Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Belt up, Sammy

In a move which is not going to endear the DUP's Sammy Wilson to our Southern neighbours, particularly those in Meath, the East Antrim MP is moaning about the possibility of his beloved UK government doing away with free school transport if buses have to be fitted with seatbelts.

But they save kids' lives, Sammy! Or doesn't that matter?

If he doesn't trust the British government, why doesn't his party get off the pot and form a devolved government together with other people who probably do care about kids' lives. I've long said that the best people to govern Ulster are the people of Ulster, not a bunch of Westminster prancers who think civilisation ends at Watford.

But devolution calls for Big leaders. How long are we going to have to put up with small-minded, fearful, single-issue politicians? You see, Sammy Wilson and his party have been going on about how Ulster is Bradish, how Éire is evil, how Catholics can't be trusted and how Protestants have been sold down the river - for so long that they're clueless on the real issues everybody cares about.

Worse than that, they've entirely lost the big picture: the good of the people of Ulster. If Sammy Wilson was capable of showing the leadership his people desperately need, he'd be fitting those seat belts pronto and working hard with his fellow-countrymen to make this a better, safer place to live. But he's not. He's a slave to 17th century politics and the DUP's narrow-minded, dependency culture.

Monday, November 28, 2005

The George Best City Airport?

In a month when Peter Hain was accused of selling out (1) Northern Ireland's business interests by suggesting the economy wasn't sustainable and (2) the six counties by effectively drawing a new line from Bellarena to Annalong, we need something we can all agree on.

Like renaming Belfast City Airport as a lasting memory to Georgie Best.

Let's do it before Hain plumps for "Vol. Bobby Sands Airport", thereby commencing fulfilment of Prophecy 1.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Simply the Best

"I think I've found you a genius", said Matt Busby's talent scout in a Belfast phonebox after seeing George Best at age 15. Three years later he was the world's first footballing superstar. In 50 years of mass-media football, the only experts that play him down are the ones who argue that Pele might - just - have been a touch faster.

George had simple raw, untaught talent. A natural. Earlier today, he passed into the hereafter, and the world is a poorer place.

Sadly, though, his talent was not matched with the character to handle the rewards it brought, and those rewards were, ultimately, his downfall. Alcoholism brought him and his family full-scale misery, exemplified by his famous bitter-sweet quotation: "I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered".

Here's the most insightful write-up I've seen on George's life and talent*. Give it a quick read, it's better than I could write here.

Truth is: we're all born with skills we neither asked nor worked for. The Big challenge is to handle them well. There will be some who mock George for his weakness, but none of us know the whole story. Could I have handled all that fame and money if I had his background and an alcoholic tendency? I can't be sure. I'm just trying to manage my own set of problems and skills, such as they are. But it's nice to enjoy the talent of others, and George added a lot of light and inspiration across Ireland.

* UPDATE: See here as well.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

OTR legislation - final comments

The legislation granting an amnesty to on-the-run terrorists was passed yesterday by the House of Commons with a sizeable majority, and I expect it will sail through the Lords too, get the royal seal of approval and become law. On this blog we look forward, not back, so it's something we're just going to have to live with, but I want to be clear to my readers on one thing: this was only done to appease the IRA.

Pressed during the Commons debate last night by Willie McCrea (for whom I have little time, but he put up a passionate and, I think, genuine performance), Tony Blur said he realised it was a hard pill to swallow, but that in politics "sometimes you have to make difficult decisions" - rhetoric cunningly designed to make opponents look as if they're just not brave enough to say yes.

In truth, this is saying to the IRA, the INLA, the UVF, the UFF, the UDA and the (few) murderers who sheltered behind the uniforms of the RUC, UDR, RIR and the British Army that if you terrorise hard enough, for long enough, the state will reward you for stopping. It's that simple.

The British government has given in to terrorism, fair and square, and no amount of swishy spin can change that. As Neville Chamberlain learnt to his shame, the truth is that appeasement doesn't work. Ever.

Prawns in a whiskey-and-cream sauce

I see trawlers from Counties Down and Louth are now picking up full-meal ingredient packs off the Welsh coast. Progress indeed. In addition to prawns, trawler crews have been rubbing their salty eyes in disbelief as their nets have pulled in large numbers of unopened bottles of Carolans Irish Cream - in gift packs complete with two glass tumblers. Just add salt and pepper.

It's not 1st April, by the way. A Carolans spokesperson says a 40-foot container of the stuff bound for Spain fell off a ship in high seas last month in the Bay of Biscay, and the currents have swept it back home.

