Sunday, August 23, 2009

A grave matter

Soon after I arrived in Northern Ireland, I managed to find my grandparents’ grave in Belfast City Cemetery, and I tidy it up from time to time. I’d been told there were some others, and had wandered around a few times trying to find them, with no luck. I’d never quite got around to making inquiries about them, so when I saw that the City Council was holding a Visitor’s Day at the cemetery today, including a tracing service, I rang them.

They discovered three other graves: my great great grandfather and his wife, who lived in Sydenham; my great grandfather, his wife and a daughter who never married, who lived in Ballyhackamore; and a brother of my great grandfather, and his wife, who lived in Belmont.

The staff were extremely helpful and seemed genuinely interested in what they were doing. The day was well organised, with each inquirer being given a map with the location of the graves marked, and the names and dates of death written on the back. Staff were also available to take people to the graves.

I gather this is the second Visitors’ Day, and from what I saw it was proving very popular, despite the rain. The initiative hopes to send out a message that the cemetery is safe for all to visit. Sinn Féin councillor Tom Hartley, who has written a book about the cemetery, said:

We hope particularly that anyone who, because of political or other circumstances, has not visited for some years will come along.

To me, that’s real 'community relations'. Unfortunately I did find that ‘my’ three graves had been damaged, hard to say whether due to vandalism or lack of upkeep. Otherwise, they were not too overgrown and I’m sure that over the years I can continue to keep an eye on them and perhaps repair them at some point.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Autumn style update

Summer’s over as far as the shops are concerned, and although I’m delighted to see long-sleeved tops for sale again, this autumn’s fashion offer is awful. Designers seem to have channelled all their own and everyone else’s teenage sartorial failures into one horrible package consisting of:

1. Smock tops. Designed to make everyone look pregnant, thus giving managers nightmares and maximising the number of embarrassing exchanges between women who haven’t seen each other for a while. Ideally these smocks should have small ties at the back, which will come undone and trail behind us, and they will also be:

- Very long. Contrary to popular belief, tunic tops do not make fat women look thin. They make thin women look fat.
- In plaid. Yes that’s right – remember grunge?
- Frilly (pictured). Looks as if something is growing on your shirt
- With tabs on the sleeves so that you can fasten them up and make your arms look fat too.

2. Worn with leggings, skinny jeans, or some vile new concoction called jeggings

3. And either very high heels or flat pumps, both of which damage your feet

4. And a huge, very expensive, handbag.

However, all is not lost - that’s only for daytime casual wear. If I want to look smart I can choose a short swing jacket and pair it with ankle length skinny trousers and (again) high heels and a huge bag. Or a pencil skirt in which I cannot walk. And everything should be covered in sequins.

Well bugger that. This autumn, I’ll be looking out for:

· Smart black trousers that fit
· Black jeans that fit
· Black leather ankle boots with a small heel
· A fitted black leather jacket
· A new suit, probably black pin-stripe
· Colourful merino wool jumpers and cardigans
· Black Converse
· Even more scarves
· Something to wear to formal dinners, always a problem
· A decent haircut

If I manage to find half of them it’ll be a good year. But I’ll have fun trying.

Friday, August 14, 2009

OK, so where is it then?

Recently I came across an interesting wee briefing note from the Assembly’s Research and Library Services, called ‘From a Shared Future to Cohesion, Sharing and Integration: Developments in Good Relations Policy’, dated June 2009.

The 5-page document begins with a description of the Shared Future consultation process, and quotes from the Shared Future document that ‘there is overwhelming support for a shared society.’ At this point it’s necessary to digress slightly, to quote an extract from what the consultation summary actually said:

The majority view concurred with the vision of a more shared and pluralist society, although many thought this was aspirational rather than achievable in the short term. There was an acknowledgement that due to the legacy of violence and continued political uncertainty, many could not endorse this aspiration. Although these views are legitimate(survey evidence suggests around 40% support existing segregation) and must be respected, they should not constrain those who strive for a more shared society. Some felt the two options were presented as alternative futures when they should in fact be ‘overlapping realities’ or sequential.

It would have been more accurate to describe the situation as ‘the majority aspire to a shared society’. I wonder if the misrepresentation of the consultation process may have helped to reduce the confidence of local politicians in the policy, which of course was introduced under Direct Rule. After all, we only have to look around us to see people who didn’t support a shared society in 2004 and haven’t changed their minds as a result of a three-year action plan. A realistic acknowledgement of the gap between hope and history might have been helpful. As might political leadership - then and now - to help close that gap.

