Monday, July 30, 2007

Footballs going home. Well, to Baghdad anyhow.

If you happen to be one of those people with a penchant for slushy, sentimental, hands across the barricades stories then you’ll no doubt have loved the reports in the media over the past 24 hours about Iraq’s victory in the final of football’s Asian Cup in Jakarta. Here’s an example from a slightly too eager Guardian hack:
“The healing power of sport has always been an objective issue. Its ability to unite people is balanced by its capacity to divide. For every winner, there has to be a loser. One man's ecstasy is another man's agony. Yet, if ever there was an argument that sport can succeed where politicians, armies and even religions may fail, then the 14th Asian Cup provided a compelling case.”
And so on and so on and so on. Yes, it was great to see the Iraqi football team beat the Saudis. And, yes, it was great to see those scenes on television this morning of the supporters cheering the victory in the streets of Baghdad. And, yes, it was made all that bit more special by the fact that so many supporters were killed in last week’s car bombing by the fascist insurgency following the semi final victory. But all that rubbish about sport uniting? Its just a bit mawkish.

Incidentally, the Iraqis should feel lucky, and I bet you never thought you’d hear that been said. Here in this part of the world we have never experienced any sort of sporting victory that has managed to unite people. Northern Gaelic football teams winning the All-Ireland? Nah. Northern Ireland reaching the World Cup quarter final? No. Ulster winning the European Cup in rugby? Certainly not. Antrim making the All-Ireland hurling final? Nope. To illustrate the depth of our sporting apartheid I can remember Gearóid O Cairealláin, supposedly a republican, writing in the now defunct Provo rag that was the Daily Ireland that he would rather see England win when they played Northern Ireland in a World Cup qualification match in Belfast two years ago (the English lost 1-0).

Congratulations Iraq. You done well. However, maybe before the qualifiers begin for the 2011 Asian Cup football’s governing bodies in the countries of this region could make another gesture to show that sport can indeed unite were politics too often divides: they can help to readmit Israel - currently playing their football in Europe due to boycott and ostracisation - to the Asian Football Confederation. Or maybe that’s just a crazy idea. Silly me.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Up north its still grim

Good news is a rarity when it comes to North Korea. Some would say any news is a rarity when it comes to North Korea. I’ve always wondered whether citizens living on the north of the peninsula are really helpless automatons totally brainwashed by decades of rigid government control and state media propaganda or if there is an active underground - large or small - where people remain in touch with the outside world by living off whatever trickle of information is open to them.

I still haven’t found the answer to my question. Now and again though you do come across the odd glimpse of hope. I recall reading a story written by a foreign journalist working inside the DPRK who was told by a young woman he got into conversation with that she knew who Britney Spears was (though some would dispute whether knowledge of Britney Spears was a display of hope or despair). On a serious note the fact that the journalist even had the chance to freely speak to a real person was astonishing; North Korea is probably the most difficult country in the world to visit and once there foreigners have a ‘tour guide’ with them at all times.

Signs of hope bereft of Britney references can be taken from this item which I found on a Korean website recently:
"It is not uncommon to see North Koreans secretly enjoying South Korean dramas, movies and pop songs. Reports have it that karaoke bars, video watching rooms and internet cafes – also known as “South Korean entertainment facilities” – which first appeared on the border adjacent to China, have popped up all across North Korea. The South Korean Wave has penetrated to North Koreans of all ages."
As always there is a ‘but’ and here it is:
"Last year in Hamgyeongnamdo (Hamkyeongnam province), 12 elementary students were charged with watching South Korean videos in a public trial. In an attempt to eradicate any anti-socialist activities, the authorities punished the students’ teacher as they were too young to take any responsibilities. The case once again illustrates the popularity of the South Korean Wave."
Imagine it: living in a country where watching a video, using a phone, having internet access, owning a radio or TV capable of picking up non-state broadcasts, even singing along to a song in a bar is considered illegal. Orwellian is a clichéd term these days and it is bandied about far too much for my liking, but this truly is the real life manifestation of 1984.

If, and it is a big if, internet cafes really have “popped up all across North Korea” then it means that far from being stranded and separate from the rest of the world some within the DPRK could actually access websites in North America, Europe and all over the planet - they could even visit yourfriendinthenorth if they so wished. And if they can obtain radios could they pick up BBC World Service? Free North Korea Radio? If they can really get hold of western films and pop music couldn’t this show the youth of the country that there is more to living than constantly praising the Dear Leader? ‘If’. Small word, big meaning.

Christopher Hitchens, one of the few westerners to have visited the Stalinist dictatorship, said a while back that North Korea was on the verge of collapse, that its existence was unsustainable. I have the utmost respect for Hitchens but I disagreed with him at the time and I still disagree with him. The very fact that we are getting excited at the prospect that ‘some’ people in the north ‘might’ be able to access the internet or watch an American movie shows how desperate the situation is there. We are light years away from a North Korean equivalent of Poland’s Solidarity movement or even for that matter something comparable to the sort of civil society we have seen emerging in a country such as Iran. If anything Tehran looks like the capital of a fully fledged democracy when set against Pyongyang.

