Saturday, 28 January 2012

Flush Convenience Store

Yesterday afternoon as I was driving down the Springfield Road in West Belfast I noticed a shop called the Flush Convenience Store.  The name caught my attention because the word flush is actually an Ulster-Scots word.

We find it in the Flush Bend, the Flush Field and the Flush River, also on the Springfield Road, and in the Flush Road and Flush River at Ligoniel.

According to the Scottish National Dictionary, flush means (1) a piece of boggy ground, a swampy place, or a pool of water in a field (2) slush and (3) a sluice for turning water off an irrigated meadow.

The dictionary notes that it is found in place-names and that the word comes from the Old Scots flus, which was recorded in 1375, but is of uncertain origin.

The presence of the word in place-names in North and West Belfast recalls the fact that these were once Ulster-Scots speaking areas and that Ulster-Scots lived in these areas.

'Cheap drink caused death'

A cross-border conference on alcohol abuse was held in Armagh on Thursday and it was reported that last year 284 people died in Northern Ireland directly as a result of alcohol misue, an increase of around 40% in the last decade.  Alochol related problems cost up to £900 million a year with almost £250 million borne by the Health Service.

In Northern Ireland there were more than 12,000 admissions to acute hospitals with an alcohol related diagnosis and 355 admissions to hospital for currhosis of the liver, up from 281 in 2005/6.  On 1 March 2010 more than 3,000 people were in treatment for alcohol misuse in Ulster.

Those stark figures set out the growing cost of alcohol abuse and Health Minister Edwin Poots MLA said, 'There is no doubt that alcohol misuse is one of the main threats to public health in Northern Ireland.  If we do not take significant and robust action, the costs to Northern Ireland and the health and social care system in particular, will continue to grow.'

This morning I went into a garage to get some petrol and my attention was taken by the front page headline in the Irish News (28 January): Cheap drink caused by son's fatal plunge.

On Wednesday night Joseph Murphy, aged 20, attended a Snow Patrol concert in Belfast and then went on to  Beach night club in the Odyssey. There he drank heavily at the club's cut-price  drinks promotion, where he was getting vodka for £1 and according to his father 'he couldn't get enough.'

After leaving the club he made his way towards the Lagan weir bridge.  Later he was seen 'lying across the weir railings' and a passer by tried to get him down but he fell into the river.  

Beach is owned by Ultimate Leisure and the general manager in Belfast is Brian Townley, who responed to the point about the cheapness of alcohol in the club.  He said, 'Beach is fully supportive of sensible minimum ricing and we would be happy to abide by it - however this must be done on a level playing field.'

The reality is that competition between nightclubs leads to alcohol being sold at prices such as £1 for vodka and then on to tragedies such as the death of this young man. An editorial in the Irish News comments: 'Certainly, all drinkers have to be mindful of the risks associated with excessive consumption but there is a longstanding issue over promotions which can encourage people to overindulge.  This tragedy is sure to reignite the debate over minimum pricing and the responsibilities of licensed retailers.'

My own department has responsibility for the Lagan Weir, which was taken over from Laganside, and we will undoubtedly review safety measures but clearly alcohol played the major part in the tragedy.

Right across the British Isles, in England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, there is a growing recognition of the need to address the problem of alcohol abuse and this terrible tragedy is a reminder of the urgency of that task.

Edwin Poots has a health remit and I have a departmental remit for social legislation.  Both of us have met with health professionals and I have also met with representatives from the various sectors within the drink trade.  There has also been a public consultation on licensing law.  I am now finalising my own plans in relation to alcohol legislation and Edwin has already launched a five year strategy - The New Strategic Direction for Alochol and Drugs - to address the issue of alcohol and drug misuse.

The scourage of illegal drugs receives quite a lot of attention but alcohol abuse, especially binge drinking causes just as much damage.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

UKIP's libertarian leader

Nigel Farage MEP is the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party.  Many Ulster folk will share their stance in relation to the European Union but there is another aspect of UKIP which most people will find less appealing and that is its libertarianism.

You can't get a better illustration of that than the following quotation from UKIP leader Nigel Farage MEP, which was part of an interview in the Daily Telegraph (18 November 2010):
Yes I am a libertarian.  I think prostitution, for instance, should be decriminalised and regulated.  I feel that about drugs too.  I am opposed to the hunting ban and the smoking ban, too.  What have they to do with government?
The libertarianism of the UKIP leader leads him to a position where he wants to legalise prostitution and heroin!  That is the sort of position that libertarianism leads to.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Dickens and Belfast

Last night (25 January) there was an article in the Belfast Telegraph on the visits to Belfast by the English author Charles Dickens.  This was connected to the fact that this year is the 200 anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens in 1812.

It was a very interesting article but it omitted one of Dickens' most perceptive comments about the town.  After his first visit to Belfast in 1858 he wrote: 'Tremendous houses, curious people.  They seem all Scotch, but quite in a state of transition.'

