Jude Collins

Friday, 31 August 2012

Mitt Romney and that speech

I watched Mitt Romney’s speech last night and was impressed by several things.

1*   The man looks as though he’s been dry-cleaned. I don’t just mean his shirt or his suit or his tie. All of him – face, hair, teeth, eyes – everything. I know the PR people take great care with their candidates – squeeze facial blackheads, trim eyebrows, nasal hair, etc – but this was a top-to-toe job of meticulous perfection. Even his voice sounded dry-cleaned.
2*   He came across as a TV evangelist. Not the type that sweats and roars and paces the stage. The other kind: the reasonable, cheerful, successful ones that imply by their moderation that you too can be reasonable, cheerful and successful if you’ll just accept the Lord Jesus into your life and dip deep in your wallet when the collection plate comes round.
3*    Mitt had to struggle. Yes, his dad was George Romney, Governor of Michigan and a very wealthy man – but Mitt didn’t trade on that fact or that name. Instead he moved away and went out on his own. Sometimes it was hard, sometimes it was less hard, but Mitt had done it his way. Did being a millionaire governor’s son help? Don’t think he told us about that.
4*   His dad and mom were married for over 60 years, and their marriage worked because every day, his dad put a rose on the table for his mom. The only day he didn’t do it was the day he died. Doesn’t that just bust your tear-ducts? And make you feel a right pig for not being a flower-person yourself?
5*   Obama promised to stop “the rise of the oceans and heal the planet”. Mitt just wants to “help you and your family”. Down to earth, you see. Brass tacks. Enough of the environmental garbage already. Give the people jobs, ok?
6*    Obama has “thrown Israel under the bus”.  You heard me. Under. The. Bus. You probably thought Israel was a state heavily armed by the US, in possession of nuclear weapons, busy giving a shockingly hard time to the Palestinians. Uh-uh. They’ve been thrown under the bus. By Obama.
7*    Mitt’s got a great vice-presidential candidate “who’s not ashamed to say how much he loves his mom”. Well how could you resist a man like that? The type that pretend they don’t love their mom, or the type who secretly love them but don’t share the fact with millions of people: what a bunch of wasters. Repressed. Cold. But not Paul. He laid it on the line for all to see: he loves his mom. It must be an Irish thing.
8*    The US is ‘the greatest country in the history of the world”.  Ancient Greece, ancient Rome, Renaissance Italy? Nah. The home of the hamburger, the hot-dog, the drip-dry shirt. Who could compare? No one. No siree. USA! USA! USA!
9*    “When the world needs someone to do really big stuff, you need an American”.  No Irish, Brits or French need apply. American: that’s what’s called for. Cos they come from the greatest country in the history of the world.
1* If Americans don’t vote for Mitt, they’ll have missed the chance “to save the world from unspeakable darkness”.  Don’t say you haven’t been warned. Obama or Romney. Unspeakable darkness or the man from Michigan.
1* If elected, Mitt will keep the American military “so strong, no nation will ever dare to test it”. OK, let’s hear it one more time, as the convention centre fills with chants of “USA! USA! USA!”

When they simmered down, God was called on to bless the audience and to bless America.  There were balloons, flashing lights and those kind of tiny explosions you get when the champagne starts popping for the winners of the Champions’ League.

Feel like acting superior, rolling your eyes at all this vulgar, ghastly  American overstatement? Don’t. It’s a form of politics coming to a place near you, soon. 

Thursday, 30 August 2012

St Patrick's Church + Dungiven = 0, right? Wrong.

Politicians are good at avoiding the issue, sliding away from under a question and raising another issue entirely. Media people know this, which is why good ones are alert to it and haul the politician, sometimes kicking and screaming, back to the question under consideration.

In the past twenty-four hours, I’ve seen two examples of this slipping-away. On sluggerotoole.com, Mick Fealty, whom I generally respect, wrote a piece about a republican band playing in Dungiven, near to a local Protestant church.  His facts, I assume, were accurate, and it’s not with those that I’m taking issue with. What I am taking issue with – actually am kind of outraged by – is his attempt to present some sort of balance-of-insult. That’s to say, you’re talking about the bandsmen who defied the Parades Commission ban and marched boldly past St Patrick’s Catholic church in Belfast; next minute you’re talking about the republican band playing near the Protestant church in Dungiven. The conclusion to be drawn: one side is as bad as the other.

This morning on Radio Ulster/Raidio Uladh,  Jim Allister was busy using his legal skills to slip away from the questioning of Karen Patterson and draw attention to the republican band in Dungiven. Patterson, to her credit, refused to let him do that, insisting on sticking to the topic of the bands’ defiance of the Parades Commission ban in Belfast.

Does this matter all that much? Doesn’t it make sense to broaden the discussion, so people see that right is not all on one side? The answers are Yes and No respectively. It doesn’t make sense to broaden the discussion, if in fact what you’re doing is slipping away from the issue, not broadening it. And it does matter, a great deal.

The British authorities have been doing the one-side-as-bad-as-the-other thing for decades now, casting themselves in the role of civilized peace-maker among the mad paddies. Worse still, there is a wide middle-class here, unionist/Protestant and nationalist/Catholic,  who like to see themselves as being more civilized, more rational and analytical, than the witless working classes of the Falls and the Shankill. This sense of superiority works only if you can dismiss all sectarian acts, even the Troubles themselves, as the grimy work of the stupid, uneducated masses.  They won’t say this quite as bluntly,  but once you hear the one-side-as-bad-as-the-other argument, you’ll know that the detached middle classes, the Prod in the garden centre and  his/her Catholic equivalent, are busy solving our divisions by allocating equal blame to ‘them’, meaning the unwashed who engage in physical confrontation.

The truth is, one side is  rarely as bad as the other. In this case,  the Loyal Orders are far more guilty of contempt, mockery, sectarianism and defiance of the law than any republican band, in Dungiven or elsewhere.

And if you’re still not convinced, try doing the math, as the Yanks say. How many marches do we have each year from the unionist side and how many from the republican? No, Virginia, one side is NOT as bad as the other. 

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Charlie, it looks like you were right

It’s fashionable these days to denounce Charlie Haughey as a hypocrite, a forerunner of the greed that brought the south of Ireland to its knees, probably into a bit of gun-running as well. But whatever you think of Haughey, one phrase of his has stood the test of time. “A failed state” was how he described Northern Ireland, and it looks as though Lisburn City Council, as well as a few others, are intent on proving him right.

