Jude Collins

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Big Tom's a-cold

What's David McNarry up to? He was on TV last night and it's not often you hear a politician speaking so plainly in public as he did. The unfortunate part, from the UUP's point of view, was that he was talking about his leader, Tom Elliott. "I feel betrayed by him" McNarry said, or words to that effect. Well you would do, wouldn't you, if you'd been dumped off your party's Assembly team, and then Basil McCrea were to leap in  and say that that meant you were ejected from the party itself.

What's going on? One of three things: a leadership struggle, a leadership struggle or a leadership struggle. A lot of UUP people feel they've been sold a rural cart-horse when they were hoping for a leggy thoroughbred. It's all very well for Big Tom to play tough and rebuff the overtures of the DUP -  even the dimmest cart-horse knows an alligator when it confronts one. No, the UUP have that sinking feeling and they want not just someone who'll save them from being chomped to bits but someone who'll show them a way to make some political headway.

The trouble is, in their heart of hearts, they know it's impossible. They know they're in a lift with just one button and it's marked "Down".  It's a long way from Harry West to Tom Elliott, and the UUP would prefer, as they hear ominous lift-whirrings,  to see someone in charge who at least looks the part. Someone with a bit of oomph and character, built on the Boris Johnston lines, say. Which might explain why Basil McCrea was in the Shinners' lion's den in Derry on Saturday, cheerfully socking it to them, and why he's been saying David McNarry should be out of the UUP completely, not just out of the Assembly team.

He's a lively public-schoolboy-type, is Basil., and he appears to have his twinkly little eye on Big Tom's job. But why in God's name would he want it, keeping in mind that one-button lift? Well, maybe Basil has  been thinking of those other two former UUP luminaries, Arlene Foster and  Jeffrey Donaldson. Build up political capital before jumping into the arms of the DUP. What better way for Basil to display his political muscle than by replacing  Big Tom? He might even take a few fellow-members with him when he makes his leap. Whither then the UUP? Ah. In that case think not so much  "Down" button as severed lift-cable.

Monday, 30 January 2012

Talking about a united Ireland...

When we speak of a united Ireland, most of us don’t know what we’re talking about.  Or rather, we don’t know what other people are talking about. For some, it means the cold-sweat nightmare of being taken over by the bankrupt south. For others, it’s the prospect of Rome rule paralysing the entire island. For others again, it’s exchanging David Trimble’s  multi-cultural, multi-national, multi-ethnic UK for the monotone strait-jacket of an Irish Republic. 

Taken over by the south? God forbid.  Not only does the thought send bad vibrations down unionist spines, it gives thinking republicans and nationalists the collywobbles as well. Partition in Ireland has had the effect of a spade slicing through a worm – the two bits go on wriggling but neither is particularly healthy. The problem isn’t solved by trying to graft the small sick bit onto the bigger sick bit. 

Rome rule?  Pu-lease. The Catholic Church in Ireland north and south is on its knees,  not in prayer but near-despair. Even Paisley concedes that Rome rule in Ireland is now strictly bogey-man stuff. As to no longer living in a multi-cultural/national/ethnic society, ten minutes walking through Dublin’s streets  should convince the most die-hard unionist that being Irish today is an identity that’s rich, varied and open. 

So much for the negative. What positive reasons can be advanced for the reunification of Ireland?  Step forward Peter Robinson. The First Minister has more than once in recent months  questioned the value of two education systems in the north, which he says divides people and adds enormously to cost. We should seriously and quickly look to greater unity of our educational sevices in the north, he argues. 

He has a case. But an even bigger and more total duplication of services is under his nose and ours. Two education systems, two health systems, two justice systems, two police services – you don’t need to be an economist to  see the economic advantages of Irish unity. 

But my own belief in a united Ireland is grounded not on the Church, or economics, or even the centuries-old sacrifices of so many for independence. It’s based on the notion of self-respect.

The man next door to me is a pleasant chap. He looks well-off, his life appears well-ordered and he always greets me pleasantly.  But if in some brain-storm he were to enter my house and take over  from me the running of the place,  what then? My guess is he’d do a better job than I do. The wife might even like him more.  More money, more efficiency, more order. But would I let him? Not a chance. That’s because, despite rumours you may hear,  I’m all growed-up. I’m an adult, and a central element of adulthood is that you take charge of your own affairs. Even were others able to do the job better it’s still your life, your home, and self-respect demands that you run both.  Yes, on occasion you’ll make a mess of things,  but it’ll be your mess, no one else’s. Like it or lump it, you must run the show. 

If the Irish people are to act in a grown-up way, respect themselves,  they have no alternative but to seek national unity.  Despite all our differences  we’re a distinct, unique people. The English have always known that – when we go over there, we all become paddies. But beware over-reliance on the economic argument. National unity and national governance  ultimately are about something that supersedes economics. When the Germans re-united their country over twenty years ago, they didn’t do it because they thought it would make them wealthier.  They did it, teeth gritted, because they were German and because they were grown-up. North and south, unionist and nationalist,  we are becoming increasingly aware of our Irishness. It’s time for us, north and south, to join in creating a new and healthier national life, a new and better Ireland.

Footnote: You'd rather listen to Basil McCrea on the subject? Fine. Be like that ... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fRr_NGEtaLQ&feature=youtu.be  

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Basil's Big Day Out in Derry

I was in Derry yesterday and caught part of the Uniting Ireland - Towards a New Republic conference organised by Sinn Féin. Actually it wasn't a conference as I'd have understood it, with different people giving prepared papers over an extended period of time, but it was interesting nonetheless. Some eight people commenting on a new Republic, from a range of perspectives. Several background questions:

1. Why do Sinn Féin organise these conferences? Their opponents might say as window-dressing, to make it appear they're doing something on the united Ireland front. They would say they're initiating a debate which is the first step towards a considered assessment of what a united Ireland might look like. I think it's a mixture of both. Certainly, as I said in an article in last week's Derry Journal, one problem is that different people have different ideas about what a united Ireland is.

2. Why did they invite Basil McCrea (Ulster Unionist MLA)? The answer to that is totally un-new: to show that they're open to hearing other viewpoints. Danny Morrison and the 'West Belfast Talks Back' section of Feile an Phobail  have been doing that kind of thing for years - inviting in a unionist perspective. It also, of course, throws the ball back into the unionist camp: 'When are you going to invite one of us to tell you our viewpoint?'

3. Why did Basil McCrea accept the invitation?  Pass. You'd have to ask him himself. At the conference (I'll try to get a video-clip up later), he sounded more like Sammy Wilson than Basil McCrea. Some people find Basil a bit arrogant; I find him more the bumptious schoolboy. Round face, fringe of hair, never shuts up,  cheerful and friendly. Maybe he went there to stick it to the Shinners. Maybe he went there because he wanted to articulate the unionist case. Or maybe he went there as window-dressing, to make it appear he's doing something on the Civilised Dialogue front.  Personally, I thought he got a B+ for injecting energy into the discussion, a B- for the content of his contributions, and a D for believing that economics is the only thing that motivates people who believe in a united Ireland.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Long to reign over us?

