Jude Collins

Thursday, 31 March 2011

Ireland's banks: anything would be better than this

In the name of God. Or rather, in the name of the Irish people. Or rather, in the name of the people of the twenty-six counties: what IS this? Or to quote a once-admired Taoiseach: “What kind of eejits do they take the people for?”

The Irish economic crisis is a tangled, multi-stranded mess that baffles thorough analysis, but most of us manage to grasp the key points amid the welter of jargon. We know that far more was borrowed than could be paid back, and so we know that far more must have been lent than should have been. The European banks lent recklessly to the Irish banks, the Irish banks lent recklessly to the property developers, and the property developers went first mad and then bust. So who picked up the tab? The one group who, for the most part, hadn’t been involved in the merry-go-round: the people of the twenty-six counties. Some political parties, like Sinn Féin and the Socialist Left Alliance, said the involved European lenders should be made to pay, rather than the uninvolved Irish people. This was shouted down by Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour as loony left economic illiterates mouthing off.

Let's try an educational parallel. The teacher is out of the room so the class goes a bit nuts. Spitballs fly, insults are shouted, people are out of their seats grappling with each other and generally having a whale of a time. The teacher hears the racket, says the culprits have five minutes to fess up. Whereupon the half-dozen biggest boys in the class declare that they can’t all possibly own up, because if they do the class will get a bad name with all the teachers. So they locate the weaker half of the class – the ones with specs and not-big muscles – and tell them that they must take the blame for everyone.

The teacher comes back, the weaker half of the class steps out and gets thrashed within an inch of their lives. A week later the teacher comes back and says he’s not finished and thrashes the innocents once again. And now he’s at the classroom door, a cane in one fist and a leather strap in the other, and he’s calling for the weak ones to step out a third time, and the big boys are nodding their heads and saying well it’s only right, otherwise the whole class will get a bad name and then where will we be? Some say there's a glimmer of hope because Big Boy Michael Noonan is now muttering vaguely about the blame being shouldered by some others as well, but most figure he's doing so strictly for effect.

What's baffling is why the people of the twenty-six counties aren't insisting that something, ANYTHING other than the present policy be tried. If the way things are arranged at present means that the innocent are paying for the guilty - and by God they are - any alternative must be worth trying.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Sinn Féin Town Hall meetings: louder than words

The really good ideas are often the simple ones. Blindingly simple, so when you see them in action, you kick yourself and say “Why didn’t I think of that?” On the other hand, there are simple and really good ideas that, even had you thought of them, you’d have been incapable of translating them into action. That’s why over the next few weeks, the SDLP will not be kicking itself. Otherwise it would be.

I’m talking about the series of ‘Town Hall’ meetings Sinn Féin have announced for their election campaign. They’ve held this kind of thing before. The purpose is to rally the local troops, send activists out energized and determined to squeeze every last Sinn Féin vote into the ballot box. What’s different this time is that there’s going to be a major southern dimension. When Gerry Adams TD starts things in West Belfast tomorrow evening, he’ll have Mary Lou McDonald TD and Pearse Doherty TD on the platform alongside him. Of course there are southern TDs who’d be willing to sit on SDLP election platforms as well, but would the SDLP want them? A Fianna Fáil TD? That's Fianna Fáil whose meltdown is approaching Fukushima dimensions? You’re kidding. A Fine Gael TD? That’s Fine Gael who used to have Michael Lowry in its Cabinet? You’re kidding. A Labour TD? Mmmm, maybe. Except Labour is now run by ex-Stickies, and didn’t they at one stage...Right. Scrap that one too. No, ourselves alone looks like the best policy for the SDLP.

Which highlights nicely the Sinn Féin strategy. By having the Town Hall meetings, they’re saying in Alex Maskey’s words “We want to go out and listen to the views and opinions of our people”. You may have your own thoughts on how open Sinn Féin are to hearing new views but that’s what it looks like. Even more importantly, the presence of TDs like Pearse Doherty, Martin Ferris and Mary Lou McDonald say loud and clear “We’re not kidding about our nation-wide ambitions. This is what a real All-Ireland party looks like”.

Simple. Dazzling. And it makes every other party, north and south, look provincial. In simplicity of concept and power of impact, it puts me in mind of the arrival of Adams and Co at Stormont in a fleet of black taxis. When the Shinners get a good idea, they do it with style.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Five things we know about the Shankill Butchers

Stephen Nolan's show 'Shankill Butchers' on BBC last night didn't so much bring fresh revelations about that loyalist 1970s gang as confirm what most of us have been thinking for a long, long time. Five things struck me while watching it.

1. The Shankill Butchers were terrorists. That might seem obvious when the word is used so frequently about people actively involved in what was a small-scale war during the time of the Troubles, but it helps to use words that are accurate. Some dictionaries will tell you that terrorism is the use of organised violence to secure political ends. That's no use: all wars use organised violence to secure political ends. Other dictionaries talk about "an organised system of intimidation": that's nearer the mark. The defining characteristic of terrorism is that it deliberately attacks the civilian population in the hope that this will turn that population towards peace and/or surrender. By this description the Shankill Butchers were terrorists. They attacked, not the IRA or the INLA, but ordinary Belfast Catholics. The programme contended that they wanted to frighten the nationalist population into turning against the IRA and suing for peace under any terms.

2. The Shankill Butchers were cowards. As Nolan's programme reminded us, every single one of their victims was isolated and defenceless, in a number of cases a bit drunk as well, and the Butchers always acted as a group when they abducted them. So several men against a single individual, late at night, with the victim as helpless as could be imagined. Cowardice personified.

3. The identity of the Shankill Butchers was widely known. Not to the RUC, according to former Chief Inspector Jimmy Nesbitt, but to journalists, lawyers and at least one-third of the Shankill population. And yet they were able to go on killing for a number of years.

4. The people of the Shankill were not simply intimidated into silence. That's not to say they weren't intimidated. As May Blood pointed out, if you didn't want to set yourself up as the next victim, you closed your door and shut your mouth, which the people of the Shankill did. But the idea of a population who loathed the killers in their midst got shattered with the funeral accorded to at least one of them - Bobby 'Basher' Bates. Thousands of people lined the Shankill to pay their last respects to this shockingly cruel man.

5. The Shankill Butchers went beyond terrorism. In the brief descriptions given by Chief Inspector Nesbitt and by some relatives of the victims, in the pictures of the cleavers and boning knives they used, in the description of the torture meted out to one man who survived, it was obvious that these men hated nationalists/Catholics with a visceral, irrational, brutish hatred which went beyond mere terrorism.

There aren't many programmes about the Troubles that make me feel like throwing up but this was one of them. When we were shown a clip of the car riddled with bullets in which Master Butcher Lenny Murphy died in 1982, it was hard not to think that, compared to his victims, he got off lightly.

