Tuesday, 30 November 2010
Rheumatoid arthritis is not a funny thing to have - three of my sisters suffer from it, and suffer is the word - so I'm slow to turn negative towards Dermot Ahern of Fianna Fail, who says he's not running in the coming general election in the south, because he's suffering from it. Rheumatoid arthritis, that is. His announcement carries a difficulty, though: his last public utterance didn't exactly built up a head-wind of trust. You remember his last public utterance, don't you? Q from reporter: 'Is the IMF here getting ready for a bail-out?' A from Dermot: 'No, they're not. Such reports are fiction.' So while it's not exactly the boy who cried wolf (as far as we know, all Dermot's other public utterances over his 24-year political career were totally truthful), it's tempting to think that he might be being a little economical with the truth when he says he's quitting for health reasons. And that he told the Taoiseach he was quitting over a year ago. And that he thought of standing when he heard Gerry Adams was going to run. And that practically everyone in Louth that he meets is ABA - Anyone But Adams.
Whatever the reason and whatever the truth about his medical condition, he's definitely quitting the stage, so the decent thing to do is to wish him well. And the next thing to do is ask 'What effect will his departure have?' Well, it could go one of two ways. Either his replacement by a less-well-known FFer will mean fewer FF votes in the general election or his replacement will mean more FF votes in the general election. It'll be fewer votes if the voting public are disappointed to see Ahern go; it'll be more if the voting public have decided to go ABA - Anyone But Ahern.
Time, as the BBC reporters like to say, will tell.
The VO is going a bit mad these days. And before you say ‘Nothing new there, then’, this is mad with a financial twist. Fresh from giving out stink about the cost of B and B for big-shots in the public service, today the Organ is focusing on the pay of top managers in the health service. It seems sixteen of them are paid over £100,000 – “almost three times as many as in the PSNI, where officers operate under death threat from dissident republicans”.
Apart from the confused syntax ( are they saying that the manager’s job is tougher in the PSNI because the cops on the beat may be under threat?), the VO takes as a given what is in fact totally not-given: that some jobs deserve higher pay than others. That’s not to say that some jobs aren’t paid more than others; they obviously are. What we’re talking about is, do they deserve it?
To answer that you’d need to know what you’re measuring when you say, for example, that a newspaper editor is worth more than a sanitary worker. The usual answer to that is ‘The editor is more intelligent than the sanitary worker’, or sometimes ‘It takes longer to become an editor than it does to become a sanitary worker’.
The first of these is a non-starter. There are things called intelligence tests, but since they measure only a small area of mental ability and even then they’re unreliable as predictors of future performance, they’re not worth the paper they’re written on. So since we can’t measure the difference in intelligence between the editor and the toilet cleaner, intelligence can’t be offered as a reason why the editor should get paid more.
The second – that it takes longer to become an editor – is generally true, although that might say more about the slow-learner quality of editors rather than the level of talent called for by the job. But even we say that editors are as quick on the uptake as toilet cleaners, does length of training mean you should be paid more? It takes approximately the same time to become a teacher as it does to become a doctor, but the doctor can look forward to a salary that’s over twice that of the teacher. So length of training can’t be the yardstick either.
What about saying we pay according to the value of a person’s work to society? (Let’s move away from editors, shall we? We’re talking about value to society.) A brain surgeon, you might say, is of more value to society than a toilet cleaner, and therefore deserving of his/her bigger pay packet. But answer me this: how many people have a brain operation every day? And how many use a toilet every day? If we’re going for the greatest happiness of the greatest number, the toilet cleaner wins hands down.
The truth is, it’s impossible to arrive at clear, unequivocal, agreed criteria for judging the worth of a job, and what someone should be paid for doing it. And since that’s impossible, the only just course of action is to pay everyone the same. ‘Nobody’s going to agree to that!’ comes the chorus. Not from the people generally. Just from the people who take home a fatter pay-packet, who know they can’t defend getting it and are terrified that someday, somehow, they’ll be found out.
Monday, 29 November 2010
It’s a laugh, a good, belly-clutching laugh, because most of the time most of the people we elect as our representantives live in a different world. Even people as admired as Mary McAleese do things you or I wouldn’t do in a thousand years ( Mary caught a government jet from Dublin to Belfast the other week, with a government car to deliver her at one end and collect her at the other). So when they get caught saying one thing in public and something a lot less discreet in private, it’s schadenfreude time.
It’d be even more fun if we could forget that our reaction is totally unfair. It’s certainly a pleasure to see the world of the big-wigs sweating over the reaction to their indiscretions. But if your house had been bugged over the past six months, would you be happy for the tape to be played to your friends and neighbours? Different contexts prompt different kinds of language; we smile and wish someone a good morning, but that doesn’t prevent us mocking them to our spouse later in the day. And that’s OK. If we were all honest all the time, we’d drive each other mad and make the world unworkable. What was that old saying about our friends? Ah yes: if we knew what our friends really thought of us, we’d cut our throat.
Besides, we knew all along what was going on at the highest levels of politics, didn’t we? Of course US diplomats are busy collecting information on those they come in contact with. All diplomats do. Of course the London embassy was happy to supply information about the relationship between William Hague and Alan Duncan, who is gay and who shared a London flat with Hague at one time. Governments aren’t at all squeamish in their pursuit of information that could be of use to them, and like most of us they’re a lot less polite about friends and foes when they’re behind doors. Anybody with a smattering of common sense would know that.
Mind you, it’s still great fun catching the great and not-so-good with their pants down. More, please.
