Jude Collins

Sunday, 31 July 2011

Windsor Park - changed, changed utterly?

Does the name Kenneth McCallister ring a bell for sports minister  Caral Ní Chuilin?  I suspect it might. It’s the name of the central character in Marie Jones’s play, ‘A Night in November’, which as you probably know is about that famous night in 1993 when the Republic of Ireland turned up to play Northern Ireland in Windsor Park. If the Republic won, they got the pleasure of going to the World Cup finals in the US; if Northern Ireland won, they got the pleasure of stopping the Republic from going anywhere.  In the play, the  viciousness of the bigotry  at Windsor Park that night drives McCallister, himself a Protestant unionist, to question his political and social identity. The play’s a work of fiction, based on a jagged reality which was experienced by the small number of Republic supporters who turned up at Windsor to cheer their team but ended up afraid and suddenly aware how deeply sectarian hatred here runs.

Or ran.  Because we’re told that things have changed at Windsor Park. People who attend games there – unionists  I know – assure me they have. They say the sectarian singing, all the stuff about ‘up to our knees in Fenian blood’ – is  gone. C’est fini. Windsor Park now welcomes all sections of the community.

Maybe so.  I haven’t ever been to a game in Windsor Park so I don’t know. Why haven’t I been? Because I don’t support the Northern Ireland team.  If the Windsor Park crowd have stopped singing bigoted songs I’m glad,  for their sake more than mine. If they detest those who threatened to kill Neil Lennon if he played in Windsor Park, ditto.  But I still won’t feel any magnet of attraction pulling me to Windsor Park. To attend and cheer on the Northern Ireland team would, in some odd way, be to cheer on the notion of Northern Ireland as a state, and since like most nationalists/republicans I don’t really want a Northern Ireland state,  that wouldn’t make sense.

But now Caral Ní Chuilin has said she’s going to Windsor Park for the match between Northern Ireland and the Faroe Islands. Some unionists have praised her for so doing. The DUP’s David Hildich says it’s “courageous” and “a step forward”, although he feels it’s a pity she won’t be “enjoying all of the pre-match atmosphere”.  Translation: we’re glad she’ll be turning up, but  why can’t she come and stand for ‘God Save The Queen’ as well?  Some nationalists and republicans also think well of her for reaching out to unionism, others feel it’s a step too far. But didn’t Edwin Poots attend a Gaelic match – minus, of course, ‘Amhran na bhFiann’?  There’s a balance there, you know.

But let’s imagine Windsor Park as having stopped the chanting, stopped the union flags, maybe even left out ‘God Save The Queen’ – would nationalists then flock to it? Unlikely.  Sport and national identity are closely linked here,  a fact that seems to have escaped the N Ireland manager Nigel Worthington, who seems baffled by players like Darren Gibson opting to play for the south.

But the immediate question is not one about sport or even identity : it’s about respect,  for yourself as well as others. Caral Ní Chuilin is the sports minister so it’s right that she show respect for all sports,  including those not part of her cultural background, just as Edwin Poots showed respect for Gaelic games when he, as sports minister,  attended a game.  Poots was warmly received by the Gaelic games people. Under scrutiny now is whether, fresh from a semi-frenzy over the appointment of the sports minister’s special adviser, the Windsor Park crowd can prove there’s a day-and-night difference between 2011 and 1993.

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Dongle-dangling high on a hill

Well. To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of my demise are much exaggerated.  The reason I haven’t been blogging for some time is on the end of the pole in the picture above. It’s a dongle, and it belongs to the woman with whom we’ve house-swapped: she to our place near Belfast (drat, she missed the Twelfth) and we to hers near Florence.  We’re located in a mountainous region some forty-five minutes outside Florence, and while the building we’re staying in is elegant and spacious, they forgot to install wi-fi  when they built it in the eighteenth century. So the only way to get internet access is to tie your dongle to a stick and stick it out the window. Yes, you’re quite right, it does sound indecent but it works. Unfortunately, once the dongle realised I was going to use it, similar to most technological things when I come into a room, it threw a hissy-fit and refused to work. After much swearing and incomprehensible phone-calls,  a train-journey to Florence and back had to be taken before we got the dongle to come out with itS hands up and a contrite expression on its stupid face.

The Italians are a wonderful people. They live life the way they want to, and if you don’t like it well hey, fine,  take a hike.  They don’t say that out loud but I know what they’re thinking. As a result, they sometimes construct beautiful buildings on hills amid heavenly scenery, then they build a road through the heavenly scenery to the building in the shape of a very thin, very long snake that has just taken a huge portion of LSD. We’re some two kilometres from the village and when you’re driving a small car you’re not used to, navigating the back of this snake that’s having convulsions can be a nice mix of heart-stopping and stroke-inducing, especially if you turn a vicious corner of the snake’s back and suddenly meet another car. The present Mrs Collins passes the time during this journey by lying flat on the back seat, a cushion over her head saying Acts of Contrition and moaning from time to time “Are we there yet?”

But somehow and against the odds, we are. Here. High on  a Tuscan hill. Beyond the dangling dongle I can see the sun lighting the trees,  my favourite daughter calls that it’s time we went for a jog/run (it’s called hill-training) and the only sound is a bird telling some other birds it’s about to go for a siesta.

Sometimes, some days, la dolce is vita. 

Sunday, 24 July 2011

My relationship with a younger woman

For the past few weeks I've been in communication with a younger Italian woman. The present Mrs Collins doesn't seem to mind - in fact she encourages me in this relationship. In a week's time, the young Italian woman will have come to our house and climbed into our bed, a fact that doesn't cause the present Mrs C any sleepless nights either, if that's the term I want. In fact she's getting quite excited at the prospect. That's because, when the Italian woman is in our bed, we'll be in hers in Tuscany. We're doing a house swap. (Why, what did you think we were doing?)

