Jude Collins

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

We have moved (royal plural, there)...

If you've landed on this site, my apologies. I have now moved to a Wordpress site - www.judecollins.com.

Different lay-out, same studied brilliance from blogger and those who comment. Come and join us!

Monday, 18 November 2013

Michael D "closes the final chapter"? Or maybe not.

So - President Michael D Higgins is to visit Britain and call in on the British head of state for a chin-wag. Well, more than that, really. This is the first time the Irish head of state has made an official visit to Britain. Aren’t you excited?

Much was being made of it this morning on BBC Raidio Uladh/Radio Ulster and on RTÉ. Conor Bradford talked about the visit “closing the final chapter” in relations between the two countries, and on RTÉ Ming Campbell was talking about how the cordial coming together of Michael D and Elizabeth II would reflect the closeness that exists between the two populations.

There’s truth in that. We do share interests - sport, literature, language, media - with our nearest neighbour. But how is it that umpteen commentators at the time of QE2’s visit to the south and now commentators on Michael D’s visit to Britain will talk about the event in all sorts of ways, talk about the improvement in relations (we were reminded this morning how overjoyed the nation was when QE2 said the cupla focal and Mary McAleese mouthed ‘Wow!’) and yet no one will dare mention the one thing that has marred relations between Britain and Ireland for near a century now: the north. We were even told the civil war was fought, not over partition but over the oath to the British monarch. 

Maybe it’s like the point that was raised at that Strabane debate on Thursday last: now would be a very bad time to have a border poll because it might inflame loyalists. Is that why the core matter - Britain’s claim to jurisdiction here - is avoided: it might upset the loyalists? I get very worried when I hear people talking about closing the final chapter with a presidential visit. It’s like looking at a great six-inch stab-wound and saying “Ach here, sure I’ve a bit of sticking plaster, no problem”. 

Maybe I’m naive. Maybe it’s all about softly-softly. Maybe Basil McCrea’s urging of the right to raise taxes here is, whether he realises it or not,  another tiptoe step towards Irish people finally running Irish affairs. But Michael D’s visit still has a whiff of Basil Fawlty to it: don’t mention the border. 

Saturday, 16 November 2013

David Cameron: withering on war crimes. Well, some anyway...

Here’s David Cameron:

"The information in that book is completely chilling. It's an appalling set of allegations and of course these allegations have been backed up by the work of the journalist Anne Cadwallader who has had them verified. There are legitimate accusations of war crimes that need to be properly investigated. That is actually what the British government itself found … but it hasn't effectively answered them. They need to be answered."

Well actually not quite David Cameron. The British prime minister is talking about Sri Lanka, it’s not ‘information in that book’ but ‘images in that film’, and it’s not ‘the journalist Anne Cadwallader’ but ‘The UN special rapporteur’. And finally  it’s not ‘the British government’ (are you kidding?) - it’s ‘the Sri Lankan government’. 

All the rest, though, is straight from the horse’s mouth. Dear David is a bit like our own Michael D -  big on the need to condemn horrors as long as they’re far from home. So why would he be so incensed about events thousands of miles away and tight-lipped about similar stuff happening here? Because he might have to do something about the stuff nearer home, that’s why.

But listen, David. Don’t worry. If Blair got off with saying he was sorry for the Irish Famine /An Gorta Mor,  you could probably pull a similar trick with the 120 cases listed in Cadwallader’s book. I mean, you worked it with Bloody Sunday victims so why not with the Murder Triangle people? At the same time I really really really hope you don’t. Get off with it, I mean. If the Sri Lankan government is a horror-show for involvement in the killing of its own citizens, your government should be getting it in the neck too, old boy.  

Friday, 15 November 2013

That Strabane debate last night: five things worth thinking about

Well. That was interesting. And fun. I’m talking about the debate about/discussion of a (re)united Ireland in Strabane last night. There was what looked to me like a full house to hear the various speakers, including Minister of Education John O’Dowd and a brace of senators from the other side of the border:  Senator Jimmy Harte from Donegal and Senator Mark Daly from Kerry. There were two representatives of unionism -  Paul Wyatt  from NI21 and Terry Wright from ConservativesNI.  And last but a long way from least, Joe Byrne from the SDLP. Your humble scribe was in the chair ordering people about. For two solid hours the discussion continued, passionate at times but never tedious. The audience required no prompting to fire sharp, sometimes jagged questions. 

