Pope Francis opens fire on ‘the enemy within’



Pope Francis takes on the might of the curia


He makes an unlikely superhero. Mild-mannered and bespectacled, like a septuagenarian Clark Kent, but when he puts on his white cape he is fearless. Not yet two years into his term (reign seems an inappropriate word) Jorge Mario Bergoglio has confronted the rich and powerful.

He has taken on the Mafia, governments and dictators, condemning their excesses in no uncertain terms, and denouncing their indifference to the poor, the weak and the hungry.

But now he has taken on his most fearsome enemy yet – and the confrontation will shape the future of his papacy, and the Catholic Church.

This pope nailed his colours to the mast when he chose Francis as his papal name. It was a declaration of intent.

The rule of St Francis is simple: “To follow the teachings of our lord Jesus Christ, and to walk in his footsteps.” It was radical in the 13th century. It is a revolutionary idea today, particularly for a Church that has lost touch with its purpose and its people.

The pope has used Francis’s rule as the standard by which he measures people, leaders, institutions – and the decisions they make. Many have been found wanting – some shockingly close to the See of Peter.

Last week he turned the spotlight on one of the most entrenched, self-aggrandising and self-absorbed power blocks in the world today. And he did not miss and hit the Sistine Chapel wall.

The curia is the Catholic Church’s equivalent of the Soviet Politburo or the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. It shares with them the distinction of being dominated by conservative old men who quash non-conformity and embrace change with reluctance. Some, no doubt, still believe the Church was hasty apologising to Galileo in 1992 for insisting the earth revolved around the sun.

Since his election, the curia has been blocking the pope’s change agenda. Every time he opens a window, a cardinal jumps up to shut it again. If there are feet to be dragged, the curia will drag them.

Its most brazen move was thwarting reform at the Bishops’ Synod on the Family. Other popes might have played for time, manoeuvred behind the scenes, and tried another tack. But this pope – 78 years old – does not have time on his side, and he knows it.

Deciding attack is the best form of defence, he has laid into the curia and its wicked ways, in a speech both shocking and audacious.

The Church has not been short of critics, and it has denounced them. But when the pope joins the critics, you know something is seriously wrong.

His words were somewhat overshadowed by the shopping, partying and unbridled hedonism that marked last week’s festival of Saturnalia (the revival of an ancient Roman feast that now replaces Christmas).

It’s worth revisiting what he said.

The pope listed 15 “ailments” – enough to suggest the curia should be on life support. Perhaps the most devastating was that it was suffering from “spiritual Alzheimer’s”.

He said: “We see it in the people who have forgotten their encounter with the Lord … in those who depend completely on their here and now, on their passions, whims and manias; in those who build walls around themselves, and become enslaved to the idols that they have built with their own hands.”

“Spiritually and mentally hardened,” he accused the curia of lacking coordination and trying to thwart “the freedom of the Holy Spirit”.

The pope sees clerics who are boastful and jockeying for position: men (yes they are all men) worrying over their appearance, the colour of their vestments and their titles.

He attacks the sickness of “those who live a double life… losing contact with reality.” And he condemns the “terrorism of gossip”, and the sickness of sycophancy. Hoping for advancement, clerics “honour people who are not God”. And he talks of a Church whose leaders are indifferent to others, and who take “joy in seeing another fall”.

The curia promotes a Church of “theatrical severity and sterile pessimism”, forming a closed circle that seeks to be stronger than the Church itself, men who “insatiably try to multiply their powers”. This the pope described as “a cancer that threatens the harmony of the body”.

It had to be said: tough love and all that.

The risk for Pope Francis is that the old guard – the enemy within – will bide their time and wait for regime change. The danger for the Church is that they will succeed.

  • This article appeared in The Irish News on December 30 2014

World leading research needs investment


Statistics must always be treated with suspicion. Mark Twain once said: “Facts are stubborn but statistics are more pliable.” He also coined the immortal phrase: “lies, damned lies and statistics”.

The university statistics industry went into overdrive last week. It may have escaped your notice – people have other things to worry about at this time of year – but on Thursday the results of the 2014 Research Excellent Framework were announced.