Saturday, 27 November 2010
What to make of it? Well if you’re the Irish Independent, you’ll get a big fat headline ‘History is littered with winners who lose out next time round’. I’m tempted to email the political editor who wrote the piece and ask him if he’s interested in a bet on Doherty retaining the seat, but I’m busy anticipating collecting some big money from Eoghan Harris, who has £1,000 riding on his belief that Fianna Fail will take not just Doherty’s seat but ALL the Sinn Fein seats. (No seriously – I have 500 witnesses to that)…Where were we? Oh yes. The Indo warns he’ll perhaps lose it inside weeks, Fianna Fail’s Mary Coughlan blames the Greens for the loss (go figger), Fine Gael says ach sure, nobody takes the by-election seriously with a general election looming, and Labour …Oh dear, poor Labour. For reasons best known to themselves, they opted to run Frank McBrearty. Now it’s true Frank McBrearty is a man who’s been grievously wronged by the gardai, but anyone who thinks he has the stuff that makes a political representative needs his head examined…What’s that? I’m speaking of Eamon Gilmore, the hammer of Fianna Fail, the man with the answer to our economic woes, the most popular party leader in Ireland? Do you know, I suppose I am.
The big question is, did we see in Donegal South-West a miniature of the coming general election? In this I’m in agreement with Fianna Fail’s Eamon O Cuiv. Probably tingling from the references to the fact that Sinn Fein last won a by-election in 1925 when his grandfather Eamon de Valera was in charge of Sinn Fein, O Cuiv says Donegal is not the model, otherwise the results would be like 1918 for Sinn Fein. Well no, Eamon. For a start 1918 included the north, didn’t it? And like every other major party in the south, you’re desperate to forget the north exists. But you’re right that Sinn Fein won't gain as many seats in a few weeks' time as they did in 1918. The question is, will they gain any seats? And if so, how many?
Nobody knows. Not Eamon O Cuiv, not Mary Coughlan, not Gerry Adams. But we do know one thing after Donegal. Anyone who thinks disgust with Fianna Fail will send Fine Gael and Labour sailing smoothly up on the other side of the see-saw is in for a major political kick in the teeth.
Thursday, 25 November 2010
It’s a long way from Bill Clinton to Brian Cowen. Clinton is revered by most people in the US as the man under whose watch they enjoyed eight years of unrivalled prosperity, Cowen is detested as the man under whose watch the twenty-six counties plunged into an economic pit. Clinton was famed for his ability to ‘feel the pain’ of others; Cowen is denounced as a man out of touch with the concerns of ordinary people. At the end of his time in office, Clinton could have sailed into a third term had the law allowed it; at the end of his term in office, Cowen will be lucky to escape lynching.
And yet there is a link. A couple of months ago I attended a talk by Clinton at the Magee Campus of the University of Ulster. A central point in his talk was that all students emerging from high school should have a firm understanding of basic economics – how the economic system is organised at a local, national and international level. As the waves of rage have swept the twenty-six counties these past few days, the former president’s words have sounded more and more convincing.
Over ninety per cent of the population are like myself: they haven’t a clue about economics. They’ve never studied it, they don’t understand it. Listen to the politicians and pundits talking. They contradict each other, they contradict themselves, they don’t seem to understand the problem and they certainly haven’t got a convincing answer to it.
So when people lambast Cowen, they might want to ask themselves if the problem is less of his making and more that of a very old, external force: international capitalism? Irish banks can’t get money except at exorbitatant rates. What’s more, the people who won’t give them the money are they’re now intent on doing likewise to Portugal, Spain and any other victims they can put up against the wall. As a result, tens of thousands of people are losing their jobs and their homes, social benefits are being slashed along with wages - misery is being doled out in generous helpings. Granted, Cowen’s austerity package has targeted those with least and let those with most off lightly. But that’s the detail. The pig picture is of international money-lenders overwhelmng national governments. It’s capitalism versus democracy, and capitalism seems to be winning by a continental kilometre.
So let’s not heap all the blame on Brian Cowen. Against forces like that, Bill Clinton himself would have been impotent. Granted, I say all this as an economic illiterate. But isn’t that what they called Gerry Adams a couple of years ago, when he said the boom times were favouring the big boys, penalising the poor, and that reorganisation was needed?
Tuesday, 23 November 2010
Rage – that’s the word of the moment in the south. The people of the twenty-six counties are consumed with rage that their government has screwed up so spectacularly and that it’s costing them, the people, so dear. The Irish cock-up that’s rocking all of Europe has three layers: the gobshites, the incompetents and the victims. The gobshites are the bankers who lied, overstretched and helped themselves to bloated bonuses. The incompetents are the government who mishandled the accounts, allowed the bankers and property developers to roar ahead full steam and led the state into a quagmire. The victims are the people.
A morally-appealing analysis but it doesn’t stand scrutiny. The bankers are of course gobshites – that’s in the nature of banks. But the banks didn’t put a gun to the head of the public, whether ordinary Sean Citizen or big-bucks Donal Developer, when it lent more than it had to lend. It was consenting adults who did the business, a joint misadventure. As for the government - a shower indeed. But remind me who was it voted them into office? And were they forced to make the choices they did? People get the kind of government they vote for, and people share the blame for government mismanagement.
The thing is, of course, to learn from your mistakes. Do better next time. And suddenly, stunningly, next time is now, or at least next month. The general election which was just over the horizon has suddenly come roaring up, its hot breath sending the government coalition reeling back in a paroxysm of finger-pointing: it was all Fianna Fail’s fault, it was all Brian Cowen’s fault, it was all the Greens’ fault. So come January, the Irish people living south of the border will be given a clean slate and have a chance to draw a new government picture.
