Jude Collins

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

My favourite town? Corby of course.

People someitmes ask me what’s my favourite town and I never hesitate or stop to think. Not Belfast, not Derry, not Omagh - my favourite town is Corby. Never heard of it? Let me explain then.

Corby is located in Northamptonshire in England and what makes it my favourite place is that it wants to be allowed to vote in the Scottish referendum. You see, a lot of Scottish people travelled south to Corby in the 1930s, to work in the iron and steel mills. The descendants of these migrants to England, led by Conservative councillor Rob McKellar, want to have a say in the independence or non-independence of Scotland. There’s roughly 12,000 of them. Mr McKellar is a second generation Scot himself and he says Corby has been influenced by Scottish culture, dialect, food and places of worship. “I think anybody who is entitled to hold a Scottish passport under the Scottish National Party’s (SNP) regime should be allowed to do so”.

I’m with Mr McKellar. You don’t have to be living in a place to feel all sorts of emotional ties and loyalties to it. I’ve not lived full-time in Omagh since I was twelve yet I feel a tug, a sense of belonging to that town, even if it does come second to gallant little Corby. 

Of course it would be wrong to apply this in just one instance. If the children and grandchildren and maybe great-grandchildren of migrants to Corby are to get a vote in Scotland’s future, it’s only fair that the diaspora of other countries should have the same rights. What was it Councillor McKellar figured was the number entitled to vote in Corby - 12,000?  OK. At last count in the United States alone, there are some 40 million people who have an Irish background and who feel some degree of loyalty to Ireland. And it goes without saying that Ireland has "influenced culture, dialect, food and places of worship" in that country. So  when the Scottish referendum is held in 2014, Corby’s 12,000 really should have a say. Likewise, when we persuade the British Secretary of State to get her finger out and allow a border poll here - should the constitutional position be changed so a United Ireland can come about - then the US’s 40 million must have a say too. And after that there’s Canada, Australia, New Zealand, England, Scotland...

So stand up for the Corby men! And women. They could yet play a part in changing (perhaps unwittingly)  the fate of these islands.  

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Can you describe this man?

History can be depressing but not all the time. Sometimes it’s enlightening and even fun.

In the Irish Times this morning there’s a report that Michael Collins called on the help of British forces during the Civil War to shell the Four Courts, where anti-Treaty forces had been in place for three months. That’s Michael Collins who played such a vital and daring part in the war on British forces during the struggle for independence. The charming, good-looking, fearless Michael Collins who arranged for British agents to be killed on the morning of  the first Bloody Sunday. Come the Civil War, he’s not only intent on killing his fellow-Irishmen, he’s got the British to help him. 

That’s the depressing bit. The enlightening and even fun bit emerged in a book I’ve just finished reading. (You can hear a review of it on Radio Ulster/Raidio Uladh on Sunday 4 December, when I’m on the book programme with Alex Kane. And yes, both he and presenter William Crawley are both very nice men.) Where was I? Oh yes - that book. It’s called The Two Unions and it’s by Alvin Jackson.  It compares the union of England and Scotland  with the union between England and Ireland. The first worked, Jackson figures, because for the Scots, “the union was sufficiently capacious and flexible to allow the flourishing of distinctive Scottish institutions and patriotic sentiments”. But now that its various props of empire and monarchy are no longer what they were, now that Britain is involved in unpopular foreign wars, that there is regimental amalgamation, denationalization of state asset and industries, all bets are off. 

 As for the union with Ireland, Jackson figures that it never really was able to accommodate things Irish and so was doomed. The official union of England and Ireland  in 1801 “was fundamentally about salesmanship with secret backhanders, inducements and penalties, the purchase of seats and the epic dispensation of hospitality”,  Jackson is particularly good at selecting telling descriptions. He quotes a Scottish judge, Lord Stott, who described Terence O’Neill as “a pathetic figure, like a drunk man who had reached the melancholy stage”. And then there’s Andrew Nutting, a Conservative MP, on the Ulster Unionist parliamentarians who graced the House of Commons from the early 1920s to the early 1970s: “As a smug, offensive and mediocre collection of bible-bashing hypocrites they would be hard to beat”. He’s also pretty good on the insatiable appetite of the Irish for royal honours and titles, an appetite that’s as voracious today as it was in the nineteenth century.

Alvin Jackons is a smart,  wonderfully learned and witty man.  His book would make a splendid Christmas present for anyone interested in Irish (or Scottish) history.  After you’ve got them my own book, of course.  

Sunday, 28 October 2012

He asked for WHAT?

What baffles me is who’s calling for it.  About a week ago Gerry Adams made a speech in the Dail where, among other things, he requested the Taoiseach to support the notion of a referendum on constitutional change in Ireland. Translated, that means he asked for a poll about the border. No, ‘fraid not, Enda told him. There is no call for that at the moment at all at all.  Last week also, Declan Kearney of Sinn Féin made a speech in Westminster (no, Virginia, not actually in the House of Commons chamber - in Westminster)  in which he called, among other things, for a referendum on the border.  

Both these requests were a bit surprising. Because as John Taylor has been telling us for about twenty years now,  anywhere around 30% of Catholics are very happy where they are, in the United Kingdom. The Belfast Telegraph had a poll and they found that there were about four Catholics in the entire state in favour of a united Ireland. That Sinn Féin and anybody else who thought there was a will for a united Ireland was talking out of the back of his or her neck. 

So there’s disagrement. Despite John Taylor, despite the Belfast Telegraph, Gerry Adams and Declan Kearney and presumably a lot of other people would like an official referendum on the subject. Well, count me in on that. And my surprise is that   Enda Kenny and Peter Robinson and all of the DUP and the UUP (or what’s left of its badly-mangled semi-corpse) would be in favour of it. You’d also think that Gerry Adams and Declan Kearney would be trying to AVOID having a border poll, given that there’s only four Catholics in favour of it. Or 30%. Or whatever. Because the result would be a ringing endorsement of staying in the UK. Right?