When I tell people about this house swap, they either say "You're letting someone you've never met into your house? On their own? But but but they'll be able to look at all your...things!" Or else they kind of suck in their breath and look at me sideways and say "Great - although it's not something I could ever do".

This'll be our third time to house swap. The first was three years ago with a family from Sonoma County in California, and while I wouldn't want to speak for the two attorneys and their sons who came here, we had a terrific time in the California wine country. We'd sit on the deck of their house, looking across the gorgeous green valley watching the hot-air balloons drift by in the sunshine. In between visits to San Francisco, that is. Last year we did a swap with a family from Perpignan - more wine country. I still have golden memories of going for an early-morning jog between two villages, with the only sound the swish of fifty cyclists clad in colourful lycra, the only sight vineyards stretching away on either side of the road and above us a cloud-free sky drenching us in sunshine. Oh, and when we came back home, our house was cleaner than we'd left it.

So Tuscany holds little fear and a fair bit of anticipation. Living in someone else's house is beyond interesting - you get a sense of the person, their passions, their work, their family, their neighbourhood. It's tourism with the wall between you and the locals breached if not torn down: you're literally embedded in the community. Why more people don't do it would, as the psychiatrist in Fawlty Towers said, provide enough material for at least two conferences.

Meanwhile I'm wondering should I draw the Italian woman a map to show her the location of points of interest, or would it be better giving her a written description of the locale?

Friday, 22 July 2011

Ireland's debt: bonjour tristesse?

“It’s over, c’est fini” was what Enda Kenny said yesterday.  Nice touch that French bit, eh? Like Humphrey Bogart saying “Here’s lookin’ at you, kid” or “We’ll always have Paris”.  Ah yes, Paris. That's where Monsieur Sarkozy lives, and Enda was talking  about his petit spat with Monsieur Sarkozy over the south’s corporation tax.  Nicolas wanted it raised but Enda wasn't having any. ‘C’est fini’  Enda told him, and you can't get much more final than that. And to show how final it is, Enda's  government has just agreed to “engage constructively” in discussions on proposals to introduce a common consolidated corporate tax rate in Europe. As Brian Friel says in one of his plays “It’s all over and it’s all just beginning”.

But hey, that’s for the future. This is a happy day. Apart from the fini thing, the south's Minister of Finance Michael Noonan went to Europe looking for  a 1% reduction in the south’s repayment interest rate and blimey, here's he’s back today with not 1% but 2%!  No small potatoes that – it means, according to Enda's government, a saving to the Irish taxpayer of €600 million a year. Whew.

Good news or what? The bad news unfortunately is that according to the south’s own Department of Finance,  the south’s General Government Gross debt last year was just over €148 billion. This year it’ll probably be around €173 billion, and by 2015 it’ll be rattling along at a little over €203 billion. But look, Departments of Finance are gloomy buggers. Always making with the beal bocht. So let’s halve it – let’s say this year’s debt is only €86 billion, and in 2015 it’ll be only €100 billion... What’s that?...It still makes a saving of €600 million a year look small potatoes? Well, talk about gratitude. Poor Michael working his chubby fingers to the bone, and just because he’s only managed to save about 1% of the state’s debt, leaving 99% still staring cuts-weary citizens in the bloodshot eye, you say at this rate the debt can’t be paid!  Defeatist talk, man. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Give us another  seventy-five years and we’ll have this problem licked, LICKED, I’m telling you. When we say 'fini', we mean 'fini'. Give or take a century. 

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Groaning at what's on television

There are times when I can’t watch what appears on TV. I groan and look out the window or at the floor or at the ceiling – anywhere but the screen.  And there are times when I think our society – the Western World – is doomed. Like the Roman Empire, it’ll crumble and dissolve in its own excesses.  These two come together – unlookable-at TV and a sense of global foreboding -  when they show shots of babies from starving Africa.

Remember Feed The  World? Our children were small at the time and at the school’s Christmas pageant thing, the youngsters sang “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and it would have cracked a heart of steel. Pop stars in those days were clambering over each other to get in on the good deed, it really seemed as if we had turned a corner. We really were going to feed the world.

When was that – over twenty-five years ago? And now we’re told that anything up to half a million people in Somalia are suffering from terrible malnutrition. That’s a polite word for not enough food. And they show these babies with their enormous heads and enormous eyes and enormous bloody flies crawling all over them, and you just know those babies are going to be dead inside a day or two.

It’s been going on, this latest crisis, for I don’t know how long – a week, two weeks, a month? You ‘d think it’d have dominated our screens, bashed our brains, bruised our hearts. But it hasn’t. Instead we’ve seen MPs in a lather of moral outrage because an old media mogul with an obscene amount of money had people in his employ hacking  phones. You had the Prime Minister of Britain getting very righteous in the House of Commons about how he wouldn’t have hired Andy Coulson if he’d blahblahblahgblah.  He’s just back from Africa – South Africa – but not a word about the people there dying in their tens of thousands. Not a fucking word about it.

And no, it’s not  Nature’s fault. No matter how many cracked earth shots they show, we all know in our well-fed guts that those people are poor and starving and dying because we in the West, to varying degrees, are rich and well-fed and alive.  We really do deserve any catastrophic fate that will eventually befall us and/or our children and/or their children, because we know what’s happening and yet we elect people who literally don’t give a damn, get outraged about eavesdropping and bribery but don’t even feel mass hunger and death is worth mentioning. Oh no, sorry. The British something or other says other countries have failed to help, unlike Britain. Dear God.

At this moment Rupert Murdoch is a desperate man. So good news, Rupert. Want to restore your popularity?  According to Forbes Magazine, in March of this year you were worth $7.6 billion.  I have a plan. Bring that down to an even $5 billion – you won’t feel the difference, I promise you – and use the $2.6 billion to save most of those lives in Africa. If you do, your good deed will surely outweigh your sins and the hungry people of Africa will revere you for ever. And unlike the rest of us, you’ll have put your money where their starving mouths are.  

