Wednesday, December 12, 2007

John Luke Mural Mentioned in Assembly

While looking through the Northern Ireland Assembly's Written Answers to Questions of Friday 30 November 2007, I noticed that the matter of Belfast's lost John Luke Mural made a welcome appearance.

Nelson McCausland MLA asked the Minister for Employment and Learning to provide the date the John Luke Mural was removed from the Belfast Institute of Further and Higher Education complex at Millfield and the current location and ownership of the mural.

The minister, Sir Reg Empey MLA replied: "The John Luke Mural was removed from the Belfast Metropolitan College’s Millfield site on 2 February 2003. It is owned by John Eastwood and Sons Ltd and is currently in storage at Walter Graham Haulage Ltd, Airport Road West, Belfast."

Mr McCausland's motive in raising this issue is unclear. The Great Wee Azoo awaits developments with interest.

The story of how the famous mural fell into private hands can be found here.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Enormous Turnip Awards - Clapham Junction

Clapham Junction, written by Kevin Elyot and broadcast last night on Channel 4 as part of it's Gay Season, should perhaps have been subtitled 'One Ring to Bind Them All' since its narrative centred around the meanderings of a civil partnership wedding band through the lives of a group of gay men in London.

The opening scene indicated that we were to be presented with something very different to what gay drama had offered up in the past. Delivered entirely without irony, it saw a TV commissioner rejecting a gay-themed script because he felt the whole "gay thing" had passed its sell-by date. If only Mr Elyot had listened to his scripted avowal. Rather than illuminating the prevalence of homophobic violence in today's society, Clapham Junction laid bare the writer's internal homophobia. What followed had little to say about the lives of gay men in 2007.

The gay lives portrayed here were, for the most part, brutish and without redemption. Sexual couplings were drug-fuelled, violent and often took place in public toilets, where heads were banged off walls and cocks thrust through cubical partitions. We had the usual array of queer stereotypes, including the married man who gets a bit in the toilets on the way home from work, the self-loathing psycho who loves his Nan but commits acts of random violence against other gay men, the frustrated schoolboy and the alcohol-swigging predator, who can't keep it in his pants, even on his wedding - sorry, civil partnership - day. And most startling of all, there was a man who was "inside for interfering with youngsters." Quite what a paedophile was doing in a drama which announced itself to be the story of 36 hours in the lives of a group of gay men is anyone's guess. Lesbian characters were wholly absent.

"I like the Third Reich," said the 14 year-old history student, as he made sexual approaches to the sex offender, conjuring up hackneyed images of merry queers in Nazi uniforms, mincing about to Liza Minnelli records. "Perhaps we enjoy sniffing around in dark places," said another character at an oh-so-polite, middle class dinner party which vainly attempted to contextualise the queer zeitgeist in a stream of clumsy dialogue.

Later, one of the awfully polite women at said dinner party goes all funny because the sex offender lives close to her. She's so affronted that she has to run home lest the vile paedo interferes with her son. Rushing to her son's room, she discovers he's gone. But what's this she sees across the street? It's her boy, framed in the sulphurous light emanating from the window of the paedo's lair. She rushes over and an unlikely confrontation ensues. Meanwhile, our cute-faced psycho gets a taste of his own violence and ends up trying to touch up the gay doctor, even though he's stretched out, bashed and bloody, on a hospital stretcher. Wouldn't you? You see, the doctor notices that the psycho has The Ring, which actually belongs to the doctor's partner, who gave the ring to the waiter after he had sex with him. The waiter then got murdered on the common and was discovered by the psycho, who had actually met him earlier in a club. They all lined up and with a big heave-ho, the enormous turnip was pulled up out of the ground.

Clapham Junction was TV drama trapped in a self-loathing, 1980s timewarp. It was like witnessing a piece of right-wing propaganda emerge from a parallel universe where Russell T. Davies' Queer as Folk, with all of its pathos and exuberance, never happened.

Clapham Junction, step up to the podium and accept your turnip.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Bad Art - Kieran Doherty Wall

Oh, my eyes! Just look at this thing I discovered on a gable wall in West Belfast.

It's not exactly a mural but a painting on boards, which have been joined together and framed.

The subject of this art atrocity is republican hunger striker, Kieran Doherty, who died in 1981 after 73 days without food.

I've no idea who the 'artist' of this piece is, but he or she should be stopped from inflicting such art crimes on the general public.

