Among the Orangemen

Ian Wilson, a former Grand Master of the Orange Lodge in Scotland, addressed the annual Orange parade in Broughshane, Co. Antrim, on 12 July. After describing Martin McGuinness’s handshake with the queen as ‘a humiliating surrender’ for Sinn Fein, Wilson turned his anger on a ‘more cuddly and user-friendly’ nationalist: Alex Salmond. ‘The ultimate aim of Mr Salmond is precisely the same as Mr McGuinness – the destruction and break up of the United Kingdom,’ he said.

The Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland is not the political force it once was – in the 1920s it had hundreds of thousands of members, including the secretary of state for Scotland, John Gilmour – but there are still more than 180 lodges in the Glasgow area alone, and around 8000 people attended July’s annual Orange Walk in the city.

The order was traditionally aligned with the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, but that’s changed with the electoral demise of the Tories north of the border. Many West of Scotland Orangemen are now solid Labour supporters. According to the current Grand Master, Henry Dunbar, the Order even encouraged members to vote SNP in the 2011 Holyrood elections in protest over a Glasgow City Council policy to reduce parades. The SNP won a number of Labour strongholds in Glasgow in its landslide victory, though it’s not clear what, if anything, the ‘Orange vote’ contributed to that.

The Order’s putative flirtation with the nationalists didn’t last long. Before May’s local elections, the Labour group leader in Glasgow, Gordon Matheson, appeared at an Orange Lodge hustings, apparently telling members that the council’s parading policy was ‘flawed’. TheOrange Torch praised Matheson for his attacks on the SNP – ‘the kind of bullish talk we need to hear more of from unionist politicians’ – and claimed that Labour held control of the council thanks to the help of ‘thousands of Orangemen and their families’.

The possibility of Scottish independence has given the order ‘a new imperative’, Wilson said when I interviewed him recently. He has been appointed head of an internal strategy group to co-ordinate the Orange Lodge of Scotland’s response to the referendum. At present, the Order is not involved in Better Together, the official ‘No’ campaign supported by Scottish Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.

In 2007, the Order sent out a press release calling for undefined ‘direct action’ against the ‘threat’ of independence. It was quickly retracted and the member responsible disciplined. ‘This is not Northern Ireland in 1912, we are not Edward Carson,’ Wilson said. ‘The Lodge has to be careful not to queer the pitch – we do have our fans but a lot of people don’t like us. There is nothing to be gained from having a negative impact on the campaign.’

This piece originally appeared on the London Review of Books blog.

Dissident Republicans A Threat But Lack Capacity

Dissident republicans ‘intent to disrupt the peace process outstrips their capacity,’ a leading expert on paramilitaries in Northern Ireland has told the Sunday Business Post. Speaking in the wake of last week’s announcement that the Real IRA, Republican Action Against Drugs (RAAD) and a loose collection of independent republican groups intend to form a coalition under the IRA banner, Professor Jon Tonge said that he doubted the move would give anti-ceasefire republicans ‘any great tactical advantage’

‘Unity won’t necessarily equal strength,’ said Tonge, a Professor at the University of Liverpool and author of a 2010 study that found that as much as 14 per cent of nationalists in Northern Ireland have some sympathy for anti-cease groups. ‘There would have to be some horrendous mistake by the security forces for the dissidents to gain widespread support.’

Details of the unified organisation remain sketchy but its formation has heightened fears that dissidents could be planning a renewed campaign of violence. Last Friday, the day that the new republican grouping was announced, a shot was fired at a Police Service of Northern Ireland vehicle in West Belfast. Óglaigh na hÉireann, a republican splinter group not aligned to the new faction, is believed to be behind the attack. The attack follows serious disturbances in the Ardoyne area of North Belfast during last month’s Twelfth of July Orange marches.

The anti-ceasefire umbrella group is coalescing with the intention of taking over the IRA mantle. Leaders have styled themselves as the ‘IRA army council’, mimicking the structures used by previous iterations of the organisation. Among the republicans who have joined the new organisation are those responsible for the murder of Ronan Kerr, a Catholic PSNI recruit, in April 2011.

Estimates of dissidents’ strength vary. Last year, the Police Federation for Northern Ireland put the numbers of people involved in anti-ceasefire republican activity at around 650. While dissidents have little traction in West Belfast, where Sinn Fein remains the dominant political force, they have pockets of support in North Belfast, Lurgan and Derry. Their ranks were swelled by an influx of disillusioned former mainstream IRA members from 2007 on, after Sinn Fein’s decision to support policing in Northern Ireland.

Supporters of dissident republicanism are ‘mainly young, working class men living in areas of multiple deprivation,’ said Professor Tonge, who believes that the new dissident coalition is about trying to build credibility for an increasingly disparate movement. ‘It’s about saying ‘we are the IRA now’’, he said.

In a statement released to coincide with the announcement, the new group said that anti-ceasefire republicanism has ‘come together within a unified structure, under a single leadership, subservient to the constitution of the Irish Republican Army.

‘The root cause of conflict in our country is the subversion of the nation’s inalienable right to self-determination and this has yet to be addressed,’ the statement continued. In a thinly veiled attack on Sinn Fein, the dissidents criticised the ‘phoney peace, rubber-stamped by a token legislature in Stormont’.

Condemnation of the statement from across the Northern Irish political spectrum has been swift. ‘This latest attempt by dissident republicans to form yet another ‘new IRA’ highlights the lengths that they will go to in order to create destruction within our society,’ Ulster Unionist Party justice spokesman Tom Elliott MLA told the Belfast Telegraph.

Sinn Fein reiterated their public calls for the dissidents to stand down.  ‘There is no community support for these groups. They need to desist and they need to realise that they cannot achieve a united Ireland in this way,’ Gerry Kelly, Sinn Fein MLA for North Belfast, said in an interview to the republican newspaper An Phoblacht earlier this week.

‘That is not to say that they cannot be dangerous,” Kelly continued.

