Thursday, 31 January 2013
The Nolan show was discussing the matter of policing last night. The questions tended to be directed at comparisons between the way the police have dealt with the flag protesters and the way they’ve dealt with (and will deal with?) nationalist protesters when they tried to block the road at Ardoyne to prevent an Orange parade.
I think it’s bigger than this ‘Are they as hard with them ‘uns as they are with us ‘uns?’ A few examples.
* The PSNI Chief Constable was on TV a few weeks back explaining why his men didn’t just go in and clear the road of flag protesters, given that they were breaking the law. He said this would be inadvisable as it could provoke worse demonstrations and you could have ten, twenty, thirty thousand people on the streets. On the other hand, Matt, you could have a lot less people on the streets. And it’s hard to see in what way, after eight weeks, Baggott’s policy has produced results. The protesters are still what Prince Harry would call ‘in play’. Any Saturday there’s a rally suggested, people make a point of not going into Belfast and hard-pressed city-centre trade suffers further.
* How is our police service doing if we make comparisons with, say, Britain, or the south of Ireland? The answer to that lies in your imagination. Can you imagine a situation where, for eight weeks (with a short break for Christmas festivities) a small group of people held illegal marches, blocked roads, fired bricks and petrol bombs at police, issued death threats to elected politicians, burned the office of an elected politician, damaged severely city-centre trade and spattered the state’s international reputation in terms of inward investment and tourism - while the police hung back and spoke vaguely of making future arrests?
* Isn’t the PSNI saying anything about the presence in this dispute of the UVF? It’s a generally acknowledged fact that this illegal paramilitary group is working in the background of these protests, yet politicians and police talk about them as though they were members of the local bowling club. Would someone please tell me: isn’t this organisation supposed to have decommissioned and dispersed years ago?
* Public confidence in our policing service is the bedrock of a settled society. If the police show signs that their training stops with issuing speeding tickets and administering breathalyser tests, people are quickly going to lose faith in them. And that’s without comparisons between how they conduct themselves when faced with nationalist/republican protesters.
It’d be wrong to describe the PSNI strategy for dealing with the flag-people’s blatant defiance of the law as inept. It’s worse than that: it seems literally clueless. If it’s a matter of police control vs mob rule, the mob are miles ahead at the moment. Jamie Bryson was on the Nolan show last night via a screened earlier interview, and you could see how deep was his satisfaction at featuring in the limelight and refusing to divulge what further tactics they would employ beyond a white line one. “But it will be peaceful” he told Nolan. That’s probably what Peter Robinson said, when he told the printers to run off 40,000 leaflets urging people to protest against Belfast City Council’s democratic decision. Things can only get better? Don't bet on it.
Wednesday, 30 January 2013
I’m just off air from the Nolan show where I was discussing with Gregory Campbell and another individual (whose name I missed) the apology that Gerry Adams offered in the Dail for the killing of garda Jerry McCabe. It wasn’t a discussion that got very far but it did raise a number of issues that bear further consideration.
- What else would Gerry Adams, could Gerry Adams have done in the circumstances, than apologise? The press in the south get very upset - not unreasonably - when one of their police officers is killed. They don’t have the same sense of tragedy when a police officer in the north is killed, otherwise they wouldn’t have leap-frogged the more recent killing of PSNI man Ronan Kerr to arrive at the killing of garda Jerry McCabe. But then that might have revived memories of Martin McGuinness’s robust reaction to the Kerr killing and how he condemned Kerr's killers as traitors, and that might have given political traction to Gerry Adams and Sinn Féin. And that wouldn’t do at all at all.
- Gregory, when pressed about apologies from the state, said that David Cameron had apologised and anyway, the IRA killed more people than anyone else. That’s the kind of muddying of waters that leads to discussions going nowhere. David Cameron apologized for Bloody Sunday, full stop. He didn’t apologise for the killing of the innocents of Ballymurphy, he didn’t apologise for the killing of Pat Finucane - he apologised for one mass slaughter by state forces. Thanks, David. As for who killed most: in the great majority of armed conflicts, that’s exactly the idea: who can kill the most. Hence Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Dresden. So to take the discussion up that bye-road was pointless.
- Gregory kept talking about the need for sincere apology about IRA killings north of the border but he couldn’t quite bring himself to talk about the need for apologies from the RUC, the UDR, the British Army. That would be to draw some sort of parallel between the two sides engaged in the conflict and that is one thing unionism has always resisted.
- Gregory talked about the context of this apology by Gerry Adams, as I did myself. The one context we didn’t get round to talking about was the state of this state pre-Troubles. About the development of the civil rights groups in response to that state; and about the response of the RUC, UDR and then the British Army to those civil rights groups and anyone who looked like they might want to change the state for so long wrapped up in a big cosy Orange sash. But then if we had got round to establishing that context, there might have to be some apologising done for the warped state that existed here and the damage it did to so many lives for so long.
- Will we ever hear the British and unionism acknowledge their sustained wrong-doing, both before and during the Troubles? I would say never, never, never, never, except the word has become devalued. Let's say you'd be better not holding your breath and leave it at that.
Tuesday, 29 January 2013
Political predictions made by individuals are, by and large, a waste of time. I can think of only two that later events proved accurate. One was by Gerry Kelly who predicted that the TUV had peaked at a time when most people, myself included, thought they were a growing threat. A week or two later Gerry was proved conclusively right while the rest of us tried to wipe the egg off our faces. The other was when I made a bet with Eoghan Harris about the fate of Sinn Féin candidates in a twenty-six -counties election that was four years away. (Eoghan, who to his credit stumped up, told me I’d got lucky. Maybe he was right.) So you’ll understand if I don’t clap my hands to my head and run off shrieking, now that Seamus Heaney has predicted there’ll never be a united Ireland.
I’m not clear if he was asked a direct question about the subject in the interview he did for The Times, or whether he just came up with it. But I found myself thinking about a man I used to work with who was an outstanding practitioner of drama in education. He said that he found people had begun to ask him questions, not just about drama, but about other things. Like climate change. Or vegetarianism. Or animal rights. He said he couldn’t figure out the jump in logic people made, from his expertise in drama to his assumed expertise in all these other areas.
