Jude Collins

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Bradley Manning and doing the right thing.

Was Bradley Manning right? Was he justified in passing to Wikileaks classified files showing what American foreign policy was really up to? Many if not most of us would be tempted to respond with a firm ‘Yes’. But if we were American would we be as firm in our approval of the US soldier? He’s been acquitted of the charge that he leaked files that helped Osama Bin Laden hatch plots against the US, but he’s seen as having done so much other damage to his country, he could face the rest of his life in prison. 

On a smaller scale, we get the same situation here. Republicans are often urged to reveal to the authorities any information they may have about killings that occurred during the Troubles. (In passing it's worth noting that we don’t hear the same emphatic calls for former members of the RUC or the UDR or the British army to blow the whistle on killings committed by their colleagues. )
In cases of suspected child sexual abuse, Catholic clergy are condemned for having remained silent rather than going to the authorities to report illegal and obscene crimes by their fellow-priests.  In all cases, the assumption is that the right thing to do is to support the authorities, the law of the land, and condemn those who fail to do so. 

That’s not how that thoughtful Englishman E M Forster saw things. “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend I hope I should have the guts to betray my country. Such a choice may scandalize the modern reader, and he may stretch out his patriotic hand to the telephone at once and ring up the police. It would not have shocked Dante,  though. Dante places Brutus and Cassius in the lowest circle of Hell because they had chosen to betray their friend Julius Caesar rather than their country Rome.”

I think, all things considered, I’m with Forster. Bradley Manning wasn’t choosing between his friend and his country but between the truth and his country - in some ways  an even harder decision to arrive at. I know one thing: if a son or daughter or brother or sister or spouse of mine were to have committed a serious crime - say, murder - and came to me for help, there’s not a cat’s chance in hell that I’d turn them in. That’d be a crime? Right. And your point is?

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

GAA games and Ulster teams

I’ve just checked and I note that, of the eight teams in the All-Ireland Football quarter-finals,  four are from Ulster. That’s quite an achievement and not one that's received a lot of comment from the media. Maybe that’s because three of the teams - Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal - are from Ulster but not from Ulster-as-some-know-it.  For example, I used to work in the University of Ulster. I remember when the name of the new university was announced, one staff member spent some time impressing on us all how lucky we were to have the word ‘Ulster’ in our title.  She didn’t explain why we should feel lucky but she made it clear that we were very lucky. Had anyone asked if the Ulster in question included Donegal, Monaghan and Cavan, I suspect she would have considered that a question in very bad taste. 

More relevantly, over the years I’ve been in and out of the BBC doing bits and pieces of one kind or another for near to thirty years. In all that time, I’ve never heard any of the staff express surprise or unease about the title ‘Radio Ulster’.  Were they asked, I expect senior staff would reply that the Ulster they had in mind was the Ulster of Northern Ireland - i.e., the six counties. Any suggestion that the name Radio Ulster overstated the station reach would be dismissed as nit-picking. 

Anyway, to get to the point. Let’s suppose (although I hate to even think of it) that Tyrone are knocked out of the competition on Saturday and the other three Ulster teams march on  (an unlikely outcome but possible).  Will Radio Ulster and BBC Television Northern Ireland continue to cover games with the same enthusiasm?  Let’s say it’s a possible but unlikely scenario. Because, you see, the N Ireland team - Tyrone - will be gone, so what would be the point?

To even ask that question is to misunderstand the average Gaelic football fan. He or she will of course wish to see his/her team continue in the competition; but if they’re gone, that doesn’t mean their interest has ended. Is there a fan in the country who won’t want to see Dublin playing Cork? Or, say, Kerry playing Donegal?  But be sure of this: they may watch such games on television, but it won’t be on BBC Northern Ireland television. 

Who said politics had no place in sport?

Monday, 29 July 2013

Reports from a phony war

Did you know there was a war on? I don’t mean somewhere else  in the world (there are always several wars raging somewhere) but right here in our own little wobbly-lined corner?  It’s  a culture war, apparently, with the winners being those who produce evidence of a stronger, more appealing culture.  Now that the ceasefires have been called and the Good Friday Agreement firmly in place, we’re struggling to overcome each other with cultural weapons.

A better term for that would be arty-party propaganda.  Create cultural artefacts, celebrate those in existence, in order to get one up on the other lot. Alas, that's an enterprise doomed to failure. The more you concentrate on producing/appreciating something so that it’ll be useful somewhere else - in this case the political arena -  the more you’re going to produce/express appreciation in a half-baked, skin-deep way that’s totally unconvincing. 

I saw an example of that no later than last Saturday. The marching bands strutting their stuff to show they still wanted to pass the Ardoyne shops were supported by people, often women, carrying banners and signs. One placard in particular caught my eye: ‘Walking is our culture’. Sometimes you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. A form of exercise, a means of getting from A to B - but a culture?

There is no doubt that Irish culture here is flourishing, through song, music, dance and language. The best-known song on the unionist side is probably The Famine Song, the best known music that produced by the Lambeg drum,  the best-known dance  Scottish dancing and the best known language the interesting dialect that’s not a language, Ulster-Scots. 

As a nationalist I’m happy to see Irish culture alive and thriving but I don’t see it as a weapon to use against my neighbours who have a different political allegiance. What I would hope is that my neighbours would realise that what’s seen as the other lot’s culture is in fact their culture as well. 

In an interview with Frances Tomelty years ago, I asked her about competition and jealousy in the acting world. She acknowledge that it existed but saw it as a blot on the profession. In her view, good acting was something that all actors could learn from and share in; the road of begrudgery and spite led nowhere.

She could have been talking about culture in this tormented corner. Culture is there to be shared by all.  One group of people who realise that and are availing of it  are the many people learning Irish at the East Belfast Mission, led by inspirational people like Linda Ervine.  Such people have the wisdom to see that culture is most valuable when it’s celebrated in an open, inclusive way, not used as a weapon with which to bash over the head those we dislike/hate. 

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Sectarian bigots and repentance

Once more, Sunday Sequence on BBC Raidio Uladh/Radio Ulster kick-starts my thinking today.  Rev Gary Mason of the East Belfast Mission was on and drew a parallel between alcoholism and sectarianism: “I am a recovering sectarian bigot” he told listeners.  Good line. Somebody tweeted in that this was a marvellous example of leadership.

Sorry. Can't agree. If sincere, it’s a good example of openness and humility, but I find myself getting impatient with this  “We are all to blame” approach to our problems. I don’t dispute that there’s sectarianism in all of us, to a greater or lesser degree. But saying that and/or conceding that you yourself have been guilty of it doesn’t take us anywhere. 

What I’d call leadership would be if a prominent person in the public eye were to say “I am a recovering sectarian bigot” and then list examples of the sectarianism/bigotry  they’ve been guilty of and how they recovered from it. Now that would be impressive. That would be leadership. 

Nelson McCausland devoted a blog to me some time ago, denouncing me as a sectarian bigot. As I watched Nelson in his Orange sash at the front of the protestors with Nigel Dodds yesterday, I thought how marvellous it would be if , instead of seeing the bigotry in others, our leaders were  to acknowledge their own bigotry, citing chapter and verse. And how they'd managed to leave it behind. I think that would be true leadership. 

It was Gary Mason also this morning (I think) who commended Martin McGuinness for referring to ‘Derry/Londonderry’.  He figured it helped develop confidence within the unionist community. Personally I think it’s an awkward name but if people feel reassured by its use, fine. A bit like Raidio Uladh/Radio Ulster, I suppose.  