 Martin McGuinness may have annoyed a few people this week. And made a few others nervous. And mildly pleased a few more.  Odd,  how the same action can provoke such a range of reactions, isn’t it? 

Although McGuinness hasn’t so much acted as hinted that he might one day act.  At some future date he may walk through a door marked “Meet the queen”; for now he’s just nudged the door open a little bit. The Deputy First Minister has said that the visit of QE2 to the south and her demeanour at the Garden of Remembrance and her use of Irish have given him food for thought about meeting her. Or not. 

The people likely to be annoyed are those republicans who believe McGuinness and Sinn Féin have sold out and are administering British rule in the north: they'll see this is just one more step on the road of servitude. The people nervous are those republicans who have stuck with McGuinness and Sinn Féin through all the astonishing changes of the last decade or two,  and who are maybe wobbling just a bit at this latest potential move. The people mildly pleased are the unionists. They’ll see this as confirmation that the man central to the IRA campaign has re-committed himself to conventional  within-the-union politics. 

It might be instructive for all three groups to turn their eyes to another man in the public eye at present - Alex Salmond. You’ll  notice that while the leader of the Scottish National Party is happy to put two questions on the Scottish referendum,  one of them will not be should Queen Elizabeth remain head of state for Scotland: "The Queen will be Elizabeth of Scotland in the same way as she is Queen today in Canada, Australia and a host of other Commonwealth nations".      

Now it may be that Salmond has a genuine respect for the queen and believes his fellow-countrymen would be the poorer without her as their head of state. But my guess is that he knows  talking up the un-threatened relationship with QE2 will calm more than a few nervous Scots. When Alex Salmond reassures his fellow-countrymen that while there may not always be an England, there’ll always be a monarch, you may be sure he’s counting  on several thousand votes being added to the independence box. 

Angry Irish republicans, of course,  will argue that while Salmond may be using the queen to build a bridge out of the union,  McGuinness is using the same queen as a bridge that takes us deeper into the union.  Nervous republicans will grit their teeth and hope that the Meet-the-queen bridge  isn’t one that leads to the Commonwealth.  Unionists will be pleased by the extent to which these latest words appear to ‘normalise relations’ between Northern Ireland and Britain – within the union. 

Actually,  Martin McGuinness’s door-opener  should surprise none of us. It's totally in line with what has been at the top of Sinn Féin policy for the last fifteen years approximately: to encourage unionists to decommission their suspicion, let go of their siege mentality and consider how much they have in common with the rest of us. Not an easy task and God knows with the likes of Edwin Poots it may take a long time, but then republicans are nothing if not patient. And if some day the man who may by then be the First Minister of Northern Ireland decides to walk through the “Meet the queen” door,  so what?  When Alex Salmond meets her and reaffirms her as head of state, it adds if anything a spring to his step as he swings away and takes another purposeful stride towards a  door marked “Exit”.  You may be sure McGuinness is having similar thoughts.

Personally, though, if Ma'am asks to meet me, I’m going to have to turn her down. No, Ma'am, I'll say, not tonight. Or any other day or night.  In fact, it's my conviction that every freedom-loving country   should be working tirelessly for regime change on the big island next door. An unelected head of state, a family that has amassed vast wealth and lives in eye-crossing luxury, the death in mysterious circumstances of a hostile  daughter- in-law, plus Prince Charles's views on architecture.: if you ask me, NATO tanks should have been sent in years ago. 

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Pssst! Want a degree?

J B Priestley, Philip Larkin, L S Lowry – two writers and a painter whose work it’s impossible not to admire. And, whatever they may have been in the rest of their lives, men with at least one element of good sense and integrity. How so? All three – and over a hundred others – refused the offer of honours from Buckingham Palace. Apparently the royal baubles-givers tried to keep these refusals under wraps, even after the 30-year period of traditional secrecy had passed. Now the cat’s out of the bag and we know who had backbone and who hadn’t. Well done J B, L S and old Phil.

Which brings us to Rory McIlroy. Eh? Great young golfer. GREAT young golfer. Even a non-golf person like myself can see the grace and accuracy of his game. And what about Alex Ferguson. Some manager, eh?  Unrivalled in his achievements with Aberdeen and then Man United. And have you heard Gary Lightbody, eh? Plays with Snow Patrol. Great with the old guitar and voice, I believe.

No quarrel with any of that. But according to today’s Irish Times,  all three are soon to be transformed, transformed utterly. McIlroy and Ferguson in one bound will become Doctors of Science, Lightbody a Doctor of Letters. The University of Ulster, it seems, have found a few spare degrees lying about, so they’ve decided they’ll give them to the three chaps.

Now I can see the University of Ulster or any institution wanting to offer  public applause to the achievements of the three men (although Ferguson is a bit odd, not being from this parish). But degrees? Ordinary people have to study for their degree. For three or four years, and a doctorate could mean about seven. Examinations, assignments, dissertations, viva voces  - it’s  a long, hard slog, and when you get it you feel you’ve deserved it. Done the work, read the books, done the thinking and writing and rewriting. And, these days, you’ll have shelled out up to £50,000. So isn’t it a wee bit odd that a doctorate, which by definition suggests study, should be given to people who probably never cracked a book? Doesn’t it kind of, um, devalue the degree? And all degrees?  The fact is, Rory and old Fergie probably wouldn’t know one end of a test tube from the other, and while Lightbody is  no doubt a good penner of songs, he’d have a hard time getting an A in a postgraduate assignment.

Surely somewhere out there is a sportsman or woman, a singer or an actor who’ll have the guts and common sense to respond to an honorary degree offer and tell the university in question to put it where the monkey put the sixpence.

Footnote: on a related but different topic,  I still haven’t haven't managed to find a list of all the loyalist ex-prisoners who studied and got Open University degrees. John Kyle says there are loads of them. Some names, John, some names, please.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

The daring somersault of Comhaltas's Ulster Council

"On mature recollection" - wasn't that how Brian Lenihan senior phrased it, when he was trying to corkscrew his way out of something he'd said? It looks today as though the Ulster Council of Comhaltas Ceoltóiri Éireann have done a bit of mature reflection if not recollection, and have reversed their decision not to support Derry's bid for the All-Ireland Fleadh. The claim was that they'd given a thumbs-down in the first place because of security concerns. That might have been a factor but I can't rid my mind of another factor :  next year, Derry will also be the UK City of Culture.

Now there's a topic of division. Which end of the title do you focus on: is it the City of Culture side, which Derry has always regarded itself as having - and with some right to do so. I know it annoys some of those living east of the Bann but pound-for-pound, Derry really is a city with more than its fair share of quality performers in the arts. So of course they're ready to take on and beat all-comers for the title of 'City of Culture'.  But then there's that awkward 'UK' bit attached to the title. What's in a name and all that, but if you accept a title that says you're part of the UK, you can be seen as acquiescing in that position, affirming it or even implying you're happy to be in that state. I'm sure you'd have to tie an Ulster Council Comhaltas member to an ant-hill and smother his/her softer bits in honey before you'd get him/her to admit that the UK thing was a factor in their original decision to shun the city on the Foyle, but you may be sure it featured prominently in their discussion. 

