Jude Collins

Saturday, 29 September 2012

It's a bloody shame

I’m disappointed. Seriously, I am. I don’t deny that quarter of a million men and the same number of women signing  up to use force against Britain if it tried to pass a bill in its own parliament - that’s impressive. At once cocking a snook at the notion of Irish democracy  AND British democracy  in the one signature! Or rather half a million signatures.  But the thing that always impressed me was those guys who signed it in their own blood.  Eek. That’s like one of those gangster movies where the guy holds his hand over a naked flame to show how tough and impervious to pain he is.  And maybe you know someone who told you that his or her grandfather signed the Covenant in his own blood. I know when I did Whose Past Is It Anyway?, Ian Paisley Jr told me that his grandfather signed the Covenant in his own blood.

Except now it’s beginning to look like somebody’s been telling porky-pies. No vein-opening, no dipping in the nib to get a bit more of the red stuff. Except for one guy, according to Newsline 630 on BBC TV the other night. And his name wasn’t Paisley, it was Stafford or some such. (Thinks: maybe he was Ian’s maternal grandfather.) But even there, when the scientists did a test on that one signature, they declared there was only a 10% chance it was actual blood the chap used.  Very likely the lot of them went the conventional ink route.

Aggghh guuuuyyyss! You’re no fun. Ordinary ink - what wimps! And who know, maybe all that stuff about taking up arms against Mother Britain was all pretend as well. It could have been a huge bluff - there’s no way we’ll ever know. Because when the whistle was blown for the start of what would be the First World War, all the signees or a fair number of them went straight off to fight for the country that they’d just finished saying they’d fight against.  Could it all. Have been. A giant. Leg-pull?? Surely not. Think how silly that’d make the 30,000 marchers today look.

Friday, 28 September 2012

Dear Peter


Dear Peter

 I think you’re right. From your point of view, that is.  You’ve called on nationalists to “show respect for unionism" by referring to the state by its official title ‘Northern Ireland’.  You figure that use of other titles like ‘”the north”or “the six counties’”or “the north of Ireland” are disrespectful and “an act of denial”. 

Indeed. What someone calls something often indicates what s/he thinks of it. If a man calls his wife ‘darling sweetie-pie’, he’s indicating that he holds her in his affection; if he calls her ‘you great lolloping moo-cow’, he’s telling her she ranks fairly low in his estimation.  When people call this north-eastern corner ‘the six counties’ or ‘the north’, they’re indicating that they see Ireland, despite partition, as one country. Like you, I can see why that might get up a unionist nose or two. 

At the same time, Peter, are you maybe being a teensy bit brass-necked? For decades now nationalists/republicans have been listening to you and other unionists talking about ‘The Province’. “We’re campaigning right across the Province”, you say, when you mean “We’re campaigning right across Northern Ireland”.  You don’t think it shows a certain lack of respect for the good people of Monaghan, Cavan and (Jimmy’s winnin’ matches) Donegal?  I was born in Ballyshannon Peter, and you’ve just erased my birth-place. Yes I know, you’ve also erased Clontibret, ach sin sceal eile – we’ll talk about that another time.

And then (sigh) there’s Ulster. Ah, Ulster. As in BBC Radio Ulster, as in the Ulster Farmers’ Union, as in Ulster Unionist Party ( yes, of course, it may not be an issue much longer, but still). All the many and varied Ulsters that are actually too small for their boots. 

So look, in the interests of peace and harmony, Peter, here’s the deal. Even though to refer to the ‘Six Counties’ is impeccably accurate, even though ‘north of Ireland’ is as geographically accurate as ‘Northern Ireland’, even though ‘North-East Ireland’ would be a  more accurate title than either of the last two – despite all those evens, let’s spit on our palms and slap hands:  you agree to campaign for all those references to Ulster/Province to be adjusted, I’ll be happy to recommend reference to Northern Ireland. Deal or no deal?

Mind you, I acknowledge that when you did your insulting-to-unionism speech, it was directed at a unionist audience.  You were explaining the Covenant to them – that unionists 100 years ago “saw their very way of life as being under the gravest threat and they were prepared to do whatever might become necessary to defend their position”.  You didn’t say “Sometimes violence is the only answer, and that’s what we unionist were prepared to resort to if we didn’t get our way”. Because if you’d said that, it would have meant you were condoning violence. And if you did that, crikey, where would that leave all those DUP denunciations of the blood-soaked IRA?  You and I both know, Peter, that the signing of the Covenant didn’t just gather hundreds of thousands of names – it put the threat of violence on the table of Irish politics.  It meant that the second decade of the twentieth century became one of the  bloodiest we’ve known.  In fact, if you had spoken plainly, the IRA in the 1970s and 1980s could have echoed Shylock in The Merchant of Venice: “The villainy you teach me I will execute; and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.”

So it’s sort of ironic for you in the one speech to ask nationalists/republicans to call a spade a Northern Ireland shovel, while at the same time ducking away from calling the signing of the Covenant what it was: a gun to the head of democracy and nationalism. But that’s OK, my offer still stands. You see to it that all those geographically illiterate  Ulsters and Provinces are decommissioned, and I’ll publicly recommend that this carefully carved-out statelet be referred to as Northern Ireland. 

