Jude Collins

Friday, 28 June 2013

Five things worth saying after last Friday

        1. The Orange Order is a supremacist organisation. The Parades Commission ruled that yes, despite last year’s appalling behaviour, band members could parade past St Patrick’s church to the accompaniment of a single drum-beat. This ruling was ignored and and the defiance of the ruling justified by unionist politicians: “Who could object to the playing of a religious hymn?”.  Well, clearly the Parades Commission objected to it, hence their ruling. And if you watch and listen to the band on video, you realise that the tune may have been ‘What A Friend We Have In Jesus’ but the performance had a level of swagger and thump-thump-thump not normally related to hymn-playing. Parades Commission ruling? What Parades Commission ruling? We decide what we play, when we play it, where and how. If that’s not a supremacist attitude, look forward to my my granny spear-heading the Barcelona forward line next season. 
        2. Gerry Kelly (and Alban Magennis and Carál Ní Chuilín)  should stop doing the PSNI’s work for them. Not only do you not get paid for it, but as Friday showed, you really enhance your chances of being hospitalized or even killed. The job for which the police are handsomely paid is to see that the law is upheld and that those who break the law are punished. That’s not the job of Gerry or Cáral or Alban. Yet they’ve gone out of their way to help the PSNI in maintaining public order.  Result? Carál Ní Chuilín ends up in hospital, Gerry Kelly’s life is put at risk by a police vehicle. That doesn’t sound like much of a reward for their efforts. Think of it the other way round: supposing Gerry had driven his car for fifty yards with a policeman clinging on for dear life?  The courts would beckon, along with a hefty fine or even imprisonment.
        3. The PSNI must show more consistency, and quickly. Many people thought the police acted unwisely in their response to the flag protestors. They didn’t make arrests; they played a softly-softly  game and in the end, it seemed Matt Baggott was right - the protests fizzled out and those rioting were later arrested and charged.  But this approach demands consistency.  You can’t just treat flag protestors one way and anti-Orange Order demonstrators another. But last Friday, that’s just what they did. Imagine the brou-ha-ha had, for example,  if Jim Allister been carried on the bonnet of a police landrover during a flags protest,  or  Arlene Foster injured in a melee? Consistency, guys - and quickly as possible.
        4. The Friday-night affair and flag-protestors comparison can be carried too far. There’s one big difference.  The flag protestors, or a considerable number of them, mounted vicious and sustained  attacks on the police.  Nothing comparable happened last Friday night in North Belfast. It’s never a good idea to mistake chalk for cheese. 
        5. Last Friday’s events speak to our distant past and our near- future. After Friday, it’s hard not to feel anxious about the coming marching season. But no one should feel surprised. As Andy Boyd’s excellent book Holy War in Belfast details, civil disorder has been the hall-mark of Orange parades since the beginning of the nineteenth century. In fact, at two separate points in the nineteenth century, things got so bad the British government was forced to outlaw Orange Order marches for a period of years. Were I a unionist, I’d be truly embarrassed to think that Orange strutting and provocation had anything to do with my culture. 

“But what is the answer?” I hear you cry. “What can we do?” The answer to this centuries-old problem is simple: end all parades now. “Are you kidding?” you say. “All hell would break loose! Besides, that’d be taking away from the unionist culture”. Not necessarily - but OK then, let’s compromise. Like the flags issue, let’s go for continuation that is limited.  Let’s allow Orange marches, providing they are conducted outside an  Orange lodge and the marching route is a tight circle around the aforesaid lodge. Like the one they did outside St Patrick’s last year.  

Yes’ it’d be a concession to a bigoted organisation but sometimes you have to reverse a little to make progress. If the Orange Order must continue in existence, let its celebrations stay local and its marching pattern be in a circle that goes nowhere. It’d also offer a nice metaphor for the place of the Order in twenty-first- century Ireland.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Henry and Malachi - telling it like it is?

“Anyone who disagrees with the top cabal is suddenly transformed into a class traitor, unreliable, drunk / mad, lying irrational scumbag who must be shunned by decent society”.

That’s taken from a comment on sluggerotoole.com today. It’s the kind of comment you get from someone looking at powerful governments throughout the world and throughout history: the way in which governments firmly in charge make sure they stay that way, by labelling opponents as crazies and so discrediting anything they may say about anything. 

Except this particular comment isn’t talking about a government. It’s talking about a party  - Sinn Féin. So  if that’s true, how do Sinn Féin manage this trick of demonising opponents? They don’t have anything like the same media power as their opponents. Think of the main Irish newspapers - The Irish News, The News Letter, Irish Times, Irish independent, Irish Examiner, Belfast Telegraph. Leave aside what they frame as political news and how they frame it, and concentrate on their columnists, their writers of what is now called ‘op-ed’ pieces. With one exception - Jim Gibney in The Irish News - I can’t think of a single columnist who isn’t hostile to Sinn Féin. Mind you I don’t habitually buy papers any more, so I tend to rely on what I find online. So if I’ve been missing something I’ll be happy to hear about it. But it does seem to me that the tone and content of newspapers on this island is well over 90% anti-Shinner.

Take the Gerry Kelly/Carál Ní Chuilín incidents last Friday. There is video of the incident which shows Gerry Kelly assuring people of the area that the police vehicle that has passed is going to pull in and talk to them and particularly to the boy’s mother. When this doesn’t happen, Kelly tries to get another police vehicle to stop and talk. The upshot is, Kelly is carried some distance on the front of a PSNI vehicle and  Ní Chuilín is hospitalized.

The commentary on this incident in the Belfast Telegraph is interesting. There are two op-ed pieces - one by Henry McDonald, one by Malachi O’Doherty.  Henry’s is headed ‘Would the real Sinn Féin please stand up?’  In it he is critical of the DUP, but his main criticism is for Sinn Féin: one part of it in the person of Martin McGuinness  who is projecting responsible partnership to Barack Obama; another part is in the person of Gerry Kelly, reassuring grass-roots in on-the-street incidents that it is concerned for them.”For McGuinness, Kelly and Sinn Féin, heads are constantly twitching in opposite directions”.

Malachi’s piece is entitled “What did Gerry Kelly think he was doing?”  He argues that Sinn Féin scored an own goal by publishing their video of the incident, because sympathy for Gerry Kelly and Caral Ni Cuilean is lost when people see the incident. Kelly’s efforts to get the police vehicle to stop are denounced as the actions of someone “who should have had more sense than to be there”.  He speaks repeatedly of Gerry “barking” at the police vehicle to pull in. “He [Kelly] sees no contradiction between his presumption of the right to bark at the police and the legacy of opposition to political policing”.  He concludes that “the party itself, in releasing the video, has provided the evidence which damns him”.

Twitching, barking: maybe a clue is contained in those two words. Henry talks of the Sinn Féin neck “twitching” as it tries to reconcile Martin McGuinness commitment to power-sharing with street protest and Gerry Kelly.  Frankly, I don’t see the contradiction. If political opponents are prepared to share power and both parties work for the common good, that makes sense. It makes equal sense that Sinn  Féin’s MLAs should be doing all they can to maintain calm at crisis points created by Orange Order marching, and that they should insist on the police explaining actions that are inflaming the situation. But clearly that’s not the way Henry and Malachi chose to present the situation. 