So - did it solve anything? No. But that wasn’t the intention. The intention was to raise issues for and against the reunification of Ireland and yes, there was an imbalance between nationalists/republicans and unionists, but  guess why?  Because  the Ulster Unionists and the DUP chose to send no one to present their views. Despite that, a great range of issues were raised. Here’s the five I found most interesting. 

  1. The famous Belfast Telegraph poll which showed that  just 3.8% of the northern population care about a united Ireland got a fairly severe mauling. For a start, as Senator Mark Daly pointed out, given that the margin of error in such polls is + or -  3%, that  would lead to the conclusion that maybe NOBODY in the north wants a united Ireland. Er, shome mishtake shurely? A woman in the audience cited figures which suggesting a minority of people in the north now view themselves as British. Conclusion: opinion polls like these are  in the end a waste of time. To borrow a cliché, there’s only one poll that counts. 
  2. The main reason cited for not holding a border poll  seemed to be that it would annoy loyalists and unionists. Think about that for a minute. We won’t hold something that is provided for in the Good Friday Agreement in case it would upset a particular group of people: that is, the kind of person who was outraged at ‘our flag’ being ‘ripped down’ and used stones and bottles and other missiles to support their argument. As one of the panel pointed out, all those involved with the Good Friday Agreement committed themselves to pursuing their political goals through peaceful means. So should an implicit threat of violence from a minority within unionism  be enough to make the idea of a border poll a non-starter? Because that’s what we’re saying when we say in effect “Oh no, don’t hold a border poll now, that might well inflame/upset loyalists!” 
  3. It’s past time we started looking at exactly what a reunited Ireland would cost.  To do that, we need to know not just the size of the block grant of, what is it, £10.5 billion? We also need to know (i) how much of that £10.5 billion actually comes here and doesn’t wander off elsewhere en route; (ii) how much do we pay into the coffers of Westminster. John O’Dowd claims that the Treasury in London is refusing to cough up exact figures regarding both these matters.  Until we get answers to these two questions - and they are simply questions of fact, not opinion  - then it’s next to pointless talking about how much better or worse off financially we’d be in a reunited Ireland. 
  4. Should we be thinking of a united Northern Ireland before we start talking about a united Ireland? At least one member of the audience thought we should. Certainly the Stormont Executive is riven with splits of various kinds, as was evidenced by some of what Joe Byrne had to say. But maybe those splits are the product of a state that’s finding it harder and harder to explain what it’s for. And which may have an even harder time justifying its stand after the Scottish referendum next year. 
  5. The debate last night was a precursor of the Strabane/Lifford mini-referendum on a united Ireland,  to be held inside the next few weeks. My initial reaction to such polls -this one and the one in the Crossmaglen region - was that they’re obviously held in strongly republican areas, so what’s the point? I'm not so sure any more. Even the experience of participating in such a poll puts the notion of a real border poll firmly into the public consciousness. You may agree with it or disagree but it’s hard to avoid thinking about it, for or against.

In summary, we need two things: clear, unambiguous, independently-verified information about the actual size of the block grant and the size of the tax money which goes out of here each year; and more discussion like last night, where we think about our reasons for supporting union with Britain and reasons for not supporting union with Britain. Maybe London will continue to keep a padlock on the required information. Maybe after all our discussion we’ll still be as far apart on the constitutional question.  But we owe it to ourselves to get the information and then make a judgement.  

Thursday, 14 November 2013

N21: the road to somewhere?

I remember a couple of decades ago having a conversation with a senior SDLP man. For some reason the question of organisations came up and the SDLP man said something that’s stuck with me. The best of organisations, he said,  still depends on, is made or broken by the quality of the individuals who make up that organisation.  

I found myself thinking about that this morning as I gird my loins (such as they are) for a visit this evening to Strabane, where I’ll chair a debate (in the Fir Trees Hotel, 7.30 pm) about unifying Ireland. There’ll be a range of speakers from different parties (no, I don’t think the DUP will be there, Virginia, or the UUP) including one very interesting party: N21.

