Author Archives: henrymcdonald

Why London must not be allowed to suppress the awful truth about Kincora

Suspicions that paedophile doctor Morris Fraser was an MI5 ‘protected species’ have again raised questions about the state’s role in the Kincora sex abuse scandal…

Kinkora: former boy's home, © The Belfast Telegraph

Kinkora: former boy’s home, © The Belfast Telegraph

As the alleged VIP paedophile ring story at Westminster crumbles, there is still one scandal involving powerful people, blackmail and the abuse of children that continues to churn out disturbing, but credible, material from the past: Kincora.

The so-called former ‘boys’ home’ – an inappropriate, cruel misnomer if ever there was one – in east Belfast has this enduring ability to cast up fresh demons which haunt the lives of the victims that were sent there and also raise serious questions for the British state in Northern Ireland.

Last week’s revelations about the paedophile doctor, Morris Fraser, contained this killer line: that a Freedom of Information request about the child psychiatrist’s work in Belfast during the early years of the Troubles was blocked on the grounds of “national security”.

Which raised the possibility that Fraser, who – incredibly – was allowed to keep practising in his field of child psychiatry right up until the mid-1990s, despite a number of convictions for sexually abusing boys, was a “protected species” by the security services.

Richard Kerr

Richard Kerr

In addition, one of the Kincora survivors, Richard Kerr, remembers that his torment began not at the home itself, but in Fraser’s clinic in Belfast’s Royal Victoria Hospital, when the paedophile took pictures with a Polaroid camera of Kerr with his trousers down.

It was on Fraser’s later recommendation that Richard Kerr was sent to Kincora – and into the lair of a ring of child abusers working there.

Fraser’s activities, his link to Kincora and his ability to continue to work – even though the RUC and others knew he had a conviction for child abuse as far back as 1971 in London – suggests the paedophile rings connected to the home did not just involve a few old perverts who happened to be members of the Orange Order.

It raises the possibility that the web of abusers reached deeper into the middle-class professions, such as medicine, and was seen by the security services at the highest level as being of use in terms of spying, so-called “black ops” and blackmail in relation to extreme unionism at the time.

Academic Niall Meehan’s disclosure about the Freedom of Information request – and the reason for it being turned down – also remind us of another similar decision taken at Cabinet level, now in the 21st century.

It is worth remembering that Home Secretary Theresa May was prepared to allow for full and frank disclosure of all police, security service and other classified files that related to claims of a VIP paedophile ring allegedly operating in London around Dolphin House as well as Westminster in the 1970s and 1980s.

However, the Home Secretary has refused to include Kincora in that open investigative remit and, indeed, has even moved to block another inquiry based here in Northern Ireland gaining total, open access to all the sensitive case files and information relating to the east Belfast abuse centre network.

At the time of writing, the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry, based at Banbridge courthouse, is hearing evidence against allegations of abuse of children at Lissue Hospital in Lisburn, which will run for at least a week.

The HIAI inquiry has already heard heartbreaking and shocking evidence, including eyewitness accounts about the sexual and physical abuse of children at homes, orphanages and other institutions across Northern Ireland since the state’s inception.

The long-running tribunal will eventually get to Kincora and what could be one of the most sensational set-piece public hearings since the Bloody Sunday inquiry.

Victims and eyewitnesses will be called to retell stories of rape and abuse by powerful and seemingly highly protected men; to amplify claims that the abusers were being spied on (and blackmailed to spy on others) and to charge that, all the time, the authorities knew, but did nothing to save boys from this gang of predatory child rapists.

In order for the full truth to come out about this festering and toxic scandal from the Troubles, the Home Secretary should be forced to reverse the decision not to hand over all of the files related to Kincora to Sir Anthony Hart, the retired judge heading up the HIAI inquiry, and his team.

Because, even if there are some grounds for not publishing these files in the full public glare of Banbridge courthouse, then surely Sir Anthony, Geraldine Doherty and David Lane could at least be trusted to protect “national security” while at the same time being able to read these documents in full and eventually factor the material contained within them into their final report.

Pressure on Theresa May and the Home Office should begin at Stormont and the next power-sharing administration following the Assembly elections on May 5.

Every political party seeking power in the new devolved government – and even those who will enter Opposition – should promise the electorate they will press London on this issue.

They should commit themselves to demanding a change in policy in London allowing for total transparency in connection to Kincora.

The demand that the Government in London hand over all the files to the Banbridge-based tribunal should be in every party’s manifesto in the run-up to the election next month.

Given this recent development regarding Fraser and his ability to have access to children in Northern Ireland and the referrals to Kincora in the 1970s, it is surely correct that the HIAI inquiry be allowed to quiz those health professionals, members of the General Medical Council, any RUC senior staff who knew about the 1971 conviction and, of course, former Secretary of State Lord Patrick Mayhew, whom as journalist Lyra McKee revealed in this newspaper on Monday, was a panel member at one session of a GMC disciplinary committee in the mid 1970s into Dr Fraser’s activities.

All these prominent people should also be summoned to Banbridge courthouse when the HIAI tribunal finally gets around to investigating Kincora to be questioned about the quality of the information in relation to Fraser in that period; to be asked if they think they were hoodwinked for reasons of state.

There are other cases, too, of “protected species” with links to extreme loyalism (their identities and activities revealed to this author by the late David Ervine in the early 1990s before he was a household name) that have connections to Kincora who continued to be used as assets by the security services right into the 1990s and who should now come under the spotlight of this inquiry.

*This column was published today in the Belfast Telegraph.

 

Liam Clarke: A fearless and formidable man

Journaist Liam Clarke, © The Belfast Telegraph

Journaist Liam Clarke, © The Belfast Telegraph

Liam faced his illness, a rare form of cancer, with the same bravery that marked his journalism. He died early yesterday morning, suddenly but ‘peacefully’ at his home. His ability to hold on for so long after the terminal diagnosis also demonstrated his formidable personal strength.

The great truth that life is sweeter, more vivid and more precious because it must end, washed over me like a wave as I looked into the anxious face of Anand Gidwani after he examined my stomach.

Even a week ago, just before his death at home at the weekend, Liam was still scooping the rest of us when it came to political stories. He got ahead of the pack for The Belfast Telegraph with the first interview with First Minister-in-waiting Arlene Foster, shortly after she was elected unopposed to lead the Democratic Unionists. This was yet another example (we didn’t know it would be his last) of Liam getting his story out first.

It is also supremely ironic that the man at the centre of one of Liam’s greatest ever scoops – Thomas ‘Slab’ Murphy – is currently awaiting his fate after being found guilty just before Christmas of tax evasion in the Irish Republic.

Thomas "Slab" Murphy

Thomas “Slab” Murphy

In Dublin’s Central Criminal Court, Murphy was found guilty of failing to pay his taxes in the south. Back in 1988, no one could ever have imagined ‘Slab’ and his power being challenged through the courts of the land.

In that time, he held sway over the IRA’s South Armagh Brigade and helped through his organisational resources to smuggle tonnes of Colonel Gaddafi’s weapons into Ireland. And in the mini ‘Republic of Fear’ along the border, there was a vow of murderous silence that ensured the likes of Murphy would never be exposed… until Liam Clarke and The Sunday Times investigation team decided to probe the vast wealth of the south Armagh farmer and the allegations that he had been IRA chief of staff.

Murphy sued for libel in 1988, but the paper and Liam held firm, eventually winning the case after several years and exposing ‘Slab’s’ role in the Provisionals’ war. Liam became for a time a marked man and his journalist colleagues know of at least one IRA plot to kill him in the late ’80s.

Yet Liam’s compassion for people regardless of their politics stretched all the way from the fringes of Ulster loyalism to Sinn Fein and IRA members. I know for a fact that Liam found out about a plot to kill a senior Belfast Sinn Fein member by loyalists in the early 1990s. Liam immediately warned him, advising him to change his routine and beef up his security. The warning was heeded and mercifully the attack never took place.

His willingness to help a member of a movement that included others willing to kill Liam at one time was a measure of the man. It was also part of his political philosophy. He saw armed struggle and political violence as not only immoral but futile and counter productive.

This is probably why the young, radical, left-wing student from a Protestant background in the north west joined the post-ceasefire Official Sinn Fein/Republican Clubs, later to become The Workers Party (WP) in the 70s.

By 1980 Liam was co-editor of the WP paper The Northern People and worked alongside future Fortnight editor Robin Wilson. The formidable duo turned the paper from a dull, ideological leftist tract into an often interesting, left-leaning weekly tabloid that even broke some news stories, including, for instance, a scoop about a new plastic baton round the RUC was about to deploy.

However, Liam had ambitions to get into mainstream journalism. While he continued to sympathise with the WP line on Northern Ireland, Liam realised that journalism and political activism shouldn’t really mix. So he struck out in the local media first and quite successfully with The Sunday News, the local News Letter-owned paper that I also worked on as Dublin Correspondent in the early 1990s.

He joined The Sunday Times in 1984 and became a highly regarded member of staff. Its pioneering editor in the ’80s, Andrew Neil, in particular, was highly supportive and admiring of Liam’s work.

While arguably Liam’s greatest scoop was the exposure of Slab Murphy, there were other huge stories that he worked on. He was among the first journalists to suggest there was a super-spy at the heart of the IRA’s counter-intelligence/informer-hunter unit known as ‘Stakeknife‘.

He could be amusing too with his anecdotes, especially the one he told about being chased by Sean Mac Stiofain, the ex-Provo chief of staff, with a wheel brace after he turned up on his doorstep with a list of questions.

His prose was seamless, particularly in his columns and books. He penned one of the best books about the 1981 hunger strike and its role in the rise of Sinn Fein. His Broadening The Battlefield remains one of the most important works from the 80s for anyone studying the Provisional movement from armed struggle into democratic politics.

When I worked with him on The Sunday Times between 1996 and 1997, he broke a number of important stories about the Drumcree crisis and IRA ceasefires. He encouraged me to sniff out a few scoops of my own, including an LVF plan to foment sectarian strife in east Belfast by burning a Protestant church and then claiming Catholics from the Short Strand were behind it.

Liam was generous with his contacts and advice, often given out over a sensational bottle of red wine in Nick’s Warehouse or upstairs in the Morning Star. And when I had to have surgery to have a cancerous tumour excised from my inner thigh in that year, Liam was incredibly supportive.

As a fearless reporter, he saw no difference between standing up to tell the truth about Slab Murphy and challenging the power of the British state. He and his equally formidable wife Kathryn were arrested after they published MI5 and police covert transcripts of conversations between Dr Mo Mowlam and Martin McGuinness.

In 2003, police officers raided the Clarke family home and arrested both Liam and Kathryn over an alleged breach of the Official Secrets Act. They were questioned at Castlereagh Holding Centre for almost a day.

John Witherow, The Sunday Times editor at the time, defended them, saying that “the account of phone taps in Northern Ireland poses no threat to national security. It merely embarrasses ministers”.

51-O8AxP1tL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The material Liam and Kathryn obtained (another classic Liam scoop) exposed a chumminess between Dr Mowlam and Martin McGuinness. The transcripts were later used in the second edition of the couple’s biography on Martin McGuinness, From Guns to Government.

And, typical of both formidable characters, Liam and Kathryn sued the PSNI for wrongful arrest and won, which was just as well as this writer was later arrested over material from the same source as the Clarkes for a ghosted autobiography of a former RUC Special Branch operative. By taking their action, Liam and Kathryn bolstered the cause of free journalism unfettered by political constraints or state control.

When he retired after his long stint as Ireland editor of The Sunday Times, Liam went back to local journalism and became the Belfast Telegraph’s political editor. He seemed to be enjoying a late boost of energy and refreshed interest in local politics. Liam was there for all the big set-piece events that have led to the current power sharing at Stormont. I recall walking with him along a beach at St Andrew’s in 2006 as our conversation oscillated between talk of our respective families and his predictions, ahead of the deal, that Ian Paisley would soon sit down in government with Martin McGuinness. Through his network of contacts, Liam was certain of this positive assessment of where the talks were going, even while the press and media were locked out of the negotiations.

Liam, enjoying Christmas Day this year, using a selfie stick as a Star Wars light sabre.

Liam, enjoying Christmas Day this year, using a selfie stick as a Star Wars light sabre.

He remained a man of the broad, sensible left and a trade unionist to the end. Our union, the National Union of Journalists, summed up his career in a brief but highly apposite statement about his death on Sunday.

That is how we should live our lives, anyway, remembering death and the fact that life will carry on without us. Human relationships then become more important and winning arguments less so.

Irish NUJ secretary Seamus Dooley put it thus: “On behalf of the NUJ, I would like to extend sympathy to the family, colleagues and friends of Liam Clarke, political editor of The Belfast Telegraph and a former officer of Belfast and District branch of the NUJ, who has died.

“Liam was a fearless journalist. He was never afraid to challenge authority and was always prepared to stand up for the principle of media freedom.

“In The Sunday Times and, more recently, in The Belfast Telegraph, he covered some of the most significant events in the history of Northern Ireland.

“As a columnist he was insightful, authoritative and, at times provocative. He commanded respect across the political divide and his death is a loss to journalism in Northern Ireland. ”

There is that word again – ‘fearless’ – which, combined with a formidable intelligence, knowledge and writing style, best sums up the life and career of Liam Clarke.

* *This obituary was published in The Belfast Telegraph today**

Events must be balanced, not a partisan ode to republicanism

 

MI+Easter+Rising+1916+fights+bombs+IV

Patrick_Pearse

Patrick Pearse, born 10 November 1879 – died 3 May 1916.

Patrick Pearse’s critics often portray him as a dreamer-poet whose romantic Gaelicised vision for Ireland was more akin to the mysticism of German Volkish nationalism rather than the secular, anti-clerical democratic republicanism of the American and French revolutions. This depiction of Pearse is partially justified if you scan his writings as well as his obsession on blood sacrifice. However, the leader of the Easter Rising was at least grounded in reality when it came to one vital issue – Ulster.

Belfast saw virtually no action in Easter Week 1916 even while the centre of Dublin was burning and civilians as well as soldiers and insurgents were dying in the capital’s streets. The North in general remained quiet during the armed Liam Mellows 2insurgency and this is in large part down to Pearse’s authority. Away from the Celtic mysticism and the fiery graveside oratory Pearse was realistic enough to know that plotting a parallel uprising in Ireland’s second city, in the industrial Protestant heartland of Ulster, would only result in sectarian slaughter. He was so concerned about the units loyal to him in the North of Ireland that many of them were force marched across into Connaught to aid a mini-rebellion by Liam Mellows and his forces in the west, conveniently removing them from mimicking the Dublin rebels by causing trouble back in Ulster.

In effect then, thanks partly to Pearse, there was no rising north of what would become the border. Five years later the majority of the IRA’s units in Belfast demonstrated reciprocal realism, Pearse now long dead of course, by backing Michael Collins and the pro-Treaty forces after the Free State was founded and the civil war loomed. It is worth remembering this background particularly the absence of armed insurgency in Belfast during Easter Week 1916 when considering the republican launch in City Hall on Monday (this week) of a range of commemorations they are planning for next year’s centenary.

Launch of the 1916 Centenary Easter Rising Celebrations at the City Hall with speakers, Briege Brownlee, Tom Hartley and Lord Mayor Arder Carson with Kabosh actors Antoinette Morelli and Gerard Jordan.

Launch of the 1916 Centenary Easter Rising Celebrations at the City Hall with speakers, Briege Brownlee, Tom Hartley and Lord Mayor Arder Carson with Kabosh actors Antoinette Morelli and Gerard Jordan.

The top news line from the launch came from Tom Hartley, a Sinn Féin veteran, former deputy Lord Mayor of Belfast and a formidable local historian whose last book Milltown Cemetery was a superb, invaluable and balanced 51ItNyb82LL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_piece of historical research. Hartley invited loyalists in the city to take part in the Rising commemorations as he noted that within the working class Protestant working class communities there is a burgeoning local history movement. His intentions are wholly benign and presumably he is realistic enough himself to acknowledge that any Ulster loyalist/unionist participation in these events are not going to turn them over night from ‘misguided Irishmen’ into fully fledged republicans and nationalists. The trouble with 1916 and all that is it that to the loyalist community it really means one thing only – July 1, the Battle of the Somme rather than the rising which unionists to this day regard as a ‘stab in the back’ during war time. The sacrifices on the Western Front, the thousands killed going over the top, the courage in the face of what World War One historian Lyn McDonald called ‘hurricanes of steel’ flying through No Man’s Land will also resonate much more with the unionist and loyalist community than the valour displayed by the 1916 rebels who at the time didn’t appear to command massive public support even in Dublin. That came later thanks mainly to British stupidity in firstly executing and making martyrs out of the leaders and then the imposition of conscription which deeply alienated Catholic Ireland.

None of this is to suggest that unionists and loyalists should engage in debate and discussion with republicans about Easter 1916 and its legacy. Republicans in turn have been re-analysing their own histories and their personal connections in their families back to Irish Regiments like the Connaught Rangers that fought in the Great War. Yet the unionist and loyalist community will not be attracted to any commemorations that are simply glorified pageants with people looking ludicrous in period uniforms and costumes. Rather any key events to mark the centenary should be historical think-ins, debates and conferences asking hard questions of everyone about the Rising’s legacy. They could start with this important question: why Dublin back then but not Belfast?

**This article was published today in: The Belfast Telegraph**

Legal Highs Vs Lethal Highs

A handful of 'e' - © Belfast Telegraph

A handful of ‘e’ – © Belfast Telegraph

With apologies to The Prodigy in the early to mid 1990s every single drug scare hysteria started with an ‘E’.

Northern Ireland was not immune to the public panic about Ecstasy, or MDMA, or as it was known in the Rave party scene across these islands, ‘The Love Drug.’ There were stories about young people who had taken ‘E’ dying either from the dodgy chemicals that had been cut into the tablets, or, as was more common, the lethal effects of de-hydration brought on by the drug itself, the heat of the dance floors and lack of water intake.

It was during this period that I persuaded BBC Northern Ireland’s news and current affairs department to send me to Manchester where an interesting

The Hacienda, Manchester, © The Guardian

The Hacienda, Manchester, © The Guardian

experiment was taking place inside a club that for those of us who had been involved in the music from punk rock onwards was a Mecca of the alternative anti-pop underground: The Hacienda.

The club once owned by the survivors of Joy Division, New Order, and the Mancunian music impresario and Grenada TV presenter Tony Wilson. By the early 90s The Hacienda had moved from being a venue where the ‘Madchester’ bands took to the stage and had become the home of a huge dance-rave scene. And coming with that scene was the dancer’s drug of choice, Ecstasy.

To counter the dangers of dehydration from E-intake and dance-induced over heating, management at the Hacienda introduced a ‘safer dancing policy’ inside the club. They set aside areas known as ‘chill out zones’ which were cool and had instant access to water coolers to counter dehydration. Staff were trained up to administer first aid and cope with ravers who had dehydrated while on E. The whole set-up was a pragmatic one which accepted that many on the dance floors would consume E while partying there.

The Hacienda was actually proud of its ‘safer dancing’ regime and I remember a sweating, hungover but as always highly articulate Tony Wilson making a coherent case for this practical, realistic approach to recreational drug use, which he insisted had actually saved many lives.

When the special report from Manchester, to the immense credit of BBC NI, was broadcast on the tea time news there was a mixed reaction. From older and conservative quarters there were the usual accusations of promoting a soft, liberal line on drug consumption while from those directly involved in the local Ulster rave scene gratitude and relief that there were some rational debate being injected into the usual, hysterical reportage about this one aspect of drug and youth culture.

At that time on the continent meanwhile the always liberal, forward-thinking Dutch were going one step further than Manchester and the Hacienda. In etestHolland and in particular the rave-scene in Amsterdam, clubs were actually providing customers with E-testing kits, which could examine if the tablets they were about to consume were unadulterated and relatively safe. As a result of the amount of Ecstasy-related deaths in the Netherlands was far, far lower than the relatively small number of deaths around the rave scene in the UK.

Tony Wilson

Tony Wilson

Memories of driving around the grim, semi-vacant streets of Moss Side in Manchester, my cameraman taking tracking shots in our car of the area which then echoed to gunfire from the gangland wars that blighted the inner city district; of sitting down to interview the late, legendary Tony Wilson whom I had first seen on television back in the 70s when he promoted a new wave of non-conformist bands and filming in the interior of the club synonymous with the likes of New Order all came back to mind on reading about this week’s court case on legal highs.

Two men and a woman made legal history recently when a Belfast court became the first in the UK to convict individuals in relation to the supply of legal highs.

The whole issue of Legal Highs only highlights further the utter of absurdity of the Roaring Twenties-Prohibition approach to drugs in the western world including in Northern Ireland. Just as the ban on alcoholic drink in the United States only fuelled the illicit sale of booze under the control of the new organised crime gangs of the time, the prohibition of all narcotics has only made the gangsters which control the supply of heroin, cocaine, speed, ecstasy, etc., richer far beyond the wildest dreams of Al Capone and his cronies.

Ian Brown, Ashley Campbell and Susan Bradshaw all admitted to failing to comply with safety regulations by distributing a dangerous product at a Belfast city centre shop, i.e. legal highs. Yet the existence of ‘legal highs’, which are being produced synthetically and exponentially across the planet, demonstrates that while the state can shut down one type of drug on the market (and crucially on the internet) the chemists and the suppliers will invent another one almost the very same day.

Local politicians have, of course, fuelled the usual drug-hysteria and playing on words demanded that legal highs should be called instead ‘lethal highs’. They may be right about that nomenclature because there will undoubtedly be legal highs which are impure and of a chemical compound that will have lethal effects on those that ingest them.

However, the crucial word in the recent judgement at Laganside Court was the word ‘safety’. The three defendants admitted their guilt on the basis that they were compromising the safety of buying the product at Soho Bookshop in Gresham Street. Yet what they had taken health and safety regulations into consideration? What is there was a system where a synthetic, legal drug could be chemically/medically tested, its supply limited to a specific dose and then licensed? Under such a regime the trio would not be guilty of anything other than selling something probably no more dangerous than booze from an off license or tobacco from a corner shop.

soho

Why is it that local politicians lobby (absolutely correctly) as far up as Downing Street or the European Union to keep a factory open in Ballymena that produces a toxic product that kills millions around the planet, namely the cigarette, but at the same time demand new laws to completely prohibit other synthetic toxins which may in some cases be potentially lethal? There may be no answer to that doublethink other than the simple, practical suggestion that the so-called ‘war on drugs’ is now even more un-winnable with the advent of synthetically created drugs that exist in the penumbra between illegality and legality. That is to follow the spirit of The Hacienda’s ‘safer dancing’ policy or better still the logical, rational approach of the Dutch party scene and subject these new narcotics on the market to rigorous safety testing.

