Thursday, November 29, 2007

Saving Ulster from science

Had Mervyn Storey been born anywhere else in these islands it is unlikely that he would have been known for anything other than being the local buffoon who tried to spoil everyone's Saturday night by distributing peculiar Christian leaflets outside bars. Or perhaps he would have been that lone chap who ruins everyone's shopping trip on a Saturday afternoon by standing in a town centre shouting out lines from the book of Revelations into a loud hailer. But this is Northern Ireland and unfortunately here a halfwit can carve out a career for himself as a reputable member of the political establishment with relative ease.

Mervyn is a creationist. A believer in the young earth theory. A man who disregards established scientific wisdom that the universe is, according to NASA, approximately 13.7 billion years old - allowing for a margin of error of 1% of course, or 200 million years. Mervyn though has no time for these charlatans at NASA. He has read scripture and can inform us that the universe's age is not measured in billions of years nor even millions of years. Not even close in fact. According to our good friend from Ballymoney it is but a few thousand years old.

Would it be possible I wonder for a man possessing these beliefs to put himself up for election anywhere in the developed world (excluding places south of the Mason-Dixon Line) and expect to retain a deposit let alone actually get elected? Luckily for Mervyn he lives in the constituency of North Antrim and is a member of both the Democratic Unionist Party and the Free Presbyterian Church. Such a combination means that lost deposits are the least of his concerns.

Some of you probably wonder why I'm making a fuss; a Christian fundamentalist in the DUP with wacky theological views? So what? I would have said the same myself a while back. However, due to the shift in the nature of Northern Irish politics in the past twelve months people like Mervyn Storey should be a cause for concern rather than derision. In the old days it was possible to snigger about these things.

An example came back in 2001 when the Free Presbyterian Church issued a statement advising members to refrain from line dancing (yes, you read that correctly). Mr Paisley explained that country and western dancing "clearly caters to the lust of the flesh." In order to clarify the matter Paisley's Free Presbyterian colleague David McIlveen pointed out that they didn't have anything against line dancing: "We feel that dancing in any shape or form is incompatible with a Christian profession." Wild craic these Free Presbyterians, eh?

However, the big difference between today and 2001 is that nowadays these imbeciles actually have real political power and they are using it in the most disturbing fashion. This manifested itself most recently during the dispute regarding the proposed visitor centre at the Giants Causeway. Mervyn Storey cropped up to offer his thoughts on the affair, though his remarks had nothing to do with the Environment Minister Arlene Foster and her infamous 'minded' decision. Storey's gripe concerned the small matter of the age of the Giant's Causeway. I'll let Merv explain:

"The problem to date has been that we only have a narrow interpretation from an evolutionary point of view as to how these particular stones were formed. The Causeway was…the result of a catastrophe, a colossal water catastrophe."

A colossal water catastrophe? If you have read this and have uttered the words 'what', 'the' and 'fuck' in that precise order please don't worry. At least you are sane.

It appears that the MLA for North Antrim is real about his Christianity. This is not one of those wishy washy Catholics that brush off the most absurd Biblical tales as metaphors. How many times have you heard the words 'well, you're not meant to take it literally' from a believer? Nor is Storey one of those nice, middle class, hat wearing Church of Ireland softies that only use their local church to get baptised, married and buried in. This DUP man is the real deal and as a result of this he isn't up for listening to any scientific bullshit being spewed by godless geologists. In fact, he doesn't even know what a geologist is (incredibly Mr Storey referred to the Causeway in a Radio Ulster interview as a "biological feature"). The Giant's Causeway is, in his opinion, the result of the great flood mentioned in the book of Genesis. You know, that great flood that featured Noah's Ark?

This illogical garbage appears to be part of a wider crusade. The Causeway Creation Campaign is a pressure group based in Portrush, a seaside town in Mervyn Storey's county Antrim constituency. Some of its demands appear similar to demands made by some reactionary Christian groups in the United States. In short they feel that if evolution is to be taught in schools then so should creationism. Worried? I certainly am. A spokesperson for the CCC said:

"Not only do we desire to see this at the Giant’s Causeway but we want to see it replicated across museums and other tourist sites throughout Northern Ireland. We also desire to see the fact of 'Intelligent Design' being taught alongside the 'Theory of Evolution' in our local schools."

