Jude Collins

Monday, 31 January 2011

Terry Wogan: wink-and-chuckle man

I watched the second of the Terry Wogan two-parter ‘ Terry Wogan’s Ireland’ on BBC TV last night and found myself feeling sorry, sorry, sorry I’m not English.  Had I been, I’d have loved the programme. There were lots of aerial shots showing gorgeous green fields and slate-blue water, lots of cheerfully-painted shops and comfortable cars (Terry in a chauffeur-driven Merc) and lots of compliant local celebs  ( Brian D’Arcy,  Gerry Anderson, David Norris).  And running through it all, the soft spine of a blancmange hour,  Terry himself...Sorry. Sir Terry himself.

Was there ever a man better able to glide over the awkward truth of things? He visits South Armagh: yes, it was known as bandit country during the Troubles but would you look at the Irish dancing! He talks with Brian D’Arcy: yes, there was terrible abuse in the Catholic Church but would you look at the Celtic beauty of Lough Erne! He tramps the walls of Derry with Gerry Anderson:  yes there was Catholic-Protestant antipathy but burble burble burble. He talks with David Norris, present front-runner to succeed Mary McAleese as President of Ireland: wasn’t the late Queen Mother wonderfully Irish with her fag and gin and love of horses, and really, it’s all tosh, there’s no difference between Irish and English people,  we’re all a mixture. He talks with Gay Byrne: no, Terry doesn’t believe in God, but if he dies and discovers there is one, he’ll say ‘I don’t believe it! Ha ha haaaa!’  Injustice, war,  national identity, eternity itself: all smoothed away with a reassuring chuckle from good old Sir  Tel. Wouldn’t it be great if all Irishmen were like that all of the time?

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Doing the time for whose crime?

I remember once when I did some freelance work for a radio station. After the main news, one of the reporters would provide a summary of the day’s business news. It was a job everyone tried to dodge, for the good reason that nobody at the station had an economics background. I remember one reporter emerging from his stint live on air, slumping at his desk and confessing “I hadn’t a clue what 90% of that meant!”

Maybe that’s why Irish journalists have been hopeless at explaining the IMF/EU bail-out for Ireland - beyond the brutal fact that it’ll take around three generations before it’s paid off. Irish politicians have been equally useless at explaining what’s involved, probably because like my radio reporter, they too understand only about 10%, although they too are clear that it’ll take three generations of sack-cloth and ashes before the state is in the black again.

Recently, though, one other point about the bail-out has been filtering into the public consciousness. It’s that ordinary people are being asked to pay for the bad investments of others. Initially Fianna Fáil politicians presented the bail-out as grim reality, the result of debt which the Irish people had incurred, and that we should all be grateful to the IMF/EU for saving the state from collapse. But now as Fianna Fáil recede like the vanishing dot on the old TV, there’s a growing conviction that the Irish people are being shackled to the financial wall, not for their own financial sins, but for the financial sins of others. It’s the Birmingham Six / Guildford Four all over again: painful to be in prison for crimes you’ve committed, insufferable to be in prison for crimes others have committed.

If that analysis is accurate, that generations of Irish people are being punished for debt which really belongs with the bond-holders and big investors, and if the election allows people to say firmly “Can’t pay, won’t pay!”, four weeks of having to look at Pat Rabbitte’s neck will not have been in vain.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Gerry Adams can't spel!

High on my list of things that send me running for a pillow to pull over my head so I can shriek without sending the cat up the living-room curtain is the kind of person who goes on about literacy levels. “Kids today – they can’t spell!  They write ungrammatical sentences! What’s education come to if people can’t write?”  They then pull out several examples of these terrible sins and waggle their eyebrows at you. Granted, time spent doing this kind of thing keeps these critics off the streets or from torturing helpless animals,  but it ignores the fact that  Shakespeare consistently made spelling mistakes, that the final chapter of James Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses  is without a single full stop, and that book shops and libraries are stuffed with unreadable books in which the spelling and punctuation are flawless.

In the past couple of days we’ve had similar brain-numbing nonsense about Sinn Féin’s economic competence. Gerry Adams was asked in a BBC interview the other day if he knew the child benefit rate in the south or the south’s VAT rate: he didn’t. This has been seized on as evidence that Mr Adams doesn’t know what he’s talking about in terms of the south’s economy, and that Sinn Féin as a party haven’t a clue about getting the south’s finances on an even keel. Final proof of this incompetence? Adams’s failure to answer the child benefit and the VAT questions are linked to his failure in a TV debate  with Michael McDowell of the PDs during the 2007 election.

Dear God. Supposing Gerry Adams had known what the child benefit rate was, and the VAT rate, and all the other facts and figures about the south’s finances…What would that have proved? Being able to spell and punctuate isn’t much use if you’ve got nothing useful to say; being able to reel off facts and figures is of little help if you can’t produce a strategy for getting the state’s finances in order. In the famous 2007 debate, McDowell was seen as having wiped the floor with Adams; what is glossed over is the fact that McDowell was spouting the Celtic-Tiger-hooray philosophy of the time and Adams was warning against a corrupt system that rewarded financiers at the expense of ordinary people.

There’s little merit in being a champion speller or sentence writer if your book says nothing worth reading, there’s little merit in being a slick debater if you’re talking dangerous tripe, and there’s no merit in radiating facts and figures (think Garret Fitzgerald) if your idea of good economics is to sink a state into ball-breaking debt, yea even unto the third generation, so bankers can collect bonuses and the Irish people are left to pick up the tab for big-time bond gamblers. 