Ulster fundamentalists drive sex into the shadows

 

When she comes to Belfast on business sex worker Laura Lee brings a whole new meaning to that notorious locally minted phrase ‘punishment beating.’

Lee offers a range of sexual services to consenting adults including a menu of S&M options that make Fifty Shades of Grey seem as tame as a Sunday school picnic outing. Her list of domination and submission offerings include some eye-watering, butt-clenching, spine-chilling scenarios which I’ll avoid mentioning for the moment. Suffice to say some customers choose to be on the receiving end of bare hands, riding crops, whips and chains if they hire her as their Dominatrix-for-a-day.

However as the 37-year-old law graduate points out all of those consumers whom she works with are consenting adults and some of whom are unable hcuffsthrough physical disabilities for instance to have sex via the conventional, non-fiscal way. Some of them, Lee stresses, are in wheelchairs, or are elderly or terminally ill. Most probably simply ask for vanilla sex, one to one intercourse and a more intimate experience than being hog-tied, chained or hand-cuffed in preparation for some stinging corrective punishment.

Yet after 1st June those individuals who seek her out for sexual pleasure and satisfaction could find themselves facing prosecution under the new law outlawing payment for sex. Once Lord Morrow’s Human Trafficking Bill goes live in less than two months time ‘punters’ as they are known in the sex industry could be arrested for seeking out prostitutes. This is the so-called Nordic model, which some anti-prostitution campaigners want introduced not only across the border in the Republic but also throughout the UK and the EU.

Supporters of the Nordic model and Lord Morrow’s legislation argue that the law represents a power shift in the sexual relations of the sex industry. By putting the focus on men who purchase sex it acts as a powerful deterrent lauralegreducing the dark market demand for vulnerable and trafficked women. The woman selling sex is therefore no longer the criminal but rather the male predator crawling the curbs and scouting the brothels in search of their prey.

The trouble behind this line of thinking is that it cannot explain the existence of Ms Lee and many others like her who insist they choose to do sex work for a variety of reasons, the majority economic ones. Ms Lee argues that she has a right to decide what to do with consenting adults in private. In a recent interview with me in The Guardian newspaper, Ms Lee revealed that she is building a legal case with her lawyers aimed at overturning the Morrow law. Her court battles ahead may even go as far as the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg as she and her team reference various aspects of the European Convention on Human Rights to challenge the legislation.

I am doing this because I believe that when two consenting adults have sex behind closed doors and if money changes hands then that is none of the state’s business. The law they have introduced has nothing to do with people being trafficked but simply on their, the DUP’s, moral abhorrence of paid sex.

Aside from the points of complex human rights law that will be examined in Ms Lee’s legal challenge there are other practical problems facing the authorities in Northern Ireland in enforcing the Morrow-Nordic law.

Justice Minister David Ford pointed out as far back as last year that there is a serious issue over evidence gathering when it comes to the sex-worker sex-consumer relationship. In Nordic countries police rely on the intercepts of mobile phone calls between prostitutes and their clients as evidence to arrest and convict. Whereas in Northern Ireland intercepted mobile phone call conversations are not permitted as evidence in courts, Ford noted. The only other way to gather evidence would be lightening raids on apartments and flats where sex workers ply their trade, and in a situation of ‘en flagrante’ between worker and consumer one presumes!

Ms Lee claims similar crackdowns on brothers and sex workers’ based in Scotland have resulted in working girls for instance being strip searched – a practice which she believes is a greater violation of an individual’s human rights than any perceived act of sexploitation.

I believe that after June 2015, sex workers’ lives in Northern Ireland will actually be harder and the industry will be pushed underground.

There are further practical barriers to enforcing the Morrow-Nordic law as evidenced by what happened in Limerick city almost four years ago. Gardaí arrested 21 men after raiding a number of premises in Limerick who were allegedly hanging out with sex workers. Critics of the raid cried illegal entrapment and the local, widely respected newspaper The Limerick Leader took a decision not to publish the names of the 21 due to the unusual nature of the arrest operation.

laurablog

So, on top of the forthcoming legal challenge by Laura Lee, you can imagine a raft of other potentially controversial court cases from customers and workers alike claiming police raids are an invasion of their privacy and a possible breach of European human rights law. After all former Formula 1 chief Max Mossley successfully sued the News of the World (RIP) not for saying he was cavorting with prostitutes in a London dungeon but that in doing so they had breached his human right to privacy!

It is understood that Ms Lee will continue to work in Northern Ireland even after the Morrow law kicks in after June. She will go on taking part in sensual one-to-one sessions as well as meting out punishment to naughty adult men caught sniggering at the back of the class. Meanwhile the majority of the populace of our wee province, according to supporters of the legislation, support outlawing such activities including hunting down the ‘punters’ themselves. Advocates of the Nordic mode in Northern Ireland point to opinion polls showing support for banning purchasing of sex. They also remind you that the Morrow legislation passed by 81-10 votes last year in the Stormont Assembly and that this outcome reflected popular will.

radar

Going back to ‘punishment beatings’ Below The Radar TV should be commended for their documentary last month broadcast on RTÉ. The Belfast production company returned to the subject of paramilitary beatings and shootings, the so-called instant ‘Nescafe justice’ still being carried out on our streets in loyalist and republican redoubts.

One of the telling elements to this excellent documentary was the consensus between some of the commentators on camera, from the columnist Brian Feeney to the human rights campaigner Dr Liam Kennedy about what wider Northern Irish society thought about these human rights violations.

Both admitted that there was either a considerable degree of support for such rough justice in working class communities, or at the very least a significant lack of moral outrage over the shooting, beating, torturing and humiliation of so called ‘anti social elements.’ Although popularity is never an excuse for barbarity after all Jew baiting if you recall used to be very popular in Germany from the mid 1930s onwards.

Nonetheless the support during and even after the Troubles for punishment attacks even when the innocent and those who had simply crossed paramilitary groups such as UVF-victim Andrew Peden and IRA victim-Andrew Kearney (the latter guilty simply of the ‘crime’ of knocking out a senior North Belfast Provo figure in a bar) are targeted, is a disturbing signal of moral doublethink. Because while a majority of our society can be incensed and outraged over an adult woman, a free agent, making money out of, among other things, doling out a mild correction with a cane to willing submissives, far fewer people are exercised about the involuntary punishments still being meted out mainly on men convicted by Kangaroo courts without access to legal defence or appeal.

In Times of Fading Light

fadinglight

gooseA Monastery Goose was to several generations of an East German family what a Madeleine cake was for Marcel Proust in Remembrance of Things Past: a solid, tangible, evocative food treat that conjures up deep memories of an epoch lost forever in time. In Eugen Ruge’s In Times of Fading Light, this decadently rich Christmas dish wafts and recurs down through the decades of war, reconstruction, revolution, division and final disillusionment with a dream.

Those giblets cooked in hot coconut fat and the bird itself soaked and seared into a ‘sweet black glaze’ from a mixture of cognac, honey and port wine are also reminiscent of the festive feasts in Dickens or the groaning dining table on which Gabriel Conroy in Joyce’s The Dead is carving from. Cooking the goose succeeds in bringing you into both Irina’s kitchen and wider East German society.

For the Umnitzers, a family who fled Nazi Germany to Mexico and who returned to their divided country after 1945 determined as true believers to build Socialism in its eastern half, the Monastery or Burgundian Goose becomes a symbol of relative luxury and much later loss for a state that they once had faith in.

Paradoxically the bird stuffed with apricots, figs and other fruits, the one-off annual luxurious dish, becomes a contrast to the daily austerity and shortages egermof GDR consumption. In the 1991 Christmas, after reunification, the widespread availability of the Monastery Goose’s exotic ingredients then turns into a motif for an all conquering free market.

The most vivid description of Irina Umnitzer (Russian wife of the crotchety communist patriarch Kurt) occurs in 1976 just as the first shoots of dissent are rising in the Marxist-Leninist orthodox soil of the outwardly stable German Democratic Republic. Amid all the Christmas cheer, with Irina’s son Sasha arriving with a new girlfriend for the annual family get together, there are snatches of conversations hinting at the rebellion to come…albeit 13 years into the future when The Berlin Wall comes crashing down.

Berlin Wall, constructed in 1961, torn down in 1989

Berlin Wall, constructed in 1961, torn down in 1989

Irina is fed up hearing about Wolf Biermann, the dissident East German singer whose criticism in his protest songs of the regime leads the authorities to bar him going back into the GDR after a tour in the west. She is even irritated by talk of Christa Wolf, the country’s leading novelist and would rather think about Thuringian Dumplings than the writer’s subtle critiques of ‘Actual Existing Socialism’. Most of all Irina is annoyed by her son’s ‘dull blonde’ girl who announces at the table that she is a vegetarian and therefore will not sink her teeth into the Monastery Goose. Worse still the girlfriend, Melitta won’t even take a drink and may (horror of horrors!) be a full-time teetotaller.

This award-winning novel shifts back and forth across time and appropriately the contiguous chapter to the 1976 Christmas dinner is set on 1st October 1989 with the GDR only just over a month away from its rapid, unexpected collapse. The echoes of dissension and opposition are by now thunderous and menacing for the dwindling band of communist loyalists such as Kurt, Irina’s husband.

In reverse gear Ruge’s time-machine narrative then thrusts back to the bleak winter of 1979 and captures the decrepit but oddly attractive quarter of East Berlin which was mildly Bohemian in GDR times. For anyone acquainted with this area either before and shortly after the Wall came down, the author paints an accurate picture of the Prenzlauer Berg district. This is portrayed during a pivotal encounter between Sasha and Kurt with the ‘stucco façades’ of 19th century apartments that are ‘blackened by the smoke of coal-burning stoves, and in places where the bare masonry showed through. Balconies looked as if they might fall at any moment.’

Sasha’s ascetic existence in this episode, living in a sparsely furnished room lit by a naked single bulb, separated from Melitta and their young son, having not only abandoned them but also his dissertation in history at university, epitomises the growing alienation of the younger generation from their society and the ideals that old Kurt fought for against Nazism and later Capitalism.

Reading Ruge’s gritty depiction of this shabby, half-empty, near desolate after dark bohemian bolt hole reminds the reader of similar enclaves of protest and freedom on the other side of the Wall; in the ’79 of the Berlin of Iggy Pop and its ‘Ripped Backsides’ lyrics of The Passenger, and the electro-kinetic sounds of Bowie’s Low, Heroes and Lodger. For the Sashas of ‘Actually Existing Socialism’, bored into catatonic torpor, life is elsewhere beyond the every day organised lies and dull oppression of the eastern bloc.

And yet the writer who himself emigrated from the GDR in 1986, creates sympathetic portraits of the Old Believers like Kurt or Wilhelm, the latter who is rewarded for his service to Socialism in a ceremony at a local party office in an equally comic and touching passage. Ruge never forgets that ageing, decaying men like these were once in their youth on the frontline in the fight against fascism and some of whom also endured the terrors of the Stalinist Gulags whilst in exile in the Soviet Union, and yet who still remained convinced of the correctness of the communist cause.

The novel ends with Sasha returning to his father’s old haunts in Mexico where he reads Kurt’s disjointed, jaggedly structured letters. His son cannot work out whether the notes his father left behind for him were jottings for a novel or the second part of his dad’s memoirs of life in the GDR. Sasha discovers writings about that grim day in February 1979 when his father came to see him in Berlin, to straighten his son out, to find out why he had left his partner, his child and his future as an historian. Only a few words come back to Sasha as he reads this diary note. “People are starving in Africa!” his father protested, angry at his child’s indifference to food, interior décor, hygiene, personal ambition, wife and son and lack of belief. These are some of the most powerful and poetic sections of a deeply moving family saga.

Yet Sasha blots out the unsettling memories these letters conjure up by escaping into a listless afternoon playing chess with a Mexican biker and later drifting off into a siesta-sleep, rocked gently by the swing of a hammock and the ‘indifferent, roar of the sea.’

hon

Eric Honecker

It an apposite place to draw the family’s arc through modern German history to an inconclusive yet somehow restive close. Because it was also Latin America where another old communist fighter from the 30s and 40s, from Kurt and Wilhelm’s generation, chose to flee and end his days after the GDR imploded and Germany was reunited once more. Eric Honecker died in Santiago, the capital of Chile on 29th May 1994.

In Times of Fading Light is not the novelistic equivalent of Goodbye Lenin and its Ostalgia for all things GDR from Spreewald pickles to Young Pioneers singing the Socialist anthems from his childhood. Nor is the book like The Lives of Others and its narrow but brilliant focus on the bloodless, obsessive invasiveness of the all-seeing, all-knowing Stasi. Ruge’s story of a family often at war, both of the hot and cold variety in the 20th century, is somewhere within the hinterland of those two films about East German life. It is located in that penumbra where everything and everyone is grey rather than black & white, where there are little or no downright heroes or villains but rather only frail and flawed human beings.

Dark Threats from the Big Lad

funny

I remember exactly where I was when the death threat against me was issued. My sister and I were sipping coffee in a cafe inside Madrid’s Barajas airport waiting for a flight to London. The mobile rang and it was someone from the police press office back in Belfast who informed me that the Red Hand Defenders had released a statement to the BBC newsroom warning that both myself and my colleague Jim Cusack were in their crosshairs.

The police press officer on the other end of the line advised that I get back home as soon as possible and talk to someone in Castlereagh RUC station about my personal security. Hours later I returned to the house in East Belfast, my children dispatched to their grandparents’ home along with their mother while I waited for detectives to come around to my then home.

There had been threats and warnings before but according to the plain clothes officer assigned to my case this one was extremely serious. At the time the RHD (a cover name for the UDA’s C company in collusion with elements of the Loyalist Volunteer Force) were still very active in the business of murder and intimidation. And despite my many loyalist paramilitary contacts the specific individual(s) behind this threat were not to be moved to lift it.

cctvFor almost a decade later I lived in a house with protective steel barriers on reinforced doors, panic alarms, hidden CCTV cameras with constant checks underneath the car and nightly vigils in front of the TV screen to scan the footage from outside and in the garden.

Martin_O'Hagan

Journalist Martin O’Hagan

That particular death threat occurred in March 1999 and only two years later killers from the LVF murdered Martin O’Hagan, gunning down the fearless investigative reporter in a Lurgan street in front of his wife.

O’Hagan was an employee of IMN newspapers, the same media group recently targeted in a speech by Gerry Adams in a swanky New York hotel. To chortles and laughter from his well heeled audience (including representatives of a company that employs one of Ireland’s most wanted men: the disgraced former Anglo Irish Bank chief David Drumm!), Adams regaled them with a tale from Irish history. He recalled, inaccurately, that Michael Collins himself had held a gun to the head of an Irish Independent editor because the Big Fellow had objected to the paper’s opposition to violence. In fact the Independent actually backed Collins and his pro-treaty stance in 1921 which drew the wrath of the republican die-hards who later stopped the printing presses at gunpoint in the paper’s old Middle Abbey Street HQ.

However, Adams’ little reminder of what happens to those who cross Irish republican chieftains was a chilling vision of the near future. While quipping that he was only joking, the reference gives us an insight into how a party based around the cult of personality and rigid internal discipline would like to manage the media.

There is no real, state power at Stormont where our locally elected politicians ultimately have to defer to the UK Treasury in all major economic decisions and have delegated security policy to MI5. However those elected to power south of the border can wield real state power including in areas like policing and justice. There have been instances in the recent past in the Republic were politicians abused those powers. Think of Charles J Haughey for instance authorising the bugging of journalists’ phones in the 1980s.

Jean McConville who was abducted by the IRA in 1972: © NBC News.

Jean McConville pictured with three of her children, abducted by the IRA in 1972: © NBC News.

Earlier this year there was another phone tapping/email hacking scandal in the Republic, this one though not exercising state power…well at least not yet. At the height of the Boston College tapes scandal culminating the arrest of Gerry Adams in relation to the Jean McConville murder, a couple at the centre of the storm raised allegations that their phones and emails had been intercepted illegally.

Carrie McIntyre, the wife of ex IRA prisoner, author and key researcher on the Boston College-Belfast Project, found to her horror that private conversations between her and American Embassy officials had been reprinted almost verbatim in a Sunday tabloid. These were wholly private communications with US diplomats that she insisted were never disclosed to anyone else. Her conclusion was this – either someone was bugging the call and hacking the emails at the American Embassy in Dublin – or else her home phone and computer had been compromised. She and her husband Anthony are in no doubt that it was the latter and that a specialist unit set up by a senior ex IRA man was involved. The Garda Síochána are currently investigating their claims which are also to be raised in the Dáil by Fianna Fail.

If they are correct then the McIntyres have been subjected to a dirty tricks operation the likes of which Richard Nixon and his cronies would have been proud of. And if there is any proven link to a secret political unit set up to smear the opponents of Sinn Féin it might end up as an Irish form of ‘Watergate’. For once that over used and abused affix ‘gate’ would have some real meaning in reportage.

Maria Cahill, © The Guardian

Maria Cahill, © The Guardian

The latest hostile anti-INM remarks by the Sinn Féin President have to be seen in that context, one in which any criticism of what the dear leader say over his handling of the Maria Cahill controversy, is portrayed as being either “anti patriotic” or “anti peace process”. Because within the party itself there are no independent voices speaking out against the leadership, no one inside dares even to question it.

Martin Amis: Zone of Interest

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Conor Cruise O’Brien once reminded his late 20th century audience that anti-semitism is a “light sleeper”. Even after the terrible truth of The Shoah was revealed the ex-Irish minister and ex-judeeditor of The Observer maintained that Judea-phobia is still a resilient globally unique hatred, equal only to misogyny in terms of its longevity.

This dormant bacillus even raises its ugly head in the literary canon including Shakespeare and not only as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. Martin Amis prefaces his new novel about the Holocaust with that infamous, haunting scene of the witches from Macbeth who make sure that they throw “Liver of Blaspheming Jew” into the bubbling cauldron along with “Gall of goat, and slips of Yew.”

Shylock himself re-appears in hooked-nosed form stalking and sneaking throughout subsequent centuries reaching his propagandistic, pornographic apex in the pages of the Nazi newspaper Der Sturmer when the Jewish Venetian merchant is depicted as a cartoon villain drugging and raping virginal Rapunzels in their beds.

Amis’ new and arguably greatest novel is a powerful antidote to all strains of that age old phobia: the original Shylockian schemer currently resurrected in the children’s school books of the Arab and Islamic world and/or the New World Order puppet master dressed up in a capitalist top hat with the Star of David on it moving his Marionettes in Washington and other power centres around.

In The Zone of Interest the real Nosferatus, the true grotesques of course are the perpetrators of the greatest crime of the last century. They include the likes of Paul Doll, the self-pitying, sexually frustrated, alcoholic, hypochondriac, cuckolded kommandant at Auschwitz who effortlessly transfers fault from perp to victim.

Here is Amis’ depiction of Doll on top of a pile of human bones recovered from a funeral pyre after the gassing, pyramided by the men given the worst job in history – the Jewish Sonderkommando who were tasked with helping to herd their co-religionists into the gas chambers and then ordered to steal the remains of the dead from gold teeth to thigh-bones.

“With his shirt off and gas mask on, Doll looks like a fat and hairy old housefly (a housefly that is nearing the end of its span).”

This image captures all of Doll: his menace, avarice and corruption much more powerfully even than his semi-drunken poses at the selection ramp when left, meant death, and right signalled a brief but brutal reprieve.

And yet it is to Amis’ credit that he gives brutes like Doll believable, authentic and, yes, all too human voices. The author, who has always been able to transport himself into the internal reflections of some of his most deeply unpleasant cast (think of the words he puts into the misogynistic mouth of Keith Talent, the dart-loving murderer in London Fields), has recreated this typical Nazi functionary’s language of self-exculpation.

Doll is the master of fault-transference as is evident in this passage when he recalls witnessing the horrors of the Warsaw Ghetto for the first time:

“As a loving father, I found it particularly hard to stomach their vicious neglect of the semi-naked children who howl, beg, sing, moan, and tremble, yellow-faced, like tiny lepers.”

Irma Grese

Irma Grese

Amidst all the industrialised slaughter and the random individual acts of sadism – the notorious female SS guard Ilse Grese makes several gruesome appearances – Amis injects a sub-plot. It is Auschwitz: The Love Story. Or rather love stories!

Hannah Doll exercises a strange power over her serial murderer husband as does his wife’s first lover, the spectral memory of an older Communist fighter Dieter Kruger, who may or may not have died in Nazi custody. Her husband’s other love rival, Golo Thomsen, also uses the possibility that Kruger might still be alive to woo Hannah Doll, the first lady of the Concentration Camp 1. Thomsen is a functional rather than an ideological Nazi whose task is to ruthlessly exploit slave labour in the regime’s quest for synthetic rubber vital to boosting the German war machine. He is protected from Paul Doll only because he is the nephew of the Nazi big wig Martin Bormann, one of the Fuhrer’s inner circle.

Through the course of the war with defeat looming Thomsen still pursues Hannah Doll both inside and far beyond ‘The Zone of Interest’, all the while holding out the bait that her first love Kruger may have survived. Thomsen however is not The Good German, not the foil to the monstrous Kommandant. He is an opportunistic Nazi who is obsessed about getting his task completed even if his alchemic project is built on the bones of the wretches worked to death in Buna-Werke factory, the so-called ‘lucky ones’ led to the right off the selection ramps on day one of their incarceration.

