Charlie Hebdo & the importance of nuance

Paris unity march, 10th Jan 2015 Photo from

I’ve been thinking a lot about absolutes and nuance lately. Today marks one month since two brothers attacked the Paris offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and slaughtered twelve people, including four cartoonists, the editor and two policemen. Two days later, they were cornered by police, while their accomplice (who had killed a policewoman the previous day) took hostages and demanded their release. All three were shot dead, but not before four of the hostages had also been killed. Twenty people dead, three of whom won’t be much mourned (though some will no doubt hail them as “martyrs”), and for what? Because they didn’t like some cartoons.

That mentality is terrifying – that anyone could feel justified in committing such inhuman brutality over a cartoon they find offensive defies all reason and decency. It is tempting to think it all comes down to religious ideology, the warped and self-serving distortion of Islam akin to that of ISIS or Boko Haram (which was quietly massacring 2,000 people in Baga, Nigeria as the world was focusing on Paris). But to me, it is something deeper, more elementary and more general than that. It is a glorified bully mentality – the enforcing of your beliefs on others through violence or the threat of it. Their menace might be greatly enhanced by their numbers and weaponry, but it is still the mindless mentality of bullies and thugs, the egotistical and absolutist conviction that their viewpoint is the only valid one.

People are perfectly entitled to be offended by a cartoon of Muhammad, Continue reading

Remembering Nelson Mandela

South Africa The Good News / [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, Gauteng, on 13 May 2008 (South Africa: The Good News, via Wikimedia Commons)
Watching Mandela walk free, I learned something of what makes a hero

There are moments and days that stop us in our tracks and make us place ourselves in the unfolding of history. They are days we know we will remember always. The commonplace adage of my parents’ generation was the question “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” For my generation, the most obvious parallel has been the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. But perhaps the historic events we connect most deeply with are not necessarily shocks or tragedies but moments that change our understanding of our world.

That is probably the reason why I remember 11 February 1990 so vividly. Thirteen years old and sitting on the floor of my aunt and uncle’s house in Monaghan because the adults had taken over all the chairs. On the television, a man six thousand miles away walked out of a prison cell after 27 years. The world was watching but nobody knew for sure until they saw him what Nelson Mandela looked like. I knew nothing about him other than what I was picking up from the TV commentary and the conversation of the adults around me. But what I learned changed my understanding of my world and I felt some of my childish innocence fall away. Continue reading

Ireland must answer for its complicity in extraordinary rendition and torture

It has not been a good week for Ireland’s human rights record. Not just one, but two, reports released on Tuesday revealed a state that was complicit in enabling systematic human rights abuses to occur. The findings of the McAleese report into abuse at the Magdalene laundries rightly made front page news, as did state’s continuing prevarication over granting the full apology the survivors called for and deserve. However, the second report did not get anything like the same coverage, even though  in many ways it is as unsettling.

Globalizing Torture
© 2013 Open Society Foundations. Cover photo © Ron Haviv/VII

Globalizing Torture, produced by the New York-based Open Society Justice Initiative, listed Ireland among 54 national governments that actively facilitated the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition” programme, established by US president, George W Bush. In doing so, these states “violated domestic and international laws and further undermined the norm against torture.” The report documents 136 individuals abducted by the CIA, unlawfully transferred or “rendered” to “black sites” outside the US where they were subjected to “enhanced interrogation”, including torture. Given the fundamentally secret nature of the rendition programme, the report states that there are likely to be very many more cases unknown.

Questions without Answers

The release of Globalizing Torture struck a personal chord with me. In 2006, I wrote a letter to the Irish Times, questioning the Irish government’s blithe readiness to accept all assurances of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that Shannon airport was not being used as part of the rendition programme. I wrote that since the programme was dependent on secrecy, any assurances could only be unreliable. Continue reading

Conscience before Creed: Bishops speak their minds

It is a rare thing to find myself in agreement with a religious leader, rarer still for that to happen twice in one day. Yet, I could not but applaud the sentiments of two retired archbishops, one Catholic, one Anglican, as I read the Sunday papers. Speaking not from doctrine, but the convictions of personal morality, Desmond Tutu and the late Carlo Maria Martini each individually stood against the religious or political establishment to say boldly what needed to be said, and tackle issues those establishments fear to. It is hard not to respect that courage and authenticity. Continue reading


It’s almost a year since I thought of starting this blog, a year since the confluence of unexpected changes in my life made me take stock of its direction. Or its lack of direction.

I lost my job. I moved country. I traded the city for a rural village. I became a part-time, quasi-parent to my girlfriend’s two kids. And I decided to change career. All events that, in the months or years that preceded them, I could never have imagined. All new beginnings, fresh starts with blind hopes and fears.

I figured I would use the blog as something as a record of those changes. The diary of an Irishman adjusting to life in England. Or maybe a city boy transposed to country life. Or perhaps the travails of redundant career-changer in an increasingly intractable recession. But I never made a choice, and I never did get started.

A year on, things are still in a state of flux and uncertainty, and I’m rebeginning. Again. Just qualified, I’m starting out to try to be a journalist, in this hostile, post-Leveson era, and feeling the daunting uncertainty just as much as ever. So the idea of the blog is still relevant. Continue reading