Monday, 28 March 2011

Closure be damned

My life has been blessed. The nearest I’ve come to the death of a loved one in the Troubles was in the Omagh bomb, where a distant cousin died. So I can’t begin to understand how much pain families feel when a family member is killed through the wanton violence of others. Nor can I understand what consolation there is when those responsible, years later, apologise for what happened. David Cameron’s statement in the British House of Commons regarding Bloody Sunday was seen by some as a triumph at the end of a long struggle. As an outsider, I could see neither justice nor triumph.

The death of 12-year-old schoolgirl, Majella O’Hare, is the latest to receive a belated apology. She was shot twice in the back by a British soldier in Whitecross, South Armagh, in 1976, as she was on her way to Confession. The soldier involved lied that an IRA gunman had been involved and got off; now it’s accepted that he lied and Owen Paterson, the British Secretary of State, has apologized.

The reaction of Majella’s brother Michael is interesting: “It has been a long time coming. It still does not avoid the fact that Majella is dead as a result of their actions”. I call that an understatement. Think about it. A defenceless child is shot dead. The murderer lies about what happened. Thirty years elapse, an apology is at last issued but there is no question of the killer, whose job was to protect not slaughter, being punished. How can anyone speak of justice, closure or the like?

Some people might see Michael O'Hare's response as not sufficiently grateful. In the circumstances, I find it massively forgiving.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Pretend and the real thing: there is a difference, Willie

Maybe it’s been destroyed or lost, but there used to be a photograph of me about our house, aged eight. It might have been my birthday or maybe it was Christmas, but I’m grinning at the camera like a halfwit. On my head is a cowboy hat and in each fist I’ve got a pistol, both of which I’m pointing inexpertly at the camera. When my family wanted to embarrass me they’d haul it out and the assembled company would laugh their legs off.

Nobody said “We are poisoning this kid and filling him with hate”. I’m glad they didn’t, because although much of my play activity, alone or with others, involved shooting dead dirty varmint Injuns, I didn’t grow up to hate and detest the native people of North America. In later years I taught quite a few of them and I found them gentle, quiet people. I didn’t feel the need to confess that I had once lepped about with six-shooters threatening to fill their fellow-countrymen full of lead. I know if I had they’d have laughed at me for being just one more really stupid white man.

I’m not sure if Willie Frazer ever played cowboys and Indians, but he’s taking very seriously the photograph of that kid dressed in a balaclava and toting a fake AK47. Willie seems to figure this dressing up may well lead to the youngster becoming an adult and looking for Protestants to shoot.

Do me a favour, Willie. I’ve actually done some research into youngsters’ ability to distinguish between pretend and real, and at a very early age - around P2 – they have no bother at all knowing the difference. There’s also lots of research that shows play doesn’t lead to the enactment of the pretend-deed in real life. If that weren’t the case, Nativity scenes at primary school would lead to large sections of the population developing Jesus, Mary, Joseph and even donkey complexes.

Although I can see why you didn’t like it, Willie. I feel the same way when I see clips of the Sham Fight at Scarva every year. Not to mention the re-enactment of the Relief of Derry. But I find it helps if I repeat to myself “Dress-up – unreal; British army patrol – real”.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Even-handed reporting and Scottish sectarianism

George Galloway – what an idiot, eh? He went onto a reality show where he dressed up as a cat and slunk about pretending to lick cream from a bowl. How can you take someone like that seriously?

Which is just as well, because you might have been tempted to take seriously his criticisms of the Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill, when he noted that MacAskill had praised the crowd attending the Rangers-Celtic Cup Final at Hampden and hadn’t mentioned the incessant racist chanting of Rangers’ fans. “But isn’t one side as bad as the other?” I hear you splutter. No they’re not.

After the Celtic-Rangers game in Celtic Park a couple of weeks earlier, there was much huffing and puffing about the need for both sides to stop their sectarian savagery. Alex Salmond and other Scottish politicians declared that Something Must Be Done, neatly gliding over the fact that, at the game in question, three Rangers players received red cards, while none from Celtic did. The same politicians made much of Neil Lennon’s agitation after the game and nothing of the fact that the Celtic manager has received death threats, been attacked on the street and was the subject of an internet campaign urging his killing. Do you know of a similar campaign against Ally McCoist or Walter Smith? Mmm – me neither.

Here in the north we’ve grown accustomed to such selective reporting. When the Shankill bomb exploded, killing so many innocent people, we rightly heard of the suffering and grief it inflicted. We heard less outcry over the weeks prior to that event, when Catholics were targeted by loyalist killer gangs on an almost-daily basis. Those who claimed to be even-handed in reporting the Troubles presented that time as essentially tit-for-tat, with one side as bad as the other. Anyone who’s thought about the last forty years for more than five consecutive seconds will know that’s a distortion of the truth.

How fortunate we are today, then, that we can dismiss George Galloway as a pantomime cat concerned only with his self-publicity. If we thought he was an intelligent, informed poltician, we might have to confront the charges he makes about where the sources of sectarianism in Scottish society are rooted. And that would be an appalling vista.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Holding their cultural and moral noses...

Two politicians – one based in the north, one in the south – spoke publicly yesterday and got a mocking reception. The first was Nelson McCausland, the Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure, who said the Belfast Festival should have more sacred music on its programme. He got a fairly frosty interview on BBC Radio Ulster’s ‘Good Morning Ulster’ for his pains: was that his role, was he the festival director, wasn’t he trying to be prescriptive about what was put on the festival programme?

The second was Gerry Adams. It was in the Dail and Fine Gael were getting a grilling about the Michael Lowry affair, and the way money had been shuffled around so it got from Denis O’Brien’s account to Lowry’s. Adams stood up and accused the governing party of being involved in a clear example of “money-laundering”. The words had barely left his lips when the chamber erupted in mocking laughter that made his next words inaudible.

First, Nelson McCausland: I’m with him. Not that I like sacred music. The classy stuff, like Bach’s Mass in B Minor, is something my small musical brain can’t quite take in. As for the more gospel choir-y stuff, except it’s got a bouncing, hand-fluttering yeah-Lord thing to it, I’m yawning. My defining memory of sacred music is ‘Songs of Praise’ of a late November evening, with the rain slicing down and the dreary church music making me want to reach for my father’s cut-throat razor.

But none of that means McCausland isn’t entitled to his view. Much of the negative reaction came, not because his critics resented his intrusion as that they despised his musical tastes. Had he said “I think the Belfast Festival could do with some more Puccini opera” or “I wish we had rather more ballet”, you’d have had a totally different reaction. Nelson’s taste may stink in the views of his detractors but he’s entitled to express it. The resentment against him is, at heart, that of cultural snobbery.