Only this week the argument raised its head again. When answering a question from Trevor Lunn of the Alliance Party regarding how old the Giant's Causeway was considered to be, Arlene Foster replied that "geologists generally agree that the Giant's Causeway is some 60 million years old. As you will be aware, however, there are alternative views in relation to the age of the Giant's Causeway." Alternative views? To use a Belfast expression, wise the bap Arlene.

This 'alternative views' remark from Ms Foster is evidence of the equal consideration being provided to unscientific creationist nonsense in the chamber of our very own Assembly. In reality there is no dispute over the age of the Causeway. The circa 60 million years old position is more or less, well, gospel. In a bid to accommodate the views of a few thousand idiots are kids in this country going to have to learn about Noah and the great flood in science class? As the BBC's Mark Devenport remarks on his blog an alternative view could also be that the Causeway dates back to the "fight between Finn McCool and the Scottish giant." Will the DUP push to have this opinion accommodated in science lessons as well?

An article published recently on the website of the British Centre for Science Education has noted the malign influence of the Free Presbyterian Church in northern society. Despite accounting for less than 1% of the population here Free Presbyterians make up over half of the DUP's Assembly party. If that doesn't shock you it should. More than half of the Assembly members of Northern Ireland's largest party are followers of a minuscule, cultish creationist sect. Can you imagine the uproar if something similar was discovered to be the case with the Labour's parliamentary party in Westminster or the SNP in Scotland?

Surely Northern Ireland can hope to expect better than this in the 21st century? Will people here really tolerate ridiculous creationist bullshit being given equal time and space in our schools and museums and libraries alongside the theory of evolution? I doubt it but that doesn't mean we should take it for granted. In a place that has already suffered greatly as a result of religious backwardness it seems we have a battle emerging to fight and maintain to whatever secular values we currently hold. As the BCSE point out, with the Provisional IRA now gone and Irish republicanism no longer an entity frightening enough to scare unionists out to vote the DUP appears to be organising itself for the future along the lines of the Moral Majority in the US. Bring them on say I.

The late Bill Hicks had a superb and highly effective way of demolishing the creationist case. It was the simple utterance of a single three syllable word: dinosaurs. Mervyn Storey hasn't provided us with his explanation for the existence of the 'terrible lizards'. I could have a guess at what it would be though.

AN APPEAL FOR INFORMATION: Are you a member of the Democratic Unionist Party, the Free Presbyterian Church or just a free wheeling independent creationist? Are you Mervyn Storey? Then perhaps you can help. I would like to know the real explanation for the existence of dinosaur fossils, assuming that everything I was taught at school about these magnificent creatures was in fact false. Send all correspondence to yourfriendinthenorth@hotmail.com.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Bad luck of the Irish

The draw was made this afternoon for the qualification rounds of the 2010 World Cup which is due to be held in South Africa. The ceremony was predictably tedious. Lots of cheesy musical interludes and Eurovisionesque clips of the local countryside. Once we got all that out of the way we found out who we’d all be playing over the next couple of years.

England got a fairly handy draw though they won’t admit it. Scotland are in with a good shout despite drawing the Dutch. Wales drew Germany and Russia so they’re fucked. As for the Irish, well it could have been a whole lot worse. It could have been a lot better too. Cold away trips to eastern Europe ahoy:

GROUP 3
Czech Republic
Poland
Northern Ireland
Slovakia
Slovenia
San Marino

GROUP 8
Italy
Bulgaria
Republic of Ireland
Cyprus
Georgia
Montenegro

My prediction: both NI and ROI will win a couple of big games, lose away in eastern Europe, get our hopes built up for a trip to South Africa before finally failing to qualify in the last game of the qualifiers. And then we’ll all get set for the big draw for Euro 2012!

Who was it that said that thing about history repeating itself first as tragedy and then as farce?

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Underneath your Burqa?

It’s not every day that The Daily Telegraph carries a headline like ‘Shakira broadcast sparks row in Afghanistan’. However, this was the precise heading to one story that the paper ran earlier this week. According to the DT the Afghan culture ministry and some of the nation’s leading clerics are livid that an independent TV channel broadcast a concert by the 30 year old Colombian. At first I found the story quite amusing. It soon became clear though that this is in fact anything but amusing.

Even for the pro-western government that replaced the brutal Taliban regime it appears that a free and independent media showing images of free and independent women may be a step too far. Hamid Karzai seems to have realised this some time ago as a law has already been passed by parliament stating that TV stations will be shut down if they fail to concentrate on making more religious productions while programmes considered to be damaging (whatever that means) could also lead to a closure order for the channel concerned.

