Jude Collins

Saturday, 31 August 2013

Bill's sum: 1 +1 = ?

One of the ugliest commemorative sites I have been to is that at Béal na Bláth. But let’s leave the aesthetics for another time.  It was at the Michael Collins memorial site a week ago that Bill O’Herlihy made a speech which  got a lot of attention. In it the Fine Gael man echoed Fianna Failer Mary O’Rourke’s suggestion a few weeks’ ago that  a Fianna Fail and Fine Gael coalition would be good for the ‘country’. 
First, Bill’s opening remarks:  “Michael Collins was a great man, a nation-builder, a visionary, a deep thinker about the future of Ireland and someone whose ambitions and aspiration is (sic) still, tantalisingly, unmet”.
You’re right there, Bill. Collins was also the man who organised the group known as the Twelve Apostles, who shot dead numerous officers in the Dublin Metropolitan Police before killing fourteen British agents in the early hours of 21 November 1920.  But Bill doesn’t want to linger with  - or even mention - stuff like that. He moves smoothly from the past to the present and evaluates three political parties. 
“Sinn Féin deserves credit for the slow and tortuous progress that has been made in Northern Ireland and the party deserves the maximum encouragement to continue the process. But only Fine Gael and Fianna Fail have the proven trust of the people of the Republic over the past eighty years. They should examine and if necessary pool what they share and allow the people of this country to reap the benefits”.
While BIll was telling Sinn Féin to stay up north and was dangling the prospect of a Fianna Fail- Fine Gael coalition before the people of the south,  the TD for Louth, Gerry Adams, was making a speech at the McGill Summer School. The Sinn Féin president  sketched what the “proven trust of the people” had delivered in the south over eighty years: 
“Religion was hijacked by mean men who used the gospel not to empower but to control, and narrow moral codes were enforced to subvert the instinctive generosity of our people...Those who suffered were mostly poor. The arts were censored. Our language undermined. Our culture corroded. Millions fled to England, the USA and Australia. A lesser people would not have survived.”
To give Bill his due, he’s not saying it was roses all the way for the past eighty years. Speaking as a Fine Gael man, it seemed to him Fianna Fail had made some mistakes. And maybe even Fine Gael.
“But in spite of all these reservations, I believe coalition of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail has much to offer at a time of huge challenge for Ireland. I suspect the Irish people would like to see this development. I would like to see this development in a new political landscape true to the ideals of Collins”.
Do you know, I think Bill’s right. Or half-right anyway. It would be a good idea for Fianna Fail and Fine Gael to get together. Historically they may have been different, but in practice they produced and produce the same results. And as Gerry Adams noted in his speech, they both have their “backs to the border” so why shouldn’t they join hands?
“But that’d mean a state with a permanent Fianna Fail-Fine Gael coalition government!”  you cry. I think not.  A few years of Fianna Fail plus Fine Gael would open the eyes of the most dim-witted, trusting voter. Fianna Fail has plunged the southern state into bankruptcy, Fine Gael has jumped in and is busy screwing the most vulnerable to the wall.  Put the two parties together and think  what a toxic mixture you’d have. Somehow, I don’t think that’s quite the vision Collins had. As that fine Fianna Fail leader Bertie Ahern once said in a different context: “Do they take the people for eejits altogether?”

Friday, 30 August 2013

Remembering Seamus Heaney

I remember Seamus Heaney. He was a Senior when I was a Junior in St Columb’s College, where he became (predictably) Head Prefect. He used, as I remember, walk round the grounds of the College with among others Kevin and Leo O’Neill, older brothers of the more famous Martin. Frequently as they strode past you’d hear them talking in Irish.

Part of his duties as Head Prefect was to keep order in the study hall before the supervising priest or teacher arrived. The traditional way to do this was to stand by your Head Prefect desk and periodically bang its lid and roar “Shut up!” This usually brought the hum of noise down for a while, until the next bang and roar, or the arrival of the study supervisor. 

I sat at the far end of the study hall beside a boy called Murphy from Bellaghy. On one memorable occasion, we were whispering, maybe laughing at some witticism. Suddenly I had a sense that someone was standing behind me. It was Seamus Heaney. Occasionally the desk-banging and roaring would be seen as insufficient, and that’s what had brought the Nobel Prize winner to my side. He thumped me about the head  a bit, which hurt, but not as much as the fact that  Murphy the Bellaghy man, my co-conversationalist, got off scot-free. A failure in parity of disdain, I felt, although I hadn’t the words to go with it. Injured pride more than injured head.

For years I thought I was unique, and sometimes after a few pints would boast that I had been roughed up some by a Nobel Prize-winner. Then I did an interview with Eamonn McCann, for my book Tales Out of School: St Columb’s College Derry in the 1950s, and he revealed that he’d had an almost identical experience. “I met him at a festival down in Clare a few years ago and confronted him with it” Eamonn told me with that signature grin of his, “but of course he affected not to remember it. I heard later he went into poetry, no doubt in an attempt to cover up his thuggish past”.

Thanks, Eamonn. Now I can’t even claim a monopoly on Nobel Prize-winner bashings.  Damn. 

They say the work of the poet is to make the ordinary extraordinary, and in that Heaney was consummately successful. I’d rank him with Keats, in his early poems at least - that ability to recreate the smell and touch and look of ordinary things -  raw potatoes, frogspawn, a blacksmith’s forge, a mother’s grief. And of course he made being from Bellaghy and every country place a matter of pride rather than uneasiness. As someone said, before Seamus Heaney the people from the bog tried to avoid mentioning it; now half the country is claiming to have been reared in bogland.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam uasal

Men of violence

Yesterday I asked you how you felt about the IRA. Today let me expand that a bit and ask how you feel about ‘men of violence’. You know that phrase well - it was used by unionist politicians and the SDLP to describe paramilitary groups here, particularly the IRA. Men of violence. Rejectionists of democracy and the peaceful resolution of difference.

I ask this because I was listening to Nigel Dodds on the radio this morning and he made it clear that he is a man of violence. Not a paramilitary, I hasten to add, and not even one of those who voted yesterday in the British House of Commons for military ‘intervention’ in Syria.  Nigel was against Cameron’s request for carte blanche. And Nigel’s side, mercifully, won. Nigel conceded that he’d favour a ‘surgical strike’ in Syria, but that wasn’t on the cards. That’s why I say Nigel is a ‘man of violence’. If he believes the conditions are right, he’ll use violence. (And I hope you haven't missed the irony of 'surgical strike'. Surgery is normally used to removed diseased tissue and help the patient live. Surgical strikes are normally used to identify undesirable areas and help kill everyone there. 

Meanwhile those on the other side of the House from Nigel were reassuring us that there was ‘incontrovertible’ evidence that the Assad regime was responsible for the use of chemical weapons. Under pressure, it emerged that while the UN team has found no evidence that Assad did the vile deed, ‘intelligence’  had assured the Yanks that it was definitely Assad  who dun it. In other words ‘We say it happened like this, so it happened like this. Trust us’.

Right. Like we trusted the US when they used napalm in Vietnam in the 1970s, or in the 1940s when they used the atomic bomb (there’s the ultimate example of terrorism, if that’s what you’re looking for) or any of the other ghastly ways the West has of killing people. 

Which brings us to something near the nub of things: what’s so different about chemical weapons? Yes, they’re forbidden by the Chemical Weapons Convention and international rules of war, but I repeat: what’s so different about them? Cluster bombs, drones, nuclear weapons, plain old bullets -  all of these things are designed to rip apart the human frame or to end its functioning as a living entity. So the West’s embargo on Iraq which killed so many Iraqi infants because of lack of medical supply - that’s more or less OK. But chemical weapons: uh-uh. Red line. No cross. 

