This charming man

Here’s an absolutely lovely quote from Titus Oates of the National ‘Secular’ Society:

For too long the Jewish community behaved like an arrogant, unaccountable arm of the government and of the law aided at every turn by a fifth column of Jews whose primary, indeed seemingly only, loyalty is to their own kind. Having so comprehensively abused their place in the corridors of power, they now need to be banished from them.

Oh, I’m sorry. Mr Oates was in fact talking about Catholics. So that’s all right then.

As Mr Oates is weighing in on the Chesney affair, there are one or two other points in his barking mad editorial that are worth remarking on. Let’s just note in passing that, as far as we can tell from the Hutchinson report, the cover-up was instigated by the government and police, while the Church authorities were brought in to get Chesney out of the way. Mr Oates of course cannot admit this, as in the NSS view of the world the State is a God-term. It’s the same way that, while he references the Ryan Report, one will find no acknowledgement that not a single child would have gone into the industrial schools without the approval of the Department of Education, the Garda Síochána and the courts. Which is not to deny Church responsibility, just to point out that the responsibility wasn’t the Church’s alone.

What’s also remarkable about this is that Mr Oates ventilates rather a lot on the Irish state. Maybe my memory is faulty, but I thought Willie Whitelaw was a minister in the British government. And that the RUC had its headquarters in Belfast, not in Dublin. Of course, this is rather inconvenient for the flow of Mr Oates’ argument, given that his view of the Irish nation is roughly equivalent to that of a nineteenth-century Punch cartoonist. So the Brits get quietly brushed under the carpet.

Finally, note the reference to the government being riddled with fifth columnists who need to be sent packing. Nice to see that our 21st-century rationalists can still channel the spirit of the 1840s when it suits them. Of course, this all very reminiscent of the episode a couple of years back when NSS honorary associate Mary Honeyball MEP called on the Labour Party to keep papists off the front bench, and followed it up with paranoid ravings about the Vatican’s alleged stranglehold on the British parliament and mass media. Or their other honorary associate, the sane and rational Johann Hari, who is living proof that you can take the boy out of Govan but you can’t take the Rangers Supporters Club out of the boy.

Indeed, Mr Oates has quite the track record at this sort of witch-hunting, having argued, for instance, that Mark Thompson is unfit to head the BBC because he’s a Catholic. Not that it’s ever stopped the BBC running fawning interviews with Mr Oates, where he can be confident that his many terminological inexactitudes will never be challenged.

If Mr Oates is really that worried about popish fifth columnists, and fancies campaigning for the reinstatement of the Test Acts, perhaps he could have a word with new equality minister Lynne Featherstone, who is on record as opining that religious believers shouldn’t be employed in the public sector. Ms Featherstone is not yet, I see, one of the NSS’s small army of honorary associates, but I think she’d fit right in.

And since Mr Oates will be on our screens and in our papers a good deal more over the coming weeks in his capacity as co-leader with Peter Tatchell of the No Popery Coalition, it will be worth keeping a close eye on him.

Claudy, and the meaning of Jim Chesney

I want to reflect – indeed, I need to – on Al Hutchinson’s report into the 1972 Claudy bombing. In an insightful piece, Malachi has already said much of what needed to be said, but there’s still some amplification I want to do in terms of the historical context.

The facts of the matter are relatively simple. On 31 July 1972, three 250-pound bombs ripped through the tiny village of Claudy outside Derry, devastating the village and leaving nine civilians dead, both Catholic and Protestant. No warning was received. No claim of responsibility was ever made, though it was universally assumed the Provos were to blame. Even by the standards of 1972, our worst year for atrocities, it was an exceptionally stupid and murderous act. No prosecutions were ever brought, which is the starting point for the Hutchinson report.

What has grabbed the headlines is the apparent involvement of a south Derry priest, Fr Jim Chesney, in the bombing. This isn’t altogether a surprise – Chesney’s involvement had been rumoured for decades – but it makes the bombing unusual in the extreme, and that is reflected in the cover-up.[1]

There is a general and a specific reason for Chesney to be a remarkable case. The general reason is that the Church doesn’t do war. Well, you can go back to the Crusades if you like, and the Franciscan Order has never quite lived down what its Croatian members did during WW2, but the general rule holds firm. That’s why, though many if not most Anglican churches contain war memorials and will fly the flag on certain occasions, you will not see anything of the sort in a Catholic church. And, even if the Church’s stringent conditions for a just war are met, priests are certainly not supposed to take up arms.

The specific reason has to do with the Catholic Church in the north of Ireland, which had long since reached a modus vivendi with the Orange State similar to the arrangements it reached with the Polish dictatorship – spiky, at times hostile, but mutually dependent. At the time, in 1972, and for many years afterwards, the British relied on the hierarchy as a moderating force holding the line against republicanism, the relationship intensifying in the 1980s when Douglas Hurd launched his programme of pacification through grantocracy. And this was reciprocated by the bishops producing fierce condemnation of the IRA as required, while offering very muted and qualified criticism of the state. In political terms, the bishops never quite ordered their flock to vote SDLP, but they came very very close. The establishment instinct ran very strong indeed.