Well, I don’t know. Neither does John Taylor or Declan or Gerry or Peter. Or the Belfast Tele. There’s only one way to find out: have the referendum. Let’s have the facts of the matter. If there’s a majority in favour of constitutional change, well, then everybody will have to read the bit in the Good Friday Agreement that tells us what happens next. If there’s a majority in favour of no constitutional change, well, then everybody will have to readjust their thinking or, if they believe in a united Ireland, ask themselves how they can persuade people. One way or another, we’ll know the truth. And then we won’t have to take Enda or Peter or John or the Belfast Tele’s word for it any more. 

I always think it’s easier judging what a room looks like when you switch on the light, don’t you? 

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Jimmy Savile: he's opened our eyes. Maybe.

Sometimes out of evil comes good. Or if not good, an improved view of the problem. For years now, we’ve been hearing about the sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy. When anyone tried to make the point that focusing solely on the Catholic clergy was to suggest that the problem didn’t exist elsewhere and on a comparable scale, they were slapped down. I remember myself asking the question about child abuse and other faiths, as well as the wider public. It was during a TV debate, and after the broadcast was over I was verbally mugged by three clergymen - two Presbyterian, one Church of Ireland, as I remember. They informed me with some intensity that this was a mischievous question and that such abuse was confined to the Roman Catholic Church.

So in that sense, thank God for Jimmy Savile. It now appears clear that he engaged in sexual abuse of children over decades, often on BBC premises. Just like the Catholic Church - just like all big organisations - the BBC covered up for the sake of their own reputation. Nor is Savile the only subject of investigation for such crimes. It appears that a number of doctors from the hospitals he helped raise money for, a number of other people in the BBC - whether guests or staff - were similarly engaged in abuse. 

Move from there to the Leveson Inquiry - remember it?  Not into child abuse but press invasion of privacy. From top to bottom, it’s clear that the British press were gathering information illegally and that their bosses knew about it and said nothing. Cover-up again.

And then there’s the Hillsborough disaster, where nearly 100 fans lost their lives, and the police then lied about the reasons for it happening, blaming drunken Liverpool supporters. And what did the higher-ups in the West Yorkshire police do? You guessed it.Covered up.

If you’re old enough, you’ll probably remember the Widgery Whitewash - the forerunner of the Saville Inquiry (no relation, by the way) into the deaths of fourteen people on Bloody Sunday in Derry. The initial report lied about what had happened, as did the British Army which supplied the supposed facts. Once again, cover-up, this time not about abuse, but about life and death. And what did Lord Denning say about opening the can of lying worms concerning the Birmingham Six? To do so would be to present ‘an appalling vista’. Let’s keep it under wraps - it’s better that way. 

If nothing else, the Jimmy Savile case and all the others should teach us not to believe a word we’re told by the authorities, except there’s clear supporting evidence. The question is, what lies are the authorities telling us now, that in twenty years we’ll be kicking ourselves for not having spotted at the time? Or as Jeremy Paxman so eloquently put it about interviewing politicians:  "Why is this lying bastard lying to me?"

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Obama - he's the good guy, right? Wrong.

Sometimes you could despair about the human race. Or at least that part of it which reacts to political events. Like, for example, the American presidential election. Figures carried by the Irish Times yesterday showed that 90% of Irish people favoured the Democrat candidate, Barack Obama. And had I a vote, I’d probably cast it for him as well.  But it’s not quite going with good against evil, as an article in today’s Guardian shows.

It’s headed ‘UK support for US drones in Pakistan may be war crime, court is told’. A young Pakistani man is seeking legal redress for the killing of his father by a drone since the unmanned aircraft flew with the assistance of UK locational intelligence. More than 40 other people were killed in the incident. They had gathered to discuss a local mining dispute. 

But Britain doesn’t stop with providing intelligence. The RAF has confirmed that it’ll double the number of drones used over Afghanistan. They’ll be operated from the UK, unlike its existing Reaper drones, which are operated from an air force base in Nevada.

The great thing about drones is that it keeps the people operating them well away from danger themselves. You just sit in Nevada - or somewhere in England - and make things happen in Afghanistan or Pakistan. What could be better? Or worse. Over the last eight years, drone strikes have killed roughly 3,000 people in Pakistan, with about 600 of them civilians, of whom 176 were children. 

Big deal, you say? Those are tiny figures in a war. Well yes, comparatively speaking. But if you take the figure for innocent adults and children alone, that’s the equivalent of around 18  Omagh bombs going off, killing innocent adults and children.  Remember when the Omagh bomb went off, Bill Clinton and every bigwig imaginable rushed to Omagh to express their horror? Not much rushing or horror expressed by Obama or Romney. Or anyone else.

Which brings us neatly to the US presidential election. For many of us, Obama represents hope - hope of a US and a world freed from racial prejudice, hope of a new US that has stopped acting, not so much as the world’s policeman as the world’s rogue cop. And Obama’s got a smart wife and two terrifically sweet daughters. 

But this is also the man who’s been giving the green light for drones to be sent to explode -  about 500 lbs in each case - and inevitably kill innocent men, women and children. If you reviled those who set the Omagh bomb in place, they have one advantage over Obama: they didn’t intend to kill people, as far as we know. They killed them all right but it wasn’t what they set out to do. But the man who’s running for the White House, the man who is indisputably the preference of most of us, regularly gives the thumbs-up for pilotless planes to fly in Pakistan and Afghanistan with the explicit intention of killing people. And if  a good number of civilians and children get blown away as well as enemy combatants, well, hey, that’s what we call collateral damage. 

