Monday, 30 December 2013

Angling for a Deal

Ordinarily you’d be disappointed, if not insulted, to find a “Gone Fishing” sign hanging from the doorknob of an office you’d called at. Today, though, it might be a welcome sign.

On Saturday, the chair of the Panel of Parties in the NI Executive, Dr Richard Haass, warned talks participants that the time had come to “either fish or...cut bait”. Most onlookers are hoping they opt for the former. There’ll be dreadful disappointment – although little real shock – if the Stormont fishing party wind up hauling in their nets and lamenting the ‘one that got away’.

The seasoned foreign policy expert Haass and his high-achieving vice-chair, Professor Meghan O’Sullivan, have been around enough diplomatic corners to know that success at the all-party talks should not be taken for granted. When it comes to corners, the Northern Ireland political scene is like a Rubik’s Cube – except even harder to solve.

If the Americans are frustrated at the lack of progress to date, they’ve been careful not to show it. It is inconceivable, though, that by the end of their ocean-hopping stint – should success elude them – they will keep their exasperation to themselves. Two such well-connected mediators have access to the corridors of power back home where, one assumes, their final report will be carefully dissected.

Among the more interesting recent interventions – possibly a ratcheting-up of pressure on the locals – was Sunday’s statement from the US National Security Council. Noting that the Belfast talks had reached a “critical juncture”, NSC spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden called upon “the leadership of the five parties to make the compromises necessary to conclude an agreement now, one that would help heal the divisions that continue to stand between the people of Northern Ireland and the future they deserve."

Ms Hayden’s statement didn’t come ‘out of the blue’. As far back as three months ago, Vice-President Joe Biden “reiterated U.S. support for independent chair Richard Haass and the all-party talks”. He also pledged the United States’ “continuing commitment to support Northern Ireland’s progress toward a united community and shared future”. The Haass initiative clearly enjoys Barack Obama’s imprimatur. If it fails, the President and his advisors will want to know why (the mediators’ allocation of blame in such circumstances would make interesting reading).

Those wondering what continuing US support looks like need only take a train ride into Belfast.  The journey from the north, meandering among glistening downtown office towers, testifies to the transformative effects American investment has already had on the city. Consider how Belfast might look if that tap was to be turned off.

Martin McGuinness suggested at the weekend that it would be “a humiliation” if Dr Haass and Professor O'Sullivan “left here...against the backdrop of no agreement". If anything, the Deputy-First Minister may have been understating the seriousness of such an outcome: a failure to agree could have severe diplomatic and economic consequences.

Politics is often portrayed as the art of the possible. Realpolitik, though, is the art of the practical. Failure to close a deal now would be interpreted as a snub back in Washington (with possible repercussions) and – being practical – can we afford that?

The former US President Theodore Roosevelt employed an old African proverb to characterise his foreign policy: “Speak softly and carry a big stick”. As the clock runs down on the Haass initiative, its chair and vice-chair have – outwardly at least – maintained a diplomatic silence; but, in the absence of any visible ‘big stick’ from the Americans, one wonders if we’re creating a rod for our own backs.

The American comedian Steven Wright reckons “there’s a fine line between fishing and standing on the shore looking like an idiot”. I wonder if – after the all-party talks – the joke will be on us.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

They Think It's All Over

The hype surrounding their unveiling was extravagant. Their arrival has been hailed – nervously one suspects – as heralding “a new dawn”. True, they carry the hopes of an expectant nation. But nobody in their wildest dreams imagined that this particular combination of ‘talents’ – of men who played under rival flags – could foretell a period of success. As Jimmy Greaves frequently said, though: “Football is a funny old game.”

One is an introspective, cerebral man, a thinker who learned at the knee of one of the giants of the game. His mentor was unconventional and outrageous, but undeniably successful, taking a provincial, backward outfit, and fashioning them into a slick, all-conquering powerhouse. The pupil learned well, graduating as a sophisticated, cultured proponent of the finer arts, an astute reader of games, alert to opportunities, always ready with the killer pass that would undo the opposition and put rivals to the sword.

The other is a more private individual, celebrated more perhaps for brute force and iron will than for skill or technique. Throughout his career, though, he could be relied upon to get stuck in where and when it hurt, and he’d never ask a colleague to do something he wouldn’t do himself. Many a time – in white hot cauldrons of battle – we saw him with our own eyes stiffening the resolve of those who stood behind him.

Both men carry the scars of battle and the medals of achievement, but as a management pairing, is their alliance the stuff of dreams or does it have the makings of a nightmare? The game is wholly different depending on where you view it from – the pitch or the dug-out.