Dickens recognised the strong Scottish influence in Belfast, something which was recognised by many other visitors in the 218th and 19th centuries.

When the French aristocrat Le Chevalier de la Tochnaye visited in 1797 he said, 'Belfast has almost entirely the look of a Scotch town and the character of the inhabitants has considerable resemblance to that of the people of Glasgow.'

Moreover the people of Belfast still spoke Ulster-Scots.  When Amyas Griffith came to Belfast in 1780 as Surveyor of Excise he noted that 'the common people speak broad Scotch'.

The observation by Dickens that the people 'seem all Scotch' was noted in the magazine of the Ulster-Scots Language Society (winter 2004), which included an excellent article by Dr Philip Robinson entitled 'Charles Dickens, Belfast and the Ulster-Scots'.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

A new approach to housing

In a post earlier today on Slugger O'Toole, Mick Fealty said: 'Whatever the nature of the problems in housing provision, and it has to be said the local administration is certainly exposing more knotty problems than most departments, a revision of the purpose of public funded housing, its role within the wider economy, and the validity of current goals is long overdue.'

Mick has recognised that the Department for Social Development has 'exposed more knotty problems than most departments'.  There is no point in trying to bury problems - get them addressed.

He then calls for 'a revision of the purpose of public funded housing, its role within the wider economy, and the validity of current goals' and says it 'is long overdue'.  I agree that it is overdue and in fact I and my officians have been working on the production of a new housing strategy for Northern Ireland, one that is comprehensive and coherent.  This will build on the current review of the Northern Ireland housing Executive, the registration of private landlords and the ongoing work with housing associations and it will cover a wide range of housing issues. 

On several occasions I have mentioned that a new strategy will be forthcoming fairly soon and it is something that we need, especially in the context of welfare reform.

The nanny state?

In his Irish News column today (21 January), Newton Emerson asked: 'Now that health minister Edwin Poots has banned cigarette vending machines, what is the next item on the nanny statelet agenda?'

Newton Emerson seems to have something of a libertarian agenda and opposes what he describes pejoratively as a 'nanny statelet'.  However most folk support the concept of state intervention in the interest of public health and wellbeing.

For example, in 2004 the King's Fund, an independent think tank, conducted a survey of more than 1,000 people and found that most favoured policies that combated certain behaviours, such as eating a poor diet or public smoking.

We have heard the use of the term 'nanny state' in the past in relation to legislation on such things as the wearing of safety helmets by motor cyclists or the wearing of seat belts in motor cars.  However both items of legislation are now recognised to have saved lives and reduced serious injuries in accidents.  Are these not good outcomes and do they not justify the legislation?

It is too easy for libertarians to trot out their empty slogans about a 'nanny state'.  No, if we are a caring an compassionate society that we do well to consider the wellbeing of others.

So then, Edwin Poots was right in relation to cigarette vending machines, which are a major source of supply for cigarettes for young people.  A survey in 2010 showed that vending machines were the usual source of cigarettes for 14%  of smokers aged between 11 and 16.  Jayne Murray of the British Heart Foundation in Northern Ireland  said, 'Vending machines don't ask for proof of age and are an easy route for children to tobacco.'

It is estimated that there are 1,800 cigarette vending machines in Northern Ireland and their removal will certainly help to reduce the number of children who smoke.  That is to be welcomed.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Gunfight at OK Corral - the Ulster connections

The Gunfight at the OK Corral took place on 26 October 1881 at Tombstone, Arizona Territory.  The gunfight lasted less than a minute but today it is one of the best-known events in the history of the West.  However it was relatively unknown until 1931 when Stuart Lake wrote a largely fictional biography Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal, two years after Wyatt died.  It was also the subject and title of a 1957 film starring Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas and has featured in many other books and films. 

On one side were Wyatt Earp , his brothers Morgan and Virgil Earp, and Doc Holliday.  On the other side were brothers Tom and Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton.  It is said that the McLaury brothers had repeatedly threatened the Earps because they interfered with their illegal activities but the circumstances surrounding the gunfight and the events of the day have been the subject of extensive discussion.

Tom and Frank McLaury, the main protagonists on one side were certainly Scotch-Irish, and the Earp family, the main protagonists on the other side, were also of Ulster descent. 

The first emigrant, Thomas Earp (1631-1720), was born in the Barony of Fews in county Armagh and emigrated from Ulster to America at the end of the 17th century. 

Josiah Earp was the first 'Fighting Earp', enlisting in the Colonial Army in Maryland in 1789.  Soon after the war Phillip Earp moved to Kentucky, which is where Wyatt's grandfather, Walter Earp, raised most of his children.  Walter was a schoolteacher, a JP  and a Methodist Episcopal preacher. 

Walter married Martha Ann Early (1790-1880) from North Carolina and they were the parents of Nicholas Porter Earp (1813-1907).

