Monday, October 31, 2005

Englishmen, Scotsmen, Welshmen and ...

A recent survey across the water has shown that most people in Great Britain describe themselves as English, Scots or Welsh, respectively. Apparently British is a passport thing, not an identity.

I must have met thousands of our "big island" neighbours down the years, and I don't think I've ever known a single one that said, "Helloo, I'm Geoffrey Wadlington-Twigget. I'm British, you know". Or "See yew boy, me naem's Hamish McSplatyerface, an' A'm Bra-ish". I trust you get my drift.

Question is, where are these British? They're all in Norn Iron, that's where. In my experience, Ulster-Scots are the only ones to use that description, at least as an opener. Funny, then, that the only people to introduce themselves as British - say at an international gathering like the Oktoberfest - would do so in an Irish accent.

I don't have a special problem with this, but it's interesting to stand back and reflect on it. The reason, of course, is that by definition the British-Irish possess a hybrid identity which is not regarded highly in either source. Rubbing shoulders with a (variously) antagonistic, well-organised Gaelic culture encourages an entrenchment mentality, a kind of siege-unionism, and the desired delineation requires a contrasting label.

Indeed, I don't think it's an overstatement to say that, in more 'loyal' quarters, the Ulster-Scots regard themselves as the only remaining genuine, unsullied exponents of true Britishness - that timewarped romantic vision of some notional proud supremacy in the 1800's. Sad that. The rest of the UK, and Ireland, has moved on.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Non-religious persecution

I see in tonight's Belfast Telegraph that four men have been remanded in custody following allegations of intimidation (to which three of the four have remained silent). Although the housing estate concerned (in Ahoghill, where else?) saw several Catholic families mobbed our of their homes recently, Detective Constable David Harper has said he doesn't think the intimidation of this man was sectarian.
Now I don't know whether the poor man is Roman Catholic, Free Presbyterian or a member of the Church of Latter Day Left-Handed Buddhists (he's rightly under no compunction to tell any of us), but intimidation is intimidation - just as evil and just as wrong whether motivated by religious hatred or some other kind of hatred. Let's not lose sight of that.

Constructive ambiguity

Bloggers, generally, appreciate the power of words. Powerful men from Alexander the Great to Adolf Hitler, from Machiavelli to Abraham Lincoln, have all been skilled at using words to further their ends. Words can be chosen to lift people's spirits, or they can be selected with care to injure and demean. Either way, they usually work.

For me, Phrase of the Year 2004 was "Constructive Ambiguity". It's nothing new of course, but the description had a new lease of life during the political negotiations held late last year at Leeds Castle in Kent, 'mediated' by that great wordsmith of our age, Tony Blair, and his happy band of hacks-turned-manipulators.

CA is no stranger within British-Irish politics. For example:
"Certainly, Dr Paisley sir, I will never force the people of Northern Ireland to join the Republic while the majority of those in the Province oppose it".
Ten minutes later in another room:
"Indeed, Gerry mate, 50% plus one vote, and the British partition of Ireland is history".

Beautiful, eh? Two statements which aren't in conflict with each other in any way: two sides of the same coin, the same logic expressed differently - and presented in a way each audience just wanted to lap up. Slurp.

Trouble is, as well as being conveyors of meaning, the same words can also impose limitations - but of course in the world of constructive ambiguity the words have to be so emotive, so tempting, so desirable as to blind the hearer to the steel fence being erected around him. The abhorrent thing about constructive ambiguity is its deliberate manipulation. Indeed, the very phrase itself has been crafted to sound upbeat and wholesome. Desirable even.

Closer to home: a description of Cavan/Monaghan TD Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin as "Sinn Féin Dáil leader". Interesting use of phrasing. No untruths in there - he's an SF member, he sits in Dáil Éireann, and yes, he's the leader of his (5-strong) parliamentary party (which is barred from joining in parliamentary debates) - but ambiguous in that it sounds as though a Sinn Féin member is leader of the nation's parliament. Motives aren't my business, but certainly the ambiguity cuts in a direction the party might appreciate - unlike, say, "Sinn Féin's leader in the Dáil" which cruelly robs the reader of any scope for (mis)interpretation.

