Jude Collins

Friday, 30 November 2012

Peter Robinson: are you the Captain in disguise?

Peter Robinson doesn’t look like Terence O’Neill and he doesn’t sound like him (OK, maybe a smidgen of nasal-tone match) but in his  DUP conference  speech he reminded me of the Captain.

For the benefit of the younger members of our audience, Captain Terence O’Neill was the top man of unionism in the 1960s. Most people remember him for his famous Crossroads speech, of which nobody took a blind bit of notice. Some people remember him for inviting An Taoiseach Sean Lemass,up to Stormont for a cup of tea. Myself, I remember him as the Man Who Visited Convents. One minute, he’d never been near one, next you couldn’t open a newspaper but you’d see Terence  flanked by a set of smiling nuns. No, Virginia, Captain O’Neill was not thinking of converting to Catholicism. He was in those convents in search not of faith but votes.  Catholic votes. Alas, Catholics started demanding civil rights instead and then the balloon went up.

You may wonder why O’Neill wanted Catholic votes.  Hadn’t he more than enough votes from Protestants/unionists? He had.  But maybe the Captain figured the demographics, long-term, were against him.  Or maybe he felt nervous with this large undigested section of the population straining in the opposite direction from him and unionism. You may be sure he wasn’t looking for Catholic votes because he really, really liked Catholics. He wanted their votes because he was convinced it’d be in the interests of unionism.

Which brings us to Peter Robinson’s speech. In it, Peter scoffed at the idea of having a border poll and declared more Catholics than ever before are now happy to remain in the United Kingdom. 

Those two statements surprised me, coming from Peter. I’ve always thought of  him as a man of logic.  On the few occasions when he tried making gestures towards the emotional or dramatic,  like wearing an Ulster Resistance beret or breaking windows in Clontibret, he just looked silly. So it baffles me how he could hold those two views in his head simultaneously: (i)  a border poll is laughable and (ii) more Catholics than ever want to stay in the union.

John Taylor,  the greatest leader  unionism never had, used to say the second bit - that lots of Catholics were happy as pigs in muck with the present set-up. But he never added “And a border poll would be ridiculous”.  Peter, in contrast, did.  Which pushes to centre-stage the obvious question: what better time for a unionist to have a border poll than when loads of Catholics are in favour of the union? Think what it’d mean if the union got a resounding Yes from tens of thousands of Catholics: a major - perhaps the major plank in Sinn Féin’s platform would have been sawn clean off.  If I thought like Peter, I’d be yelling “Bring it on, right now!”  And were he to do so, I’d be the first to clap him on the back. Not because I have access to the voting intentions of Catholics ( which Peter appears to have) but because I think we should dealing in realities and not dreams. 

For fifty years, successive Irish governments in the south dodged reality, particularly the reality of the border. They gave impressive speeches about the need to strive for the historical goal of a united Ireland, but they never stirred a finger to help achieve that goal. So let’s all, unionist and anti-unionist, try not to sink to that hypocritical level.

Because here’s the thing: a border poll would tell us all where we stood. Peter is confident any referendum on constitutional change would be resoundingly defeated. Maybe he’s right. Or maybe he’s wrong. But if we had the actual wishes of the people, we’d know where we stand. If a majority favours continued union with Britain, then nationalists and republicans will have to go off and have a rethink.   If, however, the poll indicated that Peter was wrong and that a majority of people are in favour of a re-united Ireland, then their wishes, in line with the Good Friday Agreement, will have to be acted on.

One thing’s sure: driving into the future with your headlights switched off isn’t just silly. It’s dangerous. 

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Are republicans marching in the wrong direction?

For unionists, the sight of Martin McGuinness at the heart of the North’s government must a pill beyond bitter. Republicans may point to this to emphasise the massive changes that have occurred and how the Orange state has been effectively dismantled. Their goal remains a re-united, independent Ireland. Their problem, however, is how they should regard the state of Northern Ireland in the meantime.

Charlie Haughey famously described the north as a “failed state”, and he was right, in that Northern Ireland could not exist without a huge annual subvention from London. However, exist it does. Sinn Féin now share its government with the DUP and other parties. The problem for republicans is, do they want to see Northern Ireland prosper or perish?

For decades the bombs and killings gave the unambiguous answer: they wanted it to perish. Now that the peace process is firmly in place, what should  republican attitudes be to the state they’re in?

The obvious answer appears to be that they will work in a positive spirit to making the place the best it can be. Partition has damaged north and south not just economically but in all sorts of other ways as well. But given that partition remains in place, republicans appear set on not just healing old wounds but making the northern state as successful on as many fronts as possible.

And therein lies the irony. The more republicans work for the success of this state,  the more (presumably) unionists will come to trust them as co-workers  and old divisions will begin to vanish. However, the more successful the north becomes, the stronger the argument for continued union with Britain. Why fix it if it ain’t broke? 

I think there are two answers to that. The first is that success cannot be measured in economic terms alone. Certainly a full belly and a decent job are a necessity for most of us; but it’d be wrong to say that concern for economic success crowds out all other concerns. The recent poll in the south indicates that a sizeable number of southerners would welcome unity, even if that had negative connotations for their own living standard. Man does not live by bread alone, nor woman either. That’s why we shouldn’t be too quick to respond with a dismissive snort when polls are constructed that attempt to measure happiness as distinct from merely economic success.

The second answer has to do with something we Irish are not always good at; self-respect. Were the northern economy prospering, were the material conditions of all the citizens in the north to be comfortable and getting better, it would still be a sad reflection on our immaturity that we depend on an annual hand-out from London and the control of such matters as taxation and foreign policy from that outside source.

With those two matters in mind, maybe there’s less irony than there seems in republicans working towards a better Northern Ireland. This isn’t a peace settlement, it’s a peace process; and it’s not one that aims to stop with a resurgent northern state. 

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Me speak Irish? Get real!

Interesting piece of information in this morning’s Irish Times. It’s headed ‘Most people say they can speak some Irish’, but in the last paragraph it tells us that most people (again, in the twenty-six counties) say they don’t want Irish revived as the main spoken language of the country (by which I presume they once more mean the twenty-six county state).

In between heading and finish, there are some significant pieces of information. For example,  Sinn Féin voters have the lowest proportion capable of speaking some  Irish (admittedly it’s 75 % ) and highest among Fine Gael voters (86%).  You can read all about it at  http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/ireland/2012/1128/1224327207177.html

My own moment of epiphany regarding the Irish language came some years ago when I was at a European conference for teacher educators. They were a lively group, keen on establishing contact with one another and keen to find out more about their fellow-Europeans. So this Dutch guy said to me “You - you are English, right?”  I told him no no no, I was Irish. “Big difference there” I told him. “Ah” he said. “I see. And Ireland - is there an Irish language?”  I told him there certainly was, a rich and historical language full of beauty and nuance. “Ah” he said again. “And you can speak it?” Um, er, I’ll get me coat, then.  Here was I, extolling the uniqueness of Ireland, and unlike my interrogator and those around him, I was incapable of speaking even a few coherent sentences in my own language.  I’ve since made stumbling efforts to rectify that short-coming but the memory of my own blindness still stays with me.

