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United 93: Just a thought about the US Military and 9/11 October 31, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in 9/11.
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Caught United 93 the other evening. Part of a double bill that included the Metallica movie Some Kind of Monster (perhaps the most entertaining documentary I’ve ever seen – and largely for all the wrong reasons – the great big empty feeling I had after seeing them in the Point back in 1999 was replicated in full, still at least I didn’t have to pay this time). Anyway, this mixture of pathos and bathos respectively made for a predictably uneven evening’s viewing.

However, I don’t want to review either movie other than to say that Greengrass managed to pull off the remarkable trick of leaving the viewer transfixed by the unfolding brutality and tragedy of United 93 and hoping against all knowledge that it might go another way in the end.

On the other hand one of the closing captions gave pause for thought. According to it the US Air Force was issued with instructions from President Bush at 10.18 am on September 11, shortly before the North Tower fell, that they were permitted to shoot down civilian airliners if they thought they constituted a threat. The caption stated that this instruction was never passed on to the pilots for fear of making a mistake and downing a passenger jet that had no connection to the events.

Whatever about the debacle of Iraq, and the responsibility must lie squarely with the civilian government particularly for the unbelievable ineptitude of the planning and implementation of it and it’s immediate aftermath, the US is well served by a military that adopts that stance.

When being right isn’t quite enough… The political mainstream, climate change and the Greens October 30, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in British Labour Party, climate change, Global Warming, Greens, Irish Politics.
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It was truly startling to see the co-option of the Stern Report on climate change by the British Government today. The report makes for depressing reading, positing a future which would see a 20% decrease in global GDP in the event of uncontrolled climate change – and lest that sound not so bad it’s worth considering that in the crassest terms it’s the developed world which would be hit hardest by that decrease in GDP in terms of material comfort while the developing world would be hit as hard or worse in terms of the human effects.

But the stray thought that struck me was that the impact of the implementation of Stern et al would mean, to a significant degree the validation of a broad range of ideas generally associated with the Greens (both in political and social terms). This is, to my mind at least (and as someone long influenced by the red-green thinking of those such as that of Bahro and Gorz), welcome in terms of conversion away from a high carbon economy to one which utilises technological improvements and considered use of resources in the framework of a low carbon environment.

But isn’t this also the point at which Green ideas are subsumed, as socialist ideas were before them, into the general paradigms of mainstream politics. The UK example is particularly instructive. Here we have all three major parties, Labour, Liberal Democrats and Conservatives engaged with considerably more determination than one might have ever previously anticipated in such ideas.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that it sounds the death knell of Green parties, but it does perhaps indicate that their political role will remain perhaps more marginal than they or we might hope for in the future, that their relationship will be similar to that of Sinn Féin to Fianna Fáil as regards ‘Republicanism’ where the larger more mainstream party picks the elements that are most voter friendly, or indeed both the larger parties Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in relation to social democracy.

Of course, is this a surprise? No-one has expected the Greens to coast to state power on the back of simply being right on many of the big issues, but it seems to me slightly unfair that they may not reap any reward for sterling work over the past number of decades. And while the current poll ratings for the Greens, as seen in the RedC figures from the weekend are good, it’s hard to believe they reflect anything much more than our local political concerns rather than – say – the influence of those who have seen ‘An Inconvenient Truth’.

Neutral against who? The Lebanese conflict and the concept of Irish neutrality… October 29, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics, Israel, Israeli - Lebanon Conflict, Lebanon.
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Interesting that the Irish Anti War Movement is holding a meeting in the Royal Dublin Hotel on Saturday 4th October.

Speakers will be George Galloway MP of Respect and STWC, Ibrahim Mousawi of Al Manar the Lebanon TV Station and Ben Hayse, an international law expert. On posters around town the third speaker is indicated to be a member of the Peace and Neutrality Alliance and the event is free for members of PANA.

All good, and no doubt an interesting debate will ensue, however one has to ask what questions Mr. Galloway will be putting to Mr. Mousawi about Hezbollah’s vision for Israel. I’m not a fan of Mr. Galloway, but he gave an excellent account of himself on Sky TV where he made a passionate and evidently sincere plea for a credible two-state Palestine Israel with a joint capital in Jerusalem (a vision I entirely share – although I’d go further and look for an internationalised Jerusalem under UN auspices). I’m wondering if this will satisfy Mr. Mousawi in view of Hezbollahs contradictory objectives in relation to Israel which tilt between it’s elimination as a political entity and acceptance that it is to some degree up to Palestinians to decide. However, in either instance it is clear that Hezbollah is a participant in the conflict.

