From the revolution in Nepal… a musical interlude

Those Nepalese Maoists are an impressive movement in a lot of ways… I just didn’t expect to see them in a song and dance number. Maybe this foreshadows the proletarian Bollywood we might get if the Naxals ever take power down India way.

Newspaper astounded to discover that area woman has tits

With a general election coming up and 650 constituencies to choose from, why is the Mail on Sunday particularly preoccupied with the race in the Nottinghamshire constituency of Ashfield? I ask merely for information.

To be more precise, the Mail isn’t obsessed with the Ashfield constituency as such. It is obsessed with the candidate chosen by the Labour Party to succeed the retiring Geoff “Buff” Hoon. This is Bradford native Gloria de Piero, a party member since her teens, former party press officer, journalist and well-connected networker. There may be a little celebrity frisson here, as Gloria is coming off a stint as political editor of GMTV, which means that if you used to get up at six in the morning you could see her standing outside the Palace of Westminster in her duffel coat – in the dark, when nobody else was there – to do a “going live” piece to camera. But as celebrity goes… well, we’re not in Simon Cowell territory here.

I have to declare an interest as I knew Gloria slightly back in her days as a NOLS activist. What do I remember about her? She was bright, articulate and energetic; she was down to earth; and she came across as nice, which was memorable as NOLS at the time was defined by Jim Murphy, a man who will never run a charm school. Oh yes, and she had a couple of other outstanding attributes. Even from the other side of a conference hall, you couldn’t miss them.

As I mention, the Mail has had an interest in Gloria for a while, invariably stressing her glamorous image. (Well, relatively glamorous. Vide that duffel coat from the GMTV News Hour; and if she wants to be a Labour MP she’ll have to start dressing like an Avis Rent-a-Car girl. It’s the law.) But now, the Mail has got down to brass tacks. Yes, it’s run a front-page splash on a parliamentary candidate having big tits.

Seriously:

Brown star was a Page 3 girl aged 15: Yesterday she posed with PM, but 20 years ago she was topless model

That was the front-page headline, not of the Sunday Sport, but of the Mail on Sunday. Jesus wept.

Labour’s attempts to add glamour to their Election launch came under fire last night when it emerged that the candidate placed near Gordon Brown in a promotional photo posed topless when she was 15 years old.

The revelation reignites the row over the use of all-women shortlists, when carefully chosen, often glamorous, candidates are parachuted in to safe seats ahead of more qualified local activists.

The second paragraph is what’s technically known as “throat-clearing”, that is a transparent attempt to make it look like a real political story. But back to Gloria’s tits:

The Page Three-style pictures of television presenter Gloria De Piero were taken by a photographic agency in her native Bradford without her parents’ knowledge. Friends say Ms De Piero was seeking to earn some extra money when she posed for the photographs, thought to have been taken in 1988, before her 16th birthday.

So, Page Three “style” pictures. So, she wasn’t actually a Page Three girl then – we’re talking about a young woman who briefly considers modelling as a way of earning money, and poses for a few portfolio photos, one or two of which might have been a bit saucy. It happens all the time.

Such photographs would have been illegal, as she had not yet turned 16.

This may be true, and the age limit for glamour photography has since been raised to 18. But back in the 1980s the boundaries weren’t quite as stringently policed, and a lot of the Page Three phenomenon, then at its height, traded on a “barely legal” aesthetic. Samantha Fox, the biggest name in the business, started topless modelling at 16; one recalls Debee Ashby being expelled from school and unable to do her A-levels after appearing on Page Three.

But party officials deny former GMTV political correspondent Ms De Piero was picked for her looks.

‘Gloria has been a committed Labour supporter for many years,’ said one. ‘The idea that she needed help to become a candidate is nonsense. She is highly intelligent and commands great respect from colleagues in journalism as well as politics. What she did as a teenager is irrelevant. So what if she posed for a few risqué photos?’

Yes, and these photos – assuming they exist, because they haven’t surfaced yet – date from 22 years ago. There is, I’ll grant you, something of an argument about the parachuting of photogenic candidates into safe seats, something that was a huge issue in Labour around 1997 and is a huge issue for “Dave” Cameron’s New Tories today. But the Mail seems more interested in the tits angle:

The revelation will also be an embarrassment to staunch feminist Ms Harman, who has championed all-women shortlists as well as trying to ban semi-naked Page Three girls from newspapers.

Well, one assumes Harriet Harman is a woman of the world. And what of Glenda Jackson’s parliamentary record – she’s not beyond criticism to be sure, but the voters of Hampstead never seemed too perturbed by her having stripped off in Ken Russell films twenty years earlier.

A source close to Ms De Piero confirmed yesterday that she had posed for the topless pictures without her parents’ knowledge when she was 15 years old. The source said: ‘She just decided to do it to earn a bit of money. It was a photographic agency and she knew that the topless pictures could be put out to newspapers.’

Maybe I’m being cynical, but there may just possibly be a bit of damage limitation from Gloria’s side to pre-empt the possibility of those photos suddenly surfacing during the campaign. Certainly, the latter third of the article is complimentary towards her, and could almost come from her own campaign leaflets.

But at the end of the day, we’re still talking about a national newspaper running a front-page splash – with two more pages inside – on “parliamentary candidate has big tits”. One expects this sort of thing on a satirical blog. One even expects it on the Daily Mail website, with its endless stories about top-heavy American celebutante Kim Kardashian – someone virtually unheard of in Britain, but who would generate lots of web traffic from the States – going shopping, eating a salad etc. The 200-plus comments on the Mail website, many of them variations on “phwoar”, would indicate something similar. But all the same, this is a pretty blatant example of Googlejuice churnalism seeping through into the print edition.