It’s not surprising that most people in the south don’t want Irish to be the main working language of Ireland. They clearly see this as meaning that speaking English would be demoted and we’d lose the economic edge that speaking English gives us. There’s little chance of that, I’d say. Besides, those who promote the Irish language do so with the aim of having people equally fluent in both languages. 

Does it matter? Isn’t it embarrassing when Gerry Adams speaks his halting, Northern-accented Irish at the start of many speeches? Only if you’ve a prejudice against the Northern accent and you think that it’s better not to speak Irish at all rather than speak it less than perfectly - two fairly sad positions to adopt. 

Irish at present is undergoing something of a revival, particularly in the north and, surprisingly, among the Dublin middle-class. And encouragingly, the Irish Times  survey shows young people more likely to be able to speak Irish than their older counterparts. 

But to repeat: does it matter? I believe it does, for two reasons. One, consider the whale. A huge, warm-blooded, beautiful creature who plays no necessary part in the lives of nearly all of us. Yet if it were to be announced that whale numbers were declining, that it would be soon extinct, and that it wasn’t worth trying to save it, we’d be appalled. To let all that power and beauty just die! Unthinkable.  The same, only multiplied by 10, goes for the Irish language. It’s too massive and miraculous to even think about letting die. 

Tir gan teanga, tir gan anam - a country without a language is a country without a soul? I’m not completely sure of that. But a country with its own language will have a deal more self-respect and self-confidence,  two qualities that we Irish have always struggled with. 

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Why 12 December won't mean much to the Finucanes

I used to think that the killing of Pat Finucane touched people here, at least in part, because he was middle-class.  A successful lawyer, living in a nice house, sitting down to a  family dinner as so many people like him have done. And then the door opens and Death comes in. 

I still think that the ease with which the middle-class could identify with him and his family played a part in his death standing out from so many others. But I’ve changed my mind that class was the central issue in terms of people’s response. I now believe it was because he was a lawyer. 

The fact that he came from a republican family, the fact that he defended those charged with IRA activities should not have entered into his right to conduct his work with all the energy and talent he had. The fact is that Pat Finucane played by the rules - he worked literally within the law. And for that he was cut down mercilessly in front of his wife and children. 

The family have for years been campaigning for a public inquiry into his death. The British PM David Cameron has accepted that collusion took place and apologised to the family - but he refused to set up a public enquiry. Instead he set up a review of the evidence under the London lawyer Desmond de Silva.  

So what will the family get when the review reports on 12 December? Not what they asked for, that’s for sure. Cameron has appointed de Silva in the hope that people will be unwilling to criticise the report because it might be seen as criticism of de Silva. It won’t. The criticism of the report is and will be that it’s not a public inquiry. And it’s not a public inquiry because the British government is concerned that some very old skeletons might tumble out of the cupboard. 

I do hope the Finucanes refuse to be fobbed off with the de Silva report. I don’t think they will. 

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Tim Pat Coogan and the visa that wasn't

Maybe it was the title that did it. Tim Pat Coogan,  historian and former editor of The Irish Press, has had his application for a visa to the United States turned down. He was due to do a book tour of the eastern states, including a lecture to the American Irish Historical Society, but that’s off now. The title of his book? The Famine Plot.

The Irish Famine, or more accurately the Great Hunger, is an event of enormous significance in Ireland’s history. And not just Ireland’s. Among the million or so who made their way to the United States in the mid-nineteenth century were the ancestors of John F Kennedy, and the Irish have left and continue to leave a deep imprint on American society (yes, Virginia, for good and bad). Even more important is the imprint that time left on the Irish psyche. There’s a kind of race memory that still carries the scars of what happened to the Irish people more than a century and a half ago. 

But like all history, the history of what happened in Ireland in the 1840s was written by the winners, at least as far as the general understanding of most people is concerned. What caused a million Irish people to die and another million to emigrate in coffin ships? “Because of over-reliance by the Irish on the potato crop. It failed, and the Famine happened”.  That’s true but it’s only half-true. Less well-implanted in public consciousness is the fact that food of all kinds went on being shipped out  of Ireland even as the people died on the roads and ditches of the country. Tony Blair apologised for Britain’s part in the Famine but he didn’t make clear what that part was. I haven’t read Coogan’s book but the title suggests that he’s pointing a finger at the action and inaction of the time which meant death for so many.. Maybe he  should have called it The Famine:  How the Irish Starved Themselves. 

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Suffering - at home and abroad

We can’t feel sympathy for all the suffering in the world. There’s just too much of it and too little room in our heads and hearts. Despite that we do feel the pain of some, which is good.  Others we choose to ignore, which is less good. 

Take last week. A young Indian woman called Savita Halappanavar died in a Galway hospital. She was 17 weeks pregnant and she died, her husband said, because the doctors refused to perform an abortion to save her life. The grief of her husband, faced with the double tragedy of the loss of a spouse and child, is deep and dark. You can see why people took to the streets carrying placards saying ‘Ireland’s shame’.  You can see why Joe Duffy’s Liveline programme dealt with the question four days in a row. 

Five other women died on Sunday last.  Not in a hospital, where doctors and nurses, even in Galway,  strive to keep patients alive and restore them to health.  These five women died without doctor or nurse. They didn’t die alone - eight children died with them. And their deaths didn’t happen because someone in a hospital didn’t do the right thing. They died because bombs had been dropped on them by the Israeli air force. In recent days over a hundred Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fighter-bombers. 

No four-day Joe Duffy discussions for these people.  Newly-elected American president Barack Obama spoke about the Middle East deaths but he did it in a way similar to the way the Troubles here were once reported: from behind police or British army lines.  So Obama chose to speak of the conflict in the Middle East but it was suffering of Israel, subject to rocket attacks from the Gaza strip, that he drew attention to. He didn’t mention the names of the Palestinian women who died. He probably didn’t know them. Neither do I.

There’s a reason for this selective sympathy. Savita Halappanavar was an individual about whom we learnt a lot. We saw her picture, we heard from her husband, we watched a spokesman for the Indian government speak critically of what had happened. All around the world, newspapers carried headlines painting Ireland as the country  which let a helpless woman die. She was an individual.

The Palestinians - they’re just an amorphous mass. Uneducated, excitable, far away. And so Barack Obama presents the situation as one where Israel, surrounded by enemies, must strike out in self-defence, and most of us accept that. We think of what the Jews suffered at the hands of the Nazis and, squashing a sense of uneasiness, we sympathise with Israel.

