Jude Collins

Monday, 30 September 2013

That UVF commemoration

Were you at that UVF commemoration on Saturday? No, me neither. But thousands were - 10,000 is the figure most sources quote. Men dressed in period costume,  carrying replica weapons, marching in columns. They were inspected by Billy Hutchinson, who played the role of Edward Carson and wore a top hat.

What’s sort of surprising is how low on the news agenda this event was. Ten thousand people, men shouldering replica rifles,  the re-enactment of events which by any definition were, at the time, illegal as well as disloyal. Maybe the media played it down through embarrassment over Billy in that hat. Or maybe  reporters were concerned to play down what could be seen as a veiled threat.  

What’s that?  No threat of any kind involved in Saturday’s event, it was simply a re-enactment of  a historical occasion from 100 years ago?  You could be right. But  here’s the odd thing. When I interviewed unionist politicians for my book Whose Past Is It Anyway?,  it was made clear that come 2016, any re-enactment of Easter Rising events, with men carrying replica weapons, etc, would be seen as a veiled threat that what had happened in 1916 could happen again.

So which way would you lean yourself?  With those who’d see this as simply a historical re-enactment, full stop; or a historical re-enactment cloaking hints that the present-day UVF hasn’t gone away, you know?

Sunday, 29 September 2013

President of Ireland? Then gisse a vote

Barry McElduff is a very effective politician for a number of reasons, among which his good humour and his being a Tyrone man feature prominently. He was on the  Sunday Politics show on BBC One this morning and he was talking about a subject that has potentially profound implications: who can vote for the Presidency of Ireland. 

It seems that after some pressure, particularly from the north but also from ex-pats in the US,  there’s a real possibility that people beyond the borders of the twenty-six counties will be able to vote in the next presidential election. That makes sense: if someone is going to be called the President of Ireland, it’s a bit daft having one and a half million Irish people deprived of a vote. Noel Doran, editor of the VO/Irish News, was quick to reassure those who might worry about such things that even if Shinners from the North had been able to vote in the last presidential election, Martin McGuinness would still have finished third. He didn’t tell us how the inclusion of  (among others) northern voters might have affected southern voting patterns. My guess is that, just as a united Ireland would be more than just the north bolted onto the south, so too the extension of voting rights to Irish people in the north would have  considerable impact, one way or another, on  southern voters. For the partitionists in the south, it'd most likely stiffen their partitionism. For non- or anti-partitionists, it would have a similarly galvanising impact.

Mark Carruthers, chairing the discussion, put it to the DUP’s representative that this could be seen as the thin edge of the wedge, to make the Irish presidental race the outcome of votes cast by Irish people everywhere but notably the north.  It’s a  good point. It could well be that it might raise/deepen in many minds the notion of all Irish people on this island voting for other representatives, not just the president. In short, it might hasten the demise of the border, a consummation devoutly to be wished in the humble opinion of this scribbler. On the other hand, it might be the southern political parties throwing a bone to northerners in the hope they'd be more comfortable with the division of Ireland and exclusion from elections where real power was at stake. 

No one, I noticed, mentioned that the next presidential election will be in 2018, by which time there’s a good chance that nationalists/republicans will be in the majority in the north. Which would of course mean a referendum vote that’d make the Irish presential election look fairly mild beer. 

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Goodbye, George Best

So. Farewell George Best, hello masked gunman. The mural of Best, who first played for Manchester United just fifty years ago, has been painted over by the figure of a masked gunman. Dr John Kyle,  the former PUP leader was on Raidio Uladh/Radio Ulster last Monday morning, saying how much he objected to this and hoping that somehow, sometime, the process would be reversed. 

Mural paintings in Belfast are an interesting feature of the city, one on which Professor Bill Rolston has written extensively.  They are generally seen as reflecting the mood of the community. The murals to be seen in West Belfast, for example, have changed radically over the past couple of decades and been effectively demilitarised. That’s seen as the community  supporting the peace process in which republicans are engaged. So does the ex-George Best mural show the reverse of this? A community whose mood has swung from acceptance of a more peaceful future to a paralimilitary, aggressive stance? 

It may be. Certainly there seems to have been no lack of man - and woman - power in the massed ranks of those who attacked the police at various points over the last six months. This would suggest that the flag protests, which are widely believed to be supported by the UVF,  are also supported by the people of East Belfast. Then again, it could simply be that there is a substantial and aggressive group engaged in flag violence whom most people in East Belfast would disown but they are too busy going about their daily lives to feel the need to adopt a public position.

There’s a third possibility: that the people of East Belfast, like Dr John Kyle, are opposed both to the flag protest and the replacement of the Best mural with a militaristic image, but are cowed by the UVF into keeping their heads down and saying nothing. 

My guess is that the last possibility is unlikely. The notion of a paramilitary organisation holding its community to ransom is one we’ve heard before, and in the past it’s been directed at the IRA. I think it had limited credibility then and it has limited credibility now. Mao Tse-tung spoke of the guerrilla as swimming in the pool of his people; when sympathy for the actions of the guerrilla dried up, militant activities become impossible. I don’t see the UVF as having its boot on the neck of the East Belfast people. 

The first possibility - that the UVF/flag protestors are acting with the unambiguous support of the people of East Belfast - is also unlikely. The people in that part of the city as well as other parts are war-weary. Many of them remember the bitterness of the conflict and the suffering it entailed. Many of them want a new beginning and that’s reflected in the election of Naomi Long of the Alliance Party. 

I suspect the truth is a mixture of two and three. That is, most people are too busy doing the things we all do - earning a living, raising a family, watching TV, planning a holiday - that they have little interest in radical politics. Or any politics. At the same time, those who regret the movement backwards towards armed violence may well be nervous about what might happen next if they were to speak out. So the combination of a lack of interest and a modicum of fear means the way is open for the elimination of Ireland’s most gifted soccer player in favour of a masked gunman. 

It’s a regrettable situation but it could be worse. Imagine this: Belfast wakens up one day to find republicans have blanked out a peace wall and replaced it with an armed volunteer, ready for action. Can you imagine the reaction?  The air would be thick with the voices of unionist politicians condemning the mural and declaring it as proof-positive the IRA hasn’t gone away. The very foundations of power-sharing would tremble before such a re-painting. 

But since it’s unionist paramilitaries, the mural will remain and nobody - certainly not our mainstream media, certainly not unionist politicians - will ask the obvious questions: isn’t the UVF supposed to be a proscribed organisation? And weren't they supposed to have disbanded ages ago? If I'm wrong and they are calling for answers to these two questions,  their microphone appears to be not working. 

Friday, 27 September 2013

Crisis? What crisis?

Crisis - what crisis? People would want to cool their jets a bit. That’s the view of this cleverly-carved little statelet’s First Minister.  He’s familiar with this sort of thing, he says, and people have to keep a sense of proportion.

Is he right? Wrong? It depends on how you see things. If you see that Castlederg republican commemorative march as deliberately provocative, you may well agree with the First Minister and feel that it was intended to be offensive to victims.  On the other hand  if you see the Castlederg parade as one commemoration of those who died on the republican side, as opposed to about twenty  marches which progress through the heart of  Castlederg each year commemorating those on the British side, if you believe you’re entitled to hold a march that’s been sanctioned by the Parades Commission and which altered its route so as to avoid excessive offence to victims or their families,  you may think that the unionist reaction to Castlederg is a bit like a man with food all over his face and in his hair  berating a family member for having a crumb on his chin. 