What will it contain? Not Fianna Fail for a start. There’s unanimous agreement on that, including within Fianna Fail. The general thinking is that Fine Gael and Labour will benefit. Hooray! …Although, um, Enda Kenny as Taoiseach…He wouldn’t be Brian Cowen, which for a lot of people would be a definite plus; on the other hand he would be Enda Kenny, which for a lot more people would be a definite minus. As for Labour: the defender of the working man and woman, the party that sees through the sham that is government plans, the party that has its own clear and better alternative, which is to…What? Well, they’ll definitely not do what Fianna Fail did, for one thing, and they’ll…Mmm. Funny thing, I can’t remember just what it was that Labour plan to do. Apart, that is, from getting into government as quickly as possible. But what will they actually DO different? Ummm…
Have you heard about the man who finally, miraculously made it to dry land, staggered up the main street and was hit by a large truck? God preserve us all from the economic brilliance of Eamon Gilmore.
Monday, 22 November 2010
Great headline, isn’t it? Cue Paul Merton and Ian Hislop wisecracks on Have I Got News For You. It’s a headline, however, that’s got little to do with the facts. The Pope’s statement, made in the course of an extended interview that will appear in book form, was a brief comment on the hypothetical case of a male prostitute. Faced with the choice between spreading AIDS and using a condom, such a person might opt for the lesser of two evils – using the condom. Not exactly breakthrough doctrine - the Catholic Church has always subscribed to the notion of acting on the lesser of two evils. Besides, in recent years a number of theologians as well as churchmen like the former Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor, have suggested that condom use in certain situations might be morally acceptable.
So is the Pope’s thinking on this - issued as a personal view, incidentally - the start of a slippery slope? If it is, the vast majority of Catholics in the Western world are already at the bottom of that slope, waiting for the Pope and the official Church to join them. Look at the size of Catholic families in Ireland, England, the US, today compared to, say, 1950s. Of course Catholics are using artificial birth control methods. Teaching has lagged seriously behind overwhelming practice.
And don’t forget – this isn’t new territory. I remember 1966, when a papal commission recommended the relaxation of traditional Catholic teaching on contraception. Two years later raised hopes were extinguished when Pope Paul VI issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae, which maintained the traditional view.
A final and important point. There’s a strong temptation –to which much of the liberal media yield – to present the Pope as a celibate old man talking through his tiara about the unknown world of sex. However, if you look at this latest interview and others, and his writings, you’ll see he grounds his views on the belief that sex should be about more than exchanging bodily fluids. It should be a body and soul encounter, involving the whole person, not just the naughty bits. That’s a commendable view and one that it’d be nice to hear more frequently from those who lay claim to a moral perspective on the world.
Friday, 19 November 2010
There’s a contrary streak in me, I’m afraid. Surrounded by people celebrating, I find myself growing morose and miserable; in the midst of those solemn or crying doom, I feel an urge to start laughing. Wretch that I am, over the course of the last twenty-four hours I found myself grinning and sometimes guffawing out loud. Here are five of my top rib-ticklers.
1. Watching Fianna Fail ministers bust a gut trying to deny that an IMF deal would impinge on Irish sovereignty. Like, if you’re about to go under for the third time and a guy says he’s going to throw you a life-belt but you’ll have to put up with some spartan conditions he’s arranged, once you get to shore – that’s not impinging on your sovereign right to make free choices?
2. Hearing the bleating of twenty-six-county commentators and opposition politicians, as they lamented the massive dent in sovereignty that the IMF coming in would represent, how the sacrifice of 1916 was being betrayed – without a single one of them mentioning the north. Hello – guys? You remember the north. The six northern counties of Ireland, where all major political decisions are controlled from London and where 5,000 heavily-armed British troops make sure things stay that way. No loss of sovereignty there but massive loss of sovereignty in getting the finances straight?
3. Looking at a photograph in today’s Guardian. It shows Ajai Chopra, the deputy director of the European department of the International Monetary Fund, striding along a Dublin street with his underlings. He’s staring straight ahead, which means he can pretend not to see the Dublin beggar who sits with his paper cup extended for a bail-out. Sorry, hand-out.
4. Gasping at Steve Bell’s cartoon in The Guardian. It shows a helpless Brian Cowen strapped to a post, saying ‘ME? Bend over and SPREAD ‘EM? NEVER in a MILLION YEARS!!’ while behind him a dozen European elves carrrying a very stout post come charging towards his exposed bum.
5. Finally and top-fun of all, an SDLP apologist called Owen Polley writes in the VO this morning. He uses his article to explain why Maggie Ritchie wore that poppy and apparently it’s because she’s busy reconciling the SDLP’s ‘aspiration for Irish unity with longstanding acceptance of the principle of consent’. Eh? She is also ‘making a respectful, bridge-building gesture’ while at the same time ‘championing a 32-county republic’. And there’s more. The article is 800 words long and the knock-out hilarity is that the writer doesn’t once use the four-word phrase ‘South Down unionist votes’. If young Polley had any wit, he’d turn from the tight-fisted payroll of the VO and sprint towards the lucrative world of stand-up comedy. He’d be brilliant.