As for the reaction to Adams: he shouldn’t have used the term “money-laundering” during his speech. Not because he wasn’t right – the Lowry case, if we’re to believe Moriarty, involved massive and complex money laundering. But by using the term, Adams allowed his opponents to drag attention away from the point he was making and back into a slanging match about the IRA and the Northern Bank and what happened in 1978. The people mocking him were keen to get clear of the noose of corruption and he gave them their chance.

That’s not to say he should have kept quiet. Au contraire. The Fine Gael/Labour coalition, you can be sure, is as riddled with dubious activities as was the Fianna Fail party. The trick is to nail such hypocrisy with appropriate language. But then as Gerry himself points out, he’s on a learning curve in southern politics. Think how far he’s come since that famous TV debate in 2007. Better still, think of the politician who was so scathing of Adams during that TV debate. He was Justice Minister at the time and his name was Michael McDowell. He and his party now? In the dustbin of history. Gerry Adams and his party now? Adams has topped the poll, his party have trebled their numbers. Go figger.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Thank you Michael Lowry, thank you Denis O'Brien

Well thank God for Michael Lowry. We should all go down on our knees this morning in gratitude for his existence. If it hadn’t been for him and the picture of his corruption presented in the Moriarty Report yesterday, we might have bought into the Fine Gael analysis of southern Irish politics. Which was? Oh, just that the good name of Irish politics and the very state itself have been besmirched and brought low by that shower of greasy-till fumblers, Fianna Fáil. Certainly that’s the line Fine Gael sold the voting public in the recent election, with the happy result that they did better than in any election in living memory. Thanks to his stern it’s-time-to-end-the-brown-envelope-culture line, Enda has finally climbed to the top of the greasy pole. Helped, of course, by his high-minded insistence that his party couldn’t possibly go into government with Sinn Féin. As Maggie Thatcher put it, that was out, out, out. Standing on the high moral ground, Enda needed someone to occupy the lower moral ground so people would see how high his ground was, and Sinn Féin were it.

What’s that? That’s the corrupt south, nothing to do with us? Well try this. In 2006, it’s understood, Denis O’Brien, the man at the centre of this scandal, donated almost £500,000 to the SDLP. As further proof of his good feelings towards that party, he delivered an address to the party the following year. The title of his talk was (no, don’t laugh) ‘Shaping An All-Ireland Economy'.

Few parties can afford to turn away a man who approaches them with half a million in his fist; and if you’re the SDLP, you want to grab any chance for a talk that has a bit of All-Ireland glister, to balance the post-nationalist stuff. It’s just a pity that, in retrospect, Denis’s idea of how to operate in an All-Ireland economy mightn't be quite what the rest of us had in mind.

But hey - Fine Gael and the SDLP, indissolubly linked with spectacular southern sleaze. On a Spring morning, you gotta smile.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Stormont compassion and tasty grub

I was up at Stormont yesterday evening ( you have to go up – the parliament building stares down your throat and insists you do). I’d been invited by Conall McDevitt of the SDLP, who’s a big noise with Jim Wells (DUP) on the All Party Group for International Development, so I restrained my urge to tell them there should be a hyphen between ‘All’ and ‘Party’, and went.

It was partly interesting and partly depressing.

The interesting bits included talking to a man called John Bailey, who’d spent four years working as a scientist/missionary in Papua New Guinea (in their first year there, his family’ security guards were equipped with bows and arrows); trying to get Sinn Féin’s Barry McElduff to tell me what time he expects to do in the Omagh Half-Marathon in early April (he wouldn’t); and seeing the sad-proud faces of families as they trooped up to receive posthumous awards for their loved ones’ work with the developing world.

The depressing bit was...well, it was boring. Two hours, mainly of speeches from Conall McDevitt, Jim Wells and Jim Nicholson (who does things to the English language that should be actionable). Lots of talk about the need for the north to be outward-looking and supportive of north-eastern Uganda, the area the Assembly has decided on as their target (so to say). The fact is, most of us know, from reading and watching TV, that we live in a world stuffed with lethal inequalities, Listening to politicians tell us it’s important is like listening to your mother telling you the importance of loving your parents. Gimme a break, Ma.

I did get one memorable statistic, though: the average wage in north-eastern Uganda (how fitting that it should be linked with north-eastern Ireland) is $300 a year. We were still shaking our heads at this when the catering staff started carrying in trays loaded with sausage rolls and nice little scones and pastries, and tea and coffee and wine. A truly depressing thought then occurred: why, at eight in the evening, were all these well-fed-looking people in such need of nourishment? And if we had all skipped that bit and the saved money been sent to north-eastern Uganda, wouldn’t it have made a serious difference to at least half a dozen lives?

I didn’t bother making my excuses, I just left.

Monday, 21 March 2011

I'll liberate you if it kills you...

It’s not always a good idea to listen to the radio when you’re eating your breakfast. I did it this morning and the spoonful of boiled egg, instead of going down my throat, stuck half-way. It was the ‘Today’ programme on BBC Radio 4, widely considered the flagship current affairs programme of the BBC. John Humphries was interviewing William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary, about the combined French-British-US assault on Libya. “So we’re mounting an aerial bombing campaign on Libya for humanitarian reasons” Humphries said. There was no layer of irony in his voice – he said it as a statement of reasonable fact. Hague didn’t attempt to rebut the statement or tell Humphries he was being unpatriotic with his implicit criticism of what Britain was doing. No, no, no. He accepted Humphries’s statement as though it made perfect sense. We’re dropping bombs on Libya – bombs that make the Omagh bomb look like a Halloween firecracker – and we’re doing it because we care about the people below.

Fortunately, there are other media outlets in Britain with a slightly more thoughtful approach to events in the world. I don’t always agree with Jackie Ashley in The Guardian but her column this morning gets it right. “Who thinks democracy can be offloaded from a military plane on a country that has known little except dictatorship?” Indeed. And who thinks Britain-France-the US are doing their bombing and shelling because they’re concerned about the Libyan people? The Middle East, since any of us can remember, has been the pumping station for Western capitalism, and the slaughter or non-slaughter of human beings has been dependent on whether the oil has been kept flowing westward smoothly enough. Cameron sees this as his Falklands moment – distract the populace from the dire domestic situation with a stirring foreign adventure. Anyone who believes a word of his rhetoric about democracy is gullible beyond redemption.