Yours etc,

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Five things we know after last night's Nolan Show


          Does violence pay?  That was  one of the questions Stephen Nolan asked Gerry Kelly on TV last night. Gerry chose to answer by pointing out that, regardless of his past – of which he’s never made a secret – he was elected by the mandate of the people who voted for him. This of course dodged the question, the answer to which is “Yes, violence pays if it’s big enough”.. That’s why, in these straitened times, the US last year spent $171 billion on the military, China $143 billion,  Russia a measly $72 million and Britain  a puny $62.7 billion. So yes, Stephen, violence or the threat of violence pays. Wasn’t the signing of the Ulster Covenant essentially that: a threat of violence?

2.     Does being called loyalists demonise a community? Last night Winston Irvine seemed to think the answer is Yes but in fact it’s No. What it does is neatly separate those unionists who don’t live in working-class districts from those who do. That’s not demonizing. That’s what’s called having your cake and eating it. They’re unionists, those working-class loyalists, but they’re not respectable, middle-class unionists like usuns.

3.     Are working-class loyalist/unionist areas more neglected than those in nationalist/republican areas? Despite the plight of those in the Shankill, the answer is No. Chris Donnelly from the Sluggerotoole website last night offered facts and figures which neatly squashed the idea that working-class unionists are getting nathin’, while those in republican working-class districts are on board a gravy-train.

4.     Those Orange bands passing St Patrick’s Church next Saturday: is confining them to playing hymns a reasonable compromise? The answer is No. For the same reason the answer would be No if they’d been given permission to play a selection of Beach Boys numbers. The Nolan programme touched on it and then moved smartly away: it’s fairly common knowledge that some hymns have scurrilous, anti-Catholic lyrics attached to them. Playing them will be an act of provocation to which the Parades Commission has given a green light.

5.     In the light of last night’s announcement, will Orangemen now sit down with residents of republican/nationalist areas and talk about contentious parades?   The answer is No. Not before this coming Saturday, not before next Spring and in some cases never, never, never, never. 

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

About last night...

Whew!  Still recovering from a great night last night - the Dublin launch of 'Whose Past Is It Anyway?' Having invited Professor Diarmaid Ferriter to be the guest speaker, I suddenly had a sickening realization that I know only a handful of people in Dublin these days, where once I knew so many. But ain't it true: it's times like these you find out who your friends are. Thanks to the contact work of truly sound people like my sister Philomena,  the Delahuntys, the McDermotts,  Jim Sharkey, Marius Harkin, Tony Jordan and Charlotte Joyce,  not to mention the wonderful Maureen and Hugh Taggart working their charm at a distance of 4,000 miles, we had a capacity crowd and a splendid evening. Diarmaid Ferriter gave an energetic and insightful talk, your humble servant threw in his uninformed two bits' worth, and then everyone got half-smashed on the wine...No, no, that last bit's a lie. We're much too civilized for all that - or old or something. Anyway, if you haven't got your copy of the book by now, you're clearly a hopeless case, and while I'm named after the patron saint of such, I'll leave you to wallow in your ignorance. If you've bought it, you're clearly a man/woman of good taste, intelligence and probably good looks.

Speaking of which, I'm going to try to 'embed'  a slideshow of last night. I don't really know what the word means, let alone how to do it, but I'll try. See above...

Monday, 24 September 2012

Loadsamony revisited

I'm sitting here drumming my fingers, waiting for a call from the Nolan radio show about the recent talk of taxing the rich. It's an interesting idea, isn't it? Odd that it hasn't been seriously tried before.

Maybe that's because the combined wealth of Cameron's cabinet is £70 million. Cameron himself is worth around £4 million. Kind of difficult to bring yourself to stick a needle in your own eye, I suppose.  But there is a pressing need: according to the latest Sunday Times  Rich List, the wealth of the super-rich has grown by nearly 5% since the recession.  And that's only counting 'identifiable wealth' - their bank accounts, for example, aren't open to scrutiny.

I'll avoid commenting on the wealth of the man who owns the Sunday Times  and point out that it's not just a British or Irish issue: a study by James Henry, a former chief economist of the consultancy McKinsey  shows that a global super-elite has at least £13 trillion squirreled away in secret tax havens. (In case you're having difficulty grasping what a trillion is, it's 1,000 billion.) Henry says that's a conservative estimate - it could be as much as £18 trillion, because there are countries like the UK which don't allow access to data like bank accounts.

Since starting this posting, I've been on air, where David Vance was my sparring partner. I quite liked David, the one time I briefly met him, but he'll have to get rid of the habit of putting words in people's mouths, especially mine. His belief is that the rich are being over-taxed and they're the job-providers.  Tired cliché, I'm afraid: we heard all this trickle-down economics back in the 1980s with the ghastly Thatcher. Let the market rip and the rich will make a packet and the less rich will benefit as greater wealth filters through society. Nothing of the sort happened then and nothing of the sort will happen now. What will happen is that the rich will get richer and the poor will get a kick in the teeth.

But don't make the mistake of thinking that the rich are smart. Despite their wealth, the rich are truly stupid. Not only are they smothering their own humanity, they're cutting a rod for their own back that one day will be seized by the world's oppressed and starving, and applied with deadly effect.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Golf and madness

I wonder how many of our MLAs play golf?  My reason for asking will emerge .

