Saturday, 29 September 2018

Boris is a bit dim

So Boris Johnson has finally woken up to the fact that the Withdrawal Agreement signed with the EU last December is a duff deal and should be torn up. It has only taken him eight and a half months to agree with me (see Reasons To Be Cheerful - or Entangled, 8 December 2017, the day said agreement was published).

Boris now says the UK "stumbled and collapsed" into the Northern Ireland backstop arrangement which commits the UK to "in the absence of agreed solutions....maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union...." (a quote from the Agreement and my blog).

I said then "So the onus remains entirely on us to bring forward ideas to fix the potentially unfixable. The EU side can just refuse to agree to anything they or the Republic don't like. They don't have to do anything other than say "non"...... And, potentially to infinity, the UK is trapped maintaining "full alignment" with the single market and customs union. This gives the EU side the most enormous lever in future negotiations. I'm sure they won't hesitate to use it." This, I said, left us trapped in the Hotel California, checked out but unable to leave.

Now I don't actually believe Boris is dim, this must all have been obvious to him then. But it didn't suit him to say so. OK, hypocrite, rather than thick, I'll go for. I guess he is wondering if the time might now be "right". Cometh the hour....

Well time is certainly running short. What should we do? It's pretty clear to me that the Chequered Compromise, as I've been calling it, is as dead as Monty Python's parrot. The EU won't buy it, at least not without much further compromise on the UK side. And it won't remotely command a majority in the Commons. So why does Theresa carry on flogging this dead duck, amusingly compared to Count Ducula on Question Time last night as, like Dracula it seems to be "undead" and, at the same time, a laughing stock. I guess she feels there's still a chance, however remote, that the EU might blink first and agree to something like it and she's invested a lot of credibility in it.

But if they don't I actually agree with Boris that the best answer is a Canada Dry ("plus plus" or whatever) free trade agreement as that would actually mean we had left, free of the sovereignty denying ECJ, free to decide what we want to do on immigration, trading standards etc. Which might be to align with the EU in some cases but at least it will be our choice rather than their dictat.

And Ireland? I accept that Canada Dry leaves a problem if the EU will not accept checks away from the border, even though I believe they do this for the Spain-Canary Isles border that isn't (i.e. they are one country but the mainland is in the Customs Union and the Canaries aren't, so it isn't entirely analogous but it does seem to be relevant). But if I won't accept the Scottish tail wagging the UK dog, why should I accept the Irish? We simply go to the solution I have previously advocated - we don't have border checks but if the Irish Republic is told to by the EU then there's nothing we can do about that. Yes, it might hasten the day of a united Ireland which I would have resisted in the past but now the Republic is joining the modern, secular, world there wouldn't seem to be much to fear for the north. And the north seems to have decided it can't work together to govern itself anyway, having broken the world record last month for the length of time an elected assembly has gone without a government. (There has been no Stormont sitting since January 2017). So one could argue the north is essentially giving up the right to self determination.

I feel certain that, after the softening up period Theresa has given us in which business and the markets have begun to consider the cliff edge of a no-deal, a solution based on an agreed free trade deal would be greeted positively. The EU can hardly say no as it's one of their off the shelf models and doesn't prejudice the single market. And it probably could command a majority in the Commons, unless Labour succeed in a three-line whip against it intended only to force a General Election, given that the DUP may have a dummy throwing hissy fit. 

And, ironically, it's what the EU probably fear most - an independent Britain, entirely free to forge its own trade deals, set its own tax rates and leave the sclerotic EU behind in its wake. It's why they want to bind us close and to hamper our ability to manoeuvre.

For those of you wanting a second referendum, I'm sorry. I read several weeks ago that you're timed out: the earliest possible date, given the necessary Parliamentary schedule for an Act and the notice necessary, was then Thursday 28 March. So the most you can have is a referendum about rejoining. And I don't accept that it's sensible to ask a multiple choice question on the lines of "do you want deal A, deal B, deal C, no deal exit or remain" which would be a skewed question intended only to split the leave vote. Of course Leavers can't agree on the best solution, that's normal where there are multiple options.

That of course is all just my opinion. But I was taken by how solid the Question Time audience was last night. It was presented from Bishop Auckland and, by the sound of it, having predominantly voted leave they clearly felt we should, well, leave. Simple really.