For the moment, the pair will get away with posturing for the cameras and swatting away journalists’ questions, but long-term – if their partnership is to work – the two will have to trust one another, lean on one another, modify their behaviour and learn a new skill – the art of compromise.

Whether two such dogmatic people as Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness are capable of accommodation remains to be seen. When they played, it wasn’t the taking part which mattered but winning: victory was everything. The sport has moved on though. Can fans on the terraces – who regard trade-offs as sell-outs – be taught to appreciate the modern game, in which the objective is not a win but a ‘win-win’?

One thing’s for sure: it’s going to be a roller-coaster of a ride. Dream or nightmare? Time will tell. It’s a funny old game. 

Friday, 4 October 2013

Living Downstream

The announcement that the American firm, Stream, is creating almost a thousand new jobs in East Belfast will take some of the heat off at least one local MLA, the beleaguered First Minister Peter Robinson. His party has been rattled by allegations – from some of the most strident voices in the loyalist community – of ‘neglect’ of working class Protestant areas. The jobs-boost will quieten those critics for a while, although I doubt whether Mr Robinson will be given much long-term credit by his ‘in-house’ detractors.

While welcomed on Laganside, news of the expansion was received with stunned and perplexed disbelief in Derry, where people feel like they’ve been mugged.

It’s ironic that one Programme for Government commitment – concerning the Maze-Long Kesh project – is regarded as a deal-breaker, while another “addressing regional imbalance as we move ahead” – is not. It really has come to a sorry pass when the only people even talking about the need to “rebalance” the economy are the Tories, and their “semi-detached” Secretary of State Theresa Villiers.  

Stream used to run a substantial call centre in Derry, at one point employing up to one thousand people. What a coincidence. The operation there began to stutter around the time the downturn hit, finally giving up the ghost in 2011. The company now maintains a spectral presence of only 15 staff in Derry. The whiff of rodent is almost over-powering.

I’ve no doubt that most people in East Belfast will say that “Londonderry” should take its oil. But the revelation that the East Belfast jobs deal was lubricated by £3m of Invest Northern Ireland cash makes the announcement that bit harder to swallow in the North West, where unemployment – once endemic – now feels like a contagion. It is frightening that in August – two thirds of the way through its stint as UK City of Culture – there were more people signing on in Derry than at the end of last year.

Among them, I assume, were people who worked for Stream in the past. I have no doubt that they are still perfectly capable of doing so. The company’s reasons for developing its Belfast operation sound unconvincing. I can think of three million better ones.  

Executive ministers must have racked up frequent-flyer bonuses aplenty as they traversed the globe – from Brazil to China – trying to drum up business. If investors in far-off Rio and Beijing can be induced to commit to Northern Ireland, then why can’t they be encouraged to go the extra mile (well, 75 miles, actually), and locate in the North West? If there are logistical, or infrastructural, or skills-deficit barriers to such investment, then why aren’t these being tackled? What of the other PfG commitment to “develop the ‘One Plan’ for the regeneration of Derry/Londonderry”?

There has been much talk, on both sides of the Assembly floor, of the need to build a “shared” future. In the Stormont bubble, that energy has been concentrated exclusively on our very narrow definition of ‘culture’. It should be applied with even more fervour, and much greater urgency, to economic development.

I will watch with interest to see how Stream develops its Northern Ireland operation in future; in which constituencies it creates new jobs; and how INI supports it. I will, of course, apply the same level of scrutiny to other economic development as well, with equal fervour.

Politics here is becoming so reminiscent of the sixties that I fear I’m starting to see things only in black and white. Sometimes, though, monochrome provides the clearest view.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Cat Flap or Crisis?

Not for the first time in his life, Danny Morrison has set the cat among the pigeons. The former Sinn Féin publicity director penned a piece on the website, suggesting that the power-sharing administration at Stormont was teetering perilously close to collapse.

A range of politicians and commentators have been at pains recently to downplay any talk of crisis. Prime Minister David Cameron told the BBC that he wouldn’t call it that [a crisis], “but clearly there are a lot of difficulties to overcome.” Secretary of State Theresa Villiers pointed out that work was still going on in the Executive and that disagreement was “a fact of life in any coalition”. First Minister Peter Robinson recommended that “Everyone should cool their jets.”

As the shrill whine of Robinson’s engines fades away, though, I can hear above it the piercing screech not of Morrison’s  but of Schrödinger’s cat.

The Austrian quantum physicist, Erwin Schrödinger, devised a theoretical experiment to expose the flaws in the ‘Copenhagen interpretation’ of quantum mechanics; ‘Copenhagen’ held that – until observed – a particle existed in all states simultaneously. However, in his experiment, involving a hypothetical cat in a box, along with a bottle of poison and some radioactive material, Schrödinger pointed out that in reality – whether observed or not – the cat could only be either dead or alive, not both at the same time.

