Jude Collins

Friday, 30 September 2011

He's the one! Or him? OK, ANYONE...

I used to interterview graduate students who wanted to become teachers. Since there were four applicants for every place on the course, the room tended to have more than its share of tight smiles and leaky armpits. We were looking for several things, principally a personality suited to teaching and recent experience that matched the job. 
Personality? Some applicant had  timid litte mouse manners, others  were brash, a few faintly condescending – all bad news had they ever faced a classroom of teenagers. Experience? Some told  how they’d once helped their wee brother with his homework, others that they’d babysat for the neighbour next door. And this was? Oh, ten or twelve years ago. 

Then just when we were ready to bang our head on the interview table, in would come that fourth applicant: warm but firm personality, had spent the past year running the local youth club and filled with a vision of what real education could be. Oh thank you God, we whispered silently, thank you, thank you. 

As with teaching, so with leadership. The role of Irish president is not for the mousey man or woman, even less for the brash or condescending. It calls for a mixture of the natural touch and measured authority. Think Mary McAleese and you won’t be far wrong. Mind you when she ran, there were those who said she came from ‘up there’ and muttered darkly of a ticking tribal time bomb. So – were the people of the south right to ignore these dire warnings? The last fourteen years, I’d say, give the answer to that question.

That was then, this is now. No talk of a ticking tribal bomb this time round – just endless questions about McGuinness’s time in the IRA. Some southern experts focus on the harrowing detail of carefully selected victims of the conflict; other sigh and say yes, McGuinness did build bridges, he did work to make and sustain peace for the past quarter century but (sigh again) it’s still too soon to elect a former IRA man to such a post. And shut up about Dev, would you?

What really weighs heavily on these people’s minds is not the past but the future. What would visiting dignitaries think? Say if Prince Charles, Commander-in-Chie of the Parachute Regiment were to come calling? Or a President McGuinness were to greet David Cameron, or Nicolas  Sarcozy, or Barack Obama – all men with no connection with violence at all at all. Well, maybe a bit of the old shock and awe in other people’s countries but not, definitely NOT in their own. 

The dread of these scribblers is two-fold.  On the one hand, for the next seven years a  President McGuinness would be drawing the average industrial wage. Omigod. That could make those fat Dail and Seanad salaries look just a bit, um, diffferent, wouldn’t you say? Like a pebble looks a bit different from the Rock of Cashel. Next you know the majority of southern people might warm  to a man who puts his money where his mouth is and omigod again, that warmth might extend to Sinn Féin. Talk about an appalling vista.

But equally appalling would be McGuinness’s presence in the Aras on a daily basis -  a visible reminder that the north exists. That wouldn’t be good news for parties who think their country stops at Dundalk but boast that they’re The Republican Party or the heirs of Michael Collins. 

The great hope of the southern scribblers is that they can tie a millstone of McGuinness’s IRA past around his neck and so sink him. This is difficult, since McGuinness says he’s proud of his IRA past and now what about the future, boys and girls? The great test for the people of the south is, will they allow their media thinkers to submerge one candidate while resurrecting another? In the coming weeks they’ll do all in their power to convince people that what the Aras needs is someone - ANYONE - else. Say, one who talks like a toff and writes on Oireachtas notepaper. Failing that, a wee man with a nice soft voice who talks about imagination and vision and culture and stuff. Failing that …Jeez, some of you bozos must be electable. 

We can only hope that this head-banging-on the-table time, like all nightmares, will pass. 

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Ruthie and me - now it can be told

I was on 'Jeremy Vine Show' (BBC Radio 2) this morning - briefly. That's how radio is - brief. You go in with a dozen points to make and end up lucky to get three of them articulated.

My sparring partner was Ruth Dudley Edwards. Ruthie and I go back a long long way, to the early 1960s when she and I shared the same History class in UCD. Ruthie, however, had the advantage that her da was the Professor of History, while mine was back in Tyrone cattle-dealing. I suppose all of us were sort of geeky in our youth but Ruthie was strikingly mouse-like then. She was the constant girl-friend (you saw one, the other wasn't far behind) of a guy called Paddy Cosgrove, who was a bit weird-looking but very clever. He was a top man in the in-crowd who ran the debating society and overawed us culchies into resentful silence.After graduating,  Paddy and Ruthie married and moved to London where Paddy became a devout Conservative, writing a  fawning biography of that great and good person, Maggie Thatcher. I've read somewhere that he was even tipped to secure a post in her Cabinet, only for one reason or another (allegedly) he took to the drink (nothing to do with having  married to Ruthie, I'm sure) and spoiled his chances by, the story goes, getting pissed on a particularly auspicious occasion and, while sharing a taxi with the great lady, throwing up into her lap. Some sins there is no forgiveness for and this was one of them. He and Ruthie divorced at some point and he later died. Meanwhile Ruthie goes on, writing admiring accounts of the Orange Order ('The Faithful Tribe') and going pale with rage at the very mention of the word 'republican'. She didn't say today that she'd like to boil Martin McGuinness in oil , but she didn't say she wouldn't either. One republican I know is convinced that Martin McGuinness is running for the presidency solely to annoy Ruthie.

