Jude Collins

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Dear All,

I'm impressed and touched to see that some of you are still visiting this site. Far be it from me to get in your way but my son tells me that all of the stuff that's here has been carried lock, stock and sentence to my new wordpress site -  www.judecollins.com - which is where I'm blogging from now. It's just important (well, semi-important) that you know I'm still fighting the good fight at the new site.

Meanwhile, Nollaig shona duibh  - Happy Christmas to all...


Tuesday, 19 November 2013

We have moved (royal plural, there)...

If you've landed on this site, my apologies. I have now moved to a Wordpress site - www.judecollins.com.

Different lay-out, same studied brilliance from blogger and those who comment. Come and join us!

Monday, 18 November 2013

Michael D "closes the final chapter"? Or maybe not.

So - President Michael D Higgins is to visit Britain and call in on the British head of state for a chin-wag. Well, more than that, really. This is the first time the Irish head of state has made an official visit to Britain. Aren’t you excited?

Much was being made of it this morning on BBC Raidio Uladh/Radio Ulster and on RTÉ. Conor Bradford talked about the visit “closing the final chapter” in relations between the two countries, and on RTÉ Ming Campbell was talking about how the cordial coming together of Michael D and Elizabeth II would reflect the closeness that exists between the two populations.

There’s truth in that. We do share interests - sport, literature, language, media - with our nearest neighbour. But how is it that umpteen commentators at the time of QE2’s visit to the south and now commentators on Michael D’s visit to Britain will talk about the event in all sorts of ways, talk about the improvement in relations (we were reminded this morning how overjoyed the nation was when QE2 said the cupla focal and Mary McAleese mouthed ‘Wow!’) and yet no one will dare mention the one thing that has marred relations between Britain and Ireland for near a century now: the north. We were even told the civil war was fought, not over partition but over the oath to the British monarch. 

Maybe it’s like the point that was raised at that Strabane debate on Thursday last: now would be a very bad time to have a border poll because it might inflame loyalists. Is that why the core matter - Britain’s claim to jurisdiction here - is avoided: it might upset the loyalists? I get very worried when I hear people talking about closing the final chapter with a presidential visit. It’s like looking at a great six-inch stab-wound and saying “Ach here, sure I’ve a bit of sticking plaster, no problem”. 

Maybe I’m naive. Maybe it’s all about softly-softly. Maybe Basil McCrea’s urging of the right to raise taxes here is, whether he realises it or not,  another tiptoe step towards Irish people finally running Irish affairs. But Michael D’s visit still has a whiff of Basil Fawlty to it: don’t mention the border. 

Saturday, 16 November 2013

David Cameron: withering on war crimes. Well, some anyway...

Here’s David Cameron:

"The information in that book is completely chilling. It's an appalling set of allegations and of course these allegations have been backed up by the work of the journalist Anne Cadwallader who has had them verified. There are legitimate accusations of war crimes that need to be properly investigated. That is actually what the British government itself found … but it hasn't effectively answered them. They need to be answered."

Well actually not quite David Cameron. The British prime minister is talking about Sri Lanka, it’s not ‘information in that book’ but ‘images in that film’, and it’s not ‘the journalist Anne Cadwallader’ but ‘The UN special rapporteur’. And finally  it’s not ‘the British government’ (are you kidding?) - it’s ‘the Sri Lankan government’. 

All the rest, though, is straight from the horse’s mouth. Dear David is a bit like our own Michael D -  big on the need to condemn horrors as long as they’re far from home. So why would he be so incensed about events thousands of miles away and tight-lipped about similar stuff happening here? Because he might have to do something about the stuff nearer home, that’s why.

But listen, David. Don’t worry. If Blair got off with saying he was sorry for the Irish Famine /An Gorta Mor,  you could probably pull a similar trick with the 120 cases listed in Cadwallader’s book. I mean, you worked it with Bloody Sunday victims so why not with the Murder Triangle people? At the same time I really really really hope you don’t. Get off with it, I mean. If the Sri Lankan government is a horror-show for involvement in the killing of its own citizens, your government should be getting it in the neck too, old boy.  

Friday, 15 November 2013

That Strabane debate last night: five things worth thinking about

Well. That was interesting. And fun. I’m talking about the debate about/discussion of a (re)united Ireland in Strabane last night. There was what looked to me like a full house to hear the various speakers, including Minister of Education John O’Dowd and a brace of senators from the other side of the border:  Senator Jimmy Harte from Donegal and Senator Mark Daly from Kerry. There were two representatives of unionism -  Paul Wyatt  from NI21 and Terry Wright from ConservativesNI.  And last but a long way from least, Joe Byrne from the SDLP. Your humble scribe was in the chair ordering people about. For two solid hours the discussion continued, passionate at times but never tedious. The audience required no prompting to fire sharp, sometimes jagged questions. 

So - did it solve anything? No. But that wasn’t the intention. The intention was to raise issues for and against the reunification of Ireland and yes, there was an imbalance between nationalists/republicans and unionists, but  guess why?  Because  the Ulster Unionists and the DUP chose to send no one to present their views. Despite that, a great range of issues were raised. Here’s the five I found most interesting. 

  1. The famous Belfast Telegraph poll which showed that  just 3.8% of the northern population care about a united Ireland got a fairly severe mauling. For a start, as Senator Mark Daly pointed out, given that the margin of error in such polls is + or -  3%, that  would lead to the conclusion that maybe NOBODY in the north wants a united Ireland. Er, shome mishtake shurely? A woman in the audience cited figures which suggesting a minority of people in the north now view themselves as British. Conclusion: opinion polls like these are  in the end a waste of time. To borrow a cliché, there’s only one poll that counts. 
  2. The main reason cited for not holding a border poll  seemed to be that it would annoy loyalists and unionists. Think about that for a minute. We won’t hold something that is provided for in the Good Friday Agreement in case it would upset a particular group of people: that is, the kind of person who was outraged at ‘our flag’ being ‘ripped down’ and used stones and bottles and other missiles to support their argument. As one of the panel pointed out, all those involved with the Good Friday Agreement committed themselves to pursuing their political goals through peaceful means. So should an implicit threat of violence from a minority within unionism  be enough to make the idea of a border poll a non-starter? Because that’s what we’re saying when we say in effect “Oh no, don’t hold a border poll now, that might well inflame/upset loyalists!” 
  3. It’s past time we started looking at exactly what a reunited Ireland would cost.  To do that, we need to know not just the size of the block grant of, what is it, £10.5 billion? We also need to know (i) how much of that £10.5 billion actually comes here and doesn’t wander off elsewhere en route; (ii) how much do we pay into the coffers of Westminster. John O’Dowd claims that the Treasury in London is refusing to cough up exact figures regarding both these matters.  Until we get answers to these two questions - and they are simply questions of fact, not opinion  - then it’s next to pointless talking about how much better or worse off financially we’d be in a reunited Ireland. 
  4. Should we be thinking of a united Northern Ireland before we start talking about a united Ireland? At least one member of the audience thought we should. Certainly the Stormont Executive is riven with splits of various kinds, as was evidenced by some of what Joe Byrne had to say. But maybe those splits are the product of a state that’s finding it harder and harder to explain what it’s for. And which may have an even harder time justifying its stand after the Scottish referendum next year. 
  5. The debate last night was a precursor of the Strabane/Lifford mini-referendum on a united Ireland,  to be held inside the next few weeks. My initial reaction to such polls -this one and the one in the Crossmaglen region - was that they’re obviously held in strongly republican areas, so what’s the point? I'm not so sure any more. Even the experience of participating in such a poll puts the notion of a real border poll firmly into the public consciousness. You may agree with it or disagree but it’s hard to avoid thinking about it, for or against.