At the danger of sounding like a broken record: Syria is all about oil. It produces a healthy amount of oil itself, but its geographical positioning is what makes it really vital to the West’s interest. It’s close to pipelines and sea routes that carry much of the world’s crude oil. Like the Suez Canal, or the Suez-Mediterranean pipeline, which moves oil from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean. An attack on Syria could disrupt these vital channels, which is why the Americans and others are so keen to stick their oar into the conflict in Syria. 

And you thought it was because the suffering of the Syrian people had touched the hearts of Barack Obama and David Cameron, Virginia. Alas no. The truth is, Obama and Cameron don’t have hearts. And the place in their heads which would normally house a conscience is, I’m afraid, Virginia, quite empty. 

Thursday, 29 August 2013

What's your view on the IRA?

One of the core problems faced by unionists is the IRA.  Even though that organisation has  quit the scene it's still a problem - a problem that soon gives rise to a range of contradictions. 

Unionist opposition to the IRA is often rooted in personal or family experience. It’s hardly surprising if your father or uncle or other relative has been killed by the IRA, you’ll think of them as a conspiracy of murderers.  And even if you haven’t had that personal loss but have been used to seeing the unionist/Protestant people as the spine of this state, with Catholics/nationalist/republicans as comparatively feckless and opposed to the state’s very existence, it’s again not surprising if you take a dim view of the IRA. The fact is that there were at least  four combative groups here during the Troubles: the IRA, the loyalist paramilitaries, the RUC/UDR and the British army. If you were a unionist, it’s easy to see how you’d view the last two as the good guys, the loyalist paramilitaries as misguided but provoked into defending their communities, with the IRA the sole source of the Troubles and, in a phrase, murderous scum.

If that position is held,  and I think it is by many unionists, the question is, how do they regard Michael Collins, the anniversary of whose funeral was yesterday? How do they regard Tom Barry,  who fought the RIC, the Black and Tans and the other forces of British rule in Ireland? How do they see Cathal Brugha? de Valera?  Because all of these engaged in activities almost identical to those used by the IRA during our more recent Troubles in the north. If the IRA of the 1970s and 1980s were murderous scum, what were the people I’ve listed above? Were those who initiated the Easter Rising murderous scum, without a mandate from the people for their actions?

If you say yes, then you’ll see the centenary events for 1916 and after as honouring murderers with a contempt for democracy.  If you see Collins and Barry and Brugha as patriots, how do you combine that assessment with dismissal of the more recent IRA and all its works and pomps?

And it’s not just unionists in the north that this presents a conundrum for. Many people in the south - most recently and memorably  Dervla Kirwan , whose great-grandmother was Collins’s sister. She got herself in a terrible knot trying to applaud the heroics of her ancestors and the IRA of the time, while condemning the more recent conflict and all violence generally. 

And to be bang up-to-date, I wonder what she thinks of the violence  in Syria at present, and how she sees the proposed use of cruise missiles by the US and the British as contributing to the peaceful lives of those on whom they may rain down. 

I am open to the opinion of others,   even when I don’t like them and/or their opinions. But what has me near despair is when people risk a hernia trying to hold mutually-exclusive positions simultaneously. 

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

"We all know" says Joe Biden. Oh really?

It’s always a risky business to speak for other people. “We all know” Vice-President Joe Biden declared yesterday “that there’s been a chemical weapons attack; we all know that the Syrian government are responsible for that attack”.

Well, include me out.  There may have been a chemical weapons attack, it may have been carried out by the Syrian government, but I haven’t  a clue whether there was or not and who was responsible. What I’ve seen has been a number of men, women and children milling around and acting more or less the way people reacted in the Bogside in 1969 when the RUC attacked them with CS gas - people dabbing at their eyes, looking distressed, some flat on the ground. 

Nor has Joe Biden or any other leader convinced me that there is now justification for a military intervention. I saw a Syrian government official on TV last night and in halting English he said something very significant: “Show. Me. Evidence. Of. Chemical. Weapons. Use. By. Our. Government”.  Oddly, over something as distinctive as this, the media here seem very unforthcoming. You’d expect them to lay out in detail what a chemical weapons attack looks like, how it differs from other attacks in its effect, and how Britain or the US or anyone else can know that it was the Syrian government. 

If it happened, it could have been US agents. You think that’s laughable? US agents have done worse things in, for example, South America. Remember Chile and Allende?  Remember the regime change in Iraq?  Remember, on a massively greater scale,   HIroshima and Nagasaki?  We know that, if they deem it necessary, the British government of any hue will concoct any story about the dangers to Britain and will use that as justification for invasion and slaughter. 

On a much more local scale, I heard an equally skewed version of events yesterday evening as I drove home. Seamus McKee had Brian Feeney and Paul Bew  (Lord Bew to you) talking about the writing of recent history here. Former UUP adviser Bew believes that we have an ‘infantalized’ take on recent history here, which points the finger of blame to an excessive degree at Britain; he also insists that the NIO were the true progenitors of the Good Friday Agreement. Feeney was in fine form and noted how the British government has continually fallen  over itself in its efforts to keep hidden the record of what happened here during the Troubles.  I’m not a historian but I do know that the NIO were not the people who created the Good Friday Agreement. I also know that efforts to  present Britain’s role here as a benevolent ring-keeper is totally bogus. If you don’t think Britain was a central player, ask the relatives of those who died on Bloody Sunday or died in Ballymurphy. However hard unionists like the good Lord Bew may try to argue otherwise, they trip over their own fake narrative.  And I keep coming back to the thoughts of Jeremy Paxman as he interviews yet another politician: “Why is this lying bastard lying to me?” Britain would be the poorer without such men.

PS Did I mention that according to the Oil and Gas Journal, Syria had 2,500,000,000 barrels of petroleum reserves as of 1 January 2010? How remiss of me. Although of course it’s a concern for the well-being of Syria’s citizens, not a lust for oil, that has the US and Britain straining at the leash these days.  

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

No politics. This time it's personal

Remember the Senior Certificate Examination? Of course you don’t -  it was years ‘n’ years ‘n’ years ago -  the precursor, more or less,  of the present GCSE Examination. Well, once years ‘n’ years ‘n’ years ago, I sat the Senior Certificate Examination in a range of subjects - Latin, French, History, English  and about half a dozen others. But the one that sticks in my mind is Irish. 

That was because, in the last class before we began sitting this intimidating range of exams, our Irish teacher - let’s call him O’Hare -  liked to predict Irish marks in the Senior Certificate examination. And it wasn’t a quiet, whispered prediction, one-to-one, tete-á-tete so to say. He stood at the front and pointed to each of us in turn and then gave the projected mark in a clear, ringing voice. So he went round the classroom: “Dobbins, you’ll  get about  50% -  you’ve not killed yourself working but you’ve done enough; McCann, you’ll get a Distinction - you’ve really applied yourself and I can safely predict a Distinction, one well-earned too”. And so he went from pupil to pupil predicting. He left me until last. 

“Collins.[Pause] Collins, you’ll fail Irish. Not only will you fail Irish, but I hope you fail Irish. Not only do I hope you’ll fail Irish, I hope you’ll fail all your subjects in the Senior Certificate. Because a lazier, more useless waster never sat in a desk in a class of mine”.  He went on along those lines for several minutes, as I recall. Not pleasant. But then it hadn’t been very pleasant when he was strapping me or thumping me about the head throughout the year either. So his going-away bad-wishes sort of fitted into the pattern. 