I’m also hoping that either PANA or Mr. Hayse will put a few questions forward about this report in the Guardian which notes that Human Rights Watch (an organisation not usually noted for being an Israeli partisan) has accused Hezbollah of firing cluster bombs into civilian areas in northern Israel.

The use of such weapons by either side is reprehensible. But it makes me wonder what PANA is doing on a platform with a representative of one of the combatants and particularly number 2 of it’s objectives: Ireland should pursue a positive neutrality and independent foreign policy and not join or form an association with any military alliance, such as the WEU or NATO.

I’m wondering how this sort of engagement with a partisan in the conflict falls under the heading of ‘positive’ neutrality?

By the by the non-appearance of this as an election issue is striking but not unexpected, despite the clear and understandable public sympathy expressed for the plight of Lebanon over the Summer. As has been seen many times in the past issues external to the state tend to have little traction on the public imagination and this appears to be yet another…

Eddie Holt had an interesting piece in the Irish Times yesterday (subscription required) about the treatment of a number of pro-Palestinian activists who entered Israel and the differing response to their treatment by our own Department of Foreign Affairs which was rather less interested in accounts of harrasment of Irish nationals when they were framed as occuring in Israel than when they were framed as occuring in Cuba. That might simply reflect an acceptance that it is easier – perhaps – to embarress the Castro regime than Israel, or it might not. But it is telling nonetheless. Having said that, any who have any experience of travelling by air to Israel will know that El Al takes exhaustive and understandable security measures to ensure the safety of their aircraft…

Back to the future, or I’ve seen the past and it works! Fine Gael/Labour and a strategy for winning the next election… Part 2 October 29, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Irish Election 2007, Irish Labour Party, Irish Politics, Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin.
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Okay, the last post on this subject was addressing the need for some blue sky thinking on the means by which Fine Gael and Labour might take on Fianna Fáil at the next election, and the suggestion was that the big tent should be extended further in line with the Inter-Party Coalitions of the 1940s and 1950s.

It’s a great idea and I’ve been heartened by the fulsome support for it from all points of the political spectrum – well, not quite…

Since then we’ve had today’s RedC Poll which continues the downward trend for the opposition with FG now on 23% and Labour on 10% with FF alone on 39%. Even if we throw the Greens into the mix, well we’ll see how the numbers come out anyhow…

But I have another idea.

One so counter-intuitive that it can’t happen – can it? What if Fine Gael and the Labour Party and the Greens were willing to take the big step, one taken some four months earlier in Northern Ireland if (and it remains a big if) Sinn Féin and the DUP sit together in government. What if they were to say to Sinn Féin, ‘we do not entirely consider you suitable for government at this point, but as you now sit in government with the DUP we will accept support from you for a minority government or coalition and in return for that support we will work the institutions established under the GFA and underpinned by the St. Andrews Agreement as fully as we can’? It’s inconceivable, isn’t it – on both sides – arguably insulting to SF, and perhaps only those with a circuitous political background – such as myself – can suggest it with a straight face, but I have to ask, why not?

Of course, I know the answer to that. There is a visceral antipathy on the part of both FG and SF to each other (notwithstanding a number of ‘technical’ political arrangements in local government) one largely shared by the Labour Party. I find that understandable on one level, some of that antipathy framed my political makeup in the past and has always left me cautious about SF, but also curious on another. After all, if one takes the logic of the Good Friday Agreement the objective was always to bring together Republicanism and Unionism in a peaceful and agreed context. Sinn Féín in the context of a decommissioned IRA was inevitably going to move further into politics, where else could it go? And as it did so it was going to become more popular rather than less (if one were to judge by the soft SF vote that characterized elections in the North throughout the period of armed conflict). The population within the Six Counties was to make their own minds up about their representation. They clearly have. It’s not music to my ears how it’s gone on the Unionist side, but if a deal is struck between Paisley and McGuinness so be it. Yet here, where the actual sacrifices made during thirty years of conflict have been so much less on all sides, and the injuries while no less painful and I think particularly of those Gardai who lost their lives at the hands of PIRA, vastly less often inflicted. Yet we ask that SF and DUP sit around a table, we demand that in the context of decommissioning and a lack of criminality that they do a deal. And down here? The rhetoric from some FG members on P.ie and elsewhere is as if it’s 1986.

