I chaired and there was a great animated audience.
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Unionism has been strangely inept in the face of the confident republican assertion of the value of its tradition.
We saw this in the response to the Castlederg commemoration of the IRA dead and we see it in the discussion about the Peace Centre agreed for the Maze site, which the DUP is drawing back from.
History is now at the heart of political discord in Northern Ireland but nobody is talking about what that history was or what it means.
Republicans argue that there are two narratives and that Unionists just have to learn to live with the fact that the IRA dead are as worthy of respect in this society as the fallen of the Somme.
And Unionism won’t engage with the argument.
We see now the fruits of a hope that history could be forgotten.
To be fair, even John Hume, one of the founders of the Peace Process, envisaged that a line could be drawn on the past.
All funded public art in Belfast now is anodyne, avoiding all reference to history, with the one exception of the Titanic, which seems to represent a feeling that this city has suffered, while avoiding any mention of recent grief and loss.
And in the housing estates we get localised versions of history played out in murals.
Tourist brochures here say nothing of the Troubles and for want of proper investment in Troubles tourism, which could educate thousands every year, we get vivacious amateurs cornering that market.
In publishing and drama and in broadcasting we get a general avoidance of the Troubles, largely on the understanding that no one wants to read about them anyway or see them on television. Which may be right.
But perhaps they should be encouraged to read about them and talk about them and be nudged out of an apathy about a past which defines us before ignorance about it chokes the political process.
Former IRA gunman and bomber Gerry Kelly is a prime example of a republican who is proud of his past and would repeat that past if the circumstances required it. And presumably he would, himself, be the judge of whether they did nor not. He believes that the IRA has worked wonders in transforming this society for the better. It may have been a slip of the tongue when he told Nolan that the IRA had won us the vote, but no one picked him up on it. It’s as if engaging with the detail of the Troubles would be the most tedious route to take in any discussion.
But if we avoid that discussion, the narratives of the paramilitaries and their marvellous achievements will prevail.
If Unionism doesn’t want this, it should not only be campaigning for a museum at the Maze but getting involved in shaping it.
I would go further and build a substantial exhibition displaying every element of the Troubles.
Not that we should be working to an official version, something Mike Nesbitt seems to want, just the inclusion of every possible aspect of the story.
For the best answer to Gerry Kelly or the sentimental Loyalists is simply the fullest possible audit of the Troubles; an account of who did what. We have the closest thing to this in the book, Lost Lives.
But I am thinking of something like the Martin Luther King museum in Memphis Tennessee which provides a walk through history of racism in the southern states, video loops of newsreels, a bus like the one Rosa Parks refused to get off, posters and letters, leading to the balcony on which King died.
I would have the prison cell with the smeared walls. I would have models showing what a kneecapping looks like. I would have a fearsome paratrooper with blackened face kicking in a door. I would have the tally of actions to show the human complexity, all of which refutes the nonsense that this was a clash of military powers. I would have images of the Shankill Butchers, of the market stalls and counterfeited goods, of the honey trap women who lured soldiers to their deaths on the promise of sex, of the ordinary businesses blown up, the hair dressers and the bars, the taxi drivers killed in ‘dial a target’ operations. I would have the snipers and the bomb makers, the mercury tilt-switch bombs, the pirate radio stations, the letters and magazines and posters, the police and army suicides, the orphans and the ill.
I would play the taped confessions those shot as informers had to make before they died, and highlight the evidence on those tapes that the victims were rehearsed in what to say.
I would show the bombs with their timers nailed down so that couriers couldn’t stop them going off. I would show how half the IRA dead in the first years killed themselves carrying those bombs or with guns that went off in cleaning or training.
I would show what an affliction paramilitarism was on the communities that had to endure it.
I would have the journalism that got it wrong and the journalism that got it right, the smug politicians and the crafty ones, those implicated by action and by inaction. And the churches and the mediators and the go betweens, some with clean hands some not. The tricks of Special Branch and the cynicism.
We have tried leaving the past behind and it hasn’t worked.
Better now to resurrect the whole thing in a museum so that people know what it was that happened here.
And sure, tourists would pay to see it, wouldn’t they?
One of the shocks of the last week was that when our politicians are most exercised they are least credible.
It’s is just a fact of life in the new Northern Ireland that people have switched off their interest in the passionate wrangles across the divide. Those who have stopped caring may be naive and hopelessly disengaged, or they may be the hope for the future. One thing is plain though, when Peter Robinson is spluttering, red in the face, and cold eyed Gerry Kelly is chewing a brick, many of us, perhaps most of us, cringe and look away.
One of the most surreal moments of this turbulent week was the switch of themes on the Nolan show on Wednesday night. Stephen magisterially silenced the round table raging about letters to On The Runs to introduce Strictly Come Dancing judge Bruno. And a show that had started with portents of imminent political calamity ended up with the corpulent presenter break dancing on the floor.
If the two themes fitted together it could only be from the perspective that Arlene Foster duelling with the Sinn Fein appointed hit man was light entertainment too. And it was.
Arlene was on sparkling form. She has never been seen to rage so grandiloquently, with such verve and speed of riposte. A Bruno type critique of her would say, ‘You were magnificent darling, and your partner in this dance to the death was so sultry and simmering with such suppressed rage. Oh you killer, Mr Kelly. You could fell me with a look.’
This had all started with the collapse of the prosecution of John Downey of Creeslough, charged with murdering soldiers and horses in Hyde Park in 1982. Mr Justice Sweeney ruled that a letter to Mr Downey, telling him, wrongly, that he was not going to be getting his collar felt, was effectively a pardon. He said that it was more important to defend the credibility of the public servants who had signed the letter, assuring him that he was not a wanted man, than to seek justice by proceeding with the charge. And he said it so well that the prosecution declined to appeal.
This was a shock for the DUP and others.
The immediate implications seemed truly shocking, for it was revealed that 187 people had received such letters. These were people who had come forward to say that they were living away from home, out of the reach of the law, on the assumption that the police wanted to arrest them.
Now, if you or I asked the police if they wanted us for a crime, say a murder, we’d expect that to raise their suspicions about us. But if you have been an old provie, it seems more likely to trigger a compassionate response and an impulse to absolution.
The DUP came out accusing the government of lying to them and others, like former Policing Board vice chair Dennis Bradley, emerged quickly to say they had known about the scheme all along and that they understood that the DUP had too.
Peter Robinson said that he would resign if there wasn’t a full judicial inquiry. Arlene Foster over-interpreted this for Nolan as a determination to resign if the letters were not rescinded.
Sinn Fein fielded Alex Maskey and Gerry Kelly to say this was all a fuss over nothing. These letters constituted individual arrangements with the NIO. No one had the right to see them, but they weren’t pardons, as such.
The Downey letter, however, had clearly worked to the same effect as an actual pardon, making a prosecution impossible, but the answer to that was that it had been issued by mistake.
There was another telling media moment when Wendy Austin yesterday spoke to Victims Commissioner Kathryn Stone and journalist Chris Ryder and others. She assumed this was Ms Stone’s first experience of Stormont being on the brink. The point: it is old hat to the rest of us. For years this was all Stormont did: teeter.
The difficulty for Peter Robinson this time, despite his demand for an inquiry having been met, was that few really believed the substance of his grievance.
Facebook started to throw up evidence of past knowledge of OTR compromises.
The Queen’s mercy had been extended, paradoxically, to the killers of Captain Herbert Westmacott, fourteen years ago! And the BBC had reported it. Jail breakers Angelo Fusco, Robert Campbell, Paul Patrick Magee and Anthony Sloan were told they wouldn’t even have to complete their two year sentences. The largesse of the government towards IRA men on the run had clearly extended to actual convicts, not just suspects. And everybody knew.
But there was evidence too that other old provies got no bye-ball, like Seamus Kearney, convicted in December of killing RUC Reserve Constable John Proctor as he visited his wife and new-born son in hospital.
There is obviously no blanket pardoning; but it is equally obvious that letters of clarification function like pardons when they are read in court, if they have been mistakenly issued, that is, to someone who is being sought by the police, like John Downey.
At least we will have an explanation of all that in May. It will have to be a good one.
I’m lending my support to the blogger Alan Murray who is seeking legal aid to advance a claim of wrongful arrest against the police.
Alan was charged with harassment of people he had named in his amazing blog about the ruination of the Holy Land area of Belfast.
In all justice, he had to be acquitted or the right of bloggers and journalists to comment on public affairs would have been endangered.
If you are a working journalist who agrees with me on this, please sign the letter below and we’ll give it to lawyers supporting Alan Murray.
The acquittal of the blogger Alan Murray in July 2008 on Harassment Charges is a source of great relief to journalists. A conviction would have implied a threat to the freedom of journalists to do our job. Every time we criticised politicians or other persons of public interest, we would be looking over our shoulders lest we be cautioned or prosecuted by the police.
The bail conditions placed upon Mr Murray, subsequently overturned, were so draconian that he was not even allowed to mention the complainant on his blog or attend public meetings at which the complainant was present.
The police were exercising their powers to restrict free and legal expression and compounding the impression created by the unwarranted prosecution, that Mr Murry’s blogging was a danger to others. This is an especially sinister abuse of power by the police.
It is a matter of considerable concern that despite the acquittal of Mr Murray, other bloggers have been arrested under the Harassment legislation.
The use of Harrassment legislation against innocent bloggers exercising their rights to free expression is a matter for grave concern by all bloggers and journalists and all who value the freedom to report and comment on public affairs.
We believe that Mr Murray’s case against the PSNI for wrongful arrest, false imprisonment and malicious prosecution has merit and is very much in the public interest.
Signed:- Malachi O’Doherty
I called my guy in Benghazi again tonight. It was harder to get through this time.
He describes people who are afraid and excited at the same time, waiting to be attacked.
Benghazi is peaceful for now and my contact describes how volunteers are tidying up and a committee has been formed to administer the city. But there is a dispute between some who think that they should return captured weapons to the commandos and trust them to provide protection and those who fear that once the weapons have been returned the commandos will attack.
A phonecall to a protester in Benghazi, recorded on Sunday 10.45 pm from Belfast. Apologies for the poor quality of the sound.
