit into child protection. That’s the Free Presbyterian Church whose former head, one Ian Paisley, went all the way to Scotland to protest the Pope’s failure to respond properly to child abuse. Mind you, the Health Department audit took place in 2006, but sure you can’t go rushing the reporting of such things. Today’s VO reports Dr Margaret Kennedy, who heads up Ministers and Clergy Sex Abuse Survivors, as saying “The survivors who contact us come from all denominations. Abuse is not just confined to the Catholic church”.

If you check an earlier blog, you’ll find I report an occasion when I was verbally mugged by three Protestant clergymen. It happened afer I had asked a question about sexual abuse among Protestant clergy on a UTV programme hosted by the late Jim Dougal. The irate pastors informed me with some force that child sexual abuse by clergy was unique to Catholicism and came from the celibacy ruling in that Church. When I asked for evidence to support this claim, I was told there was no need for research, they drew on their experience.

So now the wall of silence has been broken by Dr Kennedy. Why it couldn’t have been broken by an enterprising journalist years ago comes down to two factors: laziness and fear. If you’re lazy, it’s easier to run after the main story, which is that the Catholic Church is heaving with paedophile priests and here’s another case. If you’re cowardly, it’s clever to go with the anti-Catholic clergy flow. Do otherwise and people may begin to think you’re somehow sympathetic to preying priests.

So is there evidence that Catholic clergy abuse children more than their Protestant counterparts? It’s extremely difficult to get data in Britain – the NSPCC has done a survey but it’s vague on the extent to which Protestant Churches suffer from the same horrors as the Catholic Church. In the US, things are much clearer.

Since 1950, an average of 228 credible accusations of child sexual abuse per year have been brought against Catholic clergy. The nearest comparison is provided by the three insurance companies that cover 165,000 Protestant churches. They typically receive 260 reports every year of children being sexually abused by Protestant clergy or other staff. In short, in the US there are on average 32 more cases of child sexual abuse in the Protestant churches than in the Catholic. Professor Philip Jenkins, a respected religion and history scholar from Pennsylvania State University – and a non-Catholic – has studied church abuse problems for twenty years. He’s found that among Catholic clergy in the US, between .2% and 1.7% of Catholic priests are paedophiles. The figure among the Protestant clergy in the US is between 2 and 3 per cent. “There is no plausible evidence that Catholic priests are gangs of sexual predators, as they are being portrayed” Professor Jenkins says.

There’s no reason to believe things are radically different on this side of the Atlantic. Which means that for the last ten years or so, journalists in Britain and Ireland have been digging vigorously in one corner of the garden, crying out in horror as the latest skeleton is dug up. Now let’s see them tackle the rest of the garden with equal vigour, especially when there are indications even greater horrors await them.

I said earlier that the failure to investigate Protestant churches and paedophilia was the product of laziness and/or fear. There’s actually a third reason, and one the Rev Ian Paisley would know something of: good old-fashioned anti-Catholicism.

Monday, 25 October 2010

The most frightening sound in the world: silence.

PRATTVILLE, AL - OCTOBER 7: A marshal holds up a sign asking for quiet during the first round of the Navistar LPGA Classic at the Senator Course at the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail at Capitol Hill on October 7, 2010 in Prattville, Alabama. (Photo by Darren Carroll/Getty Images)

We all talk too much. You, me, everyone. Watch people in the street or on a bus, in a restaurant or in a theatre interval: yap yap yappety-yap. What are they saying? What is so important that they say it with such intensity? As for politicians, whether in or out of the Assembly/Dail/Parliament: besides being very tedious, they rarely shut up, even though so much of what they say, as the Beatles put it, is meaningless.

Which is one reason I found the BBC2 programme The Big Silence so interesting. (If you haven’t seen it yet, tune in to BBC2 on Friday at 9.00 pm and you’ll get the second in the series of three.) It’s a simple idea: five people spend eight days in silence – with a daily break for a chat with a sort of mentor - at a Jesuit retreat house. The five are not particularly religious people and there’s no intention (as far as I can tell) to win them to Christianity, let alone Catholicism. But we watch and learn as these people with busy lives try to cope without the comforting distractions of modern life – TV, the internet, mobile phones, radio, newspapers. Even after a single day, the effect is striking: disorientation, self-questioning, tears.

So is it that, in silence, we find some kind of wisdom? Or is it, as one young woman in the group said, we’re ‘bored out of our tits’? Certainly plunging into an ocean of silence, even for a matter of days, looks like having a profound effect on these people. In the silence they’re faced, like it or not, with the meaning (or meaninglessness) of their lives.

So listen – a modest proposal. Given that we’ve all sorts of Weeks – No Smoking Week, Poetry Week, Breast Cancer Awareness Week - why not have a Big Silence Week? Seven days when everybody, with obvious exceptions like vital emergency services, switched off their phones, unplugged the TV and the internet, stopped talking. If the BBC2 programme is anything to go by, the effect on how we run our society and our lives would be radical. Things assumed to be vitally important would shrink, things buried or ignored would rise up and demand attention.

Unfortunately, I know it’ll never happen. The one thing we human beings are terrified of is looking inside ourselves. Because if we did, we’d have to revolutionize not just ourselves but the society in which we live.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Sri Lanka, stooping down low and cultural cringe

HAY-ON-WYE, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 29: Poet Seamus Heaney reads from his new book of poetry, District and Circle, at the Guardian Hay Festival on May 29, 2006 in Hay-On-Wye, England.  (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

It’s a dreary, damp October afternoon as I write this. If I raise my rear-end six inches from the chair I can see the back garden – an overgrown tree, a badly-mowed lawn, in the distance Carrickfergus Castle and beyond that a grey strip of Belfast Lough. Bleak. So I turn my gaze back to the room and pick up a Ph D thesis I’ve been asked to read. It’s about teaching English literature in Sri Lanka and I soon discover that, in Sri Lanka, they teach Tennyson’s ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ and Hilaire Belloc’s ‘Matilda’.