Another of the strongest character portraits concerns the leading Sonderkommando, Smzul, the survivor among the ‘saddest men in the Lager’ who work among the piles of dead with scissors, pliers, mallets, accelerant and grinders to plunder the cadavers in the interest of the Nazi war economy. He and his fellow Jews are among the most hated among the camp prisoners even though they save the odd life on the selection ramp and may, or may not, bear witness or even exact vengeance in the future.

fdd

Some of the passages in which Smzul recalls individual massacres such as the story of the “silent boys” are so painful as to be almost unreadable. Again the voices such as Smzul are entirely believable in this unimaginable inferno where men like him lie to the selected and the doomed, telling them they are going for a shower, simply to preserve “our lousy selves.”

img_cropThe existence of a love story among the Nazi-community in the camp gives the narrative an original if troubling edge. To impute love into this Hades Amis also challenges Theo Adorno’s claim that after the Holocaust there can no longer be poetry. The resilience of love even in Auschwitz, including the wretched Smzul for his wife Shulamit who may still be alive in the Lodz ghetto, is for Amis the single shard of light.

Euphemisms are peppered throughout this masterful tale from the death camps. So for instance Doll never refers to Hitler by name but rather as ‘The Deliverer’. The language in this novel also lacks the verbal whizz-bangs and inventive diction of his latest few books, and is all the better for it. Amis pares back his prose, stripping it down to basic structure and deploying a very traditional linear narrative that ends with Thomsen finding Hannah Doll again following Germany’s defeat.

Yet it is Paul Doll who comes out of The Zone of Interest as Amis’ finest fictional invention of late, as a fusion of two real life Nazi commandants rolled into one ball of self-piteous stupidity. For what Amis achieves in Paul Doll’s character is to expose an entire ideology and cosmological hatred for what it really is: an ignorant, absurd and ultimately comically-doomed project.

The Paisley’s I have known…

Ian Paisley © The Guardian

Ian Paisley © The Guardian

My family have had several set-piece encounters with Ian Paisley over the last five decades. The first occurred the year before I was born in 1964 when my late father joined a large group of demonstrators protesting against Paisley passing by their area of central Belfast.

On June 6th of that year riots returned to the streets of Belfast when Paisley led a band of hard-line Protestant fundamentalists on their way into the city centre. Their target was the headquarters of the mainstream Presbyterian Church to protest against growing links between the main Protestant churches and the reforming Vatican II Catholic Church.

cromacTheir route included marching past Cromac Square at the edge of the Catholic Market area. Young people from the Catholic district sought to block their route and violence flared up from the Albert Bridge to the Square. My dad remembered the clashes and a number of friends being arrested by police who were flanking the Paisleyite parade. This folk-memory of locals opposing Paisley and his band lasted long into the Troubles and was seen by many as a precursor for the far more ferocious sectarian battles ahead. It also became something of a badge of honour in the Market to say you were “out” against the Paisleyites back in ’64.

Growing up in the early 70s for young working class Catholics, the children of the men who tried to block Paisley’s path at Cromac Square in the previous decade, the bellowing, bible bashing unionist hardliner became the fountainhead of all that was wrong the state of Northern Ireland. His name often struck fear and loathing in nationalist-Catholic hearts especially when they saw him on local TV and newspapers wearing his clerical white collar while parading with the hard-men in paramilitary uniforms of the Ulster Defence Association.

Yet behind the blood curdling rhetoric and doomsday predictions of total war between his followers and the rest of us, there was another side to Paisley. And I saw it myself towards the end of the 1970s and early 80s thanks to his daughter, the youth missionary, future Belfast city councillor and fine art painter Rhonda Paisley.

She began a youth outreach mission project in Belfast city centre targeting the Punks, Goths, Skinheads and other youth cults that hung around the Cornmarket quarter in that period.

Ian Curtis - Joy Division

Ian Curtis – Joy Division

Exuding the same charm that her father deployed on the campaign trail, Rhonda spoke to, had tea with and sometimes counselled the kids that came together most Saturdays and sometimes after school at that fountain in the heart of central Belfast. Among the bored and often broke teenagers she befriended was myself and a couple of mates from the Ormeau Road, who moped around the fountain, trying to look pale and interesting in our long overcoats, spiked haircuts and glum post-Ian Curtis/post-Joy Division poses.

Before long, out of pure curiosity, we decided to take up Rhonda’s invite to come up to the Paisley homestead in East Belfast. There we were treated to games of snooker, vast pyramids of variously filled sandwiches and bible tracts designed to woo us away from the satanic temptations of early teen sex, drugs and rock n’roll. Although most of us succumbed to that trio of decadent delights, Rhonda did succeed at least in showing a side to the Paisley family that none of us (almost all from Catholic-nationalist-republican backgrounds) never saw in the media: a caring, loving family who actually and quite genuinely thought that all we needed was their help.

Ian Paisley with his daughter Rhonda (from RTÉ stills)

Ian Paisley with his daughter Rhonda (from RTÉ stills)

On a few occasions the Big Man himself would pop his head around the door in Chez Paisley to ask how we were keeping and wonder why we had styled our hair in such messed up and crazy contortions. What did we get out of it? Well apart from the free sandwiches and a few games of snooker, I think we were genuinely star struck. We were in the abode of one of the celebrities of the Troubles and would often boast about it to our mates, to state that we knew the Big Man personally! Even my father who could vividly remember that seminal day on Cromac Square back in the mid 60s seemed impressed by that.

Henry McDonald singing in his band, way back when...

Henry McDonald singing in his band, way back when…

In a Radio 4 documentary about two decades later on the unique, anti-sectarian Punk and post Punk scene in Belfast, Paisley himself was one of the interviewees. He recalled the likes of us traipsing through his front door in our home made-bondage trousers, torn T-shirts, DM boots, spiked up manes and chains. Asked why he didn’t give off to either us or Rhonda and her sister for bringing us home, Paisley said (am slightly paraphrasing here) : “They didn’t need any condemnation..all they needed was a bit of help!”

Many years later, on the campaign trail with Paisley in East Londonderry where he was canvassing with Democratic Unionist MP Gregory Campbell, I happened to remind him about my connection with his family. All he did was curtly nod to recall it. He was in no mood it seemed for idle chit chat as there was an election on.

It was 3rd March 2007 and my sister had just turned 40 that day. Paisley, Campbell and I were sipping tea together in a Coleraine hotel just as I was about to go off and write a colour piece about them for The Observer. I excused myself for picking up my mobile phone so I could make a personal call that Saturday morning. Then Paisley overheard me wishing my sister Cathy many happy returns for her 40th. Almost instantly Paisley snatched the phone out of my hand, took a deep breath and then bellowed down the line: “Hello Cathy, this is Ian Paisley….” I could hear my sister telling me to wise up and stop being stupid, that she was not in the mood for a phone prank now that she had reached 40. But the Big Man insisted and then sent her a blessing down the phone as well as best birthday wishes. It was a birthday she would never forget.

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*This article was published in The Guardian on Friday 12th September.

A riot of our own

riot

Someone somewhere in Siberia, on the other side of the Urals mountain range, probably still has my “Clash” T-shirt secreted in their home. In an act of Irish-Soviet friendship I swapped it for a Red Army tunic with a Siberian in the dormitory of a third level college in Weimar, East Germany in the summer of 1981.

Looking back the exchange was not just an instance of late Cold War détente east-west barter. It was also a means to ward off the sexual advances of an older USSR soldier in his mid 20s who was three sheets to the wind thanks to East German schnapps and Polish vodka; a noxious concoction that smelt and tasted like it should have been fuelling the engine of a MIG fighter jet.

tshirtAs the big Siberian waved my T-shirt triumphantly in front of his friends from Irkutsk I suddenly realised the reach and influence of a Punk rock band fronted by the son of a former British diplomat and whose bass player was a poor white kid who grew up among the South London black community of Brixton.

Four years earlier the group came to a European city which had its own mini set of Berlin Walls – Belfast. One of the locations they visited on their brief, controversial and now myth-laden tour of the war torn city was the “Henry Taggart” police and army base in West Belfast. It was a photograph taken outside the heavily fortified, rocket protected station on the Springfield Road that later found its way onto that T-shirt, the one that ended up stretched over a Siberian’s torso.

The Clash take a strole through the Belfast warzone - (Dont Care Collection)

The Clash take a strole through the Belfast warzone – (Dont Care Collection)

Joe Strummer, Paul Simonon, Mick Jones and Nicky ‘Topper’ Headon also posed for photographs at the top of Royal Avenue, which at the time was secured at both ends by the so called “ring of steel” where civilian searchers flanked by armed troops and police checked the clothing and handbags of shoppers for firebombs. One image of the four of them in biker jackets and zipped bondage trousers, a British Army saracen just to their right, is still a powerful visual reminder of actually how grimly suffocating Belfast was in the mid to late 1970s.

It was out of this stifling atmosphere that a generation of the fed up and the angry emerged just as Punk Rock was exploding across the Irish Sea outraging a nation and prompting London dockers to threaten to put their boots through TV screens over the sight of these spiky haired, foul mouth alien creatures who saw no future in England’s dreaming.

goodvibrationsThis brief but creative flowering of protest, DIY musical innovation and emergence of some genuine talent is captured poignantly in the critically acclaimed Terri Hooley movie biopic “Good Vibrations.” One of the most important scenes in the film is at the end, which recreates Hooley’s Punk and New Wave music festival in the Ulster Hall in 1980. I can still remember the actual night he stormed up onto the stage to proclaim why the local Punk and New Wave scene had more substance to it than England or America. “New York has the bands, London has the clothes but Belfast has the reason,” Hooley proclaimed. Joe Strummer and The Clash at least always understood this, to them Ulster Punk was for real.

One band that failed to make it onto that stage during this period was The Clash themselves, at least in 1977 because they returned there a few years later. They were scheduled to play a concert at the Ulster Hall in October 1977 but never appeared.

Just like the old saloon bar republicans you used to meet on day trips with your parents to Dublin in the 1970s bragging that they had been ‘out in 1916’, a mythos grew up about the concert-that-never-was and the riot that broke out in Bedford Street as hundreds of young Punks and other Clash fans turned their anger on the police.

souizI was there partly because I only lived around the corner and also, even though I was just 13, I had a personal guarantee that I could sneak into any concert. My family knew several of the bouncers who worked the door and who later let me in for free to see the likes of Siouxsie and the Banshees (backed up by The Cure) and The Stranglers.

Yet ‘that’ gig that still exercises more power over the memories of the early Ulster Punk generation. This was and is in part due to the myth that grew up that the ’77 riot was the only one during the Troubles that saw Protestant and Catholic kids unite against common enemies. In fact The Clash myth is so enduring that the University of Ulster at the Art College hosted an academic conference in the second last weekend of June 2014 discussing the band’s relationship with Northern Ireland and its youth.

To declare a dog in the fight, this writer was chairing one of the sessions at the symposium although his mind was at times far away, soaring back in space and sound towards the east, wondering where the hell is that T-shirt gathering dust, tucked away somewhere in a wardrobe or drawers in post-communist Irkutsk.

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*This is based on an column I wrote for the Belfast Telegraph last month.

**A Riot of Our Own was a weekend of events devoted to one of the most influential and controversial bands ever to have graced a stage. Over two days, a range of academics, journalists and artists gathered in central Belfast to discuss what The Clash meant and continue to mean three decades after their acrimonious and much lamented demise. Keynote speakers at the conference included Caroline Coon (artist, writer and manager The Clash between 1978 and 1980), Professor David Hesmondhalgh (University of Leeds, author of Why Music Matters), Chris Salewicz (author of the acclaimed Joe Strummer biography Redemption Song), Jason Toynbee (Open University), Gavin Martin (Daily Mirror) and Adrian Boot (photographer who took the iconic shots of the band in Belfast).

 

Hooleyganism: the “Good Vibrations” revolution

Terri Hooley is the living contradiction of that old adage that in the country of the blind the one-eyed man is king. For despite losing one eye in an childhood accident and being equally famous and notorious for so long in a myopic, sectarian dystopia he was, and never will be destined to lord over his land.  Because the majority of his fellow citizens preferred siding with the forces of darkness and all their comfortable certainties rather than to the enlightenment.

goodvibrationsIn one of the final freeze frames  at the end of Good Vibrations, which went on general release, of all days with apposite timing, on Good Friday,  the cinema goer is given a potted, graphic history of Hooley’s iconic record store. It closes finally in 1982, re-opens again several years later in the 80s, then shuts, opens once more and so it goes on to several deaths and resurrections. The fate of the shop brings to mind Samuel Beckett’s existential advice to fail and fail again:  Hooley and his anarchic enterprises are trapped in an endless cycle of mini boom and major bust.  He is someone definitely destined to fail, fail and fail again.

Yet this is nothing to despair about.  The best advice he receives in the movie comes in a brief, touching moment between himself and his upright, English socialist father who also knows the bitter-sweet taste of struggle and defeat. Victory is not always so obvious, his dad notes, having lost election after election offering the voters of Belfast a socialist alternative they continually spurn in favour of tribalism.  At least, his father tells his son, he had fought the good fight and still had “comrades and friends in every part of this city” even during the height of the senseless slaughter of the Troubles.  This conversation in the garden of the Hooley family home where young Terri lost an eye as a boy is a deeply moving sequence, and evoked memories of my own often tetchy and troublesome relationship with my own father; a bond between us snapped cruelly apart forever in the final months of his life.  Regardless of our difficulties, and even the painful endgame, we always shared, like Hooley and his father, a common detestation of sectarianism and tribal simplicities.

Reviewers and critics have lauded the new film as a “feel great” movie and it undoubtedly it. Good Vibrations is also at times deeply funny reflecting in so many scenes Hooley’s own unpredictable, chaotic character.  The movie’s credibility is bolstered by the fact that Hooley is portrayed warts and all, as loving and kind yet also reckless and irresponsible.

richard dormerThere are several medals to be handed out on several fronts to a film that is, in fact, anti-politician but also highly political. Richard Dormer is outstanding playing Hooley and has even captured the way Terri strolls about Belfast, that swaying gait, the hands shoved into the pockets of his now ubiquitous black crombie coat. The actor also conveys Hooley’s sense of boyish wonderment when going to see the latest band and especially when he is knocked off his feet by The Undertones’s Teenage Kicks.  The latter sequence is deftly recreated in the recording studio where only Dormer-as-Hooley can hear the song because he is the only one wearing cans plugged into the audio system.  Just as he brought the genius, the madness, the menace and the wasted years  of Alex Higgins live onto the stage, Dormer portrays the central character in the Good Vibrations story in all his many colours, with all his faults and flaws in three dimensional glory.

Every secondary school kid in Northern Ireland from 12 up should see see Good Vibrations this year.

Directors Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn create a moving and accurate time-machine experience transporting the viewer back to the mid to late 70s. The period detail in the film is precise and painstakingly researched. They also manage to import some magical realism into what is otherwise a grittily realistic film. The “trip” Terri enjoys over in London when he gets whacked out of his head on coke while trying to flog Teenage Kicks to a series music executives reminds you of the acid-tripping weirdness of The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine film.

Colin Carberry and Glenn Patterson’s script even includes a scene first referenced in this writers’s memoir Colours-Ireland From Bombs to Boom. In the film a British Army patrol stops Hooley and his gang of Punk followers as they traverse rural Ulster in a van playing gigs around the country. btbThe troops led by a black NCO P-check the lads, lining them up against the side of the van in the dead of night, threatening them with their SLR rifles, asking where they come from. In the movie the Punks shout out the different parts of Belfast where they are from and it becomes apparent to the black soldier that they are all from religiously-mixed backgrounds. Hooley is asked about this and replies pithily that he never thought the need to ask his friends what religion they were…if any. The NCO then asks if they shouldn’t form their own political party. This scene was transposed from a real life incident, re-told in Colours, when a group of young Punks in 1979 were P-checked (stopped, searched, questioned) on Belfast’s Great Victoria Street in early 1979. The police and soldiers who lined the young Punks up against an advertising hoarding (including a dog belonging to a friend of mine from Divis Flats who dyed our canine’s head green for the day) and asked where they came from. When the replies came back – the Markets (nationalist/republican),  Woodvale (loyalist/Protestant), Divis (nationalist/republican),  Glencairn (loyalist/Protestant) – an older police officer looked bewildered. He shook his head in disbelief at this sight of cross-community street style spontaneity and waved us on up Great Victoria Street to our ultimate destination – the Good Vibrations record store!

So it was personally pleasing to see that scene recreated albeit reset in the Ulster countryside rather than one of Belfast’s main thoroughfares. It was one of those show-don’t-tell vignettes where a subtle political message or social statement is conveyed without battering the viewer over the head with a political placard.

A few days after Maggie Thatcher died (a lady Terri Hooley  had little time for when she was alive!) some republicans in Derry ‘celebrated’ her death by organising a five day riot. Inevitably the attacks on police patrols in the city were followed by a sectarian onslaught against the last Protestant enclave on Derry’s West Bank – The Fountain Estate. Among those arrested on the republican-nationalist side of the line over the weekend was a 13 year old boy  accused of possessing  a petrol bomb. It is worth remembering that the Good Friday Agreement – the peace deal that was meant to put an end to the Troubles and its backwash – was 15 years old this Easter. Two years older in fact than the young boy alleged to be involved with other youths in attacking the last loyalist redoubt on the west side of the River Foyle. Clearly some of the children of the cease-fires and the agreements have been fed the type of poison and bigotry that infected Northern Irish society down through previous decades.

The tribal based politicians at Stormont have been worried of late about the emergence of a new lost generation that has no collective memory of how bad life actually was during The Troubles, and how dark places like Belfast were back in the worst days of the conflict. Rather than ring their hands and mouth platitudes perhaps they could make this suggestion to Minister of Education, John O’Dowd: ensure every secondary school kid in Northern Ireland from 12 up gets to see Good Vibrations this year. It might make a few of them think that there is to life there than hurling petrol bombs at the peelers, the Orangies or the Fenians.  Some might even embrace the anti-politics of the politics of Alternative Ulster.

Punk memorial idea has some hits and misses

So, then, what about the stripper? Will the sultry beauty who used to take to  the stage on Saturday afternoons a few hours before the punk and New Wave bands  of the late-1970s carried out their soundchecks be included in the forthcoming  honour? Can Belfast City Council’s decision to erect a blue plaque marking the spot where the Harp Bar stood in Hill Street also be seen as an indirect nod to all  forms of entertainment that was once on offer in that dingy downtown pub during  the dark days of the Troubles?

The Harp, of course, was mainly famous for providing a platform for The Outcasts, Rudi, The Idiots, Ruefrex, Stiff Little Fingers, The Undertones and a whole host other punk-New Wave groups that performed there from 1977 to the  early-1980s. It was also one of the gathering places for all the young punks who suddenly  found somewhere to meet up, drink, listen to new live bands and, via the  turntable, the soundtrack of Seventies rebellion from across the Irish Sea.

It was also infamous as a place where, on Saturday afternoons, gentlemen  could enjoy the sleazy experience of watching strippers rip off their clothes on  the same stage; the Harp clientele’s favourite exotic dancer being a lady from Birmingham who used to travel over to war-torn Belfast to earn a crust gyrating  in the buff. Wouldn’t it be fun if she is still around and actually turned up for the  unveiling of the memorial plate in Hill Street next month? Just imagine the  reaction of the city councillors if she is still with us and manages to appear  on the day. The potential red faces at City Hall over certain veteran exotic dancers  attending one of their memorial events aside, there are less facetious reasons  why some old punks – this writer included – are conflicted about the blue plaque  at the Harp Bar site.

Back in the day, punks were not always so loved by Belfast’s establishment,  or its general citizenry. They were harassed, questioned and P-checked by the  police and Army when they gathered in large numbers. They were the subject of  scare stories and sensationalist press coverage. They were also viewed with suspicion by paramilitaries from both sides of the  divide, because organically, unplanned and unstructured, punks and their  hangers-on crossed every religious and social divide. Moreover, the venues where  they gathered were severely restricted by the council’s repressive licensing  laws.

In the streets leading towards Cornmarket, Hill Street, or Great Victoria  Street, where the Good Vibrations record store used to be situated, you risked  being spat on, insulted, or worse. Belfast was a cold house for punks and other assorted teenage rebels in the  late-1970s. Yet all those who lived through this period revelled more than a bit  in all this hostility, fear and suspicion directed towards us. Outraging the general public and the political establishment was part of the  punk calling; it was almost a requirement of a so-called ‘movement’ (horrible  collectivist word) that was watermarked into our DNA. This is why some feel a  slight discomfort in being honoured by a city that once held us in such  disdain.

But hold on a minute. Perhaps we are getting too crotchety in our middle to  old ages. Because there may be some valid reasons why the city should celebrate  one of the few positive social phenomena to emerge from the streets during the  Seventies. Why, after all, should the history and legacy be left to the ‘terror  tours’, with their fixation on walls and the things painted on them? As you will find out, for instance, on one of Arthur Magee’s informative  alternative tours of central Belfast, there is a hidden history of  non-conformist radicalism stretching back from the 18th century New Light  Presbyterians, who were in the vanguard of the anti-slavery movement, right up  to the 20th century punks.

This city’s history is much more complex and diverse than the usual narrative fed to the tourists as they pass by the ‘peace’ walls with stop-offs at the site  of this and that atrocity. Terri Hooley’s depressing revelation that a couple of loyalist pea-brains  verbally and physically abused him recently underlines the need to keep some of  that spirit of ’77, ’78 and ’79 alive. This squalid, menacing incident, during which the founder of Good Vibrations  was described as a “disgrace to the Protestant community”, confirms that we are  still far away from the Alternative Ulster we longed for back then.

Maybe a more lasting memorial to the punk era than a blue plaque would be a  new political force to emerge that would challenge the tribal duopoly of power,  not only in this city, but across Northern Ireland; that would stand up for  young people’s rights to have fun and party in the face of the new puritanism;  that would reflect the multi-cultural, non-sectarian, anti-homophobic elements  in our society. Terri Hooley sitting in the next Stormont Assembly would certainly be a  start.

This article/blog was published in the Belfast Telegraph today.

HHhH…Haunted by Heydrich

Reinhard Tristan Eugen Heydrich

He’s back again! Reinhard Heydrich is haunting me. I thought I’d left him behind after finishing Philip Kerr’s latest Bernie Gunther novel Prague Fatale which deals with Heydrich’s rule in the Czech capital and his assassination by emigre patriots in 1942.  Now the ‘blond beast’ and the ‘most dangerous man in the Third Reich’ has returned.

Heydrich is the principal subject in an original novel by the French writer Laurent Binet entitled intriguingly HHhH – the codeword for one of the architects of the Final Solution AKA the Shoah/Holocaust.  But it is hard to classify exactly what the book is: Is it an historical novel about the Czech and Slovakian heroes who parachute out of the sky to rid the world of this Nazi monster; or is it post-modern play acting prose on the wilder shores of French literary pretensiouness?

