Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Blood and Money and Markets

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday September 14 2017


Sri Lankans have grown cynical about the number of public commissions and inquiries which have failed to shed any light or improve anything. Perhaps Sri Lankan politicians have learned from their former colonial masters that a good way to defuse a controversy is to set up an inquiry to delay any need for real action, at the same time providing a good living for lawyers and the great and the good who sit on these commissions.  On 30 January 1972, British soldiers shot 28 unarmed civilians in Derry during a peaceful protest march against internment. Fourteen people died.  There were inquiries that did not convince anybody. The Saville Inquiry was established in 1998 to reinvestigate the incident.  Saville’s report was made not made public until 2010.

On July 11 2017, The UK government announced a full inquiry into how contaminated blood products gave thousands of people hepatitis C and HIV. Fourteen people died as a result of Bloody Sunday. As many as 2,400 people died as a result of the tainted blood scandal. Andrew Evans of the pressure group Tainted Blood commented: “Had haemophiliacs all died on one day, there would have been an immediate investigation and we would not have endured this silent scandal”.

Tainted Blood

Haemophilia is a genetically acquired disease in which the blood does not clot properly. It was once popularly called “the royal disease” and figured prominently in the history of European royalty in the 19th and 20th centuries. Queen Victoria, through two of her five daughters (Princess Alice and Princess Beatrice), passed the mutation to various royal houses across the continent, including the royal families of Spain, Germany and Russia. Victoria’s son Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany also suffered from the disease.

The first blood-clotting products were produced in 1966 and from the 1970s the UK imported vast quantities from the US. In the 1970s, sufferers took products known as Factor VIII and Factor IX concentrates, which were made by distilling and concentrating the plasma of large groups of donors. Factor concentrates were seen as a revolutionary treatment and a surge in demand led to pharmaceutical companies seeking substantial supplies of blood. Unfortunately, the blood was acquired from tainted sources. Convicts, drug addicts, prostitutes and people known to be infected with HIV or hepatitis were paid to donate their blood. The WHO warned Britain of the dangers of using these imported products. Large numbers of people were infected with HIV and Hepatitis C because of blood products supplied by the NHS. Of the 1,243 victims who were co-infected with both hepatitis C and HIV, less than 250 are still alive as I write.

In 1982, the first UK haemophiliac patient was diagnosed with Aids. Dr N Galbraith of the Public Health Laboratory Service warned the Department of Health that all blood products imported from the US should be withdrawn. A DoH official deemed this “premature” and “imbalanced”.


Those who campaigned for 30 years for an inquiry were not pleased at the recent announcement because the proposed inquiry was to be overseen by the Department of Health, the government department to blame for what happened. The main groups representing victims and their families lack trust in the department because they believe its officials were complicit in covering up the scandal for decades. There is even evidence that children were used as guinea pigs to test blood-clotting products. There was secret monitoring and failure to inform patients and families of the results. Documents were destroyed and medical records altered.

The mayor of Greater Manchester, former Labour health secretary Andy Burnham (surely, he was complicit also), has urged Theresa May to step in to save the inquiry. “I’m appealing to the prime minister to salvage the process before trust gets corroded on all sides.” He said the government could help solve the impasse by simply switching oversight to the Cabinet Office.

Commissions and Omissions

When the British magazine Private Eye reported on the issue in 1987, the death toll of haemophiliacs stood at 23 but the Tory government, despite repeated warnings, continued to use imported blood from skid row donors. The magazine points out that there are 2,000 surviving haemophiliacs whose lives have been ruined by the government’s failure to fund the production of safe blood-clotting products in the UK. In early 2000, safe but more expensive synthetic clotting agents were made available for children but not adults. Some adults found that they had been given products that may contain the fatal neurodegenerative variant Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease – remember mad cow disease?

Much was exposed by an inquiry led by Lord Archer (the former Solicitor General for England and Wales – not Jeffrey). This was a privately-funded independent inquiry set up in 2007 and concluded in 2009. Archer had campaigned for an inquiry with Lord Owen, who was the Labour Health Secretary from 1974 to 1976, Lord Jenkin, former Shadow Health Secretary, and others. The inquiry had no legal status and could not subpoena witnesses or demand the disclosure of documents. It did address the issue of missing evidence and documents relating to the scandal. For example, the ministerial papers of Lord Owen had been destroyed. “We have been unable to ascertain who carried out the destruction of the papers, and who gave the instructions. But the conclusion appears inescapable that some official made a decision which he or she had no authority to make, or that someone was guilty of a serious error of judgement. The consequence is that Lord Owen has done his best to recollect details of events a quarter of a century ago, but both he, and we, have been deprived of the primary sources”.

The current Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, claimed that the government could be “proud of our record in support of those who suffered from this injustice to date, both financially and in the search for truth”. To add further insult to the many injuries already inflicted, Hunt announced that proposed increases in payments to those with HIV and advanced hep C or both would be cut to better help those with first stage chronic hep C – robbing one set of victims to help another.

The Gift Relationship

Richard Titmuss, British social researcher and teacher, published The Gift Relationship in 1970. He compared blood donations in Britain (entirely voluntary) and the US (some bought and sold). Titmuss’s conclusions concerned the quality of communities where people are encouraged to give to strangers. When blood becomes a commodity, he argued, its quality is corrupted (American blood was four times more likely to infect recipients with hepatitis than was British blood). Titmuss helped preserve the National Blood Service from Thatcherite privatisation.

Privatisation and Outsourcing

Titmuss wrote about the value of altruism, reciprocity and social duty symbolised by donating blood free of charge in order to benefit the sick. I worked in the Department of Health in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the so-called “reforms” were introduced in order to impose market considerations on the care of the sick. Under Labour and conservative governments, this had brought about a corrosive commercialisation.

Harvard Philosopher Michael J Sandel has written a stimulating book entitled What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. Sandel’s argument is that markets and finance are taking over everything and in the process, are creating a moral vacuum. It is interesting to see that with Vision 2025, the UNP is still trying to drag Sri Lanka along with the delusion that privatisation and outsourcing are the panaceas for all evils despite all evidence to the contrary. The launch of V2025, the blueprint for the future of a “rich Sri Lanka” at BMICH gave an opportunity for old clichés to be trotted out.  The president and the prime minister said that in Sri Lanka Finance Management was poor; perception of corruption was high, infrastructure inadequate; many laws were outdated and institutions were weak. “Reforms are needed on all these fronts and we must revitalise both governance and economic management.” Privatisation and public private finance initiatives will solve all Sri Lanka’s problems apparently. This conveniently ignores the fact that privatisation and deregulation give license to corruption. The railway system in the UK is an utter shambles as a result of privatisation. So is the water “industry”. Many questioned whether it was morally justifiable for a God-given basic commodity like water to be traded for profit. Will they buy and sell the air that we breathe? They would if they could. I will explore the morality of markets further next week using Professor Sandel’s book as my guide.


Atonement and Redemption

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday September 2017


Sean O’Callaghan was once a killer for the Provisional IRA. He died on 23 August 2017. His death was not a violent one. He died in a swimming pool in Jamaica, probably of a heart attack, while visiting his daughter, Tara. For many years, O’Callaghan himself had been expecting a violent death because, after becoming disillusioned with the IRA, he turned informer and was a fierce critic of his former comrades. He put his chances of dying a natural death at less than 20%. He wrote: “As the years went on, I came to believe that the Provisional IRA was the greatest enemy of democracy and decency in Ireland”.

Early Life

He was born in Tralee, County Kerry in 1954 and was part of a family with a long tradition of nationalist rebellion. In his teens, he gave up Catholicism and became an atheist and a student of Marxism. He saw the unfolding events in Northern Ireland as an indictment of British Imperialism and joined the Provisional IRA in 1969 at the age of 17. He went to prison after accidentally detonating a bomb he was making and completed his sentence.


He claimed to have been responsible for two murders in 1974:  in May, a “Greenfinch” Ulster Defence Regiment soldier, Private Eva Martin aged 28, the first female from the security forces to die in the Troubles, was killed in a mortar attack on the British Army’s base at Clogher in County Tyrone; in August 1974 O’Callaghan murdered Detective Inspector Peter Flanagan, an Ulster Catholic officer of the RUC Special Branch, by shooting him repeatedly with a handgun in a public house in the town of Omagh in County Tyrone. On more than one occasion O’Callaghan confessed to killing John Corcoran, another informer whose body was found in a sleeping bag by the side of a road in Ballincollig, County Cork in March 1985. No-one ever stood trial for that murder and there has been speculation that the state colluded in the murder and did not want its dirty linen to be displayed in court.

