Friday, 30 March 2012
The first was a man from China. That's to say, he wasn't a native of China, he'd just been there on a good-will, for-God's-sake-give-us-some-of-your-money visit. Having been to the States a few days earlier to grin and ring the stock-market bell, then headed to China to look solemn and handle awkward questions about Irish unity, it's hardly surprising that Enda Kenny's eyes looked like badly-fried eggs as he sat in the Dail yesterday. America was all right - apart from having to wait for three days after Paddy's Day before getting to give Obama the big ugly shamrock bowl and having to spend part of those days with the widely-acknowledged-as-ghastly Mayor of Chicago, the American visit was OK. And China would have been all right too, setting aside the brain-crushing jet-lag, only some smart-arse in the Chinese audience asked Enda whether he had a timetable for Irish unity. Talk about a metaphorical fist in the face. Poor Enda did what he could to explain that, um, no, he didn't have a timetable, that we'd got the Good Friday Agreement, and really when you got down to it, the main thing was, there was peace. But as he sat in the Dail, I have a feeling Enda's weary brain was already fumbling with an even more awkward question: how in God's name was he going to square his peace-is-the-main-thing with the honour he'd be heaping in the fairly-near future on those well-known men of peace, Pearse, Connolly and the rest?
The other face that betrayed flickers of inner anguish belonged to Edwin Poots. He was under some sharp questioning from Noel Thompson on the BBC's Hearts and Minds programme about the state of the health service here. Normally, Edwin's face is one that registers about the same emotion as your average wheelie-bin, but I thought I saw flickers of panic as Thompson's questions came zapping into him about people being kept waiting twelve hours before being seen at their local Accident and Emergency, about the number of babies that had died in hospitals here over the past few years, and about his being the party that had emptied metaphorical bed-pans all over the UUP's Michael McGimpsey when he was health minister, yet here we were a full year into the reign of Edwin and things if anything were looking worse. But things didn't all go Thompson's way. Edwin managed to make the point, and make it firmly, that someone suffering from a heart attack should be attended to in A & E before someone with a sore back or a sprained wrist. It's insights like that which serve a politician well in times of near-terror and I'm sure make the heart of his party leader swell with pride as he prepares to head south of the border to give a talk on Irish unionism...What's that? No, he wouldn't be travelling via Clontibret, despite the fascinating personal and historical associations that tiny town surely holds for him.
Thursday, 29 March 2012
Sometimes you just feel ashamed to be Irish. I was browsing through some old copies of the Irish Independent the other day and I came on a report of a football game 'way back between Ireland and Kenya. The report is headed "What? A whining darkie?" It goes on to deal with a complaint made by some Kenyan players that during the game they'd been racially abused by Irish players. The writer is pretty scornful of this ("Only the kikes could give the darkies a run for their money when it comes to complaining"). The Kenyans claimed that some Irish players were "provocative in the extreme" and referred to them, among other things, as "black bastards". The Indo commentator can't see what all the fuss was about: "Actually, it was perfectly good fun and let's be honest - who would turn down the chance to annoy someone from Kenya? Interestingly, the Kenyans now seem to be backtracking slightly, having obviously realised that by screaming 'racism' they just look like a bunch of tools".
What's your reaction - horror? Incredulity? Rage that a piece of dog-dirt like this can appear in a national paper? I'm with you there.
But actually the report wasn't from an old copy of the Indo, it was from last Monday. And it wasn't about an Ireland-Kenya game, it was about a recent Armagh-Laois Gaelic game. The heading was "What? A whining nordie?", and for "kikes" you have to substitute "scousers" and for "black bastards" put in "British bastards".
So now. Have you changed your mind and do you feel with the writer that it was "perfectly good fun", since it was only mocking people from the six counties and not Kenyans?
My own consolation comes from the fact that just as not all British people have the same views on black immigrants as Enoch Powell, so too most people in the south don't have the same view on northerners as the sad little man who scribbled ... Sorry, have to stop now. There's a piece of something stuck to the heel of my shoe and it's giving off a terrible smell.
Tuesday, 27 March 2012
There can be few sights more fun than to watch a population drenched in moral perspiration. A fair example was on show on RTÉ's The Frontline last night. The panel and the audience and Pat Kenny were beating their bosoms and rending their hair, or rather beating the bosoms and rending the hair of the Fianna Fail party, with the odd beat and rend at Fine Gael and Labour and all the politicians in Ireland. Oh holy God, has it come to this, our system looks like it's corrupt to the core! Colm O'Gorman kept trying to insert the corruption of the Catholic Church but since he was a Progressive Democrat and they were supposed to be the moral watchdogs in government with Fianna Fail back then, he found himself at something of a disadvantage. But the message still came through loud and clear: the south of Ireland is the most corrupt country that ever you have seen, because it is not, unfortunately, hanging men like Bertie Ahern (Taoiseach) who was declared a liar in the Mahon Report, Charlie Haughey, who was found to be corrupt in earlier investigations and Padraig Flynn who was a big lying chancer. And the list went on. The south of Ireland, we were told was a uniquely stinking cesspool in need of draining.
Unique? I think not. Take if you will our dear neighbour-next-door, where the prime minister yesterday was forced to admit he had hosted a series of private dinners and lunches with wealthy Tory donors who'd forked out a total of £23,000,000 to the Tory party. This followed on the back of the party's treasurer, Peter Cruddas, being caught on camera saying a donation of £200,000 or thereabouts would get "premier league" access to the British prime minister and other top dogs.
You see where I'm going with this? I have a friend who is forever lamenting the corruption in the south - and the Mahon Report would appear to bear him out. What he doesn't talk about is the corruption that we now see exists at the heart of the British government, and you may be sure that were a major inquiry launched in our own little north-eastern corner, the straws in the wind concerning dodgy land deals here would turn into haysheds whizzing around in a sizeable hurricane. Last night some eejit tried to suggest it was our history wot done it - we were used to ducking and diving to avoid the weight of our British masters and now that they're gone (from the south), we're still at it. Total unadulterated bullshit. Where there's money involved, the capitalist system says "Go on, my friend, get your snout into that lot". And if a few lies are told or rules bent in the course of events, sure an omelette was never made without breaking the odd egg or two. Just don't do it in public.
