Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

The Englishwoman Who Invented Iraq



This article was published in the Sunday Island on October 1, 2011



Last week I wrote in the Sunday Island about an Englishwoman (albeit of Irish stock – Siobhain McDonagh) who supported the LTTE’s plan to redraw Sri Lanka’s borders at the same time as supporting her master Tony Blair’s invasion of Iraq. Labour MP Siobhain McDonagh wanted the boundaries of Sri Lanka altered along the spurious lines of the minute from “that madman Cleghorn” to please her Tamil constituents. She was happy for Britain to impose “democracy” on Iraq and to allow British soldiers to behave as they pleased. She voted against an investigation into the Iraq war, saying: ” we cannot start changing the law for every future conflict because we feel guilty about how we behaved in the last one. We cannot constrain our troops by telling them, ‘You fight now—we’ll decide whether you were right to fight later.’ We cannot tie their hands behind their backs. We have to stop thinking about ourselves and start thinking about the brave men and women in Mitcham and Morden and elsewhere”.

Look at a map of Africa and see the unnaturally straight lines that demarcate different nations, without regard to natural features or the ethnic origins of the population. Look at a map of Ireland and note how the northernmost county of the island of Ireland is not located in the artificial statelet of “Northern Ireland” but in the Republic because the Catholic majority would have undermined loyalist hegemony. Map-making is an essential tool of the colonial project. Brian Friel in his brilliant play Translations showed how the army imposed Britain’s will on Ireland by redrawing the maps and translating place names from Irish.

Another Englishwoman who had a malign influence on Iraq was Gertrude Bell. Many of the problems of the Middle East today can be blamed on that one woman.

She was commissioned in 1919 to analyse the situation in Mesopotamia in the aftermath of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. On the basis of her analysis, the nation of Iraq was born, created in 1920 from the three Ottoman provinces of Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul, which were conquered and occupied by the British during World War I.

The map was drawn in such a way because it was feared that the Shi’ite majority, with its nomadic, tribal base, was too volatile. Bell had no doubt that the final authority should rest with the Sunni minority, “otherwise you would have a theocratic state, which would be the very devil.” The British thought that by denying the Kurds an autonomous state they would be protecting their oil interests in the Kurdish homeland around Mosul.
The tensions created by these map-drawing decisions still exist today causing hundreds of thousands of deaths.

Bell became known to the Arabs as Al Khatun, “The Lady”, from her pre-war travels in the desert lands. Who was this woman who said of her relationship with Faisal, the king of the new nation of Iraq:  “You may rely upon one thing — I’ll never engage in creating kings again; it’s too great a strain”?

Mark Sykes, the MP who negotiated the Sykes-Picot agreement with France to determine control of former Ottoman territory in the Middle East, described Bell as a “silly chattering windbag of conceited, gushing flat-chested, man-woman, globe-trotting, rump-wagging, blethering ass.”

While one could not condone such misogyny and while one might marvel at Bell’s achievements in such a male-chauvinist milieu, it would be a mistake to see her as a proto-feminist. She was honorary secretary of the Anti-suffrage League, firmly believing that women were not ready to be entrusted with the vote.

Gertrude Bell was born in 1868 in Washington, County Durham, and raised in Yorkshire. Her father was one of the richest men in Britain. Her grandfather was a friend of Darwin and her stepmother wrote plays about working-class suffering. Bell herself was a devout atheist steeped in radical thought.

In 1899 she began serious alpine climbing in Switzerland, conquering seven summits in the Englehorner range, one of which is still named after her. She once clung to a rope in a blizzard for fifty-three hours and contracted severe   frostbite in her unsuccessful ascent of the northeast face of the Finsteraarhorn. She produced a detailed survey of the Abbasid castle of Ukhadair, in Iraq, and wrote a popular travel book.

She fell in love, when a virgin of 42, with a married military hero, Colonel Charles Doughty-Wylie. In 1913, she toured the Arabian Peninsula, becoming one of few foreigners to survive the Nejd desert and the hostile Arabian tribes, and to enter the remote city of Hail, in north-central Saudi Arabia.

The British appointed her as their senior political officer in Basra during the First World War when she was 46. Apart from a few months as a Red Cross volunteer in France, she had never previously had a job. She had an impressive academic record but none of her training was in international affairs, government or management. Yet from 1916 to 1926, Gertrude Bell won the affection of Arab statesmen and the admiration of her superiors, founded a national museum, selected the leadership, and drew the borders of a new state. In her letters, she was remarkably prescient about the difficulties faced in 2003 by the Coalition of the Willing.

Unlike the occupying forces of 2003 she was knowledgeable about the area. She was a fluent Arabic speaker and had the experience of a decade of travels in the Middle East and four years in the British mandate administration in Iraq. Yet she never pretended in her letters to be in a position to understand or control events. She emphasised the weaknesses of the previous Ottoman administration; the persistence of the tribal system; the divisions between urban and rural areas. Bell showed how the cultural insensitivity of British soldiers exacerbated hatred.