So Theresa: time to switch horses. Or make way. But for Boris? Hmmm....

Friday, 28 September 2018

Further thoughts on the Tiger revival

Two other points I meant to make in my recent post Tiger on the prowl. The first was how different Tiger looks now he's playing like Eldrick rather than Baldrick.

I was reminded of the other by Sky commentator Ewan Murray, when he compared Woods's comeback to that of Muhammd Ali. Ali famously regained the world heavyweight title when he beat George Forman in The Rumble in the Jungle. I can still hear Harry Carpenter's commentary in my head: "He's won it back at the age of 32!" which was considered old for a boxer then. Mrs H will vouch that I had already said that Woods's return to glory was Ali-esque. There may be comebacks in sports I don't follow which bear comparison but the only other return to which I can compare Woods's rejuvenation is a Dr Who regeneration. And at the age of 42, which is fairly old for a golfer - only 22 of the recognised majors have been won by someone aged 42 or over in 446 attempts, several of those being more than a century ago.

So it would still be amazing if Woods was to win the 4 more majors he needs to equal Jack Niclaus's 18. But there's a chance....

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Tiger on the prowl, Everton make me scowl

At his age Tiger Woods's comeback from severe injury is already one of the greatest in the history of sport. While the story now rolls on to the Ryder Cup we are left with the tantalising thought for 2019 - could he win another Major? If his near miss at Carnoustie in July wasn't enough, his convincing win, front running like the Tiger of old at the PGA Tour Championship confirmed that the answer is yes, he could. Will he? It's going to be fascinating finding out.

While being an admirer of Woods's enormous talents as a golfer I was never an admirer of Woods as a person. But the new version of Tiger is easier to warm to. Two slow-mo replays from the weekend caught my eye. On the first tee Woods greeted Rory McIlroy with a firm but warm handshake, a smile and - unlike the old days - an exchange of pleasantries. (I do mean pleasantries, that's not a euphemism). But as the camera lingered, the smile faded and the stare went icier as Woods thought about the task at hand. And, just like days of yore, he proceeded to strangle the life out of a competitor who seemed to shrink from the opportunity of beating the master in his intimidating bright red shirt, which he traditionally wears on the final day of a competition. Except, while doing it, there were some smiles and conversation between the two rivals, at least once the round came towards its conclusion, with McIlroy no longer a threat.

The second replay was of Justin Rose, beaming ear to ear as he lifted the FedEx Cup, seized from Woods's grasp by Rose's birdie on the last hole. I should just point out to those who don't follow golf closely that the Tour Championship is a one off event at the end of the US PGA season but is also part of the FedEx Cup series. So Woods won the Tour Championship but Rose pipped him - by one shot gained on the very last hole - to the Fed Ex Cup. Of course Rose was beaming - the FedEx comes with a first prize of $10 million. But what's this? Just behind the oversize trophy one could see Woods was also smiling broadly. Probably not how the mark one Tiger would have reacted.

Whether Woods has really had a Damascene conversion as a human being is difficult to tell. But there does seem to have been a huge impact from the fact that he can now not only play golf again but compete at the highest level after he would have settled just to be free of pain from his injuries. We are all, in many ways, the sum of our experiences.

Now there's even talk of pairing him with his new best buddy Phil Mickelson, despite the fact that it was a complete train wreck last time it was done by an American Ryder Cup captain in 2004.  Mickelson has said that this was because the players weren't given much notice that they would be playing together. For the foursome (or "alternate shot" as the Amercians call it) the two players use the same ball and take turns to play it. So they have to agree on a ball to use. Tiger uses a low spin ball, Phil a high spin ball. Mickelson's pre-tournament practice was therefore entirely dedicated to familiarising with Tiger's choice of ball.

I'm sure that's true but, as all the world knew Woods was wont to refer to Mickelson as "phony Phil", I'm sure it wasn't remotely the half of it. Woods seemed to take exception to Mickelson's reputation as a "good guy", which was perhaps due in part to the fact that he would spend generous amounts of time signing autographs for fans after his rounds. Whereas Woods, who some years later confessed to being a sex addict, obviously had reasons not to hang around, playing the field instead of the crowd presumably.