Lisburn’s latest brainwave is to grant the freedom of the city to the Orange Order. That’s the fine body of men among whose numbers are counted those who paraded in a circle outside St Patrick’s Church on the Twelfth while playing the Famine Song. And in case we missed the point,  Loyal Order bands recently paraded again in direct defiance of the Parades’ Commission’s ruling that they must not. But then Lisburn has previous, as they say. Didn’t they construct a nice big memorial in the city to the men and women of the UDR who did so much to develop community relations in our divided society?

Add to this the stance of the DUP,  in the person of Jonathan Craig this morning on Radio Ulster/Raidio Uladh,  where he refused to criticize these brave law-breakers but instead criticized the PSNI’s representative, who’d said he thought the Parades’ Commission rulings should be observed, at least until something better was in place.

Charlie, thou should'st be living at this hour. Here we are, fourteen years on from the Good Friday Agreement, and the desire among some sections of unionism to stick it to the Croppies burns as brightly as it ever burned in the bosoms of their bigoted forefathers. 

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

The UUP: Ken leaves and the lift continues to plummet

Been away.  And what do I find when I come back?  The UUP, not content with allowing the DUP to disembowel it at the polls, is now doing what it can to take any of its bowels left and send them through the shredder.

If this had been a movie, there’d have been a darkening shadow and the music would at this point have gone all screechy and ominous. I mean, it’s not every day Ken Magennis resigns. He wasn’t pleased with the leadership qualities that Mike Nesbit has been showing, so he sent him an email calling on him to resign his role as party leader. Nesbit backed a few paces, said he’d restore the whip to the naughty lord, but it was too late. With a contemptuous  grunt, the Fermanagh veteran stomped off into the gathering darkness.

There’s a kind of mass irrationality comes over parties that once were powerful. I suppose the same kind of thing happens when  a lift-cable snaps on the sixty-seventh floor. People who until the plunge started were balanced, dynamic, thoughtful individuals suddenly go totally ape-shit and start clawing the air and each other in a hopeless bid to stop the unstoppable.  It’s as if the UUP is trying to mimic the SDLP’s leadership transition: first Alastair is the heir-presumptive, then Maggie’s men seize top spot for their woman, then their woman turns into a walking disaster area,  then Alastair comes back from the wilderness… Likewise the UUP – under Reg the party ratings plummet, under Big Tom the rate of descent beomes a blur, then Mike looms from nowhere and seizes the ontrols, then Ken indicates he’s a waste of space – Mike, that is, not Ken – then Mike says Ken is a fine UUP man after all, then Ken takes his ball, leaves the lift and goes home. With each move designed to improve things, each party’s pace of descent is increased.

If there’s a purgatory, it’ll contain few UUPers or SDLPers.  They’ve done their suffering here on earth. 

Friday, 24 August 2012

Questions big and small

You learn a lot about a country or state  (yes, Virginia, there is a difference – come to Ireland some time) by checking out their media. The media partly reflect what people want, partly shape what they think people need.

In the UK or Ireland,  you got  TV  interviewers who pride themselves on their terrier-like qualities.  Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight or Vincent Browne on TV3  are examples of this in action.  They’ll tear into a guest,  attempting to nail them on one specific issue or force them to answer a specific question.  What you don’t get is any questioning of the political system behind that issue or question. Prince Harry is caught in flagrante in some far-flung flesh-pot place. The whole fuss is whether  photographs of him and his naked royality are an invasion of privacy. No focus, though, on whether it makes sense for hard-pressed British tax-payers to be forking out so flunkeys and bodyguards be paid  so they can follow this royal prat of dubious heritage while he flies off to indulge his royal lust.

In  the US,  the media bit different.  On the car radio driving from Boston to Lenox, Massachusetts yesterday, I heard a current affairs programme interview  an academic who noted that the average CEO  makes 300 times as much money as the average worker.  That’s what I call getting down to the nitty gritty. Will Obama’s re-election change that? No. Will Romney’s election change that? Yes. By the time he’s through his term of office, it’ll be 600:1. That's the difference.

Last night I switched back and forth between two TV channels. One, C-Span, had Terry O’Neill the President of the Organization for Women Foundation.  She was taking calls from viewers and every single one of them was supportive of her views and of the Obama campaign. Meanwhile, over on Fox News,  somebody was interviewing some former big wheel in the Republican Party and was not so much asking questions as teeing up shots for him so he could send the ball crashing through Obama’s greenhouse. It wasn’t that he was giving the big wheel an easy ride: he was joining him in lambasting all the works and deeds of all Democrats, particularly in Massachusetts.

Is this a good way to interview people?  Most definitely no. There are few things more tedious than to hear two people agreeing with each other on a political issue. It’s cringe-makingly dull and it leaves the issue unexamined. That’s why I like when people disagree with me – it’s more interesting as welll as forcing me to think further, providing the differing view is one of substance and not just a cheap shot.

On the other hand, that CEO earning 300 times what the average worker earns – you don’t get much of that from the British or Irish media.  It’s more Vincent Browne entertaining us by gnawing the ankle of some distressed politician on some within-the-system point.  Maybe we should call a moratorium on all political interviews, if they don’t confront the politician with at least one awkward fact that questions the whole system within which he/she works.

Mind you, I don’t think they’ll ever, in Britain or Ireland, produce a b and b that serves them kind of pancake breakfast I’ve just pigged out on. Never, never, never, never.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Hooray for Todd Akin!

I’m in Boston and I’m itching to write about the different feeling you get from this society. Once, that is, you’ve got through US immigration, which isn’t necessarily easy. But I won’t, or not yet at least. I’d rather talk about  Todd Akin. He’s the  Republican who has put a banana skin under Mitt Romney by suggesting that a raped woman’s body  ‘shuts down’ and (I think this is what he said, it’s not clear) stops the raped woman become pregnant.

Nice one. Anything that keeps Mitt Romney out of the White House is OK with me. But on the broader topic of party and personal attitudes to abortion, there are two points that could use more thought.

