In an increasingly uncertain world shoddy deals rule

Harold Wilson

I have always had more than a passing interest in politics in spite of my life’s experience that the pursuit of it never seems to amount to very much. Political heroes sooner or later reveal themselves to have feet of clay. Certainties are invariably proved false, and at the end of every rainbow alliance there is a crock of disappointment.

It is often said we get the politicians we deserve. Really? There is something to be said for automatically disqualifying from office those putting themselves forward for election. No right-thinking person would do such a thing.

Some of my best friends are politicians (I don’t have many friends) but it must be said, the transition from ordinary citizen to elected representative seems to bring out the worst in people.

Inside most of us there is a narcissist struggling to get out. The political class appears to have no difficulty restraining its inner narcissist. It is said that a civil servant, witnessing the descent to earth in a helicopter of NIO minister Dr Brian Mawhinney, remarked: “The ego has landed.” It was a good joke then, and fitted its intended victim. But it could just as easily have been said of any politician using that form of transport.

Until I was eight I lived in Birmingham where I was the child of immigrant parents. With impeccable news judgment, my mother decided 1968 was the right time to return to Lurgan. I was a fan then of Harold Wilson – an Oxford don who hid his sophistication behind a northern accent and a fog of tobacco smoke.

In the 1969 Northern Ireland Parliament election, I remember naively arguing in my Catholic primary school playground that people should vote for the party that had the best policies – a notion deemed nonsensical then. Curiously such an attitude is still regarded as avant garde here 50 years on.

Over the years I must have voted for every party going (even the DUP, given the PR system allowed me to identify their candidates as the ones I least wanted to see elected). I even voted tactically for David Trimble to see off a DUP challenge. I think I was the only tactical voter in North Armagh, and I failed miserably, as did he.

When I was 50 and living in Scotland I had the opportunity, for the first time in my adult life, to vote for a party capable of forming the Government. Again I backed the wrong horse. The Tories got in.

Writing now, a little before publication, I am reluctant to comment too much on the current political situation. Things are changing so fast. By the time you read this, the Queen may have sacked her hapless PM and taken the reins of power herself.

As things stand, Theresa May has proved herself incapable of commanding the respect even of her colleagues; the Tories have abdicated their position as the ‘natural party of government’; and a quirk of arithmetic has handed the fate of the country to a party that cannot be trusted to manage a minor green energy scheme. Brexit negotiations opened yesterday without the British side having a clue what it wanted – no agreed government position, no briefing papers, no mandate.

You have to respect the choice of voters, and Sinn Fein’s principled decision not to swear an oath of loyalty to the Queen. But if the SDLP had managed to hold onto it seats, how different things would be.

Now all I can do is rant and rave powerlessly on Twitter. Apart from the crippling RSI in my right arm I have discovered a few things about myself.

Firstly, the more frustrated I get, the more left wing I become. They say if you are not a socialist in your youth you do not have a heart, and if you are not a conservative in maturity you do not have a brain. By that analyse I should be complacently moderate at this stage in my life. But now I am somewhat to the left of John McDonnell who is somewhat to the left of Trotsky.

Secondly, the more I contemplate the rise in the DUP’s political fortunes, the more republican I become. Intellectually, you cannot dispute the DUP’s right to extract as much out of the British government (if government is the right term for this shambolic collective); but emotionally it seems so wrong that once again political opportunism is rewarded, and the future safety and security of this part of the world is put at risk because of a shoddy deal in Westminster.


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

Nobel committee right to prize an uncertain peace


Juan Manuel Santos: worthy recipient

When the Nobel Peace Prize committee announced the winner of this year’s award, the recipient was asleep in his bed in Colombia. In a world where we demand instant gratification, the media pressurised his staff for a reaction to the news. They refused to wake him, and just right too.

Days before the announcement, Juan Manuel Santos, architect of peace with the Farc rebels, had been snubbed by his own electorate. The Colombian people narrowly voted against the deal in a referendum, throwing the agreement into doubt.

That twist, in what should have been a story of triumph against the odds, gave added piquancy to the award. There had been speculation that Santos’s chances had been dealt a fatal blow at the ballot box.

But the Nobel committee is known for its willingness to take a punt. Barack Obama was awarded the prize less than a year after taking office. Two terms on, the committee’s optimism that his presidency would be a game changer looks fanciful.

Whatever Obama has done, he has not lived up to Nobel expectations. While his presidency is not without its plusses, he cannot be said to have advanced the cause of global peace much. We are not safer now than we were in 2009, and that is the test.

The US’s indiscriminate use of drones is a scandal. The Middle East is in turmoil with hundreds of thousands of innocent lives lost in Syria, while the increasingly fractious relationship with Russia is bringing us back to the worst days of the cold war.

