25 April 2006

Me and the Generals

What have I in common, I ask myself, with US Generals Eaton, Zinni, Newbold, Batiste, Riggs, Swannack and Riper?

Very little; except that they share the belief that Defence Secretary Donald Henry Rumsfeld is incompetent. I would go just a little further and suggest he is one of the most arrogant and dangerous men on the planet.

As co-founder of Project for the New American Century he advocated the need to 'promote American global leadership' with 'a military that is strong... a foreign policy that boldly and purposefully promotes American interests'.

But now that Jack Straw has the hots for Condoleezza Rice things might be different.

Those European governments which urged caution over the invasion of Iraq, were, according to Rumsfeld, part of 'the old Europe'. His media supporters dubbed the French, 'cheese-eating surrender monkeys' and Europeans generally 'EU-nuchs'.

His own testicular strength was probably at its best in 1983-84 when he was Special Envoy to the Middle East and was the main conduit for the supply of military intelligence, hardware and strategic advice to Saddam Hussein.

He sat on the board of Asea Brown Boveri from 1990 to 2001, during which time they sold two nuclear reactors to North Korea ­– that's before it became part of the 'axis of evil'. He was quite unable to recall that little $200 million contract 'being brought before the board at any time'.

Many of Rumsfeld's explanations have that same breath-taking indifference. Following the fall of Baghdad many government buildings, world-renowned museums, power stations and oil installations were looted and vandalised.

'It's untidy,' said Rumsfeld. 'Freedom’s untidy and free people are free to commit crimes and make mistakes and do bad things.'

Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib don't seem to matter either nor does the Geneva Convention.

Add to that a marked insensitivity towards his own troops and their families. Responding to a soldier's comments about inferior military equipment he retorted: 'You go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you want.'

Nor did he think it necessary to sign condolence letters to the families of dead soldiers. Was he too busy to sign personally or had he created just too many letters?

But perhaps Rumsfeld himself should have the last word.

'Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me,' he told a press conference, 'because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know; we also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know; but there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don't know we don't know.'

I think I can understand why the generals are a bit worried.

18 April 2006

Death unwarranted

Last December I wrote about the bizarre, almost comical, events surrounding the activities of stalwart Republican Denis Donaldson.

His republican credentials were impeccable; a hero in Short Strand in 1970; a friend and gaol-mate of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands; arrested in France with a false passport; attended a training camp in Lebanon; on speaking terms with Hezbollah; finally appointed Sinn Féin's Northern Ireland Assembly group administrator in Parliament Buildings.

He then reveals he had been a British spy for 20 years.

It was one of those sagas that invited flippancy. Apologies are now due because, below the muddy surface of statements, confessions and retractions, Donaldson had signed his own death warrant.

His murder did not come as a surprise. The question is: who was responsible?

The first theory on offer is that it was the IRA, or 'Sinn Féin/IRA' as the supporters of the theory will put it. If you don't want to make peace with your enemy the involvement of the IRA is a heaven-sent political opportunity.

Last year the IRA claimed it had laid down its arms. It formally announced an end to its 'armed struggle' and exhorted its 'volunteers' to work politically for the organisation's objectives. We were to believe there would be an end to revenge killing.

'Crucially,' says Danny Morrison, the party's former publicity director, 'Sinn Féin needs peace to expand on its flourishing electoral base in the south of Ireland and perhaps hold the balance of power in a future coalition. It certainly does not need a fresh, brutal reminder of the old days.'

Almost inevitably there is a conspiracy theory. Morrison is quick to suggest British involvement – at the very least some Special Branch rogue element.

Into the Dark is a compelling book by Jonty Brown, a former highly-respected RUC officer. His account of paramilitary collusion within Special Branch makes chilling reading. The Stevens Report voiced similar concerns. So dare we admit that there might be something in the Morrison hypothesis?

The third theory is that the murder was the work of some 'dissident republican' element, and that certainly is a strong possibility once you get to grips with what the term might mean. Roughly translated it could have been anybody with a loaded shotgun brought up in the time-honoured tradition for dealing with touts and informers. In the bitter contest that is Irish politics it is what we do best.

The murder of a human being, even one who chose a dangerous and deadly path, shatters a whole family circle. But only they will mourn his passing.

Rightly or wrongly Donaldson will forever be linked to the collapse of the Stormont Assembly in 2002.

Ironically his death creates a stumbling block to its reinstatement.