In summary, we need two things: clear, unambiguous, independently-verified information about the actual size of the block grant and the size of the tax money which goes out of here each year; and more discussion like last night, where we think about our reasons for supporting union with Britain and reasons for not supporting union with Britain. Maybe London will continue to keep a padlock on the required information. Maybe after all our discussion we’ll still be as far apart on the constitutional question.  But we owe it to ourselves to get the information and then make a judgement.  

Thursday, 14 November 2013

N21: the road to somewhere?

I remember a couple of decades ago having a conversation with a senior SDLP man. For some reason the question of organisations came up and the SDLP man said something that’s stuck with me. The best of organisations, he said,  still depends on, is made or broken by the quality of the individuals who make up that organisation.  

I found myself thinking about that this morning as I gird my loins (such as they are) for a visit this evening to Strabane, where I’ll chair a debate (in the Fir Trees Hotel, 7.30 pm) about unifying Ireland. There’ll be a range of speakers from different parties (no, I don’t think the DUP will be there, Virginia, or the UUP) including one very interesting party: N21.

Yes, yes, I’ve heard all the gut-busting jokes about a political party naming itself after a road, about the 21 representing the number of people in it, and the rest of it. What’s significant for me is that its leaders are Basil McCrea and John McCallister. Of all the unionist politicians I’ve met, I’ve found myself warming most to these two men. 

I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s just that they strike me as decent likeable people. Maybe it’s that you don’t get the impression they’re sizing you up, taking your political temperature with a mind as open, in Heaney’s words, as a steel trap. They seem to respond to others as human beings. And what they appear to be doing with their new party is something that could ultimately be very good or (from a nationalist/republican perspective) very bad.

The very good thing they are intent on doing is something which I suspect chimes with the thinking of many garden-centre Prods. They don’t want to be cut off culturally or any other way from their Catholic/nationalist/republican neighbours, they want to make this state a place that treats everyone with dignity and equal respect, and they believe that the old ways of narrowness and bitterness are a sectarian cul-de-sac that needs its end-wall bashed in. 

Which would be good. Anyone with half a brain-cell knows that sectarianism and bigotry take us nowhere. Instead, like revenge, it digs two graves: one for the person that’s hated and the other for the hater. It’s also the case that N21 have made that rapprochement a central plank of their policy. Were they to succeed, it would be a day of great rejoicing among nationalists/republicans.

Or maybe not.  Because the ultimate goal, the holy grail sought by Britain and unionism over decades if not centuries has been to have a Catholic population here that is happy to remain British, is not sullenly passive but happily active in supporting the union. When that day arrives, there’ll be no need to garrison British troops here because on that day, nationalism/republicanism will have died.

The N21ers:  charming or chilling? I’m still trying to make up my mind. 

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

The men of violence

I believe in violence to achieve political ends. I should add, before some troll grabs that first sentence and uses it as a club to thump me: so do you. Why do I say that, Virginia? Bend an ear.

I pay my taxes, as I’m sure do you, to Her Majesty’s Exchequer. That money is distributed in various ways to meet various public needs. It also is sent to what is laughingly called the Ministry of Defence. Some £40 billion each year, so that guns and tanks and bombs and fighter planes and warships can be purchased and so that young men (and women) can be carefully taught how to kill their fellow humans, if H M government says it’s a good idea. There’s also the little matter of the replacing the Trident nuclear programme, which is reckoned will cost around £38 billion on its own. That’s for nuclear weapons which are designed to wipe out hundreds of thousands of men, women and children. Think the Omagh bomb and multiply it by about a zillion. We help with all that.

But of course it’s not only Britain (the third biggest defence-spending state in the world) that’s at it. Practically every country has an army. Even the south of Ireland has one. The line is, as their name suggests, that they’re for defence. So what part of defending the sceptred isle was that Royal Marine engaged in,  when he pumped a bullet into the chest of a wounded Taliban fighter in Afghanistan recently? Was Iraq planning to invade Britain when Blair, in the face of opposition from millions of his own people, lied and then sent in British troops to back up the Yanks?  For ‘Defence’  read ‘Attack’, or if that’s too much, make it War. The Ministry of War. At least that’s honest.

To quote my old class-mate Eamonn McCann, I’m a pacifist by instinct if not principle. But then to quote George Bernard Shaw, you know a man’s principles not by what he says but by what he does.  I pay my taxes. So do you. We all believe in political violence. 

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Máirtin Ó Muilleoir at the cenotaph

It’s a safe bet that the appearance of Máirtin Ó Muilleoir , Belfast’s Lord Mayor,   at the wreath-laying ceremonies this year will have taken the breath of many republicans away. It’ll also have given ammunition to those who say that Sinn Féin have sold out. Keep in mind: Remembrance ceremonies honour all  British armed forces who have given their lives down the years. To say that the reputation of the British Army in Belfast over the past few decades has not been a good one would be an understatement.

But Sinn Féin have committed themselves to reconciliation between Irish people of every stripe here in the north. Actions like that of the Lord Mayor put flesh on the bones of that commitment. The big question now is, what reciprocal moves will we see from unionism?

There are two possibilities. One is that unionists will show respect for republican ceremonies of commemoration and for the flags and emblems associated with such commemoration. In short, they will meet generosity with generosity.  The second possibility is that they will say “We’re glad you’ve come to your senses as subjects in the United Kingdom”, then sit back and wait for the next republican concession.

In either case, Sinn Féin have very firmly volleyed the ball into the unionist court.  We’ll just have to wait and see how they respond. If the response is positive, we will have seen real progress in reconciliation between former enemies. If the response is negative, it’ll be hard for Sinn Féin to keep on giving with nothing coming back. In fact there are some who say that has happened already.

And no, Virginia, Máirtin Ó Muilleoir's appearance at the cenotaph ceremonies cannot be seen as a reciprocal gesture to Queen Elizabeth’s bowed head at the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin. The clue is in the Dublin bit - she wasn’t doing any head-bowing at Milltown cemetery or at the grave of Bobby Sands. In contrast, the Lord Mayor’s appearance was in Belfast, a place where the British army was responsible for some terrible deeds, including the deliberate killing of men, women and children. 

Monday, 11 November 2013

Some things and how to respond to them

One of the many worrying things that still haunt us in this little corner of the island is not so much events as the reaction to them. A couple of examples come to mind.

During the height of the flag protest, there was a general acknowledgement by the police and others that there were elements of the UVF helping to orchestrate that protest. This news was delivered by the Chief Constable himself with no sign of alarm and no indication as to what he thought of that. Thought of what? The continued existence of the UVF. It’s fifteen years since the Good Friday Agreement, near enough to the same length of time since Gusty Spence delivered his heart-felt apology for the actions of the UVF. Yet here they are, not having gone away, and even the Chief Constable is unperturbed. 

Supposing it was established that members of the IRA were active in orchestrating protest in West Belfast. That this protest took the form of vicious assaults, night after night, on the PSNI. Would the reaction have been the same? Would the Chief Constable have acknowledged the fact, pretty much as he might have acknowledged that tomorrow was going to be a rainy day: unfortunate but inevitable?

This morning I listened to Radio Ulster/Raiodio Uladh while Noel Thompson interviewed Paul O’Connor of the Pat Finucane Centre.  O’Connor outlined a case where a woman whose husband had been killed was not made aware of  the fact that she was entitled to £10,000 in compensation. Instead she received £750, because the British Army misled  her (that’s a nice word for lied, Virginia) about the whole situation. At the conclusion of the interview O’Connor referred to another case where a mother of six was shot dead and her family suffered similar injustice. Noel Thompson dealt politely with O’Connor but he didn’t make the point that this was appalling, that innocent mothers of six should not be shot by the British Army. It was accepted as just another sad fact from our period of conflict.

