Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Mullah of county Tyrone

"Then came the Great War. Every institution, almost, in the world was strained. Great Empires have been overturned. The whole map of Europe has been changed. The position of countries has been violently altered. The modes of thought of men, the whole outlook on affairs, the grouping of parties, all have encountered violent and tremendous changes in the deluge of the world. But as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short, we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again. The integrity of their quarrel is one of the few institutions that has been unaltered in the cataclysm which has swept the world."

Winston Churchill

Gerry McGeough is a nasty piece of work. If you haven't come across him before the chances are you will in the run up to this March's Assembly election. An IRA member since his teens, his activities as a volunteer stretched from active service in the ditches of his native Tyrone to a ambitious but failed attempt to smuggle surface-to-air missiles out of the United States in the eighties. He was arrested by the SAS while training in south Armagh in 1977 and was captured again in West Germany while on a mission to bomb British military targets in mainland Europe.

Since his release from prison ten years ago he has established himself as something of a regular on documentaries and current affairs shows about the peace process and the state of Irish republicanism. McGeough has, however, in the past few months risen to become one of the most vocal critics of the political path taken by Sinn Fein. It now appears that he will be one of a number of independent republican candidates standing in the March 7 Stormont elections.

If he does go ahead with his threat to go up against the mainstream runners he will contest the seat in the mainly nationalist constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone. The constituency (today represented in Westminster by one of the new breed of Shinners, Michelle Gildernew: young, female and no previous convictions) is probably best known as that which elected that great icon of modern day republicanism, Bobby Sands, in the groundbreaking hunger strike election of 1981. Most Sinn Fein activists trace their contemporary success back to that year's Fermanagh and South Tyrone by-election. Prior to this republicans had been trapped in a militarist cul-de-sac and, apart from a brief period in the mid-fifties, had largely saw no electoral success in over half a century. It is clear to see what Gerry McGeough's intention is on March 7th: trigger a new political renaissance in the constituency which Sands relaunched republican politics from.

But why, you may ask, do I call McGeough a 'nasty piece of work'? What sets him apart from all the other individuals and organisations that lie in the alphabet soup of dissident republicanism? On the face of it you could say he isn't really all that bad. Although fervently opposed to the current SF policy of power-sharing with unionists he is not in favour of a return to the 'war', believing not that the Provisional's campaign was morally wrong but simply that armed struggle has now run its course. There is something else making him unique.

Gerry McGeough isn't your ordinary dissident. He was a loyal follower of the men at the helm of the IRA and Sinn Fein since he joined the movement as a teenager in the seventies. He remained with the Adams and McGuinness leadership during his time in various jails around the world. He stood by them during the hunger strike period. He stayed put following the split which created Republican Sinn Fein and the Continuity IRA in 1986 when the movement voted to recognise Dail Eireann and the institutions of the southern state. He remained with them following the 1994 ceasefire. He stuck with the leadership during the 1997 split that saw the formation of the 32 County Sovereignty Movement. He remained with them in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement, when Sinn Fein entered the Stormont assembly and Articles 2 and 3 were dropped from the Republic's constitution. All things considered, it's amazing the Provisionals ever managed to get rid of McGeough but get rid of him they did. And how? Here's a clue - it had nothing to do with partition.

The Tyrone man was a senior member of Sinn Fein until 2001. He was a member of the party's Ard Comhairle and resigned from the organisation just weeks after he had oversaw the successful campaign against the Nice Treaty in the Republic. What drove him away in the end was Sinn Fein's supposedly left-wing politics. In the past year McGeough and his newfound sidekick Charles Byrne have launched The Hibernian, a monthly magazine which puts forward a strange mix of old fashioned Irish nationalism and Catholic fundamentalism all in the name of faith, family and country. It is vehemently anti-abortion, anti-divorce and anti-homosexual, plus there is a little bit of anti-British sentiment thrown in for good measure. An insight into the man's obnoxious views was found in an interview he done with the 'Observer' prior to his new found electoral ambitions:
"You would never get a leader of Sinn Fein condemning abortion, homosexual 'marriage' or anything of that nature. I, as an Irish nationalist and Catholic, never want to see the day when there are abortion clinics in every market town in Ireland. But looking around there is no political grouping willing to take a stance against that."
In another section of the interview his mix of anti-European Union sentiment and Christian conviction would seem to make him an ideal candidate for the DUP, were it not of course for the likely theological differences:
"Many people, I believe, wish for a society where faith, decency, pro-life convictions and national self-determination within Europe can flourish; and not be swallowed up in a dictatorial EU bureaucracy. What we need is a strong Church, led by strong church figures willing to stand up and say what the Church stands for…I believe that we have a God-given duty to ensure that the faith is kept alive and passed on to future generations."
God-given duty? Strong church figures? Forget the DUP comparison - this man is creeping into Taleban territory.

An article which appeared in the UK-based anti-fascist journal Searchlight noted that many of the contributors to The Hibernian were members of shadowy extreme Catholic groups such as Youth Defence, the Society of Pope Pius X and the Ancient of Order of Hibernians (AOH). The latter is perhaps the best known. Up until the early part of the 20th century the AOH was nationalist Ireland's answer to the Orange Order, however the organisation failed to have any impact on events during the tumultuous period between 1916 and 1923 and it slowly faded into obscurity. Unlike the Orange Order which has had solid roots in the Protestant community for centuries, very few Catholics could probably name one single person who they know to be a member of the AOH and most treat any mention of the group with derision (James Connolly famously called the Hibernians "the Pope's brass band").

Unlike some observers, I do not expect McGeough or any of the dissident candidates to make much of an impression. In most cases they will probably poll a few hundred protest votes, but it is difficult to see anything beyond that. Brought together only by a common view on the border question, they remain something of a mixed up bunch who are disunited on everything from the issue of armed struggle to recognition of Dail Eireann to their policy on abortion. They cover the entire political spectrum - from the ultra left warped Marxism of the IRSP to the right-wing clerical fascism of Gerry McGeough and The Hibernian readership. Nor do the dissidents have the political potential to make much of a long term impact on northern politics. The likelihood is that the dissidents will continue to follow a very well beaten path. They will meet up at Easter time in the graveyards to honour their dead. They will discuss the treachery of their erstwhile comrades and what might have been. Now and again, the most militant of them will mount the odd attack against the 'crown forces'. They will stay meaningless, the insignificant rump of an old conflict. But we should learn from the past and remember that once upon a time a little rump of hardcore individuals in the late 1960s met in Dublin to form the Provisional republican movement. They latched onto and thrived on subsequent crises. You all know the story from that point.

Winston Churchill's famous 'dreary steeples' speech of 1922 appears at the beginning of this article. Churchill was a cabinet minister during some of the worst years of violence here in the period after the Great War. He despaired at the longevity of the Irish question and wondered how not even the earth-changing events of World War One managed to change in any meaningful way whatsoever the centuries old conflict. It could be said that very little has changed. Another world war and a Cold War have taken place since that speech, as have other civil wars and various conflicts too numerous to mention.

