Jude Collins

Friday, 31 May 2013

Timing and shaping a story

A long time ago when your granny was a slip of a girl, there was a singer called Jimmy Jones who sang a song called “Good Timin’ “.  It had a nice beat but it had better lyrics:

If little, little David hadn't grabbed that stone
Alyin' there on the ground
Big Goliath might've stomped on him
Instead of the other way 'round
But he had timin'
A tick, a tick, a tick, good timin'
A tock, a tock, a tock, a tock
A timin' is the thing
It's true, good timin' brought me to you

I thought of it last night as I watched the BBC’s ‘The View’. Mark Carruthers was interviewing Victims’ Commissioner Kathryn Stone.  She made it clear that by no means all victims were in favour of the proposed Alasdair’s Law legislation forbidding ex-prisoners who’d been imprisoned for more than five years to serve as special advisers at Stormont. She added that some in fact saw it as a “political sideswipe”.

I thought it was a good interview and showed something of the different shades of opinion as well as pain among victims.  My question, though, is simple: why didn’t we hear from Kathryn Stone with this information about a week ago? Because while it’s true that Ann Travers didn’t say she spoke for all victims (and if I said she did I was wrong),  she did say that this law targeting ex-prisoners was “for all victims”. Kathryn Stone made it clear that Ms Travers’s campaign was not something that all victims wanted, and that there was an element of political party-bashing attached to  it, as some victims saw it. 

But if Kathryn Stone had said this a week ago it would have trimmed back Ann Travers’s campaign as being solely motivated by her love for her dead sister and her concern for all victims of violence. However, it was only this week we got to hear the bigger victim story, at a point where it didn't really matter, as another flip-flop from the SDLP might be terminal. 

Besides timing, of course,  the media give shape to political events through the kinds of questions they ask and who they ask them of. On  Good Morning Ulster  this morning (I wonder how many Ballyshannon listeners it gets), Karen Patterson asked special adviser to Martin McGuinness, Paul Kavanagh, if he ever thought of those killed through his actions when he was in the IRA. Kavanagh said he did. 

It could be classified as a fair question, since victims have been the topic of the week. But I tried thinking back  to a time when a BBC interviewer  - or an interviewer from any other channel - asked the same question of someones from the British armed forces who’d been in Afghanistan or some such place,  and had been involved in attacks and gun battles there. It may have happened but I can’t for the life of me remember any such. 

And so we come back to that old word: consistency.  If it’s a reasonable question to ask Paul Kavanagh if he ever thinks of those who died as as result of his actions, it’s equally valid to ask a British soldier or officer how he feels about people he’s killed on the far side of the world. But we don’t get that. Instead we get Help for Heroes, welcoming-home parades and medals issued to those most prominent in the distribution of death. 

The media hold our reality in the palm of their hand like a piece of plasticine, and they can shape it whatever way they want.  Or are told to.  

Thursday, 30 May 2013

Ann Travers, equations and history

I had every intention of moving on to a new topic today, which is partly why I missed the Nolan Show  last night. But I’m listening to the radio version of the show now and Nolan is interviewing Ann Travers and the truth is that her argument is all over the place. 

She argues that special advisers are paid out of the public purse and that this is particularly hurtful to victims such as herself.  There is no doubt that this could well be the case. But then had one of my relatives  been killed on Bloody Sunday, I might feel it particularly hurtful that the person who killed my relative was being paid out of the public purse. If I were one of the Finucanes, I might feel it particularly hurtful that those in the British armed services who colluded in the death of my father was paid out of the public purse. And you can add many other names yourself, I expect. 

Ann Travers has just made it clear that she does not claim to speak for all victims - but she does say that this bill is for all victims. She may think so but a number of victims want no hand, act or part in this bill. They are firmly opposed to it. These tend to be people whose loved ones were killed by the British state.

The discussion has now moved on to a moving description of the incident that resulted in Mary Travers’s death. While this is moving it doesn’t  advance the argument for blocking ex-prisoners from serving as special advisers one way or another. 

What all it comes down to is the question of how you regard the Troubles. If you believe that it was something more than a mass outbreak of murder, involving thousands of people who prior to the Troubles were not involved in violence of any kind and who post- the Troubles have not been involved in any form of violence - in fact they’re working hard to make sure the peace we now have stays in place - you'll disagree with Ann Travers.  If on the other hand you believe that every death inflicted by the IRA was murder pure and simple, you’ll think Ann Travers is absolutely right. 

One of Pat Finucane’s sons,  John I think, has just come on. Before the line dropped out he was saying that it was notable the difference in reaction to those who died at the hands of the IRA and those who died at the hands of state forces. That is the third leg of the stool - British state killings. In a simple equation, the argument could be stated as

IRA killings = murder; state/loyalist killings = legitimate response 

Whether we like it or not, or know it or not, this is about more than the death of one young woman. Whether Ann Travers likes it or not or knows it or not, this is about how the history of the Troubles is to be written. 

PS  Mike Nesbitt is now on talking about how Ann Travers should have been called before Mary McArdle was appointed. But I thought I had to draw the line somewhere and I've just switched off. 

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Arguing up-hill about Alasdair's bill

That great Englishman George Orwell believed there was a direct correlation between the use of words and the quality of thought they embodied. Where words were used awkwardly or in an ugly fashion, they reflected awkward and ugly thinking. I’m not sure about the ugly part but listening to Alex Attwood being interviewed on the Nolan Show  on BBC Raidio Uladh/Radio Ulster this morning felt as comfortable as the sound that dentists’ drills made circa 1957. Nolan played a clip of Dominic Bradley a little while back explaining why the SDLP would very likely vote against what has since become Alasdair’s Bill  (no, pace Jim Allister but it’s not Ann’s Bill - Alasdair was the man who made it happen). Nolan then asked Alex to explain the screeching hand-brake turn his party had made. Alex didn’t say it was less about victims and more about unionist votes in places like South Down, but you could tell something badly-oiled was clanking and grinding at the back of  his mind as he spoke. 

The Belfast Telegraph has devoted an editorial to the bill,  lamenting how badly the SDLP have handled the whole affair but arguing  it was vital that Alasdair’s bill be passed. Again the language has that slightly high-pitched, fake note. Hardly surprising, when you have the job of explaining that it’s OK to have ex-IRA people in government but it’s a grievous insult to victims to have ex-IRA people (who’ve served more than five years) acting as a special adviser: 

They (ex-prisoners) are as entitled as anyone else to the vast majority of jobs, but it is uncaring and wounding to appoint people guilty of serious terrorist offences to positions at the very heart of the political administration. Quite rightly that will no longer be allowed when the bill becomes law.”

Mmm - ‘At the very heart of the political administration’. That sounds awfully like Martin McGuinness, Gerry Kelly and a few others you could probably add yourself. And yet the Bel Tel  strains every illogical fibre to argue that no, no, that’s different, that’s not a problem, it’s those pesky advisers.