Assuming things stay as they are in North Korea we in the West are going to have to ask ourselves a very serious question: what do we do with this country? What do we do with a nation that possesses weapons of mass destruction, that has recently tested them, that continues to threaten its neighbours, that is one of the world's most brutal dictatorships and that does not look anywhere near being close to collapse? Do we allow the state to continue building up its armaments while at the same time oppressing its people? Do we ignore them in the hope that they go away? Or do we enter immoral negotiations with the government of the DPRK permitting it to continue repressing its starving population it agrees to drop its nuclear programme? The choice with regard to Kim Jong Il is simple: we can ignore him, we can contain him or we can remove him. Personally, I choose the latter. It's about time we looked at ways of doing it.

For now the stories I've read this morning from the defectors have brightened my day up just a little bit. As the article itself states, the "day will come when the authorities will no longer be able to suppress their people’s cravings for the South Korean Wave." Let's hope that day comes sooner rather than later.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Grab it. Change it. It’s yours.

Evidence that we were doing other things in Northern Ireland in the seventies besides killing one another. Some of us even had good ideas. And good music too. While the Taigs had drunken bearded old men singing dodgy rebel ballads and the Prods had naff oul fellas in Orange sashes with younger lads dressed up in ridiculous uniforms playing in flute bands, we (for ‘we’ see ‘other’) had groups like the Stiff Little Fingers, a proper cultural guerrilla army which arose from the slums in a very dark period of Belfast’s history. They’re still doing the rounds too and, from what I’ve heard, are supposed to be still able to throw out a decent angry piece of two minute punk.

This clip of SLF playing ‘Alternative Ulster’ in 1979 was shot for a foreign TV station - I don’t know which one - and includes subtitles for those unsure of which language is being used. Even the subtitles can’t stand the intensity and they appear to burn out after forty seconds or so! Anyhow, after reading my last entry again the lyrics are still relevant nearly thirty years on. Enjoy:

Monday, July 23, 2007

What is to be done?

I should be in bed now. After all, it’s after 11pm on a Monday and ‘Newsnight’ has finished so what really is there left for me to do except grab some shut eye and accept that when I awake I’ll have to go to work and do it all over again. But no! That big daddy of all Northern Irish blogs Slugger O’Toole has drawn my attention to an article by Craigavon’s - sorry - Portadown’s finest son, Newton Emerson. Newton, a man who like me can never be labelled sectarian as he harbours a hatred of everyone, has a terrific piece in the latest issue of the ‘New Humanist’ magazine that makes for some interesting reading. Mr Emerson seems to think that a seismic shift is taking place within Ulster politics. He could be right.

I am sick of historic moments. Yes, fair enough, you would be lying if you said you weren’t even a tad impressed that time back in February when we saw Ian and Gerry sitting beside one another in Stormont firing out cliché after cliché about ‘new dawns’ and other such ‘hand of history’ nonsense. Even the eternally cynical Eamonn McCann is bound to have stopped waving his hands around and moaning about water charges for a few minutes to appreciate the spectacle from his Derry fiefdom. However, it is time to move on and I think what we need now is a good old fashioned crisis. Ever since that day several months ago when the DUP and Sinn Fein joined together in holy matrimony we’ve become bogged down. Not in the old way of getting bogged down though.

You see, I’ve always had a theory about the peace process ever since it started back in the late eighties/early nineties. A significant milestone would be followed by euphoria which would soon develop into stagnation which would then result on the whole thing falling apart and us going back to square one. Examples are plenty. The IRA ceasefire in 1994 was marked by street parties and celebrations, then things stalled for the duration of 1995, Bill Clinton came over to get things moving before the Provos got fed up and bombed Canary Wharf. The Good Friday Agreement in 1998 was greeted with near universal enthusiasm, passed in referenda north and south and then, against the backdrop of political bickering amongst the unruly natives, we were all brought back down to earth with a dissident republican bombing campaign which culminated in the murder of 29 civilians in Omagh.

The Paisley-Adams agreement has been greeted with the same elation as the IRA ceasefire and the Good Friday Agreement. This actually surprised me. After more than a decade of peace I was convinced that people here did not really care if our local representatives could reach an agreement on power sharing. To me, I got the impression that most people could take it or leave it - as long as they and their friends and family weren’t in danger of being shot going to work or blown to pieces while doing their shopping then the cretins at Stormont could do as they pleased. I was wrong. People I worked with, people I met in the pub, people who would rarely even mention politics; it seemed everyone was excited by the prospect of what only a few weeks previous would have made perfect script material for a poor BBC Northern Ireland comedy series (I don’t need to mention names). So why, you may rightfully ask, do I think we need a crisis? Because we do. We need a good kick in the ass to make us realise that things cannot continue in their present form.