The reason for the latter concern is that Binet injects himself into the story, fast fowarding in history from German occupied Prague during the Second World War to his own 21st century trips to the Czech Republic as he researches this incredible tale of single minded heroism.  The narrative of the real life events played out in 1942 is punctuated by Binet visiting Prague with his girlfriend during which he agonises over how to tell the story of the assassins stalking their quarry and the aftermath of Heydrich’s removal from the earth, puts words into the mouth of dead actors including such grotesques as Hans Frank or questions the validity of his story telling.

Despite Binet’s interventions the author still recreates a moving account of the way the secret plan to strike at the heart of the Nazi terror machine is acted out.  The three men who carry out the execution of Heydrich – Gabcik, Kubis and Valcik – are like characters who deserved to be portrayed by the likes of Humphrey Bogart or Jimmy Cagney as tough, pugnacious, fanatically brave individuals that refuse to flinch in the face of evil. Alongside four other resistance fighters, following the killing of Heydrich,  the trio hold out in a Prague church and manage to hold off 800 SS stormtroopers for 8 eight hours.  Four of the patriots are killed in the fire fight with the Germans, another four commit suicide rather than fall into the Gestapo’s hands.

Arguably the greatest acheivement of this novel is that the pace and plot line are not slowed down by the self-reflections of the author.  His commentary during which he expresses his doubts and concerns about his story-telling craft are respectful towards the key people in the tale – the Czechoslovak heroes. It is also powerful as a form of historical education with fascinating figures like Colonel Paul Thummel, alias Rene, a German anti-Nazi working inside the Wehrmacht to pass intelligence onto the Allies and the Czech resistance. There are also the Three Kings – senior Czechoslovak officers who organised resistance to Nazi domination and whom Philip Kerr also brings back to life in Prague Fatale.

Several critics including Martin Amis have described Binet’s debut novel as ‘moving’ – it is the most appropriate word to characterise HHhH.  The passages about the Nazi revenge wreaked on the Czech town of Lidice are painful to read. The men of Lidice from 15 to 84 are shot dead while the women are transported to Ravensbruck concentration camp while the children are taken to Chelmno where most are later gassed. All this done by SS murderers from Heydrich’s hometown who even kill all the dogs of Lidice and vandalise its cemetery in retaliation for Heydrich’s death.

The attention to detail in this carefully constructed, tautly written novel/history lesson is admirable.  Binet has mined deeply into history and archive into the dark black heart of Nazi occupation. The author also mines the anti-historical present.  In section 241 of the book Binet notes that an Internet site dedicated to getting young Czechs interested in what happened to Lidice after the Heydrich execution ‘is offering an interactive game, the goal of which is ‘to burn Lidice in the shortest possible time.’ He takes this piece of information from a news report in the French left wing daily ‘Liberation’ on 6 September 2006.  To his credit Binet shows but doesn’t tell. He doesn’t need to comment on the crass stupidity, nay tackiness of this end-game. Its inclusion in the narrative, albeit a future echo of amoral post-modernity, says it all.

Yet nothing can diminish Binet’s admiration and love for the men who knew from the outset that they would never return from their historic mission. Nor perhaps were they oblivious to the terror their killing of the ‘Blonde Beast’ would unleash on innocent civilians.  It comes out in this rather odd but compelling novel almost despite itself. You are left on finishing it with a tear in the eye, a lump in the throat. And the burning conviction that one of the great movie directors of our time should return to this incredible story and re-tell this tale of courage against all odds on celluloid.

The sleuth who slipped from Nazi grip

Unlike the vastly overestimated, cold and repellent novels of Stieg Larsson the cast list of Phillip Kerr’s historical crime fiction is packed with real life and death Nazis. Whereas Larsson’s Swedish fellow travellers and survivors of the Third Reich are made up amalgams of modern-day Scandinavian fascists, Kerr litters his books with some of the dark stars of Nazi Germany itself: Reinhard Heydrich, Josef Mengele, Arthur Nebe, Adolf Eichmann.While Larsson deployed a female Gothic bisexual young computer genius and a campaigning journalist (a thinly disguised stating-the-bleeding-obvious version of himself) against Swedish neo-Nazis, Kerr pits one fictional detective to stand up among a grotesque gaggle of original Hitlerite fanatics for what is left of a more decent Germany, indeed humanity throughout Europe before, during and shortly after World War II. Between the two authors’ creations it is Kerr’s Bernie Gunther who emerges from the pages of more than 15 works as the more believable, amiable and sympathetic of characters compared to Larsson’s literary inventions.Reviewers of Kerr’s work have compared his writing and his hero to Raymond Chandler and his wise cracking, hard-boiled detective Phillip Marlowe. Gunther’s voice rooted in working class Berlin vernacular and worldly cynicism is reminiscent of Marlowe’s flawed gumshoe immortalised in celluloid by Humphrey Bogart in Hollywood classics such as The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon. Throughout the books there are many Chandleresque echoes as we see an entire society corrupted by race hatred, power-worship and militarism through Gunther’s world weary eyes. Even in the heat, light and dust of post-war Argentina in A Quiet Flame there are passages that could have come straight from the typewriter of Marlowe’s creator.  Take this paragraph for instance in A Quiet Flame when Gunther, now on the pay roll of the Buenos Aires police hunting for a child killer who may be a Nazi refugee from post-war justice, encounters a seductive Jewish émigré:

‘She ordered a coffee and I ordered something I had no interest in drinking so long as she was around. When you’re having a cup of coffee with the best looking woman you’ve spoken to in months, there are better things to do than drink it. She took one of my cigarettes and let me light her. It was yet another excuse to pay close attention to her big sensuous mouth. Sometimes I think that is why men invented smoking.’

Read this section [above] out loud, close your eyes and you can just imagine Bogart and Lauren Bacall verbally jousting with one and other in a seedy basement bar amid a fug of smoke and sexual tension. Yet there is no underlying current of misogyny or wanton voyeurism in Gunter’s relations with the opposite sex. His women are more than often powerful figures in their own right whether they are left-wing opponents of the Nazi regime, stoic Jewish teenagers hiding away from the Brown-shirted bullies in Berlin Friedrichshain or sparky actresses in wartime Germany who have no time for the organised lies of Dr Goebbels.

Although Larsson deftly portrays Lisbeth Salander as a feminist icon-avenger wreaking vengeance on not only neo-Nazis but also rapists the prolonged description of the sexual assault on her in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is utterly gratuitous in its graphic detail and, worse still, its stomach churning longevity. On reading this rape-scene you can be forgiven for saying: “Alright Stieg we really do get the picture!”

Gunther’s world is equally filled with horror, cruelty, sadism and an entire polity based on the stupidity of a universal lie, the myth of the Master Race. Yet despite experiencing the horrors of the murder pits of the Ukraine serving in SS Police Battalions and living amongst such bloodless monsters as Heydrich, Gunther’s does not lay the guts and the gore on thick with a trowel. Indeed in his latest novel Prague Fatale Kerr brings Heydrich back to life in all his complexity: the family man whose wife defended his reputation as a noble German patriot until her death in 1985; the Nazi true-believer who liked to beat up prostitutes; the champion fencer as comfortable playing Schubert on his violin as he was swishing his sword about and one of the core architects of the Final Solution (the industrialised mass killing of the Jews in the gas chambers) at the Wansee Conference.

Kerr however often places Gunther in morally complicated scenarios where at times he is a servant of the likes of Heydrich or has to play the part of the loyal Nazi to fugitives like Eichmann in Argentina usually only for his own survival. Historically it is also questionable if someone like Gunther was so wracked by guilt over what some German cops were required to do in the Police Battalions sent out east to commit genocide. All the historical evidence suggests that the police battalions, which were often comprised not of Nazi ideologues but ‘ordinary Germans’ who were, to borrow the title of a controversial book on the era, Hitler’s Willing Executioners. But it has to be pointed out that Kerr’s take on the period is purely fictional with a sprinkling of pure history shot through it. In his defense the author demonstrates a deep understanding and knowledge of the Nazi era, before, during and after Hitler committed suicide in the bunker.

The historical footnotes at the back of Prague Fatale are chilling such as the one about the aftermath of Heydrich’s assassination at the hands of Czech freedom fighters. In retaliation 190 men and boys in the northern Czech town of Lidice were summarily shot because the Nazis suspected the place had a link to some of Heydrich’s killers. Kerr adds a horrific footnote to this detail reminding the world that Eichmann later had the women and children of Lidice gassed in Chelmo concentration camp in 1942.

Both in fact and fiction Kerr like another English author who appears to have been an inspiration to the former, recreates a world that makes the flesh creep. That other writer is Robert Harris whose masterpiece Fatherland imagines what would have happened if Hitler had won, setting this alternative universe in the early 1960s in a period of potential detente between Nazi Germany and the United States under its repugnant anti-Semitic President Joe Kennedy, the father of JFK.

Despite Fatherland being one of the most masterfully crafted English novels of the last 25 years Harris does not receive the plaudits of literary awards or the swooning admiration of the literati he certainly deserves. Because he writes as Orwell urged of all good prose – to be as clear as a window pane – Harris’s body of work does not merit him the accolades of the world of current ‘literary fiction.’ Despite the constant snubs Harris’ Fatherland and other works such as Archangel or even The Ghost will in years to come be regarded as much as high literature as the rip-roaring yarns of Graham Greene or Evelyn Waugh became.

The same should go for Philip Kerr and Bernie Gunther but in the meantime at least these taut, highly intelligent thrillers should enjoy an even wider audience than at present. So the next time you are sitting on the Enterprise train from Dublin to Belfast or taking a long LUAS ride on the tram lines out to Tallaght and you happen to get talking to someone with a Stieg Larsson Millennium trilogy on their lap or their table, gently suggest that they might try Phillip Kerr as their next read. If that person next to you happens luckily enough to be, say, a BBC or Channel 4 drama commissioner or better than that, a movie producer, you might even offer to send them one of Kerr’s novels in the post as a means of prompting them to bring Bernie Gunther to the screen one day. It’s just a pity that someone like Bogart isn’t around anymore who would be ideally suitable to play him.

Join the digi-revolution!

Being part of The Guardian’s digital revolution has seen a blurring of the old boundaries between the print and the electronic media. Once upon a time, not long ago, the dividing lines between writing for a newspaper and scripting for radio and television were clearly demarcated. Until recently my own career in journalism was a constant to and fro across the ‘No Man’s Land’ between print and broadcasting. The advent of digital media though has wiped out that distinction so that in any given working day I could be writing a 300 to 500 word blog for the on-line edition of Guardian Unlimited; doing a major feature article of more than 1,000 words that could take up to two pages in Saturday’s edition of the newspaper or scripting a 60-second think-piece for broadcast on the Guardian’s audio section.

Blogging, tweeting, podcasting, online/self-generated broadcasting…are all words and phrases becoming increasingly common place for writers. Novels are going straight from the author’s imagination and keyboard to internet delivery systems like eBooks and Kindles, by-passing traditional forms of publishing. The newspaper industry is no different. The Guardian for instance now emphasises the ‘Digital First’ philosophy where news stories, features, opinion pieces, editorials, sports commentary and so on are given their first outing online as opposed to the three-dimensional space of paper.

In terms of media intersection perhaps the most interesting challenge for journalists like myself who have come out of the tradition of two separate media worlds (print and TV/Radio) is to constantly interchange between the two. So for example take this story I worked on back in the summer of 2010 when I went out on a drug interdiction operation with the Irish Naval Service along Ireland’s western seaboard. This was a combination of a relatively long news feature, which not only went online, but also appeared in the paper itself. In addition there was the accompanying film that a Guardian cameraman shot, and I co-produced and scripted. This required not only the ability to convey a fairly dramatic scenario out at sea but also to script to pictures; to be able to write voice-over that was germane to the images and the overall context of the story. This increasingly is my working world!

In terms of combining the written word with the visual the Guardian writer/reporter is now also required to be a broadcaster. One of the popular audio-visual tools to describe a story is the use of the photographic slide show combined with commentary as well as of course a back-up written report. So for instance this unusual story about a man who keeps a museum to the Northern Ireland Troubles in his garden shed is in the usual form. However, accompanying that story which appeared both on Guardian Unlimited and in the actual paper was an audio slide-show.

This was a gallery of pictures taken by our photographer Kim Haughton underneath which ran a recorded, broadcast-quality, interview with the owner guiding us around his private museum. Another example of the multi-dimensional aspect of modern digital journalism in action. This is where the reporter/correspondent/writer can no longer just think in terms of his or her words on a page but also has to be able to script to pictures and sounds.

Of course the corner stones of lucid, honest feature writing, reporting and indeed scripting remain essential. Good prose, to paraphrase George Orwell slightly (still the patron saint of journalists and writers alike) should be like a window pane: clear, devoid of jargon, verbal camouflage and crude propaganda, whether it be through the medium of printed paper or indeed cyberspace.

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I’ll be teaching an eight-week course at the Irish Writers’ Centre from 26th April to 14th June. It will focus on new forms of writing and novel ways of delivery in the digital age. As a comprehensive series of classes on various aspects of writing in the digital world, the emphasis will be on practical training and hands-on drills. The weekly itinerary covers blogs, podcasting, tweeting and audio packages. More information is available here and here’s an audio interview on the topic of feature writing.

Then they came for him!

Smelling of sweat and the sweet aroma of Rosewater Maziar Bahari’s torture-interrogator thinks Anton Chekhov is a Mossad agent. At one point during Bahari’s interrogation inside the notorious Evin prison in Tehran the imprisoned journalist’s inquisitor asks if the author of The Sea Gull and The Cherry Orchard is in fact a Zionist spy! Such is the paranoia and ignorance that infects the brains of those who operate the security organs of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The torturor’s inquiry about “this Chekhov” is one of the few laugh-out-loud lines in Bahari’s brutally honest and creepy account of his incarceration by the regime. Having left London in June 2009 to cover Iran’s presidential election, believing he would return to his pregnant fiancée, Paola, in just a few days the Iranian-Canadian journalist finds himself jailed accused of spying and orchestrating a media campaign (inspired of course by the CIA and the Jews) against the Mullahs.

He was eventually released thanks to an international campaign involving Hilary Clinton, the staff at Channel 4 News, family members both in Iran and the Iranian diaspora and fellow journalists. The title of his book documenting his time in Evin, during which he was told on more than occassion that he would be executed, is prescient: Then They Came For Me. Because his father had been a political prisoner under the Shah while his oldest sister fell foul of the Mullahs herself due to her membership of the Marxist Tudeh party. Now it was his turn when they came for him.

Amid the threats of hanging, the beatings, the intimidation and the menace there is another bizarre episode between Bahari and the man he labels ‘Rosewater’ in the interrogation rooms. Among all the crimes the journalist has levelled at him is the accusation that he attends and organises sex parties in Tehran, the object of which no doubt is to corrupt the morals of Iranian youth. The more Rosewater focusses on the sex parties allegation Bahari begins to notice that this man, who holds his life in his hands, is getting aroused. The thought of these decadent gatherings appears to be exciting Rosewater so much so that Bahari teases and entices him with snippets of detail about what might go on at one of these parties. Towards the end of his incarceraton Bahari begins to sense he has some semblance of power over Rosewater because he possesses the Tree of Knowledge and Forbidden Fruit.

Bahari’s verbal sparring with Rosewater is reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984 and in particular the obsession the futuristic dictatorship of Ingsoc has with sex and sexual deviancy. As Orwell noted tyrannies have in general tried to police the bedroom as part of their historic or theocratic missions to control over every aspect of individual life. In a theocracy like Iran young men are offered castration, sex change or execution if they happen to be gay, while the guardians of Islamic virtue wage an eternal war against women simply because they wear make-up or prefer to let their hair protrude from their headscarves.

In this book Bahari captures the paranoid absurdity and captive-minded mentality of Iran’s present leadership epitomised by the Holocaust-denying President who is pushing his country towards becoming a nuclear armed state. The author doesn’t bury uncomfortable facts about being in the jail and even admits that he did confess to being part of an international media conspiracy against Iran, although he never names names during his interrogation. Serialised on Radio 4 as Book of the Week the tone of the prisoner is quite guarded and his constant reference to his jailer/torturer as ‘Sir’ has a bitterly ironic sound to it.

Now that he is free and presumably back in London Bahari should seek out the addresses of a number of people who should read this book if they haven’t already heard it on the radio. Bahari should track down the likes of Lauren Booth (Tony Blair’s sister-in-law) and of course, George Galloway. This pair make regular appearances on ‘Press TV’, the English language propaganda station for the Iranian dictatorship. During Bahari’s imprisonment a so-called journalist is sent by Press TV to record the reporter’s confession, exposing the farce that this television station has some semblance of journalistic independence. It is the voice of the Mullahs and the theocratic thugs in the Revolutionary Guards who murder opposition activists and torture dissidents, and lock up journalists for writing the truth. Perhaps Ms Booth could review Bahari’s book on Press TV or maybe set up an interview with (this time naturally not inside Evin Prison) the author live. Mind you that looks unlikely given that the ultimate power behind this station are the tyrants that repress democrats and  currently threaten to unleash a news arms race in the Middle East.

Botox, Big Macs and Mayo

Last week I travelled back in time. Specifically to a land that the rest of Ireland has almost forgotten ever existed; to an Arcadia where there is prosperity, jobs, optimism, hope. But this is not a long-lost idyll and I didn’t need a time machine to transport me there. It just took a gruelling four-hour car journey westward to our Atlantic seaboard, to the home constituency of Enda Kenny, or more precisely to the town of Westport in County Mayo.

Unlike the rest of Ireland this coastal town, famous for its tourist attractions, appears to be recession-proof. While most of Ireland’s high streets are suffering from a collapse in consumer demand and remain in a depressed state, Westport last Wednesday seemed to be thriving. My travelling companion and I even had to queue up to be seated in a charming little café in the centre of the town until a table became available. Business was booming – something you cannot say about the retail or catering trade in Dublin or any other urban area at present.

But it is not the tourists who are responsible for the Mayo town being fireproofed from the worst ravages of recession. The reason for Westport thriving is down to one word: Botox. The anti-ageing, wrinkle-busting treatment that is injected into the face is manufactured at the Allergan plant on the edge of the town. Westport is the only place on the planet where Botox is made and exported all over the world.

Last month the company announced it was expanding its workforce to 1,000 and building a new research and development centre within sight of Croagh Patrick. The knock-on effects of this investment and the presence of such a large employer are obvious. It’s a template for the one sector of the economy that has grown while all others have contracted: the multinational, hi-tech, big pharma, export-driven industrial base.

In Westport they are still partying like it’s shortly after 1999 when the economy was powering ahead with double-digit growth and the Tíogar Ceilteach model was the envy of the world. And that is why the local man who made it all the way to the highest office in the land will do anything to protect our 12.5% low corporation tax rate, which the executives at places such as Allergan stress is vital in keeping the multinationals on Irish soil.

However, you only have to go up the road a bit on the same coast in the same county to time-travel forward to the depressed days of 2012. In Ballina, another town that has always relied on tourism, they are getting desperate. So desperate in fact that they will welcome any foreign multinational corporation to their town, even the one with the big gold arches.

Normally in a rural idyllic setting the locals would throw their hands up in horror at the prospect of McDonald’s setting up in their territory. Think of the outrage of the trendy set in Hampstead when news broke a few years ago that McDonald’s was establishing a branch in their hip corner of north London.

Yet in recession-stricken Ireland the world is turned upside down. When Mayo county council blocked a planning application by McDonald’s to open a drive-thru restaurant in Ballina the people rebelled … in favour of the burger chain. A petition has been gathered with more than 1,000 signatures demanding that the council reverse its decision and LET the fast food giant build its proposed takeaway. The pro-McDonald’s lobby argues that it will bring construction and retail jobs at a time when both these parts of the Irish economy are in the doldrums.

So it’s a tale of two towns in the same county represented in government by the same taoiseach but with very different stories to tell about how the crash of the Celtic Tiger has impacted on their citizens’ lives during the global downturn. Note: this correspondent has no family connections of any kind with either the makers of the Big Mac or anyone in Mayo.

*A version of this blog was originally published on The Guardian on 7th February.

Saturday Poem #13 – To a Portable Radio

Brecht wrote this poem during the “darkest times” on the run from the Nazis when Hitler’s armies were storming all over Europe. The little radio he writes about is one of the few fragile links he has left with his homeland, a country [at the time] he may never have seen again. I too cherish a ‘little box’, a rectangular black portable radio I bought back in 1989 and kept with me whether I was in Dublin, Belfast, Beirut, Brashit, Jerusalem, the Saudi desert or Kuwait city. During the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War it became a treasured possession and at night amid the howling sand storms I heard the bouncing beat of Lily Bullero booming out of the speaker as I tuned into the BBC World Service listening to reports of terrified Kurdish communities fleeing across the mountains to Turkey, with Saddam’s forces in pursuit. On nervous nights in south Lebanon listening, waiting for the dull thud of the 155mm shells from the IDF crashing into the UN buffer zone, curled up in a horse blanket, flak jacket at the end of the bed, clothes still on in case I had to dash for the air raid shelter, the ‘little box’ would keep me in touch with news from an equally troubled home. In my friend’s run-down apartment in eastern Berlin two years after the Wall crumbled, tuning in to the hourly reports of secret talks between the IRA and the British. Across Europe, on the trains, it never let me down. So when it died a natural death, its internal workings malfunctioning, the transmission gone ever silent, I still couldn’t bear dumping the ‘little box’ in the bin. At present it’s being ‘minded’ in a friend’s lock-up garage along with books, a Subbuteo box, photo albums, records, CDs and a few sentimental maps. It awaits being transported south to Dublin where we will be reunited in my new home.

To a portable radio by Bertolt Brecht

You little box I carried on that ship

Concerned to save your works from getting broken

Fleeing from house to train, from train to ship

So I might hear the hated jargon spoken

Beside my bedside and to me pain

Last thing at night, once more as dawn appears

Charting their victories and my worst fears:

Promise at least you won’t go dead again!

Out of the closet…in Ambridge

This Christmas I want to come out of the closet. For nearly two decades now I’ve harboured a secret from family, friends, loved ones. A clandestine passion I’ve been hiding from all of them but can no longer conceal. The time is right to out myself. So say it loud and say it proud: I AM AN ARCHERS FAN!

