Jude Collins

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Stand clear: quality Irish journalism at work

You might say they're warming up for taking on a post-O'Reilly Indo,  but today's Irish Times had an article bludgeoning the Lord Mayor of Belfast,  the TD for Louth and the Deputy First Minister at Stormont. The fact that all three happen to be Shinners might lead you to think that the writer had something against Sinn Féin but not necessarily so. He may just be following the mainstream media consensus in Ireland.  Because as I'm sure you've noticed, op-ed pieces north and south either avoid the topic of Shinners or use the occasion to sink the boot into the Shinners. If you take a contrary view, I  have a crisp £10 note for the first person who can show me an article from either of the two main newspapers in the south or from any of the three main papers in the north, written over the last six months, which is  positive in its tone about Sinn Féin. And that wasn't written by a Shinner. All submissions by this time tomorrow, please.

Anyway, back to today's article in the Paper of Record.  The Lord Mayor of Belfast is criticised for bowing out a week early and not meeting QE2 should she come to the north,  the TD for Louth, aka Gerry Adams, is criticised for referring to the cuts in the south as "Thatcherite," and the Deputy First Minister, aka Martin McGuinness, is mocked for considering shaking hands with QE2 should she grace our shores with her hard-working presence.

Oh dear. Where do you begin? The possibility that the young Mayor of Belfast has a right NOT to shake QE2's hand isn't given an instant's consideration. The possibility that his bowing out a week early is a plus, leaving the field clear for those who won't wash their hand for a week after shaking the royal appendage - that's dismissed as hogwash. The Lord Mayor has done a Bad Thing.

Gerry Adams has done a  Bad Thing too by talking about the cuts in the south being Thatcherite. He should have said neo-liberal, apparently, because Thatcherite is so twentieth-century. Me, I'm not so sure. Ask yourself this: which of the two terms - Thatcherite or neo-liberal -  conjures up the clearer image of full-throttle capitalism and the devil take the hindmost? I think we can safely rest with that dear lady who began her Downing Street residency by quoting a prayer of St Francis  about healing and harmony.

Martin McGuinness hasn't done a Bad Thing, but he's sort of thinking  a Bad Thing. He's hanging back and being vague about wringing the royal hand, as if  he might "spontaneously combust when his republican flesh brushes the royal sleeve."

So the Mayor is criticised for not doing the handshake with the royal digits, the Deputy Minister is criticised even though he's said he may well do the hand thing, and Adams is criticised because he thinks the term "Thatcherite" might have some resonance with the Irish people.

 We can only hope the 21% of the people in the south who expressed a favourable view on Sinn Féin in the recent poll will now see the error of their ways and write a letter to the Times  telling them the inspiration they are and how sorry they are for saying Yes about those Bad People.

Friday, 27 April 2012


Well, pulpit-thumping priests may be less usual these days but there’s no shortage of finger-pointing columnists and editorial writers. Back in the day, the PP mounted his pulpit and told the rest of us what was right and what wrong and God pity us if we thought differently.  Why we were so pliant back then? I’ve heard people ask.  Why did nobody ever question the moral authority of the man in the pulpit on things great and small? Could we not think about right and wrong for ourselves at all? Some of the loudest voices condemning the stranglehold of Catholic clergy back then are columnists and editorial writers in Ireland today. “Scandalous!” they cry. “The Catholic Church, so smug in its moral authority!”  Oddly, these same op-ed writers today have no problem laying down the law, in print or on air, pronouncing on right and wrong for their own secular congregations.
Two recent examples.  The first relates to Colum Eastwood of the SDLP in Derry. Mr Eastwood attended a paramilitary-style funeral for Seamus Coyle, a former member of the Official IRA and of the INLA, and helped carry the dead man’s coffin. Eastwood said he disagreed with Coyle on many things but that he attended the funeral and carried the coffin as a tribute to a close friend. ‘What scandalously poor judgement!” the scribblers cried. “How wrong of Eastwood to do such a thing! This is to endorse paramilitarism!”  Mr Eastwood, in other words, is a secular sinner.
I mean, come ON. Colum Eastwood attended the funeral of a close friend. If that’s what he chose to do, and to carry his friend’s coffin, so what? There are people whose political views we think stink but who have admirable personal qualities that make us glad to know them.  And were they to die, we’d feel duty and friendship bound to attend their funeral and maybe, if asked, carry their coffin. That wouldn’t mean we’d adopted the political stance of the deceased. Gerry Adams didn’t convert to the PUP when he visited the wake-house of David Ervine and hugged his widow. But none of that stops the jackanapes scribblers from telling Mr Eastwood how he should conduct himself, and how sinful he is if he doesn’t.
The second example relates to Belfast mayor Niall O Donnghaile, who apparently will depart his post a week early and so avoid the possibility (and it is only a possibility) that he might be faced with meeting and greeting  the queen. “Shameful!” the scribblers yell. “He should serve his full term and meet his monarch!”
Remember Mary Robinson? And how she quit the Irish presidency several months before the end of her term of office, to  take up an even-higher-profile post with the UN? The scribblers produced no moral thunderbolts against her early leaving. Not a squeak.  But O Donnghaile – ah, that’s different.  Damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.  When he didn’t distrubute a Duke of Edinburgh award, he was condemned, and more than one secular pulpit-thumper said he should have delegated the task to his deputy mayor and so avoided giving offence. Now here he is, stepping aside to remove any possible offence and what happens? The secular pulpit-thumpers yell outrage at his sin of avoidance.  Martin McGuinness, these pulpit-thumpers declare, has said he’d meet the British queen, so why doesn’t the Lord Mayor do likewise?  One obvious answer might be that young Mr O Donnghaile isn’t Mr  McGuinness. Another might be that, had he agreed to meet the queen (if she comes)  because Mr McGuinness had said he might meet her (if she comes ),  the same  modern moralists would have been scribbling about the Stalinist nature of the Sinn Féin party and how it forces all its members to sing from the same hymn sheet. 
Give us a break, guys. Take time off from laying down the moral law and look in the mirror. See any resemblance between yourself and some crusty old PP, circa 1949? 

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Five things about Martin Ingram

So Jim Allister and Mike Nesbitt are calling on Martin McGuinness to own up to his part in the murder of two senior police officers in 1989.

