26 July 2005

Remembering Suez

Today happens to be an anniversary of a long-forgotten event. On 26 July 1956 Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, ruler of Egypt, ‘seized’ the Suez Canal. It was a major affront to British power in the Middle East.

Britain was incandescent with rage and we were encouraged to heap hatred upon the demonic Nasser, upon all things Egyptian and upon all things Arab.

The ‘incompetent’ Egyptians had stolen ‘our’ property and it was widely believed that ships would soon be colliding, sinking and blocking the Canal, assuming it hadn’t already silted up.

The Canal was to revert to Egyptian ownership within a few years anyway. Hurt by Britain and France’s refusal to support the Aswan Dam project, Nasser had simply nationalised the Canal ahead of schedule. He offered shareholders full market price as of the day before his announcement.

Virtually nothing of the Canal’s vast revenues had ever gone to Egypt. Around 125,000 Egyptians had died building it.

Within a very short time British and French armies attacked the Canal Zone. By an amazing coincidence – absolutely no collusion of course – the Israelis simultaneously invaded the Sinai Peninsula. Russia made noises about defending Egypt, the United States maintained a strategic silence and the whole military campaign collapsed in a heap some months later.

Much of today’s tragic division and enmity in that area has its roots in those disastrous events.

The story illustrates perhaps a certain haste to use military might and kill people, not necessarily because we feel seriously threatened, but if it is to our economic and political advantage to do so. I wonder if that is why we are in Iraq today. God, as always, was on our side – and also on the shareholders’.

The Pharaohs had actually dug a canal of sorts in ancient times. Later the Greeks and then the Romans repaired and improved it. During the French campaign of 1798 – it was a fairly savage year for County Down as well – Napoleon decided France would build a truly big canal. Ferdinand De Lesseps eventually took charge of the project in 1859.

In his speech at the opening in 1869 De Lesseps gave full credit to a certain Francis Rawdon Chesney whom he graciously described as ‘Le père (the father) of the Suez Canal’. Napoleon didn’t get a mention.

Chesney was born in 1789 and raised in Packolet near Kilkeel and indeed returned there in 1851 after a life of adventure in the Tigris-Euphrates valley (now Iraq) and in Syria and Hong Kong.

It was Chesney’s exploration, surveying and wisdom that had made it all possible.

So there.

19 July 2005

Deficiencies in feeling

Just as an entire nation was gleefully absorbing the good news about London’s Olympic bid there was a chilling change of mood.

Bombs in deep underground tunnels are particularly devastating. All the explosive power acts like a giant rifle causing maximum impact down the ‘barrel’ on metal and glass and human beings alike.

For the wounded and mutilated, and even for the survivors, there is then the horror of being trapped deep underground in choking darkness.

Almost by definition, those who perpetrate such atrocities are psychotic in that they cannot relate their actions to the people they harm.

As one authority puts it, they ‘have deficiencies in feeling appropriate or normal emotions’.
Does that make them mentally ill, and, like any other illness, does it require more cure than punishment? What sort of vile people meticulously plan the killing of large numbers of fellow human beings, young and old, male and female, whom they don't know and who have done them no personal harm?

Their explanation will be that we, their oppressors, because of the country we happen to be born in, or because of the different beliefs we hold – such as worshipping the same God in our own way – do the exact same harm to them by other methods.

We are held to account for supposed historical wrongs, for causing starvation and death one way or another. They kill our innocents because they claim we have done the same, by imperialism, by economics – or by cluster bombs.

Assuming the bombers are aligned to Islam, the fact that fellow Muslims can be killed by their actions is simply their interpretation of our own infamous phrase, collateral damage. They see their war as a necessary righteous war.

Journalistic memories have been turning to the IRA’s bombing campaign over two decades ago. Could anybody have thought back then that those who were behind it would in later years become part of a political process? Could anybody have conjured up a political wing to which, many will argue, huge concessions have been made to prevent a recurrence of earlier violent ways?

Amid sorrow and anger, it would be unthinkable to imagine a future in which the psychotic organisation responsible for this recent attack will become part of any national political spectrum. It will most certainly never happen. Would anybody in their right mind wish it to happen? But there’s an uncomfortable parallel with Northern Ireland’s savage past.

We need time and perspective to understand the reasons for terrorism.

Painfully we have to look at a broader picture. We ignore the Israel-Palestine issue at our peril.