Then there’s the whole question of trust. The fact is, the DUP agreed to the construction of a peace centre on the Long Kesh/Maze site. Then a year or so down the line, they decided all bets were off. When they said they were firmly committed to the notion, that was just conditional really: they could pull out at any point they wanted. 

Unionists like to think of themselves and are often portrayed as hard-headed: no fancy words, no faking it, what you see is what you get, my word is my bond. Yet here we have the First Minister making it perfectly clear that doubling back on his word means little or nothing to him. Crisis? What crisis?  Can you imagine going into business with someone like that? Who on any given morning is likely to call you and tell you the document they signed up to yesterday no longer holds, they’ve changed their mind?  It’s my guess no hard-headed or even semi-soft-headed unionist would tolerate such conduct in a partner. Their association would end  on the spot. 

And do you know what? I think they’d be right. Either the DUP understands to the marrow of its bones that double-talk like this spells the end of shared government, or Sinn Féin folds its Stormont tent and lets the British and Irish government move in to run the show. Didn’t somebody once say it’s deeds that count, not words? Too true, too sadly true. 

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Learning to stay apart

I don’t always agree with Fionola Meredith but she has a worthwhile article in today’s Irish Times.  Her son has just started his studies at Trinity College and she notes that the number of students from the north going south to study and vice versa is shrinking. 

It’s an issue that hasn’t been addressed and should be. The Scottish government with one stroke of the pen did what seemed impossible: it had sixth-formers at Protestant schools here (and please don’t start telling me they’re not Protestant schools - if they’re largely attended by Protestants they’re Protestant schools) lining up to get an Irish passport. For why? Because as EU passport holders they were entitled to skip paying fees but as as British passport holders they were not. Simples. 

But it goes beyond getting a cheaper deal. Before the flag thugs ruined everything, we used to do a house-swap with families from different countries. Living embedded in a district in San Francisco or Toulouse or southern Italy, you got a sense of people and their lives that was impossible as a normal tourist to those countries. And having both taught and studied in the south, I know how valuable the experience can be in understanding my country south of the border. 

And yes, Virginia, there is a need for it. Ignore if you can the increasingly-partitionist tone of the southern media. Instead do the math(s).  As Meredith notes,  southern students constitute just 4% of students in higher education in the north; northern students make up 2% of those in the south. If you’re someone who regards the south as a foreign country you should still be appalled by these figures: they do little towards fostering good neighbourly relations. If you believe that south of the border is part of your country, you should be leppin’ mad - not just at the pathetically small figures of transfer but at the need for two separate education systems at any level. 

John O’Dowd: please note. 

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Peter's red herring

The Assembly the other day was a fine place for an irony-collector to be. Anxious to get off the hook of his U-turn over the Long Kesh/Maze peace centre, Peter Robinson produced from his pocket a very red herring ...What’s that, Virginia? Was he ashamed of his U-turn? No, no, no. Jim Allister was attacking him, not for his U-turn, but because a U-turn was ever necessary. He was chiding Robinson for ever having been in favour of a peace centre. 

That was the first irony.  The second irony was that Robinson’s red herring consisted of the charge that Jim Allister had ‘done business’ with republicans. Eh? Yes indeed, Robinson alleged - he’d been somehow involved in a will which had meant he was doing business with republicans. To wit, he’d been involved in selling them land. Pot calling the kettle black and all that. How did Jim Allister respond? He denounced the charge as a scurrilous untruth. In short, he agreed with Robinson - to do business and especially to sell land to republicans would be a shameful act. And he hadn’t done it.

The irony wasn’t over. The BBC filled in the background for viewers by explaining that in some border areas, the sale of land from Protestants to Catholics is a contentious issue. No, Virginia, there’s no point in your swooning. That’s what they said. Without once bursting out laughing. 

When my father in the 1930s bought the farm on which I was raised - and it was miles away from the border - he had to get a decent Protestant neighbour to put in his bid for him. Had it been known that a Catholic wanted to buy the farm which was owned at the time by a Protestant family, he wouldn’t have had a chance. I used to think this was one of those family myths that gained credence by the telling. Only then I found when I mentioned it to other Catholics, as often as not they had a similar tale to tell. In other words, the BBC was telling its viewers something a considerable number of them knew already. And had known for decades.

Agreeing to a peace centre seen as a retrograde step; ‘Doing business’ with republicans seen as a shameful act, especially if land is involved; the BBC discovering that this kind of thing has been going on for decades. Does irony come any thicker and faster?

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Fresh thinking? Or...

John Coulter in the Irish Daily Star  yesterday was urging the Shinners to pull a master-stroke. What they should do, John says, is concede on the flag-flying issue. Let ‘the butcher’s apron’ (his words, not mine) fly 365 days a year and in return have Peter Robinson do yet another U-turn and agree to a peace centre at the Long Kesh/Maze site. Oh, and the Shinners should let unionists have their Ardoyne and Drumcree parades, in return for IRA volunteer commemoration marches in religiously mixed areas. 

Well, you can’t fault the man for fresh thinking. He sees IRA volunteer commemorations taking place in such areas as North Down and Ballymena. As to victims, he believes  “the people killed in the Monaghan and Dublin no-warning loyalist car bombs are the same as the people murdered in the Real IRA’s no warning car bomb in Omagh”.

Verb change there, you’ll notice. The people in Omagh were ‘murdered‘ while the people in Monaghan and Dublin were ‘killed’. You’ll also note that it was ‘loyalist car bombs‘ which did the damage in Dublin and Monaghan - no mention of collusion with the British forces, which many people are convinced took place. And of course there was a warning  on the Real IRA’s Omagh bomb. Unfortunately it was  garbled and actually ended in heavier casualties. Oh, and John makes no mention of the growing belief that the authorities could have prevented the Omagh bomb.

But it’s the proposed solution to the flag problem that bounces off the wall at the craziest of angles. Sinn Féin, John says, should allow the reversal of a Belfast City Council decision in return for being allowed to hold IRA commemorations in ‘religiously mixed areas’. Bad, John. Very bad. Proposed resolution of problem by pulling the plug on a democratic vote. Not to mention the Mad Hatter’s vision of an IRA commemoration marching through Ballymena. Not to mention rewarding Peter Robinson for his hand-brake turn on the peace centre.

That kite of yours, John. Hate to say it but with all those holes it’s just not going to fly. 

Monday, 23 September 2013

How 'Northern Irish' can you get?

There’s an interesting article by Paul Gillespie in today’s Irish Times  in which he uses the word ‘through-other’ as a kicking-off point for consideration of the need to break down barriers between people here in the north. He talks about the need for a Bill of Rights and a Civic Forum:

‘Their potential is heralded by the gradual if hesitant emergence of a Northern Ireland identity claimed by up to one third of respondents in recent surveys, distinct from unionist or nationalist ones and drawing on all traditions”.

I wonder who was the clever dick who suggested including  ‘Northern Irish’ as a category in the last census form here? Could it have had anything to do with the increase in the proportion of the population which is of Catholic background?  By opening a third door, distinct from the usual British/Irish identification,  the possibility of frightening the unionist horses was minimized. 

At the same time there’s no doubt that people north of the border do have a distinct identity from those living in the twenty-six counties. How could you live under British rule for a near-century without developing characteristics different to the rest of the people of Ireland?  