The REF, as it is affectionately known, is an audit of research quality: it determines where the money goes. University funding is labyrinthine, but put simply universities get a fixed amount for teaching. Money for research – £2 billion – goes to those who perform best in the REF.

But how do you compare the work of a biological scientist in Ulster University with that of a lawyer at Queen’s and a medieval historian in Oxford? The REF, carried out every six years or so, is the mechanism for doing that.

This time around (statistics warning) almost 200,000 academic papers were assessed, and the work of more than 52,000 academics was analysed by their peers – people who should know what is good and what is dud.

There is a starred rating system, four stars meaning research is world-leading (the gold standard), three meaning it is internationally excellent. Two-star and one-star research is not worth writing home about. The subject panels were also asked to assess the impact of research (an attempt to ensure university research is relevant to the needs of society).

So what does the REF mean for Northern Ireland?

UU new

First the bad news: overall the REF shows the growing strength of universities in south east England – the so-called golden triangle of Oxford, Cambridge and London. In particular, London universities are on the rise, challenging Oxbridge, and they will take even more of the funding pot.

That’s not good for civic universities like Queen’s, or their regions. Queen’s and UU will get research funding – in the region of £50 million – from the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) but the big money comes from the UK’s Research Councils. Their £2 billion will be concentrated around London.

If it is to protect the economic benefits that come from university research, the Executive must counter-balance the London effect with cash. The CBI got it spot on last week when it said the Executive would be bonkers to disinvest in higher education.

For a raft of reasons, including recruiting the best staff and students, position in league tables is important. Queen’s, one of the elite Russell Group, is not yet where it needs to be; but it is in the top 20 of the headline REF table, just. Research Fortnight places it at 19 in its research power rank.

Ulster, a much younger university, comes a creditable 38 in the national research league tables, with good performances in biomedical sciences, nursing, art and design among others.

But in terms of research firepower, Queen’s blows UU out of the water. Both universities employ about 1,000 academic staff each. Queen’s submitted 868 of them. Ulster entered only 449. (One of the tricks used to maximise rankings position is to submit only staff with research credibility.)

This is one area where the statistics are misleading. When you look at percentages of staff ranked as world leading or internationally excellent, there is not much difference between Queen’s (75 per cent) and UU (72 per cent).

But translate percentages into people and you get a different story. At Queen’s, some 650 people are in the top two categories, double the UU figure. (Percentages are the most pernicious statistics of all.)

Queen’s may not benefit from its high staff return in the headline table, but Times Higher Education has looked at research intensity and places Queen’s at an impressive joint eight in the UK because of its breadth and depth.

Ulster will pay the price for its lower staff return when DEL hands out research cash. More than two thirds of DEL’s research pot is likely to go to Queen’s.

On the plus side, any region would want to have two top 40 institutions so Northern Ireland has something to be thankful for.

Universities attract clever people, and money; companies look for centres of academic excellence and invest there. Economies grow.

But with Executive disarray, and a budget that fails to meet the economy’s needs, Northern Ireland is unlikely to take full advantage of this REF, with dire consequences for all if underinvestment undermines our university’s competitiveness with better-funded institutions in the rest of the UK.

  • A version of this article appeared in The Irish News on December 22 2014


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Illustration from Fiera Magazine

Sometimes something comes along out of the blue that proves to be an absolute delight. I have been a member of the writers’ group 26 for a couple of years now (www.26.org), and have taken part in a number of their projects pairing writers with illustrators, artists and now designers.

26, which draws its title from the number of letters in the alphabet, believes that creativity is often best achieved by working within limitations. Most of its projects place a strict word limit on the writers involved. It invented the sestude – a piece of writing (poetry or prose) which is exactly 62 words. The 26 Treasures project used sestudes to explore the collections of four national museums and galleries – the V&A, the Ulster Museum and the national museums of Scotland and Wales.

Sestudes too were the constraint in the last project I was involved in – 26 Atlantic Crossings. It was a collaboration between writers on this side of the Atlantic and visual artists working in Prince Edward County in Canada.

