Tuesday 29 January 2008

Unsung heroines (1)

Not many people in Britain know who Gareth Peirce is, but she is one of the most effective human rights lawyers in the country.

Most notably, she got the alleged IRA bombers, the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six, freed after being in jail for 14 and 16 years respectively.

Her intervention led to Judith Ward, another supposed IRA bomber, getting her conviction quashed. And she won freedom for Frank Johnson after he served 26 years for murder.

She has defended terrorist suspects in the UK and Guantanamo Bay and represented the family of Jean Charles de Menezes, the alleged terrorist shot dead by police in London. In the 1980s she opposed the detention of striking miners.

Now in her sixties, she is a notoriously private person who consistently refuses interviews and publicity and works tirelessly to right miscarriages of justice. She treats those she represents as personal friends and not with the usual professional detachment.

It is said that it was her work as a journalist in the USA during the Civil Rights Movement that created her passion for human rights.

She is absolutely tenacious about her cases and refuses to give up however daunting the legal difficulties. If necessary she works 12 hour days to get at the truth.

Her extreme dedication is astonishing in a profession where lawyers are not always conscientious about their work and may turn up to court knowing little or nothing about their client's case. She finds such behaviour quite unforgivable. If only there were more like her, fewer innocent people would be languishing in jail.

Footnote: In the film about the Guildford Four, 'In the Name of the Father', Gareth Peirce was played by Emma Thompson.

Saturday 26 January 2008

Rape on the rise

The big rise in the number of reported rapes and attempted rapes in Northern Ireland suggests men increasingly think that rape is perfectly acceptable and that it's women's duty to satisfy their sexual impulses.

Either that or women are confident or angry enough to report rapes more frequently and try to bring the rapist to justice.

The number of reported attacks in 2006/7 was 457, a rise of almost 60% in five years. And no doubt this is only the tip of the iceberg, with many more sexual assaults never reported for fear of the shame or the repercussions.

North Belfast MP Nigel Dodds said the figures were "disturbing" and welcomed planned legal changes that would give the victims more faith in the police force and the courts.

The conviction rate of around 3% is still scandalously low and needs to be radically improved. Women are reluctant to press charges if the chance of a conviction is so low.

I have suggested before that one problem is the lack of convincing evidence that the victim resisted her attacker - often because the woman fears resistance will only make the situation worse.

Many women are still reluctant to report rapes in case the police are unsympathetic and gloating - or even refuse to believe the rape occurred. Unfortunately there have been a number of such false claims in the past.

But the ultimate deterrent can only be a fundamental change in male culture so men no longer believe in a god-given right to rape women in the name of casual sexual pleasure (or a show of power) and recognise that such vicious violation of a woman's body is never justified under any circumstances.

That's going to be a tough and uphill task, made harder by the fact that so few people are prepared to challenge men's entrenched sexual arrogance.

Yes, you've seen this photo before. And it still says it all. Resist!

Tuesday 22 January 2008

Privacy buff

I like my privacy, I like to keep a few things to myself. I'm not one of those people happy to live in the public gaze and share every intimate detail with others.

There are plenty of things I just don't want to reveal to all and sundry - because they're too embarrassing or distasteful or weird or puzzling or upsetting. I don't want to share the ins and outs of my sex life, the stupid mistakes of my youth, my peculiar obsessions or unsuitable crushes.

If something's embarrassing or upsetting, I don't think it necessarily helps to tell every Tom, Dick and Harriet. It might make it easier to deal with, but it might make it worse and magnify it a hundred times.

But there are loads of people who have no problem baring their souls to the world, or even relish it. I'm always open-mouthed as celebrities, or just ordinary individuals, appear on TV answering the most personal and intrusive questions as if they were nothing unusual, spilling out shocking and painful facts as if they were passing on a recipe.

In a few seconds, the whole country knows they've had three abortions, or used to be a chronic shoplifter, or only enjoy sex if they're bound and gagged. I'm just amazed at the total lack of inhibition, the belief that anything at all is suitable for the public domain, that there is nothing that needs to be held back.