One, when you vote for a party or a candidate, you vote for a range of issues – let’s call them A-Z. The chances that you’ll agree with the party or the candidate on every single letter in the alphabet are near to nil. So what most people do is – if they bother to check A-Z in the first place and don’t vote because they like the way the candidate combs  his/her hair –  they put their tick beside the name of the candidate or party that comes nearest to their thinking on the issues that they believe matter most. The problem with anti-abortion/pro-abortion debate in the US (and elsewhere) is that it masks all the other letters in the alphabet.

Two,  I don’t understand the anti-abortion-except-in-cases-of-rape argument. If you believe that the foetus is a human being, then it’s still a human being when it’s the result of a rape. So it’s a bit illogical as well as savagely cruel to respond to the crime of the rapist by killing an innocent, defenceless human being.

Three ( yes I know I said two things but I changed my mind – OK?), I don’t understand the the-foetus-is-not-a-human-being-but-having-an-abortion-is-a-deeply-serious-decision argument. If the foetus is not a human being, having an abortion  isn’t any more serious than cutting your nails or blowing your nose. It's just a cluster of unwanted tissue that you want rid of.  

Answers, please. Keep them  crisp and free of abuse.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Paul Ryan - one of our own, eh?

Paul Ryan.  You don’t get a name much more Irish than that. And by all accounts Ryan could be the kind of guy you’d have a pint with, go to Croke Park with – he’s a young guy proud of his Irish roots. His great-great-grandfather emigrated to America, with hundreds of thousands of others, to avoid the Irish Famine.

Or the Irish Great Hunger, to be more exact. Because it wasn’t just the failure of the potato crop that led to mass starvation.  It was deliberate policy. Charles Trevelyan, the British official in charge of famine relief, decided that “the cankerworm of government dependency” was a bad thing, and so starving people were required to pay for their food rather than be given it. The consequences were drastic – people died in their tens of thousands,  fled abroad on the coffin ships.

So a guy whose ancestors survived all that has to be given respect, right? And we Irish can have a sense of vicarious pride that one of our own, so to say, may be a heart-beat away from the presidency. I mean, he’s one of us, right?

Well he may be one of you but I want no part of him. Remember Trevelyan’s “cankerworm of government dependency”?  Well, it fits right in to Ryan’s thinking.  He’s completely opposed to Obama’s Medicare bill, which would  see to it that Americans were covered if they fell sick.  For Ryan,  it’s a question of "not lulling able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency, which drains them of their very will and incentive to make the most of their lives”.  In other words, no government hand-outs to a lot of able-bodied beggars.

Of course, Americans have been encouraged to think that way, and lots of them do. Ryan is very fond of Ayn Rand, whose novels laud market forces and the strong leader rather than compassion and democracy.  Likewise Sir Randoph Routh, who was in charge of the Irish Relief Commission in the nineteenth century, greeted representatives from Mayo, where people were dying in their thousands, by passing them a copy of Edmund Burke’s ‘Details of Society’  pamphlet.  It explained why it was better to allow the market to distribute food rather than governments.

It is always good to see an Irish person succeed, at home or abroad. And getting so close to the US presidency is no mean feat. But we’d be very stupid if we allowed our nationalist pride to blind us to the kind of man Paul Ryan is.  He would have fitted into British government policy for nineteenth-century Ireland with consummate ease.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Those Games: Britain's pride or Britain's shame?

Now that the fever of the London Olympic Games has passed, maybe we can draw breath and a few reasonable conclusions about the event.

1.    Britain did superbly well – both in terms of organizing the Games and collecting medals.  The sheer scale of the venture makes me weak at the knees but it was carried off with aplomb. And the BBC gave superb coverage.
2.    Ireland did well – better than we’ve ever done. At the same time, the defeat of John Joe Nevin in the final was a let-down with which to end the Games.  Mind you, a silver medal is hardly bad. But It’s a bit like that spin-the-wheel programme on RTÉ on a Saturday night: it’s great winning a bronze or silver, but the goodness gets at least partly sucked out of it when you think how close you came to getting the Big One.
3.    China are a sporting force to be reckoned with. When Chinese athletes emerged a couple of Olympics ago, they were dismissed as cheats who used drugs to gain success. Not quite so much talk of that this time: at one point it looked as though they’d beat the US into second place on the medals count.
4.    The Games’ organizers got very, very lucky with the weather. Remember the month before the Games?  Downpour after downpour, until we forgot what the sun was, never mind what it looked like. Come the games, the TV cameras kept drinking in  days and evenings of sun-kissed endeavour.
5.    The British team is truly multi-ethnic – Mo Farah, Jessica Ennis, their sprinters – a striking number seemed to come from a non-white background.

People like Robert McCrum in today’s Guardian  see the games as giving people a pride in being British and part of a multi-ethnic, tolerant society. I expect many unionists would go with that:  to be part of a society which integrates people from various backgrounds is indeed something to be proud of.

There is, though, an alternative perspective.  This was kind of discussed on BBC TV with the great Michael Johnson, a former Olympic champion.  He was asked if  track events weren’t becoming the exclusive preserve of non-white athletes. Was it a gene thing?  Johnston disagreed, argued it had more to do with training and motivation.  If he's right, there's no case for arguing  that the high number of non-white athletes on  Team GB  has to do with non-whites being naturally better athletes.  It's more similar to the case of   professional boxing:  Afro-Americans and non-whites generally predominate because  it’s one of the few avenues  where they can compete on a level playing field, as it were.  In fact,  far from being a  tribute to British society’s tolerance, the high number of non-white athletes on Team GB testifies to how tough it is for a non-white to succeed or even be accepted in other fields. One obvious example: while Britain was drooling over Jamaican Usain Bolt’s talents,  those with Jamaican background in British society were still firmly stuck in the back of the bus.

I tend to think the alternative perspective is correct.  British society from top to bottom is to a greater or lesser degree racist, not happily multi-ethnic. Bad as it is, though, it’s not as bad as Ireland. Here, we do A* racism.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Pussy Riot - worth protesting about?

 Those Pussy Riot women -  what do you think? Two years in jail, all for  singing a two-minute song.  Admittedly it was performed with some leg-kicking in front of the altar of a Moscow church and it was  denouncing the still-hugely-popular  Russian leader, Vladimir Putin. But hey -  what ever happened to free speech?