 But hey, it's fun catching up with old class-mates. I doubt if she remembers me though, at least not from back then - she moved at a MUCH more elevated level, sandwiched securely between her da and her very clever boy-friend. (Cue the opening chords of  'Those Were The Days'...)

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

John O'Dowd - so how's he doin'?

Ed Koch when he was mayor of New York used to call to crowds as he passed them: "So, how am I doin'?" John O'Dowd who has been given responsibility for two jobs over the next six weeks with no raise in pay hasn't time to ask that question so I'll do it for him. How's he doin'?

1. He's not beautiful. Some people think looks shouldn't matter, aren't relevant to your work except you're in a beauty contest but  (sigh) it ain't so. In politics, how you look matters. That savage British satirist Steve Bell used to present George Bush as a monkey and David Cameron as a contraceptive. What he would do with John O'Dowd I shudder to think. How you look counts. Alas O'Dowd, like the rest of us, can do damn all about that.
2.  O'Dowd is a very effective media performer, and not just on radio, for which like your humble servant he has a great face. He usually has the facts to back his argument, he presents his case fluently and he does it in a non-angry and non-dour way. In fact, he is such an effective TV performer, you stop looking at him and start listening.
3. These days he's making a few pigeons in the education dove-cote (that is a word, isn't it?) flutter and coo or whatever sound startled pigeons make. He says there are 85,000 empty places in our schools and something needs to be done about it, including facing the possibility of school closure. He says some schools are failing pupils and their parents, and that can't be allowed to continue.

I'm not sure - yes I know, I know, I SHOULD be sure but druid do ghob  a minute, OK?  - I'm not sure what his position is on Peter   Robinson's plan to do away with Catholic education.  But on the  85,000 empty places, he's dead right - something needs to be done, including the possibility of school closure (we're talking public money here) PROVIDED the empty desks will still be empty ten years up the line. I add this caveat because time and again, the education authorities have made cuts in training teachers and school provision, only to find a few years down the track, blimey, the populace have been busy congressing and producing a demographic bulge that demands more, not less places, more not fewer teachers. As to schools that fail pupils: of course that shouldn't be allowed to continue. To do so would be to fly in the face of common sense.

But there are two elements  O'Dowd hasn't, as far as I know, addressed. First, are the ways in which success and failure  in a school are measured accurate? I say that because I've seen the Department of Education inspectorate in action, I've heard the stories of many teachers about visitations from these people, and I'm convinced that they frequently measure the wrong things with wonky measuring sticks. What's more,  they tell schools what they're doing wrong (and, to be fair, right) but they refuse to tell the schools how or even work with the schools to make things better. It's like a dentist hoking in your mouth, telling you you've a tooth needs extraction and then showing you the door.

So I admire O'Dowd as a political performer - he is top-drawer, and I wouldn't be surprised if the Shinners one day make him their leader. Likewise I think he's identified two major problems in education and has had the courage to say what should be done. But until he makes an effort to grasp the nettle of how we identify educational success and failure - and it is a nettle, a bloody big brute of a seriously-stinging nettle - a core problem will continue. Likewise, until he tells the inspectorate that their job is to help make teachers better,  the reign of inspectorate terror which hobbles the average teacher will continue. That can't be good for education.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

The lives of Gusty Spence and Martin McGuinness

Gusty Spence  and Martin McGuinness share a lot in common, don't they? Well,  let's see how that stands up.
1. Both men in their early years had a military background. Gusty Spence was a soldier in the British Army, serving (funny how we use that word for what soldiers do) a long way from home, in Cyprus in the early 1960s. Then he came back home and was convicted of shooting dead an innocent young Catholic man called Peter Ward.  Spence and his family maintain he (Spence)  was innocent of  the crime. If he was, he wouldn't be  the first to serve years in prison for a crime he didn't commit, but so far as we know it was a sectarian murder.  Martin McGuinness was an IRA volunteer  who  led, we're told, a sustained military campaign against the British army in the north of Ireland. He was never convicted of shooting anyone dead.
2.  Spence has expressed deep contrition for any hurt inflicted on anyone. McGuinness has expressed regret that any innocent people died during the conflict.
3. Spence for many years has urged loyalism (why do they call it loyalism and not unionism?) to build a political force to replace paramilitarism. In this he has completely failed.  McGuinness for many years has urged republicanism to build a political force to replace paramilitarism. In this he has been spectacularly successful.
4. Spence has forged no notable relationships with republican counterparts. McGuinness has forged  highly visible relationships with unionist counterparts, notably Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson.