The past few months have witnessed one historic moment after another. In truth, none of them should really be historic. If Northern Ireland really was an ordinary, mature democracy then the idea of two grown men sitting beside one another at a table wouldn’t really be that startling. Then again we are not ordinary, we are not mature and until recently everyone had their own definition of what constituted democracy. Nevertheless we are still wrapped up in the jubilation of the ‘new beginning for all our people’ and a side-effect of this is that nothing really seems to be happening. I mean in the political sense.

Do you want a photo opportunity? No problem there. Take your pick. What about a shot (no pun intended) of the First Minster alongside the Deputy First Minister, the latter who no doubt at some point in his previous career surely at least once mulled over the possibility of, how shall we say, removing his newfound comrade from the scene. Or how about the Regional Development minister, a former IRA bomber, chatting over tea and buns with the Enterprise, Trade and Investment minister, a man who survived an assassination attempt by - you guessed it - the IRA. Wow. We could be doing this sort of thing for a long time. Or not. You see there is only so many times the people of Northern Ireland are going to marvel at the fact that two groups of people who spent the best part of three decades trying to have the other side annihilated can now sit beside each other in the canteen at Stormont. Eventually real politics is going to have to begin, and I mean real politics. Not just power sharing. Not just cross community consensus. Not photo opportunity stuff. Real politics. One thing I can tell you for certain is that this current bunch of dimwits will never deliver such a thing.

Amongst all the usual reasons that residents here can find to get depressed about, Newton Emerson has actually found a reason to be cheerful. Oddly enough he finds it in a couple of topics I and many others have already written about. As this is Northern Ireland I’m sure you won’t find the concept of covering old ground all that strange.

Remember Gerry McGeough? OK, here’s the short version: McGeough is a former IRA gunrunner from Tyrone, arrested and imprisoned too many times to mention and subsequently looked upon for a long time by fellow republicans as a glowing example of the modern day Irish patriot. Disillusioned with the peace process, he decided that the struggle would now be best pursued by starting a magazine. Usually for a republican this would mean a leftish publication a la ‘Fourthwrite’ but not for our Gerry. He went down the bizarre path of attempting to resurrect (again no pun intended) moribund Catholic nationalism through ‘The Hibernian Magazine’ as a way of countering Sinn Fein ‘Marxism’. The results were certainly odd. Some of McGeough and his new pal’s regular targets were abortion (strange as it remains illegal on both sides of the border), multiculturalism and gay people. Newton Emerson calls Gerry McGeough’s challenge to the Provos liberal leftish policies “the first bitch slap of the new dispensation”. You see, here was a dissident republican challenging the Adams-McGuinness leadership not on their surrender to British imperialism but on their views on marriage, sexuality, immigration and a range of other areas. McGeough may be a horrible person but he had ignited some form of debate.

Now cast your mind back a few weeks to Ian Paisley Jr and his ill advised comments about “repulsive” gay people in the Dublin magazine ‘Hot Press’. As the Newt remarks:

“For almost a month the airwaves hummed to opinion and counter-opinion while motions of censure and calls for a retraction took up business in the assembly. Although the subject of the debate was infantile, the nature of the debate was revelatory. For a start it refused to yield to a sectarian split. Paisley’s remarks were admittedly indistinguishable from Vatican doctrine – a point neither Paisley nor the church cared to underscore – but that wouldn’t previously have stopped an orange/green divide emerging over a tribal politician in trouble. This time, however, the equivalence of cross-community fundamentalism was gently mocked. “Paisley – a closet Catholic?” asked a typical headline…What Northern Ireland had just experienced was its first full-on secular argument over a subject of religious contention. Northern Ireland has long been able to have secular arguments on secular subjects but it seems that a final political settlement has taken us one step further.”

Did this debate signify the birth pangs of some new kind of politics? It remains to be seen. I certainly hope so but as I’ve said before, and I’m not going to get embarrassed about repeating it again and again because it is so necessary for our future here, we need new political parties, new vehicles through which people can express themselves. Can a vote for a unionist or a nationalist ever become a vote for anything other than an expression of whereabouts you stand on the national question? Do members of unionist and nationalist parties even want this to change? Can we ever reach a level of maturity where like Scotland we can all have our own national aspirations while at the same time the realm of our politics is not contaminated by the constant overriding debate as to whether we belong inside or outside the United Kingdom? I believe we can.

Our current crop appear to think they have shown immense political ingenuity in moving away from crisis politics to power sharing but in truth this was (while no doubt brave for some) actually quite a small step and it has become clear that members of the current government here cannot even conceive of a life beyond the power sharing system. When asked if he felt the lack of an opposition at Stormont was damaging to politics here, Sinn Fein MLA Gerry Kelly remarked that there was an opposition - he was opposed to the DUP. Laugh or cry, you choose. For now there is a makeshift opposition in the Assembly composed of the eight Alliance Party, Green Party and independent MLAs that make up the United Community group. We must make do with that for now.