Anyway, back to Colombia and President Santos. Awarding him the prize, the committee said it was in recognition of “his resolute efforts to bring the country’s more than 50-year-long civil war to an end”.

The enormity of what has been going on in Colombia can be seen in the stark statistics laid out by the Nobel committee – at least 220,000 Columbians have died in the conflict, and six million people have been displaced.

Given that, it is not surprising Santos’s opponents were able to exploit concerns the rebels were getting away with murder. On a small turnout, the referendum vote was lost on a hair’s breadth

As we have seen in Northern Ireland, it is sometimes necessary for society to collectively hold its nose in the pursuit of something greater. Accepting peace, does not mean people have accepted the war that preceded it.

In recognising Santos, the Nobel committee was sensitive to the feelings of those who suffered. It said: “The award should also be seen as a tribute to the Colombian people who, despite great hardships and abuses, have not given up hope of a just peace, and to all the parties who have contributed to the peace process.”

It is easy to draw parallels between what is happening in Colombia with the process people in this part of the world have been navigating. Indeed the conflicts are linked.

You will not need a long memory to bring to mind the so-called Colombia three: republicans prosecuted for their role in training members of the Farc rebel army. And participants in the Northern Ireland peace process provided advice to the peacemakers in South America.

But each peace process has its own dynamic. Bogota is not Belfast. The active participation of two global giants – the United States and the European Union – supported and sustained peace talks here. President Santos and Farc leader Timochenko have had no similar cover. That makes their breakthrough all the more remarkable.

What they do have now is the active endorsement of the Nobel Peace Prize committee. Santos will still have to look over his shoulder to keep an eye on critics at home. But that shoulder now has the comforting and encouraging arm of the international community around it.

Santos, now trying to build a coalition for peace among rival political factions, has said he will fight for the peace until the last moment he holds office.

It is a sentiment other world leaders would do well to adopt. Obama, Putin, Assad, May, Hollande – even figures such as North Korea’s reprobate president Kim Yong Il – have rightly to look after the interests of the people they lead. But those interests are best protected by peace rather than conflict.

That is the message of the Nobel Prize and President Santos is a worthy recipient. He should look not to Obama for his inspiration however, but to the dogged determination of fellow laureate John Hume.

  • This article first appeared in The Irish News

Grammar School boy Weir fails on 11-plus


St Colman’s College Newry – my old grammar school

Of all the ancient philosophers, Diogenes was one of the most eccentric. He embraced poverty as a way of life, and challenged the elite of his time – including fellow philosophers. He made his living begging, and slept in a large ceramic jar.

He declared himself to be a citizen of the world, not for him narrow provincialism. And he loved stunts. His eccentricity was his secret weapon. Famously he carried a lamp during daylight saying he was searching for an honest man.

The founder of the Cynic school of philosophy, he did enough in his time to ensure that more than 2,000 years on people would still be talking about him.

This is remarkable because little of his teaching has come down to us. He is known mostly for quips and quotes attributed to him. One of the most profound was his observation that the education of young people was the foundation of the state.

It’s something we would do well to remember.

The Irish need few lessons in the importance of education. Even in the midst of persecution, teaching was prized and the hedge schools gave a generation the tools they needed to fight for justice.

In Northern Ireland, education, not terrorism, was the driver for change, sweeping away a corrupt system of government, and providing the context for reconciliation.

The peace process was an intellectual pursuit by one of the most remarkable products of the Catholic education system: John Hume – one of two Nobel Prize winners to have emerged from St Columb’s College in Derry.

The other, Seamus Heaney, was the pivotal figure in Ireland’s emergence as a dominant player in English language poetry in the late twentieth century. He too was an example of the power of education to transform an individual’s life chances. They were grammar school boys.

But the grammar school system, once the driver for upward mobility, is no longer fit for purpose, though many Northern Ireland politicians – usually products of these schools – remain emotionally wedded to them and to the pernicious process of selection at 11.

Education Minister Peter Weir is one of these. (Here I must declare an interest, I too am a grammar school boy.) This week he reversed his department’s policy on selection. Primary schools can now prepare pupils for the 11-plus. Mr Weir cited social mobility as one of the reasons for this shift in policy.

But that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The evidence suggests grammar schools benefit the middle classes disproportionately. In that regard, and given its electoral base, the DUP’s espousal of selection at 11 seems perverse.

Too many youngsters are failed by education. The 11-plus is divisive and selection comes too early in children’s developmental cycle. Boys – who mature more slowly intellectually – are particularly disadvantaged at this stage.

In spite of Northern Ireland’s continued support for grammar schools, tens of thousands of children underachieve. The negative impact is not just on their personal life chances but on society’s capacity to deliver a high quality of life for its citizens.