Taking Responsibility

When he was 21 in 1976, O’Callaghan left the IRA, and moved to London where he established a successful cleaning business.  In May 1978, he married a Scottish woman of Protestant unionist descent. However, he could not settle: “In truth there seemed to be no escaping from Ireland. At the strangest of times I would find myself reliving the events of my years in the IRA.” In 1979, the IRA contacted him and he decided to work against the organisation from within. He claimed this was his chance for atonement and redemption. He did not see himself as a traitor. “I had been brought up to believe that you had to take responsibility for your own actions. If you did something wrong then you made amends. I came to believe that individuals taking responsibility for their own actions is the basis for civilisation, without that safety net we have nothing”.

Charles and Diana Assassination

Although he wanted to subvert the IRA, he still did not want to work with the British government. He returned to Tralee in 1979 and offered his services to Detective Sergeant Seán O’Connell of the special branch of the police of the Irish Republic, the Garda Síochána. He met Kerry IRA leader Martin Ferris and participated in a number of attempted robberies. O’Callaghan claims to have foiled these attempts “by a whole series of random stratagems”. In 1984, after a tip-off from O’Callaghan, the Irish Navy and the Garda Síochána intercepted an arms shipment from Boston to the IRA. O’Callaghan claims that he foiled the assassination of Prince Charles and Princess Diana in 1983 by alerting the authorities to a bomb planted in the Dominion Theatre before a Duran Duran concert.


On 29 November 1988, O’Callaghan walked into a police station in Tunbridge Wells and confessed to the murders of Eva Martin and Peter Flanagan. He served his sentence in prisons in Ulster and England, during which time he foiled several planned escapes by IRA prisoners. He was released as part of a Prerogative of Mercy by Queen Elizabeth II in 1996. In 1999, he published an account of his experiences entitled The Informer: The True-Life Story of One Man’s War on Terrorism. After his release, he lived openly in the UK after repeatedly refusing offers of witness protection and a new identity.


It is not surprising that Sinn Féin questioned his account; The Sinn Féin paper An Phoblacht concluded an article about O’Callaghan: “No-one likes informers. They tell lies.” An Phoblacht said: “During almost eighteen months in Crumlin Road Sean O’Callaghan’s mental health was a cause of concern to the prison authorities. He tried to commit suicide on at least two occasions and he was taking regular medication”.  The paper dismisses the claim that O’Callaghan gave himself up out of remorse. “An Phoblacht has learned that throughout 1988 O’Callaghan was drinking heavily and becoming increasingly depressed at the turn his life had taken…  MI5 had cut him loose. … He realised he had outlived his usefulness for his British handlers – that was why he did not offer his super grass strategy to MI5 – and he could not return to Ireland”.

O’Callaghan’s former IRA colleague, Martin Ferris, is now a member of parliament in the Irish Republic. He is derisive about O’Callaghan: ““His many attempts at self-aggrandisement were highly fanciful and despite the attempted lionisation of Sean by some, his obvious fabrication of the truth is clear for anyone that has delved into his claims and counterclaims.”

Others with less of an axe to grind have doubts. Some said the reason for O’Callaghan’s release was so that he could express the views of Conservative politicians who opposed the peace negotiations that led up to the Good Friday Agreement. Kevin Cullen of the Boston Globe interviewed O’Callaghan during the time of peace negotiations and he insisted that Sinn Féin was not serious about peace: “His cynicism about the process was badly misplaced.” Nevertheless, Dean Godson, the biographer of David Trimble the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party who fought hard to push the peace process through found O’Callaghan’s counsel helpful: “O’Callaghan’s advice was particularly important to Trimble, giving the latter extra confidence to join the first power-sharing Executive between Ulster Unionists and Sinn Fein in 1999”.


Historian Ruth Dudley Edwards wrote in the Belfast Telegraph: “One of the many reasons that despite coming from a Dublin Catholic nationalist background I came to form great friendships with Ulster Protestants was their astonishing ability to forgive.” O’Callaghan told the Los Angeles Times in 1997: “The IRA wasn’t really after the British,” “It was the guy down the road who had the better land that his ancestors had taken from the Catholics. The bitterness was there all the time, rooted and deep. What they really wanted to do was to murder their neighbours. It was tribalism.”

Ruth got to know O’Callaghan well when he worked with her to seek justice for victims of the Omagh bombing in 1998. I wrote about that in these pages.

Those who seek to question O’Callaghan’s account and his motives often cite him as being under the influence of those who seek to question the mythologies of Irish nationalism. Ruth Dudley Edwards is one of those people as is Conor Cruise O’Brien and Eoghan Harris. I myself have been greatly influenced by Ruth’s writings and those of Professor Liam Kennedy, who coined the acronym MOPE about the Irish “Most Oppressed People Ever”.

I sought to apply what I had learnt from them to the Sri Lankan situation and encountered a great deal of abuse as a result. As Michael Clifford wrote about O’Callaghan in the Irish Examiner: “His testimonies of the sectarianism, the wanton criminality, the expedient killing, all gave lie to the bright shining image of selfless freedom fighters protecting their families.”

When someone has committed terrible crimes is it possible to put that behind us as we move to the future? Many who did terrible things for the LTTE still walk free. Eoghan Harris wrote on hearing the news of O’Callaghan’s death: “O’Callaghan committed terrible crimes. But, unlike other republicans, he showed remorse and sought to make restitution by laying his life on the line. His moral rigour forbade him to seek forgiveness either in counselling or in Christianity. He sought absolution by risking a dreadful death, as an unpaid agent inside the IRA. To meet Sean, or even see him on TV, was to be struck by the simple truth of his testimony.”


Ar dheis De go raibh a anam uasal. May his soul be on the right hand of God.

Flaming and Flouncing

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday August 31 2017.

“Flaming and Flouncing” could have been the title of a Chuck Berry song. I got the terms from a blogging platform now defunct called Open Salon. A trivial dispute could easily escalate into a “flame war” with injured parties threatening to leave the site – “flouncing” – to derisive cries of “don’t let the door hit your arse on the way out!”

Media Addicts

Jean M. Twenge has written a book called, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood—and What That Means for the Rest of Us. Her research leads her to the conclusion that young people are being severely damaged by their addiction to smartphones.  She has been researching generational differences for 25 years but around 2012, she noticed abrupt shifts in teen behaviour and emotional states. She claimed she had never seen anything like it in any of her research material, some of it dating back to the 1930s. A generation has grown up with smartphones, have an Instagram account before they start high school, and do not remember a time before the internet.

Mental Health Crisis

Twenge writes: “It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones… the twin rise of the smartphone and social media has caused an earthquake of a magnitude we’ve not seen in a very long time, if ever. There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives—and making them seriously unhappy.” The Monitoring the Future survey, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on non-screen activities are more likely to be happy. The more time teens spend looking at screens, the more likely they are to report symptoms of depression. Teens who spend three hours a day or more on electronic devices are 35 percent more likely to have a risk factor for suicide. Since 2007, the homicide rate among teens has declined, but the suicide rate has increased.

Murdered Sleep

Twenge was shocked to find that most of her undergraduate students at San Diego State University slept with their phones. “Their phone was the last thing they saw before they went to sleep and the first thing they saw when they woke up. If they woke in the middle of the night, they often ended up looking at their phone.” Twenge comments: “Electronic devices and social media seem to have an especially strong ability to disrupt sleep.”

I am an elderly person and a late-adopter when it comes to technology. I am still using the amplifier I bought in 1983 and was quite comfortable with a black bakelite phone made in the 1960s. It took me a long time to get even a stupid cell phone (I mainly use it to tell the time and it often lies to me about that). Even without reading Twenge’s findings I find something creepy about the attachment of young people to their phones. I was given a smartphone but I have not got around to using it yet. I also find something very creepy about my own addiction to Facebook and some people clearly spend a lot more time checking and sending messages than I do.