That granted, have you ever met a Mayo man or woman that didn’t have a different view of the world from a Meath person? Or a Kerry man or woman who wasn’t strikingly different from a Dublin man or woman? Or do you think Cork people see themselves as the same as Kerry people?  Like England, like Scotland, like most countries,  different parts of our country shape people in different ways. The northerner is different,  just as every other section of Ireland is different; but s/he has an extra layer of difference that’s been shaped by British rule.

This extra dimension of difference has been seized upon by commentators to declare that we here north of the border have an identity we share only with each other. Well yes. Except that some of us enjoy/embrace this difference from the rest of Ireland; these we call unionists. Some dislike/resent the difference from the rest of Ireland; these we call nationalists/republicans. 

We have it on the authority of no less a figure than Margaret Thatcher: it’s not what happens to you that counts most, it’s how you react to it. So please, Paul Gillespie and others. Because a lot of people here recognise that we live in the six counties doesn’t mean we’re about to abandon our British/Irish identity. 

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Up for the match? Or busy boycotting such coat-trailing?

I remember Freddie Perkins.  He came from Watson Park, an all-Protestant housing estate beside our farm, and he smiled a lot.  He also was a pretty hand-goalkeeper. He played soccer but (pace The Ban) he also played Gaelic. I can still see him diving  and punching clear one of those old-fashioned brown leather footballs. 

I’m thinking of Freddie because later this afternoon, along with hundreds of thousands of my fellow-countrymen and women, I’ll be watching the All-Ireland Gaelic Football Final. Not on BBC NI of course - it covers games only when there’s a northern team involved. So even though Tyrone Minors are playing in the final, the BBC cameras will be taking a rest.  South of the border doesn’t exist - check the BBC map next time you’re watching BBC Newsline 630.

Having played it when young and watched it for years, I find Gaelic football a hugely attractive game. It’s got so much better as the level of skills and training has been raised and thoughtful managers lifted teams to heights they never dreamt of. So why are the Freddie Perkins so thin on the ground? I seem to remember  a Protestant player on the Down team a decade or two ago, but that only proves how rare an occurrence it is. 

Maybe it’s because the Irish tricolour is flown at big games and  Amhrán na bhFiann is played. Personally I think the playing of national anthems and the flying of national flags at sporting events is  a bore. Most people and players don’t know the words of Amhrán na bhFiann and they love to interrupt the final line of it with roars of encouragement for their team. I wouldn’t, though, be in favour of doing the cringe-making thing that rugby does and substitute the national anthem with Ireland’s Bawl or some such. So if it were abolished tomorrow I wouldn’t mind - in fact it might stop some people feel they’ve done their patriotic duty when they face the flag and pretend to sing. It also might encourage more Protestants to share, as players and audience, a game that at its best makes soccer look slow and unnatural. 

But maybe I’ve got it wrong. Maybe Protestants boycott this wonderful game for other reasons completely. And I’m sure they’ll let me know. Anyway, must dash. Got an appointment with a television. And did I mention that the present Mrs Collins is from Mayo?

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Oh my God - what's that coming up the road?

I was on the Nolan Show  (radio) earlier this week, discussing the Belfast Telegraph’s latest poll which shows just 3.8% of people here would want the border removed tomorrow,  and  22% would want it removed in twenty years’ time. I’ll resist the temptation to get into the discussion I had with Malachi O’Doherty  (I’ll put the link up if I can locate it); but an interesting spin-off is the number of polls the Telegraph  has taken to churning out. If you enjoy these polls, you’ll be delighted that there very likely will be a lot more; if you don’t like them you’ll be pretty cheesed off.

The interesting question is: why?  Why is the Telegraph  keen to present a picture of northern society as firmly post-nationalist?  (That 3.8% figure, if you allow for a 3% margin of error, could conceivably mean that 0.8% of people here want the border removed tomorrow.) Simple: we’re approaching 2016.

John Waters has an interesting piece in The Irish Times  today where he says that when Enda Kenny holds a general election in that year (assuming his government runs to its full term), he’ll be competing not against Fianna Fail or Sinn Féin but against James Connolly and P H Pearse. In other words, the society that exists in 2016 will receive rigorous comparison with the vision of Connolly and Pearse and the others who were executed. You may be sure Enda and Co will do all in their power to avoid any such comparison, but it will happen. Significantly, the one thing Waters doesn’t mention in his Irish Times  piece is the North. It’s as if the North of Ireland formed no part of Connolly or Pearse’s vision for Ireland. 

But the Belfast Telegraph isn’t making that mistake. It and other media outlets will be straining every sinew to counteract the weight of history, to somehow nullify what the men of 1916 gave their lives for.  Their polls will be directed towards showing that things now are changed, changed utterly - only a handful of loonies in the North care about a united and self-governing Ireland. So while Connolly’s vision and  even Pearse’s were understandable and fine at the time, things have changed and nobody today has an interest in what the signatories of the Proclamation envisaged. Out-of-date. Romantic and unrealistic. Noble and all that but hey, this is now, that was then.

This stuffing of the media with non-nationalist arguments will be very necessary. I’m old enough to remember the 50th anniversary of 1916, and there is no doubt that the presentation of the facts and the people involved stirred the thinking of the Irish population, in some cases quite profoundly. The same will almost certainly happen on the 100th anniversary, so those who know what a shameful bisected mess the Ireland of today is will be shouting from the rooftops how old-fashioned/unrealistic/out-of-step-with-the-times are those who cling to the founding principles of Easter 1916.

Whose voice  - that of Pearse and Co or the Belfast Telegraph  and Co - will be the shrillest?  The Bel Tel crew. Whose voice will be the more convincing?  I don’t think I need to answer that. 

Footnote: the Nolan show link: http://audioboo.fm/boos/1609483-malachi-o-doherty-says-it-s-time-to-forget-about-a-united-ireland-jude-collins-disagrees

Friday, 20 September 2013

Satirical solidarity and some other stuff

Good to see you, Dr Haass. We are a naturally hospitable people but consider your welcome as double the usual. Anyone who can help us deal with flags, parades and the past gets  the mother and father of all céad mile fáiltes. There may be the occasional nay-sayer who’ll mutter about the arrival of someone from a country that’s led invasion of two Middle East countries and has urged bombing of a third, coming here and telling us how to get along peacefully.  But that’s just pickiness - don’t mind them, Richard. (You don’t mind if I call you Richard?  Lovely).  And then we have a few others who insist that  you’re a bit of a hawk in your writings and such. But as Tony Soprano used to say, whatchagonnado, eh? The thing is for us all to ignore the negativity, put our collective shoulder to the wheel and who knows what progress you’ll get out of us.

At the same time there’s no dodging it -  you do face a tough old menu. Flags, parades and the past. Cheesh. I hope your Christmas air ticket is one of those flexi jobs where you can change the return date without cost. 

Flags - now there’s a tricky one. Especially as some of our political  parties (no names, no pack-drill) like to use the non-flying of a particular flag  365 days a year over a certain City Hall as an insult and an assault on unionist culture, and  see no importance attaching to the fact that the decision was arrived at in a democratic vote. Check that you brought your climbing boots, Richard. You’re going to need them to scale the flag cliff-face. 

Then there’s Parades. Mmm.  You may have gone a bit pale and wobbly when they told you there are over 3,000 Loyal Order marches/parades here every year. That’s Loyal as in loyal to the British Crown; anyone opposed to such marches is, well, the opposite of loyal - to wit, treacherous. My advice is, hide your feelings on this one.   Whatever you do, don’t clap your hand to your forehead at the first meeting and go “Jeez  -  three thousand!  I mean, wtf, guys, - can you not stop at three hundred?” Say nothing,  maintain your features at their most inscrutable and just nod every so often. Otherwise you’ll be branded an enemy of Orange culture, a bigot and someone opposed to the time-honoured tradition of marching anywhere and everywhere that the Queen’s Highway wends. 