Friday, 18 March 2011

You made me mad

Well, at least there was one news item with a bit of bite from yesterday’s Paddy’s Day celebrations. UTV led their six o’clock news with footage of the punch-up that followed St Mary’s defeating Boys’ Model School in the final of the Schools soccer. Somebody jostled someone and next minute it was like the aftermath of a Meath-Dublin game. Not what you’d call sporting but definitely lively footage, and I’ll bet you postponed making that cuppa until it was over as well.

These things happen. It’s hard when you lose a game. You’ve been preparing for weeks in advance, you’ve come through ninety minutes of furious competition and dammit, the toe-rags from the other side have finally nicked it. Grrrrrrrrrrr – and take that. Even Eric Cantona had his breaking point.

What’s more difficult to understand is people who get upset at the sight of a flag. No, let me correct that – get upset at the sight of a flag to which they don’t subscribe. Jim Wells got upset in Downpatrick yesterday. He said the tricolour carried by Sinn Féin councillor Eamon Mac Con Midhe was intended to provoke and the display of it forced him, Wells, to withdraw from the parade.

Now if you read any of the books about anger management, one of the basic principles they always present is that you’re responsible for your own anger. No good trying to shift it to the other person by saying “You made me angry!” They didn’t make you angry. You allowed yourself to become angry.

The same applies to being provoked. Sometimes it happens, as I say, that in the heat of sporting battle, people will, yes, lose control of themselves. But grown-up people, in the cool light of day, should be able to control their reactions. Since he was the height of a Co Down ewe, Jim Wells has known that the tricolour is the flag to which almost half the people in the north subscribe. Yet yesterday, the sight of that flag was too much - he “was provoked”. Lost, as we say, the run of himself and allowed Eamon Mac Con Midhe to dictate his, Wells’s, actions. Mac Con Midhe pressed the button, Wells reacted.

Oh dear, Jim. You’re all growed-up now. You’re in control of, responsible for your bodily and mental and emotional functions. You weren’t provoked – you allowed yourself to be provoked. Think of all the union flags Eamon Mac Con Midhe has to pass every day – as do the rest of us. Outside schools, public buildings, in public squares. We don’t like it but we control ourselves. “Community relations have been set back twenty-five years"? Well they will be if Jim and Co don’t learn to control themselves.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

St Patrick: dear, reluctant saint of our isle

Changed times. When I was a youngster, parades were fewer and more modest on St Patrick’s Day. Now they’re everywhere, usually with lepping girls and fire-eaters. The Americans, as usual, are to blame. They started it all, on 17 March, 1762. Some Irish soldiers serving in the English military were given permission to march through New York City, the idea being that this would help them reconnect to their Irish roots and link up with fellow-Irishmen serving in the English army.

It caught on, but it took a while for the St Patrick’s Day marchers to draw public affection. During much of the nineteenth century, the Irish in the US were an oppressed minority, and when they held their Paddy’s Day parades in towns and cities throughout the country, local papers liked to portray them in cartoons as drunk, violent monkeys. Contrast that with now, when American politicians vie with each other to get a place in the parade.

St Patrick himself came here from England. Some people insist he was really from Wales, just as some people get chest pains if you suggest St Patrick didn’t actually spend his six years of slavery on Slemish in Co Antrim but did his sheep-herding at Killala in Co Mayo.

The hymn calls him the ‘dear saint of our isle’ but to be honest, I’ve never found him an attractive saint. He seems to have been cranky a lot of the time and he had a terrible teaching style. Frustrated by the inability of the Irish to grasp a simple thing like the mystery of the Trinity, he plucked a shamrock and held it up. “One shamrock, three leaves” he told them. “One God, three Persons. Now do you understand?” The Irish, being polite, nodded and said “Oh yes, right, we see now” but of course they didn’t and neither do I. The parallels between a shamrock and a Godhead have always eluded me, and I’ll bet the comparison baffled more Irishmen back then than it enlightened.

The other thing about Patrick that makes me uneasy is his reluctance to actually live here. The first time he had to be brought to Ireland in chains. The second time, when he came back to preach, you get the impression that he did so only because the voices in his head – his conscience – insisted that he must.

The truth is, we have as our national saint an Englishman whose teaching method invited heresy and who if left to himself would never have set foot in our country. What’s amazing is, we forgave Patrick all that, embraced Christianity despite the shamrock and we go on celebrating Patrick’s name centuries later.

Sure there’s nobody in the world like us, is there? Where’s me flag?

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Maggie, the flag and managing the vote

Maggie Ritchie, God bless her little red jacket, is busy buttressing her unionist vote in South Down. The VO this morning reports that she’s concerned something bad may happen at the St Patrick’s Day parade in Downpatrick. It seems a Sinn Féin councillor wants to carry a tricolour in the parade. Maggie says. “There may be a place for waving tricolours and places for wearing Celtic jerseys, but the place of these things is not at the front of a St Patrick’s Day parade. We will not allow the Downpatrick parade to be hijacked by those who celebrate in this exclusivist way”.

You couldn’t beat it with a Lambeg drum. That bit about Celtic jerseys, for example. Maggie lobbed it in to link Eamonn Con Midhe, the SF councillor, with the raw and dangerous emotions of Old Firm clashes. Nice one, Maggie. Nothing to do with Downpatrick but nice one.

What it comes down to is simple. On Ireland’s national day of celebration, the day when Irish people throughout the world rejoice in their identity and display signs and symbols to express that delight, there’s a part of Ireland where displaying the national flag is seen as ‘exclusivist’. You’re joking, Maggie. Tell me you’re joking.

Try it the other way round. Do nationalists and republicans allow signs and symbols to exclude them? If they did, they’d never have set foot in Belfast City Hall, Stormont or dozens of other British-symbol draped buildings throughout the north. Why then should the display of the Irish national flag on Ireland’s national day exclude anyone? Better still : why would the SDLP, a party that claims to be nationalist and sometimes even republican, claim that it does?

Oh right. The unionist vote in South Down. I forgot. Tá bron orm.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Joe Duffy - disgraceful radio in action

Sometimes it gets too much, and yesterday was an example. Like thousands of people, if I’m not doing anything more important I’ll switch on RTÉ in the afternoon and listen to Joe Duffy’s Liveline. He’s a decent broadcaster, in that he knows how to get the best out of people much of the time and the topics he chooses to explore are often interesting. But like all RTÉ presenters – is it a hangover from the Harris years? – he’s got a decidedly anti-republican streak. Yesterday it showed.

His programme featured John Stokes, who is a Dublin man and who owns, it seems, a pub there. John has hung a huge banner outside his pub barring Queen Elizabeth and all her family from his pub while Britain occupies one inch of Irish territory. It was done, John told Joe, half in fun and whole in earnest. Like a lot of people, myself included, John doesn’t approve of monarchy and he certainly doesn’t approve of QE2 coming on a state visit to the twenty-six counties, while the north and Britain’s control of same gets airbrushed out of the picture.

Joe gave John - who happens to be the father of Anthony Stokes, the Celtic player – as rocky an interrogation as he could, often veering off to talk about the impact of the banner on his son when he plays in Scotland. Several callers came on, all of them expressing themselves aghast at John’s backward-looking stance, urging him to get with the programme and welcome Her Majesty, a line that Joe quite clearly endorsed.

Finally John said he found it odd that all the callers were opposed to him and his banner, especially as a number of patrons at his bar had told him they were trying to ring in to support him and couldn’t get on air. At last one person in support of Stokes got on. Then Joe read out a text he’d got, accusing him of bias in the programme, a charge he emphatically rejected. John Stokes had got talking for more than twenty minutes in total, Joe said, had been allowed to present his case. How could anyone say there was bias, then?

OK Joe, here’s how they could say there was bias and be bloody-well right. In terms of air-time yes, you could argue Stokes got a fair hearing. But if everyone who phones up thinks Stokes is an unreconstructed nutter, what you get is a chorus of voices vs one voice, and for the average listener that suggests the lone voice does indeed belong to some sort of eccentric or even extremist. If Stokes had been allowed, say, ten minutes of air time, and the remainder given to say five of the people calling in in support of him, that would have been a lot nearer an even-handed presentation of public opinion.

The media are hugely powerful, because among other things, they shape and package the world before presenting it to us as the real thing. As Duffy’s programme yesterday showed, if a presenter or producer wants to pull a fast one and present a selective picture which puffs up View A and does down View B, it’s easy to do.

It happened on RTÉ, the national broadcaster, yesterday, and it’s a bloody disgrace. I’m going to write to them and tell them so. I hope to God you do the same.

Monday, 14 March 2011

History speaks - but is anyone listening?

Who’s been in charge in Japan? I don’t mean over the past week or so; I mean over the past, what, twenty, thirty years.  I ask because they appear to have been asleep at the wheel. In August 1945,  the Americans dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, resulting in casualties somewhere between 90,000 and 140,000. Over two-thirds of the city’s buildings were completely destroyed. A couple of days later the Americans dropped another atomic bomb, this time on the city of Nagasaki. Over 73,000 people were killed, almost 75,000 injured, and several hundred thousand more suffered illness, many of them later dying, as a result of radiation fallout. The suffering is literally unimaginable. And yet it now emerges that Japan has the third highest number of nuclear power plants in the world.  So the explosions in recent days at two power plants in that country are the result of a bone-brained reliance on nuclear energy. If hundreds of thousands dead and two cities flattened doesn’t teach people,  what will?

Maybe it’s not just the Japanese. Maybe it’s human nature. I’ve been glancing of a Sunday night at Feargal Keane’s ‘The Story of Ireland’  on BBC1. It’s a pretty superficial historical tour (maybe that’s why he called it ‘The Story of Ireland’ rather than ‘A History of Ireland’) but it does bring home one fact:  England was ruthless in its occupation and control of Ireland down the centuries, and Ireland was relentless in its refusal to accept that occupation and control. Over time it took a spectrum of forms: Hugh O’Neill, the United Irishmen, the Young Irelanders, the Land League, Parnell  - and next week the beautifully hirsuited Keane will take us through the violent Irish resistance of the twentieth century. Who in England, I found myself wondering, was in charge? Hasn’t the message of the centuries got through? Does England – does anyone – seriously believe that if in, say, thirty years from today, there is a divided Ireland with control of the north-east by London, there won’t be yet more violent resistance and loss of life?

Seamus Mallon famously described the Good Friday Agreement as ‘Sunningdale for slow learners’.  It’s not just the GFA, Seamus. It’s the entire story of British-Irish relations. Like Japan, England keeps looking away from the lesson that history is trying to teach her.

Friday, 11 March 2011

More than a stadium?

Is the GAA feeling pleased this morning, now they’ve been awarded £61.4 million of public money to develop Casement Park? Ask a silly question – of course they are.  Are they more pleased that they’ve ended up developing their own Casement Park rather than sharing with rugby and soccer a ‘national’ stadium on the Long Kesh site?  Ask a second silly question.

In theory, overlap in sporting accommodation is a good idea. Why maintain two stadia when you can use one more efficiently?  In practice it doesn’t work. Remember the conditions Tottenham Hotspur laid down in their bid to use the Olympic stadium? They’d move from White Hart Lane but only if they could rip out that pesky running track and let athletics develop separately at Crystal Palace. And there’s long been a case for other soccer teams in England to share their grounds – Liverpool and Everton, Man United and Man City,  Aston Villa and Birmingham. But each club naturally enough wants to have a sense of ownership. This is  our ground, this is our home, this is Anfield.  And guess what answer you’d get if you asked Celtic and Rangers to share a ground?

The development of Casement Park as an exclusively Gaelic games centre is good news not just for the GAA in Belfast but for the developing sense of nationalist identity. In recent years when a big game is scheduled,  the tailback of cars pointing towards Casement has testified to increased pride in our national  games. A 40,000-seater stadium will offer  unmissable testimony that Belfast, so long a citadel of unionist politics and culture, has changed. First City Hall, then Stormont, now Casement. Bail ó Dhia ar an obair.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Clerical child abuse: the victims no one talks about

So  - one thing we know for sure: Fr John McManus is innocent. He’s the priest against whom “child protection allegations”, we learn today, have been leveled.  He’s the chancellor of the Diocese of Down and Connor (that means he runs the diocese’s administration), he’s a member of the diocese’s committee on child safety and he’s a priest in Ballygalget, Co Down. He’s stood down from his work as chancellor and as a priest while the police investigate the claims made against him.

How do I know he’s innocent?  That’s easy. It’s the law.  Everyone has the right to be considered innocent until proven guilty. I don’t know Fr McManus, have never even met the man. I do know, though, that he hasn’t been proven guilty, therefore he is innocent. 

But but but.  There’s a harsh truth at the heart of the horror of child abuse by Catholic clergy that’s never been dealt with by the media here. You’ll get front page headlines (that’s where the McManus accusations are this morning) about the nature and circumstances of abuse. You’ll get feature stories, interviews with victims, investigative reporting of clerical cover-up. What you don’t get  and won’t get  is the impact on clergy of accusations which turn out to be totally groundless.

You didn’t know there were such cases? I haven’t made a study of them but I can think of at least two priests from one northern diocese who were accused of abusing children; they fought their cases in the courts and were proved innocent.  Happy ending, eh? Well not quite. One now works in a remote parish and feels let down by those who should have supported him in his innocence;  the other is broken physically and mentally, and requires constant care.

The problem is one shared by teachers and others working with the young. Once an accusation is hurled, that’s it: the teacher’s reputation is finished. S/he may fight in the courts and establish innocence but the child-abuse link will stay lodged in people’s minds. Likewise the priest: once the mud has been slung, proving innocence in the courts will never wash away the stain.

It’s a cruel and unjust situation, so here’s a suggestion. In future,  when an accusation is leveled at a priest or teacher, the name of the priest or teacher should remain concealed but the name of the person making the accusation should be made public. After all, a victim bears no responsibility for the vile deeds perpetrated against them, assuming the allegations to be true. But because the public mind, against all the interests of justice, effectively sees accusation as equivalent to conviction,  the identity of any priest or teacher charged should not be made public until and if they are convicted.

It’s too late now for Fr John McManus, as well as those other priests who were innocent of any crime and whose reputations and lives were destroyed by malicious liars. The fact that no journalist has had the guts to make a programme or write a feature about the effects of abuse allegations on innocent Catholic clergy shows us how close to a witch-hunt the clerical abuse issue has become. 

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Thrill me, William. You too, Kate

A young man called William Saxe-Coburg and  a young woman called Kate Middleton “thrilled well-wishers” in Belfast yesterday, says this morning’s VO, and do you know, they kind of thrilled me too. Maybe it wasn’t the omigod-I’ve-actually-seen-in-the-flesh-one-of-the-Saxe-Coburg-family-and-his-fiancée thrill that the well-wishers in Belfast felt. More a thrill of astonishment at the way people manage to glide over awkward facts. How is it, for example, that British people are full of fury at the thought of unelected Muamar Gaddafi’s unelected son Safi succeeding him in Libya, yet thrill at the thought of unelected Elizabeth Saxe-Coburg’s unelected grandson succeeding her? (No, please, let’s leave her unelected son Charles out of this - it complicates things.)  I also thrill when I think of the cost of William Saxe-Coburg and his fiancée flying into Belfast and flying out again. I wish I could see the bill for that in the flesh, as it were, because I know that’d really thrill me, but I know it won’t happen. Freedom of Information applies to ordinary people but it doesn’t apply to the Saxe-Coburgs. They get lots and lots of public money each year but they don’t have to tell the people who supply it – you and me – anything about how it’s spent. But we do know that William S-C’s Uncle Andy  gets £249,000 every year, and his Auntie Anne gets £228,000.  But don’t forget – they’ve all those horses to keep. And they have to spend over £500,000 every year on PR - getting people to feel thrilled that they got a glimpse of you – that costs.  Just as it’ll cost a huge amount to send the unelected Saxe-Coburg boy and his girl-friend on a flying visit to New Zealand.  They’ll visit Christchurch, where he’ll explain how badly he feels about the loss of life and destruction that earthquake caused. Many  New Zealanders will be thrilled that they came so far to condole; but not half as thrilled as I’ll be at the thought of the cost to the public purse, when so many people are out of work and struggling to keep a roof over their head.

Still, the Queen Mum does a terrific job …What do you mean, she’s dead?

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Street names and mind games

I don’t normally read The Belfast Telegraph but I see from the BBC’s online newspaper review that it – the BT – reports today that five major streets of Belfast are going to get a name change. For example, Royal Avenue is to be renamed Mary Anne McCracken Avenue (Mary Anne was Henry Joy McCracken’s sister, and if you don’t know who Henry Joy McCracken was, go and google him and I’ll pretend I didn’t notice you slip away). The idea is to celebrate women’s contribution to the life of Belfast. That’s the good news. The bad news is, the new street names are strictly temporary – they’ll be used for one week only.

Does it matter what they’re called? If the answer is ‘No’, then somebody went to a lot of trouble a while back for nothing. Royal Avenue, Bedford Street, Victoria Square, Albertbridge Road, Queen Street, not to mention the King’s Hall, the Queen’s University and the Royal Victoria Hospital. The intent is obvious: saturate this colonial place in names evocative of King/Queen and Country (our country England, not theirs Ireland) to the point where the words filter into everyday speech and it’s those who would resist the anglicisation of their city who look manipulative and stupid.

Given that Belfast is now a largely nationalist city, is there a case for street and place name-change to reflect their values and aspirations? What about Padraig Pearse Parade - that has a ring; or Connolly Avenue; or Sands Street. If those sound daft to you, ask yourself why. Is it because they are daft names for Belfast streets (as daft as Cairo Street, for example?) or because like the rest of us, the colonial names have been burned into your consciousness until you can’t bring yourself to seriously consider any alternative?

So yes, it’s great that neglected women will have their names applied to the streets of Belfast, even for a week. But if they or any other suppressed group here is dreaming of permanent change, they may dream on. Those who hold power know the power of language. The thousand little flags that flutter in our street and building names will go on fluttering, and their colour will be strictly red, white and blue.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Come into the parlour, there's...

Maybe better start by asking “Why not?” Every year thousands of English people visit Ireland north and south, and we fall over ourselves to welcome them. Apart from our natural disposition towards friendliness – and it does exist – these people bring much-needed revenue. The notion of making them unwelcome because they’re English is so ridiculous, it doesn’t cross the mind of normal people.

So can’t we extend the same welcoming hand to Queen Elizabeth when she comes to the south in May? Alex Attwood says “all right-thinking people” will be more than happy she’s visiting and will welcome her. The Venerable Organ this morning gives its editorial over exclusively to echoing this SDLP line. Surely they’re right? If we cheerfully welcome Englishman Joe Bloggs, shouldn’t we do the same for Englishwoman Elizabeth Windsor?

Well we can welcome her and thousands such as Alex Attwood and the writers of the VO editorials undoubtedly will. But before we pull out our little union flags and hurry southwards, let’s consider a few things.

The Joe Bloggs-Elizabeth Windsor comparison is fake. Joe Bloggs represents Joe Bloggs; Elizabeth Windsor represents the British state – she’s its head. She is also Commander-in-Chief of the British Armed Forces, which includes the Parachute Regiment – remember them? The people of Ballymurphy and Derry do.

But, you say, that’s the past. The Good Friday Agreement has been signed, the violence is ended – in the circumstances, why would anyone not welcome a visit by the British monarch? Other, of course, than stuck-in-the-past Anglophobes and those wedded to violence. “The Queen comes here to the North regularly and there’s no problem” little Alex might add. “What’s the difference in a visit to the south?”

Because by welcoming the head of the British state, the Commander-in-Chief of the British Armed Forces, that section of our country which has gained independence from Britain is effectively saying “Right. That’s it. We’ve got our sovereign state, the north prefers to live under British rule, everyone’s happy. The historic quarrel between our two islands is now ended”.