Now, add to that the conformity you associate with a ghetto religion. If the Catholic clergy in the south sometimes resembled a mafia, discipline in the north was infinitely stronger. Considering that hundreds of priests would be active here at any given time, during the entire period of the Troubles there were precisely three priests who publicly fell out with the hierarchy. One of those was Pat Buckley, who doesn’t really count, as he’s a southerner and his problems with the hierarchy mostly related to his homosexuality. You had Fr Joe McVeigh in Fermanagh, who had an essentially republican viewpoint casting the bishops as pro-British; and Fr Des Wilson in Ballymurphy, who also started from a basically republican position but added to that social issues relating to the deprived urban area he was working in, plus some well-aimed criticisms of the elitist and cliquish practices of the Irish hierarchy. And that was it.

And this points up just how much of an outlier Jim Chesney was. There were a relative handful of priests who were known, quietly, to have strongly republican opinions, but that would be a matter of their opinions, and at most they might be thought to have turned a blind eye to certain activities. A priest actually becoming a bomber was literally unheard of; as I say, the rumours about Chesney have been circulating for many years, but I cannot think of any other named priest about whom there was anything similar, even on the level of rumour.

Which takes us to the cover-up, and we have some idea of the mechanics behind this. After the Claudy bombing, a detective sought permission to have Chesney arrested for questioning, but this was stopped by Special Branch. There then followed a series of discussions between British proconsul Willie Whitelaw, Cardinal William Conway and the top brass of the RUC on the theme of what to do about Chesney, which led to him being taken out of the north and transferred to a southern parish.

Note a couple of things about this. One is that the decision not to pursue Chesney was a political and police one, the two not really being separate in the north. The Church, in the person of Bishop Eddie Daly, interviewed Chesney twice; this was twice more than the cops did. Even after his transfer, there was nothing preventing the RUC from further investigating Claudy had they chosen to; they chose not to. Why?

One of the most common pitfalls to make when considering the north of Ireland is to assume that it works in a basically analogous way to Surrey or Hampshire, or indeed Dublin or Cork. It doesn’t – it especially didn’t in the febrile atmosphere of 1972 – and policing and criminal justice show that starkly. To say that the RUC lacked credibility in nationalist areas is to put it very mildly. It would be more accurate to say that the RUC was viewed as essentially a sectarian militia whose main purpose was to keep the Catholics down; a view shared by Protestants, who by and large thought this was a good thing. Internment was in full swing at the time. “Taken in for questioning” was not an innocuous phrase when it was known that suspects were being tortured. The loyalist gangs styled themselves as auxiliaries to the state forces, and in later years it would become clear that many of them, including some of our most notorious mass murderers, were actually on the state payroll.

Let’s take this further. What would have been the effect of arresting a priest on bombing charges, in the atmosphere of 1972? At the time, it wasn’t unknown for Catholic churches to be attacked by loyalist mobs. Two priests had relatively recently been shot by the British army. Is it implausible to think that ghetto opinion would have rallied behind Chesney, either believing the case to be a stitch-up or not caring, just seeing a priest under attack from the hated state? And what of the reaction on the other side? Loyalist political and religious leaders frequently claimed that the Vatican was controlling the IRA, often in collaboration with the Kremlin and sometimes the Freemasons or Illuminati. Some still do. Would the exposure of a bomber priest confirm that narrative? Was the fear of an enormous pogrom, dwarfing even that of 1969, an unreasonable fear?

So, when sketching out a police and state cover-up in which the Church was also complicit, the reasoning is not really all that mysterious. Since it appears that, despite plenty of intelligence pointing to Chesney, there was a lack of hard evidence coupled with the man’s own denials, it’s all too easy to see how a political-police decision (and all policing here is political) might be reached that pursuing Chesney through the criminal justice system was more trouble than it was worth. Having reached that conclusion, the next question was how to get him out of the picture before he did any more damage, which is where Conway comes in.

Jim Chesney has now been dead for thirty years. Willie Whitelaw is dead; William Conway is long dead; of the senior RUC officers involved, most will be dead by now. Justice, in the judicial sense, is probably out of the question at this point, and all the survivors and victims’ families can be left with is some transparency about what happened. Not that this will be much consolation. It’s a murky story, and nobody comes out of it well. As can be said about much in our history.

[1] In fact, we’re still at the point where intelligence rather than hard evidence is pointing to Chesney, and some people who know about these things are sceptical about his involvement. But we’ll assume that for the sake of argument, as the cover-up was premised on the assumption of his involvement.

Birmingham Three: the plot continues to thicken

I must apologise for the lack of service here the past while. Evidently, your host is somewhat lacking in the old Protestant work ethic. Moreover, I’m a firm believer in the philosophy that, if you’re feeling out of sorts, the blogosphere is not going to make you feel better. There are certain things that might make you feel better, like a Wodehouse novel, a box set of The Prisoner or a glass of dark liquid, but the blogosphere is not one of them. It tends to have a bad effect on the blood pressure.

