Hellbent on violence – but it won't work

This comment piece on Monday’s dissident bombing in Newry appeared in The Scotsman on 24 February.

In November, the International Monitoring Commission, charged with keeping tabs on Northern Ireland’s paramilitary groups, suggested dissident republican ranks were being swelled by ex-Provisional IRA members.
The Newry car bomb has now confirmed the worst fears of the security services.

Since the turn of the year, dissidents have stepped up activities in an effort to derail the Hillsborough Agreement. In January, an off-duty Catholic policeman in Randalstown was lucky to escape with his life after a bomb under his car detonated. Recent security reports have identified a growing threat from hardline republicans in Lurgan and Derry and, only three days ago, experts staged a controlled explosion on a suspect vehicle in Co Armagh, near Newry.

The latest bombing has rattled security forces but will almost certainly not prevent devolution of policing and justice to Stormont. If anything, it will only harden resolve, on both sides of the tribal divide, to see devolution go ahead. The cross-party vote on policing is due on 8 March – the first anniversary of the killing of Constable Stephen Carroll by the Continuity IRA.

Both Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness have condemned the dissidents but the threat from republicanism’s fringe is causing Sinn Fein severe difficulties. The Ulster Unionist Party accused mainstream republicans of failing to provide the police with details of old associates in the dissident ranks.

This is particularly uncomfortable for Sinn Fein at a time when policing is set to come under the control of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Dissident republicans might be hellbent on dragging Northern Ireland back to the dark ages but they seem set to fail.

As the fallout from the Newry bombing reverberated, First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister McGuinness announced agreement on a long-awaited anti-sectarian programme. The dissidents might not like it, but Northern Ireland has changed.

Stokes and Miller in tune with Hibernian rhapsody

Edinburgh is proving a happy hunting ground for two Irish internationals, as I reported in The Sunday Independent a few couple of Sundays ago:

“I doubt I’ll ever tire of Edinburgh,” bestselling crime writer Ian Rankin once said of his hometown. With its spectacular views, historic old town and lively nightlife, the Scottish capital certainly has plenty of attractions — but it doesn’t take the forensic mind of Inspector Rebus to figure out what drew Liam Miller and Anthony Stokes to the city.

After a couple of years spent more on the bench than on the pitch, the two Irish internationals were just happy to be wanted at Hibernian. “It’s been great from day one, to be honest,” remarks Miller, who joined Edinburgh’s green half in September after a few anxious months without a club following his departure from Queens Park Rangers. Team-mate Stokes concurs: “It’s great to be back playing regularly. I’m really enjoying it here.”

As for Hibs, well the feeling is mutual. The Irish pair have been two of the main reasons the Easter Road outfit are currently running Celtic close for second spot in the Scottish Premier League and have a great chance to finally end their 108-year hoodoo in the Scottish Cup. Miller’s dynamic performances in the heart of midfield have won several man-of-the-match awards, while Stokes, with 14 goals already this season, including the first as Hibs came from two goals down to draw with Aberdeen on Wednesday, is showing the kind of form that brought him a £2m move from Arsenal to Sunderland while still a teenager.

Both players have settled in well off the pitch, too. Miller lives on the outskirts of the city with his wife and young family; Stokes has an apartment close to the centre of town. “Next to Dublin this is probably my favourite city in the world,” the striker, who turns 22 in the summer, says. “I love where I live. Plus I’m just five minutes away from the ground. When I was at Sunderland, it was a 45-minute drive in the morning just to get to training.”

Miller and Stokes know each other from their Sunderland days. Originally signed by Roy Keane, the pair later found themselves surplus to requirements at the Stadium of Light.

“It was really frustrating at Sunderland towards the end,” says Stokes, stretching his legs across two chairs as we talk in an anteroom at Hibernian’s training ground about 15 miles east of Edinburgh. “I remember coming on in a cup game (against Northampton Town). We were two down at half-time, and I scored two in the second half. Next day I was asked to go on loan. It didn’t really matter what I had done on the pitch, I wasn’t going to get my chance there.”

The rangy, Dublin-born Stokes exudes a youthful insouciance, speaking openly and at length about most subjects. His compatriot Miller, who turned 29 last week, is more circumspect, sitting bolt upright with his arms folded across his chest. Unlike his Ireland and Hibernian team-mate, the Corkman is less willing to discuss his time at Sunderland, saying only that “it had its ups and downs”.

Miller, who began his career at Celtic, dismisses the suggestion that the SPL lacks quality: “The Premier League is probably the best league in the world but football in Scotland is at a very decent level.” The diminutive midfielder could easily have spent his career in Scotland — then Parkhead supremo Martin O’Neill wanted to build a team around him but Miller elected to sign a pre-contract with Manchester United instead. Does he have any regrets about leaving Celtic? “None,” he says without blinking.

Stokes has previous SPL experience, too — he first came to prominence after scoring 14 goals in 16 games while on loan at Falkirk, a spree that persuaded Keane to take him to Sunderland. John ‘Yogi’ Hughes was manager at Falkirk Stadium then, and Stokes had no compunctions about renewing past acquaintances when the tough-talking Scot took over at Easter Road during the summer.

“I thought there was no point staying at Sunderland rotting away, not playing football,” Stokes remarks of the decision to come to Hibs. “I knew I needed to be somewhere that I had a good chance of playing every week. As soon as the gaffer asked me up here I knew it was a good move. I’m just glad to get back up here and settle myself down and start enjoying my life and my football again.”