Myself and  wife and dearest daughter were up in Portstewart today. Beautiful sunshine, light wind,  the beach as usual broad and generous and clean. "What are those mountains?" someone asked me, pointing into the distance. "That" I said "is a foreign country. That is Donegal". We thought we could hear faint chants of "Come awwwn Donegaaaaawwwl!" carried on the breeze.

So then we decided it was time for a bit of something to eat, and as we were passing Portstewart Golf Club we thought we'd check if they allowed non-golfers into the restaurant. "No problem" a pleasant young woman told us, so in we go and up some stairs, the present Mrs C in front with daughter, myself bringing up the rear. It was when we were half-way up I heard the cry.

"Take your hat off, sir!"  I stared back down over the banister, and a chap wearing a Portstewart Golf Club top was sort of glaring up at me. "Not allowed to wear hats in the club house!" he called.
And like the craven lackey I am, I pulled my sun-protector hat off and followed the other two into the restaurant.

Ruined my meal, it did. All the time I was forking in the battered cod and mushy peas I was replaying the scene in my head and doing a bit of the old l'esprit de l'escalier  - trying out a number witty responses from myself to the hats-off command, most of them starting with a Wildean "Fuck you, sunshine!"  Mainly, of course, I was mad with myself for having instinctively followed the club-house chap's order.

So when we finished our meal I defiantly clapped my hat on my head and off we trooped, the two women in the lead once more. As I opened the exit door,  I came face to face with - you've guessed it  - a chap in a Portstewart Golf Club top. He was having a smoke so I thought I'd better check first.

"Are you the guy who told me to take off my hat earlier?"

He looked a bit nervous. "I am".


"Because it's against the rules. If you look you'll see a big notice 'No hats to be worn inside the club-house'. It's up there".

"But why?" I asked him again.

"It's the rules. Practically all of the golf clubs have it. No hats in the club-house. You don't play golf yourself, then?"

"No" I told him. "And I think I'm glad now I never did. I mean, there must be some reason for having that rule".

The guy shrugged his shoulders. "Haven't a clue. It's just the rule"

So we left on reasonably friendly terms, he assuring me that he had made his hats-off request "so you wouldn't be embarrassed when you went upstairs and somebody got onto you about wearing it", me assuring him that I wouldn't have been a bit embarrassed but I was still baffled.

I mean, wtf? WTF? Have my suspicions that all golfers are a bit weird found irrefutable evidence? Do they think their club-house is, like like,  holy ground or something?   Or are they so stupid that they have rules with no reasoning behind them, yet they enforce them because, well, them's the rules? Are they, as I have from time to time suspected,  an irrational collection of sweater-wearing eejits who dream up daft rituals to go with their birdies and eagles and plus-fours?

So I repeat: I wonder how many of our MLAs play golf?

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

St Patrick's Church and 29 September: an old, old story

Carrick Hill Memorial Garden

Ree-diculous, all this brouhaha about the bands marching past St Patrick’s Church on 29 September. Don’t you think? One side says we’ve a perfectly good right to march and anyway we’ve talked to the priest and parishioners, the other side says you haven’t talked to us and we’re the residents. Tweedledum and Tweedledee, eh? Tit for tat and no resolution.

Except it’s nothing of the sort. This is a very old story going back for years:  not the marching past the church bit, but who the loyal orders, particularly the Orange Order, are prepared to talk to . Remember Drumcree and the Garvaghy Road? The Orangemen wouldn’t talk to residents because they didn’t like Breandan Mac Cionnaith. Change your leader/spokesman, they told the residents, and we’ll think about it.

Eh? Change your spokesman? Can you think of anything more high-handed?  Normally groups choose their own leaders or spokespeople. It’s called representation – a form of democracy. But the loyal orders don’t buy that. Not only will they choose their own leaders, they’ll choose those for the opposing side. In this case they’ve decided that the opposing side’s spokespeople will be the local priest and his parishioners.

 I expect there was a time when that kind of proviso washed with the nationalist/republican community, because they felt powerless to do other. That day, however, is dead. Very dead. And know what?  It ain’t going to  do a Lazarus. So the Orange Order and such other groupings had better get used to the funny notion of nationalists/republicans wanting the same basic – very basic – rights as any other grouping: to decide who speaks for them.

And if that means the OO and its ilk will go all huffy and take their ball and go home, so be it. Speaking personally, I can’t understand why Carrick Hill residents’ spokespersons like Frank Dempsey can say they have no objection in principle to loyal order marches, because I have. Yes, it’d be better if these various orders did their tootling and drumming far away from people who don’t want to hear it. But it would be better still the tootling and drumming and dressing up didn’t occur at all, because, certainly in the case of the Orange Order, it is built on a history and ordinances that are – yes, I know I’ve said it before but the need to say it again and again and again keeps on cropping up – anti-Catholic. What’s more, if I were a unionist, not only would I stay miles away from such organizations, I’d be urging them to pack it in and go home, because with every provocative march and with every refusal to talk to the people involved they’re digging a deeper and deeper hole into which they are plunging, taking unionism with them.  

Monday, 17 September 2012

I'm sorry?