I'm particularly taken with Mr Doherty's mutant arms, one of which reaches forward to rest awkwardly on his leg while the other hangs limp, as if broken. Observe the breast pocket and those little creases on the right sleeve and bellow with laughter.

Public art should surely do something to lift the tone of an area and imbue its residents with a sense of community pride and identity. This dreadfully inept painting just makes me want to turn my gaze away to hide my embarrassment.

Somebody, please take it down and get an artist who actually knows how to paint to design a replacement.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Bad Art - Johnny Adair Book Cover

While walking through Easons the other day, my eyes were assailed by this laughably posed image of Johnny Adair on the cover of a book about him.

The book, 'Mad Dog' is ghostwritten by a Scottish News of the World journalist and is published by John Blake Publishing. A blurb on the back cover announces that Johnny is "Dedicated to achieving lasting peace." Quite.

I would suggest that John Blake Publishing is guilty of elevating this horrendous creature to the status of vapid celebrity with this ludicrous image. Its crass composition and lack of subtlety plumbs the depths of celebrity porn. What's worse is that its placement among equally irrelevant books by Victoria Beckham, Jordan and Jeremy Clarkson reframes the crimes of Adair as subjects of mindless gossip to be unit-shifted to equally mindless consumers.

'Mad Dog' will either end up in the bargain bin or be turned into a film, with Adair as its script editor. We are surely living in the End of Days.

Friday, July 13, 2007

The Dismal Twelfth

During yesterday's TV broadcasts, BBC Northern Ireland seemed to be doing its best to dress up the annual Belfast Twelfth of July parade as a fun-filled carnival. Presenters, Joe McKee and Clifford Smyth wittered inanely as fat, tattooed, corner boys swung their drums and beer bellies along the wet Belfast streets to the whining strain of flutes. Lord Mayor, Jim Rogers was there, spouting delusional rhetoric about how Catholics and ethnic minority people could enjoy the parade. As if to underline his foolishness, the Ulster Special Constabulary Lodge marched by.

The Ulster Defence Regiment was also represented. One banner displayed an army checkpoint. Others showed images of churches and unionist political leaders and announced their adherents as 'Bible and Crown Defenders' from various regions. Vans draped in union flags crawled by, sheltering geriatrics. "There's a great atmosphere here," said Clifford Smyth, attempting to convince himself that his trite comments had any bearing on reality.

Impartial BBC reporter, Helen Mark, talked to bystanders about how it's all wonderful for Northern Ireland. A DUP counsellor spoke of the parade as one of Europe's best folk festivals. Tourists from various nations were paraded before the camera to impart positive sound-bytes, although this tactic backfired somewhat when a man from Slovakia said that it all reminded him of the communist parades of his youth.

To listen to the voice of the BBC, you could be forgiven for thinking that the whole spectacle was akin to a Notting Hill style knees-up. All rational and objective analysis went out the window.

It was much the same over on UTV where, amid last year's recycled, cost-cutting graphics, tourists were similarly thrust before cameras and children danced on bouncy castles. "What's really nice is that for the first time in Hollywood, King Billy is leading the parade," said the announcer as a portly gentleman in a wig and period dress perched himself atop a white horse.

Back on BBC One, Sarah Travers strutted out onto a virtual, techno-set to preside over a montage of lobotomised reportage. The tone was jovial, light-hearted and filled with cliche.

"At times it seemed more like Glastonbury," said one BBC commentator, as the camera roved across a field hosting predictable, political speeches from the backs of lorries while church bands played from beneath rain-blasted tents. Here is a world where balding, municipal officials, draped in sashes, mouth Biblical platitudes while women with bad haircuts make the sandwiches and praise The Lord.

At the heart of this empty spectacle, the Orange Order was reconfigured as a family-friendly, tourist interest with the local, broadcast media as its unquestioning cheerleaders. The emperor wasn't wearing any clothes but no one on TV was prepared to admit it.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Comparing Pavements

I'm just back from an excursion to the Iberian Peninsula and I've brought back some lovely pictures of the pavements of Portugal and Spain.

Cast your eyes at the well-maintained pavements below and compare them to the dreadful pavements of Belfast city centre.

First, the Spanish and Portuguese pavements:

Now, brace yourself for an assault by the Belfast pavements:

I gather plans are afoot to regenerate Belfast city centre. Whether the money will be used to give these disgraceful pavements a much-needed makeover remains to be seen.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Pavement Hieroglyphs

Strange, multi-coloured hieroglyphs have appeared on the streets of downtown Belfast.