The United States sympathises with Israel too. In fact it goes beyond sympathy. Between 1996 and 2006, Israel was given $24 billion in financial military aid by the US. In August 2007, a new Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the two countries, guaranteeing Israel $30 billion in military aid over the next ten years. Americans, you might say, have put and are putting their money where their mouth is. Just as the Jews were incarcerated in concentration camps, so the Palestinians are virtual prisoners on the Gaza strip: a piece of land 25 miles long and some 5 miles wide is home to 1.7 million people.  It’s on these cooped-up people that the Israelis drop bomb after bomb. 

Several decades ago, Christy Moore sang a song about the American role in the assassination of Chile’s president,  Dr Salvador Allende.

“It’s a long way from the heartlands
To Santiago Bay
Where the good doctor lies 
With blood in his eyes
And the bullets read ‘US of A’ “

In Gaza today, you don’t have to alter too many words to hear the same old song. 

Friday, 23 November 2012

Ann Travers, whataboutery and unique pain

David Dunseith was a man I had not just respect but affection for. He somehow caught all the political bits of mud that people slung at him and each other, and made out of them a forum in which people could maybe think again about things, could set aside or at least put on hold the fierce loyalties or prejudices or pain that they brought to his Talkback programme. However, there was one term David used which I think was misleading and sometimes diminished the  case a caller was presenting. The term was whataboutery.  You’re claiming A, but what about B. Or C or D or Z? David had no time for whataboutery.  

I think whataboutery is important, or certainly can be. For example, when the media and everyone else was weighing into the Catholic Church for the sexual horrors some of its clergy were guilty of, and the cover-up that followed those crimes, no one said “What about other sections of society? What about the BBC, and care homes, and even within families?” As a result, the horrors of society were piled on one back and all other backs apparently didn’t exist. How stupid and short-sighted that was is now becoming slowly and painfully evident. 

Which brings us - yet again - to the death of Mary Travers. Yes, call it murder by all means, if that’s how you see it and if it helps us focus on the point. Mary Travers’s sister Ann was on TV during the week and it would have taken a heart of flint not to feel for her.  Trying to cope with cancer, trying to cope with the loss of her sister in horrific circumstances, trying to get what she believes is justice in an unjust world: it seems like too much to heap on one frail back. 

But then, on Good Morning Ulster I think it was,  Jude Whyte rang in. His mother was killed - yes, call it that if you wish, or murdered - in the same year, in the same time-period as Mary Travers died.  Mrs Whyte was killed at her own front door by UVF people, probably with state collusion. Whyte still feels the loss of his mother - who wouldn’t? But his point on Radio Ulster/Raidio Uladh was that there are hundreds of cases like his and Ann Travers - hundreds of people grieving for a face and a hand and a voice that will never come back. But that the way we’ve stopped these losses is by coming to an Agreement that, while it’s more than difficult for victims - all victims - to accept, it’s what we’ve agreed on and that’s the price we pay for a fragile peace.  

I’m reading a booklet at the moment called The Pitchfork Murders. It’s about two young men - more boys, really - who were killed by a loyalist gang, again most likely with state collusion. It’s called The Pitchfork Murders because, initially, it was thought the two young men had been killed with a pitchfork. In fact both died by repeated stabbing with a 6” Bowie knife. There were no signs of resistance from either of the two, which suggests they were held by others while the killer stabbed again and again. One of the pair had wounds on his back and front, suggesting the killer stabbed him first in the front and then had him turned over, like an animal on a spit, so he could be stabbed on the other side. The killers have never been brought to justice; the state has never conceded involvement. 

There are hundreds of people out there bearing the kind of grief that came to eat into the relatives of those killed in the Pitchfork Murders,  the relatives of Mrs  Whyte, the relatives of Ann Travers. It’s not to take away from Ann Travers’s pain to say that she hasn’t the right to seek personal, unique terms of punishment for the woman who was involved in her sister’s death - yes, her sister’s murder, if you want to call it that. The woman involved in the death of her sister served time in prison, like hundreds of others, for what she’d done. And she was released under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. And the GFA said nothing about released prisoners not being allowed to be advisers to politicians in Stormont. If anything, the situation of released prisoners deserves thoughtful and sympathetic consideration, to help re-integrate them into society, rather than place further restrictions on their lives. And that’s all prisoners. 

So what am I saying in a long-winded way? That Jude Whyte is right. The only way forward is for all who have suffered to move on, accept the terms under which agreement was reached, and stop claiming that his or her grief is unique. What about all the other victims and their grief? Each and every one is equally unique.  

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Education and Israel

It sounds a bit like something from Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, but Queen’s University’s Tony Gallagher has been in Israel to discuss shared education. The idea is that as shared (not to be confused with integrated?) education helps bring people together here, it could equally work in the Middle East. 

I’ve got mixed feelings on this one, but the pros and the cons aren’t mixed in equal proportions. A small pro part of me says that when you get to know people, you’re more sympathetic to them even if you still reject their politics. To that extent, people who make up their minds about the worth of political thinking on the basis of how much they like someone as an individual - they’d probably be helped by shared/integrated education.

On the other hand a large con part of me says that if shared/integrated education made a difference, we’d have a changed society by now. We don’t. In fact, divisions and hatreds are deeper than ever. 

When I was part of the working world of education, I watched as some people built successful careers out of a search for peace within the educational process. Cynically or naively, they argued that education had a major part to play in resolving the conflict.  It’s true that it didn’t make it worse - visiting Catholic and Protestant schools on a regular basis and sitting in on classes, I never once heard a teacher so much as hint at sectarianism. The reverse, if anything. So I suppose education at least didn’t add to the flames. And of course no less a person than Padraig Pearse believed passionately in the worth of education: his book The Murder Machine  is well worth reading still for its criticisms of what we accept as ‘good’ education.

But clearly Pearse didn’t believe education would change the Ireland in which he lived, otherwise he wouldn’t have gone out in Easter Week to meet his death.  Education is a vital part of any society, but it’s impotent in terms of who governs and who controls. Good teachers, by and large, are seen as those who follow the rules. And part of the rules over the past forty years has been that education could change things here, because the problem is really a sectarian one and not a political one. Change the way we regard each other and political structures become irrelevant.

Gallagher on his Tel Aviv visit says he can’t understand why Hamas keeps firing missiles, since this only shows their impotence compared to the Israeli army and brings destruction on the people of Gaza. Maybe they do it, Tony, because they believe that the imprisoned people of the Gaza Strip, treated with contempt for decades, want to make some gesture of defiance, as the bully that is Israel beats them to the ground and starts kicking. 

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

The G8 in Fermanagh - isn't it GR8?