Oh Orwell, thou should’st be living at this hour.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Alasdair and victims

As I watched Alasdair McDonnell declare on TV this evening “This is all about victims!”,   I thought of the Dean of St Columb’s College when I was a boarder there. He was a strange man, the Dean.  Some evenings he’d patrol the refectory smiling and talking quietly to himself, chuckling from time to time. Other evenings he’d walk up and down with a face like thunder, and God help you if you looked at him sideways. 

So how was he a soul-mate of Alasdair’s? Well, what would happen is this.  The Dean would catch you  (OK, me, me, not you) doing something forbidden - playing handball  against the wrong wall, reading a comic, smuggling a bottle of HP sauce into the refectory. Something bad like that. You’d be told to appear at his room at an appointed hour. He would then reach into his pocket, take out a strap and tell you to hold out first your right hand, then your left.   Four slaps if you were lucky, six if you were less lucky, ten if you were all outa luck. That strap hurt.

But there was a further sting on its way. Because on Saturday afternoons, we boarders would line up outside the Dean’s room and ask him if we could get out of the college for a couple of hours, into Derry, where we’d gorge ourselves on chips and sweets and smoke our heads off while watching Jane Russell being kissed by Gary Cooper on the silver screen. We’d form a long line and ask, and the lucky ones got a Yes. I can still feel the pang  of outrage when it came my turn, say two weeks after a leathering, and the Dean would listen to my request and then say “Would you run away out of my sight and don’t be bothering me”. Or put more succinctly - No. 

One crime, two punishments. In law it’s known as double jeopardy.  Some countries have protection from it built into their constitution. That’s because  there’s something inherently unjust about punishing someone twice for the same incident.  But not here. Thanks to Alasdair’s law, the spirit of our Dean will live on. 

That 92% in Creggan and Crossmaglen

There must have been more than one wry smile at the news that an Irish unity referendum has been held in the electoral wards of Creggan Upper Co Louth and Crossmaglen Co Armagh. And another when the results were announced: 92% of people voted for a united Ireland.  Had the referendum been held in the Shankill or East Belfast, it’s a safe bet a different result would have emerged.

But Sinn Féin tends not to do things for no reason. By holding this referendum, it’s sending a message to its supporters: we haven’t forgotten our core issue, national unity. It’s also showing that the idea of a united Ireland doesn’t have to remain at the level of theory, it can have a real-world existence, if only in two carefully-selected wards. 

Of course, Sinn Féin have been calling for a referendum on national unity for some time now. Arlene Foster has warned them to be careful what they wish for, they might get it. In other words, there’s no way a referendum on Irish unity would produce a majority in favour.  She believes the Shinners are simply posturing.

I think she’s wrong, for two reasons. One,  saying ‘I don’t want a united Ireland’ to someone with a Belfast Telegraph clip board is one thing; voting in the privacy of a polling booth could in many cases be a different matter. There’s also the fact that, even if it were to be defeated, a referendum would force politicians and people to examine what they mean by Irish unity and what they mean by union with Britain. What are the pluses, what the minuses in each case? So far, it’s been mainly flag-waving and sloganizing. A referendum, I’d hope, would get people to think about the position they support on the constitutional question and why they hold that position. Socrates believed that an unexamined life is not worth living. Equally, an unexamined unionist or republican position is not worth holding. 

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Ian Óg on 'Question Time'

It’s important not to let a book’s cover put you off  but Ian Óg Paisley has a way of sitting in a chair that I find...peculiar. It involves hooking one arm around the back of his chair and positioning the rest of him in a forward-thrusting way. Lolling, you might say. Odd. Either he has a bad back or as one of the psychiatrists said to the other after five minutes with Basil Fawlty: “There’s enough there for a whole conference”.

The BBC’s Question Time was  from Belfast Thursday last and Ian Óg was on the panel so I had a chance to study his seating posture of choice. And to listen to his views on, among other things, gay marriage. He prefaced his judgement by explaining that he’d no doubt be demonised, castigated, told he was homophobic and a bigot and maybe a few other things, simply because he had the view that marriage was an institution for a man and a woman only. At that point he had my sympathy.  It is true that if you don’t take the liberal line on this subject (and many others) you’re opening yourself up to a barrage of abuse. I was at the Nolan Show  on Wednesday night and Ian Óg’s ex-colleague, Jim Allister, suffered just that fate. So much so that Jim Allister came out looking logical and rational, whereas the gays involved came out sounding shrill.

But then, back at Question Time,  David Dimbleby kind of ruined it  for Ian Óg by quoting some of the things he had said in the past about gays and what they got up to and how he felt about it.  In no time it began to look as though the man sitting beside him, Peter Tatchell, along with quite a few audience members might have had some grounds for castigating him. In fact, things got so hot and heavy, it seemed at one point that Ian Óg was issuing an implicit challenge to one audience member to step outside, just you and me, mate. Thinking back, he can’t possibly have said that, but he definitely did end his remarks to the audience member with the word “mate”,  and you didn’t need to see the look on his face to know  he wasn’t using the word in a friendly, let alone marital way: more in a “You talkin’ to me, mate?” sort of way. 

Or maybe that was just me. If you saw the programme you may have interpreted it differently.  Thing is, I’m grateful to Ian Óg - he gave me a half-hour of his time about a year ago with an interview for my book Whose Past Is It Anyway?, and I'm grateful for that. Though as I remember, he did sit in that funny way then too.  Must be a bad back. Mustn’t it?

Saturday, 25 May 2013

So - are you Irish or what?

I recently watched The History Boys on TV. It’s a fascinating play, set in a 1980s Sheffield grammar school, raising questions about history, education, sexual abuse and more, all in that laconic and sometimes hilarious style that Alan Bennett has perfected. Bennett is part of a gritty, provincial-England tradition of writing that I’ve always enjoyed. I got hooked with  Saturday Night and Sunday Morning back in the 1960s and I’m still an addict. 
Last Thursday I was part of a panel in Toomebridge, discussing what being Irish involves;  as I watched The History Boys I began to wonder if my addiction to this strand of British fiction made me in some way British. Memories of playing cowboys and Indians in the Christian Brothers’ Primary School yard followed, and how later as teenagers in St Columb’s College in Derry we soaked in the rock and roll of Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Gene Pitney and the rest. Maybe those experiences had made me a bit American?

It’s a question of how we see the outside world and respond to it.  I’m convinced my life would have been the poorer if I hadn’t read Stan Barstow, Alan Sillitoe and the likes of  Alan Bennett. And I’m equally sure the music of Elvis and Co provided consolation for my ricocheting hormones back in the late 1950s. 

But did those influences make me less Irish? Some would say yes,  it’s all part of the ‘soft power’ that empires use. Power over weaker nations doesn’t have to come from the barrel of a gun  -  the more subtle weapon of culture in the widest sense of that word does the job as well or better. When you’ve taught  the world to sing in perfect har-mon-ee that they love Coca Cola, you’ve gone some way to making them into mini-Americans. British and American music, fashion, movies, TV shows:  you could see them as, um,  chipping away at your Irishness. 