Political discourse in the province is certainly changing. Crucially, the climate is changing too and that will facilitate the transformation that we need. The marching season has passed yet again without any trouble. These days it isn’t even worth commenting that we had a peaceful July 12th - that’s taken as a given now. The paramilitaries have either gone away or are going. Dissidents among them have been smashed by the PSNI and Gardai. Town centres around the north have developed a much more ‘neutral’ feel to them. Even in Newton Emerson’s hometown of Portadown, once thought of as the capital of sectarianism, much has changed. Union flags and tricolours on estates have either come down or been dramatically reduced as a result of various community agreements. In one area a mural of the UVF killer Billy Wright has symbolically been replaced with a mural of George Best wearing the green of Northern Ireland. Importantly, Portadown and many other towns like it have seen large immigration from places as diverse as Portugal, Poland and Latvia. Are these new citizens and their children loyalist or republican? Certainly not. And it is extremely unlikely that any of them will ever give a damn about 1690 or 1916.

Our politics simply cannot survive in its current form indefinitely. A still resentful toleration between members of Sinn Fein and the DUP (“this is work-in not a love-in” and all that) is no alternative to reconciliation and the eradication of sectarianism. Yes, people will always want to talk about the border at some point but prepare to see the focus switch. Events that transformed the UK and Europe are only hitting here now. I never thought I’d say it about this place, but things are getting interesting. As Newton Emerson says, and he deserves the last word on this, “religion is still in the picture in Northern Ireland. But for the first time in history, it no longer frames the argument”.

Read Newton Emerson’s article at

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Can you pluck like Bungle?

I thought readers of this website had probably had enough of hearing about my opinions on Iraq and Northern Ireland, so why not switch our attentions from such burning issues to the more juvenile area of dodgy You Tube videos.

A friend of mine shown me the clip below from the old kids TV show ‘Rainbow’ a couple of years back. I’d actually forgot all about it until I came across it by accident today. I doubt - no, I know - that this innuendo ridden piece was never actually broadcast so the origins of this tomfoolery are unknown. I imagine that had British parents ever found out that this was what was going on behind the scenes at Thames Television in the 1980s then ‘Rainbow’ may not have lasted for the 23 years that it did.

Tut tut:

Thursday, July 12, 2007

No. There weren’t any questions about Bryan Ferry.

Here’s an interesting video I found on the ever-so high tech Labour:vision section of the Labour Party website today. It comes from a public debate held in London just before the Deputy Leadership election last month. All six candidates were present at the hustings when the following question was put forward by email from a Miss Lorraine Fitzsimons: what do you think the Labour Party should be doing to counter the poisonous BNP? I know it’s a bit late to be posting something from the Deputy Leadership race but it isn’t the election that really interests me in this, it’s the quality of the answers on the subject matter. Some of them are actually quite good.

Peter Hain sounded like he knew what he was talking about and as usual he didn’t let people forget about his past involvement in the anti-fascist struggle back in the 1970s. With his constituency lying next door to the BNP’s strongest area in the country, Barking, it was perhaps not surprising that the most impressive speaker was Jon Cruddas. He pointed out that this was not an “abstract” debate and stressed the importance of tackling the problems (lack of council housing, etc) that give rise to people voting for the far right. Alan Johnson put it in a historical context noting how people had rejected Oswald Mosley and the leftovers from the British Union of Fascists in the fifties and sixties because memories of the war and the Holocaust were still fresh in the memory, something which may not be true nowadays when young misinformed people are faced with a nicely suited Nick Griffin clone on their doorstep. Johnson also highlighted the importance of trade union movement both in the past and the present in fighting racism. Harriet Harman echoed some of the ideas of Cruddas; a need to counter BNP lies around housing as well as a need to rebuild the party at grassroots level and make it a “strong, vigorous, active” organisation once again. Hazel and Hilary were a tad disappointing. I’ll let you listen to them for yourself:

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Could you have helped Alex Robinson?

I got an email last week from a gentleman called Alex Robinson. Mr. Robinson is, he informs me, one of the top brass in the African Development Bank in Burkina Faso. He wrote to me to tell me about a plane crash that had occurred in which one his customers had perished. For some reason he thought I would be the perfect individual to help him out with the completion of a funds transfer. I'll let Alex explain:
"Before I introduce myself, I wish to inform you that this letter is not a hoax mail."
Did I accuse it of being one?
"This letter must come to you as a big surprise."
No shit.
"When I was searching for a foreign partner I assured of your capability and reliability to champion this business opportunity when I prayed to God or Allah about you."
I wouldn't have thought God, or Allah, would have had such a high opinion of me.
In my department we discovered an abandoned sum of $ 15 million U.S.A dollars (fifteen million U.S.A dollars) . In an account that belongs to one of our foreign customer who died along with his entire family in (Friday December 26,2003 ) in a plane crash. Since we got information about his death, we have been expecting his next of kin to come over and claim his money because we cannot release it unless somebody applies for it as next of kin or relation to the deceased as indicated in our banking guidelines, but unfortunately we learnt that all his supposed next of kin or relation died alongside with him at the plane crash leaving nobody behind for the claim. It is therefore upon this discovery that I and one official in my department now decided to make this business proposal to you and release the money to you as the next of kin or relation to the deceased for safety and subsequent disbursement since nobody is coming for it and we don’t want this money to go into the bank treasury as unclaimed bill.
Ah, I see.
"The request of foreigner as next of kin in this business is occasioned by the fact that the customer was a foreigner, and a Burkinabe cannot stand as next of kin to a foreigner. We agree that 30% of this money will be for you as foreign partner…Therefore to enable the immediate transfer of this fund to you as arranged, you must apply first to the bank as relations or next of kin of the deceased indicating your bank name, your bank account number, your private telephone and fax number for easy and effective communication and location where the money will be remitted."
Sadly I could not help Mr. Robinson. Though has he had obviously held me in such high esteem I thought I should be kind enough to reply apologising for my inability to help him:

