Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Spot the difference

According to Fine Gael the design for their new online home is "inspired" by the BBC website. Inspired? Really? Hmmm. I'm not so sure. Have a gawk at the FG site here and then check out the BBC homepage here. If you ask me this is plagiarism of Noel Gallagher proportions. Speaking of Noel Gallagher, isn't the Oasis guitarist of Mayo descent? Indeed he is. And whereabouts is the current Fine Gael leader from? Ah, yes. Castlebar. Must be something in the water.

Sunday, April 26, 2009


Orders from comrade Roland. I must list seven songs that I am into right now, irrespective of genre/quality/lyrical content. They don't even have to be any good. They simply have to be the songs that are "shaping" my spring. Well, I can't honestly say that I have heard any songs over the past couple of weeks that have helped 'shape my spring' but here are a few tunes I have hummed on the train to work during April. So, in no particular order:

Daniel - Bat for Lashes
Haunting hollering from everyone's favourite Anglo-Pakistani multi-instrumentalist.

Moscow Nights - Alex Siniavski
Stumbled upon thanks to unrepentant communist Gabriel, this funky number was the old theme tune for Radio Moscow back in the day; can be found in the post-Cold War era on a Barynya Russian Folk Songs album.

French Navy - Camera Obscura
Jangly, chirpy, vivacious Glaswegian pop.

Star Guitar - Chemical Brothers
Rediscovering music you haven't listened to for a few years can often be as invigorating as coming across new acts for the first time. This track from 2002 has recently provided moi with such invigoration (see Michel Gondry-directed video for further stimulation).

Symphony No. 4 - Dmitri Shostakovich
According to We7 if you like this you may also like Tissues and Issues by Charlotte Church. Indeed.

Who Could Win a Rabbit - Animal Collective
Delightful nonsense.

Wonder - Hauschka
As is often the case, I was introduced to the wonders of Hauschka (aka, Volker Bertelmann) by the splendid dulcet tones of the magnificent Verity Sharp on Late Junction. I don't normally do advertising, but buy this.

There you go. Done and dusted. Seven songs and ten minutes of my life that I will never be able to regain. As he also tagged most of the people I would have chosen, I shall boldly disobey comrade Roland's final order and refrain from selecting anyone else. Moving on...

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Red shoots of recovery

Could the sick man of Europe be on the mend? Whilst one should not get too overly enthralled about the prospects of a new government in Reykjavik, amidst the current doom and gloom the news that the left of centre Social Democratic Alliance will most likely have a parliamentary majority following this weekend's general election in Iceland will provide a modest little boost for all progressives at the present time. Not only does it signal the important success of an organisation from within the Socialist International but it also heralds the coming to power of a party that has unashamedly put EU membership and support for the single currency at the centre of its campaign in a country where hostility towards the concept of European integration has always been widespread. If only Labour in Britain could display similar courage on the issue. Finally, in another small step for mankind this election also cements the current Prime Minister and SDA leader Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir's place in history as the world's first openly gay head of government, an honour she achieved a couple of months back following the collapse of Geir Haarde's administration. So, good news all round. As a commentator on this site said last week, if Iceland can do it so can we.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Yurp dodging

Katy Dillon, writing on LabourList earlier today, is absolutely dead right. Why on earth does Labour continue to be a pro-European party that is frightened to admit it is pro-European? As comrade Katy puts it:

Explaining the governance of the European Union is not particularly easy, but this is pretty comprehensible… We could make the European Union progress with policies that turn the notion of 'a social Europe' into a reality. But Labour is not saying this. We are a forceful pro-European party, but we won't declare this publicly. Instead of facing the truth about the EU, positives and negatives, we struggle to find the right narrative and end up avoiding the question altogether.

I have moaned about this here before so apologies if this smacks of repetition on my part. What is deeply frustrating is that in avoiding the thorny issue of Europe all that Labour does is hand an easy victory on the subject over to the Tories, a party who in truth are fairly unclear about what they want from the EU.