Yet oddly enough, it was spending several years living in North America that switched me on to the unique beauty of things Irish: the landscape, the music and literature, the verve and passion of the Irish people.  A case, I suppose, of  learning to appreciate something because it’s been removed from your everyday experience.
So what is it to be Irish?  Is it to create a shield between ourselves and outside influences?  That’s the thinking behind the famous GAA ban on soccer or other ‘foreign’ games, and we know now it didn’t work.   Is it to be born in Ireland? Uh-uh. Michael McDowell changed that one when he was Minister for Justice in the south. Besides, three of my four children were born in Canada and now live in England. If you’re thinking of telling them they’re not Irish, let me know so I can be somewhere else.

Maybe it comes down to identification with a country. Here in the north, we have the strange situation that a large part of the population have in the past resisted identifying with things Irish, even though what they claim as a key part of their culture is represented in the Irish national flag. Until we find ways to move that sense of Irish identity from the symbolism of the flag to an on-the-ground reality, talk of Irish unity will remain empty verbiage.

Yes I know - there was a time when these things all seemed so much simpler.  But simple thinking crumbles in the face of complex reality.  National identification doesn’t come from closing down the hatches and telling the world to go away.  It comes from opening our minds to the ways in which other cultures may enrich us.  When we can do that without tumbling into West Britishness or Americanization, we’ll have become a balanced and mature people.

Friday, 24 May 2013

Alex Attwood and Ann Travers: judgement and compassion

Compassion - that’s what Alex Attwood stressed in that rather stressful encounter with the BBC’s Gareth Gordon yesterday. Alex was feeling more than a little tetchy at the time. He'd come from a  meeting with Ann Travers, the woman whose sister was shot dead by the IRA  29 years ago as it attempted to kill her father Tom Travers, a judge. As you probably know, Ann is on a mission, now that Mary McArdle is no longer a special adviser in Stormont, to have anyone who’s served five years or more barred from acting as a special adviser in Stormont. The SDLP has said it will not support a bill to this effect; Ann Travers has said that means they are "putting up two fingers to victims". Hence her meeting to get them to change their minds.

Compassion. Who could not feel compassion for a woman who has clearly suffered deeply since the day and hour that her sister was killed in 1984? However, compassion is one thing and judgement is another. The SDLP has already made a judgement not to support a bill precluding from special adviser office all those who’ve served five years or more. Ann Travers is intent on changing that judgement by drawing on the SDLP’s compassion. 

A dangerous mix. It is never wise to allow victims to make decisions about punishment, for the  good reason that they are victims. A victim feels the pain of loss and anger against those who have inflicted that loss; a judge is one who can detach him or herself from that pain and make a dispassionate decision on fitting punishment. If Alex Attwood or the SDLP allow Ann Travers to decide what the party’s views on this matter should be, they will have allowed compassion to over-rule judgement.

A final and important point on this. Twice yesterday in her TV interview, Ann Travers declared she was speaking on behalf of all victims, in her pursuit of this matter.  She’s wrong. There are literally thousands of people who are victims of the conflict here.  Not all of them feel that their pain calls for the barring from office of anyone who has served five years or more. Some of them feel the very opposite. Ann Travers has every right to speak for herself. She has no right to say she speaks for all victims. 

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Mike Nesbitt and how not to swim

I’m sure Mike Nesbitt isn’t drowning and I’m sure if he were, he would swim his way to safety, but at present he’s making wild lungeing movements that suggest a politically-drowning man. His latest grab is in the direction of the English curriculum here.  In yesterday’s Irish Times  he’s reported as calling for the withdrawal of a book that he hasn’t read.

The book in question is Bog Child  and apparently Mike’s upset about the teaching notes that the CCEA have supplied to be used with it. The book is set in the 1980s and is the story of a teenager whose brother is on hunger strike and who finds a body in a bog.   The teaching notes suggest children study the hunger strikes of the time, put themselves in the shoes of Bobby Sands, and respond to the writings of Sinn Féin’s publicity chief at the time, Danny Morrison, as factual writing. The notes also mention the shame some children might have felt that their fathers worked as prison warders. 

“Do I not like that!”  Mike says, or words to that effect.  In fact, he dislikes it so much he’s called for action. “ This book and the related teaching guidance should be removed from the Northern Ireland curriculum immediately. Then an independent review of curriculum content must be instigated forthwith”. 

The CCEA say that teachers don’t have to teach Bog Child  if they don’t want to - it’s just a suggested text. The curriculum body also points out that matters such as the disappeared, Maggie Thatcher’s views on the hunger strikes and the thinking of Richard O’Rawe, whose views on the hunger strike are diametrically opposed to those of Danny Morrison, are part of the teaching notes.   

But Mike’s too busy thrashing around to hear that. “Let me be clear, this is not an attack on the book” he says.


Tuesday, 21 May 2013

The Irish government, abortion and suicidal women

My daughter (crosses fingers) will qualify as a doctor next month. At the moment she's not sure what she'll specialize in but she's leaning towards psychiatry. If she does choose to do so, I'm praying she doesn't opt to practice in the south of Ireland. Because there the government is intent on using psychiatrists as a political shield in the abortion debate.

Every year over 4,000 Irish women travel to England or Wales to have an abortion, since it's not available in the  26 counties. The Fine Gael-Labour coalition government has been driven to address the problem following the death of an Indian woman, Savita Halappanavar, who wanted an abortion but was reputedly told she couldn't because "Ireland is a Catholic country". So in an effort to do nothing while appearing to do something, Enda Kenny's government is arranging to pass a law that will allow for an abortion not only when the mother's life is at risk for physical reasons but also if she is suicidal. In other words, he's going to shift the responsibility for deciding regarding abortion in some cases onto the country's psychiatrists. They effectively will become the gatekeepers for some abortions in Ireland.

In how many cases? Well, that's where the hypocrisy of the government shows. According to the Irish Times  this morning, the actual incidence of suicide in pregnancy is between 1 in 250,000  and 1 in 500,000.  So clearly most of the 4,000+ women travelling to England and Wales every year for an abortion are not doing so because they feel suicidal.

Suicide, in fact, is a red herring. A dangerous red herring. According to another psychiatrist in this morning's Irish Times,  getting psychiatrists to judge regarding abortion and the danger of suicide is more likely to result in more young men in Ireland committing suicide, in that it might 'normalize' suicide.

In the very few cases where there is a risk of suicide by the pregnant woman, isn't the humane answer obvious?  In prisons, there's such a thing as keeping a prisoner on 'suicide watch': that is, the prisoner is looked after so that suicide becomes impossible. Why couldn't something similar be arranged in those very few cases where women expecting babies are suicidal? What Enda Kenny's government is planning is that the problem will be solved by eliminating - i.e., killing - the baby.

No I don't know the answer to the 4,000 Irish women who travel abroad to have an abortion every year.  But I do know a fake solution when I see one.