Please, interviewers. Stop asking Gerry Adams if he knows the price of bottled gas and ask him what Sinn Féin can offer to help the Irish people – and do the same with politicians from other parties. Enough of the would-you-look-at-that-he-can’t-spell-onomatopoeia school of criticism. 

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Fine Gael and Labour: do their bums look big?

Hands up if you remember the arrival of the IMF people in Dublin? It seems an age ago but when they first came, a weird version of the Emperor’s new clothes began.  Everybody knew they were in town, everybody knew a  bail-out was about to happen, but Brian Lenihan and Fianna Fail stayed blank-faced and in denial: no, no, no, no, no, there were no negotiations,  there were no plans for meetings, there was no question of a bail-out,  IMF officials, what IMF officials?  Next thing,  Lenihan and Fianna Fail are knee-deep in, not so much negotiations as receiving stern instructions as to what would happen. Cue removal of Emperor’s new clothes.

The scene in today’s Dail  will be a bit like that. Nearly everyone wants the Finance Bill to go through.  What would normally take weeks and weeks will  go zinging into legislation inside four days. Don’t you love it? Legislation that will effectively crucify the non-wealthy in the south will be fast-tracked by Fianna Fail and the Greens. Fine Gael and Labour, of course, are against this happening. That’s why they’ve agreed to remove any obstacle to the Bill’s passage. You want a clear run, with no awkward questions or other legislation?  You got it. You want to make sure this Bill is passed before the general election? You got it. Are we – Fine Gael and Labour – in favour of this Bill? Of COURSE not - we’re completely opposed to it.  Can’t you see how opposed we are? The  Emperor’s new clothes all over again: Fine Gael and Labour swearing they’re clad head-to-toe in anti-Bill finery when the rest of us seem convinced they’re as naked as new-born scaldies.

You need proof? Then watch what happens if Michael Lowry and/or Jackie Healy-Rae follow through on their mutterings and refuse to support Fianna Fail and the Greens in voting through the Bill.  Fine Gael and Labour will be forced into the open, forced to vote for the Bill or at best abstain. The instant they do, the game will be up. Like it or lump it, the electorate will see their silly pretend-game collapse and they’ll stand there in all their skinny-dip glory.

Oh God. Time to lie down. I’ve just thought what Pat Rabbitte might look like...

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Labour and the sweet smell of a Merc

It’s not always what you say so much as how memorably you say it. On RTÉ’s ‘The Frontline’ last night, Sean Sherlock of Labour, a pleasant-looking lad, was trying to explain why Labour, who are opposed to the Finance Bill, are going to be voting FOR the same Finance Bill in the Dail later this week. It’s a tough one but he did his best. He’s a Corkman and Corkmen have a way with words, even in a tight situation. Then Pat Kenny asked Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty for his views.

Doherty has got beefier. Only a couple of weeks ago he was a slightly gawky, long-necked lad from Donegal. Now his face is fuller, his neck thicker – he looks like he’s matured physically. And politically? Well, if his choice of words is any indication, he’s a veteran already. When poor young Sherlock had sort of collapsed back into his seat after struggling to explain that Labour were opposed to and at the same time going to help pass the Finance Bill, Doherty responded. He said that Sherlock and Labour were now acting as they were because they’d got “a whiff of ministerial leather” and couldn’t wait to occupy their new government Mercs.

Young Sherlock spotted the problem immediately and tried to damp down the blaze by telling Doherty that such a remark was out of order, was a low blow, was unacceptable. The result of that was, the viewing public did a quick mental rewind, played again the “whiff of ministerial leather” remark and cemented it into their political picture. This was  firmed up later in the programme when Pat Kenny AND a man in the audience repeated the phrase.

What’s so important about a “whiff of ministerial leather”? Because grasping political issues is hard work. Words are slippery things – that’s why political cartoons are often more successful than political columnists. So when a well-turned phrase pops up that seems to summarise something broad and complex – this time Labour’s reasons for acting as it did – then the public’s mind snaffles it up. “A whiff of ministerial leather” - it appeals not to our sense of sight or hearing, but smell. We all know that yummy pong of a new car, and better still an expensive new car, and better still an expensive new car that you get to use and don’t have to pay for. Suddenly all Labour’s high-minded explanations for not pulling the plug on the government fly out the window and are replaced by the image of Labour TDs getting all hot and moist as the smell of power spirals up their nostrils.

Not fair, maybe not even totally truthful. But unforgettable.

Monday, 24 January 2011

We're all agreed (well, nearly all...)

A number of men called at my door on Saturday afternoon. They said my house, their houses, all the houses in the neighbourhood were in danger of burning down, and the only way to avoid the danger was to write a blank cheque and give it to them.  At first I resisted but then I figured that all those people couldn’t be wrong so I passed them the cheque.  They said they’d let me know later what protection would cost me but that I’d made the right choice.

That paragraph above is all lies, of course. But it’s not far from what’s happening in Dublin at the moment. Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Labour, the Greens – all the parties except  Sinn Féin are falling over themselves to insist that the Finance Bill must be passed before the dissolution of the Dail and a general election. So even though there are supposed to be serious differences between potential coalition partners Fine Gael and Labour, and crucial differences between the two main parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, and the Greens are seen as different from everybody –  when it comes to signing off on legislation that’s going to hammer the most vulnerable in the south’s society, they’re united. It must happen immediately.