Let me be a little bit honest – and perhaps give an example of hypocrisy in politics – mine. The first election I gave a preference to SF (and full disclosure: I have never given any more than a preference if only because I have a Republican Socialist alternative in the constituency I live in and Socialist alternatives (of Labour, Green and other stripes) in the previous ones) was in 1997. I remember the night before actually lying awake thinking about the ramifications of that preference. My judgement was – in all it’s narcissistic glory – that I might be assisting in the development of a peaceful transition by that party to exclusively democratic politics. Yet, hold on. Was this me, the former member of a political party that had never seen it’s own paramilitary wing decommission, had never really enquired into the nature of that wing (had indeed ignored Vincent Brownes excellent exposes in Magill during the 1980s), and yet I had not merely voted for them, but done it time and again and encouraged all I knew to vote for them. Better yet, Fine Gael had, admittedly with some prompting (all of 24 months worth) encouraged former members of that party, those at the highest level of that party, to join them and the Labour government in power in 1994. Better yet the Labour Party had encouraged those same members and the successor party to join them in a single organisation in 1999. And it is that very same Fine Gael who is working on shared proposals and platforms with those very same people. Incidentally, neither do I recall any particular worries on the part of Fine Gael in the 1990s about former and influential members of the Workers’ Party working with them as advisors and consultants – although frankly knowing the individuals concerned, I’d have done the job for less money and perhaps twice as well…

Would a Sinn Féin linked to an IRA that has been through an internationally recognised decommissioning process, that has overseen the essential decommissioning of that IRA, that has accepted the constitutional status of the two polities on the island as underwritten by international treaty, and that is on the brink of accepting and overseeing the PSNI, be a less legitimate partner than Sean MacBride and Clann na Poblachta, or my erstwhile comrades who never had to (or never saw the necessity to) go through the unpleasantness of decommissioning at all? Really? And we think we were wrestling with ethical quandries the last number of weeks over payments and Manchester?

I don’t believe for one minute that either Fine Gael or Sinn Féin would countenance working with each other – even in the hands off way I suggest – not at present anyhow. It is in neither of their perceived interests, particularly that of SF. For Fine Gael it is disturbing how much part of their self-image is bound up in antagonism to Sinn Féin. This is problematic if only because so much of Irish politics, including their good selves is littered with the debris of various incarnations of Sinn Féin impacting with constitutional politics. But it’s also problematic as the Troubles recede into history. In the not too distant future cohorts of voters will appear with no more interest in who did what when than I have in the minutiae of the Lynch governments. ‘Hey, that’s not the same thing at all! Look what Sinn Féin and PIRA supported/did…’ I hear. And perhaps it isn’t, and perhaps the charge is accurate. But the past is the past and ultimately everything winds up in it. Ultimately for all the loathing Fine Gael will wind up with a unique selling point that is largely irrelevant as Sinn Féin slips into the mantle of another left of left of centre party, a sort of slightly harder edged alternative to Labour…

For Sinn Féin such an arrangement is equally tricky. Hard to square left of left of centre oppositional Republican politics with support – even at arms length – for Fine Gael. But then if the issue is power and influence and the maintenance of the St. Andrew’s Agreement or the GFA, then external support for Fine Gael should be easier than support for the DUP in a power sharing executive – shouldn’t it?

In any case, with my realistic hat on again as distinct from my self-indulgent and provocative hat (or perhaps just the pointy one with the big D on the front of it), I can see a different future develop. One where Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats just barely (possibly with the help of some of the Independents) make it back in in 2007. One where Sinn Féin, excluded by FG/Labour at the election and basking in their marginal status gain seats and become an even stronger oppositional voice. One where they are nicely lined up for coalition with Fianna Fáil (and the Greens with who they work reasonably well) at any point subsequently, but most likely in 2012, riding high on the successful implementation of the Northern Institutions. One where they, not the Labour Party, are positioned as the growing left opposition throughout the next five years (After all, it took a mere fifteen years from the OIRA’s “ceasefire” to the widespread acceptance by the electorate of the Workers’ Party. Already we’re twelve or so years beyond the first PIRA cessation). And ultimately Fine Gael will be left facing an unpalatable reality that they too have a date with destiny and will have to deal with Sinn Féin, Irish political history already shows that. So I’m (only half-jokingly) suggesting we cut out the intervening and, frankly, politically useless intervening ten years and let’s cut to the chase.

How badly do Fine Gael and Labour want to see Fianna Fáil out of office?

Option one – broaden the tent – is good… but if they’re really really serious…

How badly do Fine Gael and Labour want to see Fianna Fáil out of power?

BBC4 and Music on a Friday Night: More culture… October 27, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Music.
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BBC 4 is one of the perks of digital TV. Particularly on Friday nights where there is little or no energy for actually stepping outside the door.

And what was on? An excellent documentary  by Don Letts (formerly of Big Audio Dynamite) on George Clinton and the Parliament, Funkadelic, P-Funk story. Good and all as that was, and I’m a huge fan of their 1972 album “America Eats it’s Young” (and not just, or even, because it’s intensely political and blessed with one of the great album covers of all time… and one of the great tracks of all time “If you don’t like the Effects, Don’t Produce the Cause”) I have to say despite myself the following programme was even better.

