Jude Collins worked for thirty years as a lecturer at the Ulster University/Ulster Polytechnic. Before that, he was a high school English teacher in Derry, Dublin, Edmonton and Winnipeg (Canada).
He is the author of eight books, including Booing the Bishop and other stories and Martin McGuinness: The man I knew. He has been a weekly columnist for The Irish News, Daily Ireland and currently writes for The Andersonstown News.
He has broadcast on TV and radio for the BBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), Press TV and RTÉ. For the past thirteen years he has written a daily column on his blogsite www.judecollins.com
KATIE Taylor had a tough fight last week but managed to defend her world lightweight championship and defeat Natasha Jonas in Manchester. Arlene Foster also had a tough fight but was not so lucky.
SEVERAL decades back, I remember a conversation with a friend who is an atheist. He said that religious faith for him was too weak as a foundation on which to base his life – he preferred facts to lean on. I pointed out that all of us conduct our daily lives based on faith – we have faith that the food we eat isn’t poisoned, we have faith the guy in the other car won’t jump the red light and hammer into us, we have faith that the roof of the house in which we live won’t crumble some night and bury us. The most recent act of faith many of us were happy to make was to roll up our sleeve and have a substance injected into our arm so that (we hope) it will protect us from Covid-19. “That’s not faith, that’s me following the science,” you may be tempted to retort. Well now. Do you understand how vaccination works? Do you know for sure that the injection you got wasn’t in some way corrupted? In fact, have you even a clue what was in that syringe? The Western world at present is divided into two camps. The first, overwhelmingly larger camp, is the one that wants a vaccine, the quicker the better. The second, relatively tiny (I’ll come back to how tiny), believes that the whole Covid-19 pandemic is a front for something else, and they refuse to take the vaccine, sometimes believing it will harm them. And it’s not just people who vote for the Monster Raving Loony Party that have this attitude. In February of this year, The Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) in the South established that 130,800 people believed the whole Covid thing is part of a conspiracy. Some believe Bill Gates is somehow involved in this global con-trick. None of this has been helped by sometimes conflicting official advice on what needs to be done. Many of us thought it’d be all over by last autumn. It wasn’t. People were given the okay to have a happy Christmas. That resulted in a second deadly wave of the virus. The AstraZeneca vaccine roll-out was paused when it was found in some cases to cause serious blood-clotting. At first people were told that wearing a face-mask didn’t do anything to stop the spread of the virus; now they’re told they do help. And people who claimed the virus had escaped initially from a lab in China were dismissed as conspiracy theorists. Now the World Health Organisation director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebrevesus, says that can’t be ruled out. No, Virginia, I’m not saying the conspiracy theorists are right. I’m saying there are more of them than we might like to think, and I’m saying our understanding of the virus is far from complete. I’m also saying that the CEOs of the companies who make face-masks and hand-gel, not to mention vaccines, are often developing swollen bank accounts out of the pandemic. Earlier this year, Oxfam issued a report showing that the top 1,000 billionaires lost about 30 per cent of their wealth when the world’s economy stalled due to lock-down in March last year. That’s the good news. The bad news is that, by November of last year, they’d made it all back. And as for Mr Amazon, Jeff Bezos, he could have given each one of Amazon’s 876,000 employees a $105,000 bonus, and he’d still be as wealthy as he was at the start of the pandemic. We know that governments can lie to us – experience teaches that. It’s just that we have faith in doctors, we have faith in governments, we tend to do what Seán or Síle Citizen down the road is doing, and do what we’re told. Most of the time that’s a good decision; but occasionally it’s not. Unforunately, most of us don’t have the time or energy or expertise to sift through and separate lies from truth. There used to be an old joke – How do you get 100 Canadians out of a swimming pool? You blow the whistle and say. “Please leave the pool.” That’s most of us, too. Rightly or wrongly, we put our faith and trust in doctors and science, and hope to God they’re right. But don’t let’s look down our noses at that 130,000. We’ve had too many examples of government lies and medical cock-ups in the past to now think all the vaccine refuseniks must be crack-pots.