For the latest project writers were given a luxurious 100 words to respond to objects displayed during the most recent London Design Festival. I was a late entry, substituting for a writer who dropped out at the last minute (it happens).

I was paired with the Margate-based designer Zoe Murphy (www.zoemurphy.com) whose fascinating furniture draws its inspiration from the gloriously kitsch visual tapestry of a British seaside town. “Innovative, unusual and simply beautiful,” is the description given to her work by design guru Kevin McCloud. Zoe also has a world view, and this year she looked to Mexico to add another layer of complexity to her work. The result was #MexicotoMargate. Her stand at the London Design Festival can be seen below.

The results of the 100 Words project can be seen in the pages of a vibrant new design magazine. Fiera, launched last week, showcases the best in new design from the world’s design fairs (www.fieramagazine.com). The first issue features work showcased in London, Prague, Łødź and Kortrijk.

For my piece I took a stunning retro seven-drawer chest, dressed in Formica, as my starting point. I hope I did it justice.



#MexicotoMargate stand at the London Design Festival

Hell hath no fury like a minister scorned


Carál Ní Chuilín: a minister under fire

For more than 16 years I worked in corporate communications. I’m used to colleagues going over the top at what they perceive to be unjust criticism in the press.

One of the main jobs of a communications director is to save colleagues from themselves. The temptation is to fire a broadside at the offending paper and journalist. Often the best response is studied indifference. There is nothing journalists hate more than being ignored.

I know of a few occasions when a communications team decides it is better to throw a colleague overboard than try and save them.

Some years ago, the boss of one major UK institution was persuaded to issue a statement attacking a one-paragraph story on a paper’s gossip page. Few people had read the offending article and fewer gave the gossip column any credence. But the statement alerted everyone to the story and it was front-page news within an hour, precipitating a chain of events that led to a dramatic fall from grace.

Regicide is not to be recommended. The communications chief did not last long either.

In my experience, it is much better to suffer the ire of the boss yourself, than let him or her carry it into the public arena. The quickest way to undermine trust and confidence is to express your inner feelings when you are angry. Revenge is a dish best served cold.

I started life as a journalist. In my first week of work experience on a Sunday paper, now defunct, I was proud of seeing my name on the front-page lead. I was even prouder the following week when I was denounced in the letters page for my scurrilous journalism.

You can imagine then the state of contentment that swept over me when I was passed a copy of a letter Northern Ireland’s Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure had sent to The Irish News about me. It followed a column in last week’s paper about my assessment of her department’s performance. You can read the offending article – click the previous post link below. You can also read her letter in full here.

For the benefit of communications directors and would-be communications directors everywhere, it is a demonstration of how not to respond to an article in the press, even when you are hurting. If you throw muck, you tend to get dirty yourself.

As a side issue, for anoraks looking for an insight into the mind of Sinn Fein, it is a great read. The letter is important not for what it says about me (and the minister certainly knows how to throw insults) – but for what it says about her and the mind-set of republicanism almost a generation after the first IRA ceasefire.

I know who I am. It really does not matter to me if the minister thinks I am a sexist, chauvinistic, middle-class, anti-republican, pompous hypocrite who hates the Irish language, culture and everything she stands for.

Because she thinks it, does not make it true.

I suspect she believes I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth because I like classical music. I happen to be the son of a working class Irish speaker, and am proud of it.

She is right of course. I do have an interest in promoting public investment in the arts.

I happen to believe culture and the arts are critical for the creation of sustainable communities. They allow us to make sense of our lives, and to express our culture and beliefs to the wider world. They make society better, in the same way that investment in other walks of life makes a positive impact on society.

There is a comic sub-plot to her letter. To throw some mud at me, she rubbishes Belfast’s bid to become European Capital of Culture. The city was the bookies’ favourite, but was knocked out in the first round. Making their decision in 2002, the judges decided Belfast was too unstable to be a viable contender.

The bid was the brainchild of Belfast City Council and her department, and it was actively supported by her own party.