‘They have in the past killed people, the majority of whom have been from the nationalist community. However, these actions can take us nowhere.’

The dissident threat has risen in recent years. In March 2009, the Real IRA shot two off duty British soldiers dead at Massereene Barracks in Antrim. Two days later the Continuity IRA killed PC Stephen Carroll in Craigavon, County Armagh.

Since 2009, security forces have intercepted increasing numbers of dissident operations, a sign that activity is on the rise but also that groups have been more successfully infiltrated. The creation of an anti-ceasefire coalition further increases the risk of infiltration. Indeed, rumours that several senior figures are paid informers have been rife in republican circles in recent months.

The dissidents lack weapons, a point underlined by last year’s successful prosecution of suspected Real IRA member Michael Campbell on gunrunning charges in Lithuania. Post-9/11 funds for terrorism are increasingly hard to come by in Irish-America.

Given these constraints, a return to large-scale violence in the North is unlikely, says Professor Tonge. ‘You cannot dismiss the idea that violence will ever return, but the structural factors aren’t there any more.’  The religious discrimination that fuelled the Troubles is largely a thing of the past. Crucially, the income gap between Catholic and Protestants has all but disappeared. The creation of a post-peace process Catholic middle class has limited the pool of potential recruits to the dissident cause.

Anti-ceasefire republicans are, however, still capable of bringing mayhem to the streets of a Northern Ireland. Any upsurge in violence could have repercussions for North’s fragile local economy. House prices here have declined by more than 50 per cent, when adjusted for inflation, according to a recent survey by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. Meanwhile, the number of unemployed continues to rise. Since the credit crunch began in August 2007, NI’s unemployment register has risen by 39,100 or 166 per cent.

‘(The dissident threat) is not good from an economic development perspective but the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland have moved on,’ Nigel Smyth, director of CBI Northern Ireland told the Sunday Business Post. ‘It doesn’t feature in business conversations. We’ve been through this and worse before.’

‘The formation of a new grouping is ‘more about keeping the flame alive for a lot of dissidents’, said Professor Tonge.

‘The dissidents themselves do not believe that they can get the British out of Northern Ireland. What they do think they can do is to stop Northern Ireland becoming normal.’

This piece appeared in the Sunday Business Post, 5 August.

New IRA same old stance

A new republican anti-ceasefire group in Northern Ireland is a threat, but its goals are likely to be unfulfilled, writes Peter Geoghegan

In DECEMBER 1969, the Irish Republican Army held an extraordinary convention at Knockvicar house in Boyle, County Roscommon. During the preceding months, the Troubles had exploded into life across the border. Many rank and file members, particularly in Northern Ireland, demanded an aggressive campaign of violence against the British state; in contrast, the IRA’s Marxist leadership, based in Dublin, saw limited utility in “the armed struggle”.

The December 1969 convention ended with two leading republicans, Ruairi O’Bradaigh and Sean MacStiofain, establishing a new organisation, the Provisional IRA. By the end of 1970, the press had introduced the terms “Official IRA” and “Regular IRA” to differentiate between the two groups. In 1972, the Officials announced a ceasefire. Within a few short, bloody years O’Bradaigh and MacStiofain’s group had become the IRA.

The history of Irish republicanism is a fissiparous one. Now, it appears that a new republican group is coalescing with the intention of taking over the irredentist IRA mantle effectively vacated when the Provisionals decommissioned in 2005.

Last week, the Guardian reported that the Real IRA, Derry-based Republican Action Against Drugs (RAAD) and a loose collection of independent republican groups intend to form a coalition under the IRA banner. The move would leave only the Continuity IRA (a small armed group formed after the 1986 Sinn Fein split) outside the new republican umbrella.

The leaders of the unified outfit have styled themselves as the “IRA army council”, mimicking the structures used by previous iterations of the organisation. There are reasons to be fearful of this development: among the republicans who have joined the new organisation are those responsible for the murder of Ronan Kerr, a Catholic recruit to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, in April 2011. The Real IRA was responsible for the worst republican atrocity of the entire Troubles, when their bombs killed 29 at Omagh in August 1998.

The “new IRA” has an old enemy in its sights: the British presence in Ireland. “The root cause of conflict in our country is the subversion of the nation’s inalienable right to self-determination and this has yet to be addressed,” the group said in a statement released last week. In a none-too-subtle riposte to Sinn Fein (which a number of dissidents were formerly members of), the statement railed against “a phoney peace, rubber-stamped by a token legislature in Stormont”.

So how serious a threat to the peace are this new group? They may be small, but their numbers are not insignificant. Last year, the Police Federation for Northern Ireland estimated that there are 650 people involved in anti-ceasefire republican activity. While dissidents have little traction in West Belfast, where Sinn Fein rules with a gloved iron fist, they have pockets of support in North Belfast, Lurgan and Derry.

As much as 14 per cent of nationalists in Northern Ireland have some sympathy for dissident republican groups, according to a study published in 2010. Supporters are mainly young, working class men living in areas of multiple deprivation. The author of that research, Professor Jon Tonge of the University of Liverpool, believes that the new dissident coalition is about trying to build credibility for the movement, but doubts whether it will succeed.

“I don’t think it gives dissidents any great tactical advantage. Unity won’t necessarily equal strength,” Professor Tonge told The Scotsman.

“Their intent to disrupt the peace process outstrips their capacity.”

Dissidents are hoping to profit from an association with a globally recognised brand name: the IRA. The decision to band together has been a publicity boon, reported by media outlets across the world. Whether increased coverage will lead to an influx of new dissident recruits is less clear-cut.

Northern Ireland today is hardly a utopian society. Over 70 per cent of people live in segregated communities. Sectarianism remains intransigent, as evidenced by riots during last month’s Twelfth of July celebrations.

But Northern Ireland is a very different place from the “cold house for Catholics” of December 1969. The structural factors that underpinned the emergence of the Provisional IRA emergence do not exist in contemporary Northern Ireland.

