Rebels without applause: unionism and 1916


Stonebreakers’ yard in Kilmainham Gaol where the Easter Rising leaders were executed

It’s been some time since I read the “Proclamation of the Irish Republic to the People of Ireland”. When I was a boarder at St Colman’s College in the 1970s, there was a copy on the wall on the way to the chapel. It was not required reading, but it killed the boredom on rainy Saturday afternoons. At one point I could recite chunks of it.

Later, on a school trip to Dublin, we visited Glasnevin Cemetery and stood beside the graves of the 1916 Easter Rising leaders as awe-struck as if we were at a sacred shrine. Earlier we had been to Kilmainham Gaol where they were shot – James Connolly so badly injured he had to be tied to a chair. It was heady stuff.

Outside the college gates, the conflict of that earlier age was still being played out: the sound of bombs rumbling like thunder over the drumlins; a gun-battle in the distance, the bright lights illuminating the police fortress across the Clanrye River. 1916 seemed quite close then: the wounds still raw, the conflict unresolved, the Gordian Knot of Britain and Ireland’s tangled relationship as tight as ever.

It would be nice to think that we have moved on. It is almost 100 years since the rising. But, as this week’s row over unionist involvement in the commemorations has shown, it’s not yet history.

England’s difficulty might well have been Ireland’s opportunity; but on the fields of France Irishmen were dying, many motivated by a desire to secure Home Rule, others fighting for the opposite cause.

Ken Wilkinson of the Progressive Unionist Party said: “I would find it very difficult to participate in any event. I had relatives who were away fighting in World War One, so as far as I’m concerned, the men who took part in the Easter Rising were traitors.”

‘Traitor’ is a tough word, and the 1916 leaders certainly did not see themselves like that. But its use is a sign of how raw things still are this far into the peace process.

Reconciling unionism to 1916, and all that it represents, is made less easy by one of those coincidences of history. The grandsons of the ‘Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme’ have their own centenary to focus on next year.

It does not help that the Proclamation has a none-too-subtle reference to the Great War. The nod to “gallant allies in Europe” was a provocation, as was Roger Casement’s decision to hitch a ride to Banna Strand in a German submarine. As with De Valera in the Second World War, republicans then were out of step with world history.

Ever the optimist, former Belfast Lord Mayor Tom Hartley notes that many loyalists are now “engaging in history”. There is debate.

“Hopefully, we can create a template where we can deal with what I call the ‘combustible’ period of Irish history in a way that allows engagement and discourse.”

One of the first things a student of history is taught is the importance of not imposing today’s values on primary sources from the past. But it must be said that in spite of its guarantees of religious and civil liberty, and the commitment to equal rights, the Proclamation would not pass today’s inclusivity test. Britain is made to shoulder all the blame.

For all the injustices, misunderstandings and blunders of the troubled relationship of these two islands, most now recognise that Britain – and more importantly the British people (on both sides of the Irish Sea) – are very much part of the solution.

The heavy-handed militaristic language of the Proclamation is decidedly unhelpful today, in much the same way as association with the UVF tarnishes nationalist views of the Somme.

It is not beyond ingenuity to find a way of framing the events that led up the Rising, the Rising itself and the bloody aftermath, in a way that allows the involvement of both traditions and none. But it is hard to see how this is possible, other than a recognition that the wounds are still too deep to allow anything other than an honourable agreement to differ.

“Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone”, wrote Yeats. If only.

If we must mark the Rising and the Somme, let’s do so with the cold eye of a historian rather than the romantic eyes of a republican former lord mayor, a loyalist politician, or a naïve teenage schoolboy doing what he could to get through a miserable Saturday in a boarding school.

  • This piece appeared in The Irish News on October 30 2015

How a new queen courted the British press


The Queen: good at playing it long

Self-confident and assured, the Queen has negotiated the difficulties of her reign with apparent ease. Stoicism and a grim determination to keep calm and carry on are the foundations of her success. She knows monarchy is about playing a long game – and she is good at that. She is now Britain’s longest serving monarch.

Although she wouldn’t admit it, she is deft in handling the media – even neutralising a hostile press after the death of Diana Princess of Wales with a perfectly judged television address.

The media environment today is very different from the deferential world of the 1950s, but from early on the Queen – the first and only British monarch of the mass media age – was worrying about her media profile.

