Category Archives: Northern Ireland

A prime minister, a wafer, and a question of faith

They are calling it ‘Wafergate’, the allegation that Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper pocketed a communion wafer at the funeral mass of former governor general Roméo LeBlanc last week.

In video footage of the service the prime minister is shown approaching the priest, accepting the wafer and disappearing out of shot with it in his hand, prompting the accusation that he did not consume the wafer and has caused grave offence to Catholics, who believe that during mass the wafer is transformed into the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ.

StephenHarperchurch“He accepted it and consumed it,” said Harper’s spokesman at the G8 summit in Italy last week, and he was backed up by Noël Kinsella, the Speaker of the Senate and himself a Catholic.

“Sitting only a few seats behind him I had a full view of the proceedings,” Kinsella assured concerned Catholics, among them Monsignor Brian Henneberry of Saint John, New Brunswick. “It’s worse than a faux pas, it’s a scandal from the Catholic point of view,” he told the Saint John Telegraph-Journal.

This story is interesting from a local perspective in that the scandal is not that Harper, who is an evangelical Protestant, attended a Catholic mass, but that he merely slipped up on a matter of etiquette.

To his credit Harper (pictured) has kept his religious beliefs to himself, and it is not difficult to see why. Harper’s church, the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church, does not ordain women, strongly opposes abortion and divorce, condemns homosexuality as the most base of sins and believes those who aren’t born-again are “lost”.

Bruce Foster, head of policy studies at Mount Royal College in Calgary, Harper’s home town, said: “If Harper came out and said those who don’t know the Lord are ‘lost,’ are doomed, he’d be held up to ridicule.” 

Held up to ridicule in the same way perhaps as cabinet minister Stockwell Day, who was lampooned by journalists in the 2000 election for his creationist views.

“In a multicultural, diverse, relativistic country like Canada, that’s toxic stuff for most voters,” said Foster.

What a pity the same cannot be said of Northern Ireland.

Stormont is ignoring the economic actualité

As the debate over the economic crisis continues, public sector cuts are sharply in focus. The Conservatives have had the public sector in their sights for a while, but oddly David Cameron has decided to pick on one quango in particular, Ofcom, declaring that it will “cease to exist” as we know it under a Tory government.

In the Evening Standard Roy Greenslade argues that the Conservative leader has mistaken an overgrown and overreaching regulator for an absence of political leadership in media policy, while The Guardian’s Maggie Brown sympathises with Cameron and feels that the regulator has no business investigating (and criticising) pay-TV services such as Sky.

Northern Ireland also has too many quangos, but our First Minister cannot abolish them even if he wished to because our special status as a post-conflict zone requires us to have commissions galore to administer our collective recovery. The public sector in general is cause for great concern because for decades the policy seems to have been that the public sector should act as a job creation scheme, in the absence of growth in private business. This comfortable safety blanket is something that we still cling to, even after a decade of alleged peace and prosperity. There is the handy argument that the province will be shielded from the worst of the recession because so many in the population (32%) are employed in the public sector, but this misses the point.

Economies are about wealth creation, and public sector jobs do not create wealth. In fact, they do the opposite, in creating an ever-larger burden on the public purse for years to come because of sheltered salaries and pension agreements.

At least in Britain politicians are talking openly of cuts in public spending. This is something that has yet to be addressed at Stormont, but we should not be surprised. Our politicians seem to be genetically unable to digest the reality that cuts need to be considered and implemented, the sooner the better. A few weeks ago the reasonably diligent Regional Development Minister, Conor Murphy, announced proposals to defer water charges for a further three years, a truly head-in-the-sand proposal if ever there was one. 

Nobody wants to pay water charges, the same way as we would all rather not pay taxes. But somebody has to pay for it, and right now only two things are certain: Westminster can no longer afford it, or rather no longer feels it should have pay for it; and Stormont cannot afford it, at least under existing budget limits. The shyness for the economic actualité which exists in our political class should be cause alone for a public outcry. 

Newton Emerson captured our little big problem perfectly in The Sunday Times at the weekend:

“As Britain and Ireland brace themselves for the first real spending cuts in a generation, Northern Ireland is still living in a fiscal fantasy world…The prospect of having to implement cuts fills Stormont’s provincial politicians with horror…The near-guarantee of permanent office should have emboldened those parties to take difficult steps. Instead, it has turned the normal political contest for power into an endless exercise in dodging blame, claiming credit or just cynically undermining supposedly collective decisions.”

This approach to our budget problems is attributable to our ongoing experiment in consociational government, stuck with an administration severely limited in its financial powers, with no effective or official opposition, where all parties are in it together, afeard to speak out (and that’s assuming anyone would want to) in case the whole thing topples over. Again.

The problem is that, like Scotland, we have become too used to a limitless flow of money from the Treasury that coming off this thirty-year high will be extremely difficult and extremely messy. But at least Holyrood has a bit more fiscal authority than we do, and can continue to fund free healthcare for the elderly and all the rest while dreaming of one day liberating their North Sea oil revenues from the Sassenachs.

Speaking of Scotland, remember Ewan McGregor coming off heroin in Trainspotting, screaming in his bed as that demonic baby crawled towards him across the ceiling?

Now imagine Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness in bed (sorry Iris, just bear with me for a moment), screaming at each other in agony as Baby Osborne crawls closer and closer, waving his abacus furiously. Not a pretty thought, but that is just what it might come down to unless our elected representatives can kick the habit of a lifetime.

Who are today’s political misfits?

A misfit is defined as: “one who is unable to adjust to one’s environment or circumstances or is considered to be disturbingly different from others.”

The historian Dr Éamon Phoenix spoke about a number of ‘Ulster’s political misfits’ last night in a fascinating talk at Bangor library. He outlined the lives of forgotten figures from history such as Sir Denis Henry, a leading barrister of his day who became the first, and so far only, Member of Parliament who was a Catholic and a unionist.

There was R. J. Armour, a Presbyterian minister whose dissenting faith and anti-landlordism led to his conversion to Home Rule, sharing John Redmond’s vision of a self-governing Ireland within the Empire. He even organised a Home Rule rally in his native Ballymoney.

jack_whiteAnd another Presbyterian minister, the Reverend Dr  J. A. H. Irwin, who having never mentioned politics in the pulpit took leave from his congregation in Killead, County Antrim in the early 1920s, ostensibly on an extended holiday, to visit the United States on a speaking tour with none other than Éamon de Valera. The two men became good friends and regularly had tea together after Irwin became minister in Lucan, County Dublin, with Dev consulting him on the finer points of the 1937 constitution.

For me the most interesting figure in the talk was the charismatic Captain Jack White (pictured). The Whites were a family of modest landed stock from Broughshane and Jack, only son of the ‘hero of Ladysmith’ Field Marshal Sir George White VC, was assured of a solid career in the army, just like his father. He saw action in the Boer War as a young officer and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order rather by accident, “having, when taken prisoner, owing to mistaking advancing Boers for British troops, and stripped, escaped from custody and run six miles, warning Colonel de Lisle, and advancing with him to relief of Major Sladen’s force,” according to the citation.

After the war he resigned his commission, disaffected with the army, and disappeared for several years teaching in Europe and working as a ranch hand in Canada before returning to Ireland in 1913. He met James Connolly and, according to Phoenix, was immediately converted to socialism. White became heavily involved with the trade union movement and along with James Larkin set up the Citizen Army. After the Rising and the execution of Connolly, White moved further left toward communism and later still joined up with anarchists in the Spanish Civil War. He finally settled with his second wife, a Catholic, back at the family home in Broughshane in 1938 and following the outbreak of war rushed to offer his services to his country. Unsurprisingly, though not to White himself, he was refused on the grounds of his political activities in the past. “But I’m not orange or green, I’m red,” he is said to have protested, genuinely puzzled by the sectarianism in his native land. He died in 1946.

So who are today’s misfits? Can we compare Armour’s Home Rule rally in Ballymoney to Jim Allister’s anti-DUP rally on Paisley territory following the European election? How about Michael Portillo, who began his career as an arch Thatcherite but later recanted on many of his right-wing views and ran for the party leadership on a socially liberal platform.

Perhaps, but they’re pale comparisons to Captain Jack White.

Success is no Mystery for Bateman

colin_batemanThere may not have been a bestselling novel dealing with the theft of a pair of leather trousers before, but there is about to be.

The author Colin Bateman has published his latest novel, Mystery Man, a witty tale featuring a Belfast bookseller turned amateur sleuth who encounters many strange characters along the way. Especially interesting is that the fictional bookseller, who goes unnamed throughout the book (“a really difficult task for a writer,” Bateman admits), is based on the real-life owner of No Alibis, a charismatic little bookshop in Belfast which specialises in crime fiction.

Mystery Man looks set to be his most successful novel since Divorcing Jack, which was published in 1992. Ranked among the top 50 crime writers of all time by The Daily Telegraph last year, alongside Ruth Rendell, Arthur Conan Doyle and his own favourite, the American writer Robert B. Parker, Bateman has become better known in recent years as a screenwriter, most notably for the BBC series Murphy’s Law, which starred fellow Ulsterman James Nesbitt.

“For a few years I was best known for Divorcing Jack, then for the next few years I was best known for doing Murphy’s Law, and from now on I think I’ll be best known for Mystery Man,” he says. The BBC have already optioned the rights to make a television series of the new book. “I’ll be writing a script for the pilot episode, but I write a lot of scripts and not many of them get made!” he protests. The book has also been selected as one of the Richard & Judy Bookclub’s Summer Reads, guaranteeing it a prominence that other authors would kill for.

Bateman, who began his career as a journalist on the County Down Spectator, has certainly been a prolific novelist, with Mystery Man his twenty third to date. “I’m already working on the follow up to Mystery Man. I’m calling it The Day of the Jack Russell. Generally when I’m writing I think of the title first, then try to think of a plot to fit around it,” he says.

With books such as Mohammed Maguire, Reservoir Pups and Driving Big Davie, there is a seam of witty, sarcastic Northern Irish humour running throughout Bateman’s novels along with a rich supply of bizarre characters and scenarios. Mystery Man begins with the tale of a lost pair of leather trousers told to a bookseller by the husband of their owner, mistaking the unnamed protagonist for the private eye next door, who has mysteriously gone missing.

Reading the first few chapters to an enraptured audience crammed into the tiny No Alibis, it is clear that Bateman is an entertainer, particularly in prose but also in spoken word. He has a self-deprecating charm that locals seem to love. The evening before, in the new glass and concrete extension to Bangor’s Carnegie Library, a building which might not meet with the approval of the Prince of Wales, he regales the crowd with anecdotes of his time as deputy editor of the local paper.

“My only brush with terrorism was when a window was broken and someone rang up to claim responsibility, as terrorist groups do. ‘I’m from the Animal Liberation Front. We did the window the other night and we want to claim responsibility,’ said this voice before giving a codeword, probably something like ‘badger’. I said ‘That’s all very well, but aren’t you supposed to let us know what the codeword is first?’ ”

n302487This story about inept ‘terrorists’ sets perfectly the context against which Bateman writes his novels. His (and my) hometown is a prosperous, middle-class town which largely escaped the Troubles, the joke being that Bangor is not a town for the haves or have-nots, but for the haves and have-yachts. The Troubles are never far away in most of Bateman’s books but his terrorists tend to be comic, more likely to be foul-mouthed former hardmen turned taxi drivers in the new era of peace, and not genuinely terrifying. Which is something of a relief to those who want to read a Northern Irish novel which doesn’t dwell too much on the violence of the past.

Another screenwriter from Northern Ireland, Daragh Carville, recently called for an end to the ‘balaclava drama’ and argued that post-Troubles plays and books should deal with something else for a change. His new play deals with the themes of the property boom, the credit crunch and the relationship between a self-made millionaire and a prostitute trafficked into Northern Ireland from Moldova.

“I think because the Troubles lasted for around thirty years, anyone writing during that period had no choice but to use them in stories set here, because they were so much part of the fabric,” says Bateman. “I don’t think it’s necessarily true that it’s time to move beyond ‘balaclava drama’. I think that we’ve just become bored with it and need to be looking for newer themes. That has its own problems in that we are now just another boring part of the UK. The danger in our background is quite often what makes us different.”

Does he feel any responsibility for writing about Northern Ireland to a mainly non Northern Irish audience?

“No, I don’t have such big thoughts, it’s just too dangerous a way to write.  If I was to sit down at the start and say, ‘Now I’m going to address this problem in society’ or  ‘appeal to this section’ then I’d be completely lost. I just get an idea for a story and I write it to the best of my ability, and really, it’s up to someone else to say whether it portrays this, or that, or in fact, if it’s utter nonsense.”

His books certainly are not nonsense, judging by how many he has sold since Divorcing Jack. “I’ve been very lucky with the way things have gone with the books, and that people seem to like them.  I was an awful journalist, and I’m not really equipped to do anything else in life, so I’m doing my ideal job and getting paid for it.”

MPs should be dunked in the moat

52103There is clearly something very wrong with the expenses system for MPs at Westminster, as revelations about Tory “grandees” are splashed across the Daily Telegraph today.

Claims for having one’s moat cleaned, one’s chandelier hung and for horse manure for one’s horses all seem quite extraordinary, and clearly in breach of the spirit if not the letter of the rules, for as Douglas Hogg (the man with the moat, pictured) pointed out, his claims were validated by the fees office. But are they any more extraordinary than the Labour MP Margaret Moran’s claim that she needed her second home in Southampton, many miles away from her Luton constituency, because she needed to see her partner and maintain family life as best as possible, at public expense? The cheek.

The Conservative leader, David Cameron, made a robust response and said he was appalled by the claims. Indeed as this post goes live new rules on what Tory MPs can claim have been announced, while all members of the shadow cabinet who made such extraordinary claims will pay back the money.

While these claims might be lavish, taxpayers in Northern Ireland have been privy to the particularly unedifying sight of double-jobbing MPs getting rich from their various posts and the pleas of innocence from Sinn Fein’s absentee MPs regarding their expenses claims.

No sign of contrition from the First Minister, who receives a salary as a minister, an MLA and an MP, while his wife Iris Robinson also receives two salaries as a member at Westminster and Stormont. With a comfortable home in east Belfast and a holiday home in Florida, it is safe to say that these double-jobbers do not take an “average industrial wage” like their Sinn Fein colleagues.

Which is worse, double-jobbing with two, three or more paid posts, ‘flipping’ from one address to the other in order to claim for furnishings at different houses, or claiming rent for three flats in North London (equipped with widescreen televisions and Sony surround sound systems), for five MPs who do not even sit in the House of Commons?

It would be crude to discriminate, but Sinn Fein’s argument that the properties are used for “Parliamentary business” is not convincing. By not taking their seats the MPs neither attend regular sittings of the house nor committee meetings, the two biggest consumers of an MP’s time when at Westminster. So aside from the occasional meeting at 10 Downing Street, what do they do there? And more to the point, how often were they there?

Suzanne Breen, Northern Ireland editor of the Sunday Tribune, was right when she spoke on BBC Radio Ulster yesterday, demanding that Sinn Fein should produce travel receipts for their MPs so that everyone can see exactly how often they have travelled to Westminster.

It is also time that Northern Ireland’s politicians reconsidered how many posts they can hold at one time.

Whether they think they can manage these various jobs or not, as Environment Minister Sammy Wilson has argued, the changing economic climate has, rightly or wrongly, affected how the voter views what our politicians get up to.

It may be true that all this fuss would not be happening if the country was not in the state of economic crisis it is in. But we are, and our political class must act to reassure the voter, and the taxpayer, that where the average family is sacrificing their summer holiday or shopping at Aldi, politicians will also feel some of the pinch. Or at least pay to have their moat cleaned themselves.