In short, if you  gallop on a speedy horse past  the careers of both men - once involved in paramilitarism, later  involved  in politics - they look alike. Get off the horse and take a closer look: the differences are massive. Gusty Spence, convicted of a sectarian killing, followed that deed with a political career that left no legacy. Martin McGuinness, convicted of possession of ammunition and explosives, followed his paramilitary career with a political career that made him Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland. And maybe - just maybe - more.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Two wise men

Nick Garbutt

Davy Adams

It's a bit like buses. You keep waiting and waiting, stepping off the pavement to peer up the road to see if the damned thing will ever come. Only when you've abandoned all hope do not one but two come chugging along. As for buses, so for worthwhile political articles in the mainstream media. I've been squinting up the road for ages, and here today two arrive, one from each side of the border.

Nick Garbutt whom I remember well from his time as editor of the VO ( that doesn't make him a bad person, or at least not necessarily)...Where was I? Oh yes. In today's Belfast News Letter,  Nick has an article which says two things: (i) somebody should bang the heads in the Orange Order together and tell them to wise up, and (ii) that the economic argument for a united Ireland should be examined. Since he's addressing a unionist readership, Garbutt implies that there is no economic case. Maybe he's right. Maybe he's wrong. But the case does need to be assembled, in solid facts and figures, and then the discussion can proceed. Until that happens economic arguers are wasting their time and ours. Hats off to Nick.

Right now, though, focus is not on the economics of Irish unification but the case (not the race - please - can you see Michael D Higgins running?)  for presidential candidates. A couple of days ago we had Fintan 'High Dudgeon' O'Toole with an article in The Irish Times  explaining to us why Martin McGuinness was top-drawer for northern Executive work but totally unacceptable for southern non-executive work. Today in the same paper an article by Davy Adams, former UDA man, provides a balance to the highly-strung O'Toole, and long may such balance continue. In his article, Adams gives McGuinness an unequivocal thumbs-up.  He notes McGuinness's equal ease in the company of world leaders and working (or more likely not-working) men and women, and how he has put into practice the rhetoric of reaching out to traditional opponents. But the point Adams really slams home is the hypocrisy of southern commentators who never tire of urging those in the north to draw a line under the past; then they're faced with someone who might up-end their cosy cartel and the past is the only thing they can talk about. Odd, isn't it, that men (and women) who were active participants in armed conflict are capable of an honesty and acceptance beyond those who condemned them as psychopaths? 

Anyway, it's becoming clearer that those bent on destroying McGuinness as candidate through references to his distant past (as distinct from his annoyingly-positive more recent past) are running out of breath. Stand by, then, for that line of attack being abandoned and other, let's hope more rational arguments being raised.  Naturally none of this applies to that failed politician from a failed party, the recently-resurrected Michael McDowell. He, I promise you, will be on a TV screen near you. Not once, not twice, but again and again and again. Maybe they could get him on with Nick Garbutt so he could explain how, with robust Fianna Fail aid, he helped bankrupt the southern state.  Still, think positive. We pesky northerners aren't paying an RTÉ licence fee to look at him. 

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Fintan: a man of high principles and quick exits

Since Martin McGuinness has announced his candidacy for the post of Irish President, I've lost count of the number of programmes and newspaper articles that have focused almost exclusively on his past in the IRA.

It happened again today. I was on BBC Radio Ulster/Raidio Uladh's The Stephen Nolan Show and that was where all the emphasis was placed - on McGuinness's past. No, tell a lie - his distant past. The past twenty years and his work for peace? Perhaps mentioned but then hurried away from. Guest of honour for the day (pace Gregory Campbell) was Fintan O'Toole of The Irish Times. Sad to say Fintan made his excuses ("I'm not being allowed to talk!") and left before the rest of us. But while he was with us, he spoke yet again with the moral authority only available to him and a small  number of media gurus: if made President, ex-IRA man Martin McGuinness could be arrested as a war criminal, so the south had better not elect him.

Considering that Fintan is said to have a very big brain, that was an amazingly loopy thing to say.  Former IRA Chief of Staff Sean MacBride was appointed Minister for External Affairs in 1948 and went on to be awarded - uniquely - the Nobel Prize for Peace and the Lenin Prize for Peace. Former IRA man General Sean MacEoin was made Minister for Justice in 1948, and was twice the Fine Gael  candidate for Irish President. Sean T O'Kelly and Eamon de Valera both were imprisoned by the British (Dev was sentenced to death for his part in the 1916 Rising, although Fintan says it was all a misunderstanding and Dev didn't fire a shot).  Between them  - O'Kelly and Dev - they occupied the Presidential post for twenty-eight years. So it looks like that O'Toole horse has just crashed at the first hurdle.

Fintan's other Big Thing is that McGuinness would be open to arrest for war crimes, because the Geneva Convention forbids actions where non-combatants are tortured or killed. Are you listening? Yes, you - I'm talking to you - Tony Blair, George Bush,  Barack Obama, Nelson Mandela, Michael Collins, Winston Churchill...The list is endless. Armed conflict is a horrible, filthy business and in it non-combatants invariably suffer and die. In Ireland, in Germany, in England, in the US, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Libya...again, it's endless.  If Fintan and his partitionist mates were to list in detail the pain and suffering and death inflicted by, say, Harry Truman alone, at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we'd be here until the crack of doom.  I don't know if Martin McGuinness was guilty forty years ago of breaching the Geneva Convention, but I do know that, if war criminals are all to be rounded up, starting with those who slaughtered most people, by the time they get to  McGuinness he'll have died of extreme old age.