Except it’s not. Close one eye as much as you like, the elephant continues to squat in the middle of the parlour. It’s an elephant with a long name: Partition And British Rule. Those who urge a cead mile failte should wake up and smell the elephant-dung. If they don’t, the SDLP and the VO’s favourite monarch risks getting a welcome similar to that accorded the Love Ulster people in 2006.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Eoghan and I: a cautionary tale


This a sad story – well, sort of. It features a well-known political columnist and me. In July 2007, in his column in the Sunday Independent, Eoghan Harris predicted as a FACT that Fianna Fail, who’d done well in the June election, would mop up the remaining seats of Sinn Féin, who’d done relatively poorly, in the next general election. In August 2007, when I heard that Eoghan would be on a discussion panel titled ‘West Belfast Talks Back’, I equipped myself with a £100 note and attended. When it came to questions from the audience I showed the colour of my money. “This £100 note” I said, holding it aloft, “disagrees strongly with Eoghan Harris’s assertion about Fianna Fail mopping up the remaining Sinn Féin seats next time out. Will the good senator give me odds of 10-1?” I think the prospect of contradicting his own column led Eoghan to acting a little hastily: he declared himself happy to take the bet. You can hear the exchange by clicking below:

Four years is a long time but, despite what the present Mrs Collins will tell you, I’m a patient man. With the commencement of the south’s general election campaign, I emailed the Senator. Long pause. Then he comes back and tells me he’ll concede the bet, I got lucky, the financial crisis happened, hence Sinn Féin are looking good. I explain in my response that it’s not luck, it’s my razor-sharp political judgement in action. There's a bit more to-ing and fro-ing in the weeks that follow. Eoghan got a little confused at one point and got the idea our bet was in euros; and he didn’t seem quite sure when he’d pay me – immediately, after results came in or just before the election.

But some five days ago, sad to say (well sad for Eoghan: I was grinning like a half-wit), the postman finally brought the envelope to my door (see pic above). I wanted to rush out and cash it in small notes, hundreds of them, and rub every inch of my naked body with them, but the present Mrs Collins thought this might traumatize the cat, so instead I put it in a specially-created bank account. Some days I just lie around, imagining myself dancing on the kitchen table and making faces at a photograph of Eoghan.

What will I do with it? I’ve had thoughts about buying a parrot and teaching it to say “Eoghan Harris knows **** all!” But on mature reflection I’ve decided not to. Instead, I’m looking to the May election here in the north. Out there somewhere is an opinionated but sadly misguided person - it doesn't have to be Eoghan although it might be - who’s convinced that on May 5 the SDLP will rise in a political tsunami, sweep Sinn Féin aside and send Margaret Ritchie to Stormont as First Minister. Over the next eight weeks it will be my mission to find this person. When I do, I will hold my £1000 note under his/her nose, allow him/her to finger it, maybe put a corner of it in his/her mouth. That done, I’ll put a companionable arm around his/her shoulders. “I wonder if you would consider” I’ll say “having a wee bet with me?”

You know what P T Barnum said about this kind of thing? If you don't, ask Eoghan.

Friday, 4 March 2011

The dregs of the electorate

Now that the dust has begun to settle and the media are left with nothing to report  except Enda Kenny rushing off to Europe to pretend he’s Angela's (with a hard ‘g’)’s bestest friend and Eamon Gilmore rushing off to Athens to pretend he’s a European statesman,  it might be helpful to spend a little time peering at one section of the entrails of the south’s recent election. Or to be more precise, one section of the electorate there. Put another way: let’s have a look at how many truly lazy, stupid people there are in different areas of the country.

You’re probably chuckling “Oh, he’s going to talk about Fianna Fail voters” or maybe “He’s going to give the Blueshirts a kicking”. Not so. I’m talking about the section of the electorate that just about all parties would agree is a lazy, seriously dumb section.

Let’s take an example - the Louth constituency. As most of us know by now, Gerry Adams topped the poll with more than 15,000 votes.  Nice one. At the election, just over 70,000 people voted. Good again. But – and this is the important part , so pay attention – the Louth constituency has 99,530 people on its register.  Which means that some 30% of the electorate were so lazy or so stupid that, on polling day, they thought it was better to sit at home and nod off in front of the telly or grease the cat’s boil or do whatever it is that really lazy, stupid people do on polling day instead of voting.

And of course Louth isn’t an exception. In Dublin Mid-West,  where Mary Lou MacDonald was elected, over 20,000 bone-brained beauties stayed at home scratching themselves. In Wicklow, people are a bit smarter, or rather thre are a few more smart people: the dunderheads there compose less than a quarter of the voting population. It’s still a lot of people – over 24,000 morons. The Wicklow election was a cliff-hanger – remember all those recounts and knife-edge leads?  If even a fifth of the idiots who stayed at home had grunted, rubbed their eyes and gone out and cast their votes, they’d almost certainly have changed the make-up of those elected.

Or take Dublin Mid-West.  One of Sinn Féin’s most impressive candidates, Eoin Ó Broin,  missed taking the last seat by just over 500 votes.  There are over 20,000 bleary-eyed, dumb-ass non-voters in Dublin Mid-West. If one fortieth of those clowns had made the supreme sacrifice of walking to their local polling booth and putting a 1 beside Ó Broin’s name, he’d be a TD today.

You could cheer yourself up, if you wanted, and tell yourself  that things are getting better. They are, sort of. Four years ago in 2007, just 67% of the voters turned out and cast their ballots. This year,  70% helped decide who governs them – that’s a 3% improvement. At the same time, that still leaves just short of a million – can you believe it, a MILLION PEOPLE – for whom the thought of leaving their front room and  voting was just too much. 

What a shower, eh? The big question now is, how many stupid slobs in the north of Ireland are planning to stay at home paring their toenails on 5 May?

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Cricket, lovely cricket

I’ve always loved cricket. My memory is filled with sun-drenched days, the click of ball on willow-ash,  the gasp of the bowler as he launches a googly and the silly mid-on makes an amazing catch just short of the bound...Sorry. I can’t go on with this. Unlike John Hume, I never as a youngster played cricket. Rounders, yes, but not cricket.  ‘The English’ G B Shaw said, ‘are not very spiritual people, so they invented cricket to give them some idea of eternity’.  Too true. Myself, I’ve never watched a cricket game for longer than five minutes, and that was  only because in the early 1960s the West Indies team  came to England and started bowling at the heads of the England batsmen.

Maybe that’s the link to the sudden outburst of pride in the Ireland cricket team: they beat the English.  It’s deep in our gut, the satisfaction that gives. We’d prefer it were soccer and 12 June 1988, with Ray Houghton putting the ball in the English net and doing a little victory dance as all of Ireland went mad. But we’ll settle for cricket. Come to that we’d settle for tiddlywinks, draughts, darts or keepy-ups.

