MIXED feelings among parents this week as schoolchildren returned to the classroom five months after schools closed in response to Covid-19.
NO one can deny the huge positive differences which the internet, broadband connectivity and social media have made to our lives.
A FINDING in the long-overdue Russia Report that the UK government “actively avoided” looking for evidence of Russian inferference in the 2016 EU referendum will come as no surprise to those of us who have been paying attention to the increasingly close and toxic relationship in recent years between senior Tories and obscenely wealthy, London-based oligarch friends of Vladimir Putin.
IT’S a matter of huge regret that the excellent job that the First and deputy First Minister were doing in battling the Covid pandemic has been hit by the current row over Michelle O’Neill’s attendance at the funeral of Bobby Storey.
IF the tragedy of Noah Donohoe held us breathless and sick with worry for the better part of a week, and if the final heartbreaking outcome left us reeling, we can hardly even begin to imagine what the teenager’s family have been through.
FEARS that even a considered easing of the lockdown would engender a dangerous sense of complacency were made real over the past seven days. The extent of the lockdown breaches has by no means been catastrophic, but it’s been enough to drive home the lesson that small moves can have big implications – particularly when people are as frustrated, confused and uncertain as they are now.
LAST week’s decision to reopen cemeteries was the right one, but – as with every other public space at present – activity will have to be closely monitored to ensure that safe practices are being observed. And though the cemetery move is to be cautiously welcomed, it is perhaps unfortunate that it came at a time when the first tentative conversations were beginning to open up about a potential lockdown exit.
IT seems likely that when the British government finally gets round to counting people who have died at home or in care homes from Covid-19, the United Kingdom will be the second-hardest-hit country on the planet.
REPORTS this week that Sinn Féin elected representatives have been informed that they may be targeted by the ‘New IRA’ with under-car bombs is another grim reminder of what ‘republican’ micro-groups have to offer. The news comes a week after MLAs Gerry Kelly and Michelle O’Neill were warned that their lives are in danger. That threat has now been widened out to include all Sinn Féin members. It’s being widely speculated that the threats were sparked by the attendance of senior party members at a PSNI recruiting event last week, but since Sinn Féin have been critically supportive of the PSNI for a dozen years it’s hard to see why a logical outworking of that support would cause dissidents so much angst. It’s much more likely that other factors are at play here. The first and most obvious is that the notable Sinn Féin advances in the recent election in the Republic represent the biggest success for republicanism since partition. The spectacle of Sinn Féin taking the largest share of the popular vote and tying with Fianna Fáil on the number of (elected) Dáil seats has sent the Dublin establishment into meltdown. Party President Mary Lou McDonald has been front and centre of the news agenda since February 8 and she has used that platform not only to push the social agenda that drove the Sinn Féin surge – a promise to take a radical approach to key issues including housing, health and pensions – but also to drive forward the party’s unity imperative. That has clearly discomfited the hurlers on the ditch of the dissident micro-groups, who wail impotently from the sidelines as island-wide changes arrive at dizzying speed. The republican dream of entering government in both post-partition jurisdictions at the same time has never been closer, and while one might suppose that a development like that would be seen as positive by republicans of every stripe, the truth is that such is the animus of many dissidents towards their former comrades that they would prefer unity not to happen if it came at the price of Sinn Féin being seen as the primary driver. The second benefit of the threats is that they serve to distract attention away from the total failure of what dissidents, with straight faces, refer to as their ‘military campaigns’. Much as the dissident threat is talked up in certain quarters by certain people with certain agendas, and despite the fact that it claims occasional and increasingly isolated ‘successes’, the facts don’t lie. The campaign is a sorry patchwork of bungled ‘operations’ and amateur-hour ventures. Hobbled by a paralysing lack of materiel and experienced members, the biggest threat they pose is to local communities and schools disrupted on a regular basis by the dumping of pipe bombs. Deeply infiltrated by British intelligence, the groups count among their members criminals who gravitate towards them in search of cover for their nefarious activities. And so we find them targeting not only the senior Sinn Féin members driving party policy, but rank and file members and reps going about their daily lives. If they follow through on their threat, they will find the job of targeting Sinn Féin members a lot less difficult than targeting armed police or soldiers, but they must know that any such action would be the straw that broke the camel’s back for a community from which they derive minuscule support.