The new found Woods and Mickelson friendship may be taken a step further in Paris before they contest a winner takes all $9 million exhibition match in Las Vegas in November. Have they, like any normal folk might, agreed behind the scenes to share the dosh with maybe 30% going to the loser? I'd bet not. Tiger might have smiled at Rose picking up the FedEx but it clearly still hurt a bit that he'd missed out on the $10M jackpot. I'll be giving that piece of tacky theatre a miss in favour of waiting for the first major of 2019, the US Masters in April.

Tiger might not be scowling as much these days but Everton are bringing a frown to my brow. After an opening fixture list that was, until last weekend's away match at Arsenal, considered easy they have only 6 points from 6 Premier League games - which is relegation form.  They actually played well against Arsenal: they pressed high, played with energy and made more chances than the home team. They were caught twice in 3 minutes just before the hour mark but the second Arsenal goal was clearly offside and would have been disallowed if VAR had been in use. And Arsenal were arguably fortunate not to play the entire second half with ten men as midfielder Lucas, already on a yellow card, clearly caught Everton's Digne late in the closing stages of the first half. Jon Moss may be one of the Premier League's better refs but it's no coincidence that there were no British referees at the summer's World Cup. So unlucky maybe, but teams at the bottom of the league often seem to be "unlucky".

Meanwhile one footballer catching the eye in the Premier League makes me wonder "what if"? Joao Moutinho is getting rave reviews for Wolves and scored at Old Trafford at the weekend. Moutinho joined Wolves in the summer. The reason for the "what if?" is that Everton made a bid for Moutinho in 2008 when he was 22. He was a player David Moyes (remember him?) identified as being one who could take Everton to the mythical "next level".  Everton had a pretty decent squad at the time, with skilful midfielders Arteta, Osman and Pienaar to supply a potent strike force of Tim Cahill and Yakubu. Moutinho's club wouldn't do business and Everton finished fifth for the second season in a row. Moyes was on to something. I'm not sure about Marco Silva. I hope he earns the five years Moyes had already had at Everton by the time he put that 2007-9 Everton team together. Watching Silva's team may be an improvement on the lastvtwo seasons but he needs to start getting some wins.

Thursday, 13 September 2018

Should the Catholic Church disband itself?

Religion wasn't one of the topics I intended to write about when I started this blog. Not just because it's classically a subject to avoid but partly because, having been steadfastly in the agnostic category for the most part since I was a teenager, whenever I thought much about the topic I decided it was in the "too difficult" tray, along with its related question "why are we all here?"

But Stephen Hawking's obituaries made me ponder Why are we here? (22 March) and  a review of John Gray's book Seven Types of Atheism made me posit Why We Can't Know Why We Are Here (28 April). I then read Yuval Noah Harari's fabulous book Sapiens, which I highly recommend, on holiday. It is thought provoking on many levels but he happens to provide a useful (and neutral) idiot's guide to religion as a concept and also to many of the main religions. Subsequently a friend has recommended another super and thought provoking book called The Language of God by Francis Collins. It is subtitled "A scientist presents evidence for belief". And not just any old scientist - Collins lead the team that deciphered the human genome. And another friend has provided me with a short but fundamental pamphlet What was God doing before Creation? which begs the answer "God only knows" but actually delves into the scientific realm from the theological perspective.

I'm still slowly trying to digest the jumble of ideas and hypotheses - c'mon, cut me some slack, there's been football, cricket and golf to contend with, as well as loads of work on the house and garden, let alone Brexit!

I will return to these more fundamental concepts one day but today I am addressing an entity which is related to religion and for some is the embodiment of it - an interesting phrase as I mean the Roman Catholic Church, with it's belief in transubstantiation. I nearly added "weird" before belief there, but that might reveal my prejudices and, I accept, could be offensive to Catholics even if they understand why non-Catholics might think that.

Indeed, I have considered more than once deleting the draft of this post as it may easily upset or offend some of my readers. However, as my friends know, I am nothing if not opinionated, so here goes. Warning: this will be a lengthy rant.

