Archive for April, 2011

The Irish Sunday Dependent (“Getting in touch with our inner colonial!”) is delighted tomorrow to ditch our usual coverage of economic gloom and doom, financial corruption, gombeen politics and national depression and give over our ENTIRE edition to THE WEDDING OF THE CENTURY!!!

Yes! And that’s not all! It’s a bumper edition too! 50 full colour pages of photographs, commentary and analysis, and a raft of special features including the Irish guide to Received Pronunciation AND a FREE!!! giant poster of the Royal Wedding Kiss!

Our special Royal correspondent, Declan Bollocks, wonders if we shouldn’t just ditch our independence and go back to being a colony. Fashion editor, Aine Forelock, gushes over THAT wedding dress. RTE’s Director General celebrates his station’s triumphant coverage of the Wedding and promises “silver service television” for Her Majesty the Queen’s visit to Ireland. Joe Higgins is “on holiday” but Dr Dan is back with his Top 10 Health Risks of Republicanism. And our Woman’s editor on ten ways the Irish woman can be a princess to her man!!!!

Not only that but we have the Irish Idiot’s Guide to the Royal Family and a bumper Royal puzzle supplement for the kids!

So get in touch with your inner colonial and buy the Sunday Dependent tomorrow!!

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In the run up to the NI Assembly elections on 5 May, BBC Radio Ulster’s Talk Back programme has been inviting listeners to call in and question leading figures in all the parties standing for election. On 27 April, it was the turn of Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin.

The first few calls in this one-hour, lunchtime programme didn’t bode well for McGuinness. They represented those in Northern Ireland who still find it difficult to move on from the past, perhaps because of direct personal bereavement at the hands of the IRA, of which McGuinness was a senior commander; or maybe due to deep-seated prejudice or bitterness against Irish republicanism as a political ideology. Indeed, the bold Martin came across as just a wee bit tetchy in the way he handled these hostile calls so he may have to be careful to avoid a Gordon Brown moment in the last few days of his campaign.

But then as if from the heavens came a remarkable call from a Protestant woman who expressed dismay at the condemnation that was so far being heaped on McGuinness’ head. She described herself as a woman brought up in the Orange tradition, as someone who once looked on McGuinness as her enemy, a man she would never have contemplated talking to, never mind voting for in an election. But she explained how his role in the peace process and his conduct as one of the North’s leading politicians changed her mind; and how she would be comfortable with voting for him on 5 May while still maintaining her Loyalist, Protestant identity.

"Here, Ian, did you hear the one about the Prod that voted for Sinn Féin?"

Was this a freak call? An aberration? Well, it was quickly followed by a caller who described himself as a Scottish socialist from an Ulster Loyalist background. He too praised McGuinness for his leadership as deputy First Minister and for the courageous decisions he made along the road to peace. He too would vote for Martin. A couple of other Protestant callers and texters stopped short of a ringing endorsement of McGuinness but confessed that they might put him or his party down as their 2nd or 3rd preference.

Of course only time and voting statistics will tell whether these calls point to something objectively significant and historic in voting patterns here. But if they are in any way representative of even a small minority of the Protestant electorate, it will mark a profound breakthrough for Sinn Féin and lend further credibility to predictions that it will soon become the North’s largest single political party in share of the vote. Just think back to where the party was the last time we had a royal wedding in Britain – its vote hardly registered in 1981 – and you will appreciate the true scale of its electoral achievement since then. But to attract for the first time 1st or 2nd preferences from protestant, unionist voters would be to confound the so-called “sectarian headcount” that has been at the heart of the socialist critique of the peace process.

Yet socialists and others in the North have been talking in the wilderness about such an idea for decades. On the nationalist side, John Hume of the SDLP constantly preached that the solution to the conflict lay within the people, not in flags and the violent assertion of identities; that the future lay not in nations but in a Europe of the regions. Among Unionists, Alliance has always claimed to be a cross community, non-sectarian party; and, more recently, Loyalist politicians such as Dawn Purvis have been campaigning on a progressive, non-sectarian platform.

But such aspirations were never going to be realised in the cauldron of terrorist warfare and politically driven sectarian division. In the light of this recent history at least, it would seem ironic to most observers if Sinn Féin of all parties became the first to actually realise this aim in practice; ironic perhaps but totally explicable in the new dispensation of the Good Friday Agreement. Sinn Féin is now part of the mainstream political establishment and can, with some credibility at least, point us back to 1798 and Wolfe Tone’s aspiration to unite Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter.