A BBC ‘simulcast’ from 1983 of Thin Lizzy on their farewell tour. I’m not a huge fan of ver Lizzy. I was a bit young to really recall them at the height of their popularity in 74 through to 77 and by the time I was buying music they were into the closing phases of their career.

Still, half an hour on BBC4 proved what a disciplined unit they were, even at the end. And it was entertaining to see how Lynott could hardly contain his enthusiasm for melodic song writing and a dash of experimentation even in the hard(ish) rock context of the band.

Mind you, where in the town was that jailbreak going to be?

What did for Labour? 1992, 1994, 1997 and the slow slow decline of the Irish Labour Party… October 25, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Election 2007, Irish Labour Party, Irish Politics, Uncategorized.
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Continuing our dissection of 1990s politics, and why not? It’s more than time to cast a jaundiced eye over that particular period because it reveals more than enough about the contemporary situation, a discussion on P.ie (Politics.ie) caught my eye recently regarding the 1994 change of government in the Republic of Ireland. The basic thesis was that this change was essentially undemocratic since there had never previously been a transfer of power without a corresponding election in Irish history and that Labour, who had just breached 30 seats (a vast improvement on their usual mid to high teens) had made an historic error by joining the Fine Gael led coalition with Democratic Left.

I don’t really buy into the idea that the change of power was undemocratic due to the lack of an election. Firstly it was entirely constitutional, and perhaps particularly in the context that the requirement is a majority of TDs voting for the Taoiseach (or at least not voting against). Political parties are not a prerequisite of change in the Republic. Secondly 1992 saw the chips fall in an FF/Labour coalition, an outcome that was probably as much of a shock to Labour who had spent the previous years excoriating the former party as it was to the general public. But it could have equally easily happened that FG/Lab and DL had made an alliance. In either case the will of the people is impossible to determine. In any case it happened. The constitutionality was never challenged (as far as I know, or certainly not successfully. So we might as well accept it and move on.

However, a more interesting question is whether Labour was wise to jump ship in 1994 two years into the life of the government. Let’s refresh our memories as to exactly why it jumped…

The reason was that the Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, had insisted on appointing the former Attorney General Harry Whelehan to become president of the High Court. Unfortunately Whelehan had been AG when that office had made a disastrously misfiring attempt to extradite a paedophiliac priest to the North. Labour walked out of cabinet. Reynolds apologised before the Dáil, Labour left government still not satisfied and Reynolds resigned.

Bertie Ahern, Reynolds successor attempted to patch up the coalition but was unsuccessful and Labour left for coalition with FG/DL.

Now in retrospect it’s difficult to see the situation being as severe as was believed at the time – I seem to recall Pat Rabbitte mentioning a document that would “shake this shake to it’s foundations”, a document which never actually saw the light of day. Yes, the Attorney-General had made a serious error. Yes, the appointment by Reynolds of the A-G to the High Court was wrong. Yet he openly apologised before the Dáil for the error, and it’s difficult to entirely understand if one limits the issue to principles why Labour walked.

On a pragmatic political level however, Democratic Left, now working well with Fine Gael (a party that in 1992 had refused to enter coalition with them), had increased their numbers from four to six TDs at two subsequent by-elections thereby making an FG/Labour/DL coalition feasible. A cynic might suggest that Labour saw an opportunity to cut and run from a coalition they had never been entirely comfortable with in the first place.

If one believes many Fine Gael members (and many Labour members as well) it was the original Labour/Fianna Fáil coalition that sealed Labour’s fate in 1997. That ‘original sin’ was the breach of trust that turned the electorate against them. Yet the poll readings make a less clear cut case. And for them one could look at this (a little difficult to read, but worth the effort).

It is certainly true that there was a precipitous drop in percentage terms from just after the election where the Labour poll rating went into the mid-twenties. However it’s worth noting that on the election day a rather less stellar if still sound 19.3% was achieved. Good enough to get 30 plus seats.

However once they entered government the ratings fell to a solid 16% (not bad considering they currently run at 10-12%). Over the course of the FF/Labour government they continued to decline but remained in or around 14-15% for most of the duration and even spiked a bit higher in mid 1994. While entry to the new coalition of FG/DL brought a spike upwards to about 18% this rapidly slid down to 10% and lower for the rest of the term. Come the June 1997 Election and they polled a fairly disastrous 10.4%.

