Thursday, August 25, 2005

Show yer teeth!

This Loyalist violence is escalating out of control. A 13-month-old baby has been covered in paint. His mother had a petrol bomb hurled at her. There's been a petrol bomb attack on a home in Ballymoney and Stena has banned Rangers supporters from the Stranraer ferry for intimidating passengers with song about killing Catholics. Good Lord.

Louts who behave like animals do not understand the language politicians are using to condemn their acts. Just look at what Ian Paisley Jr said today:

"It looks like a very nasty and vicious attack which must be condemned and which just strikes fear and intimidation into a local rural community. I think the police should look into the aspect of whether or not this is a case of mistaken identity, unfortunately - that would make it even more pathetic. But that aside, nothing justifies attacks of this nature."

Oh, well that's told them then.

Not! The roundest condemnations are short, to the point and unmistakeable. Do the Big Thing, unionist politicians, especially the DUP and PUP leaders: Tell them, "Stop it. Now! Every one of you."

D'ye want GCSEs wi' that?

Not only are our young people slabbing out on fast food till their ears pop, we're handing out academic qualifications like there's no tomorrow. Just take the BBC website report featuring a pic of three young lasses whooping it on up after scoring multiple top marks in their GCSEs. Not one week ago, the site showed these very same girlies in exactly the same pose after getting mega-top exclusive-like results from their A-levels. Just what do you have to do to fail these days?

Very off-topic for me, this. Normal service will be resumed as soon as I get down off the ceiling.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Two wrongs ...

Interesting piece by Kenny Donaldson on the Young Unionists' blog today, particularly: "I accept as a unionist that wrongs were committed by the British Government against nationalists/republicans over the past 35 years which cannot and should not be legitimised".
An acknowledgement of wrongs done by crown agencies - quite a departure for unionism, that.
Sinn Féin supporters: be as Big and accept it in good grace. Go raibh maith agat.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Listen without prejudice

I've never warmed to George Michael (musically or any other way), but there's been a very interesting debate going on over at "United Irelander" that's especially worth a look. It's an idea about the Republic of Ireland (re-)joining the British Commonwealth. In fact, go now and have a look. Yes, now. See you in a minute ...

If you let the idea settle for a while, lean back in your favourite armchair and enjoy a generous Bushmills, you can't fail to find some merit in there. Now I know the hardliners on both wings will find it difficult giving that sort of idea any serious amount of brain-time, but I'll venture to say two things to you:

1. The island will never be at peace while any large grouping feels alienated and unaccepted, so it's moves like this we need from both sides;

2. The middle ground we all need to move onto is a constellation of several changes, all as creative and generous as this one. Wouldn't it be great to find them together?

Monday, August 22, 2005

Big challenge to Republicans

Within a few weeks of the IRA announcing its intention to disarm, the "Real IRA" has now warned of retaliation for the dirty ethnic cleansing going on in Ahoghill. Don't Loyalists realise what they're provoking? Quite apart form the fact that the Catholic residents have every right to live there, isn't it preferable to live alongside peaceable Catholics than to split Republicanism into myriads of uncontrollable splinter groups with the horrors of civil war that could follow? Get a grip.
Although Loyalists are the source of this problem, Republicanism needs to do a Big Thing and be very disciplined. It needs to take the moral high ground, keep its copybook clean and support the PSNI - however reluctantly - so that this evil hooliganism can be stopped and its perpetrators punished by law.

Gerry and the Peacemakers

Less heavy post today. I was just thinking of Ulster's great comedians and how Protestants and Catholics all manage to laugh at the same things (generally).

There's the "Hole in the Wall Gang", that cross-community band of laughsters which spawned Patrick Kielty (forgive the phrase, Patrick), there's Jimmy Young (for those of us old enough to remember), Frank Carson, Jimmy Cricket and a whole raft of others. What a talented bunch we can be. In fact, not taking ourselves too seriously is a much-needed safety valve, and we need more of it, not less.

Just as important is the tongue-in-cheek brigade. Like George Jones and Gerry Anderson. Gerry's a great guy because he can poke people in a cheeky-chappie sort of way, saying things that lesser mortals wouldn't get away with - especially in his newspaper columns. I remember one time last summer, when Orange parades were filling the TV with negative headlines, when Gerry made reference in his Belfast Telegraph column to "Irishmen and people who wish they were something else".

