Sectarian Legacy of Belfast Riots

From the Irish Examiner, June 24.

Sectarian Legacy of Belfast Riots

On Tuesday evening, the newly crowned US Champion Rory McIlroy touched down at George Best airport in East Belfast. It should have been a homecoming to unite Northern Ireland, a proud moment for the country, a positive face to show the world. Instead a typically sanguine McIllroy found himself in an unusual position – fielding questions about shootings, riots and sectarian skirmishes.

Less than five miles from the damp tarmac at George Best, the detritus of the previous night’s rioting – bricks, bottles, even golf balls – lay strewn across the junction of the lower Newtownards Road and the Short Strand. McIlroy, a native of Holywood, Co. Down, spoke for the vast majority of Northern Ireland when he told reporters how ‘saddened’ he was ‘to see what’s happened over the past couple of nights’.

This week’s riots are among the most serious civil disturbances witnessed on the streets of Northern Ireland in recent years – as the sudden ubiquity of foreign reporters in Belfast attests. Loyalists and dissident republicans firing live rounds at the police, a photographer and two Protestant youths with gunshot wounds, hundred-strong crowds lobbing everything from lit fireworks to petrol bombs: this is international news. And, unlike Rory Mc’s emphatic victory in Maryland, it is a Northern Irish story the world’s media are well versed in covering.

Less cut and dried, however, is the motivation behind the unrest. The Short Strand, effectively surrounded on three sides by a corrugated iron peacewall, is a staunchly nationalist enclave of less than 1,000 people in overwhelmingly unionist inner East Belfast. Relations between the communities have long been febrile: in 1970 the grounds of St Matthew’s Church was the scene of major gun battle between the IRA and loyalist mobs, while in 2002 clashes across the peaceline were a nightly feature for months.


Now the UVF, led by a renegade commander dubbed ‘the Beast from the East’, is reasserting their dominance in the area. Last month, in a marked departure from the current vogue for bright, friendly, inclusive murals on Belfast’s streets, a dour depiction of loyalist paramilitaries holding machine guns was painted on the corner of Dee Street and the Newtownards road. Kerbstones in the neighbourhood have been treated to a fresh coat of red, white and blue paint, lampposts to new UVF flags.

This ‘Beast from the East’ has the authority – and, more worryingly, the autonomy – to attract hundreds of loyalist youths, some even bussed in from other parts of the city, onto the streets of East Belfast. This was no spontaneous eruption of violence, whatever the ex post grievances about attacks on property last weekend by republican youths averred by the UVF’s putative political wing, the badly compromised Progressive Unionist Party.

Arriving on the heels of violence at the contentious Tour of the North Orange Order parade in North Belfast last Friday, the riots around the Short Strand mark a troubling detioration in the law and order situation in working-class districts of Belfast. As the marching season kicks into gear, the potential for further trouble in flashpoint areas – particularly at the Ardoyne on July 12 – should not be underestimated.

But to attribute the riots solely to the activity of a loyalist eminence grise, nefariously orchestrating mayhem behind the scenes, or the heightened political temperature that comes with the marching season, is to ignore important underlying aspects of life in Northern Ireland today.

Jobs, or more specifically their lack, are a festering sore on the body politic. At a whopping 28%, economic inactivity is higher in the North than anywhere else in the UK – a figure that rises sharply in deprived areas such as the Short Strand and Lower Newtownards Road.

The housing market – a key driver of the post-peace process boom – has, like its southern neighbour, gone into freefall. Average house prices have tumbled from an eye-watering £250,000 to barely half that in just four years. At the same time, the heavily public sector dominated economy is feeling the pinch of Westminster-enforced austerity – this year Chancellor George Osborne loped almost £500m off Stormont’s block grant.

A dispiriting economic situation coupled with lack of employment opportunities in traditional industries such as ship building is the perfect breathing ground for sectarianism.

The continued division of Northern Irish society along sectarian lines has been one of the prevailing, if seldom commented upon, features of the post-Good Friday dispensation. Since 1994, the number of peacewalls has trebled: in the five years since the signing of the St Andrews Agreement, which heralded the restoration of power-sharing government, 11 new walls have been built between nationalist and unionist communities. In terms of housing, Belfast remains by far the most segregated city in Europe. Only 6% of Northern Irish school children attend integrated school.

The political classes at Stormont have yet to demonstrate a sincere willingness to address the legacy engendered by generations of sectarian strife. A Shared Future, a government strategy for promoting community relations drawn up at a cost of many millions to the taxpayer in the early years of the last decade, lay in abeyance before being shelved completely by the incoming Sinn Fein – DUP administration in 2006. In the absence of either A Shared Future or its decidedly lukewarm follow-up Cohesion, Sharing and Integration Northern Ireland, rather remarkably, has no formal policy on tackling sectarianism.

Slowly, noiselessly, reconciliation has slipped off the political agenda in the North. Without much maligned community workers on the ground – it was they, not Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, who effectively brokered something akin to a ceasefire around the Short Strand on Wednesday – the situation in many communities would be even more perilous. At the same time funding for vast swathes of community relations work is under threat.

Major challenges lie ahead. Economic forecasts for the North remain dire, while a raft of commemorations, including centenaries of the Larne UVF gunrunning and the Easter Rising, will pose troubling questions for a divided society.

Rory McIlroy shows every sign of bagging more majors in the years ahead. Unfortunately, if significant investment and political drive in addressing sectarianism is not forthcoming, the amiable County Down man could find that questions about riots and street violence keep coming too.

Peter Geoghegan is the author of ‘A Difficult Difference: Race, Religion and the New Northern Ireland’, out now published by the Irish Academic Press.


Getting with the programme

Review of Alms on the Highway, New Creative Writing from the Oscar Wilde Centre Trinity College Dublin. Appeared in the Sunday Business Post, 12 June 2011.