Most of this street-art is centred around the Ugliest Street in Belfast, making me wonder if the ugliest street is about to get a whole lot uglier.

As I photographed the offending graffiti, I noticed that many of the brick pavements have been further marred by fresh fillings of black tarmac. Such is the policy of the Northern Ireland Roads Service.

I'm unable to decipher the meaning behind the pavement scrawlings, but since many are grouped around manhole covers and other street furniture, I'm speculating that Roads Service is about to dig things up and fill in the resulting holes with more unsightly tarmac.

However, I'm prepared to be proved wrong. Perhaps Roads Service has seen the errors of its penny-pinching ways and is about to embark on a major pavement improvement scheme.

The Great Wee Azoo will keep you updated.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Bog Meadows and Baby Graves

On Sunday, I went for a trip to the Bog Meadows Nature Reserve, the largest stretch of untamed marshland in Belfast and home to much wildlife. The site is managed by the Ulster Wildlife Trust and is the recipient of a UNESCO award.

Had UNESCO visited at the weekend, it might have been disappointed by the apparent lack of conservation assigned to the area. I counted at least five shopping trolleys, either cast into the canals or dumped amid the foam upholstery of a discarded chair and the rusted frame of a old bicycle. A possible sixth shopping trolley seemed to have biodegraded into the wet earth, with only a single remaining wheel betraying its presence.

There was something upsetting at witnessing a mother duck and her cute brood of ducklings attempting to negotiate their way around an array of detritus dumped in the stream.

Things were no better down at the pond. Signs which once provided information on the habitat had been torn away. A man and two children were throwing bread to the wildfowl, while drinking from fizzy drinks cans. Once the picnic was finished, the cans and associated rubbish were thrown into the reeds to join the other litter dumped there.

I went looking for the bird hide, which was advertised on a map of the area but I couldn't find it. Eventually, I meandered into a stretch of mucky forest before tumbling over a fence into the baby graves of Milltown Cemetery.

The baby graves, displaying stone teddy bears, sleeping angels and faded flowers, looked like the kinds of graves children might design for themselves, if they had the chance. They are small and bright and clustered together beneath the knotted weeds at the most salient edge of the Cemetery.

Although I'm not an expert on the history of Catholic burial, I'm aware that the church forbade babies who were stillborn or who died prior to baptism a place in their Heaven - or to put it in church lingo, the babies were denied communion with the Beatific Vision. Instead they were interred in unconsecrated ground and condemned to inhabit the Limbo of Children, a kind of netherworld between Heaven and Hell.

On examining the gravestones in the plot, I couldn't see one that extended beyond 1979. Many were dated in the 1950s and 1960s. I've since discovered that it was 1970 before the church introduced a funeral rite for unbaptised infants and 1992 before the Catechism of the Catholic Church noted that babies who died unbaptised might still be saved.

However, on 20 April 2007, the Catholic Church's International Theological Commission published a document entitled "The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptised", which notes that the Limbo of Children remains a "Possible theological opinion," but indicates there are "Serious theological and liturgical grounds for hope that unbaptised infants who die will be saved and enjoy the Beatific Vision." It also states that "These are reasons for prayerful hope, rather than grounds for sure knowledge," and concludes: "It must be clearly acknowledged that the church does not have sure knowledge about the salvation of unbaptised infants who die."

It must also be acknowledged that publications issued by the International Theological Commission are not recognised as authoritative church teaching. The musings contained in the document suggest that the Catholic Church doesn't really believe in Limbo but isn't going to officially endorse its banning or issue any apology to the parents of generations of dead babies. Such is the compassion of the Vatican.

In researching this post, I came across this article which tells the story of eighty year old Mary Salmon from Letterfrack, Co. Galway, who, in 1994, finally witnessed the Catholic Church blessing her two dead children and many others, who were refused a Christian burial sixty years ago.

Speaking of the stillbirth of her children, Mrs Salmon said: "I didn't even get to see the baby. My husband had the child in a little box and took it to the seashore two miles away. Then I lost another baby and it was buried there as well. Hundreds of babies are buried here. We were told they were in Limbo and could not be let into consecrated ground."

Mrs Salmon has raised a memorial stone to all of the dead children buried in the unconsecrated plot at Letterfrack. Her actions are not unprecedented. In opposition to the church, John Tohill, once Bishop of Down and Connor, who died in 1914, chose to be buried in the unconsecrated plot at Milltown Cemetery, so that the blessings bestowed on him would extend to the entire plot.