Stokes has never lacked self-belief but his Hibs career was almost over before it began when Hughes publicly reprimanded his new striker following an alleged brawl in an Edinburgh nightclub in September. The Dubliner admits he returned to Scotland with a “reputation” earned during his time at Sunderland but denies any wrongdoing. “I was in the club about five minutes. They said in the paper we were there for two hours drinking champagne. It’s nonsense. It was half past eleven and I’d just arrived and I hadn’t even had a drink. The tabloids just dig for stories. If they can’t find something they make it up.”

Currently second behind Rangers’ Kris Boyd at the top of the SPL scoring charts, Stokes says he has cut down his drinking, although he still goes out “every two or three weeks”.

“If I score two or three goals, I think I am entitled to go out and have a few beers. I don’t see why footballers should be singled out and told, ‘No, no you shouldn’t be doing that.’ We earn good money but you have to have some normal lifestyle especially when you’re 19, 20.”

Miller, too, has had past brushes with authority — most notably in 2008, when Roy Keane transfer-listed his fellow Corkman, citing a “lack of discipline” and “poor time-keeping”. But under Hughes’ tutelage the midfielder is fast maturing into a vocal on-field leader. “I’ve been used to having older people around me in the team. But it’s a young side here and now I’m one of the older heads,” Miller says of his newfound responsibilities.

While Stokes and Miller have been busy stamping their own authority on the SPL this season, it is the recent surprise arrival of another Irish international that has everybody in Scotland talking. “To have a player of Robbie Keane’s calibre up here is special. He is a quality player and I’m sure he will bang in the goals,” says Miller.

Keane’s presence should ensure that the SPL does not fall off Giovanni Trapattoni’s radar and both Miller and Stokes are hopeful of staking a claim for a regular berth in the Ireland squad as we head towards the qualifiers for the 2012 European Championships. “I’d like to think that if I keep playing as well as I’ve been playing and keep scoring goals then I’ve a chance of being in the squad,” Stokes remarks.

Ireland’s senior striker has made no secret of his intention to return south when his loan arrangement with Celtic runs out in the summer. Do Keane’s international team-mates on the other side of the Central Belt hope to return to top-flight English football someday? Miller refuses to be drawn on the question, but Stokes admits that, while he may never tire of Edinburgh living, the lure of the Premier League may prove irresistible in the long-run.

“Of course, I’d love to play in the Premiership again. I’ve learnt from my mistakes. But first I have to settle down and show people that I can do it consistently. Before I came to Hibs people were saying that if I don’t score goals here it will be the end of me. But I always knew that if I played regularly I would score goals. Now I’ve got my confidence back, got the half a yard of sharpness back and I’m flying.”

No Real Case for Continental Drift

This review of Peter Baldwin’s insight new book The Narcissism of Minor Differences: How America and Europe are Alike appeared in The Sunday Business Post a few weeks back:

Last summer, US president Barack Obama announced plans to extend medical cover to more than 31 million uninsured Americans.

To judge by the reaction of certain sections of the US right, you would think the new president was intending to abolish private property and declare a dictatorship of the proletariat. ‘Socialist Medicine’ and ‘Death to Obama’ screamed fevered protesters in town halls across Middle America, some even brandishing posters of Obama sporting a Hitler moustache.

Over on this side of the Atlantic, the US ‘debate’ on healthcare reform seemed to confirm one of our deepest and most fondly held prejudices: that, on everything from social policy to gun control, America and Europe are poles apart. Where they say ‘tomayto’, we say ‘tomahto’.

But is the schism between the old world and the new world really so wide? Peter Baldwin thinks not. In The Narcissism of Minor Differences – a term coined by Sigmund Freud to account for the negative feelings individuals feel towards those they most resemble – the UCLA-based historian explicitly sets out to demonstrate ‘‘that the commonalities across this divide are greater than the differences’’.

The Narcissism of Minor Differences, the author acknowledges in his prefatory notes, is essentially ‘‘an essay in numbers’’. In it, Baldwin marshals reams of statistical data, most of it drawn from the last decade, into some 250 pages of dense, fact-laden prose, with almost every page illustrated by a bar chart.

These are separated into chapters with inspiring titles such as ‘The Economy’, ‘Civil Society’ and ‘Assimilation’, and there are even 50-plus pages of technical information and references at the back, just in case you want to try his calculations out at home.

Baldwin is one of the foremost experts on 20th century European history in the American academy, and among the stats, graphs and pithy one-liners are some genuinely surprising findings.

On climate change, the United States is often characterised as a nation of deniers and sceptics, but a higher percentage of Americans are very worried about the environment than any European nation bar the Portuguese (who, in case you were wondering, are also the most pessimistic people of any developed country).

Elsewhere, Baldwin shows how Sweden, that much vaunted bastion of fair-minded social democracy, has become a nation of malingerers, with women claiming on average 46 sick days per year and almost 20 per cent of the population registered as disabled (twice the US average).

Scandinavia and its putative ‘social model’ is Baldwin’s primary bete noire, followed closely by the Guardian and Will Hutton (many chapters feature anti-American quotes from the Observer columnist).

Baldwin’s writing is crisp, clipped and generally pleasing on the eye – excepting his occasional penchant for substituting impenetrable German sociological terms for plain English. Gargantuan amounts of information are synthesised concisely, often enlivened by a telling observation:

who, for instance, knew that a 10th-century depiction of Christ appears on every Danish passport? I certainly didn’t, and I’ve lived in North Jutland.

The United States is often accused of being ideologically opposed to the welfare state and failing to offer adequate social services to all its citizens.

However, as Baldwin shows, America is within the European range on all measures of social expenditure – thanks, in no small part, to the failings of our own governments.

