Wednesday, 28 October 2009
I was on ‘Good Morning Ulster’ (note that title if you’re living in Donegal, Monaghan or Cavan) yesterday morning and Mark Carruthers asked me a question I could have answered either yes or no to, with near-equal honesty. The question was “The two candidates for the SDLP leadership are very different from each other, aren’t they?” I could have said yes, since one’s a woman and the other’s a man; one’s married and the other’s single (a point rammed home in today’s Irish News, which shows a head-and-shoulders shot of Margaret Ritchie and a sofa shot of Alasdair McDonnell with his wife and four young children); one’s got a seat in Westminster and the other hasn’t. In fact I said no, they weren’t that different, in that they share perhaps the most important common denominator: they’ve both been around for some thirty years. When a leader takes over a political party, s/he needs to bring a sense of freshness, of new beginnings. David Cameron was able to do that in Britain; Gordon Brown wasn’t. The fact is the SDLP are a party with the flood waters lapping at chest level (as distinct from the UUP, who are experiencing that damp sensation in the region of the Adam’s apple), so it’s going to take something truly imagination-grabbing to get the waters to recede, or even stop from rising. A bold bread-and-butter move might do it, like resolving the scandalous shortage of houses for Catholics in North Belfast, or a strategy that’d convulse the cross-border bodies into something resembling meaningful life. Will Margaret Ritchie (who’ll probably win) or Alasdair McDonnell (who could conceivably win) deliver such a bold move? I doubt it. Even worse if you're an SDLP supporter: most of the people who’ll elect one or other of them doubt it too.
Monday, 19 October 2009
I did an interview with my old classmate Eamonn McCann today. He’s part of a group of over twenty former St Columb’s old boys, I suppose you could call us, who left St Columb’s College, Derry, in 1960 (or thereabouts).
There are people who go on from school to shine in the adult world while having been not particularly notable in their youth – I remember this being the memory of an English lecturer at St Patrick’s Teacher Training College, Drumcondra, who had taught the writer John McGahern. Eamonn wasn’t like that at school: he stood out from the start.
Not in a good way, in the view of some. Back then, just as now, he was always ready to challenge authority. Those who dislike him would say he did so because he enjoyed being bolshy. Those who like him would say he did so because authority needed challenging and he had the tongue and brain for the job. If I’m honest, at school he annoyed me more than once with the sharpness of his wit - we boarders didn’t like smart-arse dayboys, and we sometimes showed our disapproval in physical ways.
In the fifty years that have elapsed since we both left the College, I’ve run into Eamonn on a number of occasions, and read his writing and noted his contributions on radio and TV. Two things have impressed me. One is the originality of his thinking. No matter what the issue, he always seems to come up with an angle or a detail that I hadn’t quite noticed before. The second thing that I admire him for, and if anything my admiration is greater in this instance, is that he is grudge-free. In St Columb’s he more than once was on the receiving end, from staff and pupils, of what can only be called bullying. Were that me, I would remember it with a simmering rage. I’ve never once, including today’s extended interview, detected a hint of resentment from Eamonn.
I know people that bridle at the mention of his name and others who use coarse language. I don’t agree with all his thinking, particularly regarding the Catholic Church, but I know he’s one of the most intelligent and honest thinkers I’ve met. The fact that his views often provoke hostility says more about those who take umbrage than it does about their author.
Saturday, 17 October 2009
Richard Ingrams , the former editor of Private Eye, once said he gave up on satire when he heard that Henry Kissinger had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Reality was clearly so much more absurd and laughable, satire just had to take a back seat.
I thought of this yesterday when I read The Irish News. (Hey, give me another nationalist daily newspaper and I’ll read it.) The paper reported that in 1898, when Belfast City Hall’s foundation stone was laid, a time capsule was buried beneath, so when the City Hall was given a thorough make-over recently, they thought it’d be fun to see what was in it. Guess what? They couldn’t find the capsule. …But there’s more.
It’s been decided to compose a 2009 time capsule and they're going to lodge it, this Monday, complete with aluminium case, in the City Hall dome. The Irish News modestly notes that there’s a message from its oldest contributor, 98-year-old columnist James Kelly, and a young reader, 11-year-old Lucy Brennan. There's even one from the paper’s editor, Noel Doran. Dear Noel's message exemplifies the prose mastery and intellectual vigour we've come to expect. He hopes that in 2112 Belfast will have a ‘confident and prosperous future based on mutual respect for all traditions’.
What was it Mark Twain said? “It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt”. Yes Mark, but to want your voice to be heard 103 years down the line?
Thursday, 15 October 2009
A lot of posturing comment recently over two salutes, one because it happened and the other because it didn’t happen. In both cases the person being saluted or not saluted knew nothing of the event.
The first involved John Brady, who was found hanged in his cell at Strand Road police station in Derry on Saturday 3 October. Brady was a dissident republican who’d been arrested on Friday 2 October in connection with an alleged assault. His family don’t believe he committed suicide, which is what officialdom is busy claiming was the case. In a final salute, a volley of shots was fired over Brady’s coffin, and this has excited much critical comment in anti-republican ranks. “These are the gestures of a failed and discredited culture” the Irish Examiner told us, “and do not honour anyone’s life or death”.
The second salute, or non-salute, involved the Mayor of Belfast and the Queen of England. The Alliance Party’s Naomi Long drew heavy unionist fire when she didn’t propose a toast to QE2 during the official dinner marking her installation as mayor. DUP councillor Robin Newton said he was ‘greatly saddened’ by this failure and that she’d let down her East Belfast constituents.