It won’t solve the problem –  this crisis aside, almost 16,000 children in the world die from hunger every day -  but it would give those of us in the West  time to look at ourselves and see if being so insanely, throwing-up selfish is a good way to run the world.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Murdoch hearing - which side smelt worse?

Yesterday's Murdoch hearings - that's what in essence they were - had so many fascinating features it's hard to know where to start, but let's try with the cry of the shaving-foam thrower. You didn't know he had a cry? Apparently so. As he swung his arm and just before Murdoch's wife whacked him good and proper, he's said to have said "You're greedy". Or it could have been "You greedy - " and then didn't have time to say a greedy what before Murdoch's wife did her version of the Cantona kick. Which leads me to believe that while the shaving-cream man was ingenious in that he managed to smuggle the cream in AND throw it, he was and is very stupid if he thinks Rupert Murdoch's crime is greed. Tosh, balderdash and bollix, foam-thrower. Greed is what makes the capitalist mare go. If you think that's bad, don't go criticising the guys who just follow the rules as they're laid out - go criticise the creeps who set up the rules in the first place, rules that pitch people against each other in a red-in-tooth-and-claw struggle, rather than rules that would help us work together to make things better for all.

But then, the hearings yesterday didn't care if the rules made sense. They were there to establish if Murdoch had broken the rules. Which rules? The rules that say you don't pay coppers, even when they bring you a juicy story. The rules which say you mustn't listen in on other people's phones and then write news stories on the back of those eavesdroppings. But as I said in an earlier blog, eavesdropping isn't seen as inherently wrong - the British government, the American government, probably the Irish government, all have listened into the phone conversations of citizens and used those against them. Murdoch's crime was that he or his underlings did it and they weren't the government.

One last point. I found myself, despite everything and to my own discomfort, as I watched the TV, sympathising with the Murdochs. Yes I know, I know. But that horse-shoe of politicians, people who would sell their granny for a hatful of votes, people who for decades kept their trap shut or cheered on the likes of Thatcher as she schmoozed up to Murdoch (will they tear down Thatcher's statue, I wonder, now they know what her pal Murdoch was up to?) - before this they wouldn't have dared give Murdoch a half-critical glance. Now there they were, knowing the eyes of the world were on them, straining at the bit to show themselves the fearless champions of democracy and honesty. There's only one thing worse than doing wrong and lying about it, and that's pretending you're brave and virtuous when you're really cowardly and amoral. You could almost see horse-shoe committee members yesterday quivering with anticipation, as their turn came to show how virtuous they were, how keen to defend the world from the Murdochs. It was about as attractive as having a plateful of shaving foam shoved in your gob.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Man found dead. Relax, it was just suicide. Maybe.

Sean Hoare

Curiouser and curiouser. So far  it's been strictly skeletons tumbling out of the News International cupboard; now a dead man has fallen out. Sean Hoare was a showbiz journalist with The News of the World and he was the first person to blow the whistle and accuse Andy Coulson of arranging phone hacking. Coulson of course denied this. So who would you believe if you had to choose: a guy who'd been editor of The News of the World  and later the director of communications for 10 Downing Street, or a showbiz hack who had a drink and drugs problem? No-brainer: obviously you'd accept Coulson's word. And you'd have been dead wrong.

The question now is, did Hoare's death have anything to do with the phone-hacking scandal? Or more bluntly put - and it's the thought that's racing through the minds of ninety per cent of those who've heard of Hoare's death - was he killed? Well, let's not rush to judgement. The police say his death warrants investigation but that the circumstances of his death are not suspicious. That is, he wasn't killed by someone else but he may have killed himself. Who said that? The police, and you can't get much more objective than...Eh? The Metropolitan police? The police force whose head Sir Paul Stephenson (who as a commenter above points out, was a sub-divisional commander of the RUC here during the early 1990s) and his assistant Ian McPherson have just resigned/were pushed by Big Bad Boris? The police force that apparently took money from journalists at all sorts of levels, and who hired people who had links with those they were supposed to be investigating? That's the force that tells us Sean Hoare wasn't killed by somebody else but more likely killed himself? Mmmm. Give me a minute to think what I think about that.

I have. I think it smells of ancient fish. Like Dr David Kelly's death (remember him?),  highly convenient. But do you know what smells even more? This phone-hacking trail has led , inside a matter of weeks, to the door of No 10 Downing Street. That's because some people listened in on some other people's phone conversations. So then wouldn't you think, if you were a Martian or something, that a situation where people were murdered by forces of the state, or those with links to the forces of the state, in instances such as Bloody Sunday or Pat Finucane's death, would surely lead to the door of No 10 with similar speed? Ha. Ha bloody ha. It's a long way from here to Finchley, and what matters to people here doesn't matter a damn to those across the water.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Nice one, Darren - but dear God, spare us the fantasies

Oh God, here we go again. I’m pleased that Darren Clarke as a fellow-Tyrone-man, a fellow-Ulsterman and a fellow-Irishman has scooped the British Open golf title. It’s a game too riddled with silly jargon  - birdies and eagles and bogeys  - to be of much interest to me, but if someone’s going to win, it’s nice to have a compatriot do the business. And yes, he has had some hard times, although the media pressed that button so often it was embarrassing. 

And what do I mean by that ‘Oh God’ bit at the top there? It’s the tourism thing.  I heard Arlene Foster on radio this morning,  talking about how much the Clarke-McIlroy-McDowell wins would mean for tourism. A month or two ago we had government officials in the south talking about how much the visit of QE2 would mean for tourism. Where do these guys get their ideas?  I watched Muhammed Ali over the years of his fame with near-adoration and not once did I ever say to myself “I must visit where he comes from”.  I’ve watched QE2 visit umpteen countries over the years and not once have I ever felt even a tiny itch to get on a plane and go to the same place.

