It’s all about the Belfast's Turner Prize nominees the Array Collective this week. I was delighted to see that the awards were being held in Coventry Cathedral which I visited recently. Unable to attend their annual peace conference in person, I attended online asking the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welbly what he thought about the importance of art in peacebuilding. “Art is one of the most important parts of how peace is done,” he replied. “With art you can say things without words that if people spoke they would argue about.”
I was honoured this week to be part of an Aisling assessment team which was invited to view four nominees for the coveted Aisling Wellbeing award.
SO we got to New York and we were met by our great friend Ancient Order of Hibernians Vice President Sean Pender, who drove us to Albany. Mark Thompson, CEO of RFJ, has been many times to Albany but this was very very exciting for me, travelling on US motorways for the first time. I kept humming the theme tune to The Sopranos! For all that joy, after 23 hours travelling time, we were very grateful to check into the motel and sleep.
AS the Covid pandemic figures continue to go in the wrong direction, the Stormont Executive has urged the public to work from home where possible, effectively sending us back to the place we found ourselves in over a year ago. It is sound and sensible advice against the background of a desperately worrying rise in Covid infections that has seen the North this week overtake the Republic, England, Scotland and Wales in the Covid league table. Needless to say, that advice has been criticised in familiar quarters, as indeed has just about everything that Ministers have put in place to combat the Covid crisis. And that is precisely where a big part of the problem lies. In reacting with knee-jerk predictability to every latest announcement, critics are neglecting the crucial truth of any response to any pandemic: that no single policy is going to get us to where we need to be and that that can only be done by a pragmatic and considered suite of measures which must be considered as a whole rather than as a disparate collection of random responses. There are those who are genuinely concerned about various decisions made by the Executive, but there are those in the political sphere – and we all know who they are – who will carp and complain no matter what is announced because they are motivated by a very particular brand of social and political conservatism. For the sake of our Health Service frontline staff, for the sake of the vulnerable, the sick, our neighbours, our families, our friends and ourselves, the mature and responsible thing to do is take a cool and dispassionate look at what the complete network of measures put in place are calculated to achieve together, and not be led by sensationalist and irresponsible reporting by the media or by the posturing of politicians who are grandstanding for the most cynical of reasons. Another cause for concern alongside the current Covid infection statistics was Saturday’s City Hall protest against the Executive decision last week to introduce Covid passports for the hospitality sector. Among the hundreds of people at the demonstration there were doubtless people genuinely concerned about their personal rights, but to the fore were too many deeply nasty and sinister elements making grotesque comparisons between Nazi Germany and the Holocaust and the Stormont Executive’s latest pandemic public health initiative. Those people who turned up with good intentions and in good faith should have turned on their heel and left as soon as they saw that the event was being hijacked by precisely the kind of people who think the Democratic Party in the US is run by a cabal of blood-drinking paedophiles based in a New York pizza parlour. If you’re genuinely concerned about where we find ourselves nearly two years into this pandemic – and who isn’t? – yet you’re willing to stand shoulder to shoulder with crackpots and conspiracy theorists as our Health Service heroes put their lives on the line to keep us alive, you’re not expressing concern about the Covid crisis, you’re part of it.
WHEN a red panda escaped from Belfast Zoo a few years back, it got John Gray thinking.
WITH awards season firmly over, we can take stock of some of the winners of last week’s ceremonies before breezing over the last busy release period on the calendar before Christmas. On the 16th and 17th respectively, the RTE Folk Awards and the NI Music Prize (NIMP) took place in Vicar Street, Dublin and the Ulster Hall, Belfast. With Ye Vagabonds and John Francis Flynn cleaning up in the South, the NIMP saw the industry come together for a celebration of native talent after one of the most brutal years in recent memory. Nominations spanned folk, psychedelic, electronic, pop, rock and more, indications of a healthy scene that survived the ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic. Performances on the night came from NI music legends such as ASH and the next wave of headliners. Ryan McMullan, New Pagans, Sasha Samara and Dani Larkin all took to the stage to the delight of the audience, who sold out the room on the evening.