And can someone remind me why enormous numbers of women read the Mail? Is it some kind of a masochism kick?

Colonial settler regime demands tribute from vassal state

Did I just mention the Phoenix? Page 9 of the current issue has a long and interesting article on the diplomatic fallout from the use of forged Irish passports by Mossad assassins. Which is to say, although Micheál Martin remonstrated with the Israeli government in rather strong terms, the DFA has no plans to tighten up of Section 10 of the Passports Act 2008, where you will find the loophole whereby intelligence operatives of “friendly” states (Brits, Yanks, Israelis) use Irish passports to go about their dodgy business, and the Dublin government doesn’t make things difficult for them. The quid pro quo is that a small state without much in the way of an intelligence-gathering operation gets to piggyback on intel gathered by the CIA, MI6, Mossad et al.

And therefore Minister Martin’s outrage is entirely without consequences, much like David Miliband’s expulsion of a solitary Israeli diplomat. Israel-firster commentator Stephen Pollard said on News 24 that this was just a bit of pro forma stuff, and I suspect he was right. Sending the Israelis to the naughty step doesn’t work, because sooner rather than later they’ll be back doing the same thing. Six years ago, when Mossad were caught doing the same thing with New Zealand passports, the Kiwi government actually did take tough action, and eventually got a clenched-teeth apology, and if Mossad have tried it on with NZ passports since, they’ve been extremely discreet about it.

Anyway, talking of Ireland and Israel, in the last couple of weeks we’ve had a good illustration of who has diplomatic clout and who doesn’t. As usual, almost the entire Irish political class, north and south, headed over to Washington for St Drunkard’s Day with the aim of sucking up to Barack O’Bama. In fact, a couple of minor party leaders from the north (Margaret Ritchie and Reg Empey) were extremely miffed at not being invited into an Teach Bán so they could suck up to the Emperor in person. Theoretically, the enormous Irish diaspora plus the purchase of Irish culture (well all right, kitsch paddywhackery) could afford an Irish government with a bit of diplomatic zing some opportunities to advance its interests. And this might be a possibility, if you had a government with a few ideas and a positive foreign policy, such as we had under de Valera. But no, for as long as anyone can remember it’s all been about sucking up. That’s a clear example of the dog wagging the tail.

For an example of the opposite, you just had to take a look at last week’s Aipac conference, one of the main events of the Washington political calendar, when administration officials and most of the membership of Congress compete with each other in vigorously sucking up to the Zios. And not without reason – when you look at the way Cynthia McKinney was done over, it’s not surprising that few elected officials have the balls to stand up to the Lobby. Aipac, by the way, is completely unabashed about this – shit, they’re proud of it. I don’t understand how anyone could dismiss as a conspiracy theory Mearsheimer and Walt’s impeccably researched book on the power of the Israel Lobby, because there very obviously is an Israel Lobby, and moreover one that actively boasts about its political clout.

And into this jamboree strides none other than Bibi Netanyahu, with his grisly sidekick Ehud Barak in tow. And lo, to look at Bibi swanking about Washington as if he owned the place, you would wonder who exactly the Emperor was. Then you got to Bibi’s speech, which was delivered with all the high-octane bullshit quotient you would expect from an insurance salesman, which is what Bibi used to be.

Milking the memory of the Holocaust? Check. Banging the drum for war with Iran? Check. Criticism of Israel the same as anti-Semitism? Check. Double standards applied to Israel? Check. Our 4000-year attachment to Eretz Israel? Check. I call on Abbas to come to the negotiating table? Check. The living standards of Palestinians thriving under the occupation? Check. The Goldstone Report equivalent to blood libel? Check.

God, it’s wearying stuff, and you could write it yourself. Although to be fair, it was slightly less bellicose than what the AWL puts out.

Meanwhile, relations between Washington and Israel are said to be at a low ebb. Why is this? Well, Joe Biden was recently in Israel promoting Washington’s peace plan, which involves a freeze in settlement building. Bibi announced more construction while Biden was in the country, which can only be interpreted as holding up two fingers to the Yanks. Biden was miffed, and said so; the Israelis waxed wroth about Biden daring to be miffed.

So, how bad are those relations?

As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in Washington this week absorbing the full wrath of the Obama administration, the Pentagon and Israel’s defense establishment were in the process of sealing a large arms deal.

According to the deal, Israel will purchase three new Hercules C-130J airplanes. The deal for the three aircrafts, designed by Lockheed Martin, is worth roughly a quarter billion dollars. Each aircraft costs $70 million.

The aircrafts were manufactured specifically for Israeli needs, and include a large number of systems produced by Israel’s defense industry. The deal will be covered by American foreign assistance funds.

Yeah, Bibi, how do you like that wrath? Ain’t no way you’re going to have business as usual after snubbing the Yanks like that!

Electric Enda in “well thought-out scheme” shock

Yes, the one guaranteed conversation-killer in an Irish pub is “So what do you think about Seanad reform?” But unperturbed, our quote of the day is from the current Phoenix:

Parallel to this concern about Kenny’s basic conservatism as he waits for power to be simply handed to him, is a distinct coolness about the would be crusade to reform Irish political structures. There are several reasons for this, but a big, unifying reason is that just at a time when FG has a record number of councillors (the guys who actually vote for senators round the country), meaning that it is on the verge of electing a record number of senators, Kenny decides to abolish the Senate.