Dear Mr. Robinson,

Apologies for not getting back to you immediately, but as you will no doubt appreciate the BBC has been offering live and uninterrupted coverage of the tennis at Wimbledon through its interactive service and I have been unable to pull myself away from it. If you ever visit the UK in late June or early July I would seriously recommend that you press the red button on your remote control where you can choose from play at a number of courts around the SW19 venue.

I was very saddened to hear of the plane crash mentioned in your email. Nevertheless I must inform you that I will be unable to help you in this venture due to the fact that I do not possess a bank account. I maintain all of my savings in a location under my mattress. While the interest rates offered are generally poor, this has been a family tradition now for centuries and I cannot foresee any changes to this in the near future.

I can, however, recommend a potential source of assistance to you. Based in Dublin, they have a long and illustrious history of involvement in international transactions and offshore accounts. I have no doubt that they would be able to assist you. If you would like to get in touch you can use one of the contact methods listed below:
Fianna Fail
65-66 Lower Mount Street
Dublin 2

Telephone: 00353 1676 1551
Finally, while I have no doubt that you are of sound financial mind, I still feel I must warn you about potential internet scams emanating from countries such as your own. Such criminality manifests itself in the form of emails (similar to your own) and are noticeable from their ludicrous stories, poor grammar and requests being made to the receiver of the email to provide the sender with their bank details. I pray to God, or Allah, that you do never receive any of these. Though, admittedly, you would have to be a gobshite to cooperate with one of them.

I must move on now as I have an important email in my inbox regarding my recent win in the national lottery of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

If I can help you in any other ways please do not hesitate to get in contact.

J. Guitar


If you would like to contact Mr. Robinson you can email him on Or if you'd like to call him dial 00226 76 33 42 99. I'm sure he's a lovely man.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

A very green conspiracy?

Poor old Al Gore. No matter what happens this weekend, the dour ex Presidential candidate turned saviour of the planet is on a hiding to nothing. Regardless of whether your aim is to eradicate Third World poverty or stop global warming it seems that the last thing you should ever do to help out your noble cause is to organise a series of live televised rock concerts around the world.

If you are one of the millions looking forward to this weekend’s Live Earth concerts beware - the killjoys are about. These are the same people who came out of the woodwork for Live 8 a couple of years ago. On that occasion they came armed with a similar argument, and a simplistic one at that. As far as they were concerned, if Bono (pronounced in Bone-o in the case of the killjoys) and Bob Geldof really did care about starving children in Africa why were they not giving some of their vast amounts of wealth to help alleviate it?

And that really was their point. Nothing else. No hidden depths. No profound analysis. Bono, Bob and their entourage of superstars were hypocrites so don’t expect them to be giving any of their cash to the poor. End of story. In truth, this was an argument put forward by people who had no intentions of ever doing anything to help anybody anywhere. These were the kind of people who don’t trust charities and tell you that the people selling the ‘Big Issue’ aren’t really homeless at all but are just fronting a very lucrative racket. Do these sort of people honestly believe their own garbage? Perhaps. Or maybe, as I often suspect, they are desperately trying to convince not us but themselves and their conscience that there is nothing wrong with their greed.

The killjoys have cropped up again this week. Live Earth, they tell us, should be treated with contempt. Sure won’t all of these concerts do more harm to the environment than good? And what about all the popstars? Don’t some of these people have private jets? Don’t they go on world tours? Do they actually care about climate change or are they just promoting their new albums? And so on. And so on.

To tell you the truth I don’t actually care what these kind of people say. The very fact that they are talking about it will if nothing else generate debate. OK, none of us are under any illusions that Katie Melua is capable of saving the planet on her own but at least some credit must go to her and her fellow musicians tomorrow for trying to raise awareness. The simple killjoys I can cope with though. What I can’t cope with is something much, much darker.

One of the most worrying developments in the past few years has been the growing number of people willing to stand up and proclaim that global warming does not exist. The idea of a climate change conspiracy has been ignited in recent times by Channel 4’s broadcast in March of ‘The Great Global Warming Swindle’, a programme produced by the attention seeking documentary maker and ex member of the crackpot Revolutionary Communist Party Martin Durkin. Not a man known for his scientific knowledge, Durkin managed to scramble together enough scientists willing to call into question the concept of global warming to fill an hour or so on a channel becoming so increasingly sensationalist that it is starting to make Five look respectable (though to be fair Channel 4 has not yet broadcast anything as ridiculous as ‘Was Hitler Gay?’).