You can sort of see their point. If you keep on accepting UK adornments, where do you stop- when you're a  lolling  Lord or Baroness on the padded benches of the House of Lords? On the other hand, do you cut off your nose to spite your face and reject an opportunity like the UK City of Culture title  because you're a purist and you don't want a speck on your immaculate nationalist garment? In fact, it's the same dilemma that Sinn Féin are currently struggling with: they want to be in mainstream politics and quell unionist fears, while at the same time remaining true to their republican ideals. Like Comhaltas,  Sinn Féin initially went one way - no meeting or greeting of the queen when she visited the south; now Martin McGuinness has made it clear that he may well one day meet and greet Ma'am. 

Me, I'm a non-purist to the brink of impurity. I know the power of words but I'm damned if I'll let them block my way from achieving something that's important to me. So good for the Ulster Council and their mature recollection and good for Martin McGuinness and his second thoughts on royal encounters. With one proviso: that their second and final decision moves the cause of Irish culture and politics forward in some significant way. And that remains to be seen.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Loyalist ex-prisoners with university degrees?

Alan in Belfast’s blog today has an extended interview with John Kyle, a GP and former leader of the PUP. In it Kyle talks about the intersection between faith and loyalism, but I found another aspect of his interview more interesting. He says that the media portray the typical loyalist unfairly as “muscled, perma-tanned, tattooed, gold-necklaced, numerous ringed, male, with a pit bull terrier and a tight t-shirt”.  He goes on to look at the notion that in Long Kesh, republican prisoners studied and took university courses, while loyalists were busy pumping iron in the gym. “In actual fact, more loyalists prisoners left Long Kesh with university degrees than republican prisoners did”.

Really?  That’s the second PUP leader I’ve heard make that kind of claim.  The late David Ervine once told me that loyalists in Long Kesh were some ten years ahead of republicans in  their emphasis on study and education.  At the time,  I didn’t believe him. Now that John Kyle has effectively repeated the claim, I’m not so sure.  There must be facts and figures on this matter: where are they?  And if Ervine and Kyle’s claim is accurate,  where did the studying-republican/iron-pumping loyalist idea come from – and why?  If it’s not accurate, why have they made it?

The truth is out there. It's a question of finding it. 

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Eoghan, Aengus, Anne and the Indo too

As far as I know, my old friend Eoghan Harris never wrote for Mills and Boon, but judging by his column in today’s Sindo, the Dublin organ’s gain is  Mills and Boon’s loss. The editor of the Indo, Aengus Fanning, died recently. Some years back he married Anne Harris, who had been Eoghan’s wife. So Eoghan has written an appreciation of the man who edited the Indo  and won his wife, and his bodice-ripper writing potential shows immediately. Check this for a final sentence: “So I will always cherish a memory of them sailing past me one Sunday morning, waving from a convertible with the hood slightly stuck, the left wheel wandering towards an empty bus lane, their blonde manes blowing in the breeze, heading for the distant dark blue of the Kerry Mountains”.

Woo-hoo, as they say. Give the man credit: he doesn’t hold a grudge in the ex-wife category.Or, I might add, in the lost-bet category.

But I did a small cheaty-thing back there – I left out the last part of the last sentence. Which was? After “the Kerry Mountains”  Eoghan put the cherry so to say on his Mills and Boon cake with a final sixteen star-dusted words: “their labour of love selling well on the streets, spreading sweetness and light across the land”.

No, you haven’t gone mad and I didn’t make that up and yes, he is talking about the Indo. Sweetness and light. Across the land.  In fact, earlier in the piece he explains what in part made the Indo a sweetness-and-light spreader:  it was Fanning’s “unbending, unflinching, unwavering opposition to the IRA, which he sustained without stint for nearly 30 years, and which played a crucial part in ensuring they did not enter Irish democracy without giving up their guns”.

Didn’t make that bit up either. Swear I didn’t. Bet you were as surprised as me that  it was the Indo Wot Won It, the ‘it’ in this case being decommissioning. Astonishing. Kind of astonishing as well that Eoghan didn’t add something about  the Indo being anti-nationalist as well as anti-IRA. Remember the  unbending, unflinching, unwavering attacks, wave after wave, that paper launched against John Hume for daring to have talks with Gerry Adams in the 1980s? Talks which led eventually to the Good Friday Agreement. But I suppose there isn’t room for everything in a column.

Besides, note how  Eoghan forgot one final tribute that Fanning and the Indo  might have claimed. Working with its fine journalists, Fanning’s newspaper  was in no small measure responsible for convincing the south’s populace that the north was a nasty, vicious place which they should see as ‘up there’ and essentially foreign. Now there’s an achievement. But I suppose if Eoghan had included that, he might have had to scrap the blonde manes bit at the end. Which I for one wouldn’t have missed for anything. In fact, even as I type, I can feel my manly bosom start to heave. At least I think it’s my bosom. Could be my stomach.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Colin Duffy and that not-guilty verdict

Well, that was a shock result, wasn’t it? All the focus had been on Colin Duffy and not on his co-defendant, Brian Shivers.  Then yesterday, the judge (it was a Diplock, jury-less court) pronounced that Duffy was not guilty and Shivers was, so Duffy went free and Shivers got a life sentence. To complicate matters, Shivers is suffering from a terminal illness.

I don’t know the detail of this case but I was struck by a number of things. The juryless court is one.  They’re necessary, we’re told, to avoid intimidation.  The question is, of whom? Is the argument that if there was a jury, there’d be more people who might be intimidated? What if you were on a jury and you believed passionately in the innocence of those charged with paramilitary attacks – wouldn’t intimidation be counter-productive? And how would those who intimidated you know whether you were arguing for the innocence or guilt of the accused?

The other side of a juryless court is that it’s a judge-deciding court. So the judge becomes judge, jury and executioner, as it were. Is there not something inherently anti-civil rights about that? That one man (they appear to be always men) can determine guilt AND deliver sentence. That’s an awful lot of power to put into one man’s hands. Are our judges such super-beings that we can allow such distilled power to be passed to them? Most of them were previously lawyers, and it’s not unfair to say that most people think most lawyers are ruthless and cunning. They certainly don’t rate highly on our Top Ten moral list.

Then there’s Colin Duffy. This is the third murder charge he has, as they say on the TV reports (which of course are always neutral) “walked away from”. The judge seemed to take a similar view: he conceded there wasn’t evidence enough to convict Duffy but that there were traces of his DNA in the car – the latex glove tip, the buckle of a seat-belt. Duffy’s supporters say the authorities have it in for him and are determined to get him on some charge or other, and they point to a kind of DNA testing which has never been used here before. And of course his previous lawyer, Rosemary Nelson, was killed by loyalists.

The only person who knows whether Duffy is guilty is the man himself and, I suppose, a few intimates. He has always insisted on his innocence, claims he was abused by prison authorities and spent much of his time in prison on a dirty protest. There can be no doubt he cut a striking figure, with his long flowing locks and beard, as he was ushered to a car yesterday after release. It was like the eye of the storm – all around him the churn of supporters and the press, at the centre this tall erect figure looking a bit like an Indian holy man.