With men like Gerry McGeough still living among those 'dreary steeples' it would take a brave man to predict that the Irish question will finally be answered when the deluge from Baghdad and Kabul finally subsides.

Monday, January 29, 2007

The other border Fox

Billy Fox was one of those oddities that politics throws up every now and again. There certainly weren't many others like him. His murder, coming as it did in a period when murder was a normal daily occurrence for the border community, was largely forgotten although I do recall hearing about him when I was younger. A Protestant, Fox was militantly opposed to the British Army's policy of cratering border roads during the troubles, a policy which he felt was inconveniencing farmers in the maze of little country roads that run between Monaghan, Fermanagh and Armagh. It is said that he often went to the bother of filling in many of the holes himself.

A member of Fine Gael, he regularly appeared more republican than many of the Fianna Fail deputies in the Dail. In one particularly memorable case he brought CS gas canisters that had been fired across the border by the British military into a debate at Leinster House. Despite his religious background, it was widely thought that his nationalist antics lost him the so-called 'Protestant vote' in county Monaghan and led to his bright future as a TD been cut short when he lost his seat in 1973. He later became a member of Seanad Éireann.

Fox was assassinated by the Provisional IRA at Tircooney near Clones in 1974 making him the only member of the Oireachtas to be murdered during the most recent troubles.

Rumours from Monaghan is a documentary that was broadcast last summer on RTE Radio One. This post isn't placed here to mark a grand anniversary or make a bold statement. It is simply a poignant documentary about a remarkable individual and one of the several thousand people who have now sadly been forgotten about. Click here to listen to it on the RTE website.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

"Belfast is my kinda town!"

Yesterday I received an e-mail from a good friend of my mine. It was entitled: "Apparently this is real." Nothing much to get excited about, I thought. Probably just another doctored YouTube video featuring Trevor McDonald saying 'bastard' live on air or something along those lines. Nothing but nothing could have prepared me for what was to follow.

I had, I must admit, completely forgotten about the existence of Captain Planet. Not my favourite cartoon of all time (Transformers was my preferred choice of animated entertainment as a nipper) Ted Turner's poor old eco-warrior-cum-superhero, who it should be pointed out preceded Swampy by quite a number of years, was largely neglected by my generation. Who knows, things could have been different for Captain Planet if he had appeared today instead of in 1990. Perhaps he could have ridden alongside David Cameron when he was being towed by those huskies around the Arctic Circle on that Conservative Party ecology awareness trip. Or maybe, as would be more likely, it still would have been shite.

What my good comrade's e-mail actually directed me to was a clip entitled 'Captain Planet saves Belfast'. To be honest, if you aren't from these islands and would like to know more about the Irish question I wouldn't really advise you to use this as a starting point. If you want a quick laugh though I really can't think of anything better. Basically the story surrounds Sean O'Reilly (Taig) and Stuart Cooper (Prod) and their sectarian turf war. Along the way you will discover the real reasons behind the conflict, the solution (it involves a bakery) and the fact that the IRA actually had in their possession nuclear weaponry. I'll leave you to discover the ingenious dialogue for yourself, but here's one little taster:
Stuart: I'm Stuart Cooper.

Sean: A Protestant name if I ever heard one.

Stuart: On this side of the line Sean you should use a loyal sounding name, like John. It'd be safer.

Unidentified Planeteer: You gotta be kidding? You beat each other up because of your names?

Stuart: It's as good a reason as any.
What a succinct analysis of the reasons behind the troubles - it was all down to the fact that we didn't like each others names.

OK, I discovered a few minutes ago that Jett Loe has already featured this on Letter to America but this little gem needs all the publicity it can get so I've decided to follow his example. Unfortunately I realise eighties cartoons have long become the property of the E4 generation. Ironic students can spend hours each day watching DVD boxsets of Masters of the Universe in the BA Baracus t-shirt they bought in Topshop. I have no doubt as I speak Captain Planet saves Belfast is currently been viewed on laptops on the beds of halls of residence in university campuses around the country. Oh well. So what. Here you go:

Looking back at it now, I suppose it wasn't as bad as The Devil's Own.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Police and thieves

There has been a lot of reaction in the past couple of days to Nuala O'Loan's report that some RUC officers in the nineties and early part of this decade colluded with a loyalist paramilitary unit based in north Belfast in a series of murders and other serious crimes.

First of all, I'm not really surprised and neither I suspect are the rest of the general public. We all know what there has been collusion so for it to be confirmed on glossy paper that a few bent cops in one area of Belfast were involved in some dastardly deeds with the UVF doesn't come as a particular shock. Of course there was an overlap between state forces and terrorists at the other end of the spectrum. Most people now accept that there was a degree of collusion between certain members of An Garda Síochána and the Provisional IRA, especially in relation to the murder of two senior RUC officials on the county Armagh border in 1989. And let us not forget the little helping hand provided by some senior Irish government figures in setting up the Provos in the early days of the conflict.

I'm not going to go into a historical review of collusion. I do not have the time for that. Instead, I'm just a little let down by the response of the great bulk of unionism to the Mrs O'Loan's document. It is a common trait in Northern Irish politics to oppose anything that may give the other side a single iota of satisfaction, even if the moral thing to do would be the opposite. Remember the Bloody Sunday Inquiry? A necessary move to bring closure to one of the worst cases of state murder in the history of the United Kingdom? Well, as nationalists could be perceived as being the beneficiary of the inquiry unionists have generally viewed it as a waste of time and money. On the other hand, take the awarding of the George Cross to the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Surely a fitting formal tribute to those men and women who suffered greatly during the years of violence - more than three hundred dead and thousands more wounded. The move was heavily criticised by nationalist and republican politicians at the time.

In the case of Monday's report into the activities of the police in north Belfast, the reaction has once again been predictable. Nationalists obviously welcomed it, but given the serious offences being levelled against the old RUC in this you would think that unionists would at least express some kind of concern. Not exactly. They knew what this was all about. This was just another example of the government yielding to the demands of Sinn Fein/IRA. Take the moderate Ulster Unionist representative Fred Cobain for instance: "The UUP is concerned that we are creating a one sided so called truth commission. Who, for example, is investigating the conspiracies and sabotage of republicans during this period? A time must come when this community draws a line under past events. Regrettably there will never be full justice for all." I do partially agree with Fred. We do need to draw a line in the sand and move on, but when something this damning lands on your desk it surely a politician must do more than 'raise questions'.