More recently at Milltown, the Catholic Church has erected a rather ugly monument to na leanaĆ­ (the children) although there's no information display to indicate the reason for this structure's existence. It's even surrounded by a metal cage, probably to deter teenage drinkers from inhabiting the space, although said drinkers couldn't do any worse damage to the memory of the dead babies than the damage already done by the Catholic Church.

By the way, I eventually found the bird hide, although it was hidden behind a locked gate at the other end of the cemetery.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Northwin and PFI in Northern Ireland

On examining the impact of the Private Finance Initiative in Northern Ireland, it becomes clear that one consortium towers above all others: Northwin.

The Northwin Consortium comprises some of Northern Ireland's leading construction companies, including Farrans Limited, Braidwater Enterprises Limited and John Graham (Dromore) Limited. It has been involved in the construction of a number of educational facilities in Northern Ireland.

In Belfast, Northwin was involved in the construction and operation of Wellington College and Balmoral High School. These projects cost around £18m.

Wellington College was originally to be a thirty-six acre site but ended up with only eleven acres. The rest of the land was used by Northwin to build 350 houses, which they then sold at a large profit.

Speaking at the launch of the Wellington Square housing development in June 2002, Sir Reg Empey, representing Belfast City Council, said:

"The Council have been encouraging redevelopment of existing land within Belfast, which helps to reduce traffic difficulties on approach roads and continues the reinvigoration of the city.”

However, once the tenants took possession of their new properties, they discovered that their bedrooms were not as big as they should have been. An advertising brochure noted the rooms should have measured 10' 2" x 8' 7", instead of the existing 8' 8" x 8' 7" - a difference in excess of 12 square feet.

Northwin was fined under the Property Misdescriptions Act 1991, after admitting falsely describing the size of the bedrooms.

On 21 May 2002, a month prior to Sir Reg’s ringing endorsement of the Northwin’s scheme, Monica McWilliams MLA, addressed the Northern Ireland Assembly:

“To date, my experience of public-private partnerships has not been healthy. I want to give an example of something that occurred in my constituency, South Belfast. There were rugby and hockey pitches on the site of Wellington College. Northwin Ltd moved in to develop the site. I understand that the school was built on a much smaller scale than was initially thought to be required, leaving no room for expansion. The development benefited from public land. I attended a public inquiry at which those responsible for planning control were in dispute with the Department of Education over what should have happened to that public land. As we all know, developers win such disputes. What was a piece of green land and open space is now gone.”

Yet the warning signs had been flagged up years before, in the Northern Ireland Forum for Political Dialogue report: ‘The Implications of Public/Private Partnerships for Education Services in Northern Ireland’ (5 December 1997). It noted:

“Third party revenue proposals could involve conflicts of interest over incompatible alternative uses of spare school lands or facilities. Both Wellington College, Belfast and the North West Institute, Londonderry have valuable surplus lands which could be developed for non-educational purposes. The public sector needs to be sure that the true value of surplus assets is reflected in the level of repayments so that a fair share of the benefits goes to the public purse. Commercial attractiveness will lead to “cherry picking” of school projects and the danger of skewing development away from education priorities and running foul of the government’s own policies on equity.”

The Belfast Education and Library Board (BELB) should have paid heed to that report. It might have avoided the PFI disaster associated with Balmoral High School.

In 2000, the BELB signed a PFI agreement with Northwin to construct a new building for Balmoral High School.

However, the completed building was twice the size than that which was required. The school began to witness dwindling enrolment figures and ended up only 40% full.

Yet under the PFI deal, the BELB is contractually obliged to keep making payments to Northwin for the next twenty years. The consortium has already been paid between £800,000 and £850,000 per year for the provision of Balmoral High School and has received land worth £3.28m as part of the PFI deal.

The BELB has decided that closing the school in August 2007 is its best option.

In 2004, the Audit Office examined five early PFI projects for schools and colleges in Northern Ireland and noted that almost all of them were of a lower design quality than schools built through the traditional public funding route.

On 24 April 2001, Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC) presented a written analysis of the use of public/private partnerships to the Committee for Finance and Personnel. The report notes:

“There are also many misconceptions associated with Public Private Partnerships. It is important that misconceptions are identified, defined and overcome so that Public Private Partnerships become an accepted and standard form of public procurement… There has been very little use of the Private Finance Initiative in the water and sewerage, roads and public transport sectors. However, there is a need for substantial capital investment in these sectors, and international experience suggests that projects in these sectors are suited to the Public Private Partnership approach.”