There are some people convinced that Duffy is guilty as hell, and the sooner he’s put away for keeps the better. There are others who see him as a heroic figure, persecuted by British authorities because he’s fearless in his republicanism.  Since none of us really knows, whichever of those positions we take may tell more about us than about Duffy. 

Friday, 20 January 2012

How to deal with terrible pain

I never stop being amazed at the human capacity to absorb suffering and to move on from terrible injustices. Below is an edited version of an interview I did last week with Mary Enright, the mother of Terry Enright. And if you don't remember the case of Terry Enright, get your heart checked - something isn't working properly in it.

Mary Enright and her husband Terry are cheerful people. When I visit them, Mary chats about the weather, Terry has a little laugh at how different my head looks when I take my cap off.  Then   he leaves and I sit down with Mary. It’s 12 January 2012: the day before,  11 January,  was the anniversary of  their son Terry, who was shot dead by the LVF. Mary tells me how she heard the news. 

“One of our neighbours said ‘Your Terry’s been shot, they have him at the Mater’. It never entered my head he was dead, even though I knew he was shot. Sure nobody could shoot our Terry – our Terry’s a big strong fellah!  I remember going into the hospital and saying ‘Can we see him now?’  I just took it for granted he was alive and I was going to see him. They said ‘We’re just waiting for his wife coming down’. So we waited until Deirdre came down and that’s when the doctor brought us into a  room and told us. We should have known when they brought us into the room. I remember standing outside afterwards – I had to go out and get a bit of air, I thought I was going to faint – and this cop came over to me. I don’t know who he was,  but he came over and he said ‘If it’s any consolation, he didn’t suffer’. I suppose it was nice of him to say it. But officially no one had contacted us to tell us it had happened.

Her son was twenty-eight when he was shot dead. What kind of person was he?

“Terry was funny – he liked the style, that kind of thing. This time he’d been to the barber’s, they must have been keeping him going, saying he had a bald spot.  He said to me ‘I think I’m going a bit bald’. Here’s me: ‘No you’re not!’ Then he said ‘I’m near thirty’. I said ‘How are you near thirty?’ He says ‘I’m twenty-eight’. I says ‘You’re not near thirty until the day before you’re thirty!” He was funny, and you have those things to think about.”

What about his killers – how does she feel towards them? 

“We don’t know who killed him. But we had a phone call years ago to say that some man had rung and said that he was in some pub in East Belfast, and these people were boasting about doing it.  I don’t even think about the people who did it – to me they’re nothing. They’re more to be pitied. What had they to offer anyone?” 
So now, fourteen years after his murder, when she closes her eyes and thinks of Terry, what does she see? 
“There are times you see him as a kid.  You see him doing the dancing -  he did Irish dancing and he loved it.  And there are times I see him with a hurl in his hand - he was very sporty. And he never forgave me for taking him away from the boxing! They had started to talk about brain damage, and I said to him “You know, Terry, you could end up getting damaged, you’re not going back to the boxing!’ But he loved it. So I see him looking at me with the wee boxing vest on him – because he was quite a skinny kid. Then he sprouted up big, in a matter of months it seemed.”

Does she visit his grave very often?

I’d be down at his grave every week. I would go down and sometimes I say a prayer and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I talk to him, and then I say ‘What am I talking to him for, sure he’s not there!’ I remember speaking to a woman in Ardmonagh who’d lost a son.  I think  it was the first year  after his death and it was the winter-time. She says to me ‘How’re you doing?’ I said ‘It’s crazy. I remember going down to the cemetery and saying ‘He shouldn’t be lying here, with the snow and all’ . She said ‘I know , it happened to me too. I remember going down to the graveyard with a blanket, and then saying ‘What am I doing?’” 
 Even when she’s sleeping, her dead son can be in her thoughts.

“I’ve had several dreams about him. They were all nice dreams - he was totally alive and was as happy as Larry in them. I remember waking up with the tears tripping me, because I was convinced he was alive, that he was here. And I said to my husband Terry ‘It was so real!’.  At the same time it just leaves…an awful emptiness. No one knows the pain.

But I’m also a strong person, and I was determined they weren’t going to destroy my family. I said  to my three boys ‘We need to be strong. It’s unfair, Terry had so much to offer, it’s unfair that we let anyone destroy us. We need to work together and help each other. And they did, and they have to be congratulated. Great lads”. 

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Well hello, tourist! Wanna good time?

Arlene Foster is excited. She’s in charge of tourism here and apparently last night they had quite a do, with Van Morrison and all, to push the north as a tourist destination. Radio Ulster/Raidio Uladh this morning interviewed her and Dermot Murnaghan, late of this parish,  so they could both express their excitement and remind everyone of the many tourist attractions we have. Like the Giant’s Causeway and the Titanic (sort of) and, um, the Antrim Coast Road. Oh, and  apparently if they get off the beaten track visitors can discover  all sorts of hidden gems as well.

God knows we need every penny we can get, but the whole tourism thing makes me feel uneasy. Kinda soiled, even.

Firstly, Ireland abroad, in terms of tourism, is now marketed as one.  So is Arlene complaining that visitors who’ve come to check out Killarney or the Burren or the Dublin pubs are being encouraged to take in the north as well? Emphatically not. But if visitors ask over half the population here if they’re Irish, they’re likely to be told No. Eh? I’ve come all this way to Ireland and now you tell me you’re not even Irish? That should encourage them to come back.

Secondly, I know tourism is a vast industry throughout the world. But when I hear a visitor on, say, Radio Ulster/Raidio Uladh asked if they like being here, I close my eyes and shove the nearest cushion in my mouth. What do they expect the poor divil to say – that they can’t stand the place? Or that they wish they’d gone to Disneyland instead? Or that the much-vaunted Merchant’s Hotel is over-priced and far too-red-plush? The term ‘emotional blackmail’ springs to mind.

Thirdly, there’s something about tourism that borders on prostitution. In Ireland particularly, we pride ourselves as being welcoming hosts to any visitors to our shores. In fact we scour the world looking for people, do all we can to persuade people to visit our shores, give them the come-on. Why? Because we really like them? Because we want to spread happiness? Because we feel guilty enjoying all this beauty on our lonesome? Uh-uh. We seek them out, lure them here so we can show them a good time, but only if they’ll then leave a sizeable part of their wallet on the bedside table before they leave.  And when they do quit the premises, it’s not unknown for us to imitate the way they talk or the things they say, and have a quiet snigger to ourselves.

You find the prostitution comparison too harsh? Maybe you’re right. Maybe it’s more like encouraging people to pay a visit to the zoo and marvel at the antics of the monkeys.

Yes, you’re right,  we need their money. But some day, I know, we’re going to discover something better to sell than ourselves. 

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Advice to government: bring your cheque-book

A bit of a barney in the Dail yesterday, by all accounts. It seems that three years ago, government advisers were handed over one million euro of tax-payers’ money; at present, that has shrunk to an annual € 576,000.  Hooray, hooray, hooray. Only then a barney was raised by Gerry Adams and then Micheal Martin because, apparently, Enda Kenny had been caught breaching the cap that’s been put on pay to government advisers, by intervening so the adviser in question got a higher salary. Micheal Martin said that  eight out of fifteen salaries had broken the government’s own guidelines. Meanwhile the Minister for Education, Ruairi Quinn, explained why it was “simply not possible” to  intervene regarding cuts in education, including cutting staff levels. Not good news for the 1,000 guidance counselors in the south who may well lose their jobs. Quite a few in languages and science may also go.

