Book review – Paperboy (Tony MACAULAY)

20100901 Review Paperboy

Tony Macaulay is a respected professional community relations and youth worker based in Belfast. For example, he has written independently, “A discussion paper proposing a five phase process for the removal of ‘peace walls’ in Northern Ireland”.

This book is his story of being a 12-year-old paperboy, living in the Shankill area of West Belfast. I, too, was a 12-year-old paperboy, but that’s where my shared experience starts and ends.

Tony so well tells his story. It is actually difficult for adults to write in the prose of childhood. The retrospective voice is usually readily apparent. But here in Paperboy, you really do see the world from this boy’s experiences.

It’s a world of not quite comprehending the sectarianism and violence around you, and doing your best to get on with what really matters to most 12-year-old boys — your mates, your music, and earning some pocket money to spend on your girlfriend.

And just like a youngster, there are key words that regularly reappear in the dialogue — Sharon Burgess, “the only pacifist paperboy in Belfast”, Bay City Rollers, “so I was”.

Indeed, Tony writes in the local vernacular so well that the only criticism could be that he didn’t include a glossary! This Yank has lived here long enough to not need one for Paperboy (!), and some phrases like, “God love the wee dote” probably pass without translation, but me thinks Tony should provide one for the American edition (“Och, ballicks!”). And/or subtitles when the film comes out!

Amidst all the humour, though, there is the reality of the environment that Paperboy grows up in. He notices more and more “peace walls” — “… we were brilliant at walls in Belfast — they were going up everywhere, higher and higher, all around me”.

It’s actually his dad who says to a neighbour who is demanding even more walls, “Did you never think that it might be our side that’s bein’ walled in?”

And 35 years on, we have made little progress on dismantling our walls in Northern Ireland, whether physically or metaphorically. May Paperboy encourage more of us to put more effort into this.


Cartoons in Conflict

As part of its 2010 Summer School, Community Dialogue ( hosted an exhibition of international cartoonists’ contributions to The Parents Circle – Families Forum (, which is a grassroots organisation based in the Middle East.

The Parents Circle – Families Forum represents more than 500 families, both Israeli and Palestinian, who have lost a family member to the conflict.

At the Belfast launch event at Farset International, Springfield Road, Forum members Robi Damelin (Israeli) and Seham Ikhlayel (Palestinian) described the background to this exhibition and their project work, as well as shared their stories, experiences and hopes.

I was particularly intrigued to learn more about their “Crack in the Wall” project, which will make interactive use of websites and social media. As Robi explained, with it becoming increasingly difficult to physically meet up, the use of phone lines and online resources become vital.

Robi and Seham insist that any peace agreement that does not involve the people in the process nor include reconciliation as a specific outcome is doomed to failure.

Robi also has no time for the display of flags, citing Israeli flags in Protestant areas and Palestinian flags in Catholic areas of Belfast:

“I don’t think that’s helping anybody. It just makes you feel good about yourself. I don’t see how Seham’s life was improved by a Palestinian flag.”

After Robi and Seham spoke, there was a Q&A session, with inevitable comparisons between the Middle East and Northern Ireland experiences. My impression was that the locals weren’t actually listening to Robi’s understanding (or incomprehension) of forgiveness. That is, several people tried to probe why it is apparent that Christian-populated places put such a premium on forgiveness. At one point Robi said that when Bishop Desmond Tutu insists on forgiveness, that’s immoral; you can’t righteously compel forgiveness.

There were workshop-style discussions afterwards, which I wasn’t able to stay for. But I am very grateful for Community Dialogue for facilitating this exhibition’s trip to Northern Ireland.

Robi and Seham were also interviewed by BBC Radio Ulster Arts Extra, where they described their work further:


@TroubledImages Essays Photography

Troubled Images – A personal perspective by Gordon GILLESPIE

Troubled Images Exhibition
14 June 2010 – 11 September 2010
Location: Vertical Gallery
Admission: Free
Troubled Images Exhibition


All 70 political posters from our ‘Troubled Images’ exhibition, documenting the years of the Northern Ireland conflict, have been hung five storeys high in our Vertical Gallery. 