But can I conclude with an appeal? Regardless of your sectarianism and/or repentance of it, please oh please don’t ever, even if threatened with violence, refer to “the island of Ireland”. Except maybe if you’re a geography teacher. We don’t say “the human being Gregory Campbell”. Then please oh please don’t state the bleedin’ obvious when you talk about Ireland.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

The Irish Seanad: another way to screw the poor

Would it be a good idea for the south to get rid of its Seanad? That’s a debate that’s running with some energy on the other side of the border these days. There’s talk of how much it would save were the Seanad abolished, much talk  about the Seanad holding  politicians to account, and the claim that it’s the Dail that needs reforming, not abolition of the Seanad.

Simon Coveney,  a Fine Gael minister was on RTE the other day talking about the need to get rid of the Seanad. Mary O’Rourke of Fianna Fail was on the same programme making the case for its retention. 

The main argument against an upper House  (as in England) is that the people in it are not democratically elected. For example, I’m a graduate of the National University of Ireland and so am entitled to a vote that’d send three senators to the Seanad. If I’d been a graduate of Trinity College I’d have been allowed to vote for their three Senators. In other words, people who’ve been to university are seen as being somehow more suitable for voting candidates into the Seanad than the great unwashed non-graduate population. Once you start drawing those kinds of distinction, you’re waving goodbye to any real respect for equality. 

The main argument in favour of retaining the Seanad is that it provides a check on the elected representatives in the Dail, that there’s a degree of expertise in the Seanad that can curb the wildness and possible ignorance of the Dail.  The answer to which, of course, is that those elected to the Dail should be informed and un-wild - they shouldn’t need another body to remind them to act responsibly. 

And did I mention that each Senator gets paid at last count €65,000? You’d need to be giving some very wise advice to make that kind of money well-earned. 

But actually, my own distaste for the Seanad is not that it’s undemocratically elected, not that they get paid too much, but that it’s duplication. Having elected TDs  to the Dail, the Irish people should tell them to get on with it, not pay grateful attention to an unrepresentative bunch of overpaid  layabouts shovelling fistfuls of money into their pockets, while the rest of the state’s population is struggling to keep body and soul together. 

Friday, 26 July 2013

Sauce all round or no sauce at all

When I first heard that a commemorative parade/march was to be held in Castlederg for two IRA volunteers who were killed while transporting a bomb in 1975,  I thought it was a bad idea. Marching in general I find faintly absurd: if you want to honour someone or something, is it not possible to do so from a stationary position? Why the need to do it on the move?

Jeffrey Donaldson it seems agrees with me (not that he knows/cares what I think - it’s purely coincidence): he says Castlederg is still living with the legacy of the Troubles. “It was the location of a very high number of IRA atrocities over the years, and that legacy lives on”.

It seems difficult to dissent from that statement; like many other places in the north, the wounds of loss are still far from healed in Castlederg and environs.  Then I read what Sinn Féin MLA Declan McAleer had to say. He claimed the parade would come from a nationalist area of the town and go through the shared space of the Diamond. Then he added “In Castlederg there are almost 20 parades from the broad unionist community every year, many of which go through the town  centre, and none of which have been objected to by nationalists”.

That for me clinched the argument and should be at the centre of any dispute over parades. As I say, I’d be in favour of banning all marches of any kind: do it on the spot or not at all.  But if parades/marches must happen, then there needs to be balance. And for Jeffrey Donaldson or anyone else to object to a republican commemorative march while supporting some 20 unionist marches in the same place is  lacking in logic, let alone parity or balance. 

Of course you’ll have noted Jeffrey’s term ‘atrocities’. And the BBC habitually refers to any IRA killings as ‘murder’,  while rarely describing killings by the forces of the state as ‘murder’.  But what do the 3,000 + marches here every year commemorate? A battle in which some 1500 men were killed. Do those killings become legitimate because they occurred a long time ago? Or is it that the 1500 deserved to die? Or was God not on their side? Does time dim the picture of carnage?

Orange banners habitually honour prominent warlike figures - those who led others into battle, who encouraged the slaughter of one set of human beings by another. In my book, the rightness or wrongness of an act doesn’t change because a long time has passed. So far from being in favour of banning the IRA commemoration in Castlederg, it seems to me the local republicans would be justified in holding another 19 similar marches. 

It’s that old key question that so many unionists (and maybe some republicans) like to duck: How would we feel if they did to us what we’re doing to them? In this case, if the Orange goose gets its plentiful supply of sauce, it's unreasonable that a spoonful of the same sauce should be denied to the republican gander.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

A day of sadness and solidarity

There’s power, soft power - and then there’s community. 

I was over in West Tyrone at a funeral of a cousin of mine - Tom Dolan -  yesterday. It was an impressive experience. There was sorrow at the heart of it, in the loss of a man who was my year in St Columb’s College in Derry; but there was support and strength and community spirit that counterbalanced the loss. As the dead man’s brother remarked, when he went to St Columb’s College in 1951, there wasn’t a single football in Aghyaran; now it’s a positive fortress of Gaelic games. The massive GAA hall sits right beside the church and it was there the mourners went after the funeral Mass for something to eat. The spread was impressive - a huge array of main dishes to choose from, dessert arriving the moment you’d finished your main course, cups of tea served and re-served to each table. I’ve been in hotels that weren’t nearly as well stocked or organised. 

The church itself was packed with mourners; and there were stewards with hi-viz bibs to direct the heavy traffic to the parking places. And all of this without any sign of the official world of police or other civic authorities. The sense that the community had come together to support the family and each other in the time of loss was almost palpable. Over the meal there was little talk of politics: instead there were anecdotes about the deceased, enquiries about other family members, memories of school days (I re-met two septuagenarians I last saw when they were seventeen), and football games played half a century ago. 

People sometimes talk about the greening of the West. This felt more like visiting an independent republic, confident in itself, welcoming to outsiders, steeped in Gaelic culture and games. I remarked to one priest there that the GAA seemed to have replaced the Catholic Church as the hub, the powerhouse of the community. He  agreed without hesitation, and if he had a sense of regret he didn’t show it.

It’s a long way to Tipperary. It’s a much, much longer way from Westminster -or Stormont - to Aghyaran. As British as Finchley? You’re joking. 

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Nuclear power and nuclear powers

Japan is a unique country. It’s the only one in the world to have suffered from the dropping of atomic bombs on two of its cities, with terrible consequences. It’s also one of the few countries in the world to have had meltdown in one of its nuclear plants. Right now they’re doing what they can to prevent radioactive water from seeping into the sea.  Steam has been seen rising from the plant in recent days, which shouldn’t be the case since they thought they’d cooled it down long ago. The fact is, as one commentator remarked on radio this morning, they’re making it up as the go along, for the good reason that they’ve never faced anything like this. But they do know that it’ll take f40 or 50 years to dismantle the plant and it’ll cost around $50 billion at today’s prices.

Meanwhile in Britain, the government is telling its people that it’s absolutely essential for them to have a nuclear strike force. Although a nuclear submarine isn’t a problem, it’s notable that they keep theirs as far away from London as they can - up in Scotland in fact. In fact, Scottish moves towards independence is giving the English a headache: where are they going to put their nice totally-necessary nuclear submarines if an independent Scotland were to kick them out?

We hear more and more experts tell us that nuclear power is the only option to save the planet, since it provides ‘clean’ energy compared to oil or coal. On the other hand, when something goes wrong as it has in Japan, nobody really knows what to do. And they know that the effects of relying on nuclear energy has long-term consequences. Relying on nuclear weapons, of course, means that you believe it’s totally legitimate to reduce to dust millions of people in the name of liberty.

I’ve a suggestion. Any party that enters an election with a programme that includes either nuclear energy or nuclear weapons should be boycotted, regardless of what other goodies they may promise. And I remain to be convinced that somebody, somehow, isn’t making big money at the expense of a poisoned planet. 

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

A royal arrival - and reactions

Be honest- you gotta hand it to the Brits on these occasions. At least in terms of TV coverage. They had grinning subjects affirming their delight in the royal birth, aerial shots of them thronged round Buck House gates,  our own Cathy Clugston showing how being touched by the royal magic can turn a TV commentator into a breathless worshipper. And even Nature conspired - a big ol' pink moon rising over London, or was it blue, since that would be more appropriate for a boy.