As a former football hooligan, punk rocker, hard-line Marxist and later ultra-libertarian, many of my contemporaries from the 1970s and 80s will be shocked, perhaps even horrified that I’m a devoted follower of what is regarded as the accepted soap opera for the middle classes. Some may even see it as yet another example of McDonald’s surrender to British bourgeois values. In terms of politics these critics are actually wrong as many of the plot lines in Radio 4’s longest running drama series are centred on the class divide within the county. At one end of the social scale are the avaricious landowners like Brian Aldrige and his boardroom-bores of the Borchester Land Corporation, while at the others are the farmer-labourers like the Grundy family who have endured the indignity of eviction from their land.

Although I’ve never lived in the countryside The Archers has been an educational experience for townies like me.  The great issues of rural life like foot and mouth disease,  Bovine TB,  the tension between organic farming and the agro-industrial farms,  the rise and disappearance of the Countryside Alliance, the arrival of migrant workers from abroad to harvest and pack the produce are all interspersed throughout universal stories of life, death, loss, betrayal, triumph and tragedy. However, the most attractive element to the programme are the characters themselves, many of whom I adore, some of whom I loathe. So here are some of my heroes and villains of Ambridge.

Lillian Bellamy is among the most entertaining of the cast given that she’s an irrepressible bon viveur. She smokes, drinks like a fish and has a gloriously dirty laugh that suggests a lifetime leading the libertine creed. Having gone through a series of lovers including the odd Toyboy or two she has settled down with a London spiv called Matt Crawford who recently spent time in jail for fraudulent business dealings. She calls him “Tiger” while quaffing her G&Ts and he refers to her as his “pussycat.” They are actually an ideal couple who are perfectly matched. Matt has no time for the lords-of-the-manor like Brian Aldridge (Lillian’s brother-in-law) while his wife has just taken charge of a new property development company and is proving to be a more acute businesswoman than her husband has ever been.

Eddie Grundy is also a bit of an operator albeit not exactly a sharp one. He’s up to all kinds of deals and scams along with his old man Joe. They are forever hatching get rich quick schemes that invariably go wrong while making dodgy cider to flog to gullible tourists visiting their county. They make for a picaresque pair of gentle, likeable rogues who are in constant mortal fear of Eddie’s wife Clarrie, who is scornful of their plotting. Joe Grundy once summed up the class structure of Ambridge by pointing out to a new arrival on the show that ….”everybody looks down on us Grundys.” Naturally I invariably side with  Eddie and Joe in their struggles to bring in a few extra bob even if they flirt with illegality.

Jack ‘Jazzer’ McCreary is the token Scot on the show who works with Tom Archer’s pigs as well as running a milk round for Mick Tucker. Eternally moaning and whingeing Jazzer provides comedic interludes between the more serious plot lines running through the series. The Glaswegian jock-of-all-trades is never lucky in love and has an unrequited passion of his own for the musician Fallon Rogers. He also recently lost out to his flatmate over wooing a Polish fruit picker who turned both Jazzer and his friend’s heads. This internal-immigrant from Glasgow has gone through dark nights of the soul taking drugs and stealing cars though has settled down of late but thankfully has not lost his dour Scotch outlook on life. If I could choose a fictional grand-father for him it would be the Scotch undertaker Fraser in “Dad’s Army”.  How great it would be to hear them howl in unison: “We’re all doomed!”

Kenton Archer is the family dreamer who has been bailed out many times by his parents over dodgy business dealings that go pear-shaped. None the less Kenton is a likeable loser who has gone through one failed marriage and one doomed relationship with goody-two shoes Kathy Perks. Yet, even after falling out with Kathy he maintained a friendship with her troubled teenage son Jamie, offering him a listening ear while others around him (most notably his mother) were berating the boy. The central point about the Kenton character is that despite the track record and the odds, you want him to win.

Lynda Snell is the unofficial village policewoman, moral guardian and unlikely eco-warrior of Ambridge. She is a required taste in terms of the characters. Posh voiced with an interfering sniffy nature she runs the local drama group, produces the Christmas panto and bullies others, gently of course, into good deeds for the community. Lynda is the annoying “involver” but if you were in a trench with the shells landing over your head, you could trust her to hold her nerve, keep the unit together and steel everyone for the big push.

Will Grundy. One of the most flammable story lines in recent years has been the re-enaction of the Cain and Abel story transported to the English countryside. Will was pitted against his brother Ed over Emma. She was once Will’s wife but conducted an affair with his brother that ended in a bloody confrontation, acrimonious divorce, a DNA test to establish who was Emma’s son’s father. In one memorable episode the cliff hanger at the end hinted that Will may have committed suicide in response to Emma shacking up with Ed. In fact Will has survived and prospered, and will be marrying the woman who saved him from himself, Nic Hanson, on New Years Day. By the way that DNA test proved that Emma’s baby boy was Will’s.

And finally Brian Aldridge. Yes I know he represents everything I object to in the English upper middle classes. He is arrogant, pompous, full of himself and dismissive. He likes to bulldoze to get his way, even to the detriment of the local environment. Brian is also on the personal front what some colloquially call a “complete shit.” He fathered a child to his Irish mistress now deceased whom his long-suffering wife Jennifer is helping to bring up. And yet…and yet. There is never a dull moment when Aldridge takes centre stage in the plots whether it’s battling with Matt Crawford or alienating Tom Archer over his nephew’s plans for his legendary range of sausages. Yes he is a shit but he’s our shit!

There are quite a few characters that I personally find irritating and wouldn’t mind if they accidentally fell into a combine harvester. These include Tom’s sister Helen Archer who was always deeply annoying and slightly non-credible but has become totally tedious since she got pregnant via the Turkey-basting method and had her son who is called, alas, Henry. The village vicar Alan Franks represents everything that is so wrong with the modern Church of England.  He is the trendy Rev who once took in a heroin addict to his vicarage and along with his equally nauseating wife Usha (she is a lawyer, need we say anymore!) seem to jar as characters with the rest of the cast. Kate Madikane would be my number one candidate to get caught up in a fatal carjacking in downtown Johannesburg. The daughter of Brian Aldridge, Kate is exactly like any of those rich rebel girls you meet in university who just decided to drop out and move to the Atlas Mountains to live with a tribe of Berbers in order to “find themselves”. This is not a moral judgement even though Kate abandoned her daughter Phoebe leaving her with father Roy Tucker. She simply reminds me of all those well-heeled posh birds who join the revolution just to piss off daddy.

Leaving aside these villains of the village The Archers overall cheers me up on dark weekday nights while I’m preparing a meal, doing the dishes or ironing clothes. It gives you 15 minutes out of your own time. The majority of the stories are a far cry from the endless doom and gloom of trashier soaps such as Eastenders although the iconic radio show does have its fair share of tragedy and misery. Thankfully the programme is available on the Internet via BBC iplayer down here in the Republic and if you miss any of the weeknight programmes between shortly after 7pm and 7.15pm, you can play catch up every Sunday after 10am when there is The Archers’ omnibus. If you are an Ambridge-virgin treat yourself to an episode or two and I guarantee you will become hooked. Eventually you will pluck up the courage to admit you are an Archers’ fan.

We need to hear Troubles voices, not silence them

An ex-Army intelligence officer can give evidence openly in London but not in Dublin. Just what are the authorities afraid of?

Two public inquiries on either side of the Irish Sea – the same witness speaking openly at one and being gagged at the other. This is the Kafkaesque scenario facing the former Army intelligence officer Ian Hurst. At the start of last week, Hurst gave open, public evidence in front of the Leveson Inquiry in London, which is investigating press standards following the phone hacking scandals last summer.

The ex-member of the Army’s secretive Force Research Unit (FRU) had been the target of phone and computers hackers working for News International. Hurst’s evidence concerned the hacking of his computer using a so-called ‘Trojan’ virus after he had been outed as a whistleblower. Hurst is famous (or notorious) for providing critical information on two scandals involving the security forces during the Troubles: the 1989 murder of Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane and the exposé of the agent known as Stakeknife operating within the IRA.

Among others Hurst provided evidence of how most of the UDA unit involved in murdering Finucane in front of his family were working for one or more branch of the security forces at the time. In relation to the revelation that Freddie Scappaticci– the IRA’s chief spy hunter – was himself a long-term British agent, Hurst played a central role in bringing this to light. Given his background and knowledge of the undercover war against the IRA and loyalists (which often entailed the morally dubious practice of allowing state agents to commit crimes up to and including murder), Hurst became the focus of attention by the News of the World.

Essentially, this meant spying on Hurst, ironically using a former colleague in the now-disbanded FRU to infiltrate and read the ex-soldier’s email system – presumably to glean what he was saying to journalists, politicians, human rights organisations and campaign groups about the Stakeknife scandal.

During his testimony to Leveson Hurst repeated allegations aired a few months earlier in the BBC’s Panorama programme about how the Irish end of the News of the World had spied on him illegally. Hurst is convinced that such practices – directed not only at himself, but also at the likes of former Labour Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain – posed a serious threat to both national security and the security of individuals working in the twilight world of intelligence.

For those in the Republic observing another tribunal currently running in Dublin, the contrast between Hurst speaking freely and unfettered was glaring. Hurst wants to give evidence in person to the Smithwick Tribunal in Dublin, which is exploring how the Provisional IRA killed RUC officers Harry Breen and Bob Buchanan in 1989. The inquiry is investigating allegations a garda mole provided the IRA with information to target the two police officers for murder. Yet Hurst has been told he can only deliver his testimony in Dublin behind closed doors, away from the media and the public.

Hurst claims to have evidence of Stakeknife’s role in the Breen/Buchanan killing and how the murder-plot was known to the highest-ranking members of the IRA and Sinn Fein at the time. This he contends, is due to the fact that Stakeknife was also aware of the plan to ambush and kill the policemen on the Louth/south Armagh border. In turn, Hurst has refused to go to Dublin unless he is allowed to speak in the open and under the scrutiny of the media like every other witness.He has stated he believes the tribunal’s refusal to let him do so is politically motivated; that this reticence flows from the official policy of protecting key figures in the Northern Ireland peace process. There is a further contrast between the strictures the Smithwick Tribunal wishes to impose on Hurst and the way it treated other recent witnesses – no more so than the founder of the Real IRA, McKevitt.

The inquiry even moved out of its usual location in Dublin’s Blackhall Place to another location close by to hear McKevitt’s evidence – the Republic’s heavily-guarded Special Criminal Court, where terrorist trials have been heard since the Troubles erupted. McKevitt was the Provisional IRA’s so-called ‘quartermaster-general’ at the time of the Breen-Buchanan murders and lived in the north Louth area not far from Dundalk Garda Station.

He was a leading figure in the Provisionals in the late-1980s and would have had knowledge of many IRA operations in the border region. Under the glare of the gathered media in open court, the convicted Real IRA member was cross-examined over allegations that he benefited from Garda tip-offs about raids on his home and that, implicitly, he and the local Provisionals had some ‘friendly’ police officers in the frontier zone.

The brother-in-law of the IRA icon Bobby Sands was afforded the opportunity to strongly deny such collusion existed which, of course, goes to the heart of Smithwick’s investigation. However, an Army intelligence officer who ran operations to counter the activities of McKevitt and his ilk is offered no such opportunity to speak in public. This begs an important question in relation to the whole nature of the Troubles’ secret war: just what are the authorities in Dublin afraid of in regard to Hurst talking in public under privilege?

This article was published in the Belfast Telegraph yesterday.

W1973

In 1973:  The Yom Kippur War breaks out with Egyptian and Syrian forces attacking Israel. It ends after 20 days with Israel victorious after early losses to the Arab armies. In response the Arab oil states impose embargoes on countries that supported Israel, triggering a global energy crisis creating an economic shockwave around the planet.

In 1973: A sinister new murder machine emerges from the shadows carrying out a number of sectarian murders in Belfast including the killing of 14-year-old Phillip Rafferty. An organisation called the Ulster Freedom Fighters claims responsibility – it is in reality the Ulster Defence Association the legal and open loyalist street militia to emerge early in the Troubles.

In 1973: I finally make my Holy First Communion almost a year after most of my seven year old peers in St. Colman’s Primary School in The Market area of Belfast.  My mum buys me a dickie bow and accompanying frilly fronted shirt but changes her mind before we make our way to St. Malachy’s Church and lets me wear a plain white shirt and thick-knot dark blue tie instead.

In 1973: Richard Nixon tells reporters he is “not a crook” in relation to the Watergate spy scandal directed at the Democrats. Later his attorney general reveals the existence of the Watergate tapes including an 18 and a half-minute gap in the recording.

In 1973: The Republic of Ireland and the UK join the European Economic Community, and following elections in Northern Ireland that summer, a unionist bloc led by former Prime Minister Brian Faulkner, along with the nationalist SDLP and Alliance, agree to a power sharing government  in Belfast after negotiations at Sunningdale. Hardline unionists including the Rev Ian Paisley vow to wreck the arrangement.

In 1973: After Holy Communion my mum takes me to the Royal Victoria Hospital to visit her mother Florrie McManus (nee Stewart) who is seriously ill. She only lasts a short time and dies.

In 1973: A military junta led by Pinochet and backed by the Nixon Administration and the CIA overthrow the democratically elected Socialist government of Salvador Allende.  The date of the coup is September 11th. An East German friend of mine recalls crying when he heard about Allende’s death on DDR television, and later remembers Chilean left-wing refugees arriving in his home town.

In 1973: The Provisional IRA bomb the Old Bailey in London marking the beginning of the Provos England campaign. The bombers are arrested on route back to Belfast and include Gerry Kelly, currently a junior minister in the power sharing government in Belfast. Among others captured at Heathrow Airport are Marion and Dolours Price who later go on a hunger strike in an English jail so they can be repatriated to an Irish jail. During their incarceration they are force-fed by prison authorities. One man dies of a heart attack during the chaos caused by the bomb blast. Marion Price is back in jail in 2011 charged with encouraging acts of terrorism.

In 1973: Sunderland stun the football world by beating the might Leeds United in the FA Cup final. It is the first live final I ever see in colour on my own television in my house at Number 1 Eliza Street.  The giant-killing feat was re-enacted by me using a rolled up pair of socks and the gaps between sofas in the front living room used as goals.

In 1973: The first American prisoners of war are freed from Vietnam and the Paris Peace Agreement effectively ends US involvement in Indochina. The NLF is only two years away from victory and the capture of Saigon while the Khmer Rouge gains ground in Cambodia before seizing power and establishing Year Zero.

In 1973: A UVF car bomb explodes in Dublin’s Sackville Street killing one and injuring 17 others. The car used to transport the explosive device had been hijacked in Agnes Street on Belfast’s Shankill Road. It marks the first major attack on southern Irish civilians by loyalists.

In 1973: I spend a week in Sligo on a cross community children’s summer holiday which degenerates into sectarian scrapping. We stay in a boarding school style place and witness fist fighting on the disco floor. Everyone over the age of 9 appears to smoke Goldflake and Major while the older lads wield chains and show off “hot shit” pen-knives. No one gets stabbed but we get chased from an orchard by an old priest wielding a blackthorn stick after we poke at a bees’ nest.

In 1973: The American Indian Movement take over Wounded Knee sparking a violent siege in South Dakota. AIM activists chose the site because it was where 300 men, women and children were killed by the US army in the 19th Century.  Two Native American activists are killed and an FBI agent is paralysed during the armed confrontation. Literature from the AIM is circulated during Official Sinn Fein’s anti-imperialist festival.

In 1973: The Heath government imposes a three day working week in response to the oil crisis and ads appear on television urging us all “To Save It”. More than one million workers march in Britain in protest at Conservative austerity cuts. Plus ca change.

In 1973: My family home is the election headquarters of the Republican Clubs in The Market and a Starry Plough flag flies from one of our attic windows. My sister and I cover the lamp posts outside with round election stickers. No one from the party gets elected to the new and later doomed Northern Ireland Assembly.

In 1973: Both German states, the Federal Republic and the DDR are accepted as members of the United Nations. Meanwhile Red Army Faction/Baader Meinhoff terrorism continues to plague West Germany. A friend of our family has served a brief but disastrous jail sentence for an arson attack in Belfast inspired by the RAF-BM a few years earlier.

In 1973: We dance in the Silvertops disco in Belfast’s Hamilton Street to Gary Glitter’s I”m the Leader of the Gang (I am) blissfully unaware that our glam-rock/pop hero is a paedophile.  The Silvertops becomes the battle ground between the Provie and Sticky Fiannas with studded belts and steel capped boots being deployed on the dance floor beneath the glitter ball.

In 1973: The world is still divided into the capitalist and communist blocs although the threat of nuclear holocaust is receding with détente all the rage. The New Cold War is still far off and the Islamist counter-revolution (the first thrust backwards into history and the past) is yet to break out in Iran. Europe is divided and the Berlin Wall looks permanent.

In 1973: The unions in Britain still retain the power to shake governments and within a year help bring down Ted Heath’s administration. The optimism of Sunningdale and the prospects of power sharing are short-lived – the approaching Ulster Workers Council strike will bring down the cross community government. It takes 33 years and thousands more deaths before unionists and nationalists share power again, this time it seems for good. Seamus Mallon’s description of the Good Friday Agreement (the template for the later St. Andrew’s Agreement) as “Sunningdale for slow learners” seems tragically apposite. Among the dead for the new dawn are at least one of our relatives, a dearly beloved uncle, several friends and a couple of neighbours. Our home is damaged and my father and I narrowly escaped death from a UVF bomb outside our home.

W1973: A group of UVF members bulging out of dark suits, wearing streaky black ties, gather around a grave to hear an oration in Roselawn Cemetery East Belfast. It is Remembrance Sunday 2011. My sister and I look on at this menacing crew amid howling wind and rain. We are standing at the edge of a mushy, freshly turned over, rain-sodden piece of earth. We begin the work of cleaning up the black-headstone caked in hardened mud and dirt. As we move over the to wipe it with hot water and cloths, one of my feet sinks into the mire up to my knee. My leg is descending towards where my mother was laid to rest the month before. She lies on top of my father, who died four months before her. I lift my leg out of the sticky, viscous muck but my foot has left an imprint on the strip above where my parents are buried. When we return a few weeks later the shape of my foot is still visible and is filled with rain water. W1973: The number of the grave where my mother followed my father into the ground.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Simultaneous Equation

Watching the movie version of John Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a bit like doing a Simultaneous Equation. You may know the result in advance but the working out of the answer is as informative and beautiful as the end product. If you have read the novel or seen the original BBC television series starring Alec Guinness as the spymaster George Smiley you will already be well aware that the traitor at the heart of British intelligence is Bill Hayden. He is Moscow’s man at the heart of the ‘Circus’, the agent being run by the legendary KGB spy boss Karla. None the less the way Smiley (played now by a faultless Gary Oldman) unravels this labyrinthine conspiracy is still fascinating to observe in the cinema. The unmasking of the Soviet ‘mole’ lasts for more than two hours and involves Smiley and his allies poring over past operations in Budapest and Istanbul; rifling through secret classified files locked away in the security services headquarters in London; re-interviewing sacked members of the service who shared the mythical ‘Control’s’ suspicions about an enemy within and setting up an elaborate trap for the KGB agent at the end.

The tone and texture of the new movie captures perfectly the England of the early 1970s with its glam rock, grimy streets, strikes and national stagnation. There are Slade posters in a MI6 sub-station in Istanbul, Dana’s All Kinds of Everything blaring out on a radio inside a safe house used by Hayden, Wimpy bars, a Skol larger logo reflected in a window, serial chain-smoking, Morris Minors and unreconstructed sexism in the workplace even with people who talk in posh accents. Tomas Alfredson (the director of the excellent Swedish vampire film Let The Right One In) has brilliantly captured this era. There are a few deviations from the novel and the TV epic from the 70s, the most questionable being the homoerotic static charge between Colin Firth as Hayden and Mark Strong as Jim Prideaux which climaxes in the latter assassinating the former just before the traitor is to be deported to Moscow. The shooting doesn’t happen in the book and TV programme: Prideaux wreaks his revenge instead by breaking Hayden’s neck. Nor was there any insinuation of a possible gay relationship between the two agents.

Regardless the acting is flawless and Oldman, if there were any justice in Tinsel Town, should win the Oscar for Best Actor in his role as Smiley. He is measured, reserved yet also slightly menacing beneath the cool English gentleman exterior. John Hurt as ‘Control’ is a perfect choice to play the ravaged, haunted boss of the Circus with a fatal obsession with the mole.  The other key members of the Circus are portrayed as creepy, shifty, social climbers who are keen to suck up to the Americans and in doing so are putty in Karla’s hands.

The Cold War ended effectively on the day the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989. To a new generation that conflict is as far away in history as the Second World War was for those of us who sat transfixed at the end of the 1970s to watch how Alec Guinness revealed the betrayer of the Circus and the man who set up Prideaux albeit in Czechoslovakia rather than in Hungary. That is why the new film is a reminder of that period when the world was cut into two rival ideological halves and the risk hung over the planet of nuclear annihilation. Although the divide between communism and capitalism was stark, there was by the 1970s great uncertainty within the west at least over the justness of the cause. This comes out in the film as it did in the book back in 1974 with the British spies (including Smiley) often questioning whether their system was superior to the one behind The Wall. Of course, once that barrier collapsed and the entire system failed, it was apparent that for all its faults the democratic West was still infinitely preferable to the dictatorships run in the name of the People by a small governing elite. Revisit The Lives of Others, the story/movie of how the Stasi ruined the lives of individual East Germans or read Anne Applebaum’s Gulag, her epic history of the Soviet concentration camp system if you still doubt that political judgement.

One story absent even without any reference in ‘Tinker, Tailor….’ was a parallel war running alongside the Cold one during the 70s when Le Carre’s masterpiece was published the conflict in Northern Ireland. At the time Le Carre’s novel came out Provisional IRA bombs were exploding in English cities causing widespread carnage while British troops were on the streets of Belfast and Derry in a state teetering on the brink of civil war. As with the novel genre, there have been few film or television series documenting the role of spooks and spies in the Ulster Troubles. Apart from Fifty Dead Men Walking say or Peter Taylor’s non-fiction book Brits dealing with the UK security forces covert war in the north of Ireland there have been very few novels, plays, TV dramas or films that have detailed the stories of  Ulster’s secret war.