The one thing that neither op-ed piece mentions is the SDLP’s Alban Maginnis. He also appears in the video and is clearly supportive of Gerry Kelly’s actions and attempts to avoid public disorder. In other interviews on radio the next day he confirmed that support. This, from a man and a party who are emphatically opposed to Sinn Féin politically. 

I take off my hat to Alban Maginnis for his presence at the scene and his honesty in response to what happened. It’s odd that both Henry and Malachi forgot to mention him in their pieces. 

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Ken Loach and Irish bankers

I watched a documentary last night which was inspiring in one way and deeply depressing in another. It was the English director Ken Loach’s The Spirit of ’45, and how, against all the odds, Churchill was kicked out of office after the Second World War and a Labour government, led by Clement Attlee, won by a landslide. They then went to do what few governments do: they kept their electoral promises.

The great thing that the Attlee government did was to tap into the wartime spirit of the British people. Having seen how a united effort of all the people could do great things in terms of resistance to Nazism, government ministers like Aneuran Bevin embarked on a series of nationalisations - of health, of transport, of energy. People realised that by planning things on a country-wide basis, duplication of services could be abolished and industry organised for the maximum benefit, not of private profiteers, but the people themselves.

That was the good part. The bad part was with the arrival of the late 1970s and Thatcher, who proceeded systematically to instal greed as the motivating factor, unfettered capitalism as the dominant philosophy. One by one the industries and services that’d been nationalised by Bevin were privatised by Thatcher. 

This neo-liberal approach to politics swept the board and the very mention of the word ‘socialism’ was greeted by sniggers. Then came 2008 and the collapse of these marvelous systems of roaring capitalism. And who paid for the collapse? Not the people who’d created it. The people who’d suffered under it. 

There couldn’t have been a better summary of Loach’s outline of British social history than the recently-heard tape of a conversation between the Anglo Irish Bank’s CEO, David Drumm and his colleague John Bowe, head of capital markets. They joke about how they’ve drawn the Irish government into endless support by picking the figure of €7 billion “out of me arse”, until the government was in hock for €30 billion. “So fuckin’ what” Drumm is heard to tell his colleague. “Just take it anyway ...stick the fingers up”.

Nice. Nothing like the Irish sense of humour, is there? Or sense of outrage. Because instead of taking a holy vow never to vote for a party that allowed itself to be complicit in such a ghastly free-for-all followed by a bankrupting crash, the Irish people of the south have now shown that that party- Fianna Fail - is in their opinion the best party in the state. 

They say that people get the government they deserve.  The people in the south must have done something very very bad to have deserved Fianna Fail. That they have learnt nothing is seen in their attitude to the present Fine Gael-Labour coalition. As they might have sung in Ken Loach’s film but didn’t: “It’s the rich what gets the pleasure/And the poor what gets the blame/ It’s the same the whole world over/ Ain’t it a fucking shame”.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Ed, football and flags

Ed Curran is offering some thoughts on sport and politics in the Belfast Telegraph this morning. Some of his contentions are predictable, others are gob-smacking to the point of incredulity.  Talking of soccer he says “The international team and its supporters are drawn from across the community. They occupy a uniquely shared space in the context of the new Northern Ireland”.

Blimey, Ed. That’s the Northern Ireland soccer team Neil Lennon once played for? And stopped playing for when he received death threats?  I must lead a sheltered life: I don’t know any nationalist or republican who is a supporter of the Northern Ireland football team. Maybe you can produce evidence to the contrary, Ed?

He goes on to say “if the British national anthem was not appropriate on Saturday afternoon at Windsor Park, can we look forward to the day when the Irish national anthem is considered just as unnecessary to the enjoyment of a GAA game?” 

I’m afraid I see a difference between the crowd supporting Northern Ireland and the crowd watching Donegal beat Down last Sunday. The main difference being that one crowd would be composed of people supportive of the union with Britain, the other not supportive of it. But let me come clean on this: I don’t think we need to hear Amhrán na bhFiann played before every Gaelic game. Or any need to have the Irish tricolour flying. Just as I see no need for the British national anthem to be played before soccer games or the Union flag flown. Gaelic teams represent their club or county or sometimes province, but they don’t represent their country. And of course the state of Northern Ireland is not a country, so any team representing it should not be flying the Union flag. 

Ed goes on from there to talk about flags and our coming super-councils:

“The obvious compromise is to apply the Stormont protocol of designated days across Northern Ireland. It is hardly asking too much for standards of flag-flying on public buildings to be agreed in the Office of the First and deputy First Minister and applied to the reorganisation of the new council districts.”

Mmm again. I know that’s a compromise was reached in Belfast City Hall and Stormont but I’m less sure that it’s a true compromise. Where half the population sees its loyalty as lying with Britain and half sees its loyalties residing in Ireland, a true compromise would clearly be one of two things: no flags or both flags.  Or is it that some loyalties are more important than others - that the croppies can consider themselves lucky their flag doesn’t end up flown on top of a huge bonfire? ...But wait a minute...Um...Right.  

Monday, 24 June 2013

The police, the MLAs and a little old thing called trust.

“Contemplate the wider betrayal of the trust that is indispensable in a functioning democracy, the trust between citizen and state that rests on the belief that security measures are always justified and proportionate”.

A quoted comment on Friday’s  PSNI work that sent one Sinn Féin MLA to hospital and endangered the life of another?  No, this is actually from a recent editorial in the Guardian, talking about the now-revealed attempts of the Metropolitian Police to discredit the family of Stephen Lawrence, a young black boy stabbed to death. 

It’d be good if the editorial were made compulsory reading for all PSNI personnel. Particularly the bit about trust between citizen and state. When you’ve got people on your side - effectively doing your work for you by striving to maintain public order -  it’s not smart to lie to them or to put their lives at risk. The PSNI  are on a very sticky wicket this summer. Matt Baggott’s softly-softly tactics with the flag protestors seemed to have paid off, and he deservedly got some plaudits for it. But if he now approaches protestors in North Belfast with  people-ramming police vehicles followed by justification from unionist politicians, it’s putting at risk not just those involved, but public trust in the police themselves.

Maybe all PSNI personnel might also be given a brief history of the RUC so they can learn what bad policing does to civil order. Let’s hope Matt Baggott’s attendance at a Sinn Féin conference hasn’t left  him thinking all hearts and minds have now been won. The weather could turn out bad but we could still be facing into a long, hot summer.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Sunday Sequence discussion

I should have put this up and skipped the labour of the last blog.

Sunday Sequence this morning discussing President Obama's speech on Raidio Uladh/Radio Ulster's 'Sunday Sequence'   - from   33.25 -1.01.25

A word, Mr President, in your ear.

As the yelps of outrage about the Nigella thing are still pouring in I’m tempted to discuss the topic yet again. But to be honest, if I have to write about the two multi-millionaires and their quarrel again, I don’t know if I’ll have the will to live afterwards. (And don't say you can help me on that front - join the queue),

So instead let me write briefly about a topic I was discussing on BBC Raidio Uladh/Radio Ulster this morning with two people for whom I have a high regard: Nick Garbutt (even though he once was editor of the VO) and Catherine Clinton, ex-staff member at Harvard and currently at Queen’s. Both of them are delightful people and I think we disagreed on nearly everything. 