Do you know what the main elements of the Finance Bill are? Do you know what would be lost if there was an election and then the Finance Bill was passed? When it comes to the crunch, is there a postman’s piss of difference between the mainstream parties in the south?

And there was you, thinking things were changed now that Cowen is gone...

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Brian bows out

Having just watched Brian Cowen resign as leader of Fianna Fáil, I'm tempted to say "Nothing in life/Became him like the leaving it", but of course he's not leaving political life, he's going to be Taoiseach for the next seven weeks. Will he run for re-election in Laois/Offaly? It's hard to say. Probably he will since he has a loyal following there, but if he does, it'll be like the proverbial decapitated chicken, still walking because it doesn't realise it's dead.

Cowen says he has resigned for the good of the party. Given the level of contempt that has swirled around him in recent months, inside and outside his party, it's a credible statement. He's also credible when he says he has always done what he believed to be the right thing. But as he made his statement and fielded questions from journalists, I was struck by his overall demeanour: that of a plain, honest and intelligent person. If you think for a moment on the candidates in the running to succeed him, there is none who could have conducted him/herself with Cowen's poise and dignity. Leave aside the question of whether he's a competent economist or his policies make sense: he projects a self-belief and ability that is impressive. Hell, I'll admit it: I like the guy. Create a mental picture of him, then place beside him his near-anointed successor, Micheál Martin. Do you begin to see how literally and metaphorically lightweight Martin looks, in contrast? In fact when I think of Martin, my thoughts go to a Fianna Fáil politician who had the same mild manner, the same soft-spoken style, the same inoffensive way with him. Will Fianna Fáil rue the day they elected as their leader a man who bears such an unnerving resemblance to Bertie Ahern?

Slip sliding away

Look, anyone can make a mistake. We all do it. But some mistakes are a bit more revealing than others, like the man who had a limited knowledge of psychology. When a friend explained to him that a Freudian slip was when you mean to say one thing but say another, he was impressed. A few days later, full of amazement, he met his friend again. “D’you remember that thing you were telling me about a Freudian slip? Well, I just had one myself! The other morning I was having my breakfast and I meant to say to my wife “Pass the marmalade, please, dear” but instead I said “You fucking bitch, you’ve ruined my life!”

While Enda Kenny presumably has never said any such thing to his dear wife, he did manage to reveal something of himself in the Dail the other day. Brian Cowen had announced that the south’s general election would be in early March – March 11, to be exact. Within seconds Enda was on his feet, thanking the Taoiseach in that slightly prim manner only he can do. “I would like to thank the Taoiseach for finally informing this House that a general election will be held on March 10”. Oooooucccch. One wonders if this man is quite ready to lead the southern state from its economic tomb.

Marmalade, anyone?

Friday, 21 January 2011

Danger: election ahead.

And they’re off! A date for the twenty-six counties general election has finally been set – Friday March 11. Let the shouting, elbowing, gouging and kicking begin.  So far, Fianna Fáil have set the pace for abuse, denouncing poor leadership,  failed strategies and an inability to relate to people’s real concerns. Unfortunately they’ve been talking, not about other parties, but themselves. In the last three days we’ve had Micheál Martin directly challenging his party leader,  Brian Lenihan being critical of his party leader and Mary Hanafin tying herself in knots to be critical and not critical at the same time. Meanwhile last night we saw Conor Lenihan, Brian’s brother, declare that the leadership issue was far from over, that he was calling again on the Taoiseach to forget about his win over Micheál Martin the other day but for the good of the counry and the party  to step down and let a better man or woman take the party reins and gallop into the election campaign. This morning Willie O’Dea is saying, as things stand, March 11 could be to his party what the Ides of March were to Julius Caesar.

Surrounded by enemies, why are Fianna Fáil putting the boot into each other instead of those outside?  Because they figure the party brand has, for this election at least, been irreparably damaged, that the electorate have taken a terminal dislike to Brian Cowen, and if they don’t put clear green water between him and themselves, they’ll go down. The French have a term for that condition: Sauve qui peut – every man for himself.  Meanwhile,  Fine Gael and Labour are disputing which of them will be the bigger party in the coalition they’ll form after the election. The Greeks have a term for that condition: hubris – the arrogance that precedes a fall. Most commentators stress how few seats  Fianna Fail will gain; they’re probably right. Most commentators stress how many seats Fine Gael and Labour will gain; they’re probably wrong. 

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Anna Lo and the case of the frightening road-signs

Bilingual road signs, eh? That’s what Conor Murphy is planning. They can be (and in most cases probably will be, if the plans see realisation) in Irish or Ulster-Scots and would be a voluntary opting-in procedure by each area’s council. Anna Lo of the Alliance Party doesn’t like the Murphy plans and has said so. In her view, it’d just be another way of marking out territory and would deepen division.

I’ve met Anna and I found her a lovely, enthusiastic woman, but in this case she’s talking through her armpit.

Firstly, this is a voluntary signing-up. If a council area doesn’t want bi-lingual signs, they won’t have to put them up. Do it if you want to, don’t do it if you don’t want to. Hard to quibble with that.

Secondly, the problem (if it emerges) is not with the sign or the council which requested it, but with the reaction of those hostile to the Irish language, on road-signs or anywhere else. When any plan is put forward to develop the Irish language they lament the cost involved. But of course it’s not the money that worries them; it’s the language.

Why the hostility? Well, it’s true that the IRA used and uses the Irish language. But to reject Irish for that reason is like saying you won’t learn French because Jean-Marie Le Pen speaks it or Spanish because it was Franco’s language.