So what to make of it? Essentially it seems that while the poll ratings were in decline from 1992 onwards these were initially rapid and then slowed and even recovered a bit during the FF/Labour coalition. It was when Labour finally jumped again that the real damage appears to have been done with them flat lining at or around 10%. How to explain this? Most obviously Labour irritated a considerable segment of it’s vote by entering government with FF. It jettisoned at least 3% immediately, and a further two or three percentage points during the first two years in office. But it also lost a further five percent after entering coalition with FG a five per cent that it never recovered.

Granted it’s possible that it would have lost all this support during a full term with Fianna Fáil, but one wonders. Five years of government might have solidified them better in the public mind as a solid serious party of power. The alarrums and distractions of 1992 to 1994 gave them (to my mind at least) an undependable and fickle image. ‘Flip flop’ is a damaging accusation for any party to face, but the concept of ‘flip flop’ once embedded in the public consciousness is difficult to budge.

Surely it’s more persuasive to argue that having shrugged off the more pro-FG element of it’s 1992 vote by entering government with Fianna Fáil it then lost the more pro-FF element post-1994 and was reduced to it’s core support. Each of these elements seems to have amounted to around 4.5%, which would bring us up to 19%, their original vote in 1992. Most interesting is that the tracking Fianna Fáil support indicates spikes down when Labour was spiking up, so it seems reasonable to suggest that a reasonable portion of their support was coming from centrist or FF inclined voters.

Anyhow, it does seem logical to posit that the electoral melt-down that was 1997 might have been ameliorated if not avoided by continued presence in the FF government. Even a couple more percentage points might have led to the retention of five to eight more seats leaving a more substantial parliamentary presence. And yet one can’t help looking at the polls and thinking that 1992 was an anomaly. The rise of the Workers’ Party in 1989, the Robinson Presidential Campaign, the ‘Spring Tide’, not the great left millennium but simply the electoral ballast shifting in the hold as the Cold War ended, ballast that would tip back and forth between left, centre and right in subsequent elections. That same ballast that holds the centre ground so tenaciously in the current Irish political landscape.

Am I sorry that it worked out this way? Not entirely. While there were significant social reforms introduced by the FF/Lab government I’m dubious as to whether a divorce referendum would have been held during an extended term (and I wonder whether the incoming FF/PD government would have been willing to fly that particular kite in 1997). Secondly while the FG led coalition was pretty dismal from the point of view of the Peace Process it’s difficult to see how the situation would have moved much more quickly under Reynolds. The reality was that all the players (including PIRA) were waiting for Major to leave the stage and Blair to arrive. On the other hand, the possibility for Labour to develop a relationship with Fianna Fáil that might have endured into another term was always possible, and one of the few absolutes of Irish politics is that it takes FF to drive real change and influence, as the PDs have learned to both their cost and benefit.

Funny too isn’t it how some of the same players are still around today. Of course FG is more or less entirely changed, but Labour less so, while Fianna Fáil sails serenely on with Ahern… Perhaps some are calculating already as to the possibility of similar events to 1992, hungry for power and willing to go with FF if the FG enterprise should collapse, but I wonder if they’ve learned the lesson of 1994 that power has to be held onto tenaciously through thick and thin, a lesson we’ve had a perfect demonstration of over the past month or so. Now, that the electorate, bless their souls, seem to respect.

___________________________________________________________________________

By the by a most educational post by Cllr. Seamus Ryan of the Labour Party on Irish Election which takes Sinn Féin to task for not ruling out support for a minority Fianna Fáil government. One can only suppose Cllr. Ryan, who appears to be a personable guy, is making a small bit of mischief for both Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil with this stance (although surely he got the heading wrong on his piece and it should read A vote for Fianna Fáil is a Vote for Sinn Féin – I’m almost certain that’s what he meant;)) in view of the absolute anathema on the part of his party and Fine Gael to any form of electoral pact with Sinn Féin.

Good stuff, particularly in view of the fact it was his party, not Sinn Féin, which has the historical track record of entering government with Fianna Fáil under the most counterintuitive circumstances.

I particularly liked his comment about how ‘this may yet come back to haunt them [Sinn Féin] as I believe the public are waiting in the long grass to deliver a damning verdict on this tired Fianna Fail-led government and will not thank any party for keeping them in government’.

I’m fairly certain, and I speak this as someone who is neither a supporter nor member of SF (but admires them from afar for their position on certain issues – such as their staunch defense of immigrant rights and the strides they have made in moving towards the political), that if SF manage to get 8 to 10 extra seats, influence power here, and exercise it in government in the North then Cllr. Ryan’s warnings will fall on muffled ears… in fact I’d be surprised if SF wasn’t angling for seats around the Cabinet table in those circumstances.