The exhibition has travelled throughout the world to inform and educate the general public about the turbulent years of Northern Ireland’s ‘Troubles’. It is now ‘home’ again and available for all to see.


Book review – Kosovo: What Everyone Needs to Know (Tim JUDAH)

20100319 Kosovo cover
I was once asked if I thought the Northern Ireland conflict was difficult to comprehend. Not really, I replied. What confounded me was that as so many people within Northern Ireland understood the various factors involved, why work towards any resolution took so long.

Put another way, I found comprehending the geo-political situation of former Yugoslavia more difficult. For most of its former republics, resolutions were via the bloody wars of the 1990s.

And then there’s Kosovo, with its independence declared in 2008, but how much resolved?

For the sake of my day job, I had to get a good grasp of the situation of Kosovo. A good friend endorsed my short-listed choice of Kosovo: What Everyone Needs to Know, by Tim Judah, Balkan Correspondent for The Economist.

In the Author’s Note, Judah says that his book is to give general readers a straightforward introduction. He well achieves this. But a “general reader” who has some education in international relations, or at least is an avid reader of The Economist, will find the introduction that much easier to absorb. This is not because Kosovo is not easily accessible; it is. But there is a good amount of history and culture to take in the book’s concise 160 pages.

Judah does well in the first two chapters to provide cultural and historical overviews of Albanians and Serbs. Of course, this has to be a little superficial in such a generalist book. But an important highlight is that for Albanians, and particularly for those residing in Kosovo, it was language more than the role of the church that influences their nationalism. This contributed to a delayed nation-building — surrounding peoples and places having several hundred years’ head start — with its own consequences.

We are told how the Serbs see Kosovo as their Jerusalem (p. 18), with the full poem provided, “The Downfall of the Serbian Empire”. What interests me is that this is not the only contested place in the world with a Jerusalem-status, the sense of birthright and/or redemption.

The chapters are the right length, covering the essentials while moving you along to the next episode.

As in other contested places, the education system plays an important, often crucial role. For some decades, Albanians enjoyed an Albanian-language education (but while still needing to learn Serbian). However, when Serbian authorities clamped down on this in 1991, an underground, parallel system was created (p. 73). The consequence was that hereafter young Kosovo Albanians would be instilled with more nationalist thinking than under the “brotherhood and unity” era of Yugoslavia. For me, the significance is whether ethnic-based education is part of a wider whole or a particular sect.

Likewise, Judah describes the re-establishment of the Kosovo police service, one of the notable achievements  (p. 95), moving from no service at all in 1999 to one comprising over 7,000 officers (6,082 Albanian; 746 Serbs; 414 others) in 2007. However, with Kosovo independence, retaining an integrated, singular police service has become more of a challenge. Here, I hope there are applicable lessons from the recent years of the reform of policing in Northern Ireland.

Judah explains one particularly curiosity — multiple international calling codes (p. 99). Essentially, in the break up of Yugoslavia, Serbia retained code +381. For cell/mobile phones, new Kosovo wasn’t going to use that nor the Serbian +063, so it acquired underused Monaco +377. I can attest that in areas such as Mitrovica, individuals who need to contact both Albanians and Serbs will carry two mobile phones/SIM cards.

There is a good description of the Ahtisaari Plan (setting out Kosovo’s future, sans independence but with “supervised independence”) (Chapter 10). While this plan was blocked by the UN Security Council, all EU members backed it and proceeded to establish an International Civilian Office (ICO), to deal with matters of law and headed by an International Civilian Representative (ICR).

Then, after Kosovo’s declaration of independence, the EU replied by providing a Special Representative (EUSR), responsibilities which include “promoting overall EU coordination and coherence in Kosovo”.

