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."

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Beyond Recall

What does it take to force a recall of the Assembly? How bad do things have to get before MLAs could be persuaded to forfeit part of their extended summer holiday and clock in at Stormont?

A good old-fashioned political scandal can obviously do the trick. The Spotlight programme's investigation into Red Sky’s dealings had our public representatives almost queuing up to tear strips off one another. The Twelfth rioting (and the Thirteenth, and the Fourteenth...) was of a different order entirely: serious enough to warrant not just an Assembly recall, but to demand only the sombrest of demeanours in the House and a mostly temperate debate.

Unfortunately, economic news just doesn’t seem to cut it – either for the politicians or for the media. Let’s face it: humdrum statistics struggle to compete with the lurid spectacle of mob violence.

So, when the latest unemployment figures were revealed - around the time of the riots - they earned scarcely more than a passing reference in news bulletins (and even then, the focus was on the biggest monthly fall in the North’s jobless total in over a decade).

Mission accomplished for the spin-doctors. No in-depth probing of the statistics. No awkward questions for ministers. A ‘good news’ story served on a plate to a willing media, distracted by violent protest. 

Lurking within the latest figures, however, is a crisis which demands attention at the highest level.

The statistics suggest that while unemployment across the North was mostly falling, and fewer people were signing on, the Derry City Council area was bucking the trend – consolidating its reputation as Northern Ireland's 'jobs blackspot'.

The number of people claiming benefit in the city rose by more than 90 (with only Dungannon – among the other 25 district council areas – also recording an increase).

Any complaint about the weakness of Derry’s economy tends to be met with the tiresome but predictable “Whingers” jibe, but it's worth looking at the evidence.

Among the reams of bumpf issued by DETI was a table recording the “number and proportion of claimants” in each of Northern Ireland’s council wards. There are almost 600 wards on the list, and Derry now has six of the top ten (Belfast has two and Strabane and Limavady have one each).

Derry’s Strand ward sits ignominiously at the very top. Remarkably, both it and the eighth worst ward, Rosemount, abut the University of Ulster’s Magee campus. The 41st highest, Ebrington, has been at the hub of many City of Culture events. And, ironically, residents either side of the Fountain-Bishop Street interface – in the Diamond ward – find themselves shackled together at third place.

I haven’t even mentioned the huge number of people in Derry who are deemed to be 'economically inactive', or those who have upped sticks and left in search of work. And those locals who have been lucky enough to find jobs tend to earn wages below the Northern Ireland average.

So, while a Stormont Committee probes the Spotlight allegations, and American intermediaries seek a solution to the parades issue, there’s far less urgency about the need to tackle the other crisis, beyond the Glenshane Pass.

The Programme for Government 2011-15 suggests, “The primary focus of your Executive for the next four years will be to grow the economy and tackle disadvantage.” The First and Deputy First Ministers write in the document that they are “committed to addressing regional imbalance”.

Delivering on the 'One Plan' would be a start, but they would need to get the finger out. The chasmic regional imbalance isn’t being corrected. Clearly, Derry’s economy is in dire straits. But does an economic meltdown – even on this scale – warrant a recall of our legislative Assembly? Apparently not.