Saturday, 30 October 2010

Before the Throne

Before the throne of God above
I have a strong and perfect plea.
A great high Priest whose Name is Love
Who ever lives and pleads for me.
My name is graven on His hands,
My name is written on His heart.
I know that while in Heaven He stands
No tongue can bid me thence depart.

When Satan tempts me to despair
And tells me of the guilt within,
Upward I look and see Him there
Who made an end of all my sin.
Because the sinless Saviour died
My sinful soul is counted free.
For God the just is satisfied
To look on Him and pardon me.

Behold Him there the risen Lamb,
My perfect spotless righteousness,
The great unchangeable I AM,
The King of glory and of grace,
One in Himself I cannot die.
My soul is purchased by His blood,
My life is hid with Christ on high,
With Christ my Saviour and my God!

This beautiful hymn was written by Charitie Lees Smith (1841-1923), whose father Rev Sidney Smith, an Ulster-Scot, was rector of Drumragh in county Tyrone. she composed it in 1863, just four years after the great Ulster Revival of 1859. 

There is fine version of this hymn sung by Kristyn Getty, who is accompanied by her husband Keith Getty, at

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

A barrage of bad language

Why is it that some modern playwrights feel obliged to pepper their work with so much bad language?

Yes, I know that many people swear.  I hear the occasional swear word in the street or some other public place and some people are particularly prone to swear. 

But I have come across a number of contemporary plays where the frequency of the bad language far exceeds anything I have ever heard from anyone in the street.  In one play that was performed recently in Belfast a few 'swear words' were used repetitively in sentence, after sentence after sentence.  The audience were battered with bad language and indeed if that language had been removed the play would have been cut in half.

Putting such a barrage of bad language into a play, or some other piece of literature, sounds artificial and detracts from the play.  It does nothing to enhance it and it can totally spoil an otherwise well-written and well-performed play.  Some folk will argue that this is realism but I would suggest that in fact it is unrealistic.

As a politican and someone who is out and about in the community day after day, in all sorts of areas and situations, I meet thousands of people and I have never encountered the intensity of profanity that appears in some of these productions.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Stephen Collins Foster

The great American songwriter Stephen Collins Foster has been inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.  Foster's ancestors were Ulster-Scots who emigrated from County Londonderry to America in the 18th century.

He wrote many great songs including Beautiful Dreamer and My Old Kentucky Home but died in 1864 at the age of thirty-seven.

The family were very conscious of their Ulster-Scots ancestry and Stephen's brother was a member of the Scotch-Irish Society of America.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Banning the voice of Israel

In an earlier post I quoted a Northern Ireland Friends of Israel report which stated that following representation from NIFI, Professor Geoffrey Alderman had been invited to join a panel discussion on the topic 'Conflict in the Middle East' to provide a pro-Israel perspective.

The two original contributors were Professor Avi Shlaim, who was born in Baghdad in 1945 of Jewish parentage but is now a critic of Israel and Zionism, and Professor Beverley Milton-Edwards, who is a professor in the school of politics, international studies and philosophy at Queen's University.  In a BBC Radio 4 Sunday Programme in 2007 she described Hamas as a 'Muslim national movement' which was trying to bring law and order in Gaza and at the time journalist Melanie Phillips described her as having 'had a history of promoting the interests of Islamist terrorists'.  That quote is still on Melanie Phillips website at

Professor Alderman is a respected author and academic who appears frequently on radio and television as an authority on the politics of the Middle East and he would have made a valuable contribution to the debate as well as providing some muc-needed balance.

However I have just received an e-mail from Professor Lewis H Glinert of Dartmouth College in America stating that last Friday Professor Alderman received an e-mail from Festival director Graeme Farrow informing him that 'a mistake' had been made in inviting him and that although he could join the audience, the event would go ahead without his participation in the panel!

This was a copy of an e-mail that Professor Glinert had sent to the QUB Vice-Chancellor, Professor Gregson, and in it he said, 'This is an unprecedented attack on academic freedom - and an insult to the Jewish community in the UK.'

This is a disturbing development and the Festival has a responsibility to explain why the invitation to Professor Alderman was withdrawn, how the 'mistake' was made and why they decided to stage a one-sided discussion that excluded a pro-Israel speaker.

Return visit to Ulster Museum (3)

Beside the Ulster Museum there is the historic Friar's Bush graveyard, which is one of the oldest graveyards in Belfast.  One of the rooms in the Ulster Museum overlooks the graveyard and in it there is a panel which  depicts 'the mysterious Friar's Stone inscribed 485AD'.

The circular stone features three crudely cut crosses, the date 485AD and the inscription 'this stone marks ye friar's grave'.  Now any inscription written in 485 AD would have been in Gaelic or in Latin and certainly not in English.  But in any case there are no ancient or medieval references to such a stone.  The earliest references are in the early 20th century.