Yes, yes, I’ve heard all the gut-busting jokes about a political party naming itself after a road, about the 21 representing the number of people in it, and the rest of it. What’s significant for me is that its leaders are Basil McCrea and John McCallister. Of all the unionist politicians I’ve met, I’ve found myself warming most to these two men. 

I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s just that they strike me as decent likeable people. Maybe it’s that you don’t get the impression they’re sizing you up, taking your political temperature with a mind as open, in Heaney’s words, as a steel trap. They seem to respond to others as human beings. And what they appear to be doing with their new party is something that could ultimately be very good or (from a nationalist/republican perspective) very bad.

The very good thing they are intent on doing is something which I suspect chimes with the thinking of many garden-centre Prods. They don’t want to be cut off culturally or any other way from their Catholic/nationalist/republican neighbours, they want to make this state a place that treats everyone with dignity and equal respect, and they believe that the old ways of narrowness and bitterness are a sectarian cul-de-sac that needs its end-wall bashed in. 

Which would be good. Anyone with half a brain-cell knows that sectarianism and bigotry take us nowhere. Instead, like revenge, it digs two graves: one for the person that’s hated and the other for the hater. It’s also the case that N21 have made that rapprochement a central plank of their policy. Were they to succeed, it would be a day of great rejoicing among nationalists/republicans.

Or maybe not.  Because the ultimate goal, the holy grail sought by Britain and unionism over decades if not centuries has been to have a Catholic population here that is happy to remain British, is not sullenly passive but happily active in supporting the union. When that day arrives, there’ll be no need to garrison British troops here because on that day, nationalism/republicanism will have died.

The N21ers:  charming or chilling? I’m still trying to make up my mind. 

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

The men of violence

I believe in violence to achieve political ends. I should add, before some troll grabs that first sentence and uses it as a club to thump me: so do you. Why do I say that, Virginia? Bend an ear.

I pay my taxes, as I’m sure do you, to Her Majesty’s Exchequer. That money is distributed in various ways to meet various public needs. It also is sent to what is laughingly called the Ministry of Defence. Some £40 billion each year, so that guns and tanks and bombs and fighter planes and warships can be purchased and so that young men (and women) can be carefully taught how to kill their fellow humans, if H M government says it’s a good idea. There’s also the little matter of the replacing the Trident nuclear programme, which is reckoned will cost around £38 billion on its own. That’s for nuclear weapons which are designed to wipe out hundreds of thousands of men, women and children. Think the Omagh bomb and multiply it by about a zillion. We help with all that.

But of course it’s not only Britain (the third biggest defence-spending state in the world) that’s at it. Practically every country has an army. Even the south of Ireland has one. The line is, as their name suggests, that they’re for defence. So what part of defending the sceptred isle was that Royal Marine engaged in,  when he pumped a bullet into the chest of a wounded Taliban fighter in Afghanistan recently? Was Iraq planning to invade Britain when Blair, in the face of opposition from millions of his own people, lied and then sent in British troops to back up the Yanks?  For ‘Defence’  read ‘Attack’, or if that’s too much, make it War. The Ministry of War. At least that’s honest.

To quote my old class-mate Eamonn McCann, I’m a pacifist by instinct if not principle. But then to quote George Bernard Shaw, you know a man’s principles not by what he says but by what he does.  I pay my taxes. So do you. We all believe in political violence. 

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Máirtin Ó Muilleoir at the cenotaph

It’s a safe bet that the appearance of Máirtin Ó Muilleoir , Belfast’s Lord Mayor,   at the wreath-laying ceremonies this year will have taken the breath of many republicans away. It’ll also have given ammunition to those who say that Sinn Féin have sold out. Keep in mind: Remembrance ceremonies honour all  British armed forces who have given their lives down the years. To say that the reputation of the British Army in Belfast over the past few decades has not been a good one would be an understatement.

But Sinn Féin have committed themselves to reconciliation between Irish people of every stripe here in the north. Actions like that of the Lord Mayor put flesh on the bones of that commitment. The big question now is, what reciprocal moves will we see from unionism?