If this does happen over the next 5 to 10 years, it will present a real challenge to leftwing politics in the North, which is all too fractured and disparate to promise electoral success any time soon. Some have called for the British Labour Party to put forward local members for election to the Assembly. But this is not the answer because Labour isn’t really interested in the North and probably doesn’t understand us for that matter. The accent of our politics like our speech jars on the British ear.  And besides, the Labour Party will have drawn lessons from the Tory alliance with the Ulster Unionists in last year’s general election.

In truth, the short to medium-term future of socialism in the North is unlikely to lie in electoral politics, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Solidarity is the key and whatever our differences of theory and practice, socialists must never march under the banner of “Ourselves alone”. As the Russian anarchist, Mikhail Bakunin, wrote in 1872, “When it comes to exploitation the bourgeoisie practice solidarity. In combating them the exploited must do likewise.”  The broad left front of socialists and anarchists here is already building a loose alliance with our trade unions and grass roots community organisations to campaign against the cuts and for social justice. Hopefully, this will continue to grow and have a lasting impact because socialism in the North has an opportunity to build something much more profound at a time when working people are feeling insecure and under pressure: a new kind of progressive, civil society.  And while it might be a good thing if the mainstream parties attract votes from across the sectarian divide, we should remember that those same parties will be expected to sit at Stormont and carry out instructions from Westminster: cut, cut and cut again!

BBC Northern Ireland broadcast a programme just recently called Mother Teresa: 123 Springhill Avenue (11 April) to mark the 40th Anniversary of Mother Teresa’s brief sojourn among the beleaguered community of Ballymurphy, Belfast.

Now here’s the thing: this was news to me so I thought I’d have a look and find out more. How did she get on there? What kind of impact did she make on a community in crisis? How did she cope with the accents? Did she meet the Provos? If so, how did she get on with them? And was she raided by the Brits?

Alas, I was sorely disappointed because this wasn’t so much history as speculation and thus a wasted opportunity to explore a small but remarkable episode in Northern Ireland’s “Troubles”.

Kicking out Mother Teresa

The programme sets out instead to investigate why Mother Teresa and her small community of 4 sisters departed so suddenly from Ballymurphy after a stay of only 18 months. Was it her own decision? Or was the conspiracy theory in fact true? Was she kicked out by the Catholic Church?

Cue a procession of eyewitnesses to suggest she must have been kicked out but not by the people because she was much loved and did so much good work. She brought loaves and fishes and fed the hungry multitudes. Who would do such a thing behind the people’s back?

Cue pantomime villain to point the finger at – parish priest, Canon Murphy – who, we’re told, didn’t appreciate foreign missionaries coming over here and telling us about God. That was Ireland’s job so get lost! That kind of attitude. Apparently, though, no one in the programme had any hard evidence he ever thought or said that.

In the absence of evidence, the very basis of good history and journalism, cue lots of reading between the lines: who said what and what did it really mean. Could it actually mean what the programme desperately wanted it to mean? Could the wicked Canon Murphy have bullied the saintly nun and her sisters until they had no choice but to leave? Constructive dismissal, as someone suggested?

Of course, they had to bring the Provos into the conspiracy as well with speculation that they may have used the ensuing outcry to start a riot in the area and lure the British Army into an ambush; if Mother Teresa hadn’t intervened there would have been a “bloodbath”. The basis for this story?  It was something a wee man heard from an ex-British soldier.

The programme keeps us on the hook with these parallel lines of inquiry until it finally produces the first of two rabbits from the hat. There’s a letter! Somebody found a letter that Mother Teresa wrote to the Bishop but which she thought better of and didn’t send. Or maybe it was a copy? Maybe she did send it? What was in it? The person who found the letter couldn’t remember after all these years exactly what it said but she was sure it referred to something horrible the Bishop said to Mother Teresa in previous correspondence. Now where did she put that letter? Unfortunately, she had no clue where it was.

But wait for the second rabbit! There’s a wee woman that knows and her name is Bridgid, the only local laywoman to have the ear of Mother Teresa and thus the only person left alive (Canon Murphy has since passed away) who could finally shed light on the mystery after all these years. Wee Bridgid, bless her, seemed delighted to appear on the programme and, smiling serenely, told us all that it was a secret and she promised Mother Teresa she would take it to the grave! Priceless!

So what did the programme conclude after all this investigation and drama? Nothing. And yet, with its montage of remarkable news, documentary and home movie footage, and its local eyewitnesses who still remembered Mother Teresa’s short stay, it could have dropped the conspiracy theory and told us a simple story about a small band of missionary nuns who came to war-torn Ballymurphy and made a difference to a community of people who up until then were treated as third-class citizens.

But in TV Land, even locally in Northern Ireland, simple stories are risky. Even current affairs, which is being squeezed from the schedules, has to be dramatic and suspenseful and if a producer can throw in a bit of conspiracy, like a car dealer throws you in a free set of floor mats, then even better.

The TV guide to sows’ ears and silk purses

So look out for the next TV conspiracy: why Rory McIlroy’s game collapsed in the final round of the US Masters. A simple, human story of the cruelty of sport? I don’t think so! Give me speculation!  Give me rumour! Give me conspiracy! Do you see these TV awards on my desk? I want more! Find that smoking 9 iron!

So here’s the pitch. The world watches in horror as Rory McIlroy throws away a commanding lead in the US Masters. How could this happen?  Is it true that McIlroy took a call on his mobile minutes before teeing off for the final round? If so, who was it and what did they say to him? Was it the mob scaring him off because they had all their money on Tiger Woods (Sopranos music)? Or maybe an old school bully who rang him up just to upset him for the laugh (Psycho music)? Or maybe it was dodgy gear? Lots of scientists in white coats messing about in labs with Rory’s golf clubs, accessories and shoes (Wonders of the Universe music).

Throw into the mix some interviews with sports psychologists with beards and sports psychologists without beards who say “maybe” and “possibly” a lot; a sprinkle of fellow professionals who can’t really say very much other than a sympathetic word; yet more interviews with people who were there but are not sure what happened to him; and, crucially, spice it up with local celebs who were not there so have no clue what happened Rory but who knew him slightly from years ago when they used to tee off at his home golf club and saw his fragility a mile off. And of course lots of slow-mo shots of Rory in despair, scored with Nessun Dorma, theme tune for TV coverage of Italia ’90 World Cup.

Anything will do – any rumour, any theory, any possibility – but just don’t tell the viewer the simple truth; that Rory’s human and simply had a bad final round because if that was the story then there’d be no real point making the programme in the first place, would there? The audience would never buy it.

I’ll offer some thoughts about this kind of programming in my next post.

Reporting from Tripoli against the backdrop of NATO bombardment, Richard Spencer of the Daily Telegraph, describes the “reality and unreality” of the Libyan regime and its very idiosyncratic approach to international diplomacy (BBC Radio 5 Live, 21 March). But if Operation Odyssey Dawn” is anything to go by, flakiness is not a Libyan preserve. What exactly are the aims and objectives of this NATO operation? After just two days of bombing, the BBC’s Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen described things as “all a bit confused and confusing” (BBC1, 10 O’Clock News, 21 March) as NATO members put their own national interests first and the aims of UN Resolution 1973 second. And did we just see 100 Tomahawk cruise missiles flying overhead or was President Obama taking a back seat for fear of offending the Muslim world?

It’s a very unpromising backdrop to this latest western intervention into Arab affairs but one would think that Britain would have learned the lessons of Blair’s “ethical foreign policy” – how messy things get when one mixes moral ethics with the realist impulses of western foreign policy. It started as moral support for a rebellion against the Gaddafi regime with grand rhetoric about the primacy of freedom and democracy. Then, as the regime moved to crush the rebellion, it shifted to a proposal for a no-fly zone, personally sponsored by Prime Minister, David Cameron.  The principal objective of this no-fly zone was to protect civilians but already it has been extended to include the bombing of military targets on the ground, the supply of arms to various “rebel” groups and, according to some, the possible assassination of Gaddafi.

The world, said President Obama, would not stand idly by while the Libyan regime murdered its own people (20 March). But, as many good people have pointed out already, that’s exactly what the “world” is doing with regard to protests and rebellions in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Yemen  – all doughty allies of the west in the “war on terror”. And then there’s the thousands of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories who, under an Israeli-imposed regime of terror, have been killed, wounded, evicted from their homes and treated like non-people in contravention of over two hundred UN Resolutions since the foundation of the Israeli state. (To put this in some perspective, the west went to war against Iraq in 2003 for defying just a handful). The official answer to these objections? “Just because we can’t intervene in every situation around the world, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t intervene where our national interests are at stake”.

And that’s the key because this operation makes no sense as a humanitarian intervention and only time will tell what the real national interests are for the western alliance. But as Labour MP, Dennis Skinner, pointed out in parliament recently (30 March), the British government should be mindful of the lessons of Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s: that when you want to change a regime by arming “rebel forces”, be careful what you wish for.