Local columnist declares war on teenage sexpots

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It really is amazing the things you hear on Talk Back. Thursday’s programme was quite a hoot, starting with the ritual pillorying of Labour MP Phil Woolas, who had been rash enough to make an off-colour joke about the late George Best during a Commons debate. Since Bestie is fast becoming Norn Iron’s answer to Princess Diana, this led to a furious blast of hot air from the terminally offended section of our population. Dunseith also brought in a couple of his regulars, so the hapless Woolas ended up having to apologise personally to Mark from Rathcoole.

But the show got its biggest response for ages with a contribution from Telegraph columnist Gail Walker. I found this astounding on a number of levels. Firstly, I had long suspected that Gail Walker didn’t actually exist, and her column was a clever spoof headed by a photofit. Secondly, Gail’s usual fare is to stick the boot into the “liberal left”, a term she uses even more promiscuously than Nick Cohen to include everyone from the SWP to Hillary Clinton. These columns annoy my brain, not just because they’re wrong but because they’re usually unbelievably stupid. Imagine Nick Cohen without the coherence, accuracy and sense of proportion, and you begin to approximate the awfulness of the Gail Walker column. 

What Gail was banging on about yesterday, however, was not part of the Cohen repertoire. Instead, she was deeply concerned about schoolgirls from Methodist College wearing their skirts too short. She spoke about this at some length, implying that the girls were encouraging seedy old men, and further opining that a bad example was set by Comic Relief publicity photos of popular beat combo Girls Aloud in saucy schoolgirl outfits. What Gail wanted was for school authorities to strictly enforce dress codes.

This received a rather dusty response from the listening public. One punter commented that Gail seemed to have a chip on her shoulder about Methody, which she writes about on a suspiciously regular basis. Another had some fun with a regular feature of her column, which is drooling over Calum Best and his toned physique. You at the back, if you’re thinking Gail is scared of the competition, you should be ashamed of yourself.

I want to be kind to Gail and acknowledge that she has some empirical evidence for her argument. When you see girls from certain schools about town, you can’t help notice lots of skirts well above the regulation knee length. Actually, Methody is far from the worst offender in this respect. Girls from Victoria are a pretty racy bunch. I sometimes have occasion to share a bus with Bloomfield girls, and it’s a bit like being stuck in a St Trinian’s movie, only with the volume up to eleven and added effing and blinding. This also goes beyond Belfast – a little while back there was a big barney in the Ards Chronicle about Regent girls’ dress habits. Oddly, the phenomenon appears to be concentrated in Protestant grammar schools – dress codes seem to function better at Catholic schools or working-class secondary schools.

But the thing that struck me was what an unsexy city we have here. It’s probably a legacy of Puritanism, but it’s telling that there should be a massive response from radio listeners to something so innocuous. Teenage girls who wear their skirts short generally do so to be fashionable and to attract male attention. Elsewhere, this would be accepted and probably go unnoticed, but in dour, puritanical Belfast, it can become cause for a major scandal. It’s at least a little encouraging that most readers seemed to feel the scandal was all over nothing.

Jackie McDonald’s Express

ryansexp.jpgYesterday was a grand day for loyalist GUBU. In Dublin, our Taoiseach met a PUP delegation led by dear departed Ervine’s successor Dawn Purvis, who wanted reassurance that Bertie was fully committed to devolution in the North and wasn’t plotting any dastardly schemes like joint authority. Bertie has of course said so many times, but Dawn wanted to hear it again.

Dawn also wanted the Dublin government to give assurances about cracking down on the threat of dissident republican violence. This is at a time when over a hundred people are under death threats believed to emanate from the UVF. But that’s all right, because Dawn says that the UVF told her this was not their doing, and Dawn is willing to take their word for it. Dawn Purvis, by the way, is a member of the Policing Board. 

Meanwhile, the British government’s ceasefire monitor issued its latest report [pdf]. The IMC told us, not that we needed telling, that both the UVF and UDA remained active and were up to their oxters in criminality. This despite the Provos, the loyalist groups’ ostensible reason for existing, effectively going out of business. The contradiction even penetrated our uncritical local media, with Wendy Austin on Good Morning Ulster asking Dawn what was the point of the UVF these days. Dawn, of course, dodged the question.