And yet, I’m ashamed to say, I’d still vote for Obama. What a vile thing American foreign policy is. 

Monday, 22 October 2012

OK, the goose got sauce. Now what about the gander?

I've just been watching a two-minute video on the Guardian website, which features people talking about Jimmy Saville and the gravity of what's being called Savillegate (yes I know - clumsy or what?). Prominent in the clip are two people who worked on a TV programme that was pulled more or less at the last minute, with no explanation. The programme, the producer of it said, dealt with a range of accusations from people naming Saville as guilty of sexual abuse.

As so often happens with the media, particularly TV, what wasn't talked about was as important as what was. Everybody now seems agreed that Saville was guilty of these crimes, although nobody I've heard from yet has offered conclusive evidence. I really think someone should, and soon, otherwise it's going to be a case of everyone's-saying-it-so-it-must-be-true, which is a very dangerous way to try someone. The other thing that was noticeable by its absence was that the two people who'd been involved in making the programme back then - that's the programme that was pulled without explanation by the higher-ups - no one asked the makers of the programme why they didn't go to the police. On the contrary: the implicit assumption seemed to be that here were two decent people, doing their best to expose evil, who'd been frustrated by higher-ups in the BBC.

Mmm. I seem to remember a certain cleric called Brady, first name Sean, who was excoriated by the media because, when he was a priest in his thirties, he acted as a note-taker at a meeting involving charges of sexual misconduct that went nowhere. The cries then were "What sort of person would have let that child-abuser remain on the loose, regardless of what his role was?" and "How could anyone with an ounce of decency not go straight to the police and save so many other innocent victims?"

I'm just puzzled. How come Brady was cast as villain and the BBC programme makers as decent, maybe heroic people?

Book links

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Sunday, 21 October 2012

Micheal's Big Day Out at Bodenstown

You gotta hand it to the guy. One good poll and he's outa the party grave, shaking a reproving finger at the state next door. Micheal Martin,  with the wind of that favourable recent poll rating, is suddenly started worrying about the north. Which makes a nice change from the fifty years or so when his party was dominant in the south and didn't give a monkey's nut what happened in the north, apart from the occasional rhetoric-leakage on St Patrick's Day or better still over Easter at Bodenstown.The very place, funny enough,  where Micheal was expressing his worry today.  it seems the parties in power up here aren't working right and the south's government are - yep - standing idly by. No - hold it. Sorry. I tell a lie.  Micheal is actually  OK with the unionist half of the Executive here - it's the republican part that's failing the people badly, apparently. And by way of proof,  Micheal offers a quotation from " a little-reported speech", in which Peter Robinson says the Shinners are not taking responsibility properly.

Pass the smelling salts,  Wilhelmina. This is the leader of Fianna Fail talking. The party that sent the south's economy into a tail-spin from which it'll be lucky to recover in about twenty years. And there he stands,  sporting a new ancient-Roman haircut, looking all soulful and sincere, speaking more in sorrow than in anger about the bad things Sinn Féin are doing at Stormont.

At the end of the RTÉ report,  David Davin-Power, he of the bouffant hairstyle, explained that this wasn't just an attack on Sinn Féin, it was really an attack on Pearl Harbour....No, only kidding. He said it was an attack on something or other which oddly, I can't remember. And I can't remember because I was so astonished that, immediately after listening to Micheal giving out yards about how Sinn Féin wasn't living up to its responsibilities, David D-P should try to convince viewers it hadn't  happened.

They haven't gone away, you know. If the southern electorate really want to get rid of the party that oversaw the most appalling economic disaster ever to hit the southern state, they'll have to get a very long, strong, pointy stick, wait until midnight and then drive it - more in sorrow than in anger - into Micheal's party's heart. They're certainly never going to die of shame.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Honours and how to use them

I'm reading at the moment a splendid book titled The Two Unions' by a man called Alvin Jackson.  The two unions in question are those between England and Scotland, and England and Ireland. I was reminded of it today by a report in The Irish Times, about which more later.

Jackson covers a huge amount of ground in his book - from the beginning of the eighteenth century up to this century. But it's his take on the British Honours system that caught my eye:

"A superabundance of honours launched the union [of Britain and Ireland] in 1801, and (less remarked upon) also sustained it". He exemplifies the absurdity of this profusion of honors by quoting from an E F Benson novel where a character "sports her MBE unfailingly and inappropriately, having received it for 'her services in connection with Tilling hospital...[which were] entirely confined to putting her motor-car at its disposal when she did not want it herself". Elsewhere, Jackson talks about the "voracious Irish appetite for title": "The Guinness brothers, Arthur and Edward, were prominent businessmen, philanthropists and statesmen who quietly bankrolled much Unionist activity through the Home Rule era, including the militancy of Ulster Unionists in 1912-14. The Unionist government duly responded with honours, granting Arthur a peerage (as Lord Ardilaun) in 1880, and Edward a baronetcy (1885) on the occasion of the Prince of Wales's (unsuccessful) visit to Ireland: a peerage (as Lord Iveagh) and the Order of St Patrick soon followed, in 1891 and 1895."

Fast forward to today' IT's report. Irish impresario Harry Crosbie yesterday received an honorary OBE (Order of the British Empire) for his part in the visit last year to the south by Queen Elizabeth.

"In a citation before the red-ribboned OBE was presented, Andrew Staunton, deputy chief of mission said the spur for the award was Mr Crosbie's key role in the performance at the convention centre, a concert 'which helped change history' "  As he received the award, Mr Crosbie was told that it was "in recognition of these valuable services that Her Majesty the Queen has appointed you to be an honorary officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire".  What the paper calls "a beaming Mr Crosbie" said the concert was a "collegiate event"  and that what he and others had done was "patriotic and sent out wonderful images of Ireland".