The Department’s then permanent secretary was on the board, as were two Sinn Fein councillors. Her party endorsed it in the Northern Ireland Executive and on the floor of the assembly. Sinn Fein’s Lord Mayor of Belfast played a key role in the presentation in London.

The bid process was not perfect, but it was seen at the time as a milestone in developing Belfast’s cultural ambitions, and the city more than recouped the investment in profile, increased tourism and funding of infrastructure projects.

You will also note the minister’s reference to the current consultation process on Northern Ireland’s draft budget. The minister says: “I would encourage everyone to make their voices heard.” Clearly not mine.

Letter from Carál Ní Chuilín, Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure

Tom Collins (The Irish News, Page 19, November 25) attacked me personally, my ministerial acumen, my departmental staff, and our collective commitment to equality, excellence and economy in arts, culture and sports.

The confused scattergun approach of Mr Collins’ attack was surpassed only by the gratuitous agenda underpinning his mediocre blandness. It was, in truth, difficult to identify the precise source for his river of free-flowing banality.

However, Mr Collins seems to dislike my gender, my class, my motivations, my background, my politics, my commitment to equality, excellence and economy in public office, and most of all – my core republican values. (The electorate by whom I am proudly elected have a different perspective on all that.)

Perhaps it would have assisted readers if Mr Collins’ column had properly declared some of his own material self-interests which is also relevant background to his political, ideological and class-based criticism of my role as a Sinn Fein minister.

Mr Collins’ allegiance as a former Board Chairperson of the Ulster Orchestra is undoubtedly commendable. However, it is also materially relevant to attacking me over Executive cutbacks to DCAL’s budget caused primarily by the British Treasury’s assault on public services here.

As Chair of Imagine Belfast 2008 Mr Collins’ Board oversaw a bid by Belfast to host the European City of Culture 2008. The bid wasn’t even shortlisted but cost £1.3m of public money. His credibility for criticising DCAL over the effectiveness of public expenditure therefore requires a more detailed discussion than this space affords.

Meaningful debate about the funding, direction and delivery of future progress in arts, culture and sports, does not benefit from tolerating the type of pompous chauvinism indulged by Mr Collins.

The evidence of my commitment to excellence, equality and economy in all of DCAL’s work is upfront and unquestionable. So too is my agenda to ensure that cultural and artistic prosperity goes hand-in-hand with community participation.

The overriding priority of the power-sharing Executive (as outlined in the 2011-2015 Programme for Government) is to grow the economy and tackle inequality. Within this, DCAL is working to promote excellence and equality while tackling poverty and social exclusion. 

In referring to examples of local culture, Mr Collins mentioned the Lyric Theatre and the Ulster Orchestra. The Lyric was rebuilt with more than £10m of government funding. The Ulster Orchestra has received over £10m from DCAL in the past five years.

Mr Collins failed to mention the 2013 City of Culture in Derry, an unprecedented celebration of the arts, which continues to resonate across the North West and beyond. It received more than £12m in government funding through my department, with legacy projects continuing to be supported.

He also failed to mention DCAL’s introduction at my direction – of creative Social Clauses designed to maximise all departmental spending for added public good, such as the additional social returns built into the £110m Stadium Programme. Could that be because he hasn’t bothered even asking?

By condescendingly swotting my commitment to the Irish language, Mr Collins did a huge disservice to over 7,000 citizens who have signed up for the Linitiative to learn our native tongue. This includes many from traditionally unionist and loyalist backgrounds.

I understand the Irish arts sector is passionate and vocal, particularly in the current financial climate. I have heard these concerns since the day I took office, and I will continue to listen to the people and represent them.

I am currently engaging directly with many individuals and groups across culture, arts and sports. Such meaningful and effective engagement is a core part of my department’s current consultation process on future budgetary decisions. I would encourage everyone to make their voices heard and full details of the various ways to respond to the consultation can be found on the DCAL website: www.dcalni.gov.uk or by telephoning 028-90515081.

I am more interested in building a new society where culture, arts and sports can thrive based on excellence and equality, and I won’t be deflected by personal agendas or political attacks whatever the source.

Carál Ní Chuilín