Mmm. On the face of it, a heroic and worthwhile enterprise – taking two quintessentially English poets and making their work available to pupils on the other side of the globe. A bit like exporting cricket to India or Pakistan or the West Indies. Doing the locals a favour through a precious import. Yes, Tennyson’s poem has nothing to do with the history of Sri Lanka, and Belloc’s bourgeois tale of false alarms for London’s fire brigades is a million emotional miles from Sri Lankan society. But both poems are put together wonderfully well and form a noble export one-third of the way round the world.

Yes, except that, along with admiration for the rhythm and the playful tone and all the rest of it, Sri Lankans are ingesting a heavy dose of cultural cringe. That’s the imperial medicine which convinces you your experience, the experience of your community, the art and song and literature of your country are all, well, really second rate. Maybe fifth-rate, even. Certainly more than a bit embarrassing, when set alongside the perfection of English artistry, as seen in these two poems. It’s a centuries-old trick. Load people with enough bales from the golden harvest of English literature and they’ll end up thanking the coloniser for sharing a superior culture and way of living.

My old schoolmate Seamus Heaney has his limitations but he did us all – all Irish people – at least one very big favour. Through his poetry, he’s made it possible for people who’ve spent a lifetime hiding that they came from the bogs of Ireland to celebrate that fact, even glory in their uniqueness.

It’s nearly fifty years since Heaney began writing about the rural life of South Derry. Today, most Irish nationalists north and south have learnt how to crawl out from under the suffocating weight of Mother Britain’s superiority, in literature and in other areas of life. Most Irish unionists, alas, still have some way to go.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Royal leg-up

BRAEMAR, SCOTLAND - SEPTEMBER 04: Queen Elizabeth II smiles as she looks out from the royal box during the Braemar Highland Games at The Princess Royal and Duke of Fife Memorial Park on September 4, 2010 in Braemar, Scotland. The Braemar Gathering is the most famous of the Highland Games and is known worldwide. Each year thousands of visitors descend on this small Scottish village on the first Saturday in September to watch one of the more colourful Scottish traditions. The Gathering has a long history and in its modern form it stretches back nearly 200 years. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

Great news! What with funding for the arts being cut, promised hospitals being reneged on, jobs being eliminated all the way to the horizon - hooray! QE2 and her ever-faithful husband are among us! Well not quite among us but up at Hillsborough with Owen Paterson and down at UTV with Frank Mitchell yesterday. Frank showed her his weather secrets and the various backdrops he could create for her to stand in front of - Buckingham Palace, the GPO in Dublin, that kind of thing - and QE2 said to Frank, quick as a flash ‘You could take me anywhere in the world’. Well! Frank nearly passed out with pleasure. ‘Such a witty thing to say!’ he’s reported as gasping. Your OBE is in the post, Frank.

And as if that weren’t enough, blimey, what do I read today on the BBC website? She’s COMING BACK for the annual Maundy Service! Jeepers – is there any end to the morale boosts this woman can deliver?... No please, don’t show your ignorance by asking what a Maundy Service is. It’s a Church of England/Church of Ireland thing that happens on what the rest of us would call Holy Thursday. QE2 comes into the church – this year it’ll be in (Halleluia and Begorrah!) St Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral in Armagh and she’ll be giving out 82 ‘traditional Maundy purses’. Not to smelly beggars from the street or anything - no, these’ll go to 82 activists in Church and community. And it’ll be 82 because QE2 is in her 82nd year.

So now aren’t you pleased? Royal jam today AND royal jam tomorrow! Apparently the British monarch used to do a bit of foot-washing as well as purse-giving-out (washing other people’s feet, not his own – the man who squeezes the royal toothpaste ablutes the royal feet as well) but they stopped the podiatry stuff back in the 16th century. Still, QE2 is a kind of saviour as well, isn’t she? Her visits are timed to save us from gloomy thoughts about jobs and food on the table and how in the name of God we’ll manage. Granted, the QE2-Jesus parallel gets a bit harder to maintain, placed beside Jesus’s command to give, not Maundy purses but all you have to the poor. Awkward, because QE2 is worth, oh, £200m, and if she gave all that to the poor, they’d only spend it on drink. But let’s be honest: the lift that hard-working woman has given us one and all, well, it’s just a pearl beyond price. I do hope those people south of the border get to hear. They’re in even worse financial shape than we are, so a QE2 visit would be received with even louder and more unanimous shouts of joy. Wouldn’t it?

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Sectarian head-count (and other parts)

I first noticed the gap between the media construction of the world and the world as it actually exists when I was living in Northumberland in the mid-1970s. I’d been a Match of the Day  fan for much of my life and had been impressed by the happy chants of the crowds in support of their various teams. So it was with a spring in my step that I clicked through the turnstile to my first in-the-flesh  game featuring Newcastle United.  Well. There were no Match of the Day microphones to muffle the chants of the crowd, no jolly decent  BBC commentator to butt in on any embarrassing yells.  Ninety minutes of sustained racist, homophobic and obscene chanting ended forever the sporting-Englishman caricature I’d carried with me for some three decades.  Match of the Day  was soccer terraces lite; this was the real, revolting thing.

Those Newcastle days come back to me every time I read a columnist or editorial or poll which tells me that people here care only about Real Politics: will they have a job, the cost of groceries and petrol,  what’s the value of their house.  Hah! I say. Those are concerns indeed, in the same way that some  wit and good humour were detectable at St James’s Park, back in the 1970s. But once in a polling booth, people here vote for or against the constitutional link with Britain. They do, you know.  Check the figures. And if they think a party hasn’t got the cojones to defend their constitutional position or work for a change in it, they dump that party. Ask the UUP or the SDLP.

You may think this deplorable (especially if you’re being asked by a pollster on the street) or you may think it’s highly desirable (if you’re having a drink with your mates who kick with the same foot) but it’s the  foundation on which politics here is constructed. The Good Friday Agreement says the constitutional position will remain as it is – tied to Mother England  - until such time as a majority vote for change.  On the core issue that haunts us today, it’s the head-count that counts.