Clearly these special advisers are really classy people. Guidance counselors and language or science teachers spend around five years getting equipped for their jobs, so presumably the special advisers must have trained for even longer. Funny, though, that I’ve never actually heard of a School of Government Advisorship in any university. Have you?

Meanwhile here in the north we had our own brouhaha a while back over a special adviser having once been an IRA member. As, of course, were the Deputy First Minister, the Minister for Regional Development, not to mention the criminal record of both the present First Minister and his predecessor. All great fun to talk about, but of course what special advisers are judged by  - should be judged by – is the quality of their advice. 

For example, Steven King, late of this parish, advised David Trimble and the Ulster Unionist Party. So too did the former Paul Bew, now elevated to the dizzy heights of being Lord Bew, presumably in recognition of the quality of his services. The fact that their advice coincided with a period when the Ulster Unionist Party did a Costa Concordia, never to sail again, was purely coincidental. Wasn’t it?

Ah, advisers. You know why they get paid so much. Because they’re worth it.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

The Costa Concordia - no, Virginia, it's NOT like the Titanic

Quite a sight it made: the luxury liner Costa Concordia on its side like some giant mechanical whale, beached with no hope of escape. Who's to blame? The owners for not seeing to it that everything was shipshape? The captain for sailing recklessly close to shore to give a bravura salute to those watching from the land? The people who constructed the ship so that there was a fatal weakness that has now resulted in, what, nearly thirty people dead?

One thing we can be pretty sure of: in a hundred years' time, no city or port will bust a gut trying to remind the world that the Costa Concordia was built by them. No city or port, in their desperate bid to win world attention, will construct a ship-shaped building to remind people that this was where the Costa Concordia was put together. No city or port will shell out on that building £20 million which, if what we hear is right, may never be recovered. No city or port will spend millions refurbishing the boat that ferried passengers to this ghastly vessel.

How different, then, from the way our own dear city of Belfast has responded to the Titanic  gravy-train: "Let us on, we've as much right to a seat as  Cork or anywhere else. I mean, look at us - we're terrific, we built this ship! No one else can say that!"

If you want proof positive that Belfast is an Irish rather than a British city, try following the logic of that one. Listen, guys: it sailed, it sank, get over it. And stop shovelling millions into the memory of this sea-going coffin for the super-rich.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

BBC's Sunday Sequence - better and better

Sunday Sequence's William Crawley 

If BBC Radio Ulster/Raidio Uladh's Sunday Sequence  gets any better, it'll be a must-listen and half  the church-going population will arrive late. This morning it had David Vance and Finola Meredith on, talking about those recent images of American soldiers urinating on dead Taliban. To say they differed would be to put it mildly. Finola thought that urinating on dead bodies was disgusting, inhuman and totally defenceless conduct, which struck me as a fair description. David thought that...well I found it hard to tell what David thought. He talked about how bad the Taliban were and how he had a website called 'A Tangled Web' that didn't have racist stuff by him on it, and how putting those images on Youtube or wherever was inhuman, or was it terrible, or maybe deserving of punishment, but the urinating itself...No I'll stop,  I'm afraid I'm an unreliable witness. I kept having this red mist at the notion that someone was  whataboutering around this  ghastly act.  Finola Meredith, from what I've seen of her, is not a woman who loses her temper easily, but she came near to it this morning with Vance.

And then, as if that wasn't enough, the programme produced Anthony McIntyre and Danny Morrison talking about the Boston tapes - those recorded interviews with a selection of participants, loyalist and republican, where they talk about who did what in the Troubles.  The people used were given an assurance that what they said would not be made public until after their death; unfortunately, this was an assurance no-one could give, as Boston College apparently knew and Anthony McIntyre and his colleague Ed Moloney should have known. Now it's looking as though the tapes may pass to the PSNI ; what was to remain confidential will no longer be so.

Morrison, who believes he was slandered on the tapes,  argued that Moloney and McIntyre shouldn't have encouraged people to make claims about what others did as well as what they themselves did, and that they should have been warned the information could be seized and passed to the authorities.  McIntyre said they'd been more or less misled by Boston College and that in hindsight yes, they should have sought legal advice before embarking on the project.

Just two comments - for the moment. One,  if I'd been doing such interviews,  the first thing I'd have checked would have been the legal possibility of anyone else having access to this stuff?  It's almost inconceivable that Moloney and McIntyre didn't think of knocking on a very sharp lawyer's door before they started recording.

The second thing is,  Moloney and McIntyre really should stop referring to this project as "research".  A basic ingredient of  research is that the sample you use reflects the larger population; in this case, only those with an anti-Sinn Féin perspective on the Troubles got used. Sorry, chaps. Skewed sample, skewed research.  There must be a better word for the Boston project.

Friday, 13 January 2012

The royal visit - because She's worth it?

I’ve been accused of having a thing for QE2, so to even mention the woman who makes men walk backwards out of rooms is to invite criticism. But given the latest Irish tourism figures, she has to be factored in. 

Do you remember those glorious days last May? When the people of the south of Ireland  queued up for the honour of being near the British monarch? There were hard-headed people who objected to that visit because, among other things, they thought that money spent on banquets and massive security  - €7 million, was it? - would have been better spent on hospitals or the lengthening dole queues. The short-sightedness of these people was quickly corrected by those in authority, when it was explained that her visit would give publicity to the tourist industry that money simply could not buy. The millions spent would be returned in increased tourist numbers, pressed down and running over.

Well, the tourism figures for last year have just been released and yes, there has indeed been a change in tourism figures. But according to The Irish Times  yesterday, “visitors from Britain – Ireland’s biggest source of overseas visitors – dropped by 2%”. During  the first three months, before the south was graced by the royal presence, the figures were stronger;  the figures after she visited, in the latter part of the year, showed a falling-off. Fewer, not more people came to Ireland.  Where there were positive figures,  the tourism people are attributing the increase to the government’s reduction of VAT rather than the aroma left by the royal presence. What’s more, a lot of criticism has been directed at  the tourism people for focusing too much on existing markets like Britain and not going after tourists from growing economies like China and Brazil.

 Since I have a thing for Her Majesty, I’ve done what I can to see the numbers in a positive light but they stubbornly resist. It very much looks like those days in May not only cost the southern Irish taxpayer millions s/he could ill afford, but the pundits who went on about reaping a royal harvest either lied or got it spectacularly wrong.

But let’s be positive – let’s try to learn a lesson. A suggestion: this year, the south’s government might want to offer the royal coffers say, €3 million, on the promise no royal person will set foot on Irish soil in the coming year and the hard-pressed tourism industry will be given a chance to get off its knees. Because last time out, Her Majesty appears to have delivered tourism, not a boost, but a regal boot in the face. 

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Should Britain chair our examination of the past?