What’s that?  You’d like some tips about approaching the past? Sorry, Richard - pass.  One side of our shaky northern house does not like,  is adamantly opposed to, can’t bloody well stand any suggestion that the past conflict was between several sets of people all wearing grey hats. They prefer to think of the past as conflict between two sets of guys, one set wearing spotlessly white hats,  the other side hats blacker than a curate’s cassock. You just may have to get used to people who believe their combatants were brave and  honourable and wore military uniforms, while the other lot were treacherous cowards who wore no uniform.  You’ll also need to grapple with the belief that  commemoration of those who wore uniforms is a right and fitting thing, while commemoration of those who wore no uniform is a calculated insult to their victims and the entire community. 

One other thing. You’ll find, Richard,  that the people who believe in white hats and black hats are totally opposed to equivalence in the past are oddly keen on for equivalence in the recent past. What do I mean? Well, take an example. if you mention that recent efforts to burn down a Catholic Church in North Belfast were bad and say so, you must quickly follow up with condemning attacks on Orange Halls. Or if you say that Orange bands playing the Famine Song outside a Catholic church was not good for community relations, you’ll be told that republicans marching through Castlederg was far far worse. If you mention that mob attacks on Belfast’s Lord Mayor is a bad thing, you must  add that you condemn all attacks on anyone.  Above all,  Richard, try to tune into our sense of humour.  For example, there was this councillor a while back who reacted cheerfully to an online joke about machine -gunning and mortar-bombing republicans...No, don’t go pale and lean against the wall like that, Richard. Just listen.  It was all a joke - we like to laugh here.  That’s why, when the  person accused of supporting the idea of machine-gunning/mortar-bombing people in the Castlederg parade appeared in court, several prominent politicians from her party turned up in support.  It’s called satirical solidarity. 

So yes, Richard, we do have some funny little ways. But we’re depending on you to steer us to a new place where we will do unto others only that which we would have them do unto us. And since many of us are Christians, your task may be difficult but it shouldn’t be impossible. Adh mór ort, Richard. And check that Christmas ticket, OK? 

Thursday, 19 September 2013

The Haas talks: biting off more than they can chew?

I heard two interestingly different views on the Haas talks yesterday. One came from the leader of the DUP, Peter Robinson, who said he didn’t expect all matters regarding the past, regarding flags, regarding marching to be resolved by the Haas talks. The other came from the woman who removed Mr Robinson from his Westminster seat,  Naomi Long of the Alliance Party.  She said that to go into the talks saying they wouldn’t achieve their goals was defeatist, and that her party was going in to do everything possible to resolve the three matters in full. 

Which was right? Being the canny and cynical people we are, most of us will agree with Robinson, although some  of us mightn’t say it out loud. Resolve three hundred years of history inside three months? Not likely. On the other hand, has there ever been a football manager or a team captain who has told his troops at the outset “We’re going to be defeated, lads, but let’s put up a decent show”?  As they sang in that old musical South Pacific, “If you don’t have a dream/If you don’t have a dream/How you gonna make a dream come true?”

One of the charges against David Trimble - in fact probably the most damning charge during his tenure as top man in unionism - was that he dragged his feet. Yes, he’d signed up to the Good Friday Agreement but that didn’t mean anything had really changed, he’d work things so the interests of unionism were always served, he’d have a weather-eye open for any chicanery by those pesky republicans, and just because you had to work with someone didn’t mean you had to do other than detest them. For that - no, don't laugh - he got the Nobel Prize for Peace.

Something of the same could be said of Peter Robinson at present. He’s often hailed as the pragmatist, the great adherent of brass tacks. His recent actions suggest he’s nothing of the sort.  Everyone, including the unionist community, knows that Peter printed those 40,000 leaflets for East Belfast distribution, condemning the ‘tearing down’ of the union flag and calling for protest on the streets. They also know that he did so not with an eye to  proper respect for the union flag but to knocking hell out of the Alliance Party and in particular Naomi Long. When he pulled out of the agreement to have a peace centre at the Long Kesh/Maze site, he did so on the excuse that there had been a legal Republican march in Castlederg, commemorating republicans who had died in the conflict. It doesn’t take an Einstein to figure that Peter was feeling the pressure of the backwoodsmen and was terrified that he’d be seen as someone who didn’t care about working-class unionists, or at least the votes of working-class unionists. 

All this, after his famed outreach to Catholics, with his talk of shared education and a shared future and ending that nasty old sectarianism stuff, especially now that the Catholic population looked like becoming a majority in the state. OK, he didn’t say that last bit, but you may be sure that was one of the things that weighed with him. If a pragmatist is someone who’ll do damn near anything he believes will shore up the party vote, Peter is a pragmatist. 

So where are we now? Grappling with the three-headed monster under the chairmanship of Richard Haas. Is three months too short a time? Probably, knowing some of our politicians. But here are my suggestions.

Parades:  stop them. All of them. Commemorate to your heart's content, celebrate to your heart's content, but do it on the spot, not while marching. 

Flags:  stop flying them. It’s not as if they were the public transport system or the clean water supply. We can live without them. Improve the environment: ban flags.

The past: if that means everyone coming clean about what happened during the recent conflict, OK, let’s have everyone, including the British government, put their cards on the table. No hiding behind national security claims or anything else. If that can’t be agreed to, then do what every other generation has done after a time of conflict: let it be. We can’t ‘deal with’ the past, any more than we can change it. I know it’ll be hard for some people, particularly victims, but my Plan B is: let it go.

OK, Dr Haas. You tie up the loose ends. 

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

That Bel Tel poll

You may not wish to go so far as Jeremy Paxman and ask “Why is this lying bastard lying to me?” but it’s usually sensible, when receiving information, to ask where it’s coming from.  The most recent figures about the desirability or otherwise of the border come from The Belfast Telegraph, which  it’s fair to say has never been noted for its fiercely republican tone or content. Maybe worth tucking that fact at the back of your mind.

Now, what do they say?  Well, the pollsters asked people if they’d favour removal of the border tomorrow and they got 3.8% who said they would. Ask a silly question and you get a silly answer. Ask people “Would you, tomorrow, like to join with a bankrupt twenty-six counties while at the same time coping with loyalists who assault everything that moves because someone has told them their flag is being torn down?” The question is spectacularly daft. One comparison: the Scots, before being asked whether they favour Scottish independence, have been given a full two years in which to think about it. 

“Hah!” you say. “But the Tele also asks how many would vote for border abolition in twenty years’ time and only a quarter of respondents wanted it. So much for your time-to-think argument”.   Well, in ways the “Twenty years’ time" question is even more daft than the tomorrow question. Think of the difference in this state between 1963 and 1983; or between 1983 and 2003. “Events, dear boy, events” as Harold Macmillan used to say. A question about what you’d like to happen in the unimaginable distant future is nearly worse than asking about border abolition tomorrow. 

What we do need - all of us - is an open and informed debate about what a united Ireland would look like, how it would differ for those of us in the north particularly, what place would be found for the 20% of the population that is presently unionist.  When we’ve had a calm, extended discussion - not shouting-match -  on the merits and drawbacks of such a new arrangement, then  ask people would they favour it in, say, three or four years’ time. 