So either there is a crisis at Stormont or there isn’t. It doesn’t matter how obvious or obscured it is, nor by whom or from where the situation is observed. If one of the main parties says things are critical – and the evidence suggests that they are – then that should be good enough for all of us.

Having left Sinn Féin, Morrison no longer speaks ex cathedra but, while no longer the messenger, he is surely still ‘on message’. That makes his admission to despondency all the more worrying. He already appears resigned to losing the Maze/Long Kesh development, with its promised 5,000 jobs and £300m of investment. More disturbingly, Morrison fears that the whole power-sharing edifice could crumble with it. “I hope I am wrong,” he told the Mallie website, “but I suspect that the Assembly could collapse. If unionists are thinking this cannot happen, they should think again.”

Think again indeed. A common or garden tabby has the sense to look before it leaps. If the Stormont structures collapse again, we have some – but only some – idea what will replace them. Direct rule from London. Input from Dublin. Theresa Villiers at the steering wheel. Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore navigating.

Hold that thought for a moment. Gilmore’s been criticised for his ‘hands-off’ approach to the North (the suspicion is that he couldn’t be bothered). Villiers has been accused of being “semi-detached”. Such has been her impact in Northern Ireland, she was introduced to her own party conference as “the Secretary of State for Scotland”. For the more literate among us, Plan B is starting to read more like Plan Z.

More pious MLAs may be aware of Christ’s warning that “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid  waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand.” (Matthew 12:25) The omens don’t look good. If we can’t find comfort in religion or science, can we really expect to get it from our politicians?

Our representatives have played cat and mouse long enough. It’s time to get sensible; time to get real. If they don’t, it won’t be a US envoy Stormont will need, it’ll be a vet – to put it out of its misery.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Fat Chance

It’s an ill wind that blows no one – or nothing – any good. Fatted calves across the North will be breathing a lot more easily, in light of Gregory Campbell’s contribution to Wednesday morning’s The Nolan Show.
The East Londonderry MLA’s chilly response to Sinn Féin’s embracement of democracy was predictable, if disappointing. “They have, as part of the Republican Movement, a violent past which can’t just be airbrushed away,” he told the radio show. His party as a whole, he continued, would “not be treating Sinn Féin exactly the same as every other democrat who hasn’t been involved in violence. How could you treat them exactly the same?”
While listeners often conclude that there is little new in Mr Campbell’s frequent utterances over the airwaves, his inclusion of the adjective ‘other’ before ‘democrat’ was significant. He did, at least, appear to signal – albeit grudgingly – an acceptance now of Sinn Féin’s constitutional credentials. Comparing the First Minister (his party leader) to the Deputy First Minister, Mr Campbell said, “One of the two is a democrat, and has been a democrat; and the other one is a democrat now but wasn’t always one.”
So, Martin McGuinness “is a democrat now”. Surely it ought to be a cause for celebration that a man, who once reputedly headed the most ruthlessly efficient paramilitary organisation in Western Europe, “is a democrat now”?
In the Christian tradition, conversion is usually a cause for joy. We are encouraged to embrace converts. In a famous parable in Luke’s Gospel, the fatted calf was slaughtered for a celebration feast when the prodigal son returned home. Indeed, the returnee’s father went further still – ordering his slaves to dress his son in the best robe, put sandals on his feet and a ring on his finger, “for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” (Luke 15:24).
The Bible tells us, too, about the experience of St Paul. As a young man called Saul, he persecuted Christians zealously, in his own words “approving and keeping the coats of” those who stoned St Stephen to death (Acts: 22:20). St Paul, who had a violent past which couldn’t just be airbrushed away, subsequently became one of the most significant apostles in the history of Christianity.
There is always a risk when we choose to place our trust in someone, particularly when they come late to our corner.  Occasionally, though, our trust is rewarded. We even have a phrase – the zeal of the convert – which describes how complete and enthusiastic conversions can sometimes be.
Giving or withholding trust is a matter for the individual, and Christians will respond in accordance with their faith. They will eventually have to account for their actions to a much higher authority even than the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Standards and Privileges Committee.
Meanwhile, the prognosis is, I suspect, bitter-sweet: while longevity beckons for fattening, younger members of the local bovine population, it looks like meagre rations for the rest of us for the foreseeable future. 

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Poetic Justice

I hope Dr Richard Haass was listening to the Nolan Show yesterday morning. It would have given him an idea of the scale of the task facing him as he presides over the multi-party talks on parades and protests; flags, symbols and emblems, and related matters; and the past.