There are areas I feel uncomfortable talking about and one is, how we should respond to the victims of our Troubles. My unease springs from the fact that I’ve been lucky enough not to have lost a loved one, and when you haven’t suffered that kind of pain you don’t really know what’s involved. That said, there are a few general points worth making on the topic, even for someone as ignorant as I am of the suffering involved.

1.     The Belfast Telegraph  today reports that Sinn Féin have agreed to take part in talks about dealing with ‘the legacy of the Troubles’. Since the British Secretary of State is chairing the talks, I doubt very much if Sinn Féin will be happy to proceed very far with this arrangement. I hope they don’t. By taking the chair, Paterson is implicitly offering the old lie that our Troubles are about a pair of crazy tribes with Britain the civilized referee, detached, above all this hatred and killing.

2.     Some of the combatants involved in the Troubles will be willing to tell the truth about their part in particular killings, others won’t.  This applies on all sides,  but nowhere with more completeness than on the British side.  You may point to David Cameron’s apology for Bloody Sunday as contradiction; but keep in mind that the Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday cost the huge sums it did because the British government fought with fist and boot to avoid releasing any documents which might show their forces in a bad light. We still don’t know who were the people killed the fourteen shot dead on Bloody Sunday. And that’s just one example. Britain has cast itself in the role of peace-keeper not combatant in our Troubles, so how can a party with clean hands be expected to have anything other than chairmanship to contribute?

3.     The loved ones of different victims have different needs. Some simply wish to have the truth recounted; others demand justice. Both are understandable stances, but is it sensible to allow those who have suffered to be the ones who decide if the perpetrators will be punished? Being so emotionally involved, they are the least likely to produce a dispassionate decision on the matter. And justice requires dispassion.

4.     We pride ourselves on how our peace process has been a model for other conflicts in other areas of the world. Are there any models from elsewhere and the past that we might follow in coping with victim pain? And don’t say “South Africa”: there are a lot of people in South Africa profoundly unhappy with their truth and reconciliation format.

5.     It’s a hard thing to say but it may be that time will provide the answer. Not that time will produce a blueprint to be followed but that time will pass, those who have suffered will grow old and die, and eventually the pain now felt will diminish very, very slowly. That’s what happened with the Irish Civil War, a brief but truly brutal conflict. It’s a poor solution but maybe the only one we can really rely on. 

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Enough generalities - the Village area can deal sectarianism a deadly blow

It’s a long way from the Village area of Belfast to Stormont.  You can work at an official level towards a shared – and improved – future, but you can’t legislate for the conversion of sectarian morons like those who attacked young James Turley the other day and left him for dead. Why did they do this? Because he was ‘a taig’. If you’d been looking for an example of full-frontal sectarianism, you’ve just found it. These knuckle-dragges weren’t looking to settle some old inter-community score – they just wanted to attack/leave for dead a taig.  

I’m just off the Nolan Show on BBC Radio Ulster /Raidio Uladh, where this topic was discussed. Dawn Purvis, former leader of the PUP, was keen to stress that sectarianism runs right through all classes of our society in the north, and she’s right. Where she’s wrong is in putting the emphasis at this moment on desegregated housing, desegregated schools, desegregated communities.  The focus now should be firmly on this  primeval attack which is bad for the reputation of the decent people of the Village area, bad for the film industry here and bad for the reputation of the north in general. 

So what to do? Two simple actions would help considerably.  First, it would take no more than five minutes for Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, as First and Deputy First Minister to appear before the cameras together, as they did when PC Ronan Kerr was killed, and label these thugs and their actions in emphatic terms. Second, this attack happened in broad daylight – there are bound to be people in the Village area who know who they were. If they truly detest what happened, they should identify the  troglodyte attackers to the PSNI, they should be arrested and they should learn that actions have consequences and that vile actions have very, very uncomfortable consequences.  

  We all learn best by example. If the top of our society – Stormont – and the ground-level of our society -  the Village area – were to act as one in this case,   make it clear that they totally disown such people and their stupid, vicious actions, you’d be surprised how that co-ordinated action would send ripples of approval and attitude-change throughout our society.  If they don’t, then let’s hear no more preaching from the top or pretence that sectarianism isn’t welcome and nurtured at community level. 

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Whither Sinn Féin?

Where is Sinn Féin going? "Nowhere, in the south anyway" was the answer  Eoghan Harris gave,  a few short  years back. Then  at the last election Sinn Féin almost trebled its numbers in the Dail. Even this was a minor disappointment for some of the more ambitious party members.

Writing in The Irish Times today, Paul Cullen reckons the party have a five-year plan and are working "with a view to further gains in the next general election and the pivotal role in forming the next government that would accompany such success".

Since that statement could be made about nearly any political party, Cullen has hardly produced a major insight. If you listen to the Shinners' opponents, and to some extent to Cullen, you would conclude that their goal is power and that they have ditched and will ditch any principle  to acquire that power. But power to do what?

Ask the average punter on the street what Sinn Féin stands for and you'll be told "A united Ireland". How would gaining power or sharing power in the south advance that ambition? Well, some people believe that the sight of, say, a Sinn Féin Minister of Education in the south meeting with a Sinn Féin Minister of Education in the north would be a powerful symbol of the strides the party has made towards Irish reunification. Those opposed  would say that like the cross-border bodies, such a meeting would be a  meaningless gesture, the kind that Fianna Fail and other southern governments have been making towards Irish unity over the last eighty or ninety years.

It depends on how you see Irish unity coming. If you believe  it will come, if at all, in one intense, probably violent short period, as did the establishment of the Irish Free State, you'll dismiss Sinn Féin in government in the south and north as sell-out window-dressing. If you believe that Irish unity will come gradually, as more and more powers shift into the hands of Irish people,  then you'll see Sinn Féin's five-year plan and beyond as  important and so far, in the teeth of fierce opposition, successful. The increasing integration of the party into mainstream politics north and south can be seen as the betrayal of everything Irish men and women fought and died for over the past forty years, or the practical, patient movement towards realisation of their dream.

One thing is sure: the major barrier to Irish reunification now lies south of the border, not north of it.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Is David Cameron West Lothian in disguise?

Scotland has always interested me, and not just because, like Sarah Palin with Russia, I can see it from my upstairs window. My mother, a Donegal woman, used remember the excitement of her “Scotchy” cousins coming each summer and sleeping anywhere and everywhere in the house.  Back in Scotland, one of them played for Glasgow Celtic for some ten years. When they got married my parents went to live in Glasgow for a time, where two of my siblings were born. And of course there’s that fascinating dialect Ulster-Scots (no, Virginia, it’s not  a language), Donegal tattie-hokers and a myriad of other links.

Which is why I’m interested to see David Cameron this morning doing his damnedest to hobble Scottish nationalism.  Alex Salmond’s party, last time out,  ran for election on the promise of a referendum on independence in the second part of their term of office, and it was elected with a firm majority. Now Cameron has decided he’ll tell the Scots when they’re going to hold their referendum, how many questions will be on the ballot and what the wording. Salmond wants it in 2014 and wants two questions – one on whether full independence is favoured, the other on whether, short of independence, Scotland should have more powers devolved to it. Cameron says no, there’ll just be one independence question and it’ll be a lot earlier than 2014.

