Tuesday, 29 September 2009
Gordon Brown has accepted the offer of TV debates with David CameronI so I got a slot – all of two minutes – on The Steven Nolan Show this morning, to talk about the worth of such an approach here. Nolan took a pretty ho-ho approach to the topic but it actually merits more thought and attention than two minutes.
There’s a crying need to have greater public involvement in politics between elections, so people get the message that public duty is more than a matter of ticking a ballot paper once every few years. TV debates could be a way to energize public interest in issues AND in the quality of leadership available. We could make balanced judgements about the passion, clarity and openness to ideas of our leaders.
The danger is that such debates become beauty contests. That’s what lost Richard Nixon the 1960 presidential election – he looked shifty-eyed and he had a line of sweat along his top lip that people didn't like. Certainly Tony Benn has spent a political lifetime warning us against putting personality before politics. The irony is, when he came here to speak at the Waterfront Hall, the place was packed not because of the issues involved so much as the star quality of the speaker - Benn's wit, his logic, his honesty. The same happend with George Galloway – he packed out Mandela Hall, not just because he was anti- the Iraq invasion, but because he articulated that issue in feisty, pugnacious language.
So it's actually policy AND personality we look for. Maybe we need to be educated to look for strength of character and worthwhile political vision. Before you yell "Impossible!", remember how public thinking on smoking, drink driving, homophobia and racism has been turned around over the past two or three decades. If we could do that, shouldn't it be possible to wean us from the poisonous breast of demagogues and bigots?
Friday, 25 September 2009
A series of heavyweight bouts on RTE’s Prime Time’ last night: Micheal Martin vs Joe Higgins, Pat Cox vs Mary Lou MacDonald, Michael O’Leary vs Declan Ganley, Mick McCarthy vs Roy Keane…No, I made that last one up. The subject for verbal fisticuffs was the Lisbon Treaty and the contestants produced more heat than light, I’m afraid. Either we got readings from Section 40 Subsection 211, paragraph 4 of the Treaty (zzzzzzzz) or we got name-calling that told you more about the caller than the called.
Gay Mitchell of Fine Gael wasn’t one of the Main Bouts men but he did get a little interview clip in which to present his Treaty views. Instead he spent much of his time attacking Sinn Fein’s line on the Treaty's plans for increased EU militarization. How hypocritical, Gay said. Sinn Fein weapons were the main obstacle in the construction and signing of the Good Friday Agreement. You see the strategy? Attack your opponent and sidestep his argument. Or as they say in football parlance, Gay played the man and not the ball. Gay, incidentally, is 100% behind the Lisbon Treaty.
Michael O’Leary of Ryanair was one of the Main Bouts men, and yes, you may wonder why. Well, Michael is a hard-headed businessman with a fleet of airplanes all over Europe, so presumably he’d have something to say. And so it proved. Showing the classical non-rational strategy of labeling your opponent, O’Leary kept telling Ganley that he – Ganley – was a failed politician, so he’d no right to express his views on anything, least of all on Lisbon. Michael didn’t say this once – he said it about four times, so people wouldn’t forget it. The programme presenter, Miriam O’Callaghan, wanted him to comment on the Treaty but Michael figured slagging off his opponent would reap more rewards.
And do you know the most awful thing? It may do. I thought Ganley had the more informed and evidence-based opinion on the Treaty, but it’s O’Leary’s words about ‘a failed politician' that stick in my mind. Presumably that was O'Leary's intention. More happily, Mary Lou’s argument that, if the south of Ireland signs up to Lisbon, it will be tied into increased military spending and a common EU defence policy, also stuck in my mind.
So what should the No people do between now and voting day? Maybe take a leaf out of O'Leary's grubby book and in the time remaining, start megaphoning your best sound-bites again and again. Say 'Join an EU Army? Hell No, we won't go!'
Monday, 21 September 2009
Today around one o'clock I wanted to take Alex Attwood in my arms and tell him sssshhhh, it's OK, it's OK, little man, everything's going to be all right... He was on Talkback with W Austin, and Wendy had just played a spoof piece where Mark Durkan (aka Sean Crummey) was asked to say briefly and finally if he was retiring as SDLP leader. Of course Crummey/Durkan went into a five-minute spiel with the usual Durkan circumlocutions by way of the Dingle peninsula. Then Alex came on and Wendy asked if he'd be putting his hat in the ring. Maybe still in a slightly stunned condition, Alex replied by quoting approvingly from the spoof Crummey piece ('As Sean Crummey rightly said...') and then went on to give a circuitous response which didn't answer the question but did a baffling verbal tour by way of the Cape of Good Hope. In the end Wendy had to pull the plug on him as he went into the fifth lap of his latest sentence.