God isn’t it great, though? I can hardly believe it - it’s like getting all your birthdays and Christmases bunched together on a couple of June days. Sure we’ll be like a house that’s been nominated for the stations - there’ll be no let-up in white-washing and scrubbing and cleaning and painting and putting up ‘Cead mile failte’ signs on every lamp-post and tree.

And to think that where was that remote village Obama visited a while back, what was it, right, Moneygall. To think that  the Moneygall people thought they were the tops. Hah!  Forget it, Co Louth. We’ll be getting Obama plus every other important person you could think of - the political creme de la creme of Britain, France, Germany, Russia - we really have been selected for an honour so top-heavy, it’s a wonder it doesn't topple and fall into one of those loughs around the hotel.

What’s that? The hotel is in receivership? Oh. That does put a slight dampener on things. But hey, think of it this way: having the G8 summit there shows that there’s light at the end of the tunnel, that there’s resurrection after receivership, that phoenix-like, we’re set to come swooping clear of the ashes. I knew there was a positive aspect to it, if you thought hard enough. 

Will I be going myself? Well, no. And no, none of my friends either. Though there is a neighbour’s lad that’s got a job taking out the garbage at the back of the hotel - he’s going to be there. No, he won’t be able to take pictures with his camera-phone, but still: he’ll be able to tell his grandchildren he was there, won’t he? And then there’s the tourist boost this will give the area. Just think of it! People will see how lovely Fermanagh is and they’ll only be lining up to get visiting us, thus doing wonders for the local economy. What’s that?  They said the same thing about the visit by the Windsor woman, and tourism numbers actually fell in the year after? God, I hadn’t heard that. Maybe that was because there are a lot of anti-royalists about. This is different. This is the elected heads of so many states - people will be certain to follow their lead and visit. And spend their money, of course.  How much money will the G8 itself generate? I don’t know...Yes, of course they’ll bring their own chefs and food and stuff - you don’t want to risk somebody poisoning them, do you? ...That’s a shameful thing to say, shameful.  OK, I can’t see Cameron or Merkel going down to the village to buy a pint of milk or some Cornflakes or a packet of fags, but at the same time somebody  local must be benefiting. And think what it’ll do for the hotel - what an ad! It’ll flash round the world. 

Yes, to every nook and cranny. To remote spots in Asia, in Africa, in South America - places where people barely scrape out an existence. Sure it’ll be only inspirational for them...Well yes, you could  put it differently. You could say the rest of the world will be pressing its nose to the shop window to watch how our leaders live life. How soft their beds are, how sumptuous their banquets, how elegant their surroundings. You could if you were that nasty negative sort of person...EH?  Oh well, now you’re preaching the politics of envy. Just because you  can’t have that sort of lavish life-style, just because there are millions of people in Africa and South America living in appalling conditions, doesn’t mean the G8 people shouldn’t be given a proper lfeather-bedded time when they visit us. How else would their brains work so they could continue running the financial and political world in the clever, wealth-developing way they’ve been doing for the last ten years? 

It’s humbling, that’s what it is. To have these immensely powerful men and women, who could have gone anywhere in the world, deciding to come to Fermanagh and put the Province on the map...OK, who was it? Who shouted that remark about dreary spires?  Get him out of here  this instant. We all know that a massive honour has been bestowed on humble little Fermanagh and the Province. Thank you,  Mr Cameron sir. Never let it be said that Britain  forgets us. We are eternally  in your debt. And no, I don’t mean the £7 billion each year.  Oh, I feel quite dizzy with delight. Give me your arm, Marjorie...

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Jim seizes the high ground

There are few things more enjoyable than a man or woman in full moral-outrage flow.  Jim Wells was flowing very well in the Stormont debating chamber the other day and I must say it was a tour de force.

Jim was making it clear that non, il ne regrette rien.  If any muddle-headed nationalists or republicans were waiting for him to apologise for his remarks, they’d be waiting a long, long, LONG time. The remarks Jim was referring to were when he, behaving in what Minister Carál Ní Chuilín described as an aggressive, venomous and threatening manner, and referring to the Minister’s   adviser Mary McArdle, said to her “You needn’t think you are going to bring that murderer to South Down”. In another incident, Jim passed Mary McArdle in a corridor in Stormont and said to her “There’s the murderer herself”.  In the light of the incidents, the committee on standards and privileges proposed to bar Jim from Stormont for  a week. But the motion was defeated. Jim stays.

Why was I cheered up by these matters? Several reasons. It brings into the open what people are thinking - in this case, what unionist politicians, particularly Jim, think of people like Mary McArdle who were formerly IRA members. It brings into the open what people think of themselves: in denouncing the actions of Ms McArdle, Jim clearly was claiming higher moral ground for himself. Finally, it brings into the open the attempts of unionist politicians to instate their version of the history of the past forty years as the official history. I’m cheered by that because it’s always comforting to see what people are really up to.

Unfortunately there’s a down side as well, and that is that what people are up to may prevail as accepted wisdom and fact. Let’s consider the three I’ve listed.

Even if we were to accept Jim’s judgement of Ms McArdle as a murderer, why just her? Why doesn’t Jim stop Gerry Kelly, Martin McGuinness and any number of other former IRA people and tell them they’re murderers as well? He might even stop former members of the UDR or the British Army or the RUC and upbraid them. But he doesn’t. Jim’s wrath is confined to one woman.

Clearly, in denouncing her, Jim believes himself to be morally superior. I’m assuming (perhaps I’m wrong) that if he were asked his religious affiliation, Jim would reply without hesitation “Christian”. But doesn’t the founder of Christianity say somewhere “Judge not that you may not be judged”? And didn’t he forgive sinners again and again? And urge his followers to do likewise?

But maybe Jim’s history-writing is the most important part of his display of wrath. If Jim and those who think like him can promote as official the view that the IRA were a murderous gang and the cause of all the deaths of the Troubles, then that will mean...Well, that Jim’ s side was right. That they had God on their side. With the devil, presumably, on the side of those who opposed him.  Not that Jim’s the only one to take this tack. Quite a number of those who would describe themselves as nationalists take the same tack, only without Jim‘s thundering anger.

Post-script. It could be that Jim chose his moral-wrath target because he knew he’d have a fair number of nationalists lining up beside him as well as unionists. When I was sufficiently reckless to suggest that Mary Travers, in whose death  Mary McArdle  has been implicated, was killed by the IRA but not murdered,  I received more, well yes, venomous responses from people than for pretty well anything I’ve blogged in the past few years. No doubt Jim had that kind of venomous back-up in mind when he targeted Mary McArdle.  I've also noticed that, since that blog, my appearances on Radio Ulster/Raidio Uladh's Thought for the Day, once regular, have petered into non-existence. Coincidence? Mmm. Let me think about that one.