There's also a description of 'those cathartic few minutes when tears streaked down the faces of 2,000 Irish people giving Her Majesty a standing ovation at the end of the concert",  but I'll have to leave it there as the cat has just got sick on the carpet.

Friday, 19 October 2012

That clinic on Great Victoria Street, Belfast

The establishment of the Marie Stopes clinic in Great Victoria Street has blown into flame again the abortion debate, and if there’s one thing I don’t understand it’s the whole abortion thing. Questions? I’ve got plenty of those. Unfortunately answers are in short supply. It’s a bit like the national question: a lot of people dance around the central issue rather than tackle it directly. 

For example? Well, let’s try this.  Pro-abortion people get  indignant if you refer to them as pro-abortionists. We’re not pro-abortion, they say. We’re pro-choice. We want women to have abortion as an option, and we appreciate that the decision to have an abortion is an agonising one and is never taken lightly by a woman. 

Eh? If you are pro-choice/pro-abortion,  presumably you regard what’s in the woman’s womb as a bunch of tissue, not a human being. In which case  what’s to agonise about? Getting rid of a foetus should need no more soul-searching than blowing your nose or trimming your toenails.  Yet pro-choice/pro-abortion people insist that abortion is a soul-searching decision for any woman to make. 

And here’s another abortion-baffler.  There are those who are opposed to abortion - pro-life people, as they prefer to be called - who say that abortion should never  be used, except the mother’s life is at risk or it’s a case of rape or incest. 

OK with that first one, I get it.The mother’s life is at risk if the child is not aborted, so to save the mother’s life actions are taken that result in an abortion. Fair enough. That is a truly difficult decision - which life is it better to save, that of the mother or the child?  But I can see how many people would come down on the side of the mother.

But the stunner that leaves me cross-eyed is the no-abortion-except-in-cases-of-rape-or-incest argument. Rape and/or incest are indeed vile, cruel actions, and the thought of carrying the baby of a man who has violated you must be truly harrowing. But even when you concede that the child inside the woman has been forced on her, and that every second of her pregnancy must remind her of the horror she’s suffered,  the awkward, painful fact remains that the foetus inside her remains human, every bit as much as if had been conceived by a loving couple.  To say that the answer to pregnancy brought about through rape or incest is abortion looks suspiciously like passing a death sentence on the  child in the womb for the foul actions of the rapist or incest-inflictor.  

Just two more and I’m done. There were a lot of picketers outside the Marie Stopes clinic the other day.  Some people say there should be no pickets, others that it’s OK providing the picketing is “tastefully done”.  What they’re getting at here, I suspect, are those pickets carrying placards showing what a child in the womb looks like and/or what happened to it when it’s aborted. But if that’s what it actually looks like and that’s what actually happens, shouldn’t everyone involved in an abortion be reminded of what happens?

And lastly: some people say this is a women’s issue, men should have no say in it. Mmm. So should women have no say in how the medical world deals with prostate cancer?

Questions, questions. How I envy those with certitude.  

Thursday, 18 October 2012

A tale of two state systems

So Ruairi  Quinn, the south's Education minister, is keen to shake up the post-primary curriculum. If you're a minister in a government, you've got to show that you're hard-working and imaginative, and so it helps if you come up with some bold, radical step. Micheal Martin wouldn't be where he is today (the leader of Fianna Fail) if it weren't for his imaginative ban on smoking in public buildings ( for example, pubs). So no doubt Ruairi is hoping he'll have similar joy with his attack on the Junior Cert.

But there's a catch. Yep, you guessed it - money. The teachers' union TUI has a letter in today's Irish Times  and they're keen to stress they're with the minister in the need for reform but...

"In respect of any new assessment methods, TUI’s long-held position is that time, external moderation, in-service training and payment where appropriate must be provided. Under these conditions and provided it is adequately resourced, TUI has always been a strong advocate of, and is deeply committed, to curriculum change."

Ruairi may have a fight on his hands. 

Meanwhile up north Education minister John O'Dowd carries on a long, long battle over post-primary education - to wit, the abolition of academic testing at eleven years of age. He's dead right, as anyone who knows anything about education knows, even if they won't say it; but he too has a fight on his hands: the grammar schools. When you have power - in this case, what's seen as the cream of the crop  in your school, you're not too thrilled when someone tries to take all that away from you. Hence the long, long fight against the abolition of the Eleven Plus here. 

What I don't understand is why O'Dowd isn't down knocking on Quinn's door and asking him to sit down and compare how they both see education. Is there something happens to young people, once they go north or south of the border, that an entirely different curriculum has to be devised? And what about that Easter Proclamation about "cherishing all of the children of the nation equally"?

If ever there was a case for cross-border co-operation, this  is it.  Fingers out, lads.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Robert Ballagh, Tom Barry and an attempt to smudge

I see artist Robert Ballagh is under some fire in the Letters page of today's Irish Times.  That's because,   speaking at a commemoration ceremony for Tom Barry in Cork on Monday, Ballagh rejected Irish government plans to commemorate those who died in the Easter Rising and the War of Independence with those who died fighting in the First World War. I'm with Ballagh on this one but you can see what the Irish government is trying to do. You could also mistake what the Irish government is trying to do.

The mistake would be to think that the Irish government wants to give due respect to those who fought on the side of Britain in the First World War. It's certainly true that many of those who went to fight in British uniform did it for commendable motives like the freedom of small nations. It's also true that a lot of them did it, believing John Redmond's claim that there would be Irish Home Rule at the end of the war. There were also many who joined because it sounded like an adventure that'd be over by Christmas, and probably more still who joined because they desperately needed a job. So is the government  working for a joint commemoration so we'll all give due respect for these men who died in an imperialist war of massive slaughter? Ah no, Virginia.

What the Irish government is trying to do is take the sting out of the coming commemorations of Easter 1916 and beyond. The fact is,  Tom Barry and the men and women of 1916 fought for an Irish republic, one that, in that near-to cliched phrase, cherished all of the nation's children equally. And the republic they had in mind was not one that stopped somewhere between Dundalk and Newry, or Belleek and Ballyshannon. The government knows that the twenty-six counties, which has been screwed by a bunch of bankers and bloated developers, will look very  shriveled and hopeless alongside the vision of Tom Barry and the rest. They also fear that people may ask why successive governments in the twenty-six counties did damn all for half-a-century and more about the partition of  their country. So what to do?

Well, that's obvious. Hop on the respect-for-the-Irishmen-who-died-in-World-War-One bandwagon. And then hitch that bandwagon to the struggle for independence in the early part of the twentieth century. That way, anyone who objects to joint commemoration may sound as though they think little of those who died in the First World War.

I've interviewed Ballagh in detail on this matter and I know he has genuine respect for those Irishmen who died in World War One. It's in my book Whose Past Is It Anyway?  But he's not going to let Fine Gael or the gallant Labour Party cow him into silence about the difference between men who died in a pointless war between imperial powers and men who died fighting for a self-governing, self-respecting thirty-two-county republic. He asks “Can you imagine any US president or French president calling for the proud republican commemorations of the 4th of July or Bastille Day on the 14th of July to be muted or balanced by commemorations of North American loyalism or the Bourbon dynasty ?"  

That's what I call a good question. 

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Forget being sorry - just remember it right

I note that Arlene Foster is keen for an apology from the present Irish government for the failure of the Irish government during the Troubles for not being sufficiently efficient in manning the border and putting an end to the activities of the IRA. A short answer to that might be that since Britain imposed the border with the threat of terrible force,  Britain should have been the one to patrol it.  But that would be dismissive and even unfair. I'm sure Arlene is sincere in her request and isn't thinking how her request might play with her constituents. At the same time, this whole thing of apology is  at core pointless. It doesn't change what happened or didn't happen, it's being asked in this case of people who, for the most part, had nothing to do with the events of which Arlene complains, and were it to be made, the past would continue to be exactly the same. Once deeds are done or neglected, they cannot be changed by an apology or anything else.

The best we can do with the past is remember it as it actually happened and try to learn how to do better in the future. I've been reading a bit about an even bleaker period in Irish history, the Famine, for which Tony Blair made a fatuous apology of sorts, and if ever there was an event which was presented falsely in history, it was and is the Famine. Starting with the name. In Irish it's An Gorta Mór, the Great Hunger, which is nearer the mark although still relatively mild. How so? Well, here are two short excerpts from that time. They were written in the same month  by two different sources. Read  and then tell me you still think 'Famine' is the best word to describe what happened over 150 years ago, and why its memory scars the Irish psyche to this day.

"Famine - pale, gaunt, ghastly - is walking throughout Ireland, withering up men like the flowers of the field, consuming millions of human beings with the breath of his mouth; and pestilence is following fast behind him to devour what he leaves, and yet there are men who have the hardihood to deny his presence". (The London Universe, May 1846)

"Ireland must in return behold her best flour, her wheat, her bacon, her butter, her live cattle, all going to England day after day. She dare not ask the cause of this fatal discrepancy - the existence of famine in a country whose staple commodity is food - food - food of the best - and of the most exquisite quality". (The Chronicle and Munster Advertiser, May 1846)

Ask the average English person - or Irish person - why so many died in mid-nineteenth-century Ireland. I'd lay odds the answer you'd get would be "Because the potato crop failed".  Which is true, but only a half-truth. The other half is a lie of omission, and one which many historians continue to propagate. Reading accounts like that above explain something of Irish people's hunger for Home Rule in the second half of the nineteenth century and beyond.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Enda Kenny is full of, um, surprises

It's strange, really. You think you know someone, then they go and do something that seems completely out of character. Take Enda Kenny, for example.  Did you know that he's in favour of a united Ireland?  It's not something he talks a lot about  but on his recent trip to the States he told guests at some big do or other that he believed re-unification would happen "one day". Sort of like "Somewhere over the rainbow" only different.  He further explained that "This will require a referendum to be approved in both countries, under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement and is not likely to happen in the near future. The priority is keeping peace on the streets."

Mmm. So it's not going to happen tomorrow or in the near future, which probably doesn't rock you back on your heels; and it'll require a referendum, which you probably knew as well. But  "in both countries"? Odd sort of thing for a United Irelander to say. If you're a United Irelander ( or to be exact, Re-United Irelander), you'll surely consider the south a state, not a country. Likewise the north. In fact, even if you were a United Kingdomer, would you not think of the north as a state, not a country? 

As for 'peace on the streets' - presumably he's talking about the near-to-weekly drugs-related killings that occur, mainly in the Dublin area. Is he saying he's too busy chasing the drugs barons to have time for re-uniting Ireland right now? Because as I'm sure Enda knows, there have been about ten times as many drug-dealer killings than there have been dissident-republican killings over the past few years. 

 But there you are - that's Enda. Full of surprises, some political, some factual, more financial.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Controlling the poor

It’s amazing what you can get away with if the brass in your neck is sufficiently thick. George Osborne and his Cameron cabinet cronies have decided that too much money is going on benefits, so they’re planning to cut them by £10 billion. That’s on top of the £18 billion cut they’ve already got in the pipeline.  Osborne says he simply must cut the budget further - the “wallets of the rich” alone aren’t going to get Britain out of recession. 