And should we really take this to be the 'sop' that the DUP and UUP are making it out to be? I don't believe this is a concession to the republican movement. If anything this is probably the very last thing Gerry Adams and co need as they tour Ireland attempting to get their grassroots (or "republican underclass" as David Vance so affectionately calls them in his one-man crusade to rid Ulster of political correctness) to back the new Police Service of Northern Ireland - a grassroots that contains many who question whether or not the PSNI is really the 'new beginning' which the party leadership is suggesting. In fact (apart from the SDLP whose opinion appears to be becoming less important with every minute that passes) this report was hardly welcomed with open arms from anyone. Unionism has rubbished it. Republicanism doesn't really know what to say, at least not until the Ard Fheis ends.

So who were the people who died as a result of the collusion cited by the Police Ombudsman? Sinn Fein officials? IRA members? Well, not exactly. All of the victims had quite different backgrounds, different jobs, different religions. Their only common bond was probably the fact that all of them were innocent. Here are a few of them. Sharon McKenna, a Catholic girl shot in the back as she made dinner at the home of an elderly relative. Raymond McCord, a Protestant and someone who served in Her Majesty's forces through the Royal Air Force. Gary Convie and Eamon Fox, Catholic workmen murdered in a sectarian gun attack. Tommy English, a member of the loyalist Ulster Democratic Party who was shot and killed in October 2000. The Reverend David Templeton, a Presbyterian clegyman, beaten to death at his home in Newtownabbey.

Most unionists could not bring themselves - to put in basic sectarian terms - to welcome a report that highlighted police collusion in the muders of members of 'their own community'. Far better that the grave injustice against the McCord family who raised this issue in the first place continue unrecognised than to possibly give the Shinners an evening of gloating on the local news. Pathetic. How grown up is our political mainstream? How 'fit for government' are any of our parties when the highlighting of wrongdoing is met not with condemnation but 'what aboutery'?

We haven't reached a point yet in Northern Ireland where our leaders are sufficiently mature enough to recognise the injustices suffered by those caught on the other side of the conflict. Unionists refuse to accept that collusion existed in the police and army to any great extent beyond perhaps the odd reference to the said institutions containing a 'few bad apples'. Nor has the unionist establishment been able to fully accpet that the system of government in Northern Ireland that existed between 1920 and 1972, while not the apartheid South Africa scenario that Sinn Fein like to portray, neither was it fair and democratic in the way that most Europeans would view the terms. Nationalists have their own baggage. Sinn Fein for instance still feel that the Provisional IRA campaign was justified, that it was somehow a war of liberation. Neither do they seem too keen on opening the potential can of worms on collusion between republicans and Garda officers. There is also the small matter that nationalists in general still tend to see themselves as victims of the conflict. That they were the oppressed. Unionists and the British government were the oppressors.

There has been much talk down through the peace process years of a South African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission for the province but nothing has come out of it. The likelihood is that in the interests of peace we will quietly sweep everything under the carpet and follow the example of Spain which in the wake of Franco's four decade dictatorship decided to adopt what was termed 'the pact of silence' - basically in the interests of national unity a Basil Fawlty-esque 'don't mention the war' policy. That sounds like a very apt path for Northern Ireland: it won't cost any money, won't demand any imagination or leadership and will neatly let another generation grow up learning their own unique history based upon myth, rumour and sectarianism. Sure what could possibly go wrong with that?

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Craig who?

Billy Bragg doesn't change much. The dodgy shirts are still part of his act. The guitar remains the same. The haircut hasn't changed, though more than a little bit of greyness has crept in during the past few years. However, Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards is a song that has undergone a number of lyrical metamorphoses in the passage of time. This is the latest example here. It's taken from the Craig Ferguson Show (no, I don't know who he is either) on CBS in the United States and comes complete with up-to-date references to Donald Rumsfeld, Hugo Chavez and even YouTube. Enjoy:

Monday, January 22, 2007

"Monday's bombs exploded in the Haraj market, which sells second-hand clothing and DVDs…"

I see the Iraqi 'resistance' have struck yet another blow for the liberation of their country. Seventy-five civilians were killed and one hundred and sixty others injured in a double car bombing this morning in Baghdad. The target this time was a crowded market near the centre of the city packed with shoppers. A few days ago a similar number of civilians were killed in a suicide bomb attack on that great symbol of the Anglo-American occupation, the Mustansiriyah University of Baghdad.

But remember all ye who may dare to criticise: Washington and London are the enemies for those of us on the left. Islam is "overwhelmingly the religion of the poor", isn't it Mr Rees? The fact of course that the majority of Muslims don't support the fascist clique trying to 'free' them doesn't really matter. We shouldn't question the 'resistance' or be put off by the tactics that they use.

Should we?

Sunday, January 21, 2007

"If it's not a correct policy, it's a wrong one."

Every now and again you rediscover something from your past. This is what happened to me a few days ago when I stumbled upon La Chinoise, Jean-Luc Godard's 1967 film about four young Maoist students holed up in a Parisienne apartment. I had excitedly bought the movie a couple of years back when it came out on DVD but, as far as I know, never actually got round to watching it. Maybe I didn't want to watch it too much in case I ruined it. I remembered that the film was good - I just forgot how good.

Speak the name of Godard in most circles and you'll usually be met with a chorus of incessant eulogizing for films like Breathless and Week End, which is understandable. Both films are masterpieces. However, while not one of his more celebrated productions, La Chinoise remains one of those films that I would gladly rescue from a burning building. The first time I saw it was back in my student days. It was mind blowing. I remember going to the university library and trying to track down some reading on the film, only to subsequently find that very little existed. I scoured the internet for more on the movie, but to no avail. What I did read was, much to my bewilderment, mixed. Some viewed it as an example of the director foreseeing the turmoil which would sweep France less than twelve months following its release; others just thought of it as flawed. A lot of viewers (particularly some of the nauseating 'dudes' on IMDB) find some of Godard's films inaccessible due to his liking of turning standard cinematic narrative on its head. If you do happen to find La Chinoise hard to follow though, you'd be better advised not to go anywhere near some of the work by the Dziga Vertov Group.

I'm not going to dwell too much on the politics of the movie. Nor am I going to dwell too much on Godard - if you want to read about the man from the point of view of a real expert read some of Colin MacCabe's work on the man, particularly Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy. What I simply want to show you is this - the Mao song. Below is the trailer for La Chinoise. Godard's trailers were often more interesting than most directors movies. This is no different. The song will, I hope, remain in your head for the rest of the day.

La Chinoise is forty years old this year. If you haven't seen it yet do yourself a favour and mark the occasion by getting hold of it. It's only a fiver on a website sharing its name with a large South American rainforest. Go on. You won't be disappointed.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

All you Fascists bound to lose

Fascism has a new face. Well, not exactly. But while they may not be advocating ethnic cleansing or the abolition of parliamentary democracy, Celebrity Big Brother's dim-witted threesome of Danielle Lloyd, Jo O'Meara and Jade Goody have probably - thankfully most would say - destroyed their careers as a result of their actions during the course of the past seven days.