In this case the ‘guilty’ party was Tolo TV. Set up in 2004 as one of the country’s first commercial stations, they assert in their mission statement that “after years of war, oppressions and destruction the Afghans are ready to move on. Tolo aims to assist this effort by providing content which will educate, inform, entertain and inspire all Afghans.” Regardless of whether or not you feel a live concert by a woman responsible for the line “lucky that my breasts are small and humble so you don’t confuse them with mountains” fulfils the noble goals outlined in the mission statement, one cannot help but feel that in a society still dominated by ultra reactionary values Tolo TV’s decision borders on revolutionary. Not that they didn’t attempt to tone it down a tad beforehand.

Something else you should know about this whole episode is the fact that Tolo TV made a decision to have Shakira’s chest pixelated so, I presume, young Afghan men and women wouldn’t enjoy it a little bit too much. But to no avail. Not even concealing the breasts of this immoral western temptress from young Muslim eyes could calm the establishment. A pro-Karzai newspaper called Weesa went as far as to suggest that the televised Shakira concert could - wait for it - lead to an increase in suicide bombing:

"We believe Shakira’s song will be shown with Tolo TV’s exclusive logo at the training camps for suicide attackers to urge our immature young people to leave a number of our mothers bereaved."

What Weesa and their establishment colleagues are really saying is that (leaving aside for one moment the allegation that the broadcast may have been immoral) this programme should not have been shown because young Afghans acting like young people in other countries could make the Taliban angry. This is nonsense for two reasons.

Firstly, the Taliban want to bring down the democratically elected government in Kabul. They don’t need a mediocre Colombian pop star to provide them with some extra incentive for martyrdom. And who cares if you make the Taliban angry? Shouldn’t we all be wear this as a badge of honour?

Secondly, to close down Tolo TV on the basis that they may piss off the extremists is cowardice of unimaginable proportions. It harks back to that infamous incident in 2005 where the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten printed cartoons depicting Muhammad, the founder of the Islamic faith. The response by the establishment then was to keep silent and balance any mutterings about freedom of speech with a reminder that we must not offend Muslims. Television would not show the cartoons. Newspapers would not print them. Elements of the left, even some who called themselves Marxists, took the side of those who wished to suppress free speech. I wonder will Socialist Worker have an article this week condemning Tolo TV?

In the The Daily Telegraph article Tom Coghlan asked a 41 year old Kabul man called Sharif what he thought of the Shakira concert. Sharif replied: “Her clothes were very tight. Religious people say it is the west trying to impose their values but I had no problem with it.” I feel Sharif may not be alone in those thoughts.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Football’s staying home

There you go. Northern Ireland didn’t qualify for Euro 2008 but in typical Irish fashion we’re still happy enough. The general consensus around Belfast has been that missing out on qualification in the final game has been a huge success! The Republic won’t be there either sadly. That embarrassing 1-1 draw with Cyprus at Croke Park means that both northerners and southerners will be watching next summer’s tournament on TV’s in their local boozers rather than prancing around more picturesque locations like Geneva and Vienna.

Scotland will be staying where they are too. A last minute goal by Christian Panucci in Glasgow last Saturday confirmed that. Unfortunately the Welsh weren’t in the running at any stage whatsoever. There has been some kind of an improvement for them in the past few months. Victories over Bulgaria, Slovakia and San Marino added to impressive draws with the Republic of Ireland and Germany means that Wales will start the World Cup qualifiers next year with a greater degree of enthusiasm. Not that they’ll qualify.

None of the Celtic nations then were successful. Healy, Keane, McFadden and Koumas can all book holidays for the destination of their choice next June. At least England will still be there, even if it is only for the sadistic enjoyment of seeing them crash out on penalties in the quarter final. Oh, sorry. They failed to qualify too. All of which means that for the first time in a quarter of a century not one of the ‘home nations’ will be in the finals of a major tournament. Sad. Still, I would be lying if I told you I didn’t smile a wee bit whenever Croatia scored that third goal at Wembley.

Believe it or not the draw for the 2010 World Cup qualifiers takes place on Sunday. Don’t book your flights for Johannesburg just yet.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Damn you Iceland

2-1! Fantastic.

All we have to do now is thump Spain. In Las Palmas. And hope Latvia beat Sweden. And that'll be it.

Apart from that...