Don't get me wrong. As a father who sweated four times and bit my nails to the stumps as I imagined all sorts of things going wrong, I'm happy that the Middleton woman has come through the ordeal and mother and babby are apparently doing well. What depresses me are two things.

The first is that the third in line to the English throne will be yet another mouth for the public to feed - current costing puts it at £200 million. Cheap at the price, given the interest of the outside world and the benefits in tourism.  Right on the first, wrong on the second. Buckingham  Palace doesn't make it into the Top 20 tourist atractions and costs a fortune to maintain - unlike the Tower of London, which has no royals in it at the moment and cost the public purse zilch.

Finally, I have to confess to a kind of sadness. The mystery of the arrival of another unique human life on our planet is indeed something to rejoice in. The sad part is that this life, if things stay as they are, will be a wasted life. He'll get some pseudo job in the army as a young man, he'll twiddle his thumbs waiting for his da to die or pack the job in, and then he'll be ferried around to be gawked at and cheered, while he does the hugely significant thing of waving and grinning in return. We all get just one shot at life, and it'd be nice to think it had some worthwhile meaning, something of substance to contribute. Except he gets lucky and the monarchy crashes before it's his turn, this new young one is doomed.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Ruth Dudley Edwards, British-Irish and the McCracken Summer School

This morning, not for the first time, I’m preparing to head out to the Mhic Reachtain /McCracken Summer School in Irish.  I’d blame my stumbling level of Irish on my Irish teachers when I was young, but then I was pretty disastrous at most of my subjects so that might be unfair. Anyway, I’m looking forward to it. The teaching is always interesting, the people warm and friendly, the whole atmosphere Irish in the best sense of that word.

Which makes an article by my old UCD class-mate Ruth Dudley Edwards in the Irish Times  this morning particularly interesting. She’s musing on the loss we all have in not acknowledging our Britishness alongside our Irishness, and how the Anglo-Irish of the Big House have had a raw deal , essentially, from the Irish people. She’s right when she says that Irish culture would lose a lot were it to excise Swift,  Synge, Shaw, Wilde, Yeats and the rest from our canon of writers. True indeed. But then if tens of thousands of Irish people hadn’t been dependent for keeping soul and body together on the condescending goodness of the denizens of the Big House, Ireland would have had a different history and have been a better place. Ruth, being Ruth, can’t resist putting the boot into those Anglo-Irish whom she dislikes, in this case Countess Markievicz whom she describes as “an uneducated snob” who “claimed to be of the people”.  She also laments the picture of “the despised landlord class”  that we have and insists they have left us a “a magnificent legacy”.  Whether all those who eked a living from the soil owned by the landlord class would agree with her must remain contentious. Ruthie describes herself as “British-Irish”, which is a very good idea, since she’s lived virtually all her life in Britain and is vociferously opposed to those who seek an independent Ireland. 

Anyway, I’m off to try to add to my cupla focal this morning again. I first became aware of the gap in my cultural make-up at a conference of European educators. As is the way at these things,  a fair amount of drink was consumed and the man sitting next to me, from Holland,  pointed at me and said “You are British, yah?” I spluttered that I was nothing of the kind, I was Irish. “There’s a big difference, you know” I told him. He nodded and thought for a minute. “And there is an Irish language, yah?” “There most certainly is” I told him. “Very good” he said. “And you can speak it?”

There’s nothing like being hoist by your own petard for helping you appreciate Pearse’s word:   Tír gan teanga tír gan anam.  And if you don’t know what that means, come to the Mhic Reachtain/McCracken Summer School this week
. It’s a blast.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Sunday Sequence, William Crawley and evil

It may not be the biggest but Sunday Sequence  is certainly the best weekly programme on Raidio Uladh/Radio Ulster. This morning was no exception.

William Crawley interviewed, among other, Fr Martin Magill   from Lenadoon. The priest made the point that people in Belfast talked about the Orange Order as an anti-Catholic organisation, but that he was from the country and had experience of neighbours who were kind and dependable - and Orangemen. I had something of a similar childhood. My father did cattle business with everyone, including men who were totally decent and Orange. As I picked it up, Fr Martin  seemed to see this combination as a paradox.

I don’t,  and it links to another item  discussed on Sunday Sequence today:  the notion of evil. The discussion came down to the point that all of us, under certain circumstances, have the capacity for the most appalling acts. William’s interviewee (I’ve forgotten his name) made the point that those who’d performed deeds of  cruelty in the past were often (i) haunted by what they’d done; and (ii)  friendly and likeable men (it was almost always men who were involved). Some attention was paid in the discussion to the preparation of young men for a life of soldiering. This required that they be detached from all things familiar, broken down, then rebuilt in a new simplistic way of thinking (good/bad, black/white) so that they could be got to do almost anything. 

It was a fascinating topic and a fascinating interview, and Crawley as always probed with skill and intelligence. I found myself being affirmed in thinking I’ve had for a long time: people are nudged into or away from actions by the environment/society in which they find themselves. There’s even research from Yale (the Milgram Experiment) which shows ordinary people will administer near-lethal pain on innocent others if they  believe officialdom sanctions it. 

So to come back to Fr Martin and Orangeism. Of course it’s possible to be a good person in many ways and a member of the Orange Order. The fact is, though, the Order annually brings out the worst in many people.

Let me tell you a little story. My birthday is on the Twelfth (yes, I know, I know, and I’ve heard all those comments fifteen times before...). As  a child, I’d get jelly and ice-cream to mark the occasion, then  my sisters and I would go outside to play. Half-way through the afternoon of the Twelfth a thudding noise would be heard. That was the sound of stones striking the back of our barn, stones fired from the all-Protestant council housing estate that bordered our farm. Normally we got along OK with the neighbouring Protestant youngsters. In fact I had one friend in particular by the exotic name of Gawain. He’d come over the fence between us and we’d roam the fields in search of rabbits or climb the bales of hay in the hayshed or other excitements. But the week before the Twelfth his visits would taper off. On the big day itself, my sisters and I would go up to check on who was throwing stones at our good barn. The Protestant youngsters, at the sight of us, would increase their volleys in frequency and intensity, and would shout remarks about the Pope and his sexual habits. Incensed, we’d pick up our own stones and throw them in retaliation, sometimes adding information about the family life of the English monarch. And always, somewhere at the back of the group, would be Gawain. He never seemed to look directly at us, and when he threw his stones it was always in a weakish, half-hearted way.  The exchanges would go on for an hour or so, until we got tired or it was teatime. Then it’d take about a week until Gawain,  a little shamefaced at first, would resume his normal visits and our normal friendship. 

My point? The Twelfth, the Orange Order and its associated ideas, was an annual source of division between people who otherwise would have interacted in a fairly civilized, friendly way. Year after year, the same pattern continued, until we all grew up and moved away. But here we are decades later and the Orange Order is doing what? Provoking normally decent people to engage in spiteful, bigoted behaviour. What our society is in sore need of is healing and the hand of friendship between former enemies. The Twelfth, year after year, brings its meat-cleaver division to these tentative efforts. Isn’t it time as a society we began to put two and two together as to what is damaging these delicate steps?

In the right environment, we are all capable of goodness and unselfishness. In the wrong environment, we’re all capable of being something closer to beasts. Guess which environment the Orange Order has been busy creating over the past century or two?

Saturday, 20 July 2013

The Orange Order and getting safely home

“The Twelfth day celebrations will only be complete when all our brethren, sisters, bandsmen and supporters are home safe,”  - Belfast Deputy Grand Master Spencer Beattie.

It has a caring tone, doesn’t it?  Implications of danger and bad people out there who might want to damage the Order, and the need to take care that all those vulnerable Orange Order people are shepherded safely home.  Except where does the renewed application for a march past the Ardoyne shops today fit into all that?