The topic was Obama’s Waterfront speech. I desperately wanted to like it but it was too full of ‘hope’ s  and ‘dream’ s  and other such for me. Ten out of ten for form, three out of ten for content.  

What was wrong with it? Where to start. Take education: he told us that we had a choice - go with integrated education and make for real peace and a cohesive society, stay with separate schools and go downhill. Well thanks, Barack, but I know the schools here. I spent my working life in and out of them.  They don’t promote sectarianism or division or any other such. Quite the reverse. In our discussion, Nick Garbutt pointed out that it wasn’t the teaching of sectarianism that was the problem, it was the separateness. A good point, except of course you’d have to think about all-girls’ or all-boys’ schools, you’d certainly have to think about secondary and grammar school education, you’d even have to think about streaming classes within a school. You’d also have to say that parents who send their children to a Catholic school (or a Protestant one, or a Jewish or Muslim or whatever faith) were doing those children a disservice. I disagree. If a religious faith is real it’s an extremely important part of people’s lives, and naturally they’d want to hand that important thing on to their children. Does bunging kids into one school out-balance that? Not in my book.

Besides which, most of us didn’t go to integrated school. Most of us here went to a Catholic or state (effectively Protestant) school: so do we consider ourselves bigots? I think not. It’s always somebody else we see being made more bigoted by separate education, not us. 

Last point (I have to clear out the garage): are we a client state of the US? There’s no doubt the Americans, especially Bill Clinton, were vital to the success of the peace talks leading to the Good Friday Agreement. Plus there’s always been a very strong emotional and even financial tie between Ireland and the US. That said, is this how the deal works  -  that they help us and that gives them the right to come in and explain what’s wrong with the way we’re doing things and tell us how we should do them?  Imagine that on a personal basis.  Your friend helps you out when you’re in trouble and you’re truly grateful. But then the friend drops in  from time to time and tells you and your family how to organise your lives. EH? 

Or put the boot on the other foot: Peter Robinson /Martin McGuinness pop over to the States, say a few funny things about the weather there, then tell the assembled Americans they’ll really have to stop torturing and detaining without trial people in Guantanamo Bay. And those drone-bombs that kill fifty innocent people for every suspected ‘terrorist’ it blows up: you really should stop that, guys. Uncivilized. And by the way,  what about the proportion of blacks and Hispanics in jail in the US  (51%) compared to the proportion of blacks and Hispanics in the general population (25%)?  Not good enough, guys.

Can you see it? Can you imagine the onslaught of the American media if Robinson or McGuinness tried any such thing? So what gives Obama the right to come and lecture us on morality?  The answer is simple: power. If you’re big and powerful enough, you can tell anyone you choose what they should do. You can even force them to do it, kill their leader and put in place ‘regime change’ in the name of democracy or some suchlike hypocrisy. 

I’m told Obama’s done good things in his domestic policy. Terrific. About time US citizens got a  decent healthcare system. But there’s little doubt that Obama’s foreign policy has been a huge disappointment to many people. And even at home, as someone pointed out, Obama presides over a US society that is more divided now that ever it was. And this is the man who’s come to tell us how to get social integration? Pull the other one, Barack, would you? There’s bells on it. 

Saturday, 22 June 2013

A call from the VO

Two days ago my phone rang. Guess what? It was the VO. Well, you could have knocked me down with a bag of spuds. It’s not every day I get a VO call.  My first over-heated thought was, it must be The Editor, speaking for some reason in a falsetto voice, come on bended knee to beg me to come back and raise the tone of his organ once again. But then I stopped being hysterical and realised it wasn’t The Editor but one of his reporters, wanting to talk to me about that blog I’d done on the multi-millionaires at the fashionable restaurant.  That’s right - the one that ended in   a woman on the Nolan show  telling me I was  “a very, very, very rude and stupid man!”. Which goes to show, you can deceive all of the people some of the time”, etc, etc.

Anyway, back to the interview. Maybe you saw it in the VO. I broke a habit and bought a copy myself, and yes,  I’m afraid I’m going to have to sue,  Not because it quoted me as saying that Nigella goaded Charles into his physical assault ( later, more accurately, it modified that to ‘could well have goaded’,  which is different). Not even because it referred to me as “Mr Collins”. No,  the High Court trial will centre on the fact that they published a photograph of me wearing a moustache -  one of those tight-trimmed jobs, much-loved at one time by RUC personnel. One glance at that photo  has dented my self-esteem to the point where I may never be the same again. And it’s not just me; there are all those innocent VO readers out there, thousands of them, who may have glanced at the image and exposed themselves to deep and permanent emotional damage.  

My people will be in touch with your people, VO. Public health and safety is at risk here and a line must be drawn.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

I get a kicking

John O'Dowd and ideology

Yesterday I blogged on the Charles-Nigella contretemps at that fancy London restaurant. For several days before that I blogged on the G8 and partifularly on Obama and his drone-bomb-driven foreign policy which is resulting in the deaths of hundreds of innocents, including women and children. Guess which blog attracted between three and four times as many pageviews? You got it: the multi-millionaires nose tweak/throat grab.  In the words of that compassionate and loving British PM, Margaret Thatcher: it’s a funny old world. 

Let us move on. This morning on BBC Raidio Uladh/Radio Ulster, I heard Education Minister John O’Dowd accused of having an educational policy that was ‘ideology-driven’. O’Dowd is one man who’s capable of looking after himself and noted - quite rightly -  that his accuser had his own ideology. 

When did the notion of having an ideology become something shameful? Maybe from the idea that, if we try to see the world constructed in a certain way, or of being in need to be constructed in a certain way, we’re being naive. The real world demands either bits of a range of ideologies or no ideology at all.  The second of those two is impossible: everyone has an ideology. It might be “Responding to events as they happen, without forethought or any system of beliefs, is best” or “I decide what to do in the light of how many votes it’ll bring me, nothing else”. But it’s still an ideology - a belief that this is the best way in which to conduct political business/personal affairs. The second of the two - that you form a ragbag of different philosophies and approach the world with its eclectic reach is equally daft, if for no other reason than  that some ideologies directly contradict other ideologies.

What those who denigrate ideology want you to believe is that anyone who sees society and politics through the lens of a thought-out system of beliefs is offering pie-in-the-sky and is out of touch with the real world. They also want you to believe that their way of doing things is the natural, only sensible way of working. They want to present their approach as the way that’s unwarped by any of these sinister ideologies. 

There’s a word that’s similar to ‘ideology’ which could be used about such people. It’s ‘idiots’. 

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Charles and Nigella: a lovely pair

I watch my share of TV football and sometimes I find myself wishing that both teams could lose. Something of the same emotions engulfed me when I read about Charles Saatchi grabbing his wife Nigella Lawson by the throat. Could they not be both found guilty of something and put in the slammer for six months ? Fines are pointless with these people - they have so much money they pay other people to count it.

Did Saatchi grab his wife by the throat? The pictures clearly indicate that he did.  This isn’t the first incident of anti-social behaviour by Saatchi. You’ll remember that his advertising firm was responsible for the famous ‘Labour Isn’t Working’ poster that cleared the way for Thatcher to assume power. 

Nigella Lawson is, of course, the daughter of Nigel Lawson, Thatcher’s one-time Chancellor of the Exchequer. You can’t choose your parents but you can choose about accepting offers to go on a TV cookery programme and suck your thumb suggestively while dribbling cream over a bowl of cherries, all the while rolling your eyes at the camera in a way that suggests all this cooking stuff is just a cover for some getting-down-and-dirty stuff, and can we not just go upstairs now? 