Commenting on the development, Francie Molloy referred journalists to the Sinn Féin leadership and Nigel Dodds said people were already aware of his party's stance on the matter.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

An Gleichschaltung?

On the day our new local government set-up was announced, which has the DUP, the UUP, the SDLP and the Alliance Party spitting blood and Sinn Féin in a state of near-ecstasy, Francie Molloy, veteran Sinn Féin councillor and a man of indubitable Republican credentials, casually mentioned on BBC Newsline that the shake-up might not be such a good idea.

Now, I'm not qualified to judge whether he's right or not. The point is: he was immediately suspended from his party, subject to a disciplinary tribunal, for airing a view which is at odds with that of his party leadership. I've been avoiding the fashionable trend towards comparisons with 1930's Germany, but this smacks of Gleichschaltung right and proper.

Sinn Féin will argue that disciplinary matters within the party are private matters and the business of no one on the outside, but it's quite fair that a democratic party inviting members of the public to join it should have its internal machinations clearly on view and subject to public scrutiny. And, yes, that goes for all parties, not just Sinn Féin.

On an issue central to an organisation's raison d'être it might possibly be thinkable to call into question a dissenting member's alignment with shared aims and objectives - say when a member of Pro-Life starts encouraging women to abort - but on matters of policy (as opposed to objectives) a democratic party leadership must respect and listen to members' views, allow them to be debated and, if supported by a majority, represent them to the hilt. That's democracy. Looks like Sinn Féin still has to give up some old-style tendencies.

After all, how democratic are you when the leadership tells members what to think?

To be Big, the SF leadership should realise that debate isn't a sign of weakness, as their younger members ably demonstrate. They should allow their members latitude to contribute creatively. If they've really embraced democracy they have to stop intimidating dissenters within their own ranks. This isn't 1930's Chicago either.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Lest we forget

Kit Johnston was just an ordinary ambulance man (if such a thing exists), attending accident victims and the urgently ill in the west of Ulster for over a quarter of a century irrespective of creed or colour. Kit had that optimistic and efficient manner typical of all who share his profession, north and south. His service to the people of west Ulster in 29 years was recognised with a British Empire Medal. I will always remember him for saving the sight in my left eye by driving me the 60 miles to Derry in just under an hour - and that was on 1970's roads.

Kit had the fatal misfortune, together with his wife and 9 others, to be standing beside the war memorial in Enniskillen on Remembrance Day 1987 when an IRA bomb ripped the heart out of the community in a way that, like Omagh, La Mon, Brighton and Bloody Sunday, will never be forgotten. It was ironically a scene of carnage and devastation, like those from which he used to rescue others, that Kit himself died amid unspeakable pain and confusion.

The Enniskillen Remembrance Day Bombing was one of the few terrorist crimes ever to draw an apology from Sinn Féin. (The above link also has a video conveying what happened that day).

A framed montage of the victims' photographs was put up by colleagues in the ambulance station at the Erne Hospital. Strangely, though, it was removed without comment last weekend. Remembrance Weekend.

What an affront to the memory of those who died. There's nothing political about the plaque, it's a simple aid to remembrance - and not just remembering the victims either. The really important aspect of such memorials is that they remind us all of what was done in the name of Irish nationalism and that no aspiration - political or otherwise - is important enough to merit barbarism of that kind, to any one. Let's be Big and remember that.

Let's not forget.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Not coming out to play

Honestly, sometimes the DUP really takes the biscuit. The IRA has decommissioned, Peter Hain invites Dermot Ahern and all the NI political parties to Hillsborough to talk about policing and restorative justice, and Nigel Dodds pulls out some old prima-donna mantra of the government already being aware of his party's position.

Regular readers know I often rail against Sinn Féin for welching out of their responsibility to help shape Northern Ireland's policing by representing their voters on the local policing boards, but full marks to them on attending Hillsborough for these talks. It's a start in the right direction, and if Peter Hain's got any sense he'll recognise that and try to accommodate some of their interests (without compromising any principles of a modern democracy, of course).

Reg Empey agrees: "They should be in those talks along with us and others fighting to get as much as we can for the pro-union community. We know that there are major social and economic issues".

The truth is, that whereas the UUP and its pre-incarnations ignored the plight of the Protestant working classes in the 1920s to 1990s, that role has now sadly fallen to the DUP, whose electoral success was produced by those same working classes whom - irony of ironies - Sinn Féin is now said to be looking to address on the ground with advice centres and door-to-door constituency work. Never was an opportunity wider open.