I was seventeen then. For the next 30-40 years I loathed the Irish language and more or less everybody connected with it. Then eventually I began to see that I was allowing my bad experience (and my very bad teacher) to come between me and a beautiful language that had a unique value for anyone who was Irish. So I started attending conversational Irish classes from time to time;  then a couple of friends with a similar interest started attending with me, which helped with motivation. The upshot was that last Spring, over fifty years after I’d had my going-away bad-wishes for the Senior Certificate Irish exam from my teacher, I sat my GCSE exam in Irish. On Thursday of last week a letter plopped on my doormat. And while I’m normally the most reticent of men, I must at this point be frank and answer the question that’s balanced on the tip of your rosy little tongue: “What mark did you get?”  Answer [kicks the wall modestly]:  A*.  Picture me in my hallway leaping up and down for the next five minutes, pumping the air as I shout the name O’Hare and mix it with a selection of words that would make a flag-protester blush.
Which goes to show one of two things: (i) Revenge is indeed a dish best served cold - in this case very cold; or (ii) I am a pathetic grudge-holder who should sign himself into the nearest mental institution as soon as possible. 

You choose. 

Monday, 26 August 2013

Kieran Doherty: is it OK for the PSNI/MI5 to lie about him?

Interesting top story this morning on BBC Raidio Uladh/Radio Ulster’s ‘Good Morning Ulster’  (no dodging that ‘Ulster’ in the BBC). It concerned Kieran Doherty, a Real IRA member who was shot dead and his body dumped by his own colleagues. The PSNI, using MI5 evidence, claimed that he was also involved in drug-peddling and that his family should not be entitled to compensation for his death. It now emerges that the PSNI/MI5 claims didn’t stand up and Doherty’s family has been awarded an undisclosed but substantial sum in compensation for his death. This, even though the original sum had been cut in half because he was a member of the Real IRA. This has vexed the UUP ex-leader Tom Elliott, who points to the much smaller sums paid to relatives of the security forces who lost their lives. 

Mmm. Let’s consider that last bit. Would it not make more sense to make enlarged awards to the relatives of security force people, if Tom or others feel they have been inadequately compensated? No matter how much or how little Doherty’s family gets, the security forces relatives will still have what they were given. The compensation sum paid to Doherty’s family doesn’t add or subtract a penny from what security forces’ families were paid. 

Then there’s that thing of cutting the compensation to Doherty’s family by fifty per cent. As Doherty’s uncle argued on the radio this morning,  Doherty’s relatives are innocent victims - regardless of what Doherty did, their grief is just as real. So if it is, compensation seems reasonable. Is someone saying the Doherty family’s grief is just 50% of normal grief? What daft reasoning.

Finally and most important: I was under the impression that lying in relation to evidence in such a case was a very serious matter - the kind of thing you could go to prison for.  It seems quite clear that the PSNI/MI5 cooked up some spurious story about drug-dealing that in reality was a pack of lies, in order to discredit Doherty. Yet Raido Uladh/Radio Ulster had no mention that this attempt to falsify the case might be punished. If you or I went into court and gave evidence that proved to be a pack of lies, we’d be done for perjury. It’d appear that the PSNI and MI5 can play fast and loose with truth and the notion of penalising them simply doesn’t arise. 

Has somebody taken the blind-fold off Justice and forgot to tell the rest of us?

Sunday, 25 August 2013

The media: nostalgic for the violent past?

I was on Sunday Sequence this morning,  discussing the notion that today’s journalists secretly envy those who worked during the Troubles and tend to look for and exaggerate division to compensate. It was an interesting topic, although I think we strayed too far from it.

Anyway, here’s my own take on it.

Of course journalists today secretly lament that they weren’t around when the Troubles were at their height. Violence, injury and death from a human point of view are awful; from a journalistic point of view they’re great. That’s because the media thrive on bad news: no cameras out at JFK airport watching planes land safely and all that. People in general are hugely interested in the dramatic, the terrible. It thrills them. 

That’s why even the humblest newspaper tends to report goings-on in the local court. Swindling and embezzlement can be interesting but you don’t have to work as hard when you’re reporting crime, especially that involving violence or death. 

And it’s not as if our lives are affected by these disasters: most of us most of the time are blessedly free from dramatic violence. The fact is, our everyday lives are affected more by the economic recession but (i) most journalists know damn all about economics; and (ii) we’re more interested in gory stuff than we are in the competing theories of economics. 

As for the media telling it like it is, they don’t. They select a portion of how it is and then try to make it interesting. The more innately interesting the selection, the less work for the journalist.  When I was a child, I used to be amazed how my father listened to the 15-minutes of news on the wireless every day. How come the amount of things happening in the world always fitted that little 15-minute slot? Never more, never less. I soon learned that news is that portion of what’s going on which the media decide to tell me, and to which they give their own spin. 

So yes, I do think journalists hype up conflict here between parties and/or within parties. If they didn’t sex things up a bit, we’d maybe be bored and stop buying their product. 

Final thought: when we read about politics here, we read too much about the past and/or simplistic divisions. It’s really easy to get worked up about flag-flying. It’s a bit harder to get worked up about looking at those things we have in common - ground on which we might build. By and large the media ignore that - it’s too hard and they’re scared we’ll switch off.  

Saturday, 24 August 2013

A night with Young Unionists: one reason to be cheerful and seven not.

I took part in a Young Unionist debate at the UUP headquarters in Belmont Road on Thursday last. It was, you could say, an occasion of two halves.

The first half - well no,  not so much first half as good part - was the civility and warmth with which I was greeted. It wasn’t a huge occasion (our audience was small but perfectly formed) and it wasn’t something that made any great demands on me, but people were repeated in their thanks for my participating. They were young people I enjoyed talking to and debating with. Which is how these things should be: a differing political stance should not interfere with decent relationships between political opponents. 

The not-so-good part...No, let me be frank. The depressing part was the view of politics  that emerged in the course of the debate and questions from the floor. The topic for debate was the SPADs bill and whether it was a good or a bad thing. In fact, the discussion ranged much more widely than that - back to the establishment of the UVF  and further. My reasons for being uncheerful?  I’ll try to list them as accurately as I can. If I get any wrong I’m sure I’ll be corrected.

  1. The Troubles were the fault of a small group of violent republican criminals who murdered ruthlessly for several decades. 
  2. The notion of any equivalence between the IRA and the state/British forces would be laughable if it weren’t so obscene. 
  3. Terrorism is always wrong and to compare the IRA to the ANC, let alone Gerry Adams to Nelson Mandela (I didn’t actually), was ridiculous. 
  4. The notion of commemorating  IRA  dead with commemorating British army dead was outrageous. So too was the comparison of dressing up of children in IRA uniform/regalia  with the Boys’ Brigade (I did actually).
  5. The SPADs bill was a very good thing and had signalled to republicans that, having been elected to Stormont, they couldn’t just lower a rope-ladder and winch up their hard-line elements at will and give them jobs. 
  6. The conditionality (yes, I hate the word too) of republicans in saying that violence should be suspended now but leaving open the possibility of its resumption in the future was outrageous. 
  7. The formation of the UVF and its threat of violence to the British state was different from the IRA’s violence against the British state because the UVF’s was a defensive threat. It said ‘Here we are, come and get us, but if you do, we’ll use all means to resist’.  The IRA, on the other hand, threatened and engaged in violence against the legally-constituted government of the state. 