It would an error if I were to let this week pass without mentioning the topic which everyone has been talking about. Now I know everyone you will have spoken to over the past few days will have said this before every conversation on the subject, but I do not watch Big Brother. Honest. I just happen to know a lot about it. In fact, the programme's summer incarnation still doesn't interest me. Watching 'ordinary' people scratch their arse during July and August doesn't really do much for me, but each to their own. On the other hand, watching George Galloway hijack the capitalist media machine to generate publicity for Respect's revolutionary agenda while shrewdly pretending to be a cat was one cause to drop my BB embargo and indulge in a guilty pleasure that I must admit a certain amount of shame in. Fair enough, when I didn't recognise the majority of this years celebrities (coming to the conclusion that either I was totally out of touch with popular culture or else Channel 4 were having a spot of bother attracting real celebs after George's mortifying experience last year) I didn't really take much notice. Then the 'racism thing' started.

Shilpa Shetty (pictured above) is a not unattractive 31 year old Indian actress. She has starred in dozens of films in her native country. She can speak eight languages. She has a black belt in karate. She has been a campaigner for AIDS charities and PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). She's single too, as Dirk Benedict has certainly noticed. It's also probably safe to say she's not stuck for a few quid. Aside from that she's also quite a good mannered lass. No swearing or bad language or dirty talk - she even refuses to say the word 'sex'. Let's face it, as getting offended by people goes I would hazard a guess that it must surely be pretty difficult to get upset by this girl.

Still, three girls who have now come to represent the unacceptable face of the white English working class managed to get affronted by her poor culinary skills and subsequently all hell let loose. For those of you not really up-to-date with these celebrities I'll give you a quick run down: Jade Goody (was on 'Big Brother' a few years ago and is famous for being stupid), Danielle Lloyd (had sex with a Premiership footballer last year and is now famous for being even stupider than Jade Goody) and Jo O'Meara (an ex-pop star with the band S Club 7 and is famous for not being as good as Rachel Stevens). They stand accused of numerous racist comments to Shilpa Shetty. What has really struck me is the fact that not one of the three girls seem to keep in mind the fact that they are on live television 24 hours a day making the most hideous remarks about the traditions and people of India. Still, here's a little sample of the comments Ms Shetty has had to endure:

* "She's a dog." Danielle Lloyd

* "I wish she'd fuck off back home." Danielle Lloyd

* "You don't know where her hands have been." Danielle Lloyd

* "Go back to the slums." Jade Goody

* "No wonder I keep getting the shits." Jo O'Meara (regarding Indian food)

* "She can't even speak English properly." Danielle Lloyd

* "They eat with their hands in India, don't they - or is that China?" Danielle Lloyd

* "She wants to be white." Danielle Lloyd

I must admit that I am actually surprised that Jade Goody has borne the brunt of the public anger. If you ask me Danielle Lloyd's comments have been much more odious. In fact, in an interview with the 'Independent' newspaper last year Miss Great Britain gave her enlightening views on immigration: "If I was (a politician), I'd get more people into work and stop people coming into the country. There's so many people who come into England because they know they can get benefits. People who already live here should get the jobs."

Good lord. If that is anything to go by Simone Clarke may have to move aside as the BNP's top celebrity recruit.

Add to all of this the countless mimicking of Indian accents, a comment that Indians are thin because of the way they cook their food and the allegation that the term 'Paki' was said on the show only to be removed by Channel 4 (the broadcaster denies this) and you have a full blown national crisis. It shouldn't be a surprise that famous people - even incredibly stupid ones - can be racist, though it appears that some people are shocked by this revelation. The show now holds the record for the number of complaints registered about a show in British television history - it had exceeded 36,000 at the last count. It has also triggered demonstrations in India in which effigies of Channel 4 producers were burned. Like some odd ethnically segregated council estate, the Big Brother House has now been partitioned into a 'foreign wing' (Shilpa, Dirk Benedict and Jermaine Jackson) and an 'indigenous wing' (the three girls and some other guy who hardly one seems able to identify).

This isn't, as some people would like to believe, an example of soft or easily offended liberal lefties making a whole fuss over nothing. Tony Blair has condemned it. David Cameron has condemned it. Gordon Brown has condemned it. Extraordinarily, Gordon even reckoned the UK should redeem itself and vote to evict Jade in the public phone poll on Friday. Even the 'Sun', that bastion of informal bigotry, has condemned it. Sara Nathan, the paper's TV Editor, has said that Channel 4 cannot turn a blind eye to what is taking place. On Thursday the Carphone Warehouse, the company which sponsors Big Brother and Celebrity Big Brother, has suspended its sponsorship of the programme.

It restores my faith in the general public that a fuss is being made over this issue. We should not just combat racism when it manifests itself in an extreme form, such as with racist attacks or the British National Party. It is so-called 'casual racism' that is the real threat in society. 'Casual racism'. That inoffensive form of racism. Some would even say a cornerstone of British culture, a hallmark of traditional British humour alongside Carry On style sexism and homophobia. The Benny Hill Show, remember it? That was good old best-of-British humour until the politically correct brigade smashed it in the eighties. And Bernard Manning too. And It Ain't Half Hot Mum. And various other programmes and acts that felt racism and entertainment could go hand-in-hand. How many people out there still believe that 'Paki' is an acceptable term to use as long as it is used in the context of 'banter'?

So, when Jade Goody refers to Shilpa Shetty as 'Shilpa fucking poppadom' she deserves to be savaged for it. No, Jade probably doesn't vote BNP. She probably does have friends who are from different cultures and backgrounds than she is. She probably isn't racist, but her remarks clearly were. To ignore these comments is to give racism the space to breed and we cannot allow that. Even more tragic is the fact that Jade and her two sidekicks are actually influential to a certain segment of impressionable teenagers in this country and that surely provides us with another reason to highlight what has gone on.

If anything positive can come out of this whole wretched debacle it might be that people will at least realise just how crass and passé racism of the type seen this week actually looks when laid bare. It is very easy to condemn the Nick Griffins of this world but it is much more difficult to recognise the danger posed by what some would see as acceptable joking. Racism: it's not big - and if Jade, Jo and Danielle are anything to go by - it certainly isn't all that clever.

UPDATE: Since this was written Jade Goody was voted out of Celebrity Big Brother, receiving an enormous 82% of the vote. Justice?