I think some people can only see their actions as normal if they've revealed them to everyone else. They feel it's wrong to keep something secret, as if that makes it somehow odd or shameful. Whether others approve or disapprove doesn't really matter as long as it's out in the open and common knowledge.

The idea of "airing your dirty washing in public" used to fill people with horror as something extremely vulgar and unhelpful, but now it's totally acceptable and even encouraged as healthy openness. But personally I still think some things are better left unsaid.

Saturday 19 January 2008

Irish contradictions

Since many of you are Irish or claim an Irish identity, I thought I should say something about my own view of the Irish.

I must say I find the Irish very contradictory. On the one hand they praise the Irish culture and the Irish way of life and say they wouldn't want to live anywhere else, but then ten seconds later they'll be running the place down and saying Ireland's going to the dogs.

They'll lay into the transport system, the health service, the roads, the cost of housing, materialism, TV programmes, the Catholic church, Dublin Airport. Nothing seems to be safe from a storm of frustrated invective.

The tourist industry gets it in the neck too - the shamrocks, Oirish pubs, the ubiquitous emerald green, silly hats, paddy wagons, leprechauns - it's all a travesty of the real Ireland that only mindless trippers would swallow.

There doesn't seem to be much left that the residents actually enjoy unreservedly. Though if they're pushed to defend their homeland, they'll spend a few minutes waxing lyrical about the music, the literature, the art, traditional values, the craic, the scenery, the sense of community, the friendliness.

But you get the feeling that sometimes that's more a sales pitch than genuine enthusiasm, put on for the benefit of those arrogant Brits who've dismissed their perfect country for so long.

As soon as you're out of earshot, they'll be on again about that waste of space Mary Harney and how she's f**king up the health service. Or that bastard Bertie and his dodgy piles of unexplained cash. I really don't understand the mixed messages. Will the real Ireland please stand up?

Sources: Irish Times, Irish Labour Party, Irish TV (Prime Time, Questions & Answers, The Panel), Irish blogs.

Update: Re the British government's plan to ban paid sex, a BBC poll found that 52% of respondents thought it should be banned and 65% thought buying sex exploits women. Among 18 to 24 year olds, 65% thought paid sex should be banned.

Tuesday 15 January 2008

Accidentally British

It doesn't surprise me in the least that a Facebook test on Britishness showed that the Polish are more British than we are.

Having always found the whole idea of national loyalty idiotic, I find it quite predictable that so many natives haven't a clue how often the Cabinet meets or how many people live in Wales. Who gives a toss anyway?

Apart from the fact that my Britishness is a complete accident, since I had no choice where I was born, surely the important question is not how British you are but how civilised you are - meaning how much you care about fairness, equality and democracy.

What's the point of knowing the Cabinet meets once a week if you're also a narrow-minded bigot who wants all immigrants to be deported and all homosexuals to be castrated? If that's being British, I'd rather not be thought of as British myself, thanks very much.

In fact I've never seen myself as British, there are far too many British traits I'm either indifferent to or hate intensely. At the same time there are many features of other countries that I admire hugely, like Italian cuisine and the Irish lack of a monarchy or honours system.

It makes no sense that I should be loyal to a particular country whose boundary is a mere historical quirk. If things had gone differently, we could just as well be part of France or Spain - or Russia.

And I find it most encouraging that Poles (and also the Finnish, Swedish, Germans and New Zealanders) know more about Britain than we do. It shows how many people are looking beyond the narrow confines of their own countries and seeking inspiration from the cultural diversity of the entire planet.

See also Jenny's post "Me a Nationalist?"

Footnote: I dedicate this 100th post to the one and only Medbh, who has just put up her 1000th post!

Saturday 12 January 2008

Oldie with attitude

Whoopee! I'm glad to see the first legal victory for us Northern Irish oldies under the new anti-ageist law brought in in 2006.

An employment tribunal has concluded that 59 year old Terence McCoy was illegally turned down for a job at a Belfast timber firm.

The advert for two sales jobs sought people with "youthful enthusiasm" and at the interview he was asked age-related questions.

