Jude Collins

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Why do people join the IRA?

"A sense of belonging and direction". That and poverty are the two many reasons why young people join republican dissident groups (and now presumably the one group, the IRA), according to Henry McDonald in The Guardian. Mmm. I suspect he's right, but then a sense of direction and meaning, a sense of belonging is something we all crave. The rest of us find it in other ways (or not at all). These guys find it by joining an organisation with a central policy of killing people. They're also joining an organisation (as was the case with what we must now call 'the old IRA') in which there's a high chance that they will be killed or end up in prison.

Why? You'd have to be either extremely easily led (highly unlikely) or else you believe (literally to the death) in what you're doing. In our anxiety to avoid slipping back into the bloody past, there's a danger that we'll try to dodge this fact. As we'll try to dodge the fact that these people fit pretty seamlessly into an age-old, violent struggle against British political and military involvement in Irish affairs. You or I may not be prepared to do this - or it might be the last thing we'd want to do. But these people, be they few or many, do. They think what's been achieved, through Stormont and cross-border bodies, is a sham, and they're determined to continue in a traditional physical-force tradition.

Maybe that's what we should add when we say they're looking for a sense of direction and meaning in their lives.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

So what do I know?

OK, OK - so I got it wrong. On Monday. On Tuesday night RTÉ made up for ignoring the north in the first half of John Bowman's historical documentary and gave us lots of northern-related stuff. It even had my old friend Eoghan Harris declaring "I am a propagandist - that's what I'm good at".  I even gather (it happened while I slipped out to see a man about a dog) that they had Mary McAleese's being denounced as a Provo-lover when she worked with the station and was reduced to tears (I'm relying on a usually reliable source that this was covered). What wasn't in there was that my old chum Eoghan and his Workers' Party chums exercised an iron grip on what could and couldn't go on-screen about the north, and let's say that anything which might cast republicans in a positive light was left firmly on the cutting-room floor.

The big conflict, as Bowman presented it, was between the attempts of the Catholic Church, the government of the day and pressure groups like Irish language enthusiasts to pressure RTÉ into doing it their way, with RTÉ more or less heroically standing up to such pressure. I think that raises a very interesting question: who's to say that RTÉ's way was the best way? Is it right that a state-funded station should be free to make programmes as it sees fit? Or is it in fact the case that (like the BBC), being funded by the state means that RTÉ cannot do other than produce programmes that by and large please the government (who are, after all, the elected representatives of the people, which RTÉ are not)?

I'm not attempting to answer these questions - just raising 'em.  You probably have the whole thing thought through thoroughly. Right? While Bowman didn't provide the answers, he made a thought-provoking programme and for that he should be commended.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

RTÉ - national station (sort of)

John Bowman presented an interesting programme last night – or half-programme, as the other half is due for screening tonight. It’s about the history of RTÉ and its impact on the development of modern-day Ireland. By the time he was done I was shouting at the box.

Firstly it followed the common RTÉ practice of ignoring the north except where same was impossible. In the hour-long programme, the north featured once – no, twice. The first was a lightning-quick glimpse of October 5, 1968 in Derry, with the senior policeman pursuing young Martin Cowley, baton flailing and cap falling off. That lasted about three seconds. The second was a clip from the Contraceptive Train, where women from the south went north, bought contraceptives and insisted on bringing them back home. Yes, yes, I know, we don’t pay the RTÉ licence fee and all of that, but I still think it’s scandalous that a programme dealing with the national station should so shamelessly ignore the north.  Of course, tonight’s second half could be packed with northern content so I’ll have to eat my words. But something tells me word-eating won’t be called for.

The second thing that struck me was the uncritical view of RTÉ that was presented by Bowman. Certainly we got lots about the infighting that went on for control of the station, plenty about Archbishop John Charles McQuaid of Dublin and Dev  and RTÉ people like Lelia Doolin. But the battle was pitched as conservatism vs modernism, with the former the bad guys and the latter the good guys. Much was made of Gay Byrne’s Late, Late Show and how it had opened up for discussion matters hitherto swept into the corner – notably sex and religion. McQuaid was presented as a control freak, meddling where he had no business, and Dev was shown as a lugubrious old stick, mouthing on his fears about this new medium of TV.  There was virtually no mention made of the fact  that Dev or even McQuaid might have had a case  or that the creation of modern Ireland was anything other than totally good. That’s the modern Ireland where the bone-headed accumulation of wealth has resulted in total disaster. Nor, as I say, was there any consideration given to the role of RTÉ in the north’s affairs.

Because there was much about Ireland of the 1950s that was poverty-stricken and grimy, there’s a tendency to hail anything and anyone who helped sweep all that away. Big mistake. One example and then I’ll shut up.

Gay Byrne in Bowman’s programme was presented as the key knight-on-a-white-charger, tackling thorny topics and bringing into the light the controversial, while the Catholic Church fumed.  Fair enough, although I’m not sure a woman talking about not wearing a nightie on her honeymoon represents major political thinking. But anyone who’s listened to Byrne when he talked about the north over the years, or dealt with political people from the north over the years, can hardly have failed to see that the man was incorrigibly anti-nationalist/republican and that he invariably presented the north’s Troubles in a narrow and misleading way to his listeners/viewers.  It’a the old story, really: people can sound impressive in their thinking until you hear them talk about something you know a little of yourself. At that point,  gaping ignorance on the part of the guru iends to be exposed and a nagging question tends to raise itself in your head: if this guy was so wrong in this thing I know a little about, how wrong was he in all those other things that I know virtually nothing about, but assumed he did?