The Catholic Church has had a lot of bad press lately, though it perhaps has deserved far more than it has got in recent years as the mind blowing global extent of the child abuse scandal has become ever more apparent. I first meant to write about this earlier this year having picked up the local free paper from my original manor and reading its lead story about a Catholic priest charged with possessing indecent images of children*. Father Thomas Wood of Our Lady's and St Gregory the Great churches in Lydiate was caught in a US investigation into paedophiles using videoconferencing facilities and the British authorities were tipped off. Although Wood had the prescience to throw away his iPad (how did he know - friends "upstairs?") police found three temporary internet files on his hard drive which proved he had viewed child abuse videos including joining 50 people looking at a girl aged 8 to 10 years being raped by a man. Egregiously sordid but not too surprising, I suppose. What did surprise me was that the judge, saying that Wood had written "one of the most powerful statements of mitigation the court has ever considered" did not hand down the expected short jail sentence but a three year community order**. (Er, didn't he just work in the community anyway??) But even more surprising was the fact that Wood was also Judicial Vicar of Liverpool, handling all legal duties for the RC church in the diocese, ranging from marriage to new saints. It is no surprise that such people were able to hide in plain sight in the RC church when they occupied such roles. And one begins to understand how come so few of them were ever dealt with properly when their behaviour came to notice, generally being shuffled off to another parish to prey on a different flock.

This particular case isn't one of the worst, as there was no evidence of direct harm being committed. But it was very local to an area I know well. And just a microcosm of the global problem for the Catholic church. As Bryan Appleyard summarised:***

Abusive clerics are a worldwide phenomenon. Earlier this month we heard from an inquiry that Britain's two grandest Catholic schools - Ampleforth in North Yorkshire and Downside in Somerset - had harboured abusers. Chile, Argentina, France, Australia and many other countries have been affected. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court last week released the report of a grand jury that concluded after a two-year investigation that the church had covered up the abuse of at least 1,000 children by more than 300 priests in the state. "Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all. For decades" the report said, "monsignors, auxiliary bishops, bishops, archbishops, cardinals have mostly been protected; many, including some named in this report, have been promoted."

As Appleyard said, one child abused is a scandal, 1,000 is a crime against humanity. But wait a minute: that was 1000 in Pennsylvania alone by some 300 priests over a 70 year period. So given that problems have surfaced worldwide, across the decades, simple extrapolation suggests the figure must be many, many times more.

Despite the scale of this, Appleyard also noted that the RC church seemed to be weathering the storm worldwide, though not in that hitherto most Catholic of countries, Ireland, where the scandal seems to have materially shifted an already slowly changing atmosphere. The scales have fallen from the eyes of the Irish and, as a nation, they now see the Catholic Church in a very different light. When the Pope celebrated mass at Dublin's Phoenix Park a few weeks ago the throng was expected to be 60 % lower than for the last papal visit in 1979. In the event it was lower still as 100,000 didn't turn up, although it was plooting doon (but it's Ireland, so they're used to that).

Appleyard visited Ireland before the Pope and reported his taxi driver saying that, of his five uncles, three were abused by the Catholic Brothers, a Catholic teaching community. "The church has lost it's stranglehold, it's been tamed" said the taxi driver. Another journalist was quoted as saying that the Church leaders regarded clerical offenders as the real victims, not the children. The priests were seen as suffering from an "illness". In the 1970s and 80s the offenders were sent away for therapy and returned to parishes, supposedly "cured", where they committed more abuse.

Appleyard noted that the betrayal and staggering hypocrisy had proved toxic for the RC Church in Ireland. Where once almost the entire population attended Mass, it's now down to 30% - still high by international standards but falling and with ageing congregations. Appleyard met a group of thirty-somethings who just shrugged when the church came up. They may go to weddings and funerals. but that's it. He pointed out to them that they had turned into Anglicans!

The Pope has, of course, apologised. In Ireland towards the end of August he said "The Failure of ecclesiastical authorities - bishops, religious superiors, priests and others - adequately to address these repugnant crimes has rightly given raise to outrage and remains a source of pain and shame for the Catholic community. I myself share these sentiments". But what, Holy Father, are you going to DO to adequately address these crimes?