For such a discussion we need information, and information that is accurate and is disseminated in clear language. For example, we hear much about the size of the block grant from Westminster. Did you know that the north of Ireland has no dependable statement of the amount of revenue which is generated here and goes into London coffers? Scottish revenue is validated by the Office of National Statistics. Here, we get figures produced by the Department of Finance and Personnel - and nobody verifies those. What’s more, the size of the much-talked-about block grant from Westminster is decided by the amount of money spent on public services in England. Does that make sense?

Those who favour a united Ireland are often accused of living in a green-tinged dreamland. I think there’s some truth in that. The one way to get them out of that dreamland is to present facts and figures - trustworthy facts and figures - that show what at present we gain or don’t gain economically through union with Britain, and what kind of state would be established were we to have an all-Ireland political arrangement. There are arguments beyond the economic which are worth making and should be made, but let's start with the economic facts. The trouble is, they’re hard to come by. For some reason. 

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Will Dr Haas use a Bible?

Feeling optimistic this grey Tuesday morning? No, me neither. At the same time you’d like to think that Dr Haas would get off on the right foot at his up-coming flags/parades/the past talks.

Jim Allister is alert for any treachery (now who does that remind you of?): 

“On parading and dealing with the past, Haass must not be allowed to become a conduit for reheating either the rejected Sinn Fein/DUP parading proposals or the Eames-Bradley report. Nor is there room for a unionist community, which has been required to give at every turn, to make further concessions in some trade-off to promote ‘the process’.”

Right. So progress for Jim will be ...no change. Or rather, no change that will in any way seem desirable to republicans. Others, like Chris Lyttle of the Alliance Party, say the talks will work “if there is meaningful engagement from all parties”.

I think Dr Dick faces an uphill challenge. But let’s assume that he actually pulls it off. Let’s assume he gets all parties to agree on some system for the flying of flags (note the plural there), marching and the past. The American miracle-worker gets into his coat and heads for the plane. Two weeks pass and Peter Robinson doesn’t like the way Martin McGuinness is looking at him and declares that in the circumstances, his party can’t possibly be asked to continue with the Haas Agreement.

Because it could happen. Hands up those who remember the Peace Centre agreement for the Long Kesh/Maze development? Right.  Reassure us, please, Peter.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Here - hold my coat

I saw a link on Facebook recently that truly hit the mark. It said something like "Constant Guardian reader finally gives up on Obama and concedes he’s useless”.  That’s a concession a lot of people, I suspect, would make. Maybe not out loud but in a small hidden place in their heads. So much hope was placed on Obama, he came with something unique, he spoke of talking with the US’s enemies rather than targeting them.  He seemed to offer a fresh start after the dreary dimness of the Bush years. 

It didn’t happen. Obama may be ending the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, but he’s used five times as many drone bombs as did his predecessor. He would claim these are ‘surgical strikes’ aimed at known militants, and he’d like to do the same in Syria; the record shows that these attacks are usually about as surgical as a physician removing your appendix with a hatchet. Figures vary as to how many people have died in these two foreign wars. There are those who put the number of Iraqi deaths due to the US invasion at  more than 1,500,000 , and those in Afghanistan at more than 16,000. 

Of course when we say Obama used or wants to use drone bombs,  we don’t actually mean he has or would like to launch these bombs himself. But he was the one gave the OK for the war and/or its continuation, so clearly he shares in the guilt of those deaths. Pretty ghastly, eh? 

Now - what about Ireland? Has the southern government  had any hand, act or part in these deaths?

Well, the latest figures show that more than one million US troops passed through Shannon airport - that’s 665 per day - en route to US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In other words, the government of the twenty-six counties provided material support to US soldiers as they journeyed across the globe to leave one and a half million dead in Iraq and over 16,000 dead in Afghanistan. 

Here’s a parallel of sorts, and one you’ll be familiar with. In 1984, the IRA tried unsuccessfully to kill Judge Tom Travers. They failed but in the attack his daughter Mary Travers was shot dead. Mary McArdle, who was found to have concealed the IRA weapons used, was convicted of murder and sent to prison.  She was released under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. 

I have a simple question: when will proceedings for murder be initiated against the southern government for its part in the mass slaughter of thousands/hundreds of thousands of Afghan and Iraqi people?   Louder, please - I’m afraid I can’t hear you. 

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Eamon and gracious women

Gracious: elegant and tasteful, esp. as exhibiting wealth or high social status”.

That’s the definition of “gracious” I get in my dictionary, and it’s the word the Labour leader Eamon Gilmore used at a meeting of the British-Irish Association about a week ago: “I don’t underestimate the challenges this will involve but I know they are surmountable, especially if we take our lead from the gracious and mutual respect shown by Queen Elizabeth and President McAleese in Dublin two years ago”.    You see what he did there? He told us QE2 was gracious to us but kind of nullified what looked like fawning by coupling her with President McAleese.
Eamon was talking about commemorating Easter 1916  (nothing like getting your retaliation in early). Mr Gilmore says people have a responsibility “to prepare and carry out our commemorations in a way that gives no offence and is mindful of the sensitivities of all citizens”. For example,  he’s very disappointed with the way republicans commemorated their dead in Castlederg  (a town which a £50 note tells me he’s never been in). Not good, that commemoration. Eamon thinks. Could have a corrosive effect on community relations. Which is fair enough - a man’s  entitled to his opinion, even if the most recent polls show 93% of the people in the south have no time for his party.  And I’m sure he feels equally strongly about the effect of the annual 3,000+ loyal order marches and their contribution to community relations. Not to mention the effect on the international image of the north when scenes of violence in Belfast city centre shows over 50 PSNI officers injured in their efforts to keep the peace, and unionist city councillors give the thumbs-up to the notion of killing lots of republicans. And then is supported in the courtroom by leading DUP figures. 

Anyway,  polls or no polls, Eamon is hopeful: “I would hope we can host representatives of the Royal Family and the British government, along with the leaders of unionism, in Dublin three years’ time in remembering the Easter Rising”.

As it happens, Eamon, I’m something of an expert on centenaries. No, seriously. You may have come across my elegant book of interviews Whose Past Is It Anyway?  You haven’t?  A treat in store, I promise you. In it I asked unionists and republicans and neither about attending the commemoration of ‘the other side’. In all cases, those of a republican and neither bent expressed a willingness to attend unionist commemorations of the signing of the Ulster Covenant in 1912.  Now correct me if I’m wrong, Eamon, but I don’t remember huge numbers of nationalists/republicans/neithers  at the Ulster Covenant commemorations, which would suggest they weren’t asked. When I asked unionists about attending  the commemoration of Easter 1916, on the other hand, they were distinctly unenthusiastic. As one remarked, it wouldn’t make much sense to attend events honouring those who had murdered his forebears. So while you may get Her Maj to attend,  I’d say any unionist leader would have a long hard look over his shoulder before he signed on the dotted line.

What this is all about, of course, as was the Dublin visit of QE2  a  couple of years ago, is drawing a line under the past and projecting a vision of the future.  The past is put to bed, to vary the metaphor, as containing things we sometimes wish had been done differently or not at all. The future? Well, the future will be in marked contrast to the  past and much more agreeable. The British now love the Irish so much, their head of state even learns five words of Irish and bows her head at a monument to republican dead. Republican dead, I hurry to add, that have been safely dead for some one hundred years.  There’ll be no royal head- dipping in Castlederg to republican dead. Totally different. Too recent. No possible comparison.  