There are two possibilities. One is that unionists will show respect for republican ceremonies of commemoration and for the flags and emblems associated with such commemoration. In short, they will meet generosity with generosity.  The second possibility is that they will say “We’re glad you’ve come to your senses as subjects in the United Kingdom”, then sit back and wait for the next republican concession.

In either case, Sinn Féin have very firmly volleyed the ball into the unionist court.  We’ll just have to wait and see how they respond. If the response is positive, we will have seen real progress in reconciliation between former enemies. If the response is negative, it’ll be hard for Sinn Féin to keep on giving with nothing coming back. In fact there are some who say that has happened already.

And no, Virginia, Máirtin Ó Muilleoir's appearance at the cenotaph ceremonies cannot be seen as a reciprocal gesture to Queen Elizabeth’s bowed head at the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin. The clue is in the Dublin bit - she wasn’t doing any head-bowing at Milltown cemetery or at the grave of Bobby Sands. In contrast, the Lord Mayor’s appearance was in Belfast, a place where the British army was responsible for some terrible deeds, including the deliberate killing of men, women and children. 

Monday, 11 November 2013

Some things and how to respond to them

One of the many worrying things that still haunt us in this little corner of the island is not so much events as the reaction to them. A couple of examples come to mind.

During the height of the flag protest, there was a general acknowledgement by the police and others that there were elements of the UVF helping to orchestrate that protest. This news was delivered by the Chief Constable himself with no sign of alarm and no indication as to what he thought of that. Thought of what? The continued existence of the UVF. It’s fifteen years since the Good Friday Agreement, near enough to the same length of time since Gusty Spence delivered his heart-felt apology for the actions of the UVF. Yet here they are, not having gone away, and even the Chief Constable is unperturbed. 

Supposing it was established that members of the IRA were active in orchestrating protest in West Belfast. That this protest took the form of vicious assaults, night after night, on the PSNI. Would the reaction have been the same? Would the Chief Constable have acknowledged the fact, pretty much as he might have acknowledged that tomorrow was going to be a rainy day: unfortunate but inevitable?

This morning I listened to Radio Ulster/Raiodio Uladh while Noel Thompson interviewed Paul O’Connor of the Pat Finucane Centre.  O’Connor outlined a case where a woman whose husband had been killed was not made aware of  the fact that she was entitled to £10,000 in compensation. Instead she received £750, because the British Army misled  her (that’s a nice word for lied, Virginia) about the whole situation. At the conclusion of the interview O’Connor referred to another case where a mother of six was shot dead and her family suffered similar injustice. Noel Thompson dealt politely with O’Connor but he didn’t make the point that this was appalling, that innocent mothers of six should not be shot by the British Army. It was accepted as just another sad fact from our period of conflict.

Contrast that with the attention that’s been given over the years and especially in recent days to those who were killed by the IRA and whose bodies were buried in remote places. No one could accuse the media of not directing public attention to the plight of the unfortunate families of these victims and the damage the ghastly deed had done, not just to the person killed but to all those who loved him/her. And it was right that the cruelty and horror be highlighted.

But why devote hours of time to the  plight of families of the Disappeared and pass calmly by the bodies of those killed by the  people  paid from the public purse to protect them? Or is that an omission that will be addressed in full, through TV and radio programmes, in the coming days? 

I think not.  

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Sunday Sequence and That Interview

I was on BBC Radio Ulster/Raidio Uladh’s Sunday Sequence this morning, along with Alex Kane and Dawn Purvis. Our discussion was preceded by a 20 -minute interview with Gerry Adams, where William Crawley asked him about a number of things, including the killing of Jean McConville,  the conviction of his brother Liam for sex crimes against his daughter and about whether he had considered resigning as party President.  I don’t share the political viewpoints of either Alex or Dawn but we still managed to have a civilized discussion on the points raised in the interview and what the best prospects were for a way forward in our society. Afterwards the three of us agreed  that it was good to be on a programme where elbow-room was given: the Gerry Adams interview was twenty minutes long and our discussion was over half-an-hour. Even that’s not ideal, of course, but it’s a long way from the three-minute sound-bite. 