In fact Belfast historian Eamon Phoenix describes the date as 'implausible' and most other historians simply describe the stone as a Victorian fraud.  Why is the museum so reluctant to admit that it is a fraud?  The description 'mysterious' could mean anything or nothing and is totally inadequate.  It certainly leaves open the question of the stone's authenticity!

Even the South Belfast News managed to get it right when it quoted the gatekeeper Gerry Ward as saying, 'There is a crude stone in the graveyard with three rough crosses and AD 485 inscribed on it, but we know it is a fake.  It was put there by a local hoaxer for reasons known only to him. Apart from the markings being wrong for that era, a painting of the spot from 1782 doesn’t show the stone.'

Return visit to Ulster Museum (2)

For me one of the highlights of any visit to the Ulster Museum was always the magnificent Ulster Past and Present mural by the popular Belfast artist William Conor (1884-1968).  This was painted back in the 1930s for the Belfast Municipal Museum and Art Gallery, now the Ulster Museum, and it was then the largest mural in Ireland.

Various books and websites state that the mural is in the Ulster Museum and it is but there is no point in going there to see it.  With the refurbishment of the Ulster Museum the mural has been banished to the store room.

This was a magnificent piece of art and it is sad that after so many years visitors are to be denied the opportunity to see it.  The explanation that there is not enough wall space for it simply doesn't stand up to scrutiny. 

Return visit to Ulster Museum (1)

On Saturday I went on an 'off duty' visit to the Ulster Museum, along with my wife, and we had a very pleasant afternoon.  There were not the very large crowds of the early days after the reopening but there was a steady flow of visitors.  During the visit I took some photographs and they form the basis of this short series of posts.

As regards Orange and Hibernian banners, which are part of the colourful culture of Northern Ireland, there are none at all on display.  There is a trade union banner and there is space immediately beside it for another, as well as wall space elsewhere, so why avoid these other colourful examples of local folk art?

Some years ago the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum had an excellent exhibition on The Brotherhoods of Ireland.  Alongside the exhibition there was also an excellent booklet and both the exhibition and the booklet were produced by Dr Tony Buckley.  The exhibition had a wealth of regalia and banners and other materials associated with fraternal organisations, including Protestant organisations, Roman Catholic organisations and friendly societies.  The most striking thing for me was the similarities between the organisations in terms of icons, symbols and ritual.  King William on an Orange banner was very similar, albeit with different colours, to Patrick Sarsfield on a Hibernian banner!

I have seen Orange and green banners in museums in Scotland, England and Eire and it seems utterly bizarre that the Ulster Museum has no Orange or green banners or regalia at all on display.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Making sure Israel's voice is heard

The following is copied from an e-mail from the Northern Ireland Friends of Israel:

Belfast Festival at Queen's: Conflict in the Middle East

The Belfast Festival has a  poor record of staging balanced events on the Middle East.  In recent years guest speakers have included arch critics of Israel such as Robert Fisk, Noam Chomsky and George Galloway - all without reply.

This year's festival was to be no exception, with two critics billed to take part in a very one-sided 'conversation' on Conflict in the Middle East, at the Crescent Arts Centre, on 18 October.

NIFI raised this with the Festival organisers and, as a  result of our intervention, a late invite has been  extended to Jewish Chronicle columnist, Professor Geoffrey Alderman, to join the panel.  Better late than never!  The event will now be a proper debate and is already a sell out.

NIFI must be commended on its initiative and the Festival must be commended for listening to their case.  The next stage is for listening to lead to learning.  As we seek to build a 'shared and better future' we need to challenge the exclusion of viewpoints or interests that may not be those of the current liberal consensus.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Communist Party

On 4 July 2009, just a few days after my appointment as Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure, there was an article in Unity, the magazine of the Communist Party of Ireland, criticising my political views. In it the anonymous author referred to comments I made some time ago about the CPI and said:
He referred to the Women’s Rights Movement as being a creation of the Communist Party and named the party’s current chairperson, Lynda Walker, as being one of the chief architects. Thanks for the praise, Nelson.
In the Belfast local government elections in 1997 Lynda Walker contested the Court electoral area, which covers the Shankill Road, but she did not stand as a Communist, even though she was a member of the Communist Party.  She stood as a candidate for the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, the party that was led by Professor Monica McWilliams.

The NIWC was a relatively young party but Lynda Walker had many years of political activity under her belt as a member of the Communist Party of Ireland. In fact she attended the CPI weekend school in Dublin in May 1997 and spoke at the annual CPI commemoration of James Connolly at Arbour Hill. [Unity 17 May 1997]

That was the weekend before the Belfast City Council election and one wonders how many voters in Court knew the Women’s Coalition candidate seeking their support was also a Communist. [Unity 24 May 1997]

It would also be interesting to know if Monica McWilliams knew she was fielding a candidate who was a member of the Communist Party and why Lynda did not mention it on her election literature.

Perhaps all this says something about how the CPI operates. In fact it is more of a ‘secret society’ than many organisations that are normally described as such.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Some North Carolina connections

In my last post, yesterday, I referred to local gospel singer Kathryn Mitchell.  Later in the day I was listening to her most recent CD and saw that it was recorded  in the Son Sound Studio in North Carolina. The studio is in Gaston County and about midway between Charlotte and King’s Mountain.

As regards Ulster connections in North Carolina Gaston County was named after the son of an Ulsterman and Kings Mountain was the scene of an important victory for the American patriots during the War of Independence. On 7 October 1780 the Overmountain Men, many of whom were Ulster-Scots and the sons of Ulster-Scots, defeated the British Army at Kings Mountain.  Theodore Roosevelt described Kings Mountain as 'the turning point of the American Revolution'.

The earliest settlers of Gaston County were Scotch-Irish and both the county and the county seat, Gastonia, were named after William Joseph Gaston (1778-1844), a US congressman and state Supreme Court judge, whose father emigrated from Ballymena to America.  His father, who was of Huguenot descent, died when he was very young and William was then raised by his mother, who was a Roman Catholic.

Is there no place for 'gospel music'?

Last night I attended a Celebration of Old Time Gospel Music at the Theatre at the Mill in Newtownabbey. Some call this 'country gospel' and some call it 'southern gospel' but everyone who loves 'old time gospel music' knows what it is and at the heart of it is the simple message of the Christian gospel, presented in a particular musical style. 

The theatre was filled to capacity and the audience enjoyed a great evening of gospel music.  One of the singers, George Hamilton IV, was from North Carolina and another, Donny Richmond, was from Tennessee and both are well known in the field of country gospel.  George Hamilton IV is a regular at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville but he concentrates mainly on gospel tours at home and abroad.

The other singers were all from Northern Ireland - Kathryn Mitchell, Live Issue, Chapter 7, Simple Faith, Joy Boyd and Gillian Adams - and the music and the singing were excellent.  The evening illustrated the interest in gospel music in Northern Ireland and also the high standard of some of our local performers.  For example, Live Issue are from around the Banbridge area and they have performed at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. In 2007 they collaborated with George Hamilton IV to record a live album based on the life of Joseph Scriven, the Ulsterman who wrote the hymn What A Friend We Have in Jesus.

The previous night I attended the opening of the Ulster Bank Festival at Queen's and will be attending a number of events during the festival.  It runs from for two and a half weeks from 14 to 31 October and there is a diverse programme that caters for a wide range of genres of music.  There are a number of classical music events, and there is provision for jazz, folk and country, country and Irish, with Hugo Duncan, Irish traditional music, with Anuna in Clonard Monastery, afro-beat, eastern and new wave, as well as several contemporary singer songwriters with rather eclectic styles. 

However a genre that I and many others enjoyed last night in Netownabbey, and which is immensely popular in Northern Ireland, is totally missing from the programme.  The Dublin Gospel Choir is performing in May Street Presbyterian Church but their music is of a very different type.  So is there a place in our cultural life in Northern Ireland for 'old time gospel music' or is there not?

I asked the same question recently in relation to Belfast Music Week, which totally ignored Christian music, and so the Festival is not the only programme to omit the 'old time gospel music' which is so popular in Ulster.  If the Festival can find a place for a local country singer such as Hugo Duncan, can they not find a place for local gospel singers such as Kathryn Mitchell or Live Issue?

However recently, when I visited North Carolina Museum of Art, I was interested to hear from the deputy director that the museum is in the American Bible belt and that in its programming it takes account of that community and seeks to accommodate that community through its events. 

I do not detect in Northern Ireland the same willingness to reach out to the evangelical Christian community.  It tends to be pushed into the margins and ignored but why does that happen?  I would suggest that it is because there are not many evangelical Christians in the 'cultural establishment' and therefore it is easy to create a cultural consensus that ignores the culture of that sector of society.

Ulster has a strong Christian heritage and it has a very strong evangelical Christian heritage.  Yes we live in what is at present an increasingly secular age but there is still a large evangelical community and it deserves to be accommodated within the cultural life of Northern Ireland.  The first step would be for the organisers of major cultural programmes to engage with the evangelical Christian community, to talk to them, to find out about them and to listen to them.

I have already spoken to one of the officers in Belfast City Council about Belfast Music Week and I hope that as soon as the Festival programme for this year is over, the organisers will start a conversation with those involved in gospel music in Northern Ireland with a view to incorporating some of that music in their programme next year.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

GAA has no place for unionists

I had a question time in the Assembly yesterday and a Sinn Fein member asked a question about the sport of hurling in North Antrim.  This opened the way for Michelle McIlveen to ask about the constitution and rules of the Gaelic Athletic Association, which exclude unionists from joining a GAA club or playing Gaelic games.

Miss McIlveen: Although the benefits of sporting events can and should be of immense value to our tourism market, does the Minister share my grave concern that unionists are, by the constitution of the GAA and the rules therein, excluded and prohibited from membership of that sporting organisation? Will the Minister call for those unacceptable rules to be amended by that organisation as a matter of urgency to reflect the shared and better future that we should all be striving for in today’s Northern Ireland?
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: The Member raises a very important point. There is a general commitment and recognition in society now that a shared and better future is the best way forward in Northern Ireland. In the past, I have commended the professionalism and efficiency of the GAA in how it manages its organisation and activities. I recognise the importance that many in the community attach to the GAA and the value that they place on the sports that it runs. However, I agree with the Member that there is a difficulty, and I have raised it with the GAA and Sport NI in the past; it is not something that I raise today for the first time. As the Member made her point, I noticed that some Members on the other side of the Chamber seemed to be in a state of deep denial. However, rule 1.2 sets out the basic aim of the GAA very clearly: The Association is a National Organisation which has as its basic aim the strengthening of the National Identity in a 32 County Ireland through the preservation and promotion of Gaelic Games and pastimes.

In other words, it places the games as a means to an end. That also needs to be taken in the context of rule 2.1 on membership, which states: Membership of the Association shall be granted only by a Club, to persons who subscribe to and undertake to further the aims and objects of the Gaelic Athletic Association, as stated in the Official Guide.

That quote comes from the current rules, which I think were approved in July. In other words, it states that, to play the games, whether Gaelic football or hurling, and be a member of a club, people have to subscribe to the basic aim, among the other aims, that has the aspiration of a united Ireland. Therefore, people who are from a unionist tradition and do not subscribe to that particular political aspiration find themselves excluded from participation in those games. [Interruption.]

The GAA needs to address that issue if it is to contribute, as it could, to a shared and better future. It would be better if some Members faced up to that with a little bit of honesty and humility rather than engaging in the practice of denial. We must look at how we can address the issue and move forward for the benefit of not just the GAA but all society in Northern Ireland. It is possible to be a Protestant and play Gaelic games. However, according to the rules, it is not possible to be a unionist and play Gaelic games.
Mark McGregor has started a thread about this on Slugger O'Toole, which is interesting for the posts that come from GAA supporters.  Their comments confirm that what we said in the chamber about the GAA was indeed correct.

NI Opera

NI Opera held its programme launch in Ross's Auction Rooms in May Street.  This is the new regional opera company for Northern Ireland. It is funded by the Arts Council and it will build on the strengths of Castleward Opera and Opera Fringe.

The vision of the new company is to make opera more accessible to local audiences and to create better opportunities to develop home-grown talent.  In all its work it will seek to enthuse people about opera, make it easily available to them, and promote young Northern Ireland singers wherever possible - while offering the very best talent from further afield.

In addition to staging its own productions, NI Opera will work closely with regional partners to bring touring performances to venues across Northern Ireland.

The first public performance will be a Christmas concert with Camerata Ireland and NI Opera young singers.  Then in March 2011 the first fully-staged performances are at different locations around the historic walls in Londonderry, with a site-specific production of Tosca.

Susan Boyd, a mezzo soprano from county Antrim, sang at the launch and was accompanied by local pianist Michael McHugh.  There were also contributions from Oliver Mears, the new artistic director, Sir Desmond Rea and Barry Douglas, all of whom spoke about the opportunity afforded by this new development.

Afterwards I had the opportunity to chat with Oliver and was pleased to hear of his plans to make opera accessible to a wider audience.  Many people are 'intimidated' by opera for a variety of reasons eg they imagine that it is all going to be sung in a foreign language and they will not understand it.  That needs to be acknowledged and then addressed and I was pleased that Oliver spoke about such things as performances in English and the use of new venues and locations, such as the walls in Londonderry.

I believe that this new company will make opera more accessible to local audiences and create better opportunities to develop home-grown talent.  Northern Ireland has been producing world class talent for years. We need to continue to enthuse people about opera, make it easily available to them, and promote young local singers wherever possible - while offering the very best in talent from further afield.  

It is particularly encouraging to see that NI Opera will work with regional partners to bring touring performances to venues across Northern Ireland, which will further enhance the cultural offerings provided to local audiences.

The new company will have an office based in the Grand Opera House in Belfast but will produce its work region-wide.

Monday, 11 October 2010

'A faded cultural memory'

Recently I came across an article in the Daily Telegraph (5 October 2010) about a report entitled The Future of Generation Y.  It is a study of religion, published by the Church of England and looking at people born after 1982. 

The article referred to 'a faded cultural memory' of Christianity and suggested that 'the chain of Christian memory' had become 'eroded' in Britain.  'It is undoubtedly the case that the Christian memory is very faint and in many respects Generation Y are a largely unstoried and memoryless generation,' the study said. There are some interesting phrases in those quotes - 'a faded cultural memory', a 'chain of memory eroded', and 'a largely unstoried and memoryless generation'.

The report used these phrases in relation to the religious and spiritual life of a younger generation in Britain but they could also be used in a cultural context about many young people here in Ulster.  There are young people coming through our education system today who know little about their history and heritage.  They are 'largely unstoried and memoryless', they have 'only a faded cultural memory' and the chain of cultural memory has been eroded.

That is why it is so important that all our schools implement the cultural rights of the children who attend them.  Some sectors within our education system do provide a rich engagement with the history and the heritage of the community from which they come but that is not the case in all schools.

I remember being at an event in a Roman Catholic secondary school and it was reported that the school had staged a play about Robert Emmet, who staged an abortive rebellion in Ireland in 1803.  The governors and the teachers had no qualms about staging such a play and they considered it perfectly appropriate.  It was part of the political history of their community and they were exploring it, if not commemorating it or celebrating it, through drama.  As I thought about it, I asked myself if it was likely that a controlled school in a Protestant and Unionist community would consider staging a play or similar event to explore the Siege of Derry or the Glorious Revolution.  I suspect not - certainly it is something I have never come across in all my years of involvement with education.

Children emerging from the Roman Catholic sector or the Irish medium sector do so with a strong sense of their cultural identity, whereas children in Protestant and Unionist communities often emerge 'unstoried and memoryless'. 

That situation was confirmed for me on Saturday night when I met a community-based cultural development worker whom I had not seen for some time.  He had been working with young men in a loyalist community in Belfast and he spoke of their lack of knowledge about the 'stories' and 'memories' of their community.  Yes thise 'stories' and 'memories' are passed on to some extent through the home but the school and the media also have a role to play.

The same is true as regards traditional music.  Most Roman Catholic schools have an Irish traditional music group but how many schools in Protestant and Unionist communities have a fife and drum group, or a flute, accordion or pipe band?  With the best will in the world, not too many young people get excited about learning to play the recorder but many young people will devote a considerable amount of their own time to learning to play music in the ranks of a band.  That is why the introduction of lambeg and fife tuition in a number of secondary schools, such as Belfast Boys' Model School, is something that deserves to be replicated more widely.  It has already happened in a few schools, with very positive results, and there is absolutely no reason why it cannot happen in others as well.  The Lambeg drum is of course Ulster's unique musical instrument!

When people have a good understanding of their history and heritage, they have a cultural confidence that can enable them to engage more confidently and willingly with others, and that must surely be our aim for the future.

The Northern Ireland Flag (2)

The Northern Ireland flag was derived from the coat of arms of the Northern Ireland government and so it may be helpful to explain the origin of that coat of arms.

The Northern Ireland state was created by the Government of Ireland Act (1920) which received the royal assent on 23 December 1920. This stated that ‘Northern Ireland shall consist of the parliamentary counties of Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry and Tyrone and the parliamentary boroughs of Belfast and Londonderry.’ The Act envisaged the creation of two parliaments, one of which was to cover Northern Ireland. A general election was held the following May and the first parliament of Northern Ireland was opened by King George V on 22 June 1921.

Three years later, on 2 August 1924, a royal warrant was issued granting arms to the government of Northern Ireland. The warrant described these as: ‘Argent, a Cross gules, over all on a sixpointed Star of the field ensigned by an Imperial Crown proper, a dexter Hand couped at the wrist of the second.’ In plain terms this means a red cross upon a silver (or white) field, with a small silver (or white) six pointed star bearing a red right hand cut off at the wrist, placed on the centre of the cross, the star being surmounted by the Imperial Crown. 

A further royal warrant of 17 August 1925 granted supporters to the Northern Ireland government arms. These were a red lion, with a harp and crown on a banner, and an Irish elk, with a red cross on a banner. 

In the coat of arms of the Northern Ireland government the gold field of the Ulster provincial arms was replaced by a silver (or white) field and the small shield by a six-pointed star. The red cross and red hand were retained unchanged and an imperial crown was added. The addition of the crown is understandable but why was the six-pointed star used? 

In a letter to the Northern Whig (27 July 1953) Captain H Malcolm McKee said, ‘I think it was the Duke (of Abercorn) who suggested the six-pointed star to replace the white inescutcheon (small shield inside a larger one) for Northern Ireland.’ The 3rd Duke of Abercorn James A E Hamilton was the first Governor of Northern Ireland, an office he held from 1922 to 1945, and he was a member of an old Ulster-Scots family. He resigned on 6 September 1945 and died on 12 September 1953. 

In fact the six-pointed star is an emblem of great antiquity and here in Ulster it has been associated with the O’Neills for many centuries. The signet used by Owen Roe O’Neill (1590-1649) showed as its chief device a right hand but above this there were three six-pointed stars.
[A History of Irish Flags p 62]

The six-pointed star is also to be found on the Dunvegan Cup which is displayed in Dunvegan Castle, home of the Macleods on the Isle of Skye. The cup is a beaker of bog oak with mountings of silver and precious stones and the star is the chief item of the decorations. According to tradition it belonged to Niall Glun Dubh (d 919), King of Ulster, from whom the O’Neills derived their name. The mountings and decorations were added in 1493and eventually the cup was given by one of the O’Neills as a gift to Rory Mor, 11th chief of the Macleods, around 1600.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

The Northern Ireland Flag

The flag which is commonly known today as the ‘Northern Ireland flag’ or the ‘Ulster flag’ first appeared in 1953. There were two important events that summer, the coronation in London on 2 June and a visit to Northern Ireland by Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh at the start of July. Those two events provided the impetus for the adoption of the flag. 

During the coronation celebrations in England, Scottish and Welsh people had their own national flags which they could use along with the Union flag but Ulster people in England had no distinctive flag. This gave rise to demands for an Ulster flag. The Northern Whig (23 May 1953) carried a report from its London correspondent entitled ‘Ulster should have an official flag’. 

The demand for a flag was increased locally during the preparations for the royal visit. At various times between 1921 and 1953 there had been calls for the creation of an official Northern Ireland flag but this time the demand was stronger. In response to this the Northern Ireland government issued a statement in which it recognised ‘the desire of a number of people to fly a flag distinctive of Northern Ireland’ and declared that it had ‘no objection to the flying of the government banner’. 

A banner is a rectangular flag bearing a coat of arms and the Northern Ireland government banner was a flag bearing the arms of the Northern Ireland government. It is this flag which we know as the Ulster flag. The original government statement described the flag as ‘a white flag, carrying the Cross of St George (in red) and in the centre of the Cross a white six-pointed star carrying the Red hand of Ulster, the Star being surmounted by the Imperial Crown.’ 

The Ulster flag was first flown at Stormont on 2 July, during the royal visit, and it was first flown in London on 5 November, when it was unfurled at the Northern Ireland government’s office in Lower Regent Street. 

In a letter to the Belfast NewsLetter (10 July 1953) Mr A Robinson of the Ministry of Home Affairs said, ‘The public of Northern Ireland have always had and still have the same right as other citizens of the Commonwealth to fly the Union flag but if they wish to display a flag distinctive of the Province they are authorised to fly the Government banner which in this sense is the official Northern Ireland flag.’

The position was restated by Mr W B Topping, Minister of Home Affairs at Stormont, in 1959. He said that in 1924 the government of Northern Ireland was granted arms by royal warrant and it had the right to display these arms on a banner or flag, and to say to what use this banner may be put. It was this banner, he said, which was generally known as the flag of Northern Ireland and the government had authorised its use by any citizen on any festive occasion. The use of the banner in this way was, therefore, fully justified by heraldic law and usage, and it came into being after consultation with Sir Gerald Wollaston, then Norroy and Ulster King of Arms.

Complaint thrown out by Ombudsman!

Back in March I was rather surprised when an article on this blog was referred to the Assembly Ombudsman! Now I can report the Ombudsman’s decision that ‘the complaint does not warrant a full investigation’.

On February 27 I wrote on this blog about Dr Margaret Ward, who had spoken at a Sinn Fein sponsored conference Putting Irish Unity on the Agenda. In the course of her address she described herself as a representative for the women’s sector in the Bill of Rights Forum in 2008 and indeed she is very much to the fore in the ‘women’s sector’.

I also noted that in March 2009 she had also spoken at a conference organised by Sinn Fein to mark International Women’s Day. On that occasion she was introduced as chair of the Women’s Centres Regional Partnership and I explained that ‘according to its website the WCRP is funded by DSD and is made up of four lead partners, one of which is the Women’s Resource and Development Agency, represented by Margaret Ward.’

The article then explored Dr Margaret Ward’s political history, stretching back to her days in the People’s Democracy and the fact that in October 1975 she was a founder member of the Socialist Women’s Group, which was established by some of the most radical feminists. According to Dr Ward herself, they ‘tried to link women’s oppression, partition and the imperialist domination of Ireland’. Her reference to ‘partition and the imperialist domination of Ireland’ was presumably her description of the Union. In a booklet entitled A Difficult Dangerous Honesty, she also explained that ‘it was women who came from various places – from People’s Democracy, the Revolutionary Marxist Group and the Irish Workers’ Group – together with ones of us who hadn’t really a notion’.

On 9 March the Women’s Resource and Development Agency wrote to Declan O’Loan, the chair of the Standards and Privileges Committee, complaing about the blog and claiming that my comments were ‘derogatory and disparaging’ and ‘potentially libellous’. The letter from Patricia Donald, which ran to three and a half pages, claimed that I had broken the Code of Conduct for Members of the Assembly but at no point did she deny or refute any of the facts that I had reported in the article.

