Jude Collins

Saturday, 31 December 2011

The New Year's Honours List and getting lucky

I wonder how many football referees are made knights?  I ask because one thing most football referees are good at is running backwards - occasionally there’s a collision but most manage it perfectly most of the time. Which means being made a knight would be tailor-made for them, since apparently when you get a knighthood, you’re supposed to back your way out of the room. That’s because the room contains Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, better known as Queen Elizabeth II. The reasons for the backward movement are rooted in English history. Some have suggested it was because the English monarch was originally a big robber baron, so other smaller robber barons made a point of backing out of a room that contained them to avoid ending with a dagger lodged between their shoulder-blades. This is almost certainly black propaganda. The reverse is more probably true, you might say: people reversed from the room containing the English monarch because turning their back would have been disrespectful, not dangerous. (Although being disrespectful can also be dangerous).

In the south of Ireland, poor people, they do not have a monarch. They have Michael D Higgins which is not quite the same thing.  Which means they are deprived of the New Year’s Honours List that we in the north enjoy.   There is talk down there of inventing an honours list,  and perhaps some fake antique practices to go with it,  like leaving Michael D’s presence while hopping on one foot or doing a leap-frog over the honour-recipient behind you.  Hopelessly fake-sounding, if you ask me. Unlike all the ceremony that surrounds Her Majesty Elizabeth Alexandra Mary, which is steeped in centuries of antique stuff, most of it fashioned to remind people of their place in society. If you  must bow or curtsey or kneel or back your way out of a room, you’d be quite thick not to get the message of who’s important around here.

Besides, even the south had a monarch of its own, it still wouldn’t have an Empire, would it, and that’s really built into our awards.  OBE does not mean Out of Body Experience, it means Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. That’s what Darren Clarke got. Rory McIlroy, being younger, had to settle for becoming an MBE – Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. When Ronnie Flanagan got his thing a few years back for all that good work in the RUC, he became a Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. KCB, in short. Not the British Commonwealth, you note. Empire. That brought civilization all over the world.  EMPIRE! HUZZAH!

God, I’m getting misty-eyed and I haven’t even touched a drop yet. Let me end, my dear blog-readers, with a poem from one of our own – Paul Muldoon. A good Ulsterman. It’s called ‘Meeting the British’ and it’s about honouring some North American native people in the seventeeth century with a few well-chosen gifts.  The speaker, of course, is one of the primitive but loveable native people.

We met the British in the dead of winter. 
The sky was lavender 
and the snow lavender-blue. 
I could hear, far below, 
the sound of two streams coming together 
(both were frozen over) 
and, no less strange, 
myself calling out in French 
across that forest- 
clearing. Neither General Jeffrey Amherst 
nor Colonel Henry Bouquet 
could stomach our willow-tobacco. 
As for the unusual 
scent when the Colonel shook out his hand- 
kerchief: C'est la lavande, 
une fleur mauve comme le ciel. 
They gave us six fishhooks 
and two blankets embroidered with smallpox.

Athbhliain faoi Mhaise Daoibh  -  Happy New Year to everyone.

Friday, 30 December 2011

1981 papers and Thatcher's wobble

So what are you - British? Irish?  From time to time those commenting on my blogs tell  me it's truly stupid to talk about Britain running Irish affairs, that they (unionists) are British, do I think one million people are going to be evicted?

This is an old argument and one used by the SDLP as well as unionists: that talk of 'Brits out' is absurd, the block to a united Ireland is not the British government but the one million unionists living in the north. Those who share this view should find government papers from 1981 instructive this morning. The Financial Times reports that Thatcher and her cabinet were very worried about a speech former PM James Callaghan was due to deliver, suggesting that,  in the face of the hunger strike and increasing unrest,  Britain should rethink its relationship to Northern Ireland.

"His views might well receive massive support from public opinion in Britain where there was already a widespread feeling in favour of British withdrawal. Many people in Britain now believed that a settlement of the complex problems of the area would be more easily reached by the Irish on their own and that continued British involvement could only mean the futile sacrifice of further British lives".

It looks as though Thatcher & Co had no difficulty in spotting a qualitative difference between "British lives" and the lives of people living in Ireland, including unionists. Which of course there is.

Response to the release of the 1981 papers will no doubt lead to further drum-banging by those who desperately want to attribute the deaths of most if not all the hunger-strikers to Sinn Féin rather than Thatcher.The Financial Times, in contrast,  sees the central issue as being the possibility of British withdrawal from the north - in short, the beginning of the break-up of the United Kingdom.

But here we are 1981 and British withdrawal hasn't happened.   Or should that be qualified? The UDR has been effectively dismantled, as has the RUC. A power-sharing Assembly now operates in Stormont ; justice and policing powers have been transferred here. That appears to be the policy of Sinn Féin - transfer as much power as possible from Westminster to Stormont, and in that way move towards ending the political union with Britain. They haven't achieved that goal -  control of the key powers of taxation and foreign policy still rests with Britain; but a look at Scotland is instructive. There, the Scottish National Party has eviscerated the opposition, has some control of taxation if not of foreign policy, and while its leader Alex Salmond is much more popular than his key goal of Scottish independence, informed British analysts like Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian see a Scottish  Yes for independence in 2015 as a distinct possibility:   "Salmond may be the Times's choice of a great Briton, but his ferocious talent could yet prove to be Great Britain's undoing".

A final note: Salmond plans on having a second question on the 2015 referendum, in addition to the one asking Scots if they favour total independence. It's being called "devo-max", which would give Scotland every power short of a total break from Britain. In other words, his second-best would be to transfer as many powers as possible from London to Edinburgh, thus moving closer to total independence.  Sound familiar?

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Getting physical with the little people

So –  Frances Fitzgerald, the Minister for Children in the south, is considering an outright ban on the smacking of children by their parents. Me, I’ve done more punching than smacking. I’ve punched priests, lawyers, teachers and even a nun or two. And been punched back. At the time of punching, I should add, we were all under fifteen  so no court cases ensued. 

My parents smacked me, only we called it “hitting”.  My father kept a stick propped behind a picture of the Sacred Heart in the kitchen. He rarely used it but the threat was there, every time you looked up from  your porridge or bacon and cabbage. My mother normally used the flat of her hand when tried beyond endurance (it happens when you’ve eight children), but occasionally would reach for the nearest implement. Sometimes a clothes hanger, sometimes a hair brush, sometimes a wooden spoon.

At school, slapping was an integral part of education.  A short leather strap was applied to the open palm, held out from your body. Four slaps you got off lightly, six was tough enough, ten was rare. In addition, you could expect to get a slap across the face, or several slaps, usually for poor work. I had an Irish teacher who encouraged me to love my native tongue by gripping a fistful of my hair (I swear I once had it) and shaking my head from side to side. As my desk was beside a radiator, this sometimes involved a clang-thud sound.