Thursday, 18 November 2010
I was on BBC Radio Ulster’s ‘Talkback’ programme yesterday, talking about children and young people’s books. The truth is, much of what youngsters experience in the classroom teaches them that books are boring, so those writers who encourage youngsters to read – people like Roald Dahl, Sue Townsend, , J K Rowling – must be welcomed. But that wasn’t what we were talking about on Raidió Uladh yesterday. We were talking about adults who read children and young people’s books. Maybe I’m biased. When I was a young man, I once found myself in a group which included a loud young woman who at the time was attending Queen’s University. The subject of favourite books came up and she informed us all that she simply loved reading comics – the Beano, the Dandy, the Hotspur – you name it, she couldn’t get enough of it. Ever since I’ve had a hard time convincing myself that people who say they delight in reading literature written for youngsters are either suffering from arrested development or are look-at-me narcissists who deserve a kick in the arse more than serious attention.
That’s not to say that children’s and young people’s books can’t be good. Some of them are superb. If you haven’t read Maurice Sendak’s books for children you’ve missed a treat; and back in the day, writers like S E Hinton and Judy Blume and Paul Zindel wrote novels that were pacy and hilarious and moving. When I was a parent of young children and a teacher of high school English, I read many of those authors. But I did it because I wanted to locate books my children or pupils might want to read, not because I found it an area of literature that satisfied my adult reading needs.
And that’s the nub of it. There’s no law to stop me wearing teenage clothes or going door-to-door doing trick-or-treat or spending my spare time reading comics. But if I did, you’d rightly decide I was a bit...strange. Maybe even sad. Except, of course, you decided I was simply intent on drawing attention to myself as a highly literate eccentric. In which case you’d have every justification for strapping on your kicking boots.
Wednesday, 17 November 2010
Do the Irish people care about the British royals? The Irish Daily Mail ( agus sin sceal eile) gives the answer today: it’s got an eight-page supplement on the engagement of young William Windsor to young Kate Middleton. Were the appetite not there, the paper wouldn’t waste paper and ink. It is, so they feed it.
The aim in the coming months will be to choreograph this as a fairytale engagement leading to a Cinderella wedding. The spinmeisters have arranged for young Willie to give Kate his mother’s sapphire engagement ring. The train of thought is obvious: everyone in Britain (with the exception of the Windsors) loved the dear departed Di, so giving this ring will remind people that Willie is Di’s son, ergo the public will be weak-kneed with affection for the boy and his bride-to-be. QED and Clever. Like putting a blonde beside the car for sale: emotions aroused by the blonde, it’s hoped, will blind the buyer to the car’s several dents and scratches.
It could work, except that the wear and tear are so obvious. For a start, Willie ‘n’ Kate have been together for ten years now, with a number of bust-ups and on-again-off-agains in between, so it’s not exactly your virgin bride we’re talking here. As for the ring, while it reminds the British people of their much-loved Di, it also reminds them of the fact that she was engaged in a knock-down-drag-out fight with the Windsors and ended up dead. Not the kind of thinking you want to cluster around young Kate.
But it's difficult to avoid thinking along those lines. Remember that bum-clenching interview Charles Windsor had when he got engaged to Di? A reporter asked him if they were in love. Charlie hesitated and I think she answered for both:‘Yes of course". To which Charlie added, looking very sardonic: ‘Whatever love is’’. Hardly hot to trot, was he?
Nobody asked Willie about love yesterday but his body-language was so reminiscent of his father thirty years before, there really wasn’t much need. The future king of England kept looking away from his bride-to-be. She was often several steps behind him. Together, they exuded all the warmth of a middle-aged couple mildly bored and irritated with each other.
But hey – none of that will deter Irish fans from buying into the myth. In his dystopian vision 1984, George Orwell painted a world where black was white, war was peace and truth was lies. The difference is, the 1984 rulers had to work hard to keep people in check. In Ireland today, there’s a sizeable population perfectly willing to check and deceive themselves.
Tuesday, 16 November 2010
I’m not sure why it is – maybe a Presbyterian reluctance to mix darkness and light - but most unionist politicians are poor actors. It showed up again yesterday, when the DUP’s Jonathan Bell was on radio discussing the financial crisis in the twenty-six counties. It was all Jonathan could do to stop himself letting little whoops of delight before and after each statement. It’s been hard for people like Jonathan this past ten years or so - the south’s poverty-stricken, ghastly roads, its pious superstition, was suddenly gone. In its place was this terrifying Celtic Tiger, purring as its road network left the north’s looking decidedly developing world, twitching its whiskers as fortunes were made and foreign workers had to be imported, yawning as Dublin was hailed as the place to go if you wanted a really good time. But now, thanks be to the Protestant God, all that is over and the incompetent bog-hoppers south of the border have made a proper horlicks of everything and are having to be bailed out by Europe. Unionist superiority complex can be resumed.
Mitchel McLaughlin of Sinn Féin was on the same programme as Bell and he tried to point out that the six counties has been a basket case since its inception, surviving only on massive hand-outs year after year from Britain. Jonathan stopped chuckling long enough to tell Mitchel and us that that was because the six counties was a part of the UK and so, naturally, shared in the national wealth.
The truth is, we’re all dependent, north and south. Mitchel is right – the north couldn’t possibly survive if Britain didn’t produce around £6 billion a year to keep the life-support system in place; the south owes its prosperity in part to being a member of the EU, and it’ll owe its survival to being a member. The difference between the two is, of course, that the twenty-six counties are in the EU voluntarily; the north is in the UK at the point of a British soldier’s gun. If you disagree, have you figured out what 5,000 British troops are doing stationed here?