“What a shame the Irish language has been hi-jacked by republicans!” you sometimes hear people saying. There’s an easy answer to that: hi-jack it back.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

A good deed in a naughty world?

Not once but twice in the last forty-eight hours I’ve heard the idea expressed. Two decent people, both nationalists, both SDLP voters,  saying that the Michaela Harte horror-story could produce good by bringing  the two main communities here closer together. Nice idea, drawn from the Pollyanna school of political thinking. 

The analysis is based on the fact that Peter Robinson, Arlene Foster and a few other unionist politicians called at the Harte family home in recent days to express their condolences (less talk of how many if any attended Michaela Harte's funeral  yesterday). The unstated argument is that these politicians have been touched by the tragedy of a lovely young woman  murdered on her honeymoon and wanted to respond to what had happened in human terms. By doing so, they have crossed another bridge on the journey towards tolerance and empathy, and that old prejudices are gradually being removed.

 The alternative interpretation is that politicians always perform actions in the glare of publicity for a reason, and nine times out of ten those reasons are shaped by political considerations, not human ones. Did Peter Robinson et al say "My God how horrible - the poor Harte family - we must visit them and support them in their pain"? Unlikely. More likely they asked themselves “How will we look if we don’t show solidarity with this stricken family?” The answer they got was “Bloody awful”.  And so Robinson and Co turned up and did the decent thing. And of course Martin McGuinness and republican/nationalist politicians turned up/made their voices heard in sympathy for reasons that weren’t devoid of political considerations either. The difference is that  nationalists/republicans had a shorter distance to travel before empathising with a Catholic GAA family. 

Too hard on unionists who have been honourable in doing this difficult good deed? Maybe. But the Pollyanna school of political thought, which would convince you that were we nicer to each other, political divisions would melt away,  really does deserve to be hit with a large stick every time it raises its silly head.  

Monday, 17 January 2011

Style and rumpled substance

Unvarnished – that’s the word that characterises Brian Cowen. There’s a rumpled, shovelled-into-his-suit look about An Taoiseach that’s refreshing in this media age when image is, if not everything, then 80% of what counts with voters. Maybe that’s a big reason for Cowen’s standing as a hate figure in the south these days – he’s refused to have himself air-brushed and tittivated to a point where he’s a smooth media product.

Cowen was at his best on Saturday evening -  no ingratiating smile, no prefabricated statements as he told the waiting media that no, he wouldn’t be quitting as leader. Throughout the press conference he gave the impression of a man voicing what he really believes,  listening when others spoke, responding honestly to what they had to say. He’s either sincere or a consummate actor.

The man who wants his job and who’s finally come out and said so,  Micheál Martin, is different. In manner he resembles another Corkman, Jack Lynch. Both are mild-mannered,  quiet-spoken, without rancour - or apparently so. But  behind the mask of mild manners, the impression you get is of watchfulness, sizing up the opposition, plotting the next move. Not that the next move will necessarily be successful – Lynch’s performance in terms of the North was pathetic; but you can almost hear the wheels turning, clicking, processing.

Will Martin emerge as a winnner after the vote of confidence in Brian Cowen, called for tomorrow? No and yes is the answer. Cowen will in all probability get an endorsement from the majority of his parliamentary party, so no, Martin will not win in his bid to become leader of Fianna Fáil.  Not right then; but he may well win in a couple of months time. That’s when Brian Cowen will have led Fianna Fáil into the general election in the south where the party will take an unmerciful hammering.  Surveying the wreckage, Martin will be able to shake his head sadly and murmur ‘I told you so’.  He’ll also be seen as the only rival with the cojones to come out against Cowen. That, added to his more general popularity among wide swathes of Fianna Fáil, should be enough to see him made leader.  They’ll be in opposition but Martin will be in charge, the rumpled one dispatched to the back benches - assuming he's held his seat. Short-term Martin loss tomorrow, long-term Martin gain in a couple of months’ time.

But leader of what?  After the election Fianna Fáil will almost certainly be in the A & E department, maybe on life-support.  Will Martin’s mild bedside manner be enought nurse the party back to health? 

Friday, 14 January 2011

Obama in Tucson: the call goes out

Yesterday I watched the entire Obama speech at the Tucson memorial service for those who died in the shooting there. He was enormously impressive. The man’s measured language, his timing, his ability to present complexity in a clear, accessible manner is unsurpassed by any politician I can remember. At a few points I felt uncomfortable. His pointing to people in the audience who had helped at the scene of the shooting and declaring them heroes, his presentation of each of the six people who were killed as the epitome of all that was good in America – that seemed marginally overdone. Yes I know, I know. This was a memorial service, of course you praise unreservedly the lives and actions of the deceased; but as an inhibited Irishman, I felt the canonization process was a little excessive.

But that’s perhaps to quibble. Overall it was a powerful, moving speech, appealing to all that is good in Americans and in the rest of us. The temptation must have been there to deliver a firm, attention-getting boot to the vulnerable parts of the American right. He didn’t. As one commentator said, he emerged as the only adult in the room. In a speech that echoed the theme of his break-through address at the Democratic Convention in 2004, he called for respect and selflessness in the American family. He reminded his audience that it’s not fame or wealth or power but love that is ‘the measure of our lives’. And he called on them to bring into reality the country that nine-year-old Christina-Taylor Green believed in.

So, a wonderful speech by a man who sounded every inch a political leader and a moral leader as well.