“Ah but this is golf!” you say. Yes I know it’s golf. And I know people truly admire the skills of Clarke and Co. But are golfers under the impression that they’ll become better if they play where Clarke or McIlroy or McDowell started out? In fact the three Irish players – four, if you go back to Padraig Harrington – as professionals spend very little time playing golf in Ireland. They’re all over the world – Dubai, Arizona, Britain – far more often than they’re at home. So except they’re very thick,  there can be few golfers who think playing on the same course as Clarke or whoever means they’ll be better. 

So give us a break, would you? If you think QE2’s visit was a great idea (which I don't),  try to come up with a better reason for it than some half-assed fantasy about tourism. Likewise, rejoice in Clarke’s win – he seems a nice big lump of a fellah  - and the other three, and we should be proud of them all. But drop the crock of crap about it bringing a bonanza of tourists to Ireland. It won’t.  

Sunday, 17 July 2011

The Cloyne report and five related questions

Bishop John Magee

I haven’t been following the report  on  child abuse and its supervision  (or lack of) from Cloyne diocese. It seems, however, that some clergy in that diocese failed to follow the policy that would have protected children.  Worse than failed, in fact – in one case a bishop appears to have written two contradictory reports of a meeting with an accused priest.  If this is true, it stinks. As does – do I need to add? – sexual abuse of children by adults, and particularly when those adults are members of the clergy.

That said (and, I hope, heard),  there are a number of points that need attention. In most cases they involve information that I don’t have, so I’d welcome factual enlightenment.

1. There are at least two ways in which adults abuse children: physically and sexually. Sexual abuse has been given considerable media attention, physical abuse relatively little.  If I’ve been physically abused by adults, even if it was several decades ago, can I have them charged and brought to court?

2. Is there a link between the celibacy rule for Catholic clergy and the sexual abuse of children?  There seems to be a general assumption that there is but I haven’t seen any facts and/or figures to support this. Perhaps someone can help.

3. Is sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy proportionately greater than sexual abuse of children by clergy in other Churches/religions and/or by the general public?  The media focus on Catholic clergy suggests it is, but again I haven’t seen facts and figures that support this. Does anyone know where these are to be found?

4.  Since we can’t address all the awful things that happen to children at the one time, some sort of prioritisation seems a good idea. With that in mind, does anyone have comparative figures for the number of children subjected to sexual abuse and the number of children subjected to other types of abuse – for example, violence or poverty/malnutrition?

5. Are paedophiles responsible for their actions or are they suffering from a ghastly disease which they can’t control? If the former, they should be punished. If the latter, they should receive not punishment but treatment.  Does anyone have verified medical information on this question?

And please - can we stick to facts and figures? Thanks. 

Saturday, 16 July 2011

The hacking scandal - why so surprised?

Rebekah Brooks

Les Hinton

The greatest television theatre– certainly political television theatre – I’ve ever seen was the Watergate scandal.  I was living in Canada at the time and every night, the big American networks used to give an hour or so to the latest skeletons to fall out of the Nixon cupboard. Or maybe that’s the wrong image – maybe it should be a living body rather than a skeleton. For as the evidence mounted, a desperate President Nixon began lopping off his own political  limbs until finally, on 30 April, 1973, he had no choice but to ask for the resignation of his two top aides, H R Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, along with White House Counsel John Dean.  In the end Nixon resembled the Black Knight in the Monty Python sketch: his arms and legs had been cut off but he kept insisting “It’s just a flesh wound!”

The coverage of the  News of the World phone-tapping scandal isn’t quite that level of theatre but it comes near.  First Rupert Murdoch removes the News of the World,  Britain’s best-selling Sunday newspaper.  Then he amputates Rebekah Brooks, on whom he had always doted. And last night word came through that Les Hinton,  his close associate for over fifty years and chairman of News International, was gone.  It seems inconceivable that someone as powerful as Murdoch himself could be unseated, but that’s what they were saying about Richard Nixon until he headed for the helicopter and gave that famous double-V farewell.

What to make of it all? Well, let’s consider  the television coverage of the whole affair: it’s been pathetic. Not in that there hasn’t been ample coverage or that the facts weren’t presented; but they came loaded with such a coating of emotion, they were near-unrecognisable.  Millie Dowler, the little girls from Soham,  9/11 victims: you’d be forgiven for thinking News of the World staff had been responsible for all those deaths, rather than listening in on their conversations. Of course eavesdropping – illegal eavesdropping – is distasteful and sleazy, but as I said in an earlier blog, why the shocked expression? We’re all eavesdropped on and camera-watched within an inch of our lives every day of our lives. Some of it we give the OK to, the rest we know is going on but there’s nothing we can do about it. Every shop, every street, every road has its watching cameras; every email, every text, every phone-call has its supervisor.  It's not Big Brother isn’t watching you: it’s the whole Big family.

Finally, imagine this. Your husband or wife or brother or sister – a main breadwinner – works in some far-flung corner of the Murdoch empire. If Murdoch the emperor is brought down and with him his whole dominion, and your loved one is tossed onto the street without a job: would you still nod with approval as the hunters go halloo-ing after this wrinkled 80-year-old in a baseball cap?

Friday, 15 July 2011

Five silly statements about the Ardoyne riots

You could list a lot more but here are my five favourites.