Not, of course, that this blog has any objection to reform of the Seanad, though as the political system goes it’s mostly harmless. De Valera once abolished the Senate, and it was a good day’s work. But Enda… you know, sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between a brilliant stroke and a dopey stunt… and sometimes it isn’t…

The Hitch talks about his book

It’s the good Hitchens brother, as my old mucker Peter talks about his spanking new book, The Rage Against God. I’m halfway through it at the moment, very enjoyable it is too, and there will be a review to follow. Anyway, give this a watch. Peter’s engaging as ever here, and gives a few fascinating insights into his background and thinking. Very nice pictures of the author as a young boy, alongside the future drink-soaked popinjay.

Keep well wrapped up if you visit the Frozen North

And so we turn our gaze to a small, bankrupt island just fornenst the Arctic Circle. During the Years of Irresponsibility, Iceland marketed itself so effectively to tourists as Europe’s premier party destination that it’s hard to remember that the Icelanders actually had prohibition as late as 1989. Now, however, things are tightening up – not thanks to Lutheranism this time though, but to feminism. The Icelandic parliament, it seems, has been immersed in deep study of Natasha Walter:

A legislation banning striptease in Iceland and barring clubs from making profit from the nudity of employees of will take effect on July 1, 2010. The legislation was passed with 31 votes. Two MPs of the Independence Party abstained but no one voted against it.

“It is pleasing how fresh the breeze of equality is at Althingi [the Icelandic parliament] these days,” said Siv Fridleifsdótttir of the Progressive Party, the bill’s first presenter, Fréttabladid reports.

She also said a step had been taken towards increased democracy, considering a legislation which was presented by a member of the opposition was passed.

Stripping had generally been banned in Iceland before yesterday’s legislation was passed, but a few clubs were operating on a legal exemption. Now they will no longer be able to do so.

Ásgeir Davídsson who runs the strip club Goldfinger in Kópavogur is looking into whether he can sue the Icelandic state for compensation.

“I have reached the age where I’m not sure whether I want to bother with this hassle anymore,” he said. “I would be relieved if they just paid me compensation and I would quit.”

Davídsson said yesterday’s legislation reminds him of regulations in countries where hardly any part of a woman’s body can be seen in public. He claimed Iceland is the first European country to ban stripping.

Fridleifsdóttir said she doesn’t know whether it is true that Iceland is the first country in Europe to pass such a legislation.

“But we showed consideration while passing the legislation by allowing the clubs a long time to adjust,” she said, adding that the parliament’s General Committee does not believe strip clubs are entitled to compensation.

Cocktail time

I’ve just heard that friend and comrade Madam Miaow is on the longlist for the blogging category of the Orwell Prize. For a very well deserved slot in the final fourteen, congratulations are in order. Also from the extended family, a big shout out to Dave and Laurie; and (as a viewer of Law & Order) I should also mention that Jack of Kent and PC Bloggs are among my regular reads. Best of luck to all concerned.

Your humble scribe is not there, but is in the shortlist for the News and Current Affairs category (sponsored by dediserve) at the Irish Blog Awards this weekend. The other finalists in the category are Ireland’s cleverest man David McWilliams, Human Rights in Ireland, Bock the Robber and Maman Poulet. One will not, unfortunately, be in Gaillimh for the big event; but big up everybody in any case, and good luck to the nordies entered – not many of us, sure, but quality over quantity. And while youse are all partying, I will be having a nice quiet weekend with a cup of tea, a chocolate gravy ring and some Dr Feelgood (or it may be King Crimson, one never knows) on the music box.

And, while we’re in backslapping mode, Kerry has made a Top 10 political blogs list in the Grauniad, and His Hermeneuticalness has passed two million hits. Irie!

Orangemen are not the only fruits

See this punter? His name is Adrian Watson, and he’s the mayor of Antrim. Why are we interested in him? Allow me to recap.

So, the Unionist Party has formed an electoral bloc with the British Tories, which goes under the catchy name of the Ulster Conservative and Unionist New Force. From “Dave” Cameron’s point of view, the UCUNF arrangement provides him with eighteen candidates in the north at a cut price, and the possibility of one or two Unionist MPs pledged to support him in a hung parliament; from Reg Empey’s point of view, it provides him with a Big Idea (non-sectarian pan-UK civic unionism) and a little Ashcroft money. Since the Big Idea seems mostly to be of interest to four or five Toryboy bloggers, one presumes Reggie is more interested in the bottom line.

There are also minuses on both sides. From Cameron’s point of view, he’s now stuck with the Unionist Party, which as any Tory grandee could tell him is more trouble than it’s worth. From Reggie’s point of view, it means having to give a leg up to the 250 or so Ulster Tories and whatever dingbat candidates they came up with. It also meant a commitment to run in all eighteen constituencies, which ruled out arrangements with the DUP to run pan-Prod candidates in Fermanagh/South Tyrone and South Belfast. (This didn’t, however, stop them playing footsie with the DUP over electoral pacts, and managing as a result to mislay the two Catholics who had been induced to become Tory candidates.) Moreover, there’s been the small matter of the sole Ulster Unionist MP, Lady Sylvia Hermon, who unfortunately for Reggie is a Labour supporter and adamantly refused to stand under the Tory banner.