Picture my astonishment, then, when I went on to Twitter  later to see that a number of people felt it was appalling that the interview was aired, particularly on Remembrance Sunday. There were a few bone-brained insults hurled at me but that’s how some people interpret the notion of political debate: squeeze as many nasties as you can squeeze into 140 characters. But I thought  the objections to the interview being aired at all was truly dismaying.

Those of us who are old enough know we’ve down this road before. For years, both north and south of the border, Sinn Féin people were banned from the airwaves. They weren’t even allowed to express their views on a topic like mushroom-growing. One man tried to, on RTÉ radio, and when he made clear he was a Sinn Féin party member, his mushroom-growing perspective was quickly cut off. If anything, the ludicrous picture of Gerry Adams and other Sinn Féin people moving their lips while an actor’s voice said their words boosted Sinn Féin, since most sensible people saw the absurdity of the ban. 

Over the past few days and weeks there have been a considerable number of programmes on radio and television where those involved were highly critical of the Sinn Féin president. Today,  he was interviewed for twenty minutes on the matters raised by those programmes. And some people are outraged that his voice should be heard?  Given the distance we have come - where people who once wouldn’t sit in the same studio as Sinn Féin people are now sharing government with them - it’s near-breathtaking that there are people who are indignant that Sinn Féin’s president be featured in an interview. No one’s suggesting  people need to agree with all or any of what Adams said. But to use the fact that this is Remembrance Sunday as a reason for not hearing him is surely contrary to the notion of democracy for which so many thousands of men in the British armed forces died. 
Rather than castigate William Crawley or the BBC or anyone else, it’d make more sense to commend him and the Corporation for allowing the man accused to respond to his many accusers.

I know, I know. Democracy would be so much better if it wasn’t for all those bad people who think differently from you. But as Tony Soprano used to shrug: “Whatchyagonnado?”  (No, Virginia. Tony’s question was rhetorical.) 

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Nothing to see here

Maybe like me, you’ve been feeling a bit ...uneasy about that Afghanistan case. You know, the one  involving the British Royal Marines.  Where there’s several Marines in a field with this Taliban fighter who’s seriously wounded. And they think about letting him live, only it seems such a bother. And then one of the Marines has an idea: “I’ll put one in his head, if you like”. But he’s told that’d be no good: “No, not in his head, because that’ll be fucking obvious”. So instead the second Marine shoots the Taliban fighter in the chest and kills him. And says “There you are. Shuffle off this mortal coil, you cunt.” And then he tells his mates: “Obviously this doesn’t go anywhere, fellahs. I just broke the Geneva Convention.”  Remember it now? You were uneasy too?

Well don’t worry. It’s a total one-off. An historical one-off. We have the word of  General Sir Mike Jackson, GCB, CBE, DSO, DL. And he knows about these things because he was present and active in Derry on Bloody Sunday.

Maj Gen Thompson, who led 3 Commando Brigade during the Falklands War, told The Times that a five-year prison term would be more suitable than the life imprisonment sentence he's been given.

Brigadier Bill Dunham, deputy commandant general of the Royal Marines, says it was a “truly shocking and appalling aberration”. (“Aberration” means they don’t do this kind of thing often, Virginia.)

And today, Prime Minister David Cameron has weighed in:

“Yesterday, obviously our thoughts were focused on the story told in that court, that appalling story, but I just want to say, here today, that it in no way represents the incredible spirit, courage and history of the Royal Marines, an outfit that probably has one of the proudest military histories of anyone, anywhere in the world.

“And that is not just my view, I think that is the view of the whole country that we should not let that single incident in any way besmirch the incredible work of the Royal Marines have done over not just decades but centuries.”

And of course, as you probably know, during their time here,the British armed forces were never guilty of killing anyone when they could have arrested them. Nor shot anyone dead when they could have taken them to hospital. 

So I hope all that has helped you stop feeling uneasy. I know it has me.

PS You can even listen to a recording of the Afghanistan event, if that's how you like to spend your Saturdays : http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/royal-marine-found-guilty-taliban-2711958

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Infuriating question: "How do you know that?"