But I don’t really blame Jonathan. I’m sure I’d be tempted to snigger too if I were a unionist politician. What’s more unforgiveable are the pronouncements of southern politicians in recent days. They burble on about ‘Ireland’ and ‘the country’ and ‘the nation’ when they mean the twenty-six counties; and the south’s pundits express their horror at Ireland’s ‘loss of sovereignty’, were the EU/IMF to come in and take charge of the books.
One of two things: either they’ve forgotten that Ireland, the country, the nation has thirty-two counties, not twenty-six, and that British military control and British political control of that part of the country makes any potential intervention in the south by the EU look like gentlest, briefest toe-tread compared to the permanent boot firmly planted on the chest of the north. The political establishment in the south has either forgotten those uncomfortable facts, or they’ve remembered and don’t give a damn about those noisy, forever -complaining nordies.
Sunday, 14 November 2010
In retrospect, it was an obvious move. So obvious that none of the pundits even sniffed it. Sinn Féin allowed several days for them scratch their heads and wonder who might run in Arthur Morgan’s vacated seat, mmm, , maybe some young guy, mmm maybe a dark horse, mmm, you never know with these things. Well now they know. Gerry is running.
And the reason Gerry Adams will stand for election in Louth and give up his seat in Stormont and Westminster is that Sinn Féin are safe in the north. Martin McGuinness’s performance at ‘East Belfast Speaks Out’ last week confirmed that he is not just popular among republicans and nationalists but that a considerable number of unionists have a regard for him that is becoming less sneaking by the day. In part it’s got to do with McGuinness’s trenchant criticism of dissident republican activity; it’s also got to do with the confidence and firmness he projects. He may not be someone who has matters firmly by the throat but that’s how he comes across. A lot of unionists are reassured by that, especially when they glance from him to the grey figure of Peter Robinson. As for the SDLP, their leader Maggie Ritchie’s performance at their annual conference last week confirmed what most people would have thought impossible: she makes Mark Durkan look good. There is only one question mark hanging over the SDLP and that’s at what pace they are moving towards final asphyxiation. For the Shinners in the north, it’s mission accomplished.
The south is another matter. Sinn Féin’s last electoral outing wasn’t disastrous but it was nothing that called for street celebrations. Mary Lou MacDonald is struggling to create the firm electoral base she must have if she’s to become the foremost Sinn Féin figure in the south. With the economic crisis biting to the bone and the established parties clearly clueless about how to turn things around (who are the economic illiterates now?), Sinn Féin should be moving to fill massive electoral gaps –- but they’re not. Gerry Adams hopes his appearance at the polls in the south will act as a catalyst for a Shinner resurgence throughout the state.
Some say the Sinn Féin president is gambling for very high stakes, and so he is. If he doesn’t win Morgan’s seat at the next election it’ll be a body blow to Sinn Féin prospects in the south, already less than rosy. But all politicians gamble, each time they go to the polls. Gerry Adams gambles but always as carefully as possible. He takes chances – you haven’t forgotten he led republicans from war to the Good Friday Agreement, have you? – but the chances he takes are always as minimal as he can make them. So while Morgan gained only the fourth seat in Louth last time out, it’s still a Sinn Féin seat. Had Adams gone after a non-Sinn Féin seat or gone head-to-head with some senior figure in one of the other political parties, tried to break new ground for Sinn Féin, that would have been truly daring. Going for Morgan’s seat is a gamble but one he can expect to win. Which leaves us with the main question underlying the whole exercise: will his presence in the race provide the electrical surge that’s needed if republicanism in the south is to be revitalised and resume its onward march? Six months from now we should have the answer.
Friday, 12 November 2010
If you want some proof that the government in the south is pro-partition, look no further than this morning’s education headlines. Entry into a university in the south is dependent on the number of points you accumulate from your Leaving Certificate or A Level performance. In a classic case of shifting the goalposts, the south has now lowered the number of points awarded for A Level grades: this coming year’s A will be the equivalent of last year’s B. The net effect will be that a lot less students from the north will get a place in institutions like UCD, UCC, UCG and Trinity College.
The defence offered will be that the south must protect its own. You remember how a southern minister ranted against shoppers who crossed the border into Newry as ‘unpatriotic’? It’s the same deal this time round: we can’t be letting those pesky northerners come in and take university places that should be going to our own boys and girls.
Of course, the potential flood of students from the north wouldn’t have been motivated by a desire to broaden horizons. It’s the fact that the south’s universities don’t charge fees while the universities in the north could be hitting people for as much as £9,000 a year - it’s those cold hard cash issues that would have encouraged many’s a northern compass to swivel south.
But that doesn’t excuse what the southern authorities have done. They’ve done the very thing they’ve been wont to accuse the unionist government of doing in the past: discriminating against a portion of the Irish people. No doubt the move will scrape a few extra votes from those in the south who’ve been conditioned to thinking of ‘up there’ as a foreign place and ‘those northerners’ as a foreign race.
The pity of it all is, if there was ever a cross-border body worth developing, it’s education. In the 1960s I was a student at UCD and I’m happy to say it changed my thinking about the south and the north permanently. Had the southern authorities wished, they could have made a major contribution to a sense of Irish identity, to helping develop a mind-set that would dismiss with amusement the sad siege mentality so much a part of the northern make-up.
But hey – failure to move the goalposts would have meant losing the vote of pro-partitionists south of the border. With Fianna Fail heading for a scalping in Donegal South-West, that’s the last thing the southern government is going to do.
Thursday, 11 November 2010
Pearse Doherty was born in Scotland, yet he’s heavy favourite to win the Donegal South-West by-election coming up later this month. William Norton, who died last month, was an outstanding Hollywood screenwriter of Irish parentage. He requested that his ashes be scattered in Ireland. In his book Irish on the Inside, Tom Hayden tells how his family and education in the US told him nothing of his Irish heritage, and how he had to struggle over a number of years to first discover and then recover it.
What is this thing that draws people back to their Irish roots? Whatever it is, not everybody shares it. In his play Philadelphia Here I Come!, Brian Friel has the old Donegal schoolmaster urge his former pupil to not look back when he emigrates to the US, to face the future only and become 100% American. Unionists like to mock Irish-Americans, with their dream of an Ireland closer to something out of Finian’s Rainbow.
So who’s right : those who value their Irish background and work to strengthen those links, or those who choose to shuck off the dead skin of the past and face the future? Certainly there’s a lot of boozy nostalgia associated with Ireland, especially in the US. There are Irish-Americans who wouldn’t dream of returning to the oul’ sod but like to sing and sentimentalize their lives away. On the other hand there are those who feel slightly ashamed of their Irish background, who suspect they’ll not be fully accepted by their new friends and new country until they prove themselves by abandoning the interests, the customs, the religion and even the accent of the place from which they’ve come.
It’s a nice balancing act, to value what your past has given you – to accept with Tennyson’s Ulysses that ‘I am a part of all that I have met’ – and at the same time remain open to the gifts of your adopted country. The easy judgement is to say that some Irish err too much on the side of maudlin mavourneenism. The truer judgement is that more Irish people try to amputate their past and mortally wound themselves without knowing it.
Wednesday, 10 November 2010
Terry Wogan is a very funny man. Sorry, slip of the tongue there, Sir Terry Wogan is a very funny man. He was made an honorary knight in 2005, but they changed the honorary to ‘substantive’ when he became a British subject later that same year. That gave a kind of retrospective validation to Terry’s appearance over the years at the Eurovision Song Contest. You remember – he’d make all those droll remarks about the funny East Europeans, and he’d refer to the British entry as ‘us’ and the Irish entry as the Irish. So the British knighthood and the British subject thing showed which side his loyalties lay with, not to mention which side his bread was buttered on. Mind you he did it all with a twinkle in his begorrah eye and a scamp-of-a-lad Limerick brogue to his voice, so you could say he straddled the Irish Sea.
And it was this same straddling, chuckling British subject that turned up at the Irish Embassy in London last night. To have a yarn with his erstwhile fellow-countrymen? No, no. You see, the heir to the British throne was there with his lawfully-wedded wife Camilla; and while Buckingham Palace hung back and wouldn’t say the hooley at the embassy had anything to do with QE2’s plans over the next twelve months, the good knight had no such inhibitions. ‘I’ve been in Ireland a lot this year doing a documentary for BBC television on Ireland and there is a lot of anticipation. You’ve got to understand that despite 700 years of oppression, starvation and immigration, the Irish still have an enormous affection for the English. This is an historic thing. The queen will undoubtedly get a fantastic reception in Ireland’.
Maybe you think Sir Terry’s presence at the Irish Embassy wasn’t a strong enough signal that QE2 is getting ready to steam towards the southern four-fifths of this island? Well hear this then. ALSO in attendance were Patrick Kielty, Bob Geldof, Eddie Jordan and Val Doonican! So just stop that ‘What about the north?’ muttering this minute. If fine, important, SUCCESSFUL Irishmen like Patrick, Bob, Eddie, Val and Terry are giving the QE2 visit the thumbs-up, your pathetic views have as much chance of survival as a partridge caught in the crosshairs of a Para rifle.
Tuesday, 9 November 2010
Sometimes the Irish people do things that make me want to bite a cushion and hide behind the sofa. Like, when someone speaks with an Oxford accent and is heard with respect, while if the same views were delivered in a Belfast accent they’d be shouted down. Or the way we believe in one of our own when London tells us it’s OK to do so. Terry Wogan, Bob Geldof, Seamus Heaney, Brian Friel: we wait for the Brits to give a thumbs-up, then we start believing. But most buttock-clenching of all is our habit of apeing shop-soiled ideas from British TV. They’ve got ‘East Enders’? Right, we’ll devise a programme called ‘Fair City’. They’ve got ‘X Factor’? Let’s do the same thing but call it ‘You’re A Star’. They’ve got ‘Children In Need’? We’ll have ‘People In Need’.
Last night at Silverbridge GAC, we got a local version of the same sad thing. In a charity event called ‘Strictly My Armagh’, embarrassed-looking Gaelic footballers like Steven McDonnell paired up with high-heeled and leggy camogie players like Michelle Rafferty and twirled around to a packed house. Just a bit of crack? Raising money in a good cause? Yes and Yes. But if we have to make eejits of ourselves for charity (and will people really not stump up if we present ourselves as half-intelligent?) let’s be idiotic in a way that at least is original, rather than a hopelessly slavish steal from what was tacky, Brucie, Saturday-night garbage to start with.
In 1927 at their Annual Conference, the Clare GAA put forward a motion:
"That any member of a Football or Hurling Club in the County Clare promoting or encouraging by his presence thereat, the holding of foreign dances (i.e. Caledonians, Quadrilles, Lancers, Plain Set, Half Set, Waltzes, One Step, Two Step, Fox Trot, Charleston, Black Bottom, and any dances of foreign origin not herein enumerated, shall thereby be automatically suspended from the G.A.A. for a period of six months from the date of the first offence’.
Dear sweet forgiving God. Is it possible the Claremen might have had a point?
Monday, 8 November 2010
When she was a little girl Maggie Ritchie was told by her teacher tthat when she got up to speak she should always, always open her mouth wide-wide-WIDE like a little dickie-bird so everyone could clearly hear her song. The SDLP leader has never forgotten that admonition and so she was at her mouth-opening best at the SDLP annual conference over the weekend. Loud and clear she told the faithful there would be no SDLP merger with a party south of the border, much less with the Shinners north of the border. That was because the SDLP isn’t in favour of being swallowed by anyone. Besides, she said, the SDLP and Sinn Féin were miles apart on cross-community relations, the economy
and Irish reunification
Now I’m embarrassed to say it, but I fell asleep during the bit where Maggie gave one practical, definite way in which the SDLP differs from Sinn Féin on closer ties with unionism, one practical, definite way in which the SDLP differs from Sinn Féin on the economy, and one practical, definite way in which the SDLP differs from Sinn Féin on Irish reunification. Silly silly me.
My nodding off is doubly unfortunate because to be honest, I’m not clear about the Shinner plans either. That party has provided a clear if short-term set of proposals for weathering the economic storm in the north, but what clear, practical steps they have for closer ties with unionism and for moving us towards a reunited Ireland stay misted in uncertainty. So it would have been doubly useful if I could have stayed awake long enough to hear Maggie outline Sinn Féin plans as well as her own party’s. After all, she must know the Shinners’ plans in the first place if she knows that the SDLP plans are markedly different.
And so I find myself vroooming towards next May’s elections and the things that concern me – how can the economy be organised more justly and successfully, how can we make the century-old dream of reunification a practical possibility – remain frustratingly fuzzy. Had I not allowed my eyelids to droop, Maggie would have revealed all. I even heard she explained how she was against double-jobbing but needed at the same time to hold onto her Stormont and Westminster seats...Did you catch that bit or did you nod off too?
Sunday, 7 November 2010
I’ve been test-driving a pair of contact lenses for the last week. The optician has said I can try them for two weeks, after which I’ll have to decide whether to sign up permanently or not.
At first wearing them was ...stunning. I felt like a man reborn, or at least rescued from a life of balancing two ovals of glass on his face. I wasn’t wearing glasses, yet I could run, I could shower, I could read credit card receipts. I began to wonder why the world was full of people wearing contraptions that gouged into their noses, got flecked with rain and fell off every time they tried to tie their shoelace. Didn’t they know their faces too could be liberated, their vision too set free from that hint of framing glass which even the best glasses bring? Such freedom!
Then I began to notice little imperfections. I could see the world OK but the people, the trees, the scenery, were all just that teensy bit less sharp than they’d been when I was wearing glasses. The same applied to driving: I could see into the distance, of course I could, but it had a softer edge. Reading was better, although I noticed I needed a good light source. As for TV – well, there wasn’t a thing happening on that screen that I couldn’t tell you about. At the same time there was this hint of a shadow image. Nothing to speak of but not what you want to see when you’re cheering on your favourite news presenter, Jon Snow, without (hooray for Jon, quite right, Hitler didn’t win the war) his poppy. As for the laptop, I found if I lifted it several inches above the desk and tilted it back on its uppers, I could clearly read every word on its screen.
And I did mention that with contact lenses, you have to get used to putting your index finger into your eye as often as fifteen times each morning and repeat the process each evening? While peering into a magnifying mirror and swearing furiously?
So now, after one week of trial, I’ve been forced to accept that around 80% of my waking hours are spent doing things that require optical assistance. Like them or loath them, glasses do the job better. They don’t make me feel like rejuvenated. They cut into my flesh, they keep getting lost, their lenses get marked and they slide down my nose. But I still suspect I'll have to say goodbye to my seductive little contact lenses and return to my boring old, awkward old, where-in-the good-God-Almighty's-name-did-I-leave-them glasses.
Except I decide to let them at me with a laser beam...
Saturday, 6 November 2010
I did a silly/stupid thing yesterday. I saw a load of Facebook birthday greetings to my son’s girl-friend and I added my own, noting that I’d managed to get it in with less than three hours to spare before her birthday ended. Picture my consternation when she tactfully informed me her birthday had actually been the PREVIOUS day.Grrr, Doh and damn it to Hades.
Only then I began thinking about this habit of extending wishes to people. “Have a good day!’ the Yanks say; ‘Good luck!’ we tell people as we leave them; “Happy Birthday/Christmas/Easter/Halloween/Wedding Day’ - we shower others with our good wishes. ‘How commendable’ you may say. Indeed. Except it doesn’t make sense.
My wishing people a good day will have no effect on how that day works out for them, any more than my wishing Happy Birthday to my son’s girl-friend, even had I been on time, would make the experience of that day any different for her. I may tell my daughter ‘Safe journey’ before she embarks on a holiday to Cambodia, but my wishing her that won’t affect her safety one way or the other. Except you believe that some kind of karma is created and supports her plane until it lands in South-East Asia.
Maybe the custom is like another custom: shaking hands. Originally a way of showing you weren’t carrying a weapon: we've done it for so long, we’ve forgotten the original meaning. Now we use it just as a sign that we’re, well, friendly, open to the person we’re meeting.
And perhaps that’s what saying ‘Happy Birthday’ or ‘Happy Christmas’ is really about: it means ‘I like you and if I ran the universe, you would have a good time generally but particularly today”. When political adversaries of Gerry Adams retired or lost office, he always wished them well in their future. His wish wasn’t going to change anything; it was just a sign that he would be pleased, not peeved, if their future was a good one.
We pride ourselves on our rational, clear-headed approach to life, yet our days are shot through with illogical words and actions. What weird animals we are.