So what’s depressing about all that? Well, it’s that these young men (mainly young men) were full of suspicion of republicans, full of resentment at what they had done, appeared to believe the state played no part in creating the conditions for conflict, and saw no validity of any kind in the notion of Ireland, north and south, as a country. 

In terms of attitude, it could have been 1954 or 1961 - things would be fine if republicans would abandon their violent ways and  promise never ever  to revert to them again (that’s the conditionality thing), and drop this foolish notion of national unity. Meanwhile, the SPADs bill would soften Sinn Féin’s cough for them and would give no succour of any kind to dissident republicans. It would also let Sinn Féin know that because they’d been elected didn’t mean they could  enlist the hardline elements in republicanism to join them and work at Stormont.

In a way, the niceness of the people articulating these views made it all the more depressing.  Sinn Féin have a policy of outreach to unionism. Judging from Thursday night, lads, you have your work cut out for you. 

Friday, 23 August 2013

It takes two

It takes two to tango.  Try to tango on your own and you’ll end up looking seriously stupid. Maybe it’s the normal sadness of Summer’s near-end that’s infecting me, but I have a sense of one-person tango beginning to emerge in our little society. 
The other morning, for example, I heard a man on The Nolan Show  ringing in to express his outrage that Nolan hadn’t been sufficiently ‘neutral’.  How’s that? Well, apparently Stephen had John O’Dowd on earlier in the programme, alongside a unionist politician.Stephen, the caller said, had allowed O’Dowd to compare British commemoration of their war dead on Remembrance Sunday with Irish commemoration of their war dead in, for example, Castlederg! The man was livid: he didn’t expect any better from the likes of O’Dowd,  but that Stephen Nolan should have allowed him, unchallenged, to draw the comparison!  

Shortly after that I read a response to a blog I’d written about bridge-building.  I’d noted that Sinn Féin’s declared policy was to build bridges and reconciliation between former adversaries. Hogwash, my blog-respondent said in so many words. How did Castlederg fit into such a policy?

Finally there’s Peter Robinson with his hand-brake or is it commitment-breaking turn  regarding the peace centre at the Long Kesh/the Maze site.  The First Minister was going back on his word but that, Edwin Poots explained, wasn’t his fault,  leaderless Sinn Féin were to blame for that.  First their attitude to Union flag flying in Belfast City Hall showed poor leadership, and now their support for this Castlederg commemoration of IRA volunteers killed in the Troubles showed poorer leadership still.  

Can you see the common thread? It’s the pride the British have in their ‘fighting men’, living or dead.  In some ways you might say such pride is understandable.  The way they re-invaded the Falklands/Malvinas, their role in Iraq, SAS activities here and in other parts of the world  -  these are cited as reasons for holding the British soldier in high esteem. 

Except the three respondents in the cases I’ve cited go beyond pride in British soldiery. The Nolan Show  caller was appalled that someone should dare to speak in one breath of the British military war dead and IRA war dead.  Likewise my blog respondent.  The honouring of IRA war dead in Castlederg was cited as evidence that republicans were not interested in reconciliation, even though they agreed to a rerouting which avoided the  British army cenotaph in the centre of the town. And finally Peter Robinson, in his 12-page letter, declared  the Long Kesh/the Maze peace centre agreement impossible because republicans had commemorated their war dead in Castlederg.  

At the heart of these responses is a refusal to countenance any comparison between the British army and the IRA.  Why? Because the British army are proper soldiers whereas the IRA were mere terrorists.  But hold on. Terrorism is a military tactic, a methodology, not a philosophy.  It’s a tactic advocated and employed by ‘fighting men’ down the decades - George Washington, Che Guevara, Michael Collins, the SAS - even Winston Churchill:   “We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

And I haven’t even mentioned the British army’s willingness to work with loyalist terrorists groups in the many cases of collusion here. Now let me be clear.  I don’t doubt that many unionists are still hurting from losses during the Troubles, as are many nationalists and republicans. But maybe the unionist indignation at comparisons of the IRA with ‘their’ soldiers has a deeper motivation. Maybe unionism’s refusal to equate the IRA war dead with British war dead springs from unionism’s unwillingness to equate living republicans with living unionists. 

Now there’s a thought that stops the music and freezes the dancers in their tracks. 

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Have a Bushmills? No thanks

Say ‘Bushmills’ and what do you think? Whiskey, of course. Black Bush and all that.  Irish whiskey, what’s more. Been going for centuries. But Bushmills is well known for something more than whiskey. Something that leaves a sourer taste in the mouth. It’s called bigotry. There was a good instance of it recently. But bear with me - the story’s not all black. 

It seems that the Chair of Moyle District Council, Cara McShane, was to be at an unveiling ceremony in Bushmills recently. She was met by a protest group, led by Bushmills loyalist Derwyn Brewster, who is the chair of something called the Bushmills Residents and Environmental Group. They were angry and protesting, he said, because Sinn Féin were attacking Orange culture. The police had to hold back protestors from crossing the River Bush to where the unveiling ceremony was taking place, but they managed to unfurl a banner saying ‘No Sinn Féin in Bushmills’ and shouted insults at the Council delegation. 

So what about the chink of light? That came in the form of DUP councillor Robert McIlroy, who had the courage to stand by the council Chair during the protest. In fact, Chairperson McShane described him as ‘a real hero’ for his backbone, and for putting his head above the parapet. She added that remarks posted on Facebook about her and Councillor McIlroy were disgusting. 

There’s a pattern emerging here. Belfast’s Lord Mayor Mairtin O Muilleoir a few weeks ago was met with even more hostile protest, which ended in an attack  which left him and several PSNI officers in need of medical treatment. What we’re seeing now is legally-elected public representatives being hounded, insulted and even attacked if they show their faces in parts of their constituency. This is done in the name of defending loyalist culture. 

That’s the bad news. The good news is that a DUP councillor like Robert McIlroy exists. He said there was ‘no reason in the whole world’ why the Chair and Vice-Chair shouldn’t go anywhere in the Moyle district. It was time, he said, to get rid of the ‘broken-ness’ and time to get rid of all bigotry. Councillor Willie Graham (Ulster Unionist) said he’d like to ‘strongly condemn’ the Bushmills protest.

Nationalists and republicans sometimes feel uneasy when faced with men like McIlroy and Graham. They are aware of the political courage required for speaking out but they feel that to praise them may add to the hatred their response might arouse in the unionist community.  That’s to undervalue both the courageous men and the unionist community. There are unionists - a considerable number, I believe - who are sick to death with the insistence on tired, nasty attacks on everything that doesn’t fit a narrow vision of the world. People like McIlroy and Graham have put their shoulders to a door which could open on a door on a better future, not just in Moyle, but throughout this state. They have guts and vision, and they are in fact serving the interests of the Union much more effectively than their benighted colleagues. 

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Follow the leader? OK - where is s/he?

I was watching Manchester City's Vincent Kompany the other night, and the commentator remarked on the leadership qualities he brought to the Man City team. It seemed an obviously valid remark. Kompany is a big guy who takes his football very seriously and never stops driving to overcome obstacles, impose his will on the game. Leading from the front. So is there a  political version of that?

It would appear so. Edwin Poots was on TV the other day (no, Virginia, I would not put dear Edwin down as an example of leadership).  He was denouncing Sinn Féin for having sparked the flags row and for having supported the Castlederg republican parade, and said all this showed a lack of leadership by Martin McGuinness.