Religious discrimination in housing has ended. If workplaces are not as mixed as they could be, fair employment legislation has brought an end to sectarian hiring. The income gap between Catholic and Protestants has closed. The creation of a Catholic middle class has limited the pool of potential recruits to the dissident cause. There is no organised loyalist agitation, a la 1969.

Professor Tonge believes that the formation of a new grouping is “more about keeping the flame alive for a lot of dissidents”.

Dissidents will take succour from the deep well-spring of Irish republican history, from Wolfe Tone’s United Irishmen of 1798 through the 1916 Easter Rising and the Irish Republic established in 1918-19. Although eulogised today, the Irish republican rebels of the 1916 Rising were spat at in the streets of Dublin in the immediate aftermath of the failed rebellion.

Even the term “dissident republican” is not as modern as many would imagine. As Henry McDonald noted in the Belfast Telegraph recently, it “was coined in the mid-1970s when the Official IRA was engaged in a shooting war with the fledgling INLA”.

While heaping opprobrium on Sinn Fein, today’s dissidents see parallels between that party’s recent past and their present, especially on the issue of electoral politics and the absence of a mandate. In 1985, Martin McGuinness, now deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, said of Sinn Fein’s electoral performance: “Ultimately it is not votes but the cutting edge of the IRA which will bring about freedom and justice in Ireland.” It is a nostrum many dissident republicans still subscribe to.

Of course, violence has not – and almost certainly never will – lead to the promised land of Irish republicanism, a United Ireland, a fact Gerry Adams and McGuinness eventually recognised (albeit many years – and lives lost – after the IRA’s 1960s left-wing leaders).

Even with a newfound sense of unity, dissident republicans possess only a fraction of the capability of the old IRA. The group lack weapons – underlined by last year’s trial of suspected Real IRA member Michael Campbell on gun-running charges in Lithuania. In the post-9/11 dispensation, funds for terrorism are increasingly hard to come by in Irish-America.

Nevertheless, the dissident threat has certainly increased in recent years, particularly as IRA veterans left the mainstream movement in the wake of Sinn Fein’s support policing. In March 2009, two off duty British soldiers were shot dead at Massereene Barracks in Antrim. Two days later PC Stephen Carroll was shot dead in Craigavon, County Armagh.

Since 2009, security forces have intercepted ever greater numbers of dissident operations, a sign that activity is increasing but also that groups have been more successfully infiltrated. The creation of a dissident coalition heightens further the risk of infiltration. Indeed, rumours that several senior dissident figures are paid informers have been rife in republican circles in recent months.

Conversely, last week’s announcement represents the present weakness of dissident republicanism. Dissidents are hoping to achieve collectively where they have largely failed in isolation – not by forcing the British out of Northern Ireland, but by stymieing moves to make Northern Ireland a normal place.

As long as the army stays off the streets and there is no return to political policing, the dissidents, together or alone, have little hope of achieving even their most modest goals.

This piece originally appeared in the Scotsman, August 1. 

Ireland’s Rocky Road to Poland

In May, ‘the Rocky Road to Poland’, Ireland’s official song for the European Championships, debuted at number one in the Irish singles chart. A rather cumbersome 9/8 beat aside, the Rocky Road to Poland is standard team song fare: a mix of famous faces (the Dubliners), folksy humour (rhyming ‘Opel Corsa’ with ‘Warsaw’) and winsome, if misplaced, hope (‘we can win the trophy’). The video closes with shots of a smiling Ireland squad bawling along to a refrain of ‘You’ll Never Beat the Irish’.

Led by Giovanni Trapattoni, Ireland entered the Euros with a reputation as a well-drilled, no-frills outfit. A parsimonious defence conceded just three goals in a 14-game unbeaten streak leading up to the tournament, a run which included a vital goalless draw with Russia in a qualifier in Moscow and a friendly win over Italy.

But on a wet night in Poznan it took Croatia just three minutes to open the scoring. Worse was to follow against Spain. Again Ireland conceded early, failed to string more than half a dozen passes in succession and were scythed open with alarming regularity. The singing inside Gdansk’s PGE Arena – which seemed to ring louder as each Spanish goal went in – was a credit to Ireland’s fantastic travelling support. The 4-0 score line was anything but.

Ireland’s first European championship finals campaign in 24 years was effectively over after just five days. In the final group game, back in Poznan, the Boys in Green were improved but overwhelmed by an Italian team playing well within themselves.

That Ireland would struggle to qualify from such a testing group was accepted beforehand, but the manner of the team’s exit stung. From the kick off against Croatia, Ireland looked tired and off the pace, bereft of a game plan and unable to retain possession. It fast became a familiar pattern.

Trapattoni showed no inclination to alter a rigid 4-4-2 system that had served Ireland well in qualifying but was ruthlessly exposed by superior opponents. The Italian made just one change during the whole tournament: replacing Kevin Doyle with West Brom reserve Simon Cox ahead of the Spain game. Cox, a player most generously described as ‘honest’, made no impact and was hauled off at halftime.

Having forced his way into the squad late, exciting Sunderland prospect James McClean was left on the bench when his trickery was required most, to provide some creativity against Croatia. Some Irish fans expect too much of McClean – his arrival, as a substitute against Spain, was greeted as if Messi himself had donned the green jersey – but the manager’s handling of the youthful winger was misjudged.

Asked about McClean in the wake of the Croatia defeat, Trapattoni lamented that the white heat of an international tournament was no place to blood novice players. Five days later McClean was given his Euros bow — with Ireland three goals down against the reigning World and European champions.

Trapattoni’s commitment to the players that got Ireland to Poland was unwavering to the point of sentimentality. The workmanlike Paul Green was singled out for fans’ abuse, but the Irish squad was peppered with mediocrity, while two players that might have made a difference – Wes Hoolahan and Seamus Coleman – were left at home. Hoolahan has played for Ireland just once, as a substitute against Serbia back in 2008; Coleman has only played five times and wasn’t a regular in the Euro qualifying team.

