Tuesday, September 27, 2005

United Ireland

Just as a preamble let me say that my mother was from Northern Ireland. I've spent a lot of time in NI over the years with relatives, friends and associates from both communities. I've seen trouble, street riots and listened to many community level views over some 40 years.

I've read with interest Michael McDowell's article in Sunday Independant some weeks ago about Irish unification. From recollection it seemed similar to what another attacker of Sinn Fein/IRA - Conor Cruise O'Brien - had articulated some years ago. The essential point was that it would be in the Northern Ireland Loyalist's own interests to think long term of the benefits of us all on this island forming a new type of united political entity which is inclusive of Unionists. I could say that I agree with this - but what is more important is that the Loyalists are given the time and conditions in place to think this through themselves as a good or bad idea.

Such a union can only even begin to make sense to Northern Ireland folk if they start to see all Irish people as their friends and allies and that life will be better on this island if we work together in trust. President MacAleese continues to do a very good job at building bridges in helping to get the loyalists to know us better (admittedly with a few clumsy errors - but who's perfect?). More of this is needed by all of us. More trading, tourism, cultural, and sporting exchanges will help. If only the UK would join the Euro it would help too - crazy that you can go all the way to Italy with same currency and not be able to do the same up the road on the same island. This opens up another unity point - a better co-operating EC generally will help.

The Sinn Fein/IRA past and present is difficult for everyone. The violence has left huge scars which we can't expect to go away overnight - it will take years of patience. All the IRA announcements of ceasing armed struggle and decommissioning are great and exceptionally welcome. However it is the self-congratulatory and triumphalist way it is presented that makes it hard for loyalists and many nationalists to stomach. The violence should never have happened in the first place. I realise there was and is still violence from the Loyalist side - this must be addressed too - but during the last 30 years it was always much smaller in comparison to IRA activity.

As regards politics I actually think better bridges can be built in the short/medium term by the likes of blatently anti-IRA politicians like Michael McDowell and others. It's still hard to listen to Sinn Fein pontificating morality and inclusiveness. More short term progress can be made by listening to other parties. Sinn Fein need to back off in pushing too much too fast. Ironically - I've seen Gerry Adams putting together a very similar argument for unity as McDowell and Conor Cruise O'Brien, which is quite plausible. It's just that Adams is the wrong messenger at the wrong time to Unionists. I realise Sinn Fein have an electoral mandate but that does not mean that other parties can quickly and comfortably form a Government with them. Forced marriages are a mistake.

I'm old enough to remember when voting rights, jobs and policing were weighing heavily towards unionists and when the nationalists looked under heavy siege. Nationalists were burned out of their homes and we had Bloody Sunday etc. However, you can spend your life looking further back than is helpful to progress. The fact is that the IRA have wrongly and unneccesarily shattered lives in the name of protecting the nationalist community and advancing a united Ireland by force.

Great progress is taking place in terms of lasting peace. But Unionists need plenty of time and space and not be bullied. If eventually it makes sense to them to have a United Ireland then fine. If not, it just means we in the Republic are not seen as a better neighbour than the UK.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Space Exploration - the vision changes

In July 1969 as a 14 year old with a growing interest in science and technology, I stayed up all night watching live TV coverage of the first men on the Moon. For someone my age it excitingly culminated all that the 1960's stood for. Everything was radically changing for the better as I saw it. Music, fashion, TV, technology, free thinking. Now we were walking on the Moon less than 10 years since we could even figure out how to put a man into space.

During the celebrations of Apollo 11 I recall Werner Von Braun (the NASA rocket designer) holding a big banner saying "Mars by 1985!" Yes! That's the stuff!, I thought. No stopping us now. I also enjoyed the movie at the time "2001 A Space Oddysey". The book author - Arthur C. Clarke - was my favourite Sci-Fi writer because he incorporated very realistic concepts of the near future. The future looked really exciting to me and I looked forward to being part of it all - and still being moderately young in 2001 as the new century dawned. I followed every manned Moon landing religiously up to the last - Apollo 17 in December 1972. In fact when the movie about the Apollo 13 adventure eventually came out I didn't even see the need to watch it for a long time. I had lived through every detail of Apollo 13 live as it happened in 1970.