The programme – which is probably responsible for more ‘water cooler moments’ than any other here – led with a disturbing interview about the PSNI investigation into the suspected sexual abuse of more than 20 children and young people in Northern Ireland.

But, despite the gravity of the lead story, the issue which really got radio listeners talking was the second item – a proposal from the Northern Ireland Conservative, Trevor Ringland, for an additional anthem for the Northern Ireland soccer team. Mr Ringland, a former Irish rugby international, debated the idea with the Ulster Unionist Councillor Jim Rodgers and – even though their discussion generated more heat than light – it was still revealing.

It showed Councillor Rodgers’ total opposition to the suggestion of an additional, ‘inclusive’ anthem which, in Mr Ringland’s words, would show that Northern Ireland was “a football team for everyone”. Councillor Rodgers saw no need for a gesture, similar to that already made by the Irish Rugby Football Union, on the part of the Northern Irish football authorities.

He was supported by a telephone-caller named Billy, who lamented the disbandment of the B Specials 40 years ago and complained that “in the interests of peace we have forfeited everything”. That was a remarkable statement.

The constitutional position of Northern Ireland is guaranteed – so long as a majority here want the status quo; there is a unionist in the top ministerial position at Stormont; there are around 3,000 loyal order marches every year; Republicans for the first time in Northern Ireland’s history are supporting its police service; the Republic has abandoned its territorial claim to the North; and the union flag still flies over Belfast City Hall and Parliament Buildings – albeit on a limited number of days. But, as far as Billy is concerned, “everything” has been “forfeited”.

Billy, and many like him, can’t see the wood for the trees, or can’t see the lamp posts for the flags.

Everything forfeited? Surely a just and equitable peace is worth going the extra mile for? Or is “Not an inch” still to be the mantra? Dr Haass will have the measure of us soon enough.    

The talks chairman, whose head must be dizzy with talk of ‘red lines’, will find out how willing – or unwilling – our parties are to draw a line under the past. He wants all sides to compromise – a reasonable expectation. For too many people though, the ‘c’ word is still a profanity.

I expect Dr Haass will get a quick sense of his chances of success. In an interview last week, he revealed that many of his colleagues were surprised that he had been invited to intervene here: they thought our problem was done and dusted long ago. I can’t imagine that he’d want to waste valuable time in Belfast, if his mission looked doomed. But flexibility, generosity and courage – qualities not normally in evidence here – will all be required if these talks are to succeed.

Even when deals are done, here, history shows that they have a worrying tendency to unravel. If these talks fail, it’s difficult to imagine US high-flyers committing themselves to future initiatives. It’s not so difficult to envisage the cold shoulder from the White House and Wall Street.

In the past (that word again) we’ve had “the only show in town”. Now, I suspect, we’re in the last chance saloon. Will we see Heaney’s dream being realised – the day when hope and history finally rhyme? Or should we begin penning our own Anthem for Doomed Youth?

It's over to you, Dr Haass. 

Friday, 13 September 2013

Priming the Parish Pump

Nelson Mandela maintained that: “Where you stand depends on where you sit.” That was certainly the case this week as the Enterprise Minister at Stormont, Arlene Foster, hailed the latest unemployment figures as a reflection of Northern Ireland’s “strengthening” economic position. After a seventh successive fall in the monthly rate, the minister’s enthusiasm was understandable.

It is unlikely, though, that her joy was being shared by the hundreds of people who were queuing to find out what was on offer at a jobs fair in Derry’s Millennium Forum, at the precise moment the new statistics were being released. The Employment Minister, Dr Stephen Farry, had talked the event up: it demonstrated that “despite the current economic climate”, employers were still looking to recruit both seasonal and permanent staff and showed that there were employment opportunities for jobseekers.

Those opportunities are few and far between.  The new jobless figures showed that Derry had five of the top ten wards for the percentage of residents claiming benefits, including the first and third (the Strand the Diamond respectively) They were joined by Westland (6th), Rosemount (8th) and Creggan South (9th). Strabane's East ward (2nd) vied for top spot, while Limavady's Greystone languished in 7th. 

The latest statistical evidence presents a sobering and timely reminder that when the party mood wears off in Derry, stubborn, serious, deep-seated problems remain to be resolved. The city will swap its prized crown as the first UK City of Culture for its more familiar crown of thorns as unemployment capital of the North.     

Interestingly, the two Derry ministers in the Stormont executive were on the road (or in the air) this week, battling hard on the economic front. Martin McGuinness was in New York with Peter Robinson, wooing potential US investors, while Mark H. Durkan was in Coleraine, showing solidarity with the 300 DVA staff in the town, whose jobs are in peril. The ministers deserve to be applauded for their efforts to prevent the North’s economy from becoming a desert.