Not for the first time, it’s hard to know what the Irish Examiner is on about. It’s a time-honoured practice in military circles to fire shots over the coffin of comrades who have died – the British army do it all the time. Why the dissident republicans’ volley should be described as ‘a culture’, failed or otherwise, is hard to see. The people who fired the shots clearly admired Brady and since they didn’t hit anyone, their volley is harmless and understandable.
The unionists in Belfast’s City Hall were also keen to show the esteem in which they hold Queen Elizabeth II, and they weren’t one bit pleased that Naomi Long didn’t give them the opportunity to so do. Not that QE2 either knew or cared whether they did or not, any more than the dead Brady could care about the salute over his corpse.
But the paramilitaries were speaking, so to say, for their united ranks, when they fired the volley; Naomi Long, had she offered a royal toast, would not have been speaking for at least half and maybe more of the people of Belfast. She clearly was aware of that and sensibly kept her glass on the table. Robin Newton and unionism also know that half, maybe more of Belfast's population are now nationalist/republican, but they find it hard to accept. Maybe they felt that if Her Majesty could be toasted at the dinner, somehow past unionist hegemony would come flooding into the present on a wave of royal sentiment.
So maybe the Irish Examiner should stop trying to pretend dissident republicans have gone away and Robin Newton and Co should start accepting that the good old, Queen-quaffing days ain't coming back.
Monday, 12 October 2009
The twenty-fifth anniversary of the Brighton bombing got a fair bit of coverage on breakfast radio this morning. Thatcher, we're told, was saved because she was working on some papers, rather than in her bathroom. I've always found that a bit hard to swallow - that it was her dedication, her enormous appetite for work, that saved her. It fits too neatly. There are so many other things you could be doing in an hotel room with your spouse - going to the toilet, having sex, plucking your eyebrows, shaving your legs. But Thatcher was busy working on a paper of some kind. They had a clip of her speaking at the Tory conference the morning after. Real Churchill stuff: 'All attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail!' I often wonder if people like her really believe the things they say. Does it ever enter the chamber of her consciousness that putting thousands of armed soldiers onto the island next door and ruling the north-east corner of that island, against the wishes of the Irish people, might be a bit undemocratic too? Maybe not. Maybe it's a British way of thinking about things. On 'Today' on BBC Radio 4, John Humphries was asking questions about the visit of Hillary Clinton to Ireland and her possible impact on the devolution of policing and justice. 'Is it a bit odd that we need an American Secretary of State to help us out in Northern Ireland?' It's the 'we' of that which gets me. Dear John is asking me to believe that he's my fellow-countryman, that as the Tories say, we're all in this together in a unified, shoulder-to-shoulder way. When you hear a reasonably enlightened presenter like Humphries talk that way, you realise how deeply ingrained are the territorial assumptions of the British.
Wednesday, 7 October 2009
I've just read a feature article on Chris Evans in The Guardian, and not for the first time find myself wondering if people who excel in the media start out being decent human beings and are corrupted by it, or if they're like that from the start and it explains why they do well in that murky pool? Evans is so obviously in love with himself, you want to hit him with an anvil. And then I found myself thinking of one Nicky Campbell, to whose Radio Five Live show I used to make a contribution (that makes it sound like I was giving them money, which I wasn't; they were giving it to me). On the air and more so off it,Nicky was like Evans Lite - half-way up his own bum in admiration of himself and astonished if all hands didn't respond with similarly dizzy admiration. There are local examples of this phenomenon among our local media personalities but I'll avoid legal action and maybe a thumping by not naming names. It's perhaps got to do with the effort that projecting a particular public persona requires. After a while the projector begins n to grow into a parody of him/herself, until all that's left is a sort of rattling shell of a man or woman. Mind you, I say this as someone who's dabbled in the shallows of the media world for some 30 years now, so I may be mildly infected myself...
Monday, 5 October 2009
OK - hands up if you're glad that Martin McGuinness got fed up with the DUP dragging their heels on devolution of policing and justice? Right. That's everybody except the little man wearing an Alliance Party badge who says there's much to be said on both sides. Me, I think it's time. An objective consideration of the exchanges between the DUP and Sinn Fein over the past two years will show that Sinn Fein, if not bending over backwards to be pleasant to the DUP, have come dangerously close at times to stooping down low before them, and we know where that got some other people a while back. For their part, the DUP have gone back to the animal terminology: the Shinners need to be house-trained. That, I think, was Trimble's line originally - remember old David? Ah me. Seems like a lifetime ago. But of course Big Ian was using the same kind of language a bit more skilfully - remember that time he told a visitor to Stormont that if he wasn't able to eat all that was put in front of him, he'd give it to 'the deputy' and 'he'd gobble it up'. Get that? A small ravenous dog that greedily fastens on anything the humans may put in front of it. That's you, deputy. You're a dog. You need to be house-trained. And so do the members of your party.
These little DUP outbursts are helpful because they remind us, not how hard it is for some unionist politicians to share power with republicans, but how difficult they find it to regard republicans (and maybe nationalists too) as human beings. Maybe that's the secret dear old Charlie Haughey knew when he described Northern Ireland as a 'failed political entity'. If in your deepest heart you think your opponents are sub-human, the whole idea of equality in the state, much less sharing power, is unthinkable. Scary line of thought, eh? It's like pulling back the curtain in the Wizard of Oz, to discover not a loveable old guy but something smelly and monstrous.