Talk to unionists, though, and it’s surprising how many of them have a gut feeling that things are drifting away from them, that the nationalist population is on the rise and at some point not too far ahead, the population here will vote to sever the link with London.  Bluntly put, their fear is that nationalists will  out-breed them.  The media don’t talk about it but it’s there.

So to all such unionists I say, take heart and fear no more. In today’s paper (no, not the VO – it’s too busy thinking up tabloidy front-page headlines),  there’s a report of a charity called Project Prevention in the United States. This outfit has recently arrived in Britain and is getting ready to offer drug addicts £200 to be sterilized…

I can see you’re ahead of me. Statistics show that male nationalists are more likely to be out of work and/or living in poverty than their unionist counterparts. Yesterday George Osborne made sure that life is  going to be a lot, lot tougher for the poor. What better time, then, for a far-sighted unionist party to hew a vote-winning plank for next May? ‘Welcome, Project Prevention!’ could be their slogan, or more accurately ‘Welcome, Modified Project Prevention!’ Hard-pressed nationalists, muttering ‘The hell with constitutional issues!’ would flock to collect their £200, in their Celtic live-for-the-day way submitting their softer bits to permanent alteration. At one stroke or snip,  Protestant fears would be allayed,  the swelling nationalist population would subside, the constitutional position would be safe for at least half a century,  and Catholics, as Captain Terence O’Neill promised so long ago, would  finally have learned how to live like Protestants.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Our proudest boast: we paid our way...

Britain's Finance Minister George Osborne delivers his keynote speech during the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham, central England, October 4, 2010.  REUTERS/Darren Staples  (BRITAIN - Tags: POLITICS)
‘Man, know thyself’ was  the advice Socrates gave us and that’s one of the great strengths we have, here in the north of Ireland. People in the south can go in for all that weasel talk and ach sure aren’t-you-great palaver, but here in the six northern counties, in Northern Ireland, let’s call it by its name, shall we, we call a spade a spade,  NORTHERN IRELAND,  the Province, Ulster, we are a straightforward, sturdy people, we stand on our own two feet and bow the knee to no one. And need I add? We can’t be bought.

Remember some years ago, all that stuff about the money from America, when these big Irish-American philanthropists were trying to make us foreswear our Britishness by dangling big grants in front of us? Hah. We were having none of it. We’d sooner eat grass, we told them, than dilute our British birthright by one iota…Well yes, things changed and true,  we did weigh in behind the concept of US philanthropy and apply for and get the American money like everybody else.  But we did it in a no-nonsense, ruggedly-independent way.  You can take money from people and allow it to compromise you in a pathetic, I’m-a-beggar sort of way, or you can do it the Ulster way and take it without any sniveling or boot-licking. That was us – chins up, forever Ulster.

Which brings us to today.  We’re told that the British Exchequer is going to release far less funds to us this time than it normally does.  Normally, while of course maintaining our self-respect and dignity, we line up outside the British Exchequer each year for them to disgorge £10bn into our orange-lined bag. There are those – usually Catholic-school-educated – who would tell you that this is an undignified procedure, that having to go with even an orange-lined bag to Westminster year after year, getting a chunk of money to prop up our economy, that that’s undignified and pathetic, and that even you had to drop to a lower standard of living, it’d be balanced by the fact that you could stand on your own two feet and look at yourself in the mirror each morning without wanting to throw up with self-loathing. But as I say these are people who’ve been brain-washed by subversive Christian Brothers and child-abusing priests into thinking along those lines. The truth is, we collect that £10bn each year with a dignified smile and chins in the air. True, they don’t let us control our taxation and we have to go along with it if Britain decides that we should be protected from suicide bombers on buses by having very very expensive nuclear submarines in Scotland, and there are 5,000 British soldiers parked here  on land that we could use for far better purposes, but sure, aren’t we supposed to be Ulster of the Welcomes? …That’s Ireland of the Welcomes, is it? OK, scratch that then, but you get the idea . We don’t mind British soldiers here, we don’t want to control taxation, and if Britain says we need nuclear weapons on subs to protect  us on buses and in the underground and at airports, so be it.

No, I’ll tell you what’s undignified: ths plan to slash the money they give us to a measly 8.5bn. That’s an  insult to all true independent-minded Ulstermen -  and ladies, of course, too. It’s not the money that’s at stake;  it’s our self-respect. 

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Harry Windsor taken prisoner? Don't even think about it

 ABERGAVENNY, WALES - JULY 3: Prince Harry arrives for the wedding of former Royal Equerry Mark Dyer and Amanda Kline at St Edmund's Church on July 3, 2010 in Abergavenny, Wales. (Photo by Samir Hussein/Getty Images)

The English military are a strange breed, and when they overlap with that equally strange clan the Windsor family,  odd things happen. The latest  example of this whacko relationship has emerged over the Channel 4 drama ‘The Taking of Prince Harry’, scheduled for showing this Thursday.  The film depicts what might happen if Harry Windsor were taken prisoner in Afghanistan.

The military brass are not amused. They’ve been  applying all the pressure they know to have the drama blocked. Channel 4 would  be “failing in their duty to respect the sacrifices that our armed forces and their families make on behalf of the whole country...They will no doubt say this is a serious journalistic exercise but no responsible broadcaster would treat such a serious subject as the morale of our brave service personnel with such casual disregard”.

Blimpish bluster.  If you did a survey of Britain today, I’ll bet  £50 you’d have a clear majority of people saying Britain should get out of Afghanistan and stay out.  The British armed forces may be making a sacrifice in Afghanistan but it’s on behalf of the politicians who sent  them there and no one else.  British military morale probably is low in that country, but that’s more to do with  their realisation that they’re in an unjustifiable and unwinnable war.

The Windsors can’t have it both ways. They can’t have their male scions playing the fearless soldier bit and then get agitated  - or allow the British military brass to get agitated on their behalf - when someone imagines what it’d be like if one of those scions got captured.  But Harry’s an heir to the throne, you say? Oh pu-lease. My cat’s got as much chance of succeeding as Harry – the Taliban would have to come to Britain and bump off Elizabeth, Charles and William first. If the Windsors insist on marketing their youthful males as action men,  they ‘d better accept that script-writers are allowed to imagine a royal scion being held prisoner.