Contrast that with the attention that’s been given over the years and especially in recent days to those who were killed by the IRA and whose bodies were buried in remote places. No one could accuse the media of not directing public attention to the plight of the unfortunate families of these victims and the damage the ghastly deed had done, not just to the person killed but to all those who loved him/her. And it was right that the cruelty and horror be highlighted.

But why devote hours of time to the  plight of families of the Disappeared and pass calmly by the bodies of those killed by the  people  paid from the public purse to protect them? Or is that an omission that will be addressed in full, through TV and radio programmes, in the coming days? 

I think not.  

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Sunday Sequence and That Interview

I was on BBC Radio Ulster/Raidio Uladh’s Sunday Sequence this morning, along with Alex Kane and Dawn Purvis. Our discussion was preceded by a 20 -minute interview with Gerry Adams, where William Crawley asked him about a number of things, including the killing of Jean McConville,  the conviction of his brother Liam for sex crimes against his daughter and about whether he had considered resigning as party President.  I don’t share the political viewpoints of either Alex or Dawn but we still managed to have a civilized discussion on the points raised in the interview and what the best prospects were for a way forward in our society. Afterwards the three of us agreed  that it was good to be on a programme where elbow-room was given: the Gerry Adams interview was twenty minutes long and our discussion was over half-an-hour. Even that’s not ideal, of course, but it’s a long way from the three-minute sound-bite. 

Picture my astonishment, then, when I went on to Twitter  later to see that a number of people felt it was appalling that the interview was aired, particularly on Remembrance Sunday. There were a few bone-brained insults hurled at me but that’s how some people interpret the notion of political debate: squeeze as many nasties as you can squeeze into 140 characters. But I thought  the objections to the interview being aired at all was truly dismaying.

Those of us who are old enough know we’ve down this road before. For years, both north and south of the border, Sinn Féin people were banned from the airwaves. They weren’t even allowed to express their views on a topic like mushroom-growing. One man tried to, on RTÉ radio, and when he made clear he was a Sinn Féin party member, his mushroom-growing perspective was quickly cut off. If anything, the ludicrous picture of Gerry Adams and other Sinn Féin people moving their lips while an actor’s voice said their words boosted Sinn Féin, since most sensible people saw the absurdity of the ban. 

Over the past few days and weeks there have been a considerable number of programmes on radio and television where those involved were highly critical of the Sinn Féin president. Today,  he was interviewed for twenty minutes on the matters raised by those programmes. And some people are outraged that his voice should be heard?  Given the distance we have come - where people who once wouldn’t sit in the same studio as Sinn Féin people are now sharing government with them - it’s near-breathtaking that there are people who are indignant that Sinn Féin’s president be featured in an interview. No one’s suggesting  people need to agree with all or any of what Adams said. But to use the fact that this is Remembrance Sunday as a reason for not hearing him is surely contrary to the notion of democracy for which so many thousands of men in the British armed forces died. 
Rather than castigate William Crawley or the BBC or anyone else, it’d make more sense to commend him and the Corporation for allowing the man accused to respond to his many accusers.

I know, I know. Democracy would be so much better if it wasn’t for all those bad people who think differently from you. But as Tony Soprano used to shrug: “Whatchyagonnado?”  (No, Virginia. Tony’s question was rhetorical.) 

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Nothing to see here

Maybe like me, you’ve been feeling a bit ...uneasy about that Afghanistan case. You know, the one  involving the British Royal Marines.  Where there’s several Marines in a field with this Taliban fighter who’s seriously wounded. And they think about letting him live, only it seems such a bother. And then one of the Marines has an idea: “I’ll put one in his head, if you like”. But he’s told that’d be no good: “No, not in his head, because that’ll be fucking obvious”. So instead the second Marine shoots the Taliban fighter in the chest and kills him. And says “There you are. Shuffle off this mortal coil, you cunt.” And then he tells his mates: “Obviously this doesn’t go anywhere, fellahs. I just broke the Geneva Convention.”  Remember it now? You were uneasy too?

Well don’t worry. It’s a total one-off. An historical one-off. We have the word of  General Sir Mike Jackson, GCB, CBE, DSO, DL. And he knows about these things because he was present and active in Derry on Bloody Sunday.

Maj Gen Thompson, who led 3 Commando Brigade during the Falklands War, told The Times that a five-year prison term would be more suitable than the life imprisonment sentence he's been given.

Brigadier Bill Dunham, deputy commandant general of the Royal Marines, says it was a “truly shocking and appalling aberration”. (“Aberration” means they don’t do this kind of thing often, Virginia.)

And today, Prime Minister David Cameron has weighed in:

“Yesterday, obviously our thoughts were focused on the story told in that court, that appalling story, but I just want to say, here today, that it in no way represents the incredible spirit, courage and history of the Royal Marines, an outfit that probably has one of the proudest military histories of anyone, anywhere in the world.

“And that is not just my view, I think that is the view of the whole country that we should not let that single incident in any way besmirch the incredible work of the Royal Marines have done over not just decades but centuries.”

And of course, as you probably know, during their time here,the British armed forces were never guilty of killing anyone when they could have arrested them. Nor shot anyone dead when they could have taken them to hospital. 

So I hope all that has helped you stop feeling uneasy. I know it has me.

PS You can even listen to a recording of the Afghanistan event, if that's how you like to spend your Saturdays : http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/royal-marine-found-guilty-taliban-2711958

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Infuriating question: "How do you know that?"

I said yesterday that I’d thought about blogging on the swell of interest in the welfare of Sinn Féin (that is, that it should have a better leader) and one very cynical comment said that was a good idea, to not blog on that subject, that way it’d all blow over. (That’s irony, incidentally.) Well, Gio, this one is especially for you. In the hope that one of these days you’ll remove your face-mask.

Fintan O’Toole, that expert on so many subjects, this morning in the  Irish Times calls on Gerry Adams to resign. His denials of being in the IRA, of not having issued orders for the death of Jean McConville and of never having so much as thrown a stone during the Troubles is holding back Sinn Féin, now that (in Fintan’s view) Sinn Féin are an established and maybe important part of southern politics.

Mmm. I remember once meeting a man who, in every conversation, would keep asking “How do you know that?” It was very irritating, especially if you didn’t have firm grounds for what you were claiming. So here’s a few questions that I’m sure readers will be able to come up with answers to.

  1. How do you know Gerry Adams was in the IRA? Yes I know he was flown to England in the 1970s to parlay with the British, but how do you know he was in the IRA? No, forget the dogs in the street. How do you know?
  2. How do you know Gerry Adams was responsible for the death of Jean McConville? Yes I know Brendan Hughes says he was, and others, but is that proof that he was?
  3. Further to 2 above: why haven't the PSNI arrested Gerry Adams and put him on trial if he was responsible for the death of Jean McConville?
  4. How do you know that Gerry Adams threw a stone during the Troubles? I remember reading years ago how one contemporary of Gerry Adams said that from the start, Gerry was always asking “What will we get out of this?” That applied to stoning British soldiers as well as negotiating with the British. The man may have been lying. On the other hand Gerry Adams may have been a strategist, not a foot-soldier. And before you say it, I don’t know that he was. I say he may have been.
  5. The death of Jean McConville was a bleak and terrible event, not only for the woman herself but for her family, as her loss resonated down the years. And people are right be appalled by it. That’s why radio and TV programmes have been made about it. But is the concern for Jean McConville and her family straightforward compassion for a family that suffered and continues to suffer? Or is it being used as a weapon with which to beat Gerry Adams and through him Sinn Féin?
  6. Anne Cadwallader’s recent book lists over 120 deaths in what was called the Murder Triangle in the 1970s. She describes these deaths and their impact in a detailed and factual way, and how the authorities sometimes did nothing to prevent them happening and sometimes were actively involved in the killings.  What do you think are the chances that Daragh McIntyre or some other enterprising journalist will make a programme showing in detail the suffering involved for some - even one - of these families? 