The potential for great drama borne out of the undercover war in Northern Ireland is massive. Take for instance the Stakeknife/Freddie Scappattici scandal. Here was the head of the Provos’ counterintelligence spy-cathing unit, the so-called ‘Headhunters’, whose job it was to unmask agents in the IRA’s ranks, who was in fact himself a British spy for two decades. The moral ambiguity, the sense of betrayal, the double-games being played, the danger, the deaths and the torture of the Stakeknife story would all make for a riveting tale either told in print or on film. In particular such an artistic enterprise would focus on the morally questionable policy conducted by intelligence service bosses – of allowing one of their agents to oversee the torture and murder of suspected traitors within the PIRA – in order to protect and promote the British state’s asset within the Provos.

There are multiple stories of morally dubious spy craft and agent manipulation involving both loyalists and republicans during The Troubles that would produce fantastic fictionalised stories. They would certainly prove the old adage about truth being stranger than fiction. Whether it is  yet ‘politically correct’ or convenient for broadcasters in Britain or Ireland to commission stories of covert war is open to question, especially if the truth revealed in drama would happen to embarrass some of Freddie Scap’s former comrades, who these days are trying to be elected Ireland’s head of state.

Saturday Poem #11 – A Man’s a Man for a’ that

I have always loved this poem by Robert Burns, so when I heard it put to song at the funeral of an old friend and colleague I was moved to tears. We were saying farewell to Arnold Kemp who died suddenly while on holiday in 2002. Arnold was a news and comment editor at The Observer, and an experienced Scottish journalist. His death was a blow to all of us, given that he was such a popular figure among staff, as well as being a good friend. Inside a crematorium in his native Edinburgh – surrounded by leading lights in the Scottish and UK media – as well as politicians from both Scotland’s devolved parliament and Westminster, the final tribute to Arnold was the Burn’s poem put to music, a poetic manifesto for equality and democracy, the type of message our last editor believed passionately in. When I read Burn’s verse I will always think of Arnold! My lovely mother died last week too, following my father’s untimely departure only four months ago, so it’s hard to get death off my mind.

For a’ that (by Robert Burns).

Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an’ a’ that;
The coward slave-we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that.
Our toils obscure an’ a’ that,
The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,
The Man’s the gowd for a’ that.

What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey, an’ a that;
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine;
A Man’s a Man for a’ that:
For a’ that, and a’ that,
Their tinsel show, an’ a’ that;
The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor,
Is king o’ men for a’ that.

Ye see yon birkie, ca’d a lord,
Wha struts, an’ stares, an’ a’ that;
Tho’ hundreds worship at his word,
He’s but a coof for a’ that:
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
His ribband, star, an’ a’ that:
The man o’ independent mind
He looks an’ laughs at a’ that.

A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an’ a’ that;
But an honest man’s abon his might,
Gude faith, he maunna fa’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
Their dignities an’ a’ that;
The pith o’ sense, an’ pride o’ worth,
Are higher rank than a’ that.

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a’ that,)
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s coming yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.

The cops want my mobile phone

Perhaps someone should provide the Sat Nav and the grid co-ordinates of Holywood, Co. Down to the PSNI station in Lurgan. Why? Because the dormitory town to the east of Belfast is presently home to the largest MI5 base outside of London. MI5 AKA The Security Services now holds primacy in terms of counter-terrorism within Northern Ireland. At its Holywood base in the Palace Barracks complex it employs a large number of spies and technical eavesdroppers who keep a watch not only on the homegrown terrorism of the republican dissidents, but also those involved in the Islamist terror front both in the UK and abroad.

Agents working out of the Holywood HQ have been deployed not only inside Northern Ireland but also, for instance, at foreign holiday resorts favoured by local tourists to track down members of the Real IRA, Continuity IRA and Oglaigh na hEireaan and try to entice them with bundles of cash to become informers. In addition the MI5 regional base is equipped with the state of the art listening technology aimed at dipping in and out of the messages transmitted between dissident republicans. The press and the public of course are not given access for understandable reasons to the type of hi-tech resources currently available to the spooks, although we can imagine how advanced the devices they are using to spy on the enemies of the state are these days.

Back in the early 1990s RUC Special Branch had a bug at one very important location where the former SDLP leader John Hume was holding secret talks with the Provisional IRA. According to one former RUC source the listening device was so sophisticated that there was a “live feed” between the meeting place Hume and the Provos were sitting in and the secure room at Castlereagh RUC station in east Belfast to which senior police figures would listen into whenever the talks were going on. MI5 also had access to this “live feed” and it is understood that at one stage when something potentially controversial was uttered during a conversation between Hume and the IRA, the feed was mysteriously disconnected. Privately the RUC always suspected MI5 had severed the link fearing whatever was being beamed in and recorded
could have been leaked either to the media or worse still, the loyalists.

That was then and this is now. More than a decade and a half later one can only imagine the leap forward being made in surveillance technology that the Security Services have at their disposal in their counter-terrorist operations since the early 1990s. The question is however: are they sharing them with the PSNI? An incident a fortnight ago involving myself and my battered Nokia E51 mobile phone suggests in some instances that they are not!

A couple of Saturdays ago I was enjoying a day off with two of my children at the Odyssey entertainment centre on the banks of the Lagan. As my girl and boy bounced around like maniacs inside a bouncy castle with the face of Spiderman on the top of it, the mobile rang. My heart sank. I suspected it might be The Observer news desk informing of a major breaking news story and that as a result I would have to go back on duty. In fact it turned out that the call was a local voice, claiming to be from the “Continuity Army Council of the IRA”, i.e. the Continuity IRA. He claimed they had fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a police patrol between roundabouts 1 and 2 in Craigavon in the early hours of that morning. Having given the recognised code word and once he had conveyed the message the caller promptly disconnected the call. Naturally on the LCD screen it stated that number had been withheld.

As well as contacting the Guardian Unlimited and the PSNI Press Officer (the latter having no reports or knowledge of the alleged attack) I phoned the UTV newsroom to get this claim out in the public domain. Within the next 48 hours I received two phone calls from an officer in PSNI Lurgan about the claim of responsibility. In one call I was warned that the police might want to examine my mobile phone in a bid to trace the call and perhaps even identify the caller. Immediately I decided to contact the Guardian high command and received their backing and legal advice, the view from the paper being quite adamant – under no circumstances should I hand over my mobile phone to the police.

Of course journalists cannot and should not be above the law. Nor should we encourage others to break it. None the less the suggestion that I surrender the phone to help the police build a potential case against someone claiming to represent a republican terror group is a potential threat to two principles: the freedom of the press and my right to life. As regards the former there has been in recent times increasing pressures on reporters on both sides of the Irish Sea to provide material which would enable the police to do their job more effectively. The BBC and UTV locally along with RTE, Sky and other broadcasters are facing demands that they hand over footage to the PSNI of the rioting in Ardoyne in July and East Belfast in late June. In England all the major broadcasters are facing similar demands to surrender unedited film of the riots that rocked English cities in August. Meanwhile colleagues at The Guardian recently resisted Metropolitan Police attempts to force them to reveal who told them that the News of the World hacked into the mobile phone of murder victim Milly Dowler. The bid to get me to hand over my mobile is yet another development in this phenomenon.

Journalists are not detectives but witnesses to unfolding public events and news stories. To start to harvest our material, contacts, sources and even equipment is to put us in the firing line. Just imagine if I decided to co-operate and drove down to Lurgan and handed over the mobile for technical examination. Consider the possibility that arrests might follow and the story emerge that it was my mobile phone call that enabled the PSNI to pursue a potential subject. As the judgement in the Ed Moloney and later Suzanne Breen cases concluded such pressurised collaboration could easily put my life in danger. Which is something one can expect when you cross paramilitary organisations and highlight their criminality and their butchery. That is our job as well as holding the institutions of the state and politicians to account. But our job is not to become an auxiliary force for the police in terms of counter-terrorism or general crime.

Meantime if the detectives really are keen to try and trace who made that brief call on my Nokia a fortnight ago they only have to contact their colleagues over in Holywood (Co. Down) and ask for assistance in tracking a call. Although that begs the question as two whether the spooks and the cops are fully co-operating with one another.

(This article was published in the Belfast Telegraph on 28th September)

The laughable loathsome neo-nazis

Recalling his days selling race-hate literature in London’s East End, Matthew Collins says: “We took the traditional Brick Lane Sunday drink with the BNP that day, watching strippers and eating a selection of mussels and whelks off the bar.” All they would have needed was a Cockney-style sing-song of Horst Wessel Lied and Deutschland Uber Alles around the old Joanna and that would have topped off a perfect National Socialist Sabbath for Matthew and his comrades.

The above memory isn’t the only unintentionally hilarious anecdote contained within Collins’ new book, Hate – a recollection of his time both in the National Front and the British National Party. His evolution from the son of an Irish Catholic father to a fascist street fighter mouthing mantras of ‘No Surrender to the IRA’ is peppered with bizarre and often achingly funny passages, which in turn highlight how absurd, perverse and out of touch with reality most of his far right chums actually were back in the 1990s.

There are, however, more sinister segments of the book and they include his relationship with Ulster loyalists who had latched onto the NF and other neo-Nazi organisations in Britain. Of these the most prominent is Eddie Whicker, a UDA member from Belfast who became somewhat of a personality on the London far right scene at the time Collins was an active fascist. Whicker was one of the most militant of the extreme right street thugs taking on leftists, some of whom marched in pro-IRA rallies in the UK capital and other British cities.

Reading Collins’ fascinating memoir raised questions as to how useful, if at all, the various parties and groups on the far right were to the Ulster loyalist cause. The answer to that question, taking a long view of history, would be hardly at all. In fact, Hate confirms the analysis put forward by the likes of the late David Ervine that the far right’s embrace of the loyalist cause was nothing short of embarrassing. There can be no doubting the connections established from the early 1970s onwards between the NF, BNP and the more extreme Combat 18 to the two main loyalist paramilitary organisations. On a political and, dare one say social level, the disparate British far right were the only supporters of the Ulster loyalist cause in Britain.

Apart from their traditional allies in Scotland, particularly within the Orange Order and the Rangers football team’s support base, loyalism’s allies were few and far between. While loyalists across the sea could feel very much at home in parts of Scotland’s central belt or the Ayrshire coast, your average working class Ulster Protestant would feel a greater sense of isolation in English cities, particularly the multi-cultural/racial conurbations. As Collins attests to in his book, the NF and other rival organisations at least provided a home for an Ulster loyalist away from home but still in touch with the cause.

Logistically, the efficacy of British neo-Nazi help for loyalist armed groups has been wildly exaggerated. There were a number of gun running plots such as the one involving Frank Portinari, an English UDA member of Italian Catholic extract in direct touch with ‘C’ Company and a friend of the UDA killer John White. The important thing to remember about Portinari’s gun smuggling operation was that it was soon busted by the security forces. In reality the people who gained the most out of British fascism’s embrace of loyalism were MI5 and Special Branch.

Charlie Sergeant, for instance, crops up several times in Collins’ book as a prominent Combat 18 thug and strong supporter of Ulster loyalists. Yet after Sergeant was tried and convicted of stabbing a rival neo-Nazi to death it transpired he was also a police informant whose work included spying on any potential loyalist arms smuggling operations in the south-east of England. The Ulster Volunteer Force did, of course, meet with the extreme neo-Nazi Belgian VMO in the early 1980s. The Flemish fascists were fascinated with the home-made engineering skills of Ulster loyalists who were manufacturing their own sub-machine guns. In return, the VMO promised to hand over plastic explosives, as long as the UVF attacked a Jewish target in Belfast. This suggestion convinced the UVF envoys sent to meet the pro-Hitler terrorists that they were dealing with nutcases. The UVF search for explosives switched to commercial, ideologically neutral arms dealers.

On a propaganda level the activities of a handful of loyalists in England like Whicker was undoubtedly damaging. It only projected and solidified the notion that the average loyalist was as much a bone-headed, shaven, beery-breathed bigot as their neo-Nazi buddies smashing up Brick Lane. The ceasefire, of course, and the emergence of Ervine, Billy Hutchinson and other articulate loyalist politicians, changed all that. Observers of the far right will point to the career of Johnny Adair, who started his politico-paramilitary career in the NF. In retirement on the west coast of Scotland, Adair has admitted he always had his doubts about the English neo-Nazis, suspecting many of them of being “touts” or just terror-tourists not really serious about waging war on the republican movement.

It’s worth remembering that throughout his life Adair maintained an enduring love for one English band who emerged out of the post-Punk era. The group was comprised of two brothers from a left-wing background who sang about racism in America’s Deep South and who wrote socialist protest songs against Thatcherism and mass unemployment. To this day Adair loves UB40. That’s how serious the British neo-Nazis’ favourite Ulster poster boy was about their message of racial purity and ethnic hatred.

(My review of Hate is also published in the Belfast Telegraph today)

Alternative Alternative Ulsters

Shooting starts again in Northern Ireland this coming week but no one is going to get killed or injured – except for a few reputations. Someone who cares little about reputation or social standing is the subject of the latest film about Ulster’s recent past, the former Punk-music guru Terri Hooley. Filming starts on a bio-pic of Terri’s life focussing in particular on his founding of the Good Vibrations record label and music store, and his discovery of The Undertones.

I have known Terri since I first walked into his shop on Belfast’s Great Victoria Street back in 1978. For a generation of young Punks trying to escape the cloying boredom of life in Troubles-torn Belfast, Hooley’s place was a Mecca of freedom. There was something wildly exotic about passing the cut-out Elvis outside, climbing the stairs, inhaling strange aromas wafting from above and into a room surrounded by LPs and 45s. On the walls where strangely drawn and printed posters and my favourite single cover – a picture of The Slits, all of them topless, smeared with mud.

Before entering Good Vibes I had never contemplated shoplifting but I recall one rainy Monday afternoon in summer when I succumbed to temptation. I’d heard the most amazing and weirdly sung/constructed track on the John Peel Show on Radio 1. It was Howard Devoto menacingly warbling about being ‘Shot By Both Sides’. Given where I was living at the time – caught between the Brits and the equally hostile Provos – the sentiment struck an immediate chord. I had to have that record.

Alas on that soggy Monday I was virtually broke and had only one option: to swipe the Magazine EP which I did right under Terri’s eye….yes his other one is made of glass.

Many years later in a moment of drunken honesty at a party of a mutual friend’s I confessed to Hooley about my theft. He roared with laughter and congratulated me for liberating ‘Shot By Both Sides’ from his stock. As a lifelong anarchist he had no choice but to approve of my larcenry.

The beginning of filming prompted Jane Graham in The Guardian on Friday to write a wider feature on when is the best time for film makers reflecting on past youth cultures and their impact on society. The questions Graham raised were germane and especially how many years should elapse before you recreate the world of teenage sub-cults.

In a passage near the end of her article she quotes screenwriter Colin Carberry who looks back on the Troubles. He warns that “nostalgia works differently here” and notes that while virtually no one harks back to the dark, depressing 1970s, the new Hooley film will show “how youth transcends everything.” Then in the most dubious part of Carberry’s comments he points out that while there were plenty of agit-prop bands like The Clash around, The Undertones were in fact singing about fun and girls from their first breakthrough anthem “Teenage Kicks” (a song Hooley helped on its way and John Peel championed) to other famous tunes such as the maudlin “Wednesday Week” and “Here Comes The Summer.”

This assertion is firstly unfair to The Undertones. After all the band dared tackle the subject of the death fast in the Maze prison with ‘It’s Gonna Happen’ referencing Bobby Sands ‘…going to sleep without blinking a blue eye.’ Moreover, when the band broke up their next incarnation under the genius of John O’Neill became ultra-political. That Petrol Emotion was one of the most politically controversial and underestimated post Punk/New Wave bands of the 1980s.

Yet even during Ulster Punk’s heyday there were plenty of bands that recorded songs that were more about cars and girls. Stiff Little Fingers of course were the most famous of the agit-prop groups. Although ‘Alternative Ulster’ became their most famous anthem with its rage against ‘the bores and their laws’ and the sectarianism blighting so many young lives, I have always contended that the best song of their first album ‘Inflammable Material’ was ‘Wasted Life’ was the most politically charged they ever recorded. It is a howl of protest belted out in Jake Burns’ gravel voice against how an entire generation was being lured into paramilitary organisations that, in the end, only offered a squandered existence or a premature death. Even listening to it four decades later the lyrics and the thrash of the SLF guitars still sends shivers down my spine.

There were other groups too that took on political and social issues, the best of them being Ruefrex. The group from north Belfast, some of them from the loyalist heartland of the Shankill Road, wrote protest songs that still deserve to be listened to. Ruefrex’s targets included the loyalist paramilitaries on their doorstep; the Irish-Americans who funded the IRA from the comfort of their affluent suburbs in Boston and Wisconsin and the education system in Northern Ireland that kept and still keeps Catholic and Protestant school kids apart.

I wish the film about my old friend Terri the very best and I hope that it will do him justice. His contribution to Ulster cultural history has been neglected for far too long. There are though other stories to be told as well about the bands, the kids, the venues, the times that need to be aired. It is nearly 40 years on. Time to get writing about that unique period in Northern Ireland history when, for a short period of time, there was a flowering of youthful rebellion that was organic and spontaneous. There is work to be done here!

Lessons from Birmingham

Although three young Asian men are dead, several families are devastated, an entire community is fearful and angry, the city of Birmingham is still a relatively tolerant place. Having just spent three days in England’s second city, the overwhelming impression I got is that despite the triple deaths outside a petrol station in the early hours of Wednesday morning, there is still a deep degree of cross-community co-operation and toleration.

Witness an Islamic prayer service on the filing station forecourt on Wednesday night when local Muslims gathered to remember their three friends mowed down a fatal hit and run crash. While everyone around knew that it was members of the black community who had been responsible for the crash and indeed looting of Asian-owned businesses in the hours before the tragedy, there were people from all races standing side by side with the Muslims. Sikhs, whites and people from the Afro-Caribbean community paid their respects. A 17-year-old has [today] been charged for the triple murders and is remanded in custody, appearing at Birmingham Crown Court tomorrow.

On Thursday I strolled around the multi ethnic Dudley Road where the men were killed. Afro-Caribbean shops were open side by side with the Asian mini markets and grocery shops. Young black couples pushed prams past the make-shift flower adorned shrine to the victims, one girl in her teens blessing herself as a mark of respect as she passed by. There were, naturally, discordant voices among the younger Muslim males in the area and a frequent, disturbing use of the N-word when describing black people. But they were drowned out by the voices of decency within the Muslim community, the no longer silent majority epitomised by the grieving father who appealed for no retaliation and called for peace and calm to descend in Birmingham and beyond.

The local people I encountered were friendly, open and helpful. They wanted to tell their story and convey the message that a lawless violent minority of thugs would not plunge their city into inter-ethnic chaos. In many ways that narrative was the most hopeful in a week scarred by nihilistic violence across several English cities.

There are two broad observations I would like to make about the seven days of disorder in England. The first is to counter the nonsense spurted by some liberal media commentators that there was anything political or social motivating the rioters, the arsonists, the vandals and the murderers in Birmingham in particular. Their motives were anything but progressive and their victims in the main were people from the same social strata as themselves: the poor, the immigrant workers, fellow ethnic minorities, the dispossessed who maintain their dignity and their decency despite the odds stacked against them. To compare the violence that broke out in England to say the Arab Spring is a deep insult to the incredibly courageous fighters for democracy who are literally laying down their lives from Syria to Libya. The latter are putting themselves in front of bullets, artillery rounds, tanks and everything else that tyrants like Assad and Gaddafi are throwing at them. Their struggle is noble and heroic, the looters and the hooligans destroying their own communities in England are a national disgrace.

Many in Ireland but particularly in the north have noted the different approach of the police in England to their counterparts in Belfast or Derry. The PSNI dealt with rioters over here (many of whom, especially on the republican side, do actually have political motives) using plastic baton rounds and water cannon. Some have pointed out that the English police’s reluctance not to borrow from the PSNI and start firing baton rounds at their rioters proves there is one law for the Irish on this side of the sea and another for the English, even for its moronic apolitical underclass.

Yes I can see the irony and I hate the double standards but I am none the less glad police forces in London, Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol didn’t fire a single baton round over the last seven. Because the last thing England needed was the potential of a street thug being martyred after his or her skull was crushed by a baton round. The loonies and the looters don’t deserve that epithet.

Saturday Poem #8 – Break of Day in the Trenches

I spent last Monday morning strolling around a fascinating museum dedicated to the history of the Inniskilling regiment of the British Army. The museum is situated in Enniskillen Castle on Lough Erne right in the heart of the Co. Fermanagh town. In the courtyard close to the ancient Watergate there are captured German artilery pieces from World War One of which one was later converted for use in the next war as part of coastal defences against the threatened Nazi invasion of southern England in the summer of 1940. Inside the museum itself you are taken on a journey through the locally recruited regiment’s history from the wars against Napolean through to World War Two, Korea and the Cold War frontline of West Berlin.

As with much of Ulster military history there is heavy emphasis on the sacrifices the Inniskillings made on the Western Front and other theatres of the First World War. These include the struggle against the Ottoman Empire in Palestine and in particular the heroism of one Donegal Duffy from Gweedore who won a Victoria Cross for refusing to leave wounded men to die on the battlefield. Time and time again Duffy risked his own life to recover his injured comrades and carry them often on his own to safety. This was the final leg of a three day trip to Fermanagh and it turned out to be the most poignant. Why? Because only recently did I discover that my great grandfather on my mother’s side of the family was killed at the Battle of the Somme in 1916.  Great Granddad Tommy Stewart’s death on the western front was all the more poignant because my mother and her siblings were brought up Catholics on the other side of the line from where Tommy grew up. He was a Shankill Road Protestant but his daughter Florence married a Catholic and moved with him to the republican Lower Falls. Such is the way our roots are tangled up, our ancestral ties complex. 

Thinking about Tommy of late reminds me of my favourite verse from any of the war poets from WW1. He is Isaac Rosenburg, a working class Jewish soldier from London’s East End. Rosenburg inspired a dear departed relative of mine, Jack Holland, my cousin and co-author. Jack got the title of his first novel about the Roman invasion of Britain from the second line of Rosenburg’s poem, hence the book Druid Time. So this short, compressed verse about life on the frontline has a double meaning for me now. When I read it over I think of Tommy Stewart killed all those years ago in the slaughter of the Somme and of Jack, swept away so cruelly and far too early by a rare form of cancer. Please remember them too when you read this wonderful poem.