Here is where I should say “And it never did me any harm” but I’m not totally inane. I firmly believe – have done all my life - that smacking children is both stupid and cowardly. You get people who say “But I was tried beyond endurance!” and having taught teenagers for ten years and helped rear four children, I know what they mean.  However, on the one occasion I did smack a child (my own, as it happens), I immediately felt so ashamed I never repeated it. People who smack children,  be they parents or anything else, are cowardly (would they do it if the child was 6ft 2 ins and weighed 14 stone?) and stupid (do they really believe that thumping people makes them better?).

In the south of Ireland at present, parents can plead “reasonable chastisement” and get away with physical punishment of their children. The UK allows parents to smack or spank their children providing they leave no marks on the body. 

Great to be living in or near such civilized countries, isn’t it?

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

For God's sake put on your clothes, Ma'am

I don’t usually think of women in their eighties wearing no clothes, but RTÉ’s Tommie Gorman had a programme on last night which forced me to. It started off with Luka Bloom, brother of Christy Moore, singing a song called ‘The Seed Is Sown’.  It wasn’t about seeds at all, it was really about the visit of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II to Ireland earlier this year. The camera came away from Luka and there we were again in the Garden of Remembrance on that day in May, Queen of England and President of Ireland side by side, heads bowed in memory of men executed nearly a century ago by the British Army.

The no-clothes bit? Well it’s the Emperor thing, innit? Or in this case Empress. The entire media world, as far as I can tell, sees this heads-bowed moment and the visit in general as terribly, terribly significant. That and Her Majesty using that bit of Irish at the banquet. Why? Because it signals a “flowering” (D Cameron’s word) of real friendship between our two islands. It puts the cherry on the cake that celebrates the end of centuries of cruelty and conflict.

Eh? Am I missing something? Is Ireland now an independent country? Has Westminster handed back financial and foreign-policy control to the Irish people? Have 5,000 British troops gone home for Christmas and stayed there? Is the map on the BBC’s Newsline 630 about to change its Isle-of-Man shape? Because that’s what I was under the impression was the source of the centuries-old conflict between our two countries – that Britain continues to exercise jurisdiction over a part of Ireland. How did Her Majesty, fully-clothed or otherwise, standing with bent head for a few seconds, change all that?

Don’t get me wrong - I’m not a party-pooper, nor do I wish to drizzle let alone rain on anyone’s parade. But if we’re all going to sink with a contented sigh into a pink cloud  of fantasy, where optics count for more than awkward facts, we’re never going to solve this thing.                                          

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Fings ain't wot they used to be...

I watched Downton Abbey  for the first time over Christmas and immediately had a sense of déjà vu . It was just like Upstairs Downstairs forty years ago, except the colour was better and the story-lines more dramatic: faithful servant set to be hanged, sweet young lady has a fling with a Turkish chap.  Watching it was like sinking into a well-padded armchair while the Christmas dinner settled into the digestive system: no effort required, all the thrills and spills strictly controlled by the sense of order and good-natured kindness supplied by the lord and lady of the house.

There are two things worth saying about a programme like Downton Abbey.  One is that the British do it superbly well. The great house itself, the rolling lawns, the whiskeys by the fire  before or is it after dinner: all these are as important a part of the product as any of the plot-lines or characters.  The second thing worth noting is how evenly balanced plot and character is. There may be a bounder among the upper classes who has been trying to win the hand of that nice dark-haired woman, but he’s got his counter-part in the mocking, ambitious young footman who hides milord’s dog so he can find it for him and thus receive the gratitude his career needs. The final touch of balance is provided by the  way friendships and caring span the classes, like the way the master of the house and his soft-eyed wife (shades of Miss Ellie in Dallas) are terribly upset about one of their servants being charged with murder – so upset they’re prepared to risk a social cloud over their house and family if only justice can be done.

It’s all a bit bread-and-circuses, a bit Premier League football –done well and offering a powerful if passive thrill, so that most of us don’t much mind that we kinda know we’re being sold a myth. In football the myth is that the players are modest and manly sportsmen, shaking hands at the end of a hard-fought contest; in Ancient Rome, it probably was that the Emperor was an essentially nice man, if a bit given to making the thumbs-down gesture. In Downton Abbey it’s that the British past was warm-hearted and orderly, and that when faced with a crisis, personal or national,  the lord of the manor is sure to stand shoulder to shoulder with the faithful family retainer. Oh, and that accepting life as it is, is what makes for happiness,

No, that background music, it’s not Jingle Bells. you're hearing.  It’s There’ll Always Be An England.  

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Babies call the shots

Funny how religion and politics can criss-cross.  Here we are in the mouth of Christmas which celebrates the birth of Jesus with all its implications, and within days of that feast the Economic and Social Research Institute in the south has come up with some new and slightly startling research about babies. According to the ESRI, the calculations about fertility made by the south’s Central Statistics Office are off-mark.  What the CSO eejits have done is, they’ve confused two things: women postponing having babies to a later point in life and women having no babies at any point in their lives.  “The official figures appear to have mistaken a delay in childbirth for a reduction” a spokesman for the ESRI says As they see it, there will be about 400,000 more babies born “in the coming decades”.  So while other countries in Europe are struggling to keep their population replenished and avoid having too many oldies and not enough youngies , the south of Ireland may have the opposite problem: how to provide classrooms and teachers and the myriad other services an unexpected population bulge demands.  There was a time when a recession would have made people think twice about having a baby. Not this time, apparently - in the south of Ireland they look as if  they’re going to keep on keeping on.  I suppose they have to pass the time some way.  

How much does this matter politically? A great deal. If a political party can’t offer a programme that meets the needs of all the population – not just a privileged section or the population they thought would be there as distinct from the population that actually is there,  then that party’s not going to get many votes. Ideally,  the expense of schooling and health provision gets balanced by a birth-rage that puts enough young people into the income-earning population to take care of both young and old. But if you do your sums wrong, as the Central Statistics Office appear to have, you’re going to be faced with the problem of a population bulge:  too many needs, not enough income. 

Those of us north of the border have our own fertility problems. Always have had. Hard-core unionists used to enjoy claiming that Catholics bred “like vermin” as they tossed their pennies from Derry’s walls into the Bogside.  More civilly put, they noted that Catholics/Nationalists had  markedly larger families than Protestant/Unionists – a worrying fact, since the state had been created in the belief that its borders would shelter a permanent Protestant majority.  That looked to have been another population miscalculation, some ten years ago.  Back then, many people were convinced that a great leap forward in Catholic population numbers was imminent and would show in the census, bringing it perilously near to matching the Protestant population. In the event, the leap was more of a small hop.  There was an increase but much smaller than anticipated. (It cost one well-known columnist a bottle of champagne. No, not me – I confine my bets to certainties and cold cash rather than wishful thinking  and chilled champagne.)