 So many accusations, so many questions, so little proof. So much concern over the leadership of a party that is so frequently excoriated.

There now, Gio. Will that do?

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Russell Brand is rude - but is he stupid?

I’m tempted to blog on the many people who are suddenly concerned for the welfare of Sinn Féin and that it should have a good leader, but I think instead I’ll write about Russell Brand. I remember not too long ago, my students had the laugh of their lives when I overheard them talking about Russell Brand and confused him with the chubby little astrologer Russell Grant. I also remember with some pleasure a woman who, on air, told me I was “a very, very rude and stupid man!” , as though the two go together like bacon and eggs or Peter Robinson and Clontibret. You can be rude without being stupid and you can be stupid without being rude. Russell Brand is sometimes very rude but is far from stupid. Jeremy Paxman got it totally wrong when he told him “You are a very trivial man”. 

Brand has drawn my attention because he has an article in yesterday’s Guardian  where he defends his dismissal of British politics in the  Paxman interview.   “As long as the priorities of those in government remain the interests of big business, rather than the people they were elected to serve, the impact of voting is negligible and it is our responsibility to be more active if we want real change.”  

As he says himself, there’s nothing original about that. We all know that if Labour or the Conservatives are in power in Britain, it won’t change the established way of doing things: the rich will stay rich, the poor poor, and wars will be fought in the interests of keeping things that way. The same goes for the US: did you really notice huge differences during Bush’s and Obama’s tenure? For example, did the proportion of Afro-Americans in prison or poverty change under Obama? And of course the suggestion that Fine Gael and Fianna Fail might someday merge makes perfect sense. It’s nearly one hundred years since they had a serious difference.

And here in the north? Well, there is one clear demarcation line and that’s the constitutional question. Sinn Féin (north and south) would argue that it’s also concerned with social justice and equality but its achievements in that field aren’t exactly revolutionary. There may be all sorts of reasons why they’re not, but they’re undeniably not. 

Brand’s suggested strategy is to not vote, so with-holding consent and bringing about The Revolution. I think that’s probably naive and simplistic. But he is right in that we’re fools if we believe that marking a ballot paper every four or five years is what democracy is about. It took a funny man to push that notion into the British public consciousness. We should be grateful if he’s done the same for us. 

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Looking death in the eye

Maybe it’s the time of year. November in the Catholic Church calendar is the month of the dead,  Halloween abounds with talk of spirits and ghouls and the supernatural, and of course next Sunday is Remembrance Sunday.

 Or maybe it’s William Crawley, who as well as being thoughful is thought-provoking. He tweeted this morning  “If art is an expression of the wound of finitude, as Raymond Tallis suggests, would there be no art if we lived forever?” (He’s also tweeted this morning about several other things, including murals and his programme last night, but I find the death/art one the most interesting). 

If there wasn’t such a thing as death, as Danny Morrison pointed out in a tweeted reply, there’d be a lot more time to consider art. There’d also, I think, be a lot less of it. A  great deal of poetry and painting is given to grappling directly with death. There are the great poets from the First World War who grieve over the slaughter and the lies, there are poets like Keats and Philip Larkin who continually return to the topic of death - if you haven’t read Larkin’s ‘Nothing To Be Said’, do it. And in literature, whether Shakespeare or Tolstoy, war and death loom large time and again. 

I remember once being on a drinking spree with a very bright man in Newcastle-upon-Tyne  and I ventured the notion that all art - painting, poetry, prose, music - was to distract us from the terrifying thought that death was on its way. He laughed uproariously and I thought at the time it was the drink laughing.  But maybe he was too polite to point out that art isn’t so much a distraction as an engagement with death. It tries to represent it to us,  tries to explain its significance and the lessons it offers, were we wise enough to learn them. No matter how often we’re told, most of us prefer to turn our thoughts to more cheerful matters. Why ruin the party by continually checking your watch? But maybe the great John Donne says it best:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea
Europe is the less.

As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls.
It tolls for thee.

Footnote: it’s almost sacrilegious to add a biographical note but I will. Despite studying at Oxford for three years and then at Cambridge for the same length of time, Donne never received a degree. Why? Because he was a Catholic. He  began to prosper only when he abandoned his Catholicism and became an Anglican clergyman. 

There. End of sacrilege.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Honouring the dead? Sorry, it can't be done

The dead are dead. Except perhaps through our prayers, they are beyond our influence, whether good or bad.  Which is why it’s baffling to hear people talk about ‘honouring the dead’. The dead are dead and so free of anything we can do to or for them, be that positive or negative. So when next Sunday there are cenotaph ceremonies ‘honouring the war dead’ of Britain’s armed forces, that claim on the face of it doesn’t make sense.

That’s not to say the ceremonies don’t make any sense.  The various wreaths and bowed heads and military salutes and poppy-wearing are a statement that the things which in the past motivated those dead now motivate those who are alive. What is being honoured is not the military dead (an impossible task) but the values the dead once had and which the living now embrace. 

Which is fair enough. What is not fair enough is to point the finger at those who don’t wear the poppy (assuming they have a choice, of course) or don’t attend Remembrance Sunday ceremonies, and say they are refusing to honour the dead. What such accusations are really saying is “You are wrong not to share my values - shame on you”. Which is an intolerant sort of thing to say.  Would it be an idea to let people hold whatever values they choose, even - maybe especially - if we don’t like those values?  Not only allow but respect their right to different values. Isn’t that supposed to be an important ingredient of democracy?

A final thought: since the military dead of Remembrance Sunday by definition are or were men of violence, does that send any message to those who’ve been erecting murals to their military dead in different parts of Belfast? Or is it a case of “My violence good, your violence bad”?


Saturday, 2 November 2013

Jim Shannon makes a modest proposal

I was on the Nolan radio show earlier in the week discussing a bizarre idea. You’ll know it’s bizarre when I tell you that it came from Jim Shannon, DUP MP for Strangford. Not that Jim has shown originality with this idea - the primary sponsor of Early Day Motion 624  is a Tory MP called Andrew Rosindell, with Jim and Nigel Dodds and a couple of others adding their hear-hears as ordinary sponsors.

So what is this Early Day Motion 624? It is - maybe sit down first before I say - it is to bring back the playing of God Save The Queen on television. You think that sounds like some sort of weird Halloween prank? Or a Captain Mainwaring suggestion as part of a campaign to bring back Dad’s Army? I’m afraid not. Jim is deadly serious. He figures it’ll help restore respect and pride in being British. This despite the fact that a poll of the English people by the YouGov website found that two-thirds didn’t like God Save The Queen and considered it “a dreary dirge”.

I remember when people here had pride in being British. Or at least in standing to attention, ramrod straight, for the playing of God Save The Queen. It would happen at the end of every film-showing in the County Cinema, Omagh in the 1950s. Half the audience would show ramrod pride, the other half (sometimes known as ‘the anthem sprinters’) would leap behind, in front of and sometimes over the ramrods in an attempt to get out of the cinema, perhaps because they didn’t get the connection between John Wayne or Jane Russell and Her Majesty The Queen. Scuffles occasionally broke out between competing loyalties.