With the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly, one anticipates that the new Committee for Finance and Personnel may well reach for PPP/PFI as a solution to the postponed water rates. Doubtless, Northwin will be waiting in the wings.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

John Luke Mural Falls into Private Hands

In July 2000, the Belfast Institute of Further and Higher Education (BIFHE) signed a contract with Northwin Limited, to enable Northwin to provide a replacement college building on the old Millfield campus site.

The project would cost around £20m.

The Northwin Consortium is the leading educational Private Finance Initiative provider in Northern Ireland and comprises some of Northern Ireland's leading construction companies, including Farrans Limited, Braidwater Enterprises Limited and John Graham (Dromore) Limited.

After the old college buildings were demolished, all that stood on the site was a single section of wall, 9 x 6 meters, heavily wrapped in protective coverings. It eventually disappeared and work began on building the replacement college.

The new campus became operational in September 2002, with Graham Facilities Management providing the on-site catering, cleaning, porterage, security and the day nursery in addition to building and engineering maintenance over the next 25 years.

I often wondered what became of that last remaining section of wall at the old college site. Painted on it was a mural depicting Belfast’s industrial past, by celebrated local artist, John Luke (1906 – 1975). Luke began work on the mural in 1961 and worked on it intermittently for ten years, but never finished it.

Although known as a traditional easel-painter, Luke turned to mural painting in 1950 when he was commissioned to paint a mural in Belfast City Hall to mark the 1951 Festival of Britain. Another mural by Luke can be found in Rosemary Street Masonic Hall.

Under a Freedom of Information request, I contacted BIFHE to inquire after the mural and discovered that the Institute made an application to the Heritage Lottery Fund for £44,500 funding to remove the mural from the old Millfield site and donate it to the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum. However, according to BIFHE, the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum was unable to give any guarantees about when the mural might be placed on public display (a condition for funding imposed by the Heritage Lottery Fund) and the funding was withdrawn in February 2007.

Meanwhile, John Eastwood and Sons Ltd stepped into the picture and claimed the mural under a salvage clause in a demolition contract they had with Northwin. BIFHE initially defended Eastwood’s legal challenge. However, following protracted negotiations and legal advice the institute reluctantly conceded ownership.

The mural, once a public asset and part of Belfast's artistic heritage, is thought to be worth around £250,000 in the right location. I've no information on who was responsible for allowing the mural to fall into private hands, or if anyone at BIFHE was disciplined over the matter.

BIFHE is currently in discussions with Northwin on a project involving the replacement of existing accommodation at campuses in Brunswick Street and College Square East. The capital value is approximately £42 million.

Image: The Old Callan Bridge, Armagh 1945 by John Luke

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Moron Moments - Frankie Gallagher UPRG

After the threat of implementing water charges in order to drive the electorate to the polls, the British Government has today announced it will throw £1 million at the Ulster Defence Association, clearly in an attempt to secure unionist support of a new assembly at Stormont.

I'll not bother complaining about how this expenditure is to be delivered to an armed and active paramilitary group, while many small charities are forced to downsize or close due to a lack of government funding. I've done this already: here and here.

Frankie Gallagher of the Ulster Political Research Group, a thinly veiled front for the UDA, appeared on BBC Radio Ulster this morning and tried vainly to justify the merits of this latest funding package. He noted that the loyalist community and the loyalist paramilitaries are one and the same and explained ongoing loyalist violence and racketeering as resulting from the actions of criminals using the good name of the UDA.

Amid the squall of bleats and excuses that ensued, came this wonderful gem of clarity from Mr Gallagher: "We're on the long march, like Ho Chi Minh and all the other Chinese philosophers who did that."

Such is the intellectual capacity of the UPRG and all who sail within it.

Rather than complain any further, I suggest that Mr Gallagher invests his glittering prize in the establishment of an education centre as a matter of grave urgency.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Big Bad Cahal Daly

Inspired by the Northern Ireland Press Photographers Association, whose work is currently on display at the Ormeau Baths Gallery in Belfast.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Assembly Election Blues

Forgive me for failing to wade into the arena of political commentary associated with the most recent elections. I’ve grown tired of the whole miserable and predictable affair. At least one consolation of the outcome is the relegation of Bob McCartney, Diane Dodds and Paul Berry to the skip of political history, although McCartney’s overwhelming vanity will doubtless prompt a reawakening, much in the mould of a returning Buffy villain.

And forgive me for not joining in with the mewling of appreciation directed by all and sundry at newly elected Alliance member, Anna Lo.