Why was there this expectation of a Catholic population surge? Because the school-going population showed a sharp increase in Catholic numbers, relative to Protestant pupils. It didn’t happen – but that was ten years ago. What of this time?  Catholic schoolchildren in this state still outnumber their Protestant peers. We had a census earlier this year. When published, it could be  that the anticipated leap had been postponed, not cancelled.  Then it would be interesting to test in a referendum the oft-repeated unionist claim that one third to one half of the Catholic population here are in fact unionist. 

Babies – they look so small and helpless. But they can change our world.

Nollaig shona duibh - Happy Christmas. 

Friday, 23 December 2011

Evidence? What need have we of evidence?

A few decades ago I was trying to make a radio programme about people who’d been interned on the prison ship Argenta  during the 1920s. I was tipped off that one 80-something survivor might give me an interview, so I found my way, after some searching,  to his house. Wasted journey. He told me – a plain talker, this man – that he’d never liked my father, or any of his many brothers and sisters.  No, tell a lie – there was one sister he liked. But the rest of them, including my da, he’d no time for. So no interview. Innocent that I was, I suggested that I wasn’t really to blame for anything my father and/or his siblings had done some sixty years earlier. Didn’t matter. I was my father’s son, so forget it.

I thought of that old man as I read an article in the Irish Times  this morning. It was about a son of the late INLA leader Dominic McGlinchey (also called Dominic).  Mr McGlinchey has felt the need to deny “in the most strenuous terms possible” that he was the driver of the getaway car involved in the killing of two British soldiers in Antrim in 2009.  Why did he feel the need to do this? Because counsel for  one of the accused  declared in court that the PSNI had “reliable information”   that one of the late Dominic McGlinchey’s sons drove the getaway car.  This information, apparently, has been widely reported in the Irish media and beyond, without the additional information that the PSNI has no forensic evidence to support their claim.

So what’s your reaction?  Do you say “Why, that’s outrageous – to claim a man is involved in a double killing, without evidence to back it up!”?  Or do you say “Dominic McGlinchey? A son of Mad Dog McGlinchey? Not one bit surprised”?  I venture to suggest that most people will have the second response.  I’ll leave aside the contemptible habit of the media for linking animals, often rabid animals - Mad Dog, the Border Fox, King Rat – with human beings, and say that  most of us are stuffed with prejudice. We assume that because people come from a particular place, or a particular family, or have particular friends, that they must share the political views and values of those linked with them. If the PSNI have evidence to implicate Dominic McGlinchey or anyone else in the killings in Antrim, they should produce it and prosecute. If they haven’t, they should shut up. And  equally the Irish media should realize that they have a responsibility to report ALL  of the relevant facts, and not allow themselves to be used as a channel for malodorous and unsubstantiated leaks.

And when you're finished thinking about that one, you might want to ponder the fact that the two men charged with the killings are being tried in a juryless court. Mind you, the men  imprisoned on the Argenta got there without benefit of evidence or jury as well. Plus ca change...?

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Spies like us

I’m baffled. Honestly. As a non-military or spook-person,  I don’t understand the latest claims that nearly half those in the IRA leadership were in fact British agents. We know that some IRA people – the various supergrasses, Denis Donaldson – were working for the British from within republican paramilitary ranks. But nearly half?

My first bafflement is, how all those agents must have been central to all the things the IRA did  - shootings, explosions, killings. If they'd kept coming up with excuses for being elsewhere each time violence was planned or occurred, wouldn’t somebody have smelt a rat? And if they were directly involved, wouldn’t that have placed them in Alice in Wonderland? In order to bring an end to the IRA’s violent actions, they were…um…performing violent IRA actions. Or master-minding them. Or both. Am I missing something here?

The second bafflement is, how on earth was the IRA so successful for so long? As a paramilitary force, it was acknowledged as one of the most effective in the world – very often by people who detested it. But how in God’s name could a force like that have so  many of its leading figures British agents?  Imagine if half the British forces that sailed to the Falklands had been in fact Argentine agents. Is it likely that Thatcher would have been able to arrange the sinking of The Belgrano  without interference? Wouldn’t the British forces have been hopelessly confused, with all those agents in their ranks?

My third bafflement relates to cui bono - who gains from this kind of claim? Certainly not republicans – it undermines what they would present as a heroic campaign against the British forces that went on for decades. If this heroism  could be transformed into  instead a pack of fools continually deceived by their shrewd British enemies, think what a wonderfully demoralizing effect that might have on republican energies and ambitions today?

If you can pollute the waters in which your enemy swims, you’ve got him licked. But you have to be sure that what you’re pouring into those waters is concentrated, 100% garbage. 

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Suarez - outrageous, eh?

Who would be in Luis Suarez’s shoes this morning? Or boots. The Uruguayan, who's been central to   Liverpool F C’s recently revival, has been banned for eight games and fined £40,000 for racially abusing Patrice Evra,  a black Man United player. It seems Suarez admitted to calling Evra “a negro”. (Evra, on the other hand, told Suarez “Don’t touch me, you South American”.)

Times change, don’t they? When I was young, to refer to a black man as a negro was considered polite, and to refer to him as a black man was near to insulting.  Now it's the other way round. Readers of the work of Mark Twain will know that he features in Huckleberry Finn a character referred to affectionately as “Nigger Jim”. And the earliest joke I can remember featured Paddy the Englishman, Paddy the Irishman, Paddy the Scotchman and a bottle of whiskey.  In short, what’s acceptable and even commendable in one age is far from permissible in another.  So- did Suarez’s offence merit an eight-match ban plus a £40,000 fine?

I believe No. The FA would claim they're sending a signal that racist abuse will not be tolerated on the football field (or off it); but while I’d applaud their objective, their means in this case is a sledge-hammer cracking a nut. “Negro” isn’t politically correct nowadays but it’s hardly abusive. Then there's the fact that Suarez himself is of mixed race – his grandfather was black. Does that matter?

Well, there’s an unwritten code which allows members of a minority to use pejorative terms which, if used by those outside the group, would invoke outrage.  It’s not twelve months since I heard an Irish joke told by an Irishman to a company of Irish people, and everyone appeared to enjoy it.  Had it been told by an Englishman he'd have been lucky to get out of the room alive.  So is Suarez’s grandfather a factor in his favour?

Reluctantly, because  I think Suarez is a truly gifted footballer and Kenny Dalglish  a truly impressive manager, the answer is no, Suarez’s grandfather shouldn’t be a factor. If it’s wrong for outsiders to insult a group, then it’s stupid and self-harming for a member of that group to abuse the group. Back on the soccer field, in the intervals between kicking each other or rocketing snot from a nostril, you see (but don’t hear) footballers  effing and blinding each other  with real feeling.  Why isn't that kind of abuse  the subject of equally fierce fines and bans?

