Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Underdogs 2: Montrose FC

One of the delights of my childhood was the occasional visit to Links Park to watch Montrose FC, then, during the mid-1970s, enjoying the most successful years in their history, including finishing one spot off gaining promotion to the Scottish premiership.

Having moved down to Watford, I never had occasion to go back to Montrose and watch the 'Links Park Dynamo' again. But a few years ago, visiting old haunts, I was disappointed to see that the ground had changed out of recognition since the 1970s.

To my delight, therefore, I have found a series of short videos showing Scottish football grounds in the 1980s. Possibly I am the only person in the world (or at least outside Montrose) who is interested in this, but just in case, here is the link. We used to stand in the terrace (now demolished) that ran along the side of the pitch.

Underdogs 1: George Harrison - This Song

In all things I root for the underdog, so naturally I have always believed that George Harrison was the true genius of the Beatles, and I have been rediscovering his solo output recently. To support my case, I cite this early (1976) video This song, a humorous response to being sued over his hit My sweet Lord's resemblance to The Chiffons' He's so fine.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Cruiser versus the tabloid bruiser

Why is it that when someone dies who was not quite in step with its editorial line the Guardian feels the need to trash them? It isn't big and it isn't clever and merely makes the liberal left look every bit as nasty and mean-spirited as the right.

The most notorious case was Polly Toynbee's attack on Auberon Waugh, which however wrong-headed of itself, at least had the merit of appearing heartfelt and reflecting a genuine clash between opposing styles of journalism.

There is rather less excuse for setting tabloid bruiser Roy Greenslade (editor of the Mirror under Maxwell and assistant editor of the Sun during the Falklands era) to flay the earthly remains of Conor Cruise O'Brien.

Mick Fealty of the Slugger O'Toole website commented on negative postings about O'Brien that 'the answer is not that people should not speak ill of the dead, but that people say something of value about them'. This is the test that Greenslade's piece fails. There is an air of the Guardian feeling that because O'Brien was an apostate from the liberal consensus, they needed a hired gun to dole out a verbal beating, even if it is as ill-informed as Greenslade's article.

He starts by describing the obituaries as a 'hagiographic outpouring', which I suppose they may be if you are a republican-sympathising tabloid journalist unable to recognise the subtleties of nuance and qualification in language. My reading of the obituaries, inluding the one published in the Guardian, was that while they were mostly respectful, as they should be to someone who had had such a long and varied career, few were unqualified by criticism.

On the substance of O'Brien's career, the best Greenslade can do is accuse him of 'flip-flopping', particularly over the partition of Ireland. Where to start here? I suppose some people may regard it as a damning indictment that over the course of 60 years, someone should alter their opinion at all on a given issue. Possibly Greenslade has never had occasion to change his 'mind' on anything. But given that O'Brien had engaged with Northern Ireland, its politics and history alternately as a historian, diplomat, politician and newspaper columnist, over several decades, it is no surprise that his thinking evolved, a concept that Greenslade clearly finds hard to comprehend.

In this case, the criticism is that in the 1940s O'Brien organised anti-partitionist propaganda, then became opposed to irridentist nationalism, then in the late 1990s 'he disavowed the very unionist viewpoints he had been prosyletising for'. At face value, hardly a case of serial flip-flopping, but even less so if we consider the reality. Greenslade article offers a link to the book he cites as justification for this claim, but in fact it just turns out to be the Wikipedia entry on O'Brien. Greenslade appears not to have read the book he cites, or if he has has not understood it, and gives no clear evidence that he even knows which one it is.

In his various publications including States of Ireland and Ancestral Voices (links given in previous posts) O'Brien explained how as a civil servant in the 1940s he conducted anti-partitionist propaganda. At the time opposition to partition was almost a given for anyone involved in politics or administration in the Irish republic. O'Brien realised that the propaganda was not doing much good given Unionist hostility to a united Ireland, but felt it was probably not doing much harm. When the Provisional IRA begin its armed campaign in the early 1970s he concluded that the prevailing anti-partitionism of the Irish state offered a kind of moral justification for the Provisionals and began to re-think his view of partition, defending the rights of Unionists not to join a united Ireland. In the late 1990s, fearful of excessive repulican influence in the peace process, and Sinn Fein gaining power in Northern Ireland and the Republic, he argued in his book Memoir: my life and themes that Unionists should consider whether they would stand more chance of sidelining Sinn Fein and wielding greater influence by joining a united Ireland. It was certainly not a case of returning to old-fashioned nationalism. So while his views hardly remained unchanged between the 1940s and 2008, it was more a case of his opinions evolving in response to the course of events (a practice supported by his hero Edmund Burke) rather than of constantly changing his mind.