As I say, an interesting programme. You should catch the second half tonight. Assuming you get RTÉ.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

A dangerous truth-teller

I'm surprised somebody hasn't cut off George Monbiot's writing hand, or at least ripped out his tongue. He is what you could call a dangerous truth-teller: he informs the British public of facts they'd rather not hear, in fact that they'd do nearly anything rather than hear. His latest example is an  article on British rule in Kenya during the 1950s.

I remember that time. The reason I remember it is because we got off school, to attend a cinema showing of   Queen Elizabeth's visit to that country. It was a sort of documentary, which showed how foul and nasty the Mau Mau terrorists were. I seem to remember one dramatic reconstruction of an induction ceremony where the recruit was required to eat worms, although that could be the pills talking. But there is no fuzz in my memory of the contrast the film kept making between the queen, in her white gloves and flowery frock, ever clean and fragrant, and these ghastly black men who were obviously bent on resisting the benefits of  British rule.

Had your breakfast/lunch yet? And digested it? Good. Here's an extended passage from Monbiot on the subject, which blows out of the water and into the stratosphere the idea that the British Empire was a force for good in the world.

'Interrogation under torture was widespread. Many of the men were anally raped, using knives, broken bottles, rifle barrels, snakes and scorpions. A favourite technique was to hold a man upside down, his head in a bucket of water, while sand was rammed into his rectum with a stick. Women were gang-raped by the guards. People were mauled by dogs and electrocuted. The British devised a special tool which they used for first crushing and then ripping off testicles. They used pliers to mutilate women’s breasts. They cut off inmates’ ears and fingers and gouged out their eyes. They dragged people behind Land Rovers until their bodies disintegrated. Men were rolled up in barbed wire and kicked around the compound(7).
Elkins provides a wealth of evidence to show that the horrors of the camps were endorsed at the highest levels. The governor of Kenya, Sir Evelyn Baring, regularly intervened to prevent the perpetrators from being brought to justice. The colonial secretary, Alan Lennox-Boyd, repeatedly lied to the House of Commons(8). This is a vast, systematic crime for which there has been no reckoning.'
These matters are now coming to light some sixty years later - too late, it's claimed, to prosecute those guilty. Did you ever stop to wonder what will emerge from our own little corner, after a sixty-year interval? Somehow I don't think those nasty IRA, who of course started the whole thing and were responsible for its continuation, will be found the ultimate culprits.  Incidentally, if you want to read the full Monbiot article, it's on his website at  http://www.monbiot.com/2012/04/23/dark-hearts/ .  When you've finished reading, you'll probably join me in concern for his hand and tongue.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

The Orange: an awkward colour on the flag

As  12 July 2012 fades into history,  two events stick in my mind. The first was the  Kesh-Orange-banners-in-a-field-world-record-attempt: once remembered, it takes some forgetting. The second was  the Shankill loyalist band pirouetting outside St Patrick’s Church, playing the Famine Song. That three-minute clip did more to lay bare the dark side of Orangeism than a hundred academic papers. 

Back in 1968, an RTÉ camera caught the moment  at a civil rights march when a senior RUC officer, baton flailing, pursued with vicious intent a young civil rights demonstrator. That moment, over forty years ago, taught much to many people about the nature of the state north of the border. To record the moment took heavy equipment, a professional cameraman and time. 

Now in 2012,  there’s no need for skill or time. One man and his phone – that’s all was needed to expose the diseased heart of Orangeism and show it to a waiting world.  Which raises the interesting question: where were our official news-gatherers – UTV, the BBC - when this Famine Song performance was being thundered out? The video clip had been doing the rounds on Facebook and Twitter for several days before the BBC website got round to picking it up.  Until then, an outsider viewing the Twelfth through TV  coverage would have assumed  the whole thing was a good-natured family day out, much-loved by one and all. 

What makes that myth unsustainable today are the new media. Everyone who has a phone has a camera: one false move and you’re on Youtube.  So what was going on in the heads of the Shankill band  when they started to pound and shrill out their insults? Presumably they wanted anyone and everyone to know what they thought of Catholics and Catholicism; Nelson McCausland may argue in an alternative universe that the band could as easily have paused outside a fish-and-chip shop, but a moment’s glance tells you these  men marching outside the front door of a famous old Catholic church know exactly what they’re doing. And yet, when they noticed the man with the phone, the beefy Orange blades with sticks got upset.  How camera-shy can one band get?

One woman on Facebook, an American, wanted to know why the band was playing  the old Beach Boys’ number ‘The Sloop John B’?  And why the chagrin when they spotted the phone-filmer? Wasn’t banging the drum outside a Catholic church the whole point? 

Who can be sure? The thought-chamber of the Orange Order is a deep dark place littered with memorabilia and jumbled thinking. On the one hand, band members wanted Catholics to note  their contempt for them as they circled to the strains of The Sloop John B aka The Famine Song. On the other, they protest the importance of presenting themselves as a modern-yet-centuries-old culture which welcomes everyone, including Catholics and tourists,  to its day of fun. Where beefy men with sticks effing and blinding fit into that isn’t quite clear. 

But here’s the hard bit: those effing and blinding beef-heads are our fellow-countrymen.  If we honour the tricolour, then somehow we have to make room for the Orange. The size of that challenge clicked into sharp focus outside St Patrick’s on the Twelfth. What to do with such people?

Some say they are living proof that evolution is indeed only one theory on the development of mankind. Others that these people reject their Irishness and we should let them get on with it, none of our business.

Well, I’m afraid  it is our business and calls for the application of what loosely might be called the stick and carrot. It’s true a police officer rescued the phone-filmer from an attack by Orangemen,  but they didn’t get round to intervening until  some  fifteen minutes of drum-thumping, flute-playing sectarianism had been acted out. Doesn’t the Good Friday Agreement talk somewhere about the right  of everyone here to live free from that kind of harassment? And isn’t our police service charged with the duty of seeing to it that this aspiration becomes reality? 