The fact is, it doesn’t. Anyone who’s still not home from last Friday is moving very slowly. And anyone who saw the be-sashed Orangemen a week ago with their stout ash-plants or whatever laying into the police lines will know that these are not people with a need for safeness, but rather people intent on putting a need for safeness into anything and anybody that gets in their way. 

Although maybe that’s too hard. Those in the Orange Order assaulting the police and those higher in the food chain who issue statements about peaceful protest and the iniquity of the Parades Commission - maybe they are experiencing unsafeness. If so it’ s understandable. If you’ve been used to power (guess how many UUP leaders over the last century weren’t Orangemen),  when you define yourself in terms of your superiority to some other group, it really is hard to adjust when that power is taken from you and you’re expected to encounter life on the same terms as everyone else. Including and especially those you once looked down on. 

But alas,  the Orange Order will never again find the safe home it once had, where the leaders of unionism courted it,  where triumphalist marches were held without even verbal dissent, where the pleasures of a good day out were made so much sweeter by the thought that a large section of the population had to swallow hard and put up with it. 

That’s an awful lot to take away from somebody. Hence the march arrangements for today. It’s not really aimed to take the Orange Order past the Ardoyne shops. It’s aimed at taking the Order over the rainbow to a land that no longer exists. 

Friday, 19 July 2013

A tale of two priests

 I’ve only once ever walked out of a church during Mass in protest. (And if I’m honest, most people either ignored my exit or thought the infant in my arms needed a nappy change).  It  was several decades ago and it was in response to a letter from the cardinal or maybe the bishop, which in so many words told the congregation not to vote for Sinn Féin. I was very contrary then, unlike my present agreeable self, and I didn’t like the idea of the hierarchy telling me how to vote, given as how I was all growed up.

Not that I’ve anything against the Catholic clergy. In general they’re a body of  self-less, hard-working, sometimes heroic men. But every so often, one of them gets a fit of the head-staggers and starts saying  stuff that either makes no sense or at best half-sense. An example? Last year Glengormley priest, Fr Eugene O’Neill   said on Raidio Uladh/Radio Ulster that priests of 45 (his age) or younger found the debate about a united Ireland “literally irrelevant”,   and that the north was a better place to be a Catholic than the south. This year - in fact last Sunday -  Fr Tim Bartlett was on Raidio Uladh/Radio Ulster, responding to the events of the Twelfth. In the middle of his contribution, Tim went off on a sort of solo run and informed listeners that a lot of Catholics were happy to live in this state as long as they were treated equally and with respect. 

A wise man once told me “If someone tells you something, remember to ask ‘How do you know that?’”  So that’d be my question for Eugene and Tim: how do you know that?  While I’d never presume to read a priest’s mind, my guess is they’d say they got the information from talking to people. Fair enough. That’d be my own experience too. I wouldn’t go so far as Eugene, who I assume has talked to every under-45 priest in Ireland, but I’d say the majority of them probably don’t give a toss about a united Ireland. And I’d agree with Tim that there are a lot of Catholics (depending on how you define ‘a lot’) who are happy to live in this state and who’d like to be treated equally and with respect.

But here’s the thing, Eugene (stop fidgeting, Tim: patience is a virtue, fan bomaite): I know a lot of Catholics who don’t think the north is a better place to be a Catholic than the south. In fact they think both states stink in equal but different ways. They’d prefer to live in a united Ireland that is neither the north nor the south. 

Think of it like this, Eugene. The north Is a big 10-gallon tin of petrol. Just sitting there, being petrol. OK? Now think of the south as a big car with an empty tank. Just sitting there. Both in themselves pretty useless, except you plan to make petrol bombs maybe. But consider what would happen if you transferred the ten gallons into the car. You could say the car has swallowed up the petrol but in fact you’ve now got something quite new. The static petrol has united with the static car to produce - magic - a moving machine! You now can go places hitherto impossible. My point, Eugene, is that a united Ireland for anyone with more than one brain cell doesn‘t mean North + South. It means a new entity, a state that’s capable of achieving things at present impossible in either state.

Now Tim, your turn. First of all, you’re spot on about Catholics wanting to be treated equally and with respect. And I’d guess - it’s only a guess, mind you, I haven’t talked to them all - that they’d want equality and respect for their Protestant fellow-countrymen and women as well. But here’s the thing:  it is possible to want the north to be a place of equality and respect AND to want to live in a united Ireland where, being all growed up, the Irish people govern themselves. It’s not an either/or, Tim. It’s both equality/respect AND national unity. And while Catholic clergy like yourself are entitled to their views - in this case as so often in the past, supporting the status quo -  there are a lot of us Catholics out here who don’t think a united Ireland is one bit irrelevant, mainly because we believe it’s good when people form opinions and make decisions, not because someone tells them what to think or do, but because they’ve thought for themselves and acted to control their lives the way they believe  best.


Thursday, 18 July 2013

Alan Sugar and those two Apprentice women

My father was an astute cattle-dealer who could gauge the value of an animal  and the possibilities for resale with effortless ease. Unfortunately, his buying-and-selling gene wasn’t transmitted to me. When sales people see me headed their way, it’s all they can do to stop breaking into a quick shoe-shuffle of joy.  But there are consolations to my haplessness: I don’t have to spend much time with the kind of people who infest TV’s The Apprentice.

I’ll pass lightly over Alan Sugar, a man whose mother must have strained to like him, and focus on the two finalists in last night’s show. Both were women and both had names beginning with L  - Derry’s Leah Totton and Essex or somewhere like that’s Luisa Zissman. Leah, who is a qualified doctor, had some idea about making money through a chain of cosmetic surgery places; Luisa wanted to supply bakers with the instruments of their trade. 

Oh God.I have no doubt that deep inside, both young women are really nice and may even be highly intelligent. However, over a two-hour period they successfully hid both qualities. Luisa screwed up her presentation cue-cards and then cried off-stage (always good in such a show);  Leah didn’t cry at all. She was made up to look like a Barbie doll but with an upper-lip that would have made Angelina Jolie jealous of its plumpness. Oh, and she's a trained doctor. 

The interviews with Sugar were ghastly. He’d ask them why he should put £250,000 their way to support their business idea. The response of both women was to use the words ‘Fantastic’ and ‘passionate’ quite a bit, the ‘fantastic’ referring to their cunning plan, the ‘passionate’ to themselves. Both kept assuring the good Lord Sugar that they would make a terrific business partner for him. Instead of laughing openly Sugar nodded thoughtfully, even though he must have been thinking this was the silliest amount of money he had ever squandered. In the course of the interview both women veered from opinionated to obsequious, when they thought it might impress the Sugar man. 

The announcing of the winner, with about ten significant pauses and lots of dah-dah-dah-dah music , was unbearably phony. After the decision, both candidates were interviewed by a panel of comedians, which seemed oddly apt. 

I'll grant you, it was good to see someone from this statelet win;  but it was bad  to the point of depressing to see a trained doctor  turn her skills not to making sick people well but to parting rich, vain people from their money and, in some cases, their outer layers of facial skin. (Her company, incidentally, was called NIKS. That's 'skin' backways. Clever, eh?)

No, seriously though, tell me it was all a huge send-up, like This Is Spinal Tap  or something. Tell me that the shallowness and fakeness and plain dumbness of the show was post-modern irony working at such a subtle level it was invisible to dolts like me. Tell me that, or I’m going to use this baker’s grater to peel the skin from my face and use this  rolling pin to hit myself over the head until I'm unconscious. 

And they say The Apprentice is a massively popular show. And that universal suffrage is a good idea. Dear God. 

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Yesterday in the Assembly

Well - that was instructive, wasn’t it? A special gathering of the Assembly to pick up the pieces from Friday night and arrange the signposts towards a new shared future.

