Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Omagh Part 3 An End to Terrorism?

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on October 13 2015.

peace process

On 15 August 1998 at 3.04 p.m. an explosion in Omagh killed 31 people and injured 220. This was done in the pursuit of a united Ireland by dissidents objecting to the Good Friday Agreement signed earlier that year. Although the police knew who the culprits were, the families of the victims were frustrated that no one was prosecuted and they raised funds to bring a civil action. Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness expressed their support but refused to give any information that would help bring the bombers to justice. The case was not concluded until 2009. Why did it take so long to bring the murderers to any kind of justice and why was it left to “ordinary” people to make such an effort? The authorities believed the actions of the families were unhelpful to the peace process. Compromise and forgiveness were the order of the day with their corollaries of impunity and surrender.

Good out of Evil?

Just two months after Omagh, two planes flew into the World Trade Centre. That was supposed to change the context of terrorism. Different conditions post-9/11 helped in the defeat of the LTTE. Did Omagh help the Irish peace process? After the carnage many tried to adopt a positive outlook, hoping good would come out of evil. It was thought that the strength of public outrage would shame the Real IRA into giving up the “armed struggle”. With arms being decommissioned in 2005, we were told that the war was over and the Provisional IRA was no more.

McGuigan Murder


On August 12th, 2015, former Provisional IRA member Kevin McGuigan was shot dead outside his Belfast home. It is believed that he was killed in retaliation for the killing in May of IRA leader Gerard ‘Jock’ Davison. PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) Chief Constable, George Hamilton said  that the Provisional  IRA still exists and IRA members may have been involved in the McGuigan murder.


Bobby Storey was arrested. Storey is a close ally of Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams and has an office at Stormont. Stormont Deputy First Minister, Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness, said he was “surprised” to learn about Mr Storey’s arrest. “Bobby Storey is a valued member of Sinn Féin’s core leadership. He has played a leading role in the development of Sinn Féin’s peace strategy and is a long-standing and loyal supporter, defender and advocate of the peace and political processes.”


Terrorists and Ordinary Decent Criminals


Before the Good Friday Agreement, the Provisional IRA enjoyed links with organized crime in the same areas of the Costa del Sol where many of Dublin’s top “ordinary” criminals, the “Murphia”, lived. The Murphia became the wholesale suppliers for parts of the UK drugs markets. The Provisional IRA funded its terrorist activities with bank robberies and protection rackets. Martin McGuinness, former IRA Commandant for Derry, and Gerry Adams were prominent in the labyrinthine negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement and the IRA laying down its arms. As a minister in the government of the statelet of Northern Ireland, McGuinness   visited Sri Lanka to advise us on peace and reconciliation.


The Real IRA has been responsible for murders and pipe bomb attacks in the Republic and has taken over many of the security and protection rackets once run by the Provos. The group is believed to be extorting millions of Euros from targeting drug dealers — as well as business people — in Dublin and Cork. The dissidents are also believed to be selling some of these bombs to gangs including criminal elements within the Travelling community. In 2009, the Irish Army Ordnance Corps dealt with 61 live bombs and 140 hoax bombs. In 2010, they dealt with 40 live bombs, mostly in Dublin.


In Sri Lanka, the LTTE was mainly dependent for funding in the early days on robberies and extortion.  Trading in gold, laundering money and dealing in narcotics brought the LTTE substantial revenue to buy sophisticated weaponry. They also played a role in providing passports, other papers, and also engaged in human trafficking.

Real IRA Still in Business

According to Forbes, the Real IRA is currently the ninth richest terrorist organisation in the world, with an income of around £32m, (ISIS is top of the league with £1.3bn) largely generated from smuggling and organised crime. The Real IRA remained active immediately after Omagh. A car bomb exploded at midnight on March 4 2001 outside the BBC’s studios in London. British authorities suspected the Real IRA had planted the bomb as retaliation for a Panorama programme about Omagh.  There was also a bombing in Ealing on 3 August 2001 and an attempted bombing in Birmingham city centre on 3 November 2001.

Did the Provos Really Lay Down Arms?

There has been informed speculation recently that the Provisional IRA did not fully decommission its arms as officially announced in 2005. According to Mitchell Reiss, former US special envoy, during negotiations on decommissioning, Gerry Adams asked that the IRA be allowed to keep guns to counter dissident threats – a request that was accepted by the Blair government but rejected by Dublin. Arms  that Adams wanted to keep as a defence AGAINST  dissidents disrupting the peace rare now available TO dissidents to disrupt the peace process. Reports, issued by the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC) and the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD) acknowledged that the IRA had retained weaponry. Did the retention have the approval of the British, Irish and US governments? Neither the IMC nor the IICD ever specified the precise nature of the weaponry, although there is a hint that high-powered weapons, such as automatic rifles were held back. Neither body reports that the withheld weaponry was recovered or destroyed, or explained what happened to it. Kevin McGuigan was killed with an automatic rifle.

Arms Caches Still Being Found

In July 2013, Gardaí uncovered the largest ever dissident republican arsenal buried on land at the Old Airport Road in north Dublin. It included explosives and guns that the Provisional IRA should have decommissioned years earlier. The haul included 15kg of semtex that the Gaddafi had supplied in the 1980s. The buried weaponry also included handguns, shotguns, an Uzi submachine gun, electronic devices to disrupt mobile phones and more than 1,300 rounds of ammunition. In September 2013, Gardaí in Meelick, County Clare, seized weapons, explosives and circuit boards that could be used to trigger massive bombs.

In May 2015, when the Republic’s security forces prepared for a visit by the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, six republican dissidents from two hard-line factions were arrested. Irish Defence Forces’ bomb disposal teams were sent to Courtown in Wexford and Dundalk, Louth. Bomb components were found in the security operation near the border with Northern Ireland.

Terrorists Could Govern in Dublin

Sinn Féin, formerly the proxy of the Provisional IRA, is confident of winning enough seats in the next Dáil to lead the Opposition in the Republic of Ireland, with a chance of being the leading party in the election after that. A scenario can be imagined in which the governing party in the Republic of Ireland is influenced by someone who has been questioned about the IRA execution of Kevin McGuigan.


Could the LTTE Rise Again?

For nearly 20 years, we have been hopeful that peace would endure in Ireland. Perhaps we were too complacent. Following the defeat of the LTTE in May 2009, there have been no terrorist incidents in Sri Lanka. Lower level cadres were rehabilitated and senior figures like Karuna, Pillayan, Daya Master and KP entered the mainstream. In the 2015 parliamentary election former LTTE fighters contested (unsuccessfully) for parliamentary seats. Currently the TNA, which during the war was the proxy of the Tigers, is now the official opposition party in the Sri Lankan parliament.

Does this mean that separatist militancy has been absorbed into the mainstream Sri Lankan polity or is it lying dormant? There is plenty of funding available from the diaspora and many people who still long for Eelam.  Could a reduction of military presence allow a resurgence of violence?