Can creative writing be taught? Wilbur Schramm certainly believed it could. In 1936, the so-called ‘father of communication studies’ founded the Program in Creative Writing at the University of Iowa.

Over the intervening three quarters ofa century, what became known as the Iowa Writers’ Workshop programme has produced seventeen Pulitzer Prize winners, four recent US Poet Laureates and counts among its alumni Flannery O’Connor, Michael Cunningham and John Irving.

But the legacy of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop is greater than the myriad published authors that have passed through the programme. Schramm’s most famous mantras – ‘Murder your darlings’, ‘Omit needless words’, ‘Show, don’t tell’ – have entered popular parlance, while the very idea that the heretofore opaque art of fiction can be revealed and inculcated in a classroom has travelled across the globe.

Today, colleges from Hong Kong to Cape Town offer degrees in creative writing, with even the venerable publisher Faber and Faber opening a writing programme, imaginatively titled the Faber Academy.

As with most things, creative writing as a discipline has its defenders and its detractors – a couple of years ago the much-vaunted novelist, screenwriter and playwright Hanif Kureishi described the courses as ‘‘the new mental hospitals’’ – but the reality is that they have become wellsprings from which many contemporary voices, particularly novelists, emerge.

Indeed, 75 years after the Iowa Writers’ Workshop first opened its doors, creative writing has become an established – if not always accepted – facet of the modern university. Ireland is no different.

Trinity College Dublin established the Oscar Wilde Centre in 1997, offering the first degree in creative writing in the country. Alms on the Highway is a collection of new prose, poetry and drama from the centre’s latest class, many hoping to follow in the footsteps of successful graduates such as Claire Kilroy, Claire Keegan and Chris Binchy.

An epigraph from Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis gives this collection its title, and there are dark, autobiographical aspects to much of the work on show. (Although I doubt whether the centre’s adopted patron, or any one else, would appreciate the volume’s garish cover, which features what looks like a homunculus with a traffic cone on his head, perched atop a grass-covered muffin.)

In his work The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, literary historian Mark McGurl argues that a focus on, and concomitant improvement in, the technique of writing has been one of the most influential aspects of the boom in creative writing courses over the last 50 years.

As author Kevin Barry notes in his foreword to Alms on the Highway, ‘‘there is a weight of care behind every construction and riff and setup (in the book). . . every piece here clearly has perspiration behind it as well as inspiration’’. Almost all the writers involved in the project display a commendable sureness of technique: from Chris Allen’s brief, evocative opening story, Feathered Cargo, through Eileen Casey’s exhaustive study of a marriage on the wane and the tale Big Pink, Marianne O’Rourke’s rumination on solitude and relationships set among the Nubian people of Sudan.

Gerald Dawe is the Wilde Centre’s course director, but it is the influence of another Trinity professor, Richard Ford, which permeates most deeply throughout the collection. Many of the stories echo the American novelist’s domestic realism in dealing with the intricate, almost prosaic nature of family and work relationships – even if few reach the dizzying heights of Ford (himself a graduate of a Californian university’s writing programme) at his best.

Creative writing programme sceptics argue that the emphasis on technique has created a generation of writers who are either ignorant of or afraid to engage with history.

That charge certainly could not be levelled at Melatu Okorie. Originally from Nigeria, Okorie’s If Lace Could Talk skilfully depicts the cruelties of her home country’s military junta through the pain of a young mother forced to make a new life in Ireland.

Elsewhere, American T Mazzara produces an unnerving, raw account of the dysfunctional relationship between a Gulf War veteran and his adolescent son, framed against the backdrop of the sclerotic social and cultural world of the Deep South.

Peppered throughout the collection, excerpts of poetry and drama often display a lightness of touch not always evident in the prose offerings (with a few honourable exceptions, most notably Fintan O’Higgins).

Breda Joy’s declaration that ‘‘I am a born-again Luasian/Virgin oft he touchscreen’’ and Kate Perry’s touching, humorous radio play Consuming Celia demonstrate that a literary engagement with modern Ireland need not be a sombre, high-minded affair.

Good writing and good stories share common properties, but the two are not synonymous.

While creative writing courses may be able to improve a writer’s style, no end of instruction will teach content. Thankfully Alms on the Highway boasts just enough overlap between the two – and enough fresh, new voices – to make it a creative writing programme-inspired collection worth dipping into.

Head for Heights

Determined to conquer his fear of heights, Peter Geoghegan signed up for a rooftop tour of Stockholm. But could sweeping views of the beautiful Swedish capital cure him? (From Ryan Air magazine, May 2011).

A couple of days before I left for Stockholm, Veerle, my rooftop tour guide, had sent me a pithy, one-line email: “Don’t forget your diaper.” Swedes are known for their dark sense of humour, but, as I inch along the edge of the Old Parliament’s roof, I can’t help but wonder if she really was joking. “See all those people,” Veerle smiles, as she points at a sea of bobbing blonde heads far below. “We are 43m above them!” My throat is bone dry, my palms soaking wet, and the nearest clean underwear is back in my hotel room at the Clarion Sign.

Most European city tours don’t begin in the dusty loft of a centuries-old building, but then again this isn’t your typical leisurely jaunt around picturesque Stockholm. Our group of around 25 hardy souls meets on the tiny island of Riddarholm, a cobblestone’s throw from the fabled old-town district, Gamla Stan. From here the only way is up. After a short elevator ride to the top of the impressive former Riksdag, we each get a harness, a comprehensive safety talk, and a hefty dose of panic (at least, I do). Veerle, however, doesn’t do fear. Lean and athletic, she looks like she’s spent the last five years on the roof of the Old Parliament building in all weather, roaming about, carefree. Which, of course, she has.

“Now you’re ready for the roof!” Veerle exclaims, slamming a white plastic hard hat onto my unwilling head, before politely but firmly ushering me towards the small staircase that leads directly onto the open roof. Strict safety rules are adhered to, and you have to be at least 1.5m (4.9ft) tall. But nevertheless my heart starts palpitating wildly as soon as I step out.