Incidentally lest I sound too critical about this sort of ‘advice’, just now if I were in FG and Labour I’d be doing everything I could to move the debate on a bit so that the memories of the past few weeks recede a bit and something like normal politics resumes… I don’t blame them one bit for trying to reshape the narrative. Every little bit helps…

Still I’ll return to this later in the week with a bit of mischief of my own and another small suggestion for the Fine Gael/Labour coalition…

Complaints about cross-border development funding for Northern Ireland October 25, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Northern Ireland.
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Rumours that the latest National Development Plan will include a significant funding of cross border links has led to some complaints about such an idea here.

I could make a case about the morality of providing support for Northern Ireland in view of shared historical ties, culture, politics and so forth. I could speak as a someone who believes that new forms of Nationalism and Republicanism can be developed that celebrate all aspects of the identities on this island and that requires funding. But I can’t be bothered.

Because, from a purely pragmatic point of view, it is strongly in the interest of this state—quite separate to any issues relating to a United Ireland—to have a partner north of the border which is economically viable. But more importantly it is necessary, indeed imperative, that this state invests in stability in Northern Ireland. Some of the views on this issue have been frankly partisan, narrow minded and downright stupid with a sort of blinkered ‘Little Irelander’ mentality parading as hard-headed self-interest.

Well, newsflash: former Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald (who should be lauded as a man who understood the paramount necessity of peace and stability to the self-interest of the 26 counties so that both parts of the island could co-exist and develop economically, culturally and politically), initiated one side of this process through the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Everything else, right up to and including the GFA and the much-vaunted Plan-B should the St. Andrew’s Agreement fall is part of that process.

The Republic of Ireland has a quite pointed strategic, and entirely selfish interest, in ensuring that there is no repetition of the last thirty odd years, and that is going to require funding, not rhetoric.

As to whether this will play as an election issue, I seriously hope not.

The History Boys, and missing the point October 24, 2006

Posted by smiffy in Books, Culture, Film and Television, Other Stuff.
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John Sutherland is a bitter, bitter man.

Recently, he wrote a piece in the Guardian about The History Boys, the new Nicholas Hytner film based on the Alan Bennett play featuring the original cast, and a handful of new characters.  According to Sutherland, The History Boys ‘is a brilliant play, and a good film … (but) … is also permeated with odious class prejudice’.

Oh dear.

Sutherland sees the film as a paen to snobbery, a celebration of the educational values of Oxford and Cambridge which denigrates the quality of modern, provincial universities, the so-called ‘redbricks’ like Sheffield, Manchester or Bristol.  Now, I’m a bit worried.  Sutherland is clearly an intelligent, educated person.  He’s the Emeritus Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London, so he obviously must be have some skill at interpreting texts.  But his piece seems to me to completely miss the point of the play, almost as if he’d watched The Full Monty and decided that its essential point was that ‘stripping is good’.

It’s certainly true that the play abounds with ‘snobbery’, if one wants to use that term, about the redbrick universities.  There has to be – it’s one of the main themes of the play.  Oxford and Cambridge represent the kind of learning, or the use of knowledge, which the character of Irwin (a young graduate brought into the Sheffield school to tutor the eponymous boys in how to pass the Oxbridge matriculation exams) extols.  Irwin disparages the provincial universities.  At one point he’s explaining how to approach an essay on the origins of the First World War:

Irwin: So. Our overall conclusion is that the origins of the Second War lie in the unsatisfactory outcome of the First

Timms (doubtfully): Yes. (with more certainty) Yes.

Others nod.

Irwin:  First Class. Bristol welcomes you with open arms.  Manchester longs to have you.  You can walk into Leeds.  But I am a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, and I have just read seventy pages all saying the same thing and I am asleep …

Scripps:  But it’s all true.

Irwin: What has that got to do with it? What has that got to do with anything?

Yes, Manchester, Bristol and Leeds don’t come out of the play very well, but neither does Oxford or Cambridge, or the kind of education of which Irwin is emblematic.  This is the conflict at the heart of the piece: the kind of sneakily clever, or flashy, use of knowledge to achieve a particular goal (in this case, entry into a top university) set against knowledge valued for its own sake, the position represented by Hector, played by Richard Griffiths .  If there is a most sympathetic character in the play, it must be clearly Hector, yet contra Sutherland, Hector’s attitude towards Oxford and Cambridge is, if anything, even more scathing than Irwin’s of everywhere else.  In one of the first scenes, Hector banters with the boys:

Dakin: You should treat us with more respect.  We’re scholarship candidates now.  We’re all going in for Oxford and Cambridge.

There is a silence and Hector sits down at his table, seemingly stunned.