But surely, at some point, attention has to be targeted on the economic crisis laying waste to the North West.

The former US Speaker, Tip O’Neill (who served under three different presidents), recognised early in his towering career that, “All politics is local.” It is a lesson that Peter Robinson has certainly learned over the past 12 months.

Those in high office have to walk the tightrope between service of state (or statelet) and parish. Glory is the gift of the former; survival depends on the latter. The high-wire is no place for faint hearts. 

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Windbags and Wind-ups.

So, after all this time, it seems the “nutters” were innocent. It was the windbags’ fault all along.

Thank God for the First Minister’s clarification regarding the storm whipped up over the proposed Peace Centre at the Maze-Long Kesh site.

There was I thinking that it was a vocal section of the unionist community who were extremely unhappy with the planned centre, but I was wrong: it was the press who were “exercised” about it. And even then, it seems, their motives were far from genuine; the scoundrels were embellishing or inventing stories during “the silly season”.

It just goes to show: you can’t believe what you read.

I only wish Peter Robinson had been about more often during “the silly season”, when people were leathering into the police. We might not have had hundreds of PSNI officers injured, or millions of pounds wasted. How we missed Mr Robinson’s leadership.

Thank God he’s not the kind of man who bends to pressure, or who would do a u-turn. As he told us from New York: “The press aren’t going to set my agenda.”

Fortunately he managed to squeeze a few words of reassurance into the Belfast Telegraph yesterday, and into a number of broadcast interviews as well, ahead of his – and the Deputy First Minister’s – meeting with investors from the New York Stock Exchange.

These sharp-witted business types will see for themselves how warm the relationship between the two men really is (in contrast to how the press would depict it). And, in any case, the NYSE has representatives in Belfast, so they’ll know from their own experience that the fuss about the Maze-Long Kesh project is – to use Mr Robinson’s words – “a fairly minor issue”.

As the nights grow longer, and the chill winds of autumn grow colder, the silly season has begun fading in the memory. But with the summer’s passing, we have at least the consolation that Mr Robinson will be returning to these shores shortly, after his holiday in Florida, to keep us all right.

So please keep the faith. Don’t be swayed by the nay-sayers, windbags and sceptics in the press. Everything is coming up roses. It’s all hunky-dory. Don’t believe what you read.    

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Sweet Dreams

While we’ve been sleeping, Australians have been voting to elect their new government. By law there, everyone over the age of 18 has to vote so, whatever they come up with, they are all responsible for it – they are all to blame.

I wonder what appetite there would be for introducing such compulsion here. It would scare the life out of big parties who, thus far, have been unable to motivate or inspire almost half the electorate. It might even put manners on the politicians. Wouldn’t that be worth seeing?

This week, as required by law, I have been filling out my electoral registration canvass form. Hundreds of thousands of others will do likewise before the September 27 deadline. But when the next election comes around, I wonder how many will actually exercise their hard-won franchise.

In the last Assembly election, the turnout was a fairly derisory 54.5%. The more than half a million people who chose not to vote were, for the most part, decent, law-abiding citizens. They paid their taxes. They observed the rules of the road. But they didn’t feel any obligation to put pencil to ballot-paper.

There are a number of reasons why: indifference, disenchantment, uninspiring candidates, weak government. All these reasons are understandable, but whether they are legitimate excuses is another matter.

Ironically, non-voters have the power – literally at the stroke of a pen – to support the kind of candidates, secure the kind of policies and fashion the kind of government they say they want. As a bloc, they are comfortably larger than the combined votes of the three largest parties. If we wind up with poor public representatives and dysfunctional government, the stay-at-homes cannot absolve themselves of responsibility.

Today, in Syria, thousands of people are nervously awaiting the outcome of President Obama’s deliberations over whether to bomb their country. Most would give their eye-teeth – would sacrifice their lives – for the kind of government and the kind of entitlements we take for granted.

It would take a bold step, by a brave administration, to make voting a legal requirement here. Don’t expect to be knocked over in the rush, though. The big parties quite like the status quo. It suits them. They like us divided, fragmented and polarised. That way they can appeal to base emotions and play to the lowest common denominator, so don’t be surprised when we end up with vulgar factions.

Sleep on, if you choose. And don’t worry about the alarm.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

The Theory of Relativity

We now know that a day is a long time in politics. Conal McDevitt has already forced a recalibration of one of the most famous maxims in politics.

Many radio listeners would have been eating their breakfast as the South Belfast MLA toughed it out, yesterday morning, swatting away awkward questions about payments to his spouse/advisor (SPAD?); by the time they were having their tea he had gone.