And the carrot ? Mmm.  A guy  coming at you with a stick isn’t easy to embrace. But if they’re our fellow-countrymen, somehow it must be done. Maybe we need to start by rising above the meanness and insecurity so evident at St Patrick’s. It may call for gritted teeth, but we need to help these people out of their mental cul-de-sac. Give them a chance to see that sectarianism is a poor tired form of culture and that marching round in circles really does get you nowhere. (You can see it all on

Friday, 20 July 2012

Bloody Friday and how to use it

It's an inexact comparison but it's worth making. When Stephen Roche won the Tour de France, Charlie Haughey hurried to France to be photographed with him. When the fortieth anniversary of Bloody Friday came round, Nigel Dodds and Alban Maginness hurried to the radio microphone.
I've just finished listening to both.

Nigel said that anyone - up to and including the Deputy First Minister - who knew anything about those responsible for Bloody Friday should bring that information to the police. He has a point. Where innocent human life is taken, it's a reasonable argument that those responsible should be identified.  Just as those responsible for Bloody Sunday should be identified. Or those responsible for the Dublin-Monaghan bombings should be identified. Or those responsible for a policy of collusion with loyalist paramilitaries, whose policy was the killing of innocent Catholics, should be identified. I expect when the appropriate anniversary comes round, Nigel will be hurrying to a microphone to talk about responsibility and those events as well.

Alban Maginness was on, talking about the "evilness" of Bloody Friday and the "utter futility" of violence. He had half a point.  The taking of innocent human life is indeed an evil. The German bombing of British cities, the British bombing of German cities, the atom bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the napalm bombing of Vietnam, the drone bombing policy of the US - all these involved and involve the taking of innocent human life.  I expect when the appropriate anniversary comes round, Alban will be hurrying to a microphone to talk about the evilness of those events as well.

Alban also spoke of "the utter futility of violence". Um, sorry, Alban. Totally wrong. Violence crushed the native people of North America and opened up untold riches to the white invaders - riches which they are still enjoying. Violence was exerted by the Allies against Nazism and was completely successful. Violence was used by the British to exploit Kenya and other African countries, violence was used by those countries to shake off the British yoke, violence was used by the ANC,  led by people like Nelson Mandela, and was successful in ending apartheid in South Africa. For centuries, violence has been used as a means towards a political end and has been successful. "Politics is about power" a leading member of the SDLP once told me. You don't get much more concentrated power than the use of violence. And it's utterly futile to pretend otherwise.

As I listened to the radio this morning, I thought of a man I know  who lost a sibling, one he dearly loved, in Bloody Friday. Oddly, no newsmen or broadcasters have come knocking on his door to hear what he has to say. If they did, I suspect he'd tell them where to go. But then he isn't a politician.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Flag-burning and culture

It's odd what you hear on the radio. And what you don't hear.  This morning on BBC Radio Uladh they had a man from the Polish community, talking about the burning of Polish flags on top of Twelfth bonfires. Naturally it was something he felt fairly strongly about and he urged that action should be taken. He wasn't looking to have the perpetrators of what verged on a racial hatred crime pursued by the law; he thought it would work better if other means, such as not making grants available to such people, would be an idea.  Claire Hanna of the SDLP was on and she took a similar line. It appears a Polish man was an SDLP candidate at a recent election, so that might have been a motivation. A suggestion was made at one point that it'd be good to explain to the Polish community the significance of the Twelfth and what was being celebrated. It was also queried whether these particular bonfire makers had been recipients of state funding.

That was the ground covered in the discussion. Not once did any of the interviewees volunteer, nor were they asked, their views on the burning of tricolours. Maybe it's the rarity principle at work: when something happens rarely, it can have news value; when something happens every year, it has less news value. So that'd explain why nobody bothered to mention the burning of Irish tricolours. Because it's not newsworthy.

Would it be worth pursuing these tricolour burners? Probably not: what they'd done would be seen as a fine, patriotic act by some in their community, and any legal procedure might elevate them to the rank of martyr for the cause. They shouldn't, of course, be given public money; but that's not likely to matter much to them. I saw a giant  pyre of pallets a couple of weeks ago with an attached sign 'Culture B4 Cash'.  Right. And the burning of tyres and tricolours is a time-honoured, priceless part of that culture.

Should we laugh or weep? Maybe both.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Show me the figures

Some subjects you get so much of, you feel like cutting off your ears and having the holes cemented over.  Orange marching falls into this category, although you can forgive the frequency of discussion, considering the thousands of marches. One thing we've been hearing surprisingly little about is the 2011 census.

Those of us who were around and alert last time out will remember the excited anticipation of the figures. Brian Feeney, former fellow-slave at the VO, is alleged to have bet someone a big bottle of bubbly on the outcome. There was talk of other bets and of the outcome changing the entire political scene here.

Not so this time. The Irish Times  this morning has an editorial looking at how the northern population over the decades hasn't had the ups and downs of the south. In 1841, pre-Famine, the north's population was 1.6 million; after the Great Hunger it went down to 1.2 million - less than the rest of the country - and has risen since to a record high in 2011 of 1.8 million. That's a growth of 7% in the last decade, 30% reckoned to be a net inward flow of migrants, most from Central Europe. 

