15 August 2006

On this day

Sixty-one years ago, on this day, the Second World War ended. I can still remember the unbridled joy, the huge sense of relief and pride that the freedom-loving nations of the world – which was how we thought of ourselves then – had triumphed over evil.

It wasn’t the war to end all wars. Since then there has been continuous warfare of some sort all over the world. I doubt if the current wars are about triumphing over evil.

On this same date, in 1950, Princess Elizabeth (the present Queen) gave birth to a daughter. Such were the values of the day that the event was headlined all over the US and the Commonwealth. News flashes appeared on cinema screens. Even in the land of Oz, in theatres and nightclubs, people stood and cheered.

The King was shooting (animals) on the Scottish moors and a special messenger was sent to inform him. Nobody bothered to tell me – I was labouring on a sweltering building site in Yugoslavia. But that’s another story.

The Westminster Registrar went to Clarence House to complete the birth certificate. After the Duke had signed, he was given his daughter's identity card, a ration book and bottles of cod-liver oil and orange juice. We were a very egalitarian society in those days.

In 1971 on this day we acquired an addition to the English language – a ‘Harvey Smith’ – after the famous horseman was stripped of his winnings for giving the V-sign (sort of) to the judges at the British Show Jumping Derby.

But on this day in 1998, at precisely 3.10 pm, the self-styled ‘real’ IRA detonated a bomb that killed 29 innocent people, including 9 children and a woman pregnant with twins. It maimed and burned over 200 others and destroyed the lives of hundreds more. The dead included two young Spaniards on a day-trip from a student exchange programme in Donegal.

The town of Omagh had entered the history books for the most tragic of reasons. The perpetrators finally stated that their bomb had exploded at its intended (commercial) location. It would appear that the commercial target was a small shop stocked with school uniforms for the coming term.

Much has been written about the mistakes by police North and South, both before and after the event. There has been unhappiness about the allocation of compensation, the inability to bring the killers to justice and the lukewarm official support for civil action in the courts. All this has added to the distress of the bereaved.

A significant factor has been the unwillingness of people with vital information to come forward.

Is it fear? I think I could just about understand that.

Or is it that old perverted sense of Irish loyalty to those who see themselves as patriots?

08 August 2006

Serious malfunctions

I should like to make it absolutely clear that I am very much against swearing – and only resort to it, on a purely private and personal basis, when I feel it necessary.

‘Yo Blair!’ said George Bush to his poodle Tony at the recent G8 Summit. He then followed with the (deeply shocking) S word with special reference to excremental supplies from Syria.

I hope his many followers were not too disturbed and that George has asked forgiveness of whoever he talks to when forgiveness and guidance are required. Clearly it was a malfunction.

A more memorable malfunction occurred at the Super Bowl in 2004 when the gyrating pop star Janet Jackson lost control of her apparel, and part of her anatomy made a fleeting public appearance. America was deeply traumatised, Britain was indifferent and the French nearly died laughing.

Following the subsequent ‘Nipplegate Investigation’ by the FCC (the Federal Communications Commission) the TV companies involved were fined $500,000. Meanwhile Janet was issuing a series of grovelling apologies and explanations. It was, she claimed, a malfunction. I sympathise with you Janet. These things are happening all the time.

I can report however that the American porn film industry, the biggest in the world, was not adversely affected.

Currently, the documentary film-maker Ken Burns is also running into trouble with the FCC over his film about the US Army in action, not because of its scenes of death and destruction but because soldiers are heard swearing. Burns has a beard, so is clearly an extremist.

Readers will already be aware that I am not absolutely at one with the British Countryside Alliance in its fight to preserve foxhunting.

Commendably however, it produced a series of posters, T-shirts and badges (seen fitfully on television) with the slogan ‘Horlicks to Blair’. Well it wasn’t actually Horlicks – it was much more alliterative to go with ‘Blair’– but I want to avoid this esteemed newspaper being fined $500,000. And besides, I have a beard.

At the Midlands Game Fair young Charlotte Denis was sporting a T-shirt bearing the said slogan and was arrested. The Police said the slogan was offensive. The young lady offered to remove her T-shirt but that opened issues of the Janet Jackson variety so she agreed to wear a coat. She was therefore released without charge. No action was taken against the giant posters.

Ms Denis had bought her T-shirt at the very posh Badminton Horse Trials a year earlier. ‘Horlicks to Blair’ merchandise, according to the manufacturers, ‘has been popular with all ages’ and they claim that some police officers wear the T-shirts under their uniforms.

Which just goes to show how the evil axis of global anti-democracy is lunging at the very breast of Western decency.

Oh dear. Have I said something offensive?