Fear of heights is remarkably common, and acrophobia (unlike vertigo) is a purely psychological condition. However, most sufferers aren’t in the habit of taking rooftop strolls on one of the Swedish capital’s most iconic buildings.

Six floors up, the wind is noticeably stronger than it was back on terra firma. Already, I am regretting the horseradish schnapps knocked back after dinner in Matbaren the previous evening. Luckily, help is at hand. “You will be walking the dog,” Veerle says, as she attaches the cable that runs from my harness to a fixed line that follows a foot-wide metal catwalk. This pathway runs for 300m up, across and down the rooftop, covering roughly the same distance as a city block. If anything happens then the bulky safety cable connected to my harness will save my bacon – or at least that’s the plan.

Our group is split into two – English and Swedish – and I file in at the back of the former, silent and rather sullen, looking for all the world like a reluctant miner. However, with a supporting rail to hang onto for dear life and our friendly guide, Inger, at the head of the troop, I begin to warm up (metaphorically speaking – it’s freezing on the roof). I also get to enjoy the spectacular views across one of Scandinavia’s, and indeed Europe’s, most breathtakingly beautiful cities.

Stockholm is built on 14 separate islands in Riddarfjärden bay, where Lake Mälaren meets the Baltic Sea, and its nickname, the Venice of the North, is just about the only predictable thing about this diverse, exciting city. On the ground, Gamla Stan, which dates back to the 13th century, is a warren of medieval alleyways and cobbled streets. From the air the old town is transformed into a huddled mass of traditional black roofs. Once home to about 9,000 inhabitants, today barely 3,000 remain but the island still boasts some pretty influential residents. As Inger explains, the Swedish flag fluttering in the breeze over imposing Stockholm Palace signifies that the King is in Sweden, although even from 40m up it’s impossible to tell whether he is at home in his palatial pad or not.

Shimmying along the roof a little further, the trendy Södermalm district comes into view. This old working-class neighbourhood has undergone a massive revival in the last 10–15 years and today Söder (which means south) boasts a plethora of funky shops, hip bars and good restaurants. In fiction, it’s also home to Lisbeth Salander, the girl with the dragon tattoo in Stieg Larsson’s best-selling Millennium Trilogy. Brave and pugnacious Lisbeth would make light work of a little rooftop ramble – unfortunately I am made of much weaker stuff.

Creeping from the southern side of the Old Parliament building to the west, the handrail finishes. My nerve quickly follows suit. Despite the wind, beads of cold sweat begin to hang on my brow as I shuffle across the roof ’s edge.

“This is the tricky part, but don’t worry, it’s not too hard,” Inger says as she skips with nonchalant ease between the front and the back of our group. Everyone seems to agree, moving quickly along, stopping only to snap pictures and to chat to one another. Everyone except me. Beating a pace that a snail would be ashamed of, I try my best not to look down.

I fail. Far below me, I watch a train disgorge passengers at Gamla Stan station. They seem so tiny, so far away. Dizzy, my pen slips from my clammy hand (what was I hoping to write – ‘save me’?). It bounces down the roof, almost in slow motion, before silently falling six floors to the ground. If I couldn’t empathise with James Stewart’s character in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo before, I certainly can now.

In the distance, the three gold-plated crowns on the summit of the stately City Hall glisten in the evening light. Here, on 10 December every year, the Nobel Prize winners’ banquet is held. Unfortunately, I’m too busy concentrating on staring straight ahead to pay it much attention right now. “Don’t worry, you’re almost there,” Inger assures me, but the remaining track feels more like 40 miles than 40m. Resisting (just) the temptation to get down on my hands and knees and crawl to the finish line, I keep on walking. Slowly. Very slowly.

The rest of my group have long finished by the time I limp home – some are standing around taking photographs of nearby Riddarholm Church, the venerable burial place of Swedish monarchs until 1950; others are already getting changed, but I don’t care. About 45 minutes after we started I have completed a full circuit of the roof. And it feels amazing.

“You did it!” Veerle exclaims, slapping me hard on the back. I smile broadly, trying not to look too proud. Out to the west the setting sun shimmers on the still waters of Riddarfjärden bay. It’s my first photograph from the roof.

Half an hour later, minus the harness and the hard hat, I stop for a well-deserved glass of aquavit in a bar in Gamla Stan, to celebrate conquering my fear. From my seat at the window, the Old Parliament building is clearly visible. Clouded in semi-darkness, the roof now seems impossibly, frighteningly high. Was today a fantastic experience? Definitely. Did I leave my fear of heights behind in Stockholm? Not quite.

Turning point in history

On the 30th anniversary of the death of Bobby Sands, the hunger striker is still regarded as a hero of republicanism, says Peter Geoghegan. (From the Irish Examiner, May 5, 2011).

THIS tendentious analysis of the death, and life, of Bobby Sands appeared in the Guardian on May 6, 1981. The previous day the Belfast native died on hunger strike at HM Prison Maze. Sands was 27 years old and, until his hunger strike, largely unknown outside Irish Republican circles.

Thirty years on, Bobby Sands is anything but a figure of dark humour or criminal treachery. The closest Ireland has come to a Che Guevara, Sands is vaunted as a hero of republicanism, his hirsute image adorning everything from gable ends to t-shirts and posters.

Danny Morrison, who was national director of publicity for Sinn Féin during the 1981 hunger strikes and also published Sands’s poetry and prose in the party’s newspaper, An Phoblacht, is not surprised at the posthumous fame.

“He was always an enigmatic person. He had this aura around him of authority. Even if he was living in the most horrific of conditions, he had the measure of the world. He always seemed to know exactly what was going on,” the head of the Bobby Sands Trust explains.