Open Salon

I first started blogging about ten years ago on Open Salon which was launched as a platform for writers and other creative artists. It did not quite turn out like that. Although many smart and talented people participated (and I am still on good terms with many of them, even today) OS was too often a battlefield. Too much time was taken up with blather about celebrities. Posts which gained the most attention were, strangely enough, those which came to be known as ‘meta posts’ –  lengthy philosophical discussions about the ins and outs of the way the site worked. Other popular posts were those that gave rise to ‘flame wars’. These could go on for weeks and develop really long threads in which the original point became quite forgotten.

This tends not to happen so much on FB. Issues are usually more ephemeral because there are so many people involved and the throughput is so much greater that it was on OS. After a couple of days at the most, people tend to move on.

Heavy Meta

I had some meta thoughts recently in relation to Bruce Forsyth. It happened like this. X is one of my favourite virtual ‘friends’. He is erudite and well-read and pleasant company. He made some comments about Bruce Forsyth which I thought were inappropriate as the man had just died. We exchanged views and I could see that no minds were going to be changed and went to bed.

The next morning, I wanted to check if I needed to qualify my comments. I could not find my comments. Indeed, the entire thread seemed to have been deleted. I thought that was a good thing and moved on to other matters. Imagine my surprise when X brought up the matter again saying that someone was not happy about his comments on Forsyth. He did not name me but many people immediately pitched in to sympathise with him for the suffering caused by this anonymous persecutor. As many of the people condemning the anonymous person were my ‘friends’ I decided to out myself and explain my position. I patiently tried to put my case – I was not attacking X or denying his right to an opinion, merely disagreeing with him. X eventually said I should drop the matter and I agreed to do so. The whole atmosphere was that I was being obsessive arguing my case when it was X who had resurrected it. I felt that I had been manoeuvred into a position where I was seen as an obsessive bully who could not move on. I had thought that I was merely making a case for compassion.


A distinguished poet was sharing a great deal of his new work, parodies of dead poets, with his friends on Facebook. Most people loved the work and said so. The poet was upset and lost sleep because someone chipped in to say that he should be including more women. I do not blame him for being upset – he is a sensitive and kind man who was merely trying to entertain himself and others without meaning any harm to anyone. I have been similarly upset on Facebook when I have found myself criticised in what I thought an unfair manner. I made the mistake of putting in a plea for sympathy for the offending commenter. She was wrong and I supported the poet but I was rather disturbed at way bystanders piled in to berate her. I ventured the thought that, judging from her posts, she suffered from a physical ailment which might affect her mental outlook, i.e. make her less than fully happy with the world. I was immediately chastised for offering “armchair diagnoses” and “fostering prejudice” against people with mental illness.

Time Runs Out

I flounced from OS long before it expired, partly because of the flame wars and celebrity chatter but mainly because it was taking up far too much of my limited time. I think I will be giving Facebook a rest for a while – not just because of the faults of other people who participate. I include myself in the category of those who have to have an opinion about everything, including the moral fibre of celebrities, those who have to make a smart remark about everything, those who like to pile in for a fight at every opportunity, those who make unwarranted assumptions about complete strangers, those who looking for ways to find offence, those pedants who love to point out the mistakes of others, those who love to flaunt their knowledge and culture. I am not being superior. I have been guilty of all those unpleasant behaviours plus many more that I have forgotten. Most of all, I have been guilty of wasting my precious time. I would advise other people to take a break too.






This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday August 3 2017


The Unkindness of Strangers

July 24 was the anniversary of my discovery that my G-Mail accounts had been hacked. Soon afterwards my Facebook account was also hacked and hi-jacked and I lost contact with many real as well as virtual friends and with family members. My bank accounts were not hacked but I did lose money because I lost contact with editors who published my work. Even friends I had known for many years became suspicious of me. It was a horrendous experience and I wrote about various aspects of it in these pages.

One of the most disturbing aspects was that I was victim of seemingly vindictive acts perpetrated by a complete stranger. A malevolent stranger, for no discernible rational purpose, rifled through my personal correspondence on G-Mail and used the information gathered to try to convince people that he was me. I think I know his name now but I still know nothing about him or what his real motives were. I doubt that he made much money from the hacking. He had the gall face to write this to me:

“I am sorry for all the problems i have caused you this past few days. However, i want you to know the follwing (sic): I don’t know you nor have any particular personal motivation for taking over your mailbox other than looking for little money to survive on. I am willing to hand you all i have taken from you if you will help me with very little money to enable me settle my school bills. I know i have wronged you but please i need your help. I will let you know how to prevent future hacks as creating new emails is not the best line of action.”

A real-life friend tried to engage with my hacker and got a threatening response. All pretence of being me was dropped: Using the name “Spitfire” he sent this message: “Maybe you should just mind your business because your email might be next.PS: tell your friend that this is what happens when he tries to recover the email i already hacked into. If he tries recovering it with any other email then he looses that one too!”

Kindness to Strangers

Had he simply asked me for help he might have had more success than he did by disrupting my life. In one of his messages to my real-life friends he revealed that he had gathered from looking through my personal correspondence that I was in the process of giving away my home to the local Buddhist temple to be used as a meditation centre. He could also have read that I had previously given away my car to the High Priest of the local temple so that he could more easily perform his official duties and attend his clinic appointments. The car itself has become a community project. A local mechanic, without charging, has put everything right that was mechanically wrong and spray-painted the car. He said how can he expect payment when we gave the car as a gift.  Many little accoutrements and furbelows have been proudly added. A local builder constructed a new garage free of charge to house the vehicle and the completion of the structure was marked with a little ceremony with songs sung by small schoolchildren.

Every month, I make regular payments to people in need and often make one-off payments to complete strangers. I write all of this not to boast of my own saintliness but to demonstrate the effectiveness of direct and active rather than passive charity. Not everyone will have the time and circumstances to be active and giving is probably better than not giving even if we do not investigate the political background. While charity doesn’t always benefit the intended recipient, it usually manages to make the donor feel better.

Adam Phillips

The anniversary of the hacking came at a time when I was reading a book called On Kindness, co-authored by Adam Phillips, a psychoanalyst, and Barbara Taylor, a historian of ideas. In the book, they argue that in our contemporary times kindness has become something almost to be ashamed of. “Bullish capitalism harnessed to counterrevolution pushed kindness from the moral centre. Kindness was steadily downgraded from a universal imperative to the prerogative of specific social constituencies”.


“An image of the self has been created that is utterly lacking in natural generosity. Most people appear to believe that deep down they (and other people) are mad, bad and dangerous to know; that as a species – apparently unlike other species of animal – we are deeply and fundamentally antagonistic to each other”. This follows on from Thomas Hobbes’s view in Leviathan (1651) that human life is nasty, brutish and short and is a matter of “all against all”.


They contrast this with the different view taken by another philosopher, David Hume. Hume insisted that any person foolish enough to deny the existence of human kindness had lost touch with emotional reality. In his A Treatise on Human Nature (1740), Hume claimed that sympathy was the necessary foundation of morality. He insisted, in his later work, that sympathy for others was experienced by everybody, part of the essential nature of man.


In his review of On Kindness in the New York Times, Peter Stevenson wrote: “By walling ourselves off from our inner kindness, we end up skulking around, hoarding scraps from the lost magical kindness of childhood, terrified that our hatred is stronger than our love.” This echoes what Lewis Hyde wrote in his book The Gift (Subtitled How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World) that in a market economy, wealth is increased by ’saving’. In a gift economy, wealth is decreased by hoarding, for it is circulation within the community that generates increase in connections and strong relationships.

Dangerous Kindness

“At its strongest we have come to believe that feeling too much for others – being too sympathetic – either endangers our lives or is against our natures”. Taylor and Phillips argue that kindness is dangerous because it creates vulnerability: “kindness is always hazardous because it is based on a susceptibility to others”. “By involving us with strangers . . . as well as with intimates, it is potentially far more promiscuous than sexuality.”


Delicate Web of Reciprocity


There is much evidence that other animals besides human beings can enter into the sufferings and fears of others of their kind. On the lake in front of our house, there is a goose and two ducks who are constantly together. We have a daily ritual of feeding them every evening. One evening, the duck with the orange bill was missing and we became concerned. Eventually we found it hiding in the undergrowth. Its back was badly torn and it was having difficulty walking. We applied Betadine to the wound and telephoned the vet and who came quite quickly in the pet ambulance. We kept the duck indoors in a cat carrier overnight. The goose and the other duck were distraught and were waiting anxiously outside our gate until morning when we released their companion. The next time the vet came they tried to get into our house where their friend was being treated. The duck is still able to swim but the leg injury makes walking difficult. Her companions make sure she is looked after. Often one sees cows on the roadside grooming each other. A couple of street dogs in our shopping precinct are always together and I saw the male licking the female’s ear.