On one point they’re right, though:  families do make sacrifices for the British miltary. In 1975 the Friel family in Derry made the ulitmate sacrifice, when  21-year-old Bernadette was shot dead by a British soldier, one Thomas Ramsay.  At the time he claimed they’d been playing Russian roulette; it’s now emerged he lied and shot her dead.  Where is Mr Ramsay now? No one seems to know, including the British military.

The capture of Harry Windsor is pure pretend; the death of Bernadette  Friel was grim and real.  It takes some brass neck to be in a tizzy about the former and not give a damn about the latter.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Wayne and Peter: so alike yet so different

Wayne Rooney on the Subs Bench Manchester United 2010/11 Manchester United V West Bromwich Albion 16/10/10 The Premier League Photo Robin Parker Fotosports International Photo via Newscom

It’s tough at the top of the Premier League.  There’s Wayne Rooney,  a lad with a face, as some cruel person once said, like a well-spanked bum,  throwing shapes that suggest he’s going to quit Old Trafford.  He hasn’t been picked for the team on a number of times recently, his private life has been splashed all over the headlines  (wife Colleen wasn’t amused by business dealings he conducted with a prostitute). And now Alex Ferguson and the Man United people have said they’ll renew his contract when it expires but they’ll pay him a mere £150,000 a week. Wayne’s not impressed so he’s looking round for somewhere else – maybe Real Madrid, maybe Barcelona, maybe  (gulp) Man City. 

Odd, really, the parallels with our dear First Minister, Peter Robinson.  Like Wayne, Peter owns a face that can make people blink when they first see it.  Like Wayne with Man U, Peter has been a DUP star for so long,  it’s impossible to think of him in a different context.  But like Wayne again, there have been rumblings that Peter could be off-loaded in the coming months.  Why? Well, some colleagues weren’t amused by his business dealings over that piece of land, nor by the shenanigans of his wife Iris with her teenage lover. Officially, like the Man U management, the DUP top honchos have said of course they’ll renew Peter’s contract, in fact he’ll lead their Stormont team into the election next May. But it’s an open secret that some in the DUP think Peter is more of a liability than an asset and should be off-loaded now before more damage is done. Once upon a time,  Peter showed a deadly finisher’s touch at the polls, scoring electoral success after electoral success. But like Wayne, he’s recently begun to fire blanks – since last Spring  he’s slumped in the popularity ratings and lost his seat in Westminster.

But there is one, crucial difference between Wayne and Peter, and I don’t mean Peter’s taste in shirts.  Wayne apparently wants to leave the Man U team and has a number of alternative parties ready to welcome him. Leaving is the last thing Peter wants to do and with good reason: awaiting him is not a warm welcome somewhere else, but political oblivion. Maybe that's what his education speech was all about.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

A letter to Peter

LONDON - JUNE 06:  Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson talks to reporters as he 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)

Dear Peter,

So you think Catholic schools are ‘cultural apartheid’ and that they are what’s keeping this a divided society. How absurd, you say, if we were to talk about Catholic and Protestant universities: no one would tolerate the idea for a moment, and yet we have separate schools at primary and secondary level. Catholic schools may be a benign form of apartheid, you tell us,  but they’re apartheid just the same. In fact the morality of their existence is questionable and it’s time the government stopped funding them. “As a society and administration we are not mere onlookers of this; we are participants and continue to fund schools on this basis. And then we are surprised that we continue to have a divided society”.

Well said, Peter. Like yourself I’m against anything that fosters division between Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter. Like you I’m against funding organizations that promote sectarian division and whose morality is dubious.  Supposing, for the sake of argument, there was an organization that permitted only Protestants to join it – that’d be pretty reprehensible, I’m sure you’d agree.  An organization that would expel any of its members if it found they had married a Catholic. An organization whose members every year, for months on end, would parade the streets and roads of this part of Ireland, with banners and tunes and speeches glorifying the memory of the day when the forces of Protestant King William defeated those of Catholic King James.  If such an organization existed – and thank God it doesn’t – I know you, Peter, would lead the charge against them and would insist that not a penny of public funds go their way.

But let’s stick to the schools.  You’re right, Catholic schools do indeed recruit Catholic children; but if you check you’ll find that they’re equally available to any Protestant children who might wish to attend. (The same as far as I know applies to Protestant schools, although Protestant parents are much slower to have their children attend a Catholic school than vice versa). The thing is, Peter,  I spent most of my day-job working life going in and out of both Catholic and Protestant schools, sitting in their classrooms, their staff-rooms, talking to and listening to staff members and pupils alike. And do you know what? Never once in thirty years did I hear a teacher utter a word that might have been interpreted as sectarian or encouraging of divisiveness.  In fact the contrary.  So if children are absorbing sectarianism and a contempt for those of a different religion, they must be getting it somewhere else than in their schools.

But maybe you think the very fact of having separate schools means that sectarianism flourishes? You may have a point. But mightn’t it be better to mend  some other things first – like the fact that the great majority of people here prefer to live among their own sort?  It’s not just the great unwashed working class either. Look what happened in leafy south Belfast when the new Catholic middle class started moving in: mass migration of Protestants to the safety of North Down.  So maybe a heave against segregated communities rather than where they went to school. (By the way, where do you live, Peter? Many tai – I mean Catholics around?)   And  then there’s the history of employment here – from the shipyards to the nice man who took Martin McGuinness’s name, the first job he applied for, and showed him the door the minute Martin said what school he’d been at.

So yes, maith thú, Peter,  I think you’ve shown great leadership in this. But I’d hate to think you were tilting at sectarian windmills when there were real, in-your-face sectarian organizations and social patterns stopping the integration traffic on every side.  In a way, though, I’m not that surprised.  Because you are where you are because you do stand on the shoulders of a giant, don’t you? That colourful clerical man who, for so many decades, in his speeches and actions, did all he could to stamp out division and bitterness, and bring us all together.  Or to change the metaphor, the acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Gach beannacht


Friday, 15 October 2010

Sinn Féin's proposals and politics as science

  ST. ANDREWS, UNITED KINGDOM - OCTOBER 11:  Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein president (L-R), Mary Lou MacDonald, south of Ireland MEP and Martin McGuinness, chief negotiator arrive 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)
“Bold ideas, unjustified anticipations and speculative thought are our only means for interpreting nature” – that’s what Karl Popper, one of the great philosophers of science, believed. It was the job of scientists to have the courage to seek out new explanations and weigh the evidence that followed.