Anthony McIntyre, a former IRA member and author of Good Friday: the Death of Irish Republicanism, was in the Maze at the time of hunger strikes and remembers Bobby Sands as a “totally committed IRA volunteer”.

“He was imbibed with Pearsean notions of Republicanism. He was also very socialist, very left-wing with a great sense of struggle and history.”

On May 5, 1981, after 66 days on hunger strike, Bobby Sands passed away. He was the first Irish republican to die on hunger strike since Frank Stagg in 1976. On the war-torn streets of Northern Ireland riots broke out in nationalist areas, with thousands of plastic bullets fired by security forces and two people — milkman Eric Guiney and his son Desmond — killed following stone-throwing by rioters in nationalist North Belfast.

Inside the Maze the atmosphere was equally tense. “The mood in the H Block was terrible,” says Anthony McIntyre. “The screws (prison wardens) weren’t letting us out of the cells. We had a radio smuggled in but we had to wait to access the news. Brendan Hughes (the officer commanding during the 1980 hunger strike) announced Sands had died. Up until his funeral there was silence in the wing. There was a molten rage, anger, grief, but we didn’t say anything.”

Sands’s funeral was one of the largest public outpourings of grief witnessed during the 30 years of the Troubles. An estimated 100,000 people lined the route from Sands’s family home in the Twinbrook area of West Belfast to nearby Milltown Cemetery, where he was buried in the newly-created republican plot.

Journalist and writer Ed Moloney was working as a reporter for the Irish Times in Belfast in 1981 and remembers Sands’s funeral well: “It was immense. That’s about the only word to describe it. It was so large that we had a discussion in the Belfast office about how to describe it. I said simply, ‘It was the biggest nationalist demonstration in Northern Ireland since the Troubles started.’ Which is exactly what it was.”

By the end of that summer another nine hunger strikers had died, in the process changing utterly the Northern Irish conflict. “With the hunger strikes, the Provos demolished the myth that no-one supported them, that no-one voted for them,” says Moloney.

Sands was not just a republican prisoner or a hunger striker, he was also a Member of Parliament, having famously won a by-election in Fermanagh/South Tyrone on an ‘anti-H Block/Armagh political prisoner’ ticket, in April 1981. Sands’s election paved the way, later in 1981, for Sinn Féin’s entry into electoral politics, the so-called Armalite and Ballot Box strategy, and eventually, Ed Moloney suggests, the Good Friday Agreement.

“Looking back on the hunger strikes, even though it was regarded at the time as an event that would increase conflict and make things worse, ironically it had within it the seeds of the peace process, thanks to Bobby Sands’s electoral success,” says Maloney.

If Sands’s victory at the ballot box paved the way for Sinn Féin to emerge as a political force it seems fitting that the 30th anniversary of his death falls on the very day his former comrades contest elections to the Stormont assembly.

“1981 was a turning point,” says Danny Morrison, who was Sands’s spokesperson during his successful Westminster campaign and is also the man credited with coining the phrase ‘the Armalite and Ballot Box’.

“It’s hard to attribute it to one death or one person, but Bobby’s death was international news. Here was an IRA man, an MP, dying in a British prison. It politicised a whole generation.”

In the 30 years since, Sands has become a symbol of Irish republicanism and the Northern Irish conflict. Streets named after Sands can be found everywhere from Nantes and Saint-Denis in France to Iran, where, in an act of political provocation, the Iranian government renamed Winston Churchill Boulevard, the location of the British embassy in Tehran, Bobby Sands Street. In 2008, Hunger, director Steve McQueen’s film starring Michael Fassbender, about the life and death of Sands in the Maze, won the Camera d’Or prize at Cannes.

Bobby Sands’s death is one of the most iconic moments in the Troubles, but it has not been without controversy. In 2005, in his book Blanketman, Richard O’Rawe, who was the public relations officer inside the prison during the hunger strike, accuses Gerry Adams of prolonging the strike for Sinn Féin’s political benefit.

“The hunger strike ultimately created political careers for Adams and McGuiness,” argues Anthony McIntyre, who has long been critical of Sinn Féin. “Politically it didn’t achieve anything that the SDLP didn’t in 1974 (at Sunningdale). It added oomph to an IRA campaign that was flagging, but ultimately what was gained by that war was very, very little.”

Danny Morrison rejects the suggestion the Sinn Féin leadership could have stopped the hunger strike. “That’s complete nonsense. They were our friends and comrades, they were also our cousins and brothers, they were people we grew up with.

“If the Sinn Féin leadership squandered an offer to end the hunger strike and protect the hunger strikers and let six men die who would be the first to say it? The British government. And they never said anything like it.”

Debates over whether or not Bobby Sands would have supported Sinn Féin’s peace strategy have raged almost since his death. On this subject, Ed Moloney is refreshingly phlegmatic: “If you were to tell Bobby Sands in May 1981 that your death would eventually lead to a political settlement in which the Provos accept the existence of Northern Ireland, support the British security forces, and take part in Stormont, would he have continued? In my mind there is no way he would have said ‘Yes’.

“But if he had not died, and we’d ended up with the same settlement, I think he would have accepted that, too.”

The 1981 Hunger Strikes

THE 1981 hunger strike was the culmination of a five-year protest by prisoners at Long Kesh prison in the North. It began as the ‘blanket protest’ in 1976, escalating into the dirty protest, where prisoners refused to leave their cells and covered the walls of their cells with excrement. In 1980, seven prisoners participated in the first hunger strike, which ended in acrimony after 53 days. The second hunger strike, in 1981, was a showdown between the prisoners and then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. During the strike, its leader, Bobby Sands, was elected as an MP prompting worldwide media interest.

The hunger strike was called off on October 3, 1981. Three days later Secretary of State for Northern Ireland James Prior announced partial concessions to the prisoners, including the right to wear their own clothes at all times.

Sands’s election agent, Owen Carron, won the Fermanagh/South Tyrone seat at a subsequent by-election. Two hunger strikers, Kieran Doherty and Paddy Agnew, won seats in the Dáil in 1981.

Growing the seeds of greatness

Interview with Barack Obama’s sister Maya Soetoro-Ng, from the Irish Examiner back in April.

LIKE many American presidents before him, Barack Obama never knowingly plays down his Irish roots.

On his whistle-stop Irish tour next month, Obama will pay a long overdue visit to Moneygall, the picturesque Offaly village that his great-great-great grandfather, shoemaker Fulmuth Kearney, left for New York in 1850.

Moneygall is a far cry from Honolulu, the Hawaiian city where the 44th President was born and raised, but Obama is likely to feel perfectly at home in Offaly. He has an ease about him no matter what the situation, says the woman who has known him since childhood — his half-sister Maya Soetoro-Ng.

“He is a really relaxed guy, he is comfortable in almost every situation and doesn’t take himself too seriously,” she says.

Barack and Maya share a rich, diverse background that encompasses Moneygall, Honolulu and just about everywhere in between. Obama’s parents — Barack Obama Sr, a black man from a poor village in Kenya, and Ann Dunham, a white woman whose parents grew up in Kansas — met at the University of Hawaii and married soon after. He was born on August 4, 1961.

The marriage didn’t last, however, and Barack Sr later returned to Kenya, where he worked as a government economist before his death in a car accident when his son was 21.

When Obama was six, his mother married Lolo Soetoro, an Indonesian foreign student. Maya, named after the poet Maya Angelou, is a product of their relationship. The family moved to Jakarta, but, after four years, Obama returned to Hawaii to live with his grandparents and attend middle school.

Maya, an amiable, chatty lecturer in multicultural education at Hawaii university, believes that these early years were formative for the future president. “I do often marvel at our particular journey,” she says, speaking on the phone from New York where she is busy promoting Ladder to the Moon, her beautifully illustrated new children’s book, inspired by her late mother Ann Dunham.

“I think of all the layers of life, meaning, history that is tied up in (our family story). There’s so many connections: Hawaii; Indonesia and Kenya; Chicago and Washington. I feel like that has given my brother and I a remarkable perspective, it has taught us to always keep the bigger picture in our heads,” she remarks in the same deep, sonorous voice that has become her brother’s trademark.

By any standards, Ann Dunham, who died of ovarian cancer in 1995 at the age of just 52, was a remarkable woman. Despite growing up in the Midwest, Dunham, who was twice married and divorced, spent most of her adult life in Hawaii and Indonesia. She was a teenage mother who later gained a PhD in anthropology and, towards the end of her life, worked as a research consultant at Indonesia’s largest bank.

In the run-up to the 2008 presidential election, Barack, who once described his mother as the constant in his life, told Time magazine: “When I think about my mother, I think that there was a certain combination of being very grounded in who she was, what she believed in. But also a certain recklessness. I think she was always searching for something. She wasn’t comfortable seeing her life confined to a certain box.”

Ann Dunham’s unorthodox approach to life was reflected in her imaginative approach to childrearing.

“There was lots of storytelling, lots of play,” Maya recalls. “She would get down on the floor and really play with my brother and me. She even built us a kiln in the back garden for making pottery.”

Passionate about her professional work, Dunham was a sympathetic mother, too, drawing on experiences from her own childhood in rural Kansas to connect with her two children.

“She was a storyteller. She would tell us about making up stories based on the clouds in the sky when she was a girl, or of sitting with a copy of National Geographic in a tree and imagining herself in foreign places.”

Barack was nine when Maya was born, and although they only lived together for a couple of years, his younger sister still has memories of their time in Hawaii. “I can remember the apartment where we lived, the three of us. I remember my brother watching basketball and trying to get in front of him to get his attention — I still remember how much it annoyed him.”

Obama spent summer and Christmas holidays with his mother and sister but it was only much later, when Maya was 14, that the family was finally reunited in Hawaii.

After Obama had graduated from Columbia University he began working as a community organiser in Chicago, and Maya spent a summer with her big — and by now rather strait-laced — brother. “He was very serious back then,” Maya says, reflecting back on a time when her brother helped her choose where to study, introduced her to the writings of Toni Morrison and Gabriel Garcia Marquez and even enrolled his younger sister in a dance class.

“In college he became very serious, very philosophical. That was the time when he was collecting the building blocks for the future. Only later did he start lightening up,” she laughs.

Maya attributes Barack’s sunnier disposition in part to the resolution of the search for his own identity. In his 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father, the future commander-in-chief describes feeling like a misfit in his Indonesian sandals and old-fashioned clothes when he started at school in Hawaii. As one of the few black students at Punahou he recalls students wanting to touch his hair and being asked whether his father ate people.

Struggling with his racial identity, Obama formed an image of his absent father from stories told by his mother and her parents. “My brother had to go and search for his father — which is the journey characterised in Dreams From My Father. I think he had to do that, particularly as a boy, but once he had made that journey he was OK,” says Maya.

The bond between Barack and Maya is still strong: he helped Maya get over the death of her father and spoke at her wedding to Konrad Ng, a Chinese American professor. Maya also has fond memories of working on Obama’s legendary ‘Change We Can Believe In’ campaign team in 2008.

“People had a sense that this was our future, they were asking ‘How can I make a contribution?’, ‘How can I help the broader community?’. It was a very exciting time.”

So much so that in the downtime during the gruelling campaign Maya penned Ladder to the Moon in the Obama’s Chicago home.

“I first thought about writing a story about mom when I was becoming a mom myself. It was only then that I actually did it.”

With military involvement in Libya, internal problems on Capitol Hill and, of course, that trip to Moneygall, Barack certainly has plenty on his plate right now with but the siblings stay in regular phone contact and Maya feels nothing but pride for her brother’s achievements.

“I think he is a great president and a great man. I’m proud not just of his position but his conduct, his efforts and his character under really difficult circumstances.

“I think there definitely have been easier times to be president.”

Rebuilding Iceland

Iceland after the kreppa. My long-form piece from Sunday Business Post, May 22, 2011.

‘Sometimes it doesn’t feel like there’s been a crash here at all.”

Heather Millard, an English documentary filmmaker living in Reykjavik, is chatting tome over coffee in a trendy bar in the Icelandic capital’s achingly hip 101neighbourhood. ‘‘Yes, incomes are lower and there is less job security, but it still doesn’t feel like something massive has happened.”

It’s a wet Tuesday night, but the rain isn’t the only aspect of Reykjavik that seems untouched since my last visit in August 2008, just weeks before the crisis – which Icelanders call the kreppa – hit.

Now, as then, the lively bars on Laugavegur, the city’s pedestrianised main drag, do a roaring trade.

All the main shops are open for business – empty units are conspicuous by their absence – and a hundred metres or so from where I’m sitting, construction workers are busy putting the finishing touches to the shimmering multi-million euro Reykjavik Concert Hall development.

‘‘It looks like everything is normal,” says Millard, whose film Future Of Hope focuses on the possibilities for Iceland in the aftermath of the economic crash, and features a soundtrack by Irish singer-songwriter Damien Rice. ‘‘But beneath the surface, there is a lot of anger and a lot of problems that still haven’t been dealt with properly.”

As I quickly learn, to understand Iceland today, and what happened in October 2008 when the country’s banking system collapsed virtually overnight, you have to know where to look. Borgartún is as good a place to start as any.

Look up Borgartún on Wikipedia and you will be told that this wide avenue, less than ten minutes’ walk from the throbbing heart of 101, is the city’s financial district. You will also still read that ‘‘although relatively small, Iceland has become a major European financial centre, hosting at least four large investment banks and numerous smaller banks’’.

Iceland is no longer a financial centre in any real sense of the word. Instead, Borgartu ¤ n today stands as a physical testament to the mania that engulfed this small island – 103,000 square kilometres in total, slightly bigger than Ireland or, as Icelanders are fond of saying, about the same size as Kentucky – in the decade up to 2008.

Here, among the ugly mish-mash of glass, steel and concrete that calls to mind the nondescript business districts of a minor north American city, lies the headquarters of every major Icelandic financial institution. Many are empty.

There are half-built apartment blocks, tens of thousands of feet of unused office space.

Towering glass-fronted buildings block the sunlight, and even on a bright spring morning the street feels cold and desolate.

The best-selling Icelandic writer Andri Snaer Magnason calls Borgartún the ‘‘boulevard of broken ideologies’’, and it’s not hard to see why.

At one end is the former headquarters of Kaupthing, responsible for the biggest default in corporate history after Lehman Brothers, WorldCom and Enron, according to the credit agency Moody’s.

Halfway down the street sits H²f-i, or the White House. It was in this whitewashed wooden building, on an open piece of land facing out onto the roaring Atlantic, that Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met in at a 1986 summit often cited as the moment that the Cold War definitively thawed.

Now, states across Europe – including, of course, Ireland – are looking at Iceland as a model for a different kind of revolution: one in which bondholders, and not citizens, shoulder the burden of debt repudiation.

In October 2008,when the gaping financial hole in the balance sheets of Iceland’s privatised banks became apparent, the three major banks carried debts equivalent to almost ten times the country’s GDP.

As the extent of the banks’ exposure became apparent, the government responded by liquidating the banks and moving their saleable assets and loans into three new institutions.

Since then, the Icelandic public have twice rejected referendums on paying back the British and Dutch governments some €4 billion for losses incurred in reimbursing customers of Icesave, the online savings account that collapsed two and a half years ago.

But has Iceland really ‘‘burned the bondholders’’, As many in Ireland have called on us to do? Huginn Thorsteinsson, an economist seconded from the University of Akureyri to the ministry of finance in Reykjavik, rejects the suggestion.

‘‘Some people would say that we made the creditors bleed, but the government would never say that,” he says. ‘‘We would say that there was just no other option.

By necessity, we had to create the new banks.

That’s why these creditors are not worse off – repaying their liabilities in the old banks was just impossible.”

Thorsteinsson, a bright thirtysomething with a degree in philosophy, is in the process of explaining the complicated financial machinations that took place in Iceland’s banking sector in October 2008 – when Kaupthing, Landsbanki and Glitnir were transformed into the imaginatively titled New Kaupthing, New Landsbanki and New Glitnir – when an unexpected guest arrives at his door.

It is Steingrímur Sigfússon, the Icelandic minister of finance. ‘‘I heard you were here and wanted to come and say hello,” he tells me.

The minister of finance heard that a reporter From an Irish Sunday newspaper was in his ministry, and took unscheduled time out to meet him? It might sound like poetic licence but, as even the casual visitor soon realises, this is how life works in a country of just 320,000 people, hundreds of miles from continental Europe.

Nobody schedules interviews until the day before, if at all; the parliament or a ministry are as easy to visit as any cafe or bookshop; every major building is less than five minutes walk from another; and everyone with any power knows everybody else with any power.

The finance ministry occupies just one floor of an uninspiring stone building off Laugevagur in the centre of Reykjavik.

When Iceland’s banks were privatised in the 1990s, regulation was reduced to a bare Minimum and, as the private banking sector mushroomed, the ministry was effectively relegated to the sidelines.

Now, with capital controls in place, the Icelandic krona closed off from international currency trading and an IMF-approved fiscal plan to administer, this rather bijou office is a seat of real power in Iceland.

Sigfússon, a balding and athletic man in hismid-50s,makes a good fist of talking up the Icelandic economy – growth for 2011 is projected at a healthy 2.5 per cent, compared to the 3.5 per cent contraction recorded last year – but he seems to over-sell the country’s prospects. ‘‘We are through the worst,” he says more than once, without looking like he fully believes it himself.

In truth, the economic outlook for Iceland is decidedly mixed.

Unemployment is hovering around 8 per cent, which is much lower than many feared, but which is nonetheless a serious problem in a country without any real history of joblessness.

Until the 1980s, fisheries provided jobs for anyone that needed them; thereafter the boom in finance, construction and services took up the slack caused by the privatisation of the fishing industry. But not any more.

Most ordinary Icelanders are still paying off massive debts on houses, cars, university degrees and much else.

That many of these loans were taken out in foreign currency is one of the more unbelievable aspects of Iceland’s incredible story.

Due to its small size, the Icelandic krona has historically been particularly volatile and sensitive to fluctuations. It was a closed currency for most of the 1980s, and continued to oscillate wildly during the 1990s.

When the currency stabilised at a very strong position from 2003 on, however, Icelandic banks began encouraging customers to borrow in cheap foreign currency – even doling out 75-year mortgages in dollars and yen as the Icelandic housing market boomed.

When the banking system collapsed, so did the krona.

The result, in some cases, was the cost of loans doubling or trebling. The government responded by passing a law that debts, regardless of the currency they were taken out in, could not exceed 110 per cent of their Icelandic value.

This measure was well received by the Icelandic public but, unfortunately, inflation began to spiral at the same time, peaking at almost 20 per cent in 2009. As Icelandic loans are tied to inflation, a product of the currency fluctuations of the 1980s, Icelandic debtors found that even if they had taken out loans in krona, the cost of their debt soared.

One Reykjavik architect tells me that he bought his house for 25 million krona in 2007.Now, despite paying off nine million krona in the intervening years, the mortgage stands at 34million krona, due to the rise in inflation since the kreppa.

Inside the ministry of finance, Thorsteinsson is sympathetic to such problems, but believes that it is time for a shift in Iceland’s collective mindset. ‘‘People are angry, they are frustrated, they see their loans getting bigger.

They want the Finance Vikings [the sobriquet given to the bankers who sprung to prominence during the boom] behind bars. It’s all understandable, but we need to get past it now. It’s cold and difficult to say, but we can’t let this five-year period in Icelandic history haunt us for ever.”

While the cause of the collapse has been well-documented – a report by a special investigations committee to the Althingi, Iceland’s parliament, found government and regulators guilty of ‘‘extreme negligence’’ in the run-up to the crisis – discerning the kreppa’s long-term effects is much trickier.

Anger and denial, evinced in last month’s rejection of the second Icesave referendum, remain the leitmotif of post-crash Iceland. But effective political change has proved more elusive.

‘‘There’s a very strong feeling in Iceland that politics is still tied in with special interests, that it’s either partly or totally corrupt,” says Ottar Proppe, a popular Icelandic singer who was elected to Reykjavik City Council last year.

Proppe, who looks like a 1970s glam rocker, complete with unkempt long hair and dark sun glasses, is a leading member of the Best Party.

Formed by Icelandic comedian Jo¤ n Gnarr after the crash, the Best Party unexpectedly won the 2010 Reykjavik council election on a manifesto that included everything from improving equality and transparency, to free swimming pools and bringing a panda to the local zoo.

‘‘We have a long history in Iceland of political parties coming together in the national interest, usually after natural disasters, like in the 1960s when the herring stocks collapsed,” he says when we meet in City Hall.

‘‘In those times, all the political parties had an easy time coming together to fight for the same thing. But now, because the disaster is unnatural, it’s not happening the same way.

There is a lot of shifting around, a lot of blame, and not a lot of consensus. All political parties and institutions here have a very low approval rating still.

We are trying to bring a more common sense approach to it, to try and get out of this culture of confrontation.” Despite some creative policies and a refreshing approach, the new Best Party leadership at City Hall has had a difficult political baptism.

Having taken almost 35 per cent of the vote last year, support for the party in Reykjavik has recently slipped to less than 20 per cent.

Nationally, the coalition government between finance minister Sigfússon’s Left-Greens and the Social Democratic Alliance led by Jóhanna Sigurardóttir has also seen its popularity dwindle

since winning the 2009 general election. The main benefactor of these shifting political tides has been the right wing Independence Party – the party responsible for Iceland’s financial crisis in the first place.

Defeated in 2009 for the first time since its formation in 1931, the Independence party now regularly polls 40 per cent, and looks set to return to power sooner rather than later.

In the wake of the crash, there was a purge of the Independence Party’s upper echelons. Many famous faces retired, while one, the former leader Geir Haarde, prime minister on that fateful October day, is to stand trial for misconduct.

Yet much of the political and banking class that oversaw Iceland’s disastrous experiment in mass privatisation – first in fishing, then in banking and energy – remain in prominent positions.

Haarde’s predecessor David Oddsson, Who was the head of the Central Bank when the crash hit, is now editor of Morgunbla -i-, Iceland’s most influential daily newspaper, and many big names from Iceland’s failed banking experiment are still major players in the fishing industry.

Over at the dinky Althingi building, home to Iceland’s 63-member parliament and literally across the street from Reykjavik City Hall, Thrainn Bertelsson, a popular writer and filmmaker turned Left-Green politician, expresses frustration at the continued power of conservative voices in Iceland.

‘‘Every day here [in the Parliament], I watch the members of parliament from the party responsible for the economic collapse shout till they are blue in the face that wages aren’t doubling, that the sun isn’t shining.

There’s not a word of regret. Nobody has ever said: ‘We got the nation into a terrible mess.

We’re sorry. We promise not to do this again’. What really scares me is that 35per cent of the population still buys into it,” he says.

The Irish influence on Iceland is considerable – from Kolumkilli, the Irish sorcerer spirit in Iceland’s most famous novel, Haldor Laxness’s sardonic masterpiece Independent People, to place names such as Patreksfjrur in the remote north-west.

But the experiences of the last two and a half years have given this Atlantic relationship a new emphasis: most Icelanders are extremely inquisitive about their south-easterly neighbour, and in 2009 a new initiative, the Ireland-Iceland Project, was created to develop links between the two islands.

Bertelsson, an alumnus of UCD in the 1960s, sees reasons to be hopeful in both countries. ‘‘In both Iceland and Ireland we have a wonderful, frustrating system of government called democracy.

That means that change takes a bit longer, but we are able to change,” he says.

One place where change is definitely on the agenda is Toppst²in, a former coal fired power station on the suburban edge of Reykjavik. Scheduled for demolition before the crash, the intervention of Andri Snar Magnason, arguably Iceland’s leading public intellectual, and others has seen the power station transformed into a space for creative industries, designers and innovators.

The smell of sulphur, ubiquitous in Reykjavik on account of the geothermal water, hangs heavy in the air as Magnason, a passionate but humorous guide, takes me on a whistle-stop tour of the power station.

Clothed mannequins left over from a fashion show the previous week lie dotted among the rusting machinery, while in one of the ground floor units an electric car designer is adapting European vehicles for the Chinese market.

‘‘The climate for entrepreneurship is very positive right now.

There’s a really positive attitude towards trying new things,” Magnason says. ‘‘The negative side is that we are still seeing this ideological struggle, with people trying to reinstate the old system with the old rules which caused the crisis in the first place.”

In 2006Magnason published Dreamland: A Self-Help Manual for a Frightened Nation. The book is a stinging – and incredibly prescient – critique of the Icelandic government’s policy of damming rivers for the gain of aluminium companies.

Two years later, the crash that Magnason foretold hit. ‘‘I was moving into my new house at exactly that time, and we were the only ones buying anything,” he says, recalling the early days of the crash.

‘‘It was really amazing going into all these stores in town – electric shops, lighting shops. It was like going to a funeral. We had a child who was about six months old and normally people would smile at the baby, but they all looked glum.

We were going into all these luxury shops that don’t exist any more. I still remember this uncollected $10,000 lamp in one of those shops. It was so decadent, but beautiful in away, all this junk.”

In the wake of the kreppa, there was also a wave of interest in renewing Icelandic politics, with new forms of democracy based on mass participation and consensus building gaining popularity. One of those at the forefront of this movement was Gu-jón Gu-jónsson, a telecom industry entrepreneur and professor of entrepreneurship at Reykjavik University. Gu-jónsson created the House of Ideas, a loosely-defined office-space/think-tank, out of which came the proposal for a National Assembly for all Iceland.

Early last year,1,500 Icelanders, the majority selected randomly from the National Registry, met in a conference hall on the outskirts of Reykjavik to brainstorm ways to rebuild the country’s economy and its values. Gujónsson explains the National Assembly’s genesis: ‘‘There was a sense of a lack of leadership in the country.

That lack of leadership empowered the grassroots. We felt that precisely because there was a lack of leadership, there was a chance to do something.”

Since its first meeting, however, the National Assembly has run into a series of problems.

Elections to a Constitutional Assembly charged with redrawing the Icelandic constitution were recently ruled invalid by the High Court, while the movement’s momentum has also been blunted by the glacial speed of change in Icelandic public life.

Not everyone even agrees that social and political transformation is possible in Iceland. ‘‘I don’t see serious change happening here. I see everyone admitting they are failures, but I don’t think we fell deep enough to change the system totally.

The people in control have been able to react,” says Gudmundur Oddur Magnusson, a professor at Iceland’s Academy of the Arts, and one of the country’s leading visual artists.

During the boom, bankers and financiers Showered money on Iceland’s burgeoning arts scene.

The most infamous example of this largesse occurred at the 2008 Frieze Art Fair in London when, on almost the very same day that Iceland’s economy went into meltdown, a life-size reconstruction of a popular Reykjavik bar, Sirkus, knocked down to make way for luxury apartments during the boom, was unveiled.

Budget airline Iceland Express sponsored the project, which has since became a symbol of national folly.

Magnusson rejects the popular sentiment That most Icelanders are innocent victims of the excesses of global capitalism. ‘‘Although we blame some bad people in the banks for what happened, we should feel guilty too. Everyone has a tad of guilt.

We allowed this to happen, we were all part of it,” he says. Reclining on an armchair among examples of his work in a down-at-heel lock-up not far from Reykjavik’s putative financial district, Magnusson exudes the air of a man more comfortable in Iceland’s current climate.

He cites the country’s plentiful fish stocks, easy access to cheap, sustainable energy, retention of a Nordic social model and a national history of over-coming adversity as factors working in the country’s favour. ‘‘We have an in-built predisposition to self-help – it’s the old family system that is still in place in Iceland.

We are still able to produce food and warmth, and it’s always been cheap to live here,” he says. ‘‘The lesson we’ve learned from the crash is that we have to face reality.

We have to be much more realistic about the way things are. Although our income has been cut by 30 per cent, we can easily live on that.”

Magnusson may well be right, but Iceland’s old order still retains plenty of control. The night before I leave Reykjavik, I eat dinner in my hotel. Directly across from my table sit a group of well-dressed Icelandic and continental European businessmen.

Towards the end of the meal, an Icelander is asked what happened during the boom. ‘‘Well,” he says, holding a glass of dessert wine in front of him, ‘‘we tried to create Hong Kong in Reykjavik.”

He pauses for a moment and looks around the table. ‘‘I think we still can.”

His European guests, who look genuinely shocked, laugh nervously. His compatriots nod approvingly.

Despite the turmoil of the last two and a half year, it seems that the ending of Iceland’s most recent – and inglorious – saga hasn’t been written just yet.