Because ours is an era of selective moral outrage.  You can denounce homophobia and expect applause but should you denounce abortion you'd better be ready for castigation. Likewise in the world of football, a great range of words and actions are reprehensible,  but it's those that are identified as racist or sexist which receive immediate denunciation.

What’s that – you say I forgot to add religious abuse in my reprehensible list? Oh come on – sure everyone knows that’s only a bit of banter and fun. Ask Neil Lennon.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Dead men, tale-telling and history

Dead men, they say, tell no tales. But if they’re part of the Boston College oral history project, they do. The project, you’ll remember, was the series of interviews organized by Ed Moloney  and Anthony McIntyre with a selection of former combatants in our Troubles.  The promise was that these would be recorded and kept under lock and key until after the interviewee had died. Now, however, a federal US judge has ordered Boston College to let him have access to those recordings . Having heard them, he’ll decide if the US government will turn the interviews over to the British authorities in connection with the killing of Jean McConville. Boston College has said they’ll pass the tapes over tomorrow.

There are a number of problems with this whole affair, starting with the description of it as “oral history”.  The implication behind such a description is that the people speaking are telling the truth, which they may or may not be. Besides that, any historical account if it’s to be taken seriously has to include as much evidence, oral or otherwise, as is available. This includes particularly testimony or evidence that runs counter to the historian’s own loyalties. That hasn’t happened here.

Another and more pressing problem is that the people who contributed to the project did so on the clear undertaking that their words would remain confidential until after their death.  The US federal judge’s ruling and Boston College’s acceptance of it show that undertaking to have been either naïve or a sham. The US authorities claim they’re looking for information about Jean McConville’s death; when and if they listen to the tapes, they’ll surely find statements about other people and maybe other killings. This, of course, may be the whole idea – a fishing expedition.  But is this what we mean when we talk about “dealing with the past”?  Those who contributed to the Boston College project, as far as I know, were to a greater or lesser extent critical of Sinn Féin and its present leadership.  It’s an odd idea of research, let alone justice, that allows the voices on one side of the argument only to be included.

In fact there’s a touch of pantomime about the whole thing: heroes and villains, secrets and surprises. Any minute now, Miriam O’Callaghan is going to jump from behind a curtain and ask everyone mentioned in the tapes if they go to confession.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

If only they had listened to the voice of the Church...

On the BBC's 'Sunday Sequence' this morning, they were talking about the extent to which churchmen had or hadn't actively worked for peace (and, you'd like to think, Virginia, justice and liberty as well, but you can forget those two, Virginia, you naive little fool you) during the Troubles. It was lively stuff and got me thinking to the early days of civil unrest. After the Battle of the Bogside, the two bishops of Derry (Catholic and Protestant) did a little tour together, picking their way through the rubble and murmuring sympathy. Had they ever been there before? I doubt it. Why were they there then? I think as they used to say "to set a good example". Look, we're not throwing petrol bombs and stones at each other, why should you? The impact of their tour was zilch. And it'd be tempting to say that the same applied right throughout the Troubles - that the various churches here were damn all help in resolving the mini-war, other than issuing condemnation (almost always directed at the IRA, practically never at the security forces). But that wouldn't be totally true. Cardinal Tómas O Fiach, for one, was a man who spoke up when he saw horror and injustice, and not just when it was attributable to republicans. Individual clergy worked behind the scenes and/or spoke out against injustice and cruelty from whatever source. But as institutions,  the churches here didn't do much other than wring their hands. The Catholic Church, as personified by the late Cardinal Cahal Daly, of course, was relentlessly anti-republican.

In today's radio discussion, my old colleague at the VO, Brian Feeney, pointed out that those who called for the Catholic Church to excommunicate republicans involved in violence were misguided. Republicans had never been deterred by excommunications over the decades and centuries, and the present lot were unlikely to have their minds or politics changed by some church judgement. But where the Catholic Church was successful was in limiting, for a time, support for republicanism. Wars big and small raise questions of morality, and it's perfectly possible that when the Catholic Church urged people, in so many words, not to vote Sinn Féin, some listened. In fact, if the Church of England is the Tory Party at prayer, the Catholic Church here came  close to being the SDLP at prayer. There are Catholics who, if a bishop or cardinal says something, believe it must be so.  But far from everyone. When the Pope read the script written for him by Cahal Daly, and begged on his knees to the people of Ireland to stop shedding blood, as Denis Bradley pointed out, it didn't work.

Ultimately,  whatever about other churches (and unlike some, I am almost totally unimpressed by the contribution of the Church of Ireland's Robin Eames),  I think the Catholic Church's contributions were either unimportant or misleading. They were unimportant because they stopped, as Feeney pointed out, at condemnation; they were misleading because they helped convince outsiders and some simple people that the conflict here was essentially sectarian. I'd call that abuse of the truth.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Bottom-up or top-down - which way are we heading?

My son in London has bought a house  – or to be more exact, the bank has bought it for him and he’ll be paying it off for a lifetime. There were some repairs needed doing, so like the concerned father I am, I was on the phone to him urging him to be sure and get reliable people to do the work -  London is not a city that is gentle with gullible paddies. As often happens, I found he was ahead of me and my advice. He’d gone online, punched in his post-code, and immediately got a range of companies capable of doing the work,  plus  comments from people who’d used each company in the past.  It takes just one bad online report to muck up a company’s reputation and deter future potential customers, so it’s in everyone’s interests to make sure they do a decent job. In this way people like my son  now have real control over the quality of work paid for.  P T Barnum may have been right about one being born every minute,  but today’s technology makes it more difficult to take advantage of the uninformed sucker. Everyday life, for the bread-and-butter consumer, has suddenly become more controllable and democratic.

However, at the apex of the power pyramid, things are strengthening too. Ask David Cameron. Whether through naivety or stupidity, he thought that his veto could stop the fiscal plans of the EU in their tracks.  Now he knows otherwise.  He has a veto all right but there are ways round it, as we saw when the rest of the EU states calmly left him out in the cold and continued with their plans to exercise central control on each country’s budget. Fiscal power that had been in the hands of the government of each country will be moved to a centre-point and the south of Ireland can start taking German lessons any time.

Which force – the one at the bottom or the one at the top - is the more powerful?  I’d like to say that Sean Citizen, as exemplified by my son, is winning. I’d like to, but I know it’s not true. It’s as if a zoo-keeper had given a lion the illusion of freedom, by putting him in a bigger cage. The czars of the EU are only too happy to leave us with increased control of the small things, as so long as they get to make the big decisions that reduce national sovereignty to a papier-maché fraud. Parnell may have believed that no man has the right to fix the boundary of a nation, but  Berlin isn’t a man.  It’s a European super-power and it’s in charge.