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Attention all political geeks: live web coverage of Labour Party conference

The Labour Party conference in Wexford this weekend is for the first time being broadcast live on the internet. Go to the party website, www.labour.ie, if you’re interested. Eamon Gilmore. It is using Ustream.tv technology (whatever the hell that is) and the screen on the party homepage has a little tab on the bottom which allows you to see how many other people are watching with you. In the time I’ve been watching it has fluctuated between 200 and about 250. So, if you happen to be one of those extremely sad 200 odd people like me who has spent a wet Saturday afternoon glued to the debates on each motion then I say a big ‘hello’.

Right, I’m off for a bite to eat. I wouldn’t want to miss Eamon Gilmore, would I?

Friday, November 16, 2007

Just two more hurdles to go!

Best of luck to Northern Ireland tomorrow night when they take on Denmark in Belfast. They have to beat the Danes to still be in with a shout of qualifying for Euro 2008 when they lock horns with the Spanish on Wednesday night. It’s a tall order with two European giants to play in their last two games but who knows. Northern Ireland’s big problem in recent years hasn’t been the big teams. Spain, Sweden and England have all suffered defeat at the hands of Northern Ireland - or to be more accurate, David Healy. The main problem has been the wee teams. It’s hard to believe now that we were actually leading this qualification group back at the beginning of the summer but since then they have suffered back to back defeats to the mighty Latvia and Iceland, hence the current slim chance of making it to Austria and Switzerland next summer.

Whatever happens between now and Wednesday night this has been Northern Ireland’s most successful couple of years since the glory days of the 1980s. We’ve moved from somewhere in the region of 120th in the world rankings to a respectable 36th. OK, hardly world beaters but quite an achievement for a team with very few Premiership players and a country with a population of barely one and a half million. Third place in the group wouldn’t be a total disaster as it would provide NI with the chance of a more favourable draw when the groups are chosen for the 2010 World Cup qualifiers in a few weeks time. I’m sure we’d all willingly sacrifice the European Championships for a chance to see Nigel Worthington’s men at their first World Cup for almost a quarter of a century.

For now I reckon - win or lose - the match will probably provide me with enough justification to end my current, and extremely unpleasant I should add, abstention from alcohol. It also provides me with another chance to post a picture (see left) of that memorable goal against England. Again. Enjoy.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Hard-headed internationalism

Gordon Brown’s speech at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet in London a few nights ago didn’t contain any major surprises. It was a fairly straightforward reiteration of his administration’s foreign policy. Yet it was a sign, if one were even required, that the Brown years are not going to be all that different from the Blair years.

Nobody will certainly get offended by any of his carefully chosen words. The United States was praised and anti-Americanism condemned. The importance of the European Union, NATO, the United Nations and even the Commonwealth were all highlighted. France and Germany in particular were singled out for their efforts to build stronger relations with America. In the Middle East Olmert and Abbas were commended for the work they are putting in to secure a lasting peace to the conflict by means of a two state solution.

Aside from the back patting the Prime Minister rightly stated that there “is still a gaping hole in our ability to address the illegitimate threats and use of force against innocent peoples” and commented on how the world still should feel shame at failing to prevent the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. On a topic more relevant to us today Iran was said to be the “greatest immediate challenge to non-proliferation”. I agree.

However, Gordon didn’t go much further on saying what Iran’s punishment would be if they continue refusing to play ball. If they didn’t comply they would face sanctions. If they did their relationship with the west would be “transformed”. Sadly I find this worrying. Saddam Hussein was told back in early 2003 that if he complied with Washington and London’s demands that there would be no war, and therefore we can only assume would still be ruling Iraq with an iron fist. It would disappointing if the first decade of the 21st century were to conclude in this manner with the west telling dictators that they are free to oppress their people on the understanding that those dictatorships don’t actively threaten the west. Will the Mullahs in Tehran be given the freedom to make their citizens lives a living hell as long as they don’t develop the bomb? Let’s hope not.

One final notable point about the speech was how little time was devoted to Iraq and Afghanistan. Afghanistan was mentioned a mere twice during Brown’s talk while the issue of the decade, Iraq, got referred to only once. In both cases they were fairly run-of-the-mill reassurances that the United Kingdom would stand by the building of democracy in both countries. Yet they read like things that were said quickly just so they could be got out of the way. I hope that during his time in office Mr Brown doesn’t decide to reduce the number of times he talks about Afghanistan and Iraq for fear of the impact it may have in the opinion polls. He shouldn’t. It may not be in vogue at the moment but history will surely judge the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq a lot better than British people are looking upon them today. And if the noises being made by President Sarkozy regarding Iran are anything to go by then clearly more of the UK’s neighbours are coming round to their way of thinking.