I recall Mrs Lo appearing on TV some years back, when loyalists were condemning the Chinese community for daring to consider Donegall Pass in Belfast as the location for their new community centre. Leaflets were circulated noting that the proposals for the new centre ‘undermines the community’s Britishness.’

At the time, Mrs Lo said nothing of the racism inherent in loyalism, failed to point her finger at the villains and ended up issuing only oblique comments on Chinese people not being accepted. Perhaps the beleaguered Chinese community feared that any criticism directed at the loyalist tormentors would result in attacks against them. Unfortunately, it’s not an untypical response from minority groups faced with such intolerance.

In Northern Ireland, there is a belief that minority communities tend to shy away from any identification with the orange and green landscape that surrounds them. A friend of mine pointed out that he felt many immigrants tended to subtly align themselves with political unionism, since it’s the dominant culture and to do otherwise would be to cast oneself as opposed to the state.

I’ve sometimes found that, within the gay community in Northern Ireland, many of the male-dominated groups tend to gravitate towards a unionist ethic, despite the unionist political parties having displayed a woeful and homophobic gay rights record. I think this alignment has something to do with a need for queer activists to engage with Westminster in an attempt to overturn homophobic legislation.

Lesbian groups, on the other hand, lacking any British legislation directed against them, haven’t needed to talk to Westminster to the same extent, which perhaps explains the existence of a more visible republican ethic in many lesbian groups here.

Limitations aside, the gay community (or should that be communities) in Northern Ireland has made many efforts to engage with ethnic minority groups. However, within the ethnic minority communities, there exists an inability – or refusal – to join with the queers in opposition to all kinds of intolerance, no matter where it comes from or what shape it takes. I’ve attended many meetings and rallies where the drive to combat racism is shouted from platforms by the usual faces, without homophobia ever being mentioned. It’s as if the many homophobic attacks never happened, skilfully airbrushed away to placate the apologists for religious dogma who prevail within some anti-racist circles.

I don't want to be too hard on Anna Lo. I'm sure she has achieved a great deal through her work for the Chinese community. However, when she demonstrates an ability to make the kind of minority community alliances that reach beyond those she's used to working with, then I’ll pay attention to what she has to say. Alas, I don’t expect it to happen anytime soon.

Sunday, March 11, 2007


Inspired by the Northern Ireland Press Photographers Association, whose work is currently on display at the Ormeau Baths Gallery in Belfast.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Swimming Pool Chemicals

After a streaming and red-eyed experience while swimming in a local pool, I got in touch with Belfast City Council to see if they could let me know what chemicals are used in council swimming pools. After a long wait, I got the following list of chemicals from the manager of the pool:

Calcium Hypochlorite tablets are used to generate Chlorine that is required to destroy the organic contaminants in the water.

Poly Aluminium Chloride is a flocculation agent which helps the sand filters to remove very finely suspended matter and algae, colouring matter and a portion of the bacteria in the water.

CO2 gas is used for pH control while Ozone and UV treatment is used for pool disinfection and helps reduce the level of chlorine required in the pool.

Liquid Algaecide kills or inhibits the multiplication of algae in the pool.

Sodium Bicarbonate is used to raise pH while Sodium Bisulphate is used to lower pH.

Chlorine is used in all Belfast City Council pools. A few pools in the UK use Bromine-based disinfectants but apparently there are doubts about the evidence for their effectiveness as compared to chlorine-based disinfectants. With heavy bather loads, such as in Belfast pools, Chlorine use is recognised as best practice within the industry.

After an on-line search, I found this site, which explains that eye irritation usually arises because of an inadequate water-balancing process (i.e. the relationship of different chemicals to each other in the pool). Therefore, it would appear that the red eyes occurred due to an inadequate amount of chlorine in the pool.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Education Electioneering

Electioneering swung into sharp focus this morning when a gaggle of local politicians were wheeled into BBC Radio Ulster’s odious Nolan Show. The discussion (and I hesitate to use this word; ‘rant’ would be more appropriate) centered on integrated education while Nolan snorted and waved his arms in a display of predictable indignation. The entire episode reminded me of a 1970s James Young sketch, wherein various personalities exercised their sectarianism for cheap laughs. How little things have changed.

I didn’t catch the name of the Ulster Unionist representative, but he wasn’t one of the inner luminaries I recognised. He noted he was once in the UDR and squeaked for a little about terrorists in government. The DUP’s Iris Robinson upheld the state system and attacked integrated education, addressing Sinn Fein’s Catriona Ruanne as ‘That lady,’ while Ms Ruanne accused Mrs Robinson of playing the sectarian card. So far, so typical.