THE stunning victory scored by Sinn Féin in the weekend election has sent a shockwave through the southern political establishment – so much so that a sense of disbelief has descended on the mainstream Dublin media and the former two big parties to the extent that little of any note has been said or done that might give us any real idea of where we’re headed in the next few weeks. Party leader Mary Lou McDonald has been making what looks like a fairly desultory attempt to forge a coalition of the left that would send her to Leinster House as Taoiseach. The mathematics make that prospect an unlikely one, but what might make it even more unlikely is the idea of the nightmare that would be the job of any Taoiseach attempting to lead a coalition comprised of so many parties connected by such a thin string. Their ideologies and priorities – while nominally on the left spectrum – are as diverse as those that separate Sinn Féin from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. The growing consensus is that if Sinn Féin is finally to enter government in the Republic it will be as part of a three-way deal involving Fianna Fáil and a third party – possibly the Greens or the Social Democrats, the latter giving that coalition a majority of just one, the former a majority of seven. Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin’s pre-election pledge not to go into government with Sinn Féin went out the window when the results of the RTE exit poll were announced on Saturday evening. If he doesn’t get the big job – and this is his last chance after nine years in charge of the party – he will become the only leader of Fianna Fáil never to have been Taoiseach, and he can hardly be blamed for not wanting that to be the first line in his future Wikipedia entry. But it won’t be Mr Martin’s eagerness to shake hands with President Michael D. Higgins that will determine the Fianna Fáil decision on whether or not to do business with Sinn Féin. The Fianna Fáil leader is damaged goods – as is his Fine Gael counterpart Leo Varadkar. It will be big name Fianna Fáil survivors from the disastrous election that will make the call when the parliamentary party sits down to decide what to do next. Meanwhile, anyone who thought Sinn Féin would downplay the national question after their big success in order not to spook the horses was badly mistaken. The issue of reunification was immediately put front and centre by Mrs McDonald, who in a series of interviews indicated that a border poll is a priority. She said that in the wake of Brexit a border poll is “an absolute priority” – and she is right. The lesson we have learned on this side of the Irish Sea from the Brexit debacle is that meaningful and substantial preparations are required ahead of such seismic constitutional change. The effect of this election on the physical make-up of the 33rd Dáil is yet to be seen, but in a way the psychological jolt that has been delivered north and south could be just as important. It will have sent an unmistakable message to those who continue to do a Three Wise Monkeys act in relation to the profound changes sweeping the island – and that message is that an opportunity to shape change is infinitely preferable to the danger of being shaped by it.
A 100km trek down Africa’s Zambezi River is set to be part of an epic fundraising initiative which staff from Start360 have signed up to. The Cathedral Quarter based charity provides services to young people and families requiring support, with staff working with clients aged eight to 80.
THE deal announced at Stormont on Tuesday has performed its primary aim of keeping the political institutions in place, but even as we continue to peruse the lengthy document, it’s clear that it’s deeply unsatisfactory.
ACROSS the city and across the island families and communities are making preparations for the Christmas holidays. It’s a time of great joy and excitement, but unfortunately for too many in the lower Falls and Divis area it’s a time of apprehension.