In the end it's simple. There are commentators and media people -  a powerful nucleus - who see Martin McGuinness's candidacy as a threat to partition. Keep those pesky damned northerners out of sight and out of mind.  To block McGuinness they'll do and say anything, usually four times, to persuade people that the Sinn Féin man is uniquely unsuited. They don't mind unionists working with him in the north,  in fact they insist on it. But Merciful Hour, don't ask us Catholics in the south to have him in our Áras.

Will the Irish people of the south (not you, Virginia, you little northern vixen, you don't HAVE  a vote, how often must I tell you?) - will they allow Fintan and Co to do their thinking for them?  I've lived in the south and I'm happy to say I really don't believe they will. Which means, Fintan, you're talking through your...Fintan? Are you still there? Oh dear. He's left the building.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Aren't we lucky?

We really should be more grateful, you know. We could have been born in Somalia and faced with  death by famine or disease. Or we could have been born in Afghanistan or Iraq or Libya, where if disease didn't get us,  NATO war planes might well have obliterated us. But we're relatively lucky - the good Lord saw fit to have us born in Ireland.

And that's another reason for gratitude - that the good Lord is the good Lord.  Because  He could have been  anybody. He could have been Fintan O'Toole. Or Pat Kenny. Or Ed Moloney. Now that would have been worrying. A bit like the famous eighteen minutes of missing tape from Richard Nixon's recordings of events in the Oval Office, we could find on Judgement Day that parts of our life had gone missing. Big parts. We'd be set  on the scales and Fintan or Pat or Ed would look down on us and say "I'm not a bit happy with your life - go to hell".  It'd be useless for you or I to protest to Fintan or Pat or Ed, or try to point out that in  OTHER parts of our lives we acted in truly good ways - Christian ways, in fact. When people insulted us we said nothing in return, when people ignored us we didn't hold a grudge. In fact we spent the major part of our lives doing what Christians are supposed to do - loving our enemies, doing good to those hate us. "Bollocks to that" Fintan or Pat or Ed would say, in their role as the  Lord on Judgement Day. "I'm not counting that. Go to hell". And off we'd have to go, because Fintan or Pat or Ed would be the ultimate Judge of our lives, and being perfect as only the good Lord can be perfect, they'd  do the thumb's down and pull the trapdoor to Hades.

Scary or what? Fortunately, Fintan and Pat and Ed aren't the good Lord, so we can add that blessing to living where we do. F and P and E may judge us, but ultimately their judgement won't count.  Let's instead  remember and follow the words of  Margaret Thatcher, when told that her orders had resulted in  the war-crime-chargeable deaths of over 300 Argentinian sailors on the Belgrano: "Rejoice in that!"

Monday, 19 September 2011

No, sorry, WE choose the questions

I have this recurring nightmare. I'm in a room and I'm sitting opposite a row of people who are looking at me very hard. I'm in this room because I've answered an ad for a job and I'm reasonably confident I can get it. I'm experienced, I come with good references and I've got loads of academic degrees to support my claim. For the past twenty years I've been working in an area that shows how good I am at the job that's been advertised. Then the nightmare starts and continues for the next half-hour. It's a nightmare because the row of people keep asking me what experience did I have when I was twenty, were there any people out there who might have written
 bad  references for me, and how many degrees did I have when I was twenty years of age? "But - but - are you not supposed to be asking me about what qualities I bring to this job now  - not how qualified I was when I was twenty!" The line of people behind the desk glower at me. "We'll decide what questions get asked. Now,  how qualified for this job would you say you were you when you were nineteen?"

It started last week and this morning I checked with my doctor. "Can you give me a prescription, doctor? I really need to get some decent sleep".  "I can" he says. "I prescribe that you stop listening to the radio, watching TV and reading newspapers". 

He's a good doctor but I find it impossible to follow his prescription.  As I go tappity-tap here on my keyboard, I hear the voice of Norman Tebbit on the Stephen Nolan show talking about events that occurred in the 1980s. He's talking about how his wife was injured in an IRA bomb, and when it's pointed out that for twenty years now, the latest entrant to the Irish presidential election has been working might and main to end the violence and has successfully forged relationships with former enemies, he shrugs that off. What Norman Tebbit wants is repentance by Martin McGuinness. He didn't say "It's words, not deeds that count" but he came pretty close.

Some facts. If we don't know that terrible pain was inflicted by republicans, by unionists/loyalists and by the British army, then we're so buck stupid we should just go away and sit in a corner. Since we know about it, let's either shut up about it or  - as Martin McGuinness himself has urged -  there should be a Truth Commission where everyone -EVERYONE - puts their cards -ALL their cards - on the table. Including the British government. "Youse did this" and "Youseuns did that" could go ticky-tacking on to the crack of doom. 