In 1840 he married his second wife, Ann Cooksey, and in 1847 the family moved to Monmouth, Illinois.  They were the parents of Wyatt Earp, who was born on 19 March 1848.

Allen Barra, Inventing Wyatt Earp: His life and legends: New York, 1998

Seamus Mallon on the Ulster-Scots

The current debate about Scotland and independence is providing some interesting references to the connections between Ulster and Scotland.  However Seam Mallon's intervention was notable for being particularly ill-tempered and ill-informed.

Salmond told the Morning Show on RTE: 'I am sure, as many people in Ireland will remember, that sometimes people in leadership positions in big countries find it very difficult not to bully small countries.  Of course, what we have seen - as everybody knows - over the last week is the most extraordinary attempt to intimidate Scotland by Westminster politicians.'

Later in the interview he said, 'As again the people of Ireland will know, bullying and hectoring the Scottish people from London ain't going to work.'

However Seamus Mallon, a former leader of the SDLP, was not impressed by Salmond's attempt to draw parallels between Scottish nationalism and Irish nationalism:  'Scotland was part of the bullying that took place in Ireland.  People from Scotland were the corner of the plantation of Ulster.  I think alex is a very able performer, but his knowledge of history is a little weak.  As recently as 15 years ago, you had Scottish regiments here, enforcing the writ of Britain so, I think I could recommend a good history of Ireland for him.'

Seamus Mallon was aware that in the 17th century the majority of the settlers in Ulster were Scottish but in other ways his knowledge of that period of Ulster history is serious deficient.  He is certainly in no position to lecture Salmond.  Mallon is still wedded to an outdated and ill-informed view of the 17th century and would benefit from reading some of the insights of the late Professor A T Q Stewart.

Mallon has been described as a moderate nationalist but he was always a cultural bigot.

Peter Robinson: 'I speak as an Ulster-Scot'

The issue of a proposed referendum on independence for Scotland was raised on the fringes of the British Irish Council in Dublin yesterday.  There was an interesting intervention by First Minister Peter Robinson who said:
If what we have seen over the last few days is a trailer of things to come, then unless we like seeing the sight of our own blood, we might want to stand back somewhat.  I speak as a unionist but also as an Ulster-Scot.  Clearly, I have a massive interest in what happens and what decision the people of Scotland will take.   They do need to know that there are many people that feel they have a very valuable contribution to make to the UK as a whole who want to see them continue to do that.  Our peoples have moved from one side of that small stretch of water to the other and back again many times over the centuries, so we have a massive interest.  I don't think we can sit by and indicate that it is a matter for Scotland alone.  It will have implications for us all.  We hope Scotland knows how much we want them to remain within the UK.
Peter Robinson's comments will strike a chord with many other Ulster-Scots.  The position of Scotland within the United Kingdom should be valued and cherished.  The United Kingdom would be diminished if Scotland were to leave and we are right to say to the Scots that we see them as our kith and kin across the 'narrow sea'.  Throughout history that sea has been a bridge rather than a barrier.
There are strong historical, social, cultural, spiritual and financial bonds between the people of Ulster and the people of Scotland.  There are also strong bonds with the other parts of the United Kingdom but those with Scotland are especially strong.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Equestrian statues

Yesterday I came across the following in a magazine I was reading:

If a statue of a person on a horse has both of the horse's front legs in the air, the person died in battle.  If the horse has one front leg in the air the person died as a result of wounds received in battle.  If the horse has all four legs on the ground, the person died of natural causes.

I posted it here without really thinking about it but soon received a response stating that it was an urban myth. 

That did set me thinking and of course the statue of William III in Clifton Street in Belfast does not accord with the 'rule'.  Neither indeed does it apply to the equestrian statue of William III in Bristol.  William died in 1702 from pneumonia after a riding accident and yet in both cases he horse has one leg raised.

Whether or not it was ever a rule for equestrian statues at some period in the distant past or in some country or culture, I do not know.  However it is clear that that around the world today there is no correlation between the horse's legs and the manner of death of the rider.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Frances Black and Martin McGuinness

The Weekend magazine in the Belfast Telegraph on Saturday night (7 January) carried an interview with Irish singer Mary Black and in it there was a reference to her sister Frances Black, who is also a folk singer.  It mentioned that Frances had endorsed Martin McGuinness in his presidential campaign in the Irish Republic in October 2011 and it reminded me that this was certainly not her first foray into the world of politics.

Exactly ten years before that, in October 2001, she supported the campaign for the three IRA men arrested in Colombia.  She also sang at the Hunger Strike 25th anniversary rally in Casement Park in Belfast in August 2006.

Of course she is not the only prominent figure in the field of Irish music to be associated with republican politics but it is interesting to consider the way in which a number of prominent public figures from entertainment and sport are quite relaxed and even enthusiastic about identifying with Irish republicanism.

They obviously feel that it will not damage their careers and there is no evidence that it does damage their careers, although their commitment to the republican cause may be such that they would do it it anyway.