Both men, of course, are politicians, keen to further their aims; but it doesn’t take a political philosopher to figure out who should decide when and what kind of referendum the Scottish people will face:  the man whose party was elected by the Scottish people with an emphatic overall majority or the man whose party has half as many MPs as there are pandas in Scotland (yes, Virginia, there are two pandas in Scotland).

According to the polls, the numbers in Scotland favouring full independence are growing but still well short of a majority. With that in mind, Salmond is keen that his promise of a referendum be left until  2014 , and there’s talk of having it held on the anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, a famous Scottish victory over the English. For the same reasons Cameron wants to force a referendum of his choosing at an earlier date with no historical reverberations. 

But what’s most interesting is the way this matter lays bare the nature of the union. As far as Cameron is concerned Westminster as the senior partner calls the shots, not the Scots. In the north of Ireland, on the other hand, the opposite applies: any movement out of the union with Britain can only come from the people in the north-east of Ireland. The views of others in the UK are deemed irrelevant. 

You probably see the consistency in Cameron’s position vis-à-vis the two regions. Me, I’m going to need three or four years to think about it – say  until around Easter of 2016.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Joe and the Sindo have a go

If it hadn't been for Joe Duffy, I might have missed it. Joe was on his RTÉ 'Liveline' mid-week, getting upset about the TG4 series 'Mna an IRA'. Well, actually about the first in the series, which concerns Dr Rose Dugdale. Joe must have repeated at least four times that Dr Dugdale had said "Fair play" to the people, including her partner Eddie Gallagher, who kidnapped Dutch industrialist Tiede Herema back in the 1980s. Joe then got Mr Herema himself on the line to denounce those who'd put him through such an ordeal back then.  Perversely and to Duffy's obvious frustration, Herema sid he'd found Gallagher  intelligent, friendly and cool under pressure, for which he was glad, since otherwise he, Herema, might today be dead. That wasn't the answer Joe wanted so he brought the conversation to a speedy conclusion.

Today the Sindo takes up Joe's lament, reporting a TG4 board member who thinks 'Mna an IRA' is a "serious stain on the character of TG4". Eh? I watched the programme last week, thanks to Joe's head's-up, and the "Fair play" remark blended to near-invisibility into an interesting if overly-brief programme.  It presented a portrait of a woman from a highly privileged English background -  wealthy parents, happy childhood, 'came out' as a debutante, went to Oxford and studied politics, philosophy and economics (PPE), became an academic. Unlike most of her contemporaries, she then applied the theories she read to the reality of her own life and that of those around her and concluded that injustice dominated. And so a woman who could have led a well-cushioned life at the elite  end of English society became instead involved with the IRA's armed struggle - or on the fringes of it, since the IRA apparently never quite accepted her as a fully-fledged member.  What the documentary showed was a beautiful and highly intelligent young woman who today lives in rural seclusion in Ireland,\ and who regrets nothing of her commitment to the struggle against   what she saw as injustice by the British state forces in Ireland.

Obviously some people will condemn her actions, others applaud them. In the programme she talked of the pain her path in life brought to her parents, and widened this out to note the destructive effect on children and families which commitment to a political cause often exerts. Certainly Joe and one TG4 board member not only don't approve of her choices, they even disapprove of the programme about her being made.

All publicity, even bad publicity, is in some ways good publicity. Lots of people like myself who would probably have missed the programme have now been alerted to its existence. Should it exist? Or are Joe Duffy and the TG4 board member right to lament that such things be given an airing? The answers, in order, are Yes of course it should exist, if you believe it's important to examine the motivation behind the actions of people who resorted to arms during the Troubles; and No,  Duffy and the board member are misguided at best if they believe we should erase any explanation of IRA actions during that time.   Because if the Irish people aren't considered adult enough to listen/watch and then make a judgement about the sacrifice or scurrilousness of people like Rose Dugdale, then Joe and Co should really go the whole hog and campaign to have the vote removed from such morally-inept morons as the general Irish public.

Friday, 6 January 2012

The English? Make 'em laugh

It’s a striking fact and a source of pride to some:  the number of Irish comics  who make it big in Britain. It’s been that way for decades at least: Frank Carson, Dave Allen, Jimmy Cricket,  Dermot Morgan, Dara O Briain, Brendan O’Carroll – and, of course that old perennial, Sir Terry Wogan. They’ve all made the British laugh.

On a BBC interview on Monday last,  Sir Terry reveals that back during the Troubles a parcel-bomb was sent to him at the BBC in London. Typically, he chuckled the event away: “Whoever sent in the bomb with my name on it cannot have been much of a fan because I was on holiday”.

Why do so many Irish funny-men make it big in Britain?  Because Britain is big and  because it’s there.  If you confine your ambitions to this island, as the showbands did, you’re limited to drawing your fans from a population around six million. If you go for it in Britain, you’ve a potential audience that’s ten times as many. There’s also the fact that in England you’re a relative rarity – your accent makes you stand out. I remember a unionist academic colleague of mine years ago telling me she hated going to conferences in England, because as soon as she spoke, people picked up on her accent and turned round to stare. For a comedian that’s a plus: you’ve a voice that’s quickly identifiable.

But as in most things, George Bernard Shaw gets to the heart of the matter with a deft phrase or two.. He said that the English expect the Irish to play the fool, and the Irish usually try to reward  that expectation. It’s true. I spent  a couple of years living in England and there’s a shameful temptation to fit into the pre-assigned broth-of-a-boy role. Had I spent five years there I’m sure the begobs and begorrahs would have bubbled up  in my vocabulary to meet expectations.

Why do the English have this expectation?  They may or may not do it deliberately, but there are few more effective ways of  decomissioning or at least devaluing someone’s point of view than to cast them in the court jester role. Old Sir Terry made a very comfortable living playing that part over the years, as to some extent did Shaw himself. But unlike Shaw, Wogan made sure that  anything interfering with his good-natured whimsy image was quickly pushed away:  Looking back to the Troubles, he declared “What was being done [IRA violence] was not being done in my name”.  In other words, “There are lots of decent Irish people like me who disown the IRA”.  That kind of message was useful to the British authorities. It helped maintain a public image of IRA people as a bunch of psycopaths who gloried in killing and were detested by their own people.

But it’s  the daft-paddy image, not the anti-violence stance,  that the English people really love in us Irish. It allows them the comfort of believing that to be English is to be normal,  and to be anything else   (Scots or Welsh as well as Irish)  is to be raw material for joke-telling. They talk so quaintly, don’t they,  and, bless ‘em,  they have such a weird and hilarious way of looking at the world!

On that belief in  the amusing oddness of others the British built their empire.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Remembering the war fought to end all wars

Sometimes  what people avoid saying is as important or more important than what they do say. A topical example: those Irishmen from the south of Ireland who died fighting in the First World War. For decades there was little public talk of them. The spotlight between 1914 and 1918 shone steadily on the memory of the men of the Easter Rising, not on the men who fought in the First World War. As the saying goes, they had been erased from history.