It's that old apology thing again.  I was on the Nolan Show this morning with Gregory Campbell, discussing Peter Robinson's call for an apology from Enda Kenny to the families of those who died in the Kingsmill massacre. This really is a very old and painful chestnut.

If the families of those bereaved get solace from an apology, I'd be all for it. Anything that makes their pain more bearable must be welcome. Logically, however, I've never understood apologies. David Cameron to the Bloody Sunday families, David Cameron to the Liverpool fans, Tony Blair for An Gorta Mor - the Famine - surely 'Sorry' is what you say when you bump against someone on a bus, not when loved ones have been killed. Besides, neither Cameron nor Blair nor Kenny have anything to apologise for - they weren't responsible for Bloody Sunday/Hillsborough, the Famine or Kingsmill. It makes as much sense as your next door neighbour punching you in the teeth and then you get an apology from me.

But as I say, if an apology makes those affected feel better, by all means give it. But make sure the apologies go to all the victims. The day before the Kingsmill massacre, five Catholics were shot dead (a sixth died a month later) by what was known as the Glenanne gang - a group of loyalist extremists, British soldiers and rogue RUC men. The Pat Finucane Centre research claims the Glenanne gang were behind a total of 87 killings, including the Miami Showband killing, the Reavey and O'Dowd killings a day before Kingsmill, and the Dublin/Monaghan bombings. It'd be important, as I'm sure Peter Robinson appreciates, for apologies to go to the loved ones of those victims too. Especially given the involvement of state forces.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

The topless Duchess

How do I feel about the Duchess of Cambridge's bosom being exposed to a camera lens and made available to the public? Amused, mainly. And impressed. Not by her bosom (I haven't actually seen it) but by the chutzpah of her and her husband in presenting themselves as victims. You live a life of unimaginable luxury, much of it at public expense, and then you lament the use of a camera lens and expect sympathy.  Have these people lost their minds? Or has the great British public lost its?

The parallels, of course, are being drawn with William's mother and her relationship with the media  - to wit, that they in the end killed her. But they also gave her life while she lived. Their willingness to follow Diana's every movement and listen to her every word was exactly what she wanted, even if that was complicated by the fact that she was at the time having a right royal scrap with the Windsors. It's a nice tabloid notion, of a saintly princess being hounded to her death by crazy photographers, but frankly I don't buy it. Any more than I buy the notion of Kate Cambridge being a sweet little victim of a monstrous media.  The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference, Elie Wiesel reckoned. The royals know that; they live their feather-bedded lives by it.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Who dat?

No post today - just a teaser. Identify all the faces on this book cover.  Results tomorrow.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Liverpool and sorry and justice for all?

One of the most moving sights on TV in recent days has been the families from Liverpool whose loved ones were killed at Hillsborough so long ago.  I don't understand it but it does seem that David Cameron saying he's deeply sorry in the British House of Commons means quite a bit to them. As did his almost word-for-word apology to the Derry families who lost loved ones on Bloody Sunday. The one difference that strikes me is that the apology was followed almost immediately by talk of justice by was it Cameron or Clegg. Frankly, that sounds more like it. Your loved one died a cruel and unnecessary death,  decades later someone says "Oh, sorry" - and that's it?  The families in Liverpool shouldn't have to call for justice - the state should deliver justice without being asked.

You'll have noticed too I expect that Cameron's word-for-word to the Derry families stopped short of the word "justice".  Is that a way of saying that relatives of innocents killed by the stupidity and incompetence of higher-ups in the South Yorkshire police force are more deserving of justice than relatives of innocents killed, not by stupidity and incompetence of higher-ups in the British army (and beyond), but by the deliberate actions and commands?  Not to mention the almost identical cover-up in both cases. I find it hard to believe that the fair-minded British public  (they are fair-minded, aren't they?) wouldn't demand justice for the Liverpool families and the Derry families. But I can't recall hearing any such demands.

Meanwhile, An Taoiseach today met with those families who lost loved ones in the Kingsmill massacre. They too deserve justice. As do the families who lost loved ones in the Dublin/Monaghan bombs.  But it seems that some barbaric acts are more worthy of attention than others. What's it called? Ah yes. A hierarchy of victims. The law is a ass and justice is a joke.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Getting tangled up in Rory and other mishaps

Ha ha haha haaaaaa! Pardon me while I split some sides. I've been listening to BBC Radio Ulster/Raidio Uladh  and I've just had the best two laughs I've had in weeks.

The first was from, I think, sports reporter Stephen Watson, and I think - pardon me Stephen if I'm wrong - but I think he was saying that the southern media didn't report on players this side of the border who were competing in the colours of Team GB. 'Strewth!  He's probably right. But has he thought about the fact that Radio Ulster/Raidio Uladh and BBC Northern Ireland reported on Irish players only if  they're from this side of the border? What's more,  when they do report on athletes north of the border,  they sorta gliiiide past the fact that these athletes are competing in the colours of Ireland.  A passing Martian might be forgiven for thinking there was a Team NI competing in the Paralympic Games and that they were being very successful. Mind you, that doesn't excuse RTÉ if what Watson says is true; but it's still a hilarious case of the pot getting all hot and bothered about the kettle's blackness.