 

Break of Day in the Trenches (by Isaac Rosenberg)

The darkness crumbles away

It is the same old druid Time as ever,

Only a live thing leaps my hand,

A queer sardonic rat,

As I pull the parapet’s poppy

To stick behind my ear.

Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew

Your cosmopolitan sympathies,

Now you have touched this English hand

You will do the same to a German

Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure

To cross the sleeping green between.

It seems you inwardly grin as you pass

Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,

Less chanced than you for life,

Bonds to the whims of murder,

Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,

The torn fields of France.

What do you see in our eyes

At the shrieking iron and flame

Hurled through still heavens?

What quaver -what heart aghast?

Poppies whose roots are in men’s veins

Drop, and are ever dropping;

But mine in my ear is safe,

Just a little white with the dust.

Memories of Captain America

CAPTAIN AMERICA’s coming into being is nothing more than the story of Jacob usurping Esau but set in the Second World War rather than in the time of the biblical patriarchs. Just as the weedy, smooth skinned weaker Jacob becomes the unlikely chosen one to succeed Abraham as the leader of the Children of Israel, so an asthmatic bag of skin and bones is singled out by a Jewish émigré scientist to become a superhero who can save the USofA. Like Jacob the character selected to pick up the Star-spangled shield was an unlikely choice. Their rivals, Esau the hairy bearded hunting man of action and the sock-‘em-in-the-jaw-everytime GI Joe, who bullies the future Captain America on the army base, seemed the more obvious candidates to become the champions of their people.

They say there are seven basic plots to a story regardless of whether it is located on a page, the silver screen or passed down in oral tradition. I do not know if the Old Testament tale of feuding brothers is part of those seven categories but watching the latest Marvel comics superhero movie in a cinema on Belfast’s Dublin Road last Monday that story of cunning and brain winning out over brawn in Catechism classes suddenly flowed back into my memory. All those ink drawings of the prophets and the martyrs with their over-exaggerated eyes, like Marine Boy’s in the cartoon, persuading their brothers to sell their birthright for a mesh of pottage; or taming wild beasts inside the lion’s den or bringing down the walls of a besieged city with a collective rebel yell.

He’s the equal of Thor and loads better than the Green Lantern: he’s the summer’s pre-eminent superhero – The Guardian

It goes to show that even for an atheist who has long since eschewed organised religion the Bible and the fantastical tales that are shot through it (more so in the Old Testament it has to be said) have left an indelible mark on the subconscious.  The near instant association with Captain America’s birth with the Jacob/Esau struggle is testament, excuse the pun, to the power of biblical story telling. You might blame all of this on religious education by robotic rote but this schooling wasn’t akin to the brain-washing of children in Islamic Madrassah schools. It is the drama, the beauty and the symbolism of the stories themselves that have so much universal appeal…even today for non-believers like myself.

As for the film, you have to keep reminding yourself this is a ‘Marvel’ comic where the laws of space, time, gravity let alone believable plot or accurate history, are suspended. What starts as a seemingly straightforward battle between an American good guy agent in a funny costume and a mad, demented Nazi scientist turns rapidly into the classic “Marvel” battle between Superhero and Supervillain in which Sci-Fi gadgets of the future play a critical part. You also have to suspend your critical faculties as well as the laws of the universe in order to enjoy this neatly crafted, exhilarating and character-complex film. Perhaps its greatest achievement though is not the special effects, the battle scenes or indeed the acting.  The epilogue contains a clever plot device that carries Captain America forward from the closing days of World War Two to the 21st century which borrows a little bit of the faked-up world of the “The Truman Show” and the story of Rip Van Winkle.

On a personal level the film also succeeded in taking me on a journey back into the past. Back specifically to a place called “The Blue Shop” on Eliza Street in The Market area of Belfast; back to some time in the early to mid 1970s before dreams of playing professional football, puberty and then Punk Rock.  In that hiatus behind the still tender edge of early childhood and the cusp of teenage years I became an obsessive reader of what we called “the American glossies”, the magazines that printed derring-do tales of magical powers possessed by Superheroes like Spiderman, The Incredible Hulk, The Mighty Thor and of course, Captain America. I will never forget the excitement of leaving primary school every Thursday afternoon and walking towards that shop facing Inglis Bakery at the bottom of the longest street in the area or the thrill of seeing what tales from a multi-coloured, fantastical future were on sale and who your heroic characters were pitted against in the latest edition.

This was Life-as-Elsewhere in the guise of demonic plots by Dr Doom to destroy the earth in its entirety and Spidey’s desperate battle to save them. And yet beyond those graphics, over those pages there was a real war being waged all around you. On leaving the cinema with my two youngest children at the weekend, absorbing the impact of the first of what will be many Captain America movies ahead, I realised that by bringing this ‘Marvel’ character to life, the film makers had tapped into another potent subset of brain activity – the power of nostalgia.

Saturday poem #6 – Ozymandias

 
Shelley’s poem is apposite in a week when we see, perhaps, the beginning of the end of the Murdoch Empire. I suppose Shelley’s message is that all things turn to decay and dust including mighty monarchs and emperors. Nothing escapes the erosion of time, the poet warns us. I already imagine the satirists doing a skit of this short but wonderful piece of verse with ‘Rupert’ replacing ‘Ozymandias’, and instead of desert sand all around the fallen idol the wasteland of Wapping. In addition to the power of its themes and imagery, the poem is notable for its virtuosic diction. The rhyme scheme of the sonnet is unusual and creates a sinuous and interwoven effect. It’s well accepted that this poem was the result of a competition between Shelley and his friend Horace Smith, a financier, verse-parodist and author of historical novels. Smith’s rival sonnet is called, less memorably, In Egypt’s Sandy Silence and disadvantages itself early on by the gauche reference to ‘a gigantic leg’.
 
OZYMANDIAS (by Percy Bysshe Shelley)
 
I MET a Traveler from an antique land,
Who said, “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is OZYMANDIAS, King of Kings.”
Look on my works ye Mighty, and despair!
No thing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that Colossal Wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Brian Moore’s neglected little masterpiece….

Even in cosmopolitan London or even thousands of miles away across the Atlantic there is no escaping Belfast and its spectres. Like the vampires from Salem’s Lot who follow the survivors of their feasting in the cursed New England town down south all the way to Mexico, the artist, the outsider, the rebel has no escape from his ghosts. That is the fate-loaded message of Brian Moore’s little masterpiece Lies of Silence. At the very end of this short literary thriller Michael Dillon appears to have eluded the tentacles of tribalism and terrorism that were suffocating him back in Belfast. He is in London, in charge of a swanky West End hotel, finally together the mistress whom he truly loves, on the edge of new freedom, a fresh start. And then in a final twist (albeit somewhat predictable) the IRA catch up with him and end his life, two young men wearing “jeans, T-shirts, sneakers” who raise their revolvers without masks and open fire. Dillon and his estranged wife Moira were captives of an IRA unit who forced the hotelier to drive a car bomb to the hotel car park in a bid to murder a Protestant fundamentalist preacher/politician called Pottinger. Of course Pottinger is a thinly veiled cipher for the Rev Ian Paisley.

The fictional hotel bears an uncanny resemblance to the real life Wellington Park on the Malone Road. St.Michan’s – his old grammar school – is in fact St. Malachy’s where Moore and later myself were educated. The novel’s hero defies the IRA and alerts the police before the bomb detonates fearing that not only Pottinger and his entourage but also a bus-load of tourists are slaughtered in the explosion. But what compounds the IRA’s hostility towards Dillon are two factors: firstly, his wife Moira begins a one-woman crusade against the Provos beginning at the outset on a live television interview; secondly and more crucially he decides to identify one of the young Provos who took his house over and held his wife hostage. The latter results in his death in the London hotel, his new life away from Belfast cut brutally short.

Over his long career, Brian Moore has mastered the literary magic trick of making the weighty seem graceful, making the dense and complex seem effortless and unadorned. One hopes that ”Lies of Silence” will inspire more readers to discover Mr. Moore’s earlier work, to experience the range and agility of this fine writer’s sleight of hand – The New York Times

I haven’t read Moore’s book since the early 1990s so it was a joy to return to this tautly written atmospheric tale of terrorism, betrayal and thwarted redemption. Perhaps the best way to read his novel (in my view his best) from a vantage point of elsewhere, at least if you happen to have been born in and moulded by Belfast. Because even though he left his native city for Canada way back in 1948 his evocation of Belfast is powerfully accurate. I re-read the book while here in Dublin, semi-detached these days from Belfast and yet more attuned to the social nuances Moore recalls of life in that city. His (or rather his character Dillon’s) memory for instance of St. Michans sent shivers down my spine. Facing the loathsome priest who is acting as an IRA conduit Dillon is transported back to his school days by the cleric’s recollections. ‘In the heat of a London summer’s afternoon, the odd classroom names were spoken like a false password, bringing back the school’s draughty corridors, the musical chairs of masters rushing from class to class, priests in chalk-stained soutanes, lay masters in ragged academic gowns, the whistle and sting of the punishment cane, the crash of feet in the school chapel, the creaking silences of the study hall.’ All of this is uncannily familiar to me when I look back to my days in St. Malachy’s even though Moore is writing presumably of his time there on the Antrim Road back in the 30s.

Although to be fair in my day during the 70s there was no punishment cane. Officially there were imposition exercises and detention while unofficially there were slaps and punches out of sight. The bulk of the action in Lies of Silence however, in the Belfast of the 1980s and Moore is true to the city at that time. There were still armed checkpoints and rings-of-steel around Belfast city centre; soldiers with rifles patrolling the streets; the pervasive presence of the IRA just beneath the social surface and the apocalyptic menace of the loyalists and their bible-bashing apologists. It was a grim time yes but made bearable by the existence of little islands of decency and escapism such as Dillon’s hotel where common humanity among the staff wins through over ideology. None the less Moore captures the claustrophobia that closes in on you in Belfast….even after the Troubles have supposedly ended. A decent but flawed man tries to make a break for it while doing one honourable thing before he leaves. He pays the ultimate price. There is no happy ending. In many ways this novel reminds me of a short story written by late cousin and fellow author Jack Holland. His Bye Bye Belfast, written some time before Lies of Silence, concerns the same thing – a man seeking escape from his home city and its madness. Unlike Dillon though Jack’s main character is fleeing from the other side of the lens, he is an IRA member seeking to leave behind his paramilitary past, to find a new life in the United States. He is caught in the middle of a feud with the Official IRA and loses his life on the eve of departure. Another shiver comes down the spine, in remembrance of Jack, in memory of those dark days of fratricide and bloodshed. ‘Our roots are bleeding,’ wrote DH Lawrence. For all those both remaining in and in exile from Belfast, we know exactly what Lawrence was getting at.

Brian Moore was born in Belfast in 1921. He wrote several early novels under the pseudonyms Bernard Mara and Michael Byan, including Wreath for a Redhead (reprinted as Sailor’s Leave, 1951); The Executioners (1951); French for Murder (1954); A Bullet for My Lady (1955); This Gun for Gloria (1956); Intent to Kill (1956); and Murder in Majorca (1957). His first novel under his own name was Judith Hearne(London, Andre Deutsch, 1995/reprinted as The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (Boston & Toronto, Little, Brown, 1956/reprinted as The Lonely Passion of Miss Judith Hearne (London, Penguin 1959). His subsequent novels are The Feast of Lupercal (London, Andre Deutsch/Boston and Toronto, Little, Brown,1957/ reprinted as A Moment of Love (London, Panther Books, 1965);The Luck of Ginger Coffey (London, Andre Deutsch/Boston and Toronto, Little, Brown,1960); An Answer from Limbo (London, Andre Deutsch/Boston and Toronto, Little, Brown, 1962); The Emperor of Ice Cream (New York, Viking, 1965); I Am Mary Dunne (New York, Viking, 1968); Fergus (New York, Holt, Rhinehart & Winston, 1970); Catholics (Holt, Rhinehart & Winston/London, Jonathan Cape, 1972); The Revolution Script (London, Johnathan Cape, 1972); The Great Victorian Collection (New York, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1975); The Doctor’s Wife (Farrar, Straus & Giroux/London, Jonathan Cape, 1976); The Mangan Inheritance (Jonathan Cape, 1979); The Temptation of Eileen Hughes (Jonathan Cape, 1981); Cold Heaven (New York, Holt, Rhinehart & Winston, 1983); Black Robe (New York, Dutton/ Jonathan Cape, 1985); The Color Of Blood (Jonathan Cape/ Toronto, McClelland & Stewart, 1987); Lies Of Silence (London, Bloomsbury, 1990); No Other Life (Bloomsbury, 1993); The Statement (Bloomsbury, 1995); and The Magician’s Wife (Bloomsbury, 1997). Amongst his awards are The Governor General of Canada’s Award for Fiction in 1959. He died in California in 1999.

Saturday Poem #5 – Questions From A Worker Who Reads

This is Brecht railing against the Great Men of History theory. I thought it was highly appropriate this weekend with the decline and fall of one of medialand’s so-called “Great Men”, one Rupert Murdoch. Especially given that it was the little people inside his corporation, who paid the price for the folly of the bosses.

Questions From a Worker Who Reads

(by Bertolt Brecht)

Who built Thebes of the seven gates?

In the books you will find the names of kings.

Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?

And Babylon, many times demolished

Who raised it up so many times? In what houses

of gold-glittering Lima did the builders live?

Where, the evening that the Wall of China was finished

Did the masons go? Great Rome

Is full of triumphal arches. Who erected them? Over whom

Did the Caesars triumph? Had Byzantium, much praised in song

Only palaces for its inhabitants? Even in fabled Atlantis

The night the ocean engulfed it

The drowning still bawled for their slaves.

The young Alexander conquered India.

Was he alone?

Caesar beat the Gauls.

Did he not have even a cook with him?

Philip of Spain wept when his armada

Went down. Was he the only one to weep?

Frederick the Second won the Seven Year’s War. Who

Else won it?

Every page a victory.

Who cooked the feast for the victors?

Every ten years a great man?

Who paid the bill?

So many reports.

So many questions.

End of a Tabloid

By an odd coincidence I ‘ve just finished reading Michael Frayn’s novel Towards The End of The Morning. It was an apposite choice given the extraordinary events at Wapping in the last week, culminating with the Murdoch dynasty announcing the end of the News of The World.Frayn’s book is a comic memoir on a world long gone-by: the era when most British national newspapers were based in and around Fleet Street. The main setting for this mild satire on the print industry is an unamed newspaper that may or may not have been modelled on the old Observer, and its principal characters are a number of glorious eccentric journalists. In the novel they are portrayed as pushy, self-obsessed, indifferent, lazy or upstartish social climbers. All human life, as they used to say in the News of the World, is there.

And yet the editors, reporters, subs and columnists that Frayn lightly and subtly sends-up come from a more innocent age of journalism. There are none of the feral beasts on view that have so lately sullied journalistic ethics, especially given the phone hacking scandal which ultimately led to the closure of a profitable newspaper. It would be hard, perhaps even impossible, to apply the light satirical treatment Frayn gave to this corner of 1960’s Fleet Street when it came to any future novel about the decline and fall of the News of the World.

The Sunday tabloid and its staff have woken up with a mob around it baying for blood. Among those who applied the fatal boots into the cranium have been James Murdoch and by proxy from afar, his father Rupert. With the corpse still warm, the boys at the edge of the gang, who were once so coy about attacking such a feared institution, sneak in a few digs and kicks themselves. David Cameron now thinks it’s a good idea that News International Chief Executive thinks Rebekah Wade should resign. The Prime Minister also acknowledges that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea after all that former NOTW editor Andy Couslon should have been given a second chance….now of course that he faces a possible  serious criminal charge.

Labour leader Ed Miliband decided that maybe his party could stand up to the Murdoch empire and has called not only for a public inquiry but also the head of Wade on a plate. Meanwhile 200 journalists and support staff on both sides of the Irish Sea are facing redundancy at a time with all media organisations are contracting staff numbers. None of the above is to suggest the NOTW was guilty of gross immoral practices and serious unethical behaviour. Conversely, my own newspaper (there, I have declared my hand!) The Guardian deserves all the accolades for doggedly pursuing wrong-doing at the tabloid including illegal activities such as bribing police officers and the unlawful interception of mobile phone messages. However, as with any mob on the march there is as always rank hypocrisy in the air. Ministers and politicians are up in arms over the practice of hacking into phones by the tabloid. Yet these servants of the state know only too well that this practice is ongoing in society. At times you could argue the use of phone hacking or electronic spying is justified. The security organs of the state need to hack into the mobile phones of terrorists or criminals as part of the wider public good. But this continual eavesdropping and spying encompasses a wider circle of people than just suspected terrorists.

It is a fact that many journalists’ phones are frequently hacked into and/or their offices bugged by police, military intelligence and the security services such as MI5. Senior police officers on both sides of the border have, in the past, informed me that my mobile calls were being tapped into, and that even email traffic was being secretly checked. Perhaps whatever security agency was (and still is!) behind this surveillance might think it’s useful to hack into reporters’ calls and email messages in case they happen to be communicating with paramilitaries and criminal elements. None the less the practice is wholly illegal and an abuse of the civil liberties of those journalists, the overwhelming majority of whom are law-abiding citizens.

We hacks are, by and large, stoical about the state hacking into our lines of communication. Some make a joke about it and even when I suspect they are listening I’ll even say something like: “Hello Mr Spook and how  are we today? And did you find my conversation with my colleague about Everton’s inability to spend money in the transfer market endlessly fascinating?” And so it goes.

None of us are naive to think they don’t hack as well as the more unsavoury ethically blind hacks. But it would be interesting to find out exactly how many of us out there are the targets for this form of snooping, and the volume of calls, emails, etc., that the state’s servants track in their daily fishing-exercises. Whistleblowers who once served or still serve in the security forces are welcome to contact me: henry.mcdonald@guardian.co.uk and tell me all about it. The next time you see a politician beat their chest in protest over the illegal hacking of the phones of Z-list celebs or dead British squaddies remember that whether they are in power or have been in power recently, the governments they serve in have turned a blind eye to a much pervasive culture of spying on the Fourth Estate.

Saturday Poem #4 – Shema

I once entered a heated debate around a dinner table about whether any art form could truly relay the unique horror of the Holocaust. This discussion took place around the time that Spielberg had just brought out Schindler’s List. Whilst I defended Spielberg’s attempt to capture the unimaginable through Schindler’s remarkable story I saw the point that my much lamented cousin and fellow author Jack Holland was making that evening: that the sheer scale of the slaughter and the cosmic cruelty the Nazis and their allies inflicted on the Jews is almost too much for art itself. Jack seemed to echo that infamous line about art & beauty dying with the camps. Perhaps we’re only capable of getting short insights into the cataclysmic nature of the Shoa, like an inverse of the Aboriginal universe, where the people on earth see glinting glimpses of heaven through the celestial apertures of the stars. That’s how the Aborigines viewed the starry night – they were pin pricks in the veil between heaven and earth. And so the compressed, tightly focussed vignettes of life in the Nazi death factories that Levi has left us are short pulsars exposing us temporarily to that black hole of a  hell manufactured on central European soil. It is depressing to remember that there are those in the dark corners of the Internet, in the nefarious netherworld of neo nazism and among the Islamist fanatics in the Arab world such as Hamas, who would call Levi a liar! Perhaps those on board the so-called Irish aid ship to Gaza could raise this denial with their friends if and when they get there!

SHEMA (by Primo Levi)

You who live secure
In your warm houses
Who return at evening to find
Hot food and friendly faces:

Consider whether this is a man,
Who labours in the mud
Who knows no peace
Who fights for a crust of bread
Who dies at a yes or a no.
Consider whether this is a woman,
Without hair or name
With no more strength to remember
Eyes empty and womb cold
As a frog in winter.

Consider that this has been:
I commend these words to you.
Engrave them on your hearts
When you are in your house, when you walk on your way,
When you go to bed, when you rise.
Repeat them to your children.
Or may your house crumble,
Disease render you powerless,
Your offspring avert their faces from you.

Primo Levi: a Jewish-Italian poet and writer, was born in Turin in 1919. Before the Second World War he was an industrial chemist. In 1943 he was arrested and deported to Auschwitz, where he survived due to his “usefulness” to the Nazis as a chemist. His most famous prose work is “If This is a Man” in which he wrote about his experiences in Auschwitz. Haunted by his Holocaust experiences, he committed suicide in 1987.

A long climb up the Matterhorn

soldier motions to a helicopter in Vietnam, 1970. Photograph: Rex Features

There are leeches fattened with human blood crawling up the “Jap’s Eye” of a Marine’s penis; a battle-field operation on an officer’s eye to extract shrapnel from it while mortar shells rain down; attempts by disgruntled black soldiers to murder some of their own officers and NCOs whom they hate and vast periods of time in between combat where boredom rots souls, and hunger and cold torment bodies. “Matterhorn” is a long arduous climb following the path of Bravo Company as they struggle to survive amid the madness of the Vietnam War but it is worth the trek when you reach the summit and survey the overview the author has provided.

The detail in this 667-page fictional version of a real life Lieutenant’s tour of duty for the US Marine Corps is at times excruciating to read and requires the stamina of a mountain climber who has miles to go before he or she peaks. Yet this novel centred on one mountainous corner of South Vietnam near the Laos border also contains passages of lyrical reflection, sharp insights into the nature of man and his inclination to war – the Beast-inside is never far from the surface even amongst the more appealing characters in Karl Marlantes’ work which took him two decades to bring to life.

‘Matterhorn’ will stand the test of time and become one of the great-war novels of literature. For once the critics who have heaped universal praise on the book were not exaggerating.

You know that feeling you get when you scan the dust jacket and the preliminary pages of a book littered with positive one-liners from the newspapers: you are expecting a major letdown. But Marlantes doesn’t fail you. This work really does what the critics say on the tin. The ex-Marine officer who won medals for valour in ‘Nam can be ranked alongside Hemmingway, Orwell and Mailer for his depiction of war and the things it can make men do.