But…will his words succeed in healing the US’s wounds? Will there be a change in the rhetoric people like Fox’s Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck regularly employ - alarmist, personal, degrading of political debate? As the Tucson audience rose to give Obama yet another standing ovation, as people in the audience bit back tears, I longed to surrender, to be swept up on his wave of oratory along with the audience there. But I couldn’t. I was back in St Columb’s College, Derry in 1957, watching a school production of Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1. I’ve forgotten a great deal of the play but with sharp-edged clarity I remember the scene where the Welsh magician Glendower is trying to impress the English military man Hotspur. Finally, in a booming eruption, Glendower cries “I can call spirits from the vasty deep!” There’s a pause as the audience takes in this glorious outburst. Then Hotspur, a dry realist, responds: "Why so can I, or so can any man/But will they come when you do call for them?”

Obama’s call yesterday was a thrilling one, appealing for a new spirit in America, where opponents are respected and where service to others is the yardstick against which success is measured. An eloquent, magical call. But will the Becks and O’Reillys and Palins respond, do you think?

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Hats off to Sarah. AND Fox News.

I admire Sarah Palin,  I admire Fox News and I admire the American right. There, I’ve said it. They bring skill, energy and above all a degree of daring to the US political scene that no other source can match.

Consider some examples.

On Fox News,  presenter Glenn Beck has run a TV feature called The War Room.  It imagines the US in 2014: a place where people pay up to 95% of their pay cheque in income tax, a place where the government and the unions run everything,   but run them very badly because law and order is a shambles. ‘Cities are going to look like Dodge City  with roaming gangs.  The government has betrayed the constitution – how long do we have before this becomes a crazy real scenario?’  Worried-looking ex-generals and professors come on to say how worried they are.

Sarah Palin issues her now-famous list of politicians, including Gabrielle Giffords,  with a rifle-sights focused on them and the instruction ‘Reload’. 

Radio host Brian James of KFYI in Arizona advocates murder as a way of dealing with undocumented immigrants. ‘What we’ll do is randomly pick one night – every week –where we will kill whoever crosses the border. Step over there and you die. You get to decide whether it’s your lucky night or not. I think that would be more fun…[I’d be] happy to sit there with my high-powered rifle and my night scope’.

Former radio talk show host Harold Turner urges his blog readers to ‘take up arms’ against Connecticut lawmakers, claiming government officials should ‘obey the Constitution or die’. 

Arizona Republican Trent Franks calls Obama ‘An enemy of humanity’.

Strong stuff indeed.

Then six people, including  a federal judge and a nine-year-old child, get shot dead in a Tucson mall, and Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords is left struggling for her life.  Does Fox News, Sarah Palin, the American right retreat, covered in shame for having created this polluted atmosphere? Cue shrieks of laughter from my cat.  I was on BBC Radio Ulster’s ‘Talkback’ show yesterday alongside an American right-wing representative.  Had the statements of Palin and others created an atmosphere in which monstrous deeds could breed? No, no, no, a man called Cal assured me. Or rather, what about the American left? Look at the things they’ve said about George Bush. Besides, robust political exchange has always been a feature of politics down through history and there’s nothing wrong with that. What’s wrong today, Cal explained, is that the American left is using the sad deaths and injuries in Arizona for their own political ends.

Palin, meanwhile, has accused her critics of ‘blood libel’ for saying she and Fox and others have overheated political debate and spawned violence. ‘When was it less heated?’ she asks in a video on her website. ‘Back in those calm days when political figures literally settled their differences with duelling pistols?" 

So let’s summarise. We have a sustained stream of vitriol aimed at Obama and anyone who might advocate communist measures such as universal health care.  Gabrielle Giffords warns against the consequences of such vitriol and shortly afterwards she herself is gunned down. Fox and Palin respond by explaining that vigorous political debate has always been like this or worse, and it’s shameful how the left is using the Arizona attack to libel and muzzle  decent, patriotic Americans. 

A stunning performance, wouldn’t you say? A deft sleight of hand and abracadabra! The picture has been transformed. Anyone who points a finger at the right is seen as being bullying, anti-democratic and opposed to free speech in a democracy.  Now you know how Alice felt in Wonderland.

Speaking of Alice: did you know that the day after the Arizona killings,  the sale of hand-guns in that state  went…No, not down. Up. Right up.  Sixty-five per cent on sales a year ago.

Ashamed? Guilty? The American right don’t know the words. That's what makes them so skilful, energetic and daring. 

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Miriam O'Reilly: older but richer

I’m happy for Miriam O’Reilly this morning, even though I am helping fund her happiness. She’s just had a tribunal rule that the BBC was guilty of ageism when it gave her the boot from its big rural affairs progamme ‘Countryfile’.  She’s likely to get a six-figure damages pay-out.  Bully for her. I know from personal experience that when you get older in the world of broadcasting, even radio,  you get edged or even elbowed towards the exit door. So it’s good to see a broadcaster fight back and win. 

“I don’t think having wrinkles is offensive” O’Reilly is quoted as saying. Hear hear. Women  presenters on TV are chosen in considerable measure for their looks. That goes for BBC, ITV, RTÉ  and no doubt TV stations throughout the world. When those looks begin to wilt, the woman presenter gets dropped. Ageism in action, again and again throughout the world. Right?