The other laugh I had? Again, step forward Stephen Watson, although you were merely repeating the words of Pádraig Harrington (who I remember years ago on BBC Radio 4  being described as a 'crazy guy with a crazy name').  Stephen was coping this time with what is pretty obviously Rory McIlroy's intention to move from Team Ireland to Team GB for the Rio Olympics four years down the line, because Rory says "he has always felt more British than Irish". Fair enough - it's his choice not to answer Ireland's Call. (Sorry, I had to get that one in. And btw, wasn't it kind of awful  watching Phil Coulter at that celebration for John Hume, urging the audience to join him in singing his absurd replacement for the Irish national anthem?) Where was I? Oh yes. Stephen Watson was quoting approvingly Padraig Harrington's interpretation of Rory's switch of allegiances: it was actually great, apparently, because it meant there was another place for someone from Ireland to compete in the Rio Olympics. So from being a cheers-lads-I'm-with-the-Brits thing,  it became a it's-a-far-far-better-thing-I-do-now thing. Which meant that those Irish people who might feel pissed off with Rory's switch of allegiance were misreading the situation, cos Rory was actually leaving the Irish golf team for the good of Team Ireland.  Oh God, stop, would you, Stephen, I think I'm finding it hard to breathe.  Who said sport and laughing your arse off don't mix? Jimmy Magee?

Monday, 10 September 2012

What it's like to be Irish

There was an interesting article in Saturday's Irish Times about the Irish. If I mention that it's headline was 'Drink! Fecklessness! Partitionism! Shame! The Irish ideologies", you'll have a sense of the content. It's by Patrick Freyne and he talks in fairly critical terms under the different headings, quoting authorities, about those things that have "shaped Irish identity" over the past century. There's one heading 'Private Property', looking at the Irish fixation with land, and another, 'An Béal Bocht',  about our refusal to accept that there was/is terrible poverty and a yawning gap between rich and poor.

But it's the partitionism one I read with particular interest.  He starts the section with three splendid sentences:

"Irish people in the gently triumphalist south were never going to be comfortable with anything as ambiguous as a foreign state in the attic. For northerners after independence the border was a grim reality to be grappled with. For many in the south it was a grim reality to be ignored."

I like that - 'the foreign state in the attic' - and the noting of the strikingly different reactions to partition by  north and south.  He then cites a Trinity academic, Elaine Byrne,  who concludes that  "people are more comfortable with identity being ambiguous now". This is buttressed by comments from journalist Eamonn McCann: that the number of people identifying themselves as 'Northern Irish' is now at an all-time high, and that cuts in the south didn't provoke a militant reaction from the public because they still feared the violence and disorder that had occurred in the North.

It's an interesting article, looking at other aspects of the Irish character as well. But what summed up for me the vision of Irishness over the weekend was two things. One was the team calling itself 'The Republic of Ireland' and which includes players from north as well as south of the border; and Michael D Higgins's sad little seminars, where young Irish people were brought together to talk about what they wanted for the Ireland of the future. Not one of them, in the TV clips I saw, mentioned the north. But then I strongly suspect Michael D didn't get round to including any young Irish people from the north in his seminar groups.

Truly, we're a people riddled with contradictions. The amazing thing for me is that so few seem to be aware of them.

Friday, 7 September 2012

Stay right where you are...

I never moved. When Brother Skeehan was teaching us to play the recorder in Fourth Class, like all the other little horrors I stared at the notes, groped for the holes in the recorder and blew. But otherwise we never moved. Same thing when I was butchering Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’ in St Columb’s College. My fingers crash-landed across the piano keys but the rest of me was crouched still as a statue. I used to marvel at Jerry Lee Lewis, who could stand while he was playing the piano and sing at the same time. But even he was relatively stationary.  Apart from his butt.

You probably see where we’re going with this.  Staying in one place is what people naturally do when grappling with a musical instrument.  To move about at the same time is a weird thing to do. But that doesn’t bother us in this tired, tormented little corner of Ireland.  Last Sunday a republican band parade passed Clifton Street Orange Hall and I really wish they hadn’t. Yes because it’s harder to play and move at the same time,  but more importantly because it gives  journalists and politicians the excuse  to trot out clichés about the police ‘holding the line’ between warring groups of Protestants and Catholics. It also allows the rest of the world to take home a simple-minded vision of unionists and their daft marching bands vs nationalists and their daft marching bands. 

Yes, yes, you’re quite right. Loyal order bands do out-number nationalist marching bands. According to the 6th Annual Report of the Northern Ireland Parades Commission,  over 70% of parades were by unionists/loyalists. But in journalistic short-hand, that comes out as loyalist bands vs nationalist bands. 

So I know Nigel Dodds says we must have “quiet conversations” about the mayhem that occurred on Sunday  and Monday night. I know Martin McGuinness says people must observe the rulings passed by the Parades Commission. I know the parade by the republican band on Sunday was legal and the earlier parade by the loyalist bands past St Patrick’s Church was illegal. And I know unionist politicians tend to spend a  nano-second condemning all violence and the next ten minutes getting stuck into the Parades Commission and the PSNI and the provocation that decent loyalist rioters were subjected to. But tell you what – I don’t care.  Because these clashes come about when marches happen. There is only one answer to this knotty problem and it’s staring us all in the face, and it was suggested by a contributor to Radio Ulster/Raidio Uladh’s ‘Talkback’ on Monday: don’t march.

