27 September 2005


Sorry. But I've a dreadfud code. My doze is ruddig. My head is splittig.

Under such trying circumstances intelligible speech is difficult and coherent thought impossible. I wallow in self-pity, quite unable this week to focus on some single defenceless target to attack in my usual snide unfair way.

I hold my seven-months-old granddaughter entirely responsible for my present distress. She acquired some germs after consorting with other babies at the carer's. But she's made of sterner stuff and her permanently snotty smile seemed deserving of much praise and frequent cuddles.

The trouble is that germs can leap from the cuddle-ee to the cuddle-er – even if neither word can be found in the dictionary.

My departure from the dictionary and intelligent speech is only temporary. It has probably been stimulated by those recent television interviews with leading Orange persons, following the fire and brimstone of north Belfast. One man of authority said he absolutely 'condoned' the violence.

I was hoping for a word like 'condemned' but perhaps I've got it wrong and his statement is actually correct. However, the claim that the PSNI 'exasperated' the situation leaves me struggling for meaning.

One interviewee was much more to the point. He had obviously been into the sauce a little earlier but was able to declare that the whole trouble lay with that 'thing' committee.

So now you know.

Yes words are important. Especially verbs.

Between coughs and splutters I came across a press agency picture showing a black man in New Orleans. The caption reads: a young man wades through chest-deep water after looting a grocery store. Another picture shows two young whites in an identical predicament. The caption? Two residents wade through chest-deep water after finding bread from a local grocery store.

It would seem that blacks 'loot' while whites 'find'.

One the other hand, in a brave sortie to the Lecale Historical Society, I picked up a neat phrase from Professor Ronnie Buchanan who defined our very own Strangford Lough as 'a stretch of water surrounded by committees'. It's the sort of verbal sniping that appeals to my darker side.

Strangford is one of the most exciting wildlife, historic and archaeological areas in Europe. We all know it is under threat. To deal with the threat the key word is 'advice'. Often conflicting, it is supplied in abundance by the Environment and Heritage Service, Ards Borough Council, Down District Council and the National Trust, not forgetting the Landfill Tax Credit Scheme administered by the Ulster Wildlife Trust.

All that advice goes to the Strangford Lough Management Committee, which has no actual responsibility to manage, but is itself an advisory body appointed by government. The record of government acting upon any advice about Strangford is dismal.

Judge for yourself whether the good professor's observation is unfair.

Provided I can avoid pneumonia, I shall be back with my own unfair observations next week.

20 September 2005

Think it's all over

Nearly a fortnight has passed since Northern Ireland's historic defeat of the mighty multi-million pound England football team. But it's still worth a column or two – or three. And anyway, for the next thirty years at least we shall be seeing regular replays of that exquisite David Healy goal. But only locally.

I doubt if it will it ever supplant Geoff Hurst's 1966 they-think-it's-all-over World Cup winner, now in its fortieth excruciating year.

For one week anyway BBC One NI's on-screen logo, bottom left-hand corner of your screen, turned IFA green and was perfectly matched with the cross of St George and the word NIL to celebrate the amazing score line.

The supporters were magnificent. Seldom, if ever, at matches anywhere in the world, do two rival sets of supporters remain unsegregated and seldom has any crowd – least of all a Windsor Park crowd – gone to a game, virtually certain of defeat, but determined to create a carnival atmosphere.

I confess I enjoyed £70,000-a-week Wayne Rooney's teenage tantrum. He's very easy to lip-read and I can report that he did indeed tell his exasperated team-mates Beckham and Ferdinand (combined weekly intake £500,000) to shove off – or words to that effect.

Daily Ireland columnist (and patriot) Robin Livingstone also had a little tantrum of his own before the game. 'Come Wednesday night,' he wrote, 'I will be cheering not only for an England win, but an emphatic England win; a trouncing, a rout, a spanking, a tanking, an embarrassment . . .'

They say he's now sitting up and taking nourishment.

However I totally shared Livingstone's hopes with regard to that small matter of England's cricket contest with Australia. Superb cricket. Superb sportsmanship.

But as Jon Snow put it, the national story descended from ashes to sashes and Northern Ireland once again made the headlines for an all-too-familiar contest of a different kind – the good old sectarian stuff over an Orange Order parade.

We certainly need some sort of independent forum to advise on whether certain parades should or should not go ahead, or if there might be a possibility that some modification of a chosen route could provide a compromise.

Whether the present Parades Commission has the right structure, experience and wisdom to understand the broader picture may be in some doubt but any such body will be on a hiding to nothing.

These latest horrific outbursts were well-planned and well supplied with missiles and automatic weaponry. The usual politicians have been quick with excuses and tacit support.

It's a delusion to think it's all over.