Anyway, the Birmingham Three saga is more uncontainable than ever. I gotta give mad props to my main man Will Crawley, who was covering it on this morning’s Sunday Sequence, and big up also to Martin Beckford on the Telegraph. It’s certainly one in the eye for those ecclesiastical bullies who would rather have the whole affair silenced.

James reminds us that the Three have now passed more than a hundred days in exile, and that you have to commit a pretty serious crime for the secular courts to send you down for a hundred days. The draconian punishments meted out to three men who, it is admitted, have not committed any offence, seems more than a bit off. It’s all a bit strange, so let’s do a recap. I should say in advance that, while there are all sorts of interesting sidelines to the affair, not much is known for certain. However, even sticking to what’s known and making a bare minimum of deduction, the timeline prompts a number of questions.

Let’s go back to the beginning. In the autumn of 2007, a 20-year-old man approaches Birmingham Oratory seeking to become a priest. He isn’t accepted, but he does strike up this intense relationship with the Provost of the Oratory, Fr Paul Chavasse. The word is that there was no nookie involved – a “close but chaste” relationship is how it’s being put – and we must take that as read, but it was sufficiently visible a relationship to excite comment, especially as Fr Chavasse is as camp as a row of tents. (And yes, I know that camp and gay aren’t the same thing. But we’re talking here about impressions given.)

At this point we have to do a little deduction, so a health warning applies to this paragraph. We may reasonably assume that words were spoken amongst the Oratorians. One important thing to bear in mind is that even assuming there was no nookie involved – which would be difficult to prove either way – allowing the impression to be given that there might be would fall under the category of giving scandal. It’s also important to remember that the gay aspect, while it may add a bit of piquancy, is not necessary for giving scandal. For what it’s worth, those who know Fr Dermot Fenlon swear he isn’t homophobic and the authorities (in the person of Jack Valero) explicitly say he isn’t being accused of such. The fact is that if a middle-aged priest had formed a visibly intense (if chaste) relationship with a 20-year-old woman, it would still be inappropriate behaviour, or at the very least imprudent.

Now then. We are told there was disharmony in the community resulting from this affair. Not surprising, since it’s a tiny community – there are only ten or twelve priests at the best of times, and currently there are only five – and these small religious communities, very much like families, can harbour seething dissensions for a long time. It is further alleged that reports were made to Rome, which is how Fr Felix Selden came to be at the Oratory as Apostolic Visitor.

Fast forward to last December. Abruptly, Fr Chavasse resigns as both Provost of the Oratory and Actor of the Newman Cause. He vanishes from the Oratory, either having been sent away on a long-term retreat or being sent to a parish in America, depending on who you’re talking to. At any rate, he’s gone, and without explanation. Why so abruptly? Perhaps it had something to do with the upcoming papal visit and Newman beatification, with the prospect of B16 dropping into the Oratory for a meeting with the community. Perhaps it had something to do with that TV documentary crew that was hanging around the Oratory. Not being able to read the minds of Felix Selden and Ignatius Harrison, we don’t know.

This may have been the end of things, with the source of the dissension out of the picture. But no, around April rumours of the Chavasse affair begin leaking out into the press. This seems to have spooked the authorities, because it’s shortly afterwards, in May, that Fr Dermot Fenlon, Fr Philip Cleevely and Br Lewis Berry are sent to the Catholic equivalent of Guantánamo Bay – which is to say, ordered to monasteries some hundreds of miles apart to spend an indefinite period in quiet contemplation. With the stress very much on quiet. As with Fr Chavasse, there was no reason given, and the few statements coming from the Oratory served only to confuse things more.

Ten years ago, this might have just been a passing storm, but as we keep saying here, the blogosphere has changed Catholic affairs and meant that the old Tammany Hall methods – well, maybe they aren’t quite untenable, but they’re less tenable than they used to be. From a few disgruntled parishioners at the Oratory, who had seen four members of the community abruptly removed in a short space of time without explanation, this has gradually snowballed. Not least because the papal visit runs a distinct risk of turning into a fiasco even without trouble at Brum Oratory.

The whys and wherefores are obscure, except that the Chavasse affair was the proximate cause. Were the Three, as speculated, the ones who confronted Fr Chavasse? Did they, alternatively, protest the rather brutal removal and humiliation of the much-loved Chavasse? (The two are of course not contradictory.) Were there, given that all those concerned were heavily involved in the Newman Cause, ideological factors to do with the legacy of Newman? Was it just a matter of Church authorities’ well-established dislike for troublemakers? These are some of the questions that people are asking.

And so we are where we are. Fathers Fenlon and Cleevely are said to be in North America, and we do know that Brother Lewis has been sent off to South Africa for at least a year. Apropos of Brother Lewis, since he’s the youngest of the Three and still on the ordination track (actually, his ordination is taking an extraordinarily long time), away from home and cut off from his friends, he has been in a vulnerable enough position that you couldn’t blame him for taking whatever deal he’s been offered. Not least because these orders can be very persuasive when they put their minds to it. If I were a cynic with some knowledge of how Church affairs work, I would speculate that the next step would be to strong-arm Fr Philip into a deal, so then the blame could be placed on Fr Dermot as the ringleader who led the two young men astray. But we aren’t cynics here, are we?