The most colourful contribution came from DUP MLA William Humphrey, who tried the old trick of transforming the victim into the aggressor. That statue of Our Lady wasn’t placed on the bonfire by respectful loyalists -  it was thrown onto it by NATIONALISTS! Or was it republicans? Anyway, the fact that it landed, as Oliver McMullan of Sinn Féin has pointed out, on a prepared platform in the bonfire, was nothing short of miraculous. It gives a whole new meaning to the concept of moving statues. Fair  play to Conal McDevitt for standing up in the Assembly and salami-slicing Humphrey’s pathetic blame-game construct.

Peter Robinson was pretty good too. He is without doubt a polished speaker who can range over a number of topics without sign of a note. His core point yesterday seemed to be that we needed a shared future, but it must be a future that incorporated the Orange Order. Mmm. Let me think about that one a second, Peter...Right. We don’t want to import all of our past into the future, because of matters of quantity and quality. For example, we don’t want to bring with us your window-smashing episode in Clontibret and that fat fine the judge let you off with, any more than we want to import your fellow First Minister Martin McGuinness’s role in the IRA. So if we’re going to jettison some stuff and bring other stuff, we’ll have to use some sort of screening mechanism, that brings on the good and abandons the bad. 

So with that in mind, we must face a question: is the Orange Order a force for good or a force for bad in our society? We all know the answer to that one - for decades, centuries, its thousands of marches have at best been a motivation to triumphalism and at worst a source of drunkenness, bigotry and rioting. Because something has always been there, or because a march has always gone along a particular route, doesn’t mean that that thing is good or that it should continue. So nice try, Peter, but before our shared future includes the Orange Order,  it’ll need to meet standards in terms of ordinances and conduct. If we import into our shared future uncritically, we deserve a future not shared but shameful. 

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Herman Goring, Orange culture and No Surrender!

Herman Goring is reputed to have said “When I hear the word culture, I reach for my revolver”. The events here since Friday suggest that when the Orange Order hear the word culture coupled with the word ‘No’,  it reaches for anything it can lay its hands on. 

What happened on Friday in Belfast has already been given such repeated and expansive space, it’s hard to step back and disentangle the knee-jerk and glib from the factual and thoughtful. But let’s try.

  • The Orange Order leaders pumped up the rioters with talk of “No surrender!” and the terrible injustice of the Parades Commission decision. They  then denied that the vicious rioting which followed had anything to do with their words. To a degree they’re right:  there are some people who don’t need encouragement to attack the PSNI. But the Orange Order’s fiery rhetoric added kerosene rather than cold water to the mixture.  
  • Any talk of the Orange culture and heritage is laughable in the face of the vicious, sometimes hysterical attacks on police vehicles and anything else that got in the way of the rioters/Orangemen.
  • RTE  television broadcast the words of one young marcher to the silent protestors at Ardoyne: “Youse are second-class citizens - this is our country!”  Oddly, neither the BBC nor the UTV cameras/microphones managed to catch this moment. 
  • Which brings us to the live and edited broadcasting of the Twelfth. Walter Love did his usual how-interesting-and-charming  commentary on the live morning programme. The evening programme on UTV  (I didn’t see the BBC counterpart programme) was side-splitting. In the news before the edited highlights of the Twelfth, we had footage of the savagery and vitriol which accompanied the day. Immediately afterwards we had the soothing tones of Paul  Clark    presenting  the Walter-Love-type highlights of happy marching bands and grandas eating ice-cream in the sun. Is there no irony department in UTV? 
  • We really shouldn’t be surprised by this latest outbreak of barbarism on the Twelfth. The history of the Twelfth, for at least two centuries now, is littered with the same kind of social upheaval, drunkenness and bigotry that were on display on Friday.  Why has no politician the guts to suggest the obvious: the Orange marches themselves are the problem, not what erupts once the drums start banging.
  • Do the Parades Commission decisions have any standing in law?  Because it’s obvious that the Orange Order has decided to simply ignore its determinations. Hymns while passing St Patrick’s Church?  Don’t be daft - a blast of the sash there, men. And march on the spot while you’re doing it. Unwittingly, the Orange Order may have a point: if the Parades Commission doesn’t have any power to see that its rulings are enforced, it really isn’t serving much purpose, is it? 
  • Does the brick which struck Nigel Dodds bring him and the DUP closer to or further away from the alienated section of East Belfast? One newspaper report suggested the brick was aimed at Dodds, not the police, because of the contempt the rioters had for his efforts to bring about an end to rioting. He’ll certainly receive some sympathy for putting his head on the line, so to speak, and suffering for his beliefs. Whether that suffering came about because somebody had a bad aim or a very good one may ultimately be seen as irrelevant. 
  • My old chum Nelson McCausland was eloquent on the rioting being provoked because loyalists saw republicans being rewarded for their rioting a year ago. Mmm. And of course flying the Union flag on thirteen or whatever number of days annually was another outrage that meant loyalist rioting was ultimately traceable to the Alliance Party. Right?
  • Final point:  loyalism is showing all of the characteristics of a community that feels the ground falling away from under its feet. When you suffer that kind of insecurity, you’re likely to say or do anything. 

Friday, 12 July 2013

Daisy speaks out...

Awrigh’ then?

I’m Daisy and  me and my other half, Fred, we live in the East End and I gotta say, this time of year is great, innit?  You hear people on the bus or down the pub moaning on about the weather this and the weather that - too wet, too cold, too miserable. Dunno what they’re talking about. Look at the weather we’s having now - Britain  gets some of the best weather in the world. It’s that warm this week, I got to nip in the house and change my blouse twice a day. My Fred says I sweat more than a Grand National mare. Cheeky bleeder.

Fred’s a member of the KBWA , which means the Keep Britain White Association,  and he loves this time of year, same as me. That’s because the KBWA have their big march around now. Every  13th July,  my Fred gets down his KBWA outfit which is still in its cling-film wrap after me sending it to the cleaners and know what? That KBWA uniform of his, it’s that dazzling white you’d need sunglasses, the glare off it. White shirt, white trousers, white shoes, white tie, white cap.   He really does look a proper treat dressed up, and you should see him and his mates when they’s all together, marching in step with the big drum beating. He don’t say it - my Fred don’t talk that much - but I can tell he’s as proud as Punch when he looks at himself in the mirror and when he steps out down the road. And I’m proud as Punch of him an’ all. 

But times is changed, ain’t they? Used to be, years ago, 13th July were a nice day out - know what I mean? I’d make sandwiches and take the kiddies and everyone would cheer the marchers and we'd meet up with Fred after he’d finished. We’d sit down somewhere nice, park bench maybe or even on the grass, and so would all the other KBWA people and their families, and somebody’d get ice-cream and  maybe a few beers and everyone knew everyone else. It were a proper day out for all the family then. Lovely, it was. 

But not now. Now you got all these people, these immigrants - that’s what we got to call them now, immigrants - all these immigrants coming here and saying we’s racists and they don't like 13th July. . Writing to the paper and demonstrating and even lying on the road to stop Fred and his mates marching past. Makes me proper sick  it does. You’d think it weren’t the Queen’s Highway and they wasn’t entitled to walk along our own Sovereign’s highway whenever and wherever they  want. And then they say this is a free country! What I say is, if you don’t like it, don’t look at it. Stay at home and watch the telly or something. But ain’t no chance of that. Oh no. These immigrants, they’d rather come out and shout stuff at us and say they’re offended and hold up their placards about equality and respect and  every bleeding thing you could think of. 

Equality - there’s a laugh. Shows you how much these people know about our country and the way it works. Shouldn’t be surprised if next thing they’ll be complaining about our Sovereign Majesty the Queen, God bless her, ‘cos she aint, you know, coloured. Same as them. Shows how ignorant they is, my Fred says. Cos it’s written down in our constitution what the Sovereign must always be a white person.  That’s why we respect her so much. And she has to be married to a white person an' all, or the lineage an’ that  sort of thing would b, y’know, polluted, wouldn’t it?