The vastly experienced trio of Shay Given, Robbie Keane and Richard Dunne all had poor tournaments. If their international future is uncertain, Trapattoni seems set to carry on, having reiterated his determination to lead Ireland into the 2014 World Cup qualifiers.

Ireland’s failings in Poland raise awkward questions about inequity in Irish football, and beyond. On June 18, Monaghan United withdrew from the Airtricity League, the top flight of Irish football, citing financial pressures. That same day Wexford TD Mick Wallace, who stands accused of failing to pay a €1.4m VAT bill, attended the Italy clash in Poznan. Former Anglo-Irish Bank chairman, Seanie Fitzpatrick, one of the main architects of Ireland’s financial meltdown, reportedly spent most of the Euros in a €550 a night hotel in the same city.

FAI Chief Executive John Delaney faced calls for his resignation after footage emerged of his slurred, late-night address to Irish fans on the streets of Sopot, the resort town north of Gdansk where the Ireland team were based for the tournament. Delaney enjoys an annual salary of €400,000.

In June, Dutchman Wim Koevermans announced he was leaving his post as FAI performance director to manage India. Ireland’s cash-strapped governing body have no plans to replace him. Half of Trapattoni’s salary – around €1.5m-a-year – is paid by Irish billionaire and tax exile Denis O’Brien.

This piece appeared in the August edition of When Saturday Comes magazine.

Book Review — How Much is Enough?

In 1928, the scion of 20th century British economics John Maynard Keynes addressed a room full of Cambridge undergraduates on the subject of ‘economic possibilities for our grandchildren’. Keynes – a far more radical thinker than contemporary caricatures of him as the stolid grandfather of ‘tax and spend’ economics suggest – told his audience that, thanks to economic growth, the West was on the verge of having sufficient resources to satisfy all human wants.

By the time Keynes redrafted the Cambridge lecture for publication, the Wall Street had hit – but the catastrophe did little, if anything, to dampen the great economist’s expectations. In ‘Economic Possibilities’, published in 1930, Keynes predicted that, in a hundred years time, standards of living in the West would increase four to eight times in a hundred years time, based on estimates of capital equipment growth by 2 per cent per annum and an annual increase in ‘technical efficiency’ of 1 per cent.

Keynes’ growth predictions have proved remarkably accurate (albeit not always for the reasons he cited): today GDP per capita is, on average, around four times higher than it was in 1930. But the increased wealth has not been a harbinger of Keynes’ state of ‘Bliss’: instead of the vaunted three-hour working day and the advent of the leisure society, working hours have fallen only a fifth in the last 80 years, and among the wealthy have risen sharply.

‘Considered in relation to our vital needs, our state is not one of scarcity but rather of extreme abundance.’ So why do many of us work long hours in the desperate pursuit of a life packed with consumer goods but with precious time for physical and spiritual enrichment? If ‘the good life’ is materially possible, why are we so far from achieving it? These questions are at the core of Robert and Edward Skidelsky’s thought-provoking attempt to divine just how much is enough for a satisfying, fruitful life.

Pater familias Robert is an economist and author a three-volume biography of Keynes. His son, Edward, is an academic philosopher. How Much is Enough?, bears the hallmarks of both disciplines: among the reams of economic data and discussions of Smith, Marx and Friedman are chapters devoted to that most Socratic of questions, what is the good life and how can it be realised.

The authors’ primary target is the cult of growth for growth’s sake (‘a kind of Prozac’). The festishisation of GDP statistics – notoriously poor indicators of citizens’ wealth within a given country – are one symptom of a malaise. Another is the rise of ‘happiness’ as a nostrum for the 21st century.

Politicians across the Western world, most notably David Cameron in Britain, have embraced the new ‘happiness economics’, pioneered by Richard Layard. Happiness, in this calibration, can be measured on easy to administer 11-point life satisfaction surveys, often producing the most anodyne of results. (a recent government-funded study in the UK found that people were least happy in the deindustrialised, unemployment black spot of South Wales.)

The Skidelskys have no time for the ‘false idol’ of happiness metrics, turning instead to Aristotle and the ancient Greek notion of eudiamon (oft translated as ‘happy’, but in reality a more complex concept involving harmony between action, character, deliberation and circumstance). Crucially Aristotle’s conception of the good life included a sizeable chunk of schole, or leisure, a facet conspicuous by its absence from so many modern working, and indeed non-working, lives.

So why do we work so much? The answer, the Skidelskys argue, is a dyad of inequality and the drive to consume more. Since the 1980s inequality of wealth and income has grown hugely in the US and the Britain (and in Ireland). Rising inequality has a knock-on effect on hours worked as we strive to compete with one another: Britons work, on average, 1,650 hours a year, in the US the figure is 1,800. In Holland, it’s 1,400.

As well as setting out their seven elements of the good life (health, security, respect, personality, harmony with nature, friendship and leisure), the authors propose a series of policy reforms to hasten an exit ‘from the rat race’. These include an unconditional basic or citizen’s income (a fund along these lines in Alaska has made it the most equal of all US states); a version of traditional sumptuary laws to reduce Veblenian conspicuous consumption; and a significant reduction in advertising.

It’s an avowedly paternalist formula, and, at times, one that privileges a particularly middle class sensibility (not least in a tautologous argument over why wine contributes to the good life while crack cocaine does not). But the greatest criticism of the book is the Skidelsky’s lack of a concomitant political vision for how their many credible propositions might actually be enacted.

How Much is Enough? makes a cogent philosophical and economic argument for the good life – but almost a hundred years on from Keynes’ Cambridge lecture making ‘Bliss’ a reality remains as elusive as ever.

This review appeared in the Sunday Business Post in August 2012. 

Book Review: The Boxer and the Goalkeeper by Andy Martin

In December 1946, the French polymath and bon vivant Boris Vian, and his wife, threw a soirée in their Paris apartment. It was a boozy, bawdry affair, an intentional throwback to the all-night parties that raged in Occupied Paris. In one corner sat phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, across the room was his bête noire, the author Arthur Koestler. Simone de Beauvoir was there, so too her long-time partner, Jean-Paul Sartre, and her some-time lover, Albert Camus.