Do you know, I could nearly put up with the hand-wringing and yelps of outrage last night from the various Frontline worthies, if they hadn't pretended the whole thing came as a monstrous shock to them. Here lads - pull this one. It's got bells on it.
Monday, 26 March 2012
I see where my old stable-mate and fellow-baldy at the VO, Brian Feeney, is getting cross with Gerry Adams. Very cross. He says Gerry spoke to an audience in Co Derry and he misled them. Apparently he told them that Owen Paterson had dismissed the possibility of a border poll; Brian says the Good Friday Agreement says Paterson can't do that and so it was misleading for Gerry to say that he had - Pay attention at the back there, please! - dismissed it. Brian is even crosser with Gerry because he says Gerry left West Belfast as impoverished as he found it several decades ago. And there's more: Gerry's not being specific enough about what kind of united Ireland he and Sinn Féin want.
Brian's a good columnist - unlike quite a few, he's readable - but with the 'he left it as he found it' charge against the Sinn Féin president, he's beginning to sound like one of these school-league-table zealots: School X is useless, it doesn't get half as many A*s as School Y. Never mind what School X has to cope with in terms of poverty, neglect and grammar-school-cream-off in the first place. The truth is, our MPs carry zero political clout at Westminster. All of them. Has Derry, represented by John Hume for decades, or Ballymena, represented by Ian Paisley for decades, been a boom town over the years? Attend Westminster, abstain from Westminster - it doesn't matter a monkey's, Britain does what she pleases. So yes, West Belfast is a hard-pressed area, just like lots of other places. Been to North Belfast recently, Brian? Or West Tyrone?
As to the "What kind of united Ireland?" charge: I thought that's what we were all supposed to be working towards together- the nationalist people in the north, the unionist people in the north and the mixed bag of people in the south? Coming up with an agreed Ireland, not going on solo runs and telling others how it should be. Brian cites admiringly the New Ireland Forum which came up with its "blueprint for a united Ireland" thirty years ago. Right. And that's made terrific progress, hasn't it?
But hey - ain't nothing like a bit of Shinner-bashing to get the blood surging among a certain class of readers. Some newspapers depend on it for their circulation.
Sunday, 25 March 2012
Monks in medieval times used to keep a skull sitting on their desk so they’d have a daily reminder of their own mortality. The Orange Order don’t have any official equivalent, as far as I know, which is a pity. Latest reminder of where they’re headed comes in the form of Danny Kennedy’s decision to duck out of the Ulster Unionist leadership contest. With Tom Elliott trudging off-stage and John McCallister and Mike Nesbitt the only two candidates for the job, there’ll soon be no unionist leader who is an Orangeman. Not Peter Robinson, not Jim Allister, not nobody. Danny Kennedy, a big man in Orangeism, was asked what importance he attached to all this. His answer: “I don’t think it’s relevant”.
Good word for it, Danny: irrelevant. At one time it was a total must for any unionist leader, or even ambitious young unionist politician, to belong to the Orange Order. All of the Stormont Prime Ministers from 1921 to 1972 were Orangemen. Some embraced the Order with a will; others, like Terence O’Neill, put a clothes-peg on their nose as they slipped on the sash each Twelfth. But whether you felt pride or disdain, Orange membership was your ticket to the unionist dance. No ticket, no dance.
O tempora, o mores - what days those were! Back then the Orange Order had enormous clout. It claimed 100,000 members. It had what looked like an inextricable link with power unionism. But slowly, then faster and faster, change came. The 100,000 became 85,000, then 65,000. By the early 1990s even that looked optimistic. Ironically it was Joel Patton, the leader of the Spirit of Drumcree, who urged the Order to come clean about the numbers. In 2006 Orangeman the Rev Brian Kennaway obliged and revealed that they were down to 30,000.
Desperate, the Order came up with the Orangefest thing. It was all just a big inclusive modern day out, the Twelfth. Cartoon figure Diamond Dan was created – named after the Battle of the Diamond in 1795 and the organisation’s pub-owing founding father, Dan Winters. But Diamond Dan didn’t own a pub. As the Order’s Education Officer David Scott explained: “Diamond Dan will be the kind of person who offers his seat on a crowded bus to an elderly lady. He won’t drop litter and he will be keen on recycling”.
But not even Diamond Dan’s heroic efforts could halt the decline and the once-muscular force is today sadly shrunken. Word is that the Belfast Grand Orange Lodge will host a parade past Belfast City Hall in May of this year to celebrate the signing of the Ulster Covenant, and another in September to celebrate, um, the signing of the Ulster Covenant. But grabbing at the coat-tails of history is a serious step-down from the golden age when you could trail your coat at will.
What happened to the Order? A lot of things but in particular Drumcree. That siege attracted the public support of such good-living Christians as Johnny Adair and Billy Wright, and the swagger of them and their supporters on-stage sent thousands of traditional Order members scrabbling for pen and paper to send in their resignations. Worse still, the core principle involved at Drumcree – that the Orange Order could march where it wanted - was stopped in its tracks. On 11 March this year, the 5,000th day of the Drumcree protest passed. How come you hadn’t noticed? District Master Darryl Hewitt explained that the occasion was kept low-profile “as it was on a Sunday”. Yeah, right, Darryl.
My guess is that unionist leaders today are happy to slip this half-dead albatross from around their necks. There’ll be all sorts of baton-twirling and approving noises made as the Order marches past Belfast City Hall this May and September as the Ulster Covenant is commemorated. The Twelfth will bring its usual heightened moments of bigotry. But most unionists know the Orange card has become so thumb-marked and chewed on and urinated over, it’s best to say “Pass”. Meanwhile, with never a thought for its mortality the Order thunders on, marching on shrunken limbs towards the scrap-yard of history.
Friday, 23 March 2012
Thursday, 22 March 2012
When I was young, I was a bad loser. Really bad. Like Arsene Wenger, I'd feel almost physically sick when I got beaten in a handball game or a push-penny game or a game of football. I remember feeling a sense of absolution - years too late - when I saw the Roy Keane quotation: "Show me a good loser and I'll show you a loser".
But I don't remember lifting bricks and chucking them at the homes of people I thought might be supporters of the guy or guys who'd just beaten me. Nor do I remember peeing in a bottle and chucking that at the opposition. And I certainly don't remember tearing down fencing and chasing - with my mates, of course - a defenceless director of the opposing team and putting him in fear of his life.