Tell you straight, the whole thing makes my blood boil. And Fred’s. They come here and we give ‘em jobs  (them as is willing to work, which ain’t all, let me tell you) and we give ‘em our NHS and we give ‘em grants and free houses and everything. . And what do we get back? Complaints, that’s what. Moans. And lying in the road and sayin’ we’s not welcome. In their area!

That’s why my Fred joined the KBWA. We love our country. Just breaks our hearts, way these people come in and then turn round and say we’s anti-immigrant. No we’re not. We just want to protect our British culture and our heritage and that. We’d like to make 13th July a festival, sort of, for everybody. If them immigrants is willing to accept that and acknowledge Her Majesty as their sovereign and adopt our customs and culture, then right,  no problem. But  not them.  So what I say is,  if they don’t like it, let ‘em go back where they come from.

Meanwhile, long as they is here, show some respect for Her Majesty, respect for our country, respect for our culture. That’s how it were in the old days - the bands, the marches, the speeches. It was just a proper lovely day out for everyone, kiddies n’ all. Only then these people came along, showed no respect, got everyone riled up, blocked roads. Spoiled everything. Bleedin’ disgrace.

Anyway, I’m just hoping this weather lasts until 13th, cos when it’s sunny on the day it’s just lovely. Although you gotta be prepared, like the boy scouts and that, so maybe I’ll bring my Union flag umbrella with me just in case. Mind you it’s still a proper nice day, 13th, no matter what the weather.  Perfect  it would be, only for them immigrants with their posters and Respect Our Area and blah-de-blah. Tell you one thing: they won’t put me and my Fred or any of his mates off. Not an inch.  We love July 13th more than anything. Except maybe Her Majesty.  Ain’t no amount of protesting scum  going to change that.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Dead letter days - thanks, Vince

On a day when stout blades are adding the finishing touches to their bonfires and supplies of lager and  tricolours are being checked, it seems perverse to raise one’s eyes and look beyond. But  the clips of Vince Cable talking yesterday have driven me to it. If anyone can think of a bigger rip-off than his proposed privatization of the Royal Mail, I’d like to hear about it. 

Despite the dumb title (what has  QE2 have to do with letter-delivery - does she get a temporary job each Christmas?), the Royal Mail is a magical system. Agreed it’s been run down -  I now get my letters around noon, whereas in former years they’d be here around 8.00 a.m. or earlier - but it still delivers throughout the United Kingdom (yes I know, I know, but let it go for now) with everything at a standard rate. That is, a letter sent to Cornwall will cost the same (and should be delivered in a similar time-scale) as one to Coleraine. And that’s where the privatising bastards come in.

Once privatized, three things will happen:  the work-force will be slashed, the pay of workers cut and it’ll cost you more to send a letter to Hull than it will to Fintona. In case they’d have any difficulty getting this iniquitous bill passed, Vince Cable, that fine liberal, will arrange a £2,000 pay-off to postal workers. It’s like giving the condemned man a slap-up feed while the firing squad oil their guns and practice aiming. 

Granted, the destruction of the system as we know it doesn’t affect us as much now, since the internet and texting and mobile phones carry a lot of our communication with each other. But there are still occasions when we all rely on the Post Office to deliver something for us -  a precious parcel, a special letter.  What Cable is planning is symptomatic of the thinking of the present ghastly British government: destroy anything that involves people working together,  give a leg-up to anything that’ll produce competition red in tooth and claw.

But it hasn’t happened yet, so I’ll expect the usual vanful of pressies and fancy cards on my birthday tomorrow. Let me thank you in anticipation - go raibh  cead maith agaibh.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

I'm lucky to be alive so don't listen to me

This afternoon the Dail will vote on the abortion bill. I really should keep out of this because I have a vested interest, but maybe if I provide the background of this vested interest it’ll leave a space for comment. 

I was the last of eight children, with a gap of more than three years between me and the second-last sibling. That was because my mother had been told after No 7 that if she had any more children, she’d be seriously endangering her health. Anyway she became pregnant again, I was born and my deeply relieved mother named me after the patron saint of hopeless cases.  Had she lived in a society where the diagnosis of danger to the mother’s health was accepted as grounds for abortion, I wouldn’t be. 

For an expectant mother to ignore all medical advice about dangers to her health would be reckless in the extreme. But my own case points to one essential: any medical prediction has to be made with as many second or third opinions as can be mustered. In other words, to be guided by medical opinion, we need to trust that  medical opinion is reliable - that what it predicts is highly likely to occur. Because doctors do make mistaken diagnoses.

In the south’s abortion bill, the point of debate is the clause which permits abortion where two psychiatrists and an obstetrician agree that the expectant mother is contemplating suicide. I’m not a medical doctor, much less a psychiatrist, but from what I can gather, psychiatrists themselves admit that they are not capable of accurately interpreting a patient’s talk of suicide. My own daughter (about whom I’ve been boasting shamelessly of late) is considering psychiatry as a career path in medicine, but a major factor that might deter her would be the danger that misreading of a patient’s needs might result in the patient taking his or her own life. 

In one respect the south’s abortion bill is a sham. It doesn’t address the problem of the eleven  women who, on average, travel to England every day to have an abortion: threats of suicide by pregnant women form only a tiny proportion of those who seek an abortion. In another respect the bill is anything but a sham: if it legalises abortion for those women who declare thoughts of killing themselves, and that declaration is pronounced valid by two psychiatrists and an obstetrician, it’ll make clear that abortion may be performed in Ireland on thin-ice medical verification. Once that is established, and the media in Ireland continue to present the foetus as not-yet-human (a notion I have never understood), the doors to widely-available legal abortion will certainly have been unlocked. 

But then, as I say, I’m biased. So far, all things considered, I’ve enjoyed being alive. 

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

The Glorious Twelfth

I wonder how the Twelfth looks to outsiders. I know Mary McAleese, when she was in the Áras, thought of the Orangemen’s day as part of our culture. That’s why she invited unionists down to the Áras,  put on a big spread for them.  Most of us, however, are outsiders. We look in on the Orangeman’s day via the media - mainly television. 

In the good old days (Wha’?), the BBC used to cover the marches and bands in exquisite/excruciating detail. I’ve even heard it said by those who should know that the Grand Master of the Orange Order would be invited by the Controller of the BBC to sit with him (it was always a him then) and watch the bands go by, maybe while enjoying a quality lunch to the sound of their music. 

Nowadays things are different. Television doesn’t go on for hours and hours - maybe around an hour in the morning and a half-hour wrap-up in the evening. It’s not something I circle in my Radio Times, but I can’t recall a TV commentary that presented the marchers and bands and brethren as other than decent folk out having a bit of fun on a colourful, musical day. 

Except, of course, it’s more than that. At considerable expense to the tax-payer, the bands and marchers are there (and on 3,000-4,000 other occasions each year, ach sin sceal eile) to remind themselves and their neighbours that in a battle over 300 years ago, the Protestant tradition in the shape of William of Orange defeated the Catholic tradition in the shape of James II. This, of course, is an honourable expression of Protestant/unionist culture, nothing to do with sticking two fingers up to the taigs - never has been, never will be. Which is why so many Catholics/nationalists look forward to the big day with happy anticipation also.  And why papers like The Irish Times present pictures of the oh-so-high bonfires, taking care to crop out the tricolour perched on top. 

So between TV and the papers, the uninformed outsider comes away from the Twelfth with the vision of a happy people acting out a time-honoured event,  and a vision of those who complain about it as a bunch of trouble-fomenting bigots. Shame, isn’t it?

Monday, 8 July 2013

Enda and Nelson: two men with political headaches

Two big meetings of our public representatives north and south of the border this week.  The topics of concern appear quite different at first glance.

