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.