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Oban, 'student-types' and mediterranean vegetables

A couple of days ago I came across the BNP leader Nick Griffin's surreal attempt at being a blogger. The Chairman's Column (as Nick has imaginatively named it) is a strange mix of musings which includes narrow minded racism of a distinctly British type, holidays in Scotland and food. In an entry for December Griffin informs us of his recent visit north of the border:
"We stop in the little port of Oban on the way back. Even there I'm recognised - with comments by a dappy but slightly inebriated old gent who assures me that he is going to be world famous soon and that he has already screwed the Royal Bank of Scotland for a very large sum of money. He is very pro-BNP…"
I love the 'even there I'm recognised' line. Does Griffin actually think that being spotted in the western isles of Scotland is something we're going to be impressed by? He then he even tells us that the one BNP supporter he has managed to find on his trip is an elderly drunk talking a load of shite. Really Nick, you should keep these things to yourself. Better is to come though:
"…the barman's student-type mate…hisses 'fascists' as I pay the bill. The silly thing is that if he actually took the trouble to find out what we really stand for he'd probably agree with most of it."
Or to put it another way, even in the arsehole of nowhere people still hate him. I'd also love to know how Griffin reckons the guy would agree with most of the BNP's policies. Did he say he was a Respect supporter? And what does "student-type mate" acutally mean? Not content with telling us about what he did on holiday, the Führer also reckons we need to know what he ate over Christmas by publishing his yuletide menu - which includes such traditional British dishes as pizzas, paella, meditarranean vegetables and chillis.

I am not usually accustomed to providing the British National Party with publicity so I won't defile my own blog by posting the address of Griffin's website here. If you really could be bothered reading about the eating habits of a fascist you can find it for yourself. Don't try and leave a comment on the blog though. The chairman does not permit debate.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Wish you were on the N17? (N.B. This article is in no way connected to the Galway-Sligo road)

If November 17 were the Beatles then we can without a doubt say that Revolutionary Struggle is the Monkees. For those of you who may have forgotten, November 17 were a pseudo Marxist terrorist organisation in Greece who from the mid seventies through to 2002 carried out a campaign of assassinations, shootings and bombings against US and British targets as well as the occasional murders of members of the Greek bourgeoisie. Astoundingly, the tiny group escaped for over three decades without one member being charged with any offences until in 2002 nineteen members were rounded up following a botched bomb attack on a shipping company. Those arrests put them out of business for good.

Now it appears someone has noticed a gap in the market for a new ultra left, part-time Greek terrorist group. I say part-time because both Revolutionary Struggle and their predecessors in N17 really only carried out an attack once a year or so. Almost all of RS's attacks have used homemade explosives. Before today their most famous attack was a failed assassination attempt on the country's Culture Minister. However, this morning they managed to surpass themselves and fire a rocket into a third floor toilet at the US embassy in Athens (post your own joke if you wish).

Like the former UDA member Michael Stone's frankly embarrassing attempt to wipe out the Sinn Fein leadership at the Northern Ireland Assembly a few weeks ago (he got stuck in the door on the way into the building) some people just don't seem to be able to know when a war has ended. Or perhaps Revolutionary Struggle is really just an organisation set up to carry out attacks so bad that they end up making November 17 look good.

Maybe it could be that the central committee of Revolutionary Struggle hold the answers in life. And maybe I missed that part in The State and Revolution where Lenin reckoned that capitalism can only be overthrown when the US ambassador has nowhere left to shit.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

There is no alternative

John Maynard Keynes once said that difficulty lies not in new ideas but in escaping the old ones. When President Bush announced his plans yesterday for a new strategy in Iraq I wondered which old ideas the White House were now attempting to jettison. As it transpired, the new 'ideas' were not exactly ideas as such and the aims still remain the same. What the announcement indicates is a beefing up of the American operation and a redoubling of efforts to create a fully functioning democratic state.

The new plan includes sending more than 20,000 extra troops into Iraq. The majority of the extra manpower is to be concentrated on securing Baghdad and clamping down on the sectarian death squads, with some 4,000 earmarked for deployment in the Anbar province to counter al-Qaeda's movements in the region. In addition, the President has spoken of the need for the Iraqi government to be able to take control of all Iraq's provinces by November. $11 billion will also be made available for reconstruction and the creation of jobs, something which is just as crucial to winning the peace as putting down the insurgency. The suggestion by the Iraq Study Group to engage with Iran and Syria has been ignored. It is abundantly clear that the United States want results and with the unveiling of these new steps they expect them sooner rather than later.

What is striking about the announcement, and indeed something which appears to signal a departure from what had been the norm, is the determination to get the job done in the short term. Whereas the previous answer to the question of how long troops would stay in Iraq tended to be 'as long as it takes us to complete our task', President Bush now believes that "America's commitment is not open-ended". Listening to the man who led America to war four years ago one got the sense that 2007 will be the make or break year for the US in Iraq. He certainly did not mince his words during the televised speech. He acknowledged responsibility for the mistakes made so far and said that the progress made was "unacceptable". Failure, he stated, would be "a disaster for the United States" and to "step back" is not an option.

The reaction to these developments has been mixed. Margaret Beckett spoke for the British side when she gave it a welcome while the Democrats, who now control the US Senate and sense victory in next year's presidential election, have accused Bush of sending out the wrong message. What is odd about the plans is that they appear to clash with the ideas put forward by David Petraeus, the man soon to be commander of the American forces in Iraq. As the BBC's Paul Reynolds has pointed out, while President Bush's new strategy is based on bringing around positive signs of change in the coming months Petraeus openly favours the implementation of a long-term counterinsurgency strategy.

It is about a year since I gave up on the anti-war movement in Ireland, now little more than a ragbag group of ultra left sects. I marched with almost 20,000 citizens in Belfast on February 15th 2003 on the eve of war. It seems like an aeon ago today. The last demo against the war I saw in the city attracted less than 200. Gone was the broad mix of genuine ordinary people who held legitimate concerns about the future - the Quakers for Peace, the mothers and fathers pushing their kids in their prams, the annoying eternally ironic students with their 'Make Tea Not War' posters. All that was left from that day was the usual suspects trying to get us to buy some poorly produced newspapers littered with the usual grammatical errors.

I believed then, as I believe now, in the primacy of international law and the vital role that has to be played by the United Nations in the world. Yet much has changed since that time and a choice now has to be made: to support the plans for the building of democracy (which I accept are not perfect by any means) or leave.

In the past few days I have found myself in the peculiar position of agreeing with none other than John McCain. McCain, the Republican Party senator for Arizona, said recently that there was no point in having one foot in Iraq and another out of it - the United States and their allies must pull out all the stops to achieve their goal. I concur. Although many on the broad democratic left will no doubt find this distasteful there is in truth no other alternative at this stage. Withdrawal is simply not an option.

The demand by the Stop the War Coalition, the Irish Anti War Movement and others on the extreme left for an immediate pull out of American and British troops is idiotic. It is the easy position to assume, a cop out. To believe that Iraq would suddenly settle down to a peaceful future once the last foreign soldier departed is preposterous and shows a complete misunderstanding of the situation. The likely result of a departure would be civil war on an even greater scale than at the moment followed by an eventual slide back to dictatorship - the only question this time would be as to whether it would be a Baathist-style dictatorship or a more Islamic brand of tyranny.

There is only one realistic option. To put down the insurgency that wants so much to propel Iraq back into the dark ages, to crush the other militias and sectarian death squads and to stand behind the vast majority of people in Iraq who want to live in a peaceful, democratic society. In other words, to support Bush and Blair.