I'm an optimist. I think the people of the south (no, Virginia, sorry my dear, there is no vote for you in this election) - I think the southern electorate will judge Martin McGuinness on the basis of what kind of man he is. Not was. Is. If they do so judge him, then the idea that they would then vote for  Gay Mitchell, Michael D Higgins or (God forbid) David Norris is simply laughable. 

Friday, 16 September 2011

Is it true what they're saying about Martin?

Well who’d have thunk it? As I write this, Twitter is flooding with reports that Martin McGuinness will be the Sinn Féin-backed candidate for the Irish presidency. Well.

Nobody saw that coming. NOBODY.  But they had good reason not to. For a start, McGuinness is terribly important to the success of Sinn Féin in the north and to the peace process in general. It just seemed inconceivable. Then there’s his clear IRA history, which raises a lot of hackles, not just in the north. But then you think about it and maybe it makes sense. If it’s true. How does it make sense? Let me count the ways.

1.    1.  He’s an authoritative figure to all shades of Sinn Féin.
2.    2.  He’s widely admired for his ability to work and even form a friendship with Ian Paisley, Peter Robinson and just last weekend, a Derry Presbyterian minister.
3.     3. The election period is short – around six weeks.
4.    4.  If he were to win, it would be a huge coup for Sinn Féin – almost inestimable in its worth.
5.    5.  If he doesn’t win, he can return to Stormont and pick up where he left off.
6.     Either way, he’ll attract the maximum vote  Sinn Féin could have hoped to get.

How does it not make sense?

1.     1. There are people in the south who have always detested Sinn Féin and its linkage with the IRA, and Martin McGuinness personifies that link.  But then they were never going to vote for any Sinn Féin-backed candidate.
2.     2. Know something? I can’t think of a No 2.

It sounds like a huge high-wire act until you stand back and think. Then you begin to see how many boxes (to invent a new metaphor) it ticks.

No wonder we all thought he looked sorta …different at the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis.  Now - if the rumours are true -  we know why.

It could be one helluvan interesting six weeks…

Thursday, 15 September 2011

The Orange Order and unpolished shoes

When I was at boarding school, the Dean used to stand outside the College chapel in the morning, as we trooped into (compulsory) Mass, staring at our shoes. If he found someone who hadn’t polished his shoes, there was hell to pay.  Up to his room that night (so you’d lots of time to worry about it), then six of the worst he could deliver. Never mind the boy’s relationship with the God he was about to worship, never mind the job of opening up a young mind to the wonders and mysteries of life. He hadn’t polished his shoes and that was what really mattered.

I’m reminded of the shoe-focused Dean when I hear about Tom Elliot and Danny Kennedy maybe facing “disciplinary proceedings” for having attended Requiem Mass for PC Ronan Kerr who was killed, we’re led to believe, by dissident republicans. We’re hearing calls from ‘moderate’ sections of the Orange Order for the rule to be changed, so that the likes of Elliot and Kennedy can attend a Catholic church service without retribution. Shoe-polishing stuff. Where’s the courageous Protestant clergyman or woman, or Orange man or woman, who’ll stand up and say “See all this marching – not just the ones that are disputed, but all of them? Pointless and triumphalist. Excessive. Who needs over 3,000 marches every year? Who needs an organisation that rejects Catholics, rejects those with Catholic spouses, is suspicious of those with Catholic parents. OK, guys, I know the summer months are boring but let’s please, in the name of sanity, scrap the Orange Order and do something COMPLETELY DIFFERENT”.

The day I hear that, I’ll know that there is a truly enlightened unionism emerging and that the spirit of the shoe-fetishist has finally gone away.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Alastair and Gerry - a turn for the worse?

Two men are probably feeling pretty cheesed off this morning. Alastair McDonnell was on TV the other day explaining that reducing Belfast from four constituencies to three would be bad for the city’s political clout. Maybe, but I’ll bet the truth was more like an earlier judgement Alastair made:  South Belfast, the constituency he had carefully and successfully built up, was now to be shredded. Cheesed off. Alastair probably say “Totally pissed off” except that’s not the kind of language doctors use.

The second miffed-off man is Gerry Kelly.  In North Belfast in 2001, he was some 6,000 votes behind Nigel Dodds; in 2005 he was around 5,000; and in 2010 he was just 2,000 behind. You don’t have to be an Einstein to see what’s about to happen:  Kelly was getting set to take Dodds’s seat. How good would that have looked for the DUP? Their leader loses in East Belfast, their deputy leader loses in North Belfast. But with the proposed constituency changes, that’s a longer shot. Much longer. Gerry Kelly’s not a doctor so you can imagine what he’s saying.

On the upside for republicans, they should come out of the changes across the north as they were or even a little better. And if they were into schadenfreude (perish the thought), they might be thinking about how much worse the changes will be for the SDLP.