That’s a bit like saying  Belfast's Lord Mayor Mairtin O Muilleoir showed lack of leadership by going to the Shankill area, where he and several PSNI officers were injured by an angry crowd.  Au contraire. O Muilleoir showed courage by going to the Shankill, and even though the crowd let themselves down by baring their intolerance in that attack on Belfast’s first citizen, it was just the kind of visit that’s needed if we're ever to break down the laager mentality that prevents us uniting for our shared interests. 

You could say, as did Poots, that Martin McGuinness showed lack of leadership by expressing support for the Castlederg parade, but only if you think that the Castlederg parade was a bad thing. Most republicans, I would imagine, would have viewed the parade as a reasonable commemoration of their dead and would have seen McGuinness's support as showing political courage - a vital ingredient in leadership.  Likewise Gerry Kelly, who knew what opprobrium would be heaped on him for attending and speaking at the event.  

The one quality you do not want to see in an effective leader is cowardice. Peter Robinson showed some cowardice with his famous Letter from America. Had he delivered the message while here, there would have been less sense of him as a man pressured into saying what he did. And personally  speaking, I can’t rid my mind of  his ‘The best Dad in the world’ speech when Irisgate was raging. In fact I don’t know how he’s lasted so long; maybe because  he’s had at his side the redoubtable Deputy First Minister, who has repeatedly propped him up when the heat was on. 

And the others? David Ford of the Alliance Party  sounds good on TV but looks  bad. Rightly or wrongly, a bald head and prominent teeth work against a leader today, however talented he may be.  Mike Nesbitt, UUP leader? Some  see him as empty and desperate. I would be more optimistic.  He’s at his weakest when he’s looking over his shoulder to see what others - other party members, the electorate - are expecting him to do; on the other hand I suspect he’s as near to a unionist leader that nationalists and republicans can like as we’re going to get. If he could have the courage to do something different and bold and beneficial, he could make a historic contribution. But I’m not holding my breath.

Which leaves - oh right, the SDLP. Almost forgot. Alasdair McDonnell has the hair and bulk - the gravitas - that’s useful to a party leader on TV. On the other hand he’s not so hot at handling interviews - that jeez-I'm-blinded acceptance speech did him terrible damage.  These days he looks increasingly like someone who’s filling in rather than someone who’s going places. 

In sum, I think leaders need to show courage in adversity, courage in the  initiatives they mount, and a warmth and empathy with the electorate. I’ll leave it to you to decide which party leader in the North best fits that description.  If any. 

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Forget about that, what about THIS?

The thing is, stuff keeps happening all the time. It doesn’t have to happen on the same day, although that’s a considerable help if you’re trying to bury a bad-news story. But simply the never-ending procession of events can blur or even erase what at the time seemed a massive issue. 

For example. Heard much about Ruth Patterson’s infamous Facebook comments recently?  Even though she was arrested for  them?  To refresh: a fictional picture was presented on Facebook, describing loyalist paramilitaries opening fire on the Castlederg marchers, using machine guns, rocket launchers and grenades.  Ruth’s response on Facebook, it's alleged, was “Who cares how we would be judged. We would have done a great service to Northern Ireland and the world in getting rid of these evil, devious scum like  (sic) individuals...Would I shed a tear, NO. Would I lose a night’s sleep, No. Would I really worry about what anyone else thought, No”.

Even though Ruth apologised, you’d think that kind of talk would have excited swift action from the leader of her party. Uh-uh. No outcry from unionist politicians generally either. In fact, the Castlederg parade itself has been denounced for its insensitivity, leaving Ruth’s, um, lethal talk just a faint little blur in its wake. 

And what about Stephen Brimstone? You must remember Stephen. He’s the DUP special adviser who’s alleged to have leant on DUP councillor Jenny Palmer to change her vote on the Housing Executive board in favour of the Red Sky company, whose £8 million-a-year contract was ended four months earlier amid allegations that the firm had over-charged for work on NIHE properties.
To the best of my knowledge neither of these matters has been resolved. But they're not occupying the headlines any more. I don’t suppose that would have anything to do with the political dust-storm created over the Castlederg march?..Nah. Probably just the wheels of justice turning slowly, slowly, until we lose interest and turn our attention to something else. 

Monday, 19 August 2013

Bridge-building: literal and metaphorical

Bridge-building. That’s a popular term in modern-day parlance. Mary McAleese announced her presidency as one which would engage in bridge - building and it is Sinn Féin’s declared policy to build bridges of confidence between former adversaries.

As Mahatma Ghandi said when he was asked what he thought of Christianity, it would be a good idea. Mary McAleese may have had an Orange jamboree in the grounds of Áras an  Uachtaráin,  but there have been few signs of reciprocal goodwill from Orangeism this summer. But let’s leave metaphorical bridge-building - too depressing - and see if we can find solace in real bridge-building. 

For example, Derry’s new pedestrian bridge links the City side to the Waterside. It  ends on the Waterside at Ebrington Barracks, which was the base of the Parachute regiment on Bloody Sunday. This weekend, it was thronged, along with the rest of the city, with people enjoying music and craic as the annual  Fleadh Cheoil  na hÉeireann ventured north of the border for the first time. Estimates speak of 400,000+ visitors to the UK City of Culture, beginning with an applauded Apprentice Boys parade and ending with traditional Irish music. The bridge’s name? The peace bridge. 

Meanwhile back in Ballymoney, they’ve erected a new bridge. One councillor, in the discussion regarding the naming of the bridge, noted that ‘The Railway Station was also the location of an historic moment in the town’s history when, during the Royal Couple’s Coronation tour of Northern Ireland the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh, travelling by train, visited the town and were greeted by thousands”.  That and the fact that the bridge was completed in the Jubilee year means it will be called Jubilee Way. The objection of some Sinn Féin councillors was ignored. 

Some bridges link two sides. Some others just look like bridges but are actually piers. 

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Peter and the scalded cat

Unionists never have been happy about the idea of a peace centre  on the site of the old Long Kesh/Maze prison. I remember years ago, when the late David Ervine, a man considered by most an open-minded unionist, was asked what should be done with the old prison. His immediate reply: ‘Flatten it’. Jim Allister is against it, so too is the Ulster Unionist Party and the Orange Order. If not “Flatten it” then “Forget it” and have the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society and other worthy projects sited there. 

When the question is asked why the site should not include  a peace centre, the answer is that this would be ‘a shrine to terrorism’. But that’s an odd answer, considering it hasn’t been built and the form it would take has not been decided. 

The real problem with a peace centre is that it would inevitably include the story of Long Kesh/The Maze. No matter what way they’re played, the stories of the blanket protest, the hunger strikes, the mass escape - all these make the incarcerated republicans look very much like a daring and resilient group - an army, even -  rather than the common criminals that unionism  chooses to think of them as.  Republicans can well afford to agree to simply stick to the facts in telling the story of Long Kesh/the Maze, because the facts alone, without any shrine-shine, would make them look good. No wonder so many unionists are agin it.

A final point: Peter Robinson did a very un-Protestant thing when he wrote his letter-from-America: he went back on his word. Traditionally, Protestants have prided themselves on being blunt, unambiguous people. For them no mixing of light with darkness, of truth with lies. A man’s word was his bond and that’s that.   That’s not to say that Catholics are less dependable, that they’ll engage in obfuscation and Jesuitical manipulation of words, but you know where you stand with the Protestant. So when the top man in the DUP gave his word that he’d go along with the Maze/Long Kesh peace centre, to the point where a design for the building and its exact location had been completed, and then went back on that word, using any excuse he could lay hands on, he wasn’t just putting millions of EU money at risk. He was shattering the proudest boast of the Ulster Protestant: my word is my bond. 

