The failure of Martin McGuinness to gain the presidency of Ireland strikes me as one of the happiest news stories of the year. Among the most suggestive moments of the campaign was when the television presenter Miriam O’Callaghan asked, “How do you square, Martin McGuinness, with your God the fact that you were involved in the murder of so many people?” A good question, well asked.
Naturally, live on air, McGuinness did not appreciate this question. Afterwards he asked the mother-of-eight for a private word, and apparently left her distinctly shaken. When this became public it did not go down well.
But it is nearly possible to feel sorry for former IRA leaders. Until quite recently someone who was troublesome to them ran the risk of being taken out and shot. If they were particularly unlucky they would first have been tortured. But this option is now unavailable.
You often hear it said that it is tough for politicians when they lose the trappings of power. How much harder it must be to lose the power of life and death over your opponents.
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These things are on my mind. My new book, Bloody Sunday: Truths, Lies and the Saville Inquiry (Biteback, £20), is out. But I fear for it, partly because of the gruesome subject (though it might yet fill a niche as an un-Christmas book), but also thanks to my difficulty sustaining a readership across books. My first was on a minor poet, my second on neoconservatism and now here is one on a horrible shooting which criticises nearly everybody. I try but fail to picture the reader who would stick with me through all three.
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I remember getting into terrible organisational problems while at university. Work, such as it was, began to suffer. I explained the situation to a tutor, who did me a huge service by very plainly explaining that coping with the chores of everyday life was something one simply had to learn to do. By way of example he described a matter of VAT he had addressed that morning before heading into college. Coming from him — a poet — it made a particular impression.
I thought about this recently while arranging the delivery of a sofa during the middle of the working day and finding myself registering the tiniest prickle of pride.
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I am in Denmark, speaking to the Free Press Society, an organisation set up in the wake of what is now humourlessly referred to as “the cartoon crisis”. After my speech I am presented with a mug with the famous drawing of Muhammad on the side. It is, I am told, a “Mo mug”. I thank my hosts but wonder where I will keep it. Is it compatible with a dishwasher? And if a cartoon can continue to spark protest, of what horrors might my mug be capable?
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From Denmark I head to Brussels to speak at a conference on the “rise” of populism in Europe. By “populism”, it becomes clear, people are not thinking of a wide range of movements including, say, anarchist protesters around St Paul’s. With few exceptions, participants focus on the “rise” of “far-Right” parties. Into this latter term they throw everything they do not like, making few distinctions between liberals and fascists. Afterwards questions are asked about how we can better “educate” the populace. It is horribly revealing.
The event ends with George Soros mulling over the financial crisis and its implications for politics. Speaking of the Tea Party and other US groups he dislikes, he refers negatively to “powerful and well-financed special-interests”. I do a double-take and recheck the speaker schedule.
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The Catholic blogger Cristina Odone believes that critics of Islamic extremism must be condemned because they represent an attack on all religion; that in the face of this “secular assault” the religions must stick together. Cristina has previously made this claim alongside a number of controversial figures, among them people close to the Islamists now taking over North Africa. I wonder what her co-religionists in North Africa would make of her argument? Who are the greater threat to Christians in that region: atheists and secularists, or Islamists? We will have to wait a few years for the point to clarify further. Perhaps then Cristina can join me on a trip to the region. I will try to show her a secularist and she can try to find me a Christian.