And the Irish, in the form of the southern  government, love the British. Between them they’ve solved the Irish question. All right, the North is governed in the important things like foreign policy and taxation from London, but clearly that’s better than people killing each other. The last one or two or three or four hundred years have been an unfortunate misunderstanding and everything is now settled. Sure we’re all grand. 

I did mention that Eamon’s party is presently clocking support from 7% of the electorate, didn’t I? Don’t know why I mention that, because obviously it had nothing to do with Eamon’s speech to the British-Irish Association. 

Friday, 13 September 2013

Home thoughts from abroad

We were in Siracusa today and a lovely place it is. Full of shadowy side-streets to cool you,  piazzas to make you dizzy with their elegance, and several churches to make you marvel at the faith that built them. In one of the piazzas a young wedding couple were getting photographs taken. Passers-by called good wishes, cameras  snapped, the groom grinned and waved beside his gorgeous bride. As I watched it struck me how little the rest of the world cares about whether we condemn a mob attack on Belfast’s Lord Mayor, whether we work with Dr Haass to deal with the absurdity of flag fascism or manipulation of the past.  They don’t even know or care that the SDLP have selected Fearghal McKinney and not Claire Hanna to replace the unfortunate Conall McDevitt. 

I don't care that much myself, to be honest.  I’ve never seen Fearghal McKinney other than on the television, but  I did by accident meet Claire Hanna briefly about a week ago. She struck me as charming and energetic and probably pretty smart.  But clearly the SDLP think Fearghal is even more charming, energetic and smart. Odd, really.

Because Fearghal has had one incarnation as a politician already. You probably remember when he sprang from the television screen and stood for the SDLP in Fermanagh-South Tyrone in 2010. The notion was that his TV profile would somehow impress the electorate and that Sinn Féin’s Michelle Gildernew as well as other contenders would be knocked for six and Fearghal slide past her and others  into the House of Commons.  That’s the charitable interpretation of his candidacy. The less charitable is that the SDLP hope was, while he wouldn’t win, he’d take enough votes off Ms Gildernew to knock the Sinn Féin woman from her abstentionist seat. In short, he'd be an effective spoiler.

Well, it very nearly worked out. But not quite. The bould Michelle, you’ll remember, amid scenes of much rejoicing, came home with a four-vote majority. You read me right - four votes. Fearghal, alas, stirred all of 3, 574 voters to cast their ballot for him - a shuddering 7.6% of votes cast. 

What was it they used do say, when Mickey Rooney married his seventh wife? Ah yes - the triumph of hope over experience. There’s another saying about those whom the gods wish to destroy, first they make mad. Both I think are apt here. I don’t expect to encounter SDLP people running naked through the streets with straw in their hair when I get home; but I will be watching them carefully for any sudden, possibly dangerous movements.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

The Loo of Malta

We did  a day-trip to Malta yesterday.  Ignoramus that I am, I knew little to nothing of Malta beyond John Huston’s movie  The Maltese Falcon  and the existence of a group called the Knights of Malta. I now know that it’s a small island with an even smaller one, Gozo, tagged onto it, and that the population totals under half a million. From the brief contact I had with them, the people seem similar to the Sicilians, who live a 90-minute ferry-ride away (although that could be my ignorance working again, since Belfast and Cairnryan are separated by about the same amount of time but the Irish and the Scots,  are quite distinct). 

Our guide was a small, craggy-faced bundle of energy who peppered us with information about his country, of which he was clearly proud. What struck me was the way in which  the island had been used by a succession of superior forces down the centuries. The Arabs, the Holy Roman Empire/Knights of Malta, the French, the British - again and again outsiders overran it and used it for their own purposes. Each invader left benefits in  terms of architecture and trade while essentially using the island for their ends, not that of the Maltese. Napoleon for example during his short stay there reformed finance and education and  abolished slavery,  but he also seized the island in the first instance by pretending he wanted to resupply his ships on their way to Egypt, but once in port, turned his guns on the hospitable Maltese.  The start of the nineteenth  century saw Malta become part of the British Empire, used as a stop-over point on the way to India. During the Second World War the British made sure that it wasn’t overrun by Mussolini’s Italy, not for its own sake but rather because its loss would have dented British morale.  Today it’s a  tiny republic and regularly gets thumped in international football. 

Three things stand out for me from our brief day. There’s a massive painting by Caravaggio in the Co-Cathedral, showing the beheading of John the Baptist. As with all Caravaggio paintings there’s a brilliant sense of the fleshiness of the figures -  light reflecting off muscles as the executioner, having already killed John, reaches behind him for a knife with which to slice off the head. It catches wonderfully the brutal ghastliness of killing; my wife tells me the killer’s pose, leaning forward on one leg while arching his body back to select the knife, is almost identical to a pose she is asked to take and hold in yoga class. It hurts, she says. 

The second was the mark which the invaders left. Everywhere there are huge honey-coloured walls,  with a giant dry moat making it near impossible to storm the ramparts. Even the little streets are built with a series of curves, so that any attackers wouldn’t know what awaited them round the next corner. There are busts of Churchill, monuments to the sacrifice of the Maltese on the Allied side during the Second World War,  a memorial flanked by two eternal flames. 

The third was the pride our guide took in pointing out the island’s state-of-the-art hospital, recently constructed. Its modern design and purpose - saving lives- contrasted nicely with the countless buildings and ramparts constructed down the centuries to help the inhabitants kill as many invaders as possible before being overrun. 

 And the Loo of Malta? That was in  the restaurant where we stopped for a mid-day meal. It was small, smelly and didn’t flush.  I could have been back in Ireland. 

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Honouring the dead

I see speedy reaction in unionist circles to that speech by Eamon Gilmore (about which I plan to blog later this week). The reaction is interesting in that it raises the wider issue of how we deal with dead combatants. 

One answer would be to leave them in peace. The dead, whatever they may have done or not done, are beyond our reach. We can’t actually honour them or dishonour them, since they are beyond our living world. Despite the fact that we would recoil in horror at the thought of a corpse or a grave being treated disrespectfully, the dead person doesn’t mind one way or another. They can’t, because they’re dead.

What we really mean when we talk about honouring the dead is honouring the memory of what they have done. Clearly if you believe X to have been a noble, courageous person who lived his life for his country or even gave his life for his country, you may wish to give public expression to that admiration. By doing so, you hope his memory will be kept fresh and others, perhaps, inspired to act in a similar (although not necessarily the same) fashion. 

That seems to me eminently reasonable, regardless of who X was. Clearly we all have different people we admire among the living. Likewise we revere the memory of different people among the dead. It seems to me to be verging on dictatorial to demand that people forego the commemoration of someone on the grounds that we don’t share a similarly positive view of that person. Different people have different loyalties, and we must allow them room to give expression to those loyalties. 

Where the difficulty arises is when, in commemorating X, I bring my commemoration to the doorstep of people who have no time for X and whose loyalties lie with Y, his deadly enemy.  That seems to me to be using the dead as a weapon against those we disagree with. So I would see a  considerable difference in commemorating X in an area where his memory is held dear, and exporting my commemoration to an area where X and his memory is disliked/detested.  That’s why as a rule I’m opposed to marching of all kinds, because there’s the danger at least that  X’s memory is exported, so to say, to places where it will excite indignation. 