Five points:

1.    Calling the killing of the two police officers  ‘murder’ means that you believe every deliberate killing during the conflict was murder. Carry on the logic of that and Harry Truman murdered  around 300,000 people (Hiroshima and Nagasaki), and Lyndon Baines Johnson and Richard Nixon murdered between them roughly a  million Vietnamese. If you’re consistent, using ‘murder’ makes sense. If you’re not consistent, it doesn’t.
2.   When you are told something, it’s always a good idea to ask “Sez who?”  In this case, Martin Ingram sez, and he is a former British army intelligence officer who has made a range of statements over the years, some of them very odd. He claims, for example, to be a republican while at the same time maintaining “I would have no problem with 99% of FRU’s activities”. So if Martin Ingram tells you it’s a nice day, you might need to look out your window.
3.   Martin McGuinness was in the IRA, one of the parties to the violent conflict here.  Killing is what happens in violent conflict – people on one side plan ways of and engage in the killing of  people on the other side.  It’s ghastly. It’s  primitive. But that’s what combatants do.
4.    From incidents such as Bloody Sunday, we know that British authorities will use any black propaganda they believe will work. In other words, they’ll lie and lie and lie again. Is there some reason we’ve not been told why Martin Ingram, a British intelligence officer,  should be considered the exception?
5.    Martin McGuinness is, in the polled views of unionists,  the most popular republican leader. They may not like him but they know he’s a strong man who is their best guarantee against growth among the ranks of the dissidents. That’s why  most unionists, who are not stupid, don’t want Ingram’s claims, true or false,  to be blown up into some sort of political crisis.

Sorry, Mr Ingram.  Your day is gone. Here’s your hat.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

About last night...

Some game last night, eh?  Barcelona buzzing around the Chelsea goal-mouth the entire game,  Chelsea tackling with every inch of their anatomy, then, on about three occasions lumping the ball upfield and, as in the first game, scoring. I felt about twenty years younger watching it.  Jack Charlton lives. Remember how Jack used to “put them undah pressah” – the “them” being the team playing the Republic of Ireland. As a result, Ireland enjoyed one of its most successful periods in international football.  Everybody, it seemed, loved it – except Eamon Dunphy. Ever the rebel, he pointed out that it was ugly, ugly football. And by and large he was right. It was godawful. But it was effective – it won or drew vital games and the Irish people worshipped Jack. If they could have bought him a lake and given it to him to fish in, they would.

I doubt if Roberto di Matteo will ever reach those heights with Chelsea, but he’s certainly done what few would have thought possible – beaten Barcelona, and last night with only ten men. Ah yes – step forward John Terry. Or JT, as I believe he prefers to be known. The man famous for his alleged sexual goings-on with the former girl-friend of an England colleague and even more famous for allegedly racist abuse of an opponent. For some he epitomises the bull-dog spirit of England – a sort of Churchill in football shorts. To others he’s a vicious London thug with exaggerated notions of his own talent.

So am I glad Chelsea have got to the final? Well yes, especially as Terry will have to watch it from the sidelines, thanks to his knee-in-the-back of a Barcelona player. I admire Chelsea’s never-say-die spirit: if the Republic of Ireland had put on a similar display, we’d say they were every man a hero. But I can’t help thinking that it’s bad for football. Other managers and young players will have watched and will conclude that when it comes to Beauty and the Beast on the football field, the Beauty gets hammered by a sufficiently committed Beast.  Stand by for a resurgence of the bulky centre-forward, the Route One philosophy and the re-emergence of Tommy Smith (remember him?) as a footballing consultant. Oh dear. Looks like the butterfly is going to be broken on the wheel all over again.  

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Maggie, the mighty defender of RTÉ

Ah, how we’ve missed you, Maggie! And how good it is to know your voice will soon echo again around the near-empty chamber of the House of Commons.  Dear Maggie Ritchie, erstwhile leader of the SDLP, has tabled a Commons motion in the hope of getting support from other MPs. She clearly means business.

About what? Why, about RTÉ plans to close its London office once the Olympics are over.  That office, she says, has “an illustrious record of service” and has kept Irish viewers informed about British economic, political and cultural life. AND it’s contributed to the peaceful resolution of the Northern Ireland conflict. AND it is “vital to fulfil the vision of future British-Irish relations”/

EH? Here, pull the other one, Maggie. Every time I see Brian O’Connell with his suitably-Anglicized end-consonants coming on-screen, I reach for the remote. But let’s be fair here. Unbeknownst to herself, Maggie has in fact raised an important issue.

Why do we  need Irish reports on things happening elsewhere in the world? The question presents itself particularly on BBC Radio Ulster/Raidio Uladh.  There’ll have been a polished, professional report done by the London BBC on some major story; then RU/RU  will insist on contacting somebody from Newtownards who lives within fifty miles of the event and ask them what they experienced. Why? What has the Newtownards native added to our understanding of the tsunami, or the airplane crash, or the political crisis?

The fact is, we get as much information about what’s going on in Britain as we need from the BBC and ITV  and Channel 4 in London.  If Maggie thinks that except we get an RTÉ angle on things, we’re missing out, she’d want to visit Specsavers. RTÉ’s take on events across the water invariably takes the same line as the British TV networks. An Irish take on events would be another thing entirely. If RTÉ were to report matters from a truly Irish perspective, pointing up the difference between British interests and Irish interests, focusing on the true implications of events for Ireland, then indeed I’d rally to Maggie’s side and urge her on. Unfortunately, neither BBC Northern Ireland nor RTÉ seems capable of thinking for themselves; what we get is a watered-down, more amateurish version of the British report. There is indeed a need for Irish audiences to have an Irish take on British events. But it ain’t going to come through the present RTÉ office in London and it certainly ain’t gonna come from the ‘r’ –softening Brian O’Connell.

Put on the red jacket and go for a walk in one of the Royal Parks instead, Maggie. 

Monday, 23 April 2012

John Waters and the Catholic Church

John Waters is that rare thing, an original thinker. He proved it again the other day when he wrote a piece  in the Irish Times. In it he expressed admiration for Pope Benedict, was critical of the Association of Catholic Priests in Ireland, and had some tough words for those people who call for greater democracy in the Catholic Church.