Yes, but but, you're saying. Cut to the chase. Alas, as the Irish Times  phrases it, "The figures do not include the much-awaited and politically sensitive tally of religious affiliation". Whether that means they skipped that question this time round (I don't think so) or that they haven't quite finished counting the prods and taigs, or maybe have counted the prods and taigs and are waiting for a very good day to release bad news  or a very bad day to release good news, there's no indication.In  1991 Catholics constituted 38% of the population; in 2001 40% (although that was considered surprisingly low - and cost Feeney his bubbly).  The Protestant population of the north in 2001 was put at 46%.

There's no indication in the IT editorial as to whether we're going to get the religous break-down of figures at a later point. But while it acknowledges that under-15s in the north are down by 9%, resulting in closed or half-empty schools, another  bulge is coming: the number of pre-school children under three years only is up 10%.

Talk about a tease. But don't, please don't talk about a 'sectarian head-count'.  This is  a political head-count: theological commitment has nothing to do with it. 

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Jean McConville's death: uniquely evil?

Of all the people who were killed in the course of our Troubles, why is it that everyone knows  and most feel deep sympathy with the violent death of Jean McConville?

Well,  because she was a mother of ten children and her violent death  had a seriously damaging effect on the family. This sympathy is kept fresh as grown-up members of the family attest to the horror of what happened  and as they seek for the whereabouts of her body.

So that’s why her death stands out from many of the other violent deaths that occurred during the Troubles.

Why was Jean McConville killed?  The IRA  at the time claimed that she was passing information on local republicans to the British  army.  Nuala O’Loan, the police ombudsman, said in  2006 that an investigation by her office found no evidence that this was the case. Sinn Féin’s  Mitchel McLaughlin came under heavy criticism in 2005 when he said that McConville’s death should not be classed a criminal act, given the context of the time and the belief by the IRA that she was an informer.  The journalist Fintan O’Toole immediately denounced McLaughlin for so saying, and  denounced the killing of McConville as a war crime. And this morning, my old friend Eoghan Harris is  critical of  RTÉ interviewer Keelin Shanley, because in some interview she didn’t concentrate sufficiently on the McConville family. In fact Eoghan thinks the media in general aren’t nearly strong enough in their support of the McConville family. For him her death was an action of unadulterated evil.

Right. There can be little doubt that the McConville family suffered a great deal as a result of the death of their mother. It’s also true that Nuala O’Loan, as police ombudsman, found no evidence that Jean McConville was an informer. But except you believe that the IRA killed Mrs McConville because they just felt like doing it, it seems reasonable to suppose they believed she was an informer. O’Loan’s research says they found no evidence that she was an informer. The IRA of the time clearly thought they had enough such evidence, otherwise why kill her?

The media are detailed in their account of the death of Mrs McConville and the effect it had on her large family; they are less thorough in their exploration of what the IRA believed about Jean McConville at the time. They believed they were fighting a war, and it's reasonable to suppose they believed Mrs McConville was a spy in their midst and they killed her. Ghastly, cruel, shattering for loved ones – but that’s what happens in periods of violent conflict.

Jean McConville may indeed have been totally innocent of passing information to the security forces; but it’s very likely the IRA of the time believed that she was. Only when media commentators deal with the second-half of the last sentence  as well as the first, will any moral judgment about the killing  make sense.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Mauritius - a terrible injustice?

There's something a bit sickening and a bit familiar about the McAreavey judgement.  I say 'the McAreavey judgement', although of course it was the judgement on the innocence of the two accused men that got Irish attention, from the Taoiseach on down (or up). Just when it seemed that the death of Michaela McAreavey couldn't get any more appalling than it was, this case and particular its culmination in the whooping joy at the 'not guilty' verdict showed that the ghastly can become even more ghastly.

However,  maybe we should face a few uncomfortable facts.

(i) We bring a degree of prejudice to the operation of the Mauritian courts - they're far away, probably a bit primitive, a bit dodgy, unlike our own. Our prejudice is confirmed by the laughter in court, the yells and cheers and shouldering of the defence barrister after the acquittal.  But don't forget the release of the Birmingham Six, the Guilford Four - maybe their courts and ours, their reaction and ours aren't totally dissimilar.
(ii) Our feelings of despair at the judgement relate directly to our conviction that the men are guilty. Behind that is our conviction that John McAreavey, Michaela's husband, is the subject of foul smears when his innocence is questioned. Just as the Birmingham Six and the Guilford Four remain, in some people's minds, with a question-mark over their innocence. But in both cases, the truth is we don't know. Most of us, I suspect, welcomed the release of the Birmingham Six and the Guilford Four, and resent the lingering doubts some people harbour about their innocence. But I don't know  if those doubts have any foundation. In short, I'm prejudiced in favour of the released Irish prisoners, and I'm prejudiced against the release of the two Mauritian men in the McAreavey case. I'm prejudiced in favour of John McAreavey's total innocence, not because I've studied the case in detail but because I identify with someone, as one commentator put it, from an impeccable pedigree: his uncle is a Catholic bishop, his late wife the daughter of one of Ireland's outstanding people, let along Gaelic football managers. And yet that should, must have nothing to do with it. To judge a person, favourably or unfavourably, on the grounds of the family they come from, is totally wrong. My family could be grand people and I could be a pig; and vice versa. I feel in my gut that John McAreavey is a man totally innocent and one who has known a nightmare at close quarters, not once but twice. But his family background or that of his late wife has nothing to do with it.  If I don't want to be judged by how good or bad my brother is, the same should apply to everyone else.

By now you'll have noticed that I'm far from clear in my ideas about this case. On the one hand I find the death of Michaela and the trial eighteen months later ghastly affairs that must have loaded the Harte and the McAreavey families with a terrible burden of pain. On the other hand, I need to watch that I don't assume guilt and innocence without clear, forensic evidence. And I believe most of us who are horrified by the judgement don't have that clear, forensic evidence to support our horror.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

What century is this, guys?