Still, you have to admit: the Stormont outburst was as fine a display of off-the-leash moral indignation as we’re likely to get this side of Christmas.  Go raibh cead maith agat, Jim - thanks loads. 

Sunday, 18 November 2012

What did you call yourself? How dare you!

There’s a letter into today’s Sindo, with the heading ‘Few people are anti-life’. It’s from a John Fitzgerald in Co Kilkenny, and he’s taking to task those who are referred to as ‘pro-lifers’ in the abortion debate, because there’s an implication in their title that those not in agreement with them are anti-life.  He says that excluding ultra-right-wingers like the guy who killed 77 people in Norway and people “who peddle death as a matter of routine” (presumably drug-pushers), there are surely very few anti-life people on the planet.

It might be interesting to ask those in the Gaza strip right now if they share John’s view on the hard-to-locateness of anti-lifers. But let’s set that aside. I think people have a right to call themselves whatever (within reason) they like.  If others feel the name is in some way passing judgement on them, then it’s their job to argue a case showing how wrong they are.  Instead of doing this, John Fitzgerald advances the only-the-occasional-nutter argument, and supplements it with the charge that a lot pro-lifers aren’t so hot about looking after the living. This second charge  may or may not be true but it's shifting the argument from its focal point: abortion. It may be ironic if I were, for example, pro-capital punishment and anti-abortion, but drawing attention to that does nothing to answer the central questions around the abortion debate. 

  If those who describe themselves as ‘pro-choice’  are just as pro-life as the pro-lifers ( as John claims)  then presumably they see the foetus as human life, since it’s the foetus we’re talking about here. If they do see it as human life, the abortion debate is over. Human life deserves to be protected, and only in cases of self-defence (in this case defence of the mother’s life) can that right to life be flushed away. If on the other hand pro-choice people believe that there is no human life in the woman’s womb during the early stages of pregnancy, why do they speak of an abortion as always a serious, soul-searching decision?

I would class myself as pro-life in the abortion debate, and that has nothing to do with the Catholic Church’s teaching on abortion, so please, don't start telling me about what a shit your parish priest was/is.  I just believe the pro-choice people are unconvincing in their claims as to when the foetus becomes human, as well as in their claims about abortion always being a serious, soul-searching decision. 

As to the Galway case, to describe reactions to it as knee-jerk would be to understate. Until we hear, clearly and dispassionately,  what actually was said and done - or not done - in this sad, nightmare case, we’re adding our wasted breath to the Irish stereotyping that’s currently being peddled at home and abroad. 

Friday, 16 November 2012

Nice one, Eamo...

There are people who’ll tell you it’s impossible to ride two horses at once.  They haven’t talked to Eamon Gilmore, obviously.  Shortly before the Israeli killing of the leader of Hamas,  I got a call from presstv (google them). They wanted to know what I thought of the Irish government’s decision to push for the boycott of goods from the Jewish settlement areas in the Middle East. So I did a bit of research on it and discovered that much of it revolved around a lengthy letter written by Eamon Gilmore to the chair of the south’s Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, Pat Breen. 

In it,  Eamon manages to make much of the possibility that the south will use its period of Presidency of the EU Council to push other member states to mount this boycott. So far so good. Except then Eamon says, in effect, there’s no point in trying to do it, because many of the other states won’t join in. 

See what he did there? Hopped one leg very nimbly onto a second horse. When I was asked on presstv what I thought of it, I made two points: (i) that Mr Gilmore and his Irish Labour Party colleagues have something of a reputation for getting agitated over injustice in other countries, the degree of their indignation often measured by its distance from Ireland and Ireland’s powerlessness to act; and (ii) that while it’d be nice to see Ireland lead the EU in a move to highlight some of the terrible deeds done by Israel to the Palestinian people,  it wasn’t exactly good strategy to start by saying you didn’t expect to get anywhere.  

I haven’t heard what Mr Gilmore has had to say about the recent killing of the Hamas leader and the brutal  bombing raids by the Israelis in recent days. Thank God. 

Thursday, 15 November 2012

The death of Savita Halappanavar

I don’t know all the detail of what happened  in the  Savita Halappanavar case, and I’d be fairly certain neither do you. What we do know is that this young woman was 17 weeks pregnant, that she died of septic shock in the course of a miscarriage, and that doctors stated they could not abort her pregnancy due to the current Irish laws. We also know that her husband said that doctors told her she couldn’t have an abortion because ‘this is a Catholic country’ and that her death prompted demonstrations by hundreds of people carrying placards saying ‘Ireland’s shame’ and ‘Our shame’.

To say this is an emotive case is to understate it. The grief which the woman’s husband must be feeling is unimaginable, and it’s hard, even though we’ve never met the man, not to share in some way in that grief. The Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore has declared the law must be clarified. 

My response to the last item is that Eamon Gilmore should try to refrain from stating the obvious. Laws should be passed and/or clarified by people with cool heads, not those in a state of emotional agitation such as many are presently experiencing. As for ‘Ireland’s shame’ and ‘Our shame’,  include me out. None of us on the northern side of the border have any control over the state of the laws - and their consequences - south of the border. 

A  couple of other things. If you don’t believe Savita Halappanavar was carrying a human being, you should be calling for the doctors involved to  be struck off the register and jailed. If you believe Savita Halappanavar was carrying a human being, you must be wondering what Irish law says that when the mother’s life is at risk, an abortion must not be performed. 

The squalid temptation at present is for those who favour abortion on request to use the emotion generated by this desperate tragedy as a soapbox from which to further their cause. The facts of the case should be clearly established and the law clarified in a calm, detached manner. That done,  the people of the twenty-six counties - better still, of all 32 counties -  should be given a chance, by referendum, to decide  whether they wish abortion on demand/request to be made available.  Those who believe the foetus isn’t human will certainly vote for such availability. Those who believe the foetus is human will certainly vote against it. All the rest is useless hysteria. 

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Can Ireland stand up to the oil companies?

Oil. Dark greasy stuff, looks silly when applied to guys’ heads to make their hair stand up a la Jedward. On TV it’s what makes the Ewings run in the remake of Dallas. In real life it’s a source of energy and a source of strife. 

Latest source of oil and controversy is said to be lying six kilometres off the coast in Dalkey, Co Dublin.  Yes, that Dalkey - the one where celeb people and writers and artists live. You think they’re going to take oil-drilling and maybe oil-bringing-ashore lying down? No chance. Not in their back yard. But of course they dress it up as being concern for the environment and the Irish people. One spokesman for the group Dublin Bay Concern says that the government’s licensing system allows companies to extract “100 per cent of resources and pay no royalties”. Eddie Hobbs, who has made a  nice living wearing pink shirts and denouncing the rip-off Republic, says there’s no requirement for the oil companies to bring the oil on-shore or generate jobs. According to him, the the twenty-six counties’ licensing regime comes second-worst in the world. The oil people called Providence (what a nice name) say that “up to 40% of profits from production  would accrue to the State”, not to mention loadsajobs. A Dublin Bay Concern person says yeah,  corporate tax of 25% rising to 40% would be paid but would be written off against the cost of drilling. 

