Groundhog Day in the North and dog days in the Republic


Fury about flying the flag is not the whole story, says a veteran reporter

In a week that saw a number of Belfast’s citizenry tear their hometown apart in protest at a flag’s absence from a civic institution, it was unsurprising to hear the opinion that Northern Ireland was for the birds.

When Eamonn Mallie evoked the avian world in relation to the North on Today With Pat Kenny (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), however, it was in an optimistic, if somewhat bizarre, spirit. “There’s an awful lot of normality here,” the veteran journalist told Kenny. “I’m just looking out into the garden, and the bullfinches are back. They were here last year, and I love to see them. Life goes on.”

Mallie’s flight of fancy put the recent disturbances over the Union Jack’s removal from City Hall into some perspective. Despite nightly reports that portrayed “a country in flames”, Kenny’s guest said that the trouble was “relatively minor” compared with past traumas and that those involved would eventually step back from the brink.

Mallie’s idyllic snapshot provided some reassurance, but his chirpy sanguinity was overshadowed by local politicians haranguing each other on Tuesday’s Talkback (BBC Radio Ulster, weekdays).

Its presenter, Wendy Austin, spoke to a panel of Belfast councillors – “We’ve enough people in the studio for a small flag protest,” Austin quipped – whose rhetoric about respect for different cultures could not paper over deep divisions.

Austin’s guests agreed that torching cars was bad, but that was where the consensus ended. Unionist representatives accused republicans of ratcheting up political pressure in the local chamber and Sinn Féin opined that mainstream unionists had shown no leadership, before more atavistic arguments inevitably kicked in. Lee Reynolds of the DUP said inquiries into past atrocities were skewed towards the nationalist side while Orange Order marching routes were being restricted. It was hardly a catalogue of repression, but, as Austin noted, if people perceive grievances to be real, they effectively are.

Jim McVeigh of Sinn Féin derided “people who complain about democratic decision [about the flag removal] but have little time to condemn people who have caused the trouble”: so much for his party’s past mantra about avoiding the “politics of condemnation”. With the opponents talking over each other, Austin did a good job of breaking up the clinches. But she sounded weary at the well-rehearsed arguments of both sides, comparing the whole debate to Groundhog Day. It was a dispiriting snapshot of knee-jerk intractability when initiative and imagination were required.

If there was a glimmer of hope, it came from the many texters who vented their frustration at the politicians’ failure to control the situation, at the expense of local business life. “The people out there trying to make a living want to know how you’re going to deal with this, not [to hear you] raising more issues,” bemoaned Austin. Which was almost certainly true, but such reasonable voices are too often drowned out.

Still, coverage of the North wasn’t entirely negative last week. “Belfast is an amazing town for access,” effused the broadcaster and producer Olan McGowan to Derek Mooney on Mooney (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) on Tuesday. McGowan was favourably comparing the city’s facilities for wheelchair users with those in Dublin, where cobblestones, stairs and canine waste turned the streets into an obstacle course. A wheelchair user himself, McGowan featured in a report by Brenda Donohue about an experiment by three able-bodied DCU psychology students negotiating their way around Dublin on wheelchair. The trial provided a glimpse into the difficulties faced by those with impaired mobility. The students complained of cold hands and sore arms, as supposedly simple tasks, such as getting money from an ATM, proved impossible.

McGowan’s opinions were valuable and witty, as he advised the students to maintain a straight line while moving: if bolshie pedestrians wanted to collide with a heavy wheelchair, be it on their heads. He also highlighted the few small advantages of his situation: queues could sometimes be skipped and pushy charity canvassers left you alone. It was a short but insightful contribution, displaying the honesty, clarity and intelligence that recalled McGowan’s much-lamented radio show on disability, Outside the Box.

The usually frothy Mooney seemed somewhat detached from the whole discussion, however, only really becoming engaged when demurring from McGowan’s low view of cobblestones. Otherwise, he busied himself with giddily reading numerous texts about the profusion of “dog poo” around the country’s streets. Whatever about the North, the rest of the country has clearly gone to the dogs.

Moment of the Week Suicide was 'glorified'

Joe Duffy opened Wednesday’s Liveline (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) with a heart-rending interview with Deirdre, a Dublin woman whose 20-year-old nephew James had died by suicide the week before. She spoke of the family’s grief and devastation but also took a timely swipe at the tributes to James posted by friends on his Facebook page, which she felt glorified suicide. “He wasn’t a legend, he wasn’t a hero, he wasn’t brave,” lamented Deirdre. “He was sad and obviously desperate and thought this was the only solution.” There was little more for Duffy to add.