On reaching the peak of this book, dizzying slightly from the rarefied atmosphere that Marlantes has recreated from his own wartime memories, I was struck by a question about war, carnage, conflict and its impact on people in a modern Irish context. Specifically, why is it that we have seen very very few novels detailing the warrior’s experience, whether they be British soldiers in Northern Ireland or Irish troops who have served in peace-keeping missions abroad? In regard to the latter there is one shining exception in Martin Malone, an ex Irish soldier who has written brilliant insightful novels based on his experience of serving as a UN peacekeeper in south Lebanon. Check out for instance Malone’s book Broken Cedar for a glimpse into this relatively unreported Irish military experience.

Given that thousands of Irish soldiers have been on tours of duty in conflict zones and that many have witnessed numerous scenes of horror and savagery you would think that there’d be more fictional takes (let alone screenplays or dramas both on stage and film!) about their time there.

Peacekeeping can hardly compare to the type of all out warfare Marlantes writes about in Vietnam. However, there are some parallels such as the numbing boredom; the terror of being under shell and mortar bombardment; the distress of witnessing comrades being killed or wounded, and that sense of alienation and dislocation from the world back home far away from the mud and blood. When I was researching Irishbatt – the story of Ireland’s Blue Berets way back in the early 90s – there was one incident that in particular stuck in my brain relating to the latter sensation. One Irish UNIFIL veteran recalled getting into a public row with his wife over dinner just a few weeks after returning from a six month tour of South Lebanon. He remembered starting a row after his wife ordered mineral water with her meal. The soldier objected because he wanted tap water on the table instead as it was widely available in Ireland…unlike in the ‘Leb where water was rationed particularly on summer tours. The UNIFIL veteran thought it was an extravagant outrage that people were paying for water at home and an embarrassing increasingly violent argument in the restaurant ensued. This single incident for me encapsulated how a life lived in a zone of death and darkness could mark someone who then gets transplanted back to the so-called normal world.

In Northern Ireland there has been a dearth of novels from the viewpoint of the soldier. Most accounts of tours of duty have been in the sub-Bravo Two Zero/Andy McNabb genre. There have been hardly any comprehensive, morally and psychologically sophisticated narratives about the soldiers’ war. What would be a fascinating read would be a literary take on the Troubles from the point of view of say a locally recruited UDR soldier or a southern recruit in a British Army regiment. It’s interesting that up to now most literature from the angle of a ‘combatant’ have come from those in paramilitary groups; most notably the IRA. In the novel I’m currently trying to hawk around publishers on both sides of the Atlantic, my main character is a British army military intelligence officer who’s left the armed forces to join the murder squad of the Berlin Police. His back story includes flashbacks to a tour of duty in Northern Ireland and an undercover operation, which leads to him killing a female paramilitary assassin. The ghost of this woman haunts him via subterranean apparitions on the Berlin U-Bahn. Yet it is only an echo back to the conflict in the north of Ireland not a full blown fleshed out story of being on the frontline of Ulster’s dirty little war.

But back to Matterhorn and Marlantes’ profound yet moving story based on his own time as a highly decorated front line marine. Throughout the book there are passages of great lyrical beauty and deep reflection such as this one when Mellas tries to come to terms with the fact that he may have killed a colleague in a ‘friendly fire’ incident during battle.

‘…He was overwhelmed by an emptiness that knocked him to his knees. Slumped in his wet hole, cocooned by two flak jackets, he broke. He was the butt of a cruel joke. God had given him life and must have laughed as Mellas used it to kill Pollini, to get a piece of ribbon to show proof of his worth. And it was his worth that was the joke. He was nothing but a collection of empty events that would end as a faded photograph above his parent’s fireplace. They too would die, and relatives who didn’t know who was in the picture would throw it away.’

“Matterhorn” is published in paperback by Corvus Books, £7.99.

From Columbo to Berlin…RIP Peter Falk


Peter Falk’s greatest triumph on the screen was arguably the time when he played himself.  Although better known as the shambolic detective in the trench-coat who became the legend that was Columbo it was Falk’s performance as the actor Peter Falk in Wim Wenders 1987 masterpiece Wings of Desire that will stand the test of time.

Of course he endeared himself to millions all over the world in his role as the seemingly scatty-brained sleuth who outwitted rich and arrogant criminals, Falk was a true revelation playing the outlandish part of a fallen angel turned actor who has just arrived on the front line of the Cold War.

In Wender’s homage to Berlin, at the time when the Wall still cut the city into two ideological halves, we only learn about Falk’s former angelic status towards the end of the movie. It’s revealed in a comic yet deeply moving scene when Falk meets another fallen angel close to the Wall – the character played by Austrian actor Bruno Ganz. Prior to Ganz’s angel falling from the sky, his immortality sacrificed in pursuit of the beautiful mortal trapeze artist, Falk talks to the character in a number of black and white scenes. “Columbo” greets Ganz at an Imbiss food stall on bleak, blasted waste-ground running up towards a section of the Wall. He senses Ganz beside him and strikes up a bizarre conversation in front of the Imbiss owner behind the counter who only sees “Columbo” talking to himself. He describes the joys of smoking and drinking coffee at the same time, of rubbing your hands together in the cold to get warm and outstretching his hand to the invisible angel offering his friendship as a “companero.”

The next time the pair meet is in colour shortly after Ganz has abandoned his immortal form having fell to earth with his suit of angelic armour falling on top of him, subsequently wounding him in the head. The angel turned mortal spots Falk and cries out “companero”! They exchange greetings and then Falk offers Ganz a few dollars. To which Ganz replies that he has money and then Falk remembers he must have sold his suit of armour. Then it dawns on the former angel that Falk too – his companero – once had angelic status. Indeed Falk informs him that he was probably robbed as he himself made several hundred bucks selling his armour to a shop in New York City many years earlier.

Falk’s character is in part comedic but also partly melancholic. He strolls around Berlin with his sketch-pad drawing extras taking part in the war movie he’s starring in, stumbling about as shabby and absent-minded as ‘Columbo’ himself. And yet world-weariness is etched on his features. His internal dialogue recalls with affection his grandma and her long-lost world of pre-Nazi Berlin. He retraces her steps and finds only broken ruins and churned up earth, the scars of war, Holocaust and division. Amid the menacing backdrop of the Wall and No-Man’s land, in the winter cityscape with its skeletal trees, in the spectral light that Wenders shoots in through most of the film, Falk is the voice of the little man still clinging to his humanity, his empathy for others around him, even for the angels who other mortals around him cannot see, touch or sense intact.

On realising he’s in the presence of another fallen angel, Ganz expresses incredulity to which Falk replies: “Sure, there are loads of us.” It’s a comforting line in a film that creates so much ethereal beauty out of the barb wire, the concrete, the spot lights, the bullet-pocked buildings, the iron-bridges, the poky apartments and the packed claustrophobic subway trains of West and East Berlin.

Wings of Desire celebrates the crooked timber of humanity. Peter Falk stands out in Wenders’ tour de force as the crumpled, wrinkled, generous face of that humanity with all its faults and foibles. RIP Columbo. RIP the first of Wenders’ fallen angels.

Saturday Poem #2 – Dover Beach

One of my favourite poems in the English language. It evokes melancholy, world-weariness and I would argue, is a future echo for the horrors of the 20th century. Although written in the 1860’s, Arnold’s reference to ‘where ignorant armies clash by night’ is deeply poignant from the perspective of today. He is, after all, looking out towards the Continent on the English side of the Channel, to a land mass where within four decades millions would be slaughtered on a once unimaginable scale. I am sure Arnold was not in prophet mode but his poem is all the more apposite for the generations that came after.

DOVER BEACH

By Matthew Arnold

The sea is calm tonight,
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Agean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

The Life of Brian

One of the most poignant quotes recalling Brian Lenihan who has just died of pancreatic cancer is one that came from his own lips. It was recorded on the BBC in a documentary on Ireland’s fiscal crisis and recalled his trip to Brussels to negotiate the international bailout package that still today is keeping public sector workers in jobs, public transport running, hospitals funded and social welfare payments still among the most generous in the EU. Reflecting on the snow thawing on the ground in the depths of winter, alone, preparing himself to plea like no Irish minister ever before had to and ask for a multi billion dig out, Lenihan simply remembered saying: “This is terrible.” 

How much was this feeling of impending doom applicable to himself as well as the government that he was serving in!? How did a man who had what we now know to be a death sentence over his head continue to remain in the centre of the economic and political storm for so long? Whatever one’s political affiliation you have to admire that sense of endurance and public duty. That’s why I truly believe the tributes paid to him from across the Dáil and over on the northern end of the border by unionists as well as nationalists were totally genuine. He personified that most inspiring of Churchillian maxims, BOR, Bugger On Regardles.

This is the obit I’ve written for tomorrow’s Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jun/10/brian-lenihan-obituary?CMP=twt_fd

Working class pride & prejudice

Shaving this morning with my father’s old razor reminded me how even on any given weekday, out of work or down on his luck, he  still always tried to appear as pristine as possible.

Up until his recent illness, when he fought to catch breath, there was always a shirt and tie, the latter knotted tightly by my mother before he would venture outside the door. In winter he wore a Crombie coat or a reefer jacket over a suit and he always made sure whatever the weather his shoes were shiny, his hair was parted back neatly, his face as clean-shaven and bristle free as mine is today thanks to his razor.

Born at the outbreak of the Second World War he became part of that post-war generation who enjoyed unprecedented (albeit relative) prosperity compared to the grinding poverty that their antecedents had to endure. This generation prided itself on their appearance and spent new disposal income on the latest fashions coming from the United States and Europe. Hanging up in my mother’s house in Belfast for instance are Italian cut suits my dad picked up in the 1960s and his (and mine’s) favourite tie, a brown thin shipped corduroy-like material made by Abercrombie of Paris. Poring over old pictures of him last weekend, some black and white, others with that washed-out colour of 1970s photography, I was struck at how fashion-conscious even he was back in those days. 

There were many men like him at the funeral a month ago some of whom like him sported crew-cuts and wore trendy early 60s garb in those photographs I spent hours staring at on Sunday. The time these images capture was one when where there was still such a thing as working class pride.

One of the few utterances I ever agreed with that came out of Derek Hatton’s mouth concerned clothing. Apart of course from him like me being an Evertonian! The former Militant Tendency leader of Liverpool City Council during the 1980s had to defend himself constantly against charges that he was a flash-harry, that his sharp suits and equally sharp hair cuts were the antithesis of Socialist Man. Hatton who at least understand the working class better than the London-based middle class Trotskyites easily rebutted this charge.  He pointed out that working men and women loved to get dressed up, all suited and booted for the pub and the club especially at the weekend. There was nothing anti-socialist or working class about looking good.

Hatton’s detractors regarding his dress sense (let us leave aside Militant’s toxic legacy to the left) came from a media class in the main dominated still by the sons and daughters of rich people. Ask this media class today to visualise the working class and you will be offered up images of overweight men bulging out of tracksuits while chain-smoking and waking a pit bull; bloated bottled blonde young women scantily dressed and collapsing in the street while still managing to hold a blue bottle of WKD upright and gangs of feral young men in baseball caps driving around in souped-up Ford Fiestas, their cars blaring out the misogynistic anthems of nihilist gangsta’ rap.

My colleague at The Observer Carole Caldwalladr wrote a thoughtful piece last week on “Chav Britain”, the new underclass that has supposedly supplanted the old working class in the poorer, third tier of society. The personification of “Chav Britain” Carole pointed out was the character of Vicky Pollard, a gross stereotype who is work-shy, unattractive and repellent.  In this two-dimensional portrayal of the poor Pollard is in poverty because it is somehow her fault. And like so many other “Chavs” out there she is addicted to what I call the “Cult of Instantaneous Satisfaction” whether that be a “gobjob” or a brand new Kappa tracksuit.

The “Cult of Instantaneous Satisfaction” is a by-product of mass consumerism and the shift in society from “We” to “I”. It accelerated through the 1970s and reached a crescendo in the following decade with the arrival of must-have goods ranging from the new video recorders to microwave ovens. Combined with the decline of organised labour and the new philosophy of greed-being-good life for people even at the bottom of the social scale became more privatised.

In the 1990s there was a brilliant but depressing scene from the BBC television series “Our Friends in the North” that summed up this new brutalist, egomaniacal era. The Christopher Ecclestone character goes back to his native Newcastle to look after his father, an old socialist and trade unionist, who has succumbed to Alzheimers. The old boy lives in a block of flats terrorised by a local thug who is always accompanied by his black pit bulls. Rather than act sympathetically to the old man this yob intimidates and threatens him constantly. This one scene accurately reflected the shift in values on many housing estates across Britain and indeed Ireland where might was now right and the strong preyed on the weak.

The Observer asked why the other side of society’s losers, the people at the bottom of the pile who try to be decent, bring up their kids against the odds, hold down mundane and poorly paid jobs while maintaining their dignity and who try to put something back into their communities are missing from our television screens. Why has the luckless but loving, family man Yosser Hughes been replaced the likes of Vicky Pollard? The answer, as Carole proffered, is that television is dominated by middle class executives and producers, and that a laziness pertains in their culture which makes it acceptable to demonise the so-called “Chavs.”

I do not agree with the contention that the word “Chav” be banned from public discourse in the same way as the N-word (and rightly so) has been excised. But what is to be done as an old Bolshevik once asked? Here is one small suggestion to the trade union movement. Rather than wasting your members money on tokenistic adventures such as sending activists to foreign shores like Hamas-dominated Gaza (a clerical-fascist anti-trade union movement by the way) try to creatively address the negative stereotyping of the people you care about – both those in work and those without.  How about a trade union-backed documentary showing the positive side of working class life in the 21st century. What about establishing and supporting a film based business dedicated to dramatising the struggles and pressures and prejudices working class people face? Avoiding blatant agit-prop is it not time to fight back against the blanket labelling of workers and the unemployed as a tacky, bejewelled, gnarling, selfish mass of Jeremy Kyle watchers. 

Take a lesson from the Manic Street Preachers and their best and brilliant anthem “A Design for Life” which resonates to this day as a foil against those who would smear all of the working class as feckless addicts of the “Cult of Instantaneous Satisfaction.” There is a class culture war to fight and you won’t be able to rely on those in the media who think it is acceptable and “rather amusing” to sneer and snigger at the “Chavs.”

Faith and my Father

I am still terrified of death but I no longer fear the dead thanks to my father. He died on 7th May this year but I am indebted to him partly because of the mantra he kept hammering home to us in the first decade of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Back in the early 1970s Satan was making something of a comeback. The post-Street-Fighting-men-and-women of the late 60s radical protests no longer had sympathy for the devil. The Father of All Lies was back scaring everyone from Boston to Belfast, Detroit to Dublin thanks to an explosion of horror and supernatural films such as The Exorcist, The Devil Rides Out and The Omen. Demonic possessions, poltergeists, Satanic-ritual murder were all the rage again.

Even in war-torn Belfast with its pub bombs, nightly riots, drive-by shootings, tar and feathering, feuding, tear gas, rubber bullets and body counts, the ethereal threat from the forces of darknesses exercised our minds.  Hauntings, ghostly apparitions, people being possessed by evil spirits and so on were reported in a city where real people were slaughtering their fellow citizens in ever increasing and in some circumstances with inhumane, wanton brutality.

The parallel hysteria over the the menace from devils and demons was probably in large part due to the explosion of neo-horror on the silver screen in the seventies. My father always saw through this Satanic-panic dismissing nervous neighbours worried that a cloven hoofed stranger was about to enter their humble terraced dwelling in The Market area of Belfast with this advice: “The dead can do you no harm, it’s the living I’m worried about.”

Given that the “living” included people who were torturing their captives for hours on end before severing arteries in their necks with butchers’ knivers or cynical, cold blooded commanders (some of them now “respected” statesmen!) sending out teenagers to incinerate women in fashion boutiques with firebombs you could see my father’s point.

And yet…..

I recently faced a challenge to my existential fears and it concerned my father’s wake. It is traditional certainly in Catholic working class families for loved ones to remain beside the coffin containing their dead relative during the period before the funeral. That task was given to me and I accepted it gladly. After the throngs paying their respects had gone, once all the sandwiches had been covered in cling film, the trays of cups cleared away, the tea pots emptied and crockery put in the dishwasher: my mother, sister and myself were left alone. I had to stay on a makeshift sofa bed in the front livng room where the coffin was laid out, the mini altar adorned with candles and the sympathy cards piled up. It was a bizarre experience to sleep at a right angle to my father’s coffin, his fine sculpted facial outline still visible every time I propped myself up on my pillows, the tenebrous light from the candles illuminating his form.

And  yet I never felt a second of fear or apprehension bedding down for the night beside my dad’s corpse. The sensation I experienced those three draining nights I stayed by his side was strangely comforting. Perhaps this was in large part due to the fact that we had a brief but sadly bitter exchange just five days before he died in Belfast City Hospital. Despite some harsh words I genuinely felt being alone with him in the days leading up to his burial brought forward some form of atonement.

In these last few weeks I have, on occasion, sensed his presence again or at least imagined him around me. The most pronounced instance of this happened on the final Saturday of May just three weeks after his death. I was now asleep on a brown leather sofa in the exact area where his coffin had stood. Across the living room lay my six year old son on the other sofa who was snoring contentedly in a deep and peaceful slumber. In contrast to him, my sleep was disturbed by a menacing nightmare. I was in north Belfast, near a sectarian interface possibly near the Crumlin Road along with a former photographer colleague from the Irish News. We’d strayed into a mass Ulster loyalist protest that turned threatening and malevolent. It was probably a dream-like copy of some real scenarios I found myself in while reporting in Belfast throughout the Troubles. As we walked down that road I spotted a knot of men gathered at a corner who were clearly looking at us, whispering games of malice, moving towards us with ever increasing menance. Suddenly I was startled out of my reverie. A jolt of electricity surged through me and I jolted back into consciousness. In the first few seconds of coming back to the surface as my eyes got used to the darkeness around me I thought I could make out a shape in the gloom. A human form. It was probably just as ‘The Triffids’ song went A Trick of the Light. At least I hope it was or so says my rationalist side.

As a philosophy graduate, atheist and materialist I am innately sceptical about the supernatural, the afterlife, ghosts, etc. But then I turn to modern physics and recall the view that all matter is energy and that energy is never ultimately destroyed in the universe but rather transforms into another form even unto death. This is not wishful thinking. This is not the product of post-Catholic guilt. Rather it’s an admission that all cannot be explained especially when it comes to the loss of a loved one and the continued sense that that loss is not utterly and totally final. That something remains perhaps amid those chemicals in the brain that revisits happy memories, care and love to sustain you in the most difficult of times. Or maybe something more non-corporeal, something that survives after the disintegration of flesh and blood…

I wrote this from South Lebanon 13 years ago…

…and now I’ll probably be going back there in the near future because the Irish are back.

Henry McDonald finds that the Islamist party is adopting a more emollient approach particularly towards bibulous Westerners

THE HEZBOLLAH spin doctor poked his mobile phone into my expanding gut and said in perfect clipped English, `You should play a bit more sport.’

When the Party of God gives you advice like that you have to think up a good excuse to throw them off the scent. Being hung over with the Hezbollah is an unnerving experience.

The previous night a UN officer and I had drunk a few cans in the officers’ mess at the Irish battalion’s peacekeeping camp in Tibnin. ‘Er, actually I was unwell last year and had to put on some weight before my operation.’

Ever polite, the Hezbollah man nodded and whispered in Arabic to the phalanx of bearded security men around their military leader, Sheikh Nabi Qawook. `Then we will pray to my God that you will be better,’ the Sheikh’s press officer replied, and the guards with heavy metallic bulges in their cardigans nodded sternly in agreement.

Surrounded by Sheikh Qawook’s security team, I suddenly remembered that the last Irish civilian who was a ‘guest’ of Hezbollah was Brian Keenan. Those kidnapping days, the Sheikh assured me, were long gone, although he couldn’t resist reminding me that 20,000 Lebanese were seized during the civil war and little or nothing was reported about them in the Western press. He then pointed to the oranges, apples, grapes and fruit juice laid out on the table and urged me to eat.

Today Hezbollah, the movement normally associated with suicide car bombs and kidnapping Westerners, is on a sophisticated charm offensive. Just after Christmas the Islamic fundamentalist, Iranian- backed movement went on the Internet to promote their cause. They also published a freephone number asking for recruits among the non-Shia Muslim Lebanese to join their `resistance squads’ in the armed struggle to flush Israel out of its self-declared security zone in south Lebanon.

Sheikh Qawook, reclining in an armchair under a blown-up picture of Sheikh Moussawi, the Hezbollah leader killed by the Israelis, seemed taken aback that the West would be surprised that his movement was opening its doors to non-Muslims. `Hezbollah was the first party to come up with the idea of national resistance squads. Our units will embrace all the Lebanese, Christians and other religious sects, in the war of liberation.’

Looming over all Lebanese is the spectre of Big Brother Syria. The road south from Beirut to Tyre is littered with Syrian pillboxes and checkpoints and portraits of the dictator Hafez Assad. Brother Assad and his army are there to impose peace on the warring Lebanese factions, but it is peace at a heavy price. Every businessman transporting goods to the south suffers blatant extortion by Syrian troops. (Those living inside the security zone suffer a double extortion because they have to pay Israel’s surrogate militia, the South Lebanon Army, as well.)

One of the traders who sells designer clothes and watches to Irish peace-keepers in south Lebanon told me he has to get out wads of dollars to slap into the hands of Syrian soldiers at checkpoints outside Beirut. `Tom Cruise’, as he is known to the Irish UN troops due to his remarkable resemblance to the Hollywood actor, said that on one occasion he had to slip several thousand dollars into the hands of a Syrian officer to pass through a roadblock.

The Hezbollah also have good reason to fear and mistrust Brother Assad. In 1982 his regime slaughtered thousands of Islamic militants in the Syrian city of Hama. Hezbollah supporters privately admit that once Israel leaves the Syrians will crush anyone who tries to upset a peace package made in Damascus. Perhaps the survival instinct is partly the reason why New Hezbollah is reaching out to other Lebanese, sounding more pragmatic on the Internet and being nice to hung-over Western journalists.

Henry McDonald is Ireland correspondent for the Observer and author of Irish Batt: The Story of Ireland’s Blue Berets in Lebanon.

Copyright Spectator Apr 25, 1998