He was also making it very hard for republicans and nationalists to believe any future commitment he may make.  The scalded cat avoids the hot stove. Once scalded, it even avoids cold stoves. 

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Ballymurphy: the forgotten massacre

I went along to Conway Mill last Saturday night, to hear George Galloway. He spoke at Queen’s University some years back with force and eloquence for nearly two hours on the subject of the Iraq invasion, a small figure prowling the stage without notes, full of anger and eloquence. In Conway Mill he stayed put at his lectern but the anger and eloquence still featured. 

His talk ranged widely  - from Frank Cahill, since this was the Frank Cahill Memorial Lecture he was delivering, to Neil Lennon, to Karl Marx, to Che Guevara.  Oh, and most memorably, to George Orwell in his novel Burmese Days.  The book’s protagonist, John Flory, is increasingly disillusioned with his part as a minor official of the British Empire in Burma. In conversation with a local woman, he uses the word ‘imperialism’ and the woman asks him what it means. Flory’s reply is simple: “Imperialism is  when you go to other people’s country, kill them and take their things”. The evening would have been worth it for that quotation alone. 

But Galloway was there primarily on behalf of the Ballymurphy families who lost loved ones during  those three terrible days in August 1971.  In the audience we were sitting beside a woman who had lived through those days. Her main complaint to us - and to Galloway during question time - was that none of the media then would listen to the families’ side of the story. Galloway promised that he’d use his Twitter account with its quarter million followers,  the British House of Commons and every other means available to him to see their story was told. “I promise you, inside two to three years, everyone will know the story of the Ballymurphy families. And you can hold me to that”. 

Part of the pain for families - and I don’t pretend to understand it - is that their loved ones have been misrepresented and the truth concealed. I was in Derry’s Guildhall Square the day David Cameron apologised for the killing on Bloody Sunday of fourteen people by the same Parachute regiment that wrought such havoc in Ballymurphy. The square erupted in cheers when Cameron finally made his apology on the big screen.  At Conway Mill on Saturday, the woman beside us told Galloway of the pain and frustration people suffered through consistent misrepresentation of what had happened during those three days. 

So I decided to check what some of the papers actually had been  saying at the time.

The News Letter talked about Fr Hugh Mullan, one of the eleven people killed.

 “The priest was fatally wounded during this gun battle...Fr Mullan was said by a close friend to have rushed to the dead man’s side as shots were still being exchanged”. 

The paper also spoke of how “the troops were unable to relax for a moment. Every few minutes a volley of shots rang out from the direction of Ballymurphy”.

That was the News Letter on 10 August 1971. On the following day, the paper described how Ballymurphy “was again in the grip of snipers firing at troops” and how there had been a find of  “two dead snipers in Ballymurphy.”

On 12 August 1971 the paper reported that “the army fought a fierce three-hour gun battle with up to twenty gunmen at Ballymurphy early yesterday morning, killing two of them and seriously wounding a third”. The paper details how the British army came under “repeated sniper gunfire and at the height of the battle, twenty gunmen were involved in the assault on the soldiers”. 

For its part, The Belfast Telegraph  spoke of a “two-hour gun-battle with troops at Ballymurphy early this morning”.  The paper quoted a captain of the Parachute regiment who spoke of “as many as twenty gunmen... using Thompson sub-machine guns, pistols and rifles...We killed two of them and recovered the bodies.  We got another gunman and I think he’s dying”. 

A single dissenting voice gets space, and that’s down towards the bottom of the report. 

“Local residents claim that troops fired indiscriminately. One woman whose son had come home from the Army in Germany said “Bullets smashed into the wall of my home, and when I went outside I was hit with a rifle by one of the soldiers. Nobody in our area was shooting at all’ “.

Like the reporting of Bloody Sunday in Derry some months later, the media presented the August events in Ballymurphy as the Parachute regiment responding to sniper fire from the IRA, and those killed as part of that IRA assault. Few now would argue with the local woman: “Nobody in our area was shooting at all”. But her truth is near-buried under a mountain of British army untruths. If journalism is the first draft of history, we may pray that the final draft sticks closer to the terrible facts. 

Friday, 16 August 2013

Shrine or no shrine?

Maybe what we have here is a case of the Peter Principle? This term refers to the belief that people get promoted in organisations until they reach a position where they’re essentially incompetent and then they stop being promoted. It makes sense. If  somebody was such hot bananas, they’d be promoted again. 

But none of this can apply to Peter Robinson, because he’s at the top of the DUP tree - there is no higher rung than the powerful one that he occupies. Or is it powerful? There are several reasons for thinking it’s maybe more paralysed than powerful. Just about everyone acknowledges the DUP leader has done a screeching U-turn on this one. Having agreed to a peace centre and denounced all those opposed as fruit-cakes, he’s now decided to follow the fruit-cake lead and denounce the peace centre himself. 

He says - or rather his representative on Irish earth at the moment Jeffrey Donaldson says  it’s because they the DUP listen to the people AND because Sinn Féin are being insensitive to victims of the conflict, the most recent example being Castlederg. 

Right, let’s see if we can break this down to manageable chunks.

  1. Victims. Yes, you could see that the relatives of people in Castlederg killed by the IRA were upset at the sight of marching men in uniform playing drums and stuff. An understandable reaction.
  2. Shrine to terrorism.  If the centre that was to be built in Long Kesh/the Maze were to be a place which inspired those who visited to go out and blow people up, that would be a bad thing. 
  3. The Long Kesh/Maze development without the shrine to terrorism.  Yes, the Royal Ulster Agricultural Show has moved its centre there, the site may attract other interested parties without the shrine to terrorism. Jeffrey Robinson is right in that. 

But if we examine each of those three ideas more closely, they start to leak.

  1. Victims. The upset that victims of IRA violence felt at the sight of marching uniformed republicans in Castlederg was genuine. But the victims of British army violence - Bloody Sunday relatives, the Ballymurphy families, the Pat Finucane family, the Rosemary Nelson family - one could go on.  All of these people suffered the loss of loved ones either directly at the hands of the British army or through loyalist paramilitaries in collusion with the British armed forces. Yet no one has called for an end to the annual commemoration of British army military actions (no, Virginia, Remembrance Sunday is NOT just about those British soldiers who fought in WW1 and WW2). So if unionist victims have been upset (and they have every right to be - in fact I think the Castlederg parade should never have taken place),  then that’s presented as grounds for going back on an agreed deal. If republican victims are upset, well, it’s different because the British armed forces do the killing. 
  2. Shrine to terrorism.  What does that mean? Presumably it doesn’t mean a holy place where people will kneel or prostrate themselves before images of dead republicans. In fact there was general agreement that the peace centre would be just that - a centre that told the suffering inflicted by the conflict and done in a way that encouraged people never to go down that blood-soaked path again. The centre hasn’t been built yet. Which means the DUP have reneged on promises because of something that hasn’t yet been constructed and over which they have equal input with republicans. Logical? I think not. 
  3. The Long Kesh/Maze site development without the peace centre. It’s true that some industry will be attracted to the site even if it doesn’t have a centre. But equally if there were a peace centre, it would be a visible reassurance to prospective investors that reconciliation was the name of the game now and that past poisonous hatreds had been mastered. It’d also be a draw for tourists - you just have to drive up the Falls Road to see flocks of tourists studying and photographing the  murals relating to the Troubles and a better future. A  peace centre at Long Kesh/The Maze would almost certainly exert considerable tourist pull. It couldn’t possibly be the case that statement of the straightforward facts of our Troubles would cast unionism in a poor light, could it? Is it conceivable that that is what is behind the opposition of the Orange Order, the UUP and others?