Mind you, if a group of women named  after female genitalia were to march into my local church and begin a punk-style denunciation of Peter Robinson  or  even Enda Kenny, I  suspect the congregation would be offended too.  Not  because they are necessarily Robinson (or even Kenny)fans, but more because they'd feel a church wasn't  the place to do a political denunciation (yes, yes, I know it's been done before,  more  usually from the pulpit), especially if  it was  delivered  by a band with a very rude name.

But one thing is sure: if I went into my local church and stood in front of the altar and began to sing a song  denouncing  David Osborne, the people in the church would be offended. Not necessarily because they were Osborne supporters but because they'd feel a church wasn't the place to do a denunciation of that kind, especially if I was part of a trio named after  female  genitalia. 

You see what  I did there? I blurred the distinction between  the name of the group and what they did.  So let's go back to the name. Is it offensive?  Well, they're a punk band, so you may be fairly confident that like most punk bands they wanted to shock, maybe be offensive. And when they got kitted out and did the lepping about in front of the altar, telling everyone how much they disliked Vladimir Putin, you may be sure they wanted to shock and probably offend.  If they hadn't , the event wouldn't have been worth reporting. Were the congregation/ cathedral clergy right to be offended?  I should think so.  Now we're getting somewhere:we know that for a lot of people, the band's name  AND  the band's actions were offensive.  And you'd be pretty perverse  (or maybe a member of the Orange  Order) if you thought that offending people was a good thing to do.

Which lead us to the question: was the penalty they paid for their offensiveness fair and just? The prosecution  wanted to give them three years  but the judge - a woman, as it happens- gave them two years in prison. Which sparked the world-wide protests we've all  heard  about.  Too much, I think. But then, why aren’t Sinead O’Connor and Madonna and Paul McCartney speaking up for Marian Price?

Friday, 17 August 2012

John Waters, Katie Taylor and that religion thing.

Easily the most interesting article - and most read, according to the online listing - in today's Irish Times  is one by John Waters. For some people, the mention of Waters's name is sufficient to turn them off, because they feel his assertions of the rights of fathers somehow makes him anti-feminist.  I don't know enough about his views on that topic to say whether he is or not, but I find his take on religion and its place in southern society fascinating.

The central point he makes is one I've touched on myself: that the media find it a little tricky to deal with Katie Taylor's overt piety. She is clearly a religious young woman, who believes that her life and her success comes from God, and that the prayers of her supporters were a key part in her recent win.  It pulls you up a bit, that, doesn't it? Embarrassing, sort of. Quite contrary to the way sports people - or any public figure, short of a religious nut - talk.

Katie has one advantage - her faith isn't Catholic. Since she belongs to an evangelical Protestant church,  the Irish media are at a loss. So, as we Irish so often do when confronted with a problem, we step round it. The Irish media, as Waters points out, pretend they haven't heard what she said about Jesus.

I find Waters's article interesting because it is rare - very rare - to find someone in the mainstream southern media who thinks and writes about the place of religion in people's lives. I also find him interesting because it's always struck me as odd that the one thing that overshadows all our lives - our death and its meaning - is the one thing we really really don't like to think about, let alone talk about.  With falling church-attendance, congregations have been largely reduced to oldies, which young people tend to see as further proof of the stupidity of religion. "They know they're going to die soon, that's why they're there"  they say dismissively. But as Dr Johnston almost said, the prospect of dying does concentrate the mind wonderfully.

Waters has had the courage to question why we elevate the 'new atheists' like Richard Dawkins, and dismiss as fairy-tale believers those who make religion a central part of their lives.  Odd, that as  Anglo-Saxon poetry put it, we are like birds that fly out of the darkness into the noise and light of a banqueting hall for a few brief minutes, and then fly back into darkness once again. You'd think that  such a fact would shape our thinking about life and how we live it, and that if it didn't we'd seem crazy, reality-deniers. In practice, it's the other way round - people like Katie Taylor and John Waters are judged the nut-cases.

Interesting. Meanwhile, Katie Taylor should go down on her knees and thank God she wasn't born a Catholic. Otherwise the thoughtful southern media would have eaten her alive.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Syria and Michael Collins: two sides of the one coin

Are the Irish people a gullible race? I'd like to think not, especially since I'm one of them, but there are times when it's hard not to conclude that we'd swallow anything if it was rammed down our throats skilfully enough and often enough.

Take Syria. We all know what's happening in Syria. A group of brave rebels are fighting to bring to an end some fifty  years of rule by the Ba'ath party and to force the President, Bashar al-Assad, to resign. In doing so, they're paying a terrible price as this ruthless tyrant bombards them. They are part of what has been called the Arab Spring and we can't help but admire their fortitude. At least that's how it's been sold to us, through our newspapers and TV.

But then, two days ago, there was an item by the Irish Times religious affairs correspondent Patsy McGarry. (That's right  - religious affairs.) He quotes a nun who's been the superior in a Syrian monastery for eighteen years and was back in Ireland to meet with people at the Irish Catholic Bishops' Conference in Maynooth. So what has she to say about media coverage of Syrian violence?  "It is a fake" she says. "It hides atrocities committed in the name of liberty and democracy." Most news reports coming out of Syria were "forged, with only one side emphasised". And the idea that the rest of the world is out of step except for Syria, China and Russia is another lie. "There are twenty countries, including some in Latin America". The gallant Arab insurrection contains fundamentalist Islamists, "which is not genuine Islam".   "The West and Gulf states must not give finance to armed insurrectionists who are sectarian terrorists, most of whom are from al-Qaeda".

Interesting, eh? It runs completely counter to the version we've been fed. Of course, this nun could be lying through her teeth. But she's the first person I've heard suggest that the Syrian conflict is something more than the cartoon-like goodies and baddies the mainstream media keep pumping into our system.

The other matter that caught my attention was those gold and silver euros. You know, the ones they've minted to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the death of Michael Collins.  Michael Noonan was on TV explaining that Collins belongs to us all, not just Fine Gael. "I think Collins is a big enough historical figure and mude such a contribution to Irish life that every person can have a claim on his historic legacy. I think that is the way it should be". Talk about an endorsement. Central to Collins's contribution to Irish life was the skill and daring he showed in organising attacks on the British and their allies in Ireland. . When they were found, Collins had them killed. One such action led to the first Bloody Sunday in Croke Park. Collins didn't live long enough to run for President, but had he lived it's reasonable to suppose he might.  And had there been TV cameras around at the time, it's reasonable to suppose that a relative of one of those killed might well have jumped out and demanded, cameras rolling,  justice for their lost loved one.