In the south, they’re voting on that abortion bill. It’ll almost certainly pass, since most if not all parties have made it mandatory for the party members to support it. A few from Fine Gael and one from Sinn Féin have peeled off and said they’ll vote against the bill, but that’s not going to make much difference. To their political careers, yes; to the bill’s passage, no.

The bill is so riddled with contradictions it’s hard to know where to start. For one, it’ll have practically no effect on the numbers of women (some eleven every day) travelling to England from Ireland for an abortion. Its core point of controversy is the suicide bit: it will allow a pregnant woman who is thinking of suicide to have an abortion, providing three medics, including two psychiatrists, give the nod. Who will choose the psychiatrists and using what criteria, I wonder? Jury members are rejected if they are known to have particular fixed views on the matter being tried. Will something similar apply to the chosen psychiatrists? 

We’re told by supporters of the bill that no pregnant woman would feign suicidal thoughts in order to have an abortion. How do they know? And for that matter, how accurately can psychiatrists predict that someone is at risk of suicide? And finally, even if they were able to predict suicidal tendencies accurately, is abortion the only possible response? If a mother were to display murderous tendencies towards one of her children, would we solve the matter by killing the child? 

In the north here, our focus will be on Nelson McCausland and the Red Sky affair. By comparison with the south’s life-and-death issues, this seems relatively unimportant, but it still matters. The allegations are that there was some behind-the-scenes string-pulling to make sure Red Sky, a discredited contracting company to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, would get back in the game. McCausland denies all charges; whether he has done so convincingly depends on where you stand. If you stand within the ranks of the DUP, you will argue that a hard-working minister is being framed  with spurious charges intended to damage him and the party. If you are standing outside the DUP, you might think that this is a minister who has failed to be open and impartial in a matter involving public funds. I myself am biased towards my old friend Nelson: the grilling of such a stout kilt-wearer and fluent Ulster-Scots speaker seems to me akin to booing Andy Murray, who beneath all the union flag-waving actually is a Scot as well. 

What links the cases north and south is the distinct possibility of hypocrisy. In the south, Enda Kenny is professing concern for the lives of suicidal women when in fact his government has been stampeded into action which doesn't address the problem highlighted by the sad death of Savida Halappanavar. In the north, Nelson McCausland is professing concern for the welfare of Housing Executive tenants. Whether that’s honest concern or the fumbling gestures of a minister caught with his pants down I’ll leave up to you. 

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Five things, post-Red Sky and post-HET

Five things we know, post-Red Sky and post-HET:

 1. The HET  is discredited beyond repair. Was it the Bourbons that remembered everything and learnt nothing? You’d think the HET would have known how important it was to show themselves as even-handed when dealing with ‘security forces’ cases here. Yet it seems patently clear they did nothing of the sort. Old habits die hard.
2.  My old chum Nelson should be rehearsing his final lines for Monday. Assuming, that is, that the DUP don’t plan to brazen it out. If the allegations are true (see what I did there?), Nelson or his adviser has transported his party into a  shit-storm of chicanery. Sad to say, I think the DUP will choose to brazen it out. But just in case, I think dear Nelson should have something memorable ready.  Maybe take a cue from his name-sake and go out with “Kiss me, Hardy”?  I know it doesn't make sense in the present context, but then neither does the handling of the whole Red Sky affair.

3. The HET story is a far bigger one than Nelson and Red Sky,  which shows you how big it is. Both are concerned with the past but Nelson and Red Sky are recent past and merely involve charges of giving a leg-up to contractors.  The HET story takes us right back to the days when any suggestion that the state had one law for its well-armed forces and another for everyone else.   It seems those days haven’t quite gone away, you know.

4.We’d need to make up our minds about how good we are at resolving conflict. On the one hand, we hear tales of Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness (or is it just Martin?) advising other trouble-spots in the world on how to move from war to peace; on the other hand we appear hopeless at dealing with the pain that the past has involved for so many people. 

5.  Anyone who says there should be a hierarchy of victims is either very stupid or very duplicitous. I’m talking here about the families who are left to live with the loss of a loved one, whether that be a British soldier, an RUC man or an IRA volunteer. It’s red herring talk or totally illogical talk to say things like “Yes, but the terrorist had a choice”.  What we’re talking about here is simple: not the dead person but the grieving family. Got that OK? If not, maybe you should just should shut up. Better remain silent and be thought a fool than open your gob and prove it.  

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Aldergrove airport: being tested to destruction

It’s a week ago and  I’m systematically removing everything from my trouser pockets into my outer jacket, which I then dump in one of those rectangular basins along with my laptop. The man at Aldergrove gestures, I walk through a door-frame thing and of course: Ping! Guess who’s left his mobile phone in his pocket.  I pass phone to attendant woman, walk through once more, no ping.  But now there’s a man who tells me to put my arms out from my sides. He goes about his frisking work with such thoroughness and, um,  intimacy,  I smile and say this is as good as a body massage. “Show me the soles of your shoes” he tells me, unamused. 

Then it’s the luggage’s turn. A nice man lifts out all of my case’s contents and begins to run what looks like a bit of plastic around every nook and cranny of my case, my camera, my flash unit, my everything. “What are you doing there?” I ask, using my friendliest voice. “Well this is to check for any trace of drugs or explosives”.  I think of saying it’s OK, the cocaine and semtex are in the second and third drawer respectively under the picture of the Sacred Heart in the kitchen at home,  but decide not to. I’ve a flight to catch. The nice man takes his little plastic/swab thing to a machine. Moments later he’s back, this time with a less nice man who’s overweight and looks as if his face and bald head have been left out in the sun too long. 

The over-weight red-head does the plastic/swab thing again - case, camera, flash unit- and goes back to the machine and feeds in his bit of plastic. When it comes out he frowns,  starts removing bits of the machine, wiping them and replacing them. Eventually he comes back to me.

“We’ve run this three times and the machine still isn’t happy. Sir”.   I’m thinking of mentioning that I’m not too happy myself, but there isn’t time, because now a fourth man has arrived and asked me if I’d mind coming over here for a moment.

This man has got a seriously big machine. It’s like a tardis or something -  circular,  transparent, and when I step inside it I have to put my feet on the two footmarks on the floor and my hands in the air as though a gun was pointed at me, although the man instructing me never mentions the word “gun”. The door closes, the machine does a swoosh and I’m out again. I’ve been full-body scanned. But not so full-body scanned that there isn’t need for a fifth man to frisk me, this time only as far as the waist. (No Virginia, I don’t know why he stopped at my waist.) Then the fifth man asks me to loosen my belt, something I’ve never had a man ask me do before. He sort of tugs at the buckle and then at the strap-end bit. Finally, disappointed, he passes me back to his red-head friend. 

Except my unfriendly part is starting to surface. I tell red-head  that our flight gate closes in ten minutes and we’ve been at this searching lark for at least twenty minutes now. “Well, sir, our machine isn’t happy”.  "And I can tell you now it'll find no traces of drugs or explosives in my suitcase". "That would be a matter of opinion, sir" red-head tells me. 

I'm sort of shouting, I tell him it’s nothing to do with opinion, it’ a matter of fact. Two facts, in fact.  Fact One, I’m going to be late for my flight if I’m held much longer and Fact Two, there are no traces of drugs  or explosives in my case. “The machine is not looking for drugs or explosives” the red-head says, going a bit redder.  “But the other man earlier told me it was”. “Well you were told incorrectly, sir”.  

So now I’ m beginning to feel like a character in a Kafka story:  a faulty machine is looking for God knows what in my case and possessions, and the clock is ticking down to zero.  Maybe seeing that I’m about to leave teeth-grinding and move on to  the screaming-and-sobbing stage, red-head turns me over to a sixth man,  his superior, and goes back to polishing bits of his machine. 