I remember this because it hit the nail of a very interesting bit of the Protestant psyche square on the head. Are we Irish? Or Ulster-Scots? And what on earth does it mean to be British? (Note to self: this warrants a post in its own right some time). But for now: most Protestants have come to feel less Irish than our Gaelic countrymen and some, unfortunately, feel quite OK with this. But Gerry's neatly phrased barb - aimed of course at Orangemen - gave me a feeling of comfort, namely that Ulster Protestants can be accepted as being fully Irish, even when some of their ethnic brethren are a bit less comfortable with it.

So, before I return to more serious mode, how about toning up our laughing muscles, locking our elected politicians up for a while, devolving power to Stormont and making Gerry Anderson and George Jones our "Joint First Ministers"?

Friday, August 19, 2005

Mo's Legacy

And so, thankfully not without warning, former British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Mo Mowlam passed away this morning. The plaudits from across the political spectrums in Britain and Ireland, almost all positive, offer interesting information on what people value in others.

That seems to be: clarity of expression, respect for people and focus on results.

Mo was unstuffy. She put her feet up on the table, hugged politicians and called a spade a spade (or something similar). More than anything, she didn't let petty arguments detract her from the big picture.

There's a lesson in there for us all. Yesterday I was in a minor debate with someone who just couldn't see my point. You know the sort of thing - when nothing you say will move them, the shutters are down.
The Big Thing in these situations, as I'm sure Mo would attest, is to sow your seeds, be respectful, keep your eyes on the horizon, and hope for tomorrow.

Let's keep Mo's memory alive in how we treat each other.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Well done, Dessie Ward

I see Dessie Ward, Sinn Féin councillor in Rathfriland, has condemned quite roundly the daubing of pro-Republican graffiti on road signs and property in the area: "This graffiti may, or may not, be in response to anti-republican graffiti that appeared in the town over the Twelfth of July period. Either way it is wrong."
So often in the past we've heard qualified condemnations only pointing the finger at the causes without denouncing the crimes themselves. We need more of this kind of clarity and bridge-building.

Loyal to whom?

There was a time when the word "loyalist" meant an honest, true supporter, usually of a political regime. Today it conjures up images of tattooed rowdies - often well out of their youth - waving the St Patrick's flag and kicking 10 bells out of other Loyalists. Or worse.

Who are these guys being loyal to?

If it's the faith professed by their Church leaders, why don't they do like God says, shun violence and put their energies into getting to know Jesus? If they're loyal to politicians, why don't they heed their advice and lead quiet lives? If they're loyal to the UK Government, why do they break its laws with no shame? If they're loyal to the monarchy, why do they deface the "Queen's highway" with sectarian emblems and paint the woman's kerbstones red, white and blue when her appointed officials had them made in grey?

Maybe they're just being loyal to themselves, waging internecine power battles just to stay top dog in drugs, extortion and bullying. But underneath the evil bravado I think they're scared because they know their day is over. Radical loyalism has no future, and some day I'll explain why I think that is, and what some fresh alternatives might be.

For now though, Loyalists, do the Big Thing:
Go home, have a cup of tea and get on with being good fathers, husbands and sons.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Wider politics

Recently I was debating the future of Northern Ireland with an old schoolfriend - now a minor elected official of the Orange Order, indeed. Now he and I don't see 100% eye-to-eye on politics, but he made a comment I found interesting. It was this: "People here are getting sick of Orange and Green".

It was a reminder to me that NI politics are so fixated on antagonism and culture-clash. There's an us-and-them angle to almost every political issue. But I found it encouraging to hear those words from someone in his position.

Roll on the day when Protestant and Catholic Ulstermen can debate much bigger issues than Orange and Green while respecting each other.

Sinn Féin and Policing

Sinn Féin persuading the IRA to disarm - or at least kicking off the process which let to it - was a Big move because it was a departure from old ways. It says it's dedicated to peaceful politics, dialogue and persuasion, and the evidence agrees. But its elected representatives still refuse to take their places on local Policing Boards, claiming the PSNI is a sectarian gopher of the UK government, in cahoots with MI5 and (presumably) enemies of all things Republican. Well, get in there and change it!