Adding to the murkiness is the prospect of Fr Chavasse returning home for the papal visit, which does make it look rather as if he was in protective custody while the other three have been in extraordinary rendition. Cue some more scratching of heads.

Finally, although we give Uncle Jack Valero a bit of stick around here, I actually feel a little sorry for him. This sort of crisis management would tax the best of spin doctors. At this point, some transparency is the only rational way forward, but I sense that Selden and Harrison don’t have transparency in their vocabulary. It’s something that, these days, all clerics should know about; a good Latin word and everything.

Birmingham Three: this suppression will not stand!

However much the powers that be sit on this, the scandal of the Birmingham Three just won’t go away, in fact it spreads further and further. Here is Ruth Dudley Edwards in today’s Sunday Independent:

What Father Selden had reckoned without was the blogosphere. By the time I heard what had happened to Dermot, speculation was rampant, much of it of the ‘no-smoke-without-fire’ variety. By the time he was permitted to go to the US to do some teaching, he found that there was a widespread belief that to have been punished with indefinite exile suggested ‘The Birmingham Three’, as they are known by sympathisers, were guilty of some terrible sexual sins. Yet on the blogs there were also many, many supporters who believe they have been victimised by the establishment for being forthright defenders of Catholic values in the face of secularist threats (Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, is not in favour of too much challenging of the state) and for having eloquently resisted attempts to co-opt Newman as a gay icon.

All three had been looking forward to the papal visit as the high point of their clerical careers, but although it appears that Father Chavasse will be back for it, the others will remain exiled: three Oratorians who are in complete theological harmony with Pope Benedict are being kept as far away from him as possible. Enquiries from the laity to Father Selden have resulted in a patronising brush-off: the official line is that they were a cause of disunity.

As I write, Brother Berry has been ordered to South Africa for at least a year and the Oratory spokesman tells me the other two await imminent sentence. Their defenders have formed an alliance that includes right-wing Catholics, people of other religions and none, and gays as well as straights, for from personal knowledge I can testify that there is nothing homophobic about Dermot Fenlon, who was much sought-after as a confessor.

Read the whole thing here, and also please visit the Free the Birmingham Oratory Three blog. One understands, of course, that such as Selden and Harrison aren’t used to having to explain themselves to the great unwashed, and don’t particularly like the idea, but if I was advising them (hello Jack) my advice would be to get this resolved as soon as possible, preferably by bringing the Three home. Otherwise this fiasco runs the risk of overshadowing the Newman beatification.

A few further thoughts. Firstly, the splitting up of the Three enables them to be picked off individually, or at least for pressure to be brought on the younger two – Fr Dermot is not known for his fear of rocking the boat, and would be a tough man to pressurise. Secondly, since it’s being spun that Fr Chavasse will soon be returning to Brum, it would seem to me that his exile was not punitive but designed to protect him. Thirdly, why exactly are the Oratorians being allowed to investigate themselves?

I humbly suggest that there are a few people in Rome who might find this fiasco interesting.

Keiser Report: it’s worse than crack, I tell you

Been a bit busy the last few days, but have no fear, for there’s more tomfoolery coming down the pipeline. But just to ease us back in, here’s some more from the best business programme on the box. Once again, Vladimir Putin’s English-language teevee channel shows that financial scandals are interesting enough that you don’t have to jazz them up with funky graphics. You just need to find an angry ex-stockbroker, point a camera at him, and let him rant. Eat your liver, Evan Davis.

Hello darkness my old friend

I really hope our friend Austen Ivereigh has had a nice, relaxing time of it in Tanzania. Seriously, I do, because what follows beneath may have a bad effect on Austen’s blood pressure.

Okay, so if there’s one thing that should have been made abundantly clear in Catholic circles by the clerical abuse scandal, it’s that a culture of secrecy and silence is not going to fly these days. It especially isn’t going to fly given an increasing unwillingness amongst the faithful to keep quiet for fear of rocking the boat. Indeed, the fact that you are reading this on the interwebs tells you that we are long past the point where there were a couple of weekly papers that could be leaned on by the Magic Circle if an inconvenient story needed suppressing. And yet, there are still some dumbos in the Catholic establishment who don’t apprehend this basic truth.

Exhibit A is the case of the Birmingham Three. This has now moved up a gear, with two developments. One is that it’s been made public that the three exiles are not guilty of any wrongdoing, which prompts the question of why three Oratorians acknowledged to be guilty of nothing have been treated more severely than, well, I’m sure some notorious clerical miscreants will come to mind. The other is that Ruth Dudley Edwards is on the case, and Ruth is a fairly heavy hitter in the media. The longer this drags on, the more it will spread.

It strikes me that if Iggy Harrison had come out at the start of this with some anodyne statement about the Three being sent away because of, I don’t know, personality clashes at the Oratory, the whole thing would probably have died down by now. At least it wouldn’t have taken on the dimensions it now has. And now, of course, the silence has become the story, and the silence is going to feed the rumours and speculation. It’s no wonder Uncle Jack Valero seemed a little subdued, even pensive, at the Evangelium conference. Not quite his usual ebullient self.