You never spoke a truer word, George. The wallets of the rich will stay firmly in the pockets of the rich. For example, remember the ‘mansion tax’ - the proposal to put a 1% tax on wealthy homes? The howls of the rich will make that one a non-runner. And just to make sure it’s a non-runner, they’ve  managed to convince those who are hard-working tax-payers that people on benefits are a shower of lazy cheats who should really be forced to get off their bums, pull the curtains and go out and get a job 

There are a lot of questions that need to be asked here. The first and most obvious one is, how many of the people shaping up to pass these cuts in the British parliament  - how many in Cameron’s cabinet, for example -  will be affected?  How many of their relatives? It’s a safe bet the answer is none, zilch, zero.  Cameron’s cabinet is stuffed with people who are extremely wealthy - millionaires and in some cases  multi-millionaires. 

What you have here is a classic example of the top of society kicking the bottom of society until they do what they’re told.   The Tories, who were never done telling Labour about the need to free people from the interfering hand of the state, have now themselves reached into the heart of families and squeezed with deadly intent. 

You thought you had the right to decide what size your family would be? Uh-uh. Theoretically, you still can decide. But while you’re deciding, Georgie Osborne will be pressing a financial pistol against your forehead. The more children you have, the more you’ll suffer as your benefits shrink rather than grow to match need. The state, in short, is going to decide  the number of children  you have.  Now where have we heard that one before? Ah yes - China. Mmm.

The other change the Tories are keen to make is to have anyone under 25  go back home living with their ma or da, rather than draining the benefit system.  You think  that by 25, people should be running their own lives, rather than returning to the family nest, maybe with a husband/wife/partner? And that if they do, it could well mean friction and discord for family relations?  You think right.  But hey, this is a recession and David Cameron is worth £12 million.

They say you can tell the level of civilization a society has reached by looking at how they treat the most vulnerable in it. You don’t get much more vulnerable than being on benefits, or being dependent on a funds-starved health service, or being a second or third or fifth child who, along with his/her parents, suffers financially for having been born. Meanwhile, the British government plans to spend somewhere between £20billion and £35 billion on a replacement for the Trident nuclear programme.  In other words,  Cameron and Co. are happy to spend billions upon billions in building weapons aimed at killing foreign civilians (that’s what nuclear weapons do, Virginia) while they kick the financial stuffing out of those at the bottom of the social scale at home. 

All this, by the way, will have a direct effect on similar people here in the north of Ireland. Which goes to show how dependent we are, despite our Assembly, on Mother Britain. 

Friday, 12 October 2012

Don't read this - it's depressing

Sometimes it’s the small things.  A week or so ago I was watching a news clip of a band on the march to Stormont celebrating the signing of the Covenant and half-listening to the commentary from the BBC news reporter. The band wasn’t at the St Patrick’s flash-point nor at St Matthews, where by all accounts the old atavistic tendencies were let off the leash. No, this was somewhere non-contentious, as they say - in other words, nationalists/republicans weren’t protesting. It wasn’t anything to do with the tune that was being played or the name of the band or the place it was passing. It was more the appearance of the band and marchers: the collarettes,  the quasi-military all-step-in-time-boys. But above all it was the swagger. I once had a teacher who tore into a classmate because, as he left the classroom, he had shown (and I still remember the phrase) ‘dumb insolence’.  That’s what was in that swagger - dumb insolence. It brought home, more completely than words ever could , that these people considered themselves The People, that those they were celebrating triumph over  were  several notches below them in the humanity chain, and that we run this show and call the shots.

You’re right, that’s a lot to read into a passing band, but it’s what I felt. In fact, there was a distinct flavour of the Ku Klux Klan group or Afrikan apartheid to the marchers: red-neck, red-cheeked, no surrender.  Watching them was a depressing experience. After all these years since the Good Friday Agreement, here we were back where we started in the late 1960s: marching, so to say, in circles. 

That glimpse matched, oddly enough, not with the Urinating Man or the repeated flouting of the Parades Commission ruling, but with another news item that caught my eye  - the number of American soldiers who have died in Afghanistan. It hit 2,000  a couple of weeks back and there was a sadness there too. It didn't just mean body bags and coffins being unloaded well away from camera lenses in the US. It meant young men, who could have gone on  breathing the air, eating food, drinking, chasing women, raising a family, growing old - all that had been cut in the bud, annihilated forever.

But - and this is where it links with that marching band - there was no mention of how many Afghans had died since the Americans invaded their country. The precise count is uncertain but Jonathan Steele of The Guardian figured that up to 20,000 Afghans may have died in the first four months of US air strikes. That’s ten times as many Afghans dead within one four-month period. Each year since, thousands more Afghans have died. You get the same sort of proportions when you consider the Vietnam War. I’ve been to the Vietnam Wall in Washington where the names of some 58,000 US soldiers killed in Vietnam are written, and the place has a mute melancholy to it. But there's no wall for the Vietnamese who died in their own country at the hands of the Americans. Maybe they couldn't find a big enough wall: figures for Vietnamese casualties in that war are reckoned by some to be around 5 million. 

In both Afghanistan and in Vietnam,  the massive losses were suffered by the people who live in those countries, as distinct from the people who invaded them. Which raises the question: why do so many people in the West know about  and mourn the casualties suffered by US forces,  and so few know or mourn the many casualties suffered by the invaded country?  It’s simple, really: because the American lives are seen as more valuable than those of Afghans or Vietnamese. Behind this is the notion that, as in all its foreign ventures,  the US was bringing the benefits of democracy to these countries. And yes, there’s no doubt that in some cases the countries invaded have derived some benefits from the American presence. Just as the presence of the Roman Empire and the British Empire indisputably brought benefits to the countries which they invaded and ruled for so many years. 

But what did the countries under domination do, the first chance they got? They threw off the yoke of their invaders. Despite all the supposed benefits of being shaped in the image of the dominant power, despite all the assumptions of superiority held by the dominant power, these countries wanted to be left alone to decide their own destiny. 

Sinn Féin MP Conor Murphy summed up the recent celebrations pretty well. "Saturday was about supremacy, it was about intolerance and it was about triumphalism".  Imperial thinking hasn't gone away, you know. 