The normally articulate, almost robotic Dubliner cut a very human figure – tearful and contrite – as he explained his decision to resign his post. He had always demanded the highest standards of propriety from others; he himself had fallen short of these – over an undeclared payment of £6,750; he had to pay a price for that. His inability to recall, never mind explain, the reasons for his lapse of judgement, added to McDevitt’s sudden vulnerability.

The public reaction was interesting, especially in the social media environment which McDevitt inhabited so skilfully. Most acknowledged his undoubted ability; many his integrity. As Pope observed: “To err is human; to forgive is divine.”

His resignation has been hailed almost universally as a loss to politics in Northern Ireland. It is certainly a grievous wound to the SDLP. While some in the faction-riven party will quietly delight at having seen this brilliant star crash and burn, the smarter ones will recognise it as a severe blow. No party can afford to lose people of such high calibre. In the short term they have to find a replacement for the Haass talks. Beyond that they have to unearth another candidate for eventual leadership.

In the end McDevitt’s departure was sudden and swift. It showed a decisiveness which we are unused to seeing in Northern Ireland politics. It also confounded our expectations of the class. We have all witnessed politicians who have been guilty of far greater misdemeanours than McDevitt batoning down the hatches, brazening it out, clinging desperately to office.

It would be reassuring to think that in leaving the stage over this issue of principle, McDevitt had set down a standard for behaviour in public office. Don’t hold your breath. Recalibrating political maxims is one thing; re-writing the laws of physics is another. In Northern Ireland, politics is relative - literally.         

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Earth to Earth

Like a great Celtic chieftain they bore him back to his ancestral home. Our gaelic forefathers must have gathered like this centuries before, to await the return of champions slain in battle. Back then, the bard was just as revered as the warrior. It felt like that again.

Homes along the whole length of the Oldtown Road, from Hillhead to Bellaghy, lowered their eyes in hushed, curtained, reverence, awaiting this last homecoming to his native parish. The people from surrounding townlands made their way to Main Street to pay this last tribute.

They assembled to acclaim, as well as mourn, the poet – their poet. This small parish on the south Derry plain had loaned the world a great treasure; now it was calling him back to eternal rest in the cramped graveyard beside St Mary’s church.

The cortege halted briefly, at the edge of Bellaghy, where a single piper joined it, at the head of the procession. Then, at a solemn pace, he keened the funeral party through the village to the chapel, past pavements lined by kith and kin. With every step the column grew deeper and longer, its ranks swelling as mourners filtered in from each side.

In the cemetery, the great from politics and the arts mingled with the good people of the parish. Fellow Nobel laureate John Hume was there, along with Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness; the celebrated playwright, Brian Friel; and the singer-song writer Paul Brady. All had come to pay homage to this true god of word.

As unostentatious in death as in life, we learned at the graveside that the poet had chosen to be buried there in Bellaghy. He had left the place as a young man, but the place had never left him. They laid him to rest in the shade of a sycamore tree, the priest commending him to another God: “May the green sod of Bellaghy rest gently upon him”.      

Better than any stone. The poet would have liked that.

Friday, 30 August 2013

A True God

What a sad, sad day for the soul.

I’m struggling to digest the news of Seamus Heaney’s death. I’m surprised by my reaction to it: I find myself welling up on hearing him reading some of his own works – from the grave now – and being moved, yet again, by the power of his words.  

Thanks to a friend, I had the joy of seeing and hearing one of his last public ‘performances’, at the Poet and the Piper event at the Millennium Forum, just over a fortnight ago. With today’s sad news, I recognise what a privilege it was to have been there. You knew you were in the presence of greatness – although you would never have guessed it from his humble, genial demeanour.

Like most current or former St Columb’s College students, I took a vicarious, almost selfish, pride in his achievements: first of all in his brilliance as a poet; then in his ascent to the very heights of his art; and ultimately in the recognition that his genius brought him. I was often chuffed to hear him described as the world’s greatest English language poet. What an honour for a County Derry man, a Bellaghy man; what an honour for Mossbawn.

Naturally I studied Heaney at school although my introduction to him came not at my alma mater, but earlier, by the hearth in our home in the Bogside. My late mother – an ordinary but extraordinary woman – identified the poet’s brilliance early in his ‘career’. I have fond memories of her going to hear him perform public readings of his work, at small, intimate venues in Derry in the late 60s and early 70s. I recall, too, the opened, well-thumbed Faber & Faber collections lying about the house, amid the clutter of a home with five young boys.

I would say that between them, my mother and Heaney did more to foster my love of language than anyone or anything else in my life. Straight after the formality of his appointment with St Peter, I can see him being prevailed upon – by hers truly – to perform a reading or two.