So if Jim was looking for a wheeze which would deepen division in the souls of people here, he’s onto a good one. Mind you he always was a free thinker, our Jim. The man once voted ‘Least sexy MP’ went in November 2007 to Argentina. When he got there he shot doves. A lot of doves. How many he wouldn’t say but the estimates were around 9,000. What did he do  with the dead doves? He ate them. Not all of them, of course. Perhaps he dispersed the dead peace birds among the deserving poor of Buenos Aires.  But he definitely shot them.

The issue of when to play God Save The Queen on the telly came up. The best answer apparently is the point where  normal BBC turns into BBC News 24.  No, Virginia, I have no idea when that is - certainly past my bed-time  and, come to think of it, most of the population. Still, I like to think that should Early Day Motion 624 ever be passed, somewhere down in the heart of Strangford, while the rest of the world sleeps, one ramrod figure will stand to attention, maybe even giving his screen a solemn salute. Poignant, I call it. The unsexy man who shot and ate peace birds, bolt upright before Her Majesty. 

Friday, 1 November 2013

We only think there's nobody like us

We like to think our problems are unique but they’re not. Just the way we manage to screw up  efforts to resolve them.

The New York Times  had an article a couple of days ago about two Mexicans academics who are trying to establish a museum to recall what Ulysses S Grant called “the most wicked war ever waged”. It was the war between Mexico and America and it was less about principles and more about land-grab. At the battle of La Angostura, the Mexican side could have defeated the out-numbered Americans - not least because hundreds of American troops deserted and chose to fight on the Mexican side. These were nearly all recent immigrants, and among them was an Irish unit called the San Patricios, or St Patrick’s Brigade. The reason there was such desertion from the US forces was because many among the ordinary foot-soldiers on the American side were Catholic while most of their officers were Protestant  and many of them suffered from what the New York Times calls one of the US’s ugliest flaws: prejudice, in this case directed at Catholics under their command.  Despite the San Patricios and despite the superior numbers, however, the Mexicans were defeated and the Americans emerged victorious. Many historians believe that’s because the Mexican general, Santa Anna,  had yielded to one of Mexico’s ugliest flaws: corruption. He did a deal and left the field to the Americans. 

But these  two Mexican historians are intent on building up the Angostura Battle Museum with relics from the battle, including a glass case full of broken earrings:apparently many Mexican mothers followed their sons to battle, so they could tend them when and if the need arose. The academics have planted a ‘peace tree’. Every year they come to this spot, sometimes with people from the Irish consulate.  They are working so that “the war without satisfaction” doesn’t determine future relations between the Americans and Mexicans. “We don’t want to relive this war; we just want to remember it”.

Do you know, maybe it’s the Halloween madness getting to me, but I could have sworn someone here talked about a peace centre somewhere so people here didn’t have to relive the past conflict...Nah. I must have been fantasizing. Good on the Mexicans, though. They’re doing what’s necessary to stop the past paralysing the future. 

Thursday, 31 October 2013

You don't understand - so what?

I was over in Cambridge last weekend to attend a graduation, and not for the first time it struck me how different the English are from us.  For a start, they look after their villages better. Where we have gone for ribbon development  -  house after house after house fronting the road on both sides of the village - the English villages have a shape which in many cases preserves buildings from the past. Development is done in such a way that the centre of their villages are made up of old stone buildings arranged to give the village a heart. Put bluntly, the English take better care of their present and their past. 

But the thing that impressed me most about the difference between us and them was the graduation ceremony.  It was held in the Senate House of Cambridge University, which we were reminded was build in the eighteenth century. We were also warned about the graduation ceremony itself. There’d be none of your clapping and whooping that you’d get at an Irish graduation ceremony. No cameras either. A guy in the row in front of me showed a brief glimpse of his camera before the ceremony started and a flunkey was onto him like a flash. “No photographs, sir. It’ll be thrown away!”  The camera was quickly resheathed. 

Then there was the language. Apart from the warning about where to go in the event of an emergency, there was scarcely a word of English spoken from start to finish. All Latin. There was a great deal of hat-doffing and bowing by Proctors, Deputy Proctors, Pro-Proctors, University Marshals and Esquire Bedells. The graduands in groups of five approached the degree-conferrer, who sat on a sort of throne. When they got there, the Dean of their Faculty (I think) put his hand out and the graduands each put a hand on top of his. Then the Dean did some Latin-talking to the degree-dispenser, apparently telling him that he was OK with these students of his getting a degree. Then - and this was the bit that really stuck out - then the graduands knelt one by one before the conferrer and put their hands together as if in prayer. The degree-conferror then put his hands around the graduand’s hands and said (in Latin of course) “OK, I’m giving your degree now  - aren’t you glad?” Or words to that effect. The graduand responded in Latin, stood up, took a step backwards and bowed, before exiting the stage.

Did the fact that nine-tenths of the audience hadn’t a clue about what was being said upset them? Not a whit. Was there whispering and sweet-opening and babies crying during the ceremony? Uh-uh. Hushed silence would describe it best. The more baffling the ceremony, the more impressed they were. I spoke to a couple of young graduands later that day and mentioned that I thought a lot of the ceremony was ripe for a Monty Python sketch. Oh no, I was told.  They liked it. “It’s amazing to think that these traditions are eight hundred years old. Don’t change a thing!” It was as if the 1960s had never happened. 

George Bernard Shaw said all professionals are in conspiracy against the laity. Right again, G B. The ceremony, like those associated with the opening of parliament or the crowning of a monarch, was performed with military precision. Any tendency towards spontaneity or impatience with poncing about in fancy gear doffing your cap and kneeling in supplication  - all that got  sucked out of the graduand by the surrounding atmosphere and respect for traditional structures. I’m told the House of Commons is similarly designed to cow any new MP with a tendency to be rebellious. 

It’s called soft power, and the English handle it with an aplomb that not only tells you the tradition was and is good, but you’d better respect it if you know what’s good for you. No wonder they created an empire on which the sun never set. And it makes you wonder why the Catholic Church, after centuries of the Latin Mass, opted for the vernacular. Who needs to understand?

PS Here's a video of before and after the graduation ceremony. 

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Newspapers and painting the historical picture.

 The News Letter  is the oldest daily newspaper in the English language, a generally respected mainstream organ.  But you’d never guess that from its editorial yesterday. The paper accuses “even moderate nationalists” of pushing “an emerging narrative” (I think I hate that word) of the Troubles, with a murderous British state and the IRA the only reasonable response. 

Where have they been hearing “moderate nationalists” say this? Nowhere, I suggest.  But of course that’s a red herring.  What’s really on their mind emerges in the third paragraph. It’s the “latest reports of state collusion”.  It’s a lie, this collusion talk, The News Letter  says. The truth is “a restrained British state overwhelmingly abided by the rule of law in the face of terrorist depravity”. It goes on to call on moderate unionism to support “a group of academics”  who are challenging the nationalist bid to retrospectively legitimise terrorism. All hands to the pump.

You see what they did there? One minute we’re talking about a British state which colludes in the killing of its own citizens. The next we’re concerned with these nationalists who are intent on presenting the IRA as reasonable. Uh-uh. Sorry, guys. Stick to the original topic or you’ll lose marks. The topic you’re concerned about is Anne Cadwallader’s book Lethal Allies  and the locked-down, screwed-tight and carefully-rivetted cases of collusion presented there. State forces, acting with the knowledge of those at the top of the RUC and of top government officials, killing innocent Catholics by the score.The DPP ignoring glaring evidence when ‘security force’ killers were involved and blocking cases from coming to court. Pieces of evidence going mysteriously missing. In cases that got to court, the fact that the accused was a member of the ‘security forces’ conveniently omitted.