You probably see where I'm going with this. The parallels between Collins and Martin McGuinness are startling. Both gifted military men, both highly effective administrators and politicians. Both proud of what they'd done for their country, in military and political terms. Yet while Minister Noonan tells us generously that Fine Gael isn't going to make exclusive claim to that great man Collins, he belongs to us all,  Fine Gael won't so much as countenance the notion of McGuinness's party  in coalition with them,  and McGuinness's run for President of Ireland is greeted with gasps of horror.  And amazingly,  most Irish people manage to accept both lines simultaneously:  heroic Collins,  blood-stained McGuinness.

Gullible, us?  

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

How useful is Owen Paterson?

Well, I note where the British Secretary of State is doing what he does best: pretending to act as an enlightening influence on the two benighted tribes in the north of Ireland. Nudge us towards being as normal as Finchley. It’s important work, because it makes him look as if he has a function here.

The areas he believes need addressing? The size of the Assembly. Hands up if you didn’t know that was an issue under discussion already. Right. We have 108 MLAs because it was vital that every section of society was represented. So who’s going to lose out if the Assembly is shrunk? Owen probably knows but he hasn’t told us yet.

Then there’s the length of the Assembly terms  - the time between elections. Owen doesn’t mention if he wants them shorter or longer. It’d be nice to know – and why.

And there’s double-jobbing. Hands up if you think that is an issue that’s been neglected and on which there’s been no movement? Right.

But of course the issue that really matters – the big one – is this question of developing an opposition. I agree with Jim Allister on this – it’s good to have an opposition,  where there’s an opportunity to vote a government out as well as in. But unfortunately this unnatural state of affairs exists because the state itself was an unnatural construct. Look at the map: the clear intention was to have a permanent unionist majority and a permanent unionist government. And it worked – for unionists – for fifty years of misgovernment until the top blew off. The present arrangement is unnatural but alas, it’s the only way in which unionists could be persuaded of the merits of power-sharing.

Any change in the present situation would involve radical change to the Good Friday Agreement itself. Which in turn would  open the door to the reinstatement of Articles 2 and 3 in the Irish constitution. That would provide some handy evidence for dissident republicans that nothing has changed.

Like it or lump it, the constitutional question is at the heart of politics here. We’ve reached an agreement that ended bloodshed. Change that agreement and you’re risking releasing the dogs of war again.

I suggest Owen Paterson tells us what he thinks the government here and the development of an opposition would look like. Because if such a government were unionist, nationalist/republicans would be stripped of power. We see what happens in unionist-dominated councils. If there’s a nationalist majority, then it’s referendum time, with the future of the state in question.

Does Owen Paterson seem the kind of man to have answers to these complex questions? If he is, he’s been hiding his talents pretty effectively until now. As things stand, he looks almost as useful as a fifth tit on a cow.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Great to see them home. But tell us this....

I watched the arrival of Katie Taylor and her father in Bray this evening and it was a heart-warming scene. The sun was out, the sea sparkling, the crowd filled with love and admiration of this modest young woman. Great to see.

And then I thought: why wasn't there a proper greeting of the Irish athletes at Dublin airport? Yes, yes, I know we were told that the athletes said they'd rather go home. But Katie's da said neither he nor Katie were asked what they wanted; so how many athletes were consulted and what were they asked? Anytime I've seen athletes return from abroad - say, the Irish team from Italia '90 - they didn't look as though they weren't enjoying themselves by an on-the-spot greeting. Au contraire. So how come this sudden change? Is the invitation to Farmleigh on Wednesday for the athletes' benefit or for that of politicians? And won't at least some of the air have gone out of the balloon by the time that happens?

And now that I'm in a questioning mood, and since no reporter I saw asked it: why were Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlan greeted at the Titanic Quarter when they reached Belfast? What link has either of them with that part of city? Or has the Titanic Quarter suddenly become the new centre of Belfast?

Just askin', like.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

How Eamonn Mallie got me thinking


Sometimes - particularly at weekends - I feel a terrible lassitude coming over me, where I don't want ever to write another word about anything in the world, real or imagined.  Then I'll come across something that will spark me into life, either because I think the person has hit the proverbial nail soundly on the head or that the person in question  has missed the point by a country mile.

I had that experience just five minutes ago, when I stumbled on an Eamonn Mallie piece in The Belfast Telegraph.  Mallie with commendable courage and clarity raised a point worthy of attention: do we here in the north cheer with equal vigour for all the Irish athletes? Before you say "Yes, yes and yes", consider Mallie's cricket-test follow-up question: do nationalists cheer for fellow-countrymen competing in Team GB colours, do unionists cheer for fellow-countrymen competing in Team Ireland colours? Mallie accurately concludes that we don't.  Yes, yes, I know: there are exceptions. But we're talking generally here.

And then Mallie asks the hard question: why? Why do we divide so sharply in our loyalties? His conclusion - which he supports by quoting Mary McAleese - is that under the skin we're good old-fashioned bigots. "If sport fails to lift us out of our narrow bigoted sectarian quagmire, failing to bring us to admire the success of our neighbours' children starring in the Olympics - then what does it say about us as a people?"

That's where I think Mallie misses the barn door and hits the next parish. There may be sectarian bigots who don't cheer for Team Ireland or Team GB, but at a guess I'd say 90%+  don't cheer, not because the person is a Catholic or a Protestant (Katie Taylor for example is a devout Pentecostalist) but because of their political allegiances. In this case nationalist and unionist. Mallie quotes Mary McAleese and urges us to look at sport as sport and leave aside the sectarian baggage. Wrong and wrong.  One, as I say it's political baggage, not sectarian; and two,  to talk of taking politics out of sport, particularly the Olympics,  is to head-butt yourself against the facts of sporting life. What's that thing that gets carried  at the opening ceremony? The national flag. What is it every gold/silver/bronze medallist does as soon as s/he has won? Wraps  him/herself in the national flag. What's that song they're playing after the podium has been mounted and the gold medal received? The national anthem.