I said yesterday that I’d thought about blogging on the swell of interest in the welfare of Sinn Féin (that is, that it should have a better leader) and one very cynical comment said that was a good idea, to not blog on that subject, that way it’d all blow over. (That’s irony, incidentally.) Well, Gio, this one is especially for you. In the hope that one of these days you’ll remove your face-mask.

Fintan O’Toole, that expert on so many subjects, this morning in the  Irish Times calls on Gerry Adams to resign. His denials of being in the IRA, of not having issued orders for the death of Jean McConville and of never having so much as thrown a stone during the Troubles is holding back Sinn Féin, now that (in Fintan’s view) Sinn Féin are an established and maybe important part of southern politics.

Mmm. I remember once meeting a man who, in every conversation, would keep asking “How do you know that?” It was very irritating, especially if you didn’t have firm grounds for what you were claiming. So here’s a few questions that I’m sure readers will be able to come up with answers to.

  1. How do you know Gerry Adams was in the IRA? Yes I know he was flown to England in the 1970s to parlay with the British, but how do you know he was in the IRA? No, forget the dogs in the street. How do you know?
  2. How do you know Gerry Adams was responsible for the death of Jean McConville? Yes I know Brendan Hughes says he was, and others, but is that proof that he was?
  3. Further to 2 above: why haven't the PSNI arrested Gerry Adams and put him on trial if he was responsible for the death of Jean McConville?
  4. How do you know that Gerry Adams threw a stone during the Troubles? I remember reading years ago how one contemporary of Gerry Adams said that from the start, Gerry was always asking “What will we get out of this?” That applied to stoning British soldiers as well as negotiating with the British. The man may have been lying. On the other hand Gerry Adams may have been a strategist, not a foot-soldier. And before you say it, I don’t know that he was. I say he may have been.
  5. The death of Jean McConville was a bleak and terrible event, not only for the woman herself but for her family, as her loss resonated down the years. And people are right be appalled by it. That’s why radio and TV programmes have been made about it. But is the concern for Jean McConville and her family straightforward compassion for a family that suffered and continues to suffer? Or is it being used as a weapon with which to beat Gerry Adams and through him Sinn Féin?
  6. Anne Cadwallader’s recent book lists over 120 deaths in what was called the Murder Triangle in the 1970s. She describes these deaths and their impact in a detailed and factual way, and how the authorities sometimes did nothing to prevent them happening and sometimes were actively involved in the killings.  What do you think are the chances that Daragh McIntyre or some other enterprising journalist will make a programme showing in detail the suffering involved for some - even one - of these families? 

 So many accusations, so many questions, so little proof. So much concern over the leadership of a party that is so frequently excoriated.

There now, Gio. Will that do?

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Russell Brand is rude - but is he stupid?

I’m tempted to blog on the many people who are suddenly concerned for the welfare of Sinn Féin and that it should have a good leader, but I think instead I’ll write about Russell Brand. I remember not too long ago, my students had the laugh of their lives when I overheard them talking about Russell Brand and confused him with the chubby little astrologer Russell Grant. I also remember with some pleasure a woman who, on air, told me I was “a very, very rude and stupid man!” , as though the two go together like bacon and eggs or Peter Robinson and Clontibret. You can be rude without being stupid and you can be stupid without being rude. Russell Brand is sometimes very rude but is far from stupid. Jeremy Paxman got it totally wrong when he told him “You are a very trivial man”. 

Brand has drawn my attention because he has an article in yesterday’s Guardian  where he defends his dismissal of British politics in the  Paxman interview.   “As long as the priorities of those in government remain the interests of big business, rather than the people they were elected to serve, the impact of voting is negligible and it is our responsibility to be more active if we want real change.”  

As he says himself, there’s nothing original about that. We all know that if Labour or the Conservatives are in power in Britain, it won’t change the established way of doing things: the rich will stay rich, the poor poor, and wars will be fought in the interests of keeping things that way. The same goes for the US: did you really notice huge differences during Bush’s and Obama’s tenure? For example, did the proportion of Afro-Americans in prison or poverty change under Obama? And of course the suggestion that Fine Gael and Fianna Fail might someday merge makes perfect sense. It’s nearly one hundred years since they had a serious difference.