It’s kind of exciting to think of Ireland being rich in oil and/or gas  (remember that big gas resource underground in Leitrim/Fermanagh?) but as with all such things, it’s how they’re handled that matters. Ask the Shell-to-Sea people in the west of Ireland what they think of oil companies;  several of their number have been to jail because they’ve tried to stop Shell doing what it wants. The residents of Leitrim and Fermanagh are nervous that the environmental price in extracting gas will be catastrophic for the environment. 

It’s a bit like the US’s role in the world. When it intervenes in countries, it says it does so for the welfare and prosperity of that country’s citizens. There’s truth in that, but only a fool would believe that the US goes in there solely for the good of that country’s people. It weighs the balance and only when it finds that there’s a big plus on the US side of things do they commit companies and resources, with of course military back-up.  Likewise the oil exploration companies. They couldn’t care less if Ireland sinks beneath the Atlantic waves, providing they make a massive profit and it doesn’t impair their potential to make a massive profit at the next impoverished stop-off country they target. 

Shell-to-Sea have had very little success in putting manners on Shell; maybe the more well-heeled and articulate denizens of Dalkey will have better luck. But the tide of oil history is very much against them. 

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

QC says report will include some "highly-classified documents". Oo-er.

Sir Desmond de Silva QC (don’t you wish you’d a name like that?) who’s been leading a British government review of the killing of Pat Finucane says some “highly-classified documents” will be included in the report. The idea, apparently, is to ensure public confidence when it comes out. De Silva says he's rather proud of the fact that his review has been produced “on time and on budget”.

That’s nice. It’s not what the Finucane family wanted - they wanted a full public inquiry  - but it’s nice. And it’s nice that the report will include highly-classified stuff. But the elegantly-named Sir Desmond has over-reached himself a bit when he talks “ensuring public confidence”.  Because it won’t, you know. The Finucanes and thousands of others will wonder what other “highly-classified documents” were there that the the British government, vis Sir D de S QC, chose not  to include. British Secretary of State Theresa Villiers has said there’s nothing in the de Silva report that’ll affect British security or put anyone’s life at risk. Which suggests the bottom-line criteria for releasing documents can be found in the answer to the question “Will this be bad for us?”  Us being the British government. 

In sum: the wishes of the family of the victim have been ignored; the review will not carry any information that might be bad for British ‘security’, and the person carrying it out has been appointed by the British government. 

The rest of us will get to see the report  in early December. Let’s hope  our other Christmas presents are a bit more promising-looking. 

Sunday, 11 November 2012

George, James and Alastair

I wish I were smarter and could see what everybody else appears to see - or certainly all commentators I've heard so far appear to see. Fact: the BBC's Director-General has had to resign. Why? Because somebody on Newsnight  accused a leading Tory in the 1970s of sexual abuse. The accused was not named. People on the internet then claimed it was Lord McAlpine. The accuser says it wasn't. And then the BBC's DG decides he must resign and everybody agrees. Am I missing something? Or has the BBC world gone mad? I'm no admirer of what I've experienced of BBC management but I think if the top manager is going to get the boot, he should have been responsible for something a bit more awful than allowing a programme to go out that includes a claim that an unnamed leading Tory was a sexual abuser. This is the Tories we're talking about. Doesn't anyone remember another Tory in the early 1960s called John (Jack to his friends) Profumo, CBE?

New chapter: I noticed on RTÉ's Premier Soccer Saturday that the entire Man United team were wearing jerseys that had a poppy as part of the shirt's fabric. So was Alex Ferguson so conversant with the war views of his international team that there was no opt-out necessary? And if sport and politics aren't supposed to mix, how come sport and war are clearly mixed in this case?  As for James McClean, late of this parish, my hat is off to him for doing his own thinking and not wearing a poppy, despite the fact that all his Sunderland  team-mates did. And my other hat is off to Martin O'Neill, the Sunderland manager, who presumably (unlike Ferguson) left room for personal choice in the matter.

And finally: I don't think I've ever seen a political party leader's key-note speech received with such critical commentary as was Alastair McDonnell's yesterday by Professor Rick Wilford. Immediately after the speech, Wilford pointed out that it was full of generalities  (apart from the mandatory kicking of Sinn Féin); it promised a renewal of the SDLP, something that, at last year's SDLP conference, was promised would happen inside three months; and while the speech was better than McDonnell's shambolic "Jeez boys, them lights is blindin' me!" performance last year,  it must have left any honest SDLP member in the hall with that by-now-familiar sinking feeling.  It's the good doctor's wife I feel sorry for.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Two cheers for Barack Obama

Below is the article I wrote for The Andersonstown News group of papers earlier this week. I  could have lopped out the top bit and made it more up-to-date, but since I've been wrong (like so many others) so often in my predictions,  allow me a quick wallow in self-congratulation. Besides, it's fun to remember that Truman  headline provided you don't think about how Truman ordered the dropping of the A-bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, just as it's fun seeing Obama win, providing one doesn't think of his ordering the release of drone bombs responsible for terrible carnage in Afghanistan.

By the time you read this, Barack Hussein Obama will have been re-elected President of the United States. Probably. You never can be sure with these things. In 1948, Thomas Dewey, a man so pompous it was said he could strut while sitting down,  fought Harry Truman for the American presidency. The  pundits were so convinced Dewey would win at a canter, The Chicago Herald Tribune  ran the headline in its early edition: ‘Dewey Defeats Truman’.  Oh-oh.  In fact Truman won and there’s a great picture of him holding up the daft headline and grinning from ear to ear. 

Today there are those so convinced of an Obama win, they’re saying the neck-and neck talk is just journalists trying to make the race exciting.  So let’s assume  they’re right and ask what  has swung Americans behind the incumbent?

Well, Romney for a start. Obama’s challenger kept dropping these resounding clangers.  Introducing his vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan  he declared “Join me in welcoming the next president of the United States - Paul Ryan!!” When asked what he wears in bed  he said “I think the best answer is as little as possible”. And then there was a speech where he really went weird:   “ When you have a fire in an aircraft, there’s no place to go, exactly, there’s no-- and you can’t find any oxygen from outside the aircraft to get in the aircraft, because the windows don’t open. I don’t know why they don’t do that. It’s a real problem.”  Say what, Mitt?