The apology didn't just come across to me as mealy-mouthed and insufficient. Colm O'Gorman is director of Amnesty International Ireland. O'Gorman's childhood was destroyed by a priest who raped him for more than two years. He saw it as an exercise in diversion and blame-shifting. "The Pope spoke about the pain and shame of the Catholic community. Is he actually suggesting that ordinary Catholics should feel shame for the cover-up of abuse by the institution? I lived with shame for decades because of what happened to me. I'm not interested in the Pope's shame and distress. What I want is for him to tell the truth and take responsibility for the cover-up. How is the Vatican going to hold anyone to account for a cover-up it won't even acknowledge or take responsibility for?" ****

In just about any other area of activity the Pope, as CEO of his organisation, would quit. And the organisation would be so tainted it probably could not survive in its present form. If it was a company it would go out of business or be taken over. If it was a public body it would be restructured under entirely new management or disbanded.

To be fair to the Irish Tsaioseach (and I'm usually not), Leo Varadkar said "There can only be zero tolerance for those who abuse innocent children or who facilitate that abuse. We must now ensure that from words flow actions".****

In case I'm being unfair to His Holiness I checked reports of the Pope Francis's response to the Grand Jury report which was given in an open letter to the world's 1.2 billion Catholics. It's widely covered but the report I read was in the Independent***** which makes it clear that the Pennsylvania cases occurred mainly before 2002 when US Catholic bishops adopted strict guidelines towards sexual abuse reports including immediately contacting the police and removing accused clergy. The Pope's letter refers to "implementing zero tolerance and ways of making all those who perpetrate or cover up these crimes accountable". (Er, just make them accountable here on Earth chum, let's not wait for the Last Judgement eh?) "We have delayed in applying these actions and sanctions that are so necessary, yet I am confident that they will help to guarantee a greater culture of care in the present and the future". This sounds pretty weak and very unspecific to me for someone who is supposed to believe he is infallible. (I realise that is in matters of doctrine, but think on Frank and try a bit better to get it right on this stuff as well, won't you?)

What fascinates me about all this is that, as sniggering schoolboys, we just knew, or thought we did, that this stuff went on. That didn't just include Catholic priests, with their vows of celibacy, but also private boys' schools, where we were convinced many pupils risked having a sore backside from a variety of actions. And, by Jove, the received stereotype had a huge element of truth in it!

I am glad to see that, in our country, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) has the Roman Catholic Church on its list of investigations, as indeed is the Anglican Church - which has had its own abuse cases - though in the latter case at the request of the Archbishop of Canterbury. It would certainly seem more sensible to be looking there than at the hapless BBC, employer of the egregious Jimmy Savile, though there was also a degree of turning a blind eye there.

To be clear, I am not intending to be anti-religion or anti-Christian here. I am attacking an institution that claims to represent the Almighty on Earth and, on its track record, I am simply unconvinced that the Roman Catholic church deserves to survive in its current form. The actions it has taken seem minimal and insufficient to me. This ain't a confessional where you can say a few Hail Marys and all sins are forgiven: by God maybe but not by society. Trust cannot be regained until the RC church shows it means business on the behaviour of its clerics: for example by investigating back through records and taking evidence over a reasonable time frame, then actually turning over to the police those priests the church hierarchy suspect have abused children rather than waiting for complaints to be laid and booting out others who covered things up. It's just not good enough to pretend that these are isolated cases involving individual mavericks and that its all in the past. There are too many cases, they have been routinely covered up and it looks blatantly institutionalised. All of the Catholic Church's active bishops in Chile offered their resignations when called to Rome earlier this year. Why just Chile?

If the RC church and other churches will not reform themselves they must be compelled to change. They must be made to answer to the authorities in the here and now. The government would take a dim view of almost any other type of institution which was so malevolently dysfunctional.

I had felt that the IICSA was a waste of time and money. But it might actually have a worthwhile job to do in making recommendations about what sanction to take against organisations that just will not conduct themselves properly when it comes to protecting vulnerable people over whom they have power and influence. Taking sanctions against an established religious institution would be controversial and, in the UK, would have echoes of the dissolution of the monastries. Well so be it. Brought it on yourselves.

What would Jesus have thought, I wonder? Oh, forgot, he was into forgiveness. As you can see, I'm not, for me it has to be won. Suffer little children to come unto me. But not, for God's sake, unaccompanied to the local priest.....

* Aintree and Maghull Champion 28 February 2018
** Liverpool Echo 21 March 2018
***  This devout Ireland is dying, Sunday Times 19 August 2018
**** Apathy and anger greet Pope. Sunday Times 26 August 2018
***** Pope addresses Catholic Church sexual abuse report in open letter, The Independent 20 Aug 2018