Certainly he has been more consistent than republican apologists who made excuses for a quarter of a century of violence and thousands of deaths aimed at creating a united Ireland, only to find Sinn Fein accepting a partitionist settlement after all.

Next Greenslade attacks O'Brien for having the 'temerity' to complain about lack of free speech in Nkrumah's Ghana while denying terrorists and their apologists access to broadcasting airwaves in Ireland. Again, I suppose nuance is lost on Greenslade, although the rest of us might understand the difference between the general proscription of free speech in an incipient dictatorship and specific restrictions on organisations dedicated to overthrowing the state. (In the 1970s at least, the Provisional IRA regarded itself of the legitimate government of the 32 counties and did not recognise the 26-county republic.) Whether or not one agrees with O'Brien's solution to this (although the subsequent Fianna Fail government did not repeal his legislation), it is a genuine dilemma for any democratic government faced with a campaign of paramilitary violence.

Bizarrely, Greenslade claims that such restrictions helped to delay the peace process. While he offers no evidence for this, the implication is that if only people had understood republican arguments sooner, all would have been well. But of course the Provos only formally became part of peace talks once they had declared a ceasefire and on the basis of a partitionist settlement. Republican arguments of the mid-1970s bore little or no relation to the discourse of the peace process. In any case they were never lacking for 'useful idiots' in the British left and liberal media to plead their cause. One does not have to be an unswerving follower of the Cruiser to recognise this. Indeed the Guardian's own Northern Ireland correspondence has just written a book about it, Gunsmoke and Mirrors.

In a final display of petty-mindedness, Greenslade chooses to quibble about O'Brien's exact title when he worked for the Observer, nearly 30 years ago. Goodness knows, that there is enough to disagree with Conor Cruise O'Brien about. Even as a stong admirer of his, I might mention his Euroscepticism, regarding Islam as a monolithic force, support for George W. Bush and the war in Iraq, and his opposition to David Trimble's role in the peace process combined with a misplaced confidence that Ian Paisley would not do a deal with Sinn Fein, as examples of where I part company from him. (Although of course one should make allowances for his advancing years and declining health.)

There was certainly room for considered criticism of O'Brien amid the obituaries, but Greenslade's piece isn't it. It is best regarded as the homage that a bad writer unintenionally pays to a much better one. O'Brien's reputation is enhanced rather than diminished by Greenslade's attack.

PS: In the heat of the moment there I forgot to acknowledge Jonathan Calder for drawing my attention to the Roy Greenslade article.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

'We don't do relationships'

I never did quite get round to posting properly on the Haut de la Garenne case in Jersey, nor on the Haringey Baby P issue, as I had intended.

This article by Edinburgh University academic Mark Smith, on the Good Enough Caring website run by my father Charles Sharpe, sheds much light on the current difficulties faced by the social work profession and possibly therefore on both the aforementioned controversies.

It begins:

Having spent almost 20 years working in residential child care I now teach social work. I was horrified (although sadly not altogether surprised) when a student reported back from a field visit that she had been told by a children and families social worker, ‘we don’t do relationships anymore”. It wasn’t even said with regret apparently, just a statement of what the social work role had become.

On the death of Conor Cruise O'Brien

‘He was never afraid to take up unpopular positions, with the result that few ever agreed with him all the time’ was the verdict of Irish Labour party leader Eamon Gilmore on Conor Cruise O’Brien, who died on Thursday.