Sinn Féin’s Raymond McCartney has referred to Peter Robinson allowing himself to be jerked around by a unionist rump that cannot bear any acknowledgement of the existence of republicans, or that their history might bear retelling. That’s being euphemistic.  Rump is another word for rear end. To be blunt,  Peter Robinson is being jerked around by the arse-end of unionism.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Give us the money

With the airwaves full of the news of Peter Robinson’s transAtlantic U-turn regarding development of the Long Kesh/Maze site, it’s tempting to write about the appalling quality of unionist leadership.   But there are things that are more important than the various gyrations of the DUP, some things more important than parades, some things more important than flags, some things more important  even than the past. I’m talking about jobs.

There was a time when we judged the state of the economy by how many people were working and how many not. Nowadays there’s a tendency to get more excited about how much more or less your house is worth. For some people that matters. For most others, house prices are sums in your head and don’t mean anything in the real world, not until you decide you’re going to sell. Or buy.

But to get back to jobs. First the good news: there’s less unemployment here than there was.  Hooray! All of 0.7% more people are working now than were last quarter, and all of 0.2% more than a year ago. Not a stunning rise exactly, but for the very few who benefit by it it is indeed good news. 

Now the bad news. Over half of those unemployed here have been unemployed for a year or more. That’s a 10% increase on last year. No fiddling 0.s there. Over half of the unemployed have been without work for more than a year. Can you imagine what havoc that wreaks in the life of a working man or woman? And in the lives of those dependent on them? 

You’ll get people who’ll tell you that we always come at the back of the queue when it comes to important matters in the UK. Not so. This month marks the 40th month that the north of Ireland has been either first or second in percentage terms in the UK, claiming unemployment benefits.  We may be on the window-ledge of the Union but we’re top of the list when it comes to depending on benefits. Cheering or what?

But then you weren’t really expecting a Tory government to treat people over here any differently? For God’s sake missus - there are no votes for Tories or Labour here. Nothing concentrates the mind of a politician than the fact that some issues hold no votes for him/her. 

Let me leave you with one statistic.  One in 29 people in London are dollar millionaires - what do you expect when you’ve a Cabinet stuff with multi- millionaires? - while one-third of people living here in our little state live in relative or absolute poverty.  So while the people in Britain at the top of the money tree are rubbing their hands as they get a 5% tax cut, families here are reeling under ruthless Tory cuts in welfare.  

There is a solution to this. If instead of London, our Executive had control of matters fiscal, they could plan things with the interests of the people in the north in mind. It’s like the  man next door is in charge of your family finances. Only when you stop him deciding how much you and your family get will it be possible to make tailor-made decisions for the people who live here, and let somebody else attend to London’s millionaires.

 The worst that can happen is that local politicians will make a hames of it. If that were to happen - if politicians here were to prove themselves even greedier and even less competent than the politicians of Westminster - we’d at least have the satisfaction of giving them the thumbs-down at the next election. Right now we’re like a stud stallion that has had his important bits removed. Or if that’s too brutal an image, try this: he who holds the purse-strings calls the tune. 

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Tom and trigger words

My input to the Nolan Show which was originally to be yesterday was in fact today. I was on with Tom Elliott, former leader of the UUP, and the debate was probably useless, if you define ‘useful’ as something that moves us forward. 

I remember Robert Ballagh the famous painter once saying that there are a number of trigger words in this society which send people spinning into irrationality. Words like ‘united Ireland’ and ‘Ulster’ and ‘terrorism’.  Tom and I were discussing terrorism, in the light of Gerry Kelly’s comments on yesterday’s Nolan Show.  Tom was arguing that Gerry Kelly and the IRA were a bunch of terrorists who are now intent on setting a ‘shrine to terrorism’ at Long Kesh/the Maze. My point was that it doesn’t matter whether people use terrorist/guerrilla tactics (as did Nelson Mandela, Che Guevara and the French Resistance) or whether they approach the enemy in massed ranks dressed in uniform, as in World War One. The upshot is the same - death. In other words, terrorism is a methodology, not a philosophy. It’s another way of killing people, and if you think that killing people is wrong, you won’t give a damn whether it’s done using one tactic or another. As to the ‘shrine’ at Long Kesh/the Maze, the facts of what happened there should be laid out, as they are for example in Kilmainham Jail in Dublin. Then let visitors react to those facts as they wish. My own experience of taking the tour of Kilmainham Jail was that I felt chilled to the bone by the terrible things people had done to other people there. A shrine at which to worship? I think not.

Towards the end of my debate with Tom Elliott, a man rang in to berate me for a blog I’d done on the Shankill bomb. I can’t remember exactly what I  said in it but I do remember my essential point:  that if you define murder as the premeditated taking of  someone’s life, then the Shankill bombers weren’t the murderers of the innocent people who were killed by their bomb. Thomas Begley and his companion had the premeditated taking of life in mind all right, but it was the lives of some UDA men, not the fish shop customers. The bomb exploded prematurely, killing one of the bombers and a great number of totally innocent people in a scene of carnage. The bomb brought in by Begley and his companion was responsible for those deaths; but since the deaths of UDA men was their premeditated target, not those who actually were killed,  it didn’t fit the definition of murder. Stephen Nolan made the point that the bombers couldn’t possibly have killed the UDA men in the room upstairs without killing lots of innocent customers below. He’s probably right. But that’s conjecture. What we do know is that whatever you call the action, the bomb killed good and innocent people, and the pain is deep and lasting regardless.

In fact, my original blog was probably guilty of the very thing I accused Tom Elliott of  this morning - using emotive words. In his case ‘shrine’ and ‘terrorism’, in my case ‘murder’. No matter what you call it, the deaths are still cruel and grim. And by using trigger words, we only inflame passions rather than help people move on. 

Last point: I think we’re being held prisoner by the dead. That is, we’re so obsessed with what has happened, and defining what words we should use of it, we can’t quite get round to mapping out a future and working for that. Maybe, as well as a six-month moratorium on marching, we should have a six-month moratorium on talking about the past, beyond acknowledging that terrible hurt was inflicted on both sides. Don’t let’s call it ‘shrine’ or ‘terrorist’ or  ‘murder’ or anything else - let’s call it a day on all that. We really have hurt each other enough. Let’s instead discuss practicalities for a shared future. 

Welcome, Dr Haas.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Gerry Kelly and that speech

As I write this, I’m on stand-by for a possible call from the Nolan Show on Radio Ulster/Raidio Uladh. The topic (which may or may not be debated this morning, depending on how much time other topics take) is Gerry Kelly’s praise of the Tyrone IRA Volunteers in his speech last Sunday, and his subsequent statement on the Nolan Show yesterday (which I missed) that he would do the same things again if the armed conflict here were to be replayed. 

I’m slightly surprised that this is being considered for discussion on the Nolan Show.  Gerry Kelly himself put the matter in a nutshell when he said “There are two narratives here”. 

One narrative, the republican one, is that the IRA were part of a tradition going back at least as far as the United Irishmen - a tradition where Irish men and women sought by force of arms to remove British rule from Ireland.

The second narrative, the unionist one, is that the IRA were a gang of murderers who rebelled against the lawfully-constituted authorities and were guilty of horrendous crimes, include the murder of policemen, UDR men and even innocent civilians.