Ireland ranks lowest on a whole raft of social indices: public spending on childcare; pensions as a percentage of earning income; total social spending per capita; and public social expenditure, both as a percentage of GDP and per capita. How much worse these figures will be in five years’ time scarcely bears contemplating.

America might not be as different from Europe as we are led – and indeed like – to believe. Nevertheless, the United States does have a higher crime rate, prison population and more murders per capita than any country in the developed world.

On income inequality, an area the US is often accused of lagging behind Europe in, lo and behold, it is: the discrepancy between the highest and the lowest earners in society is highest in America, closely followed by Britain. Similarly, the depth and strength of religious belief in the United States sets it apart from most European nations.

Baldwin is no American apologist: his ire is directed at both the US left and its right, which he acerbically describes as ‘‘intellectually of no consequence’’. If, at times, the straw men he knocks down are so thin as to be practically diaphanous ç the Guardian, an organ of the left intelligentsia with a readership hovering around the 300,000 mark, as the voice of the British people? Not unless you mistake Islington for England – overall the book is erudite, cogently argued and remarkably readable.

I’ll certainly think twice before making another glib remark about gun-totting, bible-bashing, hamburger eating Yanks. But, then again, I’ll possibly make it anyway. Human nature, as Freud knew all too well, is easier to understand than to change.

Budget Reality Hits the North

This piece on budget cuts in Northern Ireland appeared in today’s Sunday Business Post

The protracted talks between Sinn Féin and the DUP to rescue the North’s power sharing government may have hinged on the devolution of policing and justice powers to Stormont. However, a way from Hillsborough Castle, the big issue for many in the North is the prospect of swingeing budget cuts.

Early in January, Sammy Wilson, the North’s finance minister, announced cuts in government spending of £367 million in the coming fiscal year.

The axe is due to fall most heavily in the health service, where cuts of more than £113 million are being proposed. A young doctor who works in a large hospital on the outskirts of Belfast said she was worried that the quality of patient care would suffer as a result.

‘‘Today, we had a meeting at which we were told that the trust’s budget has been compromised and that we will have to try and save money anywhere we can,” said the doctor, who did not want to be named.

‘‘But already we are not allowed to prescribe certain drugs because they are seen as too expensive and we are told to manipulate our hours so that we don’t get paid overtime.”

The North’s health minister, Michael McGimpsey of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), has said he will resist any budget reduction ‘‘very strongly’’.

But Brian Campfield, spokesman for the public sector trade union NIPSA, said he believed individual ministers would struggle to stop the cuts.

‘‘The parties are basically administering a budget that was given to them by Westminster and which they have very little say on,” Campfield told The Sunday Business Post.

‘‘All the main parties are tied together as part of the [power sharing] political arrangement, so it is very difficult to generate any real opposition.” Campfield sees the round of cuts as a harbinger of what awaits the North after the British general election later this year.

‘‘This is a sign of what is going to happen down the line,” he said. ‘‘Regardless of whether it is a Labour or a Conservative government, we will be paying for the bank bail-out for years to come.”

Education has often proved a controversial subject during the life of the current government. The Sinn Féin minister Caitriona Ruane’s move to abolish the 11-plus exam is opposed by many unionists and resisted by a growing number of grammar schools.

Now the Department for Education and Learning has seen its budget for next year slashed by more than £73 million.

‘‘This cut will have a significant impact on the delivery of education in Northern Irish schools,” said Lexie Scott, president of the Ulster Teachers’ Union and principal of a primary school outside Ballymena.

‘‘Northern Ireland has one of the largest class sizes in Europe. One in eight schoolchildren are educated in classes of over 30. Instead of budget cuts, we need action to be to be taken to address this.

‘‘Less than 20 per cent of newly-qualified teachers get work in Northern Ireland.

There are in excess of 8,000 unemployed teachers. We have come across many cases of people who have spent four years in third-level education training to be a teacher and a couple of years looking for work and who are now working in low-level, menial jobs.

We need to provide more employment for these teachers, not less.”

Scott acknowledged that over administration in the education sector was a major issue, but blamed the current political system in Stormont for its failure to address the problem.

‘‘Over 40 per cent of the education budget goes on school maintenance, but the Executive is so bogged down in state matters that it is not passing the necessary legislation to deal with the situation,” Scott said. ‘‘The whole process is really dysfunctional.”

The cuts in health and education have grabbed the headlines, but every department in the devolved Northern Ireland Executive will be affected by the proposed spending reductions. More than £80 million is being cut from regional development, a further £30 million from the Department for Social Development and £24million from Enterprise.

As in the Republic, the arts budget has also been slashed. Next year, the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure will see a £25 million drop on current spending levels. Nelson McCausland, the North’s Minister for Culture, has already indicated that the Arts Council of Northern Ireland should plan for budget cuts of about £1.1 million in 2010/11.

Belfast-based theatre company Kabosh is one of many arts organisations that rely heavily on Arts Council funding. Hugh Odling-Smee, its creative director, said some groups would find it difficult to survive the next 12 months.

‘‘There is a sense in which arts funding is much easier to cut than health or education, but at the same time it’s worth remembering that the arts budget is pretty minuscule compared to other areas,” he said. ‘‘A cut like this will make a huge difference; we are talking about people’s livelihoods here.”

The arts in the North have enjoyed a significant amount of capital spending in recent years. Belfast’s renowned Lyric Theatre is due to reopen next year following an £18 million makeover, and a similar amount is being invested in a new purpose-built arts centre, the Mac, in the city centre.

Derry’s Waterside Theatre and Playhouse have also been renovated, and smaller venues have been built across the North. Odling-Smee said he was concerned that funds might not be available to run all of these new facilities.