However, despite such small hiccups, the laborious UCUNF candidate selection process has proceeded. A couple of weeks back, the first nine were announced, including TV’s Mike Nesbitt, rugby legend Trevor Ringland, Daphne Trimble and Norn Iron’s top Freddie Mercury impersonator Flash Harry. We were then told the other nine would soon be forthcoming, and yea, we have eight of them. Thereby hangs a tale, but first, who are the eight?

Firstly, in the two seats that have been the subject of megaphone diplomacy with the DUP, Tom Elliott is nominated in Fermanagh and the scarily energetic Paula Bradshaw in South Belfast. That means no pact with the DUP, and both parties can continue tearing lumps out of each other on the subject of who’s most in favour of unionist unity.

Secondly, there are only two Tories, and I’m not sure one of them counts. The completely unknown Irwin Armstrong is a candidate in North Antrim, but that will be fought out between Ian Óg Paisley and Jim Allister, with Irwin a mere supporting attraction. The other, entering a very crowded field in North Down, is local councillor Ian Parsley.

Come on, you remember Ian Parsley. He was a candidate in last year’s Euro-election. For, er, the Alliance Party, who were evidently pitching for the votes of dyslexic DUP supporters who thought Ian Paisley was on the ballot. He did reasonably well. Then a couple of weeks later he defected to the Tories. This was entirely a matter of principle, and had nothing at all to do with him getting a job at Iain Duncan Donuts’ Centre for Social Justice. And now he’s standing in North Down for UCUNF – to be more precise, he’s standing in front of stuff. Indeed, there has been a little joshing at Westminster about young Mr Parsley.

And what of the vacancy? That would be South Antrim, which is a DUP marginal; the sitting MP, Rev Willie McCrea, is not too popular in the area (basically because you can’t dig him out of Magherafelt and get him to visit South Antrim) and a TUV candidacy could hand the seat to UCUNF. So why no candidate? Perhaps this might explain:

Adrian Watson, the mayor of Antrim, has been chosen by his constituency association as its candidate for the UUP in South Antrim this May. He caused outrage within the gay community in Northern Ireland after saying he would not allow gay and lesbian couples to stay in his family-run bed and breakfast.

In 2006 the UUP councillor told a local radio station: “This is a bed and breakfast in a family home with three young children. Common sense has to prevail. There is no difficulty with members of the gay community phoning up and booking a room. The difficulty would arise because of the logistics of the bed and breakfast – if it was a same-sex couple – and because my wife has strong Christian views she felt it was difficult to facilitate that.

“It is difficult because my 14-year-old daughter helps out immensely. And the obvious question: ‘Why are two men, or why are two women, in a double room?'”

Watson has also been accused of racism towards Ireland’s Traveller community. A year before his remarks about gay couples, he described Travellers at a local halting point in the Antrim area as “scumbags” and “scum of the earth”.

Now, this is very much out of step with “Dave” Cameron’s resprayed Tories, who have been ferociously courting the pink vote and trumpeting their gay candidates. (Nobody seems to have objected too strongly to Mr Watson’s views on Travellers.) And so, the rumour has it, Tory HQ has put the kibosh on Watson, as someone who might be a bit of an embarrassment on the campaign trail. Furthermore, national treasure Peter Tatchell has spoken out, and you really don’t want Peter dogging your footsteps during an election. Best to neutralise the Tatch by getting rid of the candidate.

But the Lord loves a trier, and Mr Watson is not giving up. He’s not the first local politician to say something incautious on Stephen Nolan, and learning from the example of Iris Robinson, he has rushed to say that his original argument was purely hypothetical, and anyway, it was his wife who had the problem:

“I have a completely live-and-let-live attitude to gays and I know that many gay people support our party [I am not sure that Steven King and Jeff Dudgeon count as “many”, but we'll let that go] which has a far more tolerant view than the DUP, which has been tainted with homophobia through the interventions of the First Minister’s wife, the then MP and MLA, Iris Robinson.

“I would never discriminate against gay people and, if elected as the MP for South Antrim, I can honestly say that I would work for my gay constituents as energetically as for any other constituent. The gay community has absolutely nothing to fear from me.”

Well, perhaps. As a B&B owner, Mr Watson might also be aware that under New Labour’s Sexual Orientation Regulations, that sort of thing can get you into trouble. Indeed, from now on, holding an opinion deemed unfashionable by Mr Ben Summerskill could get you into quite serious legal difficulties. I suppose, if you wanted to mount an entirely grudging and half-hearted defence of Mr Watson, he’s probably more progressive on such matters than Willie McCrea.

But here’s an interesting point. Over recent months, the Tories have been taking a little heat about their exotic allies in the European Parliament – Czech climate change deniers, Belgian flat-taxers, and those wacky Latvian SS veterans. One of the lightning rods has been one Michał Kamiński, a Polish MEP who – weirdly enough – looks like Johann Hari’s evil twin, and who belongs to the Law and Justice Party. There has been a lot of argument about exactly what Mr Kamiński may or may not have said about the Jews at various points in his past; what’s not seriously disputed is that Law and Justice takes a line on Teh Gayz that would not be wildly out of place in the north.

Perhaps Mr Cameron could explain why what’s unacceptable in Antrim is perfectly all right in Warsaw. But don’t hold your breath.

CPI: SF at the crossroads

An interesting article on the recent PSF Ard Fheis here, from the Communist Party – and you could do worse than have a look at Socialist Voice (or Unity if you’re in the north) regularly. Personally, I think Gerry and the guys have been through quite a few crossroads, but the points raised here are valid ones.