I have no doubt that poor Charles could well have been goaded into throat-gripping by Nigella’s highly-flexible tongue. But telling your husband what  you think of him and always have isn’t a crime, just like making ooh-big-plums-again cookery programmes isn’t against the law. Physically grabbing your wife by the throat is. I’m not for letting Charles off the hook, as apparently he has been with that ridiculous ‘police caution’. I’d be more in favour of widening the law to include a mandatory prison sentence for anyone who conducts or aids in conducting a TV programme where squeezing a lemon gets as near as dammit to a sexual act. 

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Is féidir linn!... Or then again, maybe not

Was it just me or were those speeches by Barack and Michelle Obama  neatly constructed sets of clichés? I know it sort of spoils the party mood we’re all in but we need to face facts, and there’s no point in looking to the telly-speech-summarisers for critical commentary. 

In Obama’s case, I’m not talking about his mispronunciation of my home town as ‘o-MAGH’.  Nor am I talking about his “Where’s Sylvia?”  moment where the gate-in-the-wall woman proved as elusive as world peace and viewers didn’t know which way to look. I’m talking about the content of his speech. What did he say? We should all empathise with each other and work together, and our country would see greater days ahead. Which country did he have in mind? Well he ended by calling on God to bless Northern Ireland, but a breath earlier he was talking about ‘the Emerald Isle’.   Ambiguity where necessary and exhortation that sounded like an early Alliance Party speech. 

Meanwhile back in Dublin, Michelle was in the Gaiety Theatre, talking to her group of young people. “You can be anything!” she told them. All that was needed was imagination. And hard work. And the resilience to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again. Worthy if not exactly new material.  I wonder what the tens of thousands of young people who’ve emigrated from the south (and north) would have made of it. Would they have accepted that they were thousands of miles away in Canada or Australia because they lacked imagination? Or that they hadn’t worked hard enough? Or that they hadn’t shown the necessary staying power?

It’s good to emphasise that people are responsible for their own lives, must make the best of them since we get just one shot at it each. But it’s misleading to suggest that it’s all up to you, because it isn’t. The  young people aren’t in Australia or Canada because of what they did or didn’t do. They’re there because Irish banks, facilitated by the Irish government,  overspent on a lunatic scale. They’re there because the crushing debt load was landed on the shoulders of the people who’d had nothing to do with riding the wave of massive prosperity that swept through the south for a few short years.  Yes,  we all hold enormous untapped possibilities within us. But there are circumstances created by others which make all our imaginings and hard work and dusting-self-off utterly and completely futile. And if you doubt me, answer me this: will you ever spend two or three days living as high on the hog as the G8 people are doing down in Fermanagh? Right. I rest my argument. 

Monday, 17 June 2013

Talking to Nicky Campbell about G8

Take the best, ignore the rest....I'm at 11.45 -14.33, 17.52- 21.00, 28.50-30.50 BBC Radio 5 live - 5 live Breakfast, Your Call, 17/06/2013 http://bbc.in/1bGS3Te 

Faking it

I’m a romantic. No, really. I  so want  Barack Obama to be the president he said he’d be. You remember how he said a  long long time ago that there were no blue states and no red states, no Republican states and no Democrat states, just the United States of America? As Mary McAleese might have say - wow. And wow again. 

I want to believe in his romantic story of an African-American who overcame all the odds, all the prejudices that are prevalent in the States, and won through to the top office, not once but twice. 

I want to think of him with his smart, good-looking wife, with his two  sweet daughters, with his free-flowing oratory. I want his words about peace and a better tomorrow and the hope of the best rather than the fear of the worst to prevail.  I want him, when he says “Where’s Sylvia?” during his Waterfront speech, for Sylvia to pop up and shout “Here I am!” instead of being buttock-clenchingly absent. 

I don’t want to think of him as a man who gave the green light to drone bombs. I don’t want to think of him as a man who’s getting ready to make a bad situation in Syria worse. I don’t want to think of him as a man who still has untried prisoners languishing in Guantanamo Bay. 

But reality has a way of pushing in and reminding you that shadow and substance are different, that image and reality don’t always match, that the G8 summit will do about as much for the average person as yesterday’s defeat by Cavan will do for Fermanagh footballers’ morale. 

So no matter how many nice images they send up from Fermanagh over the next few days, no matter how fine-sounding the communiqué at the end of the G8, I’m afraid I won’t believe a blind word of it all. 

Sunday, 16 June 2013

G8 summit: nice work if you can get it

It may be that the G8 elephant will go into labour for three days only to produce a mouse. Or (less likely but possible) it may produce some agreement that will make the world a fairer place. But either way we know one thing: it will be a pain-free labour.  The world's leaders will have every conceivable comfort. Their planes won't be the economy class you and I are used to. Their vehicles will be large and deep-cushioned beyond our imaginings. Their accommodation will have the very best that Fermanagh can produce:  beds to sink into, spacious bathrooms, attractive lobby, haute cuisine food. Nothing but the best for our leaders.

But, er, why?  Why do they need to have this level of luxury when tens of thousands, maybe millions in the West are struggling to get by, and in the developing world tens of millions are going to bed hungry and living in conditions unimaginably grim?  Is it that  the world's leaders won't be able to think straight if any material hardship - no, more than that - if there should be so much as a pea under the ten mattresses on which they snooze? I'll accept that they can't take public transport, check into an ordinary hotel, eat that hotel's ordinary fare, because if they did, they're so popular, somebody might try to kill them. But even you grant that they must meet and eat and sleep in secure conditions, why does it always have to be a ring of steel, at the centre of which is the very essence of gracious, groveling luxury?

Remember Animal Farm? The pigs insisted that they needed more milk, better apples, nicer beds than the other animals, because if they didn't have them, how could they use their superior brain power and have it work for the benefit of the other  animals? Is that what the world leaders want us to believe? Because the briefest of glances at how the world is organised tells us they've made a right balls-up of things so far.  Maybe answering the question "Why all this luxury?" should be first on their agenda tomorrow.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Will the demi-gods swing it for Fermanagh?

As the demi-gods prepare to swoop amongst us from the skies, this excerpt from a letter in today’s Irish Times:

In the longer term, the summit will bring worldwide attention to this beautiful corner of north west Ireland and will undoubtedly lead to it becoming an ever more popular international tourism destination.”

Now where have I heard that argument before? Ah yes, when the Queen of England descended among the lucky people of the south of Ireland, charming them into even further trouser-wetting admiration when she used a few words of Irish. A central argument used against the nay-sayers at the time was that her visit would give an enormous boost to tourism. Which sounded like a good argument until the figures came in and showed that fewer people from Britain visited the south in the wake of QE2’s visit.

So whither Fermanagh?  Search me. (Which of course is what the small army of security will be doing down there to anyone who comes within miles of the demi-gods.)  Maybe Americans will look at Obama with a backdrop of Fermanagh and cry out “I will, I must visit this amazing place chosen by President Obama!  If it’s good enough for him it’s good enough for me”.  It could happen. On the other hand the weather plays a big part in these things. The BBC’s Newsline 630 yesterday had their anchorwoman Donna down there and despite her best efforts, it looked awful. Rain soaking everything, including the camera lens; Donna’s hair going all damp and limp; and the lakes, no doubt stunning on a good day, looking grey and choppy and decidedly uninviting. 