Of course, I'm no better. Yes, the Big Ulsterman's not above a bit of the old CA himself. I am, it's true, not small (more tending towards "a cloud comes over the sun" actually), yet I want to be Big and to encourage you to be Big. And I've deliberately chosen "Ulsterman" as a monicker palatable to all traditions, i.e. Ulster as one of the four ancient provinces of our great nation, because I know that 'Northern Ireland', 'the North' and 'Six Counties' are all labels loaded with their own versions of prejudice if used in the wrong way. And although I want to speak the truth plainly, I don't want to offend. I want to build.

Ironically, that's probably what Tony would say.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Is a dead terrorist a victim?

The appointment of a Victims Commissioner in Northern Ireland has made this a hot issue. As the widow of an RUC reservist murdered by the INLA, will Bertha McDougall be able to represent the families of terrorists who feel just as bereaved as she? Indeed, should she even try?

Many think not. Asked who she thinks is a victim, the sister of a murdered UDR soldier has said, "To be honest it [a victim] shouldn't be a perpetrator, someone who has taken a life". The trouble is, the families of the IRA members killed at Loughgall in 1987 also regard the SAS soldiers who killed them as perpetrators, whereas the UK government, the Unionist parties, Loyalists and a lot of others would say they were legally authorised to use lethal force against the IRA gang that was attacking the local police station.

You see, perpectives vary. To most Republicans, shooting a policeman through the head on his doorstep 6 feet away from his 5-year-old daughter is a terrible thing but a regrettably necessary act in pursuit of a united Ireland which is a goal worth more than any suffering inflicted upon him or any hardship or grief forced upon his family. To most Unionists, any death is sad, but the British Army represents the country's forces of law and order and is justified in killing terrorists about to launch an attack if it can only be thwarted that way.

For the record, my position is clear: democracies need police forces which uphold the law of the land and whose methods are approved by local bodies (that's why I criticise Sinn Féin for failing consistently in its duty to represent its voters by taking its seats on Ulster's local policing boards). A terrorist is someone who kills outside that framework. By this definition, the UDR soldiers who murdered members of the Miami showband are terrorists. Terrorism is the antithesis of democracy. It says, "I don't care what you think, you bastard, or how many thousands of soft-heads agree with you. What I want is what we're going to get".

If you hold strong political opinions of either colour, you're not going to like the next bit. Which is this: progress in Northern Ireland requires a healing of all the wounds received during the guerilla war. That matters just as much whether there's no one to take over your beloved farm or you're a bride with no one to walk you down the aisle. However good, bad or indifferent the actions of those who have died, a victim is a victim.

And as victims know, there's no such thing as semi-bereavement.

Norwegian royals visit London

"Isn't eBay wonderful, Harald?"
Off topic, I know.
Couldn't resist.

Monday, October 24, 2005

All victims count

I'm glad the UK government has created the post of Victims Commissioner because it's the first step towards what we really need: a Truth & Reconciliation Commission à la South Africa.

But Bertha McDougall's the wrong person. She meets the primary requirement of having lost a loved one - her husband - in the guerilla war, but he was an RUC reserve policeman, and - unfortunately - that doesn't sit well among Republicans, many of whom lost loved ones who belonged to organisations like the one that murdered Mrs McDougall's husband. Couple that with the fact that her appointment is so welcomed by the DUP and frowned on by almost all non-Unionist parties, and I'm afraid the poor woman doesn't stand a chance.

Politicians have to realise that hurt exists on all sides. Therefore the person to hold this important position should be acceptable to Unionists and Republicans alike, and if that isn't possible there should be two people appointed to work together as closely as Siamese twins. In many respects that would be a far better solution as it might encourage people from both traditions to mix more, and as regular readers will know, that's one of the Big things I believe we need.