Monday, 20 May 2013

Nigel, Gerry and Scotland

Nigel Farage is a funny little man.  With his constant grin and low-set frame he looks like a cartoon character from the Film Fun comic of yesteryear.  Clearly Farage is tapping into the feelings of a right-wing section of the British population which aches for a return to the old days: when Britain was Great Britain and the place wasn’t ruled from Brussels or over-run by immigrants. Now, following UKIP’s success in the British local elections, he’s turned his gaze to Scotland. Being the leader of the UK Independence Party he is, of course, agin Alex Salmond and the SNP’s drive for independence. And the club he’s picked up to batter Salmond with is - would you believe it? - Gerry Adams. 

In Nigel’s considered opinion, Gerry Adams is a more honest and logical politician than Alex Salmond.  How so? Well, he says, the SNP leader has “hoodwinked” Scots, because he tells them that Scotland  can be independent and have a strong voice in the EU.

“Even though he [Mr Adams] is my least favourite politician, the Sinn Féin position has always been Northern Ireland out of the UK and out of the European Union.”

Well, I’d say Gerry Adams is relieved  he’s disliked by Nigel. With a friend like that, who’d need enemies, and Adams has enough of those.  Nigel is right, of course, that Gerry Adams wants, like all genuine nationalists and republicans, the removal of Northern Ireland from the UK to become part of a new Ireland.  But maybe Farage should stop grinning long enough to check out Sinn Féin policy on the EU. It’s all there on their website, Nigel. 

“We want to build a Europe of Equals - a true partnership of equal sovereign states, co-operating in social and economic development in Europe and beyond. We want an EU that promotes peace, demilitarisation and nuclear disarmament and the just resolution of conflicts under the leadership of a reformed, renewed and democratised United Nations. Ultimately, we want a future United Ireland to take an active, leading role in such a reformed EU”.

 But then Nigel’s not alone in misrepresenting Sinn Féin’s position on Europe.  Right-wing parties south of the border - notably Fine Gael -  do the same thing. In Dail debates, Enda Kenny is never slow to accuse Sinn Féin of being anti-Europe. Well yes, Enda, if by the EU you mean a place where  Berlin sets your budget and the population is burdened with back-breaking debt that’ll take decades to reduce, never mind pay off.

But while Nigel’s wrong about  Sinn Féin's stance on Europe, he’s right to link the pressure for independence in Scotland with the same thing in Ireland.   When I interviewed Ian Paisley Jr for my book Whose Past Is It Anyway?, he saw the link as well. He figured a revival of the 1912 Covenant spirit could help keep Scotland firmly in place: “I think it would be wonderful. It would be a real filip to unionist here that we had helped save the Scottish union now, a hundred years later”.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, Lyndon Johnson used to justify US intervention in Vietnam by talking about a communist domino-effect through all the countries of South-East Asia if the US didn't intervene.  Scotland today is less a domino and more of a corner-stone of the Union. If Scotland were to vote for independence - and don’t rush to dismiss the possibility that it will  - then the whole concept of a United Kingdom would have been destabilised, with profound implications for us in Ireland. 

So well done, Nigel. You mightn’t have a clue  about Sinn Féin policy on Europe, but you’re right to link what’s happening in Scotland with what’s happening in Ireland. If one succeeds in achieving independence, stand by for something similar happening in the other.  Oh, and by the way, Nigel - keep campaigning against Scottish independence, would you?  Your every word helps stiffen Scot Nats’ resolve to run their own country. 

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Getting mad about grammar schools

I lost my temper the other day. It’s something I used to do quite a bit when I was young but as  with many of my passions, it has dimmed with time. Mind you, once I’d cooled down I got angry all over again, this time with myself for having been annoyed. 

The source of my irritation was a man who - with some passion - corrected me for suggesting that secondary schools here are not as good as grammar schools. On mature reflection (as Brian Lenihan put it) I can see it was a crass and undiplomatic thing to say, given that my listener had taught for many years in a secondary school. What had catapulted me into making the statement was the question of whether, if you disapproved of the grammar school/secondary school divide, you should send your children to a secondary school. 

I know there are people who believe that it’s only in your actions you show your true beliefs. However, I’m not wholly convinced that, if you don’t believe in selection by academic ability, you should display these beliefs by sending your children to a secondary school. I quite appreciate the demands made on teachers in secondary schools - having taught in one and having visited over a thirty-year period both grammar and secondary school classrooms, there’s little question that for the most part, secondary classrooms make more demands on the teacher than grammar schools. So it would be possible to argue that secondary schools are in fact better than grammar schools, in that they work with children who have less appetite for the curriculum offered and often have little hesitation in telling the teacher as much. 

But if secondary schools are in fact better, how to explain the insistence by middle-class parents that grammar schools are kept in place and that selection by academic ability remains post 11+? The man who triggered my passing wrath explained it in terms of social status: parents didn’t want their children mixing with the riff-raff of secondary schools. I think he’s right in that and it is a factor sometimes overlooked. 

But there’s also the fact that young people tend to do what their friends do. And if they’re in classrooms where the assumption is that the pupils will secure good grades and proceed to university, those assumptions tend to be accepted and chances are the individual child will, to a greater or lesser extent, do likewise. There are children who’ll be more successful as the top stream in a secondary school rather than the bottom stream in a grammar school, but they tend to be the exception rather than the rule. By and large, a child in a grammar school is more likely to go on to third level education than one in a secondary school. 

So given that situation, I don’t blame any parent who wants to send their child to a grammar school, any more than I blame bankers or politicians for picking up fat salaries or pensions. The finger of accusation should be pointed at those who set up this unjust system and work to maintain it, rather than at those who try to navigate their way through the system that confronts them. 

There. Having got that off my chest I feel in less of a tearing-at-the-walls-with-my-nails mood already. 

Friday, 17 May 2013

Remembering 1916

I was down in Dublin over the Easter period and I happened to pass Hodges Figgis bookshop. The display window was filled with books of all sorts, many of them dealing with aspects of Easter 1916. My belief that the coming centenary will generate massive public interest is reinforced by a letter in today’s Irish Times by Tom Stokes, a grandson of John Stokes, who was part of the Boland Mills Garrison in 1916.  In the letter Stokes ticks off Alf MacLochlainn, the grand-nephew of Patrick Pearse, for lamenting the absence of commemorations of the Easter Rising. 

Stokes points out that he is the co-ordinator of the Citizens’ Campaign for Republic Day. They are hoping that on April 24, 2014, Republic Day will be celebrated in all 32 counties of Ireland building towards “a very significant and unique commemoration by citizens on Republic Day, 2016”.

I find that very cheering. Now that it’s safe to do so, many southern political parties will be trumpeting their republican credentials.  The south’s government in particular will be keen to take control of whatever commemorations are held.Stokes’s campaign seems to be non-party, which is a very good thing. The focus should be on the men and women who showed massive courage and dedication to the nation 100 years ago, not on political parties. I’m also cheered by Stokes speaking of all 32 counties. There are those who would like to glide past that aspect of the republic proclaimed on the steps of the GPO; they’d prefer to encourage people to think of real  Ireland existing south of the border only. If Stokes’s campaign achieved nothing else than to re-awaken a realisation in citizens south of the border that those of us living in this part of the island  - all of us living here, regardless of political views - are their fellow-countrymen, then his campaign will have been eminently worthwhile. 