Some on the left may feel uncomfortable being on the same side as George W. Bush. Some, with greater foresight than others such as myself, took the leap long ago. It is only natural that progressives will feel ill at ease when aligning themselves with someone such as Bush, but then didn't many left-wingers also stand with Churchill, Roosevelt and Truman in the war against fascism? Did Aneurin Bevan forfeit his claim to be a socialist when he called on Chamberlain's removal and declared that Winston Churchill be named Prime Minister? Didn't Marxists in the Spanish Civil War stand side shoulder to shoulder with conservative Basque nationalists to fend off Franco's army? And haven't those democratic socialists who opposed Stalinism in the Cold War been judged right by history? It is time for us all to stand by the popular front of today and help give the Iraqi people the life they deserve.

A couple of days back I happened to stumble upon the words spoken by Tony Blair back on that famous day almost four years ago when millions of people across the world marched to oppose the war. Much of what Blair said had nothing to do weapons of mass destruction or alleged links between Saddam's regime and al-Qaeda. It had to do with getting rid of dictatorship. Perhaps this should have been the auspices under which the war was fought. How many more people would have supported the war if it had been a war to bring democracy to Iraq rather than a war to supposedly 'disarm' Saddam Hussein? The words of the British Prime Minister:

"As you watch your TV pictures of the march, ponder this: if there are 500,000 on that march, that is still less than the number of people whose deaths Saddam has been responsible for. If there are one million, that is still less than the number of people who died in the wars he started. Ridding the world of Saddam would be an act of humanity. It is leaving him there that is in truth inhumane."

Is there anyone out there that would disagree with that last sentence?

Friday, January 12, 2007

Signs of progress in the Middle East… no really!

I was surprised to see so little time devoted to Khaled Meshaal's announcement a couple of days back that he now viewed the state of Israel as a "reality". The exiled leader of Hamas said that he felt that the "problem is not that there is an entity called Israel. The problem is that the Palestinian state is non-existent". It is true that a fair dose of hardline rhetoric was thrown in by Meshaal to match this supposed softening of the group's official position, but it is a small sign. There's more about this story on the RTE website.

And in another small sign Raleb Majadele, an Arab Muslim, has been appointed as science and technology minister in the Israeli cabinet. Not all are happy though. A spokesperson for Yisrael Beitenu (basically the Israeli equivalent of Hamas) described the move as a "lethal blow to Zionism". Oh well, you can't please everyone. More about this on. You see. Maybe there is hope after all.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Go West, Young Man!

I've just spotted the news on the internet that David Beckham has signed a $250 million contract to play for LA Galaxy in the United States. It isn't really a surprise after poor David suffered something of a public humiliation yesterday when Real Madrid basically said they would not be requiring his services any longer. It was confirmed today that he will leave the Spanish capital at the end of June.

Fair play to the Yanks though. This really is the first big signing for 'soccer' in the USA. In the seventies and eighties they attracted Pele and George Best to play in the old North American Soccer League, but they were well past their best by this stage. David Beckham is only 31, still playing well and should (if Steve McLaren gets round to swallowing his pride) still be playing for England. He also should have another World Cup left in him, something which Zinedine Zidane and Luis Figo proved last summer to be not beyond a man in his mid-30s.

It will be intriguing now to see whether Beckham's move tempts other players - particularly younger players at the top of their game - to move across the Atlantic. The LA Galaxy's general manager Alexi Lalas (nowadays sans beard) claims that this is a huge step for his club and the sport in America. It is claimed that the US would like to host another World Cup at some point in the future. As well as this, the Major League Soccer of today is a world apart from the NASL of three decades ago. Attendances have been impressive for a league which is barely ten years old. The United States national team has also qualified for last five World Cups and performed well on the international stage, reaching the quarter final in 2002 and currently ranked a not too bad 31st in the FIFA World Rankings (ahead of both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland I would hasten to add). I would also imagine that there will be a lot more people in the UK, Ireland, Spain and the rest of Europe taking a keen interest in the MLS from now on so the television contract for the league could prove to be a lucrative little number.

I used to live with a couple of Americans back when I was a postgraduate student. One night, while watching a Champions League game on RTE, I asked them what they thought of soccer. They informed me that they were from Ohio and Texas respectively and that in neither state did the game enjoy much of a support base so they hadn't seen that much to be able to judge it. However, there was one player they had heard of - David Beckham. Soccer in the Lone Star State, and possibly a few other states, could be about to get a little bit bigger.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

A tragedy in more ways than one

A couple of weeks ago, when lamenting the dismal state of centre left politics in Northern Ireland, I remarked on the current problems faced by the Progressive Unionist Party. I noted that while the PUP was still in theory a party it was in reality "little more than a one man band" with party leader and sole Assembly member David Ervine being the one reason for its continued existence. I did not expect that the accuracy of my statement would be tested so soon.

David Ervine died on January 8th and with him, it is probably safe to say, political loyalism has died too. In the wake of his death many television and newspaper articles have tended to focus on his membership of the Ulster Volunteer Force, his experience of prison and his later achievements in bringing around the loyalist ceasefire in 1994 and building the PUP. Few seem to have touched on the fact that there does not appear to be anyone in line to take his place, and that is a tragedy in itself.

Working class loyalist politics discovered a band of very capable spokespersons around the time of the ceasefires in the mid-nineties and then over the course of a decade slowly lost them. As the Ulster Defence Association and the UVF decided that peacetime Northern Ireland would be a better place to consolidate their criminal empires rather than build new political vehicles to challenge establishment unionism, men like Gary McMichael, David Adams and Billy Hutchinson became sidelined. The Progressive Unionist MLA for East Belfast was the last man standing from this generation of loyalist politicians. It is for this reason that the death of the man is tragic on two levels - one personal, one political.

There is no need for me to write another obituary for David Ervine. The newspapers over the past couple of days have been filled with them. But as Northern Ireland moves closer to an agreed sectarian carve-up based on some messy little series of trade-offs between the DUP and Sinn Fein, we can at least look back to David Ervine as someone who had the imagination to see things not as they are but as they could be. The following is an example of the type of imagination that we desperately need:

"We have got to extend the hand of friendship, we have got to take the peacelines down brick by brick, and somehow or other we have got to introduce class politics. The politics of division see thousands of people dead, most of them working-class, and headstones on the graves of young men. We have been fools: let's not be fools any longer."
If only.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

The mutts are alright

It hasn't been a good week if you happen to be a dog. The death of five year old Ellie Lawrence in Merseyside after she was attacked by a pit bull terrier has brought with it the usual chorus of belated promises from politicians and the police to get tough on dangerous dogs. Even my good self hasn't managed to escape the subsequent fear of the more unsavoury breeds of canine. My early morning walk to work always takes me past a man walking his two pit bulls along the Dublin Road and in recent mornings I have been, to coin a phrase, touching cloth on all occasions.