The complaint was referred to the Assembly Ombudsman. Tom Frawley OBE, and in his reply to the committee he said:
The Committee has on a number of previous occasions taken the position that Members must be permitted, within the law, to express their views on matters which some may consider controversial. It is axiomatic that not everyone will be comfortable with any particular Member’s views on a matter and particularly so if that matter is controversial or has political or moral connotations. Both the ‘blog’ and Mr McCausland’s reply make clear that the articles published represent his personal views.
That was the end of the matter and I welcome the decision which upholds the principle of free speech – one of the foundations of a genuinely liberal and democratic society.

The irony is that those who often pose as liberals are often the most illiberal and intolerant and are unwilling to accept the right of others to express dissent from their ‘cosy consensus’ or to scrutinise them in any way. It is almost as if they believe they are above scrutiny or comment.

Centre for Intelligent Design

A new Centre for Intelligent Design has opened in Glasgow and its president is Professor Norman Nevin OBE, emeritus professor of medical genetics at Queen's University Belfast, and the vice-president is Dr David Galloway, vice president of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons in Glasgow. 

The director of the centre is Dr Alastair Noble and Its specific objectives are to:
  • promote the professional investigation and public debate of Intelligent Design
  • challenge, on the scientific evidence, the neo-Darwinian claim that the development of life is purely the result of undirected forces
  • encourage consideration of the wider implications of Intelligent Design.
Further information about the new centre and about Intelligent Design is available at

Professor Michael Behe, who is the professor of chemistry at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania and one of the leading advocates of Intelligent Design, will be in the United Kingdom from 20 to 27 November and will be speaking at venues in Leamington Spa, London, Glasgow, Belfast, Cambridge, Bournemouth and Oxford.  His lecture in Belfast will be in the Crescent Church on Wednesday 24 November.  Professor Behe is the author of Darwin's Black Box and The Edge of Evolution.

The opening of the centre and the visit by Professor Behe provide an opportunity for a calm and reasoned consideration of Intelligent Design.  However the initial and irrational reaction from some sections of the media suggest that in some circles there is no appetite for reasoned consideration.

Billy Graham's Scotch-Irish roots

Recently I visited the state of North Carolina, which is part of the so-called 'Bible belt' in America.  I was very impressed by the strong Scotch-Irish influence in the history of the state and today I came across another example of that.  The American evangelist Billy Graham is known throughout the world but he was born in North Carolina and is one of the most famous people to come from that state.

The Billy Graham Story was written by John Pollock in 1985 and it was reprinted in 2003 by Zondervan but it is very much an official biography with the copyright held by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.  In it Pollock wrote about Billy Graham's family background and stated:
William Franklin Graham married Morrow Coffey of Steele Creek near Charlotte in 1916.  Their eldest son, William Franklin Graham Jr., Billy Frank to his family, was born in the frame farm-house  on November 7, 1918, three days before his father's thirtieth birthday and four before the Armistice.  All four of Billy Graham's grandparents were descended from the Scots-Irish pioneers who settled in the Carolinas before the Revolution.
The family were members of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, which was introduced into America by Scotch-Irish and Scottish settlers, and they attended the Chalmers Memorial ARP Church in Charlotte.  Billy Graham was brought up in that denomination but he was converted in November 1934 through the preaching of Mordecai Fowler Ham (1877-1961), a Baptist pastor and evangelist, who held an eleven-week gospel mission in a temporary wooden 'tabernacle' near Charlotte.  Subsequently Billy Graham became a Southern Baptist.

Among Christians in Ulster there are different views about some aspects of Billy Graham's ministry but everyone would acknowledge his strong influence over many years and we can add him to the list of significant Scotch-Irish figures to emerge from North Carolina.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

A good week for sport

It's been a good week for sport with Ulster golfers to the fore in the Ryder Cup victory, two medals so far for Northern Ireland in the Commonwealth Games, a good point against Italy at Windsor Park and another win for Ulster at Ravenhill.
Graeme McDowell (Portrush) & Rory McIlroy (Holywood) celebrating the Ryder Cup victory

On Monday Greame McDowell sank a 5 foot putt on the 17th green to give victory to Europe in the Ryder Cup.

Nelson McCausland & some of the NI team members in Delhi
Northern Ireland secured two medals at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi.  The men's pursuit cycling team - Martyn Irvine, Sean Downey, David McCann and Philip Lavery - won a bronze medal on Thursday and then on Friday cyclist Wendy Houvenaghel (Upperlands) secured Northern Ireland's second medal by winning silver in the women's 3000m individual pursuit.

The catering tent in the athletes village
I visited Delhi for the first few days of the Commonwealth Games and met many of the members of the Northern Ireland team in the athletes village as well as seeing some of them in action.  Their accommodation was basic but was much better than I had expected from some of the newspaper reports.  The catering facilities in the centre of the village face a real challenge with the task of providing food for so many athletes from so many different countries and the need to accommodate British, African and Eastern tastes in food. 