I called a contact in Benghazi tonight and he says that over a hundred people have been killed by the army in the street today and that anti aircraft weaponry and mortars have been used against civilians.
The full interview is below.
When did you last wet yourself laughing?
Well, it probably wasn’t in front of the television.
Who would want to be a comedian in Northern Ireland?
There are few of those that we already have who don’t, at least
occasionally, ooze the sort of desperation that betrays their greater
need to be affirmed by us than to entertain.
There must be easier ways to find love and approval.
Choosing to be a comic here is a bit like taking your daughter out of
secondary school and off to China for training in gymnastics, where
she hasn’t got a chance of distinguishing herself if she hasn’t
already done a triple somersault by the age of three.
Gymnastics is what Chinese girls do and comedy is what practically
everyone in Northern Ireland does. If you are going to seek to stand
on a stage or go on television and show people here how to raise a
laugh then you must either be bloody brilliant or you are a dimwit who
hasn’t noticed the milleiu in which you already live.
These are considerations that broadcasters should take to heart when
planning the future of comedy in Northern Ireland.
And we are living
in a period of brave expansion, with the emergence of talent like
Diarmuid Corr, or Sketchy.
Things will be different. Sketchy is at least a move away from the
local fixation on the camp, dating from a period when a man had only
to talk like a woman and say ‘oo-er’ to raise a laugh: a humour
grounded in old fashioned rural contempt for the different.
Sketchy is making an effort to identify local types and parody them,
the sort of thing that Nuala McKeever did better than anybody though
UTV made the call that not enough people wanted that.
Our tv comics, even those who are occasionally quite funny, surely
must live with a determined rejection of the obvious, that every bar
in the country is propped up by some scurrilous cynic or other who
could eat him.
And that reminds us of the other core fact about Northern wit that the
pretender to comedy has to cope with. It is lethal. We excel in
And as naturals in sarcasm, Belfast’s home grown wits recognise
contrivance and disdain it.
The scripted joke can almost never have the verve and attack of a
And when you see the panellists on The Blame Game competing to get
their rehearsed jibes in and, in the rush, losing their grasp on the
sort of timing that alone could make them sound passably natural, you
wonder why they bother.
But they support each other, of course, and the audience will be
generous, and it must be fairly easy to come out of the studio
afterwards, content that the overall project has worked.
I would rather have a few friends round for tea where the laughs are real.
Tim McGarry often gets it right in that taxi sketch at the end of
Hearts and Minds. What he reproduces there is the tone of contempt
that is familiar here. Nuala McKeever has it too.
In a political culture which demands civility humour’s responsibility
is to break the rules.
It must never sound as if it is deferring to anyone’s status.
But the ways in which ordinary people discuss our politicians is far
more grisly than can be allowed for on television.
Our indigenous default mode in humour is rage and disgust, and the
challenge for any performer is to match that and to stay within the
bounds of mannered decency which is the bottom line in broadcasting.
For our humour is transgressive and the first thing it violates is the
assumption that we should behave.
Clowning does not work for us, at least not the self conscious
clowning of the comic who is working for a laugh. The hard labour
should not show.
Jennifer Aniston’s clowning worked because her character Rachel was
getting things wrong while intent on getting them right.
And the great comic genius of our time is Miranda, reproducing some of
the devices made famous by Frankie Howerd, for instance commenting on
This is different from the leakageof self consciousness by an over
zealous comic, for the commenting self is part of the act and remains
The only viable background to all this is darkness, the acceptance
that life may be unutterably bleak, indeed is so by nature. In
Miranda’s world, the fantasy that an ungainly lump of a woman can ever
find love and contentment is what always leads to trouble. Conclusion:
a life of misery is preordained for her.
Who would dare to sneer at our sectarianism on the presumption that we
are stuck with it for all time? Yet that is how street humour works.
The trick in Folks On The Hill is to present our poltiicans as sub
standard intellects, so that we may take comfort in being wiser than
they are. Really great, dangerous humour leaves you without that
Comedy, like everything, works from contrast, and there is nothing to
laugh at when the alternative of crying is not a close option.
Rachel, in Friends, walking into her former fiance’s wedding party,
with her frock tucked into her knickers after going to the toilet, is
funny because it is horrifying. Similarly, Miranda running after a
taxi in her underwear, after her dress has been trapped in the door,
is too close to what we all dread for us to be able to contain the
idea without some emotion – hence laughter.
Who locally puts us at such risk of contemplating our own disgrace? Or
to put it more simply: who locally is as funny?
Well, Gerry Anderson is funny. Sean Cromie is funny when he does Gerry
Kelly. Newton Emerson was hilarious when he edited the website
Portadown News. What is consistent in all of them is mockery, and not
just aimless sneering, but unbridled contempt for the revered
shibboleths. My pick of the funniest joke ever told about the Troubles
is Newton Emerson’s line from his mock obituary of IRA leader Joe
Cahill: ‘He is survived by his wife and a million Protestants’.
And my sense is that if a comic is to be transgressive in this society
then he or she has to address the politics and the sectarianism and
the other areas that betray our piety and hypocrisy and our other