Cheering or not cheering has nothing to do with sectarian dislike of the "neighbour's children"; it has to do with the political allegiance they have declared when they appear in the colours of Team Ireland or Team GB.  A pity, yes. But if you divide a country in two, what do you expect but divided loyalties? And  national loyalties are woven tightly and inextricably into the Olympic Games.  You did notice that frequently-shown medals-league-table-by-nation, didn't you?

Friday, 10 August 2012

Five things about What Katie Did

1.  It was a crap fight. In fact it’s a long time since I’ve seen as crap a fight, amateur or professional, male or female. If you caught the young English woman Nicola Ward in her gold medal fight, or think back to Katie Taylor’s previous fight, you’ll see the difference: night and day. Mind you, she won. Won ugly. So we were back to the Jack Charlton days with the Ireland team again. Not pretty, but pretty effective.  We’ll settle for that.

2. Those Jesus remarks of Katie after – what’d you think? As in “Thank God I won” and “Where would I be without Jesus in my life?” and “The Lord is my shepherd’ on the back of her dressing gown? I know one person at least who said if she mentioned Jesus again he’d throw up. Interesting. As far as I know, Katie belongs to a Pentecostal church in Bray. Under the law, she’s entitled to her religious belief,  and to have that belief respected. The chances are, she’s thought about the meaning of her life and eventual death more than most of us have. Does our reaction to her religious remarks tell us anything about the level of tolerance afforded to religious commitment in Ireland today?

3. Why the out-pouring? I’m talking about the crowd in Brray, and the crowd in London, and the crowd in Belfast, and everywhere else that a few Irish people were gathered. The hunger for her to succeed, no matter how, long ball down the middle, accidentally bounce off the back of a head into the net – ANY way it had to happen was fine, as long as it happened and she won. We won..  The Irish people have known failure in so many ways on so many fronts down the years, we are drunk with delight when someone like Katie comes along and goes all the way. No gallant losers, no  sure-isn’t-silver-a-great-achievement – GOLD. The top. No ifs or buts. Roy Keane would have liked yesterday.

4. There’s an awful lot of pain in sport. Not just for the boxers, but for the punters who scream and stamp and egg them on. I watched the fight on my own– the present Mrs Collns was upstairs, couldn’t bear to watch.  Did I want the fight to go on for more than four rounds? Did I want to delight in the spectacle? Not a chance. End it quick, before I get seriously ill and need an ambulance. And yes, oh yes, oh YES, thank you God, thank you for Katie’s triumph. I’ve never met her, never will, but somehow I feel she’s linked with me in a way that makes me feel soooooo happy and proud. Who was it said we lived in a post-nationalist era?

5. Finally, women boxing – what do you think? Clearly for skill level it can and does match the men. With the headgear on and in the heat of battle, it’s easier to think of them as contestants rather than young women. Quite the reverse of track and field, in fact, where if the bottoms get any skimpier and the tops any tinier, it’ll be a mortal sin to walk past the stadium. But every so often, during the fight, I found myself wince.. Not, funny enough, when a woman boxer got a a blow to the face and they replayed it in slo-mo, Like that bit in an earlier bout where Katie caught the English opponent in the head and you saw the snot fly from her face under the impact of the blow.  That was tough enough. But it was those fierce right hooks of Katie to the body that made me swallow. Women’s bodies, even when trained to a high degree of toughness, I still can’t help thinking of as other than soft. Vulnerable. And those blows to the breast somehow seemed …cruel. Almost unnatural. Oh well. I’m assuming no permanent damage is done. I’ll get used to it. But holy God,  it must hurt. 

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Last night in St Louise's

I was at the annual 'West Belfast Talks Back' discussion last night and it was a scrappy if sometimes amusing affair. Yvette Shapiro was in the chair, and try as she might, she couldn't stop people from standing up and giving long (if sometimes worthy) speeches instead of asking questions. There were four people on the panel: George Galloway, Gregory Campbell, Ruth Dudley-Edwards and Gerry Kelly.  Here's my rating of them.

1. George Galloway: he's a small man but he was head and shoulders above the rest of the panel last night. One of the questions had to do with Israeli treatment of the Palestinians, and Galloway had facts and figures which he marshalled clearly and delivered with punch. 8/10. It would have been 9, but he insisted on lobbing in images of arses and bum-cheeks  and oral sex that, while they were sort of funny, weren't as funny as he thought they were.

2. Gregory Campbell: 6/10.  Gregory is a dour man, so the fact that he was sitting beside Galloway, who is light on his feet and punches like Katie Taylor made him look even dourer. He did reasonably well on the charge that the DUP were anti-gay, and his frank support for traditional marriage was forceful and frank; but he was several times the butt of Galloway's jokes, which made him look even more leaden-footed.

3. Ruth Dudley-Edwards. Ah Ruthie, my old classmate from UCD.  Ruth has taken to calling herself a Londoner, she supports the Orange Order and gallant little Israel, she thinks that spending billions on the Trident nuclear programme is the first duty of the British government, since defence of the realm is the government's first duty. No mention that a nuclear programme is always based on the belief that killing millions of innocent civilians is a good idea. This, from the woman who accused fellow panel members of forgetting the Holocaust. I found her prissy and sometimes tedious. 5/10,  and that's generous.

4. Gerry Kelly: even though he was seated as far away from Galloway as he could be, like Gregory Gerry tended to suffer by comparison with him.  He was at his most effective talking about Marian Price - justice demands she be released immediately - and the Orange Order -  NOBODY  is codded that the band outside St Patrick's Church was playing 'The Sloop John B'. But electrifying? Nah.  6/10

The evening wasn't dull by any means, but it didn't have that passionate edge of other years. Mind you there were probably more chuckly moments than previously. But I came away feeling as if I'd had fast food rather than a nourishing meal, which is a pity, because 'West Belfast Talks Back', at its best, can be very, very nourishing.

I never did get to ask George Galloway where he stood on Scottish independence, which was a pity but impossible with the plethora of hands going up from people who wanted to make minor speeches rather than ask questions. Next time, a tougher chairperson, please.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Masked men/women and misplaced loyalties

Cheesh. There are some mornings when I don't know where to begin. My good friend gio has decided to maintain his mask of anonymity while insisting that I must, sans mask, deliver hmy opinion on physical violence. Another poster-boy/girl tells me I must now write about the Catholic Church. Re anonymity : to say it happens on other sites simply avoids the point. If you're afraid to give your name after you've waxed eloquent on a topic, then you're afraid to give your name. As to  writing about the Catholic Church, here's something that'll come as  a blow I'm sure to poster b/g: I  decide what I write. Not my granny, not the man next door and certainly not you. If I feel like picking a topic, I do; if I don't, I don't. Crushing news, I know, but there you are.

