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.

06 June 2006

Home on the range

Didn't they look well together at the White House; side by side, wreathed in smiling mutual admiration? George and Tony. Tony and George; two of the fastest guns in the West, with the possible exception of Donald Rumsfeld and not forgetting the dangerously inaccurate Dick Cheney.

Nice gentle questions from the press, but then, not everybody gets invited.

I suspect the two men worked out a bit of strategy beforehand. With personal popularity ratings so dismal, a touch of contrition might work well.

We're only human after all. Like all fallible human beings, we might have got (gotten) one or two things wrong. Not the big things. It's the war on terror remember. It's about bringing freedom and democracy to the oppressed. Stick with the moral high ground.

It seemed to work. Both admitted a few token errors and the media took due notice.

Bush regretted his cowboy language – no real need. Some may argue it's his first language, with English a distant second. Glide easily to another 'misstep' and include a phrase about the ill-treatment of Iraqi prisoners, and move quickly on.

Blair regretted the purging of Saddam's followers after the fall of Baghdad, which encouraged thousands of highly armed and disgruntled Saddam loyalists – most of whom had no alternative under the regime – to undermine the new-fangled foreign-imposed government. No reference to the widely held view, within the British electorate, that military intervention might draw together every West-hating faction in the entire Muslim world.

Still; give or take a few of those missteps, Bush is certain 'we did and are doing the right thing'. And Blair, following George as always, is upbeat about the new Iraqi Prime Minister's ability to meet every future challenge.

We may recall that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had previously admitted – albeit 'metaphorically' – to 'a thousand tactical mistakes'.

These might well have included going to war without having a plan for winning the peace. Or Donald Rumsfeld's theory that it could all be achieved with very few troops and minimal casualties – with no thought about manning the borders to prevent an invasion of thousands of foreign jihadists.

The confessional also failed to include the destruction of Fallujah, the killing of thousands of innocent Iraqi men, women and children, the atrocities at Abu Ghraib and the disgrace of Guantanamo Bay.

The President promises: 'We’re going to work with our partners in Iraq, the new government, to determine the way forward . . . an Iraq that can govern itself and sustain itself and defend itself.'

So all we gotta do Partners is work to determine a way forward, whatever in tarnation that means – but it don't sound like no real plan to me Mister.

I thought that a piece of cowboy-speak would round off the points I'm trying to raise this week.