Which brings me to Exhibit B, namely Catholic Voices. I mention this because there is no earthly reason for Catholic Voices to be run along Chatham House lines, and if you announce some high-profile project and then are less than open about it, you positively invite speculation. This appears to be lost on our friend Dr Ivereigh, who apparently has taken to phoning around the dweebs Voices in an agitated state, demanding that one of them fess up to being the leak. Really, I am disappointed. I knew Austen didn’t understand the blogosphere, but I would have thought he might have heard of something called a “grape-vine”. We’re not talking George Smiley here. Perhaps we might put that down to the personal eccentricity of someone who might urge his wedding guests not to talk about the happy occasion lest he be subjected to some mild ribbing on the internet; or someone who would cajole his pal Robert Pigott into something as ineffably dopey as this. But no, I have a feeling this goes beyond Dr Ivereigh’s idiosyncrasies.

Perhaps the liking for secrecy is an Opus Dei thing. But I suspect it’s got more to do with a general attitude that the Catholic establishment shouldn’t have to be answerable to the great unwashed, and that asking awkward questions is just terribly vulgar. That’s a habit that the establishment will have to break, or be broken from, like it or no.

In the case of CV, which I reiterate is a perfectly sound idea in principle and should have been done years ago, it creates a sort of air of shiftiness around something that could perfectly easily be transparent; in fact, if it was transparent, it would be easier to get the great unwashed to adopt the project as something they can be enthusiastic about. But have Beavis and Butt-head grasped this concept? Noooo.

And of course, if you’re used to operating without scrutiny, this makes amateurish pratfalls much more likely. For instance, CV made much of its rigorous selection procedure, helped along by the involvement of such as Fr Stephen Wang, who is used to rigorous selection procedures in his Allen Hall capacity. This rigorous procedure ran to summarily dismissing a number of enthusiastic young Catholic bloggers on the grounds of their being “mad” (Ivereigh-speak for “slightly more orthodox than me”); yet apparently did not run to basic things like, oh, making sure that all the Voices would be present at the roll-out in September, without being derailed by small matters like visas running out. Do you think Simon Cowell runs X Factor with that sort of slapdash attitude?

This may not matter if it was just a Jack ‘n’ Austen vanity project, but no, the Catholic establishment is heavily vested in this boondoggle. It’s being co-patronised by Dan Brennan and Chris Jamison, neither of whom is a lightweight. Luminaries such as Vin Nichols, Charles Wookey and Jamie Bogle have popped in to meet and greet. Uncle Jack has been appearing everywhere to talk about how tremendously significant CV is. With that sort of buildup, you’d better hope the end product is good.

Here’s a final thought. You will of course be aware that there’s this outfit called the “Catholic Communications Network”, which is supposed to do the comms for the Bishops’ Conference on a regular basis. Arguably, it’s the notorious uselessness of CCN that makes a project like Catholic Voices necessary. But hark! What’s this? Papal Visit Communication Officers, linked to the individual dioceses? To paraphrase the divine Oscar, duplication of functions may be put down to inefficiency, but triplication looks like extravagance. At least the Magic Circle can’t be blamed for this appeal from the BBC, or we might be talking about quadruplication of functions.

As the late VI Lenin used to say, “better fewer but better”. I’d rather have a handful of comms people who know what they’re doing than a small army who don’t.

Moreover, this is a bit like the Greg Pope situation. When Eccleston Square identify a problem, their stock response is to throw money at it. Hence dealing with the Oona Stannard problem by creating a job for Greg Pope and hoping that he cancels Oona out, rather than having the Oona Stannard problem compounded by a Greg Pope problem. And Alexander DesForges being AWOL making a new series of Changing Rooms is to be addressed by new media teams springing up like dandelions.

Bearing in mind that the Catholic Church has, how shall we put this, certain issues with cashflow, and that we’re in an age of austerity more generally, it really is striking that the Catholic establishment are doing a good impression of Formula One drivers spraying champagne all around them. Does Vin Nichols think this is a sensible way to proceed? Does Dan Brennan think it’s a sensible way to proceed? Because I don’t.

How bureaucracy works

Listen up, kids, because you might learn something here. This is where we give you some valuable analytical tools.

Non-Catholics often find Catholic politics completely impenetrable in that, even if the media get the actual facts of a story right, they don’t have the background knowledge to make sense of the information. This is assuming the best of intentions and ignoring for the sake of argument those people with a habit of serial misinterpretation or, alternatively, making stuff up. That’s why you get this disconnect where Catholics watching Newsnight or reading the Guardian feel that they’re getting this discussion of another “Catholic Church” in a parallel universe. And don’t even start me on Liberal Conspiracy.

But, before I head off into a rant, there’s another side to this, in that Catholics are often baffled and bemused by Church affairs. Even well-informed, attentive Catholics who know there’s such a thing as the Magic Circle find themselves scratching their heads at the bizarre and inexplicable things the Magic Circle does. Whereas if you have the right analytical tools (like a knowledge of bureaucratic organisations) a lot of what seems inexplicable at first sight turns out to be absolutely bog-standard.