The superior smiles and tells me it’s OK,  he’s rung up the flight gate and they’ll give us an extra ten minutes before they close. Anyway they’re done with me now ( I suspect they’ve just given up) and all that remains is  for me to cram all my stuff back in the case,  test the bag zipper to maximum, refasten my belt, take a deep breath and start running towards the gate. “All right now, sir? Happy enough?” he calls after me.

I want to shout so many things over my shoulder. Like what is enough, what is happiness,  are the guys at the body scan  at this minute using my full-body  image as a dart-board and laughing until tears come when they hit the bull’s-eye.  And I wonder whether they’ve given me this going-over simply because they don't like me or because they’ve bought these nice big machines that can photograph  your body with no clothes on and detect cocaine or semtex or Thing X,  and when you buy something you have to be seen to use it.

Feeling like a wrung-out dishrag in a mad, mad world I fall into my plane seat. You wouldn’t think it’d be so hard to move from one part of our United Kingdom to another. 

Friday, 5 July 2013

Nelson meets Mark. Ouch.

They’re a bit like buses. You’re standing there and suddenly out of nowhere, two arrive. You hop on one of them and the other quickly fades to the back of your mind or is totally forgotten. That’s why the HET people must be today thanking God for Nelson McCausland. If their biased actions, where the ‘security’ forces got a velvet glove investigation while others felt the weight of their iron hand -  if their lop-sided approach hadn’t emerged at the same time as the Nelson McCausland affair, they’d be getting hammered a lot harder and longer than is now the case. 

That's because everyone is talking about my old chum Nelson. For example, the BBC’s The View  made for interesting viewing last night. It was like a studio version of a medieval kitchen preparing a banquet. On the spit was dear old Nelson; gripping the spit’s turning handle was Mark Carruthers. Mark kept asking Nelson questions about his relationship with the people in Red Sky, and  Nelson kept twisting this way and that to avoid the flames. Instead of answering, Nelson did all he could to imply  that the whole thing was makey-up stuff by the BBC and that his, Nelson's,  dealings were nothing short of exemplary.  

Part of this  strategy involved accusing Mark of not allowing him to answer the questions put. Talk about chutzpah. What Nelson  was actually doing was playing for time. Filibustering. Yammering on about  the general poor quality of all contractors working for the  Housing Executive, rather than addressing what was asked, which was about him and meetings with Red Sky people. 

Credit where credit is due - Mark got his teeth into Nelson's ankle and wouldn't let go. Are you going to answer the question? Will you answer the question? Why don't you answer the question instead of answering one I haven't asked?  Nelson’s defence, insofar as he had one,  seemed to be that most every contractor apple in the NIHE barrel was rotten, not just Red Sky. EH?   I’m thumping this child, but don’t you be blaming me for it, sure the whole street is full of thumpers? Mmm.  Did you come up with that line yourself, Nelson, or did your political adviser suggest it? Things weren't helped when the interview ended and Mark crossed the studio floor, where both Michael Copeland  of the UUP and Alex Maskey of Sinn Féin agreed that the Minister would be doing himself and the rest of us a favour by stepping aside while investigations were underway - something Nelson had found laughable. That is, an appalling vista.

And as if The View  grilling weren't enough, now  Stormont’s being recalled on Monday to have a little chat with Nelson. It’ll be interesting to see if the DUP decide to stand by their man or the sound of DUP feet will be heard thundering to put some distance between them and this dead man walking. Either way, let’s hope it gets sorted quickly and correctly. Because the revelation that the HET   is useless when looking at ‘security’ forces’ actions is, in the end, a far more important story. 

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Nelson, the NIHE and poor Jenny

Well. This morning finds me saddened. My old chum Nelson McCausland, who as you know is concerned about bigotry and sectarianism, particularly in people like me, is now at the centre of a political storm. There’s even talk of recalling the Assembly to look at the relationship between the contracting firm Red Sky and the DUP. 

I didn’t see the Spotlight programme which gave the detail of this particular storm, but there appear to be allegations that staff members of the Housing Executive took bribes from contractors. There are also claims that Lisburn DUP councillor Jenny Palmer, who was on the Housing Executive board,  was put under pressure by Nelson’s special adviser Stephen Brimstone to vote in a way contrary to her conscience.

(That hollow laughter you hear is coming from Sinn Féin. “Did they say something about special advisers? The people who were horrified that anyone with a past could be considered as a special adviser? Here, pull the other one!”. )

Something I hear quite frequently is that there’s a tradition of brown baggery south of the border and that leading parties there, especially Fianna Fail, are innately corrupt when it comes to money and politics. This is usually followed by a distinction between such corruption and the way those of us north of the border conduct our political affairs. Yet this morning we hear talk of bad things about Red Sky, the contractors at the heart of this dispute. There are allegations of poor workmanship, charging for work not being done, charging for non-existent buildings - and attempts to put Red Sky back in the game under a different name. 

I don’t know if any of these allegations are true. But if they are,  it confirms what I’ve held for a long time: claims that we northerners have a craggy integrity when compared with our wheeling-dealing fellow-countrymen south of the border is miles off the mark. If we appear less corrupt it’s because we haven’t had the opportunity to be corrupt or that we haven’t been caught being corrupt. Yet.

But let me stress again: my heart is sore this morning for my old chum Nelson and any suggestion that he was involved in this matter in any way is of course bogus.  A finer, more up-standing, less-bigoted man could not be found in the DUP or anywhere else.
Excuse me - I have now to tend to my cat, which has fallen suddenly ill. 

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Timing and those tapes

In politics, timing is very important.  Neville Chamberlain took a very bad time to wave that piece of paper about and talk of “peace for our time”. Gordon Brown waited until the financial house had begun to crumble before he thought calling a general election might be an idea. Brian Cowen and Fianna Fail similarly kept telling people it was at worst a soft landing they were headed for, even as the wings of the economy began to fall off. Now we have these bank tapes. 

The night before the Fianna Fail government bailed out the banks, top cats at the Anglo-Irish Bank are heard laughing at the way they’d lie about what money was needed to survive and singing the German national anthem as they chuckle to each other.  Enda Kenny is outraged, apparently, by this and has talked of “an axis of collusion” between Anglo Irish Bank and Fianna Fail, who were at the helm in 2008. Kenny’s partner in coalition, Labour’s Joan Burton has called on Fianna Fail’s former Taoiseach Brian Cowen to ‘fess up to those phone conversations in 2008. “Can he tell us exactly what happened in it, can he find a mechanism to just come forward and say what happened and what did  he know?”

Good woman yourself, Joan. Flush the toe-rags outs. It’s such a pity that a shadow then falls on  today’s coalition of Fine Gael and your party, Joan, the party of the ordinary man and woman,  Labour. Because these tapes are from 2008. So let me count -  2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 - that’s five years. So besides wanting to know what the hell Fianna Fail and Anglo were doing, concealing these conversations from 2008-2011,  another question even more pressing though unasked is “What the hell were Fine Gael and Labour doing, sitting on or not knowing about these tapes from 2011 until now?”  You can tell that it’s a factor that’s worrying both parties, by the yelps of Enda and Joan.  I think it was Freud who talked about projection, where we project onto others the faults we ourselves are most guilty of. Maybe that explains Enda and Joan’s fury at Fianna Fail for not coming clean earlier: getting very indignant tends to deflect interest in what they  were doing over the past two years. Did they  - Fine Gael and Labour - know about those tapes and thought nobody would be interested? Hardly.  Did they not know about those tapes, and if they didn’t, what kind of uninformed gombeens are they?

As O’Casey said in Shadow of a Gunman, “Oh Kathleen ni Houlihan, you way’s a thorny way”. Too right, Mr O’Casey. And nearly a hundred years later, Kathleen is still being led up the boreen by a shower of wasters and chancers. 

It’s time for some fundamental changes.