28 March 2006

The beautiful game

I like watching football on the telly but I never played the game; except once, for a team of fellow campers at Castlerock against the locals. A youthful Jack Kyle, who was to become an icon in world rugby, was our centre forward. Be assured that it was a game of two halves, that the lads gave one hundred per cent, that we got a result and that we were over the moon.

My rugby credentials are more impressive. I coached Harry Williams when he was a schoolboy and he in turn coached the Ulster side which won the European Cup in 1999. And yes, I taught David Humphrey's mother – mathematics.

I enjoy Gaelic on the telly but never played it for the usual sad tribal reasons.

Ireland won the Rugby Union Triple Crown this season, scoring a heroic last-minute try against the old enemy, England. On such rare occasions my politics take a dramatic shift to rabid republicanism. The Fields of Athenry might even produce tears – but that might be down to the quality of the singing.

If Rugby Union is 'a game for hooligans played by gentleman', Rugby League is not for the faint-hearted either. Originating in the satanic mill towns of Northern England, rather than on the verdant fields of public schools, its fans embrace the same spectrum of social levels as do soccer fans. Compared with soccer fans, their behaviour is impeccable. They inter-mingle with their rivals on the terraces and may even have a drink together afterwards, win or lose. Players don't intimidate referees. Needless to say, the game has been totally free of the canker of racism.

Those august international bodies which oversee 'Association Football' lost the plot years ago.

FIFA and UEFA have been slow and inept in dealing with unsporting behaviour and, above all, with racism. When Spanish fans racially abused English players in 2004 the Spanish authorities got a finger-wagging rebuke and an inadequate fine.

Inter Milan racial chants reduced one Cote d’Ivoire player to tears. In Hungary anti-Semitic abuse has been reported.

But there are hopeful signs. Last month, before the match between Cote d’Ivoire and Spain, 20,000 Spanish supporters warmly applauded the Ivorian anthem.

And FIFA has at last come off the bench. It plans to punish clubs where fans are guilty of racist abuse. Three points will be deducted for a first offence, six for a second and, for a third, the club will be relegated.

Fines have so far been meaningless – it's not unusual for some wealthy Fascist to write a cheque – but measures which push offending clubs down the league table and which can rob top clubs of a place in prestigious and lucrative European competitions, should prove to be a nutmeg in the right direction.

At long last, a yellow card.

21 March 2006

According to plan?

Last month I quoted the amazingly insightful opinion from the US Ambassador to Iraq that 'sectarian and ethnic conflict is the fundamental problem'.

To the dismay of the Bush administration he has now warned that 'sectarian conflicts . . . could lead to a regional war and the rise of religious extremists who would make Taliban Afghanistan look like child's play'.

Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld knows better. 'Sectarian violence,' he said, 'has been exaggerated by the media.'

Asked about the Ambassador's comments, he replied:

'Well, he's there. He's an expert. And he said what he said. I happen to have not read it, but I am not going to try to disagree with it.'

Is the once-firm ideological support for Rumsfeld beginning to fray at the edges?

William Buckley, leading conservative writer and a former CIA agent, admits:

'One can't doubt the objective in Iraq has failed ... Iraqi animosities have proved uncontainable . . . and the kernel here is the acknowledgement of defeat.'

Francis Fukuyama, author and academic, wrote a well-publicised open letter to George Bush after 9/11 urging the President to topple Saddam. He now takes a different line:

'By invading Iraq, the Bush administration created a self-fulfilling prophecy: Iraq has now replaced Afghanistan as a magnet, a training ground and an operational base for jihadists, with plenty of American targets to shoot at.'

Richard Perle, former chairman of the defence advisory panel to the Pentagon, and memorable for his article 'Thank God for the death of the UN', is now saying:

'The Bush administration . . . got the war right and the aftermath wrong. We should have understood that we needed Iraqi partners.'

And George Will, right-wing columnist with the Washington Post now concludes:

'Almost three years after the invasion, it is still not certain whether, or in what sense, Iraq is a nation. And after two elections and a referendum on the constitution, Iraq barely has a government.'

According to a leaked memo published in the Guardian, Tony Blair was warned last summer by Major General Whitley that 'we may have been seduced into something we might be inclined to regret'.

I'm with you all the way General.

But not to worry. If civil war breaks out in Iraq Rumsfeld has a plan.

It goes like this:

'The plan is to prevent a civil war and to the extent one were to occur to have the – from a security standpoint – the Iraqi security forces deal with it to the extent they're able to.'

Perhaps you would like to tackle that sentence again.

I think it means that the Iraqis themselves will be allowed to get on with their own civil war.