11 April 2006

For sale or exchange

If you are looking for a peerage you may just have missed out. I've a feeling they are temporarily out of stock.

I tried eBay, but no luck.

I suspect it all started with wee Bernie Ecclestone. Bernie gave a huge sum of money to New Labour, who then miraculously exempted his Formula One empire from the new legislation on tobacco advertising.

The most recent miracle concerns four businessmen who gave Labour unpublicised loans totalling over £4.5 million – and were subsequently nominated for peerages.

That little episode uncovered secret loans of nearly £14 million to the Labour Party ahead of the last election. This set the Conservatives on a frenzy of righteousness until it was discovered that they had received similar loans of £16 million. In fact their total repayment obligations are around £37 million.

We had of course been grateful that Tony Blair had earlier introduced some rules as part of his drive to clean up politics. All donations above £5,000 were to be declared. Loans at commercial rates were allowed. Foreign donations were banned but donations from the Republic to Northern Ireland were exempt and, for 'security reasons', donors could remain anonymous.

You may have noticed that local politics are just that bit different.

When is a gift not a gift? When it's a secret interest-free loan with no pressure about paying it back. Try that on the Inland Revenue when you are filling out your tax returns.

Compare matters in the United States.

Campaign donations made directly to political candidates must be declared and are limited by legislation. That's much much better.

But unlimited 'soft' money is allowed. Millions can be spent on political advertising but adverts cannot say 'Vote for Joe Bloggs' because that would be quite improper. They can of course say that Joe Bloggs is a great man and then suggest that Fred Smith (his opponent) is a scoundrel. Curbing such advertising, the Supreme Court declared, would be 'unconstitutional'.

Advertising firms, not surprisingly, consumed most of the $5 billion spent in the 2004 US election. Little guys did well too. One Democratic presidential contender spent nearly $7,000 on 'thank you' chocolates for supporters, mysteriously supplied by a home state truffle maker.

But we in Northern Ireland are only in the chicken feed business ­– if you can ignore the millions from America over the years for Semtex and AK47s. For the last Assembly election the declared spending from the SDLP was £234,000, the UUP, £170,000, the DUP £147,000 and Sinn Féin just £28,000.

Alex Attwood said: 'I don't think the issue is that the SDLP spent more than Sinn Féin. I think the issue is how is it that Sinn Féin spent so much less than the three other big parties.'

Isn't it great that true democracy is protected by so many sensible rules?

04 April 2006

Defining moments

Dictionaries are not much help. Is a defining moment some sort of instant experience that reveals something new, clears the mind or sets a different course towards irreversible change – hopefully for the better? Is it more than just a lucky break? Is it something that quickens the heartbeat and touches the soul?

Desmond Tutu recalls a moment when a tall white clergyman (Father Trevor Huddleston) courteously doffed his hat to his mother, a mere black domestic worker in apartheid-ridden South Africa.

That little action awakened Tutu's sense of the equality of man and the hope that justice can be found within injustice. It set him on a life of dedication towards an ideal, which in turn changed the lives of millions.

Dr Martin Luther King, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington in August 1963, made his famous 'I have a dream' speech.

Delivered with the compelling intensity and cadence of his African American Baptist upbringing, it changed the course of American history and possibly of the whole world.

Today, 4 April, is the anniversary of his murder in 1968.

Sadly, one of the most extensive websites on King's life and achievements – 'a valuable resource for teachers and students alike' – is dedicated to the destruction of his reputation. King is depicted as a monster, a liar, a communist, a fraud; violent, sinister, deranged, debauched. It publishes 'evidence' that, on the night before his murder, he was engaged in an orgy in his motel room. And where did such evidence come from? From the FBI who just happened to have placed a bug there.

Defining moments, however indelible, are but marks on the scale of time. They may cause a dramatic change of view, or intensify a view in the making, but any new direction has to be constantly sustained.

When UVF veteran Gusty Spence spoke of his abject remorse in 1994, that, at least for me, was a defining moment. Such words had never been said in the whole of Irish history.

While we can be grateful for ceasefires, decommissioning of weaponry and moves to legitimate politics, we need much more.

We hold on dearly to the politics of excuse and blame. We are adept at manoeuvring but much less capable of moving forward with imagination and courage.

We are not short of self regarding political personalities but we have yet to raise a Nelson Mandela, a Desmond Tutu or a Martin Luther King.

'I have a dream that one day . . . . little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.'

Where is the politician today capable of translating that dream for Northern Ireland?