This kind of empathy is not the same as sentimentality. One must be kind even to people one does not like, people who are not one’s ‘kind’. Kindness means accommodating the unpleasantness of other people, dealing with conflict and aggression. Kindness means seeing people as they are but treating them well anyway.


I am sorry if I seem selfish and egotistical about this but I feel good about paying for electricity to be put into someone’s home, good about giving money to a man whose child has hideous deformities requiring constant surgery. Does Atthula feel good about threatening elderly ladies who are offering to send him money but cannot afford as much as he asks? You do not need to die to experience hell Atthula. You are hell and you will never be free of it.




RIP Sir Bruce

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday August 24 2017

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday August 24 2017

The good thing about social media is that everyone has the chance to voice their opinion. The bad thing about social media is that everyone has the chance to voice their opinion. It must be nearly twenty years since I first encountered the word “blog”. At that time, I had not sold my soul to the internet and did not even own a modem or an e-mail account. The Guardian Saturday arts review carried a feature on literary blogs. I will never forget one item that was included. X, a very famous, distinguished, successful and rich author, had just published a new book. The man who was quoted (I am fairly sure it was a man. The term “mansplaining” had not been invented then but mansplainers have been around since the dawn of time) expressed himself in a very pompous and pretentious tone blissfully unaware of how ludicrous he appeared. He said something along these lines: “I have not read the book, but what X seems to be saying is…” He then engaged in a lengthy exegesis of a work that had never passed before his eyes.

What’s He to Hecuba?

I do not know if my Sri Lankan readers are familiar with the life and work of Bruce Forsyth. I never met Sir Bruce and never saw him perform live. I cannot claim to be a great fan although watching the Generation Game on Saturday evenings was s highlight of the week for me and my cool friends. I was horrified to see some of the reactions to the news of his death on August 18. One of my ‘friends’ on Facebook simply commented ‘jerk’. I unfriended her instantly. We had little or no interaction and I am sure the loss of my ‘friendship’ would not trouble her but such behaviour is not what I expect from a friend by any definition. Others wasted no time in giving their opinions of the deceased. Many said they did not appreciate his style of entertaining – which is fair enough but who needs to know when the corpse is not cold? Others felt it was essential that we know that they found him ‘creepy’.

Success and Failure and Hard Work

Forsyth’s career spanned 75 years and could be assessed as successful but it was not easy. He did not enjoy immediate success and worked very, very hard. He was only 14 when he appeared in a song, dance, and accordion act called “Boy Bruce, the Mighty Atom”. His first appearance was at the Theatre Royal in Bilston, with The Great Marzo at the top of the bill. Forsyth made his television debut in 1939 as a child, singing and dancing on a BBC talent show. After the Second World War, he spent years on stage with little success and travelled the UK working seven days a week, doing summer seasons, pantomimes and circuses, where he became renowned for his strong-man act.

I first became aware of him when he was host of the ITV show Sunday Night at the London Palladium from 1958. This was basically an old-fashioned variety show featuring a game show called Beat the Clock (a precursor of some of Forsyth’s later TV successes) but the bill was often headed by rock and pop acts. I remember seeing on the show Buddy Holly, Pat Boone, Bobby Darin, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. This was an interesting time when many rock and pop acts were touring the UK as part of a variety bill with comedians, dancers and jugglers.


His career had its ups and downs and he was disappointed by his lack of success in the US but hard work and versatility saw him through. Forsyth earned a place in the 2013 Guinness Book of World Records as the male TV entertainer having had the longest career. In 2003, and again in 2010, Forsyth was a guest presenter on the news and satire quiz show Have I Got News for You. He was co-host of Strictly Come Dancing from 2004 to 2013. In 2013, he was the oldest performer ever to appear at the Glastonbury Festival. He received many awards and was knighted in 2011 for services to entertainment and charity.

Vulture Culture

Here are some comments from pseudonymous shadows on the Guardian website. “I thought Bruce Forsyth represented the worst of that appallingly (sic) art form known as British light entertainment. He could do about four talents pretty poorly, which was somehow suppose (sic) to add up to something worthwhile?” “Bruce’s main talent was in patronising the wholly untalented, while grinning at them sufficiently that they did not take too much offence.” “Why could anyone be surprised that the American’s (sic) didn’t take to his pointless and inane catch phrases and set piece tap dancing?”


Those who actually met him tell a different story. A friend of mine appeared on the Generation Game in 1975 and described Forsyth as “charming” – “a nice guy”. Someone who worked with him said: “I still don’t like the act that he did, but I respect him immensely as one of the most likeable and professional performers that I’ve ever worked with. When somebody famous dies, it’s often the case that my colleagues will tell tales of how that particular star had a nasty side. I’ve never heard any tales like that about Brucie and would be surprised if any were to emerge either.”

Celebrity Fair Game

Some commenters seem to be saying that anyone can say anything about a “celebrity” because celebrities have put themselves up for it by voluntarily placing themselves in the public eye (for money and fame). I can have some sympathy with that view in relation to the celebrity culture of the 21st Century. I have not lived in the UK since 1998 but every time I look at Mail Online and see all those non-entities being paraded I want to boke. These people are seeking fame and fortune without having the assets of talent or the capability of working hard. Do people like Forsyth deserve to be disrespected in death just because they decided to make a career out of entertaining the public?

Infinite Variety

Many of those vultures who were so quick to descend on Forsyth when he could no longer defend himself condemned him for the tradition he came from – variety, music hall. No doubt that could have been a seedy world (see John Osborne’s The Entertainer) but I loved it. When I was very young (four or five?) my parents took me to shows at the Cheltenham Opera House and the Gloucester Regal. They sometimes regretted it because I tended to imitate the comedians on the way home – “acting the maggot” as the Irish idiom has it. I never saw Forsyth but I did see Jimmy James, Dickie Henderson, Roy Castle, Jewel and Warris, Hylda Baker, Davey Kaye, Jimmy Wheeler, Max Bygraves, Max Wall, Cyril Fletcher, Al Read, Chic Murray, Reg Dixon, Charlie Drake, Stan Stennett, Ken Platt, Dave King, Max Miller, Arthur English and, best of all, Tony Hancock. Many of these comedians distinguished themselves as straight actors. To me the tradition Forsyth came from was a noble one.

Trolls at the Funeral

Someone shared my point of view: “Bruce Forsyth was not my cup of tea but he was loved by his family and by many others, and they should be allowed some space to celebrate his life and grieve in relative peace.” “One expects that people with the decency not to troll someone at a funeral would know better than to broadcast their random unkind thoughts for the newly bereaved to read. Sadly, it seems not.”

The main point is not whether Forsyth was any good or whether some nonentity (like me) was impressed by his talent or not. Our disagreements on social media are ephemeral and we will all flit away to some other topic within days or hours. This is about respecting the dead. A human being who did no harm to those denigrating him has died and his family are grieving.




Anger and Forgiveness

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday August 17 2017

Events in Charlottesville (and more low-key events closer to my home affecting me personally) have led me to think about the subject of anger and its consequences.  I was moved to revisit Martha C Nussbaum’s book Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, and Justice.  Nussbaum looks at the efficacy of forgiveness rather than anger as a response to wrongdoing. She gives many examples of anger and forgiveness ranging over the personal and the political.

Some people live in anger – one might almost say some people love anger, it seems to give them sustenance. As well as looking back in anger they look forward in anger.  I am lucky in that I never really get angry – I have short bursts of sometimes intense irritation but these are not sustained enough to lead to me taking any practical retribution or revenge. Nussbaum calls this Transition Anger and concedes that it “lacks a wish for ill”. She writes: “Though short-term anger is understandable and human, it is rarely helpful, and it certainly should not dictate the course of the future”.

Anger and Self-Respect

Anger is often a result of feeling disrespected. The scenes in Charlottesville happened because a group of people were angry that their standing was not appreciated and their social status was being undermined by “the other”. Trump became president by feeding this anger against elites, minorities, nations that were not the USA. He fomented anger about his country’s alleged loss of influence and power (even though the USA is still the sole superpower). “Make America great again” was his slogan. Respect us or we will be angry and punish you. Anger can be narcissistic. “Sympathy steers anger in the direction of a balanced focus on harm and correction of harm, rather than on personal downranking, with its connection to revenge.”