Noise about Silence

This article appeared in the August 2011 edition of Living magazine.



There has been a lot of noise about silence, a lot of words expended.

For example, Sara Maitland wrote a lot of words about silence.  Before writing A Book of Silence, published in 2008, she spent silent time in silent places – on Skye in the Hebrides; in the Sinai Desert; in forests and mountains; in a flotation tank; in monasteries and libraries. Then she did a lot of talking to promote the book.

I used to live in Lewisham and even without rioters it was noisy. As well as the usual car and burglar alarms, there were police helicopters flying low in the small hours of most mornings. Skulks (that is the collective noun apparently) of foxes used to sun themselves on the surrounding  lawns and at night forage in dustbins and set about reproduction. The nocturnal screaming of ravished vixens was indescribable.

Later we lived  in sparsely  populated rural Ireland and became  used to a certain level of quietness.  Meditation was relatively easy in our little cottage surrounded by fields.  I first visited Sri Lanka in 2001 and spent  twelve days in a meditation centre, practising the art of “noble silence”. Sri Lanka was a bit of a shock to the senses, especially hearing.

I wrote a poem about it at the time.

The Silence Within

A bhikkhu sneezes. Anicca. Bless you.

Inside the meditation hall, buttocks squirm,

Noses sniffle, throats tickle and phlegm.

Geckos squeak. Outside, temples and mosques

Decibel their faithful to prayer. Sirens police the roads.

Helicopters take the air highway to the war.

Semtex gouges rock from the earth. Rifles shoot wild boar.

A demon hectors on my left shoulder, mocking

My ambition of equanimity.

One can hope for quietness but  it’s all relative. In 1952 at  the Maverick Hall  in Woodstock,  New York State, the penultimate piece of a piano recital by the young piano virtuoso David Tudor  was John Cage’s latest “composition”, 4’33”. Tudor shut the piano and sat still. The wind rustled in the maples and rain could be heard falling on the roof.

The American Catholic monk, Thomas Merton wrote: “I make monastic silence a protest against the lies of politicians, propagandists and agitators” . The more accepted theory behind the practice of monastic silence is that it is a means to access the deity, to develop self-knowledge and to live more harmoniously.

Jenny Diski found it difficult to live harmoniously with her neighbours because of their Led Zeppelin albums. She also discovered that she suffered from tinnitus and found that there is a medical condition known as hyperacusis  – an inability to tolerate everyday sounds. Many sounds that were previously perceived as  normal can be painful, annoying, seem amplified, or irritating.

It seems to me that what Sara Maitland is writing about is not silence, which is unattainable, but solitude. One reviewer  of A Book of Silence commented, “One unmentioned side effect of silence, on Maitland at least, seems to be solipsism.” Maitland’s craving for partial isolation raises significant questions as to the nature of silence and relationships. Monastic silence and monastic solitude might be liberating but could also cause derangement and hallucinations. Patrick Leigh Fermor wrote in  A Time to Keep Silence: “I had asked for quiet and solitude and peace, and here it was; all I had to do now was to write. But an hour passed, and nothing happened. …So much silence and sobriety! The place assumed the character of an enormous tomb, a necropolis of which I was the only living inhabitant.”

Visitors from Colombo to our mountain retreat  remark on the meditative calm. However, it is certainly not as silent as the tomb. Sometimes I find Colombo quieter.  Mother Nature is a noisy old whore.  As I write this,  hornbills are cackling derisively, squirrels are noisily complaining about the attentions of the dogs, monkeys are fighting over guavas, parrots are just scolding for the fun of it.

There is no such thing as silence.

Does the Customer Care about Customer Care?

This article appeared in the July 2008 edition of LMD (Lanka Monthly Digest) with the strapline: Demand Better Service! The customer has to care enough to benefit from quality customer service, Michael O’Leary points out.


Max Hastings wrote that Margaret Thatcher would be forever remembered as the warrior queen who toppled the Argentinean junta and castrated the British miners; John Major would be remembered for one little thing: Major’s big idea – which, to Hastings, was a little thing, was the Citizens’ Charter. The mechanisms of initiatives such as citizens’ charters can be mere rituals to be endured to receive a badge.


Some years ago, this writer was planning to move home from London to rural County Cork. I arranged an appointment with a removal firm festooned with customer-care accreditations. Its representative was two hours late and said he couldn’t take my goods all the way to my new home, but would drop it off somewhere for me to collect. I suggested that there was a disparity between performance and accreditation. The response was a phone call saying I was talking “rubbish”. I asked the caller to puts me on to the managing director. He informed me that he was the managing director!


More recently, I had an exchange with one of the largest banks in the UK. I had been given the same incorrect information in two letters and the staff at the call centre teetered on the precipice of insolence while conveying an indoctrinated message through gritted teeth. The response from the ‘Senior Customer Advisor’ was: “Our staff are trained to deal with all customer queries as efficiently as possible.”


Hastings was wrong. The concept of a Citizens’ Charter is a profound and noble idea. It involves the very essence of ethical philosophy going back to ancient times. The ‘Golden Rule’ is the best guide to living, whatever your religion. It is about empathy – do unto others as you would have others do unto you. In the words of Joe South: “Just walk in my shoes.”


Major was not being grandiose when he talked about the concept of a citizens’ charter being the “central theme for public life”. According to the BBC, his attempt to establish measurable and accountable public services was his most important legacy.


The problem is how to prevent the ritual substituting for the substance – gritting the teeth and going for the accreditation.


Dr. Madsen Pirie of the Adam Smith Institute, a pioneer of the Citizens’ Charter concept, said: “It is all too easy for the idea to be absorbed and neutered by the civil service. The trick is to ensure that the system does not dissolve into a set of vague objectives couched in the language of management-speak, which helps nobody.” In any organisational set-up, one has to have a framework to translate a mission into practice- but if individual workers do not understand or feel the core values, they will merely pay lip service and perform the rituals.


Major’s concept was about better quality for consumers through the publication of service standards, establishing the right of redress, performance monitoring, penalties for failures by public services and tighter regulation of privatised utilities. Published charters set out the standards of service in many sectors of provision – both public and private – that consumers have a right to expec and in some cases, compensation could be claimed where performance is found to be deficient.

I have detected a certain degree of cynicism about whether the concept of citizens’ charters can ever flourish on Sri Lankan soil. In a speech at the opening of a special Consumer Court at Aluthkade recently, the Chief Justice said that the cause of the consumer had become utterly hopeless. He said that those who rob the country would end up in hell.


Citizens have written to the newspapers that government officials do not show the simplest courtesy of acknowledging receipt of any correspondence. A toxic miasma of sloth and arrogance permeates some offices.  Controllers see themselves as technicians, not managers, so departments are not managed.