The Sunday Telegraph is always a useful place from which to trigger a culture war and to test reaction to the next policy tilt towards the right wing of English politics. On 14 November it carried a piece on the Johnson government’s plan to produce an ‘official’ history of ‘the Troubles’. This is necessary, the report claimed, because “IRA supporters are rewriting history”.
THE problem that faced Dúlra on the new Glas-na-Bradan forest on the Belfast Hills this week was how in years to come would he ever be able to tell the tree he planted from the 150,000 others? The answer is there in front of wee Mac the terrier – a tiny holly tree. The massive forest is being planted by members of the public this winter. You just book a time slot at www.woodlandtrust.org.uk, make your way up to the hill with a spade, collect the saplings up there, find somewhere not yet planted and set to work. The only rule is to plant the trees two metres apart. The trees include birch, Scots pine and alder. You can even take your own up – Dúlra asked – as long as it’s a native Irish tree. He could think of no better home for this tiny holly which had seeded below the big one in his garden, a tree which originally came from the Black Mountain. The garden holly – cuileann in Irish – is a godsend to the birds who live on their nerves trying to survive the daily sparrowhawk fly-through. There they can finally relax – so comfortable they often sit preening themselves safe in the knowledge that the thick and thorny foliage would wreck the hawk’s pristine coat. When Glas-na-Bradan begins to mature, Dúlra hopes his holly will play a similarly protective role, surrounded by all those wonderful deciduous trees that will be a haven for birdlife – and for birds of prey. All 150,000 saplings are sitting in sand on Glas-na-Bradan, waiting for volunteers to plant them. Some still had labels on them – they had been sourced from Cork. Conservationists know how vital it is not just to plant trees, but to plant native trees. Those are the ones which have best adapted to live here with all the associated plants and creatures, from bees to fungi. It made Dúlra laugh this week when he heard politicians complaining that the Protocol was stopping the importation of trees from Britain to help schools mark the centenary of partition – importing trees from Britain is as damaging as importing them from Asia. A ‘UK native tree’ is an oxymoron. If you’re planting trees in Ireland, they should originate in Ireland, a lesson you don’t have to teach the experts at the wonderfully named Glas-na-Bradan, Green of the Salmon. Dúlra parked at St Enda’s GAA club and walked the few hundred yards to where the 159 acres of windswept hillside – until now used only by cattle – are being transformed.Dúlra hadn't looked around until he was about to plant his tree – and then he suddenly realised that much of County Antrim lay before him, right up to Slemish. It was glorious.
On Thursday, Outburst Arts and the Belfast Ensemble in partnership with the Ulster Orchestra presented the world premiere of 'Mass We Believe' in the former Belfast Telegraph print works.
The time His Holiness the Dalai Lama visited Clonard, I remember Fr Gerry Reynolds, God bless him, telling me “that to err is human, to forgive is divine”. I don’t know what it was about Fr Gerry, but when he said that to me, it clicked.
JUST when we think this government and its absentee grand pooh-bah Brandon Lewis can’t get any more preposterously arrogant, they keep on surprising us. The suggestion this week of a British Government-commissioned ‘official’ conflict history is on the face of it such a self-evidently worthless and vacuous project that it leads us to question why anyone could think of compiling a history that will be roundly rejected by anyone with the vaguest commitment to the concepts of objectivity and fairness. The simple answer is that the finished work – if indeed it ever is completed – is not designed for consumption by a wide audience and it is not designed as a serious academic project; it is designed as pure propaganda to be aimed at key groups and individuals that the British aim to influence. Primary among that cohort would likely be schools. And doubtless any such history would be widely available around the world for any similarly mendacious regimes or institutions willing to disseminate a British Government-coloured version of what happened in Ireland.
