Archive for March, 2009

Perhaps for most it seemed as if the Pope was merely repeating himself when he went to Africa and urged people not to use condoms because they are an inefficient way of controlling aids infection.
But read closer.
The Catholic church’s objection to contraception is not that it doesn’t work. It is that it enables people to have sex exclusively for pleasure.

He might as well ban the hand.
That objection would stand if condoms were perfect.
When he attacks the inefficacy of condoms in preventing infection, the Pope is not speaking out of a theological understanding.
If Benedict had been consistent with church teaching, he would have landed in Africa and announced that people should stop using condoms because it is God’s will that every act of congress between a male and a female should have the prospect of generating new life.
Maybe he now thinks it is better to get people to do the right thing for the wrong reason than not at all.
It is as if Peter Robinson had said that he stands four square behind the Union with Britain because it facilitates cheap ferry travel to Scotland and enables his electorate to go to football matches.
It is as if Cardinal Brady, facing the education committtee last week, had told them that the Catholic church needs to retain control over its schools because it might be able to sell them one day and make loads of money.
It is as if Mervyyn Storey had said we need a museum of creation because children are entitled to fairy stories and shouldn’t have to study too hard.
It is as if Martin McGuinness had said we should have a united Ireland to cut down on dole fraud and cross border shopping, and not because it is somehow right in itself, however costly, which is what the signatories of the proclamation of 1916 thought.
It is as if the Real IRA said they wanted to go on with the Troubles because a man gets more respect if people know he has killed someone.
These would be masking an the actual conviction with another excuse for coming to the same conclusion.
And those who argue practical points from coy principled positions are always going to exaggerate the merits of their case, but worse still, sometimes, are those who stick to principles when all practical reason is against them.
Like those we call dissident republicans; in reality the last of the traditionalist republicans, who still believe Patrick Pearse called a republic into existence.
Like creationists who imagine God made the world in six days then threw in a few fossils to confuse us.
Like language campaigners who want street signs that would only lead to more people getting lost.
Like ghetto minded students who think Belfast can still have No-go areas.
Which is not to say that the Pope and others should stick to practical arguments alone. But when they shift that way, they are making cases that can be contradicted. That’s what we call politics.

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The Sinn Fein case against republican armed dissidents, currently trying to revive the ‘armed struggle’ is basically this:

We fought a noble and brave struggle and took the war to the British for decades and retired from the field of battle undefeated. Our current objection to war is that it is counterproductive and that it is wrong to impose such suffering on people when an alternative exists. We are in a new phase of the struggle. We have found a means by which we can achieve a united Ireland through peaceful politics. Any republicans who are complicating this for us by political violence are traitors to the Irish people.

There are problems with this case:

The Provisional IRA campaign was not qualitatively different from that of the dissidents. It inflicted grotesque and unwarranted suffering on many innocent people and achieved nothing. It had no prospect of achieving a united Ireland. The Provisionals ended their campaign, not as an undefeated army but as an army going nowhere. The peace process enabled it to retire from the armed struggle with dignity, and most of us are glad they did. But the new political context, in which they now operate, offers no realistic prospect of a united Ireland either.  If it did, the DUP would want no part in it.

So what should the Sinn Fein leaders be saying to young people who are tempted to join the dissidents?

They should say: It was all an ignoble waste of life and energy.  We were wrong to pursue a war that could take us nowhere, but we were young and angry, and much of the time we were reacting to broader circumstances we had no control over. We achieved nothing other than the stalling of a political compromise like the one we finally accepted. We were right to accept it and wish we had been able to settle for it thirty years earlier.

The problem is that Sinn Fein is still bound by myths, must pay homage to its own fallen heroes and must try to persuade the base that it is still republican, though it is no more republican now than British Labour is socialist.

When Stalin died, Kruschev could drive a stake in his heart and own up to the crimes of the past.

When the current leaders of Sinn Fein go, their successors – the true inheritors of constitutional nationalism – will be free to say: we were wrong.

Until then they will perpetuate myths that can ennoble armed struggle and cheapen their own politics. It is an awful pity we can’t have the clarity now that we need and will inevitably get later on, from some future SF leader who will find it costs nothing to speak the truth. And that it is worth speaking plainly and honestly if there is a chance that it will discourage those who , soaked in the nonsensical myths of republican glory, might be tempted to claim a little of that glory for themselves.

