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Paisley and Legacy

September 14, 2014 Leave a comment

That Paisley documentary, should you wish to delve into his mind.

So Ian Paisley is dead, as of a few days ago. I’m no more inclined to dance on his grave than I am to shed a tear at his passing, but the injunction not to speak ill of the dead mostly exists to preserve the feelings of the deceased’s loved ones, none of whom I know, nor are they ever likely to pay heed to anything I say. So some recollections might be in order.

When I was growing up in Northern Ireland, Ian Paisley was a constant presence. Back then he was a fringe character, albeit the most prominent one of his kind. To a child old enough to pay attention to the news but not old enough to understand the tangled truths and lies at the heart of the Northern Irish situation, there was something immediately appealing about this shouty man, spouting certainties at the top of his lungs wherever the lines between communities at war were in danger of becoming blurred.

The more understanding I gained, the more the limitations of his worldview became evident. Paisley was a complex man, even an exceptionally intelligent one, but those complexities were hammered flat by his fundamentalist worldview. Those he was close to remember him as warm, cordial figure, but one suspects that such warmth only extended to those who existed as human beings in his own eyes. Someone who could say that Catholics “breed like rabbits and multiply like vermin” had placed strict limits on his empathy.

In this, he was heir to centuries of anti-Catholic, biblical tradition arising from his Ulster Scots background, owning no authority save that of the bible. This is a man, after all, who founded his own church and his own political party. The common joke back in the Troubles was that Paisley had finally consented to a power-sharing agreement: with God. His famous heckling of Pope John Paul II suggested that he didn’t see him so much as a man as he did a figure of mythic significance, one that he was locked in war with.

All the stranger then that he executed an almost complete volte-face in his latter days. From being the most intransigent figure of the Troubles, he (once his party were in a position to take power) suddenly became open not just to power sharing, but to power-sharing with Sinn Fein, which he was more apt to call Sinn Fein/IRA. Which is either a breathtaking acceptance of the limitations of the principles he’d adhered to for decades, or an act of equally breathtaking hypocrisy.

That there were plenty willing to take the latter view may be seen in the fact that both his church and his party eventually rejected him. The former as soon as he took up that leadership role, the latter as soon as their grip on the reins of power was firm enough that they could afford to jettison their non-political anachronism of a founder.

As much as the Unionists may have had to hold their nose on going into government with Sinn Fein though, the same may have been true in reverse. His Damascene conversion on the road to government notwithstanding, Paisley was as responsible as anyone for generating the atmosphere of hatred and suspicion that drove the Troubles through three decades of murder. He’s gone to his grave with blood on his hands and no more willing or able to admit his culpability than Martin McGuinness or Gerry Adams have ever been.

His decision, in what turned out to be his last year, to participate in a tell-all documentary, stands now as a final preacher’s performance, a spouting of the truth as he saw it from the mountaintop. Perhaps even to make clear that the twists and turns of his own life could be looked back upon as a straight road, laid out according to his principles. If so, there were many lives bulldozed to make way for it.

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Negotiating a Breakup

September 8, 2014 2 comments

 

The Saltire really did bring out the best in those crusader crosses.

Somehow it all seems a lot less colourful now…

All of a sudden, with under two weeks to go, the referendum on Scottish independence is making a lot of people nervous. Whereas its failure was previously treated as a foregone conclusion, with the media enjoying the raised voices and ridiculousness of it all, it’s now looking too close to call. So has it really come to this? Is the United Kingdom going to be split along Hadrian’s Wall?*

Well yes, probably. And it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. The United Kingdom has been in a state of slow dissolution for a century and more. The colonies of the Empire headed for the exit one by one over many decades. The Irish had to kick and punch their way into doing the same, the results of which can still be seen in Northern Ireland. The Welsh? Well, they were first in, and they’ll probably be last out too. Feel sorry for them.

The Scots only joined in the first place because they were bribed with the crown of England. Not that it was a particularly easy unification, and indeed it took most of a century to sort out the details. (Ireland didn’t get roped in fully for nearly another century, and that happened at least partly as a result of rebellious efforts to head in the other direction.) In Scotland, the English are still the Auld Enemy, and while it can hardly be argued that Scotland hasn’t benefited through its part in the British-led Industrial Revolution and all that followed, the fact is that it has always been an unbalanced partnership.

For all that, this should have been a fairly straightforward vote. Countries don’t tend to break up for no real reason, especially not First World countries with several centuries of successful history behind them. So how has it come to this?

Well, the United Kingdom has, at the moment, the misfortune to be led by one of the most insular cliques of public school-educated toffs in many a long year. Hardly the kind of thing to appeal to the provincials. Not that the minor parties are notably better. Together, they’ve driven a “No Campaign” of staggering ineptitude, ricocheting between platitudes, hypothetical doomsday scenarios and hectoring condescension. Hell, even calling it a No Campaign was probably a bad idea. They never managed to move the media needle on that piece of negative campaigning, no matter how much they promoted the insipid “Better Together” tagline.

