Monday, 31 December 2007

Out with old, in with the new

By Patrick Comerford

The year opened with the news of the execution of Saddam Hussein, and ended with the tragedy of the murder of Benazir Bhutto (right). Both deaths are direct consequences of continuing western intervention in the Islamic states of western and central Asia, and the failure of this part of the world to understand the conflicts and tensions in the Islamic society.

While no-one can dispute that Saddam Hussein should have been removed from office, the manner in which this was achieved and his subsequent execution cannot be justified morally or politically. There is no doubting that Saddam was a brutal and cruel dictator, whose use and abuse of power brought about incalculable suffering and death. But since Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003, over 85,000 civilians have been murdered in Iraq – they are not in position to say now that their lives would have been safer if there had been no invasion of Iraq.

There was a general election in Ireland earlier this year, and it was the first time since 1973 that I was not working on a newsroom floor during a general election. During more than 30 years as a journalist, it was an occupational ritual to mark the end of a year by recalling the events of the previous 12 months through the tried-and-trusted formula of remembering those who died, reliving great sporting moments, counting the great events of state and church, re-telling your own travel stories and looking back on the new publications of the year gone by.

The great sporting events of 2007 are easy to recall. Who can forget the thrill of Ireland playing England – and winning – at Croke Park? What a moving day it was when God Save the Queen, Ireland’s Call and Amhrán na bhFiann were sung in Croke Park. But who wants to remember the poor Irish performance in France and the eventual humiliating defeat by Argentina? At least it wasn’t as humiliating as the desperate performance by the Irish soccer team.

There was the unexpected delight of Ireland becoming a world class cricket country with that defeat of Pakistan. And then there was the great showing by the Wexford camogie players and the inspirational performance by the Kilkenny hurlers after the tragedy and bereavement that hit James McGarry.

In Church affairs, there was the retirement of Archbishop Robin Eames and the election of Archbishop Alan Harper, and the well-deserved recognition of Archbishop Sean Brady when he was made a Cardinal. In my own way, I was surprised and honoured by the invitation to become a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

During the year, the Anglican Communion lost one of our greatest theologians with the death of John Macquarrie. The death also took place of Canon Chad Varah, who influenced every schoolboy of my generation through the Eagle, but who was also part of a living Anglican radical tradition.

One of the oldest Anglican mission agencies, the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, re-launched itself in Ireland as USPG Ireland – Anglicans in World Mission. The Dublin University Far Eastern Mission (DUFEM) welcomed Archbishop Paul Kwong and the Revd Cindy Kwok from Hong Kong and Father Richard Lee from Taiwan to the Church of Ireland Theological College and to Trinity College Dublin, sent three students from Trinity College Dublin in Hong Kong and Shanghai, and sent a delegation to the centenary celebrations at Fuzhou Foreign Language School, which began life as Trinity College Fuzhou. Of course, DUFEM regrets Alan McCormack’s departure for London, and it has been a privilege for me to succeed him as Chair of DUFEM.

In politics, there was an election in the Republic and an amazing turnaround in political life in Northern Ireland. But the election in the Republic has still not changed the downward spiral in the provision of hospital and health services, or done anything to counter the development of a two-tier health service in this state. If we can’t find the resources to solve a crisis like this in our prosperity, how can we expect to cope with it in leaner times and adversity?

If any events reflect the self-centredness and inhumanity in some sectors of Irish society then they must have been the shoddy treatment of the Rostas family and 60 or so other Roma Gypsies when they were forcibly sent back to Romania after a swoop on their horrific living area in Ballymun in July, and the heartless deportation to Nigeria of six-year-old Great Agbonlahor and his mother Olivia. These two events alone make me realise the important contribution Discovery must continue to make to the life of the Church of Ireland and the timeliness of the publication of my own book, Embracing Difference, by Church of Ireland Publishing on behalf of the Church in Society Committee.

We read about the deportation of the Rostas family while we were on holiday in Italy … a holiday that was spent on the shores of Lake Garda but that included visits to Venice, Milan and the delightful town of Bergamo. We missed getting to Greece this year, but were very moved by the descriptions friends sent us of the devastation wrought by the forest fires throughout Greece. Later in the year as a family we also had a wonderful weekend in Bucharest in Romania. And there was much travel in England (working visits to London, Oxford and Birmingham, and three stays in glorious Lichfield), as well as discovering the charms of Llandaff in Wales.

And what a pleasure it was to be back in Wexford for the launch of The Wexford Man, a festschrift to Nicky Furlong edited by Bernard Browne, published by Geography Publications, and launched by Martin Mansergh. Fellow contributors include Billy Roche, with his trip down memory lane through Wexford’s streets, John Banville, Colm Tóibín, Louis Cullen, Tom Dunne, Daniel Gahan, Celestine Rafferty … and there’s Kevin Whelan’s delightful account of Wexford hurling.

The deaths of both Luciano Pavarotti and Marcel Marceau were a great loss. In Ireland, we have all been moved by the story surrounding the Susie Long, by the circumstances in which Katy French died, by the loss to politics – North and South – through the death of David Irvine, and by the tragic family disasters in Monageer and Omagh. But everyone in the literary world and in the arts also mourned the passing of Bendedict Kiely, Anthony Clare and John Moriarity.

And then, as the year was coming to an end, there was the unexpected death of Desmond Harman. It was a sad end to the year for the Church of Ireland: Des was a good friend who died too young, he had been inspirational in setting up the Bishops’ Appeal Fund for World Development, and he still had much to offer the church as Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, as one of the secretaries of General Synod, and through his work in the Porvoo Contact Group.

Death and tragedy also marked the end of the year when it came to global events. Benazir Bhutto was a student at Oxford when Barbara and I were regular visitors there in the 1970s. Despite her fast-paced lifestyle, she shared her father’s radical outlook and values, and had taken a strong stand against the Vietnam War. In the 1970s, we were friendly with Brenda and Said Yasin, and I still recall how disturbed he was by the arrest of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1977 and his subsequent judicial murder, as Benazir described it, in 1979. Later that year, we visited Pakistan twice, staying first in Karachi, in Bhutto heartland, returning later to stay in Islamabad during Ramadan.

Benazir Bhutto took a brave decision to return to Pakistan in October. Her political performance hasn’t always been as graceful as she was, and her husband is certainly not beyond reproach. But her return to Pakistan was a necessary step in galvanising the movement for the restoration of democracy.

The Mushareef regime has been kept in power by the very same people who smugly justified the invasion of Iraq with the excuse of toppling Saddam Hussein – and that has led directly to the death of 85,000 civilians. Not surprisingly, the Mushareef regime has tried to shift the blame for her death, whether it was to al-Qaeda at one extreme, or – in a more absurd manner – to Benazir herself, because she was standing up in her car. But the regime must answer for this murder. How did the gunman and bomber slip through the tight cordon and metal-detector tests that had been in place around her because of her meeting with the President of Afghanistan? Were the police and military involved in the previous assassination attempt after her return to Pakistan in October?

The best answers to these questions can be only be provided when the election takes place in Pakistan. As her son quoted her, “Democracy is the best revenge.”

Have a Happy New Year.