Yes that should do the trick.

14 March 2006

Tomorrow's weather

The debate on sustainable energy and climate change is warming up, if you will forgive the pun.

There is a suspicion that Tony Blair has his heart set on nuclear energy and probably has his mind made up.

But actually the two issues, climate change and sustainable energy, are more separate than we imagine.

The evidence of climate change is all but established by scientists throughout the world, although the Bush Administration isn't listening. Well informed pessimists believe the change is already irreversible.

Climate change cannot be blamed solely on the increase in so-called greenhouse gases, chiefly carbon dioxide. With apologies to those who sincerely believe that the entire universe was created in 144 hours, followed by a 24 hour rest period, this old world of ours has seen dramatic changes in climate over its long life.

Even while man was populating Northern Europe, and casting his eye on our own little island, the last of many ice ages was still petering out. Aeons earlier, rocks under your garden and mine may have been sediment laid down in the hottest climates imaginable.

But in addition to causes over which we have no control, it is also generally accepted that the burning of fossil fuels, whether at a power station near you or within the family car, contributes to our global problem. Here again the Bush administration relies on its own homespun wisdom although the boy George has warned of America's addiction to oil – but is he talking politics or science?

In his State of the Union speech he aims to reduce Middle East oil imports by a whacking 75 percent by 2025. He will of course be leaving it to others to deliver on that spectacular promise.

But whatever fossil fuels are doing to the planet, the fact is that world supplies are limited and steadily reducing. All this while the demand for coal, gas and oil is increasing at an alarming rate.

It is that issue which attracts interest in nuclear power. Originally believed to be the answer to all our woes, so cheap it was suggested we wouldn't require domestic meters, fifty years of experience has identified a few snags.

The latest report from the Sustainable Energy Commission states that nuclear energy would make only a small impact on reducing carbon emissions by 2035. It would of course provide constant (extremely expensive) power all day and every day, unlike wind or tide or most other piecemeal untried technologies.

But no reliable ideas are forthcoming about dealing with radio-active waste – over the next 200,000 years that is. And future Osama bin Ladens would have an array of prime targets to attack, provided they hadn't already started to leak.

So in terms of agreed energy strategies we are going nowhere – and at breath-choking speed.

07 March 2006

Love Ulster?

Was it really a good idea to have a 'Love Ulster' march in the centre of Dublin? For a start I don't understand the title.

Although organised by FAIR (Families Acting for Innocent Relatives) it had all the trappings of a 'loyalist' demonstration. At least that is how it has been reported by the media in Ireland, the UK and elsewhere.

And certainly that is how it was perceived by most Dubliners. Visually it could have been a section of a Twelfth Orange parade with the customary playing of party tunes and the flying of the Union Jack. The political fervour and presence of Jeffrey Donaldson reinforced, rightly or wrongly, its perceived sectarian purpose.

The parade was to encompass O'Connell Street, pass the General Post Office and the Parnell monument and surely it might have dawned on somebody that to most citizens of Dublin such places evoke memories of 1916 and the War of Independence.

Donaldson said that the trip to Dublin had been worth it because people had exercised their civil rights. But whose civil rights?

Suppose a Republic-based march with bands, tricolours and politicians had marched down Sandy Row, might there not have been just a hint of resentment from the good people of the district?

Did it not occur to the Gardai and the march organisers that trouble of some sort was possible?

Did the authorities conduct a risk assessment and did anybody note that there was an abundant supply of ready-made missiles ­– scaffolding poles, bricks, slates and rocks – from the adjoining building sites?

And if, as they say, the riotous opposition was carefully pre-planned, how many marks do we award to Special Branch for not being aware of the possibility of violence beforehand?

None of these factors excuses the thuggish violent behaviour of the protesters who, typically but not unexpectedly, attacked police and journalists, set cars alight and looted several shops.

Not all the protesters were diehard republicans. One protester, who described himself to an Observer reporter as 'an ordinary GAA-supporting non-political Dubliner' said: 'If the loyalists had just come down and laid a wreath somewhere and then met a government minister, I wouldn't have minded. But to try and walk down our main street waving the Union Jack, playing Orange tunes and generally rubbing our noses in it is going too far.'

All this happened during a weekend when thousand of visitors were in Dublin for the Six Nations Rugby International between Ireland and Wales and for the Dublin International Film Festival.

So, sad to report, this first loyalist (that word again) march in Dublin since Partition was not a great success.

Families Acting for Innocent Relatives deserve the sympathy and support of decent people north and south.

There must be more thoughtful ways of getting their message across.