Quite a lot changed negatively as the 1970s progressed. Fuel crises, industrial disputes, space budgets cut drastically. No more Moon missions. No plans for men on Mars. The reusable Space Shuttle came about eventually - but even this was not going anywhere interesting - just into orbit.

For a long time I was very deflated - the euphoria of the 1960s was gone, the rate of progress was slowing down as I saw it. It took me a very long time to mature my thinking and accept that space exploration is still ages away from being a sensible, safe and cost effective activity for humans. Space is utterly alien for humans - so huge a challenge to keep us safe and alive there. When you want to go beyond the Moon - the distances and problems multiply massively.

I've recently come to the conclusion that we can and have achieved amazing results with unmanned space probes. It may not be the stuff of Buck Rogers or command the same public excitement as manned space travel - but it does get excellent scientific results - and in it's own way includes quite a bit of adventure. The media largely ignores all this and doesn't convey much to the public. Successes have been helped by great improvements in computers, communications and robotics which allows deep space probes to work very well in hostile environments and make automated decisions on the spot.

The most exciting probes in recent years have to be the two Mars Rovers - Spirit and Opportunity. How many people realise that these two amazing 6-wheel drive solar power vehicles have been reliably driving and exploring around different parts of Mars for more than 20 months now? Every day is a new adventure - and I must say I constantly look forward to the updates and amazing photographs from NASA's website. http://marsrovers.jpl.nasa.gov/home/index.html

The colour landscape photographs have spectacular clarity and there are interesting daily stories by the NASA controllers on challenges and discoveries encountered by the Rovers.

Another really interesting - and rarely reported - probe is the Cassini. This is in orbit around Saturn - some 1,000 times further away than our Moon. Cassini is constantly making incredible discoveries and producing wonderful photographs of Saturn, it's complex rings, and in particular it's widely different range of Moons. The largest Moon Titan in particular is fascinating. Cassini released the European Huygens probe into the atmosphere of Titan and it recorded terrific results and photographs right down to the surface - including some after the soft landing. Cassini continues to study Titan in detail during regular near flybys. It is a very peculiar World with a thick atmosphere, rain, rivers, features like lakes and islands - but with different chemicals at play than here on Earth.


There are many other exciting things going on in space exploration. So the vision of the 1960s is happening - just different than I expected as a youngster. The future always unfolds in more subtle ways than we dream.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Fianna Fail/Fianna Gael and Leadership

I've commented before on British Labour Party under Blair. Here are some very brief personal observations on Fianna Fail and Fianna Gael here in Ireland.

Fianna Fail

A huge machine of course, very efficient organizationally and at vote management etc. Many skilled TDs and good marketeers. Leadership quality and image today is crucial. In my opinion Bertie Ahern is often underrated as a leader. He almost works on the subconscious level - Freud would probably have had a lot to say about him. I'm not even convinced he completely knows why he is good. Fianna Fail tend to win support from business people and middle class but they also have an appeal to working classes. Bertie has helped in fostering the latter. Part of it of course is the warm "one of the lads" Dubliner image and accent, enjoying soccer and other sports, drinking Bass, being friendly with people in the street, sense of humor. I honestly don't think he consciously works too hard on this (if he was playing a numbers game for instance he would probably force himself to drink Guinness!). He genuinely just enjoys doing these things - and of course by accident it helps his image. This is partly why he has endured doing his job for so long - by his own admission once on Late Late Show - "it's a great job" (being Taoiseach). BTW - notice we all tend to just call him Bertie - another good accessibility image thing. Other party leaders we give their full names to. Even big World leaders show how detached they are from common people by unfriendly surname references - "Blair" and "Bush" (never Tony or George). Nobody refers to our guy as "Ahern".