The science in this theory is pretty ropey and is only championed by a minority, for now. According to those who support the conspiracy argument the Earth is at the moment going through a climate ‘cycle’. Rather than manmade damage being done by global warming the heating and cooling of the planet is, they claim, nothing new. Evidence of this can be found in the Medieval Warm Period and the fact, so often repeated by the deniers of global warming, that the Romans were able to grow wine grapes when they were occupying present day England. Whatever your views of the evidence, Durkin did succeed in one respect - his own personal profile is much higher in the wake of the controversial documentary. Whether he actually believes the rubbish contained in ‘The Great Global Warming Swindle’ remains to be seen, but he has certainly made a name for himself as well as pocketing a tidy cash sum to boot. In the autumn time the DVD of the programme will go on commercial release.

While he may be a bit better known and slightly richer than he was this time last year, the question does remain as to whether Mr Durkin has gained any real credibility as a result of this production? Has this piece catapulted him into the upper echelons of investigative journalism? Of course not, and nor does anyone who peddles such drivel deserve to be treated with any seriousness.

To deny global warming is to put yourself in the same league as the Flat Earth Society, Holocaust deniers or the type of lunatics who claim that the Apollo moon landings were faked in an aircraft hanger in Arizona. Durkin’s followers appear to be little more than these kind of individuals, albeit supposedly respectable ‘Daily Express’ reading bourgeois eccentrics who are enthralled by the potential of having a new conspiracy now to sit alongside all the theories about the car crash that killed Diana in Paris back in 1997. It doesn’t matter that they know absolutely nothing about science. The important thing is that someone has made a documentary that tells them that all those flights they’ll be taking around Europe and the wider world in the coming years won’t actually do any harm to the environment at all. Just like people desperately want to convince themselves that their own morality remains intact the next time they walk past a ‘Big Issue’ seller or ignore someone collecting money for a cancer charity on a wet Saturday afternoon outside Tesco, so do the deniers of global warming desperately want their junk scientific theory to be true if only to exonerate them from their part in the destruction of the environment.

As I said, the global warming conspiracy theory is still a line of thinking held only by a minority of people for the time being. People, however, are in no rush to give up their cars, or their flights abroad or the 4x4 people carriers. My concern is that people will end up simply wanting to believe this version of events and resist strongly even the most moderate of steps to make their way of life that little bit greener. Concerts at Wembley and nice colourful TV ads promoting recycling initiatives are fine, but as with the smoking ban in the workplace if we are to bring about any meaningful change it may be time to start considering the use of sticks as opposed to carrots.

I won’t get the chance to see much, if any, of the Live Earth coverage tomorrow. I’ll be attending a wedding reception when Metallica and Madonna are doing their thang. To be totally honest, I doubt I would have been taking much of a peek even if I hadn’t had this forthcoming engagement. The overt sincerity of rock stars and actors lending their support to worthy causes usually just leaves me cringing. I won’t attack Bono for wanting to help end third world poverty nor deride George Clooney for urging the international community to intervene in Darfur. Fair play to them. Though I must warn you, my praise of these people is not unlimited in nature. I draw the line firmly at Phil Collins.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Bored on the 4th of July? Help yourself to some Hitchens.

If you are reading this from across the pond in the good old United States of America I'd just like to take the time to wish you a happy Independence Day. As this is one of the few holidays that you poor, chronically overworked souls actually still have left I really do emphasise the ‘happy’ in my well wishes. American people can also be proud in the knowledge that they have one extra citizen among them this year that they did not have on July 4th 2006.

Christopher Hitchens, 'Vanity Fair' journalist and author of books on subjects as diverse as George Orwell and Mother Teresa, became a US citizen back in April. Last month he released his new book ‘God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything’. I’ve just finished it myself and it is an excellent read.

Anyhow, to celebrate the democratic ideals of the Founding Fathers on this the 231st anniversary of the declaration of independence move your eyes down to the clip contained below to see Hitchens utilise his freedom of speech on what is perhaps one of America’s less democratic outlets, Fox News.

A couple of weeks back I lamented the time that was being spent by many commentators of all political stripes and none on the death of the comedian Bernard Manning. Column inches in newspapers were readily being given to the subject. Radio programmes discussed his impact on British society. Even the BBC’s ‘Question Time’ discussed what the legacy would be of a third rate comedian from Manchester whose TV career had ended decades ago.

When Christopher Hitchens attacks the recently deceased he thinks much bigger. In the case of the video below the target was Jerry Falwell, the Christian fundamentalist and televangelist who founded the Thomas Road Baptist Church in Virginia. One of the central figures in the infamous Moral Majority, Falwell was fairly typical of most US fundamentalists in his anti-choice and pro-family stances as well as his uncritical support for Israel and a slightly more unclear stance on the question of the apartheid regime in South Africa. Some of Falwell’s other greatest hits include his 1999 prediction that the world would end inside a decade, that the antichrist would be a Jew, that AIDS was God’s punishment for gay people and that trade unionists should stop asking for more money and just work harder.