01 August 2006

Rules of war

One Israeli soldier is captured by Hamas, and two by Hezbollah. All hell breaks out.

To put matters in perspective, the number of Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners held by Israel runs into many thousands. Some have been imprisoned for more than 20 years.

In 1985 Israel freed 1,500 prisoners in return for a handful held by various Arab groups.

Early in 2004, there was another deal. Israel released around 430 Arab prisoners plus some 60 Lebanese corpses in exchange for one abducted businessman and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers. That reduced the total number held by Israel by just under 6%. The 7,500 or so still held at that time included women and girls, about 400 youths and an estimated 300 chronically ill.

Following that bizarre deal Hezbollah gained considerable credibility across the Arab world, having already won admiration in 2000 when it forced the Israeli army out of Lebanon – the only ‘resistance’ organisation to defeat Israel by military action.

Success brings its own reward. Iran, in its own mendacious interest, and with the connivance of Syria, keeps Hezbollah well supplied with increasingly sophisticated weaponry. Such coordination is seen by many as but one of the many predictable consequences of the invasion of Iraq.

Psychotic, reckless and fanatical it may be in the eyes of its enemies, Hezbollah has become an effective underground army and has the support of many Lebanese moderates who, rightly or wrongly, see it as their only means of defence.

Kofi Annan was quick to warn of a serious humanitarian disaster and called for an immediate ceasefire.

America, supported by the UK, did not agree.

We were in fact saying: let the collective punishment continue until Israel has out-gunned its enemies. Let the destruction of Lebanon and Gaza spread for a while longer. Let the death toll of the innocent rise.

While Israeli cities were suffering indiscriminate rocket attacks from Hezbollah, Israel was claiming credit for ordering Lebanese civilians to clear certain areas so that they could pound them with air strikes and artillery.

And even if the refugees could have picked their way through the blocked roads and survived air attacks while they did so, they were also having their homes and businesses destroyed with impunity. And what if they were too poor, too old or too sick to leave? They must remain behind and be buried in the rubble.

Meanwhile the Bush administration was rushing five-tonne laser-guided bombs to Israel and Condoleezza Rice was speaking glibly (if not insanely) of ‘the birth pangs’ of a new Middle East.

Soldiers taken by Hezbollah are ‘kidnapped’. Those held by Israel are captured ‘terrorists’, ‘gangs’ and ‘criminals’, entitled neither to trial nor the protection of the Geneva Convention.

Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay operate under the same ingenious patent.

25 July 2006

Drumcree revisited

When Pope Paul II visited Glasgow some years ago, the Strathclyde Police decided to take a softly-softly line with possible trouble makers, given that the Pontiff’s meeting with the leader of the Church of Scotland was, for some, a bridge too far.

I understand that a youth was caught inscribing the dreaded F word on a wall with special reference to the distinguished visitor. Why, asked the Police nicely, had he chosen the Pope for such rudeness? ‘Because,’ said the wee laddie, ‘there was nae room to write the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.’

Such dilemmas may soon be a thing of the past.

An article in the Glasgow Herald suggests the new Pope should pay a visit to Ibrox, the home of Glasgow Rangers. Certain battle cries have been drawn to the attention of Uefa, European football’s governing body, and, assuming that they will be able to decode the sectarian insults, they propose to take some action, as yet unspecified.

Offensive phrases directed towards those of a different branch of the Christian faith (such as the cleverly constructed gibe ‘Yer mother’s a nun’) can be universally interpreted but links with the historic Fianna may take more work.

Back home £100,000 of public money is to be allocated to Orangefest – which is not, as first thought, an Eat More Fruit campaign. On the contrary, the hills of Drumcree should soon be alive with the sound of music supplied by the True Blue Defenders Temperance Flute Band to the semi-erotic sway of bewigged Irish dancers. The scene was set in 1995 when David Trimble and Ian Paisley tripped the light fantastic down the Garvaghy Road but I am reliably informed that their relationship may have cooled since then.

Then there is the even cooler £3.3 million to be spent on paramilitary murals.

Changing the paintwork of sectarianism will not greatly undermine its existence nor deter the more resolute graffiti merchants. Can that wee Glasgow laddie’s unhappy exhortation be edited locally to something more friendly and inclusive? All suggestions welcome.

Meanwhile the paramilitaries are working on new grant-catching ideas. Some possibilities:

ULSTER SAYS MAYBE. NO SURRENDER JUST YET. OUR TIME HAS ARRIVED (formerly Tiocfaidh Ar La). FORGET 1690. BRITISH FORCES OF OPPRESSION WELCOME.

Tenders will be invited for the supply of the new eco-friendly press-button gas-fired bonfires.