The News Letter is right in one thing: there is an effort underway to rewrite the history of the Troubles. To rewrite the history which would present a restrained British state attempting to counter IRA depravity, with an occasional low-level bad apple giving the security forces a bad name. To substitute for that the truth of what happened in the 1970s to over 120 innocent Catholics. Because collusion was not, as the News Letter  would like us to think, “low-level”. Read the book. Instead of  providing diversions with talk about border Protestants being killed - for which there is a case to be answered  -stick to the topic. Border Protestants weren’t killed by the state forces paid to protect them. Don’t try to throw people off the scent by talk of  “serial killer republican thugs”. Read Cadwallader’s book. Suspend your efforts to present a restrained British state under assault from psychopathic republicans.Instead address the appalling tale of over 120 innocent people killed with state support and approval. Read the book. Then tell us which part isn’t true. 

You bet recent history needs to be rewritten. Because the lazy accepted one collapses in the face of Cadwallader’s research. 

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

President Michael D Higgins, lunatics and idiots

“We in Ireland are also aware that redressing the consequences of conflict takes steady, careful work, involving as it does not only conflicting memories and narratives of the past”.

That’s President Michael D Higgins speaking in El Salvador.  As he reminded his audience, he’s always had an interest in the triumph of truth and justice in that far-off country. 

That’s good to know. Living on an island we tend to be a bit  insular in our thinking and it’s good to view the world beyond our narrow borders.

On the other hand, you can get excessively engrossed elsewhere. Someone (no, Virginia, I can’t remember who and I’m too lazy to check) once distinguished between a lunatic (from the Latin for ‘moon-struck) and an idiot (from the Greek for ‘one’s own’) by saying the lunatic is one who strides along dangerous ground, eyes firmly fixed on the heavenly firmament; while the idiot  is one so caught up in the local, they cheerfully milk their cow while war rages all around. 

I would never call President Higgins either a lunatic or an idiot - he’s patently neither - but I do worry a little at his tendency to champion causes far from home while giving rather less attention to matters nearer to hand. For example, President Higgins spoke at the University of Central America where six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter were murdered by government forces in November 1989.  Anne Cadwallader has just produced a book called Lethal Allies  which carefully charts government and state forces’ collusion here in the deaths of over 120 people in the ‘Murder Triangle’ in the early  1970s.  I do hope the President finds time to speak out against these state killings so much nearer home and  20 times as numerous. 

Saturday, 26 October 2013

It goes all the way to the top

Sometimes you wonder.  Back in 1988, an IRA unit composed of Danny McCann, Sean Savage and Mairead Farrell were shot dead in Gibraltar. They were planning a bombing mission but at the time of their killing all three were unarmed. But that wasn’t the story that was put out: officially, they were three deadly bombers who made moves which led the British team which killed them to fear for their lives. Did the publicly-funded BBC, renowned throughout the world for the impartiality of its news reporting, push further into this version of events and discover the truth? Nah. That was left to Thames Television, a commercial station. Their ‘Death on the Rock’ showed conclusively that all three were executed while unarmed. 

Which brings us to this weekend. The former journalist Anne Cadwallader, who was a researcher with the Pat Finucane Centre in Derry, has produced a book called Lethal Allies. In it, using detailed and irrefutable evidence, she shows how time and again members of the RUC and UDR were involved with the killing of over 100 innocent Catholics in what was known as the Murder Triangle. You may respond with a shrug and say “So what else is new?”  Rumours of ‘security’ force collusion have been rife for decades. The difference is that Cadwallader has checked and rechecked and footnoted in detail her sources for claims and there’s just one conclusion you can come to  (providing you’re not Jeffrey Donaldson, that is): the deadly work of loyalist murder gangs was at best given a green light by the authorities and at worst was actively assisted by them. There’s even a case of a policeman who was involved in a murder hurrying back to his desk so he could take a statement about the killing from a witness.

A few rotten apples? Read the book and see if that’s what you still think. According to Cadwallader, what was going on was given a nod and a wink by people at the very top of security and government. Read and weep. And weep again that it takes individual journalists like Cadwallader in conjunction with the Pat Finucane Centre to dig up the buried evidence. Where was the BBC? Where was our mainstream media, north and south? Pass.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Come into the parlour...

“O wad some Pow’re the giftie gie us/To see oursels as ithers see us!”

That was Robbie Burns’s prayer and when we hear or read it, we nod solemn assent. The truth - about ourselves - will set us free.

But only, of course, if that truth is palatable. One of the most irritating habits of radio interviewers here is when somebody visits and they’re asked “How are you liking it here?”  The required answer is “Oh we’re having a wonderful time. And the people - they’re so friendly!”  And we mount massive advertising campaigns, telling the world to come and visit us, you’re more than welcome. 

What we really mean in that last case is “Come and visit us, and remember to spend plenty of money when you’re here. We need it”.  As for being the heart of hospitality, try walking into a rural Irish pub as a stranger. Most of the time it’ll be like the pre-shoot-out bit in an old Western - sudden dip in the conversation, eyes taking you in sideways, then conversation resumes pretending not to have been checking you out. 

As for racist - well, we do racism really well. In the US, the Irish were among the most active in those opposed to Afro-Americans. At home, we pretend not to notice the colour of people’s skin when it’s really the first thing we take in. The two cases in the south recently highlight it nicely, when the gardaí removed two Roma children, at different location, from their parents, on the assumption that their fairer complexion and hair colour must mean they’d been abducted. Then when DNA tests proved otherwise, they’re handed back to the distraught parents. Like, consider yourself lucky you got away with it this time.  Meanwhile the Justice Minister Alan Shatter is doing all he can to dump the blame on the police, nothing to do with me.

The last thing we want is to see ourselves as others see us. We’d rather kid them, and ourselves, that our arms are open wide and our hearts filled with respect for those who look different from us. Providing, of course, they’re the President of the United States. 

Thursday, 24 October 2013

About last night

I was on The Nolan Show  last night and had the privilege of shaking hands with Alan McBride before the programme began. I thought he looked pale and tired; little wonder, given the memories that must have been stirred for him and others on the twentieth anniversary of the Shankill bomb.

The programme dealt with the subject sensitively, I thought.  In fact, the film clip of the immediate aftermath of the bomb, intercut with interviews with those like McBride who had lost loved ones and shots of those they had lost, was harrowing. A shot of a child, with all her life possibilities cut dead before they could properly start, another of Alan McBride’s wife in her wedding dress were almost too painful to look  at. I’m assured that the families find solace in viewing such clips and remembering that day of loss. As someone fortunate enough not to have lost immediate family in the Troubles, I found them painful as a knife. 

I had a chance to speak briefly during the programme. I tried to say something of the above and to add that with regard to the plaque to the memory of Thomas Begley: that’s what armies do. That’s what cenotaphs are about, that’s why all those names are listed in stone, that’s why there are poppy-laying ceremonies on Remembrance Day. There are people here whose loved ones were taken from them by the actions of the British armed forces who must accept that other people see these forces in a different way from them. Likewise, painful though it may be, the people of the Shankill have to accept that the Ardoyne community and particularly the former comrades of Thomas Begley see him as someone who died in a cause which they honour. Until we can accept these different loyalties and give each other the emotional elbow-room to express them in a quiet, dignified way,  we’re on the road to nowhere. 

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Bombing and reactions

I wonder how those who lost loved ones in the recent conflict here feel about the Shankill bomb commemorations.  Perhaps they feel a sense of solidarity, identifying their own suffering with the suffering of those innocent Shankill victims. Or perhaps they feel like the victims of the Dublin/Monaghan bombs:  why are other acts of carnage remembered and theirs forgotten?