Regardless of what Falwell had said and done in the past coverage of death was still sympathetic and praised his ‘legacy’. The Hitch was having none of it:

Jerry Falwell continues to persecute people even in death. One of the universities which he helped to found, Liberty University in his hometown of Lynchburg, continues to expel gay students. Christopher Lamparello runs the website (something which Falwell himself arrogantly and unsuccessfully sued him over) in a modest bid to highlight the bigotry of the man and his institutions towards members of the gay and lesbian community. Don’t expect the passing of old Jerry to bring in a new era of tolerance in his institutions. His successors? Liberty University is now run by Jerry Falwell Jr. while the Thomas Road Baptist Church is run by Jonathan Falwell. You don’t even need to ask if they are related, do you?

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Forward or back? Or neither?

I'm not Mark Steel's greatest fan. Although his lecture series on BBC 2 was both amusing and interesting in parts, as a stand up comedian he doesn't quite do it for me. As for his weekly column in The Independent, it is dreadfully written and relies almost solely on Steel's ability (or lack of it) to conjure up supposedly hilarious scenarios. He did make one good point though a year or so ago.

In an article last March, Steel commented on how amazed he was by the inclination of some left leaning Labour members to delude themselves that Gordon Brown would be radically different from Tony Blair. "He backed the war, and everything else Blair's ever done - except not resigning," said Gravesend's most famous Trot. In a way he was right. I don't agree with Steel's politics - he can keep his SWP membership card - but I too was always perplexed by how people who would virtually spit at the utterance of Tony Blair's name would hail Gordon Brown as the manifestation of 'real' Labour. Nonsense.

Yes, Blair and Brown had their disagreements, but these were not deep rooted differences over party policy or lofty debates of an ideological nature. Perhaps it would have been better if the whole thing had been about politics. However, as we know the quarrel centred on when Tony would step aside to allow Gordon to take over. Within days of taking over as Prime Minister Brown has gone to great lengths to heal any rifts that may still linger in the party after years of behind the scenes acrimony, being extremely kind in the allocation of new jobs to some hardened Blairites. The new PM though is not just concerned with getting everyone in the party to kiss and make up. On his way into Number 10 he emphasised that 'change' would be at the heart of his premiership, but what kind of change?

The first change most seem to be discussing is the cosmetic one. Virtually every journalist and reporter noted that when Gordon Brown stood outside his new residence on Wednesday afternoon that he was not as comfortable in front of the cameras as his predecessor. Maybe so, but then perhaps not necessarily a bad thing either. A lot of people are tired of Stateside style political theatre and the public might actually prefer their politicians a bit more awkward. Some people appear to be looking for immediate change where none exists. One BBC presenter (Sian Williams I believe) pointed out that the term New Labour was no longer featured on the party website. Wholesale nationalisation must surely only be around the corner!

Another of the differences often cited between Blair and Brown is the claim that the latter is more of a 'party man'. There is some truth in this. Charles Moore of 'The Daily Telegraph' isn't someone I would quote all that much but he wasn't far off when he stated that Blair was “not brought up in the party tribe”. Brown has been a Labour Party member since the age of eighteen and first canvassed for the party at the tender age of twelve. He also appreciates the importance of the past. After achieving a first class honours degree in history at Edinburgh University he went on to write a Phd thesis entitled 'Labour's struggle to establish itself as the alternative to the Conservatives' and later a biography of the Glaswegian Independent Labour Party MP James Maxton. Last year the new Prime Minister penned the introduction to the republished ‘The Future of Socialism’, a landmark book by Anthony Crossland recently brought back in conjunction with the Fabian Society. It's not hard to see why so many on the left of Labour are welcoming a man so steeped in the history and traditions of the party.

Perhaps one thing that the new, more politically and historically aware party leader and PM could do is inject some substance back into the organisation. There is a general feeling that, in his attempt to move Labour away from its old dogmatic image of the 1980s, Blair pushed it to the point were in stood for next to nothing. Even Anthony Giddens, one of the architects of the third way and a close adviser to Blair, stated a few years back that there was much validity in accusations that New Labour did not really have a long term vision. He suggested that a "more compelling ideological framework" was required.

Another area that Gordon Brown could do with focusing on a lot more than Mr Blair is Europe. As a naïve youngster back in the late spring of 1997 I firmly believed the General Election represented the end for a tired old Eurosceptic Tory party and its long overdue replacement with a modern, dynamic pro European social democratic party. What we have had over the past ten years is a government that probably is pro-European at heart but simply doesn't want to take the risk in admitting it for fear of reaction from an overwhelmingly anti European media. A decade on and the UK is no closer to being at the "heart of Europe", unless of course you happen to be as hysterical as Peter Hitchens who seems to think that Britain is now no more than a chunk of Angela Merkel's greater German masterplan.