“Last week, on the publication of an opinion poll on behalf of the Association of Catholic Priests, commentators who had never written a sentence indicating genuine interest in, or affection for, Catholicism – who never miss an opportunity to attack the Church and its leadership – struck up demands for 'democracy', purportedly on behalf of what they depict as the downtrodden and ignored 'faithful'.  Why? Why do they care whether the Catholic Church is democratic or not? What is it to them?”

I don’t agree with all that Waters says in the article, but I’m completely with him in much of it. I don’t believe Pope Benedict is deserving of uncritical admiration:  his response to a number of matters, including his reception of married Church of England clergy and their flocks into the Catholic Church, and his attitude to women priests, is up the left. Or up the right, in his case. And  the Catholic Church could do with a health-giving infusion of democracy. And there are quite a few Catholic priests who think we're still living in the 1950s.

But Waters nails it exactly when he questions  criticism of the Catholic Church  by many commentators.  It should be obvious to even a short-sighted man on a galloping horse that a wide and deep strain of hostility to the Catholic Church runs through the Irish media, north and south. As Waters says, these commentators have no commitment of any kind to the Catholic Church, yet they lose no opportunity to express their outrage at rulings in the Catholic Church, and strain to indicate that anyone who follows such rulings must have a weakness in the head or be a lick-spittle lackey of the Catholic clergy.  And as Waters also says, why do these commentators care? If you don’t play golf and have no interest in it,  wouldn’t it  look odd if you repeatedly wrote articles about its rules, its organization, its worth? Except, of course, you  were contemptuous of the game and those who played it.

The Irish media, by and large, is relentlessly “liberal” in its assumptions, and works hard at impressing those assumptions on the rest of us. Part of this is Catholic-Church bashing, resoundingly and at regular intervals. We should be glad there are people like Waters. Very glad.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Westminster Abbey - home of the brave?

John Kelly is angry. His brother Michael was killed on Bloody Sunday in Derry and he’s now heard that a commemorative stone is to be erected in Westminster Abbey to the late Ted Heath, prime minister at the time.  Kelly says “I personally hold Ted Heath – the political master of the British armed forces in 1972 – among those ultimately responsible for the murder of my brother on Bloody Sunday. To memorialize him in any way is both sickening and contemptible”.

You can understand Kelly’s outrage. Think of a family member of your own. Now think of someone  deliberately shooting them dead, and then imagine the person ultimately responsible for the killing being honoured as a national hero. You’d be angry too.

But that’s what Westminster Abbey does – it puts up statues and memorials to those it considers great in British terms. You won’t find Oliver Cromwell there – they originally buried him in the Abbey, but when the monarchy was restored they dug him up, hung his remains from a nearby gibbet and left it there until the  head fell off.  So no Cromwell but lots of others, many of them responsible for massive suffering in Ireland.  Kings and queens like Elizabeth 1 and William III. Military commanders like Lord Nelson.  Prime ministers like Winston Churchill.  So really, a commemorative stone to Heath would fit right in. 

The two key words in John Kelly’s statement that no British government wants to hear is “ultimately responsible”.  When the good people of Derry were doing handstands in the Guildhall Square the day David Cameron apologised for Bloody Sunday, the British prime minister acknowledged that “ultimate responsibility” for the events of that day lay with the government ; but he hurried on to point out that he was in short trousers at the time and that  anyway there was no premeditation or plan about  what happened.  The note he struck was one of regret – a pity, really, all that suffering, but look, we’re sorry it happened and we would wish some things had been otherwise.

If that sounds familiar, it’s probably because you tuned in to the speech delivered by Queen Elizabeth II  in Dublin last year:  “To all those who have suffered as a consequence of our troubled past I extend my sincere thoughts and deep sympathy. With the benefit of historical hindsight we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently or not at all.”

When he was alive, Ted Heath submitted written evidence to the Saville Inquiry.  In it he denied government involvement in Bloody Sunday: “The tragic deaths outraged the Catholic community, increased support for the IRA and destroyed the prospect of a political initiative. It is therefore absurd to suggest that Her Majesty’s Government intended or was prepared to risk the events which occurred”. What’s more, he hadn’t leaned on Widgery to produce his famous whitewash report a short time after that terrible day.  Nice one, Ted - superficially impressive but, given a moment’s thought, cock-eyed claptrap. Of course the British government, via its armed forces, wouldn’t want to increase support for the IRA. But it did. By its actions, time and again through history  -  think about the aftermath of 1916  - it did so . What Heath doesn’t mention is that Bloody Sunday might well have occurred with the sanction of a British government – his government -  who were hoping for a different outcome. Who codded themselves that, faced with the fire-power of the Parachute Regiment, the IRA and the Irish people would back off and lie low.  That’s at least as reasonable a conclusion to draw as the one  drawn by Heath. 

But if John Kelly thinks any of that will make a difference, he’s sadly mistaken. The British government, the British monarchy has done its bit. It’s apologised, it’s stood in the Garden of Remembrance with bowed head. What more could any Irish person want - justice? You cannot be serious. 

PS And if you want to learn more, watch and listen to my old (and brilliant) classmate, Eamonn McCann at   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x83lt5zDRbg

Friday, 20 April 2012

What will we do without Sir Tony & Son?

Gavin O'Reilly and his missus

Who would be a journalist these days, much less a newspaper editor?  The top man at the VO was on the BBC’s ‘Hearts and Minds’ last night, talking at  the speed of a greyhound on acid. Yes, he explained, the VO figures were down over the past five years but they were up from twenty-five years ago. When Noel Thompson asked how the online version of the paper was doing, the VO’s chief bottle-washer did a verbal bob and weave and said that, um, it was grand, they were going to be looking at it and maybe doing a wee bit of adjusting, sort of. Or words to that effect. Translation: bloody awful and we're wracking our brains for a solution.  In the background I’ll swear I heard the Kingston Trio with their old hit   It Takes a Worried Man to Sing a Worried Song.

But the VO is by no means alone. The H & M discussion sprang from the fact that the Belfast Telegraph  has decided to stop producing an afternoon edition.  Cue lots of footage of men in caps shouting incomprehensibly in Belfast city centre while punters in slightly posher caps bought papers from them. Like every other paper around, the Bel Tel  is bleeding readers like a stuck pig, and though like the VO  it has an online edition, it equally can’t figure out how to make money from it. 

At the same time down south, there is much huffing and puffing about the end of another tradition – the O’Reilly family owning the Indo and related papers (including the Bel Tel). Even Enda Kenny got a few words in during a trip abroad, to say the government would be looking at the media ownership situation. There was some talk among politicians of the need to maintain high standards of journalism in Ireland, now Gavin O’Reilly had been ousted and  Denis O’Brien with his mate Dermot Desmond were top dogs. A lot of people hate Denis O'Brien and are worried about his media muscle; but then a lot of people hated Sir Tony O'Reilly and his son too.

So you could say it’s as you were down south: one set of obscenely rich Irish moguls gets replaced by another equally rich set.  But I’m more optimistic. Not because I believe O’Brien or Desmond are keen to bring a fairer, more balanced presentation of the world to the Irish people than their predecessors. It’s just that nothing – NOTHING – could be worse than the Indo as it existed under the O’Reilly regime. And if you have to ask “Why, what was wrong with it?” I respectfully suggest you take another  500 mg tablet and go back to sleep. 

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Orange Order scratches head and fingers £800,000

If you were handed £800,000,  what would you think? Me, I’d be asking myself “What have I done to deserve this?” So as the Orange Order takes in the happy news that the EU has forked out £800,000,  Drew Nelson and the boys must surely be scratching their heads and thinking “What have we done to deserve this?”

Maybe it was that parade up the Ormeau Road where they passed the bookie’s and held up five fingers to indicate the number killed in the sectarian attack there? Maybe it was a reward for having preached freedom of religion but opposition to Catholic Emancipation in 1829?  Or was it the way the Order sat down with residents’ groups and talked about how Orange marches might best celebrate the things they believed in, without trampling over the self-respect of other people?

Whatever the reason, the Order is today feeling very happy. Its grand treasurer William McKeown says “This will equip the Protestant community with the ability to engage with the wider community”.  It’s not quite clear what wider community does William has in mind. Non-Orange unionists? Non-Orange nationalists? Residents’ groups?  Even more important: what is it about £800,000 that lets you engage with people, whereas if you didn’t have £800,000, engagement would just be off the menu, a non-starter?

David McNarry, well known as a unifier among unionists, also welcomes the wad. “It presents an opportunity for the Orange to grow in confidence in these areas where previously the Order has never been given a chance to demonstrate in those communities its honourable stance for equal rights and equal opportunities”.  When you pick the bones out of that self-devouring sentence, David seems to be saying that there are places where the Orange Order couldn’t demonstrate how keen it was on equal rights and equal opportunities.  But. But wasn’t the fact that nearly every Prime Minister of Northern Ireland was an Orangeman, during the decades when equal rights and equal opportunities were the one thing that wasn’t available – doesn’t that suggest the Order might be more into unequal rights and opportunities?

But yes, you’re quite right, there I go again being mean-spirited and begrudging. This isn’t about the past, it’s about  the present or the future (apart, of course, from 1690). That said, I know the Order is sincere, not to say desperate, in its desire to change. So any day now, you can expect it to take the red pen to those bits of its documentation which insult the Catholic faith and reject anyone who darkens the door of a Catholic church to attend Mass. Expect it to take a very tough line on anyone caught with so much as a can of Coke in their fist on the Twelfth.  And stand by for a rush on bowler hats and blue bags. 

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Tales of the white man's burden

People sometimes criticise imperialists but they forget that running an empire places great burdens on the shoulders of those so doing.  There’s the training of administrators and enforcers in expensive schools like Eton and Sandhurst; there’s the loneliness of imperial wives, finding themselves sometimes thousands of miles away from a good handbag shop; and finally there’s the messy business of withdrawal, after you’ve shown the locals how civilized people behave.

The point is exemplified in today’s Guardian  newspaper.  It reports how Eric Griffiths-Jones, the attorney general of the British administration in Kenya, wrote in 1957 to the governor, detailing how they planned to subtly alter the regime at the colony’s detention camps.  “Vulnerable parts of the body should not be struck, particularly the spleen, liver or kidneys” and the people administering the violence “should remain collected, balanced and dispassionate”. And very, very quiet. “If we are going to sin, we must sin quietly”.

These and other documents from former British colonies were hidden and their existence denied until last year, despite the fact that put together, the files would create a tower 200 metres in height. 

But this is what I mean – it’s not easy either to run a colony or to cover your tracks, and the people who do so are not given the credit they deserve. Look at the work they had to do.  Some files were shredded, some dumped at sea, many burnt – and then there were those hidden ones whose existence had to be denied time after time.  It’s not easy telling lies for more than half a century, you know.

I remember the 1950s. We got out of school to see a documentary film about the queen’s visit to Kenya. There were lots of shots of the royal person and a dramatic reconstruction of the ghastly Mau Maus, who made people eat chopped worms and such. Which meant there wasn’t room in that documentary or others for a report on  claims of a  massacre of 24 unarmed villagers in Malaya by the Scots Guards in 1948.  No room either for a re-enactment of scenes from a secret torture centre in British Guiana, but that’s understandable: the British authorities didn’t get that up and running until the 1960s. And do you know, we left the cinema way back then not having heard a thing about the systematic torture, castration and killing of Mau Mau suspects by the British authorities in Kenya.

What am I saying? I’m saying  you just pause and think about all those documents, all that work, all those interrogations and “eliminations” to be got through, for so little thanks, and the missus as often as not without a decent handbag to her name. Truly, it was an unjust world.  Or do I mean is?

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Nice Alex goes a bit nuclear

Alex Kane is a nice man. He was an adviser to the Ulster Unionist Party, which either took his advice and tanked or didn’t take his advice and tanked. He also appears regularly on BBC’s ‘Hearts and Minds’, which means he’s a republican-free zone, because that’s what you need to be if you’re going to do the commentary bit on ‘Hearts and Minds’. But in his latest piece in The News Letter, nice Alex has gone a bit, um, nuclear.

The source of his radioactivity is Gerry Adams’s recent seven-point agenda towards Irish reunification. I thought myself that list was an inoffensive enough document: work for consensus on unity, encourage all non-unionists to be persuaders for Irish unity, try and show at least some unionists how their self-interest lies in a united Ireland, challenge the status-quoers, push the Irish government into working for unity,  push the British government into becoming persuaders for unity,  draw on the Irish diaspora for support in the unity work.

Not exactly rape and pillage stuff, surely? Uh-uh. To Alex it’s “big, fat, lie-based, cynical, utter twaddle and congenital lying”. What’s more, Martin McGuinness, when he addresses his supporters, is engaging in “tired old rhetoric” to “a bunch of shroud-wavers” who are “increasingly doolally”.  You get the feeling that maybe Alex is upset about something?

Your feeling is correct. Alex is very upset at the notion that there might be a place in a united Ireland for the unionist section of the Irish population.  That’s because “a united Ireland represents the death-knell for unionism”.  Well yes, assuming that unionists have only one political idea in their heads – the union.  And of course, pursuing the same argument, Alex would have to say that a united Ireland would represent the death-knell for republicanism – what reason for existing would a united-Ireland party have if there were a united Ireland?  My guess is republicans would tell you they are concerned for more than just a united country – they want a country that respects all its citizens and deals in the currency of justice, not bankers’ bonuses and brown envelopes.

Alex, on the other hand, gives unionists no credit beyond their British-link plank. What’s more,  “their social/cultural/historical values will be wiped away in a united Ireland”.  Eh? Who told you that, Alex? And what was Ian Paisley doing down at the Boyne site a few years back? And are those Orangemen marching in Rossnowlagh every year some sort of mirage? 

No seriously, Alex, it’s OK. Sit down and take deep breaths and say “Ohhhhmmm”. I know you’re convinced that “the [Republican] language may have become softer, but it’s just as loaded and deadly as the bombs and bullets it now replaces”.  But honest, it’s not. I’d much  prefer to be insulted than shot. Anyway, it is a teensy bit unfair, wouldn’t you say, to damn people when they’re engaged in violence and damn them just as much when they’re not?

Relax, Alex. Think calm blue water, glinting sunlight, Spring flowers. Before you know it, Mike Nesbitt will be knocking on your door and saying “Here, Alex, you wouldn’t give us a bit of advice, would you?” And then you’ll feel much, much better.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Alan Shatter, Eamon Gilmore and going mad

Most politicians, in my experience, are clever people.  Or maybe cunning would be a better word. They know how to flatter people, how to defuse criticism, how to talk in generalities when an interviewer backs them into a corner.

But they have one characteristic that they sometimes give into: arrogance. It’s a kind of craziness, arrogance, and the source of that  craziness is understandable if not forgivable. As that great political thinker Idi Amin is reputed to have said: “All power is delightful; absolute power is absolutely delightful!”

Maybe it was that craziness which got into Alan Shatter a few days ago, when he told those resisting  government cuts to “Get a life”.  The implication being that these people were doing something extremely silly, were wasting their God-given time  on this planet, and should emerge from the darkness of their own stupidity and lead real lives. Like, presumably, joining Mr Shatter’s party and piling the debts of private investors onto vulnerable Irish people. “Get a life” – it’s an eloquent phrase,  saying as much about the person who uses it as about those to whom it is offered.

And it must have been the same crazy arrogance that motivated Eamon Gilmore when he told protestors at the Labour Party annual conference in Galway  to “Have a nice day”.  Nice one, Eamon. The protestors carried placards of Labour Party founder James Connelly with the comment “Shame on you, Labour working-class traitors”.  They came from Dublin, Dun Laoghaire, Donegal, Wexford, Leitrim and Limerick. They were protesting about septic tank and water charges, about education cuts, about the EU fiscal treaty. They chanted “Labour Party, we know you: you’re a fucking Blueshirt too!” The gardaí responded by using pepper-spray on them.  And Eamon  Gilmore responded by telling them they should “have a nice day”.

Get a life, have a nice day. Truly, whom the gods would destroy, first they make mad.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

There are nine million bicycles in Beijing - and how many human rights abuses?

So what do you think – should  we tell Madame Liu Yandong to piss off, take herself and her running communist dogs back to China? After all,  as Amnesty International has pointed out,  China is numero uno in the world for executions; at least 190,000 people are in ‘administrative detention’, which most of the time means consignment to forced labour camps;  human rights activists are harassed,  torture is endemic and the Tibet situation is getting nastier-looking all the time.  How can we think of trade links or student exchanges here in the north,  or  setting up a billion-euro deal with them for stud-farm training in the south?  After all, people should come before profit – there’s even a political party called that in the south.

But hold on. We trade with the US, don’t we? They’re the only country in the world ever to have used nuclear weapons -  something over 300,000  innocent Japanese people died as a result of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Not to mention what’s happening at the moment in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq. Yes, the American market is important for our tourism industry, to take one example; but people before profit, right?

Let’s develop instead our trade and tourist links with our nearest neighbour, Britain.  Although now that I think of it  – haven’t they got some 5,000 of their troops garrisoned in Ireland? And doesn’t Westminster insist that they’re better at governing us than we would be if they let us?  Not to mention that Britain is going to spend between £15 billion and £20 billion (Greenpeace says it’ll be more like £34 billion) updating her nuclear weapons, which are of course designed to obliterate entire cities?  How can we think of trading with a country that occupies part of ours and  is prepared to  threaten slaughter that would make the Omagh bomb look like a pin-prick?

Here's the thing with international relations, though. If you’re big enough, you can do what you like with your own people and/or the populations of other countries, and no one will say “Boo!” providing there’s money to be made. It’s only when you do violence on a relatively tiny scale and there’s no money/advantage to be made, that people get onto their very high ethical horse and start finger-wagging and talking human rights.

Come back, Madame Liu Yandong, we were only codding about telling you to piss off with your running dogs.  It’s just our Western sense of humour – we don’t really mean a word of it. Sure you’re no worse than all the rest of them and maybe better than some.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Mitt and the NRA: a love-affair made in Heaven

Interesting race for the US presidency, isn’t it?...No, please, don’t use that kind of language. Children sometimes read this blog. I think it’s interesting because, although they obviously don’t want him, the Republican Party have now pretty well selected Mitt Romney to be their standard-bearer. Mitt himself knows they don’t really want him, so he’s trying to make himself more attractive to them. Like, by his attitude to guns.

“We need a president who will stand up for the rights of hunters, sportsmen and those seeking to protect their homes and their families”.

That’s what Mitt told the NRA, the gun lobby people. So is Obama clamping down on the massive arsenal of guns that are available in the US to private citizens? Well, no. In fact, some people elected him four years ago thinking he was going to use his influence to limit the number of deadly weapons. But he hasn’t. Which you’d think would, um, spike old Mitt’s guns, wouldn’t you? Not a bit. The line Mitt takes is, Obama has done nothing to take away our guns THIS term. But if you elect him to a second term, he’ll go mad, he’ll confiscate guns right left and centre, spoiling everything for all those decent hunters, sportsmen and home-protectors.  The fact that over 30,000 people are killed by guns in the US each year doesn’t come into Mitt’s calculations. Or put another way: he’s not bothered that every two years, more people in the US die at the hands of someone with a gun than the total number of US soldiers killed in the  entire Vietnam War. 

And did I mention Mitt is a Mormon? A deeply religious man?

But don’t think it’ll be OK if Obama gets back in. The polls show that over 80% of Republicans support the gun lobby. Fewer Democrats support the NRA – but 55% do. So that means a majority of US citizens, both Republican and Democrat, want the guns to remain.

I’m tempted to conclude that a majority of Americans are totally and uniquely bonkers on this issue. Except the south of Ireland at present has a government looking hard at ways to allow householders to shoot intruders on their property without fear of getting in bother with the law for so doing. Here in the north? Not sure what the deal is. There used to be approximately 130,000 registered guns in the northern state, most of them owned by Protestants, and their retention was championed by unionist politicians because, they said, farmers needed to be able to shoot crows.  That’s bound to have changed since the Good Friday Agreement. Hasn’t it?

Friday, 13 April 2012

Yesterday's newspapers with yesterday's news...

The Stone-breakers' Yard, Kilmainham Gaol

When the seemingly-defeated men of 1916 were led away, we’re told, the public mood  against them was strong - people were said to have jeered and spat at them. If that’s true, the mood did an impressive hand-brake turn two years later, when Sin Féin swept the electoral board throughout Ireland. But while we might debate public opinion at the time, there’s no dodging what the papers said – it’s there in black and white.  Read and weep.

The Belfast News Letter (2 May 1916)
 "We said a week ago, with the scant knowledge we then had, that the connection between this disloyal movement and Germany was now complete; that the manner of Sir Roger Casement’s capture proved that German gold and German influence had all along been at the back of the sedition mongers in this country."

The Irish Independent (4 May 1916)
"No terms of denunciation that pen could indict would be too strong to apply to those responsible for the insane and criminal rising of last week. Around us in the centre of Ireland’s capital, is a scene of ruin which it is heartrending to behold. Some of the proudest structures in what was one of the finest streets in Europe are now reduced to shapeless heaps of smouldering ashes. It is as if foreign invaders, as ruthless as those who have devastated Belgium and Poland had wrought their evil will upon the erstwhile peaceful city of Dublin…Were it not for the glory which has irradiated the Irish arms in the fields where the battle for human freedom is being fought, our heads might now hang low in shame for the misdeeds of those who have been the willing dupes of Prussian intrigue.
The men who fomented the outbreak, and all who were responsible for the devastation surrounding us have to bear a heavy moral and legal responsibility from which they cannot hope to escape. They were out, not to free Ireland, but to help Germany."

The Irish News (4 May 1916)
"We must pray for God's mercy to the souls of the dead; but we must also face the grim facts of the situation calmly and fearlessly. The lives of all these victims - "rebels", "soldiers" of the Crown and innocent members of the civilian community - will not have been sacrificed in vain if the people of Ireland are wise enough and brave enough to shape their future course in the light of the lessons that should be brought home to their minds by the catalogue of the week's blunders, disasters, crimes and retributions".

The Irish Times  (10 May 1916)
"A desperate plot was hatched for the disruption of the British Empire by means of an insurrection in Ireland. It was put into execution at a moment when England and Ireland were fighting for life against a foreign enemy. That enemy fomented and helped it with arms".

Now check out newspaper responses from 1966, when the fiftieth anniversary of 1916 was commemorated. Yes, yes, I know – you could use other words but let's settle for 'ironic'.

The Irish News  (12 April 1966)
"When do the British journals that have given such space to the Easter Week Rising give their pages to the cause of a United Ireland? They have no deep sympathy for a free, undivided Ireland, now or at any time. 1916 has simply been commercialised in Britain. That is her way of paying tribute to the men who died for freedom. In her heart Ireland is still "the most distressful country" and she will gibe at her as such when the 1916 Jubilee celebrations are at an end."

The Irish Times  (14 April 1966)
“There were reasonable fears that the celebrations might spark off explosions, but the weekend has come and gone, and such altercations as have reached the public’s attention were very minor indeed. On the other side can be claimed now a mood of reappraisal in some cases, in others a desire to know. It has been apparent since the State began that balance and maturity were essential on the vexed history of the State's origins. Perhaps we have reached the stage now. If, as the President said yesterday, Emmet's epitaph cannot yet be written, the reason why can at least be discussed without dust and heat. And that is something."

The Belfast News Letter  (18 April 1966)
"The members of the RUC have no easy task even in normal times; on occasions when the peace of the community is threatened, as it was yesterday, it becomes not only difficult, but also delicate. The firmness, good humour and, above all, the fairness with which the police acted all helped to keep the pot from boiling over, and for this every member of the community who values the better feeling which has developed in recent years owes them a deep debt of gratitude."

Can't wait for 2016…

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Derry and Milltown: starkly contrasting strategies

For a micro-group, there seemed to be an awful lot of them. Then again, the TV camera loves a crowded picture - it can even make attendance at a hockey match look big. But the balaclava-ed figure who spoke into the microphone in Derry yesterday was real enough. Representing the Real IRA, he said that his organisation would continue their attacks  on "Crown Forces personnel, their installations, as well as British interests and infrastructure".   In short, the war goes on.

There couldn't have been a sharper contrast with the words of Declan Kearney. At Milltown Cemetery on Sunday, he said "Unionists have been hurt by the war; and so too have republicans. We need to keep moving the peace process into new phases and onto new ground. National reconciliation is integral to our strategic project...Make no mistake: there is no other IRA, here in Belfast or anywhere else".

There you have in essence two completely-at-odds republican views. That represented by Declan Kearney believes reconciliation between former enemies is central to achieving the goal of a just and re-united country; the man in the balaclava believes in the same goal but is convinced it will be achieved through the cutting edge of violence.

The morality of political violence, whether in 1916 or 1976 or 2012 could be argued forever. But Kearney and mainstream republicans aren't arguing about the ethics involved. How could they? They themselves engaged in political violence over a period of decades. Their argument is that now - not in 1916 or 1976 but now - political violence is counter-productive. It alienates and deepens antagonism among unionists. The only road to national independence is the slow, unglamorous road of reconciliation. The man in the balaclava argues that such an approach emasculates republicanism: politics is about power, and power comes, as Mao said, from the barrel of a gun.

History, by and large,  is on the side of the man in the balaclava. The 26-county state was born out of bloody struggle against Britain, not reconciliation. And down the centuries, republicans have always believed in political violence and acted on that belief.  To  engage in reconciliation and power-sharing is to do Britain's work for it. Equally, though, you could say that history is on the side of mainstream republicans today. If the breadth and depth of IRA violence during the '70s and '80s failed to dislodge the British, then the puny efforts of the Real IRA are surely futile. And they have the opposite of their intended effect, since reconciliation with unionists is a sine qua non, an absolute essential in a re-united Ireland.

The  strategy of the man in the balaclava is clear, traditional and bloody. The strategy of  Kearney and  others like him is more complex, non-violent, and, for Irish republicanism, unique. Which strategy is more effective, it may take decades to decide. But as to which of the two is the bolder  and more imaginative,  the answer must be  Kearney and Co.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Easter 1916 - then and now (oh, and black and white as well)

I've recently been poring over the Irish newspaper accounts written in 1916, in response to the Easter Rising. You can probably guess what they boiled down to. They were agin it. Several of them lamented the damage done to the fine architecture of the city of Dublin. Others were in no doubt that the Rising involved a bunch of dupes - men who were were fighting to assist Britain's enemy, Germany, not Ireland at all. Others believed that the good name of Ireland had been dragged in the mud and would have been lost forever, were it not for the heroic actions of other Irishmen, fighting for the cause of freedom in Europe.

It's all different now, of course. The Easter Rising men are venerated as heroes who laid the foundations of the Irish nation. You got that, did you? Nation. Not state -  nation. So we have southern politicians and the Irish army (and  Air Corps) involved in ceremonies of reverence and gratitude for the sacrifice the men of 1916 made. Not once - I have a tenner if you can contradict me - not once did any of the Irish government speakers over the last few days mention the gap between the aspirations of the Proclamation towards a 32-county republic and the reality of Ireland today. You may think that's a jolly good thing; you may even regret that the 26 counties were foolish enough to stray from Mother Britain's embrace, and should return there asap. Or you may feel it's important not to mention the north, as doing so might offend unionists. Or maybe like me, you remember George Orwell's 1984,  where politicians managed to convince the population, by saying it often enough,  that black was literally white, that lies were truth and that war was peace. In our case, the lie to be digested is that the Irish question has at last been settled. And if you believe that, swallowing "Black is white" must be a doddle.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Unionists, the Irish language and all that

I'm looking forward to a talk near the end of the month by Robert McMillen. He's the guy who writes the weekly cupla focal column in the VO and he's going to be talking about the politicization of the Irish language. Wonderful. Because the last time I tried talking to a prominent Gaeilgeoir about this, he responded as though I had said something particularly tasteless  about his mother.  I was using my newly-bought Flip video-recorder at the time - giving  it a trial run, as it were. Everything went swimmingly until, about thirty seconds into the conversation, I mentioned that the resurgence in Irish -speaking in these parts was 95%+ Catholics/nationalists/republicans and tended not to include Protestants/unionists. Why, I wondered aloud, was that? At which point what had been a cheerful conversation became a suddenly-ended conversation. Remember the Robin Day interview with your man the British Minister for War or whatever he was called, during the Malvinas/Falklands conflict of the 1980s? The bit where the Minister  stood up, disentangled himself from the microphone on his lapel and stormed from the studio, muttering? It was a bit like that, only my interviewee told me I'd have to delete what I'd recorded, and do so NOW. I was so taken aback, I had to explain I'd forgotten how to delete, but promised I wouldn't use what I had recorded. He stormed away, lips moving inaudibly.

I suppose it comes down to which school of thought you belong to. There are those who look at uncomfortable facts and decide that the best way of making them more comfortable is to leave them alone, not pick at the scab. And there are those who believe that if you don't attack a problem, it'll get  bigger and nastier.

I'm convinced that we're living in a time when the Irish people of the north, nationalist/republican and unionist, are moving towards each other in a unique way. This, mind you, despite the fact that not twenty-four hours ago, I passed a group of thick-set young men putting up Apprentice Boy flags ('No Surrender'), union flags and 'Ulster' flags on lamp-post after lamp-post, extending for nearly a mile. Despite such knuckle-draggers, more thoughtful unionists are becoming increasingly aware of the cultural riches  all around them: Irish music, Irish dance,  the Irish language. What difference that increased awareness will make remains to be seen. Changed circumstances - independence in the south - led to some Protestants/unionists fleeing the place while others stayed and found they   they had an honoured part to play in the new southern state. Could it be that a parallel is occurring in the north today? That some unionists are marching to the same dreary old drum, while others are freeing themselves from the shackles of bunkerism,  climbing from the trenches to greet their fellow-countrymen?
Or is that just the post-Lent drink talking?

Friday, 6 April 2012

The school across the border's not the same

You could have predicted it would come from John O’Dowd, couldn’t you? Besides being Education Minister, he’s one of the most energetic and articulate MLAs up in Stormont, so when he announced the other day that education departments on both sides of the border are looking at ways of sending children who live on one side of the border to school on the other, it wasn’t a total surprise.

I’m sure those who opt for cross-border education will do it for all sorts of reasons. Prominent among them will be proximity. When I grew up outside Omagh, we belonged to the parish of Cappagh. But because of where we were positioned, we always went to Mass in Drumragh parish church. It was a no-brainer: one mile versus four miles. Similarly on a summer Sunday, the people of Omagh piled onto the excursion train and headed cross-border for Bundoran. Just as the people of Derry, situated beside the border, take holidays, socialize in Donegal, frequently live on one side and work on the other. They know it makes sense.

So if economies can be made – like St Mary’s School in Belleek, which was facing closure but may now become viable again – then of course it should happen. As O’Dowd pointed out, there are already cross-border arrangements in place for third-level education and for health, so why not schools?

In fact, why stop there? Tackle the broader question and ask “Why have a different curriculum in each jurisdiction?” As  someone who’s taught on both sides of the border, I found the youngsters pretty much the same – nothing about them suggested they were in need of a different educational diet. Is there some educational reason we haven’t heard about  that makes it necessary for the children Newry to follow a different programme from those in Dundalk?  If there is I haven’t heard it.

Of course there are strengths and weaknesses in the programmes offered on both sides at present. North of the border, we have the socially-divisive system of grammar and secondary schools, whereas that never really was an issue in the south. Likewise, there’s a general belief that literacy levels this side of the border are better than those in the south. Then again, the children in the south get a Transition Year in the middle of their secondary schooling, where they’re freed to  pursue particular interests, look around and think about the world and themselves, before heading towards one type of job rather than another. We’ve nothing like that  here in the north. (The south’s government, in its wisdom, is looking at slashing the Transition Year, not on educational but financial grounds).

Doesn’t common sense tell you we should take the best features of both curricula and blend them? This common curriculum could have important social spin-offs as well. I used to work with young graduates doing a year of training for teaching in schools. When we arranged for them to talk online with their southern counterparts, both sides were amazed at the differences between their courses. They were, you could say, educational strangers to each other. The more people have in common, the easier it is for them to talk together; the less they have, the more difficult discourse becomes.

So with the First Minister himself urging the benefits of a shared education system, maybe hell go further and push for a shared system that’d benefit all of the children on this island. Mind you, he’d first have to overcome the daft prejudices of those who’d rather hang onto a siege mentality than walk a mile down the road for the good of their children.  

A word in your ear, John: time to strap on your tin hat.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

David Cameron's plans for civil liberties: they're for your own good.

"The innocent have nothing to fear".  That's how the latest proposed violation of our privacy is being touted. Or maybe I should say "public proposed violation". Because you may be sure you're being watched and monitored in all you say and do without being told a thing about it.

Take Google Earth. The first time I used that, it took my breath away. You just type in an address, anywhere in the world, and the big on-screen globe spins and the camera goes swooping down from space and sits above the place you want to view. Thanks to Google Earth, I can see the state of my next-door neighbour's back garden (something I've never seen before) and he can see the moss growing on my driveway (which he can see any day).  You don't for a moment think that if we the public can get that kind of intimate detail on camera for nothing, the big boys haven't got a souped-up version that can see the length of your fingernails, and the colour and texture of your toilet-paper in the teacht beag?  Big brother never had it so good.

Now David Cameron and Co are proposing to extend their power to monitor the population's emails, phone calls and social media communications. And like a kindly doctor, David explains that it's for our own good - it's "needed to keep the country safe". Besides, it's not all bad news. The authorities will just have access to who you emailed or phoned or had social media communication with, not the content of that communication. WTF? DO YOU BELIEVE THAT? (Yes, I know I'm shouting. Why aren't you? Why isn't everyone?). They'll note who we contacted and how often but, hand on heart, they promise not to read what we wrote or listen to what we said. And Rangers are a prosperous club.

And when they've used the surveillance methods to locate you (assuming you're a bad person, of course, which you may not be: I've no way of knowing since I haven't access to the proper monitoring equipment) - when they've located you, they can then try you in secret. That's the second part of the proposed Cameron package. Secret courts will allow ministers to decide what information can be concealed from the public and the media and even the person being tried. So there goes the idea of open justice and the media' s right to report on matters of public interest.

But sure when you live in a place where the government can lock thousands of people up without trial, and keep them locked up; when you live in a place where  former prisoners can be sent back to prison because the British secretary of state thinks it's a good idea; and when you live in a place where, when some cases are heard in court,  time and bother  is avoided by dispensing with a jury. When you've been through or are still experiencing all of that, you may, like me, hear an old rural whispering from nowhere : "What do you expect from a cow but a kick?"

By the way, do you think Britain should be trading with a country like China, given its record on human rights?


Wednesday, 4 April 2012

RTÉ: So that's the Augean stables cleaned, right?

The mills of God grind fine and slow but they get there in the end, as a character in one of Brian Friel’s plays put it. RTÉ’s news department is to have a major shake-up, in the light of its false accusations in a programme about Fr Kevin Reynolds. The managing director of RTÉ at the time, Ed Mulhall, is retiring, which is sad, because he obviously was a fine managing director, but he’ll have the consolation perhaps of a lump sum of €325,000 and a pension of €69,000. They’re also going to scrap the series ‘Primetime Investigates’, which lied about Fr Reynolds;  and Ken O’Shea, the editor of current affairs, is being moved to another post in television. (Now why does that last one have a slightly familiar ring. It’ll come to me, I know it will…).  The station is also worried about their performance in the course of the presidential campaign and the fall-out therefrom. No, not about asking Martin McGuinness if he went to confession but about having announced a tweet as coming from Sinn Féin when it didn’t.

Meanwhile, the show must go on, and yesterday Olivia O’Leary put her shapely shoulder to the wheel. She did one of her by-now famous ‘columns’ on  RTÉ Radio’s ‘Drivetime’  about the Falklands. Olivia is a mistress of the English language – she was in Buenos Aires during the arrival of Maggie Thatcher’s warships and she painted a vivid picture of the sounds and smells and hopes and fears of the Argentine people at the time.  Apparently they kept trying to convince themselves that they’d defeat the British, even though Olivia told them that the Brits were determined and that they had experience of conflict in far-flung places like Northern Ireland. Alas, they didn’t listen to her and the rest is history. What struck me, though, was the way Olivia managed to take as read  the fact that Britain was entitled to continued sovereignty over the Malvinas. Odd, that.  Question simply didn’t arise - the right of the British to jurisdiction over a small group of islands thousands of miles away - was simply ignored in Olivia’s RTÉ column. Olivia’s fine nostrils don’t get the whiff of colonialism, it seems. But then, RTÉ was and is pretty good at ignoring the things it finds conflict with its pre-determined picture of people and events. Ask Fr Reynolds. Or Martin McGuinness.