So is politics an art or a science? If you were to watch Bill Clinton  work a room, you’d probably say it was an art, and of course Peter Mandelson (RIP) was famous for his work in the ‘dark arts’ of politics. On the other hand politics clearly has  science characteristics as well.  Political parties continually offer what they claim are new and better ways for organising society, the results are monitored and an evaluation, honest or crooked, reached. Then the cycle begins again. 

Had Popper seen Sinn Féin’s ideas announced yesterday for raising and saving money, he almost certainly would have approved. The ideas are bold, the anticipated outcomes can’t be proved in advance and what the party is offering is the result, in Martin McGuinness’s words, of  "applied imagination"  – what Popper would have called "speculative thought".
What Sinn Féin are putting forward – taxing phone masts and plastic bags, cutting MLA pay, allowing the Housing Executive to borrow against its assets – is minor and modest, set against the financial cliff this society has to scale. But they’ve had the guts to come up with proposals to set against the  Conservative benefits butchery, and that’s a start.

Popper believed that the true scientist was the one who wasn’t afraid to put forward ideas and have those ideas disproved.  “Those among us who are unwilling to expose their ideas to the hazard of refutation do not take part in the scientific game”.  Gerry Adams says that his party is not being dogmatic and is prepared to look at ideas put forward by other parties.

Good. Now what’s required is an open, thoughtful analysis of the Sinn Féin proposals and, if they’re available, better alternatives set alongside them. The Shinners have had the imagination to come up with fresh ideas and the courage to “expose their ideas to the hazard of refutation”.  If the other parties see themselves as genuine practitioners of political science, they'll surely do likewise.

Come on, Peter, Margaret and Tom. We’re waiting.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Note to the Chilean miners: Don't ask questions

Chilean President Sebastian Pinera sings the national anthem with the last miner to be rescued, Luis Urzua, credited with organizing the miners to ration food and save themselves, at the end of the operation at the San Jose mine in Copiapo October 13, 2010. All of Chile's 33 trapped miners were rescued from deep underground in a special capsule on Wednesday as an extraordinary two-month survival story many call a miracle triggered wild celebrations.   REUTERS/stringer (CHILE - Tags: DISASTER BUSINESS)

Bet you wish you were a Chilean, eh? All that euphoria, all that punching the air as those men who’ve been trapped underground for sixty-nine days came to the surface like so many Lazaruses. A miracle of engineering, a  miracle of life.

Mind you, it mightn’t all be dazzling sunshine. After you’d finished hugging everyone you could get your arms around, you might ask yourself “If the company had taken proper safety measures, would I have been stuck half a mile below the surface in the first place?”  You might even voice your thought. And even if your friends and relatives urged you to forget the past, to think only of the joyous present, you might find another question coming to the surface of your mind: “Did San Esteban, the mining company, pay my salary while I was trapped down there?”  A hard question, which if voiced might dampen the delight a bit. San Esteban says it can’t afford to pay wages for men who didn’t do any work for weeks on end, even if they were entombed half-a-mile down. In fact the company didn’t even play a part in the men’s rescue.

But if you were one of the general Chilean population, you’d be in great form today, right? You’d be caught up in the national delight, happy to have the eyes of the world see your country’s brilliant engineering feat, see weeks of patient drilling pay off...Well yes. A great achievement in a great country. The Chilean economy has done well over the past couple of decades. It has a minimum wage.  Until recently its growth rate was impressive. In 2003 it ranked third in South America, behind  Argentina and Uruguay.

That’s the good news. Less good is that Chile just about tops the table for the size of its rich-poor gap. While the managers of big corporations collect top salaries by international standards, Chilean workers might be lucky to get $300 a month – that's about £200.  If you’re unskilled, you’d have to settle for the minimum wage -  $160 or £100 a month.  Even policemen, teachers and judges are grossly underpaid. As to education,  your children can get it cheap or even free, but that’s at state-run schools. The private schools cost a packet and are affordable only by the middle and upper classes. If you can’t get a job, you’ll find yourself living in a slum or in pathetic public housing on the edge of a city, where you won’t offend the sight of the better-off.

But hey – don’t complain and be glad you’re alive. You could get identified as a trouble-maker or worse still, a Marxist, and you know what happened to Chile’s most famous Marxist, Salvador Allende.  He was elected president in 1970,  the Americans didn’t like the cut of his jib, and before you could say ‘US-backed coup’,  the military  had taken over and Allende was found dead. Still want to be a Chilean?

Footnote. I hear on the wind that my dear and highly-intelligent friend Noel Doran, editor of the Venerable Organ, has finally got round to publishing that letter from Fr Joe McVeigh.  It took a couple of weeks to appear because the VO’s letter-putting-in man was away on holidays or sprained his ankle or something like that. I hope Joe is suitably grateful. If he’d been a Chilean miner he’d have been kept in darkness with even less space available for a lot longer. 

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Big stars, blood relatives and one guilty silence

One of the basic errors of logic is to argue from the particular to the general (‘The people getting the dole are a lazy shower – there’s a guy next door to me has turned down two job offers’). So when I see Bono strutting the world pontificating on what the planet needs,  I have to  remind myself that yes,  Bono gets an audience because (i) he is vastly rich; (ii) he fronts a tuneless rock band,  but that doesn’t mean everyone who’s famous for one thing can’t talk sense about another.

For example, Irish politics is littered with ex-sporting stars. Dick Spring might never have got out of Kerry if it hadn’t been for his politically-successful father. Here in the north,  the SDLP did their damnedest to make a political star of former TV presenter Feargal McKinney (whatever became of him, I wonder?). And while it’s hard for Irish people to admit,  the notion of a Kennedy dynasty in politics is another example of people having  an unfair head start in politics.  Ditto Hillary Clinton and Andrew Cuomo: these two Democrat Party stars might have made it without their nearest and/or dearest being big-name politicians but the relationship certainly did them no harm.