The recent ard-fheis of Sinn Féin was a somewhat quiet affair, with not a lot on the agenda to stir interest other than two motions, from Waterford and from Drimnagh, Dublin, dealing with possible participation in a coalition Government after the next general election in the Republic.

The motion from the Drimnagh cumann stated: “This Ard Fheis calls on Sinn Féin not to go into power with other parties in government such as Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, as this would be incompatible with our politics and would damage the party.” But the Ard-Chomhairle put forward an amendment that effectually leaves the door open for participation in a future Government, and this was overwhelmingly carried.

The arguments made by those supporting the two motions drew on experience from previous coalition Governments and the consequences for the junior parties in those Governments. Underlying the debate—not mentioned during it but certainly part of the subtext—was the fact that many members in the Republic are greatly concerned that if the Sinn Féin leadership get an opportunity to join a coalition Government they will do so. The experience of the dumping of central policies just before the last general election is still a painful memory for a large number of Southern members.

The position of the Ard-Chomhairle was that any decision in relation to joining a Government would be taken by a special party conference. Given that Sinn Féin is in effect a Northern party, controlled from Belfast, its priorities are shaped by political developments and the priorities surrounding the Northern situation. The majority of delegates to the recent ard-fheis, as with previous ard-fheiseanna, were from the North. If the opportunity arises to enter government in the Republic, the likelihood of their joining a coalition is very high—simply because the political priorities are determined by that relationship.

What is also obvious from the speeches during the ard-fheis and in media interviews afterwards is that the Northern leadership has little more than a superficial understanding of the political, economic and social situation in the Republic. When it comes to the nitty-gritty of the political and economic questions, they flounder—which is quite understandable, given the nature of the conflict in the North over such a prolonged period and the preoccupation with the peace process.

If the opportunity arises of entering a Dublin Government, a majority at any special conference for taking that decision will be Northern delegates, who will approach such participation from an entirely different set of political priorities.

Yet the agenda of the ard-fheis shows that the majority of motions down for discussion came from branches in the Republic, while those dealing with the Northern situation came mainly from the Ard-Chomhairle, with very few from individual cumainn in the North. There were no significant motions dealing with the social and economic situation in the North, and those that there were were devoid of any real depth.

This reveals a number of possibilities: that there is complete unity on the economic and social strategy of the national leadership; or they have no clear idea of an alternative strategy; or the leadership brooks no criticism of its attitude to government; or if there is criticism it is muted or corralled, in the interest of sustaining the unity of the organisation and a united front against unionism.

Another area that shows how far Sinn Féin has shifted politically was the section dealing with “European affairs.” Motions 11, 12 and 13, all again from the Ard-Chomhairle, show a further diminution of opposition to the European Union. There was no indication of the nature of the European Union and what it represents; there was no challenge to the view presented by the media or assessment of the effect of the Lisbon Treaty. All three motions were full of woolly thinking and pious aspiration. “Bring information on the EU back to different sectors and local communities in Ireland through a programme of outreach . . . Engage on the basis of our progressive policy positions on issues within EU’s competences . . . Promoting democratic change in the EU.”

What is ignored is the fact that the policies of the European Union itself have contributed to the crisis and have a major bearing on the measures that member-states can introduce to overcome the crisis.

The question is, How can you call yourself a republican and support the European Union? Republicanism is about democracy and the sovereignty of states, equality between states as well as equality between peoples, and the centrality of the people in democratic and economic policy and decision-making.

The European Union has been deliberately constructed and is treaty-based to ensure the very opposite, by removing the people from the whole process and actively discouraging their involvement, undermining national democracy and national accountability, making all political and economic decisions subservient to the needs of transnational corporations, and all this backed up and imposed by the main imperialist states at the heart of the European Union.

There is a token throwing in of the idea of using the European Union to “raise the issue of Irish Unity, and other issues related to the peace-process.” It is not clear what “Irish unity” would mean, considering our inability to change or do anything independently of what the European Union will allow and what is possible within an imperialist superstate.

A revelation of the pretence at being some sort of radical party while hiding this from some of those it believes are allies in the struggle for Irish unity is the fact that there was no criticism and no indication of their understanding of the role of the United States in global politics, or its central role in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In relation to the coup in Honduras, the motion from the Ard-Chomhairle “condemns the coup d’état in Honduras which resulted in President Zelaya, who was democratically elected, being removed at gunpoint. This act undermines democracy in the region.”

The coup in Honduras was planned, organised and supervised by the CIA and the US State Department. No calls for President Zelaya to be allowed back; no expression of support or solidarity with the democratic forces now engaged in an intense struggle with the puppet government; no acknowledgement that a number of leaders of the democratic opposition have been assassinated.

From reading the motions and the speeches of leading figures in Sinn Féin one cannot help seeing that it is a party moving steadily to the centre. It is caught up in electoral politics and is prepared to make whatever compromises are required to secure participation in government. It will surely end up in government but with nothing radical to bring to the table.

At this stage, what separates Sinn Féin from the Labour Party is that it still has a commitment to Irish unity; but its attitude to other central questions makes the achievement of that goal unrealisable. As for the rest, the establishment can rest easy.

The question now is, Where will those in Sinn Féin who believe in a radical republicanism go from here?

Benedict addresses The Scandal… and what might come next

It were better for him, that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should scandalize one of these little ones. (Luke 17:2)

I must say, it’s a rum situation when Martin McGuinness is calling for Cardinal Brady to reflect on his position. Dr Brady may not have covered himself in glory over the Brendan Smyth affair, to put it mildly, but Martin McGuinness has much more on his conscience – assuming he has a conscience. You don’t need to be any sort of an anti-republican to think Martin is on very thin ice, morally speaking.