But I have a word of consolation for the good Doctor, for Gerry Kelly and for the SDLP: it might never happen. Remember  MacMillan and his famous warning about the political impact of “Events, dear boy, events”?  Think what happened to that plan for seven or was it eleven supercouncils that was going to change the way power operated in the north?  Beginning to gather dust on a Stormont shelf.  Besides, the earliest these boundary changes could happen is in about two years’ time. Events, dear boys, events…

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Catholic priests and celibacy: time for a re-think

I’ve just come from a discussion on  the Stephen Nolan show, BBC Radio Ulster/Raidio Uladh. It lasted twenty minutes and it was on the topic of celibacy in the Catholic Church. The former Bishop of Derry Eddie Daly (who features with his crimson handkerchief in that Bloody Sunday mural) has a book coming out tomorrow and in it he argues strongly for optional celibacy in the Catholic Church. He says he wants a measured debate on the topic.

He’s spot on.  It’s only a pity that the Catholic Church has been more or less forced into thinking about the matter because of a critical fall in the number of candidates opting to become priests. When I was young, the argument was that celibacy freed priests from the bonds of marriage and family, allowing them to concentrate 100% on their work. There’s something to be said for that: we all know public figures who throw themselves into their work and their family life pays a heavy and sometimes terminal price. Celibacy also provides a strong sense of brotherhood among priests – when they come together you sense that companionship. But it’s a male companionship which produces a mindset where women are essentially peripheral to life. That’s bad. It’s why there are a  great many Catholic priests who have no real understanding of the lives of half their congregation.

Some men are suited to the celibate life – they prefer the solitary existence. That’s the case too in the lay world, by the way – more people live alone now than has been the case for decades, maybe centuries. But these people opt to live alone. The man who wants to be a Catholic priest has no choice: the celibacy and the priesthood come together – both or nothing. As a result many men who would make marvelous ministers are turned away or leave the priesthood.

One final point. You ‘ll get those who will speak of optional celibacy as a cure for clerical sexual abuse. Don’t listen to them. They’re either ill-informed or malicious. I have yet to see any research which shows that sexual abuse is more prevalent among celibate Catholic clergy than among non-celibate Protestant or Jewish or Muslim clergy. Or any other religion. Or among the general population. So let’s hope when and if there’s a debate, at least that moth-eaten old canard won’t be pushed into the discussion. 

Friday, 9 September 2011

Bertie Ahern, Gerry Adams and the southern media

Poor Bertie Ahern.  Once he was everybody’s favourite.  He  liked a pint, he liked going to Croke Park, he liked Man United, he was open about living with a woman who wasn’t his wife,  he kept the unions onside, he presided over boom times, he wasn’t Charlie Haughey. A dream of a taoiseach. Then the economic roof fell in and smiles turned to yells of rage. God knows Bertie hasn’t helped himself. He did a daft  TV commercial where he was stuck in a cupboard (it doesn’t matter WHY he was there, just pay attention) and he’s been drawing a huge pension - €150,000 and €265,000 in “secretarial expenses” over the last three years. Now he’s capped it all by saying that during his term in office, the people in the south “went mad about house-buying”. One paper even added to its headline “Sneers Bertie”.  What a plonker!  Pointing the finger at other people when everyone knows he was the one that brought the southern state to its  knees. Take that, Ahern, the southern media screamed all last weekend. And that and that. You gurrier. 

Hey – newsflash: Bertie is a politician. It’s his job to look good and, if necessary, shift the blame. When’s the last time you saw a politician come out and say “I made a right pig’s posterior of that one”? Doesn’t happen.  Not in their nature. So it’s a bit unfair to pick out old Bertie for such a thorough kicking. Although  - and this is the interesting bit - the kicking was invariably modified by “Of course we do owe him a lot for delivering the peace process”. 

Eh? We know Bertie’s mother died during the final negotiations in the north. And we know he drove or got himself driven up to Stormont to carry on with the work.  But he “delivered the peace process”?  The media, particularly in the south, are a funny lot. They lock onto a version of events and you couldn’t shift it with a bulldozer, even when it’s crashingly clear that the version is off-beam. 

The truth is, the Good Friday Agreement came about for one major reason: because the IRA called  a ceasefire. And if you then ask “Who was it persuaded the IRA to call a ceasefire?” the answer is not Bertie Ahern, that’s for sure. One person was central to the IRA ceasefire which made possible the creation of the Good Friday Agreement  - to which, yes of course, others, including Bertie, contributed. Who was that one person? Gerry Adams. Now there's a name that sticks in the craw of the southern media.  The peace process? Um, Bertie Ahern. And Albert Reynolds. And of course Tony Blair – key figure, Blair. And Ian Paisley – mustn’t forget the big man. Then there’s Bill Clinton, crucial, really crucial. And that guy who used to have a beard, shaved it since – yes, Niall O’Dowd. And that’s about it.  Apart from John Hume, of course. Trojan work, Hume. Let’s leave it there, shall we?...What’s that? Gerry who? Don’t know why you bring him up.  Apart from denying he was in the IRA, can’t see what he did to bring the peace process into being. Anyway, we don’t like using his name around here. In fact to be safe, we don’t use ANY words that begin with a G or an A, except they link to something negative. 

The south’s media are good at moral judgments, though. Drunk driving, sexual abuse, racism, corrupt developers – they’ll point the finger and name the names. All the while erasing or attempting to erase facts or contributions that  don’t fit their version of history. Maybe take time off kicking Bertie, guys, and take a look in the mirror. 

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Rev David Latimer: Christian or weirdo?

It must be irritating for those who like to present the differences here as between Protestants and Catholics when they run up against the fact that the history of Irish republicanism is studded with Protestants. Sam Maguire (he of the famous Sam Maguire Cup) was a Protestant who recruited Michael Collins into the Irish Republican Brotherhood, just as Bulmer Hobson (another Protestant) swore Padraig Pearse into the same organisation.  Constance Markievicz, Roger Casement, Ernest Blythe - all Protestants. Douglas Hyde, Ireland's first president, was another.  And that fellow Yeats as well, not to mention the founder of Irish republicanism, Wolfe Tone.

Which brings us to this weekend and the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis:  the party have  invited Derry Presbyterian minister the Reverend David Latimer to address them. Now politicians never do anything - well, not in public anyway - without a reason. The message Sinn Féin are sending out with the David Latimer thing is that they want to bridge the gulf between republicanism and the Protestant community today. This for some is an appalling vista and so there have  been efforts to show Latimer as something of an odd-ball, a maverick. Gregory Campbell was on Radio Ulster/Raidio Uladh this morning reminding listeners that Latimer spoke with dissidents, opposed a public parade of RIR men returning from Afghanistan and his attendance at the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis fitted into this dubious pattern.

It all may seem a small matter - Protestant clergyman makes speech to republicans, big deal - but actually it does matter, both for republicans and for the clergyman involved. Sinn Féin have made it a party priority to break down divisions between themselves and Protestants.  In fact for some in Sinn Féin, Ireland won't be worth uniting until Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter are united in the north. It's important for the clergyman because...well, do I need to tell you? Read your Bible. One of the things the Pharisees accused Jesus of was consorting with sinners. I'm not sure if Rev David Latimer thinks  Shinners are sinners, but he knows as a Christian that even they were, that's no reason for him to avoid contact or conversation with them.

Hats off to David Latimer this morning,  then,  for having the courage of his Christian convictions.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Loathing and absence in Belfast Crown Court

To risk being pedantic: if no other good comes from the supergrass trial that began in Belfast yesterday, at least the practice of referring to informers as ‘informants’ will have been dropped. Or  I hope so.  I don’t read all  the papers but those I do, if they have to use the i word,  it's been ‘informer’. Why was ‘informant’ ever used? Because ‘informer’ has resonances that ripple back through Irish history and the authorities didn’t want it to trigger the contempt it did.

You could argue it’s not fair or even law-abiding to experience such contempt. The fact is, the testimony that Robert and David Stewart give in the Laganside court in the coming days may result in the imprisonment of a number of highly dangerous men.  The brothers Stewart in 2008 walked into Antrim police station and admitted to being UVF members. By confessing to their own crimes  - around seventy – and by detailing the part played by others, they have managed to get their jail terms shrunk to two or three years rather than two or three decades.

There have been lots of public protest that we’re back to the supergrass trials of the 1980s which led to the arrest of dozens of IRA men but which collapsed when the word of the supergrasses was declared unreliable. The authorities claim that the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act of 2005 is a totally different animal but not many people believe them. A supergrass trial is a supergrass trial, just as an informer is an informer.

But while there’s little doubt that the majority of people would like to see murderous members of the UVF safely behind bars,  they feel an uneasiness that it's being done in this way. There’s something shameful about men who swear their allegiance to an organization, however detestable that organization,  then turn on its members to save their own skin. That’s what the two Stewarts look like they’re doing.

Even most nationalists and republicans will have reservations about any convictions secured under these terms. But there’s one other, um, concern shall we say, that nationalists and republicans have as they watch this trial unfold. We know that loyalist murder gangs were threaded with those who acted under instructions from their police handlers, sometimes to commit murder. If there's going to be a trial, shouldn’t some of the men who pulled the strings be in the dock as well?

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Sorry, the past is over. It can't be "dealt with".

God but we're hypocrites. We pretend to be other-centred, focused beyond ourselves - and all the time we're looking for an opening, hoping we can get a chink in the other guy's armour. I was on the Stephen Nolan Show this morning, where people were talking about "dealing with the past". What a glib, stupid phrase. As if the past was something to be wrapped in brown paper and a nice bow tied on top. The past - the past here, as it was experienced over the last thirty or forty years -  is a great seething ocean of individual pain. We all know the world from inside our heads, not someone else's. Besides which, the past in all its horror has happened and this is NOT Groundhog Day. No second chances.

And hypocrisy? Well, it's when politicians wring their hands about the suffering of victims and then go on to see can they build a higher stack of injustices on THEIR side than the opposing lot can on theirs. Mike Nesbitt is a unionist politician but I agree with him on this: the best we can do with the past is perhaps unearth the facts of what happened; after that personal perspective and prejudice takes over. If you see the Troubles as a mass outbreak of murderous criminality against the forces of law and order, then you've solved the problem when the criminality is under control.  If you see the Troubles as people meeting unjust state force with resistance, then the problem is solved when the unjust state becomes a just state. If you see the Troubles as one in a series of efforts to break the link with Britain, then the problem will be solved only when the link with Britain is ended.