She knew that the occupation could not be sustained but she could not contemplate total withdrawal. She recognised that British colonial control was unworkable and that there must somehow be an Arab government. These themes are strangely familiar in Iraq today.

The British did a lot of damage in the Middle East even in the 1920s and 1930s. They sowed the seeds of conflict in Sri Lanka by their divide and rule tactics. They favoured educated Tamils and gave the majority Sinhalese a minority complex for which they later over-compensated. In Iraq the British encouraged urbane, Western-educated, Jews who staffed the civil service, ran the economy and helped lay the foundations of the modern Iraqi state.

Iraq’s first minister of finance was a Jew. Sir Sassoon Eskell, KBE, along with Bell and TE Lawrence, was instrumental in the creation and the establishment of the state of Iraq after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. He himself, founded the nascent Iraqi government’s legal and financial structure. Jews were important in developing the judicial and postal systems. Records from the Baghdad Chamber of Commerce show that 10 out of its 19 members in 1947 were Jews and the first musical band formed for Baghdad’s nascent radio in the 1930s consisted mainly of Jews.Jews were represented in the Iraqi parliament, and many Jews held significant positions in the bureaucracy which in many cases led to resentment by the Iraqi population.

As friends of the British, Iraq’s Jews, like Sri Lankan Tamils, were an easy scapegoat for anti-colonial fury. This was exploited by Nazi Germany which craved Iraqi oil. Iraqi Jews were portrayed in the Iraqi press and radio as a fifth column, especially after the death of King Faisal in 1933. Faisal’s son and successor, King Ghazi, who styled himself a Pan-Arabist and dabbled in Nazi doctrine, imposed a tax on Jews whenever they left the country. Ghazi befriended Hitler’s ambassador to Baghdad, Fritz Grobba.

The British used the ersatz Iraqi monarchy for their own purposes and forced upon it a series of humiliating ‘agreements’ in which the country’s sovereignty was signed away, and British dominance guaranteed. The British tried to keep control of the oil discovered in Kirkuk by forcing the Anglo-Iraq Treaty of 1930 on the King and ensured that foreign policy was directed by British advisers, mainly, notably Sir Kinahan Cornwallis, for whom Bell had an unrequited passion.

It seems that Britain does not learn lessons from its long history. By removing the tyrant who was holding the whole shaky enterprise together, they caused the disintegration of the artificial nation, Iraq, they had forged for their own purposes. Italy forged a fragile colonial nation out of fractious tribal territories in Libya. Britain contributed to future problems by removing the tyrant who was holding it together.

When Bell returned to Britain in 1925 she suffered from poor health and the economic depression had undermined the family wealth. She returned to Iraq and suffered from pleurisy. It is surmised that while she was in England she was diagnosed with lung cancer (she was a heavy smoker).

On July 12, 1926, she killed herself with an overdose of sleeping pills.
She was buried in the British cemetery at Bab al-Sharji.

In February 2011, eccentric German film director Werner Herzog was said to be in “serious discussions” with Australian actress Naomi Watts for his upcoming project about Bell titled Queen of the Desert. At the end of March, it was reported that Ridley Scott was planning a film about Bell and had hired screenwriter Jeffrey Caine, the man responsible for The Constant Gardener, to write the script.

Perhaps one day there will be a movie about Siobhain McDonagh.


Cronyism and Impunity – Ireland Pays the Price

This article was published in the Sunday Island on March 5, 2011.


On February 25 2011, Ireland chose a new government.The turnout was 70.1% per cent and was the highest since 1987. The election was a resounding success for the Fine Gael (FG) party and its leader Enda Kenny, although the proportional representation system means that FG will need a coalition partner. Kenny, who will be the new Taoiseach (prime minister) himself won 17,472 first preference votes in his Mayo constituency- the highest number for any candidate. The outgoing Fianna Fail (FF) government was severely trounced. FF have been in office for most of the republic’s life – 60 of the 79 years since it first won office in 1932. Its vote has only rarely dipped below 40%. This time it was 15%.

Many senior figures lost their seats. One casualty was Seán Haughey (son of the notoriously corrupt former Taoiseach Charles Haughey). In the Dublin area the FF vote was down to 8% with only one FF candidate winning a seat.

FG won 76 seats, Labour 37, FF 20, Sinn Féin 14, United Left Alliance 5 and Others (including the United Left Alliance with five) 14. The share of first-preference votes was: FG 36.1%, Labour 19.4%, FF 17.4%, Sinn Féin 9.9%, Independents 15.2% and Green Party 1.8%.

The Green Party were in government in the previous coalition. None of their candidates were elected this time. They were punished for their complicity.

Gerry Adams for Sinn Fein topped the poll in Louth, in the north-east. His party scored its best-ever election result in the Republic and will be a major Opposition force.

When FG was in government last, it formed a coalition with Labour, with Labour’s Dick Spring, former Rugby international, serving as deputy PM. This time, the courtship has not been smooth. Labour are in a stronger position than heretofore. There are major differences between the two parties on the reduction of public-sector debt; the ratio between tax and cuts and public-sector reform. The Labour leader, Eamon Gilmore, said he was confident that a programme for government could be negotiated.