Meanwhile, the BBC has discovered Michel Conlan. He's from Northern Ireland - did you know that? He won his fight in the Olympics yesterday and now he's joined some other Northern Ireland contestants as medal winners. If you were from Outer Mongolia, you'd assume there was a team called Northern Ireland in the Games and that Conlan was one of them. Uh-uh. Conlan fights for Ireland, not Northern Ireland. That's why his supporters were seen waving tricolours. Just as those who were competing for Britain were seen waving union flags. It really is sort of sad to see commentators  pretend there isn't a division of loyalties in this corner of the island. In fact, given the attention to Irish competitors south of the border on the BBC until now, you'd have thought the entire region was 100% behind ever British competitor.

That's not to say the Brits haven't done well - they've been outstanding and I salute their victories, every one. But please, don't let's have any BBC commentator imply that they're somehow my victories.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Skool stinks

A couple of points before I go on to my topic for today:

(i) William Crawley on Sunday noted that his radio programme 'Sunday Sequence' had received its highest-ever number of emails and texts in response to his interview with Peter Quinn, and that approximately 95% of these were positive in their attitude to the Quinn family. Either the responses were an inside job - people had been primed by the Quinns to send in supportive responses - or there's a serious mismatch between the polls of the Sunday Indo and how people react when they hear somone on air.
(ii)  A couple of months ago a reader of this blog from the US  expressed bewilderment that so many people who  comment on my pieces do so under a cloak of anonymity. Why was that? she wondered. Good question.

OK. A few months back, in passing, I said that I thought the education system here needed radical reform, and someone suggested I should elaborate on that general statement. So here goes.

1. The education system here should have at its heart the notion of co-operation. This happens when the school puts on a dramatic production, or when young people work in classroom groups, or when some joint project is tackled together. But when the chips are down, co-operation is forbidden and even punished. If you doubt that, check what happens if an invigilator sees two students so much as exchange a whisper during an examination. This needs change: we should be taught from the earliest point the importance of working with others rather than competing for personal ends.

2. As that great educational philosopher Paul Simon put it: "When I think back on all the crap I learnt in high school/It's a wonder I can think at all".  Much of what we learn has no bearing on the real world. It's an accumulation of sometimes interesting but rarely useful facts, whether it be in Maths, Science, Geography or even History. So you know the date of the Battle of Waterloo or the Easter Rising  - so what? Does it affect your life?  Likewise various scientific formulae, mathematical theorems, information about different countries.  Were we to use this information in some meaningful way, it would be worth learning, but 95% of the time it's so much dead mental lumber.

3. Learning should be real and problem-solving. In other words, if a teacher asks a question, it'd make more sense if s/he didn't know the answer already. Imagine trying that in real life - asking someone a question when they knew and you knew that you already knew the answer. Right - absurd and insulting. Not so in education, apparently. 

4. The written examination system should be scrapped. Writing can be  involved in arriving at answers in real life, but it comes mixed in with oral comment and discussion. Instead, people should be given a chance to show what they know about a topic, and what they know should have bearing on real-life situations. 

5. Classroom walls, generally speaking, should  be torn down. A long time ago, a man called Ivan Illich wrote a book called De-Schooling Society. He argued that young people should learn by carefully monitored engagement with the real world, learning from people who are experts and working on real tasks. The comparison he made was with a master painter and his school of students, who would often help him with the creation of a great work while at the same time learning from the master. 

6. Finally, three small matters  illustrative of our conservative thinking about education: (i)  Learning times tables by heart should be ended. We've got machines that do that far more reliably - use them.  (ii) The hours spent teaching hand-writing should be drastically reduced. In real life, beyond signature and date, most people do very little writing, and when they do, much of it is done on a word-processor (as I'm doing now). The time spent teaching 'neat handwriting' could well be spent on other matters. (iii) Our obsession with 'correctness' in spelling and grammar should end. What are regarded as spelling mistakes or grammatical faux pas very often do not interfere with our understand of what's being said. It's about time we concentrated on content and not linguistic table-manners. 

Monday, 6 August 2012

Morrison and O'Doherty on the Nolan show

I’m sorry I missed the debate between Danny Morrison and Malachi O’Doherty on the Nolan Show on BBC Radio Ulster/Raidio Uladh this morning. I know and respect both men, so I’m sure these points I’ll list were covered in the course of the debate.

Was the IRA campaign justified? Well, that would depend on your perspective. If you’re a pacifist – say, a Quaker – you’ll firmly answer No. All violence is wrong and nothing could therefore justify the IRA campaign.

If you’re not a pacifist – that is, if you believe in violence under certain circumstances  - then much will depend on how you saw the circumstances of 1969-70.  There would have been those who saw peaceful protest through the civil rights movement as futile and decided that the only way to meet the violence of the Loyalists/ B Specials/RUC/British Army was with a violent response. They would point to the killing of Peter Ward and later John Scullion by loyalists as examples of unprovoked violence prior to 1969/70. The same people and probably many others would point to the killings on Bloody Sunday 1972 by the British army. Finally there would have been those republicans who believed that like generations of other Irishmen and women, they were justified in employing violence in an effort to remove British jurisdiction, both political and military, from Ireland.

The charge that’s often levelled at Sinn Féin today is that they condemn those ‘dissident’ republicans still committed to physical force.  This is denounced as hypocritical, since they themselves once employed physical force.  Insofar as I can understand it, Sinn Féin appear to condemn ‘dissident’ republicans because (i)  Sinn Féin believes a united, independent Ireland can be achieved, given markedly different circumstances, by peaceful means; and (ii) the physical force employed by ‘dissidents’ is militarily inadequate and doomed to defeat. ‘Dissidents’, on the other hand, would argue that Sinn Féin have given up on trying to achieve the traditional goals of republicanism and that it is up to them, the ‘dissidents’, to continue an age-old struggle, however out-numbered, to remove British rule from Ireland.

There is another argument which says that while a united independent Ireland is desirable, it is not worth shedding blood for. And a further one that says you're entitled to employ physical force only when you have the assent of the majority of the Irish people.