I blame the debating society in Queen's. They convince their budding little Student Union politicians that it's really clever to use polysyllabic words and long sentences; once they get that in their heads, there's no shifting it. I'd even guess Alex himself knows it's a chronic problem but like a hopeless drunk, he can't resist reaching for yet another long one. But there's more to life than politics, Alex. Honestly. Shhhh, there, there. Close your eyes, it's gonna be OK, if the worst comes to the worst and they elect Alasdair McDonnell, you can always go back to practising law...
Thursday, 17 September 2009
In the north, Eileen Calder from the Belfast Rape Crisis Centre is calling for a block on Mike Tyson using the Waterfront Hall. In the south, Seamus Heaney is calling on people in the south of Ireland to vote Yes on Lisbon. Two unrelated appeals? Not when you think about it.
Eileen wants to stop Tyson talking in the Waterfront because he’s been convicted of rape and she doesn’t want to give a platform to a rapist. Fine, except that Tyson won’t be appearing on stage because he’s a rapist, it’ll be because he was once the most fearsome heavyweight boxer in the world – some say the most fearsome heavyweight boxer ever. So while anyone with a smidgin of human decency would wish that all rapists had never engaged in such vileness, that aspect of Tyson’s life has no bearing on what has brought him fame.
As for Seamus Heaney, he’s a very good poet (probably not a great one but certainly very good) but as far as I know he has no political expertise. So why anyone should want to hear his opinion on Lisbon is a a mystery. In fact, Ireland’s one indisputably great poet, W B Yeats, with whom Heaney is sometimes compared, had some wildly hair-brained notions beyond his poetry, including a frank admiration for fascism.
So it’s truly odd as well as illogical, the way people keep using extraneous criteria when coming to a judgement, whether about the stage appearance of an ex-boxer or the desirability of voting Yes to the same treaty that a while back received a resounding No. It’s as well we don’t apply such thinking to medical matters, otherwise we’d be calling off our scheduled brain operation on the grounds that the surgeon had been fiddling his tax returns.
Monday, 14 September 2009
It’s a bit scary when poetry stops being poetry and starts being a threat. Our son Patrick was home from London for the weekend so he could do a 100-mile cycle from Belfast to Coleraine (along the Antrim coast road) and he was busy assembling his bike out the back on Saturday evening. The sun was shining, the birds were tweeting (not online, of course) and I was busy passing Patrick the occasional piece of equipment, when I thought of Seamus Heaney’s ‘Follower’. You’ll remember it’s about how as a child he used to stumble in his father’s footsteps: ‘I was a nuisance, tripping, falling/Yapping always” - and then suddenly the roles are reversed and it’s his father who is the dependent one and he the man in charge…You can guess the rest. It suddenly struck me that my son, that I was giving shoulder-rides and teaching penalty-kicks about three weeks ago is suddenly in his thirties and is being tolerant of the old man, who has just failed to take six photographs in succession with his iphone because he kept pressing the Home button and ignoring the Camera icon… You knew it’s going to happen to you but you didn’t really realize it was going to happen quite so QUICKLY…
Thursday, 10 September 2009
I was listening to Mary Kenny the other day and found myself thinking of my father. He used to tell us about the wakes they had in West Tyrone and East Donegal when he was a young man. They were social occasions, full of story-telling and laughter, and even games. One of these games involved balancing sods of turf on the edge of kitchen chairs; but sometimes the participants would get so involved and excited, sods would go flying across the room and occasionly bounce off the corpse laid out in the corner.
All this came back when I heard Mary comment on the developing plans for having Queen Elizabeth pay a formal state visit to the twenty-six counties. Mary was eloquent about the interest and affection the Irish people have for the House of Windsor, and spoke of how they flock onto the streets to cheer when a member of that family visits Ireland. She was convinced this would be the case in the twenty-six counties if Queen Elizabeth flew in and that it would be the final capping-stone on good relations between Ireland and England after centuries of conflict.