So overall not totally inspiring but, as I said, reassuring. Or to put it another way: not flash, just Gordon.


As has been said above the speech hardly makes for gripping reading but if you must get hold of it go to:
http://www.labour.org.uk/pm_outlines_foreign_policy_priorities

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Fightin' Man from Crossmaglen

Just over a week separated the death of Martin Meehan, the subject of my last post, and John Fee, the subject of this one. In every other aspect of life there exists a gulf between the two men.

John Fee, who died on November 10th, was a former councillor and MLA from Crossmaglen in county Armagh. Despite still being only 43 years old at the time of his death John had quite a full life. In the mid eighties he was editor of the Creggan Historical Journal (still going to the best of my knowledge) as well as a research assistant to SDLP MP Seamus Mallon. He was elected as a local councillor for The Fews area of south Armagh in 1988. In later years he was a member of the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation and went on to sit on his party's negotiating panel at Stormont during the discussions that led to the Good Friday Agreement. Active too in the area of European politics, Fee was a member of the EU Committee of the Regions. In 1998 he was elected as SDLP MLA for Newry and Armagh, a position he held until the 2003 Assembly election. Last but not least, John was also a director of the Newry and Mourne Peace & Reconciliation Partnership. But despite all of the time and effort he put into delivering the goods for people living in the Newry and Armagh area John Fee is perhaps remembered for one of the bravest stands made against paramilitarism during the entire history of the troubles.

On Sunday March 20th 1994 the Provisional IRA carried out a mortar attack which brought down a British Army helicopter in Crossmaglen. The crew managed to crash land the Westland Lynx away from any civilian area and all onboard were able to escape before the aircraft exploded. In the aftermath of the incident John Fee openly and unequivocally condemned the Provos for the recklessness of an attack which put at risk the lives of both the crew and the civilian population of Crossmaglen. The response? Fee was savagely beaten outside his home by the local 'republican police'. Criticising the IRA was bad enough. Criticising the IRA in one of their heartlands was too much for them to take.

This was not anything new of course. The Provisionals had since their formation in December 1969 policed 'their' local communities in a jackboot fashion. Penalties for those guilty of breaking their law could be, if you were lucky, the ritual humiliation of 'tarring and feathering'. If you were less lucky you could be ordered to leave Ireland. If you really got on the nerves of the men who went under such pleasant monikers as 'Slab', 'Brain Surgeon' and 'President of Sinn Fein' you could expect worse. Much worse.

John may not have been murdered by the Provisionals but the fact that they launched such a vicious attack on such a popular nationalist figure (he topped the poll on several occasions in perhaps the most republican electoral ward in Ireland) displayed a degree of arrogance and contempt for basic democratic principles that beggars belief. The continuing question marks hanging over the murder last month of Paul Quinn, a murder that occurred just a few miles from where Fee was cruelly beaten, may yet prove that thirteen years on the old habits are proving hard to kick regardless of how many supporters you have sitting on your local District Policing Partnership.

I very much doubt that John Fee's name will feature highly in the pages of Irish history books in the future but where it does crop up I expect that it will sit very proudly indeed. The tragedy for democracy, sadly, is that thugs and political gangsters like Martin Meehan will not just feature prominently when the story of our recent troubles is told to future generations but that he and others similar to him will be lavished with copious lashings of undeserved praise. Surely, amongst other things, it is the duty of socialists, liberals, social democrats and those nationalists who never allowed themselves to get sucked into the cul-de-sac of counter-revolutionary 'armed struggle' to defend the memory of Fee and others like him against the attempts by some to rewrite our recent past in a way that fails to mention the glaring fact that they lost, failed, gave up.

I am not a believer in god so I won't be so insincere as to end this piece with an empty religious gesture towards a man as genuine and decent as John Fee. When honouring those who stand up against fascism nowadays, to paraphrase Christopher Hitchens, sometimes the old slogans really are the best: ¡No Pasarán!

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam?

“He loved this community of Ardoyne and would do anything to make sure it was safe.”
Father Aidan Troy speaking at the funeral of Martin Meehan, November 6th 2007

On Saturday morning the Lord sent us the death of Martin Meehan, the prominent Sinn Fein politician and famously the first person to be charged with membership of the Provisional IRA. Coverage of his passing has been interesting to say the least. Few publications or broadcasters seemed up for having a discussion about his legacy. In fact, most seemed to give the lifelong republican quite a send-off. The Irish Times, The Guardian, The Independent, The Washington Post and even the Rupert Murdoch-owned Times in London have all published saccharine-covered obituaries in recent days giving Meehan praise for his role in persuading the Provisional movement to bring an end to their failed armed struggle.