Finally, there is an argument that says the whole concern with a united, independent Ireland is out-dated and irrelevant, that we live in a post-nationalist era, and that any time  spent discussing the notion of a united, independent Ireland, let alone employing physical force in an effort to achieve it, is time  tragically wasted.

Since I didn’t hear this morning’s programme, I  assume  all of these positions were considered and that Morrison and O’Doherty dealt with them in an informed and logical way. If they didn’t, I’m sure someone will let me know.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Getting hot and bothered with a headscarf

I was on BBC Radio Ulster/ Raidio Uladh’s ‘Sunday Sequence’ this morning with David Vance. I’d never met him before but as often happens, I found him thoroughly likeable. Maybe I should see a head-doctor  – I keep meeting and liking people whose views, political and otherwise, I vigorously reject.

Anyroad, our topic for discussion this morning was the wearing of the hijab/headscarf  by a young woman from Saudi Arabia in the judo section of the Olympic Games. David figured that allowing her to wear it was to cave in to Islam’s demands yet again.  Cheesh.  You might as well say the Olympic authorities caved in to the nutters who pushed for protective head-gear for boxers, to Oscar Pistorius the double-amputee who insisted on wearing artificial limbs when running, or to international male lust by including beach volleyball on the list of Olympic competitions. 

David’s argument – it wasn’t always easy to follow – was that allowing the hijab was somehow a display of weakness by the International Olympic Council. Eh?  The IOC weak? Try that with the sports authorities in Istanbul. It’s a mainly-Muslim city with a 75,000-seater stadium that has applied five times  to host the Olympic games and has been five times rejected.  Other big Muslim cities like Cairo and Kuala Lumpur get a similar brush-off. On the other hand London has hosted the games three times, ditto Tokyo, Madrid twice. Cave in? You surely jest.

The IOC is too busy caving into commercialism. Watch for fifteen minutes on telly and you’ll see what I mean  -  athletes sporting advertisements for Speedo, Asics, Nike and Adidas. Then there’s Omega and Coca-cola.    Rule 50 of the Olympic charter prohibits any kind of “demonstration  of political, religious or racial propaganda in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas”. Yet you regularly see athletes blessing themselves, pointing to heaven when they win, draping themselves in their national flag, and the league-table for medals-by-nation  is regularly flashed on our screens. And I seem to remember  national anthems sounding at the medal awards ceremonies. But maybe that isn’t seen as propaganda.

Finally, does the name Damian Hooper ring a bell? He’s an Aborigine man boxing for Australia, and he made the mistake of entering the ring wearing a t-shirt with the Aborigine flag on it.  The Australian Olympic Committee rapped his knuckles for him: how dare he bring politics into the Olympics? Right. And yet last night,  Jessica Ennis, Greg Rutherford and Mo Farah were draped in their national flag immediately on winning gold medals. Justified cheers rather than knuckle-raps.

A bit inconsistent, wouldn't you say? Compared to all that, it seems hardly worthwhile getting your knickers in a twist over a  headscarf, does it David?

You can hear our discussion  at http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio/player/b01lbhb1   Start at 15mins 40 secs into the programme.

Friday, 3 August 2012

Blood is thicker than water?

I had a family wedding  last weekend so my thoughts as I write are still with the impact of the personal. Any wedding carries an emotional wallop, and a family wedding carries a double wallop. Which makes me realize how for many people, life in its entirety is lived at the personal, family level. 

In fact, to do so was once held up as a badge of honour. When some poor unfortunate got killed during the Troubles, the horror of the event was often underscored by someone – the priest, a politician – pointing out that the departed had been a man (or woman) with no interest in politics, who lived only for his or her family. 

It’s an easy position to slot into. Those who are closest to us are naturally those we love most, and for whose welfare we’re most willing to work.  Not that we’ll  kick the beggar on the street or punch the people across the road because they’re not family, but they don’t really matter as much, do they? And anyway,  t the public level is a bit of a fraud. Politicians get far too long holidays and are only in it for what they can get out of it.  Right?

When I hear that kind of talk – or when I’m tempted to  talk that way myself – I try to remember that the view it reflects is not so much love for one’s family as don’t-give-a-damn beyond one’s family.  It’s boiled-down, core Thatcherism, in fact. You remember Attila the Hen’s famous dictum: ‘There is no such thing as society, only people and their families’.  

That’s mean and nasty talk, and mercifullyi t’s contradicted by the way we organize our society. We don’t have schools because they make money – we have them because they help children. We don’t have hospitals because there’s a financial killing to be made – we have them because we believe our fellow-citizens are entitled to the best care we can provide them with. In short, a healthy society is one that looks beyond the borders of family life and accepts the obligation to care for our fellow-man and woman. 

Bad politics is when we look after those men and women who are of our political persuasion and try to corner all the goodies for ourselves. Good politics is when we reach out and fight for everyone’s rights, including those with whom we may politically disagree. In other words, good politics allows us to break out of the prison of our own ego. 

But, you may protest, this talk about the primacy of the personal is so much garbage. Aren’t most people interested in politics? If they weren’t, there wouldn’t be as much coverage of politics on TV and in newspapers, would there? Well yes, most of us are interested in politics but only as a spectator sport. One very basic example: there was a time when we here in the north-east corner of Ireland were among the highest voter-turnouts anywhere in Europe. But in recent years this has been declining, as people figure it’s mission accomplished now that the violence has more or less stopped.

That’s why our education system – and our churches – need a radical overhaul, so that the responsibility of each person to be active in his or her concern for others in the community is put right at the top of the agenda. Schools, with the centrality of the dog-eat-dog examination system,  promote selfish thinking throughout young people’s formative years. Churches preach love of our fellow beings, but end up talking about sanctity as a personal matter, a single human being-to-God thing, with other people a distraction from that. 

So yes, I did kick up my heels and eat and drink too much  at the wedding last Saturday, among those I love most. But  I did try to keep in mind that personal happiness should be linked to personal fulfilment, which should in turn be linked to community and beyond. We are born and we die alone, but in between we owe it to ourselves to look beyond our garden gate.  Call it politics if you want to, roll your eyes and mutter that politics is a dirty business and politicians stink. But when done properly, good politics does what Christianity preaches.

Mind, nobody's saying weddings aren't fun...