In days past, the RUC's main job was to pursue terrorists because they were breaking the law. With the IRA disarmed and inactive, the emphasis of policing has to shift - in fact that process was started after the Good Friday Agreement. The PSNI is more than a new uniform, it has a new management structure and new policies, but you can't blame it for upholding the law. That's what it's there for. It's not perfect, but it's no latter-day Black & Tans either.

Sinn Féin's electoral success means they represent a large swathe of NI citizens. That gives them the right to share in devolved government, but with it come responsibilities. In a democracy, police (not vigilantes) have the job of upholding the law. To make sure they're even-handed they have to be accountable to elected politicians who approve their methods. It's a check-and-balance thing, and Sinn Féin have a responsibility to engage in it, otherwise they're failing to represent their constituents in matters of policing which have been a continual gripe since 1969. Even today's Belfast Telegraph carries a story where Ballymena Republican march organiser Paddy Murray says he was treated unfairly at a vehicle check. Isn't it incumbent on Sinn Féin to change things from the inside?

Bear with me when I say this: it's no longer acceptable for Sinn Féin to stay off the Policing Boards and hurl brickbats at the PSNI. They must join the other party representatives, get in there and use their influence to help make the PSNI a force supported by all but hardened criminals.

Now, I know that's a considerable challenge for a party whose armed wing waged a guerilla war against the police, but we're in a new ball game now and - as a democratic outfit - Sinn Féin shouldn't shun this responsibility. Maybe it has legitimate tactical reasons for holding back right now, I don't know. But, with the IRA being stood down, it should at least make membership a declared intention.

In the last 25 years Sinn Féin has matured from an extremist grouping on the periphery to a democratic party at the centre of modern politics. Now do the next Big Thing, Gerry:
Join the Unionists, the SDLP and the Alliance on Policing Boards and take your rightful opportunity to help shape policing in Northern Ireland.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Ian Jr does it

You've got to feel sorry for Ian Paisley Junior, don't you? No, really. I mean, if you somehow got a teenage urge to become a politician, who's the last dad you'd need? Whether you like Dr Ian or loathe him - and most Ulster folk do one or the other - he's got megaphone-sized shoes to fill, and you'll have to put up with being referred to as Mini-Me and stuff. Nightmare. You'd forever be in the old man's shadow. Eventually you'd either end up being seen as an ungrateful upstart for eclipsing him, or have loads of red-white-and-blue-rinsed biddies tutting over the Nambarrie, saying, "shor he's nathin' like the mon 'is dad was, shor 'e asn't". I think I'd cut my losses and be a traffic warden.

But no! Ian Jr has a cunning political popularity-pumping tool in his armory. A nubile personal advisor? No. A hip life-coach? Nope, none of those. He reads the "Big Ulsterman" blog. No doubt about it. Not one day after I advise Nigel Dodds to get in there and talk face-to-face with the victims of crime, Ian Jr informs the media (relunctantly) that he's met some of Ahoghill's persecuted Catholic residents in person. Did they bite? No. In fact, Ian Jr is alive and well and insisting he actually met them some time back but didn't like to say. Probably no reason to doubt he's telling the truth - after all, if he weren't, it wouldn't be long before the people called the BBC to destroy his career.

So good on you, Ian Jr. Now, the next Big Thing is:
Blogroll me to your dad ...

Friday, August 12, 2005

Big Mo Mowlam

As the BBC reports that Mo Mowlam has been taken to a hospice, it looks like her life is very precarious. Irish Christians of all colours should take a moment to pray for her today.

In 1998, wanting to kick-start the peace process from one of its innumerable glitches, she took the bull by the horns and walked into the Maze Prison to talk to influential prisoners face to face - the first British NI Secretary to be so daring and direct. Thank God - the peace process was revived that same day.

She shunned airs and graces and treated everyone like humans. From time to time, I'm sure she wasn't averse to airing her frustration in language not usually heard from a government minister, but she was and is no ordinary lady.

She did Big Things. Now it's our turn.

"Motiveless" violence

Last week saw the rape of a 15-year-old girl by two Belfast louts who held her teenage friends in fear of death, forcing them to watch their brutal sex acts. One then called the girl's mother on her mobile to offer intimate details. God help all of them. On Wednesday, Thomas Devlin, also 15, was knifed to death while he was out buying sweets. Today come reports that a young man, out courting with his girlfriend two weeks ago, was dragged from his car and beaten to within an inch of his life with a wheel brace.