And here in the north? Well, there is one clear demarcation line and that’s the constitutional question. Sinn Féin (north and south) would argue that it’s also concerned with social justice and equality but its achievements in that field aren’t exactly revolutionary. There may be all sorts of reasons why they’re not, but they’re undeniably not. 

Brand’s suggested strategy is to not vote, so with-holding consent and bringing about The Revolution. I think that’s probably naive and simplistic. But he is right in that we’re fools if we believe that marking a ballot paper every four or five years is what democracy is about. It took a funny man to push that notion into the British public consciousness. We should be grateful if he’s done the same for us. 

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Looking death in the eye

Maybe it’s the time of year. November in the Catholic Church calendar is the month of the dead,  Halloween abounds with talk of spirits and ghouls and the supernatural, and of course next Sunday is Remembrance Sunday.

 Or maybe it’s William Crawley, who as well as being thoughful is thought-provoking. He tweeted this morning  “If art is an expression of the wound of finitude, as Raymond Tallis suggests, would there be no art if we lived forever?” (He’s also tweeted this morning about several other things, including murals and his programme last night, but I find the death/art one the most interesting). 

If there wasn’t such a thing as death, as Danny Morrison pointed out in a tweeted reply, there’d be a lot more time to consider art. There’d also, I think, be a lot less of it. A  great deal of poetry and painting is given to grappling directly with death. There are the great poets from the First World War who grieve over the slaughter and the lies, there are poets like Keats and Philip Larkin who continually return to the topic of death - if you haven’t read Larkin’s ‘Nothing To Be Said’, do it. And in literature, whether Shakespeare or Tolstoy, war and death loom large time and again. 

I remember once being on a drinking spree with a very bright man in Newcastle-upon-Tyne  and I ventured the notion that all art - painting, poetry, prose, music - was to distract us from the terrifying thought that death was on its way. He laughed uproariously and I thought at the time it was the drink laughing.  But maybe he was too polite to point out that art isn’t so much a distraction as an engagement with death. It tries to represent it to us,  tries to explain its significance and the lessons it offers, were we wise enough to learn them. No matter how often we’re told, most of us prefer to turn our thoughts to more cheerful matters. Why ruin the party by continually checking your watch? But maybe the great John Donne says it best:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea
Europe is the less.

As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
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.

Footnote: it’s almost sacrilegious to add a biographical note but I will. Despite studying at Oxford for three years and then at Cambridge for the same length of time, Donne never received a degree. Why? Because he was a Catholic. He  began to prosper only when he abandoned his Catholicism and became an Anglican clergyman. 

There. End of sacrilege.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Honouring the dead? Sorry, it can't be done

The dead are dead. Except perhaps through our prayers, they are beyond our influence, whether good or bad.  Which is why it’s baffling to hear people talk about ‘honouring the dead’. The dead are dead and so free of anything we can do to or for them, be that positive or negative. So when next Sunday there are cenotaph ceremonies ‘honouring the war dead’ of Britain’s armed forces, that claim on the face of it doesn’t make sense.

That’s not to say the ceremonies don’t make any sense.  The various wreaths and bowed heads and military salutes and poppy-wearing are a statement that the things which in the past motivated those dead now motivate those who are alive. What is being honoured is not the military dead (an impossible task) but the values the dead once had and which the living now embrace. 

Which is fair enough. What is not fair enough is to point the finger at those who don’t wear the poppy (assuming they have a choice, of course) or don’t attend Remembrance Sunday ceremonies, and say they are refusing to honour the dead. What such accusations are really saying is “You are wrong not to share my values - shame on you”. Which is an intolerant sort of thing to say.  Would it be an idea to let people hold whatever values they choose, even - maybe especially - if we don’t like those values?  Not only allow but respect their right to different values. Isn’t that supposed to be an important ingredient of democracy?

A final thought: since the military dead of Remembrance Sunday by definition are or were men of violence, does that send any message to those who’ve been erecting murals to their military dead in different parts of Belfast? Or is it a case of “My violence good, your violence bad”?


Saturday, 2 November 2013

Jim Shannon makes a modest proposal

I was on the Nolan radio show earlier in the week discussing a bizarre idea. You’ll know it’s bizarre when I tell you that it came from Jim Shannon, DUP MP for Strangford. Not that Jim has shown originality with this idea - the primary sponsor of Early Day Motion 624  is a Tory MP called Andrew Rosindell, with Jim and Nigel Dodds and a couple of others adding their hear-hears as ordinary sponsors.