I also thought of Sam McAughtry, a man whose views I wouldn’t share on a number of subjects. Sam wrote an article once about his time in the Civil Service, I think it was. The main thrust was that his superiors at work, because they were his work superiors, tended to assume superiority on any topic that came up in a discussion. Sam saw no sense in this and used treat their ideas with no more respect than he’d give to that of someone he’d encountered in a pub. His work superiors didn’t like this lack of deference and it got him into some bother over the years.
Seamus Heaney is a fine poet. But I’m baffled as to what part of his poetic imagination allows him to predict so firmly the never-never-never-never of a united Ireland. Or, for that matter, quite what he means when he says “Loyalism, or unionism, or Protestantism, or whatever you want to call it, in Northern Ireland it operates not as a class system but a caste system. And they [the loyalists] have an entitlement factor running: the flag is part of it”. If he means that loyalist protesters believe they’re entitled to do whatever they want and to have the Union flag fly as often as they like, he’s right. If he’s saying “And they should be granted their wish, because they have an entitlement factor”, he’s talking through his Nobel armpit. Loyalists/unionists/whatever have no entitlement to reject a democratic decision reached by the city councillors in a democratic vote. To talk about people having some sort of dispensation from democracy is to side with those who, because they’ve done what they felt like doing for so long, think it entitles them to keep on doing whatever they like.
When Seamus and I were pupils in St Columb’s College, Derry in the 1950s, unionism saw itself as entitled to gerrymander and discriminate at will, and the nationalist population shrugged its shoulders in resignation. I hope this doesn’t come as too big of a shock, Seamus, so I’ll whisper it gently: up here, we’ve stopped shrugging.
Monday, 28 January 2013
[This is an edited version of the interview in my stunningly readable book Whose Past Is It Anyway?]
I know Nuala O’Loan by reputation. She’s the woman who ran a slide-rule over collusion here, she’s the woman who reduced former Chief Constable Ronnie Flanagan to a hysterical blob. So picture my relief when I visit her house and find her to be soft-spoken and friendly. Maybe it’s because I’m not a Chief Constable. Yet.
She grew up in Yorkshire. Her father died when she was thirteen, so the family emphasis was on survival rather than politics. When she married her husband Declan and moved here, she soon got inducted into our labyrinthine ways.
“My first introduction to the politics of Northern Ireland, I remember, was sharing an office with some people who kept asking me which school I went to. I kept telling them I went to a girls’ school, a boarding school - I’d various answers for them. So I said to Declan ‘They just keep coming back and asking me which school’. Declan said ‘Just tell them it was a convent and that’ll solve the problem’. And it did!”
She believes the 1912 Covenant could be construed as being anti-Catholic, and so celebrating it might be seen as denigrating a part of the community. “I think in a way that’s why the Twelfth marches can never be celebrated by Catholics; it’s what lies behind - and not just what lies behind, but what the people who are celebrating think they’re celebrating, which may be a different thing from what they’re actually celebrating”. That said, she believes the centenary of the Ulster Covenant signing could lead to greater understanding, if discussed in small groups rather than with marches and grand occasions. “You could argue that 1912 is responsible for everything that followed. I wouldn’t put the blame on the unionist people for what has followed; I’m just saying that that act of separation which followed the Ulster Covenant was the key to everything.”
In terms of the 1916 commemorations, she sees how the people of the south would want to celebrate the corner-stone of their state’s creation. But for unionists in the north, “1916 in a way consolidated the fears that the unionists had, and the separation then of the six counties was almost inevitable”. She believes that northern nationalists will want to use the centenary to confirm their national identity. “I had a view of 1916 which was informed by the books I’d read to date. But I’ve seen more and more recently that questions whether 1916 had to happen at all, questions what actually did happen. So I’d like to learn more about it and maybe there are others who’d like to learn more about it”. In fact she sees both the Covenant and Easter 1916 as learning points. “It would be more creative and more enriching if, rather than deepening a sense of nationalism and unionism, you were able to deepen a sense of the other’s understanding of history, to a point where you were able to accept the other in a better way, to move forward as a society. I think that would be the best outcome”.
She has a particular interest in the commemoration of the Somme. Her grandfather was in the British army. “He joined from Dublin in the early 1900s, probably for economic reasons. He survived the First World War but was badly wounded. So maybe I come from a slightly coloured understanding of why the Somme should not be divisive. I also have a nephew who lost a leg at the age of eighteen fighting in Iraq, having walked out of school to help the Iraqi people be free, and suffered terrible injuries. I have another nephew who’s currently in the army and will go to Afghanistan again. So maybe my colours are sort of prejudiced there. All those young men fed over the wires into the machine guns, knowing what was going to happen to them, living in those trenches in the dirt and the water and the rats...No, I feel very strongly that war is such an obscenity.”
She believes that north and south have common links to the Somme commemorations which they do not have to 1916 or 1912 commemorations. That said, there will be “some people, because of the connotations of the British Army in Northern Ireland, they will disengage from it, they will not want to be engaged. But I will be very surprised if there is any attempt to disrupt it or anything like that”.
The fact that she comes from an academic background perhaps explains the emphasis she places on the study of these historical events rather than the unquestioning celebration or even commemoration of them.
“I think these centenaries are an opportunity for learning. There are a lot of people trying to ensure that this time is used positively and creatively. There will be inevitable incursions into boggy ground, but we have so much to battle at the moment, in terms of our economic recession and the social difficulties we have, that our energies should be concentrated on the positive rather than anything else”.
I remember at the time of the interview mentally agreeing that economic problems do indeed loom so large in people’s lives, and the memories of the Troubles still fresh and raw, using these centenaries for anything other than enhanced mutual understanding would be unthinkable. But then, I interviewed Dame Nuala O’Loan some eighteen months before the flag protest. How little any of us knows what’s around the corner.
Sunday, 27 January 2013
OK - let me get the this bit out of the way. I shouldn’t have to say it but there are people with overheated imaginations who tend to see what they want to see rather than what is written.
The recent shooting dead of garda detective Adrian Donohoe was a cruel and vile action. He evidently was not just a good garda officer, doing his job at the time of his death; he was a husband and father, a coach of local GAA youngsters, a man held in high regard by all in the area where he lived and worked. It is good to know that Justice Minister Alan Shatter - and others - have said that no effort will be spared to bring his killer to justice. President Michael D Higgins has described the killing as a dreadful crime, one which all Irish people will be appalled by. Taoiseach Enda Kenny said the murder was outrageous, an appalling act of cold-blooded violence. Former Justice Minister Michael McDowell has said “Revulsion towards this crime and its perpetrators is universal”.