Would Scotland be better off independent? I don’t know, but cutting themselves off from the rest of the U.K. is not a risk-free move. Economically and politically, Edinburgh’s heft is far short of London’s. Culturally too. Though the calculus of the situation looks tougher to work out further down the line. The cussedness of the Scots suggests that if anyone can deal with the problems of independence and build themselves back up, it’s them.

As a native of Northern Ireland now living in the non-British-aligned South, the eventual outcome doesn’t hold a huge amount of immediate impact for me. Not that the Northern Irish aren’t involved at all. In fact, there a lot of resonances at play for the North. The Unionist movement up there is largely the legacy of Scottish planters. The Nationalist movement has been working on getting out of the U.K. for decades now. A shame it took Sinn Fein three decades and thousands of deaths to figure out that politics and P.R. are a much better way of getting what they want.

A “Yes” vote on September 18th might cut Scotland free of the U.K., but the implications will rattle along for years, and the U.K. is a more complicated place than a quickie divorce can mend. The Scots will make their mind up one way or another, but both they and the English will have to work on being either neighbours or partners giving it one more shot.

*Okay, not exactly along Hadrian’s Wall, but close enough.

Gerry Anderson – Learning to be Northern Irish

August 31, 2014 1 comment

Two men who had a lot of influence on the Northern Ireland I grew up in died last week. One was the taoiseach who first brought ceasefire talks with the IRA to the highest levels of government, beginning the process that led to the Good Friday Agreement and a halt to three decades of slaughter. The other was a radio DJ who, through those years, provided a wry, human voice for those trying to live a normal life.

I don’t think it’s any insult to the memory of Albert Reynolds to say that for me, Gerry Anderson was by far the more important of the two.

Let me clarify that. One of my very earliest recurring memories is of travelling in the family car with one or both of my parents. The school my sister and I went to (and where my parents taught, and where my two brothers would later go) was several miles away from where we lived. So in the morning and the evening, we’d be driven there and back. Whenever that happened, and indeed whenever we were driven anywhere else, the radio was usually on, tuned to one of Northern Ireland’s local radio stations.

This was the 1980s, when the Troubles in Northern Ireland were more than a decade old and had become soul-grindingly mundane. I would be much older before I learned that being stopped in the middle of the night by soldiers in full camouflage, wielding automatic rifles; that cycling past police stations that looked more like fortresses; that listening to the news and hearing the tally of the latest bombings, shootings and burnings wasn’t something that everyone else in the western world had to deal with on a day-to-day basis.

The radio shows, which mostly mixed music with phone-in segments, were a means of holding together the majority of the population who didn’t support the lunatics on either side and didn’t care for living in a militarised zone. They maintained the thread of normality, of entertainment, good humour and common experience that frayed every time another bullet was fired or car bomb exploded. You could listen to them on the way to Belfast, arrive and have to deal with a city centre that had been fortified, then return and listen to them on the way home, restoring some sense of balance and sanity to your world.

Gerry Anderson was my favourite and still embodies much of what I think of as the best of Northern Ireland. For me, his dry humour, the way he dealt with the myriad strangenesses of daily life in the North, and his insistence that all those things were, in their own way, more important than the blood and thunder of the lunatics, is quintessentially Northern Irish. Famously, he was the man who cut through the Gordian knot of the Derry/Londonderry debate by renaming the city Stroke City. A Northern Irish solution to a Northern Irish problem if ever there was one.

Twenty years ago, the IRA ceasefire began, marking yet another step in the peace process, which has now taken firm, if occasionally painful hold on Northern Ireland. As bad as the Troubles were, those of us who lived through them were, in a way, lucky. We had the space to hold on to normal lives in the midst of it all, with the help of Gerry Anderson and many others. It’s hard not to look at the Middle East today and the chaos swirling around Syria and Iraq and wonder just how many people there won’t have as much of a chance. How much of their way of life is being destroyed. I hope that when the sound of the guns and the bombs fades away, there might be the sound of a radio somewhere, and of a dry-witted host engaging with everyday concerns before reaching for another record.

Closing Down Dissent. Or Satire. Or Anything, Really…

January 25, 2014 1 comment
I'm not really trying here, am I?

Shakespeare says NO! (via Wikipedia)

Ah, the joys of following the Northern Ireland news. Every so often, you get served up the kind of insanity that only the combination of parochial religious zealotry and a genuine 17th-century mindset can provide.

This week, it seems that the DUP councillors in Newtownabbey, evidently nostalgic for the days of the Life of Brian controversy, elected to force a shutdown of the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s The Bible: The Complete Word of God (Abridged), just a week before performance time. Because, hey, there’s nothing more important going on in Northern Ireland than a slapstick play that might put a few religious noses out of joint.