As for polling day itself, I don't detect all that much excitement building for next month's European election. When it does happen I suspect it will be treated as little more than a glorified opinion poll to see how the two main parties in Britain stand with a general election just around the corner. But who knows. Maybe, just maybe, someone might actually want to talk about the future of the European Union in the coming weeks. And no UKIP, I'm not talking about you.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Fire up the licence fee

Philip Glenister ain't too chuffed with the recent spate of Beeb bashing:

The Ross-Brand business was absolute nonsense. They were wrong and there should have been editorial control, but I look at the early stages of the X-Factor – these delusional people coming in thinking they can sing, and the camera cutting to the panel members sniggering. If that isn't bullying, what is? There seems to be this extraordinary hate campaign to bring down the BBC. Everyone is so negative about it. I'm on a mission to be positive. Look at Radio 4 and the World Service: some of the last bastions of civilisation, in my opinion. If the BBC went, what would we be left with? The thought is terrifying.

Me too, Phil. Ashes to Ashes is still shit though.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Ending the silence

A report last week on National Public Radio marking the seventieth anniversary of the end of the Spanish Civil War told the heartbreaking tale of Uxenu Ablana. Now 79 years old, he was one of thousands of children from Republican families snatched by Franco's forces in the wake of the conflict just as the new dictatorship was establishing itself in the most brutal fashion.  Disturbing as this story is, unfortunately it is also true that child abduction wasn't exactly rare among totalitarian factions in Europe during this period of the 20th century; Greek communists are said to have pursued a similar policy during the Civil War there in the period 1946-1949. When one reads Señor Ablana's harrowing story you soon realise why people in that country preferred a 'pact of silence' during the uneasy period of the transition.

When Daniel Hannan wrote in the Daily Telegraph earlier this week that "even my closest Spanish friends tend to clam up whenever conversation drifts towards what happened between 1936 and 1939" it reminded me of a similar experience I had with three Spanish students I lived with during my postgraduate year at university. During one particular night spent in our living room over a few bottles of Rioja I found myself being probed about the ins and outs of Irish history, specifically the 1921 Treaty and the subsequent Civil War. Not being too enthusiastic about returning to topics which have been revisited too much in these parts, I decided to turn the tables on my Spanish brothers and sister and ask them about their own internal conflict in the thirties. The reaction was bizarre. At first there was a silence which was accompanied by all three checking each other out uncomfortably. Then one of them uttered something in Spanish. Then another said something in Spanish. Within the space of a minute I had been unceremoniously dumped out of the conversation and a full blown debate (which I am ashamed to say I was unable to understand) was taking place right in front of me. Eventually one of the men in the room got up and left. I never did find out what has said. To be totally honest I was too afraid to ask, primarily because I was the person bearing most responsibility for causing the quarrel.

But then I didn't really need to know exactly what the argument was about. It had proved that one need only scratch the surface of Spanish society to see the signs of seven decades worth of pent up hurt and anger (and these were all young Spaniards born in the early eighties, nearly a decade after Franco's death). Should this national amnesia be allowed to continue or is it time to bring it all out in the open? Personally, I'm for the latter. True, I am not Spanish so it is a lot easier for me to assume this line. It is also true that one could quite reasonably call me a hypocrite as I have always argued against the endless stream of historical inquiries into our own recent troubles and in favour of drawing a line under the past and moving on. However, it would be a tragedy if Uxenu Ablana's generation were to go to their graves without ever having properly confronted the past.

Now is the proper time for Spain to confront its demons. Just as I believe a certain amount of forgetting is necessary for us to move on in Northern Ireland, the pact of silence in the late seventies was also a necessity to stop the democratic transition getting bogged down in the settling of old scores. Some day we will be able to revisit our past too, but only when the wounds have healed. Spanish wounds may just have healed sufficiently. I hope.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Come together

By jove, he's got it! While I can't say that I'll be reaching for a Socialist Workers Party membership application form just yet but every now and again one of those Trotskyist boyos can actually display a bit of wit - and to be fair it usually comes from yer man McCann. In his regular Belfast Telegraph this week comrade Eamonn makes some positive noises on the question of integrated education in Norn Iron:

True, the divide in education isn't the cause of sectarianism. But it reflects and is an important mechanism for perpetuating sectarianism. It's not that hatred of "the other side" is taught in the classrooms — it isn't — but that it's presented as perfectly natural and not to be questioned that there is nobody from 'the other side' present in the classroom.

McCann also quite rightly adds that "no member of any Executive party is willing to advocate as modern a measure" as that proposed by Lord Londonderry (no, not Eamonn) back during the birth pangs of the Northern Irish state. And if that doesn't make you depressed I don't know what will.

The integrated education question has never struck me as a particularly left-right issue as much as it is, in my shamelessly biased view at least, a right-wrong one. In fact, far from being at the head of the progressive drive for a shared future, the left has been notoriously weak on the subject of integrated education. The SDLP and Sinn Fein have avoided the subject either because they do not want to upset their overwhelmingly Catholic voting base or else because they have no genuine interest in the issue. Smaller groupings on the far left of local politics have tended to look upon it as a bourgeois distraction while some, such as the Irish Republican Socialist Party, have expressed open hostility to the concept on the basis that it would mean "an education system which is under the control of the pro-imperialist section of the population" (I think that might be fancy language for the Prods). Not an election goes by in this fair province without yours truly taking a butchers at the large batch of leaflets which fall through his door in order to see which candidates and parties want to see our wee Billys and Saoirses sitting beside one another in double Maths and in my time of scouring through these drab manifestos the only two organisations which have consistently advocated integrated education have been the Alliance Party and The Workers Party.

I am always slightly dubious of those individuals whose first response to the mere mention of integrated education is that while it is a good idea in theory it is not the answer to all our troubles. Of course it isn't. I have never heard anyone claim that it is. I think most people would agree that integrated education is not something that should be forced upon the people of Northern Ireland, however I cannot see the merits of any argument against increased funding for integrated education and a more rigorous promotion of its benefits. This is not a question of social engineering (as I have heard figures from the DUP and Catholic Church term it in the past) but simply recognition that the apartheid system of education currently in place in this land is not doing us any good whatsoever. So, is there any chance of a seachange in mainstream attitudes on the issue in the short to medium term? I don't think so, but you should never say never.

If you like - though I wouldn't blame you for wanting to do something different on a Saturday - you can read more about the relationship (or in some cases lack of one) between the local churches and integrated schools in Tony Macaulay's study Churches and Christian Ethos in Integrated Schools. To be fair, it isn't all depressing reading. For example, most of the sixty cross community schools do now maintain some form of relationship with their local Catholic, CoI or Presbyterian church so perhaps there is a thawing in relations between the integrated sector and clergy. While we shouldn't get too optimistic or carried away with ourselves about the prospects for integrated education in the coming years nor should one let themselves become too pessimistic or overcome with doom and gloom. Believe. Things will change. I'm sure of it.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

"I have been briefed on some of it"

Apparently Caroline Flint (that's Caroline Flint, the charming Minister for Europe) has never actually taken the time to read the Lisbon Treaty. I can't say I'm all that surprised. Who has? This isn't the first story I've come across where somebody who should be a little more up to speed on this topic has openly admitted that they simply couldn't be bothered reading the Reform Treaty. And in case you're wondering, I haven't read it either (though I have been briefed on some of it).

If you'd like to cast your eye over the Lisbon Treaty then click here. Or if, unlike myself and the Flintster, you actually have read the bloody thing then by all means leave a comment below and tell the rest of us about what we're missing.

Must try harder

"To unite the whole people of Ireland, to abolish the memory of past dissensions, and to substitute the common name of Irishman, in place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter, these were my means."

Theobald Wolfe Tone
An Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland (1791)

It isn't particularly unusual for me to only get around to reading a newspaper a day or two after buying it, but to only get around to reading last Saturday's Irish Times a whole eight days after purchasing it must be something of a record. It was probably something to do with the hoo-ha surrounding the gripping climax of the RBS Six Nations that caused me to cast aside the March 21st edition but whatever the reason for the distraction I happened to miss out (temporarily) on Garret Fitzgerald's excellent article from that particular day. In his column Garret the Good remarked on the colossal damage done to the cause of Irish unity by the futile and abysmal failure of the Provisional 'armed struggle'. A revelation? Hardly. Yet while highlighting such a thing is nothing new, the article certainly was remarkable in the way that it went against the grain of almost universal applause for the Provos in recent weeks following Martin McGuinness's uncompromising condemnation of dissident republicans in the wake of the murders in Antrim and Craigavon.

But the part of Fitzgerald's piece which interested me most was the bit where the former Taoiseach raised that old chestnut about the sizeable level of support existing amongst Catholics in Northern Ireland who favour remaining part of the United Kingdom. He wrote:

Another key aspect of Northern Ireland that is widely ignored – most determinedly, of course, by Sinn Fein – is the fact that polls there have consistently shown support for Northern Ireland remaining within the United Kingdom, not just by Protestants but also by an important minority of Catholics – shown by polls currently to be about 30 per cent. With 44 per cent of the population Catholic, and with virtually no Protestant interest in joining a united Ireland, this suggests that when today's children become voters around the year 2025, support for a united Ireland could still be below one-third – and even if a Catholic majority of voters were to emerge in or after 2045, there could still be a large majority preferring to remaining in the UK.

These are figures that many nationalists may want to either mock or ignore but the truth is they can afford to do neither. Take another look at those statistics. Roughly one-third of Catholics at present would opt in a referendum for retaining the status quo. Meanwhile, on the other side of the sectarian divide, there is "virtually no Protestant interest in joining a united Ireland." If these figures are accurate (and I do happen to believe that a considerable portion of Catholics have no interest in a 32 county republic) then the republican movement's post-ceasefire strategy of sitting back and watching the nationalist population grow suddenly doesn't look to be a very clever one.

There was a time not too long ago when Sinn Fein members and supporters spoke about a united Ireland as though both governments and the people of Northern Ireland had already decided that that would be the outcome of the peace process. Were they deluded? Were they simply telling themselves what they wanted to hear? Hadn't these people bothered to read the terms of the Good Friday Agreement? The euphoric optimism of that period has now vanished. Just as hitting the electoral ceiling with a bloody great thud in 2007 brought them to their senses about what they could realistically expect to achieve in the Republic, these days you would have a difficult job finding any Shinner willing to put their hard earned cash on the border evaporating by 2016. Waving goodbye to the Brits has now been replaced by more modest goals, such as the devolution of policing and justice or becoming a junior partner in a coalition government in the south. An all-Ireland socialist republic with Irish as the primary means of communication is, to put it lightly, on the back burner.

Last month, in the wake of the dissident slaying of two soldiers and a PSNI officer, I heard Gerry Adams refer to how it was the task of his party to "persuade" people in the Protestant community of the benefits of Irish unity. If only. In reality Sinn Fein have not made any serious concerted effort at winning over their unionist neighbours, however if their grandiose goals are ever going to be realised it is clear that they - and indeed nationalists in general - will have to drag a significant chunk of 'the other side' away from their natural home. This would require a change of tactics.

Back in the mid-nineties the Provisionals ditched the bomb and the bullet in favour of the less violent but equally crude bedroom and ballot strategy. Little more than a decade on it is now clear that not only is this policy deeply immoral and totally against the secular ethos of republicanism, it is also evidently not working. If Sinn Fein still truly desires a united Ireland then it is time they started trying to actively sell the concept to as wide a section of the population as possible. The Tim Pat Coogan strategy of waiting for demographic changes to swing the vote in some future referendum has to be discarded. While I am neither a Sinn Fein supporter nor a nationalist I obviously have no interest in the success or the failure of any such charm offensive, but as someone who wants to see the sectarian element of politics here eradicated once and for all I would nevertheless welcome any attempt by the party to dispose of its ghetto mindset. In a period when the Ulster Unionists are attempting to redefine themselves along more secular, pluralistic and centre right lines now may be the time for nationalists and republicans to begin thinking outside the box. Whether a movement whose roots lie in the armed defence of Catholic areas of Belfast in the late sixties has the capacity to do so is another matter.

Ignore Garret at your peril, Gerry.