I think it’s time someone took Mary’s hand and broke the news that there’s a corpse in the corner... Well no, actually, not a corpse. It could be mistaken for one but it’s actually a living body in bad shape. Efforts have been made to cut it in two, to pretend that parts of it don’t exist, and that it has the most cordial feelings for those who have inflicted this damage. And it'd also be good if the hand-holder could explain to Mary that while only a curmudgeon would want to stop people from cheering and feeling good, it’s really a self-inflicted con-trick to pretend that the Irish Question is now solved and that a divided country with 5,000 heavily-armed gunmen keeping it that way is a natural or desirable or permanent state.
A word in your refined little ear, Mary. Put away the turf-sods and go take a long look at the figure stretched out in the corner.
Wednesday, 9 September 2009
You have to laugh, otherwise something inside you could snap and make a peeeeooiiiing-ing sound like a ruptured cuckoo clock in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Peter Robinson has decided that the present system at Stormont just isn’t democratic enough and it’ll have to be improved. Why so? Because it requires Assembly members to say whether they’re unionist, nationalist or other. Apparently any change in the present system is due to wait until 2015, but Peter figures it should be hurried up. He’s worried that as it stands, the system is undemocratic, entrenches community division and isn’t one bit nice.
Good man, Peter. It makes me think of dear old Cecil Parkinson. Remember him? He was one of Maggie Thatcher’s Cabinet, which the more mature among you will recall was heavily into promoting family values and pulling the rug out from under people like unmarried mothers who were shredding the fabric of society with their immoral ways and unfamily values. Then it emerged that old Cecil’s past – in fact present – contained a liaison with, was it a secretary? And that the fruit of this union was a child which old C had done his damnedest to hide and avoid supporting.
No one’s suggesting for a moment that Peter would be up to such shenanigans – they don’t do fornication in the DUP, do they? – but isn’t there a danger that talking about a lack of democracy and community division leaves him open to some shouts of ‘Look behind you!’ and ‘Physician, heal thyself!’? I mean, Ian Paisley would still be stuck in some leaky gospel hall if he hadn’t spend decades fomenting community division. And what was the creation and maintenance of the northern state (make that present tense as well as past) if not undemocratic? We know gerrymander and discrimination were fun in themselves to operate but they were also undemocratic to a dizzying degree. So except you’re disowning all that and saying you’re sorry for all those decades of misrule, Peter, don’t ask us not to fall about shrieking with mirth when you start droning on about community division. There’s a reason the Stormont system is like few other parliamentary systems, and that’s because this little state we’re caught in is like few other states. In fact, if it weren’t for the present weird system in Stormont, the whole Heath Robinson six-county construction would be in danger of going Peeeeooiiiing again.
Monday, 7 September 2009
So – the British Labour Party is about to wrestle with its conscience and find that, would you believe it, it’s stronger than its conscience. Up to now Labour has refused to appear on television with the BNP, on the grounds that they’re a bunch of racists and to appear with them would be to lend them a spurious legitimacy. Hark! I hear an old war-cry, coming from the dark 1980s, from the rosebud lips of one M Thatcher. This war-cry declares that it WILL not give the oxygen of PUBLICITY to TERRORISM, and that’s why Sinn Fein are banned from the airwaves, except that is you can find an actor who will say the words in place of the Sinn Fein politicians. Ah me, how memory mixes with desire and what fun we had, deciding if the voice coming from Gerry Adams’s speechless lips should have carried a touch more menace, maybe more sincerity, perhaps a soupcon more passion, the teensiest better articulation…. In the end it’s the inconsistency that leaves you speechless with amusement or rage. Amusement if you enjoy watching establishment politicians tying themselves in knots as they argue the unarguable; rage if you still believe in that old-fashioned thing, free speech, where opposing views come forward, are presented , argued with and eventually seized on or rejected. If your opponents really are the numbskull crazies you claim they are, letting us hear and see them will surely expose their numbskullery and craziness? Or is it that our politicians believe they're clever enough to spot fascism but we're so thick, ten minutes of Nick Griffin might have us running onto the streets with lighted brands to torch immigrant homes?
So it's good to know the BBC's 'Question Time' has pressured Labour and the Tories and the Lib Dems into putting their bums in the same studio as the BNP. Mind you, they're such a hapless shower, there's a danger Griffin will look and sound convincing.