All that happened in Derry's Brandywell area two nights ago, according to residents. On TV last night was the Derry City director, a man in his forties I'd say, who was close to tears as he told of his terror. In its desire to be even-handed, or show the world through a tit-for-tat lens, the BBC had the PUP's Billy Hutchinson on, who said that Derry City supporters made sectarian chants and threw stones at the Linfield supporters' bus, and he'd never go back to Derry again.
What to make of it? Another occasion on which fans from both sides disgraced themselves? That's one way of looking at it. But there does seem to be a suggestion - correct me if I'm wrong, I wasn't there - that the hostilities were not just initiated by Linfield fans, but that their hostility had a vicious edge to it. I can understand the feelings of the supporters of Linfield. You do a round trip of near 150 miles, your team is beaten 3-1 by an old sporting foe - of course you're going to feel sick. But there's a difference in feeling sick and terrorising local residents and putting an inoffensive director in fear of his life. Throwing stones at a bus, nasty though it is, pales in comparison. It seems that the spirit of that Windsor Park night in November 1993 hasn't gone away, you know.
Wednesday, 21 March 2012
Anyway I'm going to struggle once again against my prejudices this morning, as I see John has been talking about the commemoration of 1916. I think I've said in earlier blogs: I've a particular interest in this as I've a book of interviews on centenaries coming out later this year. So what did John say?
Well he was talking about an article in the Jesuit journal Studies, by a Fr Shaw. In the article apparently - I must read it - Shaw quotes extensively from Pearse, and questions his identification of nationalism with holiness, his hatred of England, and his glorification of death and violence.
"All commemorations serve an education purpose for the future" John says. "It is important that such sentiments as these not be glorified in 2016 and that their consequences be fairly assessed. They were misleading to people one hundred years ago and they are just as misleading today".
Well now. I'm with John on that first sentence - we all should try to learn from commemorations, and act on what we've learnt in the future. So for example if you have a Remembrance Sunday commemoration, you should learn that it's a bad thing to send young men to their deaths in a pointless military engagement hundreds of miles from home. You commemorate and you learn.
As to the second sentence, where he's talking about Pearse's identification of nationalism with holiness, his hatred of England and his glorification of death and violence, let's take the last one first. Sean O'Casey had a similar pop at Pearse in more than one of his plays - the blood of patriots fertilising the earth, etc. What neither John nor Sean does is point out that this was how leaders commonly talked then. Check out political speeches at that time, particularly those referring to wars like the Great War - very much the same language of blood sacrifice. To us it seems gruesome; to them it was common-place and noble.
And Pearse's hatred of England? I suppose we'd need to see the quotations Shaw is using. But if your country has been under the heel of the next door neighbour for hundreds of years, and during that time your people have suffered in all sorts of appalling ways, it might be understandable that a note of hatred would creep into your discourse. But as I say we'd need to see the quotations, wouldn't we?
As to John's last sentence: misleading? Wtf? Is John saying that the men of 1916 misled people one hundred years ago, when they seized the GPO? When they began a process that resulted in John and his fellow-countrymen in the southern part of Ireland being freed from British interference in their affairs? Now that would merit some educational thought. As for people being misled today, it's not violence or hatred of England or equating patriotism with holiness that's misleading people (although it'd be relatively easy to defend a link between patriotism and holiness, I think). It's the successive governments who've closed their eyes to the northern problem for close on a hundred years, who built a corrupt state south of the border, and who in the name of patriotism handed over the sovereignty of the south to Berlin and Paris, so that the Irish budget gets the once-over in the Bundestag before it's shown to the Dail - that's where you'll find your misleading, John.
But do you hear any government ministers or former government ministers admitting they've misled the Irish people, first the Irish in the north ("We will not stand idly by") and now in the south as well? Don't be a silly-billy. They're too busy reading Studies and hoping to get some ammo for controlling things in 2016.
Monday, 19 March 2012
By the way - I assume, like me, you never got pissed or bolshie when you were young? Right. I thought not.
Sunday, 18 March 2012
Last weekend QPR manager Mark Hughes was going a bit ballistic about a goal he says his team scored but the ref ruled they hadn’t. The ref said he couldn’t see it from his angle so he couldn’t judge if the goalie had scooped the ball out before it crossed the line; the assistant referee/linesman said his view was blocked by two players between him and the ball; goal-mouth replays on TV showed the ball had definitely gone in.
You thought I’d forgotten about the signing of the Covenant, didn’t you? Bear with me. As in the case of the disputed goal, the way you see the Covenant signing depends to a great extent on where you’re positioned. If you’re in the shoes of a traditional (or maybe average) unionist, you’ll see it as a glorious event that laid the foundations for the state you’re now living in. Faced with forcible expulsion from the United Kingdom, the men and women of Ulster came together to make clear they were having none of it. Nearly half a million men and women solemnly pledged themselves to resist by all possible means such unfair and misguided treatment. (The women weren’t allowed to sign the Covenant, just a Declaration, but let’s not go there).
If you’re a nationalist/republican, you’ll see 1912 differently. From your seat in the stands you’ll see a minority of Irish people resisting the democratic and lawful wishes of the majority that they should be granted Home Rule. You'll also point to the contradiction of a unionist people defying the very British government to whom they vowed allegiance. You might add that the Covenant people, promising violence if their wishes were not met, acted not just undemocratically but opened the door to a decade of violence – the Larne gun-running, the Howth gun-running, Easter 1916, the Tan War, the Civil War. By bringing the gun into twentieth-century Irish politics, they sent hundreds of good people on this island to their graves and plunged thousands of loved ones in deepest grief.
So is that it? Do you pick your side and chant insults at the opposing lot? Well, maybe if you’re supporting a football team, but not if you’re seriously addressing Irish history. If it’s history you’re talking, you stay open-minded to other views and perhaps new evidence. You scrutinise the signing of the Covenant and try to tease out the meaning it can have for us, one hundred years later. You’ll probably raise that old question: does the meaning and/or its morality change with the passage of time?
