Jude Collins

Friday, 29 April 2011

Two young men, two different lives

It’s funny – that’s funny-peculiar, not funny-ha-ha - the deal life serves up to different people.

Today in Westminster Abbey, a young man aged 29 who’s known nothing but privilege all his life will be married to a young woman who, while certainly not from the level of comfort of her husband, is very comfortably middle-class and will, from here on in, be as privileged as the man she’s married. Collectively, they’ll live lives where they may receive help in squeezing their toothpaste tube. Together they’ll be known among other things as the Baron and Baroness of Carrickfergus.

Six days from today will be the thirtieth anniversary of the death of another young man at the age of 27. This man was intimidated from his home at an early age, spent much of his adult life in prison and died after 66 days on hunger strike. At the time of his death he had been elected MP for Fermanagh-South Tyrone. His life was short, full of danger and deprivation, and his death long-drawn-out and painful.

We might disagree over how much each young man earned by his actions what life gave him. There’d be less disagreement over which experienced/ will experience the more comfortable life. But history, I'm sure, will have no problem in deciding which life - that of Prince William or Bobby Sands – is the more deserving of respect.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Orangeism? Great idea. Pity about the history and ordinances

I was on the Stephen Nolan show on BBC Radio Ulster yesterday, discussing plans a  man called Jim has for an Orange Centre in East Belfast.  Jim sounded perfectly sane but his project sounds like a March hare on acid.

 He figures such a centre is needed because ‘unionism and Orangeism have been marginalised’. Eh? With 3,000 Orange marches a year? I thought it was the rest of us, pulling aside for yet another march to pass, that were the marginalized ones.

Certainly let’s celebrate those things we value, let’s have a mosaic-type Belfast dotted with different centres of culture.  But the object of celebration must have value and the Orange Order has two difficulties on this front: its history and its ordinances.

The Order came into being in 1795 with the killing of some thirty Catholics, a number of them unarmed, at what was called ‘The Battle of the Diamond’. That same year Lord Gosford, the Governor of Armagh, said “It is no secret that a persecution is now raging in this country…the only crime is…profession of the Roman Catholic faith”.

Orange marches in Belfast throughout the nineteenth century repeatedly drew intense rioting that resulted in the destruction of Catholic homes and the taking of Catholic lives  (see Andy Boyd’s book Holy War in Belfast). With partition in the twentieth century, unionist politicians almost always had to be members of the Orange Order - remember David Trimble doing his famous arm-in-arm with Paisley, celebrating Orange feet on the Catholic Garvaghy Road?

In its ordinances, the Order declares that all Orangemen “must strenuously oppose the fatal errors and doctrines of the Church of Rome” and must “scrupulously avoid countenancing (by his presence or otherwirse) any act or ceremony of Popish worship” (that’s the Mass, the sacred centrepiece  of Catholic liturgy). If you’re a Catholic, if you’re married to a Catholic, if you attended a Catholic service, you can’t be an Orangeman.

Yes, there is a need to heal the wounds we have inflicted on one another over the years. Yes, there is a great deal of learning to be done about Ireland. But if an instititution in its history over centuries and in its rules  and ordinances shows an inherent hostility to the faith with which nearly fifty per cent of the population identify, will celebrating that institution help healing?

Come on, Jim. The Good Friday Agreement promises us all freedom from sectarian harassment, and you want public money to celebrate the achievements of the Orange Order? Tell me this is a massive Easter spoof.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Easter Week 1916: myth and grim reality

Thomas MacDonagh in a letter to his wife Muriel, 
written a few hours before his execution:

 “I counted the cost of this, and I am ready to pay it”. 

Eamonn Ceannt in a letter to his wife Áine, 
written an hour before his execution:

 “I am here without hope of this world, and without fear, calmly awaiting the end”.

One of the things we’ve been taught to believe about the Easter Rising is that the people of Dublin rejected the rebels, spat at them and shouted abuse as they were led away. It was only when the execution of the leaders occurred that public sympathy turned. I’ve always found that hard to believe. Maybe, as a prominent republican suggested to me recently, maybe a reporter in one Dublin street saw open hostility and assumed it applied in all streets. And indeed some people had reasons to react against the Rising: if you were a unionist, if you’d lost property or family in the battle, if you were a Redmondite, if your husband or brother or father was off fighting with the British Army in Europe.

But there were contrary reports that suggested a different public mood, even before the execution of the leaders. A Canadian journalist, Frederick Arthur McKenzie, noted that particularly in poorer areas, there was “a vast amount of sympathy with the rebels, especially after the rebels were defeated”. Thomas Johnson, a Labour leader, saw “no sign of sympathy for the rebels but general admiration for their courage and strategy”.   It figures. The Irish people, like most people, don’t like trouble or destruction or bloodshed. But equally, like most people, they admire those who are dedicated to their country’s future and they instinctively side with the underdog. Pearse and his followers were classic cases of both. The Easter Rising was like a leap over a cliff-edge,  done in the belief that miraculously, good things would come of it.  The leaders accepted that their lives would end but they believed the sacrifice  would awaken the Irish people.

Contemporary commentators in the south, who live in a state which has successfully removed British rule, are quick to pull up the ladder after them.  Talk of a reunited Ireland is nineteenth-century nonsense. Jobs and mortgages and banks are what must receive our attention now. And whatever you do,  don’t suggest this is to insult the Irish people,  by assuming they can deal with only one thing at a time.   Don’t suggest that striving for the ideals of those who died in 1916 and saving the Irish taxpayer from decades-long penury can both be goals of the Irish people. Sure they wouldn’t be up to it.

The men of 1916 were brave. You have to be when you initiate actions you know will result in your death. They were also far-sighted men who believed that by taking on the British Empire they could wound it mortally and start Ireland on the road to freedom.

The Empire is dead ; Ireland’s journey to freedom continues.  

Joseph Plunkett  in a letter to his fiancée Grace, 
written on the day of surrender:

“This is just a little note to say I love you and to tell you that I did everything I could to arrange for us to meet and get married but that it was impossible. Except for that I have no regrets”. 
[In fact they were married the night before his execution.]

Padraig Pearse in a letter to his mother
 on the eve of his execution:

“We have preserved Ireland’s honour and our own. People will say hard things of us now, but we shall be remembered by posterity and blessed by unborn generations”.

[This blog appeared as a column in The Andersonstown News earlier this week.]

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Time to talk turkey, Trevor...

In a concern for peace and reconciliation, people have a habit of falling over themselves. Trevor Ringland did some falling-over this morning on BBC Radio Ulster.  He was talking about the Real IRA’s statement in Derry yesterday and he turned his thoughts to the notion of British occupation of Ireland. “There is no British occupation of Ireland” he said. “There is only a British presence in Ireland and that is the unionist people here”.

Oh Trevor. Pu-lease. You’re an intelligent, educated man. Let’s take this old cliché and slam it into a million pieces, once and for all, shall we?

Yes of course, there are people here – Irish people – at last count around one million of them – who feel a sense of allegiance to Britain. No dispute there. You could indeed describe them as a ‘British presence’, in that they see themselves as British and they are indeed here present.

There is also a smaller group of people – at last count around five thousand of them. These are British troops, stationed here.  Heavily armed. Training to use force to resolve political disputes in all circumstances. They are not Irish troops. They are British troops. This is what is known as occupation of one country by the armed forces of another.

There is an even smaller group of people – I don’t have numbers but their top man is Owen Paterson, the British secretary of state for Northern Ireland. He represents British political power in Ireland. He makes sure that the political control of this part of Ireland in key matters such as taxation and foreign policy is maintained. This is what is known as political occupation of one country by another.

I think that’s fairly straightforward. There are Irish unionist people who live here, have done in some cases for centuries; and there are British military and political mechanisms that occupy and control this part of Ireland.  It’s wrong to conflate the two or to pretend that one is the other, Trevor, and I’ve a funny feeling you know that. We’ll never solve our problems if we don’t acknowledge what they are. 

Monday, 25 April 2011

Knowing about Pearse: does it matter?

Knowing your country’s history, past or contemporary: I sometimes wonder if it matters. There’s a famous case of a youngster at comprehensive school in the 1960s, who at fifteen years of age couldn’t tell an inspector the name of the prime minister of the day (Harold Wilson). This was held up as a damning example of low standards in comprehensives. My question always was: “What good would it have done her, what would it have proved, if she’d known his name?” Facts are dead things until we do something meaningful with them.

I comfort myself with that conclusion when I discover another fact I didn’t know. This morning, for example – Easter Monday, the anniversary of the Easter Rising – I discovered for the first time that Padraig Pearse’s father was an English stonemason and atheist, who came over here to make a living from the boom in Catholic church building that followed Catholic Emancipation in 1829. He was married twice, with two surviving children from the first marriage (his wife died), then Patrick and Willie from the second. So, since neither Patrick nor Willie married, any descendants are from Pearse’s father’s first marriage.

As for Padraig Pearse himself: he was a Home Ruler in 1912, a dead revolutionary in 1916. His famous call for a blood sacrifice had as much bearing on the need for that sacrifice in the Great War as it did on the need for it in Ireland’s cause. And he was a man who teemed with ideas about education: in the early part of the twentieth century, his ideas about putting the child at the centre of the education system were revolutionary.

Does knowing those facts about Pearse make me or anyone else a better Irish person? I think not. It’s like wearing an Easter lily – good to have, but something stuck in your head or your lapel doesn’t prove a thing. It’s a good starting point, though.

Friday, 22 April 2011

The UTV debate: a sheep in sheep's clothing

Love hurts, and so did the leaders' debate on UTV last night. Afterwards, Ken Reid strove mightily to talk it up as a flame to the blue touch-paper of the election but nah - nowhere near. It ranged from painful to impressive but never fiery...Oh, OK. The bit where Robinson told Elliott 'That is a lie - from hell!' (hadn't heard that phrase before) was a bit fiery but otherwise, the post-debate analysis was more fun. And that's even allowing for the fact that Darwin Templeton and Noel Doran joined Ken on the panel.

First, the awful stuff. Margaret Ritchie. Oh dear, oh dear. No, not car-careening-over-cliff viewing but certainly car-bouncing-and-scratching-and-shrieking-downhill-into-a-river viewing. To give the woman her due, some things were better. Gone was the red blazer, replaced by a little black number with a string of pearls.Mmmm, yes - not bad. And she has recently learnt to soften her tone, so she doesn't always sound as though she's chewing on bits of metal. Counter-balancing that, she made two serious mistakes. Firstly, she kept raising her hand to get Marc Mallett's attention and he kept on ignoring her and saying 'OK, let's go on to another item'. It looked terribly weak. Secondly, she kept allowing the presenter or some of the other candidates to talk over her. Maggie would be half-way through a point and presenter Marc would say 'Thank you for that Margaret Ritchie, time now to...' Or one of the other candidates - usually Robinson - would make a two-footed challenge mid-sentence, and ask a killer question or bludgeon her with a heavy statistic. It made her look terribly weak. Had it been Alasdair McDonnell, Robinson would have got two feet in his face in return.

Tom Elliott. It was a, what shall we say, brave decision for the UUP to make Elliott their leader. Either you love him - good rugged rural stock, plain and outspoken, opposite of the ghastly twitchy Trimble; or you hate him - what in God's name is that big culchie doing pretending to be a leader? Last night he wasn't too bad but he wasn't too good either. If he'd kept his head the time he riled Robinson, he could have done himself some big favours, but he looked wobbly throughout, especially when Robinson told him 'You said you'd show us the quotation, show it to us then!'. And poor Tom couldn't.

David Ford. I like Ford. Yes I know, I should wash my mouth out, but I do. He looks kind of odd, he should sue his dentist, he's bald (how do bald people manage, I wonder?) and his skin looks sort of stretched. But he's a cool under pressure and he tends to have facts and figures ready for any occasion. Unfortunately last night he said water charges are coming. Of course they are but not yet, and nobody's going to thank you if you tell them an exocet missile is headed for their family finances, even and especially if it is.

Peter Robinson. A miraculous performance, in the sense that he's really Lazarus in disguise. Not much over a year ago he was politically dead and buried; now he's unionism's top man again and nobody asks him a thing about Iris or that piece of land or any of the bad, bad stuff that was everywhere, the night he sat down and did that sick-making interview with the 'The Best Dad In The World' sign positioned behind him. And he got lucky last night - he was positioned between Ritchie and Ford. Maybe at times he looked too comfortable, verging on smug, especially when he laughed at things David and Maggie were saying . But from where Robinson was twelve months ago to where he is this morning - miraculous.

Martin McGuinness. The Sinn Féin leader in the north has a speaking skill none of the others come near: he knows how to insert pauses. He uses them judiciously and they make him sound relaxed, they make his audience listen for his next words, he sounds like a man thinking and talking rather than reading a tedious autocue. Elliott tried to nail McGuinness with the bit about republicans not giving information to the police, but that allowed McGuinness to tell him he was a cheap-shot johnny and anyone knowing anything should pass it to the police. McGuinness says he's not concerned about the possibility of becoming First Minister after the May elections. Why would he be? Throughout last night's debate, he looked and sounded as though he already is.

But for all that it was a dull debate. Part of the problem was that the five leaders ran the debate rather than presenter Marc Mallett, who looked light-weight. More tellingly still, the questions were all put by Mallett, not a single question directly from the audience. So why have an audience, except you like being in a studio full of sheep? Awful.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Don't say that, Maggie Ritchie

I'm disappointed in the SDLP. Well no, not the SDLP - more Maggie Ritchie. She's on record in the Irish Times this morning as being cheesed off with the 'sham focus' on whether Martin McGuinness could become First Minister after the May Assembly elections. I always thought Maggie wanted to form closer links with her unionist fellow-citizens, yes indeed on South Down vote-getting grounds but also on principle, because as John Hume said so often, it's our divided people we need to be concerned about, not our divided country. Then here comes Maggie this morning, attacking the ordinary unionist voter. At least that's the case if we're to believe Peter Robinson.

The First Minister says that the spectre of Martin McGuinness as First Minister is a real concern the DUP hear expressed on the doorstep as they canvass. Sinn Féin say it's not an issue of concern to them. In fact if by some remote chance Martin McGuinness were to become First Minister, he would promptly create TWO First Ministers, so emphasising their co-equal status. I'm assuming the SDLP aren't creating a sham fuss about the issue and I know the Alliance Party wouldn't dream of such a thing; so that leaves the ordinary DUP voter BEING DENOUNCED BY MAGGIE! Not nice, Ms Ritchie. It could also become a political banana-skin, if enough unionist voters take the hump at what you said.

By the way, who came up with this two-First=Ministers idea originally? Maggie is putting it forward as a new idea this morning; I seem to remember Martin McGuinness floating the idea several months ago. So who's responsible?

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Cardinal Sean Brady, null points

I’ve never met Cardinal Sean Brady but he seems a nice man. They say he was a handy Gaelic footballer in his day, which also suggests a core of quality. But his declared intention to attend the wedding of Wills and Katie make me want to weep for the future of the Catholic Church in Ireland.

I have no objection to the hierarchy pronouncing on moral matters. In fact that’s their job. Cardinal Keith O’Brien gave a commendable example the other day when he urged the scrapping of British nuclear weapons and an end to the ghastly arms trade from which Britain makes so much money. I could query why he didn’t make such a declaration the day he became a cardinal but I won’t. Cardinal Brady himself took a Christian position when last month he denounced the killing of Ronan Kerr. I could query why he and other Irish cardinals didn’t make such a denunciation against ALL violence, including state violence against Irish people, but I won’t.

What I do object to is the leading clergyman in Ireland trying to influence Irish people on a political matter. Wills’s and Katie’s wedding isn’t political? Right, and the Pope's a Muslim. Wills is being groomed to be the British Head of State. The British Head of State, Wills’s grandma, will make a state visit to Ireland next month, a visit clearly intended to tell us there’s nothing left for our two countries to disagree on. No, I wouldn’t be for stopping the cardinal going to weddings. I hate weddings but maybe he likes them. What I would be for stopping him doing, if I possibly could, would be making a blatantly political gesture like this one. There’s also an implicit arrogance in the belief that the Irish people will be influenced by his gesture.

In God’s name I hope they’re not.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

John O'Dowd, Stephen Nolan and some VERY funny people

It’s terrible when you have to eat your words. There was me yesterday saying Ruth Dudley Edwards was my favourite comedian and now today I have to take that back. My favourite comedians are in fact all those unionist-inclined people who piled onto Facebook and other sites in reaction Stephen Nolan’s interview this morning with Sinn Féin’s John O’Dowd on BBC Radio Ulster.

What was funny about that? Well, O’Dowd was on air to field questions from Nolan, along with former Queen’s University lecturer John Simpson and former BBC man Denis Murray OBE (that’s Officer of the Order of the British Empire, in case you didn’t know). It was a cheerful, lively affair : Nolan in particular confronted O’Dowd with several issues from the Sinn Féin manifesto, demanding explanation and defence. That’s what Nolan does best and he was pretty vigorous this morning.

The discussion spent most time on two issues: one, Sinn Féin’s call for a referendum on a reunited Ireland and two, what government department Sinn Féin would want most to get their hands on post-election – would it be Health, Education, what.

Now pay attention because this is the funny bit. For years, maybe decades I’ve been listening to unionist-inclined people telling me that it really was time to forget about the border, what we needed to do was concentrate on bread-and-butter issues. Since we fell into a recession that instruction has been turned up several decibels. So what happens when Sinn Féin’s O’Dowd is questioned on (i) the constitutional position; (ii) the bread-and-butter stuff? You guessed it. The people who’ve been yelling for exclusively bread-and-butter debate pile onto Facebook with their thoughts on what O’Dowd said about the constitutional position.

You couldn’t make it up. I’d go on to tell you what O’Dowd said about both only I’m cross-eyed with the giggles AND I’ve the lawn to cut. Sorry, Ruthie. You’re now Uimhir 2 (that’s Irish for ‘Number 2’ in case you didn’t know) to all those hilarious unionist-inclined mental contortionists.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Ruth Dudley Edwards, I think I love you...

I’ve felt even lazier than usual today because yesterday I drove to the K-Club in Kildare and ran in the BHAA 10K race. Yes, we running scruff were kept well away from the glitterati. They probably didn't want us to suffer from seeing them suffer in their £350-a-night accommodation. What's that? Well yes, I did do a mind-bogglingly good time, but modesty would forbid me to....Oh OK, you’ve forced me, just under 47 minutes. Now can we get on?

Even had I felt fresh today, I would have been weak from laughter after reading my old university classmate Ruth Dudley Edwards’s column in the Sindo. The woman really is God's gift to humour. Today she was on about the French ban on Muslim women wearing the burka in public, and you're probably wondering is she outraged by it. Ha ha ha ha HAAAAAAA! Of COURSE she isn't. In fact she hates any kind of covering of a woman's face. On what grounds? Because it’s not a mandatory part of the Muslim religion! Mind you, there's no religious law that says I have to wear underwear or that the head of the Church of England has to wear godawful hats, but we do. I mean, I wear the underwear and she wears the hats. Although I'm sure she wears underwear too. When I say 'she', I naturally mean the head of the Church of England, not Ruthie. Though of course she wears underwear as well. I think.

Ruthie isn't just a fan of banning the burka in every country IN EUROPE (I told you this woman is funny), she's also as you probably know a big fan of the Orange Order. It fits. The Order always does what the law allows it, like marching through places where there are loads of people for annoying, although if the law stops allowing it to march in some of those places, it gets a bit upset. At least that's how it looked on my TV screen, the time of Drumcree. Upset. Very very upset.

Right now Ruthie's the teeniest bit upset herself because she'd prefer that all the European countries ban burka-wearing in public, not just France. She claims she wants this because if you're a lawyer or a teacher or a civil servant, working with the public, you can't do your job properly in a burka. I don't know if Ruthie's ever taught a class but I have, and if I could stop laughing long enough I'd tell you why I think she's pulling our collective leg. If she weren't, I know she'd have mentioned the wishes of pupils and parents and the school itself, and she hasn't. It's called straight-face humour. Like Woody Allen or Buster Keaton.

I tell you - my bones are aching from my near-death experience in Kildare yesterday, but none of them half as much as my funny-bone, after reading Ruthie’s weekly word-dose. To paraphrase another old classmate of mine, Eamonn McCann, in another context: How would we know what to laugh at if we didn't have her?

Friday, 15 April 2011

Can you lend your vote? And if so, will you get it back?

“Friends, Romans and countrymen” Mark Antony said, “Lend me your ears”. Note the lend bit. They’d get their ears back – he just wanted them for now.

Recently in politics here, the ‘lending’ of votes has become a current idea. Voters are urged, not to give their vote to a particular party, but to ‘lend’ it. In other words, you don’t really like us but you like your man or your woman less, so ‘lend’ us your vote and we’ll stop him/her getting in. In West Belfast in 1992, Joe Hendron defeated Gerry Adams with the help of votes ‘borrowed’ from unionist voters in the Shankill. In 2010, unionist voters in South Down lent Maggie Ritchie their votes, sending her and her red blazer to Westminster. And in the same year, Sinn Féin’s Michelle Gildernew kept her Fermanagh/South Tyrone Westminster seat yes, because a carload of Shinner students drove down from Belfast and cast their votes but also because, according to Dan Keenan in today’s Irish Times, a number of SDLP voters ‘lent’ her their vote and pushed her home to a squeaky-bum victory.

But to talk about ‘lending’ a vote is daft. If you lent me a tenner, I’d have it and you wouldn’t, and you’d probably have to come looking for it if you wanted it back; in the meantime you’d be tennerless. Not so in politics. There, a vote isn’t really ‘lent’. You normally vote for another candidate or party. As soon as this particular election is over, you go back to voting for your traditional candidate or party. Certainly that’s what happened in 1997 – Shankill voters appear to have returned to the unionist fold, because Gerry Adams recovered his seat.

So more properly described, it’s a one-off vote. Or is it? My old chum Eoghan Harris had the notion that Sinn Féin had borrowed their Dail seats from Fianna Fail and would have to return them in the elections earlier this year. It didn’t happen. The Shinners have a knack, once they get a seat, of holding onto it. Those who vote for them seem to come back for more.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

The Old Firm, tit for tat and Glasgow city blues

If it hadn’t been for four or five asthma seizures, I’d probably be talking with a Glasgow accent and voting Scot Nat. Immediately after they were married my parents moved to Glasgow from rural Tyrone and Donegal, a brother and sister were born there, both my parents loved the place (“All those shops!” my mother would recall. “And you could watch people walking about!”). Then my father started getting severe asthma attacks, his doctor told him he’d be more likely to get better back where he came from, and so they returned to Tyrone.

Like most people, I get a warm glow when I think of my parents as a young married couple, but that’s not the point here. The point is, they were told to go back to Ireland, where they came from, and they went. Every week, tens of thousands of Scottish people of Irish descent are told to go back to Ireland, where they came from – except the argument given is that the Famine – more accurately An Gorta Mór – is over. This is the famous ‘Famine Song’ which Rangers supporters and other dunderheads howl at their fellow-countrymen week in, week out. And it’s not just having Irish origins that offends the dunderheads – it’s the Catholic religion. You may remember the BNP tried a similar line in England, urging the Catholic Irish there to go back to the bogs from which they came. There were some good jokes at the time as to who would be nominated to tell Roy Keane, but to the credit of the English the pathetic affair fizzled out.

In Scotland, it continues to flourish. Glasgow Celtic manager Neil Lennon’s walls are daubed, he’s attacked on the street, his life is repeatedly threatened. And yet the cowardly British media insists on talking about The Old Firm and both teams are at fault, and the arch-rivalry, and that’s football. When there are bust-ups such as we saw during and after a recent Celtic-Rangers match, it’s very much tsk, tsk, both sides quarreling again, what a pity, what can we do? No mention of the fact that sectarianism among Glasgow Celtic supporters is dwarfed by that of Rangers. Do you recall Rangers’ manager Allie McCoist getting death threats? Can you imagine the reaction if week after week, the Jewish or Muslim or black section of the Scottish population were told, in a chorus of thousands, to go home? Would the reaction of officialdom “You know, we’re working really hard on this problem, doing our best” be seen as good enough?

It's primitive: people of Irish and Catholic background being subjected to triumphalist, mocking chanting and singing for nine months of the year. Where else in the world would tolerate it?... Oh, I see. Mmm. When did you say the marching season begins?

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Me First or Me No Play?

I feel a link to Liam Clarke. Two links, actually. I believe he’s from my own home town of Omagh and he once sent me a message with a little winky icon thing in it. You can’t help but feel close to a man like that. Where was I?... Oh right. The other day Liam was writing in the Bel Tel about the dangers of Martin McGuinness becoming First Minister after the next election. Check it out – it’s a good laugh. Peter Robinson is reported as saying that when he does the doorstep thing, people are worried about the bread-and-butter stuff, granted, but they are also fretting something awful about Martin McGuinness becoming First Minister. Jim Allister’s solution to this appalling vista, as you probably know, is to have all unionist leaders right now swear a holy oath on the King James Bible that, if McGuinness becomes First Minister, they won’t serve as his Deputy First Minister. This, Jim says, will render McGuinness impotent as First Minister – like love and marriage used to be, you can’t have a First without a Deputy First Minister. That’s Jim’s cunning plan. Peter’s solution is rather more, um, party-centred: vote for the DUP, for God and Ulster’s sake.

It’s all a bit reminiscent of the Martin-McGuinness-is-Minister-for-Education-and-he’ll-eat-your-children! routine that unionism went into, when Sinn Féin announced him as their Education choice in the first Assembly. In fact, of course, Education ministers don’t get within miles of working with children, so even if Mr McGuinness had had flesh-eating proclivities, all those Protestant youngsters were quite safe. And they still are, even though the Wicked Witch of the West Caitriona Ruane was depicted as tryiing to get in their classroom window to start chewing their bones.

But it’s a frustrating one, the First Minister affair, for Peter and unionism in general . That’s in general – there are a growing number of unionists who think McGuinness is OK and a smaller number who think he’s pretty damned effective. But the FM issue is frustrating for some because Mr McGuinness has said two annoying things recently. One, he doesns’t lose much sleep wondering if he’ll become First Minister, and two, if he did happen to get the FM nomination, he would immediately want to abolish Deputy First Minister and have two First Ministers, so emphasising the togetherness and equality of the position held by the top nationalist and the top unionist in the state. Who was it advised that you should love your enemies, it drives them mad?

In fact, unionist reaction is beginning to look like anti-democracy on steroids. Not only do some unionists – and I stress ‘some’ again – do some unionists not want to have a republican in charge, even if what puts him there are democratic rules they themselves devised. They're also agin the idea of having a republican and a unionist leader as true co-equals – joint First Ministers. As Marcellus might have said had he been living here: “There’s something rotten in the state of Northern Ireland”. Certainly it's got more than a whiff of the croppies-lie-down to it on this one.


Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Martin McGuinness and Oddjob's hat

Feeling sorry for politicians isn’t a habit of mine but I felt a twinge last night for Mary-Lou McDonald and Martin McGuinness. I was interviewing them (or ‘in conversation’ with them, as the Sinn Féin publicity promised) and prior to the public interview (about 100 people turned up for it at the Wellington Park Hotel in Belfast) I could detect a general anxiety about what would follow. Who was in the audience, were there tape-recorders and cameras running, would the whole thing work to Sinn Féin’s credit or would something be asked or said that led to damaging publicity.

I can’t speak for either politician or the audience but I enjoyed it. I like asking questions and I like working with large groups of people – old teaching habits die hard. I also enjoyed meeting up with some people I hadn’t seen in a while, including an ex-student of mine who, if energy and talent were properly rewarded in our warped education system, would by now have been promoted to a point where her abilities could show.

Several things struck me during the interview. One, how short a time an hour is; two, how difficult it is to include audience questions while maintaining some semblance of shape and pace; three, how important eye-contact is if you’re trying to stop a politician galloping off madly on a favoured hobby-horse. My sight-lines were neck-wrenching.

Of the questions responded to, the one about media bias was my favourite. Both McDonald and McGuinness were unambiguous in their criticism of Independent News & Media - Tony O’Reilly’s newspaper and other media outlets. As for the North, McGuinness figured the VO had an SDLP-slant and that his photograph was more likely to appear in the unionist News Letter than in the supposedly-nationalist Irish News. Deary deary me – the things politicians come up with.

Final thought. A fellow-blogger - a nice young man called Alan in Belfast – was in the audience tape-recording the whole session and afterwards did his own brief interview with McGuinness, using a nifty little Flip videorecorder. Alan's posting is on sluggerotoole.com if you’re interested, and he's kindly let me copy his sound-file of the 'conversation' (see below). I was struck by his slugger headline: “I would go so far as to say that Ronan Kerr voted for Sinn Féin”. Alan in Belfast declares this comment from the Deputy First Minister made some people in the audience feel very uncomfortable.  He doesn't say how many but I wasn't among their number and in fact  it never crossed my mind that there was anything tasteless about the rermark. On the contrary: McGuinness seemed to be pointing out, in response to a question, that young republicans were as likely to be found in the ranks of the PSNI as were Catholics with, let's say, more tepidly-nationalist views or none. He added in passing that he would have been equally outraged if a young Protestant policeman had been killed.

Alan's take on the answer if anything reinforces McDonald and McGuinness's case. North and south, there are media outlets traditional and new, ever-ready to report an event or comment so it spins into the public's perception of republicans like Oddjob’s bowler hat zipping straight for 007. (OK, OK, you're too young. Forget it.)


Monday, 11 April 2011

Young Rory: Northern Irishman, an Ulsterman, an Irishman, a British man - or all of the above?

Before poor young Rory -  oh, OK, let me rephrase that – before rich young Rory went into meltdown on the last few holes last night, I posed the question on Facebook as to whether, were he to win the US Masters, he would be described as  British or Irish or an Ulsterman.  In typical Irish fashion, my question was answered by another Facebooker: “Could he not call himself all of the above?”

In fact I wasn’t talking about what he called himself, I was talking about what the media would call him. Maybe I’m remembering a long time ago, when we got “And yes, the British lad breasts the tape and has done it! He’s won!”  or “Oh dear, the young Irish lad comes in a disappointing fourth. What a pity!”   Does that still obtain? Maybe not. Although Irish boxers like Barry McGuigan have always had to become British if they were to make their way in their sport.

But since I asked my question and got my answer in the form of another question, I’ve begun to wonder if you CAN call yourself all these -  Ulsterman, Irishman, British.  Louis MacNeice added ‘European’.  Literally speaking you can, of course,  but it’s dodging something, isn’t it? Just a whiff  of the Alliance Party to it.  If I describe myself as an Omagh man before describing myself as an Irishman, it  has no political meaning. But if I describe myself as an Ulsterman before I add that I’m an Irishman, I’m making a political statement.  Just as I am if I say I’m Irish and add that I’m British.  In both cases the Ulster and British, regardless of positioning, dominate. They are saying that my loyalties lie with Britain, leaving Ulster or Ireland something that’s an incomplete part of that British identity. And what if I say I'm "Northern Irish"? Is that a dilution of my Irishness?

In the end, it comes down to whether a person can claim to be fully Irish while maintaining a British identity. I would say no.  In fact I  find it hard to see how an Irish person claiming a British identity can maintain his/her self-respect. Ach sin sceal eile, as we say at our Beginners Irish class.  

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Castration in Kenya and other thoughts

If you read this blogsite regularly (and you should, you should, you’ll feel better and have nicer skin)  I recently recalled 1952  when my class was allowed out of school to see a film.  It featured Elizabeth Alexandra  Mary Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (although she may have gone under a different name then) and a trip she made to Kenya. The film showed how really awful the Mau-Mau savages of Kenya were,  going around eating worms and killing people, unlike the royal visitor who was nicely dressed in hat and gloves and was friendly to everyone.

So then a few days after my blog, in fact the other day, what do I read?  Newspaper reports that  just before Kenya got independence, the British took 1500 files back to London because they “might embarrass her Majesty’s Government”.  No kidding. Some of the men and women mentioned in the files are now suing the British government because the files verify they were held in concentration camps and were subjected to unspeakable acts of brutality, including severe sexual assault and castration.

And now Elizabeth Alexandra  Mary Saxe-Coburg-Gotha is all set for another visit, this time to the twenty-six counties in mid-May. Why? Well, you could say she will come in an effort to, um, how shall I put this, do a public-relations castration job on 1916 before its centenary comes up. With willing media support  (Well hello  Ruth Dudley Edwards!) we will be taught to see the centenary as a harmless, neutered commemoration, a kind of greenfest,  one that’s colourful, yes, but has nothing to say to today. Because there really is no big ape called Partition, it’s an illusion, it’s certainly not running round our living room defecating on the lampshade, the sofa,  the mantelpiece  and in Uncle Andy’s  hat.  No, no, no. All that’s a trick of the light. There is no Irish question any more, it’s been resolved,  and there is no ape called Partition.

Or if there is, we must learn to love it.

Friday, 8 April 2011

Who killed Eamon Collins? Who killed Denis Donaldson?

I’ve known just two informers in my life – or at least two that I’m aware of. Eamon Collins (no relation) was an IRA intelligence officer who turned supergrass. I knew him when he’d left the IRA and was studying at the University of Ulster. He was a stocky, vivacious man who’d been told by the IRA to stay out of the north. He ignored the injunction, wrote a book called A Killing Rage and ended up being brutally killed outside Newry early one morning in 1999. No one was ever convicted of his killing.

The other was Denis Donaldson. I didn’t know him but I met him a couple of times when I was doing some interviews with Sinn Féin up at Stormont. Denis was also small and stocky: he came down and brought us up to the Sinn Féin offices, chatting in a friendly, good-humoured way en route. Some years later he and two others were charged with being part of a republican spy ring “at the heart of government”. It later emerged that, far from being a republican spy, Donaldson had for years been feeding information to the RUC about republican activities. On April 4, 2006 he was found shot dead in a cottage in Donegal. No one was ever convicted of his killing.

The assumption in both cases is that these men were shot by former comrades, enraged by their betrayal. That’s possible but I know of no evidence supporting the belief. However, history provides consistent evidence that once the British authorities had finished using an informer, that informer was tossed aside to fend for himself. In fact, the failure to convict anyone of the murder of either Collins or Donaldson raises the possibility that the British themselves were involved in the deaths of men who knew too much about the dirty war waged here.

The media like stories to be clean-cut, heroes vs villains, the authorities vs terrorists. By now we should be wary of such black-and-white garbage. Two years ago we were told dissident republican groups were hopelessly infiltrated by British intelligence. Then we stopped hearing that. Then we had the killings of two British soldiers at Massareene Barracks and the shooting dead of PC Robert Carroll. Now we have the death of PC Ronan Kerr.

If we’re lucky, history will reveal the truth on all these matters. In the meantime we’d be fools to believe that all ‘informants’ are heroic or that, when no longer useful, they’ll be protected by those for whom they worked.

There’s one word uglier than ‘informer’ – it’s ‘handler’.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Party discipline: tough knuckles or team approach?


One of my faults ( please consult the present Mrs Collins for a more comprehensive list) is a dislike of rules. I put it down to my years in boarding school, where the day was hedged by regulations that scratched and irritated – polish your shoes, no talking in study hall, no reading novels, no reading newspapers, no comics, no listening to radio, no playing handball in the verandah area, no smuggling cans of baked beans into the refectory to supplement the  vile diet ...  When I followed the rules, it was never because I thought them a good idea, more because I was fearful of being caught and half-killed.  Rules make sense, of course, but they should under normal circumstances be explained carefully and thoughtfully to those asked to follow them.

The same goes for advice. There are those who give advice which sounds suspiciously like a command, and then attempt to soften the impact by saying something like "But in the end of course the decision is yours".  Damn right it’s yours, and if the advice had been offered in a more tentative ‘Would it be worth thinking about it like this?’ way, you might have been open to listening. (When I say ‘you’ I mean, naturally, ‘me’.)

So when I hear political parties  scorn the influence of independent MLAs or TDs or MPs,  I wonder what price is paid for party rules and how are they enforced. Are representatives told “This is the party line, follow it or we'll nail your bits to the barn wall”? Or is there open, non-fearful debate, a decision made that everyone is comfortable buying into, even when s/he doesn't fully agree with it?  And  - important, this one - which approach results in the more effective political fighting force?

Don’t look at me – I’m not a politician.  Try someone in the UUP or Sinn Féin or the DUP or the SDLP. 

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

My night with Nolan

I was on TV last night. Granted, if you blinked or scratched yourself you’d have missed me but I WAS on. I must  - some other time – go into the whole matter of how some people who see you every day believe you take on a new, more concentrated life when you are part of a media moment (“I heard/saw you on the radio/TV last night!’). But for now, let’s skip that and concentrate on ‘The Big Debate: Dead Fat’ programme on BBC1 NI.

I hated it;  everyone else seemed to love it.  When the studio audience were told to clap their hands off at the start and end, they did. Even when they weren’t told to they clapped. Someone would say something like “I weighed 24 stone and now I’m 16” and the applause rippled all over the place.  And yes, before you ask, I was a hypocritical bastard and I did put my hands together with everyone else, but only because I didn’t want to seem churlish or anti-people who’d weighed 24 stone and were now 16.

The thing is, Stephen Nolan taps into something in people. I don’t think he’s unique in that respect. I’ve attended live broadcasts involving George Jones, Hugo Duncan,  John Daly, and people responded with the same delight to their presence.  Maybe they’re all really good, or maybe it’s that people get excited when they get close to famous faces they’ve hitherto seen only on TV or heard on radio. Which, when you think of it, is the  other way round from their excitement when someone they’ve only known in the flesh is heard or seen on radio or TV – “I saw you on TV last night!”.

Anyway, last night’s programme discussed obesity  (‘The Big Debate – Dead Fat’) and it was all over the place.  There was a man who weighed 29 stone who got most of his stomach removed and now weighs 12 stone  (he got clapped). There was a woman who was some equally enormous weight, and Nolan had a big cardboard cut-out of her when she was really fat, and then he shouted “Would the real  Mary Bloggs (or whatever her name was) come on down!” and a plump but not obese woman came down and stood beside him looking embarrassed and he asked her how she felt when she was fat and how she felt the way she is now and then he asked her to give him a hug. And she did. And everyone clapped again.

There was some stuff about the cost to the NHS of obesity and whether the public should bear the costs of stomach-stapling, and there was talk of whether parents who had fat children should feel guilty. But the programme in general was larded with a sentimentality factor  that had my buttocks clenching with the frequency of a Sharon Shannon squeeze-box.

Three points, the last of which I raised near the end of the programme:

1.    Assuming they’re adult and sane, people have choices. In terms of obesity they can overeat or not overeat, they can get regular exercise or not get regular exercise.  It doesn’t take a psychologist to come on and talk about people’s ‘relationship with food’ to reach that conclusion.

2.    If Tiger Woods had said to his wife “Darling, I really want to be faithful but  even though I try and try, I find I just can’t”,   she’d probably have given him an answer with the heavy end of a golf club. Or if I told a cop “Officer, I really want to keep the speed-limit but however I try the needle keeps hitting 80”, he’d be unlikely to put away his notepad. So how come if we accept that actions carry responsibility in these matters, actions in the fat world seem to carry at best ambiguous responsibility and at worst none?
3.    At last count, WHO figures showed 925 million people in the world are hungry. I mean, hungry to the point where they’re suffering and dying from malnutrition.  Food riots have broken out in a number of places over the last year. Meanwhile in the Western world, we go on psychologizing about our condition as we stuff more food into us than our bodies can cope with.  Future more –enlightened generations will surely look back and condemn us as a shower of infantile, criminally selfish gluttons. (Nolan and the rest of the audience received this point in stony silence. Not so much as a hint of an applause-ripple.)

Two post-scripts.  First, almost all of the fat people I know on a personal basis are kind, cheerful and often physically-attractive (the thing about fat people being repulsive is a load of cobblers). Second, in the chemist’s this morning (yes I know you call it a pharmacy – I call it a chemist’s so SHUT UP) several women were talking and MARVELLING – it’s the only word – at how wonderful the Nolan programme had been last night and what a difference it was going to make.

Everybody out of step with our Johnny, eh?

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Dreams of Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Saxe-Coburg-Gotha

Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Saxe-Coburg-Gotha is on my mind today - I've got to meet a man later this morning for an interview about her. Elizabeth and I go back a long way. When she was made Queen Elizabeth II by the Grace of God, an old aunt of mine who'd spent a lot of years serving the Anglo-Irish gentry sent us a glass Coronation mug. It was so heavy it felt more like a weapon. During the 1950s I used to go to the movies in the County Cinema or Miller's Picture House in Omagh. When the girl had got that big close-up kiss and 'The End' had appeared, up would come Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. On a horse. Sitting, to my astonishment, with both her legs on one side of the nag. 'God Save The Queen' would then play and roughly half the cinema would stand, all square shoulders and hard-eyed respect. The other half would do their bit for Ireland by pushing past them and out into the Omagh evening. Sometimes you'd get a big no-pasarán anthem-respecter at the end of your row of seats who would ignore your efforts to get out. In such cases the only thing was to do a Fosbury flop into the next row of seats and exit that way. Somebody once wrote a short story about this culture clash: it was called 'The Anthem Sprinters'. I wonder if Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Saxe-Coburg-Gotha ever read it. Somebody told me she wasn't a great woman for the books. 

Then when we got our first television in the late 1950s, I'd watch until close-down time, around 11.00 pm. It was the same drill as the cinema - there was Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Saxe-Coburg-Gotha on the same horse, or one very like it. She always looked concentrated and serious, which I put down to the effort involved in staying on a horse while sitting that way. Sometime in the 1950s she visited Kenya and they made a film of it. We got out of school to see it, provided, the Brother explained, we wrote an essay  afterwards. It showed  Elizabeth Alexandra Mary talking to smiling respectful black people, and then it showed the horrible Mau-Mau, who in dramatic reconstruction set fire to houses and forced new recruits to eat worms in initiation ceremonies. I can't tell you the contrast between their filthy appearance and the coolness of Elizabeth Alexandra Mary in her nice hat and white gloves.
 I was astonished ten years later to hear the Mau-Mau had got Kenya independence and their leader Jomo Kenyatta had got tea at Buckingham Palace.

In my teen years, when she was married and started producing those, um, plain-looking children,  Elizabeth Alexandra Mary got a bit dull for some people, and media attention switched to her sister and the very important question of whether she would marry the dashing but oh-dear-divorced ace pilot or the strikingly-handsome hooray-not-divorced photographer? But my heart stayed with the woman married to the Greek guy. Once I dreamed that she’d tied her horse outside our house and come in and started taking off her clothes, saying she was dead hot and needed a bath and would I come up and scrub her back?

So it's with those happy boyhood memories that I'll come to the interview today. The idea of royalty is anti-democratic and wildly costly, and the Queen of England coming to the south of Ireland ignores a big smelly ape called Partition, so I'm agin it. But even I wanted to, I can't forget those heady days of watching Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and her white gloves and pursed mouth and the way she kept her knees together on that horse.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Duffy trumps Nolan (sigh)

There's a danger that I'll become a phone-in obsessive so I'll keep this brief.

This morning/early afternoon I posted a blog about the Stephen Nolan Show on BBC Radio Ulster (see below). I noted some good things about it but more that were not good - in fact, I said they were pathetic. So then I had my lunch and switched on Joe Duffy on RTÉ's Liveline. Stephen, I take it all back. You were brilliant, certainly compared to Joe.

The entire Liveline phone-in was about, naturally enough, the killing of young Ronan Kerr in Omagh on Saturday - may God be good to him. But instead of engaging with the central issue - why did the people who killed him do so and what do we need to do to stop anything like it ever happening again? - Duffy gave around 90% the programme to lining up callers who would attack Sinn Féin. Why, you say, I thought Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams were on air condemning the Kerr killing unreservedly and calling on anyone with any information to contact the police? Have they changed their minds?

Not a bit. Joe's callers were busy bashing the Shinners because the IRA once waged war against the British forces, including the police, and killed people. Duffy's constant guest throughout the programme was the sister of Mary Travers, shot dead by the IRA during an attack on her father Tom Travers, a Catholic judge, in 1984. Naturally enough, the poor woman was carrying pain from the loss of her sister all those years ago. But to take the killing of young Kerr on Saturday, resoundingly condemned by Sinn Féin which has opted unreservedly for politics, into a sustained assault on the Shinners, on the grounds that they once supported violence, seems, well, frankly anti-Sinn Féin. Like Nolan earlier in the day, Duffy missed a golden chance to explore the Kerr killing and suggest strategies for coping with and/or preventing further such horrors.

As I say, I don't for a moment underestimate the pain Judge Travers's daughter bears from her sister's death. But will we hear a similar Liveline phone-in attacking those who killed Pat Finucane? Or Rosemary Nelson? Or any on the dozens of families whose loved ones died in what many believe were British-loyalist murder gangs collusion? Not a chance. Meanwhile, let's use Omagh as a platform for a bit of Shinner-bashing.

To paraphrase the words of W B Yeats to the Abbey Theatre audience, this time directed at J Duffy Esq: 'You have disgraced yourself again'.