This is reflected in the ambivalence of many of the obituaries. The Cruiser defied easy ideological categorisation. As a former Irish Labour party politician and a member of that party when he died, he can be seen as a man of the left, the more so in the light of his championing of secular values in Ireland and his hostility to the influence of the Catholic Church. His career in the United Nations, and in particular his involvement in the Congo places him as an anti-imperialist. His long-standing opposition to the Irish republican movement is less easy to pigeonhole, but his strong Zionist sympathies, not to mention his support in his later years for George W. Bush and the war in Iraq, meant that he often drew more praise from right- rather than left-wingers. The more so in view of his later identification with Unionism and his opposition to the 1998 Belfast Agreement.

In truth, once he was freed from involvement in front-line politics in 1977, Cruise O’Brien was that rare thing – an intellectual who did not feel himself bound by the set menu of either left or right, but who was willing to think things out for himself and reach his own conclusions. That is what makes him difficult to pigeonhole and therefore why he is not being mourned as a hero of left, right or centre, however respectful most of the obituaries may be. Of course, some of the reactions to his death have not been respectful at all, and the virulence of some of the comments on, for example, the Slugger O’Toole website from republican sympathisers would no doubt have pleased him as much as the positive tributes. 'A man cannot be too careful in his choice of enemies', as O’Brien’s fellow Trinity College Dublin graduate, Oscar Wilde, once said

I hope that at least some liberals will shed a tear for his passing and more importantly should read his work, for however much we too will not agree with him on everything, there is much he has to teach us. In the first place, O’Brien was a scathing critic of nationalism and in particular of the dangerous cocktail of nationalism and religion. In Ireland he exposed how republicanism, even when dressed up in secular language, was closely linked to religious notions of blood sacrifice, which enabled its adherents to see themselves as being on a more profound moral plane than those forced to make the shabby compromises of democratic politics. He was particularly critical of ‘sneaking regarders’ - nationalists who formally opposed violent republicanism but nonetheless were ambivalent about confronting it. O’Brien’s critique of Irish nationalism was all the more powerful because he came from a strongly nationalist background, but the wider message is that we should look upon all national movements with scepticism rather than simply assume that national conflicts are a matter of victims versus oppressors and back the ones we regard as the good guys.

When he was a minister in the 1973–77 Fine Gael–Labour coalition, he was much criticised for extending the ban on representatives of and apologists for the republican movement appearing on state broadcasting channels. This was seen as compromising his liberal credentials and was criticised as an attack on free speech. Yet O’Brien justified it on the grounds that an organisation which did not recognise the legitimacy of the Irish state, formally claimed to be the legitimate government, and used violence in order to undermine the state, should not be granted access to the airwaves by the government which it sought to overthrow. In doing this, he tackled head-on the reality that free speech can never be an absolute and that democracies will in extreme circumstances have to protect themselves from their enemies.

Indeed, one of the threads that run through O’Brien’s writing, is that in general order is better than anarchy and that attempts to overthrow governments by violence generally leads to more bloodshed rather than greater justice. This led him, for example, not only to oppose the republican movement in Ireland, but also American attempts during the Cold War to destabilise hostile governments – he was a strong opponent of US funding of the Contras in Nicaragua during the 1980s.

It is perhaps no surprise therefore, that the historical figure with whom O’Brien most closely identified was Edmund Burke, the eighteenth century Whig reformer who became the earliest and most trenchant critic of the French revolution. His biography of Burke, The Great Melody, is a brilliant, though highly personal study of his fellow Irishman, which argues that in supporting reform of British rule in America, India and Ireland, while opposing revolution based on abstract theory, Burke was being consistent by objecting to abuse of power, no matter from which quarter it came. As I am inclined to think that liberals too easily cede Burke to the ranks of conservative thinkers, I would recommend The Great Melody to Liberal readers of this blog as a way of gaining an insight not only into the mind of one of the great thinkers of the eighteenth century, but also one of the most important public intellectuals of the twentieth.

It is the fate of writers of non-fiction that books go out of print very quickly, but for those who wish to understand the conflicts in Ireland over the last century in its emotional and spiritual as well as political dimensions, it is worth tracking down O’Brien’s States of Ireland, his response to the start of the Provisional IRA armed campaign and also Ancestral Voices, his later reflection on the links between religion and Irish nationalism.

If nothing else, at least read the obituaries, which are many and various, including those in the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, Irish Times, The Times, New York Times.

There is also a very interesting interview from the 1990s in the UC Berkeley Conversations with History series on Youtube.