A final thought. I cannot begin to fathom the powers of forgiveness of those who, having had a loved one killed through violence, are content when those who did the killing say Sorry. It's wonderful that it happens but it's certainly not justice.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Let's all grow up and enjoy Gaelic games

OK,  they could maybe use a voice coach so the victory speech of the winning captain isn't so squirm-inducing; but that aside, what a game hurling is! What. A. Game.  A grown-up kind of game where, judging by Tipperary vs Kilkenny at Croker today, no quarter is given or asked for. And the skill. My God - the skill! There were guys in Croke Park today doing flicks and turns and scores and interceptions that made me wonder if it was actually possible that I'd seen what I'd seen.

A grown-up sport indeed. Which is good, because for a long time the GAA wasn't  grown-up. It was an Association that felt itself under siege: rules forbidding certain people playing Gaelic games, other rules forbidding Gaelic games players from playing other games. No more. The GAA is all growed-up. Just as Croke Park has opened  its gates to rugby and other sports, so the GAA mentality has broadened, extended its horizons, and  the Association is thriving as never before.

Which is why it's a near-sinful shame that over half the population in the North won't watch it, never mind play it. Years ago there was (allegedly) a headline in the VO: "Catholic Dog Wins Greyhound Derby".  Today, there are tens of thousands of people shutting their eyes to an exhilarating source of sporting enjoyment because they think of it as a Catholic Game.  Oh dear. Time to grow up, guys.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Libya: the truth, the half-truth and nothing but the half-truth

Have you ever been to Libya? No, me neither.  But there are a lot of people in print, on radio and TV these days who have been. Or certainly from the way they report the fall of Tripoli and the collapse of the Muammar Gaddaffi regime,  they must have been, because they are as one in welcoming the end of what Miriam O’Callaghan, among others, described as “the end of the 42-year reign of terror”.  On TV we get shots of guys tearing up or driving over posters of Gaddafi. On RTÉ earlier this week, a young Libyan woman living in Dublin who’d visited Libya annually since 2000  spoke of the pervading sense of fear in the country. Mind you, until prompted, her main complaint had been that young people were going to college, graduating and then having no job, and if you don’t know where that reminds you of, stop reading now, would you? Thanks. 

So what sort of place was Libya under Gaddafi? Well, it certainly wasn’t a democracy – Gaddafi took power over forty years ago and held on tight until recently. We’re told that he operated a massive system of secret surveillance of the population, that people were imprisoned without trial, that in some cases he had his political enemies killed. Not nice. And if  you don’t know where that reminds you of, stop reading now, would you? Thanks. 

Did he do any good during his time in power?  Well, nothing to speak of, not if you’re reporting for the BBC or ITV or in The Sindo.  But if you dig a bit  it’s there. When he came to power in 1969, a barrel of oil was sold to the West for 40 cents – exploitation on a massive scale. Gaddafi got the Arab world to withhold their oil and by 1973, they’re getting  $40  a barrel. In Libya itself he built roads, he created jobs. He saw to it that all Libyan children had a free education. The country now has a high literacy rate and six universities. It’s got a health care system and along with subsidized food, this has reduced infant mortality from 105 per 1,000 live births in 1970 to 20 per 1,000 live births in 1998. 

So why don’t we hear that side of Gaddafi’s time in power, as well as the “reign of terror” claims?  Well, maybe for the same reason that the rebels’ success is presented in terms of happy Libyans firing their guns in the air rather than in terms of NATO bombings and the secret placement of  Western SAS-type personnel on the ground: because it looks better if it seems the Libyan rebels did it themselves. Except they didn’t.  It was Western intervention decided the fate of Gaddafi’s regime. One example: since the start of April, the US has carried out over 1200 air strikes and over 100 Predator drone strikes against Gaddafi’s forces.    

And why did the West get involved? The official reason is that Gaddafi denied his population human rights (and would the person who shouted “So are they going to intervene in China, then?” please leave the room now). The real reason is…I can see you’re ahead of me…oil. Libya produces about a million barrels of oil a day and it’s very good quality. Gaddafi from the start made it clear that he wasn’t going to dance to the tune of the Western world at the expense of the Arab world.  That’s why the West has always detested him. Not because he denied the Libyan people democracy (which he did) but because he refused to be a puppet of the West and encouraged others to act likewise. 

I haven’t mentioned the arms shipments Gaddafi sent to the IRA in the 1970s? That’s true. Just as I haven’t mentioned the £100 million–worth of arms  - tear gas, chemical weapons, electronic equipment – Britain sold Gaddafi between 2005 and 2009. But listen -  shhhh.  Don’t talk about that, it complicates the picture. Let’s just keep it black and white, OK? Now  repeat after me: “Gaddafi bad, rebels good”… Now you’ve got it.