However, there's such a thing as being too rigorous. Billy Connolly was once accused of being a snob because he went shooting ‘n’ fishing with Prince Charles.  Connolly’s reply was that he believed in equality and that Prince Charles shouldn’t be excluded from his [Connolly's] company, just because he was the heir to the throne.  So maybe I should pay more attention to what people say and do, rather than what ladder or leg-up they’ve used to get on the political stage. Cork sports star Donal Óg Cusack has been mooted as a possible candidate for Sinn Féin at the next election. In a recent speech he urged the need for people to think and debate about the kind of society they want  - what economic system, what sort of health service, sports facilities,  Church. That makes good strong sense, especially if actions follow analysis.  But since Cusack was speaking at  the An Phoblacht Autumn School in Co Cork and appeared alongside Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald,  shouldn’t he have included national unity as an area for reflection and debate?  Much has been made of Cusack’s recent coming-out: he’s the only openly-gay  player of Gaelic games. It’d be truly shaming if a desire to end partition became the love that dare not speak its name.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

No space to right wrongs

My old friend Fr Joe McVeigh has been slagged off in the Letters section of the Venerable Organ.  You see, he made a speech recently condemning dissident republican attacks. Shortly afterwards a letter condemning Joe and all his fellow-travellers to republican hell  appeared in the VO;  Joe in his innocence wrote a rebuttal, assuming the VO would allow  him equal space to defend himself. Hah. And ha-hearty-ha. No chance. When he rang up and asked why, he got  vague mutterings about pressure on space.  Pro Fide et Patria  - isn’t that the VO’s motto? For faith and country, but not for Joe.

I expect the VO gave much more space thirty years ago to the charges of torture in the north.  This morning their front-page is given over to the subject of hospital beds, leaving it to The Guardian in England to deliver a two-page spread confirming the abuse and torture of detainees here in the late 1970s. “Both IRA suspects and loyalists  were beaten, burned with cigarettes or lighters, forced to assume stressful positions for long periods, stripped and humiliated, and sometimes threatened with murder. Some suffered such severe injuries that they were taken to hospital”.  And lots, lots more in a similar vein.

Now, the problem wasn’t a scarcity of people complaining  about such mistreatment  at the time (although some detainees did refuse to complain to doctors, having been threatened with worse by the forces of law and order if they did). The problem was getting credence from the wider public through the media. So I wonder - how did The Guardian  back then respond? Did they cover it? Did they write outraged editorials?  And what about the VO,  the champions of faith and country  – they surely stood up for those who were systematically abused back then, had false confessions beaten out of them before conviction in front of a Diplock court. Didn’t they?  I must ask Joe McVeigh does he remember if pressure on space allowed them to do that back then. 

Monday, 11 October 2010

Lead, kindly politician...

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 20:  Schools Secretary Ed Balls and his wife, Yvette Cooper, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, arrive in Downing Street for the weekly Cabinet meeting on October 20, 2009 in London, England. The Cabinet is expected to discuss the forthcoming appearance of BNP leader Nick Griffin's appearance on the BBC political programme 'Question Time' on Thursday alongside Justice Secretary Jack Straw.  (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)
I was on my way back from Culdaff, Co Donegal yesterday when I heard a BBC Radio 4 profile of Yvette Cooper. She’s the wife of the unfortunately-named Ed Balls and by all accounts she’s sharper than several whips. She’s now Britain’s shadow Foreign Secretary, and the only thing that held her back from running for the leadership of the Labour Party was that hubby Ed was alreadyrunning and she’s got three young children. (So has hubby Ed, of course – the same three children - ach sin sceal eile).

As I listened, I found myself thinking about leadership. For example, anyone who gets appointed to a cabinet post – Minister of Education, Minister of Finance, Minister of Regional -  is deemed to be suited to that post, capable of leading. When Martin McGuinness became Minister of Education,  I remember a secretary in the University of Ulster telling me with some force that she had as much or more right to be Education Minister than Martin McGuinness, since she had more qualifications than he had.  Similarly, when the SDLP’s Sean Farren became Minister of Finance, I  sucked in my breath and bit my tongue. Sean had  been for many years a colleague of mine in the University, where he’d taught – no, not economics or finance -  English. When I asked him how tough it was, in there with all the money,  and him a literary rather than an economics man, he told me it was OK. “You’ve got lots of other people in there to guide you”.

Martin McGuinness did a good job at the Department of Education, taking the Eleven Plus by the throat and bringing it to its knees, something funked by predecessors for decades. Sean Farren did OK in the Finance post  - at least he wasn’t in charge when the financial meltdown we’re all now living through  occurred. So what do you need to lead?

Well, you don’t need to be an expert in the area. If that were the case, Martin and Sean would never have been appointed and Cabinet reshuffles would be the height of absurdity.  You need courage and intelligence and judgement, and the ability to hold your nerve in tough times. If you’re going to be a truly useful leader, you need to have a vision of where you’d like to take things and some practical thoughts on how to get there.  And there are people who, looking inept when appointed, look great when they get their feet; and, of course, vice versa. Remember how excited so many Americans were with Barack Obama when he was first appointed President two years ago, and note how many are contemptuous of him now.

All this, mind you, ignores the Peter Principle. You know about the PP: people get promoted to their level of incompetence. If you were really good at your present job, you’d be moved to something higher. The fact that you’re staying put means you’ve reached the point where you’re not very good at what you do.