In 1957, her private secretary Michael Adeane opened a line of communication to the Press – the surprising route he chose was The Guardian. The extraordinary exchange is detailed in the papers of former Guardian editor Alistair Hetherington, archived at the University of Stirling.


Alastair Hetherington

Hetherington, who had become editor in 1956, not easily impressed by the trappings of majesty, but he came to quite like the Queen. In his memoir Guardian Years, he gives a remarkable insight into her reaction to the Suez crisis.

“Social invitations came occasionally from Buckingham Palace. Again I had misgivings about accepting them, but never regretted it when I went. The first was to a small lunch in 1958 and included a graphic account by the Queen about Suez as seen from inside the Palace. She said that it had been a terrible time, with the Palace torn into factions. People had been ‘clawing’ at each other – she did a vigorous clawing gesture – and would not speak to each other. She hoped that there would never be anything like it again.”

The first major attempt to woo the press began at a lunch at the Garrick Club when Eton-educated Adeane and the Guardian’s London editor Gerard Fay discussed what might be done to improve relations.

In a briefing note to Hetherington, then still based at the Guardian’s Manchester headquarters, Fay related his discussion. Adeane, he described as “a very straightforward, down to earth chap although brought up entirely in Court life”.

“I concentrated on putting over just one idea, that if the Palace is concerned about the treatment the Royal Family gets in the Press and if the Press at the same time is dis-satisfied with the facilities it gets from the Palace the only thing to do is for both parties to sit down and talk about it.”

He told Adeane he needed to build a relationship with the Fleet Street editors Buckingham Palace had come to distrust.

“I suggested that he might invite editors to meet him once or twice a year, first of all to tell them from the Palace point of view whether there were any particularly significant points in the Queen’s forthcoming engagements and then to ask the editors if they had any comments on Palace affairs from the Press point of view in the previous few months.”

Fay said Adeane had thought it a good idea, “but with an extraordinary modesty wondered whether the editors would be bothered to attend”.

“I said I thought they would!”

More to the point, Adeane was worried about leaks. Fay told Adeane “that if he put it properly to the editors they would keep his secrets just as well as they have kept many others in the past”.

Adeane was hesitant. The Hetherington papers contain a copy of the Private Secretary’s thank you letter of October 29 1957 to Fay. “My dear Fay,” he writes. “I … enjoyed hearing your ideas on our press relations here and only hope I didn’t bore you with my own.”

The suggestion of regular meetings “is one which appeals to me very much” but he was circumspect. “Like everything else it must be properly timed.”

His three and a half years in the job “had been largely spent in helping to organize the Queen’s visits both inside and outside this country”. But Adeane went on to say: “I hope gradually to get to know personally most of the Editors of the National and provincial papers because you – and they – are, I feel sure, the material allies of the individual and the institution which I serve.”

The thought of 24/7 news would then have been met with incredulity.

The sedate pace of palace life can be seen in two handwritten letters to Hetherington from Adeane – courting the editor and clearly conscious of the need to keep in with the UK’s only significant left-leaning broadsheet.

On July 24 1958, in a letter to “My dear Hetherington” (the fifties’ version of first-name terms) and marked “private and personal” Adeane revealed the Queen was going to make Prince Charles Prince of Wales.

If Hetherington was excited by the news, he didn’t show it. Adeane gets not a single mention in his Guardian Years memoir that draws heavily on his papers.

Perhaps the most surprising thing is fact that Adeane took the time to hand write the missive. In the fifties, Private Secretary clearly meant what it said.

In a reference with strong echoes of the strained attempts to give privacy to princes William and Harry while they were growing up, Adeane says: “She will make it plain that his investiture will not take place until he is grown up and that it will be an Caernarfon; this is in accordance with her policy of keeping her children out of public life until their schooling is over.”

The second letter, dated February 6 1960 – also handwritten – deals with the queen’s decision to change the family surname from Windsor to Mountbatten-Windsor.

“Dear Hetherington, could you please treat the following as confidential?” he writes. “On Monday 8 Feb the Queen is going to make a declaration in Council about the Royal names.”

He reassured Hetherington “the Queen keeps her own name and title exactly as before. The House and Family of Windsor is unchanged.

“But any descendant of the Queen (and descendant includes children) who may require a surname in the future will bear the name of Mountbatten-Windsor. “

In the days when the abbreviation Ms would have outraged decent society, he helpfully adds: “Female descendants who marry won’t, of course, require a surname other than that of their husbands and Royal Princes and Princesses will not want surnames in the future any more than they do now.”