As the evening wore on – and the drinks flowed – a quarrel broke out between the Marxist Merleau-Ponty and the avowed anti-communist Koestler. Camus, a supporter of his fellow writer Koestler, got involved. So too did Sartre, on the side of his philosopher friend Merleau-Ponty.

Koestler and Merleau-Ponty’s battle was a proxy for the real war, that between Sartre and Camus. The leading literary voices of wartime France had grown distant in the postwar penumbra. Once close, their relationship was already at breaking point, but that night at the Vian’s snapped it irrevocably. Camus, who found no place for Marxism in his rugged individualism, walked out on the party. Sartre, by now a leading figure in global Communist thinking, stayed behind. Their friendship would never recover.

The relationship between Camus and Sartre is one of the most fascinating in twentieth century philosophy. In many respects, they were unlikely colleagues. Camus: good-looking, phlegmatic, abstemious (at times). Sartre: ugly, loquacious, a drinker and a drug-user.

For a spell – mainly between 1943 and 1945 – what united Camus and Sartre was greater than what divided them: both men grew up without knowing their fathers, were significant writers and philosophers; were serial womanizers, often sharing girlfriends, most famously de Beauvoir.

Both were keen sportsmen too, a fact alluded to by the title of Andy Martin’s engaging if at times uneven account of their conflictual relationship. As befitted his combative nature, Sartre was a fan of pugilism; Camus, more considered and more solitary, was a keen amateur goalkeeper in his native Algeria (although as Martin points out,pace the urban legend, the author of the Outsider was never a professional footballer).

The similarities and differences, which eventually divided Camus and Sartre, provide the structure for much of the Boxer and the Goalkeeper. As the narrative progresses from a teenage Martin’s first illicit, teenage experiences with a stolen-copy Sartre’s notoriously dense philosophical treatise Being and Nothingness, to the two writer’s first meeting in Paris in 1943, the distinctions between the two most famous proponents of existentialism (Camus rejected this label) come sharply into focus.

Camus was, in his own eyes at least, a man of action, Sartre, a man of words. (Indeed, Che Guevara was later to say mockingly, ‘Let Jean-Paul Sartre philosophize about revolution; we who carry it out have no time for theories).

During the German occupation of Paris we find a portly Sartre, pipe in mouth, writing subversive plays, having earlier used a forged medical certificate to ‘escape’ from a prisoner of war camp. Camus, on the other hand, risked his life daily to edit Combat, a Resistance magazine.

When Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957, he fretted that he was unworthy of such an honour (a concern shared by his then 20-year-old son, who said he was father was ‘an insignificant ‘writer about nothing at all’’). Sartre, on the other hand, had no doubts about his own suitability when Sweden came calling. His only regret on turning down the prize in 1964 was forgoing the 250,000 kroner cheque that accompanied it.

A popular book about philosophy and philosophers is a testing brief, and the Boxer and the Goalkeeper struggles at times to find its voice. In the early chapters, Martin is a consistent presence, imagining conversations between his protagonists and speculating on their thoughts and motivations (the word ‘perhaps’ recurs). Bum notes are hit: Sartre’s phizog ‘abolished the duality of the real and the apparent’; Camus smoking is ‘exhaling himself’.

As the book progresses, however, Martin slips to the background. Historical fact and material gleaned from epistolary exchanges replace speculation and the book’s tone and the style improve dramatically. The last hundred pages – by which point Camus and Sartre have terminally diverged – are by turns gripping and revealing.

Sartre and Camus’ ‘whole relationship’ was ‘more like a collision, a slow-motion car crash, than a collaboration’. The Boxer and the Goalkeeper suggests it could never have been any other way.

 This book review appeared in the Sunday Business Post in July 2012.

Irishman’s Diary: TP O’Connor

‘HIS PEN could lay bare the bones of a book or the soul of a statesman in a few vivid lines”. These words were written in praise of the man who founded the Sun newspaper: journalist, politician and Irish nationalist, TP O’Connor.

The inscription appears, etched in brass, below a bust of a hirsute O’Connor on an easily missed plaque, halfway down Fleet Street, in central London. The Royal Courts of Justice, where the proprietor of the current incarnation of the Sun (no relation), Rupert Murdoch, has been defending himself at the Leveson inquiry, is just a couple of hundred metres down the street. Between O’Connor’s statue and the courts stands “The Tipperary”, formerly the Boar’s Head, reputedly the first Irish pub outside the island.

O’Connor established the Sun in 1891. As he later admitted, in his Memoirs of an Old Parliamentarian, the paper was started with “insufficient capital” and quickly degenerated into a “Frankenstein of a monster”.

O’Connor “got rid of the struggle and the agony by selling the Sun” a short time later. Despite this setback, O’Connor’s life, and work, had a long-lasting influence on both British journalism and the UK’s Irish community.

Thomas Power O’Connor (better known as TP or Tay Pay) was born in Athlone in 1848. He was the eldest son of Thomas O’Connor, a small tradesman, while his mother hailed from the minor gentry; his second name was in honour of her father, Capt Power, who served with Wellington. A gifted student, he won a scholarship to Queen’s College, Galway, graduating at 18 in history and modern languages.

After a spell at the Dublin daily, Saunder’s Newsletter – which he described as “a good old State-and-Church full-blown Protestant organ” – O’Connor left for London, and Fleet Street, in 1870. That year war broke out between France and Germany; O’Connor’s linguistic skills landed him a lucrative job as a sub-editor on the Daily Telegraph.

A quarrel over money led to a premature exit from the Telegraph. O’Connor spent the next seven years scraping a living as a freelance until, in 1880, his biography of then prime minister Benjamin Disraeli launched an unlikely career as a politician and newspaper owner. In the general election that same year Disraeli was heavily defeated by Gladstone and the Liberals – aided by O’Connor’s critical account of the Tory leader – with TP winning a Home Rule seat in Galway by just six votes.

