Category Archives: Uncategorized

Chavez tightens grip on media

The Independent this week ran a feature about the Venezuelan “dictator” Hugo Chavez.

At least I assumed he was a dictator until I read that he has been elected and re-elected in polls that international observers, including the European Union, say have been free and fair.

He is a popular president, having pumped billions of dollars into social programmes aimed at the poorest in Venezuela. There is free dental care, free health, access to education and vocational training and social housing.

(Sounds a bit like our own wee statelet in fact. But does Venezuela have grammar schools? That’s the key question…)

So what’s the big deal? Well, it seems that he has tired of criticism in the non-state run media and has closed down dozens of radio stations across the country and announced a law that could see journalists in jail for up to four years if they divulged information against “the stability of the institutions of the state”.

I am sure our own leaders will sympathise with Chavez. Remember when Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness accused the Belfast Telegraph of “demonstrating relentless negativity”?

It is a pain when not every journalist has something positive to say, isn’t it?

“Hello, you’re through to the Lisbon Line…”

This could be the answer at the other end of the telephone in a few short weeks as the second Irish referendum on the Lisbon Treaty approaches.

In yesterday’s Irish Times Frank Clarke, the chairman of the Referendum Commission in the republic, reassured voters that the commission will be working to make the treaty as understandable to the electorate as possible.

The Lisbon Treaty is not a page-turner, he admits. But the commission, which is an independent and impartial body, will soon be publishing leaflets and a handbook explaining what the treaty actually means for Ireland.

Crucially, he underlines the fact that the treaty has not changed a jot since last year’s ‘No’ vote. 

“However, the European Council has made decisions giving assurances on certain issues that were of concern to Irish voters in last year’s campaign, and it has said it will include these statements as protocols to a future EU treaty, thus giving them the status of EU law,” he writes. 

And very helpfully, Clarke has summarised in broad terms the main implications the treaty would have on Ireland, and de facto on the United Kingdom:

Some decisions which currently must be taken unanimously would be taken by a qualified majority vote. These areas include energy, asylum, immigration, judicial co-operation and sport.

The European Parliament would be given more decision-making powers.

There would be a new post, that of president of the European Council.

The Charter of Fundamental Rights would be given the same legal value as the main treaties.

If the Lisbon Treaty is not a roadmap to a European federal superstate, then I will eat my national form of headdress.

But, back to the Referendum Commission’s plans. As well as leaflets and a handbook there will be a “dedicated telephone helpline” to assist weary Irish voters in accessing information and getting answers to any questions they have.

Blimey. If I felt sorry for the unfortunate people manning the NHS swine flu helpine (on the meagre wage of £5.80 per hour, according to the job ads last week), I feel even more sorry for the poor souls who will be manning this Lisbon helpline.

“Hello, Lisbon Line, how can I help?”

“Oh, hello. If I vote ‘Yes’ in the referendum and the treaty is passed, would it undermine Ireland’s influence in Europe, open the door to interference in taxation and enshrine EU law above Irish law?”

“Erm…Hold on, I’ll ask a supervisor!” 

Come out, come out, wherever you are…

This was the message from Sir Ian McKellen (pictured) writing in The Times recently marking the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York, which also lent their name to the British gay rights group set up in response to Section 28, a law preventing the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools. 

ian-mckellen-20061227-191072Section 28 was a reaction to the spread of Aids in the 1980s, which was blamed almost exclusively on gay people, compounded by widespread homophobia in the press. But even within the party which introduced the law, there were concerns that it was unjust. McKellen writes that Tristan Garel-Jones, then a Conservative MP, told him that Section 28 was “a piece of red meat thrown to right-wing voters”.

Since then it has proved the bedrock of opposition by large numbers of gay people to the Tories ever since. Some believe that the Conservatives can never be trusted by gay people, regardless of the policies the party has in place regarding health, education or the economy. Hostility to the Conservatives as an “anti-gay” party continues, despite the fact that there are two gay MPs in the Shadow Cabinet, and a gay woman, Margot James, standing in one of the party’s key target seats at the next election.

In fact, such is the degree of hostility, or rather paranoia, that some conversations I have had have been of the “well, they might do it again” variety. I hope that David Cameron’s apology for Section 28 goes some way to reassuring gay people that this will not happen, and that the party is much more concerned about the economy than with throwing more red meat at right-wing voters.

But back to Ian McKellen’s message. He writes:

“For me, coming out made me unburdened and more self-confident. It made me a better actor. It opened me up emotionally. It’s amazing that it’s an experience that people who you’ll never meet, in places in the world you’ll never go to, can relate to. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done.”

In this I wholeheartedly agree with him. Apart from the acting bit.

And this may be a harder task in some places than in others thanks to the efforts of certain public representatives, but it’s a message I pass on to every closeted gay person I meet.