I do not believe that the British people are somehow 'naturally' opposed to the EU. However, were a referendum to be held tomorrow on the Reform Treaty I very much doubt the pro European side would stand much chance of victory and the reason for this is clear: there are few unambiguous pro European voices in mainstream British politics at the moment. We all know who the Eurosceptics are and I am pretty damn sure that the Labour Party is not among them. So what’s the big secret? It is time to find out who the Euroenthusiasts are. This is a battle that is going to have to be fought at some point at future. Labour must declare themselves firmly in favour of the single currency, firmly in favour of a future in the European Union and actively campaign on these fronts.

To read this one would think that I was one of those people who had absolutely nothing good to say about Tony Blair, but that is far from the case. While the Blair years had many negative moments there has also been a vast array of successes over the past ten years that.

The National Minimum Wage, something opposed for years by the Conservatives, was one achievement for his government. Devolution in Scotland and Wales as well as the introduction of a London Assembly have allowed for a mini constitutional revolution in the UK. Unemployment is much lower today than it was at the end of the Major era. Pensioners (my dad included) have benefited from the annual winter fuel allowance. The decline in the NHS has been halted and hospital waiting lists have been cut. Away from home, military intervention in Kosovo started the ball rolling on the downfall of Slobodan Milosevic’s regime while operation in Sierra Leone and Afghanistan have helped to thwart of reactionary thugs from the RUF and Taleban. Last but not least there was the peace process and the subsequent setting up of a stable government here in Northern Ireland. True, so it wasn’t all down to Tony, but remember that when Labour came to power in 1997 they inherited a process which had descended into a mess thanks largely to a Tory government who’s utter incompetence almost blown any chance of peace.

So what would I include if I were to send a wish list to Gordon? Well, some initial fine tuning. A stronger emphasis on Europe without harming relations with Washington. A determination not cut and run from Iraq but to stay the course and see the establishment of a functioning democracy in the country. The rebuilding of the party’s base and the winning back of the thousands of members who have left in recent years. And maybe, if the man from Kirkcadly finds the time, the extension of the same rights to Labour Party members in Northern Ireland as those enjoyed by comrades in Britain.

Whatever I happens, I have no doubts that the Brown era will mark a continuity of the Blair years rather than a departure from them.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Where mystery meets the warmest of welcomes...apparently.

A few years ago the thought of a tourist advertisement on our TV screens promoting Northern Ireland as a place to spend your hard earned holidays would have been unthinkable. No longer. Indeed, for the past week no less than seven ministers from the government here have been accompanying scores of other people from the province in Washington to help promote everything from Ulster frys to hurling at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

It’s supposedly been another one of those ‘great leaps forward’ for people here, where photographers have the opportunity to catch shots of smiling Lambeg drummers from the Orange Order bang away on their instruments in the American sunshine while members of an Irish dancing group from west Belfast look on with equally wide smiles. As the old patronising NIO ad used to say, wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time? Well, perhaps if all one and half million of us were allowed a trip across the Atlantic every now and again to show easily impressed Yanks with more money than sense the pros and cons of striking a sliotar with a caman maybe it would be like this all time.

These days everywhere up north is open for business, even the once notorious ‘bandit country’ (as that old weasel Merlyn Rees once called it) of south Armagh. With the British Army now fully withdrawn, the luscious countryside, the mountains and small towns like Camlough and Crossmaglen are now looked upon as potential tourist hotspots. And why not? South Armagh - in fact all of Armagh - is a fantastic place, though I will openly admit to being totally biased on this subject due to some very strong family ties with the border county. But I’m not here in any capacity to promote south Armagh. Oh no. I’m here to lament the idiots who have been given the task of promoting the southern half of this magnificent territory. You see, the old stereotype of south Armagh was a mean one. Locals were always portrayed as sly and devious, paranoid people who were suspicious of outsiders and had little time for such insignificant things as law and order. This has been a stereotype that has been around, not just in recent years, but for centuries.

Now, imagine just for a moment that you are part of a marketing group that has been asked to come with an advert that is going to be used on television to promote south Armagh (I’d like to see the guys from ‘The Apprentice’ try their hand at that one!). How would you like to portray the good citizens of the region? Remember: this advert will only last for approximately forty seconds. Surely, above all else, number one on your agenda would be to try and use this precious time to shatter old myths and portray the area in a new, positive light? For instance, one thing you would not do would be to spend ten seconds or so showing off the beautiful landscape before devoting the final thirty seconds or so to a scene where two tourists are stared at and subsequently humiliated in a local pub. That goes without saying. Doesn’t it? Oh:

By the way, I know this pub and you would never be stared at like that by the locals. They would rather talk about you behind back and enquire off other people in the bar until they found out who you were. Only then would ritual humiliation be considered.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

The perfect way to start the month: German squirrels and ignorant Canadians.

As it’s the first day of July I thought I should start the month on a lighter note than usual so here are two stories I came across today on that bedrock of journalistic excellence, Yahoo! News. No explanations are really required. I think that the headlines speak for themselves. Apologies:

Half of Canadians too ignorant to be Canadian

Squirrel goes on rampage in Germany

And you thought ITV News was rubbish.

Once again, apologies.