Five years later, as Parnell won “every seat in Ireland outside eastern Ulster and Trinity College, Dublin”, O’Connor was returned as the Irish Parliamentary Party member for the Scotland division of Liverpool. O’Connor, the only Irish Home Rule candidate elected in England, held the seat continuously until his death, in 1929.

In 1888, at the age of 40, O’Connor founded the paper that made his name: the Star. The rationale behind the paper was simple: “The cause of Home Rule was without any advocate in the evening press of London; I conceived the idea, half in hope, half in terror, that I might start a journal myself in favour of the views of myself and my friends”. Within weeks he had convinced friends and benefactors to invest £40,000 in the new publication.

The halfpenny Star was no partisan Home Rule sheet. Inspired by the “New Journalism” of the American newspapers, O’Connor, a self-styled “radical”, assembled a stellar team of writers and editors: George Bernard Shaw began his career as a leader writer on the Star (although political quarrels later necessitated a move to musical criticism); Henry William Massingham went on to edit the Morning Chronicle and the Nation; Gordon Hewart was later lord chief justice.

Writing of his time at the Star, O’Connor later complained, “some of our biggest things in life turn to bitterness and futility”. Indeed, TP lasted only three years at the newspaper’s helm – staying up late at the Commons, rising early to write leader articles – but he made his mark on Fleet Street. O’Connor was arguably the first newspaper owner to appreciate the power of human-interest stories; his “Mainly About People” proving a huge hit with the Star’s ever-increasingly readership. It was a technique imitated by many of his competitors.

While the fortunes of the Irish Parliamentary Party fell, O’Connor remained a popular Irish voice in the Commons. He became “Father of the House” during the first Labour government and was a columnist for both the Daily Telegraph and the Sunday Times, another publication now owned by Murdoch’s News International.

A crafty operator, O’Connor was not above journalism’s dark arts. After being erroneously identified as Jack the Ripper by an injudicious Star sub-editor, an East End man known universally as “Leather Apron” demanded £100 in compensation.

Under O’Connor’s permiture, he was given £50 and told where another £50 could be easily found: by approaching another Fleet Street paper that had repeated the Star’s insinuations. “Leather Apron” accepted the offer and took no legal action.

This Irishman’s Diary appeared on July 17.

Belfast Project — Links to the Past Under Attack

LEGAL action over an interview with a former IRA member may threaten our ability to record history, writes Peter Geoghegan.

‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” These words, penned more than a century ago by Spanish-American poet and essayist George Santayana, could have been written about Northern Ireland today. So far, the process of recovering from a troubled past has been conducted on an ad-hoc basis – a Bloody Sunday inquiry here, an Enniskillen bombing investigation there – but it could well grind to a halt altogether in the wake of a court ruling in the United States last weekend.

On Saturday, the first circuit appeal court in Boston ruled that an interview with a former IRA member, conducted by researchers attached to Boston College, must be handed over to the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). The interview with Dolours Price, who served a prison sentence for her role in the 1973 bombing of the Old Bailey in London, was part of the Belfast Project, an academic project designed to create a unique repository of oral testimony from direct participants in the Northern Irish Troubles.

Funded by Boston College, the Belfast Project was co-ordinated by Ed Moloney, an award-winning Irish journalist now based in New York. Anthony McIntyre, a former Republican prisoner who holds a PhD in history, and former Loyalist prisoner Wilson McArthur conducted interviews with leading figures in the IRA, the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Defence Association. Crucially, all interviewees were promised that their recordings would not be released until after their death – now these testimonies could provide evidence for criminal proceedings.

The Belfast Project began in around 2000 but remained a secret until 2010, when Moloney, with Boston College’s imprimatur, published Voices from the Grave, a book based on interviews given by erstwhile IRA officer commanding and hunger striker Brendan Hughes and former Progressive Unionist Party leader David Ervine. In an interview Hughes, who died in 2008, claimed that Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams was directly involved in the death of Jean McConville, a West Belfast mother with ten children, accused of being a British Army spy, who was killed by the IRA in 1972.

Last May, British authorities issued Boston College with a subpoena, demanding tapes of interviews with both Hughes and Price, after the latter gave an interview to a Northern Irish newspaper intimating her role in McConville’s disappearance. In August, a second subpoena followed, this time calling for all interviews that contained any information relating to the McConville case.

In December, a Boston federal court judge upheld the first subpoena. Boston College criticised the verdict but surprisingly declined to appeal. Instead the case was taken to the appeal courts by the researchers, Moloney and McIntyre.

Although this appeal was rejected on Saturday, the Price interview – contra some overexcited reports – has not yet been handed over to the PSNI. The researchers have stated their intention to exhaust every legal avenue in the US, a process that could take months and potentially reach the Supreme Court.

Students of jurisprudence are not the only ones watching the Boston College case with interest. The result could have important ramifications both for academic research more generally and the prospects for truth and reconciliation in Northern Ireland.

Academic research is heavily dependent on trust between the researcher and the researched. When the subject material is killings, armed activity and clandestine paramilitary groups, this trust is all the more important.

The Belfast Project asked interviewees to divulge sensitive information about their activities on the basis that conversations were confidential. If this guarantee turns out to have been erroneously given, future research on the conflict will be compromised, perhaps terminally.

“People who have been involved in violent conflicts will now be more reluctant to speak with historians about their activities and their politics,” Richard English, director of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St Andrews and author of a number of books on the IRA, told one newspaper recently. “In terms of research on the Northern Ireland conflict, this could have a disastrous effect.”

Questions have been raised about the competence of the researchers in the Belfast Project. Certainly, guarantees of full confidentiality were misplaced – and the decision to publish Voices from the Grave before all the interviewees had died was a misjudgment – but the most probing questions should be directed at Boston College. The US institution stood to gain substantially from the possession of what would have been an archive of major international significance. Financial considerations seem to have outweighed due academic diligence on the part of the institution, to disastrous effect. Since then, the college has consistently failed to protect the researchers it employed, or their subjects, many of whom are now said to fear for their safety.

The case could also have direct political consequences in Northern Ireland. Just two weeks after the much-photographed meeting between Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness and the Queen, republicans and their Democratic Unionist Party counterparts in the power-sharing assembly at Stormont have clashed over the Boston College tapes.

Democratic Unionist Lord Morrow said that the release of the tapes, which could re-ignite debates over the role of Gerry Adams and other senior Sinn Fein leaders in the Troubles, “must be welcomed by all right-thinking people”.

The Belfast Project case betrays the politicisation of the past in Northern Ireland, a common theme in post-conflict societies heightened here by the absence of any agreed process of truth recovery. The PSNI’s Historical Inquiries Team, established within the PSNI to investigate crimes committed during the Troubles, has largely concentrated its attention on dissident republicans, such as Dolours Price, rather than former combatants now aligned to the peace process. Politically this tendency is understandable, morally less so.

Of course, there is an argument – a powerful, emotionally charged one – that the long-suffering family of Jean McConville deserve to know the truth about what happened and, if possible, to see the perpetrators brought to justice. But the reality is that the PSNI’s predecessors, the RUC, made little or no effort to solve the original crime. Meanwhile, the role of state forces, particularly MI5 and proxy organisations such as the Force Research Unit, in the killing of civilians during the Troubles remains shrouded in secrecy.

The Belfast Project will probably bring a premature end to oral history research into the Troubles; but, if anything, the affair highlights the need for a more exhaustive process for dealing with Northern Ireland’s contested past.

Selective justice based on wrestling information from the laptops of academics is no way to proceed – and not just because the prospect of securing a conviction on the back of testimony from Dolours Price and other interviewees looks decidedly slim.

The Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998. In the intervening years, there has been no substantive attempt to establish a truth and reconciliation process. Instead there has been a drip-feed of information, often disputed, and the occasional high-profile investigation, such as those into Bloody Sunday and the death of loyalist leader Billy Wright in the Maze prison.

Oral history projects offered a cost-effective, if piecemeal, approach to establishing what exactly happened during the Troubles. The blocking of this avenue raises once more the question of how, if at all, the past can be dealt with.

The political will for a general amnesty for crimes committed during the Troubles – a sine qua non for any truth commission – simply does not exist. Many would prefer that the past stayed buried. But in Northern Ireland, as anywhere else, the past and the present are tightly entwined.

Tomorrow, Twelfth of July parades will take place across the country, commemorating William of Orange’s victory at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. If Northern Ireland is to avoid repeating its more recent past, it must find ways to remember it.

Iceland Myths

Iceland is often held up as the poster child for an alternative approach to the global crisis, but how accurate are the stories about the Nordic nation? My London Review of Books blog took a look.

In April, a video entitled ‘Iceland forgives mortgage debt of its population’ went viral. The 30-second clip, a Spanish-language news broadcast by the Latin American TV network teleSUR with English subtitles, reported that the mortgage relief was ‘a response to citizens’ demands’. Within 24 hours of being uploaded, the report had been watched tens of thousands of times (videos on teleSUR’s English-language YouTube channel often struggle for double digit viewing figures). Activists on Twitter and Facebook hailed Iceland as an example to the world, reposting as they went.

The teleSUR video was not the first story characterising Iceland as David standing up to the Goliath of international finance to go global since the 2008 crash. Last year, an article claiming that ‘this little-known member of the European Union’ had defied the ‘FMI’ and recovered ‘their sovereign rights’ appeared on the popular liberal US blog Daily Kos. The piece was ‘liked’ more than 1200 times on Facebook and reposted on countless blogs.

Like the teleSUR video, the Daily Kos article tells an uplifting story of the population of a small country asserting their collective rights and refusing to kowtow to the demands of bankers and profiteers. If only the stories were true.

Take the claim that Iceland has forgiven mortgage debt en masse. The Social Democratic-Left-Green coalition in the Althingi did indeed introduce a relief package for indebted homeowners, in response to the wave of negative equity and repossessions after Iceland’s housing bubble burst. Under the scheme, mortgage debt cannot exceed 110 per cent of the value of a property (in Icelandic kroner). Any excess is written off. It is a reasonable, well-intentioned policy. But it is not a Biblical debt jubilee. Many Icelanders are still struggling under huge monthly repayments they cannot afford.

Misinformation about Iceland has proved remarkably resistant to correction. Between 2008 and the end of 2010, as the economic crisis unfolded, Alda Sigmundsdóttir regularly responded to inaccurate reports on the Iceland Weather Report. ‘It was like shouting in the desert,’ she says. ‘I was so frustrated, it was just far too much work, it was almost like a full-time job.’

Sigmundsdóttir, a former stringer for Associated Press in Reykjavik, no longer blogs at the Iceland Weather Report, but she still receives emails from all over the world asking about the way Iceland ‘crowd-sourced’ its constitution or let its banks fail (a story that is, at best, only partially true). A man in Greece recently wanted to know if shops in Reykjavik still conducted business in Kroner: an article in the Greek press had claimed that the Icelandic currency was no longer accepted by retailers.

Maybe it’s a language problem: not enough foreign journalists speak Icelandic. Haukur Magnússon, the editor-in-chief of the Reykjavik Grapevine, one of Iceland’s few English-language publications, says ‘that’s a lazy excuse.’ Journalists – whether citizen or professional – should check their facts. ‘People think of Iceland as a Shangri-la, which it isn’t.’

In February, the televangelist Pat Robertson hailed Iceland’s decision to jail bankers and politicians for their role in the finanicial crisis: ‘Iceland is leading the way and their GDP is growing, and all of a sudden, they were in a terrible mess, terrible mess, and look what is happening!’