Hector: ‘Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire’.
I thought all that silliness was finished with.
I thought that after last year we were settling for the less lustrous institutions . . . Derby, Leicester, Nottingham.  Even my own dear Sheffield.  Scripps.  You believe in God. Believe also in me: forget Oxford and Cambridge.
Why do you want to go there?

Lockwood: Old, sir. Tried and tested.

Hector: No, it’s because other boys want to go there.  It’s the hot ticket, standing room only.  So I’ll thank you (hitting him) if nobody mentions Oxford (hit) or Cambridge (hit) in my lessons.  There is a world elsewhere.

Later, speaking to Mrs. Lintott (the only, actual history teacher):

Mrs. Lintott:  Didn’t you try for Cambridge?

Hector:  Oxford.
I was brought up in the West Riding.  I wanted somewhere new.  That is to say old. So long as it was old I didn’t mind where I went.

Mrs. Lintott:  Durham was good in that respect.

Hector:  Sheffield wasn’t.
Cloisters, ancient libraries … I was confusing learning with the smell of cold stone.  If I had gone to Oxford I’d probably never have worked out the difference.

Hardly an unreserved celebration of the more prestigious institutions, I would have thought.  In fact, the Irwin of the play is a much less sympathetic character than the one in the film, perhaps because the stage Irwin is far more of a symbol of the tricky, conservative media historians like Niall Ferguson or David Starkey which The History Boys attacks (explicitly so in Bennett’s preface to the Faber and Faber edition of the book).  While Irwin’s later career as a media performer is only briefly touched on at the end of the film, it’s far more prominent in the play itself, and is used as a framing device around the other scenes.

While Bennett is obviously making a stand for a particular kind of education, the triumph of the play (and the film) is that it isn’t a completely one-sided fight.  He doesn’t stack the deck in favour of Hector, or portray Irwin as a pantomime villian.  Irwin is a genuinely interesting character, and his approach does succeed in exciting and stimulating the boys themselves.  The play is a debate about ideas, very specific ideas, not just vague Dead Poets Society-type platitudes.  One of, to my mind, the most interesting and intriguing points is where Hector says:

I didn’t want to turn out boys who in later life had a deep love of literature, or who would talk in middle age of the lure of language and their love of words.  Words said in that reverential way that is somehow Welsh.

It’s this kind of sentiment that provokes to audience to think and reflect, not just to wallow in the wordplay, and in a world where the Wayans brothers continue to make films, the existence of a film like this is something for which we must be thankful.

Sutherland’s problem is that he takes it far too literally. If someone sneers at Sheffield, the entire play must be sneering at Sheffield.  He also makes the same mistake that I’ve seen repreated by number of critics: pointing to the anachronisms as if they’re flaws, as if the film should be realistic.

Clearly it’s very far from reality, both the reality of the mid-eighties or of today.  The boys are absurdly erudite and their views on sexuality would likely be too liberal for the Harvey Milk school, let alone a conservative boys’ seconday twenty years ago.  But that’s not the point.  It’s not supposed to be real; it’s the Alan Bennett universe, no more real than the universe of Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett or David Lynch.  Of course, nobody talks like the characters in the play (except, perhaps, for Alan Bennett).  But the dialogue would be much less rich, or memorable, if realism was the key objective.

But, for Sutherland, the anachronisms are flaws, rather than elements which make the film great.  He feels that something by Culture Club would have been a more appropriate song for Posner to sing than ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered’ (why – just because he’s gay? Sutherland seems to be showing his own prejudices there).  But if Dakin had been serenaded with ‘Karma Chameleon’, the scene in question would have descended into farce and wouldn’t have had the power it actually retains.

“Why did Alan Bennett chose to soak his film The History Boys in snobbery and sarcasm against municipal, provincial and redbrick institutions”, Sutherland asks. Because that’s what the damn thing is about! He wonders why one of the boys wouldn’t have considered going to a different college, without considering that if that had happened, there would have been no play.  One can imagine Sutherland sitting through ‘Waiting for Godot’ shouting at the actors – ‘He’s not coming. Just leave!’.

Poor old Sutherland.  His chip on his shoulder about where he went to college has clearly overwhelmed his critical faculties (although the fact that he’s so incredibly wrong about the play, to my mind, calls into question his actual ability as a critic).  He makes clear the link between his anger at Bennett and his own educational experience:

… the only university that would offer me a place was – Leicester. I accepted my sorry destiny and discovered what, in retrospect, I would judge as the best English department in the country at that time (1959). Richard Hoggart (riding high on The Uses of Literacy) taught me, as did the greatest British Dickensian of our age, Philip Collins. The department was headed by the distinguished Arthur Humphreys. Monica Jones (Philip Larkin’s muse and consort) took a Hectorish interest in me (no groping, though). The cleverest woman I have met in any university, she believed, given the garbage being produced in the name of scholarship, it was more distinguished not to publish than to publish.