My money’s on the demi-gods’ visit making no difference to tourism. What’s yours on?

Friday, 14 June 2013

Sammy and Peter and Mikhail Gorbachev

Peter Robinson was on the telly last night,  emphasising how economics  (i.e., the money from Britain) was tied to our Shared Future. Makes  sense, I suppose. You’re more likely to look kindly on your neighbour if both of you aren’t scrabbling to survive.

So the thing is, where would we be without British money, eh? Down the plug-hole, into the depths of financial Hades with that lot south of the border. And although Peter didn’t say that, he certainly highlighted the link between the support we get as part of the United Kingdom and the ambitious plans for tearing down peace walls inside the next decade.

But hold. Did you catch that speech made by Conor Murphy  the other day? No? Well he said a few interesting things. Sammy Wilson had made the declaration in the Assembly that we are billions better off because we’re in the United Kingdom  - a kind of precursor act to Peter Robinson’s UK money/Shared Future bit on TV last night.  Conor Murphy raises a point that not many people know - or if they do, they’re keeping very quiet about it:

Here’s Murphy:

“Every time Sinn Féin questions the veracity of the claims we are fed a diet of guestimations that even the British government’s own Office of National Statistics or Treasury do not accept as correct.

Sinn Féin has requested figures from the Finance Department regarding the 23 revenue streams that are generated within the north and the 17 expenditure streams, without success. Rather than provide this valuable information which is in the public interest and crucial to our ability to engage in economic planning, Sammy Wilson has opted to politicise and personalise the debate.”

Did you know that? Me neither. I’d always sort of assumed that we knew how much we were getting and how much we were paying out in taxes, but it seems that notion is all based on the kind of book-keeping that Arthur Daly would have been proud of. 

Of course, it’s in Conor Murphy’s interest, as a Sinn Féin representative, that the figures show that we aren’t nearly as dependent on Britain as we’re led to believe. Maybe he’s wrong. On the other hand, maybe he’s right. The only way we’ll ever know is if we get the facts and figures about how much Britain puts in here and how much we pass into the British Treasury as tax-payers. Otherwise it’s like making decisions about the family budget while your bank manager acts all vague and talks about the weather when you ask him how much is in your account.

The Russians in the days of Gorbachev had a word for it:”glasnost”. (Yes, Virginia, it does mean ‘openness’ - top of the class.)  Let’s all have some glasnost and end the fantasy finance. 

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Barmy about Obama

I was walking along a street near Belfast yesterday and some schoolboys passed me on their way home. “The one I want to see is Obama!” one of them shouted, the way schoolboys do. And sure why wouldn’t he? Isn’t Obama the most powerful man on earth? And isn’t he a breakthrough - the first African-American to be elected to the White House? The man who believes in a policy of talking to one's enemies rather than attacking them.

That’s the message he’ll be bringing to schoolchildren and adults when he speaks in Belfast -  put violence behind you, find new and better ways of working together. You couldn't ask for sounder advice.

Except that Obama, like a lot of other political leaders, is a hypocrite. Take one instance: his drones policy. There are no firm figures but it’s estimated that for every terrorist that a drone bomb kills in Pakistan or the Yemen,  fifty innocent people have to go with him. Such drone bombs are used on a near-daily basis. Americans would argue that this saves the lives of American troops, and it probably does. Better have CIA agents in Virginia sending in unmanned drones than risking the lives of American troops, right? But think for a minute: this is defence of the US? Going to the other side of the world and sending in bombs that wipe out fifty innocents for every  (presumably) guilty person? 

Drones are now being used in the US for ‘peaceful’ purposes - a kind of eye in the sky. I even seem to remember that the PSNI here had purchased a number, whether to use permanently or just during the G8 conference I’m not sure. Shades of 'Big Brother is watching you'. But if you think that drones which can be armed will always be used for strictly observational purposes in the US or here or anywhere else, then you really should see your doctor. 

The commentator Maureen Dowd wrote in the New York Times  two days ago: 

"Back in 2007, Obama said he would not want to run an administration that was "Bush-Cheney lite." He doesn't have to worry. With prisoners denied due process at Gitmo starving themselves, with the CIA not always aware who it's killing with drones, with an overzealous approach to leaks, and with the government's secret domestic spy business swelling, there's nothing lite about it.”

This is the man we feel honoured to have come visit us. Maybe we all should see a doctor. 

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

How not to read a book

George Bernard Shaw had a word or two to say about book censorship: “Censorship ends in logical completeness when nobody is allowed to read any books except the books that nobody reads.”
That hasn’t prevented the CCEA obediently following the promptings of Mike Nesbitt and his party that the teaching guide with the Carnegie-Medal-winning  novel Bog Child  be taken off the syllabus, perhaps temporarily, perhaps forever. Why was Mike so annoyed with it? Well let the man speak for himself:

“How dare the Department of Education ask pupils to put themselves in the shoes of hunger strikers! What about the shoes of the prison warders who had to carry out their jobs during dirty protests and hunger strikes, constantly having to endure the whispered death threats from inmates directed at their wives and children? What about the prison officers who were murdered?”

I think Mike has a point there. In fact, it’s a well-worn strategy in English teaching to ask pupils to put themselves in the shoes of some of the characters in a book. So yes, it would be an idea to have children empathise with the prison warders as well as the hunger strikers. In fact I thought that was what we all were supposed to do, schoolchildren or not - walk a mile in the other guy's shoes. 

On the other hand I’m deeply uneasy about the direct intervention of a politician in how a subject should be taught. Teachers and curriculum devisers are presumably chosen because of their expertise in their field. You might as well ask a ditch-digger or a dentist to judge on the adequacy or otherwise of a teaching strategy as ask a politician. In fact the ditch-digger or dentist would be better placed to judge, since they’d be less likely to have a political agenda. 

There are people who are contemptuous of Mike Nesbitt. I’m not. As a person I think Mike is generally calm and articulate and reasonable. But with this intervention he has shown bad judgement and set an appalling precedent. What next? Strike Yeats’s poem Easter 1916  off the curriculum for appearing to empathise with the revolutionaries? Or should that be ‘murdering terrorists’?

Shaw had another comment on censorship: “Assassination is the extreme form of censorship”.  Maybe the teaching guidelines writer got off lightly.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Nelson puts a bit of stick about

I see my old friend Nelson McCausland is in the news again.  Nelson is a man of great moral integrity, which means he’s always alert to any case where people may be falling short of the high standards he himself observes. In case you’re raising your eyebrows at that, let me remind you that when he was Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, he wrote to the Ulster Museum telling them to display a range of Creationist and other anti-evolution material. His high standards told him that the job of the Museum was to “reflect the views of all the people in Northern Ireland”. Richard Dawkins at the time suggested that maybe the museum should also exhibit the stork theory of where babies come from - “or perhaps the museum should introduce the flat earth theory”.  

These days Nelson is getting a bit puce-faced over this  £18 million in the Housing Executive accounts that's gone missing. He says it’s “a scandal”  and the result of either “incredible incompetence” or “wilful corruption”. “This is taxpayers’ money that could have been used to build around 200 much-needed social homes”. 