Anticipating a potential row, he tells Hetherington: “I am anxious you should be aware of the intention behind this declaration which is a thoroughly human one and I believe in accordance with what the majority of the Queen’s subjects would think right.”

There’s been a lot of water under the bridge since then, but relations with the media, issues of intrusion, attempts to manage the message – nothing really has changed.

Outraged Dragon says Boux to doing business in Belfast

Boux Avenue store interior with Theo and store team

Theo Paphitis: ‘Horrendous” experience doing business in Northern Ireland

I must admit that until this week I had never heard of Boux Avenue. I have now. Online it’s offering two-for-one PJs in a bag. How many shopping days are there to Christmas?

At £32 they are not exactly cheap, but this week, the brand’s owner Theo Paphitis was singing their praises. “Boux Avenue is designed to appear exclusive. It looks expensive – the changing rooms are so good people want to move in – but the price point is no different to what you’d pay in Marks and Spencer.”

So far so good. You’d expect Theo to be pushing his products. It’s what retailers do; and his jammies look nice, though they are clearly not aimed at me. I don’t suit vintage floral and his “amber oriental thong” only goes to size 16.

As you might have guessed, Boux Avenue is aimed at the female market – and a younger demographic: professional women who are in shape. This section of the market has considerable spending power, and taste. Though I am not sure ‘exclusive’ is a word you can use for what is essentially a mass-market product.

Until this week, Northern Ireland shoppers could only buy Boux products on line. But now, if you are in Belfast, you can nip into the store and see what Boux is all about. Theo’s latest shop is in Victoria Square.

Ahead of the launch Theo went on a publicity drive,  singing the praises of his brand to anyone who would listen. Drumming up business is what he does, and he does it well. But there was a sting in the tail of his PR message.

The former star of Dragons’ Den is not afraid to speak his mind, and he had some tough love for Northern Ireland. It was a “horrendous place” to do business in, he said. Ouch.

Over the years, business has had one hell of a buffeting as the economy has changed shape. The decline in manufacturing is part of a global shift in trade, but it hit Northern Ireland particularly hard. In addition, there were multiple self-inflicted injuries due to the breakdown in public order and the tide of terrorism.

Other regions of the UK and Ireland, similarly affected by the global trends, have focused on the development of new industries, the supply of goods and services – in particular retail – and the encouragement of the creative economy.

In Northern Ireland, entrepreneurs have had to cope with on-going political instability, the paralysing effect of a low-wage economy and over-dependence on the public sector. You can’t use retail as a driver in an economy where there’s no money to spend.

Over the years there have been countless trade missions in and out of Northern Ireland, and hundreds of millions have been ‘invested’ in development activities. Trade and Investment ministers have said all the right things about the attractions of Northern Ireland. But like Theo’s lingerie and pjs, their words just “appear” credible. On the ground it’s different.

At some point someone will realise that there is a direct link between political stability and economic growth. Investors are not stupid. They don’t look at words, they look at actions.

As the Executive tries to get itself back on the rails, the criticism from Paphitis is timely, and it must be heeded. To hear a man who wants to invest railing again the obstacles his company has faced in setting up shop is nothing short of a scandal. Government exist to improve people’s lives, not stand in the way of economic growth.

“I have been trying to come here for four and a half years,” he said. His challenges have been finding the right site “that is affordable”.

“Business rates and rental prices have been the main issues.” And then came the killer line about Northern Ireland: “It has been a horrendous place in terms of working with businesses.”

It’s remarkable the retail sector is as strong as it is.

Paphitis sees signs of change: a more benign business rate regime, better rental prices, and the potential offered by the devolution of corporation tax. “Politicians in Northern Ireland should look at this as a gift from the gods,” he said.

I don’t want to be unduly cynical, but their track record on taking advantage of gifts from the gods is not good.

For too long political parties in Northern Ireland have been focused on their own narrow self-interest. The most recent bout of institutional instability was driven by the desire to win short-term electoral advantage.

The fact that Paphitis has put his money in Northern Ireland should be an encouragement. He sees opportunity.

If the Stormont Executive is about anything, it should be about encouraging entrepreneurs like him, it should be about listening to business – not least those who have invested here during the toughest of times – and it should be about creating an environment that encourages economic growth and jobs.