Let’s just clarify here: this is the Reduced Shakespeare Company that has been in existence for three decades and has been a fixture on the London theatre scene for much of that time. This is a show that has been around for nearly 20 years, winning awards, being performed around the world in numerous languages. And this is the DUP councillors standing up en masse and doing their best to bully the local arts board into shutting it down without a vote.

It would be funny if it weren’t so predictable. The combination of political power with the certainty of religious faith brings tends to results in the shutdown of dissenting points of view. Underdog sects and religions can favour freedom of conscience, but history shows that when the boot’s on the other foot, attitudes change. After all, when you’re in possession of the ultimate truth, isn’t it a public good if that’s the only truth that’s going to get promoted?

The trend towards secular government is one that took a long time to hit Ireland, and arguably it still hasn’t hit the North. Everywhere else, there has been pushback, in the form of Texas creationists altering school textbooks, Islamist efforts to marginalise secular Turkish youth, or a UKIP councillor linking gay marriage to recent floods. In Northern Ireland, the linkage between religion and the sectarian divide and the fact that parties from either extreme hold the whip hand means that it’s not so much pushback as an effort to hold onto power (something the Unionists have been doing for decades).

There’s no indication that anyone involved in cancelling the play had actually seen it, or had any interest in seeing it. Whether their chief interest was in “defending Christian values”, grandstanding for a few more votes or simply throwing their weight around, they both overstepped the mark in terms of their electoral mandate and completely undershot in terms of doing something of benefit for the people of Newtownabbey.

The Bilocated Man

November 12, 2013 1 comment

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The bowl of ages…

In my kitchen cupboard sits a bowl that’s stands out from the crowd. My crockery tastes tend to run to bachelor minimalism, but this one has a faded floral border. It also has a couple of hairline cracks, one of which covers more than half its width. It may not be long for this world, but it’s the venue for my breakfast cereal every morning.

This bowl, along with one other plate in that cupboard, is the sole survivor from the package of crockery and cutlery that I was given when I moved down to Dublin from County Down, just over 19 years ago. At the time, I had just turned 19 myself. So, as of late September/early October this year, I’ve officially lived in Dublin as long as I did in Northern Ireland.

It’s not quite that neat, of course: my first year in Trinity College Dublin was very disrupted, and I spent most of it, especially the latter half, up north. Still, insofar as I can identify a tipping point, this is it. When I came down to Dublin to go to college, I was a kid. Now that I’m still in Dublin, having just finished a Masters course, I can’t really claim the same measure of youthfulness.

I will forever be from Northern Ireland. When I first moved to Dublin, I had to face the question of whether I was Irish or British. I definitely didn’t feel like the latter—growing up in a nationalist, Catholic family saw to that. But I didn’t feel like being Irish suited me either. The experience of growing up in the North during the Troubles was a thing all of its own. So I eventually settled on insisting on my Northern Irish identity.

Though being Northern Irish hasn’t changed, it no longer seems to cover everything. This is not necessarily a bad thing. One way of reading it is that there’s more to me than was when I first arrived here in Dublin. I recently added an Irish passport to my British one, so maybe what’s grown about me is the Irish part.

It’s a funny thing, to realise that you’ve built a life in a particular place. Friends, work, education, habitation. An interest in local culture and politics, a landscape littered with memories and associations. The same thing is true up North, of course, but up there it’s a case of experience accumulated in the accidental form of childhood. Down here in Dublin, it feels a little more deliberate. Or perhaps necessary is the right word.

Perhaps the nature of it then is that we all live multiple lives, often overlapping one another. Childhood, teenage years, college, first job, first house. Sometimes, as in my move to Dublin, you get a clear break that allows you to divide what came before from what came after. Not that live is usually that clean. It is, and always ought to be, a work in progress.

With my Masters over and a job hunt underway, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that another life has started, adding another layer to the person that I am. I have no idea where this current path will eventually take me. It might just be that 19 years down the line, I’ll get to write something entitled “The Trilocated Man”. Wouldn’t that be interesting?

A Barricade of Bunting

January 13, 2013 2 comments

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Hidden in the dazzle, the early evening protestors and their bunting.

In the end, it was a simple matter of stepping over a thin line of bunting stretched across the road. And then, later, walking through a line of mostly youngish men, hooded and masked. No one commented, or even looked my way. Even so, I felt my stomach knotting.

Why? There was no violence there, early on a wet night in Belfast, or later. (Though things did get hairy elsewhere and the next day.) The flag protests that have rolled across Northern Ireland for the past few weeks have been amply covered in the media, but this was my first direct contact with them. In place of brick and bottle throwing defiance, there was a slightly sullen matter-of-factness about the whole affair. Civil disobedience already turned into habit.

I’m not going to go into the justifications for the protests, which have already been covered elsewhere, except to note that few commentators on either side of the divide have dared to come out in support of violence as a response to putting a flag in a drawer as opposed to on a pole for most of the year. Unfortunately, both sides of the community in Northern Ireland are in the habit of launching the sort of street protest that inevitably leads to stone-throwing and worse. For the young and the hopeless, it’s better than dealing with the everyday grind.

So if I wasn’t facing violence, what was it that caused my stomach to curl in on itself? Some of it, perhaps, was a reminder of what I’d left behind. I’ve been in Dublin for a long time, and even when I lived in Northern Ireland it was in a relatively peaceful corner, where the Troubles mostly came in the form of daily news reports. In the North, old grievances run deep, and fears run along with them. Fear of the Other and what they might do if unchecked.

So the protests were a response to the apparent nationalist victory at getting the Union Jack taken off Belfast City Hall most days of the year. An effort by the loyalist community to throw their weight around, to prove to the police, nationalists and anyone watching that they could do so if they wanted. Swaggering is one word. Intimidation is another.

And it was that intimidation that my stomach was responding to. I’m not a violent person, and my first response to conflict is usually to avoid it. But when gangs decide to block passage along the Ormeau Road, as others did elsewhere that night, avoidance is no longer an option. Meekness works instead, avoiding eye contact and just passing by, hoping that the self-appointed big dogs have bigger fish to fry.

And where was I going that night? To Ravenhill, where an Ulster rugby team that has garnered the support of both sides of the community slogged their way to another victory in the rain. Among the flags there were plenty of Northern Ireland and Ulster banners, the best of which featured the Red Hand grasping a pint of Guinness. But no Union Jacks and no tricolours. We should all be so lucky.

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The Olympics Gap

August 9, 2012 Leave a comment

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Watching the Olympics outdoors in Belfast on a sunny day. Something of a surreal experience.

Much to my surprise, I’ve found myself really enjoying the London Olympics. Having been mired in British cynicism ever since London won the bid many years ago, I guessed that this would be, at best, a mediocre games. Well, I’m glad to say that I was wrong. From the torch run that visited Ireland on the way to criss-crossing the U.K. to Danny Boyle’s spectacular, whimsical and multicultural opening ceremony, the build-up was pitch perfect: positive without being pompous or pretentious. Amazingly, the games themselves took that solid start and ran with it, converting even the most ardent sceptics.

The success that British Olympians have enjoyed in the past two weeks has helped a lot. I’ve been flicking between BBC and RTE for my coverage, and while the former’s constant mood of celebration has occasioned eye-rolling at times, there have been some spectacular moments at times, and the flood of golds have undoubtedly added to the party mood in London. Having considered going last year, I decided against it. A bad move, it seems. Every report I’ve heard has suggested that there’s been no better place to be this summer.

RTE has had a tougher time with its coverage – not having the resources of the BBC, it has more or less devoted one of its channels and much of its Internet resources to covering the massive array of events. The start of the games wasn’t easy for RTE either, with one Irish Olympian after another seeing their hopes of a medal slipping away before the final moments of their events. Thankfully, things seem to have come good at last, with the boxing team, led by the amazing Katie Taylor, now on course to take home a fistful of medals, together with a surprise bronze in the individual showjumping.

Those early struggles though, combined with British success, may have given rise to some suspicions that the Irish media has been deliberately avoiding giving much prominence to the British gold rush. Partly this might be down to the fact that anyone in Ireland who wants to know how the British team is doing can quickly find out by switching (as I’ve been doing) to the BBC. There’s always a small section of the population in Ireland though who’ll reject anything with the taint of Britishness. Whether that extends to the media, I can’t be sure, but I’m glad to say that I’ve only heard of a few examples of it. (About as many as I have of the British media trying to claim our more successful athletes.)

As for myself, despite the fact that I sit at two removes from any sense of Britishness (growing up in a Catholic, nationalist family in Northern Ireland, and living the most recent half of my life in Dublin), I love the fact that this Olympics is so close to home. The BBC has a lot to do with that: it was responsible for at least half of my cultural education, and I tend to prefer watching the Olympics on the BBC rather than RTE, for at least two reasons: no advertisments and a multiplicity of channels, meaning I can watch what I want, when I want.

I can live with the BBC presenters’ over-the-top praise of their athletes as they get swept up in Olympic fever, but when the time comes for coverage of Irish athletes, I’ll turn to RTE for all the details. If nothing else, there are gems in the RTE coverage too. Such as the wildly enthusiastic commentary on the basketball and Jimmy Magee dissolving into raptures every time an Irish boxer lands a punch or two. And when Katie Taylor and the rest of those who have trained for all of their lives for this moment get their just rewards, it won’t matter where my own heritage comes from: I’ll be cheering along with the rest.