On a slightly more positive note, the moderately talented Lily Allen has got her dog back. Maggie May is an English Bull Terrier, a remarkably ugly creature but legal nonetheless (that's the dog), and was abducted on December 28 by what Jane Hayes of the Dog Lost website reckoned were an east London gang "stealing dogs for organised dog fights" or by people who sell dogs in pubs "looking quick money for drugs."

You learn something new every day.

Friday, January 05, 2007

So, there is a peace process more disastrous than Northern Ireland's

You may have missed it, coming as it did in that twilight zone between Christmas Day and New Year's Eve, but the peace process in Spain has been dealt a severe blow. In a sad and unanticipated development last Saturday the Basque separatist group ETA detonated a van bomb at Madrid Barajas International Airport killing two civilians, injuring twenty six others and demolishing the car park building at Terminal 4. Just a few weeks earlier ETA had announced that the ceasefire it had declared on March 22nd 2006 was in danger of being terminated as a result of the Spanish government refusing to initiate confidence building measures such as transferring political prisoners to jails in the Basque region and halting arrests and trials of people suspected of paramilitary activity.

I'm not an admirer of ETA and neither is seems are the Basque people. While they may favour increased autonomy within Spain and are undoubtedly proud of the history and culture, the citizens of the region are not in any mood to make a complete break from Madrid and have frequently expressed their opposition to the so-called 'armed struggle' at the polls. However, we know from our experience here in Northern Ireland what happens when a peace process gets bogged down. In 1996 the IRA ceasefire temporarily broke down for what they cited as a lack of movement on prisoners issues and the convening of all-party talks. Once things were put back on track the following year - primarily, though not solely, due to the election of a Labour government in London - we saw the beginning of a talks process which culminated with the Good Friday Agreement, and while things may not still be running smoothly, in the years since then we have at least achieved peace.

I sincerely hope that José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero does not choose to head down the same road as his predecssor, the right-wing Popular Party leader José María Aznar, who is widely considered to have squandered the chance for peace by refusing to properly engage with ETA following their 1998 ceasefire. Aznar's greatest folly, in my opinion, was the outlawing of ETA's political wing Herri Batasuna. A Basque equivalent of Sinn Fein, it was Batasuna which surely provided the future vehicle for radical Basques to pursue their poltical goals peacefully. To be fair to Zapatero, he wasn't given much of a chance to constructively engage with ETA. He only announced in June that he would be open direct talks with the organisation - just three months after the cessation. Now, after just nine months of a supposedly "permanent ceasefire" all contacts have been broken off.

What happens next is anyone's guess. ETA is making strange claims that the bomb attack in Madrid is not a breach of its truce. Though with this the second breakdown of one of their ceasefires in eight years and a 100kg car bomb seized near Bilbao yesterday it appears that any hopes for a lasting peace in the short term are very poor indeed. The mixed messages being sent out by ETA are bizarre to say the least - on the one hand claiming their ceasefire is intact, on the other hand bombing Spain's main airport and attempting to carry out another car bombing. Have hardliners taken control of the organisation? Is this an attempt by the moderate leadership to keep hardliners onboard and prevent a split? Is this a temporary breakdown or the commencement of a new campaign? Exactly what does the socialist administration in Madrid mean when it says that it is "more determined than ever" to bring violence in the country to an end?

There is no doubt about how the conflict is going to end: peaceful accommodation. The question is when is it going to end and how many more civilians are going to be killed before a settlement is eventually reached.

ETA cannot realistically believe that they can bomb Madrid into to giving up their claim to the Basque country. They must realise that if they are ever to achieve their goal of independence then it can only come via the same path trodden by their comrades in the Irish Republican movement as well as by nationalists in neighbouring Catalonia and in other areas of Europe, such as Scotland.

Equally, for all of his rhetoric about stamping out terrorism in the wake of the bombing of December 30th Zapatero is shrewd enough to realise that ETA cannot be defeated simply by using the security apparatus of the Spanish state. For all of their activities they are not a mere 'criminal gang' but part of a popular movement. In the 1980s members of the Spanish government carried out one of the most shameful episodes in the history of any modern European democracy and set up a paramilitary force, GAL (Anti-Terrorist Liberation Groups), to murder members and supporters of the separatist movement. Following several years of shootings, bombings and assassinations (most of which, astonishingly, took place within the borders of France) GAL achieved nothing except sully the then fledging Spanish democracies reputation in the eyes of the world. Throughout the conflict Herri Batasuna was always able to achieve a vote of between 10% and 15% - a sizeable minority. When that is added to the vote garnered by the constitutional PNV party it is clear that Basques like the idea of some kind of independence, but not the idea of violence. Any accommodation will have to include the ending of the ban on the HB.

On the upside, the basis for an agreement is still good. With a majority of Basques in favour of peace, a majority of Spaniards in favour of talks with ETA and a PSOE administration in the Cortes things in one sense couldn't be better. Yet the ceasefire must be restored and moves have to be made as soon as possible by Madrid to build confidence in the process, and in doing so withstand the predictable torrent of criticism which would come from Aznar about 'pandering to terrorism'. Perhaps a few fact-finding missions to our neck of the woods would be worthwhile. Both sides could share their experiences of never-ending state of political catastrophe and inept leadership and have a few state funded piss-ups in hotel bars of Dublin and Belfast. I was in Spain twice last year; a trip to Barcelona early in the year and a break in the Basque country during the autumn. I'd be more than happy to return the hospitality shown towards me to the affable Iberian diplomats. As confidence building measures go they could do worse.

This morning the body of the second man missing from Saturday's bombing was discovered by rescue workers. He was, like the other victim, an Ecuadorian man who had moved to Spain. His name was Diego Armando Estacio. He was 19 years old. The other man killed was 35 year old Carlos Alonso Palate. Both men were trapped under the estimated 40,000 tonnes of rubble that had fallen as a result of the bombing. Their names are now added to the list of more than eight hundred people murdered by ETA since they started their campaign in the sixties. Most people reading this will struggle I'm sure to name one of those eight hundred or so people.

Would it be too much to ask that they are the last?

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Not much pride in Belfast

Back at the beginning of December members of the Scottish Parliament approved a bill that had been put forward by Roseanna Cunningham of the Scottish National Party allowing same-sex couples to adopt children. The Adoption and Children (Scotland) Bill was passed almost without one voice of dissension. Even the Tories were on board. The education spokesman for the party, Lord James Douglas-Hamilton, was in favour of the move and stated that "to have discrimination against a whole group is not in accordance with the spirit of the 21st century." It signaled a step forward for gay rights in the United Kingdom and yet another impressive act by the Scottish Parliament, a body rapidly becoming a beacon for progressive politics.

