The death of Ian Paisley

September 12, 2014

Ian Paisley died today at a time when Unionism, the cause of his political life, faces its most recent challenge in the Scottish Referendum. For decades he was the ‘big man’ of politics in Northern Ireland who was to make a remarkable transition as a supporter of the Good Friday peace process. The perceived change clinching the Northern Ireland peace process symbolized by the handshake with a loathed adversary Martin McGuinness which was to lead to an unlikely and warm working-relationship, and friendship.

In his time, he was as divisive as Margaret Thatcher, and her equal in unshakably rigid beliefs, vehemently expressed. According to friends, the two leaders shared a softer private side, some would say a shadow-self, beneath their blustering public persona.

The mix of charm and menace used to remind me of other physically formidable charismatics such as Tiny Roland and Conrad Black.

To go more deeply

An earlier LWD post looked at the period of the transformation to elder statesman and peace broker.

The Obamas speak peace in Northern Island

June 23, 2013

Barack and Michelle Obama address the achievements and challenges facing Northern Island.

I was not intending to blog yet again on a speech by a leading politician. As I listened to the context of the speeches and introductions [17th June 2013] I became more intrigued about the political messages and composition of the speeches. President Obama had taken the opportunity of meeting with an audience of mainly young people prior to the G8 summit being held this week. Here are my immediate notes:

A sixteen year-old introduces the First Lady. She speaks clearly with clear yet well-crafted words of hopes and demands of young people.

Michelle Obama speaks. Her words are also clear and well-crafted. Here is someone who believes in a future guarded by the aspirations of young people. It spoke to Northern Island but she could have been speaking in any of a hundred other countries. The message is partly clear because it is uncluttered.
See introduces her husband with well-received gentle irony.

Barack speaks. At first his message is not clear and well-crafted. Its local references do not quite work. The jokes do not quite work.

He moves almost hesitantly to his main point, his key metaphor. Much has been achieved in fifteen years since The Good Friday agreement but there is still much to do. He spoke of walls keeping communities separate. Now his speech was clear. Northern Island continues to remind the World that there may not be peace but we must hold to the promise of peace.

Fifteen hundred young people and battle-hardened politicians were still applauding after the Obamas had left the hall.


The speech by President Obama appears to have been made in relatively relaxed mood the anticipated difficulties of dealing with the Syrian conflict at the G8 meeting. President Putin was sending vigorous signals that the West was calamitously wrong in its emerging policy towards arming the insurgency in Syria.

The fury of helplessness and the loss of water supplies

December 30, 2010

When a completely unexpected disruption of plans occurs, there is often widespread reactions of fury and helplessness. News stories identify scapegoats in government, corporations, and through individual incompetence

As I write, I am half listening to the developing story from Northern Ireland where many people have had their water supplies disrupted [December 20th 2010]. The reporting talks of thousands of people who have had no access to water for nearly two weeks.

The incompetence of others

One TV interview revealed the fury of a woman about the incompetence of the authorities who should shift themselves and do something. Reporters speak of the failure of communications. They appear to suggest that people have been cut off from water for two weeks. More accurately, water supplies have been disrupted, and various short-term actions have been taken as the problems are being tackled. These include delivery points for bottled water and stand-by supplies.

Corporate and governmental actions could have been swifter. Some individuals within the authorities may have been particularly incompetent. It also seems to be the case that the story reinforces individual helplessness. The general public, as symbolically represented, can do little more than demand ‘they’ shift their idle bodies.

The real sufferers

I couldn’t help thinking that the most vulnerable are not well-represented by a healthy and well-dressed woman who had driven to a car park and failed to find a promised supply of bottled water. Some others, in geographical and social isolation will be preserving their energies on more serious survival strategies. The old, frail, and poor are accustomed to reacting to additional losses of the necessities for a tolerable life.

Displays of ‘friendly’ bonfires to mark Northern Ireland’s marching season

July 11, 2009
Northern Ireland Bonfire BPA

Northern Ireland Bonfire BPA

The bonfires of Northern Ireland have long been part of the rituals of the marching season. Now efforts are being made to convert the symbols into affirmation of the peace process

The marching season in Northern Ireland comes each July with a host of symbolically and culturally significant actions which reinforce historic loyalties.