As for whether Brady can survive in his post – one noted quite a disconnect between the obvious affection of Mass-goers at Armagh on the one hand, and irate callers to Speak You’re Branes Talk Back on the other – that’s really between Dr Brady, his conscience and the Pope.

Speaking of whom, the HF’s pastoral letter on The Scandal has been published. It’s a good letter – thoughtful, sensitive, penitent, angry where it needs to be – and is very much in the spirit of his 2006 ad limina address to the Irish bishops. It’s worth reading the full text, but here are a few highlights with my emphases and interpolations:

In almost every family in Ireland, there has been someone – a son or a daughter, an aunt or an uncle – who has given his or her life to the Church. Irish families rightly esteem and cherish their loved ones who have dedicated their lives to Christ, sharing the gift of faith with others, and putting that faith into action in loving service of God and neighbour.

This is true. And it’s an important point to bear in mind when we think of the anger this has provoked. Clerical abusers are not only sinners or criminals, but have brought the institution of priesthood into disgrace.

Significant too was the tendency during this period, also on the part of priests and religious, to adopt ways of thinking and assessing secular realities without sufficient reference to the Gospel. The programme of renewal proposed by the Second Vatican Council was sometimes misinterpreted and indeed, in the light of the profound social changes that were taking place, it was far from easy to know how best to implement it. In particular, there was a well-intentioned but misguided tendency to avoid penal approaches to canonically irregular situations.

What this says, albeit in churchy language, is not that clerical abuse began in 1965, but that the Church’s resources for dealing with it were weakened. Beginning in the 1960s and carrying through into the 1980s – a lot of the credit for changing the atmosphere towards abuse in a less easygoing direction goes to Susan Brownmiller and Esther Rantzen, although it took a long time to filter through – there was a strong vogue in liberal society towards treating paedophilia as a therapeutic, not a criminal, problem. (And there were plenty of influential people who were in favour of destigmatising paedophilia. Oh yes there were.) This conflicts, of course, with Catholic teaching that child abuse is a grave sin, but it’s a way of thinking that did have some influence. Simultaneously, the Church’s internal judicial procedures were weakened – for decades, defrocking was almost never resorted to, and clerical discipline was far too lackadaisical.

On several occasions since my election to the See of Peter, I have met with victims of sexual abuse, as indeed I am ready to do in the future. I have sat with them, I have listened to their stories, I have acknowledged their suffering, and I have prayed with them and for them.

Benedict’s taking time out on his American visit to meet abuse victims was clearly the right thing to do. There are likely to be more initiatives along those lines.

Addressing the victims and their families:

You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry. I know that nothing can undo the wrong you have endured. Your trust has been betrayed and your dignity has been violated. Many of you found that, when you were courageous enough to speak of what happened to you, no one would listen. Those of you who were abused in residential institutions must have felt that there was no escape from your sufferings. It is understandable that you find it hard to forgive or be reconciled with the Church. In her name, I openly express the shame and remorse that we all feel.

If the late Cardinal Daly, or Cardinal Connell, or Cardinal Brady, or any of the Irish bishops (leaving aside Diarmuid Martin, who is a special case) had spoken in those terms years ago, it would have helped enormously.

To priests and religious who have been guilty of abuse:

You betrayed the trust that was placed in you by innocent young people and their parents, and you must answer for it before Almighty God and before properly constituted tribunals. You have forfeited the esteem of the people of Ireland and brought shame and dishonour upon your confreres. Those of you who are priests violated the sanctity of the sacrament of Holy Orders in which Christ makes himself present in us and in our actions.

Again, the abuse of minors not only brought the Church into disrepute, it was a severe violation of the duties and obligations of the clergy.

To the Irish bishops:

It cannot be denied that some of you and your predecessors failed, at times grievously, to apply the long-established norms of canon law to the crime of child abuse. Serious mistakes were made in responding to allegations. I recognize how difficult it was to grasp the extent and complexity of the problem, to obtain reliable information and to make the right decisions in the light of conflicting expert advice. Nevertheless, it must be admitted that grave errors of judgement were made and failures of leadership occurred. All this has seriously undermined your credibility and effectiveness. I appreciate the efforts you have made to remedy past mistakes and to guarantee that they do not happen again. Besides fully implementing the norms of canon law in addressing cases of child abuse, continue to cooperate with the civil authorities in their area of competence. Clearly, religious superiors should do likewise.

When Benedict talks about the “frank and constructive” discussions he had with the Irish bishops last month, it looks very much like a euphemism for the Irish bishops leaving Rome with their ears burning, and so they should have.

There’s much more to say about the clerical child abuse scandal than can be said in a single post, so there are several tangents that may be followed up later. I’m not, however, going to go in for moral tubthumping – which is not, I stress, because I’m trying to minimise what happened. Let me make this perfectly clear – what happened was unconscionable and any perpetrators who can be pursued through the criminal justice system, should be. If you haven’t already, and you have the time and the stomach, it’s worthwhile reading the Ryan and Murphy reports in full, rather than relying on third-hand accounts of the executive summaries. But what I want to look at here is what can be done going forward, and also the political aspect.

Because there is a strong political aspect. Cardinal Brady’s involvement in the case of Brendan Smyth back in 1975 may have been tangential – he carried out investigative interviews and reported back to Bishop McKiernan – but that’s not the point. Nor, though it’s odd that this has been in the public domain since 1997 and is only exploding now, will it do to talk about how long ago this all was. What is wrong now was wrong then; and, unfortunately for Brady, what Brendan Smyth did was so unspeakable, and the response of church and state authorities so shockingly bad, that even a tangential connection to Smyth is toxic.