Such a change, like a change almost 100 years ago, would be as miraculous as it is welcome.

Easter, 1916

I have met them at close of day   
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey   
Eighteenth-century houses.
I have passed with a nod of the head   
Or polite meaningless words,   
Or have lingered awhile and said   
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done   
Of a mocking tale or a gibe   
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,   
Being certain that they and I   
But lived where motley is worn:   
All changed, changed utterly:   
A terrible beauty is born.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Longer sentences for killing a cop?

Conflicted - a great word, that. The Americans are powerful people for taking nouns and changing them into verbs, and ‘conflicted’ is a good example. It’s also the state I find myself in this morning as the sun shines in the window onto my desk and I listen to the buzz of a neighbour's tree being cut down.  

So what am I conflicted about? Well, Theresa May, actually. Or rather, the proposal Teresa has made that people found guilty of killing a police officer or a prison warden should be locked up for a very long time - longer than would be the case had they killed, say, someone out of work or the local rat-catcher. 

The reason I’m conflicted is that my initial reaction is to say ‘For once I agree with the Tories’.  All lives are precious, but policemen and women, as those authorised to uphold the law that protects us all, are of particular significance. To strike at them is to strike at us all. So although I can’t stick the May woman, I’d have to agree with her on this one.

That is, until I think for a minute. Might there be other groups which play a key role in our society? Take the killing of Pat Finucane.  One of the heinous qualities of that crime was that Finucane was a solicitor - a man whose work was to make sure that people got justice in our courts. His killing was brutal, and the fact that there was state collusion makes it even more vile; but the fact that he was a solicitor, part of the network which looks to protect us all, made him special. So maybe there’s a case for particularly long sentences for those who kill a lawyer?

And then there are judges. And journalists. And doctors. All key jobs, devoted to the welfare and protection of society and its members. Shouldn’t the killers of such people pay a particularly heavy price too?

In short,  you begin to see that an awful lot of jobs have a unique role to play. Their members are deserving of protection and their killers deserving of punishment.  But a heavier punishment than the killing of someone who has different work or no work at all? There are so many jobs which, it could be argued, are vital to a healthy society, the people holding them should be protected. Assuming, of course, that the judge, the policeman, the doctor, the journalist  is doing his/her job properly. 

See what I mean about being conflicted? Perhaps the best solution is for all human life, regardless of job or trade or profession or circumstances, to be regarded as sacred, and the killing of any man or woman deserving of equal punishment. 

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Matt Baggott: getting it wrong and getting it right

I was in the East Belfast Skainos centre last week. It is an impressive building, modern and elegant in an area that otherwise shouts “Poverty!” at every turn. I wonder would the people of East Belfast think differently about our politics if all of the area had buildings of that quality.

Meanwhile the PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott seems to have the notion of poverty on his mind when he called for politicians to tackle endemic poverty and youth unemployment. He believes that loyalist and republican violence has its roots in economic and social neglect. He’s also warned of the dangers of violence coinciding with the G8 summit meeting in Fermanagh. 

As to the second point:  whenever the police predict an “upsurge in violence”, you can be pretty sure it won’t happen. Remember all those Christmas run-ups where the RUC warned us they had intelligence that said the IRA was planning a concentrated bombing campaign? Any paramilitary group with half a brain chooses its own time, not Baggott’s. 

But he’s onto something with the first point. Something that’s rarely been addressed over the past forty years is the fact that most of the conflict was fought by those living in deprived areas.When you live in a system that clearly doesn’t give a damn about you, you’re more likely to seek radical means of addressing the wrong. As G B Shaw said so long ago, if you want to turn a revolutionary into a law-abiding conservative, give him £50,000, 

Monday, 13 May 2013

Watch me now...

I don’t know if you caught Alex Kane’s tweet yesterday about the BBC’s Sunday Sequence: "Sunday Sequence is probably the most challenging, interesting, informative and rounded programme on Radio Ulster.”  To which Martin McGuinness within minutes had responded: “I propose an amendment to @AlexKane  tweet re Sunday Sequence,drop 'probably.'’

Both men are right, and not just because I was on the programme yesterday. The  presenter William Crawley is head and shoulders above other presenters on BBC Raidio Uladh/Radio Ulster - maybe even in Ireland. He’s articulate, he’s fearless and he’s always courteous. Plus he possesses an intelligence that leaves his peers in the starting blocks. You don’t need to think long about some of the programmes  that Raidio Uladh/Radio Ulster serves up daily to conclude that the vision of the management in Ormeau Avenue is seriously purblind. It’ll be too late to lament his value if Crawley one of these days jumps ship and goes to London, or better still Dublin. 

Anyway, enough of that. Yesterday’s Sunday Sequence  had a look at the proposed Shared Future being served up by Stormont.  The initiative has been greeted with exasperated sighs  from a number of directions  but frankly I’ve little patience with that response. With people who say “But there’s nothing new here - we proposed that way back whenever!”. Or with parties who gurn about not having been invited into the shaping of the policy. Yes, maybe they did and maybe they should have been, but are they more concerned with their own self-importance or with the initiative itself? So what if it should have been implemented years ago? The past can’t be changed so let’s focus on where we are now and what we can do. 

Personally I cannot see what’s not to like about 10,000 work placements for young people, 10 shared education campuses, 100 shared summer schools, 10 shared neighbourhood developments.   No, the flags issue, the parades issue, the dealing-with-the-past issue - none of these has been directly addressed yet. But what has been proposed tackles the same problem: we live in a society that’s divided by mental razor-wire and it’s time we produced the wire-cutters. 

I have just one suggestion for those engaged in this task: let our political leaders lead. It's a truth universally acknowledged that leaders are most effective when they model the behaviour they look to cultivate in their followers. So let’s have the Stormont MLAs and Executive dropping off their children at shared education campuses, let’s have our politicians organising and attending their own shared summer schools, let’s see them living in shared neighbourhoods. Because as things stand,  the example some of them are setting in Stormont encourages not the best in society but the worst. 

Check it out on TV. Watch any DUP politician, up to and including the First Minister, when s/he is on-screen with a Sinn Féin colleague. What does their body-language say, how often do they establish so much as eye-contact with their colleague? Rather what we get is “ I may be standing beside this person but I really really don’t like it and frankly I detest them.” 

OK, I’ll go out on a limb and say that most DUP politicans in Stormont act like this because they’re fearful of their electorate and play to the lowest common denominator: ‘There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader'. That’s the charitable explanation. The less charitable is that they really do detest their partners in the Executive. In either case it's a bit daft to urge your constituents to work towards more civilized cross-community relations and even friendship when every time you appear on TV, you send exactly the opposite message. 