As we now live in the so-called ‘new dispensation’ where images of former enemies shaking hands are the order of the day it would it appears be immoral for anyone to even contemplate speaking ill of the dead, especially one so deeply involved in the peace process. More’s the pity.

People who have read this blog before probably have a fair idea what my thoughts are on Gerry McGeough, the ex IRA member turned crusader for Pope Benedict XVI. In fairness Gerry is an easy target. Even to fellow republicans he is seen as something of a joke. But it should be remembered though that McGeough was quite a happy Shinner up until just about five years ago. Before being pushed away from the party by a combination of treason and liberal lefty views he was as recent as 2001 still a member of the party’s ruling Ard Comhairle (a post also held by Mr Meehan) and was involved in the campaign against the Nice Treaty in the Republic. Both McGeough and Meehan represented similar strands of Catholic nationalism. Had Gerry McGeough decided to shelve his uncompromising opposition to the reformation/condoms/British rule and remained in the party I have no doubt that he would have, like Meehan, become hailed as a ‘peacemaker’. He didn’t. Meehan did.

Back in the 1970s, when the only people northern republicans hated more than the British was each other, a member of the old Official Sinn Fein is said to have disparagingly described the Provisional IRA as “Glasgow Celtic supporters with guns”. Such a description of Martin Meehan would be apt.

A street fighting sectarian thug from the Ardoyne area in the north of Belfast, the much heralded ‘defence of Catholic areas’ seemed to be more important to Meehan and his ilk than the actual unification of the island. It is worth questioning whether he ever had much time for old republican principles like abstentionism, a principle that he and the Belfast element gladly ditched when given the chance at an Ard Fheis in 1986. Did young men in Ardoyne in the seventies rush to join the Provos because they were outraged by the Official’s decision to recognise Dail Eireann? Or did they just want to be in an organisation that would give them the change to take pot shots at the Prods? I’ll leave that one up to you. That other republican principle, the one about the unity of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter, does not seem to have had much significance in life for him either.

The description Meehan gave of the Provisional IRA’s early days during an interview with Peter Taylor a number of years back are telling. He painted a picture of the sectarian riots of June 1970 that some may find difficult to recognise:

“The IRA had proved beyond a shadow of a doubt what they said they were going to do, they had done. The date - 27th of June 1970 - is more significant for that than anything else. As a result, the whole broad spectrum of the nationalist people actually supported what the IRA was doing. Everybody, man, woman and child came out and supported us in any way possible. I never saw support like it in my life. It was unbelievable.”

Rubbish. The broad spectrum of the nationalist people did not support what the IRA was doing. This rosy picture of a community banding together was baseless. Provisional Sinn Fein did not even bother to stand for election at this time. When they did eventually stand they were consistently the minority party in northern nationalism and a miniscule party outside the Dail in the south. It took until the first decade of the 21st century for the Provisionals to overtake the SDLP as the voice of constitutional nationalism and by that stage they were virtually unrecognisable from the organisation of the 1970s. However, in recent times Sinn Fein have done their best to rewrite the history books.

Meehan was also economical with the truth when it came to telling about some of his exploits on the battlefield. After going on the run he was arrested in 1972 by the Garda in county Louth following a cross-border gun battle with British soldiers stationed in south Armagh. Meehan bragged to reporters at the time about how his men had “pasted them” and that “you could have heard them squealing for miles”. In truth, despite over 4,000 rounds of ammunition being fired and the shooting lasting for four hours no British troops were even wounded and the only casualty, according to Toby Harnden’s book Bandit Country, was a farmer’s prize pig.

Kidnapping was to be another forte of his. In 1980 he was sentenced to twelve years in prison for the abduction and torture of a 17 year old boy from the New Lodge area of north Belfast. In the late eighties he was sentenced to fifteen years for his involvement in the abduction of a member of the Territorial Army in the city. It was claimed that when the man was rescued by police and troops the gang had him tied, gagged and ready to be shot. Meehan claimed that he was actually trying to arrange the man’s release.