Well maybe – or maybe not quite.  Being dropped as a woman presenter because you’ve begun to lose your looks isn’t quite the same thing as being dropped because you’re too old.  The two usually march in tandem, true: but some women look less attractive at  thirty-five, while others stay stunning until they’re forty-five or even fifty-five. It’s their looks that get them dropped, not their age. Women presenters like O’Reilly are penalised not for being older but for looking less attractive. 

Which brings us back to the question: why were they hired in the first place? In some cases, because they’re very good at doing their job. But in Miriam O’Reilly’s case and in lots of other cases, her good looks almost certainly played an important part in her being hired in the first place.

So two things. First, isn’t the basic injustice that women who are physically attractive get hired before women who are not physically attractive? Shouldn’t ability to do the job rather than please the eye be what matters at the point of hiring as well as the point of firing?  Secondly, if you were hired because you look nice, you can’t really complain if you’re dropped when you stop looking nice. Can you?

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Death in Arizona and Mauritius

Why did Christina-Taylor Green die? Why did Michaela Harte die? Christina-Taylor Green was nine years old and was one of six people killed on Saturday in the attack that left Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords critically injured.  Michaela  Harte was twenty-seven years old, the daughter of Tyrone manager  Mickey Harte.  She was strangled to death in Mauritius yesterday, where she was on her honeymoon. Because we humans are meaning-seeking mechanisms, when faced with the violent death of beauty and innocence, we feel compelled to search out a reason, an answer. If we can’t find one we reel back, baffled and uneasy.

Of the two, the death of Gabrielle Giffords is the easier to explain. It may be, as US right-wing commentators claim, that the attack which killed Christina-Taylor Green and wounded Gabrielle Giffords was non-political, the work of a crazed loner,  motiveless. But few of us believe that. Giffords had been the subject of attack before. She was a liberal Democrat in a fiercely right-wing state. She was one of several politicians shown on material released by Sarah Palin’s office, the cross-hairs of an aimed rifle on their image with the instruction “Reload”. Palin insists her cross-hairs images were simply encouraging followers to resist politically and peacefully those identified as political opponents.  But as the film-maker Michael Moore noted in a tweet: “If a Detroit Muslim put a map on the web w/crosshai­rs on 20 pols, then 1 of them got shot, where would he b sitting right now? Just asking.” 

The death of Michaela Harte is harder to comprehend, in part because at the time of writing we know virtually nothing of the person charged with the crime. Was it a bungled robbery? Did she try to apprehend him? If we knew more about the life and society of the person who killed her, if we knew exactly what happened in the hotel room,  if ...So many ifs, blocking our path to understanding such a paralysing loss.

As the family waits for more information, I find myself thinking of a novel by Thornton Wilder called The Bridge of San Luis Rey. It tells the story of a number of people who die in the collapse of a bridge in Peru, and details the varied paths that led them to that moment.  It’s strange and frightening to wonder what things led Michaela Harte to travel thousands of miles from home, to a remote hotel room in Mauritius, there to meet with her death.  We are meaning-seeking mechanisms, but in the face of such events we realise how few answers we can find to the mysteries of life and death.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a n-anamacha uaisle.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Mark Twain and the literary thugs

OK, that’s it. I never thought I’d live to hear the cliché slither from my lips but the occasion calls for it: this is political correctness gone mad.  What is? The new edition of Mark Twain’s wonderful novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, that’s what.  In it, the word ‘nigger’  occurs over a hundred times, and in the new edition it won't occur at all. It'll be removed. That’s because the word is considered an insulting and racist term. 

So it is, when used by white people. But this is a classic case of the present day projecting its moral standards onto a past age which had markedly different ones. Of course the term ‘nigger’ used today is largely the preserve of  racist morons so insecure in their own identity, they feel the need to stand on the face of another ethnic grouping. But we don’t show our non-racist credentials by getting annoyed with a previous age because they used it. You might as well get annoyed with a previous age because they drank beer instead of bottled water or wore tights instead of trousers.

Except that this is worse. Here we have a work of art – a novel that holds a major place in the history of American fiction – and some one-eyed we-know-betters have taken it on themselves to change it.  What next?  Some dandified art critic deciding Mona Lisa’s smile is too wishy-washy and adding a set of grinning teeth? Some music critic deciding ‘O Holy Night’  is a bit dreary and adding a last verse to the tune of ‘The Ragtime Strutters’ Ball’?  Or maybe an announcement that the history of slavery in America will be discontinued because it really wasn’t very nice?

The sad, sickly argument some advance for this barbaric piece of  word-censoring is that it’ll make it easier for teachers to teach the text. Forget it, guys. If they’re not capable of teaching The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as it is,  they’re  not capable of teaching .The past is the past; we should respect it and respect writers like Twain by keeping our grubby little hands off their work. 
We had Church-inspired censorship in Ireland for too long.  Are we now going to show how liberated we are by bowing before the bone-brained priests of political correctness? 

Friday, 7 January 2011

Too good to be true?

Denis Bradley is a nice man. Any time I’ve met him he’s been pleasant,  anyone who knows him speaks highly of his integrity. So it’s with some reluctance that I say he was talking tripe in the VO this morning.

The subject of his column was political selflessness. Only twice in his life, he said, had he seen political selflessness, where a politician or a political party acted not in their own interests but in the national interest. The first, he said, was John Hume, who engaged in talks with the IRA and was subjected to brickbats from every direction for nine months, until the IRA called a ceasefire, at which point he was declared a hero. The second, he said,  was in recent months, when Fianna Fail took actions in the interests of the state but which added to their unpopularity with the electorate.