But such radical thinking is by no means new.

You may recall the Government’s poster campaign a few years back to raise morale and assist with our reorientation. One suggestion was to rename Cross-gar ‘Happy-gar’.

I considered wearing a fixed grin while shopping in the village but was advised of a possible ambush by the men in white coats – who would not have been as forgiving as the Strathclyde Police.

Better to remain my old grumpy self.

18 July 2006

Zero tolerance

My good friend Mike works the shirt off his back in the service of others.

His venerable BMW saloon – only six careful previous owners – is strictly for getting from A to B, and, if things go well, getting back to A again.

Before its annual MOT it is serviced and checked for all possible shortcomings.

I can report that last month it again passed, though not quite with its usual flying colours. The handbrake had lost something of its initial enthusiasm so Mike was asked to attend to this matter and turn up for a handbrake inspection at a date to be determined.

The Ultimate Driving Machine – now with impeccably adjusted handbrake – was then parked close to Mike’s office. When he returned to the car he found a number of youths trying to steal it. This indeed was remarkable. They usually nick new shiny models with go-faster stripes but perhaps these particular delinquents had an eye for a more mature patina.

Against all advice Mike fell on the miscreants and gave chase. But you cannot compete with performance-enhancing drugs, so they escaped.

Then again, had one of them tripped, he might have sued for common assault or acute loss of dignity and may even have required counselling. But at least the car had survived.

Well nearly. The key assembly was in pieces but, with considerable patience, and no small amount of ingenuity, Mike got the car going.

The return to the MOT centre was now ruled out until the key bits were replaced. But alas, the deadline came and went and an entirely new whole-car MOT inspection was therefore ordered – at the full standard fee. The first possible date was after the tax disc had expired. But a new disc could not be obtained without a valid MOT certificate.

Are you still following?

Meanwhile Mike parked his car – temporarily untaxed – in a city street, only to be spotted by the DVLNI’s hit-squad who towed it away. Gone too was his mobile phone. So, in order to discover where they had taken his possessions, he had to find a public telephone box. Most of these double up as toilets. The one he eventually found was no exception.

Having perused a rancid directory and fed the evil machine with every coin in his possession, he managed to trace the car’s whereabouts.

With just about enough cash left for a taxi he set off to the pound to explain the circumstances, both tragic and extenuating.

The official, fully enclosed in bullet-proof glass, listened intently. He then charged my friend £200.

I’m sure you will agree that we should be tough on crime and the causes of crime.

Zero tolerance is the name of the game.

So it is positively heart-warming that we are coming down hard on maladjusted handbrakes.

11 July 2006

Short of a goal

I promised myself I would declare this column a football-free zone. My apologies. Anyway, by the time you read this the World Cup will be over.

The tournament has the peculiar quality of condemning thirty-one nations to tears, recriminations and national despair. Well that’s not quite true. Gallant teams from Trinidad and Tobago or Togo – where finding the price of an air fare for the players was a problem – will have been happy just to have made it to the finals.

But the super-rich teams ­– national minimum wage around £50,000 a week, and everyone a household name – seemed to believe that destiny was on their side.

Several of FIFA’s chosen referees were incompetent, including the sole Englishman. We also had a barking-mad Russian.

Before the competition English hopes were ludicrously high. There had been the lavish optimistic pre-departure party at ‘Beckingham Palace’. A week into the tournament we had a glimpse of the tragic Michael Owen returning to his more modest abode – a slightly scaled down version of the Slieve Donard Hotel.

There were the paint-the-town-red over-dressed and under-dressed wives and girlfriends – the WAGs. David Beckham’s gigantic portrait looked down on Europe’s main cities – to advertise his new ‘fragrance’ for men.

Only one thing was missing. The lads couldn’t perform on the pitch.

Then there was the inscrutable Sven. He took fewer striker/forwards than any other manager in the competition. One of them was the juvenile Theo Walcott who had not quite made it to his own club team. With perverse wisdom Sven did not risk him in any game.

And yet, we were led to believe that Sven could pull something out of the hat. There was no something and no hat. Facing Portugal he had designed an attacking formation that didn’t actually work. Every screaming English fan could spot the blunder, but not Sven.

So why was his salary fifty times greater than his opposite number in his native Sweden, against whom England could only scrape a draw?

Before matches Sven admitted to being tense and unable to speak to his players. There’s dynamic leadership for you. His assistant Steve McClaren acquiesced in all of Sven’s odd decisions and yet it is he who will take over his job for the next four years.