An example?  Poor Tom Elliott, freshly-anointed leader of the UUP. With every word he speaks, he shows he’s out of his depth and insensitive to public opinion.  But then that applies as well to the party he’s failing to lead.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Oh please - say I'm normal

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 16: The development of the portrait of Her Majesty The Queen Elizabeth II on Bank of England banknotes is seen in the Bank of England Museum on March 16, 2010 in London, England. A one pound note (top) issued on March 17, 1960, was the first banknote to carry a portrait of the Queen. The image of Her Majesty has been updated (from top to bottom) in 1960, 1963, 1970, 1971 and 1990. The Bank of England Museum is opening a new exhibition tracing the development of the portrait of the Queen on Bank of England notes. The display features five different portraits of the Queen since 1960 alongside their preliminary sketches and printing plates. (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

Is this a normal society? Will it ever be a normal society? Signs aren’t promising.  Peter Robinson is back at his favourite motif of complaining about the number of government departments and how expensive they are. He has a point; unfortunately it’s the same point that Gregory Campbell had about the cost of the Saville Inquiry.  Yes the cost is exorbitant in both cases but why did the Inquiry and why do the many departments exist in the first place? Because of the stupid and cruel way in which this artificial state was run. The roots of the cost of Saville run into the barrels of the Para guns which killed  so many on Bloody Sunday. The roots of the many  government departments twist down into the decades of discrimination and gerrymander.  There’s not much point in complaining about the expense you’re being put to, getting the carpet and walls cleaned, if you're the one responsible for the slaughter that stained them in the first place. None of that makes the bloated administration at Stormont any easier to put up with; but maybe that’s the price you have to pay for a statelet that wobbles on only because it’s propped up by an annual £8 billion hand-out from Britain. 

A normal society? Sure we are. Just like the Lock-keeper's Inn on the Lagan towpath is a normal café. 

Thursday, 7 October 2010

The News Letter gets a half-nelson on Logic

I’m glad I was smuggled into Bill Clinton’s talk at Magee College last week because if I hadn’t been, I’d have missed hearing him say that he thought every young person coming out of school or college should have a sound grasp of the economic system under which s/he lives, and know how it operates at local, national and international level.  When you see how the bankers and the governments have screwed up the entire economic system, you think it mightn’t be a bad idea. On the other hand, presumably the people who did the screwing up were educated in economics. Hardly an advertisement for pushing the rest of us into the same system.

Personally, if we’re talking about adding to the school curriculum,  I’d have one subject  ahead of economics,  and that’s logic.  Not that it’d solve our problems but it would help  spot and defuse some piercing voices, and maybe protect ourselves.

Take yesterday’s News Letter.  It whipped itself into a froth-mouthed frenzy about the research findings of Professor Jon Tonge.  The prof asked people whether they had sympathy for the reasons why some republican groups like the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA continue to use violence. He found that 14% of nationalists said they did.  You got that? They said they had sympathy for the reasons  some republican dissidents use violence.  In the next paragraph, the News Letter goes all moral and expresses concern over ‘the support for the dissidents’. 

The same sort of contortionist logic was popular when John Taylor was stalking the land. Taylor warned unionists that when they met their Catholics  neighbours, they should keep in mind that one in  three supported the IRA.  How did he know? Because at that time, something like one in three Catholics voted for Sinn Féin.

It’s hard to know whether a brotherly arm around the shoulders or a firm pair of thumbs on the windpipe would be the best response to such eejits. There is a difference between being sympathetic to the reasons for republican dissident violence and approving of that violence. Honest. The reasons are that dissidents long for a united Ireland and don’t believe one is on the horizon or anywhere near it.  Lots of people completely opposed to violence would sympathise with that reading of the situation.  I’ve some sympathy with it myself.  But only a logical contortionist would equate such sympathy with support for killing or injuring people.  Likewise with the good Lord Taylor or whatever he calls himself now. Lots of people voted for Sinn Féin – and still do – but to deduce from that that those people supported or support the IRA is to reduce your logical skills to the level of a half-pissed parakeet.

But hey, why bother with logic when you can hype up the never-trust-a-Fenian quotient in the knuckle-dragging community.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Who's that knocking on the door?

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 05: Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness (C) sits with Ulster Unionist Sir Reg Empey (L) and SDLP party member Alex Attwood at a fringe meeting at the Conservative Party Conference on October 5, 2010 in Birmingham, England. On the third day of the conference speakers are set to debate public services, crime and justice and poverty. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

Did you see where the Tories invited an ex-IRA man to talk at their annual party conference?  The VO has  a photograph of him this morning and you’ll probably recognise him, since  besides being a former IRA man, he’s also Deputy First Minister of this state.  The VO, naturally emphasises that he was once in the IRA.

Should Martin McGuinness have been invited? Well that’s a matter for the Tories. Norman Tebbit, who along with his wife was caught up in the IRA bomb at the Brighton Tory Party conference in 1984, thinks not. The majority of the Tory Party, presumably, think it was right to invite him, and even in the Tory Party, the majority usually have the final say.

Why was he invited? Ah – a much more interesting question. Difficult to put into words but probably as a visible sign that this Tory government isn’t, if at all possible, going to set itself on a collision course with the Irish nationalists of the north. It’s saying ‘I know there was a time when we’d have cheerfully killed this man but that time is past. We accept him as a politician and welcome his contribution to healing old wounds’.  And of course  the desire to be nice to Irish republicans like McGuinness is sharpened by the fact that dissident republicans are looking more and more successful in their attacks on targets of different kinds. There’s no one speaks with greater firmness and self-confidence after such attacks than Martin McGuinness.

Changed times? You betcha. Twenty-one years ago, in 1989, the VO used an editorial column to explain right and wrong to its readers:

‘To admit Gerry Adams and colleagues to the public halls of civilized democratic debate is increasingly and properly perceived as deeply offensive and repugnant to Christian and humanitarian standards’.

 Reads a bit like a press release from a Tory Party conference back then, doesn't it? 

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Road-works barriers - shock horror!

Is the VO having another fit of the vapours ? “CHAOS” is its big, big front-page headline this morning, with underneath a big photograph of people milling around street barriers. At first I assumed this was a picture of that bomb in Derry last night, but then I looked closer and it was Belfast city centre. No bomb. Just people going about their shopping, threading their way through a few road-work barriers. Nothing pass-remarkable, really. 