Let us take as our case study the Catholic Education Service. As luck would have it, CES is very much topical in the Catholic press at the moment, as many Catholic schools are showing interest in Michael Gove’s academies scheme as a way of escaping the dead hand of CES. It’s also the case that, regardless of what you think about academies, Oona Stannard has vastly exceeded her remit in her anti-academies campaigning, and not for the first time. But here’s an interesting question – who is Oona Stannard’s line manager? Technically, I suppose, it would be Bishop Malcolm McMahon, the BCEW’s point man on education, but I suggest it is not very likely that +Malcy will be eager to crack the whip. He’s never struck me as having anything of the Simon Legree about him.

Anyway, you may remember some years ago there was a big stink in the press when a bunch of dangerous criminals were released early and went on to commit serious crimes. Who had authorised their release? Was it a minister, a Home Office official, someone in the Prison Service? Had they been through proper parole hearings? In fact it turned out that these dangerous crims hadn’t been released on anyone’s instructions; they’d been released by a computer programme, so it wasn’t anyone’s fault. Nice one.

The logic of bureaucracy will be a familiar one if you’ve ever had dealings with CES. Let’s say you have a concern about the content of lessons in your local school. You talk to your head teacher, and she tells you that she’s just a functionary carrying out the policies of the diocese and CES. Since you feel strongly on the subject, you contact your diocesan bishop. He tells you that, while of course he has a pastoral concern for all the schools in his diocese, detailed educational matters are up to CES and you should really talk to them.

So then you contact CES, which is a trial in itself. After having your call transferred multiple times and having to spend hours listening to “Greensleeves”, you eventually get a human being on the other end of the phone. You put your question, and are told that (a) CES does not comment on individual schools, and (b) in any case, CES does not make policy but is simply an executive agency responsible to the Bishops’ Conference.

At this point you may give up or, if you’re really enterprising, you might contact Malcolm McMahon. If you do, then it’s a fair bet that +Malcy will tell you he’s not a micromanager and you should really direct your questions to CES.

You may think this sounds very much like a system where nobody is responsible for anything, and you would be right. You may suspect this opacity is deliberate, and I would have to agree with you. You may wonder why they haven’t just developed a computer programme to do this, and all I can tell you is that CES have been struggling valiantly with the problem, but are having trouble getting their Sinclair ZX81 to cooperate.

Here’s something else, the appointment of former Labour MP Greg Pope as deputy director of CES. Those people kicking up about Mr Pope’s voting record on abortion and such may have a point, but it’s not necessarily the most interesting point.

The pertinent question would be, was there a pre-existing deputy director’s position? I don’t think there was. So did the Magic Circle create a feudal appanage for Greg Pope out of the goodness of their hearts? I think not.

The appointment of a deputy to the blessed Oona is a recognition by the bishops that there is in fact an Oona Stannard problem. But how do they respond to that problem? By reverting to the same instincts that come into play whenever they have to respond to a problem, by (a) throwing money at the problem and (b) finding a politician to suck up to. This is what I mean by a bureaucratic organisation, with its own ingrown culture, developing its own internal logic. And what seems at first sight to be bizarre turns out to be quite explicable.

Actually, I blame Hume for a lot of this. But that’s another story…

The routing (for the time being) of the St James’ hoods

This is by way of an update to our previous coverage of the hoods terrorising the St James’ area of west Belfast. I can inform readers at this point that the Sons of Anarchy have been scattered to the four winds. (Although not, I think, the Four Winds estate, which wouldn’t be prepared for that sort of thing.) After that humiliating affair of the jammed gun, the dissident ÓNH went back to the area in force and cleared the rats out. They also rather self-importantly informed residents they were giving them their area back. Quite how this will play out with local residents, who may be fearing that they’ve now exchanged one gang of hoods for another, remains to be seen.

This is something rather significant in terms of dissident politics, if there’s a shift away from harebrained bomb plots and towards populist vigilantism. The vigilante strain is most obvious with the existence of Republican Action Against Drugs (RAAD) in Derry, taking physical action against head shops and the like; there are also one or two areas where the INLA seem to have cornered the market in punishment beatings. Of course, it all depends which dissidents you’re talking about; there are about six or seven small armed groups running arounds, some of which are still deeply committed to harebrained bomb plots.

At any rate, for the moment the ÓNH seems to be the group with the wind in its sails, or at least the ability to actually do something. It’s said to have attracted some ex-Provos with a bit of ability. There’s a rumoured link-up with the arrestingly-named “Real Sinn Féin”, the Limerick-based group who split from RSF earlier this year after the failure of their coup attempt against the Dalton-Ó Brádaigh leadership. And the St James’ action has led to the texts page of the current Andersonstown News being full of messages lauding the ÓNH and contrasting them favourably to the Provos’ inability to deal with the den of criminality that west Belfast is rapidly becoming.