1. “The Twelfth of July is a traditional family celebration”. Certainly that’s the impression you would have been given if you’d watched UTV the other night. Paul Clarke presented a warm, folksy account of young people licking ice-cream, old men smiling as they remembered how long they’d been coming to the Twelfth, people pushing baby buggies and everyone having a good time. All of this no doubt was true but it wasn’t the whole truth. The rest of the truth about the Twelfth is to be found in its anti-Catholic constitution, its violent history and, inevitably, back at Ardoyne in stones and petrol bombs.
2. “There was no connection between parades and the Ardoyne rioting”. Nigel Dodds is a Cambridge graduate but he occasionally comes out with some awful bilge. He was asked about the riots that followed the marching of Orangemen past the Ardoyne shops on the Twelfth and he said that the rioters hadn’t even seen the march so there was no connection between the rioting and the parades. The implication being that you have to see something before it can motivate you to act: just knowing it’s happening or will happen isn’t good enough. Come on, Nigel. We may not have been to Cambridge but we’re not eejits.
3. “The Ardoyne rioters are thugs engaged in mindless violence/recreational rioting”. Mmm. Follow that one through and, according to the law of averages, there should be rioting by mindless thugs from time to time in the Malone area or in leafy North Down. What is it about the Ardoyne area that it hosts these outbreaks, while more comfortably-off areas seem miraculously free from disturbance? The fact is that the Twelfth violence, like the violence of the Troubles years, is overwhelmingly located in these poorer areas. But we don’t like talking about poverty. We might have to do something about it.
4. “The problem is what we can do about the rioting”. I’m not sure if anyone actually said this but the discussion on radio and television certainly implied it. Maybe these young people were engaging in recreational rioting? Maybe they didn’t have jobs and this was an expression of their frustration with the authorities? Widen the discussion, guys, and avoid the danger of blaming the victim. If the riots occur on and around the Twelfth, and the Orange marchers keep parading in the area where these young people live, might the marches not be the root problem?
5. “The dissident republicans are hopelessly infiltrated”. That’s what we were being told, what, about five years ago. I seem to remember one article that suggested there were more British agents in the ranks of dissident republicanism than there were dissident republicans. That claim seems to have been quietly dropped. Now “Dissidents are a growing threat’ is the line being fed to us. So what happened all those infiltrators, and were they to be found around Ardoyne over the past week?

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Murdoch and Cloyne - it's an ill wind...

There’s a difference between schadenfreude and red herrings, and two men who know that to their bone marrow are Nick Clegg and Enda Kenny.I heard Nick Clegg on the radio this morning and he sounded positively bouncy. He was being asked about the Murdoch thing and he was assuring the interviewer that, whatever else his party could be accused of,  schmoozing up to Rupert Murdoch was not one of them. It wasn’t just relief that, unlike the British Labour party  and the British Conservative party, the Lib Dems had always been low down on the News International list for Christmas cards. And it wasn’t I suspect because Clegg dislikes Murdoch and delights in his present  battering.  No, Nick is cheerful because people are talking about politicians and their relationship to R Murdoch, not  about him. When you’ve clearly and incontrovertibly promised in an election campaign that you’ll not allow something to happen ( increased university fees) and then you allow it to happen (step forward N Clegg),  you don’t mind who replaces you in the sin spotlight, anyone will do, as long as they’re big and distracting.  Murdoch is vey big and very distracting.

I haven’t heard Enda Kenny in a while, but you may be sure wherever he is, he’s grinning inwardly like a Cheshire cat. That’s because the Cloyne Report has been issued, and the media spotlight is on the effect and handling of sex abuse charges in that diocese. Not, I’m sure, that Enda would wish abuse on any child or failure to follow-up on accusations of clerical abuse crimes against them,  but it’s shifted that damned spotlight, hasn’t it? For a while there it was nothing but Enda’s  recorded voice fom the election campaign, promising to stand by the Roscommon Hospital A and E department, followed by his present-day squirmings about maybe having been misunderstood, changed circumstances, blah-blah-blah. Because as you’ve probably heard,  the Roscommon Hospital A and E department has recently been shut down and it was Enda’s government wot done it. When you’ve clearly and incontrovertibly promised in an election campaign that you’ll not allow something to happen (closure of an A and E department) and then you allow it to happen – in fact you make  it happen (step forward E Kenny), you don’t mind who replaces you in the sin spotlight, anyone will do, as long as they’re big and distracting. Cloyne is vey big and vey distracting.

Ah me. And to think they crucified that poor Jo Moore woman for saying 9/11 was a good day to bury bad news. 

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

The Twelfth? You gotta smile...

I'll say one thing for the Twelfth - it gets you the odd good laugh.

For example, take Darwin Templeton.  If you were to meet the editor of the News Letter, you wouldn't immediately say to yourself "Here's a man with a lively sense of humour!" How wrong you'd be. Yesterday I was on BBC Radio 2's  Jeremy Vine show with Darwin,  and I was pointing out that the Orange Order had been founded in 1795 after a sectarian clash which was celebrated in a Loughgall pub owned by the Order's first Grand Master, and that ever since sectarianism and violence (often fueled by alcohol)  had dogged it. Darwin's response in so many words was to suggest that digging up stuff from past history was a waste of time...Geddit? Twelfth of July, Battle of the Boyne, 1690, let's keep the memory alive, marchmarchmarch... but don't go delving into history, it's a waste of time! Brilliant deadpan stuff.

And I'm still wheezing at that one this morning when another belly-wobbler comes along. On Radio Ulster, the SDLP's Conal McDevitt was talking about yesterday's Orange parade past where he lives. He must have been counting because he was able to say there were seventy examples of marchers pausing to relieve themselves into local gardens and against garden walls on his street.  Drew Nelson of the Orange Order was addressing the same problem a while back, I suppose, when  he called on Orangemen to postpone their drinking until after parades were over. Whereas Drew was planning to nip the problem in the bud, so to say, by stopping alcohol going down Orange throats, Conal was  at the other end, essentially accepting that what goes down must come out:  the answer, it was suggested, might be provision of more portaloos.  What was funny about that? Think about it. A  triumphalist (we defeated youse 1690), sectarian (no Catholics need apply), misogynous ( no women need apply) organisation,  and the suggested answer is...provide its members with more places to relieve themselves!

Buster Keaton, thou should'st be living at this hour.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

The Fighting Irish

 I was watching the  evening news on RTÉ a few minutes ago and they had a thoughts-provoking item on it. Two thoughts, to be exact.