‘‘We are opening these great new theatres and venues, and we are trumpeting Belfast as a city of culture, but are we going to have the money to run them all?” he said. ‘‘Or will they turn into white elephants?”

However, he believes that, because of the political situation, t he large-scale protests against cuts in the Republic are unlikely to be replicated north of the border.

‘‘If we wanted to have a campaign, where would we protest?” he said. ‘‘There would be nobody in the minister’s office to protest at. The politicians we could actually appeal to are not actually focused on the budget; they are focused on the heavy brinkmanship politics. I think they would be much better off making themselves available.

‘‘Issues like policing and justice are obviously important and are not to be taken lightly, but finding a way to solve the hole in our budget is the big issue in peoples’ lives right now.”

The Hillsborough agreement will go a long way to deciding the short and medium term future of the North, but whatever happens, for Odling Smee and many across the North, stability offers the only route out of the budgetary crisis.

‘‘At some stage, we are going to have to sort out how do we pay for ourselves,” he said.

‘‘Her Majesty’s Treasury isn’t going to support us forever.

But then, for that, you need a stable government.”

A brave new world for all sides or more of the same?

This brief analysis piece on the Hillsborough agreement appeared in today’s The Scotsman.

“This might just be the day when the political processes in Northern Ireland came of age,” Martin McGuinness said during yesterday’s press conference at Hillsborough Castle.

Only time will tell if the deputy first minister’s optimism was well-founded, but there are grounds for believing the agreement reached between Sinn Fein and the DUP could signal a new era of stability and co-operation in Northern Ireland.

The most eye-catching feature of the Hillsborough Agreement is the timetable for the devolution of policing and justice powers to the Executive at Stormont. By 12 April Northern Ireland should have control of policing for the first time since direct rule was imposed in 1972.

The symbolic import of this move should not be underestimated. Sinn Fein overturned their historic opposition to the Northern Ireland police only in 2007 – in return they demanded the devolution of policing to Stormont. The possibility of a republican in charge of justice has haunted unionists, particularly those in the DUP. But under this deal, the justice ministry should be under the control of the cross-community Alliance party.

Yesterday’s deal also purports to offer a solution to the issue of Orange Order parades, arguably the greatest stumbling block. Based loosely on proposals put forward by Lord Ashdown in 2008, the parades commission – which unionists accuse of bias towards nationalist resident groups – will be disbanded.

Due to legal constraints this will not happen until after this summer’s marching season, but starting on Tuesday a working group will meet for three weeks to outline alternative arrangements for resolving contentious parades.

Unionists believe its report will be favourable to marchers. There could be trouble if it isn’t. The report is due out just days before the cross-party vote on the devolution of policing, which takes place in Stormont on 9 March. If the report is not perceived as a victory for the Orangemen than many of the 14 DUP assembly members who rejected a draft of the Hillsborough deal earlier this week could be expected to oppose the policing vote – with potentially disastrous consequences.

Nevertheless, the Hillsborough deal is an important step forward. Finally, the main players appear to be working in partnership – though only the next few weeks will tell if the process really has grown up.

Could Direct Rule be the Answer to North's Problems?

This comment piece appeared in The Irish Times on Thursday 4 February. It was intended as an attempt to start a discussion about what needs to be done to move Northern Ireland forward. In it, I advocate a possible temporary return to direct rule as it existed during Stormont suspensions over the last decade. But it certainly got a few folks hackles up, judging by the vitriol in my inbox….

Politicians are often traduced for being out of touch with reality, but rarely has the charge rung so true as in Northern Ireland today.

Early last month, the North’s finance minister, Sammy Wilson, announced cuts in government spending totalling £367 million (€420 million) in the coming fiscal year. Since then the putative leaders of the Stormont Executive have spent the best part of a week and a half locked in discussions about policing and justice, parading and the Irish language. Not exactly core economic issues.

Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionists, the main protagonists in the protracted farce at Hillsborough, are playing gesture politics at a time when what is required is a bellyful of bread and butter.

But then again, in the three years since devolution was restored, neither party has proved particularly adroit at quotidian politics. In education, Sinn Féin’s Caitríona Ruane dedicated significant amounts of time and money to abolishing the controversial 11-plus exam. The move was highly divisive, bitterly opposed by unionists and ultimately futile: the transfer test for children from primary to secondary schools has been retained by a growing number of rebel grammar schools.

Ruane – or whoever inherits her portfolio if the current talks break down – is unlikely to be in a position to indulge such whims again. The education budget for next year has been slashed by more than £73.3 million. Over in Michael McGimpsey’s health department, the situation is even bleaker. Northern Ireland’s already understaffed health service is being asked to achieve spending reductions in the region of £113 million.

There is a relatively straightforward solution to the hole in the Executive’s budget – water charges. Unlike the rest of the United Kingdom, residents in Northern Ireland pay regional rates instead of council tax. At present, these rates are, on average, 50 per cent lower than in England. The introduction of water charges, which have been deferred for next year, would add an estimated £210 million to the treasury’s purse. Doubtless such a move would be met with resistance among sections of the electorate, but in times of crisis elected governments need to act collectively and decisively – two qualities absent among the squabbling Northern Executive.

There is, however, a large breach in Northern Irish society that cash alone will not solve and which neither Sinn Féin nor the DUP have shown any willingness to address. Sectarianism remains a serious problem in many working-class communities: since the peace process started in 1994 the number of peace walls in Greater Belfast has trebled.

Remarkably, Northern Ireland currently has no anti-sectarian policy. It did – A Shared Future, which was launched by then direct rule minister, Des Browne MP in 2005 – but on reaching office in 2007 both Sinn Féin and the DUP decided to abandon the policy. Instead, a draft of a new strategy, Cohesion, Sharing and Integration, was circulated – and almost as quickly forgotten.