So it’s traditional for Orangemen to march on the Twelfth to the sound of the flute and the bang of the drum.  It used to be traditional to own slaves and send 10-year-old boys up chimneys to clean them, but we’ve wised up on such things. So no more marching, by anyone. If people want to demonstrate their loyalty to the queen of the island next door, let them do it in one fixed place, and I don’t mean outside St Patrick’s Church. If people want to demonstrate their dedication to Irish republicanism, fine, but do it at home. Stop moving. It’s  an unnatural act which doesn’t improve the music and leads to violence. And yes, scrap the Parades Commission, because if we don’t have parades we don’t need a commission. 

The caller to ‘Talkback’ suggested a 10-year ban on all parades. OK, I’ll settle for that, although I’d prefer 25 years, or better still 50. Celebrate, honour, play to your heart’s content, if that’s your idea of fun. But do it in one place, preferably a hop, step and lep from where you live.

So you see, I’m not just opposed to a handful of contentious marches. I’m opposed to the whole bloody lot of them. Pass the law, would you, and put an end to these unnatural musical acts. 

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Jim and me and marches

I was on Jeremy Vine's show on BBC Radio 2 a couple of days ago, with Jim Allister. It was a discussion, as if you hadn't guessed, about marching. I was all set to raise a key point but fortunately ol' Jeremy made it for me in his intro: contrary to TV impressions, this isn't a question of loyalist marching bands vs republican marching bands. The BBC website puts the figure at 95% unionist, 5% nationalist. I think that's a bit high, but certainly over 75% of marches are unionist marches. So could we have less of the baloney that Jim was busy trying to peddle, that republican marches were as likely to give offence as loyalist bands?  And history tells us that there are not only an awful lot more loyalist marching bands, but that those belonging to the biggest one - the Orange Order - have for a number of centuries now been bringing mayhem in their wake. In fact, between 1823 and 1845, the British government saw fit to ban the Orange Order marches, such was their potential for civic disorder. 

Jim, of course, argued that marching was 'an integral part' of the unionist/Protestant culture which nationalists/republicans and 'IRA/Sinn Fein' was intent on destroying. (You notice what he did there? Implied without saying that you were at least a supporter of 'IRA/Sinn Fein' if you thought there was something wrong with 3,500 marches happening here every year, the huge majority of which are aimed at reminding Catholics/nationalists who won in 1690.)

My suggestion was, end  all marches. They're a daft practice, it's harder to play a musical instrument when you're moving than when you're standing still, and since violence clearly is a product of these marches, cut the marches and you'll cut the potential for violence. Simplistic? Maybe, but worth trying. If you must celebrate your Orange (i.e., anti-Catholic) culture, do it in one spot. Preferably outside your own front door rather than at the entrance to a Catholic Church. What does marching have to do with culture?

But Jim would have none of it. Marching was 'integral'. No march, no culture. Calls for an end to marches was to call for an end to Protestant culture. I wonder how it feels to belong to a culture which is totally dependent on a political version of restless legs syndrome?

Monday, 3 September 2012

Talking to an architect

To get to Ciaran Mackel’s office, I have to climb narrow stairs past a barber’s emporium, another flight up to  spacious, well-lit rooms, with pictures of houses and plans for houses on the wall. The man himself when he joins me has something of the – no, not zealot- artist is maybe a better word. This lean, grey-haired 50-something nurses an inner fire. 

When he was sixteen, he faced three roads. He was involved with the Irish language and thought about becoming an Irish teacher.  He was into drawing and graphic design and could have turned his hand to that. In the end he opted to become an architect. Maybe not all that surprising, since his father was an architect before him.

“He was the architect on the housing at Shaw’s Road, helped get the first bunscoile off the ground and  was involved in the rebuilding of Bombay Street. He had a habit of working most nights at home, so he would have come home and take a drawing table out of a cupboard somewhere and put it up on the dining table and propped it up with a few bricks and draw at it. So that act of drawing and the sense that drawing was part of a broader activity helped convince me that that’s what I should be doing. Even earlier, in the later years of primary school, we’d have been asked to go down and draw in town, so I’d have walked down the Falls and drawn some particular streets and their activities.”

Then there’s that inner burning thing again.

“I feel very passionately that architecture’s not just a job, it’s a vocation. You’ve got to feel committed to it: what you’re doing is more than a project you must do. Architecture is definitely not 9 to 5. That to me was never the case. Even if you were to try and fall asleep, you’re thinking ‘How will this bit work?’ and ‘What will I do if that bit doesn’t work properly?’  Then you wake up the next morning and start to draw, and you realise dreams and half-dreams aren’t solutions.”

He feels that to be given  an architectural project to work on is to some extent a privilege. “Some person trusts you, whether it’s £5,000 or £100,000 or £1,000,000, they trust you to do it right. So it’s fairly important  - a fairly moral position to be in. So it can’t be a 9 to 5 thing. Your responsibility is not just to that client and their property but it’s also to the broader public, because people have to look at what  you’ve built, and for a long period of time”.

I ask him what’s the difference between an ugly building and a beautiful building?

“There’s a difference between building and architecture.  Building is someone saying ‘I want you to do this because it has a functional outcome’. Factories are a bit like that, or simple sheds or garages. And some people’s houses are a bit like that.  On the other hand if you do a house for someone that sees the house as their home or retreat, and they want something more than the straightforward output – that’s where beauty comes in.”

So I ask him about the billboards that advertise Luxurious Georgian-style Houses and the like. Does building in the style of the time of George the Whatever make sense to him?

“No it doesn’t make any sense to me.  It’s not really Georgian-style anyway – it’s some sort of pastiche. It never meets Georgian proportions, for one. Georgian proportions were beautiful. Georgian streets in Dublin are beautiful.”

People want these sort of bastard-Georgian  houses (that’s my word, not his, in case you were worrying) because it gives them some sort of nostalgia, he thinks. But it doesn’t make sense.  He speaks of people who drive up-to-the-minute cars, dress in contemporary clothes – yet want to live in Georgian-style houses.  It baffles him. “You go into one of these houses,  it feels odd and entirely wrong”. 

He was involved in the early stages of the extension of the Culturlann on the Falls Road. I ask him about the difficulty of marrying the old of the nineteenth-century Presbyterian Church that is the Culturlann with the unabashedly modern extension. 

“It’s not a particularly beautiful church but it’s there, and it says something about its history and its place, and about the changing community shape and profile.  The church was, I  think, butchered by an intervention in the early nineties”.

How does he mean, butchered? 

“They had a building that was tall, big volume – no use. So they put in a few floors, with staircase at either end, and it allowed multiple activities in the building.  Because the floors were concrete, it was difficult to get back, to restore some sense of volume, what the building would have been like.”

By volume, he tells me, he means the sense of space and height you get, walking into a church. All that was lost with the butchering.  

“My intention was that the Culturlann should claim its place with a simple glass wall that says ‘We’re proud enough to be out here on the street and we’re confident enough that this is a glass wall, the thinnest possible glass wall between the activity and the identity of the culturlann and the activity of the street' ”.

Architects aren’t good at talking about their work or engaging in dialogue with the public about what they do, he thinks. You'd never guess that, talking to him.

He was involved with the Andersonstown News building as well. They  modelled some aspects of it on a building in the Pompidou Centre in Paris. Part of his intention in designing the building was that “the public would walk in the door, would go to the reception desk and could see the door that leads into the offices, could see through the door that leads into the printing presses. The theory was that what they saw was their story being picked by somebody,  transferred to a journalist, transferred by line of sight to the printing press, and then as they walk out the door, the van that takes the story for distribution passes them on the driveway”.

He talks about ‘sick buildings’. An example he gives is of a university  building where the window can’t be opened, other than by computer. But people feel the need of air when they want it, not when some computer decides. 

He talks about ‘modular build classrooms’  he’s been involved with. New thinking about how one should teach means that new thinking about the shape of such classrooms emerges. 

“You want to create a space for maybe story-telling, or a space where children might paint or draw.  So there’d be a series of alcoves or places that might make that space seem particular”.

OK -  time to get blunt. Isn’t  Prince Charles very into retro architecture?

“He is, big time, and I think that’s dangerous.  That’s maybe fifteen years ago. I think  what he was doing then was what British royalty has always done: to be invited somewhere and then abuse the people who invited you.  Unfortunately, architects didn’t challenge what he said. They should have said ‘Back off, or else let’s have a proper debate here’.”

At one point in Belfast, he feels,  we were so desperate for investment, “anybody coming in was welcome to build anything”.  But he feels that people coming in now are  more open to debate about what gets built.

There’s always a debate about what you keep and what you don’t keep. After all, Belfast probably demolished lots of Georgian architecture to replace it with Victorian. In which case,  what’s his favourite Belfast public building?

“I always liked Transport House, although it does look tired and needs something done to it now. But I always liked the notion that it stood at the end of High Street, that it was a contemporary modern building done in the 1950s, I think, using tile -  didn’t have to copy the brick next door to it . It had a simple glass entrance, it had the mural piece that said something about public art, but wasn’t the grand statue of a soldier or some bloody aristocracy person, but was celebrating ordinary endeavour.”  He also likes the Ashby Building up by Queen’s. “It stands as a strong, bold contemporary building, surrounded by two-storey houses. And I think the new Lyric is quite a beautiful building “.

And ugly buildings?

“I never really liked City Hall.  It’s the pompous nature of it, in some way – and I suppose Stormont has the same sort of notion, for me. It stands on a hill, this bold thing.  I just feel both buildings are too pompous and overblown – too rich for my plain tastes. And I do not like the new Titanic signature building – I think it’s an awful waste of opportunity. Why take the photograph of a ship’s hull and replicate that four or five times in the building? It makes no sense really. The other thing which I think is a big mistake: why would anyone want to go to stand on a staircase that replicates a staircase that was on a ship ? I really don’t fathom that.  I said at a meeting one night that some of the conference rooms  in the Titanic building remind me of the interior setting of a Donegal hotel. And this woman said “ How dare you – I’m from Donegal!” Well you know, I love Donegal too, but that doesn’t mean you have to do this sort of overblown affair.  Compared to buildings elsewhere – well…”

And he talks enthuiastically of a  building south of Madrid he saw recently,  and how the building is both beautiful and is responsive to the needs of those using it. How its lattice-work allows the strong Madrid sunlight to kind of dance across the room. “And that building was done for probably half what the Titanic building cost. That’s about an architect using the fullest resources rather than making simplistic gestures”. He pauses and laughs. “I hope I’m not being overly critical!”

I end by reminding him that he once said “Architecture is an art form that must respect the community.” What  did he mean by that?

“If you go for a walk in a forest and your path takes you to a clearing in the forest somewhere. And in this clearing in the forest you notice this kind of mound of earth that is about six feet by three feet and slightly raised. Something in you stops and says ‘There’s someone buried here’. That sense or that feeling is what architecture is trying to get to. I feel architecture should bring something more than just the functional part of any project. It should be trying to enrich people, or give something more – add in things that the client doesn’t have to pay for.  It’s about saying ‘By doing this simple thing, it will enrich your living.or your quality of life. Not by looking at it, but using it. Or we think  it will – it doesn’t always, of course.”

The man burns with ideas. Who was it said “Find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life”?  He could have been thinking of Ciaran Mackel.  

Saturday, 1 September 2012

The US : being there

I spent last week in the US and the culture difference, like the heat, hits you immediately. The number-plate on the car I rent at Boston airport had the unnerving slogan ‘Live Free or Die’. I was half-expecting drivers with the same aggressive mind-set on I-90  to Lenox, but no. Traffic is heavy but orderly, there are no sudden switches from lane to lane, and even our modest car is air-conditioned and almost luxurious in its smoothness.

Lenox is a  small town over a hundred miles from Boston and it’s like something from a movie set. A 1950s Jimmy Stewart movie set. Virtually all of the faces are white, the streets are spic-and-span, the library is small and atmospheric, and when I go for a jog in the early morning, a little old lady  yells “Good for you!” as I pass. People sit on benches and chat or doze in the sun; there’s a store called O’Brien’s and an undertaker's called Roche and the quilt  hung on the wall of the Catholic church carries the names of former parish priests -  Irish in 95% of cases. There’s a real estate agency called ‘Mole and Mole’, which makes me think maybe the movie set I’m in is  The Wind in the Willows  and not Jimmy Stewart after all

No sign here of the presidential clash that is gathering in noise and intensity throughout the rest of the country. The New York Times  reports bumper stickers which declare ‘O-bum-a’ and ‘I am pro-America, anti-Obama’. The Republican candidate, Mitt Romney at a rally in his home area says ‘Well, nobody ever asked to see my  birth certificate!’, which is music to the ears of that small core of the American electorate who still insist Obama wasn’t born in the US.  Romney later says it was just a joke, we gotta leave some room for humour in this election, guys. Right, Mitt. 

Romney rallies often start with ‘Born Free’ by Kid Rock and close with (yep) ‘Born Free’ by Kid Rock; Obama’s begin with ‘City of Blinding Lights’ by U2 and end with ‘We Take Care Of Our Own’  by Bruce Springsteen. Romney attacks Obama with lines like ‘President Obama, bless his heart, has tried to substitute government for free people and it hasn’t worked and it will never work’. Obama replies with lines like ‘They have tried to sell us this trickle-down fairy dust before’. 

In Boston on our last evening before coming home, we have a meal with one of my son’s friends, a funny, loveable young man. After a couple of drinks he asks “What do y’all in Europe think of Americans?” I tell him that in my experience they’re generous and courteous,  and that they talk about their emotions  in a way that is often embarrassing. Oh, and that they don’t seem to appreciate that they have an empire, much less appreciate that  whether Romney or Obama win in November,  that empire will continue.

No, no, no, the young man says. Sure,  giant US firms (as well as giant firms from other countries) are in countries throughout the world - in Latin America, Africa and yes, in Ireland. But when they go to such places, extracting oil or gas or creating software,  they give employment, they make a crucial difference by providing employment.  As to regime change and intruding in the affairs of other countries, that too  is often a good thing, he says. An example: Haiti, left to itself,  will continue as a non-democratic, dirt-poor, self-harming state. By trying to build the Haitian economy and its democratic system, the US is a force for good. Left to themselves, countries like Haiti would remain stuck in a swamp of of corruption. 

Which of course is the crux of the matter. Is it OK for the US (or Britain, come to that)  to decide that things are in a mess in another country and intervene,  recreating systems closer to its own idea of right? I think not and I tell him why. If you apply the same  principle to the electorate, there are people who should never be let near a polling booth. For example the morons who cavort in front of and/or parade past St Patrick’s church in Belfast: it’s hard to believe that they’ll vote wisely. But alas, that’s what democracy is: the morons must have a say in how things are organized, even if the rest of us think  they shouldn’t be trusted with tying their own shoelaces, let alone voting. 

Likewise internationally. There  are people in the US (and Britain) who are convinced that some countries, left to themselves, will never build democratic structures. But for the US or Britain or any other outside power to claim they know better and are doing these benighted people a favour by shaping their affairs is to act imperiously:  we know better so we’ll run the show.  On such thinking the British Empire was built, on such thinking the American empire is built. 

‘America – Love It or Leave It’  the bumper stickers used to read back in the 1960s. You can do both, actually.  I do kind of love the US, warts and all,  and we flew out on Monday night.