The above features of Bertie though are vastly complimented by his skill as a man who works hard on compromise. He is known to be a skilled negotiator and it comes across at all levels - local disputes, labour relations, coalition, European level etc. He is conscious about people's concerns - put's himself in everyone's shoes. This is quite an asset - and he is so strong at this that it often gives him the image of being slow at making decisions or dithering - as exploited in adverts by Michael O'Leary. In fact Bertie had such a passion for the concerns of workers in Dublin Airport that he got amusingly tagged a socialist. It's almost the opposite of Tony Blair's extended reach of "a socialist appealing to middle class"!

Bertie has a laissez-faire style of leadership in terms of running his own Government. A lot of Bertie's real strength has been that he recognizes his weaknesses. He puts together a quality cabinet (no doubt with loads of advisors helping) and let's them do their job with minimal interference. He certainly has many good departmental ministers. This style of leadership coupled with his compromising personality also helps him get the best from skilled mavericks like Michael McDowell. Bertie has held coalition government together better than many might have predicted over two terms. One might argue of course that the PDs are natural partners - their raison d'etre was after all a Fianna Fail breakoff in reaction to Haughey's antics. Also to be fair to Fianna Fail, I do think a complicating factor in their failing to get overall majorities - apart from the lingering gremlins of the Haughey era - has been the peculiar rise of Sinn Fein (but that's another story).

Fine Gael

Fine Gael of course are seen by many as the "emergency alternative" to Fianna Fail. If FF mess up then FG are there to jump in. FG have always had very good people but in my own view as a humble observer they have had image problems over the years such as:

1. Being traditionally champions of the farming community is washing down a lot now of course as agriculture decreases as an income source.

2. I always thought when I was a teenager that their leader at the time - Liam Cosgrave was awful in front of cameras - never smiling, terrible droning voice, dull as dishwater. I know he was a great man as was his father - but he never seemed to understand the importance of media skills. I just feel he didn't help FG to grow at a time when they could have exploited the emerging massive importance of good PR. I think it did them harm which lingered.

3. Alan Duke's Tallaght strategy was the most unselfish thing ever done by an Irish political party - it allowed Haughey to at last do something sensible about the appalling mess he had helped create on the national debt. However, unfortunately for Fine Gael it was a sacrifice for the good of the country that set them back heavily in their own fortunes. FG's image was worn down as FF were seen to do what the opposition were asking for - hence FG ceased to look like a real opposition.

4. A succession of leadership changes has haunted FG over the last 5 years and such things are always messy - a really good leader is the holy grail that all parties seek. Garret Fitzgerald, although far from being an excellent overall leader, was good on many levels - probably the best FG had in last 50 years. However, post-Garrett it's been a mess. I should say that there is as much serendipity at play as there is skill in good leaders emerging. All parties everywhere struggle with it. Bertie himself decided against putting his name forward as leader in FF when Albert Reynolds was coming up against Haughey. Enda Kenny is a good politician - his reputation is gradually improving. You get the impression though that it is a little forced - that maybe he is stretching himself beyond comfort zones. Appearing on chat shows and even on RTE's The Restaurant as celebrity chef he just seems lacking in personality for such events and is making himself do it to raise profile. He comes across as a good thinker who is naturally a bit publicity shy and certainly lacks that sparkle of leadership charisma. Enda Kenny could probably most kindly be described as an evolving force, but the best leaders are often almost born good.

Fine Gael need to start believing in themselves and thinking big. They need powerful leadership and start making the population believe that they can run the country themselves. This partnership lark with Labour is crazy - it's a defeatist attitude before they even get going. There is no reason why Fine Gael can't be strong enough to beat FF on their own. Labour are slowly becoming a spent force in Ireland - their punch being stolen by both Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail. Labour's association with Fine Gael will only do them harm. Conflicting ideologies and good chance of a clash while in Government. Success is an attitude of mind, if you don't believe it yourself, no crutches are going to help. I don't buy the idea that Fine Gael should "be realistic" in putting together a pact with Labour to become next Government. Look at Labour in Britain - a very weak force in the Thatcher/Major era with poor leaders like Michael Foot and the like. Look at them today - with the right winning attitude they have blown away the Tories with 3 terms of office and comfortable overall majorities. Fine Gael have an excellent opportunity to make a similar impact - they are still the second largest party and have the raw ingredients to make it happen. I'm not saying they won't get into Government with a Labour pact - I just think in long term it's a wimpish attitude and most unhelpful to their political growth.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

The Da Vinci Code

Just back from a 1 week holiday in Northern Italy with my wife. The kids now being in their later teens and beyond, it was our first time on a holiday on our own since they were born. Absolute bliss for us (and them I dare say!). We had a brilliant week.