The thing is, the ICR and EUSR are the same person: Pieter Feith. On one hand, Feith’s remit is to the EU’s unanimous consent to the Ahtisaari Plan, while on the other hand he serves as EUSR even though not all EU members recognise Kosovo’s independence. This conundrum is not lost on the local population.

Judah also succinctly puts the Kosovo situation in a global context of international relations (Chapter 12). Barring the wars that took place in the region in the 1990s, the disintegration of Yugoslavia, for the most part, reflected the disintegration of the Soviet Union, in that there was a reverting to previously existing republics (the “R” in USSR). Except Kosovo, which was not a pre-existing republic. Its declaration of independence, or at least EU semi-protectorate de facto status, is an unprecedented situation for the EU, which must proceed intelligently as other nations/subregions express their self-determination.

There’s clearly more to say on this matter, and Judah’s book is not the place for it. Indeed, while those with deeper knowledge of any particular dimension of the Kosovo scene won’t find sustenance by Judah’s overview, I found it an ideal primer and very useful in my subsequent visit. I sincerely recommend Kosovo: What Everyone Needs to Know as the first book to read in the path of unravelling the threads of politics and history in Kosovo.


Transformation and Ongoing Conflict in Contemporary Belfast

Transformation and Ongoing Conflict in Contemporary Belfast
(BBC Radio Ulster)
31 January 2010

On 20 January, the Institute of Governance at Queen’s University Belfast hosted a workshop organised by the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of St Andrew’s: “Transformation and Ongoing Conflict in Contemporary Belfast”.


Peace Pole: Belfast unveiling

Peace Pole: Belfast unveiling
by Allan LEONARD for Shared Future News
24 October 2009

It was touch-and-go with the weather, but thankfully the rain stopped for the unveiling of Northern Ireland’s first “peace pole”, near the gates at Northumberland Street, west Belfast.


Book review – The Storm (Vince CABLE)

20090612 The Storm cover
Vince Cable is the chief economic spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats, and his lucid explanations of the credit crunch and overall current parlous global economic situation has seen him well sought after by mainstream news media outlets. For good reason — his analysis has been proven spot on.

In his book, The Storm: The World Economic Crisis & What It Means, Cable reviews both distant and more recent economic history to put the current situation in context. This includes a chapter on the surge in commodity prices in 2008. Here, his professional experience as a chief economist for Shell provides credence to his arguments.

Cable does his best to present the intricacies of international finance and macroeconomics to the lay reader, but having some education in economics does no harm, e.g. appreciating the diference between a trade balance and balance of payments.

My favoured sections were towards the end, when Cable suggests some actions for the way forward:

  • Central bank monetary policy to deal with asset prices as well as inflation (a la Irving Fisher; the Swedish experience)
  • Remove mortgage tax relief (USA) (reduce over-borrowing) and business interest tax relief (UK) (reduce excessive leverage)
  • Replace cash salary bonuses with stock with delayed redemption
  • Agreed international accounting standards and reporting (greater transparency)

More challenging is Cable’s suggestion for a new multilateralism that places Asia “at the heart” of the world economy.

Indeed, The Economist published an excellent article that described the role that China’s gigantic trade surplus had in flooding the American financial markets with funds needing investing (“When a flow becomes a flood”).

Cable calls for a New Bretton Woods, hosted in a place like Singapore, with key participants the USA, China, Japan, the eurozone, and India.

Part of Cable’s motivation is to prevent economic nationalism, or “state capitalism”, which encourages protectionism under numerous guises, including “economic security”. Cable isn’t predicting a repeat of what happened in the 1930s interwar years, but he repeatedly paints an ominous picture of what a failure to properly address the current issues could mean.

Cable has an enduring faith in liberal markets producing wealth and prosperity, which includes public services, and implores with policy makers to take the appropriate actions to ensure this remains the case.

My criticism would only be that I wished Cable had presented more detail on his own suggested actions, as well as on what he would deem as best practices around the world. Perhaps that’s the scope of a future volume.