So what is this Early Day Motion 624? It is - maybe sit down first before I say - it is to bring back the playing of God Save The Queen on television. You think that sounds like some sort of weird Halloween prank? Or a Captain Mainwaring suggestion as part of a campaign to bring back Dad’s Army? I’m afraid not. Jim is deadly serious. He figures it’ll help restore respect and pride in being British. This despite the fact that a poll of the English people by the YouGov website found that two-thirds didn’t like God Save The Queen and considered it “a dreary dirge”.

I remember when people here had pride in being British. Or at least in standing to attention, ramrod straight, for the playing of God Save The Queen. It would happen at the end of every film-showing in the County Cinema, Omagh in the 1950s. Half the audience would show ramrod pride, the other half (sometimes known as ‘the anthem sprinters’) would leap behind, in front of and sometimes over the ramrods in an attempt to get out of the cinema, perhaps because they didn’t get the connection between John Wayne or Jane Russell and Her Majesty The Queen. Scuffles occasionally broke out between competing loyalties.

So if Jim was looking for a wheeze which would deepen division in the souls of people here, he’s onto a good one. Mind you he always was a free thinker, our Jim. The man once voted ‘Least sexy MP’ went in November 2007 to Argentina. When he got there he shot doves. A lot of doves. How many he wouldn’t say but the estimates were around 9,000. What did he do  with the dead doves? He ate them. Not all of them, of course. Perhaps he dispersed the dead peace birds among the deserving poor of Buenos Aires.  But he definitely shot them.

The issue of when to play God Save The Queen on the telly came up. The best answer apparently is the point where  normal BBC turns into BBC News 24.  No, Virginia, I have no idea when that is - certainly past my bed-time  and, come to think of it, most of the population. Still, I like to think that should Early Day Motion 624 ever be passed, somewhere down in the heart of Strangford, while the rest of the world sleeps, one ramrod figure will stand to attention, maybe even giving his screen a solemn salute. Poignant, I call it. The unsexy man who shot and ate peace birds, bolt upright before Her Majesty. 

Friday, 1 November 2013

We only think there's nobody like us

We like to think our problems are unique but they’re not. Just the way we manage to screw up  efforts to resolve them.

The New York Times  had an article a couple of days ago about two Mexicans academics who are trying to establish a museum to recall what Ulysses S Grant called “the most wicked war ever waged”. It was the war between Mexico and America and it was less about principles and more about land-grab. At the battle of La Angostura, the Mexican side could have defeated the out-numbered Americans - not least because hundreds of American troops deserted and chose to fight on the Mexican side. These were nearly all recent immigrants, and among them was an Irish unit called the San Patricios, or St Patrick’s Brigade. The reason there was such desertion from the US forces was because many among the ordinary foot-soldiers on the American side were Catholic while most of their officers were Protestant  and many of them suffered from what the New York Times calls one of the US’s ugliest flaws: prejudice, in this case directed at Catholics under their command.  Despite the San Patricios and despite the superior numbers, however, the Mexicans were defeated and the Americans emerged victorious. Many historians believe that’s because the Mexican general, Santa Anna,  had yielded to one of Mexico’s ugliest flaws: corruption. He did a deal and left the field to the Americans. 

But these  two Mexican historians are intent on building up the Angostura Battle Museum with relics from the battle, including a glass case full of broken earrings:apparently many Mexican mothers followed their sons to battle, so they could tend them when and if the need arose. The academics have planted a ‘peace tree’. Every year they come to this spot, sometimes with people from the Irish consulate.  They are working so that “the war without satisfaction” doesn’t determine future relations between the Americans and Mexicans. “We don’t want to relive this war; we just want to remember it”.

Do you know, maybe it’s the Halloween madness getting to me, but I could have sworn someone here talked about a peace centre somewhere so people here didn’t have to relive the past conflict...Nah. I must have been fantasizing. Good on the Mexicans, though. They’re doing what’s necessary to stop the past paralysing the future.