That’s what happened on BBC Radio Ulster/Raidio Uladh’s Sunday Sequence last weekend. They were talking about the signing of the Covenant, and panelist Brian Feeney said in so many words that we mustn’t judge the signing of the Covenant/the Larne gun-running by the standards of today. Presenter William Crawley immediately did his job. He asked “Why?” Why shouldn’t we judge the morality of the Covenant signing and the Larne gun-running by today’s standards? After all, we judge the actions of Hitler in the 1930s by today’s standards – why not those in the north of Ireland during second decade of the twentieth-century? In response to the question Feeney gave a jokey remark about religion but no answer.
So do we show how tolerant we are and settle back into moral relativism? You say tomato, I say tomayto? Everything depends on what vantage point you've got, and anyway we can’t really judge people and events that happened so long ago? My own view is that relativism is bunkum. Of course we must keep in mind the context in which people found themselves and the beliefs they held then. But when all that tomato/tomayto stuff has been said, there are still conclusions to be be drawn and judgments to be made. The video replay, the goal-line technology should be wheeled on and used. We can't let the value of historical events depend on the state of someone's digestion.
Saturday, 17 March 2012
Tell you what. On this sun-filled St Patrick's Day, let's look at the Queen of England. Or to be more exact, the suggested meeting between herself and Martin McGuinness. Five things.
1. There's something faintly hilarious about the northern leader of a party which, for years, people would have chopped off their hand rather than shake hands with; now he’s being asked, courted, demanded - you choose your word - to shake hands. Remember Gay Byrne's famous refusal to shake the hand of Gerry Adams on his Late Late Show? And now there are people who'll be miffed if Martin McGuinness doesn't shake hands with the head of the House of Windsor. Sometimes it's hard to keep up with the twists of diplomacy and etiquette.
2. Do you shake hands only with people whose political views match yours? I'm putting the finishing touches to a book about three of the major centenaries we now face. In the course of preparing it, I interviewed politicians of every stripe - from flinty republicans to dyed-in-the-wool unionists. In every case I shook hands with them, and they with me. I can't speak for them but I know I figured it was a civilized thing to do. It didn't mean I shared their philosophies or indeed that they shared mine. Ditto Queen and Deputy First Minister.
3. There are some who'll seek to make political hay out of any McG-QE2 meeting. Some will say it shows McGuinness has sold out - that he's accepted the Queen as his lawful sovereign, and all those years of conflict were all a bit like your man in the 'Dallas' soap - all just a bad dream that never really happened. Others will say that it shows nationalists/Catholics in the north - esp the under 45s, if you're to believe at least one priest - don't give a monkey's about a united Ireland. Both of them clearly don't know Martin McGuinness.
4. Why is McGuinness prepared to do it? Well, only he knows for sure. But my guess is that, like Alex Salmond, he wants to reassure those in the community who might be filled with fears about the future that, as far as acting in a civilized and respectful manner towards the woman they - well, not so much they have chosen, since choosing a monarch has nothing to do with the people - the woman who has been landed on them as their head of state.
5. This is another stage in a long journey that Sinn Fein have taken towards reconciliation with their fellow-Irishmen who are unionists. Their attitude to Irish soldiers who died in British uniform in WW1, their taking of seats at Stormont and the Dail, their sharing of power and its responsibilities - they are determined to remove any unnecessary barrier between them and the unionist community. On Thursday last I was in Berry Street Presbyterian Church. The minister introduced the discussion of the signing of the Covenant - attended by at least as many nationalists/republicans as unionists - and then handed over, in his words, to his 'good friend Danny Morrison'.
All changed, changed utterly. You can interpret that as a total sell-out of the great mass of republicans of everything they fought for over several decades - killed and were killed, went to prison for years, all the other wounds of conflict - all sold out, the Queen of England acknowledged as their sovereign. Or you can see it as republicans treating in a civilized way someone unionists, for reasons best known to themselves revere. My money is on the second of these two. A final footnote: if republicans are respectful of unionist figure-heads such as the Queen of England, that poses an interesting question. How will unionists treat those things which republicans hold dear and honour?
Friday, 16 March 2012
I attended a historic event last night - historic in both senses, of being unique and having to do with history. It was held in Berry Street Presbyterian Church and with the BBC's Yvette Shapiro in the chair, there was a panel discussion between Gordon Lucy, Eamonn Phoenix and Tom Hartley. The topic was the first of the many centenaries thundering this way: the signing of the Ulster Covenant.
Well. If the English are a nation of shopkeepers, then we must be a nation of historians. The breadth and detail of knowledge of events shown by the three panel members and various contributors from the floor - including (whisper it) Fianna Fail's Martin Mansergh, Martin McAleese and Alban Maginniss - was impressive to the point of astonishment, at least for an ignoramus like me. People were talking about events in 1886, 1910, 1914, 1921 with an ease and familiarity, as though they had happened yesterday. That's your cue, if you're so inclined, to say that this is precisely the problem - we dwell on the past far too much. I beg to differ. The debate was lively and informed, and set the Covenant signing in a context that I found repeatedly illuminating.
There was one moment in particular that stood out for me. It happened when Gordon Lucy, speaking from the unionist tradition, was asked what he and the other panel members would like to see achieved at the end of this 'decade of sensitive centenaries', as I think Martin McAleese phrased it. (Yes, since you ask, Jackie McDonald was there too). Lucy's reply was that he'd like to see lots of events like this one but added an emphatic note of caution: he'd put his view of things, people like Alban Maginniss would put theirs, but it wouldn't really change anyone's thinking. Both parties would leave with the same views they entered. At this point, without waiting for the microphone to be passed to him - or permission from the chair - a man at the back stood up and said he completely disagreed. The whole point of discussion was to open your mind to new ideas, new perspectives on a given topic, and that you should leave meetings like this with something to chew on, mull over, nudge your thinking in new directions.
There you have it in compressed form. You either see the meeting of different points of view as a verbal butting of heads, looking to see who comes out on top; or you see such meetings as opportunities to acquire - at no cost - food for thought. Tom Hartley says something to this effect in the (very blurred) video clip that I'm hoping to put up with this posting. The evening was rich in so many talking points, I feel I'm doing it an injustice with something as brief and amateurish as this. But maybe you were there. In which case, post your comment. For God, Ulster and Ireland's sake.