He was released from prison a few months prior to the IRA ceasefire in 1994 and from there began a political stint with Sinn Fein that would see him stand unsuccessfully in several Westminster and Stormont elections for the constituency of South Antrim. In 2003 he embarrassed himself by declaring victory at the count for that year’s Assembly election. As it transpired counting had actually not finished and he eventually lost to David Forde of the Alliance Party. He did though win a seat in the 2001 council election in Antrim town. His time in the area was marked by the sort of activity that he had been in involved in during the early years of the Provos - sectarian street fighting. This time it was without guns although the same old bitterness was there. Once during a disputed loyalist band parade in Antrim he was captured in full view of the television cameras referring to his fellow townspeople as “Orange bastards”. It spoke volumes for a man who clearly wasn’t one of Sinn Fein’s bright sparks. He possessed neither the intelligence of Gerry Adams nor the articulateness and presentability of a younger figure like Mary Lou McDonald or Michelle Gildernew. He was one of yesterdays men and he acted and spoke like it. “The unionists and the Orange Order are running around like headless chickens. They don’t know what day of the week it is,” was how he once summed up the political situation in modern day Northern Ireland.

A proper obituary for Martin Meehan would have depicted a politically unsophisticated man, a Catholic, a nationalist. It would have told the story of a man who became involved in a terrorist campaign which from its outset had neither popular support nor a hope in hell of succeeding. The obituary would have shown how the last decade or so of his life was spent finding a way to bring an end to the failed terrorist campaign - one that he had been involved in starting - in a manner that would help the movement save face. What we have got over the past week has been uniformity of the worst kind. Unionists have decided to make little in the way of comments. Moderate nationalists have made noises about his endeavours for peace. Sinn Fein have praised him as a heroic figure in the freedom struggle. Even the Roman Catholic Church contributed to the drivel, as Father Aidan Troy’s remarkably naïve comments at the top of this post illustrate.

In 1997 during the making of Peter Taylor’s landmark BBC documentary Provos Martin Meehan described being sworn into the IRA as “a big occasion, like joining the Priesthood”. In hindsight perhaps the Priesthood would have been a better career path for man who in apparently dedicating his life to unifying Ireland done more than most to solidify partition. Let us hope we never see his like again.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

¡Feliz cumpleaños!

Happy birthday to me. Yes, it’s one year today since yourfriendinthenorth was put online. Woo hoo! The struggle continues:

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Friends in low places

Last Monday I wondered aloud on this website as to what Fianna Fail's announcement on becoming a 32 county organisation has really meant for people living in Northern Ireland. No right thinking person really expects that when the Bertie bandwagon eventually does roll across the border that its mere presence will radically alter the basic state of people's lives. After much searching I eventually came to the fairly unimaginative conclusion that the arrival of FF in Northern Ireland will simply see the replacement - either by merger or electoral obliteration - of a nationalist party masquerading as a social democrat party (the SDLP) by a nationalist party masquerading as a nice, clean, green, unmistakable nationalist party (Fianna Fail). Beyond that I could not see FF bringing anything unique to the fold. Or could they?

In the course of that last article on Fianna Fail I made a passing reference to the party's connections with some of mainland Europe’s “more unpleasant right of centre organisations”. In hindsight this aspect of the party's politics warranted much more scrutiny than I gave it. They have certainly cultivated some intriguing friendships beyond these shores. In that grand institution known as the European Parliament the party aligns itself to the peculiar right wing association known as the Union for Europe of the Nations. Within this oddball faction sits more than just a few shady characters.

Poland contributes no less than four wacky parties to the UEN, all of them seemingly attempting to outdo each other when it comes to having wacky names: the League of Polish Families, Law and Justice, the Polish Peasant Party and Self Defence of the Republic of Poland. Law and Justice (PiS) is undoubtedly the best known to most Europeans. After forming a coalition government last year the Law and Justice party began drawing a wave of unwanted attention towards Poland. A strong supporter of Catholic social teaching, the party is staunchly homophobic. When the Polish President and PiS big shot Lech Kaczynski, a man who once infamously banned a Gay Pride march in Warsaw, came to Ireland earlier this year he declared that "the human race would disappear if homosexuality were freely promoted." On an equally chirpy note the PiS opposed the EU's anti-death penalty day on the basis that it failed to recognise abortion and euthanasia, though it is worth noting that that Kaczynski and co do actually support Poland becoming the only member state in the union to reinstate capital punishment. Even crazier though was their suggestion that Poland have stronger voting rights within the European Union to make up for the millions of Poles murdered by the Nazis in World War II. Then again, dead people have been voting in Irish elections for years...