On leaving office last September, Hugh Orde, the outgoing chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, criticised both Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness for their “lack of a coherent and credible strategy” for tackling sectarianism. Ruffled, Sinn Féin quickly published what was effectively a retitled, cut-and-paste version of Cohesion, Sharing and Integration, while the DUP responded by simply reissuing the original strategy.

One document, no matter how well intentioned, will not eradicate generations of sectarian division, but the coalition partners’ inability to even agree on a policy is indicative of the stasis that has gripped Stormont.

Of course, the current crisis is hardly unique in the intermittent history of the North’s devolved administration. In 2007, when Sinn Féin and the DUP argued over the various sections of the St Andrews Agreement in advance of Assembly elections, then secretary of state for Northern Ireland Peter Hain issued both parties with an ultimatum – reach agreement or face a return to direct rule.

Direct rule has long been used as a stick to threaten the North’s unruly devolved assembly, but perhaps the time has come to seriously consider it as an option.

Since devolution was restored in 2007, Northern Ireland has either stood still or gone backward in many areas. The bickering and brinkmanship that have characterised Stormont’s current incarnation have fuelled a growing apathy, especially in civil society. The North is not going back to the dark days of the Troubles, but neither Sinn Féin nor the DUP have been able to articulate any coherent vision for the future.

Under direct rule, career politicians appointed from Westminster overseeing (reasonably) impartial civil servants would replace the present ineffective, bipartisan administration. The benefits of the switch are manifold: policies would be produced and actually enacted; water charges could be implemented, going some way to solving the North’s budget crisis; and, probably most importantly, Northern Ireland would finally be in a situation where decision-makers are no longer hamstrung by a divided Executive.

As the arguments continue to rage at Hillsborough, a return to direct rule – at least temporarily – might be the reality check that the North’s political classes need, and its general public deserve.

Ian Sansom – Stranger than Fiction

Ian Sansom is a true gent, and if you’ve never picked up one of his hilarious novels you should. This feature on Sansom and his latest novel, The Bad Book Affair, appeared in The Sunday Herald on Sunday 24 January.

A prominent Northern Irish politician involved in a sensational sex scandal. Accusations of dodgy dealings in the corridors of power. Restive natives in Ulster’s bible-belt. The closing chapters of the Robinson saga have not yet been written but already a book has been published about it. Or at least so it would seem to anyone picking up a copy of The Bad Book Affair, the new novel from Belfast-based writer Ian Sansom.

The fourth instalment in Sansom’s popular detective series The Mobile Library, The Bad Book Affair features a duplicitous unionist politician, marital infidelity, accusations of financial impropriety – and all set against the backdrop of growing instability in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government and a looming election. Throw in a duffel-coat wearing, crime-solving Jewish librarian called Israel Armstrong and a four-wheeled library trundling along the north coast of Ireland and the result could almost pass as a tongue-in-cheek précis of the last few weeks in Northern Irish politics. In a literary career spanning more than a decade, Sansom has seen life imitate art often enough not to be surprised by The Bad Book Affair’s remarkable verisimilitude. ‘Am I surprised by the similarities? No, the amazing thing, for me, is that other people are surprised by it,’ the hirsute writer remarks, peering over his reading glasses.

‘Novels hold up a mirror to the real world. In any good work of fiction you will always get soundings and reflections from real life. What surprises me is that more people don’t pick up on these similarities more often.

‘If literary history teaches us one thing, it is that people are bad,’ he says, his glance momentarily resting on a banks of shelves overflowing with well-thumbed classics from literary heavyweights such as Roth, Faulkner and Bellow that occupies the back wall of his second floor office in the Seamus Heaney centre in Queen’s university, Belfast.

‘Obviously when it is people in public life it gives it an extra piquancy but we are all capable of lying, cheating, stealing. The ramifications of a politician’s actions are potentially more serious but the actual actions in themselves just reflect the truth of our sad, pathetic little lives.’

Such a pessimistic view of life seems entirely at odds with the witty, garrulous and light-hearted character in whose company two hours appears to pass in a mater of minutes. But Sansom, in an uncharacteristically serious moment, explains why he sees no such contradiction. ‘We are all flawed – that is the story of humanity. If you read the bible, on page one you’ve got this wonderful idyll, turn to page two and its over. Really it’s all downhill from there. Adam, Eve, Saul, Kane and Abel. They are all just giving us a way to understand ourselves, both the good and the bad,’ he says.

Citing scripture to support your opinions is all too common in Northern Ireland, quoting Flaubert, Gogol, Polonius and Goethe (as Sansom does freely) markedly less now. Having grown up in Southend-On-Sea, Sansom spent his undergraduate days at Cambridge and Oxford, where he wrote a PhD thesis on the poetry of WH Auden. Today, his accent, an unusual hybrid of muted estuary English and received pronunciation, retains telling traces of both home and alma mater.

Like Israel, The Mobile Library series’ ill-fated protagonist, Ian Sansom moved from London to Northern Ireland; although while his anti-hero crossed the Irish Sea alone, the author made the journey with his wife, a BBC journalist born in Belfast, and their young family. Sansom is understandably reluctant to identify himself too strongly with his bumbling character’s search for purpose along the Antrim coast, but he does admit sharing one significant trait with Israel – a deep-seated fondness for libraries.

‘I didn’t grow up in a bookish household so libraries were always where I gravitated towards,’ Sansom says, his speech quickening noticeably as he recalls the mobile library that routinely visited his primary school: ‘I thought it was a genuinely magical experience. It was almost like the circus was coming to town, there was so much to enjoy. I probably wanted to run away with the mobile library, too.’