I went to see the film Lincoln, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, yesterday. (No, I haven’t changed the subject. Hang in there.) In the course of the film, there is a vote in the House of Representatives to give black slaves their freedom and equality before the law. A great many in Lincoln’s own Republican party were opposed to this bill, but it squeaked through: it gave equal rights before the law to people - black people - whom even some of Abe Lincoln’s own party saw as innately inferior.
Back to present-day Ireland. Last month a man called Christopher Warren was shot dead in Dublin. He was a known criminal with links to drugs gangs. Last year in the south of Ireland there were sixteen gun murders linked to drugs gangs. Can you name any of the victims? Did the President and the Taoiseach express their disgust at the killings? No. Why not? Because these were ‘drugs-related’ murders - people ‘known to the garda’ - i.e., criminals from the drugs world.
There’s a part of us that says “Well, the more they kill each other, the fewer drug-pushers in our society”. That’s true. There’s also less respect for the law. The murder of a good man like Adrian Donohoe should be no more heinous in the eyes of the law than the murder of Christopher Warren or any other drugs-related criminal. If we’re going to measure the goodness or badness of people before deciding how wrong their murder is, we’re effectively saying that Justice isn’t really blind - she’s actually peeking to check the moral worth of the person murdered. Wrong, wrong, wrong. The most contemptible criminal has the right to the same protection under the law as the most dedicated member of the Garda Siochana. President Higgins and Taoiseach Kenny don’t say “They got what was coming to them” but by their indignation only when a good man is murdered, they imply a distinction. There isn’t.
By the way, when did we get to the stage where we accepted the existence of death-dealing drugs gangs as, well, hey, part of life, you know? Was it during the tenure as Justice Minister Michael McDowell who is now outraged by Adrian Donohoe’s death?
I’ve a feeling there’s a terrible irony in there somewhere but I can’t quite put my finger on it. Maybe you can.
Friday, 25 January 2013
I like Basil McCrea. There’s something about his boyish chubby face and flop of fringe that reminds me of a bit player from Greyfriars School ( which Billy Bunter attended, and if you don’t know who Billy Bunter is, just trust me, OK?). He looks and sounds like a man who enjoys talking to people, and he has shown himself open to engagement with political opponents in a no-big-deal way. (Actually when it’s put like that, it seems odd that he should stand out as different. But then we live in an odd place.)
Anyway, Basil is on the Unionist Naughty Step at the moment, and it looks like he’ll spend more time there after his recent interview with a Lisburn local radio station. In it he says some very interesting things. Here’s one, on the flags protest:
You first of all have to get people off the streets. And then you have to go through a long process of telling people the truth. You do have to explain to people that compromise is necessary. It is not a dirty word. It is the way you go forward in any democracy, trying to work out what is the best for the most people.
I like some of the above paragraph a lot, especially the bit about ‘telling people the truth’. If unionist leaders were to tell their constituents the truth, they’d remind them that Belfast City Hall has standing-room-only, it’s so packed with unionist memorials, paintings and statues. And they’d remind them that the city is saturated in streets, buildings and bridges, all of which loudly shout out “We’re unionist!”
Except that Belfast is no longer unionist. The city has more non-unionists than unionists. If you reflect on that fact for a moment, you’ll quickly spot the bit of Basil’s paragraph that doesn’t work for me. He’s right to talk about the need for compromise, but psst, Basil. Flying the Union flag 17 times a year is not “what is best for the most people”.
Try it from a Martian’s point of view. He gets out of his space-ship and is told that two more-or-less equal groups each has its own flag, how will they resolve this impasse fairly? The Martian, assuming his brain hasn’t fried on entry to Earth, would almost certainly reply (in Martian) “Fly both flags or none”. That actually would be a balanced compromise. But even when all 17 flag-flying occasions will feature the Union flag and none the Irish tricolour, all unionist hell breaks loose. So yes, Basil, there certainly is room for some more truth-telling.
Unfortunately, Basil’s position within his party is shaky, which tells you something about his party and about unionism in general. On Monday, even though still strictly speaking an Ulster Unionist, he voted against his own party. Clearly the Ulster Unionist Party is in a mess - rapid shuffling of leaders, mutterings against the present leader, people quitting the party. The DUP, in contrast, is much more cohesive, but it faces an appalling vista: that its leader might be defeated not once but twice by an Alliance candidate. If that happens, the knives will be out and used. Then there’s the PUP, intent on reviving its fortunes on the back of the flag protestors. And after that there are all those unionists who are fuming with the laughing stock that’s been made of unionism by the fleg people. In short, unionism is fracturing in the face of change, with more change, like it or lump it, on the way. And the moral is? As Basil says, tell people the truth. And tell them it before it’s too late.
Thursday, 24 January 2013
Has the DUP’s Arlene Foster got a brain? She’s a lawyer so she may well have (although not necessarily, since some members of that profession possess more in the way of low animal cunning). But let’s give Arlene the benefit of any doubt and say she has a brain. If so, she parked at the studio door before appearing on the Nolan show last night.
The topic was the border poll. Arlene made several points, sometimes cutting across others to make them. I can’t remember them all but two stick in my memory this morning.
The first showed that she really really likes clichés. Her debate opponent was Alex Maskey, so when they came to discuss the possibility of a border poll, Arlene delivered the judgement that Sinn Féin were a party of “economic illiterates”. You've almost certainly heard the term before. It had its origin in the famous debate some years ago between Michael McDowell and Gerry Adams on RTÉ, where McDowell was seen to have exposed Adams’s ignorance of economics with a slam-bam-game-set-and-match disposal of the Sinn Féin president’s thinking on the economics of the south. "Economic illiterates" has now has passed into the off-the-shelf vocabulary of people who are averse to thinking and averse to Sinn Féin. If you go back and listen to the recording of that debate, McDowell certainly emerges as the one who talks with an air of great certainty, as did Arlene last night. The only catch is, the economic vision pushed by McDowell and practised by his government fell to catastrophic pieces a few months later, when the entire economic edifice of the south did an imitation of the Twin Towers on 9/11. In short, McDowell was the one preaching Stone Age economics and Adams the one attempting to resist it. Yet Arlene chose to parrot the phrase again last night rather than use her brain.