However, it was the SDLP’s Carmel Hannah who brought the quarrel to a depressing low in her description of local schools as either ‘Catholic schools’ or ‘Protestant schools’ thus underlining the sectarianism which I imagine is inherent in her party’s education policy. I was reminded of Richard Dawkins’ warning that we should never refer to children, for example, as ‘Catholic children’ but as ‘Children of Catholic parents’. The children are blank slates until they are conditioned, like Pavlov’s dogs, by zealous elders. Dawkins goes further and describes such contamination of child minds as akin to child abuse.

The squabble didn’t progress any further than these surface issues. No one was capable, or willing, to initiate an argument for the introduction of a secular education system. Ms Ruanne made the most coherent arguments, but stopped short of condemning the Catholic Church’s influence on schooling.

There was no mention of her own party’s mixed messages regarding the Private Finance Initiative – a government scheme which allows private companies to make huge profits through capital investment in the building of schools and hospitals. Indeed, during his brief tenure as education minister, Martin McGuinness acted like a master illusionist when he abolished the eleven-plus selection test with one hand, while administering PFI schemes with the other.

However, it would appear that the party has since backtracked on its support for PFI. In the introduction to a twenty-one-page policy paper on its website, Sinn Fein now condemns PFI as “An effort by the British Treasury to tighten its control over northern fiscal policy and to privatise public services.” Quite.

For a more coherent overview of the horrors of PFI, I suggest a trip to this article on George Monbiot’s site.

Meanwhile, I see that the Association for Quality Education (an alliance of groups opposed to the introduction of comprehensive education in Northern Ireland) has decreed that 'Computer Adaptive Testing' be considered in order to determine which child goes to which school. In short, the computer will decide. It's like something from dystopian fiction and conjures up images of rows of blank-faced children, plugged into flickering computer monitors while Stephen Nolan's missives ring in their ears.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Moron Moments - Lord Maginnis

Since the Police Ombudsman's unmasking of the RUC as a corrupt entity, unionist opinion has been muted or steeped in denial.

Over the last few days, Lord Maginnis has provided the loudest voice of opposition to Nuala O'Loan's investigation.

The Ombudsman's report noted that, between 1991 and 2003, RUC Special Branch paid £79,840 to a prominent UVF member who was acting as a police informer. They protected this informer (cited as Informer One) and other informers, and facilitated situations in which informants were able to continue to engage in paramilitary activity. Informer One was involved in ten murders, ten attempted murders, the targeting of an individual for murder, a bomb attack in Monaghan in 1997 and various paramilitary attacks, drug dealing and other criminal acts.

In the course of her investigation, the Police Ombudsman noted that several retired, high ranking officers either refused to cooperate, lied, attempted to obstruct the investigation or gave "farcical" answers, illustrating a "Contempt for the law".

Important documents went missing, were lost or destroyed. Evidence was withheld or concealed. Sham interviews with informants were conducted by Special Branch handlers, misleading interview notes were created and informers were released without charge. On one occasion, Special Branch officers discovered munitions at an informers home and did nothing about it. Junior officers were instructed that records should not be completed and forensic exhibits were destroyed.

On another occasion, after witnesses noted the killer of Gary Convie and Eamon Fox had a goatee beard, Special Branch officers allowed Informer One to shave off his goatee while in police custody.

In short, following in the footsteps of Stalker, Stevens, Cory and Barron, Mrs O'Loan has demonstrated what many already knew or suspected - that the RUC was routinely colluding with loyalist paramilitaries.

Confronted with this damning expose, Lord Maginnis has been barking and bullying his way though a series of TV and radio interviews, demonstrating that he is unable to construct a single, coherent argument to support his accusations that Mrs O'Loan is wrong. Instead, he shoots the messenger, attacks the integrity of the Ombudsman and accuses her staff of ineptitude.

In his apparent role of loyalist totem, through which all unionist psychology is channeled, Lord Maginnis dismisses the report as republican propaganda. His protestations are akin to those of a sex offender who refuses to accept he has done anything wrong, despite clear evidence to the contrary. Such is the nature of the unionist psyche.

Unionists seem unable or unwilling to accept the truth - that their empire was built on discrimination, corruption, collusion and cover-up. Instead of facing up to the realities of the past, Maginnis and his cronies clutch at straws, shriek with unfocused hysteria, point fingers and defend the agents of depravity as their vile little world frays at the edges.