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Death of a priest

John McCullagh died a couple of days ago. He was a Catholic priest - or as the Belfast Telegraph  describes him, a "pervert priest" who "took his secrets to the grave, never having faced justice". The report goes on to talk about how McCullagh "fled" to a Maghera nursing home when it was revealed that he had sexually abused an eight-year-old girl over a seven-year period. "Other victims did come forward in the wake of the Belfast Telegraph expose, but McCullagh never faced justice in court", The paper then goes on to talk  about "his vile actions".

I haven't followed the case of Fr McCullagh so I don't know any more than the Telegraph  tells me. However, I did know John McCullagh when he was a young man in the town from which we both came - Omagh. He was older than me and I remember him on occasion playing football with my brothers.  Since his death I've talked to a number of people who knew him, as a priest in Derry City and elsewhere, and they've been emphatic if not loud in his praise (it doesn't do to be too loud when saying positive things about "pervert priests"), speaking of the amount of good work he did  over the years. The Telegraph doesn't talk about this part of his life - in fact it seems resentful that McCullagh will be buried "with full religious honours".

My guess is that McCullagh was like the rest of us - a mixture of good and bad. In the old days, the Catholic Church was rightly criticised for being obsessed with sexual sin, before which all other sins shrank into nothing. These days, the same people who would have been emphatic in their criticism of the Church for this are themselves most vocal in elevating sexual abuse to the exclusion of all other sins, in this case to the point where they are unhappy about how McCullagh's body is lowered into the grave.

When we measure the worth of a life,  logic and justice demand that we assess all of it, not just the parts or actions  we select from it.  We know that John McCullagh had dark areas as well as clear areas in his life - as do we all.  Maybe we should leave the stone-throwing to those among us who are without sin. Like the Belfast Telegraph. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Two tales of two novelists

It’s funny  (that’s funny-peculiar, not funny-ha-ha) the way things conjoin sometimes. Over the last few days I’ve been thinking about two books by writers that I know personally and whose work I find interesting.

On Thursday, Danny Morrison did a reading of his most recent book Rudi: In the Shadow of Knulp.  It’s a novel that draws its inspiration from an earlier novel by the German writer Herman Hesse. But Morrison’s book is set in Ireland and follows the central character through the post-war period and then the 1960s and 1970s. After the reading I asked the author how was it that, as a committed republican, he had made the Troubles a sketchy background and the central character Rudi an apolitical being. The answer I got was that there is a great deal more in life than politics or even political conflict, and besides as a writer he Morrison had learnt that when you write from a political perspective, you risk producing something closer to propaganda. 

The second writer is David Park.  A friend  today emailed me an interview with the author in the Guardian  newspaper. In it Park talks about his latest book, The Light of Amsterdam, and how although his eighth novel, it was his first truly post-Troubles work. In other words in this novel, like Morrison, Park doesn’t allow politics a centre-stage place.  I’ve read earlier works by both authors and I think these their most recent -  Rudi  and The Light of Amsterdam - are emphatically their best. 

So is that what makes them good and is Danny Morrison right - to give politics or political struggle the foreground  is to risk damage to the quality of the work? His book and Park’s most recent would suggest that that is the case. I’m not so sure. While it may be harder to successfully  include politics or political struggle in a novel, it can and has been done. For example, an early work by another Belfast writer, Ronan Bennett, Overthrown by Strangers,  gives centre stage to political violence. So too does his award-winning novel The Catastrophist.  Jonathan Coe’s What a Carve-up  is another case in point, and of course George Orwell’s Animal Farm  and 1984  are classic examples of the same thing.

It’s a fascinating issue. Maybe it’s got something to do with the fact that most people largely ignore politics, except as a kind of beauty contest: which candidate looks best, which would you like to have a beer with, which caters to your prejudices. And maybe that’s why most novels by-pass politics. Perhaps if we taught our young people that politics is something which everyone has an obligation to be interested in, even to be involved in, there’d be less room in politics for  phony smiles, back-stabbing and failure to deliver on promises. And more room in fiction for politics.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

"Murder is murder is murder!" - The Nolan Show

“Murder is murder is murder!” the woman in the audience told Laurence McKeown and everyone in last night’s Nolan Show audience. “I don’t agree with you” McKeown said. Stephen Nolan was keen to have Laurence direct his comments to the woman who was sitting beside him. Her father, who’d been a member of the UDR, was shot dead by the IRA. McKeown told Nolan he wasn’t in the game of creating sound-bites.

It was an interesting moment because it brought into focus two ways of approaching our past. Nolan thrives on having adversaries make their acusations directly to those they deem responsible for their pain;  McKeown and most republicans prefer to look at the conflict in wider terms, including the state out of which the conflict grew. So while an argument between the woman who lost her father and McKeown would almost certainly have made for riveting television, it wouldn’t have told us much beyond the fact that the woman was filled with pain and resentment at her father’s death.  When it comes to making rounded judgements about the past, victims who are suffering rarely (and understandably) are the best choice. 

The word “murder” was used by the woman whose father was killed by the IRA; Jude Whyte ( or ‘White’ as the programme chose to call him) lost his mother in a UVF attack and he said he saw his mother as having been murdered also. Someone else - maybe Sinn Féin’s Raymond McCartney - said that the great majority of those incarcerated in Long Kesh would never have been there had our society been a normal one. In other words, it seemed that some of those involved in the show saw the deaths as murder, full stop; others saw them as a tragic part of a conflict in which everyone suffered. 

The last time I mentioned the word ‘murder’ in relation to the Troubles it evoked a fire-storm of vilification. I was saying it was right that Mary Travers had been killed, I was saying it was right that the Shankill bomb had killed so many people. The fact that I said nothing of the sort was brushed aside. I expect there’ll be a similar reaction to the McKeown-McCartney view on the Troubles. Particular killings will be highlighted and demands will be made to call them murder. I won’t say the people who make such demands are wilfully blind, but I will say that they are refusing to distinguish between deliberate killings for personal motives  and  deliberate or even accidental killings as part of a political conflict.  

The trouble with declaring all killings to be murder, regardless of cause or political end, is that logic demands you denounce any decoration for war activities  and embrace pacifism as a life-guiding philosophy. And not too many are prepared to go down that road.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Irish army WW2: deserters or heroes?

I’m always impressed by the public mind’s ability to perform somersaults. The latest example of this is the ‘pardon’ issued to those soldiers in the Irish Army who deserted and joined the British Army during the Second World War.  At the time they were declared deserters and when they came home they had problems getting work.  Now Justice Minister Alan Shatter is sponsoring a Bill to right that wrong posthumously  “The Bill is being enacted in recognition of the courage and bravery of those individuals court martialed or dismissed from the Defence Forces who fought on the Allied side to protect decency and democracy during World War Two”.

I’m afraid I detect a case of having your cake and eating it here. No matter what Minister Shatter or anyone else says, these men were deserters. They’re on record as having gone AWOL and to pretend they somehow didn’t is daft. “Yes, but they did it for the highest of motives” you may say. Indeed. But if as Shatter says, they were fighting to protect “decency and democracy”, then by extension the Irish army which they deserted failed to help protect “decency and democracy”. So Dev’s whole neutrality thing was simply cowardice? A failure to stand side-by-side with Britain and the allies against Germany?

Well yes, they didn’t stand side-by-side with Britain. But surely that was their prerogative as a sovereign state. What’s the point in having an independent foreign policy if you’re not allowed to use it?  And what has happened that Mr Shatter and this generation see the courage and even heroism of these men, while the generation or two before them saw them saw deserters who rejected their own army and joined that of Britain?  

The case is similar to the rehabilitation of those Irishmen who fought in the British Army in the First World War. In both cases, the hurry to rehabilitate has more to do with publicly sucking up to Britain than it does with wanting to do the right thing. Despite the considerable number of irishmen who have joined the British army over the decades, there has always been a sense that they have gone over, for whatever reason, to the ‘other side’.

So here are two tips for you, Alan:  (i) Accept that the men were in fact deserters from the Irish Army. Regardless of motive, deserting is deserting and no apology changes that. (ii) Accept that while these men may have shown courage and even insight by joining Britain in fighting Germany, they were effectively telling their government it should have entered the war. No state and no society reacts well to being told a central policy is totally mistaken, especially when the critics come dressed in the uniform of the British Army. 

As to Alan’s hand-wringing over the men’s difficulties in finding work when they returned, he might want to turn his gaze and his influence northwards to consider the work problems encountered by former political prisoners here.  Or maybe not. It’s always easier to speak up for the safely dead. 

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Where's the parity?

Even allowing for the degree of friction within the power-sharing coalition, it’s still pretty startling stuff.  Sinn Féin councillor Jim McVeigh recently told  a group calling itself United Republicans that the PSNI were engaged in a “campaign of persecution against Catholics” and that “our women and our children” were being beaten back into their homes. McVeigh said this was a disgrace and that it was the result of Nigel Dodds having the Chief Constable wrapped round his little finger. “He has to go!”  McVeigh told the audience. The leader of the SDLP, Alastair McDonnell and a former INLA leader also addressed the  crowd.

Scary biscuits, eh?  Except I made that first paragraph up. Out of thin air. Well, not thin air exactly. The speaker was DUP councillor Ruth Patterson, not Sinn Féin’s Jim McVeigh, the charge was that the “Protestant people” were being persecuted and their women and children “beaten off the streets”. The group was the United Loyalists, and UUP leader Mike Nesbitt and the PUP’s Billy Hutchinson also addressed the crowd.

I spun that fictional first-paragraph version to show how off-the-wall it would sound, were it nationalists and republicans that had held such a rally. It’s safe to say that there would have been outcry from all shades of unionism as well as from our very own British Secretary of State. But because it’s the unionist voice of Ruth Patterson there’ll be relatively little response, and certainly no outcry from republicans and/or nationalists.

Depressing, eh? Despite the Good Friday Agreement declaring that only when a majority in the north want it can there be moves towards constitutional change, despite the destruction of IRA weaponry and the effective disbandment of that paramilitary group, unionist politicians like Ruth continue to encourage unionists in their belief that their Britishness is under threat and the authorities against them - to such an extent that an outburst like the one above will as I say provoke minimal condemnation from nationalists/republicans. Had the verbal attack come from the other side, there would have been a storm of flying fur and feathers. 

Which goes to support what I tend to say rather often: if you start with “One lot’s as bad as the other” your analysis of our political situation will be fatally flawed. 

Monday, 6 May 2013

"This is my home!" Oh God no.

Funny image of the past week: Edwin Poots sitting in that nursing home with a 90 + -year-old.  She’d been on the Nolan Show earlier in the week and had been encouraged to express her feelings of alarm and distress. So here was Edwin, the Health minister, with the very same woman, and what are they doing? Holding hands. And smiling delightedly (in the case of the 90+-year-old) and in a getmeoutahere manner (in the case of Edwin Poots). 

Edwin’s hand-holding companion was only one of a number of old people who were presented to the camera over the past week or two, insisting that the nursing home in which they lived was their home, and to take them out of it would be like ripping them from all they knew and loved. Which must have had the nursing/care homes of the statelet dancing on the ceiling. Up to now, these homes have been in the news for much more negative reasons -  hidden cameras showing the ‘carers’ thumping the defenceless patients,  bed-bound people being left in their own faeces and similar horrors. Now here were the very patients testifying that they loved their ‘home’. I wonder were there any relatives alarmed at the news that these homes were due for closure, not for the sake of their relative, but for the burden such closure might place on them.

Two quick points (after all, it’s Bank Holiday and I should be out frisking around like a little lambkin):

  1. I have never heard anyone say that they’d placed a close relative in a home without at least some tinge of guilt. Often unasked, they’ll explain to you how they couldn’t possibly  have looked after them at home.
  2. There’s little doubt that most old people want to go on living in their own real homes if at all possible. It may not be heaven but it beats the care homes. 
  3. I’ve never visited one of these care homes without feeling depressed. That may have been because we all are headed that direction, and there’s the distinct possibility that we’ll find ourselves in similar circumstances - assuming we’re not six feet underground. But there’s also something semi-zombie-like about many of the old people in them. They sit there as if in a daze (medication or a sense of hopelessness?)  The only exception I’ve come on has been one old man who lived into his early 90s and whom I visited from time to time in his care home. He read, he watched TV and he was a vigorous conversationalist. He never left his room, and when I asked him if he didn’t want to mix with the other people in the home, he was very definite the answer was No. He didn’t say “I’d be fearful I’d catch their mood of hopelessness’  but it was clear that was what he felt. 

So while it’s kind of fun to see old Edwin being turned on the media spit - he really should have had a tighter hold on all those trusts before they announced their multiple closures - it’s a pity that the care homes are emerging as the hero of the piece , the place where at least some people seem keen on passing their final years. In my limited experience, they all have a faint whiff of despair. Any alternative arrangement for old people would almost certainly have to be better. 

One last question, related to a point an acquaintance of mine made to me some time ago. As years go by, he claimed, grown-up children love their parents less and less. They (the children) who were once powerless in the hands of their parents now find themselves all-powerful, with their parents’ fate in their hands. The result of this reversal is a hardening of hearts and an increasing sense of their aged parent as being inconveniently alive. I’m still trying to tell myself that my friend got it wrong.  But it’s not easy convincing myself. 

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Who fears to speak of a border poll?

Sluggerotoole.com is one of those sites that I visit on a regular basis. You occasionally get daft debates but usually I'm struck by how informed and logical many of the contributors are. However, I usually resist the temptation to engage with its discussions since life is short and besides, this blog gobbles up enough of my time. But my eye was caught yesterday by a commentary on Sinn Féin’s drive to have a border poll. 

The usual grounds for dismissing such a poll is that it’s bound to fail - that is, the Belfast Telegraph and other opinion polls show that the great majority of people in the north want to maintain the union with Britain (aka continued government from London). So why waste time and money on a border poll when everyone knows what the result will be?  