I've just come off the Nolan Show, where I was urged to get down to Belfast City Hall area and join in the Orange festivities, come together and all that. Since I'm in Sligo, I'd find that a bit difficult. Why am I in Sligo? Because it's the Twelfth, stoopid, and most non-Orangemen and women who can manage get the hell out of our little northeastern jurisdiction. Not because they're misguided, but because they know that at core, the Orange Order (i) is anti-Catholic; (ii) is triumphalist. Old Stephen was talking in terms of just enjoying the burgers and chips and ice-cream and all that. But you can only do that if you  ignore  why the Twelfth exists and who are at the heart of its celebration.

And it's not just the Twelfth. Two, three thousand marches a year! Ninety-nine per cent of which are accepted without demur by the nationalist population. The disputed ones like the Ardoyne? Sit down, guys, with the residents, would you? No preconditions, no preset mind-set. And come to an agreement with your neighbours. And when you've done that, have a long, hard look at the organisation that's doing the celebrating and  ask yourself: would we tolerate this if it were Catholics/Nationalists who were holding 2,000 parades each year celebrating victory over us? Or if the GAA said no Protestants, nobody married to a Protestant, no one who's been to a Protestant service may play Gaelic games?

Dear Mother of God - this is the twenty-first century. And we have this antediluvian attitude that declares Orangemen are the ones who are being hard done by. Jesus wept.

On a more cheery note (I think), it's my birthday today. Thanks to all who were kind enough to take the time to wish me the best. May your day be free of the sound of the flute.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Wanting and getting

So Peter Robinson wants Martin McGuinness investigated. Mmm. An investigation by the PSNI over thirty years after the killing of 14 people on Bloody Sunday (yes, I know, I know - slow isn't the word for it) has irritated the First Minister. Look, he says, if they're going to investigate those who carried out the killings on that day, they'll have to investigate Martin McGuinness who, um, well, who was said to be carrying a gun on that day. This, you'll remember, is the Martin McGuinness who expressed sympathy with Peter Robinson when he was up against it, as the story of his wife's, um, dodgy affairs were unfurled a few years back.  And the Martin McGuinness who smiled his way through the many insults lobbed at him in Stormont by Ian Paisley and others. This is the Martin McGuinness who seriously risked alienating swathes of republicans by shaking hands with the queen. Virtue had better be its own reward, because it ain't going to get any from Peter Robinson.

And then there's that colourful branch of unionism, the Orange Order. They're demanding to be allowed to march where they want to (Ardoyne, Drumcree, wherever), and the Parades Commission must go and boil its head if it rules differently.

And so it goes. Every move towards reconcilation, every internal examination that results in changed republican behaviour, is met with suspicion and even hostility. Stop the violence and engage in politics!...Oh, you already have? Then stop using residents' groups to hide behind and foment hatred of the Orange Order!....Oh, it wasn't you, it really was residents groups. Mmm Give us a minute and we'll think of something else we're outraged about.

Maybe you've noticed a pattern here? Republican contortions to accommodate the fears of unionists is pocketed as being the least they could do (You've stopped being violent? No, most definitely NOT maith sibh - you're disgusting because you engaged in violence in the first place. You've settle the Apprentice Boys thing in Derry?  Well it's the least you could have done, and look at how long you objected to it, and by the way use Londonderry, not Derry, if you don't mind.)

And now the call for prosecution of the killers of 14 people on Bloody Sunday (you have to smile wryly if not guffaw - a murder investigation that's started over thirty years after the event) is met by whataboutery cries. What about McGuinness and his tommy gun? Yes, you fixed the Apprentice Boys thing in Derry, but what about Ardoyne? Drumcree? In three words, the unionist chorus is less a constant request and more a never-ending demand: we want more.

Sometimes the most loving thing you can say to an indulged  child is the word No. This morning, with the Eleventh Night coming at us like a cloud over Cavehill, it's time republicans stood up and said the N word.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Did Kesh beat the world Orange Banner record?

With the Twelfth bearing down on us like a neutered pit-bull high on ecstasy, it's good to know the Orange Order has retained its sense of humour. Even though it was expected to disrupt traffic, hundreds of Orangemen were to assemble in a field somewhere near Kesh, Co Fermanagh, in an attempt to beat the world record for assemblage of Orange banners in one spot. This attempt was being organised by Pettigo Loyal Orange Lodge and  more than 300 banners were expected to gather in the field.  Problem was,  people who would normally park their cars in fields (doesn't everyone?) would be forced, due to the recent wet weather, to park at the roadside, which risked creating traffic bottle-necks. 

I've been on edge to find out the results of this world record attempt, not just because if cars risk getting stuck in soggy fields, so too do the Orangemen gathered with their banners, but because Pettigo is the town near which my mother grew up. Ah me, the heart-warming stories she used tell me at bed-time of Catholics and Protestants standing shoulder to shoulder, hand-in-hand, cheering the bands on the Twelfth! Mind, this was decades before Sinn Féin entered  the picture and manipulated residents' groups so that, instead of continuing to stand hands clasped with their unionist neighbours, they started to claim that Lambeg drums and anti-Catholic speeches and half-pissed Orangemen were something they found in some vague way offensive.

But look, I'm getting misty-eyed. Those were back in the days when everyone got along, when people shopped,  traded, went to each other's religious services with never a thought of who was Orange and who was Green, when Catholics looked forward as much to the fun of the Twelfth as did their Protestant neighbours.  Only then the IRA started the Troubles and ruined things for all of us.