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It has been an odd week.

On Saturday, March 7, two men with automatic rifles killed two soldiers receving a pizza delivery at the gate of their base in County Antrim and two nights later, a sniper killed a policeman in his car on a housecall.

The media has taken an interest in whether the Troubles are back on or not, so I – and all the other journalists I know – have been doing wee interviews for the World Service and Sky and others, explaining what we know, or at least trying to sound plausible and helpful.

For me, this has been like retuning my brain to where it was ten years ago. I like the new directions I have taken in journalism and writing, away from intense preoccupation with terrorism and the politics of a divided society, but it seems urgent now to be fresh and lucid on those subjects again.

So, a few thoughts.

This is not the start of a new campaign. That campaign is already well advanced and into a routine; it just has not been very competently pursued.  Last autumn I was asked to chair an event for the police and it was canceled because the security threat was too high. There have been bombings, shootings, kneecappings and beatings by Republican dissidents. They just failed to persuade most people, until now, that they were worth noticing for the threat they presented to government and good order.

We don’t expect to see a campaign because we can see no point in it. There is no major grievance in the Catholic community to drive it.

The common argument against a new campaign is, roughly, this. The dissident republicans have no hope of achieving what the Provisional IRA failed to achieve in thirty years.

We will understand what viable objectives the dissidents might have if we understand what is wrong with that argument. The  Provisional IRA failed to achieve a united Ireland but succeeded greatly in the secondary objective of stalling all political compromise in Northern Ireland until it was ready to participate itself. No attempt at a settlement could work until they permitted it to work. Their campaign presented a veto rather than a demand. (This is the basic thesis of my book  The Trouble With Guns)

So, can a new campaign by dissidents be effective also in vetoing government here?

It might. One of the conditions of the peace process is that there be a major increase in the recruitment of Catholic police officers. That can be stalled if Catholics are made fearful of joining.

And there is another opportunity presented by our uncompleted policing reform.

A condition of the continuance of power sharing government, for Sinn Fein, is the devolution of policing and justice to Stormont. Can this be prevented if Unionists and Republicans move to polarised visions of how the police might respond to a terror campaign? Possibly. Unionists are traditionally hardline and favour tough responses and Republicans are already protesting against stop and search and the use of army reconnaissance teams.

And what about those republicans who are now sceptical of power sharing but do not support the dissidents; those who have been with the peace process so far? Is there a danger that they will be disillusioned and will defect to support a growing dissident campaign?  Well, they are miffed that Sinn Fein has been humiliated in its power sharing relationship with the DUP.   And they surely can not be much impressed with the Sinn Fein claim to be providing a route to a united Ireland.  This is the weakness in the Sinn Fein position; it actually has virtually no chance of uniting Ireland. Then again, neither have the dissidents, though they might aspire to scuppering the Sinn Fein project and see that, at least, as progress in the right direction.

The hopeful sign, for most, is that the new threat to the stability of the region has been met with a dogged show of unity between Sinn Fein and the DUP, and clear calls from Sinn Fein for republicans to support the police against the dissidents.  The threat has strengthened the centre. This is what happens. In a sense, our power sharing government now has an opposition, an armed opposition. First indications are that this has actually improved the quality of government. And that makes me think of Israel, a country in which disparate and antagonistic political forces rally together against the external threat of violence. A country can come to identify itself against a threat rather than by its own native characteristics. I have a horror of a new plucky wee Ulster emerging that would need to threat of the dissidents to hold it together. But, hopefully, we are a long way from that still.

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New Toy

I am playing with audio visual presentations using soundslides. I have posted my first one on blogspot.

It is a radio report I did for Sunday Sequence nearly two years ago, about the annual pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick, or The Reek,  in County Mayo. It is illustrated by pictures I took there for my book Empty Pulpits, which has a section on the pilgrimage too.

Heads down, onwards and up.

Heads down, onwards and up.

WordPress doesn’t let me embed html here, so I have set up another blog just for the audio visual pieces. I will link them to here.

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