Nowadays things have changed. Last night Belfast City Council voted on a motion by the SDLP that the Irish government be invited to ceremonies to commemorate the Battle of the Somme and to Remembrance Sunday. Councillor Pat McCarthy said things were changing and that a decade ago the visit of the Queen to the south wouldn’t have been envisaged. “For a long time in the history of the Republic that period [World War I] was forgotten and was something which was never talked about”.

Wrong, Councillor McCarthy.  The Irishmen who fought and died in the First World War were not forgotten and were talked about. I had two grand-uncles who died in the conflict and I remember my mother talking about them quite openly and frequently. Speaking to other Irish people whose relatives died in that war, the same story emerges – the framed photograph in the hall, the story of his leaving to join up, the news of the death at some remote front. What Councillor McCarthy presumably means – and most commentators like him – is that those Irishmen from the south who died were forgotten and not talked about at an official, public level. There is a difference. At the private, family level, those men were never forgotten, frequently spoken of.

Another fact not talked about when this subject arises is  that the men who died in the First World War weren’t wearing German uniforms – they were wearing British uniforms. Slap bang in the middle of the First World War the Easter Rising occurred, and from there to the Black and Tan war was a short step of a few years. Who were the men of 1916 and those involved in the struggle for independence fighting against? Men wearing British uniforms. Thus at a public level it became very difficult to reconcile the value of those who had opposed British soldiers and the value of those who had joined with British soldiers.  Not surprisingly, the southern state chose to have public remembrance of those who had fought British soldiers and to ignore those who had fought as British soldiers. That's the reason why the there was public silence on those Irishmen who died fighting in the First World War,  other than the occasional murmur of “Shameful!”  The reasons behind the official silence – as distinct from private/family remembrance –was and is rarely addressed.

A final point: those Irishmen from the north and south who died in WWI battle are talked of as heroic, and the ghastly number of fatalities at the Somme and other battles are cited in evidence. Indeed - I certainly feel terrified even thinking about the conditions in which those men lived and died. But the notion that they all “answered the call” in a heroic way, keen to serve King and country, is to forget, erase, elide the memory of all those men - very likely the majority, if the history of recruitment over the centuries is looked at – who joined up because they had little or no alternative if they wanted to earn a living.  The war itself was a pointless, imperial conflict sold as the war to end all wars.

So let’s watch if the remembrance of the Somme will include those awkward facts, when, as they're certain to do,  representatives from the south come trooping up. The way that Remembrance Sunday is normally observed, I’d say the chances of complete  honesty about the war and the men who fought in it are zero.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Big wave coming: what to do?

Having confidently stated a blog or two back that predictions are a waste of time, let me contradict myself: on one issue this year there will be lots of predictions. I’m talking sectarian head-counting here.

It’s started this morning in The Irish Times . There’s a detailed article by Gerry Moriarty talking about the rising tide of the Catholic population in the north which will have obvious constitutional implications. If not managed “properly and creatively” (whatever that means), he believes it could land us all “back in the mire”.  He quotes figures from the NI Department of Education for the last school year: 120,415 Protestants and 163,693 Catholics. At third level, the University of Ulster has just over 11,000 Catholics and just over 7,000 Protestants. The teacher training colleges tell the same story. Overall at third level education, students from a Catholic backround represent 59.3% and Protestant background 40.7%.

So clearly the notion of a permanent Protestant majority in the north is on its way out – it’s merely a question of how soon. For those alarmed by this prospect, it’s important to present this kind of calculation as sectarian head-counting and therefore sectarian, while at the same time finding reasons why Catholic votes= nationalist/Protestant votes= unionist won’t hold with the rising generation. Peter Shirlow of Queen’s University is quoted as saying the younger generation “feel politics is too sectarian or too nationalist”. (No, Virginia, it’s not clear if the ‘sectarian’ refers to unionists or to nationalists.) “They [young people] are in many ways – but not completely – sectarian blind, or tradition blind”. 

There’s more stuff – I’ll give you the link at the end – but it’s hard not to conclude that a number of people are going to be trying awfully hard to convince the world, including young people and themselves, that the rising tide of Catholic-background young people will not emerge as a rising tide of nationalist/republican voters. That’s what it boils down to. My own response would be, where’s the electoral evidence that this will happen? Young Catholics, if we judge by election returns, are if anything more republican in their thinking than their predecessors.

And did I mention that the results of the 2011 census will be released in the autumn of this year?

One last point: the Good Friday Agreement says that there can be constitutional change in the position of N Ireland only when a majority so decide. Moriarty’s article and lots of other people believe  that for nationalists/republicans to act on a 50+1 basis would be a recipe for disaster, that only when a majority of unionists favour change should there be change. One question: if that's so, why did they put in the Agreement a clause that meant nothing?


Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Obama's greatest consolation: the Republicans

When he sang at the inauguration of one-term US President Jimmy Carter,  Paul Simon had the chutzpah to choose his song ‘American Tune’, which includes the lines “I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered/I don’t have a friend who feels at ease./I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered/Or driven to its knees.”

A lot of people must have been humming that over the last four years, as they watched the first (and maybe only) term of Barack Obama’s time in office.  The great black hope, the man with grace and intelligence and eloquence to rival JFK -  what has he achieved? The answer is not a lot. He hasn’t stopped the US (like the rest of the world) from plunging into recession; he hasn’t left Iraq in any better state than he found it; he hasn’t brought a proper programme of Medicare into being; and he still hasn’t closed that affront to civil and human rights, Guantanamo Bay.

Being an intelligent man, Obama probably realizes all this himself. If so, he’ll be comforted  by the sight of what’s happening in Iowa today. There the Republicans are gathered to begin choosing their man (or – less likely- woman) to oppose Obama in November. The man in front in the polls is Mitt Romney and one of the major problems with him is that he looks too much like a presidential candidate  - the looks,   the clean-living and of course the money. Unfortunately for him he’s a Mormon, which’ll turn off a significant number of Republicans. He’s also got a record of being too liberal – he now says he’s rethought his position on these matters,  but at one point in his career he was open in his support of abortion and gay rights.  He’s also not a man to get the blood pumping in Republican veins.

Then there’s Newt Gingrich,  a man who could hold his own in a debate with anyone, including Obama; unfortunately Newt is on his third or is it fourth wife, and that kind of thing doesn’t go down well in Republican core-vote territory.

There were other Republican stars that shone briefly – Governor Rick Perry, until he couldn’t remember the third of the things he had very very strong feelins on; there was Herman Cain, until his sexual past caught up with him; there’s Ron Paul and Rick Santorum, who a few weeks ago was predicted as finishing last but has recently surged.

In short, the Republicans, faced with a Democrat president who is deeply unpopular, can’t seem to make up their minds who would be the man to take him on. All those available are seriously flawed in some way, so amazingly in twelve months’ time, a deeply unpopular Barack Obama may manage to hold on to the White House.

If that happens, Americans have one comforting thought. American presidents in their second term of office, free from the fear of non-re-election, sometimes cut free and actually do the things they promised they'd do. It’s a bit like a class that isn’t faced with a tough examination at the end: the fear removed,  there’s the possibility of something real and important happening.  Or so we may hope. Although don’t forget what Paul Simon sang about hope, above. Maybe that's in the nature of political expectation: it gets driven to its knees by reality.