“THIS is one of the great scandals of our time – not just here in the north, but across Ireland, England, Wales and Scotland.” The words of Professor Phil Scraton in relation to the mother and baby homes. Professor Scraton was a member of the Truth Recovery Design Panel, with Deirdre Mahon and Dr Maeve O’Rourke, which this year expeditiously examined the experiences of women and children who went through the mother and baby homes and drew up recommendations for the Executive based on these testimonies and the research conducted by Ulster and Queen’s Universities. Their recommendations were victim-centred and welcomed by the victims and survivors of these pernicious places of slavery and torture. This week in a moment that should be acknowledged, the Executive stood up. It did not cherrypick at the recommendations of full disclosure, public inquiry and redress. It committed itself to full implementation of all recommendations. Announcing the Executive response joint First Minister Michelle O’Neill spoke in a unique way that should resonate across these islands. These women who should have been shown “love, sympathy and kindness were instead isolated and excluded. Suffering was compounded on suffering. Let’s call this out for what it was. Abuse. Violation. Women and girls who had done no wrong – punished for becoming pregnant outside marriage, punished for being victims of rape and incest, humiliated, subjected to forced labour, robbed of their babies, denied the truth. It was wrong on every level.” This is unprecedented language and official acknowledgement of wrongdoing. Importantly it is entirely victim-centred. No more and no less than these women and their children deserve. These survivors will now see the establishment of a non-statutory public inquiry which will have full judicial powers to access all records and will have a programme of financial redress from the outset. And it will happen expeditiously. It is heartening to see and a full testament to those who unearthed this experience, gave testimony to its horror, and demanded official accountability. It is human rights compliance in the face of unconscionable abuse. It stands in stark and heart-breaking contrast to the treatment of victims of the conflict, whose human rights and histories are being torn up in Westminster. What has happened in Stormont this week, however, should give all courage. Victim-centred processes are possible. Victims and survivors can be supported to express their own violations, and identify their own needs, and be part of developing their own remedy. This is not a novel idea, it is how law and international human rights law, in particular, is meant to work. It is novel for our population, but you know what? The sky does not fall in. The institutions are strengthened by a human rights- and victim-centred approach to past violations. This is surely huge learning that is transferable for all actors to the conflict, and in particular for the British government. The awful irony/truth is that some of these survivors will also be affected by conflict violations. They will be now coming to terms with engaging with a process for one part of their life experience and still campaigning for their rights for other, often connected, experiences. This week allows us to give thanks to these campaigners for their fortitude and courage and a mandate to endeavour to do better and more for all victims of conflict violations.
ON my first teaching practice in the early 1960s I was in a school in East Belfast. I have forgotten most of my experiences there but one stands out. At lunchtime on the first day I met a ‘master’ who had been retired but brought back into service because of a shortage of trained teachers. Master Smith was reading a magazine entitled ‘Béalodeas’. I had earlier been told to keep my distance from the old warrior as he didn't suffer fools gladly, but over the first few days I got on well with him and he lent me two copies of the magazine over my first weekend. Béaloideas was the annual magazine of the Irish Folklore Commission and was edited by Seamus Delargy who had been born in Cushendall in 1899. The family, who were fluent Gaelic speakers, had moved south to Wicklow and, having graduated with a degree in Celtic Studies from UCD in 1926, Seamus helped found the Folklore of Ireland Society who published an annual magazine the following year with Delargey as editor for over 50 years. The Fianna Fáil government of 1935 renamed the society the Irish Folklore Commission with the Cushendall native, now known as Séamus Ó Duilearga, as director. He instigated what became one the most successful projects in Irish cultural history, the Schools' Collection Scheme, in which the children attending National Schools were encouraged to talk to their parents and grandparents about the past and to write their stories. Between 1937 and 1939 this task was overseen by members of the Irish National Teachers' Organisation in schools across the 26 counties and resulted in a collection of 750,000 pages of historical interest. Master Smith told me that efforts to have a similar initiative in the six counties were met with threats of instant dismissal from official sources here. Some work was done but the results were never collated and good material was lost. Master Smith told me that his mother and granny had known the Delargey family well. While he lauded the work done, he also raised the possibility of vivid imagination tainting the facts of the past. His grandfather had been a master in a school on the Ards Peninsula in the middle of the 19th century. A school inspector, knowing his interest in history, told him and the principal about an elderly lady, almost ninety years of age, who lived in a cabin between Groomsport and Donaghdee and could recall exciting incidents in the 1798 uprising by the United Irishmen. When the inspector was safely out of the way the two masters dismissed their pupils, mounted their horses and headed off to find the lady in question. An hour later they arrived at the door of the cabin and knocked. An old shawled lady opened the door. They explained what they had heard and asked if she would tell them some of her experiences. She agreed on condition that she would be compensated for her time and after being handed five shillings, she brought them to her fireside and told them her stories. On asking his grandfather if the visit was worthwhile and if he had learned anything new, his grandfather told him: “It was more than interesting. She remembered ’98 well. She was a brave lump of a girl at the time and her father called her in from the byre where she was milking the cow to show her a man hanging from the shafts of a cart. “She then saw a soldier on a big black horse being pulled to the ground by a dozen men and stabbed to death with big long pikes – ‘Messy things, those pikes!’” Master Smith told his grandfather his journey was hardly worthwhile if that was all he heard but his grandfather disagreed. “She told us a lot more. While my principal was busy taking notes of her story I asked her if she knew about Oliver Cromwell who had visited Ireland a good time earlier. She told him that she did. Her father had called her in from the field where she was digging the new potatoes and pointed to a man riding a white horse down the brae. She said that her father told her, “That's Oliver Cromwell and don't you forget it.” She said she always obeyed her father. Before Master Smith's grandfather could ask about Queen Elizabeth I or Noah's Ark his principal closed his exercise book and stood up. The dear old lady had earned her five bob. He had had enough.
WITH festivals such as Sound Of Belfast ensuring we are rife with gigs now that restrictions have been eased, festival promoters are already looking forward to next summer. After all, there’s ground to be made up from the past two years, and the people of Ireland have shown that we’ve done nothing but miss our artists. The first announced this week was All Together Now. Spearheaded by promoter giants Aiken and POD, ATN has established itself as a haven for native and international talent and is one of the nation’s favourite cultural gatherings. Taking place on July 29th to 31st, over the August Bank Holiday next year at Curraghmore, Waterford, following their two-year covid hiatus, Irish acts Denise Chaila, King Kong Company, John Francis Flynn, Abu Coulibaly and more take the stage alongside Nick Cave, Underworld and Jungle.
Hero. n. A person who is admired for their courage, outstanding achievements or noble qualities. APPARENTLY Dennis Hutchings was a hero. A “great man,” according to former Veterans Minister Johnny Mercer, speaking at his funeral, who was being laid to rest “by a grateful nation”. There’s been a hell of a lot of oul’ guff talked about what happened in that field in County Tyrone in 1974 and afterwards, mostly by people who haven’t taken the time to apprise themselves of the facts of the matter. So, herewith a reader-friendly overview of the killing of John Pat Cunningham and the meaning of ‘hero’. Immediately after the shooting, Hutchings, who was leader of the patrol involved in the killing, gave a series of “no comment’ interviews to investigators (also known as colleagues). In other words, he had been in charge of a unit which had been responsible for shooting a young man with learning difficulties in the back and he refused to say what happened. Might hiding the facts about that be described as “a noble quality”? Clearly in England it might. And in parts of our own loyal province, where prominent unionists have been tripping over themselves to pay tribute to a man who, it seems, single-handedly averted a civil war. Questioned a