THE circumstances surrounding the shooting to death of Edward Gibson in the Divis area on Friday remain unclear, although already charges have been levelled in relation to the chaotic scenes that led up to the fatal incident and those matters will ultimately and rightly be dealt with by the courts. The killing has evoked grim memories of a grey past which we are slowly but surely leaving behind. The proud and historic Divis area suffered as much, if not more, than any other part of West Belfast during the conflict and it is therefore all the more unfortunate that the shadow of the gunman has once again fallen over the district. Police say they don’t believe dissident republicans were involved in the shooting, but at the same time they’ve refused to rule out the possibility that it was a punishment-style attack. That’s led to widespread speculation about who carried out the attack and why, with the finger being pointed in particular at the Official IRA, an organisation which most people probably considered to be non-existent, or at the very least moribund. In fact, it continues to exist, as evidenced by the fact that it has released a statement to the Andersonstown News this week through the Official Republican Movement, denying that its members shot Edward Gibson. The statement says that the group is not involved in any “military activity”, but the fact of its very existence is a cause for concern, given that other of the more traditional republican groups have undoubtedly left the stage. Meanwhile, the continued existence of the OIRA should – but almost certainly won’t – raise questions about present-day southern parties with roots that run deep into ‘Official’ republican history. If it is indeed the case that Mr Gibson’s death was the result of a punishment attack, then those responsible are poor students of history. For it is very much the case that beatings and shootings, far from putting an end to the activities of alleged wrongdoers and criminals, serve only to enrage and embolden those they are supposed to deter, and the bitterness and alienation spreads out like ripples on a pond to include family and friends of the victims. Statistics in relation to recidivism on the part of surviving victims who’ve been shot and beaten are impossible to compile because of course the people targeted have not undergone a trial and therefore no official figures are available; but anecdotally, it can clearly be seen that notorious individuals who have been kneecapped or beaten with baseball bats very rarely forsake their alleged criminal careers and become responsible and contributing members of society. Away from the practical considerations, the moral reality remains the imperative. No-one has the right to shoot or beat anyone, not the police, not the courts, and certainly not faceless individuals spuriously claiming to represent the community and acting on ‘evidence’ that is in most cases little more than street tittle-tattle. Divis has more than its fair share of social problems, as regular reports in this newspaper confirm. High levels of poverty and deprivation lead to high levels of crime and anti-social behaviour at certain hotspots and that has badly affected the quality of life of the people living beneath the famous Twin Spires of St Peter’s. Hard work is being done on the ground by committed groups, community and statutory, and gradual progress is being made. The murder of Edward Gibson demands that such work must continue.
THE Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson has been writing in his blog about the dread prospects for unionism if unionist unity is not achieved ahead of next May’s Westminster General Election. His words are worth considering carefully, because while Mr Donaldson, like most politicians, has had his intemperate moments, he’s generally considered to be one of the more thoughtful figures in a party that’s increasingly dominated by more strident voices, as evidenced by the crass decision this week to welsh on a solemnly delivered assurance that Willie Hay’s successor as Stormont Speaker would be from Sinn Féin. “A divided unionism presents the greatest threat to the union today,” he writes, going on to predict: “If the results of next year’s elections are repeated at the General Election in 2015, then Gerry Kelly could win North Belfast, Naomi Long could hold East Belfast and Máirtín Ó Muilleoir is in with a chance of taking South Belfast from the SDLP.” He then tacks on a sentence designed to make every true-blue supporter of the status quo tremble in their shoes: “For the first time in our history, our capital city of Belfast may not have a single unionist MP representing it.” Mr Donaldson is, of course, outlining a Stalingrad vision of the future in starkly monochrome terms for a very particular audience – the increasing number of unionists who are open to the blandishments of the Alliance Party. And when it comes to any discussion of next May’s elections there two words which occupy the DUP strategists to the point of obsession: East Belfast. Oh, sure – Nigel Dodds can feel the hot breath of Gerry Kelly on his neck in North Belfast and there are desperate attempts being made to delay the inevitable – we can see that grim drama being enacted on the streets every day. But in reality the relentless shift in the demography of North Belfast makes it only a matter of time before it becomes a nationalist seat – whether it happens in 2015 or 2020, the fact remains that the party knows that Dodds is the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dyke. East Belfast – now that’s a horse of an entirely different colour. The loss of the seat in 2011 was a massive blow to the ego of party leader Peter Robinson and, as we’ve seen over the past four years, to his authority, which has drained away down the imposing hill at Stormont and into the gutters of the streets below. But more crucially, for a party sheathed in a carapace of arrogant self-belief after four decades of virtually unhindered electoral progress, the loss of East Belfast was an eye-wateringly painful blow; because if that seat could be lost – home of the shipyard and the seat of government – then the very foundations on which their Ulster was built might be starting to crumble. East Belfast is often viewed by outsiders as a gritty working-class constituency because of its historic connections with the smokestack industries of the past and the huddled modest homes built to house the workers. But in fact it is replete with leafy streets lined with desirable homes in which reside a large Protestant middle- and upper-middle-class, many of whose vision of the future is not one of endless confrontation and rancour. It is that bloc which switched allegiance in 2011, and it is that bloc which the DUP hopes will be swayed by this harsh warning in a soft voice. Vote for unionism or unionism is doomed: a grim manifesto indeed.