Thursday, 15 March 2012
Oh dear. If you're to believe the Irish Times this morning, RTÉ has got its knickers in a fearful twist about that tweet. You remember, the one that purported to come from Sinn Féin during the famous presidential Frontline debate - or that was announced as same by Pat Kenny. You can get the timeline for what happened that night, you can get what Sean Gallagher says and said - you can get just about anything on the topic, because RTÉ and its critics believe this tweet puts the station's reputation on the line.
I'm amazed. Well no, half-amazed. Half of me is impressed by the thoroughness of this tweet investigation, suggesting the determination of the station and everyone else to locate fault, if fault there be, and act accordingly. The other half of me is amazed - AMAZED - that nobody in RTÉ or, it seems, anywhere in the south thinks that RTÉ treated Martin McGuinness in a lop-sided fashion during the campaign. Given that I don't think I'm the only one north of the border who thinks this way, you'd imagine the Irish Times would have the odd irate letter. Not so, to the best of my knowledge. So the state and the station are aghast at a tweet being attributed to Sinn Féin when it wasn't, but have made no effort to see what balance there was between questions put to McGuinness during the campaign about his actions from, say, the past twenty years and his actions in the twenty years preceding that. Was it because talk of people being killed - by the IRA, of course - made for better television than questions about working for the creation of the Good Friday Agreement and the crushing work of keeping it in place in the years that followed? Was it that RTÉ and the state genuinely feared that the forces of law-and-order would break into Áras an Uachtaráin half-way through a McGuinness term as president and arrest him for war crimes? No, no, no. RTÉ and the state establishment were simply determined that no damned northern Shinner was going to come down and by his presence in the Áras accuse them daily of platitudes about partition. They didn't feel abashed about their partisan questioning of McGuinness - they gloried in it. They didn't feel embarrassed about the absence of questions about McGuinness's political career - they prided themselves on just that. Pssst, guys: little secret. Sometimes sins of omission are graver than those of commission.
Wednesday, 14 March 2012
The last time I wrote about Mary McArdle, I got abuse - some spoken, some silently acted on - from those in high places and in conspicuously low places. So it's with my sinews, such as they are, stiffened that I tiptoe towards the topic again.
Mary McArdle, you'll remember, was convicted for being part of an IRA unit that attempted to kill Judge Travers on his way home from Mass. They wounded the judge and they killed the judge's daughter Mary, who was with him. Mary McArdle was appointed a special advisor to the Sinn Féin Minister for Culture, and a campaign was mounted to have her removed, with the voice of Anne Travers, Mary's sister, most frequently heard. It didn't succeed. Or at least not at the time - McArdle has in the last couple of days been moved to another post within Sinn Féin. Anne Travers declares herself delighted that she's achieved a victory for her dead sister, and now calls on Mary McArdle to divulge the names of those who were on the mission with her.
I could repeat for the umpteenth time how horrible it must be to lose through violence a member of your family, but can we take that as read? Hundreds, thousands of people here have experienced it over the past forty years and the pain they live with is immense. The question is, was Mary McArdle forced out of her job because of pressure by Anne Travers? Probably not. Had McArdle resigned in the heat of the media onslaught, the answer would have been different. But the fact is, the case has sunk to the back of the public consciousness. My guess is that McArdle was moved primarily because a gap occurred elsewhere in the Shinner organisation which they believed McArdle could fill effectively. At some secondary level, they may have felt that it might indicate that, while they're not prepared to be dictated to, they have sensitivity about the matter. If Anne Travers feels entitled to claim that as her victory, fine.
What's she's not entitled to do is to start another campaign to have Mary McArdle provide the names of the other people who were with her that day. Which she shows signs of doing: "Now I would just like it if Mary McArdle could just find it in her heart...to tell me who else was involved in Mary's murder and the attempted murder of my parents". She clearly wasn't listening when Martin McGuinness at the Saville Inquiry and numerous other republicans made it clear that they will not give information about their comrades in anything short of a full truth and healing engagement involving all sides, including the British state and its forces. Now there's a campaign that might have merit.
Tuesday, 13 March 2012
I’ve been reading a biography of Alice Milligan, an amazing woman from the wonderful town of Omagh. She came from a fiercely anti-Home Rule Methodist family, yet she spent her long life (she died in the 1950s) promoting Irish republicanism. An integral part of that work, she believed, was the promotion of Irish culture in all its forms, particularly the language.
So when I was chatting to a woman the other day about learning Irish, I asked her why was she doing it. “Because I’m Irish” I was told. So I suggested there must be more to it than that, given that there are about six million Irish people and not all of them were learning Irish like her. Big mistake. I immediately got my lug-hole filled with sharpish reproof for daring to think I could know her motivation for learning Irish better than she did, things had come to a pretty pass when someone like me could claim he knew more about her motivation than she did, etc, etc, etc. Wham, bam, shut your mouth, man.
On the same day I was talking to a man who’s well up on the development of the Irish language in the north. He explained to me how there’s been a phenomenal growth in the language over the past fifteen years or so – from nowhere to fifty Irish-medium schools across the north. So, I asked, could he explain why it was almost exclusively nationalists who were behind this revival, given that - I was going to say given that it was northern Protestants who saved the language in the eighteenth and nineteenth century – hence the McAdam part of the MacAdam-Ó Fiach Cultúrlann building in Belfast, for example. I was going to ask that but I couldn't, because my companion had wheeled away calling over his shoulder that he wasn’t going to get into that, if I wanted to talk about Irish development, fine, but not that.
Two little stories that show the sensitivity of some Irish speakers about linking Irish culture with our social/political situation. Alice Milligan had very definite views on that. Some, she said, wanted to make the language a glorious jewelled brooch they placed under glass in a museum, for admiration. Others, like her, wanted to wear it on their breast and bring it shining into the world of events and political effort.
So is it the Alice Milligans that some commentators are thinking of, when they claim republicanism has “hi-jacked the language”? Maybe. But if you look at Irish history, you’ll see how Irish culture, especially the language, during Milligan's time and before and after, weaves in and out of political commitment. Maybe some devotees of the Irish language are afraid the Protestant/unionist horses will take fright from the language, if it’s seen as standing too close to politics. And so they pretend no such link exists and get shirty with anyone who even hints otherwise?
Sunday, 11 March 2012
OK – let me put my cards on the table: I like Jim Allister. He’s a smart guy and he doesn’t mind swimming, as he sees it, against the tide. And while he does talk much of the time in complete sentences – not necessarily a good thing, despite what your teacher told you – he also tends to use logic much of the time, which is more than can be said for many of his opponents.
