Monday, 10 September 2012

Impaired Vision

            Is there something in the name? In April 1801, during the Battle of Copenhagen, Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson led a number of warships into the Danish capital’s harbour, under heavy bombardment from enemy gun batteries on the shore and in the channel. Fearing the worst, the English fleet’s commander, Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, signalled Nelson’s vessel, HMS Elephant, to withdraw. Nelson – who had lost the sight in his right eye, during a battle seven years earlier – famously held a telescope to his blind eye, told his subordinates that he did not see the signal and carried on the fight.
            Last week, a namesake of the legendary admiral’s, Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland, may also have ‘turned a blind eye’ – this time to the Stormont Executive’s Ministerial Code – just as his North Belfast constituency was being consumed by ferocious rioting which injured more than 60 police officers. The violence arose from yet another dispute about marching.
            Mr McCausland resisted a number of invitations by the BBC presenter Stephen Nolan to condemn those who broke determinations made by the Parades Commission. Minister McCausland wriggled like an eel: he pointed an accusing finger at the Commission itself, at dissident republicans, at the organisers of a recent parade in Dungiven, but – while deploring violence – at no point did he point that same accusing finger in the direction of people who would break Parades Commission determinations. Instead, the minister explained, there was a long tradition of civil disobedience (in which he, himself, had occasionally engaged), and he suggested that the Commission’s behaviour this summer had brought “the Parades Commission and the law of the land into disrepute”.
            For all his sophistry, and all his writhing, the minister is still caught on a hook, for when the dust settles on this parades season, Mr McCausland’s comments on the Nolan Show could come back to haunt him.
            Mr McCausland’s high political office earns him a handsome salary, as well as certain perks (should he choose to do so he would almost certainly have a better chance of getting an All Ireland Final ticket than I would). But with its benefits and privileges his office also brings “duties and responsibilities”, including to serve all the people of Northern Ireland equally and to promote the interests of the whole community towards the goal of a shared future.
            These conditions are laid out in the Ministerial Code. This demands that all ministers affirm a Pledge of Office, requiring them – among other things – to “uphold the rule of law based as it is on the fundamental principles of fairness, impartiality and democratic accountability, including support for policing and the courts as set out in paragraph 6 of the St Andrews Agreement”.
            There would appear to be little wriggle room. The pledge – which is a condition of a minister’s appointment – obliges him or her to “uphold” the rule of law, in other words to confirm or support it (as defined by the Oxford Dictionary of English). In failing to rise to the Nolan challenge, Mr McCausland squandered a glorious opportunity – at a dangerous time – to defuse tension and to establish clearly the primacy of law and order.
Whether he likes the Parades Commission or not, its determinations are legally binding. When its rulings are flouted, the law is broken, and the matter then becomes the responsibility of the PSNI. As we saw in Belfast last week, the consequences of enforcing the law in such fraught circumstances can be extremely dangerous for police officers – perhaps even fatal.
The First Minister, Peter Robinson (who is Mr McCausland’s party leader), suggests that people can judge for themselves whether to involve themselves in civil disobedience. He is right. Any ordinary citizen – male or female, nationalist or unionist, you or I – can make up our own minds whether to comply or not with a law which we consider unjust. In doing so, of course, we run the risk of prosecution.
Nelson McCausland is not an ‘ordinary’ citizen, though. He is a minister in our Executive. As such, he is not entitled to pick and choose which laws he supports. That option is closed off to him by his Pledge of Office.
One word has loomed large in the river of recrimination which has flowed these past few weeks: ‘respect’. The Chief Constable, Matt Baggot, used it after last Thursday’s crisis meeting with leading politicians. Mr Baggot appealed to people to “please respect the rule of law, even if the determinations are controversial”. The Chief Constable is right to ask that of ordinary citizens. He is entitled to expect it of ministers in the Executive.   
It will be interesting to see whether Minister McCausland faces any sanction as a result of his recent behaviour. I doubt that the matter will be uppermost in the minds of local politicians – even his bitterest foes’ – as they try to ease tension ahead of the huge Ulster Covenant centenary parade, in under three weeks time. However, a matter of such gravity should not be swept under the carpet indefinitely. Turning a blind eye should be the exception rather than the rule, as we enter a decade of centenary commemorations.
            Ironically, the first man famed for turning a blind eye – Horatio Nelson – lost the sight of his right eye on a prophetic date – the 12th of July. Seven years later, in 1801, when his assault on Copenhagen had reached a bloody pitch, he and his opponents agreed a truce. The following day, despite the ferocity of their battle, Nelson sat down with the Danish commander, Crown Prince Frederick, at a sumptuous banquet, and negotiations with the enemy ensued. Perhaps there is a lesson in that for the loyal orders and for the modern day Nelson.


Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Tongue and Groove

Picture the scene: a brilliantly sunny, swelteringly hot morning in Derry, the kind of day which used to melt the tar on the roads and which now throws packs of rain-proofed, wind-cheating, ‘Troubles’-chasing foreign tourists into a state of brow-wrinkled confusion.

Walking down through the Bogside, towards the city’s historic old walls, I’m lost in thought, wondering whether I’ll be on time for the 11.10 train to Coleraine in half an hour’s time. Suddenly my reverie is disturbed by a guttural bellow from the front passenger window of a passing car: ‘W--ker!’

The force of the bawl – clearly audible above the traffic din – startled me (for one dreadful moment I thought he had called me a banker!); then its import struck home. ‘W--ker’? If the cap fits, wear it, I suppose.

I turned around to see precisely where the insult had come from and to ascertain whether it had, indeed, been meant for me. Other passers-by were also pirouetting, presumably trying to determine whether they, too, might have been the intended target.

A cheery young workman, unloading tools from the back of a van in an adjoining car park, put us all out of our misery. With a smile as bright as the glorious morning and a wave as wide as the azure blue sky, he signalled his recognition of the verbal assailant, replying, with Libran eloquence: ‘W--ker!’

It struck me that these were not insults, but some manner of greeting. I am still not sure whether, in this context, the term constituted a noun or an adjective.  

Quite what the inquisitive foreigners might have made of it – if they flicked through their phrasebooks to the ‘W’ section – I don’t know. Perhaps, in the not-too-distant future, sophisticated Europeans, eager to show off their mastery of ‘native’ English, will seek to impress friends and acquaintances by hailing them with this new salutation, acquired in the UK’s City of Culture-in-waiting, no less: ‘W--ker!’

God forbid that the practice should catch on; I shudder to think of Signor Berlusconi’s next encounter with Mr Cameron.

The Bogside exchange troubled me. For the record, I am no shrinking violet when it comes to rude words: my own vocabulary has expanded over the years to include many “colourful” verbs and adjectives, and has now settled somewhere between the blunt speaking of racing pundit Ted Walsh and the coarse invective of Father Jack Hackett. One certainly could not describe my speech as ‘feck-less’.

But, there is a time and a place for everything, and I would suggest that late morning, on a busy main road in the Bogside, is neither the time nor the place for hollering out the ‘W-word’. Not in front of the children. And certainly never in front of the foreigners!

Language is, of course, an organic thing: living, breathing, growing, shedding. Earthy words have had a place in even the most eminent literature, since Chaucer’s time and before. ‘C’est la vie,’ as we say, nowadays, in urbane, multi-cultural Derry.

I cannot imagine, though, that the man who hollered from that passing car had somehow been moved by the muse, or considered that he was following in the footsteps of Chaucer, Shakespeare or even Joyce.

Vulgar language has become so common, nowadays, that it no longer shocks many of us; that is what I find shocking. Boundaries have not simply been blurred, they have become invisible. Expletives – the ‘F’ word, the ‘B’ word, the ‘C’ word, the ‘A’ word, the ‘D’ word, even what Mrs Doyle called ‘the bad “F” word – worse than Feck’ – are woven into everyday speech and many of us hardly even notice.

Just in case I’m accused of disloyalty, I should point out that such profanity isn’t confined to my native city; the same raunchy lingo can be heard the length and breadth of Ireland, from Bastardstown to Muff, from Cockhill to Ringaskiddy.

The actor, Stephen Rea, reminded a Derry audience recently of an observation made many years ago by the distinguished playwright Brian Friel: “It’s all about language, you know.”  

The word profanity comes from the Latin term ‘profanus’ – meaning ‘outside the temple’. And as I climb the hill towards the magnificently restored First Derry Presbyterian Church, which looks down on the Bogside from the old walls above, it occurs to me: wouldn’t it be fitting if, during the Year of Culture, local citizens were to lead a fight-back against swearing. Now that would be a handsome legacy.
'Que serĂ¡ serĂ¡,' as we say in cosmopolitan Derry.