No, it wasn’t the item where they showed shots of the broken bricks and burnt cars in Ballyclare, or the item where Enda Kenny is heard during the election campaign promising the people of Roscommon that he’ll stand by their A + E unit at the local hospital  (that’s the same hospital that will, by government orders, close its a + E doors tonight). No, the one that got me was the item showing ceremonies in Dublin and Limerick and a few other places honouring those Irishmen who had died in wars – including the Irishmen who’d died in British uniform.  Thoughts-provoking indeed.

The first thought was the prominence given to the fact that this time,  Irishmen in the British Army were included in the honouring. There was even a top brass chap from the Irish Army telling us how the visit of QE2 had been tremendously helpful in bringing Britain and us together, and a British Army chappie saying he hoped we’d all stay friends. My thought was,  if those who fought against the British Army get  as much honour and attention as those who fought with them, they may consider themselves lucky. We can’t airbrush British Army Irishmen out of existence and we’d be stupid to try; but isn’t it getting a bit OTT, the simple-minded emphasis that’s being given, again and again, to the value of their sacrifice?

The second thought that hit me is a bit broader.  When the conflict here was raging and since, we were repeatedly told how important it was to turn from violence and solve problems by political means. Sound advice. But might there be a teensy contradiction, then,  in showing lines of uniformed men carrying weapons, veterans who used to carry weapons,  the head of state herself, solemn music, a woman singing ‘Tis of Thee My Country’ or some such, all in honour of men who were trained to solve political problems by killing other people and died in doing so or threatening to do so?

Except…Maybe there are some kinds of killing and violence in pursuit of political ends that are deserving of ceremony and praise, and others that merit only contempt. If so,  scary. I mean, what if you got the two mixed up?

Saturday, 9 July 2011

The Dail - looking smart while the state sinks

It sounds so stupid, it's hard to believe there isn't something smart lurking under the surface. The Dail Committee on Procedures and Privileges has declared that from next Autumn, when a vote on their proposals is expected to pass, TDs will have to smarten up. Dress-wise. The men will have to wear 'tailored' jackets, whatever that is, a shirt with a collar, and proper trousers. No jeans allowed. The women will have to be similarly formal. Dail deputies like Richard Boyd Barrett, Luke "Ming" Flanagan and Mick Wallace (he of the pink shirt and blond locks) think the proposed ruling is ridiculous; most other parties, including Sinn Fein, say they can live with it. Some are enthusiastic: Fine Gael Minister of State for European Affairs Lucinda Creighton says "Anybody who represents the Irish public in the national parliament should show some degree of respect for the Houses of Parliament and I have no time for people wearing jeans into the Dail chamber".

Little Lucinda's belief, like that of many others, is rooted in the notion that what you wear somehow affects your behaviour. It's most commonly exemplified in the tradition of school uniform, and it's a load of old tosh. The youngster who turns up in a spotless uniform each day could be the biggest pain in the butt for teachers and the one who keeps breaking the dress code could be in other respects a delight to teach. I taught for ten years in schools which had no school uniform and I saw no difference at all in the behaviour of the children from those schools where they're asked to wear it.

Besides, we're not talking about children here. We're talking about adults. Is little Lucinda and those who think like her really saying they're going to refuse entry to deputies who aren't dressed nicely? And if wearing a 'tailored jacket' means you're showing respect, what do Luke and Mick's flowing tresses say? Will Lucinda be out with her scissors at the Dail gate?

For God's sake get a grip, woman. The state is swiftly heading for the U-bend and TD committees are spending their time deciding ways to make adults dress the way they think is nice? If you want to wear a suit, great. If you want to wear jeans, fine. Voters will judge your years in Leinster House, not by the cut of your jacket but by the quality of your contribution.

How about this? Let each TD dress as he or she wishes, within the bounds of decency. And give us a break, Lucinda -  What next,  blue shirts for all?  Besides, Mick's hair is shorter than yours.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Don't cry for Rupert - you're financing him

Not being an Adonis myself I shouldn’t pass remarks on Rupert Murdoch’s looks, but let’s just say what he’s been denied in physical attractiveness has been more than made up for in wealth. The man is rich beyond your comprehension and mine, and he’s planning to get a lot richer by controlling even more of the media world which shapes our thinking.

The BBC,  itself a powerful player in world-view shaping, is very excited at the news that’s come tumbling out about Rupert’s soon-to-die News of the World, and how some of those working for that paper appear to have been eavesdropping on vulnerable people: the relatives of the two little girls murdered in Soham,  the relatives of people killed in the London 7/7 bombings, the relatives of Briitish soldiers killed in Afghanistan. Adding a vinegar twist of politics,  one of those at the heart of this phone-tapping scandal  and due for arest today was one Andy Coulson, former Director of Communications for British PM  David Cameron.  You could tell me that Cameron didn’t know, even with the help of MI5, that Coulson and Co were maybe up to dodgy or illegal practices, but you can’t stop me falling around laughing if you do. The Labour Party look and sound like they’ve smelt blood, Cameron and his cronies look and sound like schoolboys caught behind the bike-shed, and words like “disgusting” and “contemptible” are flying around as Britain goes into yet another spasm of moral outrage.

Personally, my indignation engine doesn’t fire on this one.  I’ve never believed that people who hacked into the phone of the heir to the throne so they could  tell an eager nation about his longing to become a tampon had the interests of that nation at heart. So is this latest news disgusting? Yep. Is it predictable? Totally.

The government which is now keen to distance itself from the “disgusting” activities of people who work for Murdoch, in an earlier incarnation under one M Thatcher tapped the phones of millions of people in Britain and Ireland, among whom there must have been relatives of dead soldiers, parents of people whose children were murdered and other grieving, fragile people. In fact there was a time here when people would have got indignant if you’d suggested their phone wasn’t  being tapped. What’re you saying, that I’m not important enough for the government to want to overhear my every word?