Maybe John Hume wasn’t so much wrong as premature in his remarks about a post-nationalist era?   

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Death at Easter

If you encountered a burglar in your house, would you shoot him dead? And feel justified in doing so? I wouldn’t.  I might feel like pulverizing him but burglary isn’t a crime with capital punishment attached. Neither is car-stealing.

But if you’d listened to Terry Spence of the Police Federation on BBC Radio Ulster/Raidio Uladh this morning, you might have been led to think otherwise. He was on defending the actions of a PSNI officer, who shot dead Steven Colwell.  The Police Ombudsman (himself under some heavy fire these days)  reports that in 2006 near Ballynahinch, 23-year-old Steven Colwell “was facing the officer with its (a stolen BMW's) engine revving, in what appeared to be an attempt to escape a vehicle checkpoint”. The officer drew his gun and shot Colwell through the front windscreen and again through a side window as the car tried to drive away. It was Easter Sunday and did I mention that Colwell, a Protestant, was wearing a Glasgow Celtic jersey?

Terry Spence with, what shall I say, some vigour insisted that the officer’s life was in danger as were the lives of other citizens, with this young car-thief careering around recklessly.  You’d have thought presenter Karen Patterson had herself been guilty of a crime, the way Terry responded to her mild suggestion that the young man maybe didn’t have to be shot dead.

Enough already. The police here have an Everest of a task to earn the trust and respect of every citizen. Today the Irish Times  reports on the Miami Showband massacre, and new claims that not only were two of those convicted members of the UDR, but that among the killers was an RUC agent.  Take the distrust produced by incidents like that – and an awful lot of people believe there were hundreds of them- and you see how important it is that the PSNI act to support the law and act clearly within the law. The fact that the killer of Steven Colwell still serves in the PSNI makes a lot of people uneasy. Why couldn’t a simple barrier or stinger or even a police car have been placed in the path of Colwell, rather than an officer with a pointed gun? Yes, stolen cars are lethal weapons but they’re lethal weapons that can be decommissioned by other methods than bringing a young life to a hopeless Easter Sunday end. Even if, wearing a Celtic top, he was assumed to be a Catholic. 

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

How green are you?

The lane into our house was lined with big trees and one night, one of these giants fell right across the lane. The next day my father got some men to help cut down all the trees in the lane, so the path to our house looked like a mouthful of stumpy teeth. When asked, my father said he had eight children going in and out that lane to school every day and he was damned if he’d have a tree fall and kill one of them. He valued his family above any fancy talk about  the look of the lane.

There, in a different time and circumstance, you have the fracking issue. Today’s Irish Times reports that Leitrim is one of the poorest counties in Ireland, with just 17% of the population it had in pre-Famine times. Now it emerges that there could be billions of euros worth of extractable gas in the county. The neighbouring county of Fermanagh is in the same position.

 What to do?

Those opposed to it say that the fracking process to extract the gas would pollute the water supplies as well as the air, as well as ruining agriculture and tourism in the county. Those in favour say these are hard times, Ireland north and south is up against it and a bonanza like this could be the fast route to new prosperity. Pat Rabbite, the Energy minister says everybody thinks they're an expert. Arlene Foster, the minister in the north, says there's been too much scare-mongering about fracking.

What to do?

In today’s Guardian,  it’s reported that Canada has pulled out of the Kyoto protocol, which committed signatories to lower pollution levels. Canada says it’s done so because places like China and India are ignoring it. The truth is, Canada has the third-largest store of oil reserves in the world, but the process of extracting it from the tar sands of Alberta takes an enormous amount of energy and water and plays merry hell with greenhouse gas emissions. 

What to do?

From the long-term point of view,  playing fast and loose with the environment will damage, perhaps irreparably, the planet we live on. At the same time, if  your son or daughter was jobless and faced with the dole or the emigrant airplane, would you still feel so green? Would you sacrifice their future for the possible future of mankind?

I know what my father would have said.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Alex Salmond and fog on the Channel

I like Alex Salmond. He’s overweight, he looks a bit like a panda that’s wandered in front of a camera lens and he’s totally unflappable. Besides which, he has this idea that Scotland would be better off as an independent nation within Europe. He always adds that last bit – “within Europe”.  And now that David Cameron has managed to put Britain outside the tent with the rest of Europe pissing out on him,  Salmond has been handed an opportunity to further query the wisdom of continued presence in the UK.

Just back from China where he was trying to drum up investment in Scotland, Salmond has fired off six questions to Cameron about his arse-like performance in Brussels. In essence they ask “What the hell do you mean by screwing up prospects for Scotland as well as the rest of the UK, without even consulting us?”  He tells Cameron that it’s not just his coalition partners the Lib Dems that are very dubious about being pushed to the edge of Europe, there are the people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland who have been left stranded in the same leaky rowing boat.

Good point.  I presume we haven’t heard yells of protest from Stormont because the DUP and Sinn Féin are the two lead power-sharing partners. We know what Sinn Féin thinks of the deal in terms of the south of Ireland – Gerry Adams has been telling Enda Kenny he’d better let the Irish people make this decision. But Sinn Féin in the north are more muted because the DUP are almost certain to hold back from kicking Cameron.

Why? Because they see the danger. If Salmond was ever to succeed in his ambition of achieving Scottish independence – and Cameron’s bulldog-balls-up in Europe has considerably strengthened that ambition – it would spell curtains for the area known as the United Kingdom. What would be the point in staying in a building that has started to collapse around your ears, while at the end of the street there’s a 26-storey building that at least has the strength of numbers?

It’s like that old megalomaniacal headline from the London  Times, when heavy mist was engulfing the south of England and the Channel, making travel impossible: “Fog Cuts Off Europe From Britain”.  Has anything changed?

Saturday, 10 December 2011

David Cameron - how I became a lamp-post

Mother of God – what now?  I don’t know whether to turn cartwheels or break down and cry.  David Cameron has followed instructions from his Conservative party and gone out to Brussels as a British bulldog, only to come back knowing what it feels like to be a lamp-post used by 26 dogs in quick succession. I mean, did you see the way Sarkozy snubbed him? He must have been watching Youtube and caught the bit where Ruth Patterson responds to Niall O Donnghaile's out-stretched hand.   But while the clash of personalities was a bit of a giggle, the facts and their consequences are a bit less so.