But our beautifully groomed proconsul doesn’t seem to have even the nous of the local media. Hain’s response to the IMC report was to say that this was the wrong time to isolate loyalism. He was convinced that the loyalist leaderships were decent and peaceful folk, who needed help to face down their backwoodsmen. This could be achieved by throwing yet more public money at armed loyalism.

As it happens, there are one or two things the British government could do to help working-class Protestant communities. Stopping public subsidies to the paramilitaries who prey on these communities would be a start.

The business of sectariana

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I’m not certain, but I have a feeling it was the late Al Richardson who came up with the concept of “market socialism”, the idea that far-left groups function like small businesses. The paradigmatic example of corporate Trotskyism would I suppose be the US SWP under the infamous Jack Barnes, which has long since become a successful publishing venture with a small party attached to it.

There is also the phenomenon of small left groups using commercial printing work to subsidise their revolutionary apparat. Gerry Healy was the trailblazer here, but Militant did it to good effect and so did Cliff’s SWP.

In general, “market socialism” has a less literal application, but still a good one in that the rules of competition, of market niches and of trying to get yourself a saleable product apply. Not to mention the proprietorial instincts of the groups’ leaders. Observers of the left with a taste for British sitcoms can be more specific yet. Militant, now rebranded the Socialist Party, is a bit like Arkwright’s in Open All Hours, a business at least two decades past its peak, clinging on like grim death to its customer base and with horizons so prosaic that a new bell for Granville’s bike seems the height of extravagance. The SWP are more like Del Boy, flogging dodgy goods out of the back of a van, consoling themselves with the hope that this time next year they’ll have a mass revolutionary party. If only they could shift these Latvian toasters…

(Although Kieran Allen reminds me more of Swiss Toni, but that’s another story.) 

If you can think of a left group that functions like Grace Brothers, we can have a full set. 

And now, from the good folks at Red Squirrel’s Lair, we have this extraordinary tale of Dave North, proprietor of the Socialist Equality Party/International Committee of the Fourth International/World Socialist Website, a fragment of the Healy movement best known for continuing its former guru’s charming practice of branding anyone who disagrees with it a CIA agent. But in real life Comrade North, it seems, is not a million miles removed from printing company CEO David W Green. Nice one Dave!

Then Socrates said to me…

plato.jpgHello and welcome to the all-new Splintered Sunrise on WordPress. I’ll carry over the links as quickly as possible, and maybe tinker about with the layouts a bit. Things might be slightly scrappy for a wee while, so please bear with me till I master the new format.

Our subject for the day is culture. I found myself musing on this a little after listening to Talk Back on Radio Ulster, but I’ll come to that in a second. Close observers of the North will be aware that Big Ian has nominated Edwin Poots, leader of Lisburn council, to be minister of culture in the new Executive. That would be the same Lisburn council that made a big stink about allowing the civic reception room to be used for civil partnerships as well as straight weddings, so there’s perhaps an indication of how likely the new minister is to smile on sponsorship for Gay Pride this year. Shadowing him will be the chair of the Assembly culture committee, Sinn Féin Nua’s Barry McElduff, a loyal and articulate Gerryite apparatchik who has never shown much indication of being well versed in the arts.

Maybe these two will surprise us, but I have a sneaking feeling that local columnist Newton Emerson is onto something. Newt has been having a bit of a chortle about how the minister’s reports to the committee will be the modern equivalent of the Socratic dialogues. Which reminds me of a story that’s nearly too good to be true but actually did happen. Right at the start of the Troubles the RUC carried out a raid on the Falls Road, and one of the incriminating items they seized was a copy of Plato’s Republic. This on the grounds that they had been ordered to confiscate any republican literature they found.

On Monday Dunseith did a feature on the future of the Long Kesh site, and proposals to put up an H-Block museum. The Provos’ Paul Butler went on and fulminated on behalf of the museum proposal, while Jeffrey Boy Donaldson fulminated for the DUP on how this would glorify terrorism.