Fast forward four days and switch your focus to the other side of the Irish Sea and the Northern Ireland Assembly. If Holyrood has proven itself to be a beacon of progress then Stormont has come to represent a beacon of... well, nothing. If the seemingly perpetual political crisis continues here for another twelve months (and after four hundred years of sectarian wrangling in Ireland you wouldn't want to bet against it) the Assembly could possibly have been around for a whole decade without actually doing anything. Actually, if you read below you may want to start praying for the continuation of Direct Rule. On December 11 the Assembly convened to discuss the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006. Now let's not kid ourselves, this was tame stuff. This was basic equality legislation aimed at securing the rights of gays, lesbians and bisexuals in the province. If you want to read for yourself just how basic a level of rights we are dealing with here go to the OPSI website.

The debate in the chamber concerned a motion which had been brought forward by the Democratic Unionist Party condemning the legislation. The subsequent debate highlighted just how far detached some of our politicians are from contemporary democratic society. The DUP reckoned that the legislation would put Christian-owned businesses on the "wrong side of the law". For instance, imagine if a lesbian were to go into her local Christian-run painting and decorating shop to purchase a pot of Dulux and the Christian shopkeeper behind the counter wanted to refuse to sell her the said item. Prior to the Equality Act this would have been legal. Since New Year's Day that is no longer the case.

Imagine a Catholic or a Protestant being refused service in a shop here. Imagine anywhere else in 21st century Europe or North America a Muslim, a Jew, a black person or anyone from any minority community being refused goods at a counter. Someone made a point to me that any self respecting gay person would give their business and their hard earned cash to someone a bit more respectful of them, which is fair enough. But then Rosa Parks could have taken a different seat on the bus.

OK, so we've established Dr Paisley would have issues selling paint to lesbians. The next cause of concern for the DUP came from Jeffrey Donaldson. The MLA and Rt Hon Member of Parliament for Lagan Valley claimed that schools may be "liable to a harassment claim from gay pupils if they taught homosexuality was sinful." Like the Dulux scenario provided above, would this not be right and proper? Once again, imagine you were the only gay person in class of around twenty people and were sitting in class while the teacher taught that your sexual preferences would lead you to hell and eternal damnation. Doesn't seem very inclusive, does it?

Northern Ireland being the place it is means that sectarianism would have to make an appearance, even in a debate about gay rights. You can almost guarantee that when it comes to the war in Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and most other major national and international issues not linked to the question of the partition of Ireland will still cause our politicians to jump into their traditional sectarian camps. When it came to voting the Assembly was split down the middle again - 39 votes to 39 votes. Unionists were in favour of the motion. Nationalists were opposed to the motion. In fact, the vote would have been 39 in favour to 38 against only Sinn Fein managed to use the vote of the late Michael Ferguson, MLA for West Belfast, to bring make sure the vote was tied. You have to hand it to the Provos: after years of putting dead people on the voting list in constituencies across the country they have now managed to do it at the heart of government.

So, what does all this mean? Does it mean that nationalists are champions of gay rights while unionists are senseless Christian dogmatists trapped in the dark ages? Of course not (although credit must go to the SDLP for being the only mainstream political party to actually have a banner at last year's Pride parade in Belfast city centre). Only an idiot would think that it is easier to be a young gay person on the Falls Road than it is over the peace wall on the Shankill Road. In fact, gay people I know from Catholic backgrounds if anything tend to struggle more with their sexuality - in most cases keeping it secret from their family or else suffering a complete loss of contact with them altogether.

What the shambles of December 11th displayed to us was the fact that nationalists and the Alliance Party are simply meeting the basic obligations that should be expected of them in this day and age. The Ulster Unionists probably have enough progressive conservatives in their ranks to push them into the future. The DUP are a lost cause and it is our job to stand up to their hate-filled rhetoric. Northern Ireland clearly has a long way to go before it catches up with Scotland. Now that is saying something.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The more things change...

There is perhaps no more apt a way of conveying just how much of a mess Washington and London have made for themselves in Iraq than by the fact that in recent days Saddam Hussein has managed to receive something close to sympathy from people in the west who are not George Galloway.

Saddam. The butcher of Halabja. The man who launched brutal wars against Iran and Kuwait. The slaughterer of an estimated 30,000 people in the Kurdish and Shi'a rebellions of 1991. Yet, even after being at the head of one of the world's most infamous dictatorships for almost a quarter of a century, the execution of Saddam Hussein has been met with anger by many people both in Iraq and in our own part of the world. The British Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott was even pushed to describe the circumstances of the execution as "deplorable" and "totally unacceptable" when speaking on this morning's Today programme on BBC Radio 4.

I do not feel sorry for Saddam Hussein. I do regret that the man did not face an international criminal court like that which Slobodan Milošević had been brought before prior to his death. While life imprisonment would have been desirable given the current climate in Iraq, in the proper circumstances I would not have been opposed to the use of the death penalty. Some people have used the trial to bring up the age old debate about capital punishment once more but this is to misunderstand the context of what is taking place. There is a vast difference between the domestic use of the death penalty in cases of murder or rape and the utilisation of capital punishment in the case of war crimes or crimes against humanity. So, while I may not be in favour of it for common criminals, had I been alive in 1946 I doubt I would have been starting a campaign to help save Hermann Göring.

Iraq is, as we are all surely aware, in a chaotic state. Since Saddam was toppled in 2003 as many as 650,000 people may have died in the conflict there. The police and the army are thought to be heavily infiltrated by members of the so-called resistance. There are large areas of Iraq where the rule of law is meaningless and there is no doubt that if US and British forces were to withdraw then the consequences would unimaginable for a country which is already in a state of anarchy. Iraq was in no fit state to try its former ruler for war crimes. A desire for revenge on the part of the Shi'a majority is understandable after their decades of suffering but it is also the reason why Saddam Hussein should not have been tried in a Baghdad court.

What took place in the moments leading up to the execution displayed just how far away Iraq is from being normal. I don't need to repeat any of it as I am sure you will have seen it by now. But it is worth asking yourself one question: did the proceedings resemble what you would expect to see from the justice system of a fully functioning democratic society? Had the man in the picture not been Saddam Hussein would you have been able to distinguish the image of the Iraq of today from a Taleban execution in the Afghanistan of ten years ago? Had the weapon used by these faceless balaclava-clad men been a gun instead of a rope could this not have been a scene from Northern Ireland's troubles? Or perhaps bringing Iraq 'up' to the level of Northern Irish paramilitaries is seen as some kind of perverse progress by the mandarins at the White House and Downing Street.

Hasn't the media coverage of the whole execution episode been interesting too? How strange it is for we 'civilised' westerners who were so quick to slate Al-Jazeera for their broadcasting of hostage videos to now rush to our newsagents and press the red buttons on our remote controls so we can get a glimpse of a man living the last seconds of his life.

It would be nice to end my first entry of 2007 in a positive tone. Unfortunately it is virtually impossible to look at Iraq in a positive manner at the current time. What we can say is that at least the bones of a parliamentary democracy exist and now Iraqi citizens can feel assured that Saddam will definitely not be coming back. It's what exactly we have replaced him with that remains to be seen.