year later, Hutchings continued to reply “no comment” when asked what happened in the field at Benburb. And that was that – until the past came back to order him to attention. Faced by m’learned friends in court this year, Hutchings continued to rack up the “outstanding achievements” that are the dictionary definition of a hero. An Irish Times report reads: “A British Army veteran charged in relation to the fatal shooting of a man with learning difficulties does not accept that he fired any shots, his trial has heard.” The report continued: “In relation to the fatal shooting on June 15th, 1974, a defence barrister said Hutchings accepted he was in the field where the incident happened, but nothing else.” So there sat the brave old soldier in the dock, his medals pinned proudly to his chest, lying through his teeth about the slaughter of a vulnerable young man whose trousers were held up with baling twine and who was wearing odd socks when he fled terrified from Hutchings and his chums. Is that an “outstanding achievement” or is it a “noble quality”. Both, probably, says the DUP. So up to now and over the course of 47 years Hutchings has refused to say a dickybird about what he saw in the field when John Pat was cut down. And now as he sits in court with the cheers of a grateful nation ringing in his ears he has said he didn’t fire any shots. Which kind of suggests that Hutchings isn’t the sharpest bayonet in the barrack room since it was established when his rifle was taken from him all those years ago that he had in fact fired three shots. Hutchings therefore sounded the retreat, as this Belfast Telegraph report shows: “Dennnis Hutchings is to claim he fired only warning shots in the direction of a vulnerable young man while on duty with the army in County Tyrone in 1974.” So, to recap on Hutchings’ contribution over nearly half a century to the cause of truth and justice:“No comment.”“Didn’t fire any shots.”“Fired warning shots.” Easy to see why the DUP and the UUP were represented at his funeral alongside the Rolling Thunder veterans’ motorbike club, whose members are a bit like Hell’s Angels, only they smell of Vicks and talcum powder instead of Jack Daniels and weed. Right, what have we established so far? Well, we know that Hutchings refused to say what he knew about what happened in that field. We know that he lied his ging-gangs off about having fired no shots. And we know that his claim to have fired shots in the air is to be considered in the light of the fact that he’s a proven dissembler and liar. So that’s the dictionary definitions of “outstanding achievements” and “noble qualities” taken care of. What about “A person who is admired for their courage”? Let’s see now… Five shots were fired at John Pat that day. Or, if we take the word of proven liar and concealer-of-truth Hutchings, at him or over his head. The gentle, snowy-haired grandad, known before his date with the dock as Soldier A, fired three shots. A colleague, Soldier B, fired three shots. And of course Hutchings claims he fired his shots in the air, which means that he has pointed the finger of blame firmly in the direction of his old army chum, who fired the other two unaccounted-for shots. And does that old soldier admit that, yes, I shot a vulnerable young man in the back as he was running away from me and posing absolutely no danger? Well, no, actually, he doesn’t, for the very simple reason that he is dead. And, so, going by the evidence given by Hutchings, it was Soldier B what done it and he’s not around to say whether the proven liar is lying again. So, while Hutchings stabbed his old army chum in the back, he definitely didn’t shoot anybody in the back because he fired his shots in the air. It was his oul’ mate who did the foul deed, according to Hutchings. Is chucking your deceased chum under a Chieftain tank something that renders Hutchings “admired for his courage”? In Tory England and unionist Ulster it is. But what Soldier B’s family think about that brave veteran getting hung out to dry is a question that hasn’t yet been asked, much less answered. Which brings us finally the question of maths. John Pat Cunningham suffered three wounds: one to the back, one to the shoulder and one to the hand. Soldier B, the guilty man according to – all together now – Dennis Hutchings, fired two shots. Hutchings, according to liar Hutchings, fired his three shots in the air. So how come John Pat suffered three injuries? It is possible, naturally, that a single bullet can cause two wounds, but that theory will now never be stress-tested in court. And all we are left with is the evidence of Dennis Hutchings. Who claimed he never fired any shots. And then said he did. In the air. Who repeatedly said “no comment” when asked what happened to an innocent young man lying dead in a field with a bullet in his back. All hail the hero.