On the day of the London bombings about the same number of innocent people were killed in Iraq.

No intensive media coverage. No international outrage. No messages of sympathy.

12 July 2005


A certain local firm informed its customers in England that it would be closed for the Twelfth.

The English lot – showing unforgivable insensitivity – asked for clarification as to the meaning of the term. The firm painfully explained that it referred to the whole of the Twelfth Week. ‘The twelfth week of what?’ asked the English. ‘The twelfth week of July’ was the exasperated response. ‘But,’ said the persistently obtuse English person, ‘there are only four weeks in July.’

Sometimes the English are too easily confused.

It is true of course that there are many competing festivals elsewhere. There was the Glastonbury festival a few weeks ago and the Edinburgh is coming up soon, and also the biggest street festival in Europe at Notting Hill, unmatched for sheer delight. But the Twelfth is made of sterner stuff.

We are speaking of tradition, moral values, religious faith. In that respect the Chinese offerings might bear comparison. They have, to name but a few, the moon festival, the dragon boat festival, the lantern festival, not forgetting the New Year festival when one-and-a-half billion join in. Not far behind in numbers, Indians celebrate the great festival of Diwali. And in Europe, South America, the Far East . . . . there is really no end to the desire of human beings to join in groups to celebrate their common history, beliefs and culture – and have a great day out at the same time.

So what makes today, Tuesday 12th July, a bit different?

The Twelfth thrives not simply because a particular group shares a common set of values but because it also shares a common perceived threat. It’s a day of defending and that word, in various forms, will emblazon many a banner.

Theoretically, it’s also a day for the renewal of vows to Britishness and to the Sovereign but are those vows returned or even understood? Do the British, their elected representatives, or any member of the Sovereign’s family, ever acknowledge, respond, attend – or say thank you?

Ironically the colour orange is given equal recognition with green in the Irish tricolour. But then ‘the emerald isle’ was invented by a Belfast Protestant. The Ulster flag bears the cross of St George. Even I’m confused.

The royals were out in force to commemorate the recent bi-centenary of the Battle of Trafalgar when the British annihilated the French and Spanish fleets. Many nations celebrated too, including the two losers. It was all done in the best possible taste. After 200 years everybody was prepared to forgive everybody else.

It’s 315 years since that great European cup final was fought out on the green grassy slopes of the Boyne, but we’re not quite ready for all that reconciliation stuff.

05 July 2005

Identity crisis

This comes from the pen of UAEK/165/6. The photograph at the top may look normal but it contains no biometric information so I could be an impostor. The beard is attached by two elastic bands round the ears.

I shall come clean. UAEK/165/6 was actually my identity card number when I was but a boy during World War Two and I have remembered it all these years. The final number 6 reveals that I was sixth in the family, the fourth child. My twin brother, ten minutes my junior, had the figure 7.

I thought I was smart remembering my number from so long ago only to discover that many of my contemporaries also remember theirs. None of us felt that our civil liberties had been seriously threatened and, if cards are to be introduced again, we would probably feel the same.

In the 1970s I was a ‘Hong Kong Belonger’, that is, a person entitled to live and work there, so I had to have an identity card. I doubt if a single member of that teeming population objected to identity cards – except possibly the Chinese triads. The card had advantages in dealing with banks, utility companies, health services and so on. One huge bonus was that, when going through British Customs, it was recognised I had every right to take through any article I had purchased for myself in Hong Kong – a privilege, I confess, I shamelessly exploited.

The old wartime identity card was made of thin cardboard and carried a primitive photograph. Sixty years on, we would expect cards to be somewhat less prone to forgery given the stupendously high level of criminal technology. If your bank credit card can carry all manner of hidden information – something that the public actually demands – we might expect an identity card to do likewise.

But are identity cards a good idea? The majority of people would appear to believe so, as does the Government (obviously), the Police (of course), the Immigration Service (no surprise), CIFAS (the UK’s fraud prevention service), the Financial Services Authority, the Confederation of British Industry and the banks.

Many others fear they could hasten the end of civilisation as we know it. But those who object on grounds of cost, including the majority of political parties, have a point.

The Government estimates it will cost £93 to produce each card but practically every advanced computerised system this Government has ever introduced has been an expensive fiasco. Some experts claim that each card might cost close to £400.

As to UAEK/165/6, well actually that was not my real identity number. I’m keeping that a secret.

You can’t be too careful these days.