But then came that first televised debate and Obama was the one in trouble. He performed like a man who was bored and suddenly the polls showed Romney on his shoulder and gathering momentum. That is, until Sandy came along. The President’s handling of the hurricane aftermath so impressed Americans, Obama surged again and it now looks as though he’s ahead and will stay there.  

Of course other things like jobs  and foreign wars and Guantanamo Bay mattered as well.  But the fact is most Americans have jobs, most Americans haven’t lost a loved one in war, most Americans excuse Guantanamo Bay in the name of Homeland Security.  And while the sheen may have gone off Obama after four years, most Americans figure a right-wing, abrasive Romney in the White House would make things worse. ’

But here’s the worrying part.  Does it matter if Obama is a good TV debater or not?  Not a button. Just like it didn’t matter that JFK looked better on TV than Nixon, or that Reagan had better one-liners on TV than Jimmy Carter.  Choosing the president of your country isn’t  like choosing a winner on X Factor, or it shouldn’t be, but that’s what will determine the vote of many Americans this week. TV footage of the Sandy aftermath showed Obama walking around with his hands in his pockets, looking suitably glum. But it’s that kind of thing that gets the votes. Bill Clinton used to be good at doing the “I feel your pain” thing too, and the electorate loved him for it. 

So it was a bad TV debate performance sent Obama’s ratings sliding and it was a good hurricane-aftermath showing on TV that has sent him back into the lead.  Yes siree, the housing market matters (“It’s the economy, stupid”), but deep down those Americans who aren’t hurting too much want a president who talks good and looks sympathetic. For God’s sake - they elected George Bush (twice) because they thought he’d be a nice guy to have a beer with. 

Only in America, eh? Or maybe not.  Just over a year ago, the Irish people in the in the twenty-six counties missed a historic opportunity because a TV presenter saw fit to ask one candidate if he went to confession.  We’re not so smart ourselves, when you think about it. 

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Frank and his poppy

Oh dear. It’s that time of year again. Poppy time.  When those who don’t wear the poppy are depicted as backward-looking anti-Brit bigots, stuffed with spleen and blind to the sacrifice of their fellow-countrymen. When politicians like Fine Gael’s Frank Feighan can wear their poppy with pride in the Dail, to show how open-minded and progressive he is. “We have well and truly moved on from that dark, bloody era in the North before the evolution of the peace process” Frank says. “Thankfully, the peace dividend has delivered a new politics which has allowed us to publicly respect all traditions on this island”. And that’s why Frank’s wearing a poppy.

And why not?  I expect at Easter, Frank will sport an Easter lily, to commemorate the courage of the men who gave their lives so that ‘this island’ could govern itself.  I shouldn’t be surprised if Frank doesn’t call for all RTÉ presenters to copy his example and wear an Easter lily on air... And pigs might what, you say? Fly?

Ah. Now I get it. “All traditions on this island” ( go on, Frank - go mad and call it ‘Ireland’) really means “certain traditions on this island”. That’d explain why Frank and other southern politicians were so quiet when a BBC presenter in Belfast a few years ago was, um, persuaded that her non-poppy-wearing thinking was part of a false consciousness   and if she wanted to go on presenting she’d be well advised to make that false consciousness true. So she did. Saw her wearing on the other evening.

Of course, Frank may not have  heard about the white poppy campaign in England, where a lot of people want to distance themselves from the militaristic nature of Remembrance ceremonies.  He almost certainly hasn’t heard Channel 4’s Jon Snow who talks of ‘poppy fascism’, such is the pressure on presenters to toe the poppy line. 

Here’s the thing, Frank  If  you want to make public your views and loyalties to the rest of us (and your colleagues in the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly), that’s fine. But if you do, you should be ready to speak out with equal boldness in defence of those who, for whatever reason, choose not to wear a poppy. And speak out even more boldly for those who choose to wear an Easter lily on any part of' this island.‘  And, as with the poppy,  maybe lead by example.  Get your Easter lily in place, take a stroll down  Sandy Row or the main street of Aghohill, and you'll almost certainly learn something about respect for all traditions on this island. 

Monday, 5 November 2012

Are you wondering where to slip the new Irish Times?

I see where, over on sluggerotoole.com, Mick Fealty is going all thoughtful and running a professional eye over The Irish Times, which today apparently has adopted a new format.  It’s not gone tabloid but it hasn’t stayed broadsheet either. Somewhere in between.

 Mick says things like “The Berliner is a personal favorite of mine, not least because it  has the kind of charm of the unusual you get from like the quarto and octavo in books or magazines... The new Irish Times is much less radical, as I suspect was the intention. The size is identifiably broadsheet, but is also double tabloid size. So it sits handily inside the Irish Indo for instance.”

Is Mick taking the mickey? Personally  I don’t give a monkey’s whether the Irish Times sits handily inside the Irish Indo  or not. For two reasons.

The first is because I’d rather scoop my eyes out with a soup spoon than buy The Indo,  and on the rare occasion I buy The Irish Times I either read it or shove it in my coat pocket. In fact these days I do virtually all my newspaper reading online.  Two years ago I realised that, apart from the expense, I was cluttering up the house and eating into my time by buying and then feeling obliged to read two newspapers every day. So I stopped and I can’t tell you how cleansing it feels. 

The second reason I think the Irish Times  format is not worth discussing is not the reason Mick suggests - that inside five years all newspaper reading will have migrated online. It’s because I think it’s infinitely more important what the paper says than what size or shape it is. Do its journalists and columnists report the truth or do they bend to the pressures of editor and owner? Do they treat the north as somewhere ‘up there’ or do they afford it the same space and attention as any other part of the country?  Do they do profiles of the rich and famous or do they deal with real issues?Those are questions worth spending ink on - not on whether one slips neatly within the other. For God’s sake, Mick - that’s near cat-walk talk. 

What I would welcome is a discussion of how Irish - and English - national newspapers will deal with 2016. And  how many of them will have the cojones to print the editorial line they took on Easter Week  one hundred years earlier?  

It’s the message that counts, Mick, not the handwriting. 

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Drugs and death

It’s not a position I usually find myself in, but I reacted negatively yesterday when I heard someone - almost certainly a politician - talk about the death of David Black as ‘an all-Ireland problem’. I concede that the dissident group which killed him very likely has members north and south of the border, but that wasn’t the point that was being made. “They’ve shown they’re quite prepared to kill people on both sides of the border” was the thrust of the statement.

That’s true. But it seems to me a misleading comment. While not wishing to take from the brutality of David Black’s death, the violent deaths south of the border which are being attributed to dissident republicans  involved not prison officers, but drug dealers. How often have you heard the phrase “He was well-known to the gardaí” when one of these fatal shootings happened?   Yet  despite their frequency, despite promises from the likes of former Justice Minister Michael McDowell that they would clean up the mess,  the killings continue with little or no political or public outcry.. Why? Because deep down there is a perverted satisfaction that one more drug-dealer is dead. 