As an appropriate coincidence for our first trip to Italy I happened upon The Da Vinci Code novel in a newsagent at Dublin Airport departures (the novel leans somewhat pivotally on Da Vinci's The Last Supper - the famous huge fresco in a church in Milan not far from our destination in Lake Garda). A few weeks earlier I had watched a fascinating and very balanced documentary on the religious history aspects of the novel on National Geographic TV channel. Following all the hype the novel seemed like a good holiday read.

I ate through the 600 pages comfortably over the 7 days of our holiday. It was an absorbing read. I'm sure many would correctly argue that Dan Brown's book is - from an historical perspective - a somewhat incomplete, imbalanced and " Readers Digest" treatment of a rather big subject. We must remember that The Da Vinci Code is a fictional novel which of course can only touch the surface on many historical topics. Also, the fictional novel characters are naturally portrayed giving their own subjective views for purpose of the plot.

Nevertheless, as Dan Brown has argued on his website and elsewhere, the book should provoke thought and is a springboard in many ways. The positives I've taken from the book are many and include:

1. The whole Mary Magdalene theory is of course very interesting. The fundamental inputs lead to some prima facia logical analysis. It provokes additional research.

2. I've found myself carrying out further studies and readings on the Bible itself, Mary Magdalene, Da Vinci, The Louvre (I was last there in 1991 and was completely enthralled), Westminster Abbey etc. My new studies are wider than analyzing the core ideas from the book, so it has extended my interests (although both history and art have been interests of mine for a long time).

3. I've always been fascinated by objective research of Christ and the early Christian Church. I've too logical a mind to accept blind faith and complete face-value acceptance of the 4 official Gospels - written/rewritten and edited of course by very ordinary people 2,000 years ago. From my earlier Bloggs one can detect that I'm hungry to learn more in my search for truth and the "Big Picture"and the book has helped me focus some of this curiosity in certain directions.

So, overall The Da Vinci Code is a good read on many levels for many different types of people. Of course Dan Brown is also a cunning author and has gone out of his way to appeal to every group imaginable - not least many Christian women no doubt (it's even been said that many nuns have given positive reactions)!

It's hard for anyone to be deeply offended - as it is after all a work of fiction and by Brown's own admission merely another view to be weighed up in the mysteries of distant history. "What is history but a fable agreed upon!" - Napoleon Bonaparte. If believing Mary Magdalene was married to Jesus and bore Him descendants helps some people live better lives - then is it not a good thing for them? Does it matter to some that we can't totally prove it? The square root of minus one (i) is quite literally an imaginary number - but it's mathematical concept contributes hugely in all aspects of modern engineering. This clever analogy was thrown up in the novel and made me smile!

Anyway, I'm still conducting further readings, but below is a link to an article from a Christian lecturer in theology (Ramon K. Jusino) who puts up a reasonably well argued hypothesis that Mary Magdalene could be the "Beloved Disciple" and the author of the 4th Gospel (normally attributed to St. John). It was written before The Da Vinci Code novel hype and does not analyse the subject of whether or not Mary Magdalene was married to Jesus......


In Jusino's summary arguments there is one brilliant paragraph....

"Does this thesis seem radical to you only because I propose that a woman authored one of the four Holy Gospels in the Bible? If I had a thesis which proposed that Bartholomew, or Andrew, or James, or any of the other male apostles authored the Fourth Gospel instead of John -- would that be considered very radical? Probably not. In fact, the church has no problem with the prevailing scholarship which says that a man whose name we don't even know wrote one of the most sacred Christian documents. Imagine -- even a nameless man is preferable to a woman."

Here's another secular site that seems good for basic known information on Mary Magdalene: