Jude Collins

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Booze and the Twelfth - inextricably linked?

It’s good to hear the PSNI plan this year to crack down on public consumption of alcohol at Twelfth of July parades, to confiscate it, to make arrests; good too to hear that the Orange Order supports this stance. But what did you expect them to say – we’ll go soft on drinking and look the other way,  we think booze consumption is a traditional part of the Twelfth and let them go at it?  Since its inception over 200 years ago, the Orange Order has had alcohol and public disorder march in step  alongside it. For those who doubt this, check the facts in Andy Boyd’s excellent Holy War in Belfast. 

Orange Order spokesmen like Drew Nelson will tell  you that alcohol abuse is a society-wide problem and they’re right. But alcohol abuse and the Orange Order have been buddies for hundreds of years. Having the 3000+ Orange marches that characterize life in the north every year is like holding a marathon series of parties where a good excuse for drinking is on offer, and then acting surprised when people start falling around in your living room.

The implication behind the emphasis on rooting out alcohol from Orange parades is that if the booze problem could be cracked, we’d have a fun day (days/weeks/months) out in which all the family and all faiths could share. Uh-uh. Like it or lump it, Orange marches publicly celebrate the triumph of Protestantism over Catholicism. So remind me: how does that contribute to reconciliation? And what does the Orange Order’s refusal to engage with the Parades Commission tell us about its desire for a bright new tomorrow?

But let’s not despair. In his book The Orange Order: A Tradition Betrayed Rev Brian Kennaway five years ago suggested that the Order’s numbers had collapsed from a high of around 100,000 to something more like 30,000. It’s hard to pinpoint particular reasons for this, but I like to think it's because  sensible Protestants with more civilized views on alcohol, triumphalism and sectarianism have walked away.

Look, we all need some colour, music, fun in our lives. But these delights don’t have to be built on the back on an organisation that celebrates the victory of one side over another, and does so in places where it's not wanted. Most people who can arrange to get out of the north during the Twelfth period, do so. For most people, Catholic and Protestant, the spectacle of pugnacious sectarian drunks unbuttoning their flies in front gardens doesn't appeal.  

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Those revolting Greeks

The Greeks, it seems, are revolting.  Out on 48-hour strike, clogging the streets, waving placards, ATTACKING POLICE. But hold on, they're not all like that,  these are a minority who’ve spoilt it for all the rest…No, sorry, that’s what you say  when you’re a headmaster ticking off pupils. No, this is a minority that is “intent on violence” , in the words of a radio report yesterday.

Who were these violent people that didn’t agree with a government  poised to impose austerity cuts of (wait for it) £28 BILLION?  Anarchists.  Bet that put you off them a bit. Anarchists – guys who  run around creating, well, anarchy. Chaos. Total mayhem. Right?

Well wrong, actually. Anarchists have probably done more thinking about how we should organize and live our lives than many of us have.  Like socialism or capitalism or Marxism, it’s a political school of thought that believes the state does more harm than good to its citizens. Not a view I share but you can see why they might think that way. In fact, it’s a wonder ALL the Greeks aren’t anarchists. And all the Irish living in the twenty-six counties. When your government has let you down the way the Greek and Irish governments have let down their people,  a stateless state of anarchy must surely seem an attractive alternative.

But will the violence in Athens  push the Greek government to stand firm and saddle its citizens with yet more massive debt they can’t possibly pay (sounds familiar) or will it impress on them that you better not give people too much of a financial mugging or they may start to reach for the bricks and bottles? 

What’s that? You don’t believe in violence? Well, like it or lump it,  it’s happening in Greece, and while the law-abiding (and cowardly) side of me wants to tut-tut along with you,  another side of me wonders how else the Greeks could possibly have got  the attention of a government intent on implementing a plan that will make economic recovery impossible.  Come to that, there's a side of me wonders how many promises the present Irish government will have to break, how many policies based on austerity-for-the-have-nots/bonuses-and-fat-salaries-for-the-haves will have to implement, before  the Irish people of the twenty-six counties start reaching for rocks and petrol-bombs.

One final, undeniable fact: if the Greek anarchists hadn’t engaged in violence yesterday, the world wouldn’t be focusing on events in Athens. They don’t send out TV cameras to JFK  airport to film the planes landing safely, you know.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

In praise of curvature

“A bridge going from nowhere to nowhere” was one caustic comment I heard from a Derryman over the weekend. He was referring to the Peace Bridge that was opened by Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson, with Taoiseach Enda Kenny in attendance. In contrast to that, I heard some other Derry people say it was a wonderful construction and that its opening was a truly joyful occasion.  Martin McGuinness buys into that view of it.  He called it “magnificent” and “iconic”, and admired its curvature.

Nice word, curvature. When I lived in Winnipeg, some of the WASP citizens used to tell me you’d know when an Italian family moved in, because inside two weeks maximum, they'd have taken out the straight-line path to the front door and replaced it by one with, well, curvature. It was clear the WASPs had a low opinion of curvature. Maybe of Italians too.

The fact is, this is a footbridge, so it’s not going to do much for the commerce of Derry. It’s untrue to say it goes from nowhere to nowhere – it goes from the largely unionist Waterside to the largely nationalist City side. It’ll be used, not by trucks and vehicles quickening the commercial heart-beat of the city but by pedestrians, probably out for a recreational walk or jog or maybe a spin on the bicycle.  The Deputy First Minister is right to call it “iconic”, if by using that over-exercised word he means admired and symbolic.  

It’s admired because it is in itself a beautiful object (WASP alert: all those curves) and it’s symbolic because it offers material evidence that Derry wants to link the two sides of its city, excluding no one (bigot alert: your day is done).

John Hume’s da used to tell him “You can’t eat a flag, son” and he was right. On the other hand, you can’t eat a bridge either. Both, properly used, can nourish the soul.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Conflict, reminders and don't tell me what to do

A few years back, a man living a few streets away and myself had an unfortunate difference of opinion. It ended with a punch-up in which I’m afraid I came off second-best. One minute we’re exchanging loud words, the next he’s knocking the stuffing out of me. Even worse, since that time four years ago, he keeps reminding me of it.  Not just on the anniversary, which is coming up,   but I’d say at least once a week on average in the weeks before and after.  And it’s not just a quiet mocking word in my ear either. He comes  round with placards and blown-up photographs and stands outside my house waving them. The placards say things like “Guess who knocked the crap out of who back in 2007?” and the photographs show him in various grinning poses, his hands above his head in a victory clench.

Yes, it is pretty annoying. In fact it’s really annoying. I’ve had different advice on how I should respond. Some people tell me to just stay inside and watch Wimbledon on TV, pretend he’s not there.  Other people suggest a counter-demonstration -  go out with my own placards,  with “Enough is enough” or “Clear off, you!” on them.  A year ago, a neighbour who’s new to the area suggested the three of us meet up – him, me and my conqueror – and come to some mutually agreeable arrangement. I said fair enough, since anything would be better than your man marching around outside my house, but he would have none of it. Said the new neighbour had no right to tell him what to do, he had every right to walk on the pavement and express his views on our little set-to back then. And now I’ve had phone calls from some people, I’ve no idea who, and they’ve offered, the next time he comes round, to start lobbing bricks at him.  Talk about from bad to worse.

By the way: did you see where tomorrow,  Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness are meeting with the Parades Commission?  It’s just a pity the Orange Order say the Commission has no right to tell them what to do. 

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Sin and the curious case of Fr Kit Cunningham

Fr Kit Cunningham

Sin’s a funny thing. Back in the 1950s there was really only one sin – sex, in thought as well as in deed. We knew that sex was the only sin because the Catholic Church told us so. It was the one you heard preached against and the one you knew for sure would land you in hell. Everything else shrank in importance alongside it. OK, the odd Sunday you might get a sermon about doing an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay ( translation: there are a lot of lazy workers in this parish) and gossiping (translation: God, some of the women in this parish!), but sex got front-and-centre sin attention. You could be a paragon of virtue in every other area but sexual sin stained all that out of existence.

Have things changed? Yes, completely, and at the same time not at all. Two examples.

Bishop Eamon Casey (remember him?) did sterling work for years with Irish emigrants in London;  all that shrank to nothing when he was found to have fathered a child with an American woman. He fled the country, pursued by national contempt.

This morning on BBC Radio Ulster/Raidió Ulaidh, a writer talked about a Fr Kit Cunningham. This English priest apparently spent a lifetime doing good work, particularly with the marginalised in society. He was a friend and confessor to the writer, who even named his son after the priest. Then Fr Kit Cunningham died and it emerged that he’d been guilty of the sexual abuse of children. Interviewer William Crawley and the writer appeared to agree: the man who’d seemed thoroughly good had been in fact thoroughly bad.

In the 1950s, sexual sin was the only sin and everything else shrank in importance alongside it. Today, sexual sin is the only sin if we're talking about Catholic clergy. Everything else they may have done – good and bad – shrinks in importance alongside it.

If we’re loud in condemning the blinkered ethics of the Catholic Church in the 1950s, why aren't we equally loud in condemning  blinkered ethics by its critics today?

Friday, 24 June 2011

Over 50% of Catholics like their Mother (of Parliaments, that is)

Oh dear – here we go again. Another double-whammy from my second-favourite organ, as Woody Allen put it. In Whammy No 1 the VO this morning has a columnist telling readers what a hard time he had getting an Irish passport and reminding them that over 50% of northern Catholics are happy to embrace government from London.  Whammy No 2 has a front-and-centre letter blaming Sinn Féin for the 50%+ of Catholics who “judge that UK is best”.

Polls and statistics can be made to say damn near anything, as anyone who’s looked at newspaper circulation figures will tell you, but it’s undeniably an uncomfortable fact for nationalists/republicans that a majority of Catholics seem happy to stay under Her Majesty’s government. The assumption had been that unionist politicians were talking through their armpits when they claimed around one-third of the Catholic population wanted to be told what to do by Britain; here now we have figures, not claims, and it’s over 50%.

What, though, if they'd had pollsters a century ago? Say in 1911, when the British monarch visited Ireland and was received with loud huzzahs and cries of loyal joy. And maybe again in 1918,  when Sinn Féin swept the country electorally. “Events, dear boy, events” – wasn’t it Harold Macmillan said that?

Want to know what I think? No, of course you don’t but I’ll tell you anyway. I think it’s not so much where public opinion is but where we’d like it to be and what we do to move it there that reveals what we are. In Britain, if a poll were held tomorrow, capital punishment would be back before Christmas. In Ireland, if a poll were held tomrrow, householders would be allowed to shoot dead any suspicious character who put a foot over their front door. If a poll were held in either country tomorrow, people with a non-white skin colour  would be met at  ports and airports by burly men and padlocked doors.

So there may well be truth in the contention that a considerable number of northern Catholics do the odd thing of voting for parties that want to break the union with Britain while hoping that union will be maintained.

The question that faces those of us with a political interest/motivation is: what direction would we like to see public opinion move? If we’re nationalist/republican, we’ll want to argue our case, present evidence, show that being grown-up politically involves the responsibility of  being like other countries, running our own affairs, not having them run by the man next door, no matter how nice or rich he is. If we’re unionist at heart, we’ll want to argue our case for having decisions made by Mother Britain and do all we can to convince nationalist/republicans that theirs is a lost cause.

Is this where I came in?

Thursday, 23 June 2011

My early Wimbledon - politics obscuring lust

Sport and politics don’t mix – except of course when they do, which is pretty much all the time. When I was a lad dizzy with hormones, I used watch Wimbledon on our blurry telly and was a passionate (yep) fan of Maria Bueno, a Brazilian beauty whose short little skirt had a delightful habit of flipping up when she served. Unfortunately, the British commentators seemed more interested in Christine Truman, who looked like Princess Anne and was in the Come-on-Tim  category of tennis player.  To my rage the BBC covered Christine’s every move off and on the court and grudgingly gave us Maria only when she was blitzing and flipping all before her.

In tennis,  it does pay to be British. Andy Murray made the mistake early on in his career of emphasizing his Scottishness and in some south of England quarters, that’s never been forgotten or forgiven. They’ll not be too pleased with Craig Brown this morning, then. The former manager of Scotland has said “I would rather lose as Scotland than win as GB”, referring to plans to have a Great Britain soccer team in next year’s Olympics. Neville Southall, the former Wales goalkeeper, says “What flag are they going to put up if Team GB win the football? The Union Jack? Well it’s not my flag; my flag’s a Dragon”.  There are even hints that N Ireland’s Jim Boyce isn’t wild about the idea. Have these people no sense of their proud British heritage?

As  for the recent brouhaha about players from the north of Ireland pulling on the Ireland jersey, two Irish players sum it up rather well:

“Everyone from Derry wants to play for Ireland. I grew up supporting Ireland, so it was a natural choice for me”.   – Darron Gibson

‘No disrespect to Northern Ireland, but I would rather be playing for my country” -  Shane Duffy

And if you’d like a definitive dissection of the Everest of rubbish that’s been talked about players from the north playing for the Ireland team,  you couldn’t do better than read

I wish I could say the author of the above piece is a slightly dim younger brother of mine but he’s no relation.  And btw thanks to ryandelarge on Twitter for drawing my attention to it.

Yep,  sport has nothing to do with politics. And they should ban northern players from travelling south.
Postscript: I stand corrected, as you'll see in the posts below - Daniel Collins, author of linked piece on N-S soccer players, is indeed a relation - second cousin, to be exact. I bask in the glow.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Kingsmills killings - sectarian or political?

Why are the Kingsmills killings uniquely horrible?  There have been attacks which left as many or more people dead – the Shankill bomb, Bloody Sunday, the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, the Omagh bomb – and there have been killings which were more depraved in their cruelty – some of the victims of the Shankill Butchers, for example.  But it’s impossible to think of the Kingsmills killings without a particular sense of fear and shame.

Fear. Maybe that’s part of it. These were ordinary workmen on their way home, trying like most people at the time to live their lives without being caught up in the violence. We identify with that and we identify with their deaths. That could have been us being stopped on that lonely road.

Shame. The killings feed straight into the definition of the conflict that some people – usually outsiders – accept: it was Catholics vs Protestants. I lived in Canada in the 1970s and I got a lot of that: “How come you guys over there are killing each other because of religion? Everywhere else stopped doing that in the seventeenth century”.  Except that the conflict here was and is not about religion, it’s about politics. Kingsmills, however,  looks as though it was about religion  and nothing else – the one Catholic is spared, the remaining Protestants are killed.

But Kingsmills had and has a political dimension too. It’s in the news today not because the media have suddenly woken to the horror of what happened, but because a report says it was the work of the IRA. BBC  Radio Ulster/Raidió Ulaidh this morning featured Mark Carruthers grilling Sinn Féin’s Mitchel McLaughlin about this claim. McLaughlin had to struggle to get it in but he succeeded eventually: the Kingsmills killings and who did them, along with all the other killings of the conflict, deserve to have the truth about them revealed. The only way that can happen is if a totally independent body seeks out the truth. At present, those bodies doing the seeking have been established at the behest of the British government, thus implying that Britain itself wasn’t in any way involved or deserving of investigation. Which is handy for Britain but fatal to the search for truth.

But the fear, shame and grief associated with Kingsmills demands the truth, as does the killing of Catholics that immediately preceded it, as do all the other murky killings that happened over several decades. But until we shake off two notions – that the conflict was essentially sectarian and that Britain was a decent-minded referee struggling to keep two savage tribes apart – there’s not a chance of the truth being told. End of blood-soaked story.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Who were those masked men?

Just the teensiest of footnotes to yesterday’s item which clearly touched a nerve of some kind: the VO this morning (and yes, I have been less than complimentary about some of their offerings and will be again, no doubt) has an editorial which links McDowell, McIlroy and Harrington as being winners who are very good news for Irish golf. I’ll buy that.

Now, The VO also has disturbing reports from last night, when around 100 masked men in East Belfast wearing surgical gloves,  armed with stones and petrol bombs set out to express their version of neighbourliness on the people living in the small nationalist enclave of the Short Strand. Sinn Féin’s Alex Maskey was on BBC Radio Ulster/Raidió Ulaidh  this morning, saying something similar. Ex-Special Branch officer Rev Mervyn Gibson and unionist MLA Michael Copeland spoke of Short Strand nationalists attacking unionist homes from the grounds of St Matthew’s chapel, and of two unionists being shot in the leg.

There’s a need for clarity here.  Maybe  Maskey, Gibson and Copeland are all three right – there were masked men in surgical gloves attacking the Short Strand and there were nationalists attacking unionist homes. Or there was misinterpretation of what was seen: maybe the men in surgical gloves were doctors on their way to a surgical conference and maybe the nationalists in St Matthew’s grounds were defending it against attack (it’s happened before). 

The third possibility is that somebody’s lying: Alex Maskey is lying or Mervyn Gibson is lying or Michael Copeland is lying. Will we ever know which, if any? Mark Carruthers, the BBC presenter, seemed to believe the PSNI would have the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. He could be right. Or, of course, wrong. 

Monday, 20 June 2011

Rory's win - its real meaning

Tell you what – stuff your Kennedys, right, just stuff them and their Irish-American elections-buying and Marilyn Monroe and visiting his great-grandfather’s shack in Tipperary or wherever, right up your jacksey stuff it, what this is is a 110% no-bloody-Irish wee Ulsterman, taking them all on and whacking their arses in front of the Sky cameras, yeeeeee-HOOOOOO!!!! And where did he learn how to play, with a guy I know from Stoneyford,  McIlroy was useless till  ten years ago, he comes to your man and he says “Here,  you’re a golfing man, I’d like to be one too only I can’t get the swing thing right", and my mate cos he's got a soft heart like taught him, taught him bloody good too, taught that skinny  bugger married to your woman, you know, the president of Eire, taught him as well.

And  see when they showed the, what’s this they call it, the leader board or something, the league table on Sky with where everyone was coming into the last lap yesterday, who’s at the top, our wee Ulsterman Rory, and beside every one of their names there’s a flag, and guess what our wee man has beside his name, the Ulster flag, ULSTER, ULSTER, ULSTER! Red hand in the middle and all, none of your tricolours in the background like I seen last year with your man McDowell, not saying your man McDowell wanted them waving rebel flags, know for a fact he didn’t, but it happened, you know, cos I seen them on the telly, bastards, lepping about, none of that this time, matter of fact, I was listening to the wee man yesterday after, you know after he won, and he was saying – and isn’t he right, eh? – CHAMPIONES, CHAMPIONES, OLÉ OLÉ OLÉ!  No, he wasn’t saying that, I was saying that – CHAMPIONES!-  they were asking him, like, how come so many good golfers comes out of Northern Ireland, and I was hoping he’d say “Cos there's a genius guy in Stoneyford taught them, same as he done me” but he didn’t, but he done the next best thing, he said “It’s amazing, one wee nation winning the US Open back-to-back, I’m so proud!”  Hear that, NATION, none of your regions or states or any of that shite -  NATION, the nation of Ulster, olé, olé, OLÉ! ...And  forget it, you smart-arse,  it ****ing does not  mean we’re not still a part of the UK, don’t you try getting smart with me, all I’m saying is, wouldn’t it make you proud to see an Ulsterman come out and say it, eh? “A WEE NATION!” So suck on that, youse Kennedy crawlers, of course that big-nebbed weirdo-looking guy, the Prime Minister of Eire,  Enda Mac Cioannaidh or whatever he’s called, tried to get in on the act too, saying our wee Rory winning was “emphatic and inspiring”, you're right it was, big-neb, so it was, eight strokes, only it's none of your business, you ****ing southern culchie, this is our wee man, not yours, go back to your Irish bogs, wee Rory is ours, y’hear,  ours, ours, OURS.

What did you say?...Don’t be stupid,  DON’T BE ****ING STUPID, how could he be, doesn’t make sense, propaganda, republican propaganda,  that's all, forget it, sunshine. There's no fenian EVER BORN could play golf the way that wee Ulsterman plays it. Ask my mate in Stoneyford. He knows.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Unifying Ireland: the economic case

Sinn Féin hosted a conference in Dublin yesterday titled "Unifying Ireland". It had an impressive array of speakers - Gerry Adams, Pearse Doherty, Mary-Lou McDonald - but it also had non-Shinner people - Dr Pádraic White, ex-Managing Director of the IDA and Dr. John Bradley, an economic consultant who was formerly an ESRI Research Professor and advises the European Commission, the World Bank and others. The talks were informative - did you know, for example, that business people north and south don't particularly mind two different currencies, it's when their relative value fluctuates that they get twitchy? Or that the foreign direct investment firms in the south are weathering the recession pretty well, it's the indigenous firms that are taking a pounding.

A few points.

One, even if there were no economic case - if research showed that an all-island, unified economy would make Ireland less well-off than before, I'd still favour Irish unity and independence, for the same reason I wouldn't have wanted the man next door to rear two of my children, even if he had given them a better standard of living. In other words, the economic argument for or against Irish re-unification may be very important, but there are political, social and even moral reasons that trump it.

Two, while the economic points made at the conference - about the currencies, for example - were interesting and informative, none of the speakers answered a crucial question: is there a major study showing a unified economy would be better (or worse) than our present ruptured north-south economy? You hear statements from both sides: of course duplication of business and services is wasteful, of course duplication of business and services is really good. Either there is no independent, objective study which places the partitioned cost alongside what unified cost might look like, or people are busy hiding it. There were small-scale examples offered by several speakers that suggested unified cross-border health services, for example, or integrated business would benefit north and south, but no big, detailed study.

Why do I think it would make a helluva lot of sense for such a study - far-reaching, rigorously objective and independent - to be done as soon as possible? Because we need the facts. If, as nationalists/republicans claim, partition means duplication means we all pay more, I have little doubt  pragmatic unionists would look at it long and hard. If on the other hand the study shows that partition does not mean waste, so be it. Those who think a re-united Ireland is a good idea would have to abandon the economic argument and produce other grounds. At the moment, the economic argument is fascinating, frequently-cited but bitty and lacking supportive data.

The truth - all of it - is out there. All of us, nationalist, republican and unionist, Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter should be given it.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Lisburn, of thee I sing...

Hang on a second until I climb up on this rooftop...There we are. Now I can shout it: ‘WELL DONE LISBURN CITY COUNCIL!” Other councils may be petty and squabble over six-inch union flags (Are you listening, Limavady?) but in Lisburn things get done differently. And bigger.  And more permanently. The statue unveiled  at the weekend in that City is 19 FEET HIGH (you and your six-inches, Boyd Douglas).  It’s made of bronze and it shows a male UDR soldier holding up the traffic and a female ‘Greenfinch’ saying something  into her walkie-talkie.  The plinth has plaques for each of the regiment’s battalions and it was unveiled by Viscount Brookeborough.

What’s good about this piece of public art? Well, several things. It’s bronze, so any unpatriotic thug intent on chipping a piece off will find his hammer bouncing back into his own face.  It’s big, so even short-sighted people whether Lisburn citizen or day-trip visitor can’t miss it. And it depicts the UDR at its best – holding up the traffic and talking into walkie-talkies.  It could have shown the UDR doing other things it did before it had to be disbanded, but you can’t possibly get everything into a statue, so why not choose the nice bits, is what I always say.

But the crowning glory of this statue is its inclusiveness. ALL of the people of Lisburn – Protestant and Roman Catholic -  can join in this tribute. In a sense these bronze non-denominational figures, as they stand there immobile, are working for all the community. They allow – what am I talking about, they invite  the Roman Catholics of Lisburn and Roman Catholic visitors to the City to join in the applause of this fine regiment.  It’s also hoped that these figures, one male, one female, will help Roman Catholic men and Roman Catholic women forget that unfortunate misunderstanding back in 1920 – and let’s be honest, one or two since - when so many of them  left the City, or town as it was then, under the impression they weren’t wanted. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

Now all right-thinking people of the Province of course appreciate how delicate and difficult is the work of reconciliation, so the city of Lisburn takes particular satisfaction in being able to give this bronze lead. That’s why, when it had to decide who would unveil this monument,  the City looked around and selected Viscount Brookeborough. By selecting him, the glorious past was linked to an equally glorious future. Because Viscount Brookeborough is a direct descendant of the much-loved Lord Brookeborough, who older readers will remember urged his Protestant neighbours to seize every opportunity to hire Roman Catholics and lamented the fact that he himself had been unable to do so:  despite his best efforts, he couldn't find one about the place.  Equally,  the bronze statue looks to the future, reassuring not just the citizens of Lisburn but throughout the Province that the values exemplified in the UDR are not of a by-gone era but will be maintained indefinitely.

As for the present,  deeds as always speak louder than words, and statues louder than Agreements.  There are some unionists who don’t understand, or say they don’t understand, why we unreservedly applaud the actions of our security forces over the last forty years. Let them come to Lisburn. There are some unionists who say  we should even feel ashamed of some actions associated with the UDR.  Let them come to Lisburn.  And there are some who say that  parity of esteem is the wave of the future. Let them come to Lisburn.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Turn away from crime.Become a judge. Or a lawyer

Would you like to be a judge? Mmm, me too. “All rise for His Lordship!”  – what fun! Nearly as good as being a bishop visiting a classroom in the old days. And think of the pay. That said, the south of Ireland is having a hard time financially these days so the Minister for Justice is suggesting they share in the general salary reduction pain. The reduction,  if implemented, would mean a cut of €50,000 a year for High Court judges.

Wow. That’s a lot of money. About £45,000 in Her Majesty’s sterling. You’d hardly be able to keep all the Sky channels with a slice-off like that…But wait. What am I saying? It’s a slice-off. The question is, not how much is their pay going to be reduced, but how much do they earn?  Um,  €243,000 a year if you’re a High Court judge.  Work out the sterling for yourself. Take off €50,000 and they'd still be near 200 grand a year.

Back in the 1960s, I remember our History professor at UCD explaining why judges got such high salaries: “It’s so they can be protected from the temptation of financial corruption”. Which shows you how simple History professors were back then and how simple we were to accept  such an explanation. As if , when you hit a certain level, you wouldn’t want more.

The reason judges then and now get obscenely bloated salaries is…they like it like that. The same applies to the legal profession.  Which would you rather: prepare a defence of someone up for being drunk and disorderly, or sell clothes in Marks and Spencer? You'd certainly get about five times the salary doing the lawyering. At least. The legal profession, compared to an average worker, is like Prince Charles to his toothpaste-squeezer . No comparison.

“But judges and lawyers do such a vital job!” Really?  They are central to keeping the justice system working, true. That means each year helping send thousands of people, overwhelmingly men, to prison. And how do they come out after their sentence? Do they learn Latin so they can become lawyers and judges? Ah no. They try to make their money – much less money than judges or lawyers, of course – by violent and/or illegal means and before you know it, they’re back in prison.

Will it ever change? Well, when the  Tory Cabinet minister Kenneth Clarke tried to suggest a minor modification to the penal system some weeks back,  he almost got devoured by the Conservative right.  “Ah but that’s Britain” you say. "I thought you were talking about the south”. So I was. Try suggesting a rethink on the justice system across the border or even that judges should earn a half-reasonable salary – say, €100,000 a year. The clanging sound you'll immediately hear will be the southern establishment closing ranks.

Mercifully, we don’t have such problems with our lawyers, judges or prisons north of the border. Do we? 

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

VO Double-Whammy Shock-Horror!

I nearly did my hip this morning. Fell off the chair when I read two side-by-side articles in the VO, both of which – can you believe it? – said negative things about Sinn Féin!   I was dizzy for at least ten minutes.

One of the articles focused on the recently-installed Sinn Féin Mayor of Belfast, who apparently has brought a copy of the 1916 Proclamation into the Mayor’s parlour, removing some lesser royal portraits while leaving one of QE2 in situ. He did this, we’re told, to show “those hard-line republicans from the Short Strand who helped elect him that he was still one of them”. Parity of esteem my arse.

The other article was Brian Feeney getting stuck into Sinn Féin in West Belfast. “Sinn Féin owns West Belfast”  Feeney explains. Me, I like to think those we elect represent us rather than own us, but I see what he’s getting at. Sinn Féin are the most popular party in West Belfast; West Belfast suffers from unemployment and poverty; ergo, Sinn Féin is sitting on its um, hands and  failing West Belfast.  It’s what they call the  ‘Post hoc ergo propter hoc’ argument – because one event follows or coincides with another, there must be a causal relationship between them.

So is there?  Has Sinn Féin let down West Belfast?  Well, that depends on what power an MP or an MLA or a councillor has. I think I remember some commentator – who was it , now? – telling us our Assembly was only a glorified county council. Not much clout can be expected from council or Stormont quarters, then.  Which leaves us with Westminster. Sinn Féin has held the Westminster seat – first Gerry Adams, now Paul Maskey - since God was a boy, so why haven’t they resolved the poverty/unemployment that does indeed plague that constituency?

I don’t know.  Maybe an MP can’t - maybe the causes of the poverty are beyond the control of any elected representative from the area. Feeney doesn’t appear to believe that. And it's certainly true that a lot of jobs were brought to West Belfast by the De Lorean company and to the north-west by Fruit of the Loom, and most people at the time credited John Hume with bringing both companies. Alas,  their glorious beginnings  ended in sad redundancies.  And in my uninformed way, when I hear the echoechecho of the near-empty Westminster chamber as yet another north of Ireland issue is being discussed, I  get an uneasy feeling that maybe Irish MPs who dutifully push in there pack all the wallop of a eunuch in a harem.

But I could be wrong.  Perfectly possible. My hip hurts and I still feel a bit dizzy, I know that.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

The next President of Ireland: how to choose

Michael D Higgins, Fergus Finlay, Kathleen O'Meara, Mary Davis

Pat Kenny had several presidential candidates on RTÉ’s ‘Frontline’ last night,  most making the same noises: ‘Vote for me, I’d be great up in Áras an Uachtaráin’.   What else can they say? The president doesn’t have any executive powers, so what matters is not any policy the candidate offers so much as the style, the tone s/he brings to the office.
Tone. It’s one of those words that are elusive until you see an example in practice. Think Mary Robinson: the tone she brought to the presidential office  was unmistakable from the start.  Mary the Second brought another, equally distinct but totally different tone. The trouble is you don’t know quite know what tone of presidency you’re going to get until the person has been installed. Remember my old chum Eoghan Harris’s prediction for Mary McAleese?  She’d be “a ticking tribal time-bomb” as President. Oh dear, Eoghan. Totally, spectacularly wrong. Again.

So  here’s my suggestion.  Since electing a president is a bit like marriage, a leap of faith, let’s vet the candidates on the basis of how they speak. After all, that’s what most of their working day will consist of, if elected: speechifying.

First up, David Norris.  He wasn’t on Kenny’s show last night because he was, um, otherwise occupied. Once the bookies’ favourite, measured by the voice criterion he might as well quit now. When Norris opens his mouth a kind of braying sound comes out in an Anglicised Dublin 4 accent. Maybe it works for  hard-of-hearing English people situation several fields away. Then there’s the dressing in Edwardian clothes every year and prancing around Dublin reading Joyce at the top of his voice. Next, please.

Michael D Higgins. Michael D was there last night and has the advantage of owning a voice that’s at  the opposite end of the scale from Norris – small, chirpy and wheedling. As he is himself - the voice, in fact, is the man.  But there’s a distinct sense of déjà vu here,  because we’ve already had a small, chirpy, wheedling president. His  name was Sean T O’Kelly and your granny might remember him. And he did an OK job too. But you wouldn’t pay over £2 million to see a half-decent movie a second time, would you? Next please.

Fergus Finlay. Fergus was there last night and has a soothing voice. Think warm syrup being poured into a gleaming Waterford bowl and you’ll have Fergus’s voice. It’s soft and measured and hypnotic. Listen to my voice, you will put your X beside F for Finlay… And what if he were elected and (God between us and all harm)  QE2 were to make a return visit?  There’s a danger she’d end her days slumped face down in the dinner trifle as Fergus oozed on and on and on and… Next, please.

Niall O’Dowd. Niall wasn’t there last night because he was, um, in America. Niall is different. He has quite a nice voice. Not too braying, not too squeaky, not too  honey-dripping. In fact Bill Clinton has described him as “the voice of Irish-America”. Niall says he’s interested in the idea of a “business President”. Given that Fianna Fail and Fine Gael’s idea of business is to pay French and German bond-holder debt while crucifying the Irish people,  it’s an attractive idea.  But how would a “business president” work? Would he take the European bond-holders by the throat? Would the constitution let him? Besides, Niall has plans to relocate us. “The US is where Ireland needs to be”. Mmm.  Nice voice then, and great peace process work and close mate of the Clintons, but would the out-on-his-feet Irish taxpayer be happy to cough up an extra €1 million  for Niall to commute between New York’s Upper East Side and Dublin’s Phoenix Park?  

Kathleen O’Meara of the Labour Party and Mary Davis of the Special Olympics were also on last night.  I'm buck ignorant and had never heard of either of them, but they had quite nice voices and they both said they would be great as president too. There was even some talk of renewing the republic and a fresh 2016 proclamation. Nobody suggested the north might feature in any way, shape or form, so if they do come up with a 2016 proclamation, it'll mean some pretty heavy editing of the old one.

Anyway, I shouldn’t be wasting your time talking about this, and I hope you didn’t waste your time watching ‘The Frontline’, because the whole thing’s none of your business, is it?  Come next October, you’ll have a better chance of being elected to the Áras than of being allowed into a polling booth.

[Note: an earlier version of this blog appeared as a column in the BMG newspapers]

Monday, 13 June 2011

Would I lie to you?

Lesbian Arab blogger
They lie to us. Sometimes we find out and, I suspect, most of the time we don’t. The latest example is a young  lesbian Arab blogger,  who was claimed to have been kidnapped in Syria last week. All sorts of people were outraged at her fate and calls were made for this, that and the other. It now turns out she was a he – a Scottish middle-aged he, apparently, with an interest in Middle East affairs, blogging from Edinburgh.

We should be alert to this kind of stuff by now.  As far back as 1972 when the British Army lied through its teeth after Bloody Sunday in Derry (“The IRA fired on us” “They were  carrying guns/nail bombs”), through loyalist gangs that were in fact loyalist gangs supported by British Army expertise (Pat Finucane, Rosemary Nelson),  through dozens of other families who lost their loved ones through state collusion,  through the needed invasion of Iraq because there were weapons of mass destruction – the list goes on.  

So when I hear that popular movements for democracy are sweeping through the Middle East, that people without weapons or training are suddenly finding weapons and taking on and even defeating the forces of the state,  when I hear that Colonel Gaddafi has supplied his troops with Viagra so they can rape more effectively (Wasn't Europe made anti-German in 1914 with tales of Belgian nuns being raped on tables?), a very large question mark materialises and hovers over my head. It might all be true. It might also all be a pack of lies.  

What's amazing is not that governments and others lie to us. It’s that we’re gullible enough to go on, generation after generation, believing them. What was it Jeremy Paxman used to ask himself when interviewing a politician on BBC's 'Newsnight'? Oh yes:  "Why is this lying bastard lying to me?" 

Sunday, 12 June 2011

The naked PM and other embarrassing things

I try not to take pleasure in the thought of David Cameron swimming in the nip off the Antrim Coast or in any other way ally myself with the thousands, maybe millions  who recently have enjoyed  thinking about Cameron's prime ministerial parts shivering in the grip of our scrotum-tightening waters. Maybe it never happened. Maybe the British PM pulled on a pair of manly swimming trunks before wading in. Maybe clever Adrian Morrow, managing director of Glenarm Castle Estate, tossed the dip-in-the-nip idea into the media mix, knowing the story would have legs (like Cameron himself, I expect).

But while we all can't help but thrill to the thought of Cameron naked, I find myself pulling  away from the idea of tourism, which is what Kerrie McGonigle of Moyle District Council expects will swell in response to the Cameron unzipped story. “We are hoping that will boost our numbers this summer” she says.

Now I know tens of thousands of Irish people depend on tourism for a living, and God knows making a living these days ain’t easy. But I wish there was some other way than tourism to do it, because it brings out the worst in us. Quite right - we are a friendly people, especially to outsiders who’ll be here for just a while. But when you blend in the fact that what we really want is their money, it begins to look more like a gold-digger story than a love story. Yes, I’m being nice to this big Yank because I’ve a naturally nice disposition, but I also want him to give me  his money for a bed, for a meal, for a car hire, for a trip in a jaunting car, for all the other amenities we lay on with a smile on our Irish gobs and an Irish eye cocked at their wallets.

Worst of all, tourism brings out the Cringe Factor in all of us. “So – how do you like the Antrim Coast?” Or Belfast or Derry or the Mourne Mountains or Glendalough. We practically get an emotional arm-lock on them and force them to give us the “Wonderful/Super/I’m-passing-out-with-pleasure” answer. Dear God – I know there's  no money left anymore but isn't there even a smidgin of dignity?

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Ben Clingain RIP

This post is untypically non-political. I heard today that a former classmate of mine, Ben Clingain, died in Cleveland, Ohio  yesterday.  I did a book of interviews ('Tales Out of School: St Columb's College, Derry in the 1950s') last year and Ben was one of those I interviewed.  Like himself, the interview turned out modest, funny and lovable.  Below is a short excerpt from it. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam - May he rest in peace.

Ben Clingan
Religion never got rammed down our throats in the College. We had religion class once a week but I wasn’t too conscious of that.  When you were involved with an outside church as we were in Creggan, and your mother drags you to Mass every Sunday, and your granny tries to drag you to Mass every bloody day, you get to the point where it wasn’t a big factor for me. But boarders had Mass every day.

During the retreats  you had to walk around pretending to be holy. I was in the choir and the choir occupied the balcony during the retreats. So for some reason on this occasion everybody was quiet. And you know when boys are together, it’s quiet and then suddenly, somebody sniggers or sneezes or, God help us, somebody farts. Well, somebody farted in the choir that day during a sermon.  We all gagged laughing. As soon as we started, we put our heads down behind the balcony so nobody could see us. The whole choir had their heads down behind the balcony giggling like kids – which we were. And then I heard this voice going ‘Um – Clingain?’ Somebody at the back had come in, it might have been Keaveny, and I was the only one he recognized.  I just looked at him and went ‘Yes Father?’  He didn’t say any more. I straightened up and so did all the others. So we all got serious again.  But at those retreats you’d walk around. We were all good Catholic boys. All I could see was the boarders walking around all serious – nobody cracked a smile. You couldn’t talk. But we talked.  The sermons,  what I remember of them, were the worst ever.  Like the Jesuits, telling you about the perils of masturbation, the dangers of gonorrhea. We were all good Catholic boys.

Father Flannery told me about the facts of life - we got called in one by one to his room. He was very serious about it. So he’s sitting there and he’s got a poker in his hand, and he’s telling us about the facts of life.  and I’m looking at the poker and …I had no clue. I was so innocent. But afterwards I was walking down Bishop Street with Patton and McCann,  because McCann knew everything about it and Patton certainly had done it. They’re trying to explain to me that the woman’s sperm and the man’s sperm – and I’m still confused. McCann eventually says ‘Look, you eejit – they both pee in  a bucket and the woman drinks it! Are you happy now?’  I went ‘Oh,  that’s so gross!’ I couldn’t think about that for weeks afterwards.

I was kidding around one day and Hammy McMahon pulled me out.. Remember the desks that you had – the top came up and it had an inkwell?  I was fiddling,  drawing a footballer in his class. After the class was finished he said ‘What do you want to be in life?’  I said ‘I dunno – I might be a priest’. McMahon said ‘Clingain – you’ll never amount to anything. You’ll certainly never be a priest, as long as priests are in this country!’ I said ‘Thank you’. I was terrified, because he was having a real go at me.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Maskey win and North-South meeting - predictable outcomes

Two events: one from yesterday, the other to come later today. Neither is of particular significance. 

Yesterday Paul  Maskey was elected in West Belfast, polling, what was it, just over 70% of the vote. Last time out, Gerry Adams collected just over 71% of the vote. Maskey’s next rival, the SDLP ‘s Alex Attwood, came trailing several thousands of votes behind him, as he had done behind Gerry Adams. No change again.  Two not-very-startling conclusions to be drawn:  West Belfast is an impregnable Sinn Féin stronghold, no matter who the candidate is;  and Sinn Féin will continue to keep its focus firmly on representation in Ireland, north and south, while keeping Westminster ticking over.  Some say it’s only a question of time before Sinn Féin take their seats in Westminster, just as they did in the Assembly and the Dail.  They couldn’t be wronger.

Today’s event is the meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council,  hosted by that fiery republican, Enda Kenny. Has North-South linkage been a limp organ over the past thirteen years?  Does Sarah Palin want her photograph taken with Maggie Thatcher?  Granted,  Enda Kenny has the words right: “We believe that there are many practical and innovative ways in which North/South co-operation can help to aid economic recovery and to bring about better value for money and improved public services for everyone on the island of Ireland”.  But if you think he’s planning to turn any of those words into action, you’re suffering from sunstroke or rain-rust or both.

The North/South bodies  have so far produced nothing worth a damn, won’t today and maybe never will, for two good reasons:  unionism and southern ‘nationalism’.  The DUP wants every cross-border initiative to fail because every successful one is a testimony to the failure of partition. And Fine Gael/Labour don’t want any successful initiatives for the same reason. Words - no problem with the words. But the last thing they want is any action that might seriously shake the partition apple-cart,  let alone upset it.  That’s why today’s meeting will produce nothing – repeat NOTHING – of practical importance.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

The Commons knows its place; why can't John O'Dowd?

John O’Dowd had a difference of opinion with the TUV’s Jim Allister up in Stormont the other day. Allister referred to him as “Her Majesty’s Minister for Education”. “I am not Her Majesty’s Minister for Education” O’Dowd told the once-potent threat to the DUP. “I am the people’s Minister for Education, a title of which I am proud”.

The British House of Commons appears to adopt Allister's more genuflecting line. Tomorrow is Prince Philip’s 90th birthday and the British MPs were doing some truly sad grovelling, sending their “humble congratulations” to “His Royal Highness” on the great achievement of having lived so long. This was backed up by lots of side-splitting memories of His Royal Highness’s wit, such as the time he asked a man what he did, the man said he was a trade union representative and Prince Philip (oh my aching sides!) replied “You do bugger all, in other words.”

He’s always been witty at others' expense. There’s the famous remark on the Chinese tour when he told some students “If you stay here much longer, you’ll all be slitty-eyed”, and his Wildean barb to a blind woman with a guide-dog: “Do you know they have eating dogs for the anorexic now?”

He started life as Philip Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glucksburg, but when he married Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, he changed his name to hers. Odd, but there you are. Fortunately, by this time Elizabeth A M had changed her name to Windsor (no nodding off at the back, please), so the chance of combining the two names into Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glucksburg-Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was, sad to say, lost. Meanwhile, three of Philip’s brothers-in-law were busy sucking up to the Nazis but then so was Elizabeth’s uncle Edward. It wasn't from the wind Harry got that fancy-dress idea.

But let's not mention the war, or at least not that one. There’s no denying the man from Greece is today in great shape for his age, and the fact that his idea of work is to walk behind the wife on some eighty days in the year, hands behind his back, passing the occasional racist or sexist remark to people who can’t answer back, probably has nothing to do with it. Bet he's glad he left Greece, though.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Limavady neutral environment? Don't give the cat a seizure

William Ferguson Massey

Gerry Anderson says he longs to live somewhere else because of arguments over them, John Hume’s da said you couldn’t eat one, and last night Councillor Boyd Douglas (TUV) brought one into a meeting of Limavady Borough Council. The union flag displayed by Councillor Douglas was contrary to the no-flags-in-the-chamber policy of the council,  so a vote was taken and the meeting was abandoned.  When he was asked about his actions on the BBC’s Good Morning Ulster  programme this morning, Councillor Boyd, who's been around for fourteen years,  said he didn’t know there was a no-flags policy.

I think Limavady council has made a mistake in banning all flags. Their idea is to create a neutral environment in the council chamber but of course that’s never going to happen. Councillor Boyd says he’s all for a neutral environment and doesn’t see how the flag of his country violates that. He probably doesn’t see how the statue of William Ferguson Massey at the entrance to the council offices breaches neutrality either. For him WFM was big in New Zealand and big in the Orange Order,  and wasn't it great he was both?

A neutral environment in the six counties is impossible. Everywhere you look, you see monuments and statues and symbols which remind you that you are in a British state. You may favour their removal or you may think removal  abhorrent, but either way they won’t be moving.

So since unionists like Boyd won’t allow the creation of a no-flags-no-symbols policy  - a  neutral environment -  the only reasonable alternative would be the display of Irish flags and statues and symbols alongside the many British already in place. After all,  around fifty per cent of the population here see themselves as Irish rather than British. It seems reasonable that they should be free to display  those symbols that matter to them, alonside the emblems which their unionist neighbours hold dear.

There is a third alternative.  Those who believe in the free display of flags and  emblems, along with those who believe in a neutral environment, could bow  their heads and accept that their views and their loyalties don’t matter in this north-east corner. Maybe that's the answer.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Abortion? My head hurts

Pro-choice campaigners fight moves to turn back clock on abortion rights

Diane Abbott among those opposing involvement of anti-abortion charity in possible amendment to law

The above is a headline in today's Guardian  newspaper.  It struck me that the phrase 'turn back the clock' was a loaded one, making clear which side of the debate the Guardian  was on.  On the other hand, abortion is one of these topics that  baffles me. Here are some of the things about it that send my head into a whirl.

1.  Some people contend that to abort a foetus is to destroy a human life. Others contend that until the foetus is viable - that is, capable of surviving as a separate entity - it is not a human life. Head-whirler: if up to 24 weeks the foetus is not human life, why is deciding to abort seen as a difficult decision for women (and their partners, presumably)?  You don't agonise over blowing your nose or cutting your toenails. Why have concerns about flushing out a foetus which is just a  bundle of tissues?
2. Some people (and political parties) are opposed to abortion but make an exception in the case of rape or  incest. Head-whirler:  a foetus is a human life, according to such parties.  So how can it be right to abort a foetus even when it has been brought into existence by rape or incest? Is that not punishing the child for the crime of the father?
3.  Some people opposed to abortion contend that a politician's stance on abortion eclipses everything else. There are instances in the US of bishops instructing that Holy Communion not be given by priests to politicians who have voted for abortion.  Head-whirler: might not the sum of other policies by a given political party not outweigh the negative factor of pro-abortion/pro-choice? Likewise, does the support of a party for the taking of life in a war in, say, Afghanistan equally disqualify that political party from the moral right to our vote?

I could go on but these three are probably enough to start your head whirling a bit too. Or maybe you have it all sussed out already and have no such confusion? Lucky you, then.