I like that kind of talk. It shows a Minister with a strong ethical backbone, and when he comes on people who have done wrong, he swings his parish-priest blackthorn stick with energy and in a very public way.  In fact, Nelson is so caught up in stick-swinging he's quite forgotten that there’s a link between the Minister for Social Development and the Housing Executive. That is, the Minister is er um you know responsible for the Housing Executive. If that’s the case,  the buck stops at the top and the Minister is maybe damaging himself each time he swings that blackthorn  at the Housing Executive. 

But I’m sure there's another, more innocent explanation. It’s surely not conceivable that a Minister would yell for everyone’s attention while he hits himself over the head with a big stick. Isn't it?

Monday, 10 June 2013

Is Mike Nesbitt mad?

Is Mike Nesbitt a bit mad?  Does he spend his evenings threading daisies in his hair and claiming to be the reincarnation of one of the Wooden-tops? I doubt it. But at the same time there are different kinds of madness and different degrees of madness, and I’m beginning to think Mike may need, um, help. 

Consider if you will his political path. Having assumed the UUP leadership, he’s been casting around for an issue that’d give his party credibility. So far he’s been spectacularly unsuccessful. Which is a pity, really, because Mike clearly wants to be seen as a moderate, rational sort of unionist, one who eschews the flag-waving, croppies-lie-down approach to things.  It’s also a fact that he’s perhaps the  first leader of the UUP not to be an Orangeman (there is no evidence either way on Edward Carson). And he’s a graduate of Cambridge University.

So when a golden opportunity to present unionism’s case to the people who most need to hear it -  republicans  - became available at the Shinners’ Europa conference last Friday, you’d think Mike would have leapt at the chance. Uh-uh. First it was yes, then it was no. Instead  Mike backed into the unthreatening arms of the Belfast Telegraph. There he  explained how if we got our past right, we’d be in a key position to make progress with the future.

Spot on, Mike. So what about the past? What’s called for?

Well, Mike sees any fruitful future dependent on one thing: that republicans concede publicly that their campaign of “terrorist murder” was unnecessary to get to where we are today, and that they should apologise for what they’ve done. Or to put it another way, the best way for two antagonists to make peace is for one of them to admit he was totally to blame for everything. 

The interesting thing is, I was at the Sinn Féin conference and do you know, none of the unionists who spoke, either from the floor or in the group sessions, mentioned the need for republicans to take all the blame. In fact they seemed much more focused on the future, on unionists finding a secure place in a world where nobody seemed to want them - not Britain and not the south of Ireland either. What they wanted, they said, was people sitting down and presenting a clear articulation of the advantages of the union, and ditto from those who believe in a united Ireland. 

That struck me as an eminently sane approach and sharply divergent from the UUP leader’s position. Which would suggest that Mike might, despite being smart and having been to Cambridge, be a bit out of touch with  the real world. Which is madness of a sort, isn’t it? Or maybe he’s been out in the sun too long. 

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Funeral of an unreconstructed republican

I never met Ruairi O Bradaigh. The nearest I got was on a ferry from Cherbourg to Rosslare, as we returned from a holiday in France. Getting into his car and waiting for the boat to dock, his familiar semi-smiling front teeth were the only thing that distinguished him from the dozens of other drivers. 

His death and funeral were in the news yesterday, as the TV showed the gardai clashing with members of the funeral party. We weren’t given details of why, but the picture was so reminiscent of similar clashes between mourners and the RUC over the years of the Troubles, it was like a brief dip into a time warp.  The RUC used to make the display of beret and gloves on the coffin of the dead IRA man or woman an excuse for scenes that would, to quote Peter Brooke in a different context, have disgraced a tribe of cannibals.

Like the Bourbons, the gardaí appear to have forgotten nothing and learnt nothing. The echoes of the past that such scenes evoke will not be lost on young men and women today, and the primitive activity of the gardaí, whatever the provocation (if any) will hardly win the sympathy of those who were intent on burying a man they considered an Irish patriot. As so often in the past, the forces of law and order have stupidly played the role of recruiting sergeant.

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Come together: Sinn Féin at the Europa

I spent an interesting couple of hours at the Sinn Féin conference in the Europa Hotel yesterday. It was titled Belfast: A City of Equals on an Island of Equals and the main speakers were Pete  Shirlow from Queen’s Univeristy and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.

The interesting stuff began outside the Europe, where a dozen or so protestors with large banners  and union flags stood. ‘Our Deputy First Minister - When Will He Be Arrested?’  and ‘PSNI - Gerry Kelly’s Puppets’  were among the more prominent.  I spoke briefly to Gerry Kelly and he confirmed that he’d had lots of verbal abuse hurled at him as he came in. One guy, apparently, kept calling ‘ No, listen Gerry, can  you give me a second, I’ve something I want to say, c’mere over here!’  Gerry, having been round a few corners in his time, declined the invitation. “What he wanted was me near enough so he could hit me a dig”.  I reminded him that the opposite of being loved was not to be hated but to be ignored. I’m not sure if he believed me either.

The conference was notable for the people who were there and for the things that were said. There was a former member of the Parachute regiment, the Chief Constable and Assistant Chief Constable of the PSNI, Gerry Adams, Gerry Kelly,  Jim Gibney, Dawn Purves, Alan McBride whose wife and father-in-law died in the Shankill bomb,  Methodist minister Harold Good, Pastor Gary Mason from the East Belfast Mission,  interested unionists, interested republicans  - but no Mike Nesbitt. Poor Mike.  Like Lanigan’s Ball, he stepped and he stepped out again. He was to come and then had second thoughts. He was, as they say, conspicuous by his absence. 

I’m not sure the title of the conference conformed totally to the Trade Descriptions Act. There was much more talk about coming together than equality. Martin McGuinness and others said it was a pity the protestors outside couldn’t have been persuaded to come in and be part of the discussion. And that’s what the conversation was about: how can the people in this state come together and see where they agree and disagree, what their vision of the future is. 

There was a group discussion afterwards which I found very informative. I’d say there probably was a balance of unionists and republican in our group, and the discussion time was sadly limited. But what I was impressed by was how open unionists were about their feelings. They spoke of the suspicion that is aroused among unionists when Sinn Féin take the lead in some initiative, including this conference. They spoke of their awareness that Britain would be shot of them tomorrow if she could. They spoke of their shock in discovering that their grandparents were from Westmeath, and urged that funding be made available so that more unionists could discover that their roots were not confined to this tight little corner of the island. They spoke of their concern to find out what republicans meant when they talked about a united Ireland. They spoke of their desire for a sense of belonging. 

Very impressive. Martin McGuinness too touched on the problem of suspicion when Sinn Féin took the lead also. It reminded me of the days when people said they’d like to learn the Irish language but it had been hi-jacked by Sinn Féin. The answer to that, of course, was to hi-jack it back again, which is what is happening in places like the East Belfast Mission where unionists are learning Irish in growing numbers. 

That’s what needs to happen in terms of discussion of how we see the future. All sides, from flag-protestors to Sinn Féin to eirigi, need to share a platform where each can articulate the problems they see with the present. and how they see the future and why.