There was a packed Windsor Park last night for the match against Italy in the Euro 2012 Qualifiers. Some interim work was done on the ground over the summer to ensure that international games continue to be played in Northern Ireland and there were 15,600 people there for the game.  There were no goals but Northern Ireland came away with a valuable point.  This follows on the 1-0 victory over Slovenia in the first Group C match, when Corry Evans scored the winning goal.

Meanwhile in rugby, Ulster got off to a good start in the Heineken Cup with a 30-6 win over Alroni at Ravenhill.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Ulster Scot LOL

Some time ago I commented on the existence of an Ulster Scot LOL in county Tyrone.  The lodge handed in its warrant some years ago but I was seeking information on the history of the lodge.

A reader with a keen interest in Orange history has informed me there was also an Ulster Scot LOL in Devonport in England and that it was active during the time of the third home rule crisis.  Devonport is an area in Plymouth and the lodge may have been formed by men from Ulster or Ulster and Scotland who were working in the dockyard.

I would appreciate information on either lodge.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Visit to America (2)

One of our meetings in Raleigh was with Lynn Minges, the head of tourism in North Carolina.  Cultural tourism is a priorty for her department and it was useful to hear how North Carolina promotes itself as a cultural destination. 

At one time the economy of north Carolina relied heavily on the manufacture of furniture and textiles but these industries have declines and they are looking to new opportunities, especially the creative industries and cultural tourism.  This provides a clear parallel with Northern Ireland.  We too have lost most of our heavy industries and are looking at new opportunities.  The creative industries and cultural tourism are certainly two of those opportunities.

Lynn also told us there had just been an announcement of a new direct flight between Charlotte and Dublin.  This will create easier access to the Carolinas and provide an opportunity for Northern Ireland.  Tourism Ireland has identified the Scotch-Irish market in America as a major opportunity and North Carolina is one of the states with a significant number of people who are Scotch-Irish.

Visit to America

Last week I visited North Carolina, Washington and New York.  It was an extremely busy schedule with almost fifty meetings and events and the focus was on the creative industries, culture and art.

We started in Raleigh, which is the capital of North Carolina, and I was interested to see outside the old Capitol building a magnificent bronze statue depicting the three American presidents associated with the state - Andrew Jackson, James Knox Polk and Andrew Johnson.  All three had links to Ulster and this illustrates the strong Scotch-Irish influence in the state.

In fact Andrew Jackson's name cropped up several times during the visit.  He was of course the founder of the Democratic Party and he is remembered with affection by many Americans.  One prominent politician in Washington said to me that they have presidents on their banknotes but they have Jackson in their hearts. 

Later a political commentator in Washington but one who was born in Belfast, said, 'Andrew Jackson is the key figure in the emergence of the Scotch-Irish people in America on to the world stage.  I have studied the waxing and waning of his reputation over the past 180 years and believe he is emerging as a potent symbolic figure again for a reviving American nationalism.'

Jackson's family emigrated from Boneybefore, near Carrickfergus; Polk's family came from Tyrone and Donegal; and Johnson's ancestors are thought to have come from Mounthill, near Larne.

Emer Gallery

Last night I opened a new exhibition of paintings by the artist Victor Cirefice in the Emer Gallery, which is on the Antrim Road in north Belfast.  There were around 60 works and they were all related to sport.  In fact they covered about 14 different sports.

It was a very pleasant evening and I had the opportunity to speak to Victor, who was born in Wales but now lives in Kilkeel.  He explained his method of painting and I was most impressed by his work. 

My department deals with both sport and art and this was an occasion when they both came together and that is entirely appropriate for they have much in common.  Both have a passionate following and both can engage us and enrich our lives.

Eamon Mallie was there but he was 'off duty' and came along because of his interest in art.  Mark Sidebottom was also there but he was 'on duty' and did an interview outside the gallery about the IFA.  There were also quite a number of people from north Belfast, as well as those from further afield, and it was a good opportunity to talk to folk I had not seen for some time.

There is a forthcoming exhibition in the gallery of new paintings by Una O'Grady, daughter of P J O'Grady, the principal of St Patrick's College Bearnageeha, which is also in north Belfast.

PRONI at Cregagh

The construction of the new Public Record Office of Northern Ireland in the Titanic Quarter is almost complete and work is now udnerway to move all the records to the new building.  This is a major undertaking but will be completed early next year and will be ahead of schedule.  During this period there is no public access but more records have been made available on the internet and the microfilm church records are now available at Cregagh Library. 

Yesterday morning I visited the library to see this temporary facility and meet staff from the library and from PRONI.  I was pleased to see that the service was being well used and this is indeed a reflection of the interest that there is in genealogy.