Besides, we gave up on privacy a long, long time ago.  When we urged the authorities and private companies to install more and more CCTV cameras to watch our every move, when we bought mobile phones that could tell other people where we are, when we okayed satellite cameras that can see the flakes of paint on our living-room window – that’s when we gave up. Few things would please me more than to see the Murdoch empire collapse in a pile of choking dust. But it ain’t gonna happen, because The News of the World  is just one among a whole herd of Murdoch cash cows, and cutting its throat is a long, long  way from The End.  Want a bitter truth?  Murdoch and his mates will go on being very, very rich as long as we go on buying the products of people we say we despise.  

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

What inequality looks like - some facts

Money matters – OK?  Flags and parades and fireworks have their place too but let’s think for  a minute about money. One of the most cheering things for unionism in recent years was the collapse of the Celtic Tiger. The  very idea that by striking out alone, the twenty-six counties might be better off than the six counties – well, that was almost unbearable. But then the whole thing imploded south of the border, and unionists could once again console themselves with the fact that, bad as things are here, they’re worse down there.

But even when things are going well on the surface,  they can be going badly below the waterline.  Recently I came on a summarized report from Stanford University, entitled “Twenty things about US Inequality that Everyone should Know”.  Inequality? In the home of the brave? And land of the free? Yep, seems so.

Let’s take child poverty. Twenty-one per cent of  all children in the US are living in poverty. That’s worse than it is in France, Germany, the UK, even the south of Ireland. Every fifth youngster. 

Let’s take wealth inequality. In 1983, the top 10% of households in the US controlled over 68% of the total wealth. Pretty grim, eh? When they checked again in 2007, the top 10% were controlling over 73% of the wealth. And they call it democracy?

Let’s take homelessness. On any given night,  750,000  Americans are homeless  - they sleep on the streets, in alleyways, where they can.  Oh, and most of them are black. Same as in prisons.

Let’s talk about salaries. In 1965, CEOs in the US got paid 24 times as much as the average production worker.  In 2009 they were being paid 185 times more. Them as has, gits.  

And so it goes.  Watching too much television or going to a lot of Hollywood movies, you could get the wrong idea about that country, couldn’t you?  What fills me with wonder is the  22-carat brass necks of those who make decisions to invade other countries under the banner of bringing them a better way of life, when the poor idiots doing the fighting will face this warped inequality when they go back home.

But hey, that's the US. Here on this side of the Atlantic we have our problems, but we're free of the inequality scourge. Right?

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Mary McAleese, a private jet and a sick girl

 Meadhbh McGivern must be feeling pretty sick this morning, in both senses of the word.  She needs a kidney transplant and  apparently President Mary McAleese’s private jet was available, on her return from the wedding of Prince Whathisname in Monaco, to take the fourteen-year-old to London for the operation. But wouldn't you know it, the health authorities in the south managed to screw things up by opting for travel by a slower means, the Coast Guard helicopter,  to King’s College Hospital in London, and so the chance was lost.

The incident raises a number of questions.  Three of the more obvious:

·       How come, despite the billions and billions  that came pouring into the state during the Celtic Tiger years, nothing remotely resembling a decent health service was  established in the twenty-six counties?
·       It’s nice of President McAleese to have made the private jet available; but what does she need it for in the first place? Could she not have gritted her teeth and settled for First Class on a scheduled flight? More generally, why do political leaders and heads of state have to travel in big cars and private planes when they go somewhere?  Is it so the people who elected them will feel this shows the neighbours we’re important? Or is it that the people who elected them have been conned into believing that luxury for leaders and penury for ordinary people is the way God planned it?
·       What in the name of the same God was Mary McAleese doing at that charade of a wedding between that eejit Prince Albert and Charlene Wittstock? I got ambushed by it on TV news a couple of times and I promise you, I had to hide behind the sofa with a cushion over my head. Ex-cruc-iating.  Albert made Prince Charles look like he was mad about Diana. Yet Mary McAleese, courtesy of the Irish taxpayer, travelled all that distance for…that?  Padraig Pearse must be whirling like a turbo-prop propeller in his grave.

Meanwhile young Meadhbh McGivern lies waiting for a transplant, ill and helpless. The twenty-six counties should issue a stamp with her on it. She embodies the condition of the southern state exactly.  

Monday, 4 July 2011

Sinn Féin, wreath-laying and unionist response

You can’t eat a flag, a Peace Bridge or a cenotaph, but that doesn’t mean all three aren’t important. On Saturday, the Sinn Féin Lord Mayor of Belfast laid a laurel wreath at the City Hall cenotaph. He did this a couple of hours before the Royal Irish Regiment and the Light Cavalry Band arrived and laid their poppy wreath. The Lord Mayor’s actions have really annoyed a number of unionist politicians.

EH? The Shinners in the person of the Lord Mayor are placing wreaths honouring Irishmen who fought and died in the uniform of the British Army, and this is annoying some unionist politicians? Well yes, because you see they want the Lord Mayor and Shinners generally to attend their wreath-laying ceremony, not a Shinner one. Seemingly concerned to placate, Mayor Niall O Donnghaile has said Sinn Féin would “consider” attending a wreath-laying ceremony with unionists if the British Army people – the live ones – aren’t in attendance.

Did this suggestion make matters better? Ha. And double Ha. Ulster Unionist MLA Michael Copeland responded by saying the offer “flies in the face of the recorded history of this island”. Himself an ex-UDR man, Mr Copeland went on to talk about a Royal Irish Regiment event he was at where one of the “most magnificent” soldiers was from the south of Ireland. (No, I don’t get that one either but let’s not get distracted.) The DUP leader on Belfast City Council, Robin Newton, wants the mayor to “reflect on the hurt his actions will have caused and to reverse his stance in time for Remembrance Day”.