Heaney’s way with the pen is universally acknowledged and widely recognised. The breadth of that appreciation – from Bellaghy and the Bogside, to Oxford and Harvard – is a testimony to his skill. He took arguably the most esoteric art form, and made it accessible to us all, like his fiddler in The Given Note:
“So whether he calls it spirit music
Or not, I don’t care. He took it
Out of wind off mid-Atlantic.

Still he maintains, from nowhere.
It comes off the bow gravely,
Rephrases itself into the air.”

While we mourn Heaney’s passing, we have the enormous consolation of his poetic legacy. He is one of Kavanagh’s “true gods of sound and stone and word and tint”. He has earned his rest, just as he has earned his place among the greats of Irish – indeed world – literature.  Heaney plucked inspiration from the wind, rephrasing it into the air, inspiring minds and touching souls. 

Thursday, 29 August 2013

In God We Trust

Oh dear. It appears we’ve been sold a pup. The DUP MP, Jeffrey Donaldson, let the cat out of the bag – to mix both metaphors and species – when he conceded, on Tuesday’s UTV Live Tonight, that the US diplomat Richard Haass was “not a miracle-worker”.

Why then was such an under-qualified person head-hunted for the position of chairman of the all-party talks which start in mid-September? I would have thought that the minimum criteria for the role would have included demonstrable expertise in the performance of extraordinary deeds which could be explained only by divine intervention. If we don’t have God on our side, next month, the initiative is in trouble.

It gets worse. 

Previous political breakthroughs owed little to American intermediaries, Jeffrey informed us: “It was the local political parties who came up with the solutions at the end of the day.”

No they didn’t. If they had found solutions, the problems would have been solved (the clue is in the noun) and they wouldn’t have needed to invite Mr Haass to mediate. The fact that the First and Deputy First Ministers have had to resort yet again to trans-Atlantic brokerage suggests that problems remain and that local representatives are unable – or unwilling – to solve them.

It wouldn’t be so bad or so embarrassing if they were new problems, or even major ones, which had emerged during the evolution of the political process. Sadly, the problems in Haass’s in-tray concern flags, parades, protests, symbols and emblems – the unclaimed baggage circling round on the carousel of our past.

Whatever their age or provenance, and however intractable they might seem, these problems do need to be solved. But where should Richard Haass begin? How do you discuss ‘cohesion and sharing’ with a group of people who don’t want to be in the same room?

I imagine you begin by agreeing the objectives of the process and establishing the parameters for the talks. Once again, there was a contribution from Mr Donaldson which might prove instructive. The Lagan Valley MLA told UTV: “What my community wants to know is that there’s not going to be a cultural whitewashing in Northern Ireland; yes we want shared space, but not at the expense of removing the culture and identity of one section of the community.”  

The irony will not be lost on nationalists of a man with Ulster Unionist roots counselling against cultural whitewashing in Northern Ireland. That was precisely the experience of nationalists here during decades of Unionist rule following the establishment of the northern state: their culture and identity received scant recognition and no respect from the Stormont government.

Their mistreatment conflicted with the advice of no less a person than Lord Carson who, in 1921, urged the Ulster Unionist Council to “ tolerant to all religions, and, while maintaining to the last your own traditions and your own citizenship, take care that similar rights are preserved for those who differ from us.”

That appeal amounted to a call for equality. It would be interesting to contemplate the implications, for example, for the flying of flags on public buildings, the use of emblems and symbols, or the commemoration of republican dead. “Similar rights...for those who differ from us”. 

For the spirit of Carson to influence the Haass talks, and encourage unionists to maintain nationalists’ traditions and citizenship, would require divine intervention. Now and again, miracles do happen. 

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Lest We Forget

The wearying cycle of recrimination on our airwaves recently – over parades, commemoration and alleged ‘cultural warfare’ – can’t be doing anyone much good, except, perhaps, shareholders in the company which makes Prozac. They did a roaring trade in the North, when the Troubles were at their height. An elderly friend, who survived the worst of that period in her West Belfast home, remarked sadly, after the assault on the Lord Mayor of her city, that “Nothing’s changed.”

She’s wrong, I hope. Things have changed – seismically – but we need to be reminded how much.
A flick through the pages of ‘Lost Lives’, to the section dealing with 1972, provides a sobering insight into how bad things used to be here. Almost 500 people died that year – 95 of them in July alone – making it the bloodiest single month of the conflict.

Among the victims that month were two 14 year old schoolboys whose deaths, in separate incidents, illustrate the depths of depravity to which we had sunk. One – a Catholic, with special needs – was shot dead by a loyalist gunman, whose gang had broken into the boy’s home, sexually abused his mother and then opened fire on the child as his terrified mother lay beside him. The other young victim – the son of a Protestant minister – was killed as he tried to warn shoppers about one of the many IRA car-bombs which exploded on Bloody Friday.