Missing the bloody point

I was in the car for ninety minutes this morning, because I had to drive to Saintfield High School with a reference for a marvellous ex-student of mine who’s going for the job of ex-principal today...Yes, yes, I know I should have written and posted it a week ago but I didn’t, ok? OK??

Anyway, it meant I got listening to the entire Nolan Show on BBC Radio Ulster. It was a phone-in about, predictably, the killing of PC Ronan Kerr, and it was wonderful and pathetic by turn.

The wonderful: it allowed caller after caller to come on air and express their grief and sympathy at the loss of what sounds like a cheerful, good young man. There was quite a bit of weeping as well – men and women. The programme allowed people to reveal their pain and their fears over the incident. It was also wonderful because, while 99% of the callers were filled with grief and rage at what had been done, Nolan played an excerpt of a phone-in he did in England on BBC Radio Five Live over the week-end. It featured a man called Edward. That was wonderful because Edward said he didn’t condemn the Omagh killing.

Why did Edward not condemn the killing and what was marvellous about that? Well, Edward is a former IRA man and he said he wouldn’t condemn young Kerr’s death because he understood it. Or rather, he understood the motivation behind this killing and others that, he claimed, would follow. One root problem led to the killing of young Kerr: the interference of Britain in the affairs of Ireland.

As I said, the Edward clip was from Nolan’s phone-in in England over the week-end, so we got some of the English reaction and then some reaction from here in the north. Yep, you’ve guessed correctly: in England and here they were furious with him. English people, people from the north of Ireland, people from the south. “Get that boy off!” one caller demanded, even though Edward was long gone.

The pathetic: the response to Edward. Nolan was at his most inept - “People like you scare me” he told Edward. Others, as I say, wanted him silenced. Others said he was heartless. Others that he was inhuman, others that he had been involved in killing Constable Kerr. A young man of Kerr’s age started weeping and saying that he didn’t care about politics. Another caller said if people like Edward didn’t like it “in this country”, let him go down south and live in Ireland. Another said why would anyone want Irish unity, the south of Ireland was bankrupt. Some said he frightened them because he spoke so calmly. More said he clearly wasn’t right in the head.

It was, in short, a grief/indignation feast, with everyone, including Nolan, failing to address the root cause which Edward had put forward. It was as if someone had tossed a firecracker into a flock of pigeons – shrieks and feathers everywhere, general confusion.

Nolan is a BBC broadcaster and the BBC claims to be energetic in its interviews but unshakeable in its objectivity. He can be very effective – that’s why he’s so popular. But today Nolan failed on both counts – useless questions while making it clear he was opposed to Edward and his thinking.

The claim that Edward should be removed from the air? Very silly. We’ve been down that counter-productive route, when Sinn Féin were muzzled in the 1980s. Edward was a psychopath? Name-calling is no good – they used to say the same thing about the IRA. He should “go down south and live in Ireland”? Mother of God. That’s the language of 1970s DUP backwoodsmen. And so it went on – people coming on-air, firing a volley of verbal shots at a man who wasn’t there and missing him by a country mile. What could have been an absorbing and maybe educative debate and interview subsided into a baying phone-in mob.

Put simply, Edward believes that Sinn Féin are helping administer British rule here, that the only thing which will loosen British control is force, and while he regrets Irishmen killing Irishmen, it’s the only way. No one came on to defend Sinn Féin peaceful strategy for reunification. No one said anything more insightful than “Killing is wrong”. In fact, no one seemed to listen to Edward, they were so busy being outraged.

If you believe in argument and debate as distinct from demonising and name-calling, you owe it to yourself to set an example. When the chance arises to argue with an opponent, it should be grasped and your argument should be clear, logical and convincing. Neither the host Nolan nor his phone-in participants seized this morning’s opportunity. There’s just one word for it: pathetic.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Omagh - my town

I grew up in Omagh and to varying degrees I’ve always loved it. When you’re young, you can’t wait to get away from your home town, especially if you see it as a small, non-metropolitan place. Then as you get older, you swing full circle and find yourself drawn more and more to the place of your roots.

I was back in Omagh on Saturday last to take part in the half-marathon. It was a visit rich in contrasts. As we approached the town in the late morning, there was a diversion; a car had crashed further up the road. So we called over a police officer and asked her which way we should head for the big run. Unlike in the old days, when the cop leaned in with a gun and demanded to know where you were going and why, we asked the questions and she responded. Police service as opposed to police force.

The route of the race took us through the town centre and down Market Street. Past the once-barber’s where I used to be sent for a short back-and-sides every fortnight, past the once-cinema where I went every week regardless of the film, past the spot on the pavement where I finally summoned up the courage to ask a girl – no, not a girl, a goddess – for a date. All of these had been within seconds of the seat of the 1998 bomb. Then, crowds of people running, stumbling, chaos and death everywhere. On Saturday, crowds of people running, clapping, laughing. As the route for the run took us out in loops around the town, it took us past the house where, although we didn’t know it at the time, the young policeman called Ronan Kerr lived.

After the race we got tea and sandwiches and scones and pastries in the Leisure Centre. In 1998 the Leisure Centre was the place where dozens of people waited for hours to hear news of the injury or death of loved ones. On Saturday, it was full of happy, confident people. Beside me a man was busy feeding twins - exquisite eight-month-olds - in a double buggy, smiling and talking to them as he adjusted their bottles. Their names, he told me, were Meabh and Muireann. Over his left shoulder I could see a woman wearing an athletic top that said ‘Gaeilge4mothers’. How at ease fathers are with their role now, I thought, compared to forty years ago; and how at ease northern nationalists/republicans are about their culture and identity. No more hiding the Irish News if you’re walking in the centre of Belfast. And I thought of the twins in the womb in 1998 who, if they’d had a chance at life, would have been twelve years old and probably part of the town’s Big Run day.

Then, the food scoffed and the tea gulped, the speeches made and the awards distributed (yes of course I was robbed), we left the Leisure Centre, got into our car and drove back to Belfast. At almost exactly the same time – although we didn’t know it until several hours later – PC Ronan Kerr left the house where he lived, got into his car and turned on the ignition.

On Sunday, The News of the World , Martin McGuinness and a number of others politicians said the people who killed young Kerr were completely out of touch with reality. It depends on how you see reality. Dissidents believe the Good Friday Agreement is a cul-de-sac so they are determined to drive the Irish people out of it. They’re convinced that next time a young Catholic man or woman considers joining the PSNI, he or she will remember PC Ronan Kerr and think again. In contrast, most Irish people are convinced the Good Friday Agreement has set us on a broad road to reunification where respect and acceptance are the guiding principles.

Which reality prevails, we must wait and see.