My own feeling is that those who believe in a united Ireland - notably Sinn Féin - need to be precise and clear about the two or three major reasons why they think a united Ireland is desirable. One of those reasons would probably be economic, in which case they need to point to hard evidence, in terms that the ordinary unionist can understand. Likewise flag people and hard-core unionists need to make clear what benefits they see themselves enjoying as part of the United Kingdom, and how those would be lost - if that’s what they believe - in a united Ireland.

It was a morning filled with insights, particular during the group discussion. I’m left with the strong conviction that we’re in a time of flux, with the opportunity to shape the future so that everyone in the north feels a sense of ownership and inclusion. It’s a bit like siblings that’ve been separated for a lifetime and then meet. It can end in permanent estrangement or exciting new relationships.  After yesterday, I’m considerably cheered that the latter may be the case.  

Friday, 7 June 2013

"I wish I was in the NI21" - the Saw Doctors. Sorta.

Basil McCrea and John McAllister are two of the nicest men you could meet. On the few occasions I’ve been in Stormont, I’ve had reason to be introduced to both and they were polite, friendly and good company. If ever there were a pair of unionists who were likely to bridge the Protestant-Catholic gap, they’re it.

That’s the good bit. The bad bit happened last night when both men were interviewed, notably by Mark Carruthers on the BBC’s  The View.  Mark asked regarding the constitutional question  (what a lovely way of putting it that is!) and Basil said sure we all know that’s been done and dusted, the constitutional question is no longer an issue. 

Dream on, Basil. And John. It may have moved from physical force to the force of argument, it may not emerge naked and red-eyed to dominate every debate, yes people have other things they’re concerned about like a job and a mortgage and the quality of society they live in. But alas Basil, there ain’t no dodging it, which is  why you’ll designate your brand new shiny  NI21 party ‘unionist’ up at Stormont. And while I’m sure there’ll be a number of Catholics will join, just as there are a number of Catholics who joined the Alliance Party,  I wouldn’t hold your breath that you’re about to change the face of politics here. 

I do wish NI21 success. If we’re going to have a unionist party here, I’d much prefer to be working alongside Basil and John than I would, say, Peter and Sammy. But I fear for them, I really do. Plus I’m beginning to fear for unionst parties of any hue. Why?  With the arrival of NI21, that makes four unionist parties (oh stop making those noises, David Ford and admit it - you’re a unionist). Which means we’re moving back to a point which I thought we’d left behind, when there were something like seven different unionist parties represented at Stormont. The arrival of NI25 means there are now only four unionist parties. In nationalism, there are two. 

It’s a bit like the PUP, guys.  I like you, I like your leaders,  you’re as good as a unionist party can probably get. But t I’m afraid you’re going to go away, you know. 

Thursday, 6 June 2013

The Mau Mau and official lies

So. Having watched the TV evening news, do you know what would be nice? If we didn’t hear any more garbage about the many good things that the British Empire brought to the dark corners of the world. I remember the Pathé newsreels as a child, and how everyone believed what they were told about the dreaded Mau Mau and the  savage practices they engaged in. 

Nothing compared to the British, it seems, to judge from this evening’s news. Thousands of Kenyans back then were killed, tortured, mutilated, castrated. And when the surviving victims went in search of  truth, the British authorities did all they could to bury it as deep as they did some of their victims. Finally, after years of cover-up, they’ve ‘fessed up, apologised and are now preparing to give surviving victims £2000 each. I’m not sure why I feel a little ill when I hear that. But I do know what I felt when I saw those old men and women dancing to express their joy after their long struggle. 

And before some Brain-of-Britain weighs in to ask me when the IRA is going to ‘fess up, we’re talking here about the British authorities. The people who ran the place at the time. The people who were depicted in the media as the goodies. The people whose job it was to govern with humanity and justice. 

And what did I feel as I watched those old men and women dance in joy? The unbreakable generosity and forgiveness of some human beings, no matter what horrors are visited on them. Bobby Sands said our victory will be in the laughter of our children. These people’s victory lies in their own laughter. 

Polls and a play:outlook sunny

Opinion polls are a bit like the weather. One minute they have you  feeling that life is going the wrong way entirely and what’s the point of it all? Other days the sun glistens on  trees and grass and you feel glad to be alive amid all this beauty and bliss.

The famous ‘Northern Irish’ poll a while back had the wise heads scratching their skulls and declaring that more and more people had no time for changing the state’s constitutional position but thought of themselves as ‘Northern Irish’ before either Irish or British. Now we have a new Life and Times Survey that tells us  something a bit different.

  • There’s been a drop of 11% in the number of people who see the north as remaining within Britain. Between 2010 and 2012,  it went from 78% of people wanting to remain within Britain to 62%. 
  • Among young people -18-24 -  just 42% think the north will remain within Britain 
  • Of those who believed the north would remain within Britain, 77% said they would accept a united Ireland. 
  • On identity, 38% of respondents felt more Irish than British, 39% felt more British than Irish, and 17% felt equally British and Irish. 

What you make of all this is very much dependent on the weather, which politician you were last listening to and the state of your digestion. But if you look at the figures carefully,  you may find yourself in the situation I more and more find myself in: identifying with the words of Mr B Dylan,  who famously wrote that “Something’s happened/But you don’t know what it is/Do you, Mr Jones?’

We are privileged to live in exciting political times.

But not by opinion polls alone does man or woman live. So if you’re looking for theatrical excitement instead, you could do worse than get down to the Strule Arts Centre in Omagh. A play called ‘Raisins Aren’t Sexy’ is running there (two more nights - tonight and tomorrow).  It’s written by local man Adrian Mullan and it’s about a man who’s fed up being taken for granted and sets about privatising his mind and charging advertisers.  The result is a court case stuffed with advertising language and nerve-jangling jingles and gasping-for-breath laughs. And yes, the timing is deliberate: the play has one eye cocked at the imminent arrival of our all-powerful betters at the G8 conference in Fermanagh.

Sometimes, as the Reader’s Digest used to remind us, laughter is the best medicine. 

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

So tell me this: what's murder and what's not?

There must be better things to do on a glorious summer morning than write about killing and murder, but it’s one of those things that keeps coming up.

The matter of murder seems to hold great fascination for a lot of peoplehere, particularly murder as it relates to the Troubles and more particularly as it relates to the actions of the IRA in the Troubles period. 

My dictionary defines murder as “the act of putting a person to death intentionally and unlawfully”. That last word is probably the most important - ‘unlawfully’. It hints that there might be a lawful circumstance in which someone is put to death intentionally.  

Are there circumstances where the intentional putting of a person to death is lawful? Well for years in Britain and Ireland, capital punishment was lawful.  In many parts of the world it still is. Outside capital punishment, if we look at two of the greatest mass killings in modern times - Hiroshima and Nagasaki - few people would say that hundreds of thousands of people were murdered on the command of Harry Truman. Likewise those who kill in the name of their country - British soldiers who have fought and, presumably, killed in places like Afghanistan  - not only are not considered murderers, they are hailed as heroes and often given medals for their work. 

But that’s not new. The American Revolution of 1776, the storming of the Bastille in 1789 , Easter 1916 - these are seen as heroic acts, selfless acts which involved the intentional putting of many people to death. There are some - usually unionist - who see the men of Easter 1916 as murderers, but most Irish people would regard them as heroes. When the ten hunger-strikers died here in 1981, they did so on the grounds that they should be regarded as political prisoners, not common criminals. That is,  that the killings or related actions they were involved with were not murder.