Nobody who has heard Alan McBride, who lost his wife and father-in-law in the bomb, could fail to be impressed by his response to the  appalling loss that was inflicted on him. Rather than find new ways to condemn those responsible for the bomb, he looks for ways to help those who have suffered and to work so that such things never recur. The loss of a single life to violence is a terrible thing. The loss of so many in a tightly-knit community is catastrophic. And yet McBride has somehow risen above this and gathered good out of what was bad. I was listening to a Protestant minister, I think it was, talking on Radio Ulster/Raidio Uladh this morning. He was asked how he regarded Thomas Begley, the bomber killed in the explosion, and he said he’d prefer to focus on the Shankill people and their suffering. When Alan McBride was asked a similar question a couple of weeks ago, he said that he’d been hurt on the first anniversary of the bomb by the sound of bands apparently celebrating what had occurred. As to a monument or more accurately a plaque to Begley, he said that if this was done quietly and without deliberately adding to the pain, he saw how it might help those who had loved the dead man and he had no objections to that. It’s those kind of sentiments that for me mark McBride as a man of outstanding forgiveness and compassion. 

What made the Shankill bomb so brutal? Because it killed innocent people. The IRA said that their goal was not those people in the fish-shop but a UDA meeting scheduled to take place above the fish shop. However, as has been pointed out to me, that still leaves the question - beyond the obvious dangers of carrying a bomb into a densely populated area - of how the UDA meeting could have been bombed without loss of innocent life.

It’d be true to say that Thomas Begley and Sean Kelly are hate figures in the Shankill. Others outside the Shankill remember Begley and treat Kelly with respect. Appalling? Before you decide this, consider these words:

“The destruction of houses, public utilities, transport and lives, the creation of a refugee problem on an unprecedented scale, and the morale both at home and at the battle fronts by fear and intensified bombing, are accepted and intended aims of our bombing policy. They are not by-products of attempts to hit factories.”

That’s Sir Arthur Harris speaking during WW2, commonly known as Bomber Harris or Butcher Harris.  He was decorated and a statue erected to his memory. 

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

John McAllister gives Sinn Féin a lecture

OK, confession time: I like Basil McCrea and John McAllister. I've met both of them and there's something innately and genuinely charming about both of them. Basil has a boyish air of innocence  ('Who, me sir? Scoff the cake??') and John has a rural solidity and quiet friendliness. Granted, it doesn't always come across on TV but that's how I found them. They've also shown the good sense to leave the Ulster Unionist party which is struggling to be hard-line and look liberal at the same time. So I'm well-disposed towards both men.

Maybe that's why I admire John's comments at a Sinn Féin conference in London. The fact that he attended and spoke are both good. It's what he said that is a wee bit harder to swallow.

He asks Sinn Féin to embrace the constitutional position of Northern Ireland, just as 175,000 Irish people have embraced the UK's capital city.  That injunction has two stumbling points. The first is that republicanism by its nature is opposed to the constitutional position of Northern Ireland. Any action it takes is motivated by a desire to free itself and the people of the north from Mother Britain's embrace. The second is that of the 175,000 people in London, it's a safe bet that if economic circumstances in Ireland allowed them to live and work at home, they would be on the nearest plane. They don't so much embrace London as accept it as a fact of life when you come from a divided country.

John also urges Sinn Féin to drop this nonsense about a referendum on Irish unity - sure the polls show only 3.8% of people want constitutional change. Right. That'd be like the polls said that Fine Gael would sweep home with its referendum to abolish the Seanad. Saying stuff to a man or woman with a clipboard is one thing; being in a ballot-cubicle where you can affect historic change sought for centuries is quite another. And even if constitutional change were rejected, wouldn't that clear the air about present positions on the border?

John also says Sinn Féin should start talking about 'Northern Ireland', not 'The North' or worse still, 'the north'. Mmm. Maybe if there was less talk among unionists of The Province, and if the local BBC didn't see fit to call itself Radio Ulster, not to mention the University of Ulster, such a request might find more receptive ears. But even it didn't, using 'the North' or alternatives to 'Northern Ireland' is simply to say that you don't believe a state carved out along strictly sectarian lines, run by a system of gerrymandering and discrimination until the roof came in, and maintained even now by Britain's claim to legislate for its next-door neighbour, is a desirable state of affairs.  There are worse things this state could be called than 'the North'.

John says he wants to create “a Northern Ireland for all, in the new Ireland and in a new era in the history of these islands”. Has a ring to it, doesn't it?  But it'd take a bit of parsing before you knew what it meant. Especially that bit about 'a Northern Ireland in the new Ireland'.  So is that constitutional change you have in mind, John?  

I said at the start that I liked Basil and John. Actually they can be very annoying in the views they have. But to be honest, that contradictory element in people is less than rare. Sometimes the people you disagree with politically can be genuinely nice people. And vice versa. So nothing personal, John, but we can only do business when we all know what we're talking about. 

Monday, 21 October 2013

Need some money? Sorry, no go.

Another instance this morning of the dog being paralysed by its own tail. Steven McCaffery in the Detail.ie and Radio Ulster/Raidio Uladh both cover the story of £80 million that’s in the Social Development Fund and that can’t be released to help people in need. For why? Because the DUP and Sinn Féin can’t agree over how it should be spent. Typical, eh? The two big parties, stubborn and dead-locked, one’s intransigence matched by the other’s bull-headedness. But hold. What would the two parties do with the money? Let’s look a little closer. 

Sinn Féin says it thinks the money should be allocated on the basis of need. The DUP says ‘No comment’. EH? Did I hear aright? The DUP don’t think distributing money on the basis of need is a good idea? Well they don’t actually say that. Just ‘No comment’. However, in the past they have talked about pockets of need in Protestant areas that should be addressed. Jim Wilson of East Belfast believes the money should be split 50-50. What could be fairer than that?

Give us a break, Jim. Nobody in their right mind would disagree that there are  Protestant areas that are up against it - high unemployment, low educational attainment, all the bad stuff. But hey - official figures - that’s official  figures, not Sinn Féin figures - show that in this state, 16 out of 20 of the most deprived wards  are in Catholic areas.  

Which is where that paralysed dog came in. The DUP feels it daren’t respond to that need because if it does, it’ll look like they’re giving all the goodies to themuns and virtually ignoring arens.  What they should do, of course, is pluck up their courage and distribute the money according to need as officially defined. Having done that and provided money that’s vitally needed, they should turn with Sinn Féin to look at these pockets of Protestant deprivation and see if something radical can be done that will turn them around. In the meantime the DUP should show that it’s in charge, not some sectarian tail that’s making the DUP dog look as if it's sectarian as well.  Which of course it's not. 

Sunday, 20 October 2013

It's him again - hold the front page!

I've been thinking about Joe Brolly and I have a job in mind for him. Yes I know - you've been thinking about him too. But I've been thinking not so much about what he's said but the attention it has got. In the past few months Joe has been on everybody's lips.

The first one - so famous even Peter Robinson made a glancing reference to it in his speech at that GAA dinner - was that rant he went into at half-time, where he damned the 'cynicism' of the Tyrone Gaelic football team, their manager and everyone involved with them, because one of their players had fouled an opposition player. Suspend the rightness or wrongness of his comments and reflect on the attention his words got. When who won and who lost are buried in the tip-heap of time, Joe's words will go on resonating.

The second, of course, was that "They can like it or lump it" comment. Amazing.  He didn't do a rant this time - in fact he was quite quiet-spoken on Radio Foyle. But in no time the social media as well as  mainstream media were stuffed with Joe  reports, Joe comments, Joe Joe Joe. So much so that Peter Robinson's speech got lost in the heavy traffic.