Nigel Dodds has described the talks as a stunt 'to give the impression that some process is starting' . He may find, to his displeasure, that some process is indeed starting, but that he's wrongly chosen to stay at home with mummy.

A sister of mercy

You'd think a 79-year-old nun would be safe on our streets, but she's not. This particular lady was mugged in Derry and had her handbag stolen along with a sum of money which was surely nowhere near enough for a fix.
Whatever you and I may think of the perpetrator, the victim said, "I feel a great sadness that young people like this boy have to resort to such violence ...". What a loving Christian response, focussing away from her own discomfort to the state of her attacker, also a victim. If a frail 79-year-old can be that Big, so can you and I.
I hope and pray she recovers well. Somehow I think she will.
Imagine what might happen if, the next time we come under attack socially or politically, we all just turn the other cheek and reach out in constructive friendship. It's not beyond any of us, and personally I'm going to do it today.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Patrick Lichfield

There'll be a lot of sadness today at the sudden death, aged 66, of Lord Lichfield, the brilliant photographer, no-nonsense talker and (incidentally) first cousin of the Queen of England.

His photo-artistry was nothing short of superb - and I'm not just talking about the Unipart calendar. His lighting and poses were always hugely creative and often stunning. I remember an almost shocking black-and-white portrait of Barry Humphries (he of "Dame Edna" fame) with his head poking out of a toilet.

Other than the fact that his one-time father-in-law owned Ely Lodge in Fermanagh, his Irish connections are practically zero, and yet - though I wouldn't necessarily approve fully of his lifestyle - there's a lot for us all to take to heart:

Born into vast riches, he could have bummed along on the huntin'/shootin'/fishin' circuit, yet he chose to take a job as a photographer's assistant for 3 quid a week in 1962. While others indulged their senses as their ancestral piles fell to rack and ruin, Lichfield opened Shugborough to the public and made it a viable business. Although his close relationship to the queen did him no harm, he made it to the top of his profession through talent, not birth.

Take away any prejudice (justified or otherwise) you might have against the aristocracy, and you have the heart of what made Lichfield Big - he didn't let his background enslave him, and he dared to be his own man. Ulster could do with a lot of that.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Meat for the goose

If you ever plan to murder someone, join the IRA or UVF first. Under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement anything they've done is met with the kind of blind eye Nelson could only dream of.

However, having decided that convicted IRA and UVF murderers don't deserve jail, the British government's been in a real pickle about what to do with the scores of on-the-run terrorists being hunted for serious crimes. You know, attempted murderers, etc., who've run away.

Well, now they're to be allowed back with impunity. Except they first have to attend a tribunal to find them guilty and then let them go back to their fuel smuggling or schoolteaching, etc. Martin McGuinness, Sinn Féin's chief negotiator instrumental in persuading the British government that a terrorist mass-murderer deserves less jail than a minor tax fraudster, is now querying why taxpayers' money should be wasted on a tribunal without any purpose. I'm right with him on that one.

This is the clearest object-lesson ever in what happens when you compromise a mainstay principle. Once you start letting criminals off the hook you lose all credibility in applying justice elsewhere.

The prisoner release arrangements are the only aspect of the GFA I don't accept. Because a murder is a murder. A crime is a crime no matter when, why or by whom it is committed. The British government was, perhaps understandably, so blinded by the prospect of terrorists stopping their murder-sprees that it set a precedent any democracy should be ashamed of.

In this respect its logic was a one-way blind alley, there's no reverse gear and Sinn Féin is at the wheel.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Green Day

I'm an Ulster Protestant and I'm outraged that Belfast City Council is banning green shamrocks at next year's St Paddy's day extravaganza. Pathetic! Doesn't the Northern Ireland soccer team wear green? Isn't chlorophyll green?

Now waving the Éire Tricolour, that's another matter because it will intimidate on the day. So ban it for the day. And ban the British Union Flag too for the same reason - for the day. But a green flag is another matter. A green flag unites.

Does waving a green flag with a shamrock or a harp on it mean I'm anything other than happy to be Irish? And can't Unionists and Orangemen join the rest of us in being proud Irishmen and women?
I was brought up always to wear either a shamrock or a green jumper on St Paddy's day, and 2006 will be no exception.

Pretty ironic to imagine that we'll have green parades in London but - hey - a self-imposed multi-coloured rainbow day in Ireland's second-largest city. Could only happen in Ireland. Banning green only serves to promote Irishness as the preserve of Republican extremism. But what I find most abhorrent about the ruling is that the Unionists who control the City Council seem to be denying their Irishness and claiming, incorrectly, to be English, Scottish or something else which they're not.