In his younger days, Sansom even conducted romances among the aisles. ‘I first kissed my wife in Cambridge university library.’ Can he remember where exactly? I ask. Of course he can: ‘It was in the lift in the west wing. I was an old smoothie back then,’ he laughs before outlining his belief in the sexual allure of libraries. ‘They have a certain unmistakeable erotic charge to them. Libraries hum with possibility and change. You are coming into a place where possibilities become endless. Have you ever noticed in Hollywood blockbusters how many riddles get solved in libraries? It’s no coincidence.’

Sansom gives the impression of a writer born into his craft but he maintains that the transition from pursuing the bookshelves to appearing on them was not as seamless as his impressive cv suggests. ‘After I finished university I was writing and also doing lots of different jobs during the day. I would write a chapter in a couple of days and then forget about it and move on to something else. I was effectively binge writing.’

Like many prone to binging, it was only an encounter with a fellow sufferer that straightened him out. ‘I was working as a painter and decorator when I bumped into a novelist, a proper novelist. I asked him “how do you do it?” He just said to sit down and write 500 words a day everyday. Since then I’ve applied the rule of regularity.’ And, as the multiple copies of his various books and side projects gathered around his writing desk attests, Sansom has been a writer ever since.

The subtly bookish atmosphere at the Heaney centre, where Sansom lectures on Queen’s highly regarded creative writing program, seems to suit the author well. His office looks more like a traditional writer’s study; framed ordnance survey maps of Northern Ireland on the walls, an antique tea set in the corner. Life seems agreeably slow: we meet during term time, but there are precious few students about. Indeed, our conversation is only disturbed once, by a gentle knock on the door. It is Ciaran Carson, the esteemed Belfast poet and Sansom’s colleague at Queen’s, with a question about marking schemes.

Creative writing as an academic discipline has its critics, and Sansom admits to misgivings over his own suitability for such a course of study. ‘I’m not sure I would have enjoyed being a creative writing student.’ Nevertheless, he does ‘believe in teaching creative writing.’

‘You can teach people craft and technique, which is essential for a writer. But what you can’t do is to teach them to have ideas.’ Ideas are one thing Ian Sansom has never been short of, though precisely which ideas he decides to work on next has probably never interested so many. Neither Iris nor Peter Robinson are renowned for their interest in literature but both could be forgiven for taking an interest in the follow-up to The Bad Book Affair.

‘Everyone is asking ‘what are you writing about next?’, as if I have some remarkable insight into the future. If that was the case I’d probably write about the winning numbers for the national lottery. Or about salvation and redemption. Now that does seem rather topical.’

The Bad Book Affair is out on January 25 published by Fourth Estate.

Lough Rynn Hotel, Mohill

This review of the Lough Rynn Hotel in Mohill appeared in The Irish Times on Saturday 16 January ’10.

I first visited Lough Rynn well over 20 years ago. It was the day of my first communion. We squashed into my mother’s blue Renault 5 for the half-hour journey north from our Longford home to spend a sepia-tinged afternoon roaming around the adventure playground (myself and my brother) and the two-century-old big house (my parents).

The Victorian manor house once belonged to arguably Ireland’s most notorious landlord, the eviction-happy third earl of Leitrim, William Sydney Clements, who was murdered in 1878.

The swings, slides and climbing frames that I remember from my last visit have disappeared, and this ancestral pile has been transformed into a four-star hotel. Opened in 2006, it sits on 120 hectares of green lawns, Scots pines, manicured gardens and lake-shore paths.

With the Arctic winter blowing a gale outside, and a queue at check-in – we were there for a wedding – I took refuge with a hot toddy by the fire burning in the enormous inglenook fireplace in the high-ceilinged baronial hall.

When we were led up to our bedroom it was difficult to avoid feeling pretty privileged – if not quite like Lord Leitrim, at least like one of his more favoured guests. The amiable porter gave us a whistle-stop tour of the room – is it just me or are hotel televisions becoming increasingly difficult to switch on? – but left just as I was getting out my wallet to tip her. Lough Rynn’s staff clearly weren’t trained in the US.

The dark-wood theme from downstairs continued in our room, although a mahogany writing desk, full-size standing wardrobe and large TV unit left what should have been a reasonably spacious double room feeling cramped.

A pair of upholstered chairs provided the perfect spot for savouring the room’s best feature, a spectacular view of Lough Rynn; swans were sitting on its frozen surface as the sun set.

A marble floor gave the spacious en-suite bathroom a pleasingly opulent feel. The good-quality toiletries and powerful shower, with its wide metal head, were just the thing to revive us for the wedding reception. The trouser press came in handy, too.

Suited and booted, we made our way to the meal, past walls lined with all manner of golf memorabilia, from vintage tees and scorecards to putters and V-neck jerseys. Unfortunately for golf enthusiasts, the hotel’s vaunted Nick Faldo-designed course is still being built; it is not expected to open until the end of next year.

The estate’s stables and pheasantry have been converted into additional suites. A long glass corridor leads past these rooms to a new banqueting hall and bar. The views are stunning.

After plenty of eating, drinking and dancing we finally headed for bed after a nightcap in the intimate Dungeon Bar. Ignore the name: with its underfloor heating, it is the hotel’s cosiest bar.

It was a pity to arrive upstairs to find our room vibrating to the whirr of the air conditioner. It might be great for those balmy Leitrim summer nights, but I had to call reception to figure out how to turn it off.

Peace restored, I slept soundly in a very comfortable bed, heavy purple curtains ensuring I was undisturbed by the early-morning sunlight.