The tribunal decided that but for his age Mr McCoy would "more probably than not" have been selected.

Mr McCoy felt he had been "flung on the scrapheap" despite having considerable experience and knowledge of the timber trade.

Good for him taking a stand against prejudice and not just shrugging it off as "one of those things". Now the company concerned and other companies will think twice before trying the same trick.

Even among the most enlightened people, I think there's still a sneaking suspicion that the over sixties are better off mowing the lawn than doing a paid job and that only twenty somethings have the oomph and drive to make a business successful.

The bleary-eyed young man who plods through the day with a crashing hangover or the miniskirted blonde who spends two hours discussing her boy friends are somehow seen as more employable and their personal failings are conveniently overlooked.

In the age of airbrushed supermodels and botoxed starlets, there's still a lingering belief that anyone with wrinkles and a double chin is past it and best put out to grass. Hopefully a lot more Terence McCoys will challenge this nonsense.

PS: John Lowe, 88, from Witchford in Cambridgeshire, is to star in Prokofiev's ballet The Stone Flower in Ely. He started ballet lessons when he was 79 and says "I think it's a wonderful thing to do and I don't understand why more men don't do it. There's nothing effeminate about it - you have to be incredibly fit to dance."

Tuesday 8 January 2008

Bed and bored

Northern Irish couples are almost twice as likely to blame collapsing marriages on affairs as couples in the rest of the UK.

They're also twice as likely to blame boredom, though domestic violence and lack of sex are mentioned a lot less*.

Why so many affairs? Are there really that many or is it just that Northern Irish folk are more likely to know about them because it's such a tight-knit society?

People here are so closely connected through family, work and neighbourhood links that if your spouse is bedding someone else the chances are you'll find out pretty quickly through a mutual friend or workmate. Especially since Northern Irelanders are such avid gossips.

If you want to keep an affair under wraps, you'll have to do it in disguise or in a different country. And steer clear of that travel agent who just happens to be your plumber's cousin.

But what about boredom? Why do so many Northern Irish couples find each other so dull? Perhaps it's all those men whose idea of excitement is a day's fishing. Or all those women whose big thing is scouring the outlet centres for a flattering blouse.

Or maybe it's just that their minds have stopped functioning after another 10 hour working day to pay for the sky-high mortgage on their fashionable Malone apartment?

It's also interesting that although many Northern Irelanders are intensely religious, divine guidance doesn't necessarily stop hubby making out with Fiona from Accounts and upsetting the marital apple cart. Or maybe it was the missis yakking on about the benefits of the Good Book that drove him into Fiona's arms in the first place. God works in mysterious ways....

* A survey by InsideDivorce.com, reported by Relate Northern Ireland.

Saturday 5 January 2008

Why eat meat?

Several times over the Christmas period I was asked why I was a vegetarian, as if not eating meat is the oddity and meat-eating is as natural as breathing.

When I asked my questioners why they ate meat they were dumbfounded. They didn't think it needed any explanation, as if my query was crazy.

But it's a serious question, because actually meat-eating is contradictory in several ways.

Meat-eaters usually say they love animals - they may even have pet cats or dogs. Yet they happily eat animals which have been viciously slaughtered, and reared in the most appalling conditions.

They say they eat meat but in fact only eat 'acceptable' types of meat. They don't eat dogs, cats, horses, guinea pigs, ponies or donkeys. Why do some animals have exempted status?

They say they never eat vegetarian food because it's boring and fit only for namby-pamby wimps, yet they chomp their way through vegetarian staples like bread, cakes, biscuits, dips, peanut butter, cheese and eggs.

They say they're concerned about climate change and the environment, but eat animals which demand huge tracts of land and huge amounts of animal feed and produce huge quantities of greenhouse gases. Going vegetarian is one of the single most effective ways of cutting environmental damage.

Why am I a vegetarian? Because I don't believe in killing animals for food when there are plenty of food sources that don't involve severe pain and suffering for living creatures. What's so odd about that?

See also: On Being a Vegetarian