Essays Photography

Book review – Eyewitness (Brendan MURPHY)


I always wanted this book, Eyewitness: Four Decades of Northern Life, by Brendan Murphy, but the original cover price of £30 was a little steep for me. Thankfully, the Bookshop at Queen’s has it discounted to £8. I only had to wait 6 years.

It is a brilliant book. Murphy’s photographs may not be the polished style of trained photo-journalists — the shots you see in AP and AFP — but they are blessed with sincerity and honesty.

As Murphy admits himself, when he started photography he missed many shots, taking time to learn what he had to do. It is worth reading Seamus Kelters’ text, as it is a truly interesting discovery of Murphy’s thinking behind the camera lens.

Murphy’s accounts reveal truths that make sense for those who live in Northern Ireland, but perhaps others find peculiar.

For example, he explains how the boxing arena is “one of the few truly politically correct places”:

“Nationalist and Unionists, loyalists and republicans, police even, all crush in side by side. Any animosity is left at the door. The atmosphere is no less charged for that … Religion doesn’t matter. All that’s important is a man’s ability.”

And there’s the cross-community protection among fellow photographers:

“Strangers would expect Catholic and Protestant photographers to be at each other’s throats. That was never the case. Nothing was further from reality. Protestant photographers have told me to stick close to them when we’ve been in fiercely loyalist areas. I’ve returned the favour. If they have faults and frailties, local press photographers also have great strength and integrity.”

The book’s title is apt: this is a journey of one man’s firsthand account of what he saw and recorded on film. So much has changed over 40 years — technically with cameras and historically with Northern Ireland politics — but Murphy has remained true to his community-oriented background.

This is demonstrated in Murphy’s coverage of sectarian attacks:

“Few bombing or shootings ever happened in middle-class areas … they usually wouldn’t want the attack highlighted. They would want to get on with their lives. Working class areas are different. Friends and family mostly live in the same area. The entire community was in the same boat. They would insist what had happened could not be swept away with the broken glass.”

Indeed, the last photograph in the book is an otherwise unremarkable photo of a Belfast corner shop, taken in 1974. But then comes the accompanying description: “The corner shop and bar were the hub of a community … More social work went on in these places than a host of government agencies. They were lost to redevelopment and supermarkets. With them went a way of life.”

Thankfully, Brendan Murphy remains a freelance photographer, and his new photographs regularly appear in the Irish News.


Your space or mine?

Your space or mine? @PLACENI
by Allan LEONARD for Shared Future News
5 February 2009

Last night I attended an exhibition launch for a project called “your space or mine?”, in which the organisers ask:


Book review – Ordinary Lives

Book review: Ordinary Lives
by Allan LEONARD for Shared Future News
8 January 2009

In recent years there has been an influx into Northern Ireland of new arrivals from east European countries, as well as more familiar western places of Portugal and Spain.

@MrUlster Essays Photography

John CARSON – Friend Map revisited

During 1975 and 1976, artist John Carson visited friends and family in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and photographed them in their homes. The photographs were placed on a map of the area to create an artwork depicting a social network of connections and relationships that crossed geographical, religious and political divisions.

Some 30 years later, Carson decided to revisit this network of friends, speaking with as many of them as possible about their life experiences over the past three decades. Carson wanted to give a voice to the faces from his original Friend Map and reflect on how their life experiences compared to youthful aspirations. The resulting artwork is a compilation of extracts from video interviews with 42 people still living in the greater Belfast area.

Western Michigan University released a press statement about the forthcoming exhibition at the Gwen Frostic School of Art at WMU.


Post-Agreement Northern Ireland: New opportunities or unresolved stalemate?

Post-Agreement Northern Ireland: New opportunities or unresolved stalemate
by Allan LEONARD
17 December 2008

Does the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, or the subsequent 2007 St Andrew’s Agreement, represent a means of conflict management between stalemated unionist and nationalist communities in Northern Ireland, or does the environment of peace itself provide an opportunity to pursue a more ‘ordinary’ form of politics, for greater prosperity and fairness for the wider population?