Almost 500 corpses in a single year: the memory of 1972 should haunt all of us who lived through it. It stands as a harrowing reminder of how far we have moved forward, but as a timely warning, too, of how far we are capable of falling.

So don’t tell me, “Nothing has changed.”

The peace process has largely, though not completely, staunched the blood-flow. That counts as progress, even if the wounds haven’t healed properly. Every so often we pick at the scabs, and are surprised to discover that the bleeding starts all over again. If we keep picking, there’s a real danger that the wounds will become infected, suppurating, poisoning the whole body.

Sores like flags, parades, commemoration and – ironically – “culture” cause the greatest problems.
There are rash young people in our communities now, picking at these scabs, clamouring for victory over ‘the other side’ in their ‘cultural war’.  It is hard to believe that alongside them are people who were around in the early 70s, who witnessed the carnage and felt the hatred, and yet would blithely lead us back to the killing fields. The former, at least, have the defence of ignorance; the latter ought to know better.

What these individuals actually seek is annihilation of the other side.  Military strategists will tell you that that kind of victory is unachievable here. Who in their right mind would even want it?

There is a curious law of physics – pertaining to Northern Ireland – which ordains that neither side can win at the other’s expense, but that both can lose simultaneously. I would contend though that, under the right conditions, the two sides can also win at the same time. Unfortunately, those ideal conditions have never existed, and the theory remains untested.

As our society convulses over commemoration, and flags, and parades – with the two communities sliding further apart, and closer to the abyss – surely the most fitting tribute to the dead on all sides would be to bury our differences and at least try to construct a better future. Like it or not, we’re stuck with one another. As the Reverend Jesse Jackson pointed out to his audience, in the mid 80s, “You’ve got a choice; you’ve got a chance.” We need to be generous, not selfish. We need to choose between factionalism and the common good. We need a peace process, not a piece process.

Monday, 5 August 2013

Better Late and Clever

Long before the advent of 24 hour news, the Greek philosopher, Xenocrates, said: “I have often regretted my speech, never my silence.”

Silence is rarely an option nowadays for our elected representatives but many of them - especially the nimblest of thumb - would do well to heed the philosopher’s wise counsel.  

Two local politicians found themselves in hot water recently over online remarks. One, DUP Councillor Ruth Patterson, faces a court appearance over a Facebook comment about a Republican parade in Tyrone. The other, Sinn Féin MLA Phil Flanagan, is being investigated by the Assembly Commissioner for Standards after ‘retweeting’ a remark about the latest royal birth.

Both cases illustrate in passing how our personal habits are being changed by the technological revolution. We use PCs, smartphones and tablet devices to blog, tweet and ‘Facebook’ one another, divulging our innermost thoughts, sharing private moments, even posting photographs of what we’ve had for dinner.

Social media has revolutionised the broadcasting landscape, spawning a new phenomenon:  ordinary citizens one day are transformed into citizen journalists the next. In a global context, social media has even been cited as a significant factor in encouraging ‘the Arab Spring’ in the Middle East.  

Online interaction can, of course, be a positive thing. An elderly man told RTÉ’s Late Late Show recently how he enjoyed ‘Skyping’ his son in the Philippines. Businesses can save a fortune by by-passing traditional ways of advertising. But some of social media’s greatest advantages – the access it offers to the world at large and its immediacy – carry great risks too.

The allure for politicians is obvious. Online networks help them to reach audiences outside their traditional support base. Clever exponents can even ‘manufacture’ an online persona, which casts them in a favourable light. Most importantly, instantaneousness can be a valuable publicity tool, allowing them to react straight away to any issue which arises and to comment on any subject they choose. But there’s the rub.

The use of social media is inherently dangerous. It puts users on something of a par with broadcasters and the press, where the laws of libel lie in wait for any transgressor. Last May, Sally Bercow – the wife of the Commons Speaker – reached a settlement with Lord McAlpine’s lawyers over a tweet which the High Court adjudged defamatory.

For all social media users, there is the danger that an injudicious comment or a rash act could land them in controversy. For those in elected office, whose courting of popularity is almost instinctive, the object should be to make news, not become news. When the latter happens, the consequences for party – as well as individual – can be serious.

There is an old African proverb which holds that “Haste is the sister of repentance”. This sound advice undoubtedly conflicts with the politician’s almost Darwinian drive to be the first to get his or her ‘spake’ in.

Social media is not only a useful tool but a powerful weapon, and like all weapons can be dangerous to the person who wields it. 

We would all do well to heed one of our own old proverbs: "Least said, soonest mended."