Founded on a lie: Trump’s debt to George Washington

The finger of history: Donald Trump

Every nation needs its foundation myths. They are a way of communicating core values to succeeding generations.

The story of George Washington and his father’s cherry tree is revered in the United States. As the story goes, the six-year-old future president was given a hatchet as a present by his father.

Young George promptly took the axe to his father’s favourite cherry tree. When asked what had happened, George said: “I cannot tell a lie, I did cut it with my hatchet.” Rather than beat the boy, his father hugged him and told him that telling the truth was worth more than a mighty forest.

As the world prepares itself to witness the inauguration of Donald Trump as 45th President, we would do well to ponder the importance we place on truth in the modern age.

Trump plays fast and loose with it.

Some believe the grandstanding showman will present a new face to the world when he swears the oath of office next week.

Leopards don’t change their spots. As president-elect, Trump has behaved no differently to the obnoxious foul-mouthed carpet-bagger he was on the campaign. He will be the same in the Oval Office.

This will be a government driven by whim. Yes most politicians are self-seeking. But few take it to the level of Mr Trump.

Sigmund Freud, the celebrated psychoanalyst, believed our minds were controlled by three forces. The ego, the super ego and the id.

The id is untamed and instinctive, it is the wild child that sees the world only through its own eyes; the super ego is driven by convention and rules, it is the voice of our parents telling us to go to the naughty step. The ego is the bit that tries to find a course between the two extremes.

Mr Trump’s personality transcends ego and super ego.

Anyone who has spent time with a three-year-old child will recognize the signs of arrested development evidenced by the president-elect’s stream of invective on twitter, his abuse of vulnerable individuals who cross him, and his knee-jerk responses to perceived slights.

In his totemic Gettysberg Address, Abraham Lincoln talked about “government of the people, by the people, for the people” and he promised that it “would not perish from the earth”.

This weekend we stand on a precipice. The people have handed the keys of the free world to a man clearly unfit to hold office.

Trump’s term will be one of government by the id, for the id. The rest of us will not get a look-in.

The people who elected him will come to regret their ill-judged vote. But in the meantime, the American political system will need to find a way of minimizing his impact, and the world will have to work round him until the voters come to their senses and elect a president fit for office.

As for George Washington and his hatchet … well, the story was made up by his biographer Mason Locke Weems who knew what his public, hungry for information about Washington, wanted to read.

If anything was an omen of what was to come, the cherry tree myth (for myth it is) prefigured the post-truth society by a couple of centuries.


Apparently I once told Martin McGuinness that he looked cute. He had phoned the Irish News to complain that a picture – used to illustrate a story about him – was deliberately chosen to make him look like an idiot.

It is a common complaint of politicians, and truth be told journalists sometimes take pleasure in using a particularly unflattering photograph.

Telling him he looked cute in the picture was a feeble excuse, and disrespectful. (Disrespect is another journalistic trait.) And I apologize now. Given this was the early nineties, and the job he had then, it was also somewhat fool-hardly on my part. The then editor thought I was both brave and stupid.

Whatever you think of Mr McGuinness’s politics and his past, there can be no question that he has served the people of this island – nationalist and unionist – well. He was a distinguished Minister for Education, and he has performed the role of deputy First Minister to the best of his ability in very difficult circumstances.

Nationalists are well used to slights. But in refusing to work with him, the DUP has done its own people and its country an enormous disservice. So much could have been achieved with good will. Ten years on, all the DUP has to show for its tenure is a pile of ash.

The article first appeared in The Irish News on January 13 2017

Galway batters Paisley with his golden flute


The Chuckle Brothers: Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness

I remember a time when watching the Black and White Minstrel Show on a Saturday night was politically correct, when Larry Grayson represented humour at its most edgy and Dana’s victory in the Eurovision Song Contest was seen by nationalists as a boost for the cause of Irish unity.

My other memory of Saturday nights was trying to get the timing right for bed. In our house, bedtimes were strictly policed during the week (or at least that is how I remember it), but we were allowed to stay up late on a Saturday.

The trick was to get to bed just before dad came in from the pub, otherwise my brother and I would be subjected to the dreaded Saturday Night Lecture. His larynx lubricated by a couple of pints of the black stuff, and his mind still buzzing from an evening of banter with his mates, put him in the mood to dispense sage advice.

As teenagers do, we tried to look engaged while ignoring everything he was saying to us. Mine do that to me now. But a few things sunk in.

He was a nationalist to the very root of his being. He loved his country, its language and its music. Like many of his generation, he was offended by partition he was also appalled by the violence that surrounded us during the Troubles.

But he was a tolerant man – and that’s what he taught me.

He loved the bands – Orange and Green – and he gave off about people who disrespected the Union Flag and God Save the Queen. He expected his Tricolour and Soldiers’ Song to be respected, and respect for others was the quid pro quo.

One night in the early 90s he rang me from work to say hello. “You’re in early,” I said – he did the nightshift. He explained he was covering for a colleague who had a lodge meeting. His Orange Order workmate reciprocated on holy days of obligation so my father could go to evening Mass.

Dad’s homemade bodhran, constructed from a garden sieve, was made from the ripped skin of a Lambeg drum (a gift from another Protestant workmate). He lived tolerance.

Anyway, I thought of him this week when I was considering the row sparked by James Galway’s denunciation of Ian Paisley. I imagine there were quite a few who agreed with Galway, not least some readers of this newspaper

Readers too (perhaps for the first time) will have found themselves agreeing with Lord Trimble who weighed in this week to support of Galway’s thesis. Conducting what he called a ‘thought experiment’, the noble lord came to the conclusion that without Paisley, there would probably have been no Troubles.

Historians – professional and amateur – are full of ‘what ifs’. But ‘what ifs’ are not history. ‘What-iffery’ is as bad as its siblings ‘what-aboutery’ and ‘begrudgery’.

It’s not that difficult to construct the case against Ian Paisley, and for many there is little difference between the man and the caricature – the ranting Dr No of a 1001 Ian Knox cartoons.

But for those who met him (friend and foe alike) the cardboard cut-out Paisley is much too two-dimensional.

I suspect there were some Catholic theologians who would have agreed with him when he harangued Pope John Paul II in the European Parliament. Indeed there are bishops now who find common cause with the DUP and members of the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster that he founded. Paisley’s reputation as a MP and MEP was high among all his constituents, regardless of their religious beliefs.

In private he was affable, funny and generous. The Chuckle Brothers were not a creation just for the cameras.

It’s all too easy to put the blame for the Troubles on Ian Paisley. But that would be to do him an injustice. The Troubles happened because of a collective failure of vision and will; they happened because London and Dublin left a vacuum in six counties of Ireland – a vacuum filled by demagogues and killers on both sides.

Ian Paisley could have chosen a different path. History will judge him, and it will not go easy on him. But he was a victim of history as well as its agent – as were the others whose names we could easily list and whose deeds we have all witnessed.

As for my dad? He would have said: “You don’t speak ill of the dead.” Sir Jimmy – who kept his counsel until the big man was six foot under – should think on that the next time he is cleaning his tarnished golden flute.


  • A version of this article appeared in The Irish News on June 12 2015