Friday, October 21, 2005


Bejingo, it's a bit quiet in Irish blogland, isn't it? United Irelander's off on a doggy-nap, Balrog's Chris is on leave (with Paddy pumpin' out the posts in his absence) and the Young Unionists' contributions are getting longer and more introspective by the minute. I'm a fine one to talk - I've been pretty inspiration-less this week. Mainly because there's been no major news to get my goat or make me jump up and run around, cavorting like a puppy and wee-ing up against furniture.
Let's face it, we've had a week with no major IRA press release! Gerry Adams has been "getting it on down" in Sath Ifriceh, and the Rev Ian's keeping his powder dry, sucking up the political benefit from Fr Alec Reid's unfortunate outburst.
Wake me up when something happens. And have a good weekend.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Well done, Denis Bradley

Denis Bradley, the vice chairman of Northern Ireland's Policing Board, was beaten with baseball bat last month by a masked man in Derry. The finger of blame is pointing at dissident Republicans. He's also had death threats made against him and had his home petrol-bombed.

I wonder what Fr. Alec Reid - accuser of Unionist Nazism - makes of that? It's straight from the Reichskristallnacht.

Anyway Mr Bradley, himself a former priest, has defied his attackers, saying he's definitely staying on the Policing Board. I want to say 'well done' to him. Not only is he taking a personal risk by making this stand, he's also making the statement that policing by a democratically controlled force with local cross-community accountability is important to him. And it's also important to everyone in the Six Counties. The last thing we need is for the PSNI to be accountable to (a) no one, (b) the UK government directly or (c) Unionist rule à la 1921-1987.

What we need is a strong PSNI accountable to, and supported by, the vast majority of Ulster people and all their major political parties. The Policing Board and its local groupings are there to help shape policing policy and determine the way the police force behaves, and I repeat my call for Sinn Féin to join in this work. If it continues to welch on its responsibility as a group of properly elected individuals it is deliberately disenfranchising its voters in this regard and stripping them of their right to co-determine the way their communities are policed.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Wifer lifer

Why on earth is Ian Paisley's wife to be given a life peerage? What has she done to deserve it? She seems a nice enough lady, but what characteristics mark her out as someone Britain urgently needs to be up there shaping its legislation? Since a short spell as a local councillor in the 60's she's been - well - making tea and buns mostly.
Just goes to show how outmoded the UK parliamentary system is. Or maybe Tony Blair just reckons he needs someone to keep a load of ageing hotheads under control ... 
Any way up, look on the bright side - it could've been Willie McCrea.

Victimised? (2)

I repeat my comment in yesterday's post that "feelings are as important as fact", i.e. a widespread Catholic feeling of past victimisation is as significant and serious as whatever discrimination may have occurred. To that extent the Protestant community needs to reach out in sympathy, whatever the facts (and the facts will vary).

William Frazer, the victims group leader who walked out of the meeting where Fr. Alec Reid compared Unionist treatment of Nationalists to Nazi crimes against humanity, has penned a highly interesting, well written account of the meeting on his website (here). I don't endorse all he says, but he makes some convincing points that Nationalists and Republicans should consider. At one point he questions the extent to which Catholics were actually victimised by the Unionist state, saying, "[Nationalists and Republicans] hold in their hearts a bitterness and sectarian hatred that is based on a myth. Their church with its school system has perpetuated a distorted version of history. Their version of history instils a sense of victim hood into the Roman Catholic community that has no relation to fact."

Feelings are as important as fact. But not more so. What facts can you share? I'd like to try something out here. If you're a Catholic visitor to this blog, take a moment to leave a comment. How unfair was the government of Northern Ireland? Let's exclude "street" sectarianism and concentrate on public sector institutions, local government bodies, the police force, UDR and British Army. Give specific instances of how you or a close relative were victimised.

Just one rule: state facts only, not opinions.

Thursday, October 13, 2005


When de Valera declared the Irish Free State in 1922 as "a Catholic state for a Catholic people" and Carson declared Northern Ireland as "a Protestant state for a Protestant people", the scene was set for a victim culture on both sides of the border. In Northern Ireland, Protestants got the best housing and the best jobs. In the south, it was the Gaelic ascendancy. There's a lot of resentment in the northern Catholic community (as there would be among Protestants in Éire, if it weren't for the fact that nearly all of them either moved out or married people from the Catholic church which insists offspring be brought up as Catholics).
I see Fr. Alec Reid, the Catholic priest who watched the IRA destroy its weapons recently, has likened last century's Unionist ascendancy to Nazism, saying, "The reality is that the nationalist community in Northern Ireland were treated almost like animals by the unionist community. They were not treated like human beings. It was like the Nazis' treatment of the Jews." He later apologised for his harsh words, claiming he'd lost his temper in the face of antagonism. Indeed, victims leader Willie Frazer took the hump and walked out of the public meeting.

My first reaction when I read this was, "What a load of babies. Grow up". But that's far too simplistic. Why? Because whether Fr. Reid's words were ill-chosen or spot on, whether Mr. Frazer was right or wrong in walking out, and whether Nigel Dodds' and Reg Empey's subsequent cries of 'racist' are justifed or not, the truth is that there's a hell of a lot of hurt on both sides, and we ignore that at our peril.

Whether the resentment is justified or not is a moot point. Personally, I've never seen the police vicimise anyone, and any army patrol that ever stopped me was nothing short of courteous (and I'm blessed with a name that could fall into either camp). But by the law of averages I guess there must have been times when the security forces were heavy-handed, especially with people they knew to be terrorists or those who actively aided and abbetted them. Coupled with the economic disadvantage Catholics suffered, we have a cauldron of hurt in Northern Ireland that the current generation of Protestants should pause to recognise.

Whether or not you take issue with the above, think on this: in 21st century Ulster, feelings are as important as fact. Whether Fr. Alec Reid's statement was true, false or somewhere in between, it's the way he feels - the way his community feels - and it should simply be accepted and recognised. And you know what? I think at this stage people simply want their hurts to be recognised. People know the clocks can't be turned back. But as we enter a new phase of equality and peace, people are aching to be taken seriously. And that's why Willie Frazer - ironically a man well acquainted with suffering - should not have walked out. Had he shown sympathy, he may have received some in return.

You see, we're all victims. Playing down someone else's hurts doesn't lessen your own. And them voicing their hurts doesn't negate yours. I lost several friends to IRA terrorism, but spelling Republican with a small 'r' isn't going to bring them back.

Monday, October 03, 2005

The Mary Lou effect

Call me a bit out of touch, but when the BBC screened one of the many Sinn Féin press conferences held in a Jury's Hotel a while back and Mary Lou McDonald was first up to the mike, I thought she was the hotel manageress. There I was, expecting her to point out the emergency exits and make helpful comments about little bottles of ginger ale, but no - this was the Party Chairman, no less. The new, acceptable face of Republicanism going straight.

And a very nice face it is, too. Smartly turned-out, well-spoken, soft Dublin tones, intimidatingly brainy and just a wee bit choochy-faced. Sort of "Condoleeza Rice meets hamster".

Let's face it, this SF makeover is well overdue. For so long we've had ageing suits, grey with seriousness, pondwater shirts and razor-edged voices. They're still there of course, but there's a fresh vigour in the party, and it's now being reflected in the leadership team. The shoulder-chips are making way for shoulder-pads. I mean, cast your eyes over the picture above. There's no missing Mary Lou, is there? (And lest I be accused of chauvinism, young Conor on her right surely also embodies the same new smartness that is becoming Sinn Féin's 21st century hallmark).

The first shift, I think, was seen in the rise of Bairbre de Brún. Not just because she's a woman. It was the sheer middle-classness of her. Schoolteacherly, statesman-like - probably the first Shinner Unionists really listened to. I remember, during the Assembly days, she was head of the Agriculture Committee when the Agriculture Minister was (of all people) Ian Paisley. We all gasped at the thought of what discussions might ensue (or not), yet the two of them got on extremely well and showed a fair amount of regard for each other in public. Heart-warming stuff.

Before I get too serious here ... Unionists take note. Stop navel-gazing on policy issues. Stop looking for party leaders with strange hairdos. Forget peers of the realm. What you need is an injection of feminine glamour. Preferably with brains, but hey, beggars can't be choosers. Has anyone got Arlene Foster's e-mail address?