The second incident which showed switched-off grey cells ( to put it charitably) was when she shouted Alex Maskey down as he tried to make the point that a border poll would ultimately be held. Having made it clear the previous day that she was all for calling Sinn Féin’s “bluff” about a border poll, she informed Maskey last night that a border poll would “never happen”. That went down well with the largely unionist audience (that’s two weeks in a row, guys) but it also denies what’s in the GFA document: that the British Secretary of State should call a border poll when she judges there are numbers sufficient to affect a constitutional change. It even suggests, according to the BBC’ s Mark Davenport, that she can call one more or less because she thinks it’s a good idea. So either the GFA has been scrapped while we weren’t looking or Arlene was showing that her debate line was unencumbered by anything like awkward fact.
I was in the audience myself and, as expected, got asked my opinion. I had time to say I thought it would be a good idea, because the border has been the cornerstone of our main political parties and our voting patterns since the inception of the state, and ....At that point Stephen was hurrying on to the next comment.
And that was the final, slightly depressing feeling I was left with at the end of the night. I was sitting beside an English journalist, who got to speak briefly during the debate about gay marriage. At the end of the show I asked him what did he think? “Infuriating and frustrating” was the essence of his reply. The BBC’s founder, Lord Leith, declared that the Corporation's mission was to “inform, educate and entertain”. Last night’s show certainly gave the first and second of Leith's goals a wide berth. When and if a border poll is called, let's hope it's characterised by thought, discussion and informed debate. In short, the opposite of last night's show.
Wednesday, 23 January 2013
Tonight, barring natural disasters and acts of God, I'll be on the Nolan Show. Not, I rush to add, as one of the top-table people: I'll be down there with the commoners (and boy, were they common last week), with an occasional filler-in question lobbed my way if I'm lucky. The debate, again barring natural disasters and acts of God, will be about the pros and cons of a border poll.
What will I say? Well, I'd like to say I think it is an excellent idea. The border is THE issue here. It was created by Lloyd George under threat of "terrible and immediate war" if the Irish delegation to Downing Street didn't accept it. It has shaped our voting patterns with uncanny accuracy ever since. So yes, it would be good if we could see if thinking has changed since nearly 100 years ago.
I'd particularly like to see a border poll because it will - I hope - allow us to find out if we know what we're talking about when we say we're pro-union with Britain or pro-united-Ireland. At present we tend to fill this great gap between us with flags, screeches of "No surrender!" or "Tiocfaidh ár lá!". I hope - I pray - that we'll be given time to look at the matter from every angle. If I were moving house to the other side of town, I'd consider house prices but also facilities like schools, shops, hospitals. I'd talk to people who lived there, I'd drive around and check out the neighbourhood. And after loads of thought and discussion I'd make up my mind, to move or stay. I wouldn't allow my granda, who always hated that side of town, or my da, who didn't like the way people on that side of town talked, to make up my mind for me. I'd make my decision in the light of the present day, taking all the factors into consideration. Constitutional change demands the same measured investigation.
If we could have a factual, contemporary look at the advantages and disadvantages of union with Britain, the advantages and disadvantages of a re-united Ireland, we' d really have done ourselves a service, almost regardless of the outcome of the poll. In fact, a border poll is so obviously a Good Thing, it's astonishing we've never considered it before.
When should it be held? Well, Alex Salmond has arranged that Scotland's referendum on independence should happen after a three-year period of thought and discussion. I think we're entitled to as much. The sad part is, the poll/no poll decision rests in the hands of a woman who lives here only part-time, stays in a castle when she does come, and who obviously knows little about our history and cares less about our needs. The fact that an English secretary of state like Theresa Villiers is able to make the decision about the holding of a border poll here shows at least one drawback in being governed from London. Let's hope she has sufficient brains to say "Yes" to this request.
Tuesday, 22 January 2013
Today, the tributes are pouring in for her - President Michael D Higgins, ex-Presidents McAleese and Robinson, Hilary Clinton, Meryl Streep who played her on Broadway. In her life she shrugged and laughed at such fame, and pointed again at the women - and men - she worked for throughout her life. Her final words at the end of our interview were that at some point, I should interview one the women living in sub-standard accommodation. "Not that I'd want to tell you your business!" And she laughs.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a hanam uasal.
(I've just discovered that interview from last March, so I'll reprint it below.)
I’m already settled with my teapot and mug in the Cultúrlann when Inez McCormack joins me. She’s on her way to give a talk to the young people in St Mary’s University College across the road, but she pulls back her chair and pours a cuppa like a woman with time and attention only for me.
That name – Inez - where’d it come from? Well, her great-great-grandmother was Spanish and she met her great-great-grandfather, a sailor, and the name filtered down. ‘Though how in the whole of Spain do you meet a Protestant in Barcelona?” She laughs with delight at the thought. Her name should be pronounced “EE-nez”, but she’s given up on that long ago. In Belfast you’re lucky they don’t call you Agnes.
She joined the Civil Service after leaving school early (“The school I’d gone to in Bangor was about teaching an accent, not about teaching you to think”). At the Civil Service interview they asked how she’d react to her brother marrying a black woman and how she viewed homosexuality. “In a sense you were being asked the disguised question, which was about Catholics”.
But she got the job, working alongside older women – “lovely women” – who covered for her while she went up and studied for O and A Levels in the Stormont library. And yet those same “lovely women” would talk openly of how “they can’t be trusted”. “I wasn’t that bright at the time but I worked out there couldn’t be Catholics in the room”. It was an early and important lesson. “If you see people as a lesser being, because of who they are or where they come from, then it becomes permissible to treat them as lesser beings”.
From there she went to London and found herself involved in the famous Grosvenor Square demonstrations in 1968, and was arrested. “I didn’t run – I’d relatives in the police and I didn’t know you ran when the police were coming for you. I learnt”. But she couldn’t ask questions about what was going on in the rest of the world and not ask questions about what was going on at home. She married a Derryman and became involved in the civil rights movement of the late 1960s.
“My father-in-law, a quiet, devout Catholic, had been wounded in the war three times. When the Bogside got raided that first night after the civil rights march, and there was a march the following day of all the people, I saw him do something I’ve never forgotten. He put on his good suit. That was his way of asserting that neither he nor his family were lesser beings. That taught me that humiliation is the absence of right”. When she went home with her scars showing from being beaten up at the march, her family told her if she hadn’t been there, nothing would have happened - “Instead of accepting responsibility that there was something wrong”.