Nice one, Michael and Robin – excellent stuff. As things stand, a fair-sized number of nationalists/republicans have serious reservations about their politicians paying tribute to Irishmen who chose to don British Army uniform and died wearing it. It’s a bit like the way Argentines might react if a number of their fellow-countrymen chose to join the British Army and died wearing its uniform. There’s a part of nationalists/republicans that feels sadness and even admiration for the courage of their fellow-countrymen and the sacrifice of their lives, but there’s another part that recoils at the idea of Irishmen becoming part of the British armed forces and helping fight Britain’s wars.

So they have at best mixed feelings about the present wreath-laying arrangements – two separate ceremonies. If the Shinners go another step and attend a ceremony along with unionist politicians, those mixed feelings may take a marked turn for the negative. And if the Shinners attend a ceremony which is surrounded by British army military trappings, including live British army soldiers, many nationalists/republicans are going to feel even more uneasy. Maybe beyond that. Maybe angry as hell.

Of course, that could be what unionist politicians would like to see happen – uneasiness change to irritation and even anger against the Shinners. If that’s their plan, it’s either a very stupid plan – the more people become disenchanted with Sinn Féin, the more they will cast about for another, maybe more clean-cut and/or violent alternative - or a very clever one. How’s that - clever? Well, if as UUP leader James Molyneaux once remarked, peace is the greatest threat to the union, then from a unionist perspective, anything that would weaken that threat, in the highly-organised form of the Sinn Féin party, would be most desirable.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Michael Healy-Rea - a rare pair

Think about Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Grey-haired, handsome, wealthy, sophisticated. The head of the IMF, hotly tipped to win the French presidency from Nicolas Sarkozy. Then suddenly he came crashing to earth in spectacular style, as he was taken off a plane at JFK and charged with raping a hotel chambermaid. The network cameras captured him in shame, doing the ‘perp walk’ - between burly cops, surrounded by press, dishevelled, on his way to a cell. French presidency? Forget it. Head of IMF? Forget it. All gone, gone utterly. Apparently.

Think about Michael Healy-Rea. I’m not sure what colour his hair is because he always wears a cap, just as his father Jackie Healy-Rea did. He’s moon-faced more than handsome, he doesn’t look wealthy and he’s certainly not sophisticated. He’s an independent TD, tipped to squeeze maybe a few concessions out of the Irish government for Kerry. You couldn’t say he came crashing to earth because he never flew too high; but he finds himself a figure of contempt, paying back approximately £2,000 on phone-calls made from Leinster House . These calls were made by a person or persons unknown, and they helped Healy-Rea win some TV celebrity reality show or other. Healy-Rea swears he didn’t make them and he doesn’t know who did. But he’s going to pay for them because he says, if he doesn’t, people will never shut up about it and assume it was him. As it is they keep making jokes about the Ring of Kerry.

What have the two men got in common? Not a lot. DSK is famous in France for his womanizing – one of the great seducers, apparently. And you can see how that might be – he looks more like a movie star than a finance man or a politician. Strain though I will, I can’t see MHR doing a lot of seducing, although when Kerry charm is involved all things are possible.

Why have I linked the two men, then? Because both were accused of a crime – DSK of rape, MHR of rigging the results of a reality show at the tax-payers’ expense. In the case of DSK, the charge appeared to have totally destroyed his public career. But now the case against him is collapsing – the prosecutor has effectively rejected the credibility of their own chief witness. Was it all a set-up in the first place? Who knows. But for MHR, no deus ex machina, at least not so far. The assumption is that he done it and that’s why he’s paying for it.

Which runs completely counter to justice. The fact that DSK headed an organisation that has brought Ireland to its financial knees and is busy kicking it in the financial teeth shouldn’t divert us  from the central point: he’s innocent of all charges until they’re proven. The same applies to Healy-Rea: the fact that he’s half-embarrassment, half-Kerry joke in the eyes of many people shouldn’t let us to forget that so far, nobody has come forward with evidence that he was guilty of anything. Beyond wearing a daft cap, talking in a deeply Kerry accent and participating in a TV reality show.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn is innocent, Michael Healy-Rea is innocent. If we disagree, then we’re saying we choose trial-by-TV and mob prejudice over rational judgement. Don’t feel bad about it if that's where you stand. You’ve got lots of company.

Friday, 1 July 2011

David Dunseith - the death of a good man

You kind of miss David Dunseith, don’t you?  When he ended (or was ended) from his place as presenter of Talkback on BBC Radio Ulster/Raidió Ulaidh, it was like a mini-death – that time of the day no longer had his cheerful, gently-cynical air-presence to light it up.  As I write I’m listening to a former head of the BBC in Belfast speaking of him and the word he’s emphasizing is “fairness”.   Yes indeed. Time and again over the years I’ve heard other people use the same word of him: he was uniquely free from bias.

He was a former RUC man – something that would have surprised a lot of his listeners, for whatever  feelings he may have had towards that organization, they played no part in his role as moderator of political discussions.  And he was always an active chairman.  His questioning technique broke a lot of the rules. Instead  of firing questions one at a time, he liked to deliver them in threes, fours, fives. I once criticized him in a column for this habit;  the next two or three times I passed him in the corridors of the BBC, there was a frisson of indignation coming off him, although he said nothing. But because he was a big man in several senses, he moved past it and was his old self in a short time.  In retrospect, I can see he was right and I was wrong. If he’d been a poor question-asker, he wouldn’t have enjoyed the success he did.

I last saw him, what, about six weeks ago, in the BBC. I was about to go on air and he was passing through - looking, I thought, paler and thinner than usual. I briefly considered telling him how sorry I was to hear of his wife's death last year but there wasn't time before the red light went on. Maybe I'd catch him after, I thought, but when I emerged from the studio he was gone.  I didn't bother following up and now when it's too late,  I wish I had. 

As a man he was positive and cheerful, and it was infectious. After listening to him for ten minutes, you felt that yes, life was a joyful thing,  it was worth embracing, it was good to laugh at, it merited our love. He merited our love as well; that’s why we’ll go on missing him. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dilis  - May he rest in peace.