One correspondent wrote: “Will the ministers do something about this situation?” The answer is that they won’t – if the customer remains passive. The customer has to care enough to insist on real customer care.


A citizens’ charter should make it easier for the customer. Perhaps, those sufficiently interested could

try to see to it that the provisions of Section 7 of the Consumer Affairs Authority Act (No. 9 of 2003) are observed. The CAA has among its responsibilities the duty “to protect consumers against unfair trade practices and to guarantee that consumers interests shall be given due consideration”. One of the CAA’s functions is to “promote, assist and encourage the establishment of consumer organisations”. It takes a mere 15 members of the public to set up a consumer organisation which can register with the CAA. You can contact the CAA at


In the UK, customers have achieved great victories in curbing the rampant profiteering of banks. Philip Cullum of the UK National Consumer Council wrote: “This isn’t about being anti-business. At the National Consumer Council, we want the good guys to make profits and the bad guys to lose out. The challenge is to create markets where companies are fighting for consumer attention, which in turn leads to efficiency and innovation. The days when British consumers were reluctant to say boo to a goose are gone.”


Persevering customers will prevail. Passive ones will be persecuted.

Sri Lanka as One Nation

This article appeared in the June 2008 edition of LMD (Lanka Monthly Digest) under my real name of Michael O’Leary. The strapline was: “Will Sri Lanka be able to forget its past and fashion a new entity that subsumes history, culture and ethnicity? muses Michael O’Leary.”


In Ireland, nationalist rebels fought to unite the north-east with the rest of the island. In Sri Lanka, nationalist rebels fight to separate the north-east from the rest of the island. ‘Nationalism’ became a common concept in the mid-19th century. Today, most people live in multi-ethnic independent nation-states. Eric Hobsbawm defined a nation-state as “a territory, preferably coherent and demarcated by frontier lines from its neighbours, within which all citizens – without exception – come under the exclusive rule of the territorial government and the rules under which it operates”‘


Benedict Anderson wrote: “It is the magic of nationalism to turn chance into destiny'”. Nations “loom out of an immemorial past” and “glide into a limitless future”. Kemal Atatürk – founding a modem secular nation – co-opted the Hittites and Sumerians into the project. Ernest Gellner asserted: “Nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness- it invents nations where they do not exist.”  Paul Ignotus wrote about Hungary: “A nation is born when a few people decide that it should be.” It has been said that the literary renaissance in Dublin, which helped to forge the Irish national consciousness, probably came about because five or six people happened to be neighbours and cordially hated one another.


Sri Lankan nationalists such as AE Goonesinha were stimulated by accounts of Parnell, Davitt and the Irish freedom movement, and closely followed Irish events in the late 19th and early 20th century. Ratmalana Sri Dharmarama Thero and Ananda Coomaraswamy wrote of an ancient, highly-developed Lankan civilisation. Modern-day Sri Lankans might echo Adamantios Koraes’s 1803 remarks about his contemporary Greeks’ relation to their classical ancestors. He said: “We must either try to become again worthy of this name, or we must not bear it'”. Anagarika Dharmapala wistfully dreamed of a dazzling past: “We must wake from our slumber … We were a great people'” Ponnambalam Arunachalam wrote in his diary: “Thought much of the unhappy conditions of our country and what a glorious thing it would be for Ceylon to emulate and excel her great past.”


Historical symbols are selectively reinterpreted to create a myth of historical continuity, including a community of common ancestry and destiny. Anderson uses the term ‘imagined communities’. He describes how Indonesia, a vast polyglot multi-ethnic accumulation of 3,000 islands under the colonial rule of the Dutch, imagined itself into a nation.


A very different nation is Switzerland, a country of three (or should that be four?) languages which was, until recently, poor and backward. The Swiss Confederation was supposed to have been founded 700 years ago. In fact, the Swiss nation only came about in 1891.


How did these very different agglomerations imagine themselves into nations?

EM Forster wrote: “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.”” Orson Welles had a similar attitude: “Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask: ‘What’s for lunch?”


A country is an aggregation of rocks, soil, plants, animals and humans existing under certain climatic conditions in a geographical location. Can the result of a succession of such accidents inspire love? Nations can inspire profoundly self-sacrificing love –Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.  Anderson said: “Dying for one’s country -which usually one does not choose – assumes a moral grandeur which dying for the Labour Party, the American Medical Association or, perhaps, even Amnesty International cannot rival … for these are all bodies one can join or leave at easy will.”


Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud exchanged letters on this topic. Freud believed that the human psyche is motivated on one side by erotic instincts that seek to “preserve and unite” and on the other by destructive instincts that seek to “kill and destroy”. Politics embodies an aspiration to promote identification and love, alongside permission to foster aggressiveness. It is unfortunate that love of country often has to entail hatred of something else.


Peace has descended on the north of Ireland and the south has been blessed with wealth. Those who sought peace have been marginalised and those who cynically destroyed power sharing and devolution now share power in a devolved statelet, advising other countries – like Sri Lanka – how to achieve peace. After some 30 years and 3 000 deaths, Paisley and McGuinness are now a double act as lovable as Laurel and Hardy. The IRA s bombs failed to achieve a united Ireland. It was the EU that brought peace, because republicans and loyalists could join together in cross-border pan-European institutions without ‘surrendering’ to the institutions of the old enemy’.


As the old imperial blocs disintegrated, regions and aspirant nations voluntarily subsumed themselves in other blocs. Could Sri Lanka strengthen its unitary sovereignty and economy by subsuming its disparate parts in a larger Asian association?


Ernest Renan wrote that nationhood requires forgetting many things. He cited the massacre of the Huguenots on St Bartholomew’s Day as a symbol of what France needed to forget in order to be a nation. Will Sri Lanka be able to forget and fashion an entity combining all cultural histories as successfully as its cricket team?

Stop Exporting our Women

This article appeared in the May 2008 edition of LMD (Lanka Monthly Digest).

The strapline was: Should a state depend on poor female migrant workers who are being exploited and abused overseas? Michael O’Leary’s answer is crystal clear.

Travelling by air to and from Sri Lanka, particularly via Dubai, one often shares the aircraft with armies of women migrant workers. Sometimes, one notices a disdainful attitude towards them from middleclass Sri Lankan travellers. Nevertheless, the nation glories in the money that these women earn – and remit to their homeland. LMD‘s December 2007 issue noted that it is now the norm for remittances from migrant workers to bear the main burden of containing Sri Lanka’s fiscal deficit. For the eight months ending August 2007, these remittances surged 17 per cent to over US$ 1.75 billion. In fact, remittances from migrant workers represent more than nine per cent of GDP. Sri Lanka receives US$ 526 million more in remittances than it does from foreign aid and foreign direct investment combined. These remittances are now a greater source of revenue than our tea exports.