She became “a very bad social worker”, working in places like Ballymurphy, where she was supposed to do counseling. “I just wrote vouchers instead. The budget for the place shot up”. She saw women being treated by the public bodies “as less than animals, if they were looking for something for their kids or for something to do with their housing”. She remembers making the case for a woman who had several children and was down to her last few pence. The official response she got was “She could withdraw her conjugal rights, couldn’t she?”.
Shortly after she joined a trade union with two-hundred-and-fifty officials; she was the only woman. Working on behalf of women in lowly-paid jobs, she soon discovered that the reason for the low pay was, these women were not “at the table” – their voices were not heard. “And that’s as true now as it was then”.
The promises of the Good Friday Agreement are about dignity, respect and right. “Yet I look in areas of North Belfast and West Belfast at the absolute lack of opportunity for the last ten or twelve years, for young people in particular. In North Belfast, there’s a huge refusal to provide social housing and the gerrymandering of figures to redefine the housing lists. Some 90% of those on the housing waiting lists in North Belfast are Catholic. There’s a refusal to build houses on the grounds that you have to get agreement between loyalist politicians and republican politicians. I have a simple answer to that: if you had to wait for agreement on housing in the civil rights movement, we would never have got it”. And if building occurs on the basis of ‘good relations’ – 50% for Catholics, 50% for Protestants? “What you are doing is screwing the poor because of their religious background. I came into all this a long time ago to make sure that would never happen again”.
She welcomes the political accommodation that’s been reached, but the facts and figures show there’s a growing gap between the prosperous and the poor. “What I see growing is not the problem with the peace walls. I see a growing wall with on one side, economic protections, and on the other side of the wall, the growing number of those excluded”. Protestants are among the excluded but “over 60% of long-term unemployed males are Catholic”.
She believes institutional behaviour that produced exclusion in the first place has to be challenged. “The majority investment which has come into Northern Ireland, both public and private, has not gone to north or west Belfast. That has to be challenged. Good relations are not good relations if they’re built on silencing the poor”.
“Look at the work I’m involved with in PPR [the Practice and Participation of Rights project, which supports disadvantaged groups to assert their right to participate in social and economic decisions which affect their lives]. You ask a public body like the Housing Executive ‘How are you gathering data about housing under the equality requirements of the Good Friday Agreement?’ and they come back and say ‘It’ll cost you £33,000 to get an answer to that’. It is deeply disturbing that that can be said with complacency, post-Good Friday Agreement.” What about the notion that we sort everything else out and then a trickle-down system looks after places like north and west Belfast? “Well I’m telling you, trickle down doesn’t happen. Sixty-one per cent child poverty in New Lodge, two per cent in Malone”.
“All those years ago with my father-in-law and his good suit – the Good Friday Agreement is supposed to be that good suit. A lot of my work is to enable people to speak and challenge for themselves, because those women who speak to power are treated like rubbish. An example. The women among the residents in the Seven Towers brought in some of the best experts in the world to find how could you proactively change the Seven Towers, how could you bring in better heating systems, how could you actually work with architects and planners, to change the spaces in north Belfast to build social housing. The answer was to dismiss the work of these two men – one of whom is used by Obama in terms of federal housing authorities, one of whom is used by the Health Organisation – the response was to dismiss them in a half-page”. Who dismissed them? “The Housing Executive and the Department of Social Development”.
She’s been asked to be a global ambassador for places like Haiti where the society has been shattered, she’s been awarded honorary degrees by universities, Meryl Streep is playing her life on a New York stage. But she looks at women in the New Lodge, women who’ve got water running down the walls of their flats, their children getting asthma : “You have to bring your victories to them”.
She’s more than glad to see an end to violence here. “But there’s another violence – the violence that happens when there’s an absence of right. Change is not happening for the most excluded. In fact the gap is widening. And I’m saying now, as a wake-up call: ask what it will take to change the expense in education, health, investment, to change conditions in these areas – and give a timetable for change.”
As to the coming of the University of Ulster to Belfast, it’ll be good if the massive procurement contracts are handled properly. “The university must say ‘Anybody looking to us for money for a contract, must employ people who are long-term unemployed of twelve months or more – the ILO [International Labour Organisation] definition. Now suddenly this has been redefined as three months or more. This means that people who are just out of the labour market will get the jobs; people who are most excluded will go again to the back of the queue. That will affect North Belfast – largely Catholic, but it’ll also affect the Lower Shankill.”
Some years back she worked, she says, with both communities, when Springvale was supposed to be coming to West Belfast – “and suddenly we find it over in the Titanic Quarter”. When I quote the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ulster who says the transfer of the university to central Belfast will raise local educational aspirations, she’s pretty brisk, not to say cutting.
“What is needed is not talk about local people and their aspirations. What is needed is a systematic outreach that’ll allow them to fulfill their aspirations.”
The one change above all that she’d look for in our society?
“Accountability. I mean that in the Seven Towers, when they brought in the two international experts, who produced practical changes and brought proposals forward, and they were dismissed out of hand. There should be a requirement for public bodies to be accountable for that kind of behaviour.
“Mary Robinson said to me thirty or forty years ago, when she took the first cases on social benefit in the Republic of Ireland, cases that went to Europe – she said to me ‘It’s about putting manners on them’. And in a sense that’s what the Good Friday Agreement is supposed to be about – manners. I fought all my life for non-violent means of social change. Non-violent doesn’t mean ineffective change. I want local politicians to grasp cases like those I’ve mentioned and say ‘We want change and we want an outcome and we want it now’ ”.
I pack my tape-recorder and leave as she bends over her notes for addressing the young people of St Mary’s in ten minutes’ time. If InezMcCormack, the woman with the Spanish great-great granny, doesn’t inspire them, nothing will.
Monday, 21 January 2013
Gerry Adams has called for a border poll and has been met with widespread derision. There’s no chance, Peter Robinson says, of the majority of people in Northern Ireland voting for constitutional change. They point to the census figures which show 63% of people here wanting to maintain the Union with Britain.