To come back to particulars, then. I believe unionists were fully entitled to commemorate the signing of the Ulster Covenant, even though I would not regard the Covenant and its aftermath as desirable or something i would wish to honour. Similarly, I believe nationalist and republicans are fully entitled to commemorate the Easter Rising or those who died on hunger-strike or others  they hold dear in their memory. It seems to me wrong that unionist politicians should urge the need for republicans to show ‘sensitivity’ in how they commemorate 1916 or any other year. If they don’t attempt to export that memory and deliberately bring it to the doorstep of those who don’t share their thinking, then how they conduct their commemoration is a matter for them and others of like mind. Those of unlike mind should accept that and restrain their desire to give advice on matters in which they have no part.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Gimme that ol'-time cliché...

I’m in Sicily  at the moment for a short holiday. It’s  beautifully sunny, the people are friendly, prices reasonable - and yet I’m slightly disappointed. Where are the sheep with the bells attached to their necks, where are the clouds of dust rising from mountain tracks, where is Michael Corleone?  Isn’t Sicily supposed to be the home of Cosa Nostra/the Mafia/whatever you’re having yourself?

I guess this kind of clichéd thinking is similar to that of visitors to Ireland who get a bit tetchy when they find the waiter serving them in a hotel has a Polish or Lithuanian accent. Some tourists even complain openly - it disrupts their whole Irish experience.  And the same with some visitors to Belfast or other places of the north. Where are the burnt-out cars, the furious rioters, the gun battles?  How come walking through the centre of Belfast feels like walking through the centre of virtually any city in Britain or Ireland?  

Hundreds of years ago the French writer Montaigne, who lived in a time of great turbulence, made the point that even when there are wars and pestilence and disaster, most people most of the time go on living life, doing the ordinary things - cooking, working, eating, sleeping, quarreling, loving. 

I know what he means. When I lived in Canada during the 1970s, the impression through the media was that Ireland, from Malin Head to Mizzen Head, was aflame with religious war. It’s only when I returned that I realised most people accepted being frisked when they entered a store, evacuating when a bomb scare was announced, being stopped again and again by uniformed men with English accents.They could live with the Troubles because in the end they were insulated from them. Which is why many people condemned those  caught up in the Troubles. Why couldn’t they be reasonable like those of us who were outside the war zones and judge these things objectively? Such slow learners, really.

You’ll have to excuse me now. Our room has just been cleaned and I must  check if my bed contains a horse’s head. 

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Pots, kettles and bombs

Dr Richard Haass, a former senior State Department official under Republican presidents who now heads the Council on Foreign Relations, told reporters  on Monday that cruise missile strikes on “anything associated with Syrian chemical weapons capabilities, storage depots or potentially the troops that are believed to be associated with their use” are most likely. Additionally, Haass predicted Syrian command-and-control facilities also could be targeted. “I would be in favour of a fairly heavy use of cruise missiles”  in Syria. This he thinks would “discourage the Syrians from using chemical weapons again”. 

Quite right, Virginia. This is the same Dr Richard Haass who is coming here shortly to tell us how to solve our problems. In light of the above I don’t think I can tell you how much I hope he’s on our side. 

Meanwhile, it’s useful to remember the US’s record on the use of chemical weapons.  Napalm was used by Americans in Vietnam from 1965-1972.  Napalm is composed of polysteyrene, hydrocarbone benzene and gasoline. This gets you a jelly-like mess which, once ignited, sticks to practically anything and burns for up to ten minutes. On the human body it produces unbearable pain and almost always death. It was at first used by American troops on the ground armed with flame-throwers; later B-52 bombers dropped napalm over huge areas. It’s reckoned that 20,000,000 gallons of this toxin were dropped on Vietnam. (Yes, that is the correct number of zeros after the 2.)

Has the world gone collectively mad?  A man who is in favour of dropping bombs on Syria, from a country which killed around 2,000,000 Vietnamese, let alone the numbers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, is coming here to show us how to put past hatreds aside and create a better tomorrow? Pinch me, someone. I know this is a bad dream. 

Finally,  three questions. When (if ever) did Britain and/or the US use chemical weapons?   Does the US store chemical weapons at present? Does Britain?  Just askin’, like.


Friday, 6 September 2013

Time for the DUP to know that actions have consequences

Why did Peter Robinson, and him in Florida, send a letter that threatens the very existence of the Stormont institutions? Maybe it was being too long out in the Florida sun. Or maybe there’s a clue in something he said earlier this year: “One of the elements of leadership that is always important is to know just how far ahead of the pack that you should be. And it is all right having great ideas and great wisdom on these matters but you have to be able to bring people along with you.”

That’s a leader talking. But are those the words of a shrewd pragmatist who knows the limitations of power,  or the voice of one who says “There goes the mob, I am their leader, I must quickly follow”?

Alas, it looks more like the second rather than the first.  For weeks now, various top DUP people, particularly Arlene Foster, have been loudly critical of the republican commemorative march held in Castlederg earlier this summer. In razor-sharp contrast, there hasn’t been a peep about loyalist rioting in Belfast City Centre which left over 50 PSNI officers injured. This isn’t a case of the DUP leadership having great ideas but the grassroots refuses to stomach them. This is a case of the DUP leadership being bereft of ideas and  its right-wing elements leading it by the nose. We saw the same thing in Belfast City Hall on Monday night, when the DUP couldn’t bring itself to support a motion condemning the Woodvale attack on Belfast’s Lord Mayor. 

Instead, Peter and Co have chosen to turn a blind eye and deaf ear to illegal activities (yes, Virginia, it is against the law to attack the police or assault a mayor) while using a megaphone to trumpet its outrage at the totally-legal republican parade in Castlederg. In fact, Peter Robinson used Castlederg as part-excuse for his Long Kesh/Maze U-turn.  He knows (I hope)  that his U-turn could be a deal-breaker for the whole Long Kesh development. He appears less aware that his U-turn could break the whole power-sharing deal.

How so? Well, let’s consider the options open to Sinn Féin. They either agree to go along with the DUP rethink and abandon the notion of a peace centre at Long Kesh; or they insist that the DUP have crossed a red line  - gone back on its pledged word - and that working with such people is impossible.  Martin McGuinness could say “OK, put Stormont back in moth-balls again, there’s no point in trying to work with a party whose face is so stonily set against power-sharing”.

I’d favour  the second response, for the good reason that it’d force the DUP to  face a choice. Either it accepts its equal part   in the governing of what Joel Taggart last week  on Raidio Uladh/Radio Ulster fondly called  “our wee country”, or they face the massive loss of income and power that must come with a collapse of Stormont. And as the good Dr Samuel Johnson said,  there's nothing like the prospect of being hanged to concentrate the mind.

Wasn’t it  Arlene Foster herself who warned Sinn Féin to be careful what they wished for regarding a border poll, since they might just get one? Well indeed, Arlene. Maybe have a word with Peter so he doesn’t wish too hard for no shrine-to-terrorists at Long Kesh.  He could get his wish, and a whole lot more as well. 

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Conall packs it in

And so farewell, Conal McDevitt MLA - or should that be ‘Slan go foill’ - G’bye for now?  In retrospect it seems inevitable that he had to walk the plank, but there were moments after that payments-to-his-wife’s-company thing broke, I thought he’d manage to tough it out. Or brazen it out,  if you’ d prefer that word. After all,  Peter Robinson came through the hell-fire of Irisgate and sure  now you’d think it never had happened. I know the two men had quite different problems but they both did have problems, big ones.  Peter made it across the fiery coals, Conall rolled his eyes and hopped off the sole-scorcher half-way. 