Then there's that kidney donation to a colleague. A heroically selfless act - and there can't be a person in Ireland that hasn't thought and/or talked about it.

Joe is by profession a barrister as well as a Gaelic football pundit.  The job I think he should consider is setting up his own PR company. "But lots of people hate what he says!" Yes, Virginia. But nobody ignores it. Which is the holy grail of PR work.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Joe Brolly has a go; Tanaiste says "Me too"

Sometimes reality breaks through the mesh of the media and the results are refreshing. They can also be embarrassing or infuriating or revelatory but they are always refreshing, because they’re the voice of real life, not the media’s version of real life, and that in itself is refreshing. 

Such a rare moment came yesterday when Joe Brolly spoke about the fact that Dungiven’s GAA club is named after Kevin Lynch, a local man who was a member of both the local hurling team and  the Derry county hurling team. He was also a member of the INLA and one of the ten men who died on hunger-strike in 1981. Joe said that he was proud that the club was named after Kevin Lynch and that it was nobody else’s business what name the club chose. “If they don’t like it, they can lump it”.

You don’t hear that kind of blunt language on air as a rule. To be fair to him, when the Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore spoke at a function in Derry last night he tiptoed delicately towards endorsing Joe’s stand: “I think these are issues that the GAA decides. What we have to work at here is how we build bridges, how we move beyond the difficulties of the past”.

Joe’s remarks have been greeted with outrage from the TUV’s Jim Allister. And I’d feel fairly safe in suggesting people like Gregory Campbell would be equally aghast. In which case  I sugggest Jim  and Gregory  be taken by the hand and brought on a guided tour of Belfast. They could start at Windsor Park. Maybe view the Queen's Bridge, check out the King’s Hall,  look up at Windsor House, make their way down Royal Avenue,drive out to Carnmoney and zip along Prince Charles Way. Lots of people, it’s true,  think this royal naming is a very good idea. Others, like nearly half the population of the state, think it’s a pretty imperialist idea. But the bridges and buildings and roads have been named and I haven’t heard anyone from the nationalist or republican community saying they were outraged or demanding a name-change. 

Joe Brolly says the Dungiven club was named after Kevin Lynch because he played for the club and for the Derry Senior hurling team. I expect that’s true. But I also expect that part of the reason the club was named after him was that he was one of ten men who died on hunger-strike rather than accept that republicans were common criminals.  You have to believe very firmly in an idea if you’re prepared to die for it, in this case very slowly and very painfully.  So that kind of heroic resolve may well have been part of what the club admired in this local man.  Unionists of course will argue that the INLA and the IRA were groups of common criminals. Republicans, nationalists and most GAA members, I’d venture to suggest, see things rather differently.

The part of Joe’s remark that strikes home with sharp-edged truth is “It’s none of their business”.  The ‘they’ he’s referring to are those who would presume to tell the GAA, Sinn Féin, the Catholic Church, Catholic schools, the southern government - all sort of organisations and institutions to which they do not now  belong, never have belonged, and have no intention of ever belonging to - that they would presume to tell  these groupings how to manage their affairs.  

Fact: Gaelic games are not played on a competitive basis in any State/Protestant school, except you include Integrated schools. No unionist politician I can think of plays Gaelic games, no unionist that I know of attends Gaelic games. And yet unionist politicians would presume to tell the GAA how they should act, what names they should or should not use, what rules should govern their organisation. What next -  the proposed names of children born into republican/nationalist families  to be submitted to the likes of Jim and Gregory for approval, before proceeding with the infant’s birth registration?  

There comes a point where, if you dance to the piper’s every tune, the piper begins to feel contempt for you. Joe Brolly has just called time on the dancing.  

Friday, 18 October 2013

Roy Hodgson and the space monkey

Sometimes the politically correct lot  give me a pain in the butt. There is the coterie that thinks it would be a good idea to take Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn  and remove the many references to Nigger Jim.  A sort of posthumous reproof to a great writer, using today’s customs and standards. Stupid, stupid, stupid. And there was the minor furore the other day in the House of Commons when Scots MP Jo Swinson, who is pregnant, wasn’t offered a seat by any male colleagues during Prime Minister’s Question Time. Not to mention the danger that offering  a seat might have been seen as sexist as well. 

But the thing that really gets my goat (and I’d like here to make it clear that I once had a pet goat) is the inconsistency of the PC Police. When Ron Atkinson, not knowing his microphone was open, called Chelsea star Marcel Desailly a “lazy, thick nigger”,  he was bundled off his TV pundit slot quicker than a Robbie Keane penalty. When Richard Keys and Andy Gray thought their microphones were off and made derogatory comments on the woman assistant referee at a game, that was the end of Richard and Andy in the big-time TV commentating. 

Now Roy Hodgson, still flushed from his success in squeezing England into the World Cup finals next summer, has been caught with his verbal pants down. It seems he made a half-time joke about a space monkey - I’d never heard it before, had you? - and some mild criticism of it was made, in that the space monkey was paralleled with Andros Townsend. So is Roy going to get the boot? Er, um - look, everybody knows Roy hasn’t a racist bone in his body. But isn’t that what they said about Big Ron? He still got the boot. I’ll bet Richard and Andy would argue that they have nothing but respect for women in sport, as linesman or anything else. But they still got the boot.  Roy though - Roy's different. 

England needs him. Badly. So the PC brigade will swallow hard and say of course Roy’s anti-racist, look at all the different countries he’s coached in, there was no insult intended, in fact Roy is raging  that this is taking the gloss off his team’s masterly display in beating Poland. How dare they interpret his monkey joke as racist. 

My own view is that we’re far, far too quick to detect and denounce non-PC language. But if we’re going to dish out sauce to the Ron, Richard and Andy goose, consistency demands that we dole out sauce to the Roy Hodgson gander. And I would like to stress that I say that as someone who numbers geese of both genders among his best friends.  

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Peter Robinson and the GAA

Good news. Peter Robinson is to attend a big dinner at Queen’s University tonight. It’s organised by Co-operation Ireland and it’s to give public recognition to the GAA’s efforts to forge better community relations.(The EU beat them to the punch, so to speak, when they yesterday recognised the exemplary role of the GAA in Irish society). Last Friday Martin McGuinness and Robinson sat together at Ravenhill to watch Ulster defeat Leicester in rugby.  So you could say tonight is a tit for tat.

But is there any point to these tittings and tattings, these shoulder-to-shoulders? Not in practical terms. They don’t change the fact that Peter Robinson weaseled out of his agreement regarding a peace centre at the Maze/Long Kesh. It doesn’t change that Gregory Campbell is using the cover of the House of Commons to make all sorts of unsubstantiated charges about sexual abuse and what was it, a hundred republicans?  It doesn’t provide jobs for those who are jobless or help those struggling to find the money to pay the mortgage. 

But it’s better than a  sneer and a turned back. That’s what the DUP used to offer, when it refused to sit in the same studio as Sinn Féin, let alone meet with them or converse. So to that extent tonight is highly desirable.

 Unfortunately, for a people who pride themselves on being practical and hard-headed, we seem to attach more importance to meetings and symbols and gestures than we do to building on those in practical ways to effect real change. Just one personal example: I took part in a debate last summer with some Young Unionists from the UUP. It was good for them and me to see that we actually were human beings rather than some sort of two-horned, cloven-hoofed anti-Christ. But the unhappy truth is that neither party left the discussion with any shift in their thinking - and yes, Virginia, I do include myself in that.  Let’s not dismiss the importance of the symbolic but for God’s sake let’s not kid ourselves that it’s worthwhile in the absence of substance. As a wise unionist once said: “It’s deeds, not words, that count”.