This of course poses something of a conundrum for the area’s uncrowned monarch, as Gerry has oscillated between issuing bad-tempered pronunciamentos about how the dissidents should butt out, to making statesmanlike gestures of offering to talk to them and explain the errors of their ways. Either way, Gerry may at this point be feeling as if he’s caught in that scene from Jason and the Argonauts where the zombie soldiers spring up from scattered dragons’ teeth. No sooner do you think you’ve seen the back of republicans, than they pop up somewhere else.

Also, there’s some of the usual sabre-rattling going on on the loyalist side. Andre Shoukri, former head honcho of the UDA in north Belfast, was released from chokey a little while ago and has been making noises about taking his territory back. In response, UDA pharoah Hard Bap was moved to publicise the names of Andre’s twelve-strong gang and advise Andre that, on reflection, he might like to take the ferry to Scotland, just as his mate Johnny had done before him. Ah, boys. Peace process or no, some folks still remain unreconstructed, and not in an endearing way.

Lower our expectations we must, hmm

All right, let’s take a brief look at the current issue of That Magazine We Don’t Mention, for there’s something in it that’s been annoying my brain the last few days. I mean, more than usual.

Bobbie Mickens has been at a trendy theological conference in the Alpine city of Trent, site of the famous ecumenical council, which gives him the opportunity to whine about the Extraordinary Form and, indeed, the whole of Church history prior to 1962. But this is par for the course, and it’s not that that’s been annoying me.

There’s a big ad for this West End debate on 14 September about whether compulsory celibacy should be abolished, which is an interesting topic even if the discussion is usually hackneyed, and I fear the orthodox side is seriously rhetorically outgunned. On the reformist side of the argument is Tablet trustee Baroness Helena Kennedy, who is a formidable debater, and Tablet director Professor Tina Beattie. On the status quo side are the ubiquitous Jack Valero, who is commendably game to go in for these things; Bishop Malcolm McMahon, who evidently has nothing better to do two days before a papal visit; and Fr Stephen Wang of Allen Hall Seminary. All I have to say about the latter is, if you haven’t yet been exposed to the devastating charisma of Fr Stephen Wang, you’re in for a treat.

But it’s not that.

There is a very short and anodyne piece on the Birmingham Three, which can’t be ignored any more, especially as more keeps leaking out. Since it can’t be ignored, there’s an article that reports the situation without actually explaining what’s going on, let alone asking awkward questions like what exactly Iggy Harrison thinks he’s playing at.

But it’s not that.

We turn to the latest in the patchily interesting “Understanding Benedict” series, and this week the author is the shambling miscreant Ed Stourton. Lord, give me strength. If that wretched toad had been a hoodie-wearing, cider-drinking yob from a sink estate, the Daily Mail would be holding him up as the cause of Broken Britain, but of course Ed went to Ampleforth and is a Tablet trustee, so that’s all right then. Anyway, at the point where theology needs to be discussed, we usually get a load of guff from Fr Tim Radcliffe, but oddly Ed eschews the obvious in favour of quoting extensively from… Fr Stephen Wang. If you think this sounds like an old boys’ club, you have grasped a great truth about the Tablet.

But it’s not that. Nor even is it the editorial on Turkish membership of the EU, which I’ve read three times in the vain hope of finding a point. No, I’m thinking of Clifford’s column. Because, once again, dear old Clifford is in his Karl Rove mode.

We begin with Clifford recalling opinion polling prior to JP2’s visit to Britain in 1982, and the expectation that there would be Protestant resistance to the visit:

In fact, after the Catholic population itself, it was the members of the Free Churches (arguably the most Protestant section of opinion) who were most favourable to the visit. But the greatest opposition came from a hitherto unsuspected body of opinion, which was mainly detected by correlating the result with newspaper readership. Yes, they were Guardian readers.

You don’t say, Clifford! Actually, that could have been determined by just reading the Grauniad, whose approach to such matters often resembles the Protestant Telegraph circa 1971.

…it’s a safe bet that at least as much media attention will be given to those relatively few activists who want to wreck the visit as to what the Pope actually says or does himself, or the hundreds of thousands who will turn out to greet him.

This is true. In fact, something that has struck me about the Protest The Pope Coalition is the disconnect between the amount of sympathetic media coverage it’s been given and the uniformly derisory turnouts at its events. The last picket of Westminster Cathedral attracted fewer than thirty people – even Peter Tatchell only claimed fifty – and they seemed to be heavily made up of professional protesters like Peter. To understand that, you have to consider the Coalition itself, which is the usual anti-religious lash-up of OutRage!, the National ‘Secular’ Society and the Worker-Communist Party of Iran plus a few waifs and strays. When this constellation are organising anti-Islam rallies, it’s normally the WPI who provide the warm bodies, but the Iranian exiles don’t really give a stuff about the Pope either way, and Maryam Namazie seems to have concluded that her time is better spent broadcasting Hekmatist propaganda to the freedom-loving peoples of the world.

If you then factor in the rather elderly and inactive membership of the NSS, and then realise how small OutRage! actually is (hence its reliance on headline-grabbing stunts), you come to the conclusion that there really isn’t a coalition at all. It is no wonder that their public meeting next Thursday, to be addressed by Tatchell, Terry Sanderson and that Italian wackaloon who wants Berlusconi to annex Vatican City, is not being held in the Albert Hall but in a library in Richmond. What the coalition does have is Peter Tatchell, with his tremendous media profile, the enormous respect he’s held in, and his unparallelled ability to sit in a TV studio energetically talking rubbish to anchors who know even less on the subject than he does.