However, it was inevitable that there would be problems with the policy once the Executive and Assembly returned to power with the two most ethnically polarised parties in charge. It’s not surprising that the new Programme for Government emphasised the economic rather than social costs of segregation, as that’s probably something on which we can all agree. The 2007 Deloitte report estimated the cost at £1.5bn – a report deemed so sensitive that David Ford had to make it public under a Freedom of Information request. The new PfG may not mention community relations or the Shared Future policy as such, but it did wish for ‘a shared and better future, based on tolerance and respect for cultural diversity’, which I personally was OK with, given that any policy document is only a means to an end.

But then, the PfG also made a commitment to replacing the Shared Future policy with a Cohesion, Sharing and Integration (CSI) policy. The jokes about CSI have all been made – but where is the policy? What’s holding it up? The briefing document left me feeling that we may be waiting a good while longer.
Apparently it’s been agreed that CSI will tackle both sectarianism and racism, rather than just sectarianism as did the Shared Future (with a separate Race Equality Strategy). But why incorporate only anti-sectarianism and anti-racism policies into the same document - why not include sexism, disablism, homophobia and ageism too? They are all detrimental to cohesion, sharing and integration.

Also it appears that district councils will take the lead, which connects well with the community planning responsibilities of the new councils but might imply that we’re not likely to see much activity before these councils are up and running. The briefing paper quite rightly asks whether government departments will also have targets, and whether the Actions Plans required by councils will be a statutory responsibility. Most importantly, where does this structure leave our MLAs? Will they be able to get away with ignoring CSI and blaming the councils for continuing problems? And, again, where will the leadership come from for cultural change?

The briefing paper also actually asks the question: ‘Does the Executive remain in favour of promoting sharing over separation?’ Well, if the Assembly’s Research and Library Services haven’t been able to find that out, what hope is there for the rest of us? The Assembly debate last January tells us only that Alliance and the SDLP want the policy to appear as soon as possible, while others’ attitudes can be summed up as ‘Give me CSI, but not yet’.

Of course no policy can on its own stop sectarianism and racism. But it’s still telling that our Executive isn’t prepared to lead from the front on this one. I suspect this policy hasn’t appeared because it goes to the heart of the differences between our politicians about the meanings of justice, identity and equality in our society. So don’t hold your breath.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Can't surf, won't surf

While carrying out vital online research in my coffee break today, I was struck by this piece about people who have made a decision not to use the internet. Apparently, many of them are over 50 years old, in other words my age group and upwards.

The reasons for this boycott fall into two categories. First, they think internet use will take over their lives, destroy family life, lead to giving up all worthwhile activities and turn them into three-headed monsters. OK, I made the last one up, but for many people who don’t use the internet much or at all, there seems to be a misconception that the magic interweb is actually a drug. Sorry guys, it’s a communications device and avoiding it in the 21st century makes as little sense as your grandparents refusing to have a telephone in the house.

Second is the group who struggle with using computers, or who are terrified by the very idea, and I wonder how much of the first defence is really due to this. Of course acquiring any new skill can be frustrating, but complaining that the programmes aren’t oriented towards a certain age group or that the keyboard isn’t big enough is utterly bonkers. If you can still drive, you’ll have no trouble learning how to send e-mail or booking your flights online.

It’s also very selfish to decide to drop out of the digital revolution, unless you want to be a hermit. People who think Facebook is the work of the devil are still capable of getting upset if I don’t tell them what I’ve been up to once in a while. It’s particularly frustrating when people won’t engage with the possibilities the internet offers for campaigning and fundraising. Why on earth should a cash-strapped charity send out funding appeals by post and take donations by cheque, when e-mail and Paypal cuts costs?

I was feeling very smug and ready to conclude that oldies should get with the programme, when I started to think more widely about my use of technology. The first time I discovered the internet, I had to be dragged off the computer after three hours, but I don’t own an iAnything or a DVD player. I keep my phone turned off for days on end and won’t Tweet. The idea of an electronic book reader makes me shudder.

So perhaps use of technology is more about assessing what you need in order to do what’s important to you. I still find it hard to believe life is better without the internet and e-mail, but if someone decides that’s the case then I’m going to have to shut up and think about my own preferences. The real issue, of course, is the increasing exclusion of people of any age who can’t afford to make these choices.