The major weakness in Denis Bradley’s argument is that it presents human beings as two-dimensional. That is, they say and do things that are simple and uncomplicated. If someone makes a decision, it’s either wise or foolish.  If someone makes a statement, it’s either dumb or brilliant. If someone performs an action, it’s either selfish or selfless. 

Oh that life were that simple. If it were, moral judgements would have cleaner, sharper edges than they have. When John Hume decided to talk to the IRA, as a life-long pacifist you may be sure he had in mind the saving of human life. But the John Hume who made the decision was also a life-long politician, so you may be sure he had in mind the implications for himself and his party. At first those implications appeared to be disastrous; nine months later, as Bradley indicates, he was proved right. Since then Hume has been showered with honours throughout the world, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, was even made a guest of honour at the launch last September of my book Tales Out of School: St Columb’s College Derry in the 1950s.  (Sorry – couldn’t resist that.) For him and for peace, his dialogue with republicanism in the long run proved wholly beneficial. For his party,  his dialogue in the long run proved negative and contributed to the SDLP’s slow terminal decline.  Just as Hume’s motivation in talking to republicans was probably mixed, the consequences were mixed.

Likewise with Fianna Fail. Yes, the tough measures the coalition in the south took will probably help the state drag itself from the pit of financial horror in which it presently languishes. But it wasn’t just a question of Fianna Fail sacrificing itself for the good of the twenty-six counties.   Had it not acted, that political party would probably be even lower in the polls than it is. By acting, Fianna Fail are hoping against hope that the electorate will give them credit for having a firm plan and that the first green shoots from that plan will start to show before the election at the end of March.

None of us, even the most saintly, makes decisions for one reason only. They’re a mixture of motivations, just as the results of those decisions are invariably a mixture of elements, some good, some bad. As a former priest and a thoughtful commentator, Denis Bradley must know that.  So here’s the question: if southern voters accept his analysis that Fianna Fail budget decisions were in the public interest,  which political party might benefit in the March general election?  And which political party might suffer? I’d say Fianna Fail and Sinn Féin respectively. Mmm. Food for thought there, eh?

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Cometh the hour, cometh the man

It’s unfair to make judgements about people on the basis of their looks, I know that; but if we didn’t, 50% of comedy would evaporate. What would Buster Keaton be without that deadpan look, Ken Dodd be without those teeth, Fr Jack be without that face and those eyes? So when I saw Edward Stevenson for the first time, I struggled not to be judgemental. He’s the new Grand Master of the Orange Order and he, well he, there’s something in his….OK, OK. He looks funny. Maybe it’s the smile permanently in place. Or the eyes that seem to be permanently peering into a very bright light. Or the voice which is a soft Ardstraw murmur from scarcely-moving lips. As public representatives go he’s certainly different.

Different in appearance, that is. In policy, it’s the same old same old. Will he meet the Parades Commission? No. Will he meet Sinn Féin? No. Will an agreement on Orange marches be reached before the summer? No.

I’m not an Orangeman but if I were, I’d be worried. Not so long ago the Orange Order in Ireland had 100,000 members. Today it has somewhere around 30,000 and the decline continues. The Drumcree protest turned off huge numbers of members and sympathizers, and talk of Diamond Dan and an all-inclusive Orangefest isn’t going to bring them back. Constantly drawing parallels between themselves and the GAA doesn’t help either – the GAA is in rude good health, the Orange Order at the door of intensive care.

Maybe Orangemen have to accept that, like other institutions which once seemed rock-like in their permanence and power, the Order is an old institution which looks antiquated and daft in the twenty-first century. Maybe, on the other hand, Edward Stevenson will prove a dynamic leader who’ll galvanise and renew all things. So far, though, it looks as though an organization busy marching up a public-image cul-de-sac has elected a man perfectly fitted to lead them.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

What a thing to say!

“Whatever you say, say nothing” – that’s the watchword of a lot of people here. Don’t turn over any stones if you don’t want to confront something yucky-squiggly,  and don’t open your gob if you’d rather not provoke attack. The man who’s replacing Gerry Adams in West Belfast,  former hunger-striker Pat Sheehan, has chosen to ignore such caution.  He’s recently declared that the conflict here wasn’t as bad as mass killings elsewhere and that if the IRA had set out to kill Protestants, it could have left a 1,000 lb bomb on the Shankill Road.

Instant uproar in unionist circles, notably by DUP MLA Jonathan Bell. He says  he finds Sheehan’s comments ‘deeply offensive’ . “Mr Sheehan’s remarks belie a twisted interpretation of what is and what is not civilized behaviour”.

Bell’s comment shows he doesn’t know the meaning of the word ‘belie’ and he doesn’t listen to what’s said. Sheehan said  two things: (i) mass killings elsewhere in the world were worse than non-mass killings here; and (ii) the IRA could have set a 1,000 bomb to kill a maximum number of Protestants.  Grim statements both but undeniably true. Killing a great number of people is worse than killing a smaller number of people.  And the IRA could have deliberately exploded a 1,000 no-warning car bomb in a Protestant area  but chose not to. Again,  that’s impossible to argue with because it’s a matter of fact.

So why the unionist outcry at Sheehan’s statement? There are two reasons. The first is the election due in May. If Sheehan’s reputation can be damaged in the eyes of voters, he’ll still hold Gerry Adams’s seat but maybe with a smaller majority. In his opponents' eyes, that would be a Good Thing.  The second is the tireless desire of Bell and other unionist politicians to paint the Troubles as exclusively the IRA’s fault. They started it, they continued it, and while they’ve now stopped it,  they should be  donning sackcloth and ashes rather than suggesting the Troubles weren’t the most ghastly conflict ever or that the IRA ever acted in any but the most heinous manner.