And yet, the Rod Liddles and Johann Haris notwithstanding, Clifford doesn’t care to speculate on why the other side dominates media discourse so completely. That’s a slippery slope that might lead to pondering why the Church’s comms are so awful, and tactless vulgarians might start to wonder aloud what exactly Alexander DesForges and Mary Wang have been doing to earn their keep. And, since CCN is essentially a vacuum, one’s mind turns to Jack and Austen’s Little Voices project and thinks, “Well, it can’t be any worse.”

Catholics might meet trouble halfway by lowering their expectations of the visit…

That would be difficult, as Benny hasn’t even touched down yet and it’s shaping up to be a monumental shambles. Or perhaps by lowering expectations Clifford means taking a stoical attitude towards downsizing plans, like holding the Newman beatification in a shed in Sparkbrook.

…hoping, for instance, that Pope Benedict won’t actually make things any worse than they are already.

It’s not really B16 I’m worried about, not in an environment where Kieran Conry can hail a passing journalist and unload his stream of consciousness with impunity. I suppose a cynic may think Clifford was worried about the Pope saying something controversially orthodox and out of step with the liberal zeitgeist, but that would just be silly.

…the Pope is sometimes the author of his own misfortune, with a clunky public relations touch that leaves ill-chosen words or phrases open to misinterpretation by correspondents looking for copy.

Well, Benedict doesn’t share JP2’s instinct for sugaring the medicine, but those familiar with his work will know that he’s very careful and precise in his choice of words. What he doesn’t do is express himself in soundbites; and let’s also concede that the Holy See press operation (that is, Fr Federico Lombardi and his trusty fax machine) is not state-of-the-art. I merely draw attention once again to the transcendental crapness of English Catholicism’s media operation, which Clifford is surely aware of, and wonder whether our old friend is being slightly disingenuous. Surely not.

We needn’t doubt that Pope Benedict is capable of delivering a message to the British people that they need to hear, despite the strong chance it will be drowned out in the clamour. But the medium is often also the message.

This is Clifford McLuhan just getting into his stride…

They say that to teach mathematics to Jimmy, you not only need to know mathematics, you also need to know Jimmy. So to offer the insights of Catholic faith to the British, you have to know the faith, which the Pope surely does inside out, but also to know the British.

And so we come back to the old Tabletista trope of a Catholicism so thoroughly Anglicised that only some minor liturgical details would distinguish it from the good old C of E. I also for some reason recall Clifford’s old story about how in the runup to JP2’s visit the English bishops organised a team (including a young Fr Vincent Nichols) to draft papal texts with a view to JP giving the feelgood messages he so excelled at, while sidestepping moral or ethical issues that might upset the Guardian-reading public. I get the feeling that some people would quite like to see that happen again.

Finally, Clifford ends up with a little conclusion on the relevance of Cardinal Newman, but sagely warns us against the tendency of modern observers, whether conservative or liberal, to create a Newman in their own image. Tu quoque, mate.

Nichols calls on faithful to embrace change

CCN – The Archbishop of Westminster, the Most Rev Vincent Nichols, today issued a stirring appeal for change to the Catholic faithful.

Speaking on Radio 4’s Thought For The Day, Archbishop Nichols said, “Hullo Brian, hullo Sue. You know, the other day I saw Austen Ivereigh gesticulating wildly and declaiming something about Barack Obama and change we can believe in. At first I though Austen was just having a little turn – he’s been a bit moody since someone stole his toadstool and fishing rod – but then it occurred to me that there was in fact an important message in his jibber-jabber.

“My mind flashed back to the popular 1980s Liverpudlian sitcom Bread, with its inspiring portrayal of a big family all pulling together to get through the hard times. Once again we are living in hard times, and the Church is determined to play its part in pulling together. For example, we are currently rolling out an ambitious programme of reducing our heating bills by insulating all our churches and schools with millions of unsold copies of the Tablet. In doing this we hope to combine our economy drive with our plan to make the Church carbon-neutral. And I believe, in a very real sense, that points us in the direction of the change we need to go forward together.

“So I am asking the faithful to have a good rummage down the back of their sofas, and see if you can find any spare change. Or perhaps you have a jar of pennies that’s just lying around doing nothing. At this point I recall what Our Lord said in the Parable of the Talents about how it is praiseworthy to put your change to work. So, instead of having your penny jar just sitting on the fireplace gathering dust, you may like to consider contributing to the common good by sending it to Mgr Andrew Summersgill. Every little helps.

“And, if possible, it would be nice to get it before the papal visit next month. Not to put too fine a point upon it, if this turns out to be a complete shambles it will make me look very bad in front of the Holy Father and, more importantly, Chris Patten. This dreadful loss of face could just possibly be avoided if the faithful look in their hearts, and down the back of their sofas of course, and truly grasp the necessary change.”


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