Nussbaum recognises that most of us are helpless against many of the contingencies of life but we can console ourselves with projects that express our anger. “It feels a lot better if we can form a payback project and get busy executing it (suing the bad doctor, depriving one’s ex of child custody) than to accept loss and the real condition of helplessness in which life has left us. Payback, thus, often has a psychic function.”



Revenge is a dish best eaten cold, the saying goes.  Marcus Aurelius wrote: “The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury”. Francis Bacon did not think revenge therapeutic: “A man that studieth revenge keeps his own wounds green.”

Many cultures are corrupted by blood feuds and ‘honour’ killings. The US has a false foundation myth which places it beyond such crudity but American culture spreads a brutal and infantile message to the rest of the world. The film critic Mark Cousins has noted the current prevalence of vengeance as a theme in Hollywood movies. One of the questions of our time is how a tribe that has been harmed finds peace. Movies which show returning harm to those who harmed seem to give comfort by ventilating an audience’s feelings of impotence. Blog-warriors get some satisfaction by keeping anger alive and espousing vengeance as if life were a movie.


Nussbaum writes, “people in modern American society continue to think anger is good, powerful, and manly. They encourage it in their children (especially boys), and they indulge it in both self and others.” Anger is followed by retribution which derives from “deep-rooted

but misleading ideas of cosmic balance, and from people’s attempt to recover control in situations of helplessness. But the wrongdoer’s suffering does not bring back the person or valued item”. It is psychologically damaging for me to want payback, to return pain to one who has caused me pain. “Obsessive focusing on the future suffering of the perpetrator just implicates me in the perpetrator’s hostile and degrading conduct”.




We should not ignore bad acts but the recognition of their wrongness should contribute to good in the future. The formula for reconciliation is for offender, victim, and friends to act as though the wrong act and the perpetrator are separate. Nussbaum writes: “the crime is outrageous, but we can see the offender, with sympathy, as someone who is more and better than the crime, capable of good in future”. Reconciliation in Northern Ireland, Rwanda, South Africa and many other countries, involved a lot of forgetting. It was not easy. “The apparatus of abasement, confession, contrition, and eventual forgiveness, by contrast, often impedes reconciliation by producing humiliation rather than mutual respect, and it frequently acts as a covert form of punishment, discharging a hidden (or, often, not so hidden) resentment.”



Nussbaum gives the name Transactional Forgiveness to a process described by another philosopher, Charles Griswold. Forgiveness, Griswold argues, is a two-person process involving a moderation of anger and a rejection of revenge. Griswold lists six conditions for the forgiveness process:

Acknowledge responsibility for the wrong

Repudiate the wrong deed and acknowledge the wrongness

Express regret to the injured party

Through deeds and words become the sort of person who does not inflict injury

Show an understanding from the injured person’s perspective of the damage done

Offer an account of how the wrong was done


My school in Gloucester was close to 25 Cromwell Street where Fred and Rosemary West perpetrated countless grisly murders. Lucy Partington, the cousin of writer Martin Amis, was waiting for a   bus in Cheltenham when Fred and Rose West offered her a lift. She was never seen again. Lucy’s sister, Marian, forgave the Wests and wrote movingly about Rosemary West: “Her story seems to be about the impoverishment of a soul that knew no other way to live than through terrible cruelty. A life deprived of truth, beauty or love. I imagine that the deviant ignorance that fed her sadistic, egotistical crimes was rooted in her ruined, crooked childhood.” I don’t know if I could be forgiving in such circumstances.

I wonder how forgiving I would be if I lost loved ones to terrorists. My friend the Reverend Harold Good witnessed the horrors of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. “I wasn’t isolated in an ivory tower. I know the pain inflicted by terrorists.” In spite of this, he has referred, in a personal e-mail to me, to his “friend Martin McGuinness”.

McGuinness helped bring peace to Northern Ireland and worked with former enemies as part of the devolved government of the six counties. Many found it impossible to forgive the atrocities committed by the IRA when McGuinness was IRA Derry Commandant. Harold worked closely with both Republican and Loyalist prisoners with a view to their resettlement. He was the Director in the 1970s of the Corrymeela community, a centre for reconciliation between the communities. He was chair of NIACRO (Northern Ireland Association for the Care and Resettlement of Prisoners) and part-time prison chaplain at Crumlin Road prison. A key part of the Good Friday agreement was the release and rehabilitation of all political prisoners. Harold still comes under criticism as well as praise for his part in the peace process.


Some find it hard to cope with the fact that men who committed evil deeds are free and forgiven. In Sri Lanka, some find it disgusting that Karuna and KP are free.

On a visit to Northern Ireland, the Dalai Lama said: “Some differences, some conflicts will always be there. But we should use the differences in a positive way to try to get energy from different views. Try to minimize violence, not by force, but by awareness and respect. Through dialogue, taking others’ interests and sharing one’s own, there is a way to solve the problems”. He put his arms around a Catholic priest and a Protestant minister and tugged their beards.

There is a good deal of research which shows that forgiving is good for the health. When people think about forgiving an offender, it leads to improved functioning in their cardiovascular and nervous systems. The research of Dr Fred Luskin of Stanford University shows that forgiveness can be learned. In Northern Ireland, Luskin found that people who are taught how to forgive, become less angry, more optimistic, self-confident. His studies show a reduction in the experience and physical manifestations of stress, and an increase in vitality.




PC and Kevin Myers

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday August 10 2017.


Misogyny and Anti-Semitism?

There was quite a kerfuffle in Ireland last week when veteran celebrity columnist Kevin Myers was sacked by the Irish Sunday Times. (Please note that this is a Murdoch paper and has no connection to the Sri Lankan Sunday Times or the Irish Times). Myers decided to comment on the news which had been recently released of the very high salaries being paid to some BBC presenters. Of the 96 stars who appear on the list 32 are women. There has been speculation that some of the highest paid male presenters may face pay cuts in order to pay women more.

Myers chose to concentrate on this gender gap and highlighted the fact that two of the highest paid women were Jewish. Vanessa Feltz is paid between £350,000 and £400,000. Claudia Winkeleman (who also writes for the Sunday Times) is listed as being paid between £450,000 – £499,000. Some of the rage that erupted might have been because Myers’s column was given the headline “Sorry ladies, equal pay has to be earned”, and the writer probably was not responsible for that.

In the article, Myers wrote: ““I note that two of the best-paid women presenters in the BBC – Claudia Winkleman and Vanessa Feltz, with whose, no doubt, sterling work I am tragically unacquainted – are Jewish. Good for them. Jews are not generally noted for their insistence on selling their talent for the lowest possible price, which is the most useful measure there is of inveterate, lost-with-all-hands stupidity.” He thus left himself open to charges of both misogyny and anti-Semitism as well as bad writing.


Kathy Sheridan is another veteran Irish journalist. I recall that she provided excellent coverage from Sri Lanka of the tsunami. In her own column in the Irish Times she showed Myers no mercy. She wrote: “no decent man or woman can afford to shrug off the rank misogyny of last Sunday’s column”. According to Ms Sheridan, Myers has previous in the misogyny department. “All of 20 years ago, I challenged Kevin Myers in print, when he argued that the only reason a decent man was in jail was because of spiteful, whiny females.”

Myers has admitted that he has a tendency to undermine himself with “throwaway lines” but Ms Sheridan is having none of that: “The clear intention was to shoehorn women – any women – into a particular narrative of victimy, spiteful bitches. It was the kind of hateful, utterly unsubstantiated assertion that regularly reduced colleagues to howls of rage.” Myers himself has a tendency to self-pity (on behalf of males as a class rather than himself alone) that is not at all attractive. As my wife often tells me, self-pity is never attractive.



I am myself somewhat queasy about the fact that a writer should be sacked and his articles deleted because people did not like what he was writing. I have had the unpleasant experience of seeing supposed libertarians calling on editors to ‘silence’ me. I have been fortunate to encounter editors honourable enough to resist such calls for censorship. Myers claims that he has lost his livelihood and his reputation is “in tatters”.

The Jewish Representative Council of Ireland issued a statement defending Myers. Myers had established something of a reputation for himself as a “holocaust denier”. “Branding Kevin Myers as either an anti-Semite or a Holocaust denier is an absolute distortion of the facts. More than any other Irish journalist he has written columns about details of the Holocaust over the last three decades that would otherwise not have been known by a substantial Irish audience. “David Quinn, whose father helped establish the Israeli Embassy in Dublin, said “The Most Pro-British and Pro -Journalist in Ireland has been sacked by a British Newspaper for Antisemitism”.

The distinguished Irish historian Ruth Dudley Edwards was disappointed that some of her Jewish friends should vilify Myers whom she considereda brave man who has incurred a great deal of unpopularity in Ireland by sticking up for Israel and consistently reminding people about what the Nazis did to Jews.”

PC Again

While I am prepared to listen to the arguments of those who deny that Myers is anti-Semitic and I am concerned that a man should lose his livelihood for expressing his opinions, I start to see a red mist when the concept of “political correctness” is introduced into the scenario. Some defenders of Myers find it refreshing that he did not always follow liberal received wisdom. He is contrasted with favourably with Jeremy Corbyn because he took a principled stand against the Provisional IRA.I have also taken a stand against the myths of Easter 1916 and the brutal use to which they have been put. I am completely on the same page as Ruth and Kevin on that subject.

Ben Lowry points out that Myers “was an early critic of appeasement of violent Islamic fanatics. He mocked the naïveté of anti-war demonstrators who inadvertently help protect war-mongering dictators. He was one of the first people to see that if Europe accommodates large numbers of migrants, more will come (or die in the Med). He ridiculed environmental opposition to nuclear power that resulted in more carbon emissions.” He scoffed at the notion of equality.

What is “PC”?

It seems to me that PC is a ruse by which right-wingers attempt to fool everybody else that they are the legitimate guardians of “common sense” and everyone who believes in civility and justice is a cretinous subversive.  Take Donald Trump – please! Trump has shown that he is xenophobic, racist, homophobic, misogynistic and insensitive to people with disabilities. What people like Trump (and people who like Trump) mean when they condemn ‘political correctness’ is, in reality, is that they have no time for common decency, civility and empathy.

Ian Mayes was the first Readers’ Editor, a kind of Ombudsman, of the Guardian. He fought a long but ultimately futile battle against sloppy and hurtful language relating to mental illness.  “I feel a strong commitment to this policy. It has nothing to do with political correctness. It has a lot to do with the way we treat each other, or wish to be treated, and in particular the way in which we relate to each other in times of need.” It was sad to read Mayes’s columns over the years because however many times he returned to this subject he just could not stop Guardian journalists using the word schizophrenic in a sloppy and hurtful way.

Widespread use of the term politically correct and its derivatives began when the political right adopted it in the 1990s as a pejorative term suggesting Stalinist orthodoxy. The right claimed sole ownership of Common Sense. All else was mere ideology. The term Political Correctness used by the right means “excessive deference to particular sensibilities at the expense of other considerations”. Many of the most widely publicized anecdotes about PC were more myth than reality. The British tabloid papers ran a number of fictitious stories about Islington Council going to ridiculous lengths to avoid the word “black”. Boris Johnson floated many myths about EU bureaucracy in his columns written from Brussels. The term “politically incorrect” came into use as implicit self-praise, indicating that the user was not afraid to speak plainly. Some might say they were just rude and insensitive.

Fintan O’Toole wrote about Myers: “He didn’t notice that he was doing something he generally avoids: insulting people who can answer back.” O’Toole saw the Irish Times as being complicit in Myers’s offence. “The paper did him no favours when it decided in February 2005, under the influence of a misplaced anxiety about being seen to censor dissenting views, to publish his column calling single mothers “mothers of bastards” and was then very slow to apologise for this gratuitous kick at the weak. What Myers learned from the episode was not to mind his words but that he would be indulged and rewarded for inverting the usual journalistic imperatives and using his formidable talents to afflict the afflicted.” I do not believe Myers should have been silenced but he is old enough (70) and experienced enough to know that words, like sticks and stones, have consequences.


Positives from Negatives

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday July 6 2017.

Colman's Column3


I have written in recent articles about the spirit of rebellion developing among the public as a result of what disasters have revealed about the shortcomings of the governments of Sri Lanka and the UK.

Lights On, Nobody Home

In 2012, I was asked to do some consultancy work for a London company that organises events and exhibitions on an international basis. They were organising their second Aidex exhibition, held in Brussels, aimed at establishing networking and marketing opportunities for organisations providing goods and services in emergency and development situations. I was asked to establish contacts between Aidex and Sri Lankan organisations. The obvious place to start my research was the Ministry of Disaster Management. It was initially encouraging to find that the e-mail addresses and telephone numbers (even residential numbers) of personnel at the ministry were publicly available. I wrote to all these people and telephoned a large number of them. I did not get a single reply and no-one picked up the phone.

I published an article in advance of the Aidex event in which I wrote: “Surely there must be some Sri Lankan organisations similar to those who participated in AidEx 2011 and found it so beneficial to their business! Surely there are some Sri Lankan organisations who could make tremendous gains from participating in AidEx 2012.” Aidex 2012 was very successful. Not a single Sri Lankan attended.

Crisis, What Crisis

It was no surprise to find that the Ministry of Disaster Management was not prepared for this year’s floods because they had not been prepared for previous natural disasters. The emergency services in the UK responded magnificently to the Manchester bombing and the Grenfell Tower fire. However, they were stretched very thin because government policies over many years had brought about a reduction in police and fire service personnel (not to mention shortage of nursing staff). Many fire stations had been closed because of austerity measures.

Humanitarian Response from Humans rather than Politicians

How can one see anything positive in this? For one thing, one can feel inspired by the bravery of the firemen in West London and the prompt response of police in a number of terrorist incidents. The Sri Lankan government was slow to get its act together immediately after the tsunami, but a local relief effort that got underway almost immediately is generally agreed to have been a success despite the understandable confusion which accompanied it at times. Even in the poorest, most remote areas people flocked to the roadside to hand over money, clothes, bottles of water and bags of rice and lentils. Temporary shelter for the displaced was provided in schools, other public and religious buildings. Communities and groups cooperated across ethnic and religious differences. An effective, spontaneous immediate response was organised locally, followed by the government and international agencies. This was in sharp contrast to the response to Hurricane Katrina. There are complaints in Sri Lanka today about militarisation but  Sri Lankan soldiers performed heroically and efficiently in the aftermath of the floods as they did after the tsunami, when 20,000 soldiers assisted in relief operations.

Word from the Ground

My friend Amelia Ayewan has been tireless in her efforts to help the victims of Grenfell Tower. One of the great benefits of the much-reviled social media is the opportunity offered to spread news of what is going on, news that you do not get on TV or in the newspapers. Amelia has spoken to many people around Grenfell Tower, including policemen and firemen, and she passes on what she has heard. This is not irresponsible gossip. Volunteers at Grenfell Towers are hearing and sharing things that the government does not want people to know.

Personal stories bring home the reality of government policies. A friend of Amelia’s wrote: “A few days ago I walked into a shop on Portobello and ‘Uncle’ was gone… just an empty chair where he used to be sat, every day- now perished in the fire. I felt so sad. On Saturday evening, I went to buy injera (Ethiopian flatbread) and was relieved to find the regular lovely man serving me…mainly because he hadn’t been there last time…. ‘I am so glad to see you” I said. It turned out that he has lost about 18-19 people in the fire that were coming to his shop to buy injera every week… including a family of 5 that came twice a week every week for years.”

A volunteer passed on what a fireman had said: “He said there are 120 fire engines in London and 60 attended. He said they got there and were shitting themselves but ran in. He went to the 11th floor and got 10 people out, some could walk but the smoke was making people collapse so he had to carry people. They had to make an emergency stop on the way down because he had to give CPR to a six-year-old girl whose body couldn’t cope with the heat, the smoke and the stress. She didn’t survive.” The fireman said one of the worst things was the sound of people on the floors above screaming, sobbing and crying.

The fireman was furious about “the cost cutting that led to the shitty cladding that had no fire breaks and went up like a touch, that it had happened after the election so we could have put an end to the cuts to emergency services.”

End of Ideology?

One positive outcome might be an end to austerity policies. The UK government has had to commit itself to spending millions of pounds to make tower blocks safe. The disaster has shown the utter evil of the ideology of privatisation, outsourcing, deregulation and cutting spending on public services. Labour’s amendment to the Queen’s speech calling for an end to cuts to emergency services was rejected by MPs by 323 votes to 309, a government majority of 14. Nevertheless, there have been hints of wider moves to loosen austerity in the wake of May losing her majority at the general election.

Dr Sarah Wollaston, the Tory MP who chaired parliament’s health select committee before the election, said there was considerable strength of feeling among her colleagues on the backbenches and in cabinet that action was needed to ease the pain. There have been signals from a series of influential ministers, including Boris Johnson, Jeremy Hunt, Justine Greening and Michael Gove, that the 1% cap on public sector wage rises ought to be reconsidered.

The Home Office minister Nick Hurd told Parliament that increasing police pay was “under active consideration”. As I write, several reports have been published demonstrating beyond doubt that the austerity ideology is mistaken and harmful. A research report by UCL and NIESR was published quietly on July 3 and ignored by the government. The report analyses earnings growth among Pay Review Body occupations. The researchers found that median hourly earnings of UK workers dropped in real terms by almost 6% between 2005 and 2015, with some sectors suffering worse drops than others. The report showed George Osborne’s policy of pay restraint on public sector workers began to bite after 2010, as police officers, teachers, midwives, radiographers, nurses and doctors saw a marked decline in median hourly earnings. Police officers saw median real earnings fall from £20 an hour to £18 an hour over the same period.

There are already alarming staff shortages in hospitals in high cost areas like the south of England, including hospitals  used by constituents of Mrs May and Mr Hunt. Nurses point to evidence of a £3,000 fall in their pay since 2010, and their governing body, the Nursing and Midwifery Council, has now reported that for the first time ever, more of their members are leaving the NHS than are joining. Brexit will mean less hospital staff will be going to the UK from the rest of Europe.

As the Guardian put it in an editorial: “U-turns have succeeded U-turns – in a series of hairpin bends leading down to an abyss – which can only reflect a struggle between Downing Street neighbours.” One wonders when the government will resolve the issue and start to invest in the people who rose so heroically to their tasks after the recent disasters.


Long Spoon Required

This article appeared in slightly different form in Ceylon Today on Thursday June 15 2017. The article was submitted on June 11 so I have amended it slightly to take account of further developments.

Pact with the Devil


As I write, Theresa May is barely holding on to the prime minister’s job despite her utter humiliation in the unnecessary general election she called in response to bad advice.Many Conservatives are out for her blood. Former Chancellor of the Exchequer whose services  she dispensed with is enjoying the opportunities that his new post as editor of the London Evening Standard affords him to rub salt into her wounds.



She went from having a majority of 17 to scrabbling around for the support of the Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party to keep the Conservative Party in power. The DUP is the party founded by the Reverend Iain Paisley. It has fundamentalist views on homosexuality and abortion as well as climate change. More worryingly it has had ties with terrorist organisations.

Ian Paisley marched at the head of masked loyalist paramilitary ranks during the 1974 Ulster Workers Council strike. Peter Robinson, who was DUP leader and Northern Ireland’s first minister until last year, was an active member of Ulster Resistance. One of the things the group did was collaborate with other terrorist organisations such as the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Defence Association to smuggle arms into the UK. There was a major arms find in County Armagh in November 1988 but some UVF and UDA weapons have never been found.

Peter Robinson

The murder of Colin Horner, in a North Down supermarket car park in front of his three-year-old son last month revived community fears of loyalist violence and racketeering. DUP leader Arlene Foster, who met the senior UDA leader Jackie McDonald days after the killing, was criticised for failing to condemn loyalist violence robustly enough.

May attacked Jeremy Corbyn for his alleged ties with the IRA and is now allying herself with a party founded by former Northern Irish loyalist terrorists.

Who are the DUP MPs?

DUP MP Ian Paisley Jr has made many positive comments on Sri Lanka including telling the House of Commons: “In many aspects, Sri Lanka has made more measurable gains post-conflict than Northern Ireland.” However, he has also said that he believes that homosexual “relationships are immoral, offensive and obnoxious.” There have been questions about the probity of his dealings with some property developers. He has consistently drawn attention by his high expenses claims as an MP. He is a friend of Donald Trump and has invited him to visit Northern Ireland for the Open golf championship at Portrush in 2019.

Sammy Wilson has been accused of condoning calls that Catholics should be “expelled, nullified, or interned.” Nigel Dodds attended the wake of paramilitary leader John Bingham with DUP founder Ian Paisley Sr. Emma Little-Pengelly is the daughter of Noel Little who was one of three men arrested in Paris in April 1989, along with a South African diplomat and an arms dealer. During her 2017 general election campaign, she received the endorsement of the three biggest loyalist paramilitary organisations.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson was part of Official Unionist leader David Trimble’s negotiating team during the Good Friday Agreement talks in 1998. He came to oppose his leader’s stance, however, criticising the lack of a link between IRA weapons decommissioning and Sinn Fein’s being allowed into government. Donaldson joined the DUP in 2003 and is Northern Ireland’s longest serving MP.

In 2005 David Simpson ousted David Trimble from his parliamentary seat. He opposed same-sex marriage and lobbied to have creationism included in the science curriculum in Northern Ireland schools. Gregory Campbell has called for the reintroduction of the death penalty and described homosexuality as an “evil, wicked, abhorrent practice”. Jim Shannon was voted the least sexy MP in 2011.

Funding from Saudi Arabia

The story about the DUP’s shady financial links with Saudi Arabia is too convoluted for me to cover fully here and many facts remain uncovered. Two days before the Brexit referendum last June, the Metro freesheet carried a four-page glossy propaganda supplement urging readers to vote Leave. It cost £282,000 and was paid for by the DUP, even though Metro does not circulate in Northern Ireland. The DUP eventually admitted that money came from a much larger donation of £425,622 from the Constitutional Research Council which is linked to the Saudi royal family. The name of Peter Haestrup crops up in connection with this funding. He is a Dane who has repeatedly been linked to a gun running case described by Indian authorities as “the biggest crime in the country’s history”. All the DUP bigwigs claim to be puzzled by all this. The donation seems to be illegal under UK electoral law. If the DUP were   forced to return such a large sum of money it might bankrupt the party.

Cash for Ash

Arlene Foster, the current leader of the DUP, is a divisive figure in Northern Ireland. The “cash for ash” scandal indicated that the DUP were corrupt or at best incompetent and arrogant. A renewable energy incentive scheme for Northern Ireland ran out of control and cost the public purse £500 million. Concerns of fraud were raised initially in 2013 and again in 2014, when a whistle-blower contacted Foster to raise concerns about the scheme. The scheme worked by paying applicants to use renewable energy. The rate paid was more than the cost of heating, however, meaning applicants were making profits simply by heating their properties.

The plan was overseen by Arlene Foster when she was Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment. She signally failed to introduce proper cost controls, allowing the plan to spiral out of control. Foster said that calls for her resignation were purely “misogynistic”. Foster was succeeded as minister by Jonathan Bell who said in an interview that DUP special advisers and Foster “intervened” to prevent the closure of the scheme. He also claimed that Foster tried to “cleanse the records” by hiding her involvement in delaying the scheme’s closure. Bell was suspended from the DUP. An audit indicated that there were serious fraud issues at 14 of the sites

The affair ultimately caused Sinn Féin leader Martin McGuinness to resign in protest as deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland in January 2017 after ten years in office. McGuinness’s resignation meant that Foster was removed from her role as First Minister, which in turn caused the Executive Office of Northern Ireland to fall. The fall of the executive, though triggered by cash for ash, was the inevitable consequence of the DUP’s unwillingness to embrace the vision of a shared and equal society in the north of Ireland which underpinned the GFA.  The DUP has continued to adopt a sectarian approach to most issues undermining the carefully crafted agreement designed to allow a more normal society and body politic to take root and flourish.

Whither Peace?

May’s courting of the DUP augurs badly for power-sharing talks at Stormont. The uneasy peace brought by the Good Friday Agreement owed a lot to the fact that the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland were both part of the EU so that the border between the six and 26 counties no longer signified. Thanks to Brexit this will no longer apply. Sinn Féin have argued that because the Northern Ireland electorate voted by 56% to remain within Europe last year the area should have special designated status. The DUP are very much in favour of Brexit and will use their influence to insist there would be no post-Brexit deal that could decouple Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.