Take Ireland, or the southern part of it.  Enda Kenny has decided to be really really good and go along with what everyone else is saying – firm fiscal rules, balanced budgets, punishment for anyone who steps out of line. The smack of firm government. Except then you realize that  Kenny (and all the other countries) are handing over control of  things fiscal to the EU, which in effect means handing over political power to Merkel/Sarcozy, or Marcozy as we’re all supposed to say now.  The south has allowed itself to be cast as scullery-maid to the Great House of Germany.  All that talk about having a veto in Europe? Just a little German joke, as Cameron quickly learned t’other night. On the other hand, if Enda had decided to be a bold boy and had stepped out of the fiscal club with his mate David,  he’d be in even worse  dodo– he’d be permanently tied to lamp-post Britain,  which is not a good place to be. Except you’re a northern unionist, in which case you think of it as really good, even as the next dog cocks its leg.

There’s a terrible symmetry to it all: the south is  scullery-maid to Berlin/Paris, the north scullery-maid to London. You might, in your gloom, ask yourself why this should be – why can’t both Ireland and Britain and all the other EU countries be dignified equals in a Europe of equals?  Because, dear Virginia, there are no fairies at the bottom of your garden and because might is right.  The EU is run by Germany and France. They're the big boys and they call the shots, as Cameron now knows to his cost. And part of Ireland is run by Britain because Britain, vis-à-vis Ireland, is the big boy. Co-equals, friendly neighbours? Eat my shorts.

It’s a hard lesson, Virginia, and God knows we’re learning it again in the hardest of ways.  Worst of all, having been consigned to the role of scullery-maid,  the south doesn’t know if this latest Marcozy wheeze will work. Cancel the cart-wheels, would you?

Friday, 9 December 2011

'Tis the season to be jolly?

What a world, eh? People being laid off, shops shutting up shop, the air thick with the crunch of bankruptcy. Even the Christmas trees are looking smaller and sadder this year. But if it’s bad here in the north it’s worse in the south. When a government has to break the budget bad news into bite-size chunks and feed it to the public in instalments, you know things are bad, bad, bad.  

And yet out of the deepest pain comes a generosity of spirit.  It shows in politics: ex-combatants, those who have suffered most, find a way of working together for the future of all. It shows again when there’s a natural disaster: the Irish people respond with a built-in generosity – and of course it’s those who have least who give most readily.

But tight as our family budget may be, we’re in  economic clover compared to much of the world. Take the US, that land of plenty: more than a million of its children go to bed hungry every night. In the developing world every year, fifteen million children die from malnutrition and almost a billion people endure chronic hunger. They don’t die or suffer because there’s been a drought or some other disaster. They die because a political and economic system is in place which keeps the world lop-sided. In the developed world we eat so much, our overweight children have become a problem; in the developing world, millions scavenge for a crust and children’s bellies bloat as they sicken and die.

There are three ways you can react to these horrifying facts. You can throw up your hands and admit defeat. You can work to change the system. Or you can put your hand in your pocket and change life for at least one family.

A couple of weeks ago I was privileged (I know, I know, but it’s the only word)  to be in Belfast City Hall at a Trocaire event organized under the auspices of our excellent young Belfast mayor Niall O Donnghaile  (yes, Ruthie, you heard me - EXCELLENT). He’s madeTrocaire one of the official charities for his term in office, and at the event the audience heard first-hand accounts of that organisation’s work throughout the developing world. As the slides flashed on the screen I squirmed  and hoped no one knew about the trivial things my money had  been spent on during the past year.

A particularly enlightened aspect of Trocaire is that it stresses the need to work for social justice. Fifteen million children die of hunger each year not because there’s not enough food in the world – we’ve more food per head now than ever before.  Nor because there are some “naturally poor” countries. It’s because the powerful of the world have organized things so we burp and wonder how to cope with our waste while the wretched of the earth grow gaunt and suffer.

Where most of us shake our heads and cluck our tongues; Trocaire  rolls up its sleeves to help the dispossessed find a way to live. They’re good at marketing too. That little RTÉ ad, for example.  Voice A: Granny wants a goat for Christmas. Voice B: She wants a coat?  Voice A: No, a goat. Voice B: A GOAT? Oh OK. She’s the boss.” They even break down their appeal so there’s one for each family member. Get  Gran and Dad one of those goats this Christmas (a goat-for-a-goat sort of thing) and a family the Democratic Republic of Congo will find life transformed. Get Mum safe motherhood for someone in Somalia, where more infants die at birth than nearly anywhere else on the planet. Get youngsters to buy school fees and lunches, get farmers to give a gift of chickens - there’s even a gift for a budding entrepreneur  to help buy a house for a Honduran family who’ve been living under plastic since being evicted from their homes.

God knows we all need to warm our hands round the fire, and this Christmas especially. But if we close our ears to the knocking of the forgotten of the world, we lose our right to curse the pension-grabbers in our own country. 

Go on, get Granny a goat and tell her to pass it on. It really is better to give than receive.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Recession? Time we invaded somewhere

I have a soft spot for British soldiers, the ordinary guy on the ground. He’s probably joined the army for the same reason that men have done for hundreds of years – because it was a way to earn a living, even though earning that living meant  being taught how to take the life of other human beings. That’s what soldiers do – follow orders to kill or be killed.

At the moment,  the British Chancellor of the Exchequer is being criticized by other MPs for trying to freeze the pay of British soldiers. Which makes you wonder what sort of world those arguing for an increase in armed forces pay live in. Because you reveal your values as a society by where you put your money.

And it’s not small money. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Britain  in 2010 spent nearly $60 billion on ‘defence’.  In 2011 Liam Fox, the British Defence secretary, said the price of constructing replacement nuclear submarines could rise to more than £25 billion. Greenpeace figures the renewed Trident programme will cost, over 30 years, £92 billion. Contrast that with the NHS, which is being told to make “efficiency savings” – code for cuts – of £20 billion.

It all ties into the arms industry, of course. With the ending of the Cold War, weapons manufacturers and share holders were in a sweat – they needed something to replace the gap  left by the implosion of the USSR. Hence  Iraq, Afghanistan and now phony claims that Iran is manufacturing nuclear weapons and may need an invasion.

Of course, many of us remember another British prime minister, who knew what you do when you find that things are falling apart a bit at home – giant unemployment, industry collapsing, the government increasingly unpopular. You invent a foreign adventure to distract the masses.  You invent the Falklands.

Iran is today’s Falklands. We know that country hasn’t actually any plans to develop nuclear weapons and we know that it’s surrounded by countries with nuclear weapons and US bases – Israel, Russia, Pakistan, India. We know Iran hasn’t invaded anyone this past 200 years and we know that for over 100 years Britain exploited, occupied and overthrew governments in Iran. But none of that matters. Look out, Iran. 

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

See the Anglo-Irish Treaty online - and weep?

What price historical documents? Or to be more accurate, what impact if any do they have on those who view them? Yesterday  Enda Kenny put online the signed document of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The names are all there – Collins, Griffiths, Lloyd George, Birkenhead.  Lloyd George told Collins that if he and the others didn’t sign it, there’d be an immediate resumption of armed hostilities. Collins signed, noting that he'd signed his own death-warrant. And the rest, as they say, is the history of a divided island.

What impact does Enda think the viewing of this document, online now and later on real-life display, will have? Maybe he thinks it’ll have no impact, although I doubt that. More likely he hopes it will distract people from their present European throttling and, as citizens of the Republic of Ireland, feel some pride in a document that mapped them into existence. Unionists, I would guess – but only guess – will feel something similar, if they bother to look at it. This document was the basis for the foundation of the northern state.

De Valera said that when he waned to know what the Irish people were thinking, he went off and looked into his own heart. If I were to follow Dev’s dictum, I’d say a lot of people looking at that document must feel a sadness. It was created by the spilling of a lot of Irish blood in the years preceding it, and it was followed by the spilling of more Irish blood, this time in a vicious Civil War. Collins  talked about it as the document which gave Ireland the freedom to achieve freedom – in short, getting twenty-six counties would make possible an independent thirty-two county republic. Whether he believed that  or not we’ll never know, but certainly the vision he and so many others believed in has not in fact been achieved.

Will it ever? It depends on who you talk to. Speak with unionists and they will tell you – except they’re Jim Allister – that the union is safe. Speak to nationalists or republicans, and they will tell you that we are on our way to a thirty-two county republic, look at the vibrancy and self-confidence of the coming natioanlist/republican generation, look at the brimming vigour in the members of the GAA and those involved in the Irish language, as well as the transformation through power-sharing in the north. National unity is coming, but in a form and at a pace that those who signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty couldn’t have imagined.

Who's right? Search me. I’ve never met anyone yet who was good at predicting our political future. But I do know the signed Treaty that Enda put online the other day gives off, ninety years later, an unmistakeable air of sadness and a sense of something incomplete.

Monday, 5 December 2011

An Taoiseach cois na tine

I blame Franklin D Roosevelt  - he started it.  On Sunday 12 March 1933, shortly after his inauguration as US president, he began a series of radio broadcasts known as the "fireside chats". His first one was on the banks crisis, the second on his plans for recovery and others on similar topics like  the currency situation and  economic recovery. Apparently the American people really enjoyed them and they contributed to FDR's massive success as president.

Maybe Enda Kenny is hoping some of that success will rub off on him.  His first TV fireside chat (more may come) happened last night on RTÉ. Actually it wasn't by the fireside - he was at a desk, hands clasped in an odd manner, on his left an EU flag, on his right an Irish tricolour that looked as though it could do with a wash. What did he say? Well, things like  "Let me say this to you all: you are not responsible for the crisis". And "Let me be clear - Ireland supports stronger economic governance throughout Europe".  Or, rephrased: "I'm on your side" and "Germany will decide our financial affairs for us from now on".

We'll know whether Enda's chat last night was prophetic or just a load of guff by 2015, because that's when he figures Ireland (he used "Ireland" and "the country" quite a bit ) will be once more up and punching its weight in the financial markets. And jobs and all the rest of it. He did concede that the path he was outlining would be a thorny path: "We have not so far been in a position to do everything we promised".  Or, rephrased: "I know we said during the election campaign that we'd do certain things but, um, unfortunately we can't. Or won't. That was then, you see, this is now. We are where we are."

Now those flags. They were appropriate, I thought. The EU flag, because Germany with France is about to set things up so it decides financial arrangements in all EU member states. It's called revolver-to-the-head politics. We had it on this little island ninety years ago when Lloyd George told  Michael Collins and Co what would happen if they didn't sign on the dotted line. So it was only fit and proper that an EU flag dominated in Enda's office.

The Irish tricolour was even more appropriate. The white between the orange and green was, well, kind of grubby-looking. Symbolic, perhaps,  of the failure of successive southern governments to do anything beyond rhetoric about national unity. Or you could link the grubby national flag with Enda telling us that he travelled throughout the country when he really meant he travelled throughout the 26-county state. Because as far as Enda is concerned, we in the north don't exist. Like the man said, the opposite of love is not hatred but indifference.

Lighter moments? I can think of only one: "I want to be the Taoiseach who retrieves Ireland's economic sovereignty".  Well, you have to laugh, don't you?

Sunday, 4 December 2011

A good deed in a naughty world...

Sometimes, when you've nearly given up on human nature, something small but perfectly formed will pop up and flicker for a moment and tell you yes,  there is hope, there is a  thing called progress.

Plenty of reason for thinking otherwise this week  - not least the tone of Ruth Patterson's voice as she lectured the Mayor of Belfast about how he Must Do Better. "Live and learn, Lord Mayor!" she told him, in a voice that didn't so much drip as stay deep-frozen in resentment and clenched-teeth animosity. I've gone over the Duke of Edinburgh award to a British Army cadet thing already so I'll stay off that well-worn path, but it's hard not to think of words like "kettle" and "pot" and "black" when you hear Ruthie lecturing someone about openness and acceptance of diverse views. And I'm amazed that no public commentator has seen fit to utter a single critical word on an army, particularly the British army here, having a hand  in the development of young people like this 15-year-old. If a tobacco company came in to sprinkle its dubious stardust over children,  we'd surely hear the yells of protest, and quite right too. But the British army? Nah.

If anything, more depressing this past week:  the HET findings leak (if such it be) about what happened at Loughgall in 1987. Whatever you may think of the IRA, there can be no doubt of the suffering families left behind after that particular massacre. One of them was on air this week with Wendy Austin and you could hear the pain in her voice over twenty-five years later.

But then this morning I switched on BBC Radio Ulster/Raidio Uladh's Sunday Sequence.  The William Crawley/Finola Meredith/Tim Brannigan take on the D of E award thing was Alliancethink gone mad, and yet when  I switched the programme off a few minutes later, I felt oddly cheered. Why? Because before he passed over to the Sunday Service from wherever, presenter Crawley, a man from a Protestant background, wrapped up with "Sin é,  that's it for this Sunday". It was easy, it was natural, it was good to hear. Now if we could get poppy-wearing on BBC TV opened up in a similar way - opt in if you want, opt out if you want . Or better still, if the same approach could be applied to Easter lily-wearing on BBC TV -    now that would be a move to real even-handedness. It'll probably never happen but still, I'm feeling dangerously cheerful this winter's morn over Crawley's cúpla focal. Maith thú, William.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Loughgall and moral justification

History, they say, is written by the winners. If that is true, then republicans appear to have lost. If Liam Clarke is right and if the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) report next month that the 8-man IRA unit in Loughgall in 1987 fired first on the 24-man SAS team lying in wait for them.

Which is a fair few ifs, but Clarke seems very confident that his source has spilled the beans accurately. The concern over who fired first puzzled me a little at first, but now I gather it means that the SAS were justified in firing back and killing the eight men. The ninth dead man was, of course, an unfortunate accident.

This particular incident from the Troubles brings a number of matters swirling to the surface and not all of them are  nice to look at. One is the view that the IRA men got what was coming to them - that they had been sent, as one judge put it on one occasion, to the ultimate court of judgment. This is usually said in a fairly measured way but it's hard not to think there's a bit of hand-rubbing and fist-pumping behind the scenes. You want war? We'll give you war.

Another point that strikes me is the reasoning behind the moral view that since the IRA fired first, the SAS were justified in returning fire. Mmm. Sounds reasonable. Only then I think of a term that's used frequently of Israel in relation to the Palestinians  - "disproportionate response". The SAS fired over 600 rounds at Loughgall, the IRA men 70.  Do the math, as the Yanks say. Would it be possible that the SAS were intent on putting a metaphorical horse's head into the bed of those who thought they could take on British forces?

The final point worth mentioning might be that, for better or worse, if the HET reports that the IRA men opened fire first, it won't make a blind bit of difference to the response of most people to the event. The hand-rubbers will feel even more satisfied that time and expense wasn't wasted arresting the men and putting them through the courts. Republicans and nationalists will continue to believe that the SAS lay in wait and when they had the IRA men in their sites, opened fire and didn't stop until all of them were dead. Many of them will see the HET as discredited.

Ultimately, maybe, it doesn't matter who opened fire: the eight men are still dead. The one question that itches at the back of my brain for an answer is this: if the IRA men hadn't  fired first, what would the SAS have done?

Friday, 2 December 2011

Ulster - a breath-taking place

Sometimes radio can simply suck your breath away - leave you gasping on over breakfast or in the car. I had two such moments earlier this week; I'm surprised I wasn't hyperventilating by tea-time.

The first came when I was listening to an item of BBC Radio Ulster/Raidio Uladh's 'Good Morning Ulster' programme.  Mark Carruthers was discussing the interesting question of what the word 'Ulster' meant to people. The historian Jonathan Bardon who's flogging a new book said he tended to think of it as the historical nine counties, Denis Bradley said yes, he was an Ulsterman, proud to be so, he was from Donegal and you couldn't get much more Ulster than that. And there was other discussion of terms and nuances - was it the six counties, the Province (which Mark said seemed to have fallen out of fashion) and/or Northern Ireland? They could have added the north of Ireland, the north-east of Ireland or even just 'up there'.  But what sucked my breath away was that at no stage did ANYBODY point out that the the station from which the discussion was being broadcast was called 'Radio Ulster' and that the programme in which the discussion was set was called 'Good Morning Ulster'. Why didn't someone ask Mark what his station meant when THEY used (and called themselves) Ulster? Better still, why didn't Mark himself mention it?  (Note to readers: for a clue, check the  Isle-of-Man-type map at the start of 'Newsline 6.30')

My second gasp-making moment was on BBC Radio 4's 'Today' programme, where John Humphreys was interviewing Peter Robinson about his DUP convention speech, where he said that an attitude of 'No surrender' ("Which served us so well in the past") was no longer appropriate. The last thirty or forty years, Peter said, had created division between people, and it was now time to bring them together again. What must be tackled were things like peace walls which divided people and segregated education which divided children. My jaw dropped and my lungs went on strike. 

No wonder the English don't understand this deformed little corner of Ireland. The last thirty or forty years CREATED division? Gimme a break, Peter. Some of us remember pre- the last thirty or forty years and the divisions were well and truly in place then. In fact, the state of Ulster/NI/ six counties/ etc was created on exactly that - the division between Protestant and Catholic with, it was presumed, a permanent majority for Protestants. But since that wasn't mentioned, Peter's little point sounded very solid. Then Peter and John got to talk about those peace walls, neatly confining the problem to the  unwashed working-class areas. You don't get peace walls about Malone; or Holywood; or the middle-class estates of Derry's Waterside. But do a little head-count or check the statistics -  over 90% of people here CHOOSE to live separated from their Protestant or Catholic fellow-citizens. When middle-class Catholics moved into Malone, for example, the air was thick with the sound of Protestant bags being packed for North Down.  But since that middle-class thing wasn't mentioned, Peter's working-class peace-wall-point sounded very solid. As for segregated education - well, no matter how many polls Peter may cite showing a majority in favour of integrated education, the fact is that the vast majority of Protestants CHOOSE to send their children to Protestant schools, and Catholics to Catholic schools. But since that wasn't mentioned, Peter's little point sounded very solid. What's more, I know from experience that neither Protestant nor Catholic school staff inculcate sectarianism - in fact most of them work very hard against it. But since that wasn't mentioned, Peter's little point sounded very solid. 

But the most air-sucking-out moment of all was at the end of the Humphreys interview with Peter. As I chewed my final mouthful of toast it suddenly hit me: not once in the course of the Peter-John dialogue was it mentioned that Britain claims the right to jurisdiction over the six counties (or the north or Northern Ireland or Ulster or the Province) and that that claim  is the hard-core, terribly uncomfortable source of division here.  But since that wasn't mentioned, the English audience probably stood up from the breakfast table shaking their civilized heads and murmuring "Those Irish and their religious wars  - tsk, tsk, tsk.  When will they ever learn?"

Sorry - gotta dash.  The man with the oxygen mask is at the front door. 

Thursday, 1 December 2011

The Mayor of Belfast and a shameful affair

It’s good to see for once that the public of Belfast appear to be united against a shameful affair. I’m referring, of course, to the case of the British Army cadet who wasn’t given  a Duke of Edinburgh award by the Lord Mayor Niall Ó Donnghaile. There really is a point where people have to say enough is enough, whether that’s by words or actions – or in this case refusal to act. 

Because what we have here is a 15-year-old who has been encouraged along the path of organized violence.  This child has barely reached the age of puberty, yet she has been enlisted in an organization where people are taught to kill other people – with guns, with grenades, with tanks, with rockets, with bombs. Last year cash-strapped Britain spent over £38 billion on training and equipping people to kill or threaten to kill other people. To that you can add another £34 billion for the Trident nuclear replacement, a death-programme designed to kill civilians by the million. Meanwhile there are nearly three million people out of work in Britain today, while those who are in work are having their pensions gutted and their pay slashed to fill the pockets of bankers and bond-holders. 

It’ll be three more years before this cadet child is allowed to vote. It’ll be three more years before she can get married without his parents’ consent. Yet right now, without a murmur from anyone, she is being inducted into the world of weapons, violence,  mutilation and death. Thank God someone at last has had the courage to refuse to lend his office to this corruption of the young. Maith thú, Lord Mayor – well done!