The challenge for leadership is the management of the meaning of such actions and images. This has become increasingly recognised since the publication of an influential article by Smircich and Morgan in the 1980s.

Leaders of the peace process rightly worry about the impact of symbolism and associated violence. But it is hardly surprising that efforts are being made to avoid counter-productive reactions by too direct action against such symbols.

The BBC reports a more subtle approach this year [July 2009]

Traditionally, bonfires are lit the night before the Twelfth of July and the aim is to make them as big – and as brutal – as possible. Over the years, for many loyalists the fires were not complete without an Irish flag, a Glasgow Celtic shirt or a Catholic emblem on the top for a ceremonial burning.

In the past, there have been so-called ‘shows of strength’ when hooded gunmen appeared from the shadows and fired bullets into the night air.

If all goes according to plan, a very different scene will be witnessed this weekend in loyalist parts of Belfast. The centre piece will be a custom-built beacon. Although technically bonfires are illegal, Belfast City Council is taking a pragmatic approach and trying to manage them rather than get rid of them.

The council’s Good Relations Officer, David Robinson, explained: “People might say that bonfires are never going to be environmentally friendly, but this is about as close as we’re going to get.”

Communities willing to work with the new system will be eligible for a grant towards a street party.

Action and Reaction

Maybe the initiative will trigger opposition. Bribery, cry some. But whatever happens, the sensitive management of meaning will remain in important aspect of any leadership within attempts to influence the processes of social and cultural change.


Image from The Guardian publicizing Unseen, issued by The British Press Photographers’ Association from unpublished images from its members’ back catalogue [ISBN 978-0-9561801-0-0] .

Anger and frustration. In Iran writ large, In Belfast writ small

June 18, 2009

Iran protestors

On the streets of Northern Ireland and those in Iran, violence simmers below the surface. There’s no easy way of linking the two sets of events. Except, perhaps, that each has its mood of deprivation and shared private anger at perceived injustice

‘They need somebody to hate’. That was the first remark I heard from someone brought up in Belfast, on hearing the news of the racist attacks on immigrant families.

A gang of racially motivated youths drove a group of Romanian immigrants from their homes.

Looking at 115 Romanians huddled together on the floor of a Belfast church hall, it was possible to see the worst side of Northern Ireland – and the best – all at once. The speed with which Pastor Malcolm Morgan and his team created a temporary home for 20 families was remarkable. At the same time, the sight of men, women and children looking so helpless and scared was a stain on Northern Ireland’s international reputation. Many of the families came to Belfast believing that the years of prejudice and narrow-mindedness were over. However, it seems that in some parts of the city, racism is the new sectarianism. [Mark Simpson, BBC News]

In Iran

in Iran, a week of remarkable demonstrations continues. The timeline is days since the Presidential elections. The hopes in the democratic process dashed as so cruelly occurred recently in Zimbabwe. Premature claims of victory met with counter-claims backed by violence against the regime.

President Obama refuses to be drawn into the internal conflict. Wisely, in my view. It would have been easy to make some overt gesture of support in the interests of democratic freedom and its abuses.

The BBC reported the complex political situation:

It’s quite clear that there are enormous disputes going on behind the scenes. But the people who run this country are not stupid. There are some quite smart people, even loyalists to Mr Ahmadinejad, and they must realise how much deeper they are digging themselves into this mess every day. But at the moment, quite inexplicably, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei seems to be quite in thrall to Mr Ahmadinejad. It’s almost as if he’s taking his orders from him. He usually stays above the fray and interestingly he’s still not been seen in public since the election [Jon Leyne, Reporting from Tehran]

Events continue to escalate.

The audacity of hope?

I wrote at the time of the elections in Zimbabwe that there would be no winners for the foreseeable future. A bleak prognosis backed up in subsequent events.

In Northern Ireland, I am more optimistic that the extended peace process is gradually edging its people away from the bleakest outbreaks of violence and tribal warfare.

And in Iran? The exercise of power is becoming increasingly moderated by the new communications media. One of the dreams of the early web pioneers was of a communications system that would survive the most catastrophic insult. That dream seems to be coming about, as the rest of the linkedin world shares the struggles in Iran in real time.

[Image captured via twitter. Full acknowledgement as soon as possible]