There’s nothing surprising about the existence of competing views. It’s hard to think of any conflict where both sides agreed in their interpretation of what happened or was happening. If they did agree, there would be no conflict. So it's hardly surprising that Gerry Kelly praised the dead IRA volunteers in his speech last Sunday, and unsurprising that it has attracted unionist criticism.

Repugnant though it may be, each side has to accept that the other’s narrative/interpretation of events is sincerely held. For as long as we try to ram our interpretation down the throats of those on the other side, the longer we’ll remain stuck in this hopeless hole in the road. Let’s stop concentrating on what divides us and look for those things which unite us. That way, we may make better progress down Reconciliation Road.

Newsflash: I’ve just had a call from the Nolan Show explaining that other topics have indeed squeezed this one out. On the other hand, it’s helped me clarify my own thinking on the subject, and I always find that useful.

Monday, 12 August 2013

Fine Gael + Fianna Fail = ?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that there are no flies on Mary O’Rourke of Fianna Fail. I’ve only been once in the audience at a talk by her. She was talking about some aspect of education in the south and I’ve forgotten every single point she made. But I still remember being impressed with the mild authority of her talk and the  good-humoured ease of her fielding of questions from the  audience. 

Mary O’Rourke is, of course, the aunt of the late Brian Lenihan, who was Minister for Finance in the dying days of the Fianna Fail administration which a short time later crashed and burned to near extinction.   Mary, being the smooth operator that she is, used the memory of her popular nephew to launch a suggestion that’s been more often used to criticise the two parties than to make a credible suggestion. At the McGill Summer School, she floated the idea of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael forming a coalition after the next election in the  south. 

You could spend a good while arguing the logic of such a coupling. One argument would be that such a coalition would provide the government with a whopping majority that could go on indefinitely. In theory at least you could have a one-party government for decades to come. But instead of that, let’s ask why O’Rourke made the suggestion  - and why, it’s rumoured, Bill O’Herlihy  will include a similar suggestion when he makes the keynote speech at the Béal na Bláth  commemoration on 25 August this year.

Because the idea makes sense. If there is a major ideological difference between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, any more than there’s a major ideological difference between the Conservatives and Labour in Britain, then I’ve yet to spot it. But it’s not the logic of their Tweedledum-Tweedledummer political positions that makes this a logical thing for both parties to consider. It isn’t even the economy, stupid. It’s Sinn Féin.

Any lingering bad blood between the opposing sides in the Civil War nearly 100 years ago shrinks to nothing compared to how both parties detest Sinn Féin. It’s not as if the Shinners are about to mushroom in numbers and overshadow the two right-wing parties.There’s just a sense between both - listen to Micheal Martin, listen to Enda Kenny - that this particular snake in the cosy political Garden of Eden of the south could grow to become a devouring python if allowed to keep on growing. 

Think about it. A few decades back, Sinn Féin had approximately 1% of support in the south. Now they’re at somewhere between 15% and 19%.   In the last election they tripled their number of seats in the Dail. If the present-day polls are correct, they’d have between 25 and 30 seats after the next election. Small beer still,  but no sign that the snake has stopped growing or is shrinking. Maybe best skewer it permanently, even if Fine Gael and Fianna Fail do have to swallow hard and settle for just half the Cabinet goodies. 

It is a truth universally acknowledged that there are no flies on Mary O’Rourke. 

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Richard Haas and our problems

When things get too hot and heavy for us here in Ireland, we call for outside help, usually from the United States. Douglas Hyde looked to it, de Valera did the same. Nothing wrong with that. In making major decisions, it’s important that there’s a degree of detachment, people who aren’t caught up in the heat of battle, and that’s what the Americans bring. In our time we had Bill Clinton, George Mitchell - without them, most people agree, there would have been no Good Friday Agreement. So in calling on the services of Richard Haas to help move us out of deadlock, we’re following a tradition of enlisting help from the United States and adding to the mix the one quality we all lack: detachment. (Although the repeated claim that Richard Haas is so keen to be the Detached One, he’s happy to work for nothing, stretches credulity -  ach sin sceile eile.)

Mind you, it would be better and more dignified if we didn’t have to call on Haas. It’s hard to rid one’s thoughts of playground children who need to call in the teacher so we stop from punching each other’s heads. If we were politically mature we’d be able to sit down as Irish people and thrash matters towards a satisfactory conclusion, without the need for outside advice or control. For a long time unionists and Westminister tried to block outside interference -  other than their own, of course. This was an internal UK matter,and they took umbrage at attempts to  internationalise the problem. The Americans and everyone else could just butt out and stay out. Even the appearance of Americans on a fact-finding tour-  remember Joseph Kennedy? - caused unionist hackles to rise. While nationalists and republicans had a big soft spot for the Kennedy dynasty,  unionism bristled at their very name. So although Clinton on one occasion famously compared the opposing sides here with a pair of drunks who keep falling off the wagon, and although some would say Americans might be better employed finding a negotiator to help them solve some of their own self-created problems around the globe, we must be grateful for Richard Haas.

Will his inclusion do the trick?   Will the presence of a cool, experienced American head result in the cracking of that unholy trinity, flags, parades and the past? Haas is said to have that George Mitchell quality of likeability - people warm to him. But as he says himself    ““The personal relationships can be useful at the margins, but at the end of the day people are not going to make difficult decisions because they like you or they feel comfortable with you”.

Too true. In the end, unionists and republicans are going to have to look at those three areas which divide us and move onto the common ground which, we can only hope, Haas will have helped map out.

Flags in one sense is the easiest of the three divisive issues, because flags are symbolic. Like peace walls,  they tell us where we are and how we regard ourselves and others. Anyone with an ounce of self-respect would agree that the flying of flags from lamp-posts is as primitive as a dog cocking his leg to mark out territory. Yet the flag matter which has created so much disorder - the flying of the Union flag at Belfast City Hall on designated days rather than every single day of the year - almost answers itself if we think about it. The decision sprang from a democratic vote by the City Council and emulates exactly the practice of flag-flying at Stormont.  The present furore came about because the DUP thought it had found an issue that would pull the seat out from under Naomi Long in East Belfast.  Haas’s detachment should be capable of seeing limited flag-flying as classic compromise ground, not the ripping-down disaster of Peter Robinson’s overheated imagination. 

Parades?  Parades certainly are a time-honoured practice  on both sides but particularly the unionist. But ‘time-honoured’ is the wrong term. Because you’ve done something for a long time doesn’t mean it’s a good thing. There’s a simple if maybe temporary solution: ban all parades for five years, so we all can taste the happiness of not having to be confined to our home or sit in our car as yet another strutting set of marchers thuds past. At the end of the five years we could judge if the effect had been beneficial or otherwise. My money’s on beneficial. 

The  third nut - the past - will be the hardest to crack. The gulf between those who see the decades of conflict as the product of blood-crazed psychopaths and those who see it as part of a centuries-old independence struggle seems unbridgeable. But cast your mind back to the early hours of Good Friday 1998. At the time it seemed as if agreement was impossible. But it happened, with thanks in no small measure to George Mitchell.  If Ian Paisley was able to sit down in government with Martin McGuinness, anything is possible.  

Haas  as I say places limited value on personality. Speaking of the local parties here, he says: “They're going to make the decisions because, on fairly cold calculations, they are either better off if they do it, or worse off if they don't do it.”  

That’s it exactly, Richard. That better off/worse off equation is what brought the Good Friday Agreement into existence and Ian Paisley into halter alongside Martin McGuinness. It can also be used to lever people into acknowledging the past and moving on, even if it means abandoning the republicans-mass-criminality view that some unionists cling to.