Friday, 5 November 2010
Which while music to the ears of those who believe in parliamentary democracy will surely strike a jarring note in those attached to the head of Senator Eoghan Harris. On 8 August 2007, the good senator appeared on the ‘West Belfast Talks Back’ panel at the Feile An Phobail. There, in the presence of some 500 witnesses, he made a £100 bet with me, very kindly giving me odds of 10-1. The subject of the bet? That at the next general election, Fianna Fail would ‘mop up all the remaining Sinn Féin seats’ in the Dail.
So this morning, as the wheels of democracy finally begin to turn in Donegal, Eoghan Harris could be forgiven for hearing the sound of tumbril wheels. This by-election means the date of a general election will probably be next Spring, if not earlier. At that general election, will Fianna Fail ‘mop up the remaning Sinn Féin seats’? Eoghan Harris’s £1,000 says they will, my £100 says they won’t, and I don't expect Cardinal Brady to become the next Grand Master of the Orange Order either. Can we expect the good senator, a man renowned for his integrity, to pay up if he loses his bet? A nation waits and watches.
Thursday, 4 November 2010
What were the events immediately preceding the collapse and eventual death of Gerard Crawford? The 75-year-old man was in a local newsagent’s shop in West Belfast on Monday when a masked man tried to steal the till. The best the VO can do this morning is to tell us that he ‘intervened’ and ‘confronted’ the raider. The pensioner then collapsed, lost consciousness and died two days later. Did he attack the raider? Stand in his way? Call on him to put down the till? It’s unclear but that doesn’t stop the VO giving him a front-page headline as a ‘Shopraid hero’.
God knows if someone you love dies suddenly, you grasp at anything that’ll muffle the blow, and the thought that your loved one may have shown courage in his final hours might be some comfort. But there’s a fine line between courage and foolhardiness. When I heard an intruder moving around downstairs in our house last year, I phoned the police. Their firm and repeated instructions were ‘Don’t go downtairs until we arrive’. I didn’t. Was I a coward to stay put? I don’t think so. Would I have been heroic if I’d gone down? Far from it. Foolhardy or stupid might be nearer the mark.
We don’t know the detail of how Gerard Crawford died but in the absence of contrary evidence, it may be comforting but it’s also misleading to use words like ‘hero’. A community is right to do what it can to protect itself from thugs and thieves, but praising the actions of 75-year-olds who take on able-bodied criminals is potentially dangerous. In the fight against crime we need to fight clever ; our media should stress that rather than slap up another tabloid headline.
Wednesday, 3 November 2010
Barack Obama wakes this morning with a very sore political head. His party has lost control of the House of Representatives and has a seriously-reduced majority in the Senate. What a contrast, the papers say, with two years ago, when he made his famous victory speech and declared that ‘Change has come to America!’ and ‘Yes we can!’ The fear now is that the mad hatters and supporters of the Tea Party will take over in the US and that Barack Obama will be a one-term president.
Let’s wait and see. In 1994, Bill Clinton was if anything in worse shape after the mid-term elections, yet two years later he wiped the floor with the Republicans and was re-elected president. Far more interesting than doom-saying is to remember how Obama first caught the attention of the people of the United States. It was at the 2004 Democratic Convention and his keynote speech was hailed as brilliant. Its main theme was that ‘there is not a liberal America and a conservative America – there is the United States of America’.
Did he really believe what he said? Whether he did or not, his pounding political head this morning tells him that yes, there certainly is a conservative America and it’s coming to get him.
Two other questions which I find have entered my own head this morning and won’t go away.
• What is Hillary Clinton feeling this morning as she contemplates Democratic losses – a pang of despair or a surge of hope? After all, if Obama were to indeed be a one-term president…
• What am I, what are you, what is everyone doing, brooding over results from a United States election? After all we’re not Americans; so why do we show more interest in the workings of their politics than in our own?
Tuesday, 2 November 2010
Niall Carson of the Press Association took two corker pictures yesterday and they’re in most of the Irish papers today. One is of Dublin City councillor Louise Minihan, who threw red paint over Mary Harney yesterday, looking young and defiant; the other is of Mary Harney, her hands, neck, chest and shovel splashed vivid crimson, doing her best to look as if nothing had happened. Minihan threw the paint over the Health Minister because she said the minister was part of a ‘blood budget’ that will result in the ‘unnecessary and avoidable deaths of hundreds if not thousands of people over the coming years’. Mary Harney, not surprisingly, says Minihan shouldn’t have thrown the paint and should have chosen a dignified and lawful form of protest. Like picketing.
Was Minihan right to do what she did? Well, as an unlawful action it’s a bit short of germ warfare or detonating a nuclear device. As a way of drawing public attention to an issue, though, it’s a spectacular success. Few media outlets, including our own dear, dull VO, can resist a picture like this, and once seen, you don’t forget it. Minihan is ex-Sinn Fein, now an éirigí councillor. Whatever your political position, you’d be mean-spirited in the extreme if you didn’t admire her ability to cut through all the ifs and buts and but-don’t-forgets, and shoot the issue of hospital cuts in the twenty-six counties to the top of the public attention list. If other public representatives, north and south, could show similar imagination, we’d be less disaffected from them. Mary Harney told reporters yesterday ‘I think an incident like this, I do not believe, is what the vast majority of the people of Ireland would support’. Well done, Mary. A brainless, inaccurate statement to cap several years of heartless Health-Minister decisions. Louise the paint-bomber: 10; Harney and her private medicine fans: 0.