The taking of human life must be the ultimate obscenity. Each life is unique and to snuff it out is a truly terrible deed. But since human beings existed, probably, there has been the belief that in some circumstances, killing others is the only course left open. To say that you chose not to kill while others did is not a valid argument, for the very good reason that we can’t have the experience of others, only our own. We don’t know what possibilities existed or seemed to exist for them, what seemed to them morally justified or not morally justified. And as I say, since earliest times groups and tribes and nations have seen physical force as their only resort and have used it, and a distinction between that and killing for private motives of revenge or spite is universally accepted. 

So when people insist that killings in a particular conflict are murder, what they really mean is that the conflict was unnecessary and that other means of redressing problems of injustice and post-colonialism could have been used. When people such as the hunger-strikers insisted that armed force - the killing of others - was the only course left open to them, they are arguing that what they did beyond the prison walls must be distinguished from the actions of the common murderer.

If you’re a pacificist, you’ll reject that argument along with every other argument for the taking of human life. If you’re not a pacifist and condemn the physical force used during our Troubles, to be consistent you’ll have to condemn George Washington, Winston Churchill, Sir Walter Raleigh,  Henry VIII and just about any leader who saw violence and the killing of others as the only possible  option in the circumstances. I haven’t heard anyone presume to call any of those named above a mass murderer.  But then, consistency has never been a striking feature of those who cry “Murder!” about the period of the Troubles. 

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Chewing the SPAD rag with Malachi on Nolan

Red herrings and back where we started

I’m just off the Nolan Show, where my sparring partner Malachi O’Doherty managed for a time to claim that the last few days have been about the legitimacy or illegitimacy of the IRA campaign. Anyone who’s ever read Malachi will know he believes it was illegitimate and never loses a chance to say so. His views are shared by thousands of unionists. Equally, there are thousands of republicans who think their campaign was not illegitimate and has direct links with the insurgency that developed in 1916 and the years following, and which will be commemorated and paid tribute to by people all over Ireland in three short years from now.

But as I say, the debate should not have been about Malachi’s red herring. It should have been about whether it was right that a law was passed last night which will eject Paul Kavanagh as special adviser to Martin McGuinness. My belief is that it should not, for several reasons. 

One is that this looks suspiciously like double jeopardy, where someone gets punished for what the state pronounces a crime and then, years later, is punished again. Countries like Canada, Mexico, the US believe that protection from double jeopardy is so important, they’ve built it into their constitution. Even Britain, which a few years back jettisoned the double jeopardy protection, still requires “new and compelling evidence” before someone can be tried again. Was there new and compelling evidence in Paul Kavanagh’s case? No. 

Jim Allister claimed yesterday that the bill should be known as ‘Ann’s Law’. I disagree. The two people who were true parents of last night’s bill were Jim Allister and Alasdair McDonnell. In a time when we’re told  we must try to put the old quarrels of the past behind us, when we are told the emphasis must be on creating jobs,  the Allister-Alasdair bill has hurled us back into the past, where old quarrels are resurrected, spitefulness and discrimination rule the day, and rather than create jobs, the law sees that someone is kicked out of his job. 

But it’s not bad news for everyone. This morning the dissident republicans must be licking their lips and saying: “See? We told you so. Nothing has changed”.

Monday, 3 June 2013

The SDLP and victims

A reader of my blog yesterday noted that I hadn’t included Alasdair McDonnell’s statement where he made clear he believed there was a hierarchy of victims, and that Paul Kavanagh was “well down the pecking order”.

My commenter was right, and on reflection I should have focused on the hierarchy point, because today the airwaves are hot and heavy with that matter. Is there or isn’t there a hierarchy of victims here? And does the SDLP hold that there is such a hierarchy, or has Alasdair once more spoken out of tune with the rest of his party?

Dolores Kelly was on The Nolan Show  a few minutes ago, and when asked if the SDLP believed there was a hierarchy of victims, she answered by saying there was no moral equivalence between a bomber killed by his own bomb and an innocent child killed by the same bomb.

Either there’s some very muddled thinking going on here, or people like Dolores are deliberately trying to stir the waters so what’s going on can’t be clearly seen. 

Do I think there should be a distinction made between victims of violence? Yes I do. But it’s not between the hypothetical bomber and the hypothetical child. It’s between the person who dies (who clearly is a victim) and the loved ones who are left to mourn them and carry the pain, sometimes for a lifetime. That’s the most important distinction in the matter. The living are the victims we should be talking about exclusively, and we should avoid all ambiguity about that. The dead are dead and can’t be affected one way or another by anything we say or do. The living can. And you may be sure the mother or sister of a paramilitary killed in violent activity feels the pain of loss just as much as the relatives of those who mourn the death of an innocent victim. 

The question is, how does society or a political party respond to the pain of those who have lost loved ones in the conflict? Do they say or act as though there was a hierarchy of victims, or do they concede that the pain of loss is as sharp for the relatives of  anyone killed?

The truth is, the SDLP do believe there is a hierarchy of victims. As they see it, republicans who joined the conflict freely chose to do so, and to put it bluntly, got what was coming to them, and if their relatives mourn, they know who to blame. Republicans argue for a wider view, noting the corrupt nature of the state at the time, the violent response of the authorities to those who sought civil rights, and how such factors helped propel young men and women to violence in which they would otherwise have had no involvement. 

But I’d stress  again and finally: let’s talk about victims as the living, not the dead. We can’t do anything for those who are dead. We can do something for those who are alive. By showing greater concern for one grieving victim over another shows not just a moral insensitivity but a limited understanding of what happened here over the last forty years. 

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Alasdair McDonnell says sorry.

If you were asked to compare Ronnie Corbett with someone, it’s guessable that the last man you’d think of would be Alasdair McDonnell. But since Ronnie once starred in a TV series called Sorry  and Alasdair must have used the sorry word at least  ten times during a short interview on The Politics Show  this morning, the link established itself.  

What was Alasdair being sorry for? Actually nothing -  Alasdair doesn’t do apology. What he meant when he said “Sorry” to Mark Carruthers was “You haven’t a clue, here’s the truth of the matter, buster”.  Which was? I’m not sure. Apart from establishing that he was a doctor and that there was no difference of opinion within the SDLP, it wasn't that easy to arrive at what he was saying, which was maybe why Mark Carruthers kept asking him to clarify. But Alasdair did promise that tomorrow, despite pressure in Derry, all SDLP MLAs would march up to the plate and, um, abstain in the vote over Alasdair’s Law. If you started the interview with the belief that the SDLP were all over the place on this one, you ended with that conviction riveted in place. 

Meanwhile, one of the SDLP MLAs, Colm Eastwood, says that he’s got so many phone calls about his following the party line and abstaining, “it must be orchestrated”.  No, Virginia, that doesn’t mean  calls came with a musical background, it’s Colm’s way of saying the callers were being manipulated by an unnamed force.  You have to say something when you’ve received a lot of phone calls from constituents wondering why you're taking a stand that'll let a discriminatory bill  put forward by Jim Allister sail past you without  a peep. 

Will one of the SDLP MLAs  peel off and stymie the bill tomorrow? I doubt it. One of them has  said in so many words that talk of electoral retribution is twaddle because an election doesn't happen until 2016 and that's a long time from now.  So it is. But some things are easier to forget than others.