In all this, I have very little sympathy for the Irish bishops, good men though some of them are. One may point out the serial failures of successive governments, the judicial system and the gardaí, but the Church authorities had both an administrative and a moral responsibility, and fell down very badly. This included both sins of omission (failing to take action that might reasonably have been expected) and commission (as in, shuffling off offenders onto unsuspecting parishes). Now, we know that the levels of rape and sexual abuse in Irish society are shockingly high, and that most of it takes place in families, but there are very good reasons why clerical abuse attracts especial odium. It’s to do with the abuse of trust involved, because clergy are rightly held to a higher standard, and also because of the institutional aspect. It’s very hard to reform families, but you can reform an institution.[1] I’ll get onto that presently.

(Parenthetically, it’s hard to know why Ireland has a particularly severe problem with sexual abuse. This isn’t exclusively a Catholic thing by any means – there’s been a particular issue with the Church’s virtual monopoly on childcare, but it’s not as if the Protestant churches, or secular state childcare services in the north, haven’t had their share of problems. I do have the distinct impression, though, that quite a few clerical abuse scandals abroad have involved Irish priests.)

Anyway, as I say, I don’t have much sympathy for the hierarchy, and this despite the deafening sound of grinding axes. I stress here that I make no criticism whatsoever of victims’ groups, who have an absolute entitlement to make their anger heard. No, I’m thinking of the rather disturbing enthusiasm – glee might not be too strong a word – in some quarters. Most of it is perfectly understandable, if not always edifying. Journalists understandably love a scandal, preferably one with uncomplicatedly sympathetic victims. Our legal practitioners will have a professional interest. Senile anticlericals, of the type you often find on the Irish Times letters page, will have their enthusiasm for a Civil Constitution of the Clergy rekindled. And you’ve got the pretend Catholic groups of the Wir sind Kirche variety, who always come out of the woodwork at times like this when they think they can press home an advantage. I don’t blame them – when you have an advantage, there’s no reason not to press it home. It comes with the territory.

And the Church authorities will just have to suck it up. They’ve made their bed of nails and will have to lie on it. Because, not only have they handled the abuse issue incredibly badly in terms of concrete cases, they’ve proved absolutely useless at the politics of the situation, even when (as I believe Brady has) they’ve caught on to just how serious the situation is. There are a number of aspects to this. For starters, Irish Catholicism has always had a strong anti-intellectual bent. In a country like France, while most of the intelligentsia are anticlerical, there’s always been what you might call an anti-anticlerical tendency that could act as a counterweight. In Ireland, it’s hard to think of any serious Catholic intellectual outside the hierarchy, and not many in it. Further, most senior clergy are men in their fifties, sixties and seventies – that is, they were formed by the era of McQuaidism, when the Church was so powerful it didn’t need to explain itself. Hence the long tradition of bishops throwing their weight about like cassock-wearing mafia dons, without even bothering to try to win anyone over to their way of thinking. Basic communication skills, never mind openness and transparency, are not going to flourish in that sort of atmosphere.

One trivial but telling example. When the Irish bishops went to Rome for their crisis summit, there was TV footage of them lining up to kiss the Pope’s ring. For this – an entirely normal bit of protocol – they were derided by yahoos on the phone-ins. So you end up with bishops not even bothering to explain the protocol, but finding it less hassle to issue media apologies for following Church protocol when meeting the Pope. It really is pathetic. Sometimes I think this blog does a better job of explaining the Catholic position than the actual Catholic bishops – it couldn’t do much worse. These, remember, are the same guys who disbanded their press office, then moaned about all the bad press they were getting. A clearing out of the dead wood is long overdue.

So, let us move on to the question of what comes next. There is no doubt that a major project of Church reform is required, but it remains to be seen what that will be. The victims, of course, want some sort of vindication and quite right too, but I’m not certain that Colm O’Gorman has a reform programme. Even if Cardinal Brady falls, that doesn’t really solve anything. Pope Benedict does have a reform programme, though I suspect his liberal critics won’t like it. And those liberal critics of course have their own programme, which involves (a) getting rid of the whole hierarchy of bishops, cardinals and pope and replacing it with a congregational structure, and (b) getting rid of those bits of Catholic doctrine they don’t like, mostly the bits concerning sexual morality. Honestly, I don’t know why they don’t just decamp to one of the many Protestant denominations that will do all that for you wholesale.

The first thing that comes to mind is that, just as every phone-in punter has his own idea of what the law says, some of the thoughts that have been voiced about the way forward are not going to fly. Think of Tony Blair, about five minutes after he had become a Catholic (and I still think it was a scandal he was accepted), declaring that the Pope had to modernise and get with the zeitgeist. This overlooks the rather obvious point that Catholicism is of its very nature resistant to the zeitgeist, in that it stands for the maintenance of Tradition. This is a problem for those who think that democracy and human rights are the solution. The Pope won’t give you democracy and human rights – he’ll give you subsidiarity and natural law, which is often just as good (and better suited to a Tradition-based Church) but is not the same thing.

One obvious problem is that while you can mitigate the problem – and for the last fifteen years, the Catholic Church internationally has been adopting extremely strict child protection procedures – it’s a problem that’s impossible to eliminate entirely. There will always be miscreants, and a devious miscreant (such as Brendan Smyth was) will always know how to work the system. The real question will be whether the procedures are sufficient in dealing with miscreants as and when they arise, so that you couldn’t have a situation where Brendan Smyth went on abusing children for decades, and nobody in the Church bureaucracy seemed to be able to deal with him.