Tuesday saw a variation on this theme, when Drew Nelson of the Orange Order popped up to demand an apology from Gerry Adams for the torching of Orange halls in rural areas. That is, Grizzly should personally apologise to the Orange Order for every hall burning in the past 30 years. Bro Nelson was on shaky ground and he knew it, starting out with the accusation that the Provos had done the burnings as a matter of policy, then retreating to the proposition that Provo agitation against Orange marches had created the atmosphere that made the burnings possible. One thing he absolutely wouldn’t entertain was the idea that the Orange might have borne some responsibility for the hostility towards them from Catholics. Nonetheless, Bro Nelson was determined to get his apology from Grizzly. PSF Assembly member John O’Dowd was brought on to argue against Nelson, and did so quite trenchantly.

This seems to be the pattern now. There was a lot of hot air during the election campaign about socio-economic issues coming to the fore. Actually, there is next to no difference between the parties on socio-economic issues – or there appears to be very little, as none of the four big parties has taken issue with the Programme for Government, or even seen fit to demand its publication. Instead we get furious arguments about the above issues, or the Acht Gaeilge, or how many days of the year the Union Jack gets flown above government buildings.

For unionism, this is par for the course. Unionists have long been famed for their inability to let a minor symbolic issue pass them by. To take one recent example, in Ballymena the borough’s lone PSF councillor Monica Digney failed to stand when the mayor entered the council chamber. The prudent DUP group then decided to spend ratepayers’ money on a judicial review to determine whether councillors were legally obliged to stand on the mayor’s entrance.

When it comes to the Provos, I am slightly more cynical. Many of their demands, for example around the Irish language, are entirely supportable in and of themselves, and I’m not questioning for a moment the sincerity of people who are seriously involved around those campaigns. But I have a nagging feeling that a stepping up of the sound and fury around cultural issues serves the very useful purpose of covering their lack of radicalism elsewhere. When the big issues aren’t controversial, one tends to find controversy springing up over what in other times would count as smaller issues.

Tomás Mac Giolla: I ain’t dead yet

Courtesy of WorldbyStorm over on Cedar Lounge, my attention has been drawn to the extensive interview with long-time Workers Party leader Tomás Mac Giolla in the latest Magoo magazine. And very sprightly Tomás seems too – I’m slightly surprised to hear that he’s still alive, but surprised in a good way. Like WbS, I’m rather more sympathetic to Tomás now than I would have been in the past, although probably for different reasons.

Apropos of Tomás’s comments on Ruairí Ó Brádaigh and the discussion on CLR about the Official/Provo split, it strikes me that there is something to WbS’s point about the defence of old old positions. As opposed to the de Rossas or Grizzlys who abandon old positions without putting anything in their place save the pursuit of power within the current system. That’s a charge that can’t be laid against either Mac Giolla or Ó Brádaigh. Certainly, one of Ruairí’s great selling points is that nobody is ever in any doubt about where he stands. And while I can well imagine the WP simply fading away, RSF won’t, simply because the market for traditional republicanism may be small but it’s steady and will always be there this side of unity.

Here’s an interesting point, though, about 1969/70. I’ve written a bit about that split and how it impacted on republicanism North and South, and that’s a theme I’ll be developing further. But I think it’s important to note that the split was not simply a question of Defenderist militarism versus electoral vanguardism, although that was the major dividing line in the Six. Nor was it a question of socialism versus conservatism – to be sure, on the Provo side there were some howling reactionaries, but the ideologues – and I’m thinking primarily of Dáithí Ó Conaill and the Ó Brádaigh brothers – were seriously interested in progressive politics, had no problem describing themselves as socialists (while being suspicious of too close a connection to the Communist Party) and had been key figures in the programme debates of the mid to late 1960s.

The point was that there wasn’t a problem with the adoption of socialism, as long as the basic republican orientation, denying the legitimacy of partitionist assemblies first and foremost, was not compromised. The bitterness of the 1970s, at least on the Provisional side, sprung to a great extent from the belief that the Officials had tried to convert the militant republican movement into something it wasn’t and couldn’t be. As Ruairí often says, much of the bad blood wouldn’t have existed if the Officials had simply left Sinn Féin, as so many others had done, to set up a new constitutional republican party, a sort of more socialist version of Clann na Poblachta.

But again this issue is complicated, and I don’t entirely agree with Ruairí on it. From his point of view, the abandonment of abstentionism and the basic republican beliefs that abstentionism flowed from, of and by itself meant a shift into constitutionalism. I’m not sure about that, not only because I’m not a theological abstentionist, but also because I’m not convinced that the Sticks actually set out to go constitutional, although constitutional they undoubtedly became. I’m willing to be charitable and allow that Mac Giolla, Goulding and Garland (Costello too I suppose, although he was always sui generis) were really serious about converting the republican movement into a revolutionary Marxist-Leninist party, and had some success in so doing. The WP then, or at least the SFWP of the 1970s, was probably the best chance the Irish left has ever had of building a revolutionary party with real social weight. It certainly throws into sharp relief the claims of the Anglocentric far-left groupings about their historic advances.

How this potential wasn’t achieved is a fascinating story in itself, and one that other people are probably better placed to tell than me. (Not that I wouldn’t have a go…) The main pitfall I suppose was the WP’s chronic split personality, never having resolved the issue of whether it was a constitutional socialist party or a revolutionary Marxist-Leninist party. That’s a contradiction the CPI has learnt to live with by clever application of the dialectic, but of course the WP had yet more complicating factors.

Still, nice to see old Tomás still motoring along, and sticking the boot into de Rossa and Rabbitte with admirable vim.

Finally, I realise that due to workload my blogging hasn’t been as frequent these last lot of weeks as it might have been. I am endeavouring to keep the thing regular, if not daily then a couple of posts a week anyway. Thanks for your patience.

He bounces on the ground

How does this balloon get so much work? I ask merely for information. At time of writing, Stephen Nolan has a daily show on Radio Ulster, a network show on Five Live and a TV show. At the current rate of expansion, Nolan will soon have a bigger presence on BBCNI than the Hole In The Wall Gang.

Strangely enough, despite his limitations – he’s hopelessly out of his depth when it comes to politics – the rotund DJ does illustrate something about the level of discourse in the North. Billed as a shock jock, Norn Iron’s equivalent of Stern or Imus I presume, the only times Nolan deviates from conventional wisdom is when his heroic ability to miss the point kicks in. There is no break from the sycophancy that surrounds our political class – you have to go to The Folks On The Hill for that. Steve makes up for this, however, by affecting a permanently raised voice which is meant to give the impression of anger.

I happened to catch a little of Nolan Live on BBCNI last week. The topic for discussion was anti-social behaviour, arising from the small riot in Bangor a few days before. The local media have been pretty unanimous in avoiding the pertinent point, which is that the drunken youth involved had gone to Bangor for a big Orange hooley. The Orange brethren have escaped totally unscathed. Did Nolan break with the consensus? No, he did not. Instead, he vox-popped some kids from, er, Poleglass, who I am fairly confident in saying were not in Bangor following the Orangemen. What made the interview even more hilarious was that the Poleglass youth had obviously been prepped by some community worker.

The interview went something like this:

Nolan: “Oi! What have youse anti-social youth got to say for yourselves?”

Poleglass youth: “We need more youth centres. Gissa grant.”

Sin é.

And that’s without going into our shock jock’s shockingly sycophantic tête-à-tête with Big Ian…

You would think one dose of Nolan in one week would be enough for anyone. But last night I was innocently flicking through the wireless when I happened to catch the chubby chatterbox on Five Live. The topic of conversation was the gallant sailors of the Royal Navy who had gone on a pleasure cruise, iPods in pockets, only to be picked up by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard who subjected them to cruel and unusual punishments such as, well, forcing them to play ping-pong and calling them Mr Bean. Then the Iranians showed a flair for PR that made Britain look like a banana republic.

This is ripe ground for anyone with a sense of the absurd. Gorgeous George, filling in for Gaunty on talkSPORT last week, was especially funny. How did Nolan perform?

Punter: “These sailors. What a bunch of big jessies, eh?”

Nolan: “They were in fear of their lives! They could have been killed!”

Punter: “Didn’t you see them playing ping-pong?”

Nolan (approaching apoplexy): “That was edited footage! It was PROPAGANDA!!!”

Then we drifted off into a discussion of Prince William’s engagement, something that interests me not in the slightest. I got as far as

Punter: “I think the girl is well out of it, she’s already wasted four years on this twerp.”

Nolan: “They might have been in love you know!”

before having to change channels. Lord give me strength. If you have the endurance, Angry Steve can actually be unintentionally hilarious, but I find he works best in small doses.

Kurt Vonnegut is dead

Just a brief stopgap post today, and I assure you a longer piece will be along shortly as time and energy permit. I just wanted to say I was deeply saddened to hear about the death of Kurt Vonnegut, whose novels I used to devour on a regular basis. He was a standing example of what was good about American culture, and American socialists aren’t so thick on the ground that the loss of an articulate radical is easily missed.

I expect there will now be something of a run on sales of Slaughterhouse Five, and rightly so. But do yourself a favour and dig a little deeper. Check out Mother Night or Cat’s Cradle. Maybe even Bluebeard. But certainly don’t miss Mother Night.

Rud eile: From What Next?, this sterling defence of James Connolly by Rayner Lysaght may be of interest to regular readers.

Stormont MLAs say no to useless talking shop

One small story from the Teddy Bear’s Head that I almost missed – with the restoration of Stormont imminent, the British government is dead keen on restoring the Civic Forum. “What’s the Civic Forum?” I hear the broad masses cry. This is a 60-member consultative body, appointed by the First and Deputy First Ministers, which makes the Free State Seanad look like a legislative powerhouse. Its job is to provide a space where peace process “stakeholders” can have a say on Executive policy.

So, who gets to be on the Forum? Well, in the first instance there are failed Assembly candidates, either influential old-timers who need appeasing or rising stars who are highly esteemed by their parties, but less so by the great unwashed. (In the latter category, one might want to look out for the SDLP’s Sharon “Lovely Girl” Haughey or the DUP’s Christopher “Milky Bar Kid” Stalford.) In addition, the community sector, alias the peace industry, is in there. The loyalist paramilitaries are in there, under the “community” rubric. The NIC-ICTU bureaucracy is in there. And there should be a few academics, to lend tone to the proceedings. In the Big Tent of the Peace Process, all are welcome.

(Parenthetically, the powers that be are missing a trick if they don’t appoint the left. Eamonn McCann and Peter Hadden would scarcely turn down an opportunity to speechify at public expense, and they have as good a claim to be in the Civic Forum as some of those who might be appointed.)

This has, believe it or not, come up against some resistance from Stormont MLAs, particularly the parsimonious DUP. Our representatives seem to have cottoned on that 108 MLAs, a dozen ministers and nearly 600 councillors are enough to be getting along with in a population of 1.7 million, and begrudge shelling out the £2m or so that would allow 60 of the Province’s great and good to be consulted on the Executive’s actions.

But isn’t this terribly stingy? Given that most of the North’s workforce is on the public payroll, what’s the real harm in bunging the great and good a few quid in expenses? And if the Civic Forum could find a way to keep Bob “Cream Bun” McCartney in the political sphere, it would be doing our entertainment industry – whoops, public life – a world of good.

Real life ever more closely resembles a Colin Bateman novel

One of the advantages of covering the peace process is that quite often it manages to be GUBU in about five dimensions at once. Such is the case with this week’s most startling event, the big conference called to consider how the £1.2m public subvention to the UDA is going to be spent. Chaired by business honcho Sir George Quigley and attended by chief constable Sir Hugh Orde and the Catholic bishops as well as loyalist paramilitaries, a solemn discussion was held on how giving a big whack of public money to drug dealers, pimps and extortionists was going to turn them into facilitators for the peace process. Since most of the paramilitaries are part of the peace industry already, how this is going to work beats me.This was preceded by a meeting of foreign ambassadors in Dublin, which had been summoned by Bertie to talk about how the international community could help the UDA go legit. This raises the prospect of yet more windfalls for Uncle Andy and Big Mervyn – unless the foreign governments have an ounce of sense about them.

Nice quote though from Orde. Asked whether the UDA had given up criminality, he said that the evidence was “mixed”. In other words, no. Nobody seems too concerned about that, just as nobody seems too keen to raise the issue of loyalist decommissioning.

Meanwhile, although the full ministerial line-up of the new Executive is not yet clear, the carve-up of departments between the parties makes for interesting reading. Basically, the Provos have been lumbered with water charges (Conor Murphy) and the 11+ (Caitríona Ruane), while the DUP get to hold the purse-strings. This Machiavellian strategy has Robbo’s name written all over it.

Funniest of all, though, is the DUP getting culture. I knew Big Ian had a wicked sense of humour, but this is sailing perilously close to taking the piss. My first reaction is that this is yet another nail in the coffin for the Acht Gaeilge. My second reaction is that the gay community is going to have trouble scoring grants. And the deity only knows what the DUP would want to promote under the rubric of culture. This is, after all, the party that famously banned ELO from playing Ballymena on the grounds that Jeff Lynne’s combo was satanic.

Of course, it is always possible that DUP ministers will adhere rigidly to their Section 75 obligations, and might even have the odd progressive idea. But I’ll believe it when I see it.

What’s Left? A note on sources

On returning from my short break, it is a matter of extreme pleasure to your humble scribe to get a nice plug from the estimable Mick Fealty over on Slugger. This has meant my site traffic going through the roof over the last day or so, so I’d like to take this opportunity to welcome new readers. I hope you enjoy the commentary here and decide to stick around.

The obvious story to go with is the restoration of the Executive, but this is going to run and run, and the major theme of this blog – the GUBU nature of Northern politics – will I’m sure get ample fuel from the new devolved dispensation. So I’m going to fulfil a long-standing promise to regular readers, and begin looking at Nick Cohen’s What’s Left? Nick’s book being the disjointed ramble it is, and owing to the fact that it’s difficult to read more than three pages at a go, this will be a serialised review.

The most obvious place to start is on Nick’s sources. A good deal of Nick’s authority comes from his reputation as an investigative journalist, which leads the casual reader to assume that Nick is basing his polemic on reliable information. Of course, a journo is only as good as his sources – as the late Paul Foot used to say, while the journalist may get the byline he is pretty much reliant on his network of informants. Nick, as someone identified with the left, tended to get a lot of his stories from lefty informants. For example, his exposés on education owed not a little to information provided by SWP teachers. Apart from Nick’s gifts as a stylist, this is one of the major reasons for the bite that his early demolitions of Blairism possessed.

A major aspect of Nick’s evolution since 2002 is that he no longer talks to the sort of people who fed him his stories. He has relied ever more heavily on a relatively small circle of friends and colleagues who all think alike, who are preoccupied with foreign policy (always Nick’s weak point) and who, whatever their feelings about the man himself, have done rather well under the Blair regime. It is no surprise, then, that What’s Left? relies to an unconscionable extent on the writings of Nick’s pals, as well as on cutting and pasting from congenial blogs and websites.

Nick is pretty open about this in his rogues’ gallery of acknowledgements, but this is something you notice throughout the book. One of the least attractive features of the Decent Left is their incestuous tendency to cite each other as authorities, and this gives What’s Left? something of the quality of a Normblog post stretched out to enormous length. This wouldn’t be quite so bad if Nick was relying on genuinely distinguished authorities, but…

Nick’s writing on the Balkans derives almost entirely from Marko Attila Hoare, the Nigel Irritable of the Decent Left and a swivel-eyed Serbophobe. The sections on postmodernism (which Nick clearly doesn’t understand) and Chomsky (ditto) are lifted almost verbatim from the relevant chapters of Francis Wheen’s Mumbo-Jumbo. Nick’s authority on Trotskyism is veteran icepick-wielder Paul Anderson. Nick’s big mate Oliver Kampf not only contributes the stuff on George Lansbury but also, as a full-spectrum idiot, seems to have chipped in with dubious factoids on virtually every subject Nick covers.

A critique of Nick will therefore enable, nay require, an examination of his dodgy sources, which he has regurgitated and embellished with scant regard for any independent research or checking of facts. Nick has a breathless style that may carry you along with his logical leaps, if you assume that the premises those leaps are based on are fairly sound. But they aren’t.

Update 5.4.07: Eagle-eyed readers will note that the image on this post has been changed. The original image was the result of my enthusiasm for a rather puerile punchline running away with me. I have reconsidered on receiving representations from readers who felt my humour was in poor taste, could be construed as misogynistic, and anyway I should have known better than to try and get away with boob jokes on a socialist blog.

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