For me it’s another case of liking the person whose political view by no means coincide with my own. I liked/like Conall. I’ve never met him but I liked his fluency in interview and I liked his general good humour and I liked the sort of... open quality he had. Let’s say if all our MLAs had a similar civilized demeanour, Stormont would be a better place. On the other hand, he was caught with his trousers round his ankles. No matter what explanation for this state of undress, it was still unavoidably the case that his wife’s company received thousands of pounds when it shouldn’t have. The plank beckoned. 

What effect will his leaving have? There’ll be those in the SDLP who will have to restrain themselves from breaking into a tap-dance at the sight of his departing back. From what I’ve heard, Conall wasn’t at the top of everyone in the SDLP’s Christmas card list. Grumblings about the frequency of his media appearances, until some people were beginning to think of Conall and the SDLP as synonymous. Uh-uh. Not good.  That’s not to say there aren’t people rarin’ to fill his shoes (step forward Claire Hanna - no, not you, Fergal McKinney - once was quite enough). But to have someone who was thought of as a prospective leader of the party plunge from the skies must induce a sickening feeling in the collective SDLP stomach. 

A number of people have asked “What’ll he do now?” It’s no joke to lose an MLA job with nothing else lined up. But Conall was a PR man before (even if it was for the constantly-shrinking Labour Party in the south) so there’s no reason why he couldn’t go back to that kind of work. Still,  while admitting that I’m a lousy fortune-teller, I have a funny little feeling we haven’t seen the last of  Conall McDevitt in northern politics. Or even in the SDLP. So au revoir, Conall, rather than goodbye,  slan go foill rather than slan leat. 

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

About not getting it

One of the most revealing statements of a summer full of revealing statements was that by DUP councillor William Humphrey. He said that the Lord Mayor would not have been attacked at Woodvale if he’d listened to them. How so? Because he said people in Woodvale would not tolerate a visit from someone who’d been involved in tearing down the flag from Belfast City Hall. 

Whoa. That’s the democratic vote that was made at Belfast City Hall to fly the union flag on 18 specific occasions, as is the case at Stormont. But to suggest such a thing, much less vote for it, is totally unacceptable to Mr Humphrey.  So much for democratic politics.

The fact is, there are two communities here (OK, quite a few actually, but two main communities). One has allegiance to the Union flag, one to the Irish tricolour. What to do? What would be fair? Well, a half-wit on a bicycle could suggest that either both flags should be flown or none. But no. The agreement the Lord Mayor and his party accepted was that the Irish tricolour should not be flown at all and that  the Union flag be flown 18 times a year. That sounds to me like a decision tilted in favour of unionism.

Uh-uh. It’s outrageous, because it’s not totally, completely and without murmur made a 100% unionist decision. 

It’s a hard thing to say, but there are elements of  unionism that simply don’t get the idea of parity. I got a strong sense of that when I visited the UUP HQ and suggested that there was some sort of equivalence between republican honouring of their dead and unionist honouring of their dead. I believe William Humphrey was sincere when he said what he did about the Lord Mayor being to blame for the attack on him at Woodvale. I believe some unionist are sincere when they say the flying of the union flag 18 times a year is an outrage.  But being sincere, guys, isn’t good enough. Half the population here thinks differently and like it or lump it, you’re going to have to accept them and recognise the things that are important to them. Otherwise you’ll find yourself going back on your Long Kesh/Woodvale word and keeping this “wee country of ours” (copyright Joel Taggart, BBC)  an economic and dysfunctional desert. 

Monday, 2 September 2013

Would you like a good smack?

I once smacked my daughter. She was the first of our four children and she’d done something I told her not to, so I smacked her. She howled, her mother appeared and comforted her, and I exited feeling like a bullying brute. That was the first and last time I struck any of my children (Addendum to any of them reading this: so far...)

I hadn’t thought about whether I should or shouldn’t smack her - it was an instinctive reaction. Or rather one I’d learned from my own upbringing, where at home and at school smack and strapping and worse were the norm. And I remember in the early 1980s, when physical punishment was still permitted in schools here, there were teachers who warned that if a ban was placed on such punishment, teachers would be left helpless and an appalling vista would open up. But it hasn’t. That’s not to say that teachers don’t struggle on a daily basis to cope with youngsters who think it’s their right to say and do the first thing that comes into their head. But thinking about teaching and learning and the respect that one human being should show another has evolved. Schools manage.

The Irish Time  this morning notes that the southern government is under increased pressure to introduce a ban on smacking children  at home as well as at school. At present it’s legal for parents to strike their children. The Minister for Children in the south, Frances Fitzgerald, says that in recent years “considerable progress” has been made in “encouraging parents to use alternative non-violent forms of discipline”.  Frances Fitzgerald of course wants to keep as many of her voting constituency as possible on-side. What might be better would be if she were to forget about considerable progress and the pressure from Europe, and ask herself if she thinks big people hitting small people is a good thing. Then act accordingly. 

It’s not that most parental chastisement is physically dangerous or that parents don’t think they’re acting in the child’s best interest. It’s a failure of imagination. As with the plague of marching in this jurisdiction, the question that needs to be asked is “So you’d also be OK with things happening the other way round?” Few Orange marchers would agree to have thousands of republican marches throughout the six counties every year, and few parents would agree that it’d be all right for their children to strike them when angry. It's not rocket science.  Simply apply the do-unto-others-etc. rule.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

A man without malice

It’s funny the way one death can eclipse another. On 22 November 1963, Aldous Huxley and C S Lewis both died. That same day John F Kennedy was assassinated. Most people remember not just the day of Kennedy’s death but what they were doing at the time. Few could tell you when Huxley or Lewis died, let alone what they were doing. 

I experienced this overshadowing more closely than I would have wished at the weekend.  Along with the rest of the world I was assimilating the death of Seamus Heaney on Friday.  On Saturday morning I was in the BBC in Belfast at 7.15,  about to go on air with a newspaper review. My mobile rang and the screen showed it was my wife. I knew at once it was something serious - normally on a Saturday she wouldn’t be awake at that time, let alone calling me. Her voice was clotted with unhappiness: her sister’s husband, John Delahunty,  had died suddenly.

They’d been on a holiday in Spain. They’d stayed near the place where they’d spent their honeymoon some forty years earlier. It had been a happy return - swimming, sunbathing, remembering. Their flight brought them back to Dublin airport at midnight on Friday. Trolleys loaded, they’d headed through the crowd for the exit; and as is the way of Gavin women, his wife was ahead of him by several yards. Then she heard frightened cries and someone calling “Help that man!” When she finally pushed through her husband was lying on the ground. There was blood coming from his nose and mouth. When she took his pulse he was dead. 

It’s easy to let the passing of the famous overshadow the loss of what some  foolishly called ‘ordinary people’.  John Delahunty lived a quiet life. He provided for his wife and children, he liked a drink (we once famously polished off a full bottle of brandy between us), he had a fine singing voice which he rarely used, he disliked ostentation and hated being the centre of attention. As his wife said, he would have detested having a  rubber-necking crowd around him in his final moments.

“Just another death” you say. True. But for him and those who loved him it was the most significant, the most calamitous of deaths.  I knew him for nearly fifty years and I never heard him speak ill of anyone. A quiet life ending in a sudden death, surrounded by strangers who, having seen what there was to see, moved on. John Donne had John Delahunty as much as Seamus Heaney in mind when he wrote: “Each man’s death diminishes me/For I am involved in mankind/Therefore, send not to know/For whom the bell tolls/ It tolls for thee.”

Slán abhaile, John, agus ar dheis Dé go raibh d’anam.