Anyway, to get back to Kesh, if you know that the banner-bearers were successful in their world record tilt and didn't get that sinking feeling their cars might have experienced, let me know. And if you know they failed in their attempt, let me know as well.  If there's one thing you can be sure of every Twelfth, there'll be something that'll give you a good belly-laugh.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Arise, Sir John

It's not always that I agree with the Dean of Northern Journalism, Eamonn Mallie. But I'm with him on this one - John Hume accepting a papal knighthood would be - although Eamonn would never stoop to such language - a crock of shit. For a start there's the timing. No, not because as Eamonn puts it: "Why accept an honour from an institution which has visited so much hurt on the young and innocent?" You might as well say "Why give credence to an institution which has visited so much hurt on the young and innocent by going to Mass with your children on a Sunday?" No, the timing has to do with Hume himself. When a papal knighthood offer might have had some merit would have been when Hume started his talks with Gerry Adams, and the Indo and all the southern media were going bananas about the shame of it all.  A papal offer at that point would have shown that the papacy stood by those who were genuine peace-makers like Hume (and Adams) rather than Sir Tony O'Reilly and his assorted lackeys. But did it come at that time, when most needed? Not a chance. The church waited until Hume, as Mallie points out, was top-heavy with honorary degrees and awards. It's like waiting to see which way the wind is blowing, and only when there's a hurricane of approval behind the chosen one do you make up your mind.

Plus, of course, the idea of knighthood has been inextricably linked with the British Honours List, so if Hume were to transform himself to Sir John, he'd have to keep explaining to nationalists it was the pope that gave it to him, not that other one with the thing on her head.

Finally, the rich and/or powerful conferring distinctions on those they deem worthy is itself a  crock of smelly stuff. Who are they to tell us who's worthy  of distinction? Shouldn't we be telling them? Oh but I forgot - neither the papacy nor the monarchy are too much into democracy. Heavy on bowing and scraping, though. 

Friday, 6 July 2012

We're all British here, aren't we?

Did  I read somewhere that Kate Hoey was in a snit because somebody kept referring to ‘Britain’ when they should have been referring to ‘the UK’, the reason being that  to say ‘Britain’ would be to leave Northern Ireland out, even though as we all know, we're all British here. Although though a good number are Irish. As well. I hope you’re keeping up with me.

If Kate said nothing of the sort, a thousand apologies Kate, these days when I don’t take the tablets you’ve no idea the things I start imagining. But this particular idea-thing seemed to have the ring of possibility, since the people living in the island next door do have a tendency to leave out NI when talking about Britain. I’m sure they don’t mean to hurt sensitive feelings on our side of the water, any more than, when there’s a Northern Ireland topic under debate in the House of Commons, those who speak sounds as though they’re addressing each other from the bottom of a well, such is the echo produced by practically nobody being present in the chamber. Those British MPs don’t want to wound those of us British separated from them by the Irish Sea, they just, um, well, it’s boring, innit, those Irish, that’s to say British over in Ulster.

Did I say Ulster? I shouldn’t have said that, should I? Unionist politicians, or a section of them, have a copyright on that word, which they use when they really mean Northern Ireland. So if Kate DID say that about Britain/UK, maybe now she knows how those twisted nationalists in the north of Ireland feel when unionist politicians blithely ignore the existence of three of Ulster’s nine counties.

But hey, we’re talking about Britain here, aren’t we? All of us in NI are British citizens, with all the rights and privileges and joys that go with that, right? Which is why I got such a shock when I was over in London today (no, not Londonderry – I’m talking about the capital of my country), I tried to buy coffee and some buns in Knightsbridge.
When I flashed a Northern Bank £20 they said ah no, we don’t take those, sir, we only take sterling. Eh? I said. But sure this is sterling. Ah no, I’m afraid we can’t take it. What you say may be true, sir, but it’s not the kind of sterling we  recognise or take in this part of the world, no offence, of course, chuckle, chuckle, yes indeed, of course we take debit card, that’ll be lovely.  

Maybe I should send Kate to have a talk with them. I mean, what’s the point in us being loyal subjects and putting up arches and beating drums until our fists bleed, if they won’t even take our money?

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Did you hear the one about the Giant's Causeway Visitor Centre?

OK. This Boson particle walks into a pub and the barman says “What’s the matter?”  Boom-boom.

I expect you’re falling around on your chaise longue at that one. If you’re not there might be a suggestion you don’t understand what the Boson particle thing is all about .  If you don’t, welcome to the club – I don’t either. But I gather it has something to do with the reason why everything exists when, quite reasonably, things might not exist.

Which brings us to the Giant’s Causeway. The great Dr Johnston, you’ll remember, when asked what he thought of the Giant’s Causeway after he’d been there, said “The Giant’s Causeway is worth seeing, but not worth going to see”. However it’s not its scenic impact that’s up for discussion this morning. It’s that in the new Visitors’ Centre, they’ve an audio presentation that explains the origin of the Causeway in traditional scientific terms and also in creationist terms.

Pleased with that, are you? Or disgusted that Christian fairytale stuff is given equal time with science?

It depends on what you mean by creationism, and how the Visitors’ Centre presents creationism. If it says that the Causeway was created by God via his Flood, and we know this because the Bible tells us Noah had to build an ark, etc, then it’s a bit daft and people in need of a good laugh will head for north Antrim. If on the other hand the creationism version accepts evolution and simply puts the case that the Causeway, like everything else,  is ultimately the product of intelligent design of some sort – what most people call God  - then they’re entitled to have that point of view heard. It’s what Christians believe.

Let’s face it: most people, myself included, have a very shaky grip on science. When we’re told that the universe came into being by way of the Big Bang, we nod wisely, even though it sounds like something from a three-year-old’s picture book. No explanation is given as to why the Big Bang should have happened rather than not happened, or why it was such  a smart Big Bang that it created everything we now have. In terms of religion, people can be literal and gullible – it’s in the Bible so it must have happened. Likewise in terms of science, a lot of people can be literal and gullible – it’s what the scientists tell us so it must be true . Even though science keeps changing and sometimes contradicting what went before.

The world,  the universe is an amazingly varied and beautiful and terrifying place. Maybe the God-made-the-world-in-six-days crowd should be bit less dogmatic and intolerant.  And maybe the rest of us should accept that when we give credence to the scientific community, it’s not because we understand their claims – as with religious belief, we make an act of faith.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Six things Drew would like Dublin to know. Or maybe not.

Yesterday, Drew Nelson, Grand Secretary of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland was down in Dublin addressing the Oireachtas. The problem the Orange Order has, apparently, is that it’s misunderstood, so Drew would like people in the south to know more about the institution. With this in mind, here are some facts about the Orange Order that might help Dublin politicians decide whether Drew’s proposed Orange march through Dublin would be a good idea.

1. The founding documents of the Orange Order say, 'An Orangeman should not merely be somebody who has hostility towards the distinctive doctrines, the superstitions, the priestcraft and spiritual despotism of the Church of Rome.'

2. The 'Constitution, Laws and Ordinances of the Loyal Orange Institution of Ireland' (1967) states: "No person who at any time has been a Roman Catholic ... shall be admitted into the institution, except after permission given by a vote of 75pc of the members present founded on testimonials of good character.

3.  Today, as always, each member of the Orange Order is pledged to: “strenuously oppose the fatal errors and doctrines of the Church of Rome, and scrupulously avoid countenancing (by his presence or otherwise) any act of ceremony of Popish worship; he should by all lawful means, resist the ascendancy of that Church, its encroachments, and the extension of its powers”.

4.. Early in 1992, loyalist gunmen killed five Catholics who were in a betting shop on the Ormeau Road in Belfast. Months later, a parade along the road sparked fury when some of the Orangemen present made "five-nil" hand gestures as they passed the murder scene.The then Northern Ireland Secretary Sir Patrick Mayhew accused those responsible for the taunts of behaving like 'cannibals' ".

5.  On July 12, 1996, Robert Saulters  - who was later elected Grand Master of the Orange Order on December 11 - told the Orange Order, that the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, " has already sold his birthright by marrying a Romanist. He would sell his soul to the devil himself. He is not loyal to his religion. He is a turncoat " 

6. A few years ago, George Galloway, then an MP, described the Orange Order as  "sectarian, anti-Catholic, Protestant-supremacist". A defamation suit was pursued against him by the Orange Order in Britain. Judge Lord Kingarth who threw out the case, ruled it was "a fair comment on that organisation".

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Is the GFA enough, or is unionism entitled to say 'We want more'?

I was on a radio discussion with nice Alex Kane last Sunday, and although I didn’t think it at the time, I was told by several people we clashed fairly resoundingly.

The essential point was whether Sinn Féin were doing the right thing by unionists.  It seemed to me that they were but Alex begged to differ. If they were doing the right thing, he said, they would apologise to unionists for the actions of republicans over the period of the Troubles. If they were doing the right thing, they would state publicly that only when/if ever a majority of unionists in the north agreed to constitutional change would it come about. 

My response was Holy God, Alex. If republicans and republicans alone apologise, this boxes them into a corner where they appear to be saying 'We were in the wrong all along. We were just a group of thousands of criminals who went on a killing spree for several decades'.  If apologies were to be handed in, they should be handed in simultaneously by ALL parties to the conflict. No hierarchies please, Alex.

The other point, about the need to announce that only when a majority of unionists had agreed to constitutional change should it happen: that’s not what was signed up to in the Good Friday Agreement. It explicitly talks about a majority in Northern Ireland, not a majority of unionists. So why sign up to something and then start demanding stricter terms? Besides which, I know there are republicans who would be willing to wait until a majority of unionists were agreeable to constitutional change, but that’s another matter.

And please, people, we’re talking here about the road towards constitutional change, not how far there may or may not be to travel.

I really do like Alex, but he occasionally adopts some very odd positions for a rational, intelligent man.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Conversation with a good man

Father Gerry Reynolds is expecting me and not expecting me at the same time. He’s suggested  a 12.00 pm interview for today only he doesn’t know I’ve said yes, please, because his email system has gone wonky.  But  even though preparation for the Clonard Novena are to be seen and heard all around, he’s soft-spoken and unhurried. We settle in our armchairs in Parlour 3  at  Clonard Monastery and I ask him about his childhood. 

He grew up on the edge of Limerick city, where his father was a small farmer who sold milk to the city dairy. He remembers his father well – getting a box on the ear  from him for having done something wrong, his father codding him that he could send a message to someone far away by speaking into a little hole in the wall.  It sounds like a warm, normal father-son relationship. Then when he was six years old, everything changed. 

“My dad was going into Limerick city on a horse and cart . A lorry was driving out and the man driving it might have been a bit under the influence. But a bar projecting from the side of the lorry hit my dad. His leg was broken in three places and he went into hospital. This was the age before penicillin, and with blood poisoning, they weren’t able to handle it. He died two months later, in July 1941. I remember being brought into the mortuary to see my dad laid out. I remember touching his body – his head – and it so cold.”

Many things led to him becoming a priest. He was an altar boy, he had two uncles who were priests, the community in which he grew up was supportive of his vocation.

“And there were moments in my life that drew me to God – little moments of revelation, really. I remember when I was a very small fellow, being out in the meadow one day, looking for flowers for the May altar, and having an extraordinary experience of finding a flower that just blew my mind, it was so beautiful. It was an experience, sort of, of a divine presence. That sense of God’s presence in his creation. You get something of it in Patrick Kavanagh: ‘That beautiful, beautiful, beautiful God/ Was breathing his love in a cut-away bog’.”

That sort of moment, as well as the occasional encouraging word from a local priest, from a farmer as they walked home after a day’s work in the field: “He said ‘Good lad, that’d be a good thing to do’. Though I remember too in a hurling match, shortly before I left home to join the Redemptorists, saying I was going there to another fellow – we were hurling together -  and he told me ‘Don’t be an eejit!’  But I didn’t listen to him and I was jolly glad I didn’t!”  He leans back in his chair and laughs at the memory.

I ask him about being posted to Belfast – how did the image in his head match with the reality?

“I came in the summer of 1983. What I found was, Belfast was very, very different, from reading about it in the papers or hearing about it on the television.  You were right up against the reality of Belfast. Just ordinary people caught up in this terribly sad and tragic struggle. The suffering of it, the pain of the people, and the courage of the people as well – you’d be encountering that. And the awful violence that I never could understand. I never would just condemn people  - they all followed their own lights; but from a human point of view, to take human life is a terrible thing. My commitment to peace-making is profoundly a religious commitment – a commitment to the living God who doesn’t want us to be at war with one another.”

But did he ever feel that people from outside his community might see him as being on the side of republicanism?

“I never worried about what way people saw me. I was myself. I mean I was and am an Irish nationalist. I believe that Ireland is for the Irish people, it’s wrong to have it occupied and all of that. But my reaction to that was to work gradually towards transforming people’s attitudes, endeavouring to connect with people on the other side.  I remember Brother Hugh Murray – he was an old Brother in the monastery at the time -  and Hugh used to talk with me. We’d be on the top corridor of the monastery, looking out at the Shankill, and he would say to me ‘You know, we’re all the same people – the very same. We’ve all been exploited, never really got a fair reward for our work, and the tragedy of it is, we’re at each other’s throats’.  I came two years after the hunger strikes, in 1983, and from the beginning I came as a learner, trying to understand, but with a deep conviction. People used to say to me ‘They’ll always be fighting here’. I never believed that, because God doesn’t will us to be fighting. And what God wills for us is always possible, if we commit ourselves to it and work for it.”

He’s not dismayed by the state of disarray and crisis in the Catholic Church at present. He’s just back from the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin. 

“It’s the first Eucharistic Congress that was ecumenical. It began with a day where the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin presided over the celebration of our communion in baptism.  I thought that was a glorious day, a tremendous boost for us all. Even committed Catholics can be battle-weary,  a bit down, lacking morale. But I don’t think anyone who attended the Eucharistic Congress will lack morale or confidence or hope. The Congress has been an immense blessing – that’s my read of it.”

I comment on the hammering sounds outside as men prepare for the Clonard Novena. Why is it that the Novena is so popular with people?

“I think it touches into the heart of the Gospel message – that God is good, God is loving, God is gracious, God is merciful. And the great sign of the mercy of God is the mother of Jesus who is there drawing us to her Son. People sense something of that. They’re drawn by the simplicity of it. There are lots of people come to the Novena who don’t go to Mass on Sundays at all. Even though you maybe meet them one-to-one at the Novena and encourage them, that now you’ve kind of come back again, make Sunday the central day in your week, make the Eucharist central to your life.”

There is, he concedes, an awful lot of work to be done in that respect. Does that fact not sadden him?

He laughs again. “What’s the good in being sad? But yes, it saddens me to some extent. Our liturgies could be much better. We’re drawn in the liturgy into the mystery of God. And as people realize that, they’ll be drawn to the Mass, drawn to worship.”

Has his life been a lonely one?  He’s a celibate man, a member of the Redemptorist order, with no wife or family.  Has it been lonely?

“No, not at all. Obviously you miss the intimate partnership of a woman whom you love, but that’s the sacrifice you lay on the altar, that deep need to be loved and to love.  To share in begetting a child and children  - I chose not to opt for that way of life, so it’s a decision that I freely made and I’m happy in.  I have friends in my life, including women friends, who are greatly supportive to me. So I’m happy. It’s not a lonely life. If it were a lonely life you couldn’t live it.  You have to be ravished, again and again, by the beauty and goodness and loveliness of God. It’s like the poem by John Donne – ‘Batter my heart, three-person'd God’”.

And blimey,  he recites the entire Donne sonnet, word-perfect. In the best sense, this man knows more than his prayers. 

I remind him of the saying that when you come to the end of your days, what you’ll regret is not what you’ve done but what you didn’t do. Looking back, is there anything he hasn’t done that he wishes he had?

He laughs. “At the end of every day I have regrets about what I didn’t do!  I’ve tended to let my life unfold, I haven’t been a great planner of my life. I didn’t set goals - the Redemptorists have offered me the goals that I have. I suppose there was a time when I wished that I were assigned to Brazil. Some of my class-mates were going to Brazil  and there was some talk of it at the time. Then I was sent to Limerick as rector down there and I experienced, I suppose, failure as a rector, and that was tough. But it’s just another part of the journey. I’ve never carried any resentments or anything from that. Had I not failed in Limerick, I probably wouldn’t be in Belfast today. And I’m grateful to God that the providence of my life led me to Belfast, led me to Clonard, led me to work for the reconciliation of the churches. And whatever I contribute, I do my little best”.

As he sees me to the door, I have a sudden image of a football crowd – you know how it is when a player is coming off, the fans do a sort of hands-raised bow, in a we-are-not-worthy gesture? That’s what I’m feeling as I shake hands and  leave. You kind of know in your bones when you’ve been in the presence of true goodness, don’t you?