Beam me up, Paddy.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Not-so-forgotten heroes

Many brave citizens of southern Ireland from all political persuasions fought and died in both world wars, affiliated to British armed forces. For too many decades, Republican unwillingness to recognise fighting for the UK as a noble act meant these people went - perhaps not unremembered - but certainly uncelebrated.

But their sacrifice was as important as any Englishman's or Northern Irishman's, and I'm pleased to see there's been a joint remembrance event in Derry where the British Union Flag and the Irish Tricolour flew side by side in the same breeze and representatives of the Ancient Order of Hiberians and the Royal Dublin Fusillers standing alongside their colleagues from the Royal British Legion. Well done to all involved. May your Big move be repeated year after year.

In defeating Hitler, British troops were also fighting for a free Ireland, and Irish troops were fighting to defend, among other countries, the UK.

In a similar vein, Sinn Féin now recognises fallen soldiers, although its definition predictably includes the IRA dead. Although I do not regard IRA terrorists as 'noble fallen', I believe they should be remembered. (I have to swallow hard to say that, but if everyone swallowed hard we might get somewhere).

This remembrance thing is a great opportunity for us all to be Big. Gerry Adams is doing a Big thing by having a Day of Reflection, and Ulster Protestants should recognise that and demonstrate good will towards him for so doing. Gordon Millar has done that. His father died in the Claudy bombing, and he has said he'd certainly think about attending if Sinn Féin and/or the IRA apologise for the bombing.

This is a timely reminder that what we really need from the IRA now is an unqualified apology for all its acts of terrorism and for Sinn Féin to drop its constitutional support for "armed struggle". Because those days are over. It's democracy now, and terrorism is the antipathy of democracy. Go on, Gerry, be Big.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

A Trinity of Two

No, I haven't become a heretic - this is the title of a new play by Ulick O'Connor playing at Liberty Hall, Dublin. It's about Oscar Wilde and his prosecutor Edward Carson, the latter also a famous father of Unionism. Read a write-up here.
The write-up's interesting as it claims Carson's unionism was actually closer to Nationalism than Loyalism in as much as he (allegedly) hoped it would work out as a sort of "Commonwealth Ireland" Carson, interestingly, was born and reared in Dublin.
Interesting to think that the "Ulster question" would be solved if the UK agreed to become part of a Greater Éire. (I think I am becoming a heretic).
I've never had Edward Carson down as an Irish patriot, but there you go. I suppose we should be careful not to let our opinions of present Unionist leaders colour our view of what their predecessors were like.
Maybe United Irelander will go along to Liberty Hall and give us a decent write-up on the play?

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

A nice wee sideline

I see Safeway, the big supermarket chain recently taken over by an even bigger Morrison's, has just sold its Downpatrick store to a couple called John and Helen Miskelly.

I must've been going round for decades on another planet or something because I never knew you could do this. There I've been, every Saturday, humming and hawing between Shredded Wheat and Weetabix, agonising over bagels or croissants and wondering what kind of excruciating death I might face if I return with lemon curd instead of lemon cheese, and all the time I could have just bought the whole store.

Think of the benefits. It'd be one huge extended larder. All the foods I might ever want to eat would be on hand, a mere waddle away, any time of day or night (but not Sundays 'cos, hey, I'm a Protestant).

It'd be food-on-demand. It'd be heaven.

OK, so the Miskellys are financial magnates. Meaning coins stick to them. So far, apparently, they've amassed € 97 million. That's a lot of metal. They can hardly move. I think my own limited agility might be a bit restricted if I owned even the potato bread section, never mind the whole store. But good luck to them.

I wonder if their daughter's called Miss Kelly Miskelly ...

Blunkett U-turns

I don't often post on English politics but, in the words of Edmund Blackadder, David Blunkett's "twisty and turny ... like a twisty-turny thing", viz:
1st November, 19:04h : "I am not resigning" (here)
2nd November, 10:04h: Blunkett resigns (here).
Honestly, can you trust anything these guys tell you? It seems the only surefire way of telling whether one of these chaps is going to jump on his sword is .. if he swears blind he doesn't own one.
And if that was Blunkett's first time I might - just might - be tempted to go easy on him. But no, it's the second time he's had to resign for "unministerial conduct". He's a serial offender, for goodness' sake! Maybe Tony'll finally get the message now that, quite simply, this guy's not trustworthy.
Of course, he won't get the message because his ego won't allow it. Look at Peter Mandelson, another two-time resigner. Where is he now? He's only the UK's EU Commissioner, that's what.
I wish I got promoted every time I mess up.