FF's comrades in Italy are little better than their Polish friends. One of the Italian parties is called the National Alliance. This is led by a former fascist called Gianfrano Fini, a man who once claimed that Benito Mussolini was the greatest political leader of the 20th century. Another organisation is the Northern League, a strange grouping whose members advocate everything from greater autonomy for the north of Italy to outright independence for 'Padania' (see 'Salò' for a historical precedent).

The Danish Peoples Party has one seat in the European Parliament and it aligns itself to the UEN as well. Among their imaginative policies is a pledge to clampdown on non-European immigration, opposition to a multiracial society and support for the castration of sex offenders. I bet Richard Littlejohn wishes he had been born in Copenhagen. The other organisations in the UEN are from Lithuania and Latvia. I'll be honest and admit that I know very little about these folk but can they really be all that different to their Italian, Polish and Danish companions? Probably not. Incidentally, Fianna Fail is also attached to another group of right wing European organisations called the Alliance for Europe of the Nations. The AEN draws in some more oddball parties that are either not represented in the European Parliament or are outside the EU, for example Albania and Ukraine.

Some may look upon the subject of Fianna Fail's friends abroad as being neither here nor there. I do not take this view. Neither by the way does Fianna Fail when it comes to other parties. Dermot Ahern, to name but one, can be quite quick to highlight the fact that Sinn Fein is a part of the European United Left, the EU grouping which brings together the parties from the continent’s Stalinist tradition.

FF would no doubt claim that it does not have to agree with absolutely everything that is said by members of the UEN and AEN. Nevertheless, I would like to know exactly where it agrees with its Gianfranco Fini and Lech Kaczynski and whereabouts it is in conflict with them. Are they opposed to the rabid homophobia amongst some of their European allies? Do they not find being linked to supporters of the death penalty slightly disconcerting? Does Eoin Ryan lie awake at night wondering how he is able to sit on the same parliamentary benches as those who declare themselves opponents of 'non-western' immigration? What of their colleagues deep-seated Euroscepticism? Isn't Fianna Fail at the head of one of the most pro-integration states in the Union? I suppose this is Fianna Fail we are talking about here. The chances are most members of their 3,000 or so cumainn care little about what takes place outside their immediate constituency let alone who the MEPs they elected choose as chums in Brussels and Strasbourg.

A clear and coherent explanation would be nice though. This, as I’ve pointed out before, is Ireland’s largest party we are talking about. It is in government in the Republic of Ireland and in the space of a few years could quite conceivably be in government in Northern Ireland. All of which makes it more necessary for them to provide us with a proper explanation as to why a supposedly mainstream, liberal, pro-European party maintains close links with a relatively small faction of Eurosceptic ex fascists. There can only really be one of two possible answers to this: a) Fianna Fail are not as pro-EU as they have been letting on and are secretly the Irish equivalent of UKIP, or b) Fianna Fail need to find a new European affiliation. The latter seems like a more plausible answer. I do not believe for one single second that FF are closet Eurosceptics, so wouldn’t they be doing a lot of people a big favour if they cut their ties with the likes of Fini and the Kaczynski brothers? Don’t hold your breath though. Fianna Fail will neither gain nor lose votes on the back of whether or not they maintain their UEN/AEN links. And when you’re in Fianna Fail votes are all that matter. Principles? Don’t make me laugh.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

"Mr. Jefferson, build up that wall!"

If, like me, you have lots of time on your hands take a few seconds out of that surplus time and type ‘Christopher Hitchens’ into the search engine on YouTube. It’s a worthwhile venture. What you’ll discover is a whole host of links to videos of The Hitch giving it loads to various sectors of society he doesn’t like, and that happens to be quite a large group of people. Religion takes quite a hit from one of America’s newest citizens.

This year saw the publication of his fantastic god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. One of the highlights of the arrival of this fine tome has been the accompanying speaking tour of - primarily though not exclusively - the United States and there are clips aplenty from it on YouTube. Some of the videos are of debates on university campuses, others appear to be illegally lifted from his many appearances on TV and radio broadcasts. All of them are informative and highly entertaining.

As this is at heart a promotional tour for a book you may notice that as you sift through the videos a lot of the material does tend to crop up again and again. That is why this piece below is so good. It comes from the Authors@Google series, lasts about 60 minutes and has lots of great Hitchens one liners (think of it as a greatest hits clip for true junkies). Sadly one of the downsides is that the audience, not to mention the girl who introduces him, seem a little bit overawed by his presence and he never really gets challenged. Nevertheless, there are worse ways to spend an hour: