Tuesday, December 27, 2005

A knight to remember

I've just finished watching First Knight, that Hollywood take on the Arthur legend starring Seán Connery, Richard Gere and that woman that looks like a girl I used to fancy on the school bus. Much buckling of swashes, etc.

The film depicts Arthur as running a Camelot based on quite stunning levels of equality, democracy and active Christianity. Two thoughts wouldn't leave me:

1. People really are very squidgey. Watching Gere thrust his sword downwards into the prostrate body of yet another hapless opponent, it occurred to me that God really didn't intend us for warfare. I mean, if you wanted to design a human that would survive more than 1.8 nanoseconds of serious metal-to-metal combat, would you run off an amended tweak of the 'armadillo' concept or would you create something with all the resilience of a Sara Lee gateau?

2. Facing up to his autocratic nemesis, Arthur gave a memorable quotation, "God makes us strong for a short time so we can help each other", to which the nasty guy responds, "My God makes me strong so I can live my life the way I want to".

And there I think we have, in encapsulated form, the great philosophical clash of our age. One pervading society from top to bottom, one reflected in most social reforms in the western world over the last 50 years: I have the right to live my life as I see fit. In the North, I have to right to kill the unborn baby that'll interrupt my career, to divorce my wife simply by living apart for two years, even to marry another man, if I want. Whatever I think will make me happy. (It must be acknowledged that by adopting a much less 'progressive' stance Éire has not made many of the more detrimental social reforms seen in the UK, largely thanks to pressure from the arch-conservative Roman Catholic church in Ireland).

Until well into the 1950's, what dominated Britain and Ireland was a culture of duty to others, known rules of social engagement and the nuclear family as the very building blocks of society. Of course there was typhoid too, but couldn't we do with more selflessness today, more generosity of spirit and less "me, me, me"?

And so my Big challenge to all you politicians and party supporters in 2006 is ...
Don't stick the knife in at every opportunity, we're tired of it. Treat your opponents like respectable people. Do less finger-in-your-face and keep your palms up, not down. And have a happy new year. Thanks.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Happy Christmas

To all my visitors: thanks very much for taking an interest in what I've had to say since starting this blog in the late summer. I've enjoyed the discussion and hearing what all my e-quaintances have had to say. Have a Big Christmas.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

OTR (On The Ropes)

Sinn Féin has rejected the British government's On-The-Runs legislation.

You almost feel sorry for Tony Blur's government. Yes, the man who brought us 'constructive ambiguity' and, as a poorly disguised sop to the IRA, passed legislation through the Commons to let all terrorist murderers off without spending a single day in jail has just been dealt the ultimate humiliation by the very party whose nether regions he was tongue-probing.

If it wasn't so sick, it'd be funny.

The reason for Pat Doherty's rejection? He's insisting that, whilst terrorist murderers go unpunished, British crown forces who abused their power to kill terrorists should not be let off the hook in the same way. He's saying that a soldier who kills members of an active IRA unit about to murder policemen in Loughgall should go to jail, but a paramilitary who shot a police reservist dead on his doorstep in front of his 5-year-old daughter should go free.

Do I think Doherty is right to reject the OTR legislation? Actually, yes. I've explained here why I think the legislation is morally wrong and against human rights. It compromises every principle of justice I know. My reasoning is defensible, but Doherty's is just sick.

The negotiating strategy is interesting: Sinn Féin knows that the government, having cajoled the law through the Commons, will not now suffer the humiliation of withdrawing it. So, barring rejection in the Lords and (possibly) Strasbourg, it'll go onto the statute books, thereby giving Republican terrorists all the benefits they originally pressed so hard for. By stating its dissatisfaction at this late stage, however, SF permits itself to retain the issue as a gripe and so help stem alienation of its hardline electorate.

It just goes to show what a mess you get yourself into when you starting compromising basic principles, and if Tony's on the ropes pending a knock-out, that's fine by me because the man simply isn't fit to govern.

The Big thing: devolve full governmental powers to Ulster, and let all our parties govern us. They'd do a better job, especially now that all those spies are out of the way. Allegedly.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Wise up!

I see the PSNI Chief Constable Hugh Orde reckons (senior) Republicans need to "wise up". They should stop thanking the police off the record for stopping loyalist riots but criticising the police force in public and to the press.
Now this might be a bit embarrassing for Sinn Féin, and as sure as eggs are eggs we'll see the PR machine go into backlash, but it's very encouraging to be reminded that Republicans can see past their own self-image enough to have a bit of heart towards the police in what everyone would agree were very difficult circumstances.
Sinn Féin can have their political differences with whomever they like - that's their right - but the world expects them, as a democratic party, to be committed to the rule of law and to support the police forces on both sides of the border. While the DUP has other things it urgently needs to deal with, this is the Big challenge facing Sinn Féin: join the local NI policing boards and take your rightful place - even the Chief Constable wants to be accountable to Republicans (and if that isn't a tribute to your peaceful strategy I don't know what is).

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Only muggles smuggle

The PSNI have been homing in on counterfeit goods at Jonesborough market in south Armagh, a stone's throw from the Irish border. Now I'm no expert on south Armagh. I just drive through on my way to Dublin, and I've never stopped long enough for someone to come up and say, "Psst, wanna fake Armalite?".

Hat-tip: over at Balrog, Chris has voiced his favour of
smuggling and counterfeiting, with MS Office for the kids at 5 quid a throw. Beats any subsidy Bill Gates could offer, but I'd love to know how, if smuggling's traditional in Armagh, they managed it before partition and, if the border's an evil intrusion, how come it's OK to exploit it?

Once again, the PSNI takes all the stick. But the PSNI doesn't make the laws, its job is to enforce them. If Sinn Féin has an issue with the way these laws are enforced, they should take up their rightful places on the local policing boards and do something about it.

Smuggling, a worldwide activity since the dawn of taxes, isn't the preserve of the good burghers of south Armagh, but its espousal there and its vociferous defence on the ground surely betrays a deeper-running issue, an insistence on making up one's own rules and ignoring national legislation.

Whether south Armagh belongs to the UK or Éire, it's never going to be an enclave called the People's Republic of Jonesborough. Smuggling is illegal in both countries. Laws are made by politicians (not the police). When SF finally joins a devolved government in Ulster (roll on the day) it can introduce a Green Paper to legalise smuggling and submit to the democratic process of lawmaking.
The bottom line is: revolutionaries outside the system make up their own rules, Big democrats operate within the democratic process they've rightly embraced.

When a deadline is not a deadline

Peter Hain needs his head examining. He said yesterday he'd scrap the NI Assembly if a devolution deal isn't worked out by the next general election.

Whoa! I seem to remember it's enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement - who does Peter Hain think he is? Certainly not a competent politician, that's for sure because, as the rest of humanity has already twigged, the DUP are just about the most stubborn people on planet earth, so if this is some sort of imperial bully-boy tactic to get Ian Paisley off the fence and into power with Gerry Adams it's bound to fail in such a way that Hain would have been better off keeping his powder dry and working behind the scenes (asking Jonathan Powell to pull his strings if he's got any sense).

Inept politician or not, the most frightening thing about Hain's statement is that it's clear he's not fit to sit at a negotiating table, and that should worry all Ulster parties to the core. He's shown immense political ill-judgement because - as even the least skilled negotiator knows - when you give a deadline you can be sure the other guy will let it pass before giving you what you want.

Blair, do the Big thing: send Hain back to South Africa and appoint Powell as the last English Secretary of State, with a brief to have Ulster run by Ulsterpeople. (By next Christmas, but don't let on).

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Plane mad

My travels last week took me to Düsseldorf airport. With caffeine levels lower than a limbo-dancing flea, I decided to go to the airport coffee bar. I remember when these places used to sell coffee but, progress being progress, I had to have a choc-sprinkled latte macchiato with a double left-handed twist of ox grindings and hand over what remained of my holiday money, so you can imagine the gloom with which I sat looking out onto the freezing apron, watching mummified baggage handlers going about their business like extras on Ice Station Zebra.

The space to my left was soon taken by a Dutch couple in their 60s. I christened him Francis because he was the image of a Franciscan monk - thin and bald with a long white beard - a retired psychologist, I decided. Marijke his dumpy wife went scavenging for food while he spent 5 minutes extracting a variety of tools from a small carry-on bag and lining them up on the table: binoculars, a small notebook and pencil, and a reference manual of some sort - all geared up for some heavy-duty plane spotting.

By the time Marijke returned he had already noted down all the registrations on the tarmac, and every time a plane took off he'd grab the glasses and follow it with a great sweep, entertaining Marijke with useful details on the peculiar type of undercarriage sported by the newer A320’s and reminding her that there was the very plane - the very plane - they'd spotted in Riga last December. (Who said Dutchmen aren't romantic?) Marijke, obviously an experienced spotter's wife, would answer the livelier comments in flat, beaten tones with encouraging responses like uitzonderlijk and wat leuk.

While Francis was coo-ing over some new discovery, my mind started wandering to those British plane spotters who sat in a Greek jail for a few months for - allegedly - doing nothing more (or less) sinister. Indeed if Francis had been sporting a long black beard and wearing a Muslim robe and prayer cap, I daresay the German border guards would have been diving all over him before he could say, "Zwei Doppel-Espresso mit Zucker".

It's all about perception these days. Ethnicity + activity + location = 10 foot square with a toilet if you're lucky.

Closer to home, I imagine there was a time when peering through the wire at Aldergrove while carrying weapons no more offensive than Francis' might have landed you in an internment cell indefinitely if you were Seamus O'Flaherty in an army-surplus jacket, but not if you were William McCourt in a business suit with your Merc parked nearby. (Apologies to Seamus and William if you're reading this).

I have no doubt that people from both traditions suffered under Ulster's internment-without-trial in the 70s and 80s. While it may have kept one or two bad eggs off the streets for a while, it's unjust to imprison people without fair trial, and getting rid of internment was a Big move in making Ulster a fairer, more democratic place to live.

Let's be grateful for that. Being terrorised by a plane spotter while sipping a €5 cup of flavoured milk is a small price to pay for progress.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Meat for the goose (2)

Guess what? It's OK to let IRA terrorists off the hook for murdering policemen, but it's just plain wrong not to pursue members of the security forces who killed active terrorists. According to Gerry Adams, that is.
Adams has been down in Dublin's fair city bending Bertie Ahern's ear.
To be honest, you'd be forgiven for getting a bit sick of all the recent Sinn Féin moaning - by a party that's now clearly able to influence the actions of the UK government and has had a fair few 'wins' of late, scalps to show the fundamentalist powerbase. It would demonstrate a lot more statesmanship and decency if Sinn Féin would take what they've gained over recent months and just enjoy it quietly, but Mr Adams' appetite for complete humiliation of the government he so despises seems to be boundless.
If and when a united Ireland comes about, I believe northern Nationalists will look to non-socialist, wealth-creating political ideologies and be less enamoured with single-issue extremist parties once their ideal is achieved. Should that come about, this continued hardline stance by Mr Adams may come back to haunt him.

Gay marriages in Lisburn

There's a row going on in Lisburn over the forthcoming introduction of same-sex marriages, and I want to put my opinions on record with clarity. Contrary to what some think, this is not essentially a party-political issue. To mis-quote the late Bill Shankly, it's far more important than that.

I'm a Christian, and I can understand the need gay people have for the warmth and security of an officially recognised partnership. I believe it's the same God-given need which heterosexuals feel, but expressed differently because they're attracted to members of the same sex and are therefore trying to meet these deeply-held needs in that way. Christians have to show them that this desire for a permanent partnership is entirely natural.

We also have a duty to remind them, lovingly and respectfully, that a same-sex partnership is unlikely to bring long-term satisfaction because there are many records in the Bible of God's anger at homosexual acts, and it's likely to be second-best compared with the man/woman union God designed for Adam, Eve and their descendants.

But the issue has to be discussed sensitively and in humility, and not used as an excuse for bigotry and discrimination which would be just as ungodly as men giving themselves over to sex with other men. Men and women with homosexual feelings are just as loved by God as anyone else, and just as capable of being transformed by him.

IMC unlawful?

Sinn Féin is challenging the legality of the Independent Monitoring Commission, the watchdog set up by the UK government to report to the London and Dublin on the activities of paramilitaries in the North. The writ was handed in, ironically, by Conor Murphy, the elected MP for Newry and Armagh who refuses to take his seat in the Commons and who, according to an earlier comment posted on this blog, has himself sat in prison on terrorism-related matters.
But what's all the fuss about? The IMC's most recent report was gushing about how IRA activity is zero and how the spotlight is now on 'loyalist' groupings to follow the (I paraphrase) noble lead shown by Republican terror group.
Basically, you see, Sinn Féin despises any or all authority of the British government in the 6 counties, so this move is really no surprise. But it's ironic that they see fit to challenge it in the British courts rather than Dublin or Strasbourg.
I  regard the whole thing is an irritant, but respect Sinn Féin's right to challenge the British and Irish governments in court. That's democracy. Not every government is respectable, therefore any democratic system has to have this option as part of its checks and balances.
Good to see the party submitting to the court. The Big thing for Sinn Féin is to respect the court's judgement, however the dice falls.

Retail therapy

Gratuitously off-topic (hey, it's Friday).

I hate big shopping malls, but it's getting near Christmas and medium-sized Ulsterbabe says she's badly in need of some cool designer outfits, so I prised the barbed wire off my wallet and got the car out.

Talk about hordes! Mainly 15 - 17 year-old girls, some with boyfriends in tow, some hunting alone. Walking two paces behind my daughter I was beginning to consider the benefits of Islam when I did one of those mall-walking things that happen almost involuntarily, imperceptibly, after a few decades of retail shoulder-jostling.

Subconsciously, my mind went into yellow alert as I detected a Sharon approaching from 9 o'clock, chewing a big piece of gum and, more alarmingly, on a direct collision course with me as she approached "Teeny Slapper" or whatever the shop was called. What to do? Well, where I come from, there's an unspoken rule that if you're walking down the street and someone wants to cross your path, they darned well have the manners to let you trundle past before cutting a perpendicular dash to the retail establishment of their choice. Boy am I out of touch! She never even looked at me. Kept walking as if I didn't exist. Now I don't know about you, but I'm not partial to being ignored, so I kept walking. Same pace, same stride.

Red alert.

I'm close enough now to hear the smack of chewing gum above the sound of someone strangling Robbie Williams. On the point of impact, though, my instincts took over. I slowed just enough to let her pass, but carefully measured my deceleration to ensure she brushed my chest with her shoulder - just enough to give her the message. Again, my presence failed to register. However, as my right foot moved forward for another step it connected quite carelessly with a 4-inch heel, causing a moderate amount of "Essex two-step" for an entertaining second or so. Unbelievably, no reaction whatsoever, she just roboted her way into the shop as if nothing had happened.

On one of my shopfront waits, while pondering the fact that I was the only adult within screaming distance, I got thinking about how much "other people's" money gets spent in these places. By which I don't mean stolen money, just parents' money, grandparents' money, even boyfriends' money. The people who spend it aren't the people who earn it. Similar in many ways to the Great Pension Problem now besetting the developed nations as we begin to contemplate oodles of baby-boomers like me enjoying 30-year retirements with only a few young people working their buns off to pay for it. (I firmly believe the day will come when governments regret encouraging healthy lifestyles and introduce tax breaks for OAPs who smoke). Anyway, I'd love to tell you how I solved this great demographic problem of our age, but I was jolted out of my reverie by an excited daughter eager to explore the next part of retail heaven.

"Just one more shop, pleeease?", and a look one cannot possibly disappoint. This time it's Benetton, haven of jumpers just asking to be shaken out, and - way at the back of the store - (you've guessed it) Sharon, now grimly working her way through a rack of tops. She had adopted that familiar diagonal stance so beloved of hardcore shoppers, resting her weight on one leg, shoulders and head at an angle, one hand on her bag and the other clawing its way successively along an endless line of hanger hooks. Her jaw snapped the chewing gum with such regularity you could set your watch by it (maybe she had a silicon implant, boom boom!). Anyway, I stood fixated by the sight of this consumer automaton and realised with a growing chill that my twilight years would, if God spares me, be paid for by the likes of her. My purchasing power in retirement would depend upon Sharon's economic output. And the longer our non-smoking, moderately drinking, regularly exercising, healthy-eating fortysomethings live, the harder she'll have to work.

I decided it would be a shame to sponge off the poor girl in later years without having said 'hello' when I had the chance - albeit in a fleeting manner - so I leaned forward and opened the conversation with, "Excuse me, did your mother never tell you to keep your mouth shut when you chew?".

She barely moved. Without leaving the hardcore retail position, she tilted her head backwards and looked at me, expressionless, her eyes focussed on some indeterminate point two feet behind the bridge of my nose. My heart started to race. Silence. For a moment I thought she was going to fling the rack at me, hurling me backwards and precipitating my death by four or five money-saving decades, but instead - true to style - she simply returned to her never-ending quest with a few extra-loud smacks, just for effect.

My daughter appeared. I decided it was time to leave. "Come on, young lady, time for some real shopping", says I forcefully, striding out of the store like a man with a mission. "But where are you off to?", she asked, bewildered at my sudden enthusiasm.

"The health food shop".