For instance, how you deal with the sacrament of confession is a problem. If priests come across information outside of confession, there shouldn’t be a problem. Now, it is possible to lay down that the confidentiality of confession should not apply to allegations of child abuse, but then you have the question of whether confidentiality should apply to other crimes. To take this out of the religious realm for a second, it’s comparable to the confidentiality expected of doctors, lawyers or journalists. If a journalist has a source in the Real IRA who feeds her stories, should she be obliged to disclose her sources to the police? The Irish journalistic profession felt very strongly that Suzanne Breen should not be obliged to do so. I make no judgement here, I just want to point out that it’s a tricky area.

On a wider scale, there will have to be a major change in the Church’s internal culture. Irish Catholicism’s besetting sins of Jansenism, ultramontanism and clericalism will have to be dealt with. There needs to be a radical break with the culture of silence; there also needs to be a war on the concept of mental reservation.[2] For instance, the now notorious motu proprio of 2001 ordering bishops to notify Rome of all abuse cases did not (contrary to what’s popularly believed) prohibit cooperation with secular authorities. Nor, on the other hand, did it instruct cooperation with secular authorities. That is something that shouldn’t have needed to be said, but evidently did. The Irish bishops, masters of mental reservation, have certainly been delinquent on a massive scale.

Finally, much as it may distress what remains of Irish liberalism, the reform will have to be driven from Rome. The Irish Church doesn’t have the resources to deal with The Scandal effectively on its own. And indeed, to the extent there has been reform up until now, it’s been driven from Rome. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has been rightly praised for his heroic role in handling the crisis with compassion, sensitivity and firmness; what’s not as often remarked on is where he came from. It would suit the liberal narrative if he’d been a crusading parish priest; as it was, he came from the Holy See diplomatic service, whence he was headhunted both for his personal qualities and because he came from outside the discredited Irish hierarchy.

It’s also providential that Benedict is in charge at the moment. Poor old JP2 always seemed to be a bit lost and bewildered by these abuse scandals, but what’s needed now is firmness of purpose. Benedict, in his previous role as prefect of the CDF, has the background to deal with the crisis. As is well known, he was so profoundly shocked by the Maciel atrocities that, not only did he require every abuse allegation to be referred to the CDF, but he personally read every file that came in. Having waded through all this filth, he is probably more knowledgeable than anyone in the Roman Curia about the extent of the abuse and how serious it is. He also needs to take on those elements – even in the Vatican – who think they can get away with business as usual. Beefing up the CDF’s judicial system is a start, not an end.

The crucial thing in practical terms will be the upcoming Apostolic Visitation, which will certainly have sent a shiver up the collective spine of the Irish Episcopal Conference. Some bishops may be looking at the recently concluded Visitation into the Legionaries of Christ, and what the outcome of that will be. The Vatican would be well within its rights to suppress the Legionaries altogether; if they’re allowed to continue, it will probably be on condition of a thoroughgoing purge of Macielism and a serious reorganisation. It is unlikely in the extreme that the Legionaries will simply be able to carry on as before.

What might happen as a result of the Visitation here? You could do worse than pay close attention to Fr Vincent Twomey, who is not only one of our leading moral theologians but also a former student of one Joseph Ratzinger. The two are still close enough that Vincent makes an annual trip to Rome to discuss theology with his old mate and, while it would be wrong to interpret what Vincent says as His Master’s Voice, it’s unlikely that he and Benedict have not discussed the Irish situation. One interesting thing Vincent has been saying is to wonder aloud why Ireland needs no less than 26 dioceses,[3] when Germany has 27 dioceses catering for eight times as many Catholics. Vincent suggests that the number be cut to something more rational, like eight. This would have the desirable effect of allowing Rome to clear out a lot of the dead wood, but as you might expect it isn’t a very popular idea in the Episcopal Conference. (This might also have implications for the 23 bishops of England and Wales, serving a similar number of faithful to the Irish.)

Another angle, and I throw this out simply as a suggestion, is implied by Summorum Pontificum. At this point you will ask what exactly a motu proprio on the rehabilitation of the Latin Mass has to do with child protection. But one key element of Summorum Pontificum is its provision that, when a group of the faithful petition their bishop for the Extraordinary Form, the bishop is obliged to respond. It strengthens subsidiarity and episcopal accountability, which is one reason why bishops don’t like it.

What we do know is that this will be a long, tough process. We really need an Ignatius Loyola for our times, with the righteous zeal and the ability to definitively clean up the corruption that has dragged down a great institution. Whether we get one is another matter.

[1] There’s a parallel here with the outbreak of abuse allegations in republican Belfast. Although the abuse was known to have taken place in families, the fire was directed at an institution, namely Sinn Féin, for having responded inadequately. Was this unfair? Possibly, but it was understandable.

[2] This is a sneaky means of lying by omission without committing the sin of false witness. For example, if the priest sees a particularly annoying parishioner coming to the door, he may send the curate to answer the door. “The priest is not in,” says the curate, while adding in his mind the qualification “not in to you”. You find something similar in Trotskyist groups.

[3] The diocesan division of territory, based on ancient tribal boundaries, was established by the Synod of Rathbreasail in 1111. It’s taken almost 900 years to rationalise it down to just 26 dioceses.

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