Adams, however, points out that the census also shows only 40% of people here describing themselves as exclusively British. So again maybe it’s a question of lies, damned lies and statistics - it all depends on how you look at them. However, Sinn Féin have taken on the task of persuading at least some of those who presently believe in the Union to change their minds.
There are two ways in which people here might shift their position on the constitutional question. They might look at what a united Ireland has to offer, economically and socially, and be drawn to that vision. In contrast, they might look at the union they now have and see the things they thought were good about it have in fact disappeared. They might move, in short, to a pro-united Ireland because the alternative has become unpalatable.
At present, unionists (and some nationalists, I’m sure) believe that Gerry Adams’s call for a border poll is simple politicking - that he wants to show his party’s republicanism in a brighter and more attractive light than Fianna Fail’s new-found republicanism. I’m sure there’s something of that in it - Sinn Féin’s ambitions for development in the south are there for anybody to see. And political parties, by definition, work in the interests of their own party.
Some unionists, Peter Robinson included, think that unionism should try harder to sell its benefits to the Catholic/nationalist population here. I don’t see any serious effort to do that - and of course the flag protestors have sent not just nationalists but many unionists reeling backwards in horror.
An interesting comparison for us is that with Scotland, about which Kevin McKenna has an interesting article in yesterday’s Observer. He looks at how those firmly in the Union - the people of England - are faring. Not so hot, it seems. The poor are getting seriously poorer, while employees of Goldman Sachs were last week awarded on average a bonus of £250,000. The gap between rich and poor is widening; the Tory government, with Lib Dem assistance, is allowing greed and corruption to be rewarded. The Citizens’ Advice Bureau is getting nearly 1,000 calls a day from impoverished families. The sons of the UK are being sent to fight and die in pointless foreign wars. To avoid focus on such matters, distracting displays such as the Olympics and royal jubilees are hyped, not to mention the dream of a big Lottery win. The UK treasury, according to McKenna, has just declared that each person in Scotland would be £1 worse off in an independent Scotland. It seems, McKenna believes, a decent price for a change to a fair society where people run their own affairs.
It’s time the benefits of the Union were spelled out. The flag protestors complain that the flag matters - “people have died for that flag”. Is the flag that leads people to occupations and invasions of other people’s countries the only benefit the Union has to offer?
Sunday, 20 January 2013
I was listening to Mick Fealty being interviewed on RTÉ radio today. It was about the flag protest and why it was that Peter Robinson was not prepared to appear on camera, shoulder-to-shoulder with Martin McGuinness to denounce the violence and law-breaking of the protestors. After all, McGuinness had done the shoulder-to-shoulder thing when the two British soldiers had been shot dead at their barracks and when PC Ronan Kerr had been killed. Mick’s response was that “it was politically impossible” for Robinson to do that.
Crikey. What does that mean, “politically impossible”? Well, I presume it means that if he did, Robinson's constituency would be sorely displeased with him and would vote against him in the next election. I’ve tried to think of another interpretation of the two words but that seems on the face of it to be the only possible one. Which, if it’s accurate, is profoundly depressing.
Because it means that the unionist population of East Belfast - and probably beyond - looks with approval on these law-breakers. In other words, the unionist population of East Belfast - and maybe beyond - are behind the people who opposed to the workings of democracy in Belfast City Council. They're of one mind with the audience (barring a few exceptions) at the Nolan show the other night.
But hey - let's be optimistic and assume Mick got it wrong - that in fact the unionist people of East Belfast have no time for these police-attackers and road-blockers. I know if I was an East Belfast unionist, rather than embrace them I’d be embarrassed and disgusted by their actions. I’d also have a pretty low opinion of the guts displayed by the man who used to be my MP before he was defeated by the Alliance Party's Naomi Long.
PS I just got this link to his interview from Mick - he promises to comment later
PS I just got this link to his interview from Mick - he promises to comment later
Friday, 18 January 2013
Can you believe it? There was a West Belfast priest on the local TV evening news yesterday, with important information. Groups of aggressive young people waving and wearing Irish tricolours have begun blocking routes into and out of Belfast, and attacking the police when they ventured near. The priest said that the Provisional IRA, the Real IRA and the INLA had all accepted that these street protests as well as road blockages should stop The priest said he greeted this news with relief but nothing was finalised yet. There is no truth to the rumour that Chief Constable Matt Baggott has expressed horror at news of the existence of the three paramilitary groups, regardless of their views on Irish tricolour protest groups, and has called on them to disband immediately or face the consequences.
Shocking stuff, eh? But of course you’ve seen through me - I made up all of that stuff in the first paragraph. This next paragraph, though, is the real deal.
An East Belfast clergyman was on the local TV evening news yesterday with important information. Groups of aggressive young people waving and wearing Union flags have been blocking routes into and out of Belfast. The clergyman said that the UDA,the UVF and the Red Hand Commando had all accepted that these street protests as well as road blockages should stop. The clergyman said he greeted the news with relief but nothing was finalised yet. There is no truth to the rumour that Chief Constable Matt Baggott has expressed horror at news of the existence of the three paramilitary groups, regardless of their views on Union flag protest groups, and has called on them to disband immediately or face the consequences.
Tell me I’m not hallucinating: the UDA, the UVF and the Red Hand Commando were supposed to have decommissioned and disbanded years ago, right? So why is a clergyman - or anyone else - talking about them as though they were a local branch of the Rotary Club? And why is Matt Baggott not expressing his horror at their existence? Answers, please. Because right now I feel as if somebody has begun - that’s right - chipping away at my sanity.
Thursday, 17 January 2013
"While shivering in my shoes
I strike a careless pose
And whistle a happy tune
And no one ever knows,
Nobody on the Nolan Show last night sang those lines from The King and I, but they matched with what was going on for much of the TV programme. It didn't look like the unionists in the audience were afraid - quite the reverse in fact. They finger-wagged, they condemned Gerry Kelly as a gunman, they condemned the naming of a children's play park "after an IRA terrorist", they said Alliance had made the biggest mistake of its life and would pay dearly for it, they said they were mad as hell and weren't going to take it any more, they shouted down anyone - particularly Gerry Kelly, when he tried to answer the questions they had asked him. Jeffrey Donaldson did his best to deflect the wrath of the crowd (not, as Gerry Kelly remarked, a marvelously balanced crowd for a BBC programme) and was largely effective in steering their wrath towards the Alliance Party. Well, to the Alliance Party, and the cost of the Saville Inquiry, and the lack of inquiries for unionists, and Gerry Kelly, and...The targets were so many, what we were left with resembled a great deal of sound and fury, signifying...no, not nothing. It signified a great deal.