  • A version of this article appeared in The Irish News on October 23 201

The Hubris Syndrome and how to avoid it


Hail Caesar: Men willingly believe what they wish to be true

I have just finished reading the final novel in Robert Harris’s Cicero trilogy. Dictator takes us through the decline and fall of the Roman Republic. It was destroyed by the personal ambition of three men Crassus, Pompey and Caesar, and the inadequacy of those who saw themselves as defenders of the Republic: among them, it must be said, Harris’s hero Cicero himself.

As an exercise in the study of failed leadership, Harris’s books are masterful. Enoch Powell, himself a noted classicist (he was a professor of Greek), once noted: “All political lives, unless they are cut off midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.”

Powell’s injudicious vision of foaming rivers of blood on the streets of Britain, in a speech on immigration, was itself a reference to ancient Rome. The speech was enough to cut off his ministerial ambitions, midstream, but at an unhappy juncture; and it shaped history’s view of him as a racist. Powell’s political career petered out on the fringes of British politics, as an unhappy adjunct Ulster Unionist MP.

John F Kennedy is the perfect illustration of Powell’s quote. Assassination ensured he will forever be the knight in shining armour at the Court of Camelot – even though we now know more about his many flaws.

Dr David Owen, the self-destructive British politician, knows a thing or two about the pursuit and execution of power. In reflective mood he penned a book on political leadership called The Hubris Syndrome. It was a subject he returned to in March 2015 in a speech at the Royal College of Physicians in London.

Speaking of his research with Professor Jonathan Davidson of Duke University, he said: “We saw Hubris Syndrome as including a narcissistic propensity to see the world as an arena to exercise power and seek glory; exaggerated self-belief bordering on a sense of omnipotence, and accountability only to a ‘higher court’ such as history or God.”

Hubris does not only affect statesmen and women. I used to joke that all leaders go mad in the end. This indeed is one of the themes in Harris’s Dictator which charts the growing ‘madness’ of Julius Caesar – a general who declared himself a god.


David Owen: The Hubris Syndrome

In their studies, Owen and Davidson have proved that my quip – based it must be said on experience – has a basis in fact. (For those of you who suspect yourselves or others of suffering from the syndrome, Owen helpfully provides a table of 14 symptoms. There’s a link below. I suspect I suffer from a couple myself, but that is another story.

Owen told the meeting: “Hubris is an occupational hazard for political, military and business leaders. Having focused over the last decade on hubris in politicians today I am more concerned about hubris in business.”

He is right to be worried about business. Businesses are the new nation states – many indeed have wealth greater than sovereign nations. It would be easy enough to list examples of hubristic behaviour by business leaders – Enron, BP, RBS (recently rebranded as a humbled lower case rbs) and more recently Volkswagen, provide rich sources for case studies.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and it is easy to identify those moments where a different decision or approach might have saved an individual (as in the case of Margaret Thatcher), a corporation in the shape of Fred Goodwin’s RBS, or a great republic such as the Roman one so beloved of Cicero.

I have some sympathy for those who ‘go mad in the end’. Leadership is a lonely place, and such is the environment there that paranoia can flourish. One of Owen’s 14 symptoms is “loss of contact with reality, often associated with progressive isolation”.

I was once involved in the recruitment process for the leader of a large multi-million pound organisation. One of the candidates was rejected during the process on the basis that he was already displaying some of the signs of ‘madness’ of high office. The successful candidate was affable, rooted and a listener. When I heard that, less than a year after assuming office, a lock had been added to the executive suite, I knew the decline had set in.

For the leader, the lock provided the comfort of security. But for the organisation it sent out a completely different message. Even the leader’s closest lieutenants could not get in without assistance. At a stroke credibility was undermined; a potentially glittering career there collapsed in an atmosphere of benign disrespect; and the organisation’s progress was stemmed.

There are ways of minimising the impact of a leader who has become a loose cannon. But corporate governance systems need to be sound, and that is not always the case. There’s much to be said for fixed terms – in business and in government. The limitation on the length of a presidency in the United States is one of the real strengths of its democratic system; though, as Vladimir Putin has demonstrated in Russia, the resourceful ‘despot’ can find ways around fixed terms.

You never quite know how anyone is going to behave until they get into power. Every leader is presented with a unique set of circumstances, and reacts differently. Each is human, and will respond to events in the way humans do – not always properly. But it is not the mistakes that are important, it is how they are dealt with.