Breakfast was passable at best. The continental buffet was well stocked with fruit and cereal, but poor sausages and black pudding let the cooked breakfast down. Pots of tea and bottomless glasses of orange juice helped soothe any lingering disco aches and provided fortification for a refreshing stroll around the hotel’s majestic grounds. The walled gardens, with their ornate fonts and ponds, are particularly impressive, and the nature trail is well worth exploring.

Looking out across the frozen lake on a beautifully clear, if bracingly cold, morning, Lough Rynn felt as familiar and as striking as ever. A few days later my girlfriend received a kindly-worded automated e-mail from the hotel management, asking us to come again.

Next time I’m looking for a classy break in the heart of rural Ireland, I certainly will.

Where Lough Rynn Castle Hotel, Mohill, Co Leitrim, 071-9632700, loughrynn.ie.

What Four-star hotel in Victorian manor house overlooking Lough Rynn.

Rooms 43 rooms and suites, plus six houses available for rent on the estate.

Best rates Rooms from €79. Specials include Winter Warmer of BB, plus dinner and a bottle of wine, from €85 per person sharing; and two-night St Valentine’s break, with bed, breakfast and dinner one evening, plus a bottle of champagne, for €185pps.

Restaurant and bars Sandstone Restaurant, Cocktail Bar Leitrim and Dungeon Bar.

Amenities Excellent John McGahern Library, broadband internet, beautiful walks, boating.

From Family Robinson Woes to Affairs of State

I wrote a comment piece on the political fall-out from the Robinson affair for The Scotsman last week: (Published 13/01/10)

A leading unionist politician in Northern Ireland laid low by a lurid sex scandal splashed across the red tops. Accusations of backhanders from property developers. Political unrest in Ulster’s bible-belt. The plot of The Bad Book Affair, a new novel by Belfast-based writer Ian Sansom published next week, must have sounded pretty far-fetched when it arrived on his editor’s desk – but in the parallel universe that is Northern Irish politics truth really is stranger than fiction.

The scandal that has engulfed Peter Robinson threatens not only to cut short the political career of the Democratic Unionist party leader but could yet bring down the entire Stormont administration. But, unlike so many Northern Irish crises, this one began calmly when, just over a week ago, a select band of journalists were invited to Robinson’s East Belfast home. Briefings are part and parcel of political life but this was no normal ‘meet the press’ evening: instead, holding back tears in his front room, the First Minister explained that his wife of over thirty years, and fellow parliamentarian, Iris had attempted suicide following an affair.

Initially, revelations of Iris Robinson’s infidelity were received with a mixture of incredulity and black humour on the streets of Belfast but politicians from both sides of the tribal divide maintained a respectful silence. It was only with the accusation, made on a BBC current affairs television program, that Iris had borrowed two sums of £25,000 each from property developers to set her 19-year-old lover up in business that what began as a straightforward sex scandal – albeit with Mrs Robinson’s odious statements on homosexuality and hard-line Christian views adding extra spice – morphed into a full-blown constitutional crisis.

That the personal problems of a politician – even the devolved assembly’s most senior – should imperil devolution itself reflects the wider impasse on the issue of policing and justice powers that has paralysed Stormont in recent months. Sinn Fein want control of policing and justice to be transferred from Westminster to Belfast now, if not sooner; the DUP (their erstwhile coalition partners) have thus far resisted such moves, despite Gordon Brown pledging £900 million to smooth the transition.

Amid much publicity on Monday, the DUP’s deputy leader Nigel Dodds announced that Peter Robinson has resigned ‘temporarily’ as First Minister, designating Arlene Foster to take over his duties for the next six weeks. In invoking the Northern Ireland Act 1998 in this way, Robinson has repeated a familiar tactic of his predecessor but one, David Trimble. But while the media clamoured over themselves to admire Robinson’s political nous and speculate on whether or not he has saved his head, two crucial points were widely missed: first, Sinn Fein have given the DUP three weeks to resurrect a deal on the devolution of policing and justice, and, second, Robinson has nominated himself to head the negotiating team to meet their republican counterparts.

Reaching a deal with Sinn Fein is crucial to the short-term future of both the DUP and the current incarnation of Stormont. If no agreement on the transfer of policing is forthcoming then there is every possibility that Sinn Fein will collapse the assembly when Robinson returns from his six-week sabbatical by simply refusing to re-nominate Martin McGuinness as deputy first minister. Under the rules of the Good Friday Agreement, power-sharing only works if both nationalists and unionists can agree to it. In the absence of the majority player in the nationalist bloc the assembly would automatically dissolve and fresh elections held.

Before events of the last week overtook them, the DUP could have faced such elections in reasonably buoyant mood. Despite growing internal dissent from the right of the party and the prospect of losing votes to former Democratic Unionist MEP Jim Allister’s anti-agreement Traditional Unionist Voice, Robinson’s colleagues would have expected to profit by positioning themselves as the party that refused to hand control of policing to former terrorists – a rather spurious claim, incidentally, given that Sinn Fein members already sit on the Policing Board and numerous District Policing Partnerships.

Now the situation facing the North’s largest party is very different. Grassroots DUP supporters include many evangelical Christians who, shocked by the salacious tales emanating from the Robinsons’ door, are likely to abandon the party in droves for Allister’s TUV, while more mainstream voters could return once again to the Ulster Unionist party. Such a split in the unionist vote could quite conceivably see Sinn Fein emerge as the largest party in Northern Ireland, an honour that brings with it the right to nominate their choice for First Minister, almost certainly McGuinness. An administration with the former IRA man from Derry at its head would be anathema to any unionist – triggering another, this time potentially fatal, crisis in Northern Ireland’s fledgling experiment in devolved government.