It signified that a portion of the unionist people are bewildered, even scared. It signified that they have been misled by their politicians. While nationalists and republicans have been persuaded to abandon the notion that Ireland's governance should be determined, not by the Irish people but by the people of the northern state, while they have been persuaded that recognition of their fellow-countrymen's British identity is required - while these immense hurdles have been faced and overcome by nationalists/republicans, unionists have been encouraged to think that nothing central has changed or will change. This is poor leadership to the point of near-insanity. All that bluster and shouting last night made for riveting television, but we're still left with a people who, even when it's pointed out that Belfast City Hall and Belfast itself is chock-a-block with British symbolism, shout their contempt for the speaker and still remain convinced that their Britishness has been ripped from them. Instead of encouraging them to see that this is not so, the DUP and the UUP are encouraging them in this siege mentality.
That was the first half - a testament to willful blindness. The second half featured ex-GAA star Joe Brolly and the man to whom he donated a kidney. As it happens, the new kidney was a failure, but that if anything added to Brolly's unassuming charm and sacrifice. The fact is, he did what 90% of us would be hesitant about doing, even for a close relative. The praise that flowed in on the texts and tweets showed that the audience at home know true courage and virtue when they see it.
What a programme! Stephen Nolan must already be scratching his head and wondering how he's going to follow that: the worst of our society followed closely by the best. Thank you, Stephen and production team. You may produce stinkers that are embarrassing in their maudlin tone but there was none of that last night. It was public service broadcasting that truly enlightened those still in need of enlightenment. (And we'll pass lightly over the matter of audience balance.)
Wednesday, 16 January 2013
Sometimes you read something and you do a double take, go back and check that your eyes saw what you thought your eyes saw. I did that this morning. The Irish Times has a report by Gerry Moriarty headed “McLaughlin accepts ‘status quo’ “. EH? Mitchel McLaughlin, the Sinn Féin party, unionism - just about everybody north and south signed up to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, and central to that was acceptance that there’d be no constitutional change in the north until a majority here voted for it.
So why is it news to say that Mitchel McLaughlin accepts the present constitutional status quo? Well, the south’s media have long looked at Sinn Féin with some degree of anxiety. They were the one party that looked as if they might re-awake the slumbering giant of Irish re-unification. They were associated with the IRA and violence in the past, which the south was desperately anxious to keep ‘up there’. And in more recent times, they looked/look as though they might become a significant force in southern Irish politics, upsetting the nicely-balanced Fianna Fail/Fine Gael apple-cart.
Anyone with any grasp of recent northern events knows that Sinn Féin accept the present constitutional position in the north, while at the same time working for the achievement of Irish unity by peaceful means. And yet we have today’s story in The Irish Times, to place alongside the shock-horror story of Alex Maskey saying he’d throw stones if his house was attacked with petrol bombs by a hostile mob. We also have the naked sectarian violence of some flag protestors, for whom the sight of Sinn Féin and, in this case the SDLP working democratically for something a teensy bit nearer to parity of esteem, as promised by the GFA, is just too much. “They’re chipping away at our Britishness!” is the cry. Have the southern media leaped on the nonsense of that and denounced it for the maladjusted slabbering that it is? Pass.
To the flag men: for God’s sake, guys. If you see the flying of the Union flag 17 times annually as the removal of a vital chip in your Britishness, you should either check with your local psychiatrist (maybe John Alderdice of the Alliance Party?) or sit down and have a good long talk with yourself about the difference between reality and paranoid fantasy.
To the southern media: it would help if you could find your way to avoid treating the articulation of part of a 15-year-old Agreement as though it was a startling change in Sinn Féin policy. As they used to say in an old BBC radio comedy: we already know that, kindly leave the stage.
Tuesday, 15 January 2013
Two comments from the Nolan show minutes ago: “Police struggled to keep rival factions apart” and “Did you feel vulnerable during all this?” The latter to a pensioner who had stones and petrol bombs aimed at his house.
I’ll move discreetly past the inanity of that “vulnerable” question and on to the heart of the matter - “Police struggled to keep rival factions apart”. I don’t know how the programme will develop but that notion of two rioting mobs with the cops as piggy-in-the-middle really does have to be nailed. And nailed it was by Alex Maskey on UTV last night. When questioned about stone-throwing from the Short Strand, he replied grimly “If I lived in the Short Strand and my home was being attacked, I’d be out throwing stones too”. I tweeted that and had, among overwhelmingly positive response, one tweet which gleefully suggested that this meant Alasdair MacDonald would have a safe Westminster seat “for ever”. Dear tweeting person, perhaps you underestimate the intelligence of the South Belfast voters; besides, there are other ways of looking at the world than how you can keep your rear in a Westminster seat. Like how long you can go on living in your home.
Which brings me to Jim Wilson, a Protestant community worker, I think. He did two good things at least in the last four or five days. The first was confronting the immense intellect that is Willie Frazer at a rally in front of Belfast City Hall. Why that is a good thing should be self-evident to even the slowest of us. The second is Wilson's concession last night that loyalists had attacked Catholic homes and that he disowned such people entirely. Wilson was out on the ground, as I understand it, trying to keep the peace. Full marks for that and your statement - maith thú, Jim.
Is there a difference between that and making statements up in Stormont, when you yourself were the instigator of these street scenes? You betcha. Except unionist politicians take their courage in their hands and tell their constituents that things are changed now - not just the flag, not just power-sharing in Stormont, but everything. And that nationalists/republicans making gains on a number of fronts is not “them ‘uns getting everything”, it’s about them ‘uns finally beginning to get their fair share after almost one hundred years of deprivation. Only when the leadership of the unionist community explains that justice and equality are concepts which everyone should be keen to see put in place will ugly, sectarian street violence such as last night wither on its own twisted branch.
Monday, 14 January 2013
There are those who think that school sex instruction only encourages teenagers to turn instruction into practice. There are those who think the same thing about political unrest. Those involved wait for the cameras and then step into focus and do their violent thing.
Michael Kelly, writing in The Scotsman last week, takes up a similar theme. He suggests that Catholics in Scotland harping on about anti-Catholicism may in fact encourage it.
“Agonising over sectarianism is going to exaggerate its importance in the list of social problems that we face. Poverty, unemployment, deprivation generally, education and health all demand public resources ahead of relatively minor inconveniences to relatively few individuals”.
Whether or not you agree with his analysis, there’s an argument to be made that sometimes those things which catch the headlines - blatant discrimination, street violence, maybe even issues like gay marriage or abortion - are deliberately highlighted by politicians and a compliant media in order to distract public attention from less sexy but more deep-rooted problems in our society. Gerry Adams was in the Short Strand yesterday and he said that it was but for the grace of God that no one had so far been killed. He’s right. But there’s one thing the people of the Short Strand and the flegmen share: poverty. And it’s at least as dangerous as the fleg thugs.
Take a few statistics from Britain. Both men and women in Blackpool die ten years earlier than men and women in Kensington and Chelsea. Children in poverty suffer similarly: three-year-old whose parents earn less than £10,000 a year are more than twice as likely to suffer from chronic illness than children whose parents bring home over £52,000. Like their parents, infant mortality is 10% higher in poor households than in the average British household. The Short Strand or East Belfast may not be as British as Finchley, but I’ll bet the gap between them and the leafier areas of Holywood or Malone is just as great.
When people are injured or killed in street violence, the rest of us feel shocked, outraged even. Yet we accept that the poor - with their illnesses and earlier deaths - are always with us. No outrage expressed; if anything there's a half-assumption that the poor have only themselves to blame.
Maybe that’s why the flegmen keep getting their Britishness mixed up with their deprivation.
Sunday, 13 January 2013
And speaking of Number Ones...This is a first guest post on this site. I'll be interested to read reaction to it and to the idea of using guest posters/bloggers. The description below comes from Sammy himself - JC
Sammy McNally is an itinerant Fenian scribbler… and a fictional prod character bestowed upon us by James Young. He has previously written for other blogs such as Keeping an eye on Tzar of Russia, We in the coming days, Three Thousand Versts of loneliness, and Slugger O’Toole. He describes his politics as republican lite.
No Poll here (referenda and how to avoid them)
If there is one thing Nationalists, whether Scottish, British or Irish, like even less than those larger, nefarious, noisy, neighbours - who always seem intent on suppressing and subjugating them - it is a referendum(which they are certain to lose).
The leader of the Scottish National party, the canniest of Scotsmen, the man who singlehandedly harnessed the emotion surrounding the Australian directed drama about a 13th century woad-wearing insurgent and used it to deliver himself into power, the man who was thought by many(including yours truly) to be the best political operator in these islands - has a particular dislike for referenda - because poor Alex - has to actually deliver one in Scotland.
As all good Nationalists in these islands should know well, the trick is to be fully behind the principle of a referendum (in public) whilst simultaneously being determined(in private) to avoid holding one. So quite how Alex-the-wise, managed to trip himself up on his own constitutional shoelaces is not clear. It is of course possible that Alex started to believe his own propaganda but it probably more likely that he was labouring under the mistaken impression - that if you make an election promise- then you have to stick to it.
…a basic schoolboy error, as fellow countryman, the estimable George Galloway, might well say.
Down England way, the (otherwise) less promising British nationalist leader, Davey Cameron, had no intention of committing such a howler. As a diligent student of Tory party history (and a Bullingdon Club activist), he would know full well that election promises(like restaurant furniture) are there to be broken.
…and so confident was the Tory leader that he could make a referendum promise and break it, that Davey, even offered his referendum wrapped up in a 'cast iron guarantee' promising to allow the long suffering, plain people of Britain, the chance to throw off the yoke of the perfidious Europeans(and especially those dreadful French).
Meanwhile, across sea in Ireland, the nationalist leader Gerry Adams, fresh himself from (allegedly) leading an insurgency to expel the British overlords, is still demanding a referendum on the removal of the border - in spite of the fact that the 2011 Census results from Northern Ireland showed less that 30% claiming ‘Irish’ as their National identity. Gerry, unlike Alex and Davey, won’t however be making any promises on referenda because he is (luckily for him) unencumbered with the power to actually deliver on one.
…also luckily for Gerry, the one person who has the power to call a referendum on the border is Teresa(the Viceroy) Villiers, herself a Tory who, therefore, fully understands that when a fellow Nationalist in these parts, stamps his feet and rallies his troops by claiming he dearly wants a referendum, he does of course actually want no such thing - just like Davey, her own leader - and of course the unfortunate Alex.
When I was a teenage boarder in St Columb’s in Derry, I used hold my breath on a Saturday night as my (illegal) crystal set ( attached to metal bed-post and under-mattress bed-springs) played the hits and told me what was Number One that week. Maybe that’s what’s motivating the flaggers: last night they were Number One item on practically every TV channel l- BBC One, BBC News 24, RTÉ, Sky. Well done, guys. You’re famous.
But I have a number of questions that baffle me:
- Could the PSNI have seen to it that the City Hall demonstrators went home to East Belfast without going near, much less directly past the Short Strand? After all, every year over 3,000 marches ensure that the rest of us must wait/take a detour while the loyal sons of Ulster remember that battle more than 300 years ago.
- What kind of reporting describes demonstrations as ‘peaceful’ when they are in fact blocking roads? Or has the law against such actions been changed when I wasn’t paying attention?
- Let’s imagine for a moment Parity of Arrogance. Flag protestors from the Short Strand, outraged that the parity of esteem promised by the GFA has not been delivered, decide to block off roads and wave Irish tricolours. How long would it be before the PSNI cleared the road? How often would the media report such events as ‘peaceful’?
- When will the media accept and report that both-flags-or-none is a reasonable position to take in a society that is hoping for a shared future? And when will they note that republicans actually made a concession when they voted for flying the Union flag on 17 occasions?
- What unionist leader will be honest enough to tell his/her followers that the times, they are a-changin’? With Belfast a city 49% nationalist, 42% unionist; with the school-going population showing Protestant numbers lagging far behind Catholic numbers; with the Protestant population generally having a more-elderly profile than that of Catholics - it’s not a question of if change comes, it’s a question of how change will come. I’m for peaceful, managed change that shows equal respect (and equal means equal) for both traditions, rather than trying to contain the contradictions of yesteryear until they explode and the jagged debris damages us all.