Here is my checklist to avoid being affected by the Hubris Syndrome (or at least being able to mitigate its effects).

  1. Surround yourself by people who are better than you, but remember you are the one responsible for making decisions
  2. Never believe your own propaganda – this is the surest road to ruin. Never feel threatened by the truth
  3. Find people you can trust, use them to ‘think aloud’ to, listen to their advice
  4. Don’t be put off making the right decision because of what others might think
  5. Be human: talk to your people, eat in the staff canteen, take public transport
  6. You need your friends more than ever; cling to them like a drowning man clutching a floating plank
  7. Don’t do anything you would not want to see revealed on the front page of a newspaper
  8. Respect those you are accountable to, and those you are responsible for
  9. Recognise that the ends do not always justify the means
  10. Remember – it’s not all about you.
  • Dr David Owen’s speech to the Royal Society of Physicians, and his symptoms’ checklist can be accessed here.





Isolationist May leads the return of ‘the nasty party’


Theresa May: getting tough on immigration

There’s a little bit of a racist in each of us. It is a trait that must be confronted, but it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Fear of the unknown is programmed into our psyche, and we are sensitised to people who are “different”.

It is a defence mechanism. Our caveman ancestors had to be wary of other tribes; that is one of the reasons why we have flourished as a species.

But times have changed. We don’t live in caves any more; and our ‘tribes’ are too big to be manageable, they are counted in millions, not in hundreds. Most of us now live in urban environments; we hunt and gather in supermarkets, and many of us live apart from our extended families.

In the modern world, survival depends not just on how we look after ourselves, but also on how we look after one another – across borders not just across the road.

On the face of it, we are not doing very well at making that adjustment.

The gap between rich and poor is growing, as is the gulf between developed and developing economies. We live in one of the richest, yet there are people relying on food banks.

We need compassionate leadership, but as anyone listening to the Conservative conference will have heard, there is an increasing harshness in the political rhetoric.

For all the talk of “common ground” (the new Tory in-phrase), the lack of compassion in the words, and more importantly actions, of Britain’s ruling party presents a major problem for those who believe social justice cannot be advanced by dumping on the working poor.

One of the week’s most depressing speeches came from Theresa May. For all the Tory opposition to protectionism, there’s always been an isolationist undercurrent in their politics.

May brought that into the open with an assault on migrants. The home secretary, who wants to lead her party, promised a crackdown on people seeking protection from persecution. Refugees face being sent home if the British government deems the threat to them no longer exists.

In addition to refugees seeking their basic human right of asylum, May also turned on migrants who travel to the UK for work. She told the conference: “When immigration is too high, when the pace of change is too fast, it’s impossible to build a cohesive society.

“It’s difficult for schools and hospitals and core infrastructure like housing and transport to cope. And we know that for people in low-paid jobs, wages are forced down even further while some people are forced out of work altogether.”

This was the woman who once warned the Conservatives against becoming the “nasty party”.

That last bastion of left-wing dogma, the Institute of Directors, condemned her. It knows the future success of the economy depends on migrant workers – that was the case in the past (when the Irish were among those who helped rebuild post-war Britain), it is now, and it will be in the future.

IoD Director General Simon Walker said: “We are astonished by the irresponsible rhetoric and pandering to anti-immigration sentiment from the home secretary. It is yet another example of the home secretary turning away the world’s best and brightest, putting internal party politics ahead of the country, and helping our competitor economies instead of our own.”

And in that notorious left-wing rag The Daily Telegraph commentator James Kirkup described it as “awful, ugly, misleading, cynical and irresponsible”.

The facts contradict May’s claims. There is no evidence that immigrants take people’s jobs, indeed research shows they contribute positively to economic growth.

May’s game is to play to our prejudices. She wants to bring out the Neanderthal in us. As I suggested at the beginning, evolution has not have eradicated our hard-wired suspicion of others. But civilization has given us the tools to keep prejudice in its place.

Most of us are descended from migrants, we all have friends and family who have built lives elsewhere, many of us have migrated ourselves – 20 miles, 200 miles, 2,000 miles.

May wasn’t just talking about people fleeing war, poverty and death in the Middle East or north Africa; or economic hardship in eastern Europe, she was talking about us.

  • This article appeared in The Irish News on October 9