Tuesday 28 November 2017

Belfast - Soul City

I’ve always loved Belfast - a city with some serious soul.

Then again, I had a novel introduction. My uncle took me there as a boy to meet the Rev. Ian Paisley. Recently home from missionary work on The Philippine Islands Fr. Jim Hughes was convinced that the Rev. Ian was “the reincarnation of St. Paul” and just needed a “little change in direction.” I kid you not!

A hair-raising rural encounter with the B Specials put a crimp in Fr. Jim’s style, but we did drive through East Belfast on a Sunday morning while our Protestant brethren raised their voices in praise of the Lord. This outpouring of devotion left an indelible impression on my papist soul.

Soon thereafter I became a fan of the Belfast beat group, Them. Van Morrison’s classic Astral Weeks sealed my musical deal with the city.

I also visited during the dark days of Bobby Sands hunger strike; even then I was struck by the sheer humanity of the people.

I return every couple of years now and am always amazed at Belfast’s continuing strides towards inclusiveness. Walk out any evening into the crowded downtown streets, enter The Crown, Kelly’s Cellars, or any of the great local pubs and restaurants and you’d be forgiven for wondering, “Was it all just a bad dream?”

For Belfast is a city busy putting its past in the rear view mirror.

I take a group of North Americans to Ireland every year, most of them listeners to Celtic Crush on SiriusXM. Like my three-hour radio show I focus on history, politics, music and how they ineffably intertwine.

Belfast is always a highlight for it epitomizes William Faulkner’s line, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” 

Instead of shunning Belfast’s recent history Coiste deals with it in a way that could well pay dividends for other divided cities like Jerusalem or Beiruit. This enterprising organization puts together various political/historical excursions, but my favorite is the Joined Falls/Shankill Tour.

This is a unique opportunity to be taken through Republican and Loyalist areas by ex-combatants. This year our guides were Robert “Dinker” McClenaghan and Noel Large.

We began at The Spectrum, a vibrant community center in the Unionist Shankill Road area. It’s always important to remember that there is a wide variance of views in both Loyalist and Republican circles, likewise with our guides.

Noel Large is an intense and powerful presence, and a most interesting person in a city teeming with characters. He is proud of his native streets and heritage but, unlike the caricature of the dour Ulsterman, he wears his heart on his sleeve, and gave our busload of travelers a rare and passionate view into the Loyalist soul.

Dinker, as he is affectionately known, is no less an ardent spokesman for his Republican streets and point of view – remember that the Shankill and Falls are mere blocks from each other.

Republicans, however, have more experience in dealing with the outside world, and let’s face it: North Americans in general are more disposed towards their point of view. Which was why it was a riveting experience to share a bus ride with these two 60-year old ex-combatants who, to put it mildly, would not have been well disposed to each other not all that long ago.

Both had served long prison sentences for desperate deeds, and had given much thought to what they had done, and the reasons they had taken up arms in the first place.

The most touching aspect was the rough friendship they had carved out, for who could understand their shared experiences better than each other.

Towards the end Noel said something riveting, to the effect that “we should never have been fighting each other, but rather those who divided us.”

It was a moment of truth for two working class Belfast men looking back at a troubled past, both determined to make the present and future better for their people.

When you go to Belfast make sure you visit the Spectrum Centre on The Shankill as well as An Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich on The Falls. There’s truth and revelation to be found on both sides of a once impregnable divide.


Wednesday 15 November 2017

Who are these guys - Butch & The Kid?

Who are these guys? This is not a flashback to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. No I’m talking about President Trump and the Republican Party?

Now I’m a man of the Left, as you might have gathered, but I’ve always felt a little more secure knowing that if my tribe happened to overspend, as has happened, then my brethren on the Right will be there bewailing rising deficits, crippling interest payments, and other fiscal calamities.

Being somewhat of a Keynesian in matters economic, I believe that during times of high unemployment, deflation, or catastrophe, it behooves the government to invest in infrastructure, thereby putting people back to work and giving the economy a jumpstart.

Generally speaking this economic “goosing” tends to work, though it can take time and much verbal lashing from the Right. 

And sometimes the Right is right! In a rush to pump money into the economy, there is often waste and overspending.

That’s why the recent about-turn by the Republican Party is so troubling. The GOP abandoned its loathing of deficits, along with its fear of “crippling future generations with debt,” and all at the behest of the two mighty “M’s” – Mnuchin and Mulvaney.

These two gentlemen are currently advising us that if we cut taxes for corporations these institutions will be so grateful they will spread their already massive largesse among the rest of us.

Not only that but there will be a surge of economic growth, the like of which we haven’t seen since the invention of the wheelbarrow; in fact, we’ll all be riding the gravy train like Mr. Mnuchin and his one-percent colleague, Gary Cohn, chief economic adviser to President Trump, who is reputed to have declared, “only morons pay the estate tax.”

Well he did work at Goldman Sachs so he should know. Or should he? Tinkering with stocks and bonds hardly qualifies you to expand a rapidly changing service and high tech economy that already boasts a minimal 4.1% unemployment rate.

However, such experience will help in managing debt, and there’ll be plenty of that. These Goldman Sachs alumni can share their expertise with our president, aka “the King of Debt” who also has intimate knowledge of the nation’s bankruptcy laws.

As for the bould Mick Mulvaney – he used to be one our foremost budget hawks. During the Obama administration he preached undying frugality and fiscal restaint. During the Great Recession he fought tooth and nail against federal infrastructure and research spending, as it would add to the national debt of $10trillion. Hey Mick, guess what. That debt is now well over 20trill.

Fiscal probity how are you! Let’s risk it all on one big throw of the dice. Add a trillion and a half more in tax cuts, and growth will pay for it. But let’s add a national novena to St. Jude for interest rates to remain flat. Could be hard servicing all these trillions in debt if rates rise – as they eventually will.

Hey, I like a little flutter at the track now and again, but I’m always careful to have bus, train, or even taxi fare home. If the Mnuchin-Mulvaney gamble fails, I’ll be hitching to Manhattan from Belmont.

By the way, has anyone reminded these whiz kids that corporate profits have been sky high for years, and corporate coffers are full of cash both here and abroad, yet wages continue to barely keep up with inflation? 

Does anyone really believe that increased corporate gain will trickle down to America’s workers? When was the last time you got a meaningful raise? 

And so we wait, certain of only one thing – the Big Man on Pennsylvania Avenue needs a legislative victory before the balls fall off the Christmas tree. Talk about government by Santa Claus!

But where will the Big Man be when the deficit balloons in the coming years?

Not to worry, he’ll blame it on Hillary Clinton, when he’s not engaged in trading insults with the other hair maven, Kim Jong-un. 

Or maybe, just maybe, some Republican Senators and Congressmen will come to their conservative senses and start worrying about exploding deficits again. 

Ah well, there’s always Santa Claus.