At least England didn’t resort to the kind of cheating perfected by other teams. Wayne Rooney’s sending off was skilfully engineered by the Portuguese players and particularly by Cristiano Ronaldo, his Manchester United team mate. (In Sun language, ‘the world’s biggest winker’.)

In an odd way captain David Beckham has grown in stature – I even thought his stumbling resignation statement had a kind of elegance.

Perhaps he has learned that having everything is never quite enough.

04 July 2006

Poles apart

At a point where a lane, common to me and my neighbours, joins the public road, there is a telegraph pole.

Not a very dramatic start to an article. But let us proceed.

The pole obstructs the view of oncoming traffic from the right. One or two local motor cyclists, hard to see at the best of times, approach at around Mach One.

Over the years we have trimmed the hedge around the pole but hedges can fight back and even, when trimmed, the pole impedes the view.

Hedgerow cutting is of course regulated. It is illegal to cut a hedgerow during certain months and generally one must seek permission. There used to be grants for removing them. Now you get grants for putting them back. And you can be fined if you have an anti-social hedgerow. ASBOs do not apply. In fact, trimming a badly behaved hedgerow could lead to a fine – catch 22.

Recently there have been some local building developments and, as various poles have had to be shifted, I thought a polite approach to BT might be opportune.

Rang the recommended number. Listened to an automated reply, pressed several keys when commanded to do so, completed a tour of the entire BT departmental network, and then, at last, an actual human voice.

‘John speaking how can I help?’ John was indeed helpful, heard my case with patience, and promised to put the relevant wheels in motion.

In the fullness of time BT rang back. Yes it was certainly possible to move a pole. But he kept on about ‘alterations to BT plant’. I was becoming wary.

One point. I would have to meet the cost. How much? Depends. Depends on what? On the pole. Give me a rough figure. £2,000 plus.

At this juncture I declined his kind offer with much thanks for his time.

I then received a letter to clarify some points ‘concerning my recent order’.

Rang back. What order? The order to alter BT plant.

This is how you can help.

If you are passing along Kilmore Road and you spy a posse of BT pole-shifters, please tell them that you have it from me (in writing herewith) that I do not wish them to proceed.

I would greatly appreciate you raising the point, if you have time, that a problem which causes a possible hazard should be solved at BT’s expense. Please could you also assure them, on my behalf, that I have been paying my phone bills promptly for many years and that I am positively excited about broadband.

I should be grateful also if you could tactfully remind them that their last pre-tax annual profit was around £6 billion.

Obviously pole-shifting is a nice little earner.

27 June 2006

Observe the sons

Last week I had the privilege of joining a packed audience at a remarkable performance of the award-winning play Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme.

It would be fair to say that its author, Frank McGuinness, is not exactly of the Ulster Loyalist Protestant tradition, but equally fairly, his play demonstrates his profound understanding of its psyche, its pride, its fears, its dilemmas.

The play is about eight men of the 36th Ulster Division during the First World War. It reaches a climax at the dawn of the horrific Battle of the Somme on 1st July 1916 – the actual anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

The young cast might well represent those who today patrol the streets of Basra or Falluja. The same questions arise about loyalty to a cause perceived to be noble. Like the young men at the Somme, are today’s soldiers mere pawns in the deadly game of international politics?

Or was the Somme the ultimate test in loyalty – a blood sacrifice to match any other?

The cast, and the supporting stage crew, had never been involved in a play before, let alone in learning lines and interpreting a serious and complicated piece of theatre.

They were a mixed-religion group and there was not the slightest problem in their getting to grips with an intensely one-sided theme.

While they were rehearsing, running into problems – which at times seemed insurmountable – and periodically losing and regaining confidence, they were being filmed close-up for a BBC documentary. The film crew was also there to record their final triumph – three flawless performances and three well-deserved standing ovations.

Why is all this so remarkable?

The cast were inmates of the Hydebank Wood Young Offenders Centre where the gymnasium had been turned into a temporary theatre.

Perhaps for the first time in their lives these young men had worked as a team and, through sheer hard cooperative slog, had achieved something, which by any standards, touched a kind of greatness.

Dan Gordon, Mike Moloney and Brendan Byrne had worked tirelessly with the team, pushing hard when it was necessary, praising when it was deserved.

I meet inmates in jails on a regular basis. They don’t have horns. Many have grown up in tough hostile environments, with few opportunities, little guidance, even less encouragement, often put down, and seldom, if ever, praised. Literacy, self-esteem and emotional problems are rife.

I make no excuses for the offences they have committed, but I remind myself of an old saying, ironically attributed to a sixteenth century Protestant martyr.

There but for the Grace of God go I.

20 June 2006

Flags and emblems

I once received a complaint that the television weatherman stood, with malice aforethought, in front of the map of Northern Ireland, in order to isolate us from the rest of the Kingdom.

Some months later the same party complained that another weatherman stood too far back, thereby displaying the Republic, whose weather, I was informed, had nothing to do with us.

We have a beady eye for detail when it comes to words, symbols, maps, terminology, pronunciation and even single letters – 'aitch' and 'haitch' have caused trouble in the past.

We certainly could do without painted kerbstones and the tattered flags that mark out our tight little sectarian boundaries. Thankfully, flags and emblems within the workplace are things of the past.

The Equality Commission insists, rightly, that workplaces must be strictly 'neutral'. Most firms ban the wearing of certain football shirts and some managements, tired of determining which shirts may possibly have some tribal affiliation, ban sporting gear altogether. And who can blame them.

Bombardier-Shorts must be credited for putting many ancient wrongs right, but when it decided in its sublime wisdom that the Football World Cup wall-charts were in breach of its neutrality rules, the spirit of the local legislation went clean out of the boardroom window. All postage-stamp-sized national flags were given a red card.

Perhaps it is the top-left-hand corner of the Australian flag, with its hint of a Union Jack, that causes the panic, or the Ivory Coast with its back-to-front Irish Tricolour. Or maybe Holland's orange strip might revive the Williamite cause.

What if Northern Ireland had made it to the finals in Germany? Would Bombardier have been the only Company in the entire Planet not to allow its workforce visible support for the home side?

Does fear of our own emblems mean we must run scared of everybody else's?

What about our Portuguese and Polish workers? Should they be permitted to fly their flags during the competition?

Will Christmas cards be withdrawn lest they offend non-believers?

Bombardier's solution has been to issue a sanitised wall-chart stripped of all logos and emblems.

I doubt if turning the world's most colourful international sporting occasion into monochrome will greatly assist the peace process. Sometimes it's better to ease the foot on the pedal.

At the risk of offending all Caucasians, Asians, Arabs and Eskimos, I would love an Afro team, from anywhere, to do well and send some major nation packing.

I think I should nail my own colours to the mast – in a manner of speaking.

I actually want England to win. They seem a nice bunch of lads and success might hopefully stop the entire English media talking about 1966.

13 June 2006

The search continues

I never miss the Toronto Globe and Mail on-line every day.

They once bought me lunch so I feel I have a duty of care.

Like some Canadians – most assuredly not all – they like to know about things that go pear-shaped south of their Border.

For the record, it is simply not in my nature to poke fun at anything that goes on south of our own Border. But I digress.

The Globe ran a story about one Deb Koskovich, a citizen of Milford Township in Michigan. The unfortunate lady had her driveway cut up, her barn bulldozed to the ground, the approach to her farm clogged with satellite news trucks and FBI agents while hundreds of camera-snapping gawkers trampled her lawns.

Throw in a gang of archaeologists and anthropologists, a demolition crew and a pack of cadaver-sniffing dogs and you have the whole circus.

Why? Because the FBI were looking for the remains of Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa who disappeared in 1975.

After two weeks, surprise surprise, the invading army departed without finding a thing.

With the noted exception of Ms Koskovich, everybody in Milford Township seemed to have had a ball.

Local businesses did a brisk trade selling T-shirts. There were Hoffa joke contests and witty road signs.

Hoffa shirts read: 'The FBI digs Milford, do you?' and 'Milford. A great place to meet your friends ... and bury your enemies.'

A restaurant introduced the $12.95 Hoffa Steak Salad 'buried under a field of greens with mushrooms and edible flowers' along with the $2.50 Hoffa Red Lager 'aged in a barn'.

It reminded me of the kidnapping of the racehorse Shergar back in 1983. The media descended from all international arts and parts. But there was no actual story. The only highlight was a breath-taking statement from a senior member of the Gardai to a pyramid of whirring cameras.

With compelling authority he announced that he was 'following a certain line of enquiry'. (I think I have just broken a promise.)

Sitting out this spectacular non-drama in the Europa Hotel was a group of disgruntled reporters, harassed by their editors for their lack of initiative and getting increasingly legless on native Guinness – and desperately hungry.

When the meat-in-the-baps finally appeared they were instantly named 'Sherburgers'. That cheered everybody up.

Still no story. But the total lack of plot didn't prevent a full-length Hollywood film in 1999.

The moral of this article is five-fold – at least.

The FBI is on your side. Think 'War on Terror'.

Invading armies don't always find what they're looking for. Think 'Bin Laden and WMD'.

Never nick a racehorse. But if you must, make it interesting.

Avoid all films based on fact.

Don't blame the media for trying to make something out of nothing. We all have to earn a crust.