But while we try to accommodate such painful reverses we might just indulge in a rare moment when we were at our best – hopeful of not offending Robin Livingstone and all other English fans.

Northern Ireland one. England nil.

13 September 2005

A tale of two cities

Who would have thought that the appalling carnage on the Aima Bridge in Baghdad would almost immediately be eclipsed by even more horrendous events in the United States?

Thousands of miles apart, and in two utterly different societies – one the most powerful and prosperous in the world – there is an uncanny resemblance.

As one senior journalist wryly put it: the only difference between the chaos of New Orleans and a Third World disaster was that a foreign dictator would have responded better.

'I am proud that our country remains the hope of the oppressed, and the greatest force for good on this earth,' said George W Bush in his toe-curling acceptance speech to the Republican National Convention just a year ago. 'I believe that America is called to lead the cause of freedom in a new century.

Such lofty fantasies probably inspire those who enjoy a stratospherically high standard of living.

But what of the underclass? Predominantly African-American and Hispanic, but also including, with due apology for a derogatory phrase, 'the poor white trash', the hurricane exposed those other Americans, too poor to live in the safer side of town, unable to drive a grand SUV to safety, worthless and forgotten in economic and political terms.

Katrina was a category 5 hurricane so its wind speeds and predicted devastation were part of scientific fact and experience. It should have been taken within the stride of the Administration's obsessive concerns about terrorism and the safety of the people of the United States.

Experts had not only predicted its inevitability but had warned of the threat it posed, in precise detail, for a city like New Orleans. Yet funding for the necessary improvement of flood defences had been denied.

So how can the President claim that nobody could have anticipated the breach of the New Orleans levees?

It would seem that the political upper class, bent on reducing the tax burden on the well-off, turns a blind eye and a deaf ear to the unpleasant realities of its own nation. Protecting poor vulnerable areas is not part of the rhetoric.

Days after the disaster there were more reporters than doctors, more marksmen than rescuers, more weaponry than emergency supplies.

Meanwhile in Baghdad, after 30 months of military occupation, there have been no Presidential hugs for a single bereaved Iraqi. Nobody accepts blame for the current political, social and sectarian turmoil. Nobody relates the panic of a mortar attack and the stampede at a religious festival to the ill-considered policy of putting other countries in order through our own military might.

The home-spun mythology of Bush's rhetoric rings hollow amid the rotting corpses of those defenceless human beings who perished in the River Tigris and the Mississippi Delta.

More than just an uncanny resemblance.

An all-too-clear connection.

06 September 2005

A Jewish story

I shall call him Reuben Weizmann, though that is not his real name. Born into a Jewish family in Eindhoven in Holland he survived, as a child, the horrors of Auschwitz.

Stripped and herded into the gas chamber along with hundreds of gypsy children he was miraculously spared, seconds before the doors were closed, because he was 'a Philips Jew'. The Nazis had given a weird undertaking that the families of Jewish employees of the industrial giant Philips would be unharmed.

Reuben's mother was also an inmate of Auschwitz but an SS guard, at considerable risk to himself, organised their reunion. It was a story Reuben was pleased to tell. But that exceptional incident is only a miniscule detraction from a holocaust in which six million Jews perished.

After the war Reuben emigrated to Israel and became a leading cardiologist. In one of his brief visits to Northern Ireland he spent his only free day visiting, of all places, Lough Derg.

There was one subject which one could never raise with this remarkable, sensitive, forgiving and humorous man, or he would simply become a different person – the question of the Palestinians.

He had not a single good word to say of them. He believed that Jews had a God-given right to occupy their land. In this matter there was none of his characteristic tolerance.

No race has suffered more than the Jews but in all major religions, and certainly the Christian religion in its many forms, it seems possible to cherry-pick from a holy book to justify any convenient human purpose.

I wonder how Reuben has reacted to the removal of the Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip? Ariel Sharon may be hailed abroad for his statesmanship but he may simply have found a way of appeasing the international community so that all the other occupied territories, illegally held since 1967, can be retained forever.

Settler families will now be re-housed within Israel and will receive up to £220,000 in compensation.

Protecting 8,500 settlers in Gaza from 1,400,000 resentful Palestinians has been a security nightmare so the move makes good military sense.

Israel will continue to maintain troops all along Gaza's borders and control its airspace and most of its seaboard. From 2008 it is proposed that Palestinians from Gaza will not be allowed into Israel to work, or even to visit relatives, so all that is left is an economically valueless strip of desert.

The Jewish vote is vital in America. George W Bush is unlikely to raise any awkward questions.

Will Hamas and Islamic Jihad end their campaign of violence? Even more unlikely.

The tragic divisions between Jew and Palestinian can only deepen.