The state in the south appears powerless to prevent both dealing in drugs and the deaths that happen in the course of this dealing. Almost certainly that’s a major contributor to the relative political silence when one of these  people die violently. Make too much noise and it might draw attention to the state’s  impotence or lack of concern that another drug-dealer has been dealt with, not by the state, but some illegal grouping.

Were the deaths of drug-dealers any less horrible than the death of David Black? Not really, except you believe some human lives are more worthy of protection than others. But the chorus of politicians’ voices from the south in recent days over David Black contrasts sharply with their silence and inactivity each time another person “well-known to the gardaí” is gunned down. Maybe they’re afraid that people will start demanding that (i) the drug problem be tackled in a way that works; and (ii) that all lives, including and maybe especially the lives of those we detest, be protected. Wasn’t there a line in the Easter Proclamation about all of the children of the nation being cherished equally?

Friday, 2 November 2012

The few things we know and the many we don't

Maybe you better stop reading now. That is, if you’ve heard all you want to hear on the subject of sexual abuse, about which tens of thousands, maybe millions of words have been written and spoken in recent years....You still want to go on reading? Despite last night seeing that odd and sad figure, Freddie Starr, denouncing Jimmy Savile in the hope that he himself would sound more on the side of the angels?OK. It’s a free country. (Well, maybe not but you know what I mean.) 

What dismays me is not so much what has been written and said about paedophilia as what’s not been said about paedophilia. Despite all the verbiage, all the screen time, several things are still unclear, or they are to me anyway.  Take for example the guestion of guilt. 

If the alleged crimes - as in the Jimmy Savile case - were committed some years ago,  then presumably there isn’t material evidence of what happened. In which case - again I’m guessing - guilt or innocence is decided by testimony from those who say they were abused. As with all dead people, it’s impossible to say how Jimmy Savile would react to the charges against him. But let’s assume he was alive and denied them. Then it’d be his word against the word of his alleged victims - somewhere around 300, last I heard. Among the general public there’s been an outcry against the one-time hero:  strip him of his knighthood, both British and papal;  change the names of streets that were given his name. Burn those ‘Jim’ll Fix It’ badges. All of which clearly assumes Savile was guilty of the charges against him. But is that assumption built on the fact that so many people say they were his victim?  If it is, that’s a bit worrying.. Read Arthur Miller’s great play The Crucible  and you’ll see what happens when passionate but unsubstantiated charges are made against people. A witch-hunt develops.

That’s the first thing I worry about. The second is, what is sexual abuse?  I know of a case of a priest who had a teenage girl come to him for advice. In the course of their  private encounter, he had her on his knee and was kissing her. Was that sexual abuse? No, no, I didn’t say was it completely wrong behaviour for a priest to engage in with a teenager.  I said was it sexual abuse? And if so, are there degrees of sexual abuse?  Or do we just lump  an unwanted kiss-and-cuddle in along with rape and classify as monsters all of those guilty of such acts?

The third thing I worry about it is, what’s to be done with those who are proven child sexual abusers? When a Catholic priest was found to be guilty of sexual abuse in the past, there was a pattern of moving him on to another parish, and this was denounced as exposing other innocent children to the predator. That’s because child sexual abusers are sick recidivists. They inevitably revert to their abuse again when afforded the opportunity. So does that mean the abuser can’t stop abusing - in other words, he’s in the grip of an illness? If that’s the case, he belongs in a psychiatric hospital, not in a prison, because you can’t be held responsible for something over which you’ve no control. 

You’d hardly think it possible that questions like these would remain, given how much ink has been spilled and airtime exhausted.  At the moment, the Savile case is the one hitting the headlines, and if good can come out of (alleged) evil, then this case serves one useful purpose. It shows that sexual abuse occurs outside the ranks of the Catholic clergy as well as within them. For too long the problem has been discussed as though the Catholic Church was the sole source of paedophilia.  At a public forum I once voiced the possibility that clergy from other Churches and from the general public were as likely to be child abusers as Catholic priests,  and was sharply reprimanded by three clergymen from the Protestant faith. No, they told me firmly: child sexual abuse was a problem centred solely on the Catholic Church and was rooted in the celibacy rule. When I asked for research evidence to support that contention,  I was told there was no need for research, they knew. 

I suppose in the end all my questions on the topic boil down to that:  why is it, in the Savile case and all the others, so many people talk as if they know, when in fact all they’re doing is repeating what everybody else is saying?

Suggestion: let’s confine witch-hunting to Halloween.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Death of a prison officer

It’s strange. Just after I heard of the killing of David Black, the prison officer, I heard that someone I admire a great deal was suffering from terminal cancer. So the two deaths came together in my head.  

Condemnations of the David Black killing have come flooding in. Peter Robinson says it’s the work of ‘flat-earth fanatics’. Martin McGuinness has denounced the killing as ‘meaningless and futile’.

I’m not sure I agree. The terminal condition of the cancer sufferer is hard to attach meaning to, but the killing of David Black does have meaning. That is to say, it was done with a purpose in mind - to send a message to the prison authorities in Maghaberry about strip-searching.  It’s an uncomfortable fact full of echoes from the past, but there are a number of dissident republican prisoners in Maghaberry on a dirty protest  - not washing, not shaving, throwing their excrement from their cells.  Apparently there is an alternative scanning process that can be used  instead of strip-searching and it is used elsewhere in the north. But it hasn’t been used in Maghaberry. David Black was probably shot dead by people who believe that this will help galvanize the authorities into ending strip searching. 

So to repeat, it has meaning. But equally it may be futile, or worse than futile. It may harden the resolve of the authorities to prevent any public notion that they are responding to pressure from dissidents. Then again, it may result in the authorities quietly and quickly installing scanning equipment in Maghaberry. 

But whether it has meaning and/or is futile is different from asking ‘Was it morally wrong?’  I think of the cancer sufferer and I think it is surely sacrilegious to deliberately snuff out a life, erasing all the hopes and plans and life that lay ahead for this 52-year-old and those that loved him. Even if it did achieve the dissidents’ end, would it be worth it to come at  such a heavy, terrible price? Doesn’t death come quick enough for us all?

But a proviso, to myself  as much as anyone who may be tempted to share my reaction. There’s a man in the US today, who most of us are hoping will get another four years in the White House. He regularly gives orders that send death, not just to one man on a motorway, but to dozens at a time,  wiping away the innocent with the guilty. He’s the drone-bomb man and he’s called Barack Obama. That’s how political ends are achieved in this world. So as we hold our noses at the cruel death this morning, let’s be equally outraged - maybe more outraged - at the casual slaughter that barely gets a line in print.