But he’s running in the face of reason with this latest crusade of his, which is to retain the name of the RUC Athletic Association. The assistant chief constable, Will Kerr, says they’d better change it or they’ll fail to get grants and they’d have to beef up membership fees. TUV leader Jim says it’s “totally unacceptable”, any change would cause “huge hurt” to ex-RUC people. I guess Jim knows ex-RUC people better than me but I would have thought they’d have their major hurt over and done with some years ago when the RUC name for the force bowed out and the PSNI name for the service bowed in. Add to which the arrival of the PSNI began a major change in attitudes to policing among nationalists and largely solved a problem that had bedeviled northern society for decades. If I were a unionist, I think I might consider some hurt feelings a price worth paying for a prize like that.
Oh well. I guess Jim has branded himself as the one-man Traditional Unionist Voice and even when he knows it’s a bit daft, he has to keep yelling betrayal and doing a King Canute thing. It’s an indication of the regard I have for him that I’m convinced, somewhere inside that beefy exterior, he’s feeling embarrassed.
Saturday, 10 March 2012
Well the answer may partially lie in the t-shirt Mario Balotelli wore under his Manchester City jersey a few months back. Having scored a goal, Balotelli pulled up his jersey to reveal the slogan "Why always me?" If you leave out the "always", you have McGeough's complaint in a nutshell.
For example: when David Cameron apologised for the killing of fourteen civilians in Derry on Bloody Sunday, he didn't mention any of the Parachute regiment that did the killing going to jail. Not for two years, not for two minutes. The people still mourning dead relatives in Ballymurphy who were slaughtered by the same regiment haven't seen anyone charged, let alone sent to jail. And the list goes on - Rosemary Nelson, Pat Finucane, maybe hundreds of other people left to mourn their dead loved ones, killed by British 'security forces', and no question of anyone going to prison.
So yes - from Brush's point of view, McGeough is getting off lightly with two years. But from McGeough's point of view, it must be galling that acknowledged killers on the state side don't even come into the punishment frame. Sammy Brush may not think he has seen justice meted out to the man who tried to kill him. But the state forces who successfully killed or colluded in the killing of innocent people magically escape the lash of punishment. Barely a rap on the knuckles, in fact. So from McGeough's perspective, the question that demands answering is "Why only them?"
Friday, 9 March 2012
And so, as the sun sinks slowly in the West, the figure of Tom Elliott rides off towards the horizon, growing smaller and smaller, until even the faintest twangy echo of his accent has been washed clean of the Ulster Unionist Party. Yes, he had many of the traditional unionist virtues that made the party the force it was for near a century. He was an Orangeman, he had little time for gays, he had less time for the GAA, he spoke his mind, especially when what was on his mind was Sinn Féin scum. In so many ways he should have been a home-and-hosed winner. But he wasn’t. The days of Harry West are dead. You can’t lead a modern party like the UUP if you sound and look as though you’ve just come in from the hayshed. No good in saying you’re an affable, decent man. That stuff on your wellington boots blots out all your other unionist virtues.
So what now? Well, there’s Danny. Mr Kennedy used to be a bit of a culchie too but he’s learned to slick back his hair and murmur into the microphone with the best of them. The fact that the back of your sofa has comparable leadership qualities shouldn’t matter. At least not for about a year or so. That’d give the party breathing space in the Micawberish hope that Something would Turn Up. Alternatively there’s Basil. Now there’s a man with charm. Easy boyish charm, can talk to Shinners and would slide into a seat at a GAA match, probably alongside Barry McElduff, with consummate ease. You wouldn’t get Basil describing people as scum and he’d bounce back from any DUP vitriol like a cheerful cork on choppy Ulster waters. And he probably doesn’t even own a pair of wellies. But leadership qualities? Mmm. Let me have another look at the back of that couch.
Which leaves Mike Nesbitt. Eh? A former TV presenter? Well, Ronnie Reagan was a B movie star and look at the job he did. Besides, this is a TV presenter with brains –Mike was at Cambridge or one of those really smart places. Maybe that’s what give him that quietly authoritative air. When he was on that Victims’ Commission thing, who did the talking for the group? Why, our Mike. Affable, smart, informed – they guy could spout figures for Ireland – sorry, I mean Ulster. And of course totally at home behind a mic, is our Mike. What’s not to like? Give that man the baton, then. Before it’s too late.
Except maybe it already is. Maybe he’s being asked not so much to lead a party as resuscitate a corpse. Perhaps a word with that other learned man, the good Dr McDonnell, would help him see what he faces. You could be a bull in a china shop or a smooth operator, but if the troops you’re leading have been shot to ribbons, and what’s left are weary campaigners who keep peeling off and going independent or simply going home to the wife – well, the term ‘leader’ starts to sound a bit empty.
Barring the never-predictable events, it looks as though the DUP won’t have to wait too long for their Holy Grail of unionist unity. Like old tired soldiers, regardless of who’s their general, the UUP will just fade away. The biggest unionist conglomeration in the state could then become the DUP. Either them or the prod in the garden centre.
Thursday, 8 March 2012
Pat Rabbitte, late of the Workers' Party and presently part of the very unpopular Labour Party, is worried. No, not about the slump in his party's fortunes - they have another four years to address that - but about the effect of the social media on society.
Pat’s concern came off the back of that famous tweet into The Frontline presidential debate programme on RTÉ, which falsely claimed that Sinn Féin would next day produce the man Sean Gallagher was supposed to have collected money from for Fianna Fail. Yes, I know it’s temptingto go into all that again, Virginia, but let’s stick to Pat’s point, shall we?
Which is? That social media – Twitter, Facebook, blogs, all that stuff –may lower journalistic standards. Eh? That’d be the journalistic standards that threw everything but granny’s commode at John Hume and Gerry Adams for daring to talk during the 1980s? That’d be the journalistic standards that refused to allow the voice of a democratically-elected party to be heard on the airwaves over the same period? And the journalistic standards that spent the entire presidential election asking Martin McGuinness if he went to confession rather than his political achievements over the previous seventeen years. Cheesh.
The real reason Pat – and many other politicians – don’t terribly like the social media is simple. It’s too democratic. Anybody can get on there and say their two-bits worth, and it’s instantly available to anyone anywhere in the world, assuming they have a computer and online access. What an appalling vista! You don’t have to be a journalist, you don’t have to be employed by Sir Tony O’Reilly or write in line with The Irish Times policy – you just get in there and do it. All voices can be heard.
Almost as important, the social media let people know they are not alone. A lot of people have a view on political events but they keep their thoughts to themselves, because they think maybe they’re the only one to think that way, so they’re probably just an oddball. By reading the views of others like themselves, they’re encouraged, develop a self-belief in their own judgment, find moral support. And I’d emphasise I’m talking about all political viewpoints, not just those I’d agree with.
But Pat does his worried little frown and talks about “journalistic standards” instead. Sorry, Pat. Admittedly the big guns of the traditional media still pound the public with the message of the powers that be, but every day, thanks to social media, those big guns are getting pounded right back. Shocking, isn’t it? Next you know, people will be encouraged to think for themselves, and then what’ll we do?
Wednesday, 7 March 2012
There are two commentators in this morning's papers, both talking about the same thing: the coming referendum in the south of Ireland. In the Financial Times, Peter Sutherland says that the need for the vote springs from a clash between economic autonomy for the member states of the EU and the strengthening of the euro. "When the euro was introduced, national governments (including the UK) sought to keep the greatest possible national autonomy for economic decision-making. This hasn't worked and so the new moves aim to tighten up on economic decision-making at national level. This will be appreciated by Irish voters in the referendum and they will vote Yes". That's Peter Sutherland who is non-executive chairman of Goldman Sachs, was non-executive chairman of BP, and is a Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George.
The other commentator is Fergus Finlay. He's writing in The Irish Examiner, and he makes the startling suggestion that people should read the EU treaty they've been asked to vote on. Now that's what I call a radical suggestion. It's also one that will fall on the deaf ears of some 85-90% of the people voting. Why? Because in the past people found these documents from the EU virtually incomprehensible. Charlie McCreevy famously said when he was Ireland representative to the EU that he hadn't read a treaty that was up for referendum voting on the grounds that no sane person would do so. I've some sympathy with Charlie on this one. There's little point in burrowing through something that's written (deliberately?) in such a way that it makes the eyes cross and the head ache. That's Fergus Finlay, by the way, who was once an adviser to the Labour Party now run by Eamon Gilmore.
I'd also commend Peter Sutherland (KCMG) for his forthrightness if not his presumption about how the people of the south will vote. He's quite right when he says that the vote is about taking power from individual states and centralising it in Europe - in short, trimming in a big way the sovereignty of the states involved. You can react to that one of two ways. You can decide that almost one hundred years ago, a group of men went into the GPO and struck a blow for what they saw as Ireland's entitlement - national sovereignty - and that to vote Yes is to betray those ideals. Or you can say that the EU has always been about uniting what were once the sovereign states of Europe (i) so that the two terrible World Wars would never be repeated; and (ii) so that Europe could act, first as a united economic force and ultimately as a united political force. And that these are commendable objectives since we live, for better or worse, in a post-nationalist era.
The choice is yours. Or, if you live north of the border, not.
Tuesday, 6 March 2012
Can you think of a dafter idea? It'll be temporary - about a week, I think. Beyond confusing the postie, that will achieve sweet damn all. At the root of it is the fact that you can't really honour the dead. They're beyond honour and dishonour. What you can do is honour their ideas and the causes they struggled for, by giving people information about them and their ideas, and encouraging people to follow their example. We live in the present and the future, we learn from the past.
So who's going to learn by glancing at a street sign - or, more likely, not - for a week? Nobody. In addition to which there's this problem of what all these women did. For example, Isabella Todd worked tirelessly until she got Queen's University to allow women to study there - three cheers. She also worked tirelessly to defeat Home Rule - two cheers, one cheer, loud booing? Ditto for Winifred Carney - a woman who was keenly aware of the terrible conditions women had to work under, and also the only woman in the GPO at Easter 1916. For some that'd be four cheers, for others null points/cheers. And does a woman's sex (OK, a woman's gender) trump everything else? Maggie Thatcher achieved a lot but most of it was appalling: should she be celebrated as the first female British Prime Minister?
Behind all this, of course, is the fact that women have been discriminated against and suppressed for hundreds of years, and that goes for today as well. In politics, in society, in business - you name it. But it's a complex process, deciding that a given woman is deserving of recognition, Plus it appears to be beyond the thought processes of whoever's organising things here to see that temporary street names is a misguided, limp and futile gesture.
Monday, 5 March 2012
I watched a movie on TV recently – ‘Wag the Dog - and I’ve moved from a position of being mildly sceptical of official statements to being heavily sceptical. The movie, in case you haven’t seen it, features a US president who looks set to fail in his attempt at a second term in office. Enter PR man, who promptly sets up a ‘war’ with an obscure East European state, and has TV footage shown of horrors being inflicted on sweet-looking innocent citizens. It works, president is home and dry.
Actually, when I think of it, Wag the Dog just confirmed rather than added to my level of scepticism. Anyone who’s been half-attentive over the past forty years will know that to officialdom, lying about murder comes as easy as breathing.
The latest example is reported in detail today, notably in The Irish Times. The Historical Enquiries Team (HET) has just published its report into an ambush of three republicans leaving a police station in Lurgan in 1990. Sam Marshall was killed, the remaining two, Tony McCaughey and Colin Duffy, survived. The fact that there was a red Maestro car nearby, which turned out to be a military intelligence vehicle, naturally led to suspicions of collusion. The HET now say there were six – you heard me – SIX military vehicles involving eight armed undercover soldiers at the scene. The loyalist killers launched their attack yards from these armed troops - and escaped. Two of the undercover soldiers were following the republicans on foot and were less than 100 metres from the attack. But did they see the killing in which 49 shots were fired? Um, no. The RUC found gloves near the killers’ burnt-out getaway car, but the gloves were then, um, ‘lost’. The RUC rejected all claims of a surveillance operation, even though Special Branch had briefed the undercover troops Collusion? Um, no evidence of same.
Of course, you may think it’s a terrific thing that the ‘security forces’ co-operated with loyalists in killing or trying to kill republicans. You may also think it’s a good idea they lied when accused of same, because to admit would make it more difficult for further such bloody work in the future. But if you think that state forces don’t have the right to be judge, jury and executioner, and if you think that state forces lying about killings they’ve been involved in is not a good idea – in fact makes the civic ground underneath your feet tremble – then like me you’ll wonder what lies are the lying bastards trying to tell us now. (Apologies to Jeremy Paxman.)
Sunday, 4 March 2012
Has everyone gone mad? Seriously, though. Sinn Féin's chairman Declan Kearney is reported as having "challenged republicans to say 'sorry' - not for the IRA war, but for the hurt caused by all its armed actions". Very commendable, very helpful but totally unoriginal. Republicans have been saying for years now that they're sorry the conflict happened, that life was lost. That' s not the same as saying they think their armed campaign was a mistake or misguided or even immoral, anymore than any armed conflict in history has been immoral. But they regret the suffering and deep pain that people - everyone involved - had to suffer.
Frankly, to take any other attitude would indicate that you were a psychopath. Imagine saying - or even thinking - "I'm very glad that we were involved in a campaign which ended with lots of deaths and lots of people in a state of unconsolable grief". And yet it seems that Kearney's call has been seen as very worthwhile - "truly remarkable" is how the Rev Harold Good, former Methodist President described it. "What a challenge to us all". And Good goes on to say that this initiative by republicans should be an opportunity for all to say sorry to one another for what we didn't do and should have done, as well as for some of the things we did.
He's got a point there. There is no doubt that when warring parties apologise to each other for the hurt inflicted in a sincere way, and receive immediate reciprocation, that it can go some way towards breaking down barriers of suspicion. And maybe that's the problem - suspicion.
Well, let me tell you my suspicion. There are people - mainly but not exclusively unionist - who don't want a sorry that says "I'm sorry so much pain and suffering had to occur, and I recognise that I've been part of the source of much of your pain". No, no, no, Virginia. There are people who want a sorry that says "I'm sorry that so much pain and suffering occurred because I see now that I shouldn't have been involved in it, I see now that I was the sole source of pain and suffering and death, and the campaign I was involved in was bogus and bloody".
It's that kind of apology that some people hanker after, because if they get it, they can then have the official history of the last forty years written their way. Nice and simple, the good guys versus the bad guys, and now, praise the Lord, the bad guys have admitted as much.
But if we come back to Declan Kearney's call: anyone who thinks this is the first time republicans have said they were sorry that anyone had to die or suffer in the course of the armed conflict - they can't have been paying attention, because it's been said on numerous occasions before. The question is, as Brian Rowan says: will there be reciprocation? Don't hold your breath.
Friday, 2 March 2012
Eamon O Cuiv may not have the drive and power of his grandfather, that drive which took him from a death sentence in 1916 to the Presidential office in the 1960s. He may not have the cunning and charisma that made Dev a demi-divinity for generations of Irish people (my mother, God be good to her, used to sing as she did her never-ending housework, and one of her favourites ended with the un-republican line "And we'll crown de Valera King of Iiiiirrre-land!" Confused political thinking but no mistaking the emotion and admiration. Eamon O Cuiv may not have that, but he did hold his seat when dozens of other FFers were losing theirs last time out, and he does look and sound unnervingly like his granda. So when he says he can't support the Fianna Fail line in going along with this latest European diktat, and the Ard Fheis is only hours away, and there's bound to be some support in the ranks for O Cuiv's insistence that the south get a write-down of its debt mountain if it's going to vote Yes to Angela Merkel's latest wheeze - when all that happens together, you begin to worry. No, wrong. Your worry, which was there all along as the Shinners assumed the mantle of opposition - that worry deepens with a sickening lurch. Not content with the mugging it got from the electorate, Fianna Fail now look set to mug themselves. And there'll be live TV coverage of it, like as not.
Will there be sympathy for that nice Micheal Martin? Pull the other one. Tens of thousands will be hoping, praying that O Cuiv doesn't mince his words and the tearing sound of what's left of Fianna Fail splitting down the middle will be heard throughout the land.
What was that saying again? Oh yes. "Revenge is a dish best served cold". Switch on your TV.
Thursday, 1 March 2012
That's a question from the Northern Ireland Peace Monitoring report - a progress report on our society since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
The report's author is Paul Nolan and he should know that the conflict here was and is not a sectarian one. Not that there wasn't a core of crazies, among both nationalist/republicans and unionist/loyalists, who were sectarian. But the violence in Ireland has never been essentially about what religion people were or are; it's been about Britain's right to exercise jurisdiction in Ireland. By referring to it as 'sectarian', you do two things: you label it as bad (for sectarianism is, by definition, bad) and you start looking for ways to cure this sectarianism, rather than look for a way to resolve the political issue.
In his report, Nolan appears to go after both the sectarian and the political. He points to a lack of integrated schooling, a lack of integrated social housing and the absence of a new political party since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
OK, let's try to untangle that particular ball of wool. Dr Nolan has certainly mixed together stuff that shouldn't be mixed together.
I. Integrated schooling: excellent idea. But then so too is segregated schooling when properly done, as in most cases it is. Sectarianism isn't taught in segregated schools - the very opposite is the case. Besides which, as I've pointed out, the problem is not sectarian, it's political.
2. Segregated housing: it exists here because the political division is so central, most people feel more comfortable living with those who think along lines similar to their own. Just as we buy newspapers that offer a view of the world that matches ours. It'd be nice if we all thought the same way but we don't. Hence segregated housing. And that applies to leafy suburbs as well as social housing, by the way.
3. No new political party: now Nolan has moved from sectarianism to politics. What would such a new party look like - the Alliance Party? The Workers' Party? The problem is not that we don't have a new party, it is that we haven't reconciled ourselves to this notion of being governed by the next-door island. So we have parties that represent the different views on that question of union. Seems sensible to me.
4. On TV last night, Paul Nolan himself got to the nub of it. Was the present "peaceful" state of affairs a permanent condition or just a passing interlude, like two boxers resting up between rounds? His answer was that we should look at Irish history. He got that one right. As I said to an amused Jon Snow on the occasion of QE2's visit to the south, the core issue hasn't changed - the exercise of control from London over a part of this island. And that, I promise you, is a political problem, not a sectarian one.