The Chairman of the Association of Licensed Foreign Employment Agencies boasted to a Sunday newspaper that Sri Lanka would be able to increase the current annual remittances of migrant workers to Rs 300 billion in 2008. Migrant women workers are treated as an export commodity that is marketed to wealthy, oil-producing countries where demand is high and human-rights protection is virtually non-existent.


LMD’s January 2008 issue quoted a former Finance Minister, in its BENCHMARK TV Supplement: “There is no way that we can go on relying on the hard-earned money of three categories of women: the poor women working in the Middle East as well as other countries and remitting their funds, women who work in garment factories and women working on tea estates. The Sri Lankan economy is run by women: they are the money earners for Sri Lanka – the men are just gobbling it up!”


To say that women run the Sri Lankan economy suggests that they have some power and control. Some academics have argued that female bargaining power increases with migration, because many women become income-earning members of households. However, the males continue to rule the roost, even while they vegetate with their cronies and send their wives to work overseas.


Some research suggests that remittances facilitate investments back home in housing and education, which increases productivity in the long run and results in higher living standards and improvements in family nutrition. One academic paper found that more than one-third of women sampled wanted to work overseas again, which was cited as supporting a positive view of migration. The numbers who suffered ill-treatment were played down; but of those sampled, physical ill-treatment led over 17 per cent to return home, while almost six per cent returned because of excessive workloads and underpayment of wages.


Much depends on how you interpret the statistics. You could say two-thirds (a majority) did not want to work overseas again and almost a quarter suffered ill-treatment or exploitation. The paper did acknowledge the downside of migration – such as higher divorce rates, disruptions to family life, lasting repercussions on children’s personality development (there is evidence of sexual abuse of children who are left without a mother), increased alcoholism and gambling. Where is the female empowerment here?


There is an abundance of evidence provided by organisations such as Caritas’s Mental Health Clinic, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Lebanese NGO Forum that rape and suicide are serious issues among migrant female workers. The Sri Lankan Government reports that 50 migrant domestic workers return to Sri Lanka “in distress” each day and Sri Lankan embassies and consulates abroad are flooded with workers complaining of unpaid wages, sexual harassment and overwork.


A survey of 70 interviews with Sri Lankan women in Lebanon reveals how the host country’s legal and social arrangements lead to migrants being trapped in abysmal living and working conditions. When the maids arrive at Beirut airport, immigration officers take their passports and hand them over to their respective employers, who take them to the agency, where a contract in Arabic – often bearing no resemblance to what they agreed to back home – is signed. With no money and no passport, they cannot choose not to sign these papers.


The number of suicides is increasing. In the past four years, 45 Filipinas, 50 Sri Lankans and 105 Ethiopians have killed themselves. A pathologist says that in many cases, the corpses were covered in bruises, bites or burns.


HRW says that the Government of Sri Lanka “deserves credit for initiating important steps to manage the outflow of migrant workers and to start providing protections”. The Government set up an institutional structure, the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment, in 1985, to ensure that workers migrate through legal channels, and that corruption and exploitation by recruitment agencies are minimised, and that the flow of workers’ remittances is facilitated.


Perhaps, a more important issue is “right livelihood”, the fourth category in the noble eightfold path of Buddhism. Should a nation’s livelihood depend on the sufferings of a group of its citizens? Should a state manage its finances by depending on poor women who are being exploited and their family lives disrupted? If the state is to benefit, it should ensure that its benefactors are respected and well-protected from abuse.

For Whom Nobel Tolls

I wrote an  article about the Nobel Prize and submitted it to Lakbima News for which organ I was writing a regular weekly column. The editor declined to publish it. He was fired soon afterwards and the paper eventually closed down. The Curse of Colman!


My esteemed editor, Rajpal Abeynayake,  scholar and gentleman, wit, raconteur  and all-round good egg, has written about the Nobel prize quite often. Some time ago he wrote something erroneous about the Nobel prize for literature.  I hesitated to comment at that time because I  was scared of Mr Abeynayake – I had, timorously from the sidelines, witnessed those bloody three-way battles between Rajpal, Malinda and Dayan.

I’m still afraid, but I can’t restrain myself. Sorry! I recall that Raj wrote praising the Chilean 2010 Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa. Actually Vargas  is Peruvian. I first tried to read Vargas  in Spanish in his own home city of Arequipa (beautiful colonial buildings towered over by snow-capped mountains). I was not very successful. I was not very successful either reading him in English – he does not use a straightforward linear chronology, he is somewhat “experimental”. Nevertheless, Vargas is undoubtedly a great writer as well as being very handsome and elegant. Beginners should start with Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter which is very funny. There was a movie version featuring Peter “Columbo” Falk. Wish I could find a pirate copy in Majestic City.

Whatever about his qualities as a writer, Vargas’s politics are less than attractive. He ran for the presidency of Peru in 1990. Vargas is one of those people who has moved from the far left to the neo-con right. Castro’s pal , Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, was once a great friend but they have not spoken since Vargas punched Marquez in the face in 1976. Vargas once supported Castro but during his presidential campaign he was described as “Thatcherite”.

Rajpal wrote about the Nobel again in an editorial: “When the international community is witnessing the award of Nobel Peace Prizes to presidents of countries who have worked towards peace, eschewing war, it must be rather disconcerting to the Rajapaksa administration that having ushered in peace, albeit by means of war, all that the government is getting from a significant part of the international community is ceaseless opprobrium.”

In the same issue, he also wrote about  the Nobel in his  column. After discussing some of the odd choices for the Nobel Peace Prize Rajpal remarks: ”John Pilger,  who in fact got his Nobel for literature, and not for his contribution to the cause of peace due to his numerous explanations on how governments including that in his home country cause wars.”

John Pilger is an excellent chap in many ways, but it would be a great surprise if he ever won the Nobel prize for literature. He has not done so yet. While enjoying many of his articles,  I have often been somewhat put off by the hyperbole and the whiff of self-serving sanctimony.

In the New Statesman dated May 14 2009 when victory over the LTTE was at hand, Pilger compared the Sri Lankan government’s actions to those of Israel in Gaza: “From the same masterclass you learn to manipulate the definition of terrorism as a universal menace, thus ingratiating yourself with the ‘international community’ (Washington) as a noble sovereign state blighted by an ‘insurgency’ of mindless fanaticism. The truth and lessons of the past are irrelevant. And, having succeeded in persuading the United States and Britain to proscribe your insurgents as terrorists, you affirm you are on the right side of history, regardless of the fact that your government has one of the world’s worst human rights records and practises terrorism by another name. Such is Sri Lanka”.

Note the scare quotes. It was not a real insurgency then,  John? His general line on Sri Lanka is that although the Tigers may have spilled some blood they had no choice because even before the LTTE was invented there was a master plan to obliterate the Tamil race.

When Obama, an inexperienced politician who had hardly settled his buttocks on the presidential chair in the Oval Office, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, I was stunned enough to do a little research.

Kissinger won it in spite of bombing the shit out of Cambodia and delaying the end of the Vietnam War for purely presentational purposes. The Kissinger- Le Duc Thọ award prompted two dissenting Committee members to resign. Thọ declined to accept the award, stating, “There was never a peace deal with the U.S. We won the war”.

Other dodgy winners include that notable warmonger Theodore Roosevelt, Zionist terrorists (sorry – freedom fighters) and ethnic cleansers, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, PLO leader Yasser Arafat. Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini have been nominated in the past.

Foreign Policy magazine listed people who did not win it. These include  Eleanor Roosevelt, Vaclav Havel and Ken Saro-Wiwa.

Gandhi was nominated in 1937, 1938, 1939, 1947 and, finally, a few days before his death in January 1948, but never made the final cut. In 1948, following Gandhi’s death, the Nobel Committee declined to award a prize on the ground that “there was no suitable living candidate” that year. Later, when the Dalai Lama was awarded the Peace Prize in 1989, the chairman of the committee said that this was “in part a tribute to the memory of Mahatma Gandhi”. Sometimes it’s hard to tell these Asiatic types apart.

The Nobel Peace Prize is not the only prize  to have attracted controversy. Look at those who haven’t won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Ibsen, Strindberg, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Proust, Mark Twain, Joyce, Pound, Henry James, Graham Greene, Nabokov, Borges (who deserved a prize for his description of the Falklands War – “two bald men fighting over a comb”), Philip Roth.

There have been some dodgy choices among the 108 literature laureates. I would have no argument about Tagore, Mauriac, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Saramago, Czeslaw Milosz, Seamus Heaney, Samuel Beckett, GB Shaw, WB Yeats, TS Eliot, Kenzaburo Oe, William Golding, Saul Bellow, Derek Walcott and Albert Camus. Halldor Laxness may be an obscure writer from a nation, Iceland, with a small population, but I have enjoyed two of his novels, The Atomic Station and The Fish Can Sing, although Magnus Magnusson’s new translation seemed a bit eccentric compared to the one I read in the 1960s.

Doris Lessing has lived a long time and has an impressive opus, although she has not produced anything in a long time that is other than eccentric. I love VS Naipaul’s writing, although much of his essays I would disagree with and the man himself seems disagreeable. Although Raj would not agree, I believe the  award to Orhan Pamuk was well deserved and drew attention to a national literature not well-known in other countries. Others are on the doubtful side.

John Steinbeck ignited my passion for American literature when I was a pre-teen and I still hold him in great affection, but I do not think he was up among the greats,  even when he won the prize. I wonder if Toni Morrison, for all her many virtues, is a worthy recipient. Who reads Elias Canetti today? Were Galsworthy and Sinclair Lewis any more than middlebrow entertainers? What was the claim to fame of Pearl S Buck?  Mikhail Sholokhov was a fraud. What about Henryk Sienkiewicz? Who would remember him if his novel Quo Vadis had not given Peter Ustinov the opportunity to ham it up as Nero in the movie version? Pär Lagerkvist is a name on everyone’s lips! Think of Anthony Quinn as Barabbas.

Will recent winners like Tomas Tranströmer, Herta Müller, Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio (not much available in English), and Elfriede Jelinek be remembered in perpetuity or will they be consigned to the same limbo as Eyvind Johnson, Harry Martinson (joint winners in 1974) or Erik Axel Karlfeldt, Frans Eemil Sillanpää, Grazia Deledda, Wladyslaw Stanislaw Reymont, Jacinto Benavente, Carl Friedrich Georg Spitteler, Karl Adolph Gjellerup, Henrik Pontoppidan, Carl Gustaf Verner von Heidenstam, Selma Ottilia Lovisa Lagerlöf?

Winston Churchill has claims to be considered a great man – but 1953 prize for literature!? His histories are self-serving and ghost-written.

Perhaps John Pilger would not be an unlikely laureate after all.




Omagh Part Two

Colman's Column3This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Monday September 14 2015


The Law’s Delay


On 15 August 1998 at 3.04 p.m. a 500lb bomb exploded in the centre of Omagh, County Tyrone, in Northern Ireland, killing 31 people (including unborn twins) and injuring 220. This was done in the pursuit of a united Ireland by dissident republicans who were against the peace process. There had been a warning call to Ulster Television in Belfast at 2.29 p.m. saying there was a bomb timed to go off in 30 minutes outside the Courthouse on Main Street. There was another call at 2.31 to the Samaritans in Coleraine. That caller said the bomb was about 200 yards up from the Courthouse on High Street. There was another call to UTV at 2.31. The callers used a code word associated with the Real IRA.

Warnings and Hoaxes

Perhaps the various brands of IRA terrorists might seem more “civilised” than the Tamil Tigers – they do tend to give warnings before they slaughter civilians. That is of small comfort to the thousands of people affected by their tactics. At Omagh, the first of three confused warning calls came less than half an hour before the car bomb went off. Superintendent William Baxter told the inquest in September 2000 that since August 15 1998 there had been 68 hoax bomb alerts in the town. Although many thought the warnings on August 15 were a hoax, the police took them seriously and immediately went into action with well-established procedures. The duty sergeant, Phil Marshall, was pleased that they managed to clear 200 premises in the short time available. “My initial thought that it was perfect, that we couldn’t have done better. Omagh was like a ghost town, I thought, if anything goes up now, it’s buildings only”.

There is no Main Street in Omagh. The courthouse is roughly 400 metres from the spot where the car bomb was parked in a stolen maroon Vauxhall Cavalier. It seems that the courthouse was the intended target but the bombers could not find a parking space and left the car outside SD Kells’ clothes shop in Lower Market Street, on the southern side near the crossroads with Dublin Road. The police had, in effect, been evacuating people towards the bomb rather than away from it. The bombers claimed it was not their fault and that they had given adequate warnings. If they had been concerned about loss of life they would have triggered the bomb at 3 a.m. not 3 p.m. on a public holiday when the streets were full of people.

Civil Action

On January 20 1999, Mo Mowlem, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, and Sir Ronnie Flanagan, the chief constable of the Royal Irish Constabulary, pleaded with the MP Andrew Hunter not to use his parliamentary privilege to name six suspects in the Omagh bomb murder inquiry. They told Mr Hunter, chairman of the Conservative backbench committee on Northern Ireland, that such action would prejudice any prosecution.

Frustrated by delays, the families took action. On 28 October 2000, the families of four children killed in the bombing – James Barker, 12, Samantha McFarland, 17, Lorraine Wilson, 15, and 20-month-old Breda Devine – launched a campaign to bring a civil action against the suspects named in a BBC Panorama programme. On 15 March 2001, the families of all twenty-nine people killed in the bombing launched a £2-million civil action against RIRA suspects Seamus McKenna, Michael McKevitt, Liam Campbell, Colm Murphy, and Seamus Daly.  The civil action began in Northern Ireland on 7 April 2008.

Jason McCue

Human rights solicitor Jason McCue fought the case for the families over many years. He has been described as a “rock ‘n roll lawyer” – he married TV celebrity and journalist Mariella Frostrup (her father was Norwegian but she was brought up in Ireland) and they hang out with George Clooney. He wrote of the families: “Their achievement is important for Ireland and for the UK. It is a happy irony that their civil action did more to unite Ireland than the murderers that killed their families. But more than that, the Omagh civil action drew support from across the 32 counties and when the verdict came in, households throughout Ireland raised a toast to their achievement.”

Peace, Compromise, Impunity

The case was not concluded until 2009. Why did it take so long to bring the murderers to any kind of justice and why was it left to “ordinary” people to make such an effort? They had, as historian Ruth Dudley Edwards puts it, “to take on not just a terrorist organisation, but most of the Dublin, Belfast and London police, justice and political establishments, who for varied reasons thought their actions misguided, counterproductive or unhelpful to the peace process”. Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness expressed their support but refused to give any information that would help bring the bombers to justice.

Peter Mandelson

Former Northern Ireland secretaries Peter Mandelson, Tom King, Peter Brooke, Lord Hurd, Lord Prior, and Lord Merlyn-Rees signed up in support of the plaintiffs’ legal fund. Mandelson took the lead in coordinating this.

In 1999, Peter Mandelson had succeeded Mo Mowlem as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Mowlem was popular with the British media and public; her willingness to speak her mind, often without regard to the consequences, was seen as strength. Mandelson was regarded as a cold Machiavellian manipulator. However, the campaigners warmed to him and he to them. Mowlem wanted to do everything to avoid undermining the peace process which was her monument.

Ruth Dudley Edwards was heavily involved in the campaign and wrote a book about it. She had worked in the British civil service, and was impressed that, soon after taking office, Mandelson had taken the unusual step of writing to her, commending her article in the Telegraph. He wrote that such articles “play an important part in changing the environment in which the terrorists operate”. “I agree with you entirely that everything possible should be done to try and bring those responsible for the Omagh bomb to justice”. He was distancing himself from Mowlem, who had seemed, according to Edwards, more comfortable with ex-terrorists than with victims and whose seeming indifference to the Omagh relatives had been “scandalous”.

Mowlem had discouraged ministers and civil servants from meeting the families and wanted to play down expectations of bringing the bombers to justice. Mandelson insisted on meeting the families. He was so affected by an exhibition of children’s art work. One of the relatives said: “Peter Mandelson is the nicest man, the best man…He cried, he cried in there and he put everyone out of there, even his Private Secretary. All politicians want to do is look after themselves. They don’t care about anything, but Peter Mandelson did care”. The Mail published a picture of his grief-stricken face. He said: “I feel a tremendous sense of loss every day I wake up and find yet another day has passed without these prosecutions taking place”.

Mandelson continued to offer practical help after he ceased to be Northern Ireland Secretary. He played a very active role behind the scenes and with the media. He also contributed generously from his own money.

An End to Terror?

Just two months after Omagh, two planes, flew into the World Trade Centre. That was supposed to change the context of terrorism. Different conditions post-9/11 helped in the defeat of the LTTE. Did Omagh help the Irish peace process? After the carnage many tried to adopt a positive outlook, hoping good would come out of evil. It was thought that the strength of public outrage would shame the Real IRA into giving up an “armed struggle” that was killing unborn babies.

Unfortunately, the Real IRA are still in business. Recent events indicate that the Provisional IRA might also still be active. Eternal vigilance is essential. Could the LTTE also rise like a Phoenix?

More next week about the unraveling of peace in Northern Ireland.


Omagh Part One – The Road of Tears

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Tuesday September 8 2015

Colman's Column3



After the bombing, Cathy could never settle back into her university studies at Derry and Patsy was often on the road to bring her traumatised daughter back home. In the car mother and daughter would be keening uncontrollably for Aiden, the son and brother forever lost to them. They christened the road from Derry to Omagh ‘The Road of Tears’.

On 15 August 2000 my wife and I were having a post-shopping Murphy’s at Le Chateau on St Patrick Street, Cork City in Ireland. I was going to write “enjoying a pint of Murphy’s” but that would not be appropriate because, like everyone else in the bar, we had tears streaming down our faces. The TV was on and the news programme was marking the second anniversary of the Omagh bombing.


On August 15, 1998, just two months after we had gone to live in Ireland, a huge bomb exploded in the centre of Omagh, a small market town in rural County Tyrone, in Northern Ireland. A total of 31 people were to die as a result of the bomb, and 220 were injured. The dead included a  woman 34 months pregnant and her unborn twins girls; six children, three of whom had been visiting from County Donegal in  the Irish Republic and one of whom was on holiday from Spain (Fernando’s mother, Lucrezia, had previously been traumatized when her husband had been seriously injured by an ETA car bomb) and six teenagers. Death was ecumenical; nineteen of the dead were Catholics, eleven were Protestants.

It Was People who Died

Each person who died represented a crushing loss to a wide circle of people. The bombers killed two babies and two about to be born, three schoolgirls, four schoolboys, six students, three shop assistants, a despatch clerk, a shopkeeper, a crane driver, a mechanic, a horticulturalist, and an accounts clerk. These were the targets of the “soldiers” of Éireann, the “freedom fighters”.

It was the time of year when parents and children went to SD Kells or Watterstones to buy new school uniforms. Most of the people in the centre of Omagh on August 15 1998 were from the town or surrounding countryside. It was an uncommonly sunny day for that part of the world and crowds were gathering for the processions that mark the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary into heaven. The original plan was for the procession to start 200 yards from where the bomb exploded. Thousands would have been close to the explosion if the plan had not been changed.


Recent horrific pictures of drowned refugees have sparked controversy about the ethics of displaying such images. I want to convey to you the horror of Omagh but I want to respect the sensibilities of my readers and the dignity of the dead. Buses were used to ferry victims to hospital and blood was flowing down the steps on to the road. In the rain, the gutters ran red with blood and rose petals. A young girl sat in the street holding a severed hand saying: “I don’t want her to be alone”. A policeman who had wandered up and down the street carrying a head had to be invalided out of the RUC. Steve Buttle was so affected by Omagh that he functioned badly at work and his relationships deteriorated. Eventually he wrapped himself in a body bag and shot himself in the head.

The poison administered on August 15 1998 did harm not only to those who were present in Omagh on that day. It spread far and wide and for a long period, for generations into the future. Thousands had their lives blighted by intense sorrow, physical pain and depression beyond imagining.

Who Was Responsible?

Unusually, no group claimed responsibility on the day of the attack, but the Royal Ulster Constabulary suspected the RIRA (Real Irish Republican Army).Indeed, three days after the attack, the RIRA claimed responsibility and apologised for the attack. The RIRA had few members and the authorities knew who most of them were and where they lived. Two months after we had been crying in our Murphy’s, BBC put out a Panorama programme called Who Bombed Omagh? hosted by journalist John Ware. The programme gave the names of the four prime suspects as Oliver Traynor, Liam Campbell, Colm Murphy, and Seamus Daly.

 The Law’s Delay

Daly was not charged with the bombing in a criminal case until April 10 2014. However, a civil case brought by the victims’ relatives was concluded on 8 June 2009. Michael McKevitt, Liam Campbell, Colm Murphy and Seamus Daly were found to have been responsible for the bombing and held liable for £1.6 million of damages. It was described as a “landmark” damages award internationally.

The Campaign

Because of frustration at the slow progress of the criminal investigation, the families of the victims created the Omagh Support and Self Help Group (OSSHG) soon after the bombing. The organisation was led by Michael Gallagher, who lost his 21-year-old son Aidan in the attack. In the 30 years of The Troubles, there was no precedent for a group of victims challenging the system in this way.

In the tribal society that is Northern Ireland it was surprising that the OSSHG included hard-line and moderate unionists as well as nationalists; there were Catholics, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Free Presbyterians, and a Mormon.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

I draw in these articles on the work of,  among others, Ruth Dudley Edwards. Ruth was deeply involved in the campaign and her 2009 book about the Omagh bombing was named the Sunday Times current affairs book of the year and won the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger award for non-fiction. The book, Aftermath: the Omagh Bombing and the Families’ Pursuit of Justice, should be of interest to Sri Lankan readers. Ruth is a distinguished Irish historian from a distinguished family of Irish historians.  She was born and brought up in Dublin and educated at University College Dublin (UCD), Girton College, Cambridge and Wolfson College, Cambridge. She has worked in the London civil service.

She is also a crime fiction writer and a prolific columnist, often stirring up controversy in the British and Irish press.  She now lives in London and describes herself as British-Irish and is comfortable with being culturally both Irish and English. She takes a particular interest in Northern Ireland and her writings have had her placed in the category of “revisionist”. That is to say, she has no time for myths about heroes and martyrs. She once told a hostile audience: “I wear the badge ‘revisionist’ as a badge of honour! Patrick Pearse had a right to sacrifice himself but not all those civilians! If seven people can determine these things, the Continuity IRA has the right to style themselves the heirs of 1916. There is a flouting of democracy.”

An End to Terror?

Just two months after Omagh, two planes flew into the World Trade Centre. That was supposed to change the context of terrorism. Different conditions post-9/11 helped in the defeat of the LTTE. Did Omagh help the Irish peace process? After the carnage many tried to adopt a positive outlook, hoping good would come out of evil. It was thought that the strength of public outrage would shame the Real  IRA into giving up the  “armed struggle” that was killing unborn babies. How did that work out?

Why did it take so long to bring the murderers to any kind of justice and why was it left to “ordinary” people to make such an effort? They had, as Ruth puts it, “to take on not just a terrorist organisation, but most of the Dublin, Belfast and London police, justice and political establishments”.

More on this next week

Raw Deal for the Public

This article appeared in the March 2008 edition of Lanka Monthly Digest.



In November 2001 , I read a  local newspaper columnist arguing  that Sri Lanka should avoid commercial borrowing and embrace Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) as being a more prudent option. He cited the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) in the UK, which began in 1992 under John Major’s premiership and was continued by New Labour. So, how prudent has British PFI been in practice, and has it enabled the Government to save public funds as well as harness the expertise and entrepreneurship of the private sector?


The Adam Smith Institute, a champion of free enterprise, found costs to be higher for PFIs than for traditionally procured projects.


This is how the trick works. The company’s initial bid provides only broad outlines, not detailed specifications. The Government accepts a tender; and then, its partner discovers new costs such as inflation of labour and materials. Adjustments are then slipped in to huge spreadsheets and the Government hasn’t a clue as to how it is being short-changed.


Renovating a hospital in Coventry should have cost GBP 30 million, but that wouldn’t have delivered sufficient profits to the private sector so, the government spent GBP  311 million on a new hospital with fewer beds than the two hospitals it replaced.


The Cumberland Infirmary in Carlisle was the first British hospital built under PFI at a cost of GBP 87 million. Carlisle’s consultants committee pronounced the scheme as being “clinically unworkable”. When the hospital opened, there was a major power outage and one of the back-up generators failed. A transformer caught fire in radiotherapy, and equipment in  theatres and intensive care switched to battery power. The operating theatre was flooded with sewage.


Dr Paul Dyson, Chairman of the Cumberland Infirmary’s medical-staff committee, said: “We feel maintenance and construction standards were skimped in the first place and it is all part of PFI’s desperate desire to cut costs and make profits.”


A Department of Health study suggests that every GBP 200 million spent on privately financed hospitals will result in the loss of 1,000 doctors and nurses. Professor  Jean Schaoul of Manchester Business School estimates that the rate of return for the companies involved with 12 large PFI hospitals was 58 per cent. This comes out of the hospitals’ budgets, so less is available for health care. Beds are reduced by 30 per cent with the first wave and budgets for clinical staff cut by 25 per cent. Many health trusts are in serious difficulty and some will become insolvent.


US examples demonstrate the pernicious influence of commerce on education. Education Alternatives Incorporated (EAI) won a contract to run nine schools in Baltimore for five years. Baltimore terminated the contract because EAI students did worse in reading and the company had made claims for nonexistent students. In Hartford. Connecticut -where EAI contracted to run all 32 schools – the experiment ended when the company sacked 300 teachers to increase its profits.


The latest trend in US education is to cut deals with brands such as Coca-Cola or Pepsi- Cola to market their products to children. In 1998, Greenbriar High School in Georgia, in fact, created a curriculum around Coke.


Although defenders of the free market hail the risk-taking, adventurous spirit of the private entrepreneur, the private arm of certain PPPs cannily avoids risk. So, it is the Government that carries the burden of risk. Accounting conventions on both sides cover up the real situation. The PFI does not show the costs of buildings, for example, on its balance sheet. Its main asset is the Government’s contractual obligation to pay for the building.


The Government, in turn, can hide the fact that it is spending public money on a long-term basis. It can omit the building and long-term obligation to pay for it from the state’s balance sheet by paying a single unitary charge for the building and its maintenance, so that it can be classified as a revenue item. The UK Accounting Standards Board has called PFI an “an off balance sheet fiddle”, because the Government can move the cost of public works out of the public sector’s borrowing requirement.


PPP can only be implemented through an anti-competitive process, which leads to corruption. Major corporations wouldn’t be interested if it were otherwise. For little investment, companies can be sure of long-term profits that are, in effect, guaranteed by the taxpayer. If the consortia bidding for a project had to supply a detailed bid for the final contract before they were chosen, rather than merely a broad outline, they would have to spend much more on their tender document. When a consortium negotiates a contract after it’s been won, it can develop its bid at public expense, with no fear of loss. If the process were reformed, PFI would come to an end, major corporations have warned.


Sri Lankan proponents of PPP stress the need for transparency, cost-effectiveness and fairness. But is this going to happen in Sri Lanka – especially when it doesn’t happen in other countries? Unfortunately, corruption is inherent in the system and transparency is impossible because of commercial confidentiality.

Democracy Moves in Peculiar Ways

Colman's Column3This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Tuesday September 1 2015.



Jobs for the Losers

For several days last week, Ceylon Today was carrying a banner headline stating that SB Dissanayake was a “serious contender” for the post of Leader of the Opposition. “Hang on, I said”, to myself (I often talk to myself as it’s the best way to guarantee an intelligent conversation) “was SB not one of those recidivist old lags the voters rejected in the cleansing of the Augean stables that occurred on August 17?” “Yes, indeed he was”, I answered myself, “but he is back in parliament as one of those names on the UPFA National List”.

National List

I try manfully to explain the nature of Sri Lankan democracy to my foreign readers (both of them) but it is not easy. What is the National List? A National List MP is an unelected Member of Parliament who is appointed by a political party or an independent group to the Parliament of Sri Lanka. The number of national list MPs allocated to a contending party or an independent group depends on the proportion to their share of the national vote. 29 national list MPs are appointed.

University Constituencies

One looks in vain to other countries for exact parallels but one might compare the concept to the old University seats in the UK. University constituencies originated in Scotland, where the representatives of the ancient universities of Scotland sat in the unicameral Estates of Parliament. When James VI of Scotland inherited the English throne in 1603, and became James I of England, the system was adopted by the Parliament of England. The system was continued in the Parliament of Great Britain (from 1707 to 1800) and the United Kingdom Parliament, until 1950. The University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford were therefore given two seats each from 1603. The voters were the graduates of the university, whether they were resident or not, who had the vote for their University in addition to any other vote that they might have. Note that the members representing Oxford and Cambridge Universities were not appointed like National List members – they were voted into the Commons. Although the members for the university Constituencies were usually Conservatives, in the later years, Independent candidates began to win many of the seats. In 1948, the Labour government abolished the university constituencies, with effect from the dissolution of Parliament in 1950.

Intellectuals Making a Contribution to the Legislature

The Members for the university constituencies included many famous names: Pitt the Younger and Palmerston both served as MPs for Cambridge University, and Peel and Gladstone served as MPs for Oxford University. In his last years Ramsay MacDonald was MP for Combined Scottish Universities after losing his seat in the 1935 general election.

The idea of University seats was similar to the idea behind the Sri Lanka National List – to have intellectuals, who were not necessarily up for what Alan Watkins called the “rough old trade” of politics, to contribute their wisdom to the national legislature.

One scans in vain the list of University MPs to find many names that have resonance today. One that I recall is AP Herbert. Sir Alan Herbert was educated at Winchester College and New College, Oxford, gaining a First-Class Honours Degree in Jurisprudence. He was called to the bar by the Inner Temple in 1919, but never practised. Herbert served in the Royal Naval Division during the First World War and was mentioned in dispatches after Gallipoli. During the Second World War he combined his parliamentary duties with service in the Royal Navy on patrol boats in the Thames as Petty Officer Herbert. When he was knighted in 1945, The Times noted “his individual niche in the parliamentary temple as the doughty vindicator of the private member’s rights, including not least the right to legislate.”

Throughout his career Herbert lobbied for reform of several laws that he felt to be out-dated, including those on divorce and obscenity. He began contributing humorous articles to Punch in 1910 and used satire to get across his reform agenda. He wrote a series of stories about a persistent litigant, Albert Haddock, called Misleading Cases. The BBC adapted them for television in the late 60s and early 70s. These fictions were Herbert’s vehicles for his law-reform work and carried cogent legal points and are sometimes quoted in real-life judicial decisions  and academic research. Herbert also wrote eight novels and 15 plays, – the comedy Bless the Bride (1947) ran for two-and-a-quarter years in London.  PG Wodehouse wrote: “I want to see an A. P. Herbert on every street corner”.

Intellectuals in the Irish Upper House

Today there are no university constituencies in the Republic of Ireland’s lower house of parliament, Dáil Éireann, but there are two university constituencies represented in Seanad Éireann, the Irish upper house. Unlike Dáil Éireann, the Seanad is not directly elected but consists of a mixture of members chosen by various methods. Its powers are much weaker than those of the Dáil and it cannot veto bills, only delay and seek to improve them. The two university electorates consist of the graduates of University of Dublin (Trinity College) and the National University of Ireland who are Irish citizens, regardless of where they are resident. Each is a three-seat constituency elected under the Single Transferable Vote and the election is conducted by postal ballot. Some politicians have called for university representation to be abolished, on the ground that it is unacceptable that possession of a degree should confer special electoral rights.

One can find many distinguished writers and intellectuals on a list of former senators, including many who have had an influence in global politics: Mary Robinson, Conor Cruise O’Brien, Mary MacAleese, Garrett Fitzgerald, Lord Longford, Oliver St John Gogarty, George Moore, Brian Friel, and WB Yeats.

One would have to look very hard into the history of National Lists to find anyone of the moral standing of Mary Robinson or the intellectual clout of Yeats or Friel. The original intention of the National List was to allow a voice in the legislature for professionals, academics who did not have the networks and resources of professional politicians. Rajiva Wijesinha was a good example of what the National List should have been about. Whether one agrees with his views or not, he tirelessly analysed the micro aspects as well as the macro of what was needed for good governance in this country. Few would complain about Lakshman Kadirgamar being given a seat. Harsha de Silva brought his economic expertise to the benefit of the legislature without having to go to the hustings (although he has now successfully done so). On the other hand, CBK, who is being deferred to on many issues by the current prime minister, appointed Mervyn Silva to the National List after he finished last in Colombo with 2,236 votes. What did he contribute to the quality of debate in the legislature by squeezing a monk’s testicles?

Nevertheless, data on parliamentary activity collected between May 2012 and August 2013 showed that on average, national list MPs contributed 25 per cent more in terms of net productive time in parliament than elected MPs. There were four national list MPs amongst the top 22 contributors (top 10%) in parliament. These were (in order): Anura Kumara Dissanayake (JVP), A.H.M Azwer (UPFA), Harsha de Silva (UNP) and Eran Wickramaratne (UNP). There were also four National List MPs amongst the bottom 10 per cent. The average contribution of an Opposition National List MP was double that of a government National List MP.

Whatever about their performance, is it morally right that 29 members get a seat  in Parliament without being democratically elected? Many of those now coming into parliament and getting ministerial jobs were decisively rejected by the voters.




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