So what are the prospects of avoiding this doomsday scenario? Relations between the DUP and Sinn Fein, rarely anything more than icy, have plumbed new depths in recent months. The power-sharing partners’ continuing inability to agree a joint anti-sectarian strategy has been decried by David Ford, leader of the moderate Alliance party, and last month McGuinness used a meeting of the North-South ministerial council in Limavady, County Derry to publicly lambast the First Minister for the failure to devolve policing. Robinson, who was standing barely five feet from his deputy on the same platform, looked stunned.

Nevertheless, an agreement on policing is increasingly in everyone’s best interests. And not just to save Peter Robinson or the assembly. In the early hours of last Friday morning, before the radio phone-ins had started to hum with chatter about Mrs Robinson’s dalliances, a car bomb seriously injured an off-duty policeman in Randallstown, outside Belfast. The victim, who was lucky to escape with his life, was a Catholic policeman, the perpetrators dissident republicans hell bent on catapulting the North back to the dark ages.

Regardless of its eventual fall-out, the Robinson affair will not spell a large scale return to violence – indeed on the very day the First Minister was briefing reporters on his wife’s indiscretion the loyalist Ulster Defence Association finally announced that it had decommissioned. However, the next few weeks are certainly crucial for the stability of Northern Ireland. Peter Robinson has bought just enough time to make a deal to save its current political process, though whether he can save it or himself remains to be seen.

Peter Geoghegan

An Irishman's Diary

In response to the awful fire that ripped through St Mel’s cathedral on Christmas morning I wrote this piece for An Irishman’s Diary in The Irish Times. The piece appeared 04/01/2010.

‘THE ONLY thing the town has had to be proud of is gone”. This terse comment, left on the internet forum Boards.ie, said it all: for the people of Longford, St Mel’s cathedral is not just a place of worship, it is an iconic landmark, a repository of history, and a symbol of the self-less devotion of an impoverished nation.

Nevertheless, the fire that tore through St Mel’s on Christmas morning has eviscerated one of Ireland’s best known cathedrals and cast a shadow across the midlands market town in whose life it has been central for over 150 years.

Like many in Longford, I was awoken on that morning not by the sound of excited children opening presents or family members enjoying Christmas breakfast but by the anxious voice of a neighbour. The call came just after 8am, by then St Mel’s had already been on fire for around three hours. Half asleep, I stood at the back window of my mother’s kitchen staring in horror as – less than a mile away – bright orange flames danced across the cruciform cathedral’s outstretched arms and thick black smoke bellowed into the sky. A few hours later, the building was still smouldering – the walls had survived the conflagration but almost everything inside was destroyed.

Christmas Masses did take place in Longford, although in a nearby community centre, not the town’s magnificent neo-classical cathedral. Given that fire services were tackling the blaze throughout the morning, it was remarkable that the traditional ceremonies were held at all, but that they were speaks volumes for the indefatigable spirit that has characterised St Mel’s from its earliest days.

St Mel’s cathedral was the brainchild of Bishop William O’Higgins, a native of Drumlish, in north Longford, and a fervent supporter of Daniel O’Connell and the Emancipation movement. Even after 1829, Catholics in the midlands continued to face persecution, strengthening O’Higgins’s resolve that the diocese of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise needed its own purpose-built cathedral.

Educated in Paris, O’Higgins found inspiration for his new cathedral in the City of Lights’ famous Madeleine cathedral, as well as the Pantheon and the Basilica of St John Lateran. On May 19th, 1840, more than 40,000 parishioners as well as clergy from a far afield as Australia and the United States were present as the foundation stone, which was taken from the ruined 8th-century cathedral of St Mel in Ardagh, Co Longford, was laid.

It is impossible to overestimate the psychological import of St Mel’s cathedral for the people of Longford and surrounding counties, particularly in its early years. Longford in the middle of the 19th century was a poor market town, the majority of whose inhabitants lived in mud huts and thatched houses, but from the midst of this squalor the cathedral’s massive Doric pilasters began to rise. The local economy also benefited: most of the limestone used in the construction came from west Longford and Knockcroghery in Co Roscommon.

Since opening in 1856 – building work was suspended during the famine – St Mel’s has housed practically every item of historical interest or significance in county Longford. As well as the 10th-century crozier of St Mel and various reliquaries, the Holy Family Altar, which had been rescued from a Roman church that was sacked during the Garibaldi campaign, was lost in the fire.

I left Longford many years ago – had the tragic fire not happened during the holidays I probably would not have been around to witness it – but, like so many others, St Mel’s was a vital presence in my life. It was first and foremost a religious place – I made my communion and confirmation there, and celebrated countless births, marriages and deaths within its now fire ravaged walls – but my strongest memories of it are cultural: almost every trip home incorporated a pit-stop to admire the finest works of art in Longford, the remarkable Harry Clarke windows that adorned the cathedral.

The stained glass, like so much else in St Mel’s, is irreplaceable, and the estimate of €2 million worth of damage quoted in the media has caused dismay on the streets of Longford. As one St Stephen’s Day reveller put it to me, “It will cost that much just to get the cathedral to the point where you can spend money repairing it.” The real cost of repairing St Mel’s is likely to run into eight figures, but in Longford town I found a genuine determination to see the cathedral rebuilt. History is on its side: in 1838 Bishop O’Higgins travelled to all 41 parishes of the diocese, raising £2,000 from ordinary people for the new cathedral.

O’Higgins’s contemporaries have many difficult questions to answer but, for many in Longford and across the Midlands, restoring St Mel’s is about much more than religion.