The hard border between the six counties and the 26 counties will reappear. It will now also be the land border between the EU and the UK. The success of the GFA depended on the London government being neutral between the nationalists and the loyalists in Northern Ireland. May’s Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire undermined that neutrality. May’s Faustian pact with the DUP will make any pretence of neutrality ludicrous.

There are many who think this anxiety reflects scaremongering and suggest that the DUP’s fundamentalist views cannot affect the rest of the UK. Historian Ruth Dudley Edwards has written many pieces lately advising people to calm down. “The DUP leader – a rural solicitor who saw her father and several friends injured by IRA attacks – has with good grace sat in government with ex-IRA people and their apologists. Her wish-list is, she says, utterly in the national interest. Theresa May can count herself lucky.”

Nevertheless, many people in the UK and Ireland are feeling a sense of betrayal and despair. I lost respect for John Major because of rail privatisation and Edwina Currie. Perhaps Major has not been given enough credit for his contribution to the Northern Ireland peace process. Noe Major is worried. “A fundamental part of that peace process is that the UK government needs to be impartial between all the competing interests in Northern Ireland. The danger is that however much any government tries, they will not be seen to be impartial if they are locked into a parliamentary deal, at Westminster, with one of the Northern Ireland parties. The last thing anybody wishes to see is one or other of the communities so aggrieved that the hard men, who are still there lurking in the corners of the community, decide that they wish to return to some form of violence.”

Many British voters will be thinking it was bad enough getting Brexit and Theresa May. They are also getting a gang of ignorant bigots with connections to terrorists, fraudsters and Trump. What fresh hell is this?



On Bullshit

This  article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday June 1 2017,



Padraig Colman

My first article published in a Sri Lankan magazine was for LMD nearly ten years ago. My subject was truth and lies and broken promises in politics and business. The immediate trigger for the article was my reading of Harry G Frankfurt’s best-selling little book (67 pages) On Bullshit.  Since reading Frankfurt, I have also read a book by another philosopher, my Facebook friend Stephen Law – Believing Bullshit. Stephen goes into a lot more detail with practical examples of bullshit and what to do about it. Frankfurt is one of the world’s most influential moral philosophers. This could be a false memory but I seem to recall that the LMD editors were too squeamish to print the word ‘bullshit’.


Ten years on, bullshit is still around and still being written about. Evan Davis has published Post-Truth: Why We Have Reached Peak Bullshit and What We Can Do About It, Buzzfeed correspondent James Ball weighs in with Post-Truth: How Bullshit Conquered the World, and political journalist Matthew d’Ancona contributes Post Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back.

In 2016, Oxford Dictionaries chose post-truth as word of the year, with the definition “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. Trump spokesperson Kelly-Anne Conway has come up with the phrase “alternative facts” to explain her boss’s s bizarre claims about the weather and the crowds on the day of his inauguration.

Lies, Humbug and Bullshit

LMD could have substituted the word “humbug”, which Frankfurt considers a genteel alternative. There is a subtle difference between bullshit and lies (Sisela Bok’s book Lying is a must-read). Frankfurt argues that bullshit is speech intended to persuade, without regard for truth. The liar cares about the truth and attempts to hide it; the bullshitter only cares whether or not the listener is persuaded. Frankfurt argues that bullshitters misrepresent themselves to their audience not as liars do, that is, by deliberately making false claims about what is true. Bullshit need not be untrue at all. Bullshitters seek to convey a certain impression of themselves without being concerned about whether anything  is true. They change the rules governing their end of the conversation so that claims about truth and falsity are irrelevant.

Frankfurt concludes that although bullshit can take many innocent forms, excessive indulgence in it can eventually undermine the practitioner’s capacity to tell the truth in a way that lying does not. Liars at least acknowledge that it matters what is true. By virtue of this, Frankfurt writes, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are. Bullshit is everywhere, because people must create prose about things they don’t actually understand.

Entitlement to Opinion

A cliché on social media is “opinions are like arseholes; everyone’s got one and they all stink”. The Cambridge philosopher, Jamie Whyte wrote: “You are entitled to an opinion in the epistemic sense only when you have good reason for holding it: evidence, sound arguments and so on. Far from being universal, this epistemic entitlement is one you earn. It is like being entitled to boast, which depends on having something worth boasting about.” Der Spiegel wrote about Trump: “He doesn’t read. He doesn’t bother to peruse important files and intelligence reports and knows little about the issues that he has identified as his priorities. His decisions are capricious and they are delivered in the form of tyrannical decrees.”


Thanks to Facebook, bullshit is unavoidable when people are convinced that they must have opinions about events and conditions in all parts of the world, about more or less anything and everything – so they rant about things they know virtually nothing about. However, Facebook and the internet in general are tools and we perhaps should not blame them for the way they are used. Columbia University researchers analysed 1.3m articles published online before the US presidential election. The report’s authors insist that it is neither fake news nor Facebook that poses the real challenge to the mainstream media, but a “propaganda and disinformation-rich environment”.

Thanks to parlous economic conditions, newspapers cannot afford to employ reporters to dig out the facts. Like an urban myth or an internet hoax, a story gets passed around and is treated as legal currency. The neologism “churnalism” has been credited to BBC journalist Waseem Zakir who coined the term in 2008. “You get copy coming in on the wires and reporters churn it out, processing stuff and maybe adding the odd local quote.” Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” – “We’re not talking about truth, we’re talking about something that seems like truth – the truth we want to exist”.

It seems to me that there is more bullshit around than there was ten years ago. Look at the current President of the United States. Many have written about Trump’s incessant lying but his modus operandi seems to me to be more akin to bullshit. Frankfurt wrote: “The bullshitter is involved in a program of obfuscation, not merely the substitution of truth for lies.”

Twittering Trump

Trump uses Twitter ceaselessly and undermines the efforts of his spin doctors. Trump’s election and the Brexit vote relied on distrust of experts and disregard for knowledge. There are so many opportunities for people to sound off without knowing what they are talking about. It is disturbing when the person sounding off without knowledge is the president of the United States. As I write, I am looking at footage showing the leaders of NATO countries tittering in bemusement as Trump holds forth mistaken views about how NATO works. Trump’s claim that American allies are “underpaying” or owe NATO money has been repeatedly debunked.

Principles of Conversation

Yet another philosopher, HP Grice (1913-1988), described in his 1975 book Logic and Conversation, ‘maxims’ that are assumed by people engaged in conversation. The co-operative principle means that speakers and listeners assume that their interlocutors stick to certain speech norms. There is a kind of unstated contract about quantity, quality, relevance and manner. If the maxims are violated you get bullshit: quantity – too much or too little information; quality – utterances that are intentionally false or lack evidence; relevance – shifting ground from the topic under discussion; manner – utterances that are ambiguous, unnecessarily prolix or disorderly. Grice could be describing Trump. The elements Grice outlines may be added to the condition of the bullshitter’s indifference to the ideal of truth. Another philosopher, Bernard Williams, brings trust into the equation. Williams sees any person lied to or who has bullshit tipped onto him or her as a victim of an abuse of power who has been put in a powerless position that results in resentment and rage.

Blind Faith and Bullshit

Frankfurt comes to a somewhat surprising conclusion: ‘sincerity is bullshit’. Frankfurt rests his case on a critique of those who claim for sincerity a position formerly occupied by a trust in objectivity. He disputes the view that our nature is a more reliable guide to truth than ‘facts’. He has no time for faith or gut feeling, seeing those as part of bullshit.

Stephen Law takes this up and offers strategies for avoiding getting trapped in what he calls the black holes of bullshit – belief systems constructed in such a way that unwary passers-by can be imprisoned. Even the most intelligent and educated, not just the ignorant, are potentially vulnerable. Beware! You might think you are smart but you too can be bullshitted.

I am myself guilty of churnalism and also of having opinions about events and conditions in all parts of the world. I have been confidently condemning Jeremy Corbyn for voting against the Good Friday Agreement. I believed it because I had read it so many times on the internet. I am a bullshitter! I may have to eat my hat. According to Channel4 Corbyn did, in fact, vote for the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. He voted against the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985.
Here is the relevant extract from Hansard showing that Corbyn did support the Good Friday Agreement.…/debte…/80731-06.htm
My apologies to Mr Corbyn.

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