Prosecutions are ongoing, with mixed results so far. In April, the former prime minister Geir Haarde was found guilty of one out of the four charges against him: not holding enough cabinet meetings. He received no penalty for the offence. There have been more successful prosecutions, though: on 8 June, two former executives at Byr Savings Bank, Jon Thorsteinn Jonsson and Ragnar Zophonias Gudjonsson, werefound guilty of fraud and sentenced to four and half years in prison by Iceland’s Supreme Court.

On 30 June, Iceland goes to the polls to elect a president. The incumbent, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, once close to the Viking financiers, has spent much of his last term rebranding himself as the man who faced down the might of global capital.

The Reykjavik Grapevine, meanwhile, after it ran a piece pointing out the errors in the Daily Kos story, was, Magnússon says, ‘accused of being a corporate lackey for trying to debunk these stories.’

TED — A Strange Way to Talk About Openness

IF you had wanted to see the movers and shakers in Edinburgh this week, it would have cost you £3,850, writes Peter Geoghegan

If you did find yourself with just shy of four grand burning a hole in your pocket, would you spend it all on a ticket for a four-day conference on “radical openness”? Probably not, I’d guess, but that’s exactly what the 800-plus delegates at this week’s TEDGlobal conference, which opened in Edinburgh on Tuesday and finished yesterday, have elected to do.

TED (which stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design) is a Silicon Valley organisation that hosts invite-only conferences to disseminate “ideas worth spreading”. For the $6,000 entrance fee, guests at the Edinburgh conference heard presentations from a host of luminaries including Alex Salmond, artist Antony Gormley, singer Macy Gray and choreographer Wayne McGregor. All talks are 18 minutes long; questions are strictly forbidden.

Since its inception in Monterey, California, in 1984, TED conferences have become remarkably popular, and increasingly influential. The event is now hosted by English publishing entrepreneur Chris Anderson and owned by his non-profit organisation, the Sapling Foundation. TED talks – recordings of conference presentations that are available free online – have been downloaded hundreds of millions of times. Previous conference speakers include Bill Gates, David Cameron, Gordon Brown, and self-styled militant atheist Richard Dawkins.

Last year, Edinburgh hosted its first TEDGlobal conference at the International Conference Centre. Attendees at the inaugural Edinburgh event had the chance to hear Niall Ferguson aver his controversial version of history, or grab some chat about the good life with pop philosopher Alain de Botton.

If this all sounds elitist, it is. Beneath the meritocratic American West Coast rhetoric, TED is one of the most exclusive events imaginable. Not only is the cost of a ticket vertiginous – and that’s without transport and accommodation – all attendees are heavily vetted. As the conditions for acceptance on the TEDGlobal website state: “You must be likely, in our judgment, to be a strong contributor to the TED community, the ideas discussed at TED, and the projects that come out of the conference.”

The aura of exclusivity that surrounds TED is central to the brand’s success: the extortionate fee is simultaneously an imprimatur and an excellent way to generate money for the organisation. Would-be tech innovators and over-zealous life coaches will happily remortgage their house for the chance to press the flesh (and have their photo taken) with movers and shakers at TED. Whether they get value for their $6,000 is another matter entirely.

What is beyond question is that TED has emerged as a major player in the online world of ideas over the past five years. Among supporters, TED generates levels of devotion that detractors have likened to cults. Sociologist and social media theorist Nathan Jurgenson has said that TED “has a cultish feel to it. The speakers use a lot of terms like ‘magical’ and ‘inspirational’. It’s almost the religion of the knowledge class.”

Many of the buzzwords and phrases that attach themselves to TED certainly have an airy, high-falutin’ quality. Take “radical openness”, the theme of this year’s Edinburgh conference. This, as Bruno Giussani, the European director of TED, told the Guardian last week, means, “people thinking differently at existing problems, and pushing at boundaries in radical new ways”.

At a time when the future of the United Kingdom (and late capitalism) is anything but secure, when debates about sustainability and environmental disaster proliferate, “radical openness” smacks of the vague and the flaky. No surprise, then, that Philip Blond, the brains behind Cameron’s much-mocked Big Society, was a keynote speaker at last year’s TED Edinburgh.

But the most serious accusation levelled at TED is that it reproduces a narrow, Silicon Valley view of the world, with precious little room for dissenting voices. Earlier this year, tech investor Nick Hanauer – an early backer of Amazon.com – delivered a talk at a TED conference in which he suggested that “rich people don’t create jobs”. Hanauer argued that middle-class consumers, not capitalists, are the real drivers of economic growth and prosperity, and that tax breaks for the rich are a drain on the economy.

Hanauer’s talk was met with applause from the audience. However, Chris Anderson refused to publish the talk on the TED website because it was “too political” – rather ironic given that TED often invites politicians to speak at its conference, as Alex Salmond’s appearance on Wednesday attests.

Hanauer’s talk is now freely available online – in the digital age even an organisation as powerful as TED will struggle to suppress content – but the controversy paints TED in a very poor light. Anderson’s argument that “a lot of business managers and entrepreneurs would feel insulted” by Hanauer’s contention that ordinary consumers are the most powerful job creators hardly seems sufficient justification for blocking an idea if it is, in the TED patter, “worth spreading”.

For an enterprise whose mission statement begins: “We believe passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and ultimately, the world”, TED also gives remarkably little back to the city in which its conference takes place. Indeed, Edinburgh as a city is largely incidental to the TED experience. Last year, Giussani explained the decision to relocate the annual TEDGlobal conference from Oxford, its erstwhile home, not in terms of ideas and individuals but of transport links and infrastructure. The only trace of TED in Edinburgh were the orientation signs dotted around Lothian Road.

TED is a short-term boon for the local economy, but this week will leave little in the way of meaningful legacies beyond the balance sheet. New ideas are vital for Scotland’s future – but these ideas need inclusive, inexpensive spaces where they can be shared and debated, not exclusory, £3,850-a-head conferences. Perhaps it’s time for a TED for the rest of us.

This piece appeared in the Scotsman, June 30.