SOME claim that the people on this small island can never agree. It’s a claim with some supporting evidence. Conflict within Ireland and between Ireland and England has been going on for centuries. But there is one thing that all parties north and south, regardless of attitude to partition, are agreed on: There is going to be a border poll. The recent Claire Byrne programme on RTÉ made that clear. Even Gregory Campbell accepted that there would be a border poll at some point. The question is when. Michael McDowell, who claims to be a nationalist, recently wrote that to talk about a border poll before reconciliation in the north and throughout Ireland is to put the cart before the horse. The Good Friday Agreement, he says, made it clear that any attitude towards the union with Britain – for or against – is legitimate. From this Michael argues that the views of those different from our own must be treated with respect. He then adds a third leg to the stool of his argument and says that talk about a border poll is to show disrespect for those who differ from you.
OK – let’s get above the swear words, the stones and exploding petrol bombs, and see if we can ask a few pertinent questions. 1. Why have young loyalists/unionists had been rioting? One reason is that they’re young. They’ve energy to burn (literally) and it sure beats watching TV or listening to your ma or granny chuntering on about the plot of EastEnders. The sheer delight of making the enemy – in this case the PSNI – cower and back off, if only temporarily, is an intense thing. In Spring a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of love – and of course rioting. 2. Are rioters being masterminded by older, more calculating forces? Of course they are. The existence of the UDA, the UVF and the Red Hand Commando is accepted by all, not least the First Minister, who consults them as though they were super-SPADs. These super-SPADS know how violence gets media attention like nothing else. So they quietly steer young people to go mad in the best places.
I’VE never had a green thumb. My neighbour’s tomatoes swell in his greenhouse, his lettuces bulge in neat rows. Meanwhile, God help me, I stick my daffodil and tulip bulbs into what looks more like a mass grave than a flowerbed and hope for the best. And yet, miraculously each year, it happens. Even in January the half-black earth of the mass grave begins to be pierced by the tips of optimistic little shoots, and by April flowers are shouting their glorious colours at anyone wise enough to stand and stare. In Easter 1916 a small group of men set out on a dark, apparently hopeless task. Much of Ireland’s population was buried in acceptance of British rule. But unlike my plant-and-pray technique, the Proclamation signatories knew exactly what they were doing. Pearse, McDonagh and Plunkett may have been more poets than soldiers. But like the other signatories, they saw beyond their inevitable military defeat to a transformed Ireland. They had an unshakeable faith in the seeds planted by their deaths. And so they embraced their deaths rather than endured them.
WHEN I close my eyes and murmur “Alex Salmond,” a figure lumbers into my mind’s eye. It’s an overweight, bloody-but-unbowed figure, topped by a balding head and eyes that look as though they’ve been to hell and back. When I lower my eyelids and whisper “Jeffrey Donaldson,” I get a very different picture. This one is of a small but perfectly formed figure. It’s trim, smiling, has neatly-combed hair and Christian eyes that gaze gently from behind Christian glasses. As you’ll know if you haven’t spent the last couple of years chained to a radiator in a cellar in Ballymena, Alex Salmond was charged with 14 cases of sexual and indecent assault. He was acquitted of all charges and received £500,000 compensation. He has in the past few days formed a new party, Alba, to contest the Scottish general election in May of this year.
Gordon S Dickson, Des Pond: Special Agent. London: Austin Macauley Publishers, 2021 THE clue is in the title – Des Pond: Special Agent. He’s an active member of Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but he’s a down-market version. “Desmond Walter Percivale Pond, aged thirty-five, was a thin, weedy-looking individual with a longish nose (at school he was unkindly nick-named Pinocchio) on which perched a pair of black-rimmed spectacles.” The book opens in a maximum security prison, where five Russians arrested for spying were awaiting trial, until someone managed to poison them all. The prison governor is furious that this could happen, and the chief prison officer, who has a heavy cold, tries to explain: ”‘I hab obbered every dell an’ prisonber to be searched, an’ interrogated da prisonbers dat is, not da dells, dir’. He blew his nose noisily. Other officers edged away as far as possible.”The scene switches to 10 Downing Street, “Where is Agent Pond, Darling?’ asked the Prime Minister. I will have to stop calling him that. It sounds a bit too personal, she thought.” The Darling in question is Sir Leonard Darling, Head of MI5. He assigns Agent Des Pond to the job of discovering who poisoned the Russian prisoners. In no time Pond is in St Petersburg with a feared female Russian, who is working with a group of dissidents intent on liberating a grouping of small nations: the Coalition for the Liberation of Ostvia, Dachnya, Havnia, Ovnaria, Pannonia, Phasnaviz, Entrovia and Rostnovia. CLODHOPPER for short. Agent Pond meets the group, and being a supreme card-manipulator plays cards with them and wins a hugely expensive Rolls Royce parked outside the door. Then he gets hit on the head, recovers and goes in search of the Great Ras, the leader of the dissidents and believed to be the reincarnation of Rasputin. After much chasing and double-cross, the great Ras is caught up with and unmasked for the fraud he is. Would you believe it? He doesn’t care about CLODHOPPER – he’s in it for the money! Quelle surprise. Back at Downing Street the Prime Minister has got a divorce and gets married to Sir Leonard Stephen Darling; Pond gets married to a fellow-agent called Sally. “Two sets of identical twin Ponds followed in the next couple of years: two boys and two girls. Fortunately the girls looked like their mother! The boys looked like Pond!” All this, complete with exclamation marks, is stuffed into the last two pages. The author never misses a chance to wring half-laughs out of any half-situation, starting with the chief prison officer’s cold, then the No 10 Downing Street cat mauling visitors, and ending with the burst of weddings and identical twins x 2. The pace is kept breathless by really short chapters and switches of location from Istanbul to St Petersburg to No 10 Downing Street. And the PM, of course, is a very busy woman. “I have an important Cabinet meeting in ten minutes. The NHS financing has raised its head again, and there is some fishy business going on up in Scotland. That dreadful Sally Trout woman again.” This is a spy thriller for those who find regular spy thrillers too frightening. Think ‘Carry On Spying’ and you’ve got the flavour – slapstick, shameless word play, and of course happily ever afters. The book brims with good humour of the broadest possible kind. The chapters are very very short, the entire book runs to 127 pages total. To those bowed down by the weight of a Covid-ridden world, Des Pond Special Agent offers a short burst of Benny-Hill-type escapism.
HANDS up if you know who John Profumo was? Mmm. Have a word with Granny. Or read this next paragraph. Profumo was the Secretary of State for War in Harold Macmillan’s cabinet. In 1961 he met a 19-year-old ‘model’ called Christine Keeler at a party and, ignoring the 30-plus years age gap between them, he began a sexual relationship with her. Keeler also had a sexual relationship with Yevgeny Ivanov, a senior naval attaché at the Soviet Embassy. When challenged about his relationship, Profumo said he knew Miss Keeler but that there was no ‘impropriety’ in their relationship. In 1963, a parliamentary inquiry found that while there’d been no security breaches as a result of Profumo’s relationship with Keeler, he had made a false statement to the House of Commons about their relationship. That ended Profumo’s political career: he had lied to the House of Commons and been caught doing so.
IF you’re looking for details of how the 1984 bomb at the Grand Hotel in Brighton was set and triggered, you’ve come to the wrong book. In this memoir, the author Pat Magee, who set the bomb, makes it clear he’s not going to divulge that sort of information.
AMONG the recent wall-daubings in the Larne region, there was one which warned “No Economic United Ireland”. Before we look more closely at the implications of that statement, let’s look at the North-South economic relationship generally.
PERHAPS it happened when they were sleeping. Under cover of darkness, some hobgoblin with a sharp knife and a light touch may have removed their sense of irony, stitched them up and exited stage left. From whom was the sense of irony removed? Two parties – HRH Queen Elizabeth II and Mrs Arlene Foster. It may not have been the same hobgoblin that did both surgical removals, but removal was certainly done. Take QE2. Annually, she earns just short of £70 million. Her personal fortune is reckoned to stand at £350 million. She has six different homes – Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, Holyrood Palace, Balmoral Castle, Sandringham Estate and Hillsborough Castle. This while the UK is estimated to have 280,000 homeless people.