It’s an old trick: he who controls the picture of the past has a stronger chance of shaping the future.  The struggle goes on. 

Monday, 3 January 2011

Off with his head!

I was at a social occasion a few days ago and a man I’d describe as a northern nationalist was talking. His theme was Brian Cowen, and the way he talked it sounded as though Brian Cowen, single-handed, had brought the twenty-six counties to its knees. I murmured something about world-wide recession, lies told by the banks, over-dependence on the housing market. No good. Cowen was to blame - sure didn’t he give an RTÉ interview and him half-cut?

Today and for some several days now, Conor Murphy has been coming under similar fire over the water supply crisis. Murphy is spoken of in some quarters as a future Sinn Féin leader, although personally I can’t see it. But maybe that explains the ferocity of the unionist onslaught he’s undergoing. “Pressure grows on Murphy over water debacle” is the unionist News Letter headline. The paper claims he didn’t seek help from British engineers nor had he requested emergency water supplies from the UK. Murphy’s colleague in the Executive cabinet Sammy Wilson draws a parallel with the transport standstill in Scotland during the snow, which led to the Scotland Transport minister resigning: “Will he [Murphy] be as honourable as the Transport Minister in Scotland or will the punishment parcel be passed down the line?”

Sammy is half-right, in that the punishment parcel has indeed been passed down the line, to the Water Service. Where it should have been passed is up the line, to the successive British direct rule administrations who consistently ignored the state of water and sewage systems here, leaving us to cope with the smell and mess we now face. But blaming decades of British misrule would have meant distributing blame over a whole range of people and over a decades-long time-period.

Not satisfying enough. What people want when faced with a mess is a single head, which can be chopped off and sent rolling along the floor to public applause. Cardinal Brady is to blame for clerical child abuse so he should resign. Brian Cowen is to blame for the south’s financial crisis so he should resign. Conor Murphy is to blame for the failure to maintain the water supply so he should resign.

In Old Testament times the scapegoat, a symbol of Satan, had all the sins of the people heaped on it before being driven into the wilderness. So today. Locating a problem in the system of things or identifying a decline as rooted in international events about which we can do nothing - that sort of analysis is no fun. Much better satisfy the public blood-lust and produce a goat called Brady or Cowen or Murphy. That means if we can just hit the goat a skelp and send it skittering off into the desert, we’ll have addressed the problem AND given vent to our rage.

Oh God. The surprising thing is not that we have water supply problems. What’s surprising is that we haven’t acute problems with water, heat, light, air, food, everything, given the infantile way in which we respond when there is a problem.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Honours from the Empire

I think it’s lovely that Queen Elizabeth distributes her Honours in late December. It’s a point in the year when all of us feel a bit down, and while of course we can’t all receive an Honour from Her Majesty, we can warm our hands in the reflected glow that comes when someone we know gets theirs at Buckingham Palace. This year I’ll be warming my hands off Mark Carruthers. Mark works in the BBC in the News department, but the Queen says she’s awarding him an OBE, not because of how he’s handled the news in the BBC over the years (that’s the British Broadcasting Corporation). It wouldn’t make sense to give him an Honour for that because the BBC, despite its name, always handles news items in a balanced way, even over the period of our Troubles, when British forces were in conflict with insurgent Irish forces. Mark and all the other BBC people presented the conflict in such a balanced way, you wouldn’t have guessed they were a British institution. Anyway, all that has nothing to do with this. Mark is being made an OBE (an Officer of the Order of the British Empire - motto ‘For God and Empire’) for services to Drama (he’s the chairman of the board of the Lyric Theatre). When Mark goes to London to get his award, Queen Elizabeth will pin the award on his left breast - well actually his left breast lapel rather than his breast. It’s a big cross thing - the award, not Mark’s breast - and hangs from a rose-pink ribbon with pearl-grey edges. He’ll be expected to bow and walk backways after he’s had his breast decorated.

Mark naturally is pleased to receive this Honour, but you know it’s a funny old world. Not everyone is like Mark. In 2003, Queen Elizabeth wanted to pin an OBE on the breast of poet Benjamin Zepheniah, and instead of smiling broadly like Mark and ordering up his morning suit, Benjamin declared he wouldn’t take the OBE! Rejected it out of hand. Naturally, he was asked why he’d done such a thing and he said it was because the OBE reminded him of ‘thousands of years of brutality’. How do you mean brutality, the reporters asked. “It reminds me of how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised” Benjamin said. Did you ever hear the like? Talk about ungrateful.

A shame he couldn’t have followed the example of the native American people, centuries ago. Then, native people, whether in America or Ireland were much less cheeky. They were grateful. Appreciative when an Honour was bestowed on them. Biddable. The Irish poet Paul Muldoon captures this attitude very well in his poem ‘Meeting the British’. Like Queen Elizabeth’s distribution of Honours, Muldoon’s poem is set at this time of year when people need cheering up.

We met the British in the dead of winter.
The sky was lavender,
And the snow, lavender-blue.
I could hear, far below,
The sound of two streams coming together
(both were frozen over).

The poem ends with a British colonel and a British general conferring their Honours on the simple native people:

They gave us six fishhooks
And two blankets embroidered with smallpox.

You could warm your hands off that account as well.