Had I gone to Oxford I might have been taught by Lord David Cecil and Dame Helen Gardner. I don’t regret missing that privilege.

Unfortunately, if he had paid more attention to the film and wasn’t so consumed by his own feelings of inferiority, he’s realise that Bennett is making pretty much the same point, but making it a lot better.

Spooks and Israel… October 23, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Film and Television, Islam, Israel, Middle East, Terrorism, The War On Terror.
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Okay, not to flog a dead horse, and in keeping with the MI5/6 tone of this evenings post, the latest installment of Spooks on BBC1 had a marvelously convoluted plot involving the takeover of a Saudi Trade Centre in London by what appeared to be Al-Queda terrorist who turned out to be Mossad assets attempting to prevent the sale of nuclear technologies to the Saudis.

Satisfyingly bloody as it all was, and entertaining, with – ahem – some interesting thoughts about the woes of the Middle East, one does have to ask if the final scene with the head Mossad agent was absolutely necessary. He had survived the inevitable shoot out at the Trade Centre only to be captured by the Security Service. But since he couldn’t break cover he couldn’t admit to his true identity and was therefore treated as an AQ member.

The concluding scene  showed him clad in an orange boiler suit in a truck arriving at Camp X-Ray.

Makes you think, doesn’t it?

Okay, so just how bad is the War on Terror going to get… and in the meantime what is the purpose of the new MI5 Headquarters in Northern Ireland? October 23, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in 9/11, Northern Ireland, Terrorism, The War On Terror.
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Most people are aware that MI5, or the Security Service, have a new headquarters in Palace Barracks in Holywood, Northern Ireland.

The Phoenix [sub req'd] has an unusual piece about this headquarters, unusual because rather than a knocking piece on British involvement in the North it lists the various theories as to why MI5 would increase their presence in Northern Ireland at this point in time and come up with some worrying conclusions.

Apparently up to 400 employees of MI5 have moved from Thames House in London to Holywood. The Phoenix notes that the simple theory for their presence is that they will have some sort of oversight or controlling brief during the ‘transition’ to an agreed political structure in the Six Counties. And this is worrying, if only because one wonders what sort of oversight they will be under. Apparently, and again according to the Phoenix, it was agreed at the St. Andrews talks that the PSNI would have overall control under MI5 supervision of surveillance, agent handling and other operations. This seems unlikely if only because Sinn Féin are on target for a date with destiny and ultimate shared control through the Stormont Executive of policing. Difficult to see MI5 entirely sanguine about Sinn Féin ministers gaining access to intelligence garnered by their good selves. And yet, on the other hand, anyone who saw the body language between the main protagonists at the talks, and in particular the British and Sinn Féin, might be forgiven thinking that the conflict wasn’t a decade or more behind us, but long in the dim and distant past.

In any case the Phoenix posits an even more interesting theory that the real reason for such an impressive expansion of MI5’s presence in Ulster is due to rather more pertinent and local concerns on the part of London regarding the ‘War on Terror’. The Phoenix points to the easy links between London and Holywood, the developed security infrastructure and the simple truth that in the event of a serious nuclear, biological or even conventional attack on London, MI5 would be able to continue their operations from the relative tranquillity of the North. The Phoenix claims that some 20% of the budget for the Security Service is tied up in the move to Holywood. That’s interesting.

I don’t know though, it seems fanciful. Why not go for Scotland or Wales which would both be closer?

And yet, I don’t buy into the paranoid theorising of dissident Republicans who seem to think that the Holywood base is just the continuation of the ‘war’ by other means. The threat from dissident Republicanism isn’t of such scale as to justify such a presence, nor is the situation in the North so dismal, even should Plan B be necessary, that one can envisage the necessity for x number of MI5 personnel or indeed see how they could assist matters to any great degree.

So one is left with a puzzle. The Phoenix notes that one possible answer to that puzzle is that operations against jihadists South of the Border may well be one of the concerns of MI5, and it proposes that any agreements at St. Andrews regarding the relationship between MI5 and the PSNI wouldn’t operate as regards the territory of the Republic. Seeing as our own Taoiseach was present at the talks one hopes that any such activities (and although this may raise howls of disagreement, there are strong arguments that such activities could well be necessary) would be subject to agreement between our two sovereign nations.

But overall it leaves the disturbing impression that those who should have some idea about such things consider that London remains a target for much worse events than have been seen up to now. Now perhaps that’s stating the obvious, but it seems to point to there having been no progress in dealing with such terrorism over the past four or five years. Or worse again that the situation has become dramatically more serious.

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