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

How to put manners on burglars, by Chris Grayling

Don’t you just love the Tories? George Osborne had barely closed his mouth from announcing that the British government would be using the benefits system in the UK as a financial gun to force families to be smaller and to drive under-25s - whether they wanted to or not - back into the family nest, when Chris Grayling was on is hind legs to tell the conference that soon home-owners would be able to use disproportianate force without fear of prosecution, should they encounter a burglar in their home. 

Don’t you just love it?  This sets a political hare running in the opposite direction from the brutal benefits cutbacks.’ Take their minds off the cut-backs’  Grayling was instructed, and by God he did the job. His proposals did their best to stir into life the primitive beast that sleeps within us all - the one that wants to wreak havoc on people who dares mess with our property or goods. 

If a fire had started in your home what would you do?  You’d follow Fire Service recommendations, get out and stay out.  Put as much distance between you and Mr Fire as you possibly could. Common sense tells you the same thing applies to burglars. As the police told me when a couple of years ago I heard an intruder downstairs and phoned them: ‘Do not go downstairs under any circumstances. The last thing you want to do is confront a burglar.’ I followed their instructions.

But now it seems we’re to be given encouragement. Don’t worry if you use ‘disproportionate force’ - you won’t be prosecuted. So now we have governmental encouragement to deal with intruders pretty much as we see fit.

The net effect of which will be one of two things. Either burglars will stop burgling because they’ll be frightened, or they’ll keep on burgling but will bring a knife or a gun in case they’re confronted by a have-a-go Charlie. Guess which of those two options is more likely?

We pay the police to tend to law-and-order; why then do the Tories want to change it so private citizens assume the job of putting manners on burglars? I’ll tell you why, shall I? Because secretly we’d all love to be the guy who does the Dirty Harry thing and scares the crap out of lawbreakers. Even more important, this move won’t cost government a thing. 

On the other hand, it may cost the burglar or more likely the home-owner his life. 

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Let's stop sparing the details

I like George Monbiot. For a start he knows an awful lot of stuff, and for another he’s not afraid to speak out. He had an article in The Guardian  the other day that almost literally took my breath away. It was about those Kenyans who had been mistreated by the British during the struggle for independence.

As he says himself, he spares the reader no detail. 

We have been sparing ourselves the details for far too long. Large numbers of men were castrated with pliers. Others were raped, sometimes with the use of knives, broken bottles, rifle barrels and scorpions. Women had similar instruments forced into their vaginas. The guards and officials sliced off ears and fingers, gouged out eyes, mutilated women's breasts with pliers, poured paraffin over people and set them alight. Untold thousands died.”

And of course it was all covered up as officialdom lied and lied again about what they had done and were doing. It’s hard to believe that human beings could do such things to one another but it’s obviously possible. Monbiot suggests it’s because people have been persuaded to think of those they are oppressing as being ‘the other’ -  not like us, a lesser species. Almost certainly something of the same thinking obtained in the time of the Irish famine - or An Gorta Mor, to be more exact - the Great Hunger. A million people were allowed to die and a million more had to emigrate, many dying en route in the ‘coffin ships’. 

What’s that - the British didn’t  let them die? Mmm - sorry, can’t go along with that. If food is being shipped out of a country - food of all kinds  - while the people of that country are starving, I’d call that letting the people die. In fact, I’d go further - I’d say An Gorta Mor looks suspiciously like genocide. I’m not saying that the British attempted to wipe out the entire Irish population but that’s not the definition of genocide. What was inflicted on the Irish people killed a million, forced another million to leave the country, and left a psychological scar on the Irish that remains to this day. 

I’m writing these words from London, where I’ve always found the people to be at least as good and pleasant as in any other city. So how could their ancestors have been so stony-hearted in the face of Irish starvation? I think Monbiot got it - they thought of the Irish as ‘the other’, and there are still traces of such thinking among portions of the English people. 

It’s a hugely interesting as well as ghastly period of our history, the mid-nineteenth century. Maybe we should know more about it. 

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Does history offer anything worth learning?

I was down Dungannon way yesterday at a local history conference. Predictably, their theme was the decade of centenaries and how to respond to them. I enjoyed it considerably. When you’ve informed and skilled speakers like Diarmaid Ferriter and Brian Walker, you can hardly go wrong.
What I felt was lacking, though, was a commentary on the purpose of studying history. You could start, I suppose, by saying that just as someone losing his/her personal memory leads to a dysfunctional present and bodes ill for the future, so too with history - we need the past to inform the present. Yes,  but what will it tell us?  You get that other old chestnut - those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it. Sounds like a good reason for studying your history, except if your history was a happy one wouldn’t you be pleased to repeat it? I bet  the British empire would be happy to press the replay button, when they ruled a dominion on which the sun never set. 

I did a short talk on my book and its interviewees, and how the notion of learning from the past was emphasized by most of them. But there again, what was to be learned remained vague. At the conference Brian Walker, I think, suggested empathy was the great lesson to be learned from the past. Mmm.  Yes. That makes sense. Widen your vision, the boundaries of your thinking. But what’s the idea behind that - is it that we then understand where people are coming from? OK, what then? I understand your unionism, you understand my nationalism - what now? Do we go out for a drink? Get into bed together? Forgive each other, never fight again and live happily ever after?

The three centenaries that my interviewees considered were the Signing of the Covenant, the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme. As I pointed out, all three have one thing in common - they all involved the use or threat of violence to achieve political ends. We, on the other hand, hail the achievement of political goals through strictly peaceful means. In which case, what are we doing commemorating or even celebrating any of these three politically violent centenaries? Isn’t there a contradiction there somewhere - that when Hardy comes to Hardy, human beings talk about achieving political goals through peaceful means, but the way they act is far from peaceful.

Maybe that’s the lesson of history: that we’re a bunch of short-sighted, violent  hypocrites.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Let's hope the president wins - for democracy's sake

So - who do you fancy for the American election -  the president or the challenger? Because the result will have repercussions that will certainly affect the electorate but also the world in general. Yes indeed - on Sunday the Venezualan people will make a momentous decision. 

Hugo Chavez, if you’ve been following the American media, is a dictator and very bad for his country. That’s why they’re hoping (and working) for his defeat on Sunday. A dictator, a buffoon, a bad ‘un.

But then you check what’s been happening in Venezuela over the period of his presidency. In 2004, the Venezuelan government took over the oil industry. Poverty in the country has been cut in half. Millions who didn’t have access to health care now have it; college enrollment has doubled and much of it is free. And this election is going to be a lot fairer than the  election that’ll be held next month in the US.  In the United States, some 90 million people won’t vote. In Venezuela, they’ve  somewhere around 97% of the population on the voting register. And remember those ‘hanging chads’ or whatever it was in Florida, that got Bush in before Al Gore? That kind of thing is made impossible in Venezuela. Former US president Jimmy Carter, who got a Nobel prize for his work in monitoring elections world-wide was asked about Venezuela’s coming election:  “ As a matter of fact, of the 92 elections that we've monitored, I would say that the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world."

So why do the US media give the nasty picture of Chavez that they do? Why don’t admit that Chavez is part of a left-of-centre development throughout many countries in South America - why don’t they welcome this?

Simple. Chavez and other South American leaders have stopped doing what the US State Department want them to do and are doing what they believe is good for their people. That’s why if Chavez is re-elected on Sunday, the US media will respond with a hurricane of stories about Chavez and the election, all of them negative. 

And that’s why a victory by Chavez on Sunday is a consummation devoutly to be wished. 

Thursday, 4 October 2012

How I know Jimmy Saville was a paedophile

1. I was listening to Joe Duffy's Liveline programme on RTÉ just now and I heard Dickie Rock - remember him? - say that it was strange Jimmy Saville never got married. Good point, Dickie. Didn't even get married once.  Creepy.  Know what I mean?
2. Paul Gambuccini was on the telly yesterday and he said it was more or less common knowledge, what kind of bloke Jimmy Saville was back then. Why would a man like Paul say that if it wasn't true? So there you are. Reason No 2 - Paul  said it.
3. There was a programme on ITV last night about Jimmy Saville. I didn't see it myself but I know people who did and I  believe it had a number of women on it saying they'd been abused - one of them at least said she'd been raped by him - back in the 1970s. What possible reason would they have for saying that if it wasn't true? Right, none.
4. The BBC is pulling  programmes it had planned which featured Jimmy.  And the charities he helped are fearful of a backlash against them. Gotta  be guilty if that happened, wouldn't you say?
5. As Dickie  pointed out,  not only was Saville not married, but he had a  thing about his mother. He called her the Duchess and he kept her hat and clothing even after she died. Creepy or what? You're absolutely right -  the stuff of paedophilia.

Yes, yes, I know -  some of those reasons mightn't stand up in a court of law but the fact that ITV made a programme about him and had those women on - that's good enough for me. All right, I didn't see the programme and I admitted that, but so what? And yes,  having a thing about his mother - holding on to clothes she wore after she died - that mightn't prove he was a child abuser but, you know, it's a sign, isn't it? Maybe not proof but a sign.  Two plus two equals guilty. And all right again, granted,  not every man who doesn't get married is  a paedophile but  at the same time, it's, you know, not normal, is it?  Abnormal, in fact.  Another sign. If it wasn't, I'm sure Dickie wouldn't have mentioned it.  And well yes,  the fact that Paul Gambuccini says something doesn't necessarily make it so, but hey -  another straw in the wind.  No smoke without fire. And did you hear that the monument they put up to him had been sprayed with graffiti? People wouldn't go out and spray the monument of an innocent man, would they?

All in all, you add things together and what you get is  a monster. And I didn't even mention that really weird hair-style of his. Blond. He had, you know, that look.  You can always tell them.  Best of all, of course,  Saville's dead, so we're free to draw our conclusions and make our judgements. And the judgement, from what I hear everybody saying, is guilty. Mightn't stand up in a court of law, or hasn't so far,  but hey - who needs a court of law? We know what we know and you can't libel the dead.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Young people - bunch of wasters. Right?

There was a brouhaha a few weeks ago that some MLAs were going to visit 'Communist Cuba' to look at their health system, which by all accounts is exemplary. The thinking behind the objection was, of course, that by admitting that a (vaguely) Communist system might produce something good would by implication suggest that capitalism had produced something inferior.

Not being a medical person, I don't know the truth or untruth of that, but I do know that the funding for our medical system here in the north is shameful. The NHS is a noble idea and institution: that all citizens should receive whatever medical care they may need. What is the reality? The British government prepares to pour some £34 billion into a nuclear replacement for the death -dealing Trident system,  while the NHS is starved of funds and must raise money for such causes as cancer care by relying on the goodness of private citizens.

One such citizen is Siobhan McAleer. She's a 22-year-old Tyrone woman and she's working tirelessly to raise funds for Charis Care. This Friday she'll be auctioning a signed pair of gloves and t-shirt belonging to the great Shay Given at Owen Mulligan's (Mugsy) Bar Cookstown. If you can be there, be there. If you can't, check out how you can support Siobhan in the work she's doing. Did somebody say young people are self-centred?  This young woman is a walking (and running) contradiction of any such notion.  You can find out more about Charis Care on Facebook


And here's Siobhan's message and contact:

Hi All, I am running for Lady of the Lough 2012 and will be representing the Mill Wheel Bar. All support will be much appreciated x