But  inside, the VO  was getting itself in a fine lather: ‘Look at the state of this place’ it yelled,  sounding a bit like my mother when she’d come home to find we’d been making toffee and had spilled half of it over the kitchen floor. Underneath the big headline were  half-a-dozen pictures of, yup, people strolling around Donegall Place, doing their shopping. Plenty of space for everyone, you’d think. Ah no. The VO says this work was supposed to have been completed last month and now it’s going to take another six months! Strewth. It quotes the former Alliance mayor Tom Ekin, who says this’ll make a laughing stock of the city. You got that?  A member of the Alliance Party is talking about a laughing stock and not pointing at his own chest. Stop, you’re killing me, Tom.

Maybe it’s a virus or something. Gay Byrne used to go similarly mental on RTE from time to time. His voice would get increasingly irritable and he’d sigh and click his tongue as he got deeper and deeper into denouncing people who dropped litter or chewing gum on pavements, or who didn’t take the kind of pride in their appearance that he did. Mind you Gaybo had a point, if you ignored the fact that on the list of public concerns his concerns ranked about 487th. It reminds me of the teacher in a New York ghetto, who was interrogating his primary school class. “Leroy, tell me please: how many legs has the Venezuelan widow spider?” Leroy looked at him  with big sad eyes, shook his head and murmured ‘Maaaan, I wish I had your problems!’

But hey. Maybe the Irish News  has a problem it doesn’t want to tell us about. That'd explain the grocer's apostrophe on page 6, wouldn't it? 

Monday, 4 October 2010

School inspectors or suicide bombers: take your pick

Is there a species on the planet, with the possible exception of suicide bombers, less loved than school inspectors? It’s one thing to read about them in Irish short stories, where the schoolmaster likes a nip of whiskey and the kindly inspector turns a blind eye; it’s another to encounter them in their suppurating flesh. My working life involved weekly contact with teachers. Never once did I hear a member of the profession say ‘That visit by the inspectors really helped me’.  That’s because inspectors don’t offer help – just judgement. They point to deficiencies in the way the school is run or in the performance of a teacher or in the cohesion of a school department. But don’t look for advice from them on how to do better:  they won’t give it. Not allowed, they’ll tell you.

And while I’ve never met a teacher who was helped by an inspector, I’ve met quite a few who spoke with quavering voices of the stress the inspectors’ visit put on her/him.  Some I know became ill and missed months of school as a result. In short, if you’d like to inflict damage on your local school and the teachers who work there, arrange a visit from a Department of Education team of inspectors.

Or that may not be necessary,  if we’re to believe latest reports. If  they have their way, school inspectors will soon be turning up at schools unannounced. Knock knock, who’s there, it’s the inspectors!  The reason they’re opting for  unannounced visits is, they say, is that giving several weeks’ notice  can be too stressful for teachers.

Ha ha and ha-ha-ha-ha.  How very droll. This isn’t by any stretch of the imagination about avoiding stress – it’s about laying it on.  You know how we’re always being warned the Real IRA or Al Quaida or someone of that nature is about to launch another offensive and to beware? The inspectorate may not bring  primed explosives with them but the principle is the same: keep the population in a state of constant fear and anxiety. That way, they’ll be too busy fretting to have time to wonder if the whole stupid system of inspection shouldn’t be abolished.

 And one last point: please, do us a favour.  Don’t blame Caitriona Ruane for this anti-learning system. The inspectorate teams who suck the oxygen from learning were up and sucking years before Caitriona arrived on the scene. What’s more, until  teachers and the public stand up to them and yell ‘Enough already!’ they’ll go on doing so long after she’s gone.  

Sunday, 3 October 2010

All men are moral, but some are more moral than others...

WASHINGTON - MAY 21: Former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney speaks at the American Enterprise Institute on May 21, 2009 in Washington, DC. Cheney spoke about U.S. policies toward terrorism.  (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
I see my dear old friend Ed Moloney has been writing about when it makes sense to negotiate with terrorists.  Ed and I, as they say, go back a long way  - back to the days when Anthony McIntyre was a republican critic to be reckoned with. That is to say, he was critical of republicans other than himself and a few mates because he didn’t think they – all the other republicans – were republican enough.  I wrote a piece about Anthony in the late lamented Daily Ireland and almost immediately got an emotional and tired email from Ed on the other side of the Atlantic, telling me that if anything were to happen to Mr McIntyre, I’d be responsible.  Cheesh. We then had a kind of verbal war for a while on the pages of DI, which was good fun but irrelevant to this blog.

Right. Ed’s now giving his thoughts to the issue of negotiating with terrorists and is waving the flag for Mitchell Reiss,  over whom Ed is weak with admiration.  You see, Reiss figures that the time to negotiate with terrorists is when you know and they know that they’re not going to win, before that there’s no point. All of which is relevant to the agonising now going on in the US as to whether they should negotiate with the Taliban. Do they see the futility of their cause, do they have a single leader (like Gerry Adams) with whom negotiations can take place?  Dick Cheney didn’t go in for any such softy stuff.  The US, he has declared, doesn’t negotiate with ‘evil’.  The US defeats  evil.

Sometimes when you read about  the American right-wing, you figure you must have fallen down a rabbit-hole and are now in  an Alice-in-Wonderland situation where things are their opposite.  Post-war US foreign policy has been what looks very like a series of disasters – Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia,  Iraq, Afghanistan -  which have left millions dead and nothing really changed.  Yet  the cry still goes up: It’s Good vs Evil, Us vs Them. We got the same here for years from the DUP – until, that is, Big Ian realised it was McGuinness or worse, and hopped into shared-power. Before that  republicans were so evil and the DUP so good, a single studio couldn’t contain them because that would have been to mingle darkness and light.

Maybe the American right could make a start by doing some thinking about the word ‘terrorist’  (and the DUP, come to that).  A couple of hundred thousand civilians dead in Hiroshima and Nagasaki – who was terrorising who there?  Fifty thousand Americans dead in Vietnam,  some two million Vietnamese – who was terrorising who there?  That shock-and-awe assault on Baghdad -  who was terrorising who there?

Until the Americans can face the facts about their role as well as image in the world,  the political moral debate is going nowhere. Not even with my good chum Ed out and pushing.