IS the President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, an imposing figure? Well, if by ‘imposing’ you mean ‘tall’, he obviously isn’t. Most past presidents would have towered above him, even perhaps the two Marys. But Irish people don’t elect presidents on the basis of their height. Michael D had two hard acts to follow – two women who were bright, articulate and fearless. But neither tallness nor his predecessors has taken a fidge out of Michael D. As a friend reminded me recently, the moment Michael D. starts to talk, you realise that this is a man with a formidable intellect, able to identify matters of national importance and to frame his thinking in elegant, forceful words. It’s easy to see that the current President of Ireland was, in an earlier existence, an academic, a sociologist, a politician and a poet. But it’s the word ‘current’ that brings me up short. When he ran for the Irish presidency for the first time, Michael D. made it clear to voters that he intended to be a one-term president. We don’t know how many people voted for him with that in mind, but we do know that towards the end of his first term he announced that he was going for a second term. And that’s what he got. Michael D. has always sought to mend fractures or flaws in Ireland’s relationship with her nearest neighbour. In recent days, however, he has taken a new line. In the Irish Times last week, Michael D wrote an article entitled ‘Empire shapes our past and present relationship with Britain’. In it he reflects on the decade of centenaries and on Britain’s attitude to its imperial past, and concludes that Ireland has been rigorous in examining its history, particularly the state-creating events of the early twentieth century. Britain, in contrast, has been reluctant to set aside notions of past grandeur and examine just what the British empire entailed. Michael D. states his case: “At its core, imperialism involves the making of a number of claims that are invoked to justify its assumptions and practices – including its inherent violence. One of those claims is the assumption of superiority of culture and it is always present in the imperialising project. Forcing an acceptance on those subjugated of the inferiority of their culture as a dominated Other is the reverse side of the coin. This is a timely reminder of the fact that Britain’s empire, when confronted with resistance from the many peoples it has forcibly subjugated, condemns that resistance as motiveless violence.”
GILBERT and Sullivan claimed that a policeman’s lot was not a happy one, but Brendan Behan had a different angle: “I have never seen a situation so dismal that a policeman couldn’t make it worse.” The friends and relatives of those who attended to pray and lay flower wreaths to mark the 29th anniversary of the shooting dead of innocent people in Sean Graham’s bookies on the Ormeau Road would, I am certain, agree with Behan. The arrival of the PSNI, the scuffles, the arrest and handcuffing (I can hardly believe what I’m going to type) of one of the survivors of that murderous attack in 1992 – all of those suggest one of two things. Either the PSNI officers involved didn’t understand what the ceremony was about or they did understand what the ceremony was about. If they didn’t understand, it suggests an appalling ignorance of local sensitivities – what sort of training do PSNI recruits, men and women, get? Or if they did understand, what the hell were they doing even stopping their vehicle to interfere in a grief-drenched occasion? From the clips of the altercation and arrest, it’s clear that the local people were deeply upset, not just by memories of that murderous day in 1992, but by the interference of police. On the video you can hear some seriously earthy language being directed towards the police officers as they take away survivor Mark Sykes. Not the kind of language you’d use in front of a Reverend Mother, but since I was directing a few Anglo-Saxon expletives at the TV myself, I’ll not cast the first stone. What sort of thought processes were working that the police felt they had to stop their vehicle and get out of it, let alone get into scuffles with the people there and arrest Mark Sykes? Have they never read anything of the history of the Troubles and the part played by police? Or do they simply not give a damn? When the PSNI first emerged to replace the RUC, they were a model of how policing should be carried out: polite, friendly, helpful. A bit like the British troops immediately after their arrival in 1969. But just as the British army quickly revealed their contempt for local people, the PSNI seem intent on following just the same path. A couple of days ago I received a short video with a split screen, showing on one side the manhandling of Ormeau Road people, and on the other the hands-off approach used with the throng of marching loyalists in East Belfast. Why did the PSNI not intervene and arrest these masked men? Because, we’re told, they were massively outnumbered. So maybe that was the deciding factor on the Ormeau Road last week: there’s not that many of them, so here, stop the vehicle and we’ll sort them out. Is it likely that these scenes will strengthen the bond between local people and the PSNI? Pass. Is it likely that these scenes will strengthen the interest of young nationalists/republicans in joining the PSNI? Pass very much.
IMAGINE this: it’s your 100th birthday, but instead of voices raised in ‘Happy Birthday’, all you can hear are muttered comments on whether you’ll be around for much longer. Not good for the morale, indeed, Virginia. But that’s the position unionist politicians find themselves in, this centenary year of the establishment of North(east)ern Ireland (NEI).
THE New Year started three weeks ago, but this week feels like the real beginning of the year. Yes, the calendar started on January 1, but, like the daffodils sprouting first leaves in my flowerbed, it was obscured by weeds. So, Janus-like, let’s look back and look forward.