English people say they find this fixation of ours hard to grasp. Why do Ireland, Scotland and Wales gloat and caper and make comic faces when they beat England?  Why can’t we be gracious in our occasional victories?  If England were to win, they’d call for three rousing cheers  and a chorus of ‘For they are jolly good fellows’ for the defeated team, not stick their tongue out and make lewd gestures.

I’ve heard that bewilderment expressed by all sorts of English people: dentists, builders, shop-keepers, teachers, factory-workers.  But there is one category of English person who never asks for an explanation. S/he knows why the Celtic countries start shaking with orgasmic delight when they put one over on England, and the reason they know is that they’ve studied history.

I rest my case. 

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Schools, smells and the inspectorate

The Venerable Organ this morning has one of its twisted-blood headlines: “Bunscoil minister’s kids attended ‘flawed’: report”.  You got that first time, I expect. I still don’t know what it’s trying to say, apart from the Education Correspondent believing it’s a good idea to use the same word for ‘children’ and ‘young goats’.

But if you can be bothered burrowing further into the story, you’ll find that Bunscoil an Iuir in Newry recently got a stinker report from the school inspectors: ”The inspection has identified significant areas for improvement in standards, in learning and teaching, and in leadership and management, which need to be addressed urgently”.  You’re maybe wondering why the VO should get so sweaty in its leather that it devotes a full page to  this school report? Ah. Well you see,  Caitriona Ruane’s children used to attend  this school, and she’s the education minister. Oh, and she’s a leading member of Sinn Féin.

As usually happens after a critical inspectors’ report,  the people running the school have responded meekly.  The chairperson of the board of governors says "[We’re] required to improve our practice in the areas identified in the report and this is what we intend to do”.  A case of a-fair-cop-guv, right? The school was weak in a number of areas, the inspectors came in and identified what needs improving, the school is now set to improve.

Except that underneath the meekness the school is clearly seething. Elsewhere in the VO article the chair of the board of governors  says the report’s findings don’t truly reflect the standard of learning and teaching in the school.  Put more bluntly: the inspectorate don’t know what they’re talking about but since they’ve a gun to our heads, we’ll do what they tell us.

Sounds familiar. I’ve known and worked with a lot of teachers over the years. I’ve watched and listened as they prepared for a visit by department inspectors, I’ve watched and listened as they responded to the inspectors’ report. Not once in all those years did I hear a teacher speak of the visit and/or the report in positive terms. What happened was, the school staff went into a frantic, months-long attempt to get the window-dressing in place. Hundreds of hours were spent trying to assemble a picture of the school that they hoped would be viewed favourably. Not, you understand, a school where real teaching and learning were happening; rather a school where all the dozens of boxes that the department insisted on having ticked, were ticked.

 Sometimes it worked, the report was favourable and teachers collapsed,  exhausted but relieved.  Sometimes it didn’t work and teachers collapsed, exhausted and distraught. But never, whether cheered or deflated, did a teacher indicate to me her/his belief that the visit and report had been helpful. Inspectors, you see,  don’t tell schools what to do in order to get better,  they just point out the flaws. Problems, yes. Solutions,  oh no no no. Bunscoil an Iuir in Newry may be riddled with inadequacies. Or may be a brilliant school, judged by other criteria than those used by the inspectors. But one thing’s sure: the inspectors’ visit won’t have helped.

I’ve always been full of admiration for the people who work in schools, particularly front-line teachers.  Theirs is a job shot through with stress, modest pay and umpteen hours of preparation and marking. Faced with the inspectorate,  my admiration screeches to a halt.  Their school visits encourage deception, hypocrisy and nervous exhaustion. As educationalists, they know you get the best out of people when you work with them co-operatively to locate solutions, not problems.  But they act as if they'd never heard of such a concept.

Right now, for Bunscoil an Iuir and other schools, the inspectorate are a giant poo on the path to improvement in our schools.  It’s time a power-hose was taken to them.  

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

It's a mess - but it's our mess

“They’ve bankrupted this country and handed over sovereignty to the IMF!”  That’s what the opposing parties shouted as loudly as they could during the recent election – Fianna Fáil and the Greens had mismanaged the economy and betrayed the men and women of 1916.  They had a point. The south now has a debt that’s pushing towards €200 billion and the chances of paying it off during my lifetime, whatever about yours, are nil. The Easter Proclamation declared Ireland’s right to run its own affairs; the IMF/EU ‘bail-out’ has shackled the southern state to a dungeon wall.

Not a bit like north of the border, eh? While the south is faced with paying off murderous debt,  the north is faced with a reduction in the annual subvention from Britain. Chalk and cheese then. We in the north get money given to us, people in the south are lent money which they will have to pay back at crippling rates. Lucky us, then. Unlucky them. Right?

Well, it depends on what value you place on sovereignty. Supposing, for example, that the IMF/EU had  come into Dublin and literally begun to run the state – sent all the TDs home or maybe allowed them to perform some duties, like running education and the arts and maybe tourism, but had kept them away from raising taxes or shaping foreign policy.  How would that have gone down?  I expect some in the south would have welcomed it. There are those  who think  1916 and what followed was all a mistake. “We’d have been better off staying with Britain. Sure look at the cowboys we elect – we’re incapable of running our own affairs”.

Up north, that’s a familiar refrain too. “What a shower, that lot up at Stormont!”  a lot of people say. “They couldn’t run a piss-up in a brewery”. 

So why did we elect them, then?  If the Stormont regime are  idiots, aren’t we bigger idiots for electing them? If  Fianna Fáil and the Greens were incompetents and riddled with corruption, wasn’t it the southern electorate who gave them a chance to practice their incompetence and corruption?  “But the recent election has changed all that – Fine Gael and Labour are now in charge!” Oh really? Check in a year’s time whether the new government has opened the dungeon doors.  My guess is they’ll have swallowed the key.

Behind bail-outs and subventions, though, behind the skills or incompetence of our politicians,  the sovereignty question lurks.  If the south’s affairs were run more effectively and honestly by the IMF and the EU,  would most people there be happy to hand over control? I doubt it. Ditto for the north - we cling to the limited control we have. Even if the EU or Britain were capable of doing a better job – a big If  - we are all growed up now. Adult. And when you’re an adult, you should be given the chance to act like one, decide things for yourself, make decisions. Sometimes our decisions may result in a spectacular mess, in which case we go back and try to do better next time, or elect those we believe will have the honesty and insight to address the mess. It’s called being grown-up, it’s called democracy, and even when it hurts we're entitled to it. The alternative – to let outside powers come in and make decisions for us - is to remain in a state of arrested development.