"We've a great deal more experience than the Police Ombudsman's staff," shrieked Maginnis, during a TV interview on Monday. Quite who this "We" refers to is unclear, although it must be noted that Maginnis is an ex-UDR member, an organisation which was riddled with loyalist paramilitarists and had nineteen of its members convicted of murder.

The finding of the Police Ombudsman can not be allowed to be swept under the carpet. It is important that a full, public enquiry be conducted into this issue and that criminal prosecutions follow. The RUC should be stripped of its George Cross and Sir Ronnie Flannigan, Chief Constable of the RUC during the period of the investigation, should be held accountable and sacked as HM Inspectorate of Constabulary.

Detractors howl in derision at the notion of a public enquiry, citing the cost as prohibitive, although one can only guess how much money is spent on terrorising the citizens of Iraq, where former RUC officers, made redundant as a result of the Patten reforms of policing, now serve as private security contractors.

Indeed, one wonders if the disgusting tactics of the RUC have been exported from these shores and are now alive and kicking in Basra, Fallujah and Baghdad.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

David Ervine is the New George Best

Following its tedious and interminable coverage of the passing of George Best last year, BBC Radio Ulster continues to wallow in its cult of celebrity death. This time, David Ervine of the Progressive Unionist Party is the subject of adoration.

Mr Ervine died just over a week ago and, as expected, BBC Northern Ireland's airwaves have since been awash with lachrymose eulogies. Yesterday's edition of Talkback dedicated its first thirty-five minutes to mewing over Mr Ervine, often plumbing the most moronic and laughable depths.

One commentator noted that Mr Ervine was an icon for Protestant youth and a leader akin to Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King. I restrained myself from falling off my chair at such comparisons, although I couldn't help my mouth falling open.

"He gave me hope for Ulster," said one caller. Another noted that perhaps a scholarship should be offered in Mr Ervine's name, or a college established to "help bring people together."

It was suggested that the new Northern Irish stadium should be called 'The David Ervine Stadium' or that a bronze bust be located in City Hall.

The mewling and rending of garments continued. Blinding light poured from the radio. Phrases such as "The other persuasion" and "The Province" littered the discussion. Presenter, David Dunseith sighed with remorse. A pastor, and friend of Mr Ervine, spoke about hymns.

A caller noted: "I wish there was another airport we could name after him."

At this point, I abandoned restraint and fell off my chair.

Such is the state of reasoned journalism at BBC Radio Ulster. There was no significant exploration of Mr Ervine's role as a representative of an armed sectarian organisation committed to ensuring Unionist privelage through the killing of Catholics. Dissenting voices were absent, doubtless excised at the switchboard. Those whose comments managed to get read out were described as individuals unable to move on. The airbrushed cult of celebrity prevailed.

I searched for an antidote to these exaltations and came across this rather stark post by Liam Mac Uaid. I suggest Mr Mac Uaid be given a slot on Radio Ulster sometime this week, preferably just prior to Hugo Duncan's inane twittering, when an entire nation races for the off-switch.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Belfast Street Art

Here I present some of Belfast city centre’s street art.

This first selection is mainly from Mexican tattoo artist, Dr Lakra and Spanish artist, Geso.

Both artists were in Belfast last summer for Urban Eyes, an event organised by Belfast City Skinworks, Skullduggery Tatu and Catalyst Arts.

Aside from painting on walls, Dr Lakra, who has exhibited in London, Paris, Los Angeles and New York, also works graffiti over old magazine advertisements and found photographs of Mexican idols, masked wrestlers and pin-up girls.

As much as I admire the Day of the Dead-style pictures, their location on a fine, redbrick, Victorian building irks me somewhat. I’ve walked past this outdoor gallery often, but only recently ventured down the derelict College Court to actually examine the works and take some photographs.

Alas, since then, the art has been attacked by Morlocks with spray-cans and some of the painted figures now sport crudely drawn genetalia from their heads and bodies.

This next collage of photographs is of the last building standing in Edward Street, also decorated by Dr Latka.

It probably won’t be long before it’s pulled down to make way for the new St Anne’s Square development (due for completion in Autumn 2008).

Finally, I present for posterity what’s left of a mural from renouned artist, Mode 2.

I think this piece, in College Place North, was realised in August 1998 when Mode 2 ran mural workshops in Belfast. The paint is peeling and the inept tags of local Morlocks have molested most of the original artwork.

I imagine it will soon be painted over to complement the nice new building, which has recently risen up alongside it.