No apparent sectarianism. Just pure barbarity, evil at its worst. I'll leave it to experts to analyse causes and remedies, but I'm reminded of the kind of base hatred and pyschopathic mindsets we heard about during the Jamie Bulger murder trial.

During the Troubles, Northern Ireland's non-sectarian crime rate was one of the lowest in Europe. Maybe sectarian motives were read into too many crimes. Maybe latent aggression got channelled into sectarian rowdyism. In any case, there's now a dangerous undercurrent of lawlessness that's very worrying if you live in or around Belfast.

Nigel Dodds MLA, MP, in whose constituency Thomas Devlin lived and died, condemned the attack. Good, of course, but the Big Thing would be:
Get involved with cross-community support groups and peace initiatives in your constituency, Nigel. Go and visit Thomas' parents and be seen to be a concerned, active MP for all your constituents.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Devolution, not evolution

When your negotiation oppo makes a unilateral concession, the easiest thing to do - and boy it's always tempting - is to dig your heels in and get more. Sinn Féin did it on policing after the Good Friday Agreement. And now the DUP can't resist it either.

Two years to devolution, says Rev Ian, cutting off his nose to spite his face. The truth is there's no reason not to start inclusive self-government as soon as the IRA decommissions. Invite Rev Ian along to the oxyacetaline shin-dig, and let him bring the Polaroid if he wants. Then, as the last armalite melts, ask him what the "D" in DUP stands for. It's hard for your average Prod to sit down with ex-terrorists, but they're humans too, and the truth is: a fair few people want them there.

Do the Big Thing, Ian:
Accept Sinn Féin's mandate and enter inclusive devolved government as soon as the last IRA weapon goes.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly. Welcome to Ballymena.

Four weeks ago in Ahoghill, Co. Antrim, Catholic grandmother Kathleen McCaughey was forced to leave the house she'd lived in all her life. Her property had been daubed repeatedly with sectarian abuse, and she was sent hate mail and death threats to herself and her family, poor woman.

Three weeks ago, All Saints RC church in Ballymena was smeared with paint, and the Church of Our Lady in Harryville was plastered with racist graffiti.

As I write, Catholic residents of Ahoghill, Ballymena and other places are being terrorised out of their homes by thugs born to Protestant parents. They bring shame to everything they think they stand for, and they should be shunned, isolated and locked up.

Mrs McCaughey was well liked by her Protestant neighbours. They stood by her, and she paid generous tribute to them (and they to her). Are Catholics and Protestants really so different? Course not.

Back to Harryville. On 28th July, members of Ballymena's "High Kirk" Presbyterian church took it upon themselves to clean off the graffiti as an expression of solidarity. Next day they went along to All Saints and handed out roses to Massgoers. Fr Paul Symonds said, "It was an absolutely lovely gesture, one of sheer love. It was a very gracious gesture and I felt it was a very much a mirror of God's love". His parishioners thanked the High Kirk people by inviting them in for a cup of tea together. Big people, all.

Now there's a Big Thing we can all do:
Let's drink more tea together.

Big Things

Now that the IRA has announced its move from death to democracy, a peaceful future for Northern Ireland may well be dawning.

To make lasting progress, though, everyone needs to move onto middle ground. Politically, culturally, socially. Instead of Orange and Green, we need an Irish "Third Way", and it's the big challenge of our generation. Are we up to it? Are you up to it?

Peace and social equality, when it comes, will be ushered in not by trumpets and press conferences but by politicians and ordinary folk shifting what they say and what they do.

This isn't rocket science. It's not academic psychology. It's about making lots of little steps to generate trust and respect, and it's not beyond any of us. And it means not living up to your stereotype.

I call it "doing Big Things", because we have to be big to do things differently.

As the NI peace process moves forward, We'll look at current events and some of the wider issues and highlight Big Things that people can do. Leave prejudice outside. Be prepared to be unconventional .

I want to acknowledge - right up front - my Protestant Christian beliefs and cultural identity. I extend goodwill to my Catholic fellow-countrymen and to those of other (or no) faith. We're all in this together.

Welcome, Fáilte.