As the knowledge economy asserts itself, we need education that maximises the potential of each individual. It is not impossible to meet the needs and aptitudes of individual students within a properly resourced comprehensive system.

As any parent knows, there are multiple types of intelligence. We maximise our potential when each is stimulated and encouraged. For too long we have prized academic prowess at the expense of other intelligences.

Today’s world needs people who combine knowledge with other skills – not least emotional intelligence, technical capability and creativity.

Strong communication skills, a belief in enterprise and an understanding of how the modern world works are as important as the niceties of grammar and the intricacies of trigonometry.

More important still, we need education that values not just knowledge but its application. Intellectual snobbery undermined technical education in the twentieth century, and our economy has paid the price.

Building a consensus on education is not easy. But thus far public policy appears to be founded on ideology, or nostalgia for an earlier age where the top 10 per cent were hived off for a grammar school education and a career in the professions.

Northern Ireland is small enough to refashion an education system that meets today’s needs and, more importantly, the needs and aspirations of our children.

If Mr Weir wants to leave a lasting legacy he should look to the future rather than the past; draw on the wealth of research about how to maximise children’s outcomes, and build a political consensus around the ends of education rather than out-dated means.

  • This column appeared in The Irish News on September 9 2016


Edward Daly represented all that is good in the world



Edward Daly – an inspiration to a generation

Last month I found myself in the crypt at St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. There lie the bodies of the city’s bishops – including, it is said, the first among them. The bones under the basilica’s great altar are said to be those of Peter, the ‘rock’ on which the Catholic Church is built.

No longer there is Saint John Paul II. He was ‘moved upstairs’ after his beatification in 2011 and his tomb is now one of the main attractions in the basilica itself. You can even see it on a webcam.

‘Attraction’ is perhaps the wrong word, but as anyone who has been to Rome will know, the Vatican has become more a place of tourism than pilgrimage.

It had been a long and tiring day, mostly spent marvelling at the riches of the Vatican Museum. Thousands were doing the same thing – most of us in pursuit of the Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo’s ceiling masterpiece.

St Peter’s Basilica was the family’s last stop before heading to Roma Termini and the 19.40 back to Florence where we were staying.

With my pedometer showing I’d managed more than 20,000 steps on my blistered feet, I gave up looking for John Paul II’s tomb. Life’s too short and, to be honest, neither he nor his successor, Benedict XVI, struck me as being the right man in the right place for the challenges of the modern day Church. (In the case of JPII, I suspect I am in the minority on that, but no matter.)

I was, however, moved to find myself standing by the tomb of his predecessor, the ill-fated Pope John Paul I – supreme pontiff for one short month in what has become known as the year of the three pope’s. He rests not far from the Blessed Paul VI – whose last minute U-turn on contraception in Humanae Vitae has left the Church with a continuing problem over its approach to human sexuality.

The lurid conspiracy stories over John Paul I’s untidy death have clouded the breath of air he brought into the Church. He rejected a coronation and the triple tiara; he abhorred the use of the Royal ‘we’ (though Vatican flunkies wrote it back into his speeches), he referred to God as ‘our mother’ as well as ‘our father’, and he seemed ready to take on the corruption that had turned the Church into a corporation rather than a community of sinners.

It is a scandal that almost 40 years on, Pope Francis is fighting the same fight, and against the same forces within.

While many bishops, archbishops and cardinals find it difficult to relate to their flocks and the challenges they face; a few stand out and, with quiet dignity, uphold the values that underpin many of the world’s great religions.

One such man was Edward Daly, laid to rest in the city he loved yesterday afternoon.

Much has been written over this past few days about his life, and his commitment to the cause of peace and reconciliation.

To a generation, he was an inspiration. The image of him carrying out his ministry in the midst of the carnage of Bloody Sunday is one of the most iconic of the twentieth century – and one of the most complex too. It can be read in so many ways – the futility of violence, the courage of an individual and a community, the power of prayer, the gulf between the British and the Irish, and the brutality of war in all its guises. Its companion piece is the picture of the late Fr Alec Reid praying over the body of Corporal David Howes. Fr Reid was another witness for Christ.

Not everyone was enamoured of Bishop Daly’s outspoken renunciation of violence. He was principled and robust. He feared nobody.

For most of us, the best we can hope for is that we leave this life having done marginally more good than harm. Edward Daly was not man who lived on the margins.

He gave people their dignity and their place; he spoke for those oppressed by the state, and those cowed by men who wielded power within their own communities.

He held out the hand of friendship when it was not the done thing. He presence throughout the troubles was a reminder that there is good in the world, and good must triumph.

If anyone deserves to rest in the Vatican crypt, it is he. But given the choice we know he would pick the rich earth of County Derry in the shadow of the Cathedral he served so well. May he rest in peace.

  • This article appeared in The Irish News on August 12 2016