The frequent argument for having a poll - at least by those who believe it will confirm the opinion polls and maintain the union - is that Sinn Féin’s bluff should be called, and that would take the constitutional question off the table. 

Both view are so persuasive I’m in danger of doing the splits. It’s true that, according to opinion polls, a border poll has a snowball’s chance in hell of going for constitutional change. And it’s also true that to hold a border poll and see it defeated would remove the constitutional question from the table, at least for the time being. 

However, my guess is that Sinn Féin are keeping three matters in mind. 

One is that while traditional nationalists may tell the Bel Tel that they're not in  favour of a united Ireland tomorrow,  it could well be another matter when they’re in the polling both and faced with putting their mark against the notion of Irish unity. If you want a parallel of sorts, look at the supposed fruitcakes in UKIP who did strikingly better in the polling booth than the opinion polls suggested. So a border poll would be a historic moment, and given that unity wouldn’t actually have to be tomorrow, we might be surprised how many nationalists would put their X beside Yes for constitutional change. 

The second reason I think Sinn Féin are pushing hard for a border poll is because many of their supporters are looking for more signs of on-the-ground progress in this core matter. So to agitate for a poll, regardless of outcome, is seen as electorally desirable.

The third reason I would guess to be behind Sinn Féin’s thinking is, if a border poll were called, people would be forced to confront core questions which in the normal course of things they don’t consider and in many cases don’t like considering. Questions like “What do we mean when we say we want to maintain the union with Britain? Why? What are the benefits? What are the drawbacks, if any?”  And likewise, the question “What do I mean by a united Ireland? Why have one? What would be the benefits? What are the drawbacks, if any?”

It’s these questions that I’m guessing Sinn Féin want aired, and which a border poll would provide the opportunity for airing. Would it be divisive? Only if you get all agitated when someone puts forward an argument you don’t agree with. For so long the constitutional question has been at the core of our differences here in the north, yet nearly all the time our thinking stops with waving flags and shouting slogans. A border poll, Sinn Féin believe, would move things on to a measured debate. And if, after that debate, the electorate chose to maintain the union, then republicans and nationalists would have to consider if their ideal of a united Ireland was outmoded or if they needed to rethink how something which doesn’t yet exist might be presented in a way that would win more support. 

On the other hand, if the border poll were to say Yes to constitutional change, we’d see whether those  committed to union with Britain would respect the outcome of a democratic vote. What’s that? Never, never, never, never? I see. Mmm. Maybe. Or maybe not.

Friday, 3 May 2013

The South's abortion bill: insufficient or irrelevant?

There are those who believe that in order to divert our attention from the economic mess, our leaders and the media make much of other matters, frequently sexual: - gay marriage being an outstanding example of this. I think there’s some truth in that. Personally I don’t get it with regard to gay marriage. That is, I don’t see why those who have beliefs that see homosexuality as sinful should see gay marriage as something hellish. If anything they should be welcoming the element of fidelity which marriage, gay or straight, espouses. The fact that an awful lot of marriages collapse for one reason or another, and the fact that many young and not so young people are simply ignoring the wedding banns and co-habiting weakens that argument a little. But I don’t understand those people who feel that traditional marriage is somehow diluted or demeaned because of gay marriage. Maybe I’m missing something. 

I also don’t quite get the south’s abortion debate, which is raging at present. The suggestion is that abortion will be allowed if a pregnant woman is suicidal.   David Quinn the journalist and director of the Iona Institute is opposed to this and says that 113 Irish psychiatrists agree with him and are opposed to “suicidality” as grounds for an abortion. Those in favour of more readily-available abortion in the south say the proposed Bill won’t go far enough, as very few of the hundreds of women who go from Ireland to England for abortions are suicidal, so the Bill, even it allowed abortion for the few women deemed suicidal, wouldn’t address the problem.

The core question, I believe, is “What is a foetus?”  If it’s a human being, then it’s hard to see grounds for abortion, since that would involve intentional killing of a totally innocent human being. Those who argue for abortion only in cases of incest or rape seem to me plain wrong: while pregnancy because of rape or incest must be ghastly, it’s even more ghastly to put an end to the pregnancy by killing the totally innocent child.

If the answer to “What is a foetus?” is that it is not a human being, then abortion should be allowed at any point during pregnancy - from conception right through to the moments before birth. Why talk of difficult, harrowing decisions to abort if what’s being aborted isn’t a human? I’ve heard people talk about the foetus being a “potential human being” but I frankly don’t understand what that means, or maybe that it means too many things. You could have a potential human being if you left a couple of irresponsible teenagers, a boy and a girl, in a room alone. You could have a potential human being if a man thinks about raping a woman, let alone doing so. And that’s to ignore the difficulty concerning the linked contention that at some point the non-human foetus becomes a human being foetus. 

As to the argument which points out that every day, some dozen women leave Ireland to have an abortion in England, therefore Irish hospitals should provide abortions: that strikes me as totally spurious. The action of abortion is either right or wrong, and the fact that lots of people are doing it, or that services for doing it are available next door - these are grim facts but they have no bearing on the right or wrongness of aborting. 

Oh, and one last point. Those people who say that men should not form judgements in this matter since they don’t know what it’s like to carry a foetus would have to argue that prostate cancer, for example, is no business of women since they don’t get it, and that breast cancer is no concern of men since they don’t get it. The fact that you can’t have a particular condition, whether life-threatening or life-forming, has no bearing on your ability to form judgements about it. The only limitation on judgement, I would think, is your level of moral coarseness.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Why Gerry should come clean

Six reasons why Gerry Adams should admit he was a member of the IRA

  1. It will give those of us who always tell the truth the opportunity to say “If he told a lie about his membership of the IRA, how can we trust him when he says anything else?” These would include such matters as tree-hugging, rubber ducks and the payment of his dog licence. 
  2. It will remove any lingering belief that Mr Adams was secretly a senior RUC officer given unmerited promotion because of his personal friendship with Chief Constable Jack Hermon.
  3. It will eliminate the possibility, popular in some circles,  that his goal is a united Ireland but one in which the country is ruled exclusively from London with Queen Elizabeth as head of state.
  4. It will mean that his Dail questions about cuts in benefits and crippling national debt can be met with counter-questions about his personal role in every IRA operation since 1971. 
  5. It will provide closure for those journalists who believe that it is in the public interest to know whether Gerry Adams was in the IRA or just openly supportive of it over the past forty years.  As things stand, these journalists are getting very little sleep, concerned as they are that someone may demand to know why they believe the distinction matters so much - beyond, of course, depriving them of the opportunity to source victims of IRA violence who can be  primed to spring out as the cameras roll and accuse Mr Adams of being a liar.  
  6. Admission by Mr Adams that he was in the IRA will remove the appalling vista that at some point the public might begin to see some journalists as anti-republican, which of course they are not now and never have been.
  7. Finally, it will allow Mr Adams, accompanied by Mr McGuinness, the chance to start going to confession regularly again.