The election was caused by the meltdown of the Irish economy after a few years when it seemed a model to the world. Between 1993 and 2000, Irish GNP grew by an average of 9% a year; unemployment—which had reached a peak of 17% in the 1980s—almost disappeared.

People flocked to Ireland from Africa and Eastern Europe. Now emigration, the curse of the island nation throughout history, is rising again. With youth unemployment exceeding 30%, many young Irish people have already fled abroad. According to the Economic and Social Research Institute, at least 100,000 Irish citizens will be emigrating in the next two years.

The country’s well-educated workforce made it attractive to foreign investors, particularly American corporations. The US share of industrial investment in the Irish economy rose from 32% in 1990 to 68% in 1997. FDI was concentrated in computers, pharmaceuticals and electronic engineering. The Celtic model did not have enough sustainable indigenous strength. Multinational corporations were responsible for 85% of total Irish economic growth. Multinationals exported 90% of their output; Irish-owned firms sold less than 40% of what they produced abroad.

Part of the illusory Irish prosperity depended on “financial services” – in other words, funny- money practices akin to money-laundering, which caused Dublin to be called “Liechtenstein on the Liffey”.

Property and financial services created a bubble economy. Despite the wealth of some, Ireland ranked second-to-bottom in the OECD league tables for poverty and inequality; only the USA fared worse. The number of households earning below 50% of the average income rose from 18% in 1994 to 24% in 2001. Government expenditure on social protection as a proportion of GDP was 20% in 1993, but fell to 14% by 2000—barely half the EU’s average.

When I lived in Ireland builders were a scarce and expensive commodity. We wondered why so many houses were being built when the population never exceeded 4.5 million. The average price of a new house rose from €67,000 in 1991 to €334,000 in 2007, by which time there were 21 new units of housing being built per thousand citizens. Our own house was an old one but we saw its market value rise by 464% in four years. Unfortunately, the apartment we bought when we sold that property has no chance of being sold now for anything near what we paid for it; it is doubtful if it can be sold at all.

Construction became the main source of new private-sector jobs, with employment in the industry rising by 59% between 2000 and 2008. Some estimate there are 300,000 unoccupied homes. The National Housing Development Survey identified 2,800 “ghost” estates which presented safety hazards. Hundreds of thousands of homeowners have already found themselves saddled with negative equity as a result of the crash, with as many as one in seven families affected. The jig is finally up for the Irish. Ireland had to follow Greece with the begging bowl to the EU and IMF. PM Brian Cowen could not absolve himself from blame on the grounds that the problem started before he took office – he had been the finance minister who engineered the boom and failed to stop the bust.

In Sri Lanka we have the mudalali; in Ireland they have the Gombeen Man. Politicians achieve prominence by cronying up to influential local figures and doing favours like getting jobs and planning permission in return for political support. The “brown envelope”, i.e. bribery, has long been a feature of Irish politics and commerce. FF has been particularly adept at developing clientelist networks which delivered just enough goods to ensure personal loyalty and gratitude through parish-pump politics.

Widespread disillusionment with the political class has been focused by writers such as Fintan O’Toole and David McWilliams. Bob Geldof felt it necessary to announce that he did not intend to run for president in October. In one of his more printable comments the ex-Boomtown Rat spoke of boom and bust. “The overwhelming feeling I have is one of sadness for the country – and of anger for the incompetence beyond measure, the sheer stupidity and the clear venality which has Ireland where it is now”.

O’Toole wrote: “People are sickened by the amorality of so many aspects of our public life, particularly those where politics and business overlap. Cronyism and impunity are the twin pillars of an edifice that has to be demolished.”

As with austerity measures in all countries, it is not the culprits who tighten their belts. Ordinary taxpayers pay for bank bailouts, the old and the vulnerable see their welfare benefits and public services cut savagely, while speculators whose “risk-taking” caused the problem continue to get their bonuses. The bondholders who engaged in speculative commercial activity should be punished by taking the losses rather than getting unlimited compensation.

Sri Lankans who call for more privatisation and less regulation should take note of Ireland’s fate.




Diversity, Equality, Naming

This article was published in the Sunday Island on July 30, 2011

I have a favourite quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson: ” all generalisations are dangerous, even this one”. Putting people into categories and expecting them to be happy in their boxes is a dangerous delusion. Putting people into racial or ethnic boxes is particularly risky.

I got into a dispute with my editor at Le Monde diplomatique when she asked for my views on an article she had published by a Frenchman, Cédric Gouverneur, who had parachuted into Sri Lanka. I said that I was not sure if his phrase, “the government, overjoyed at being able to divide the Tamils” was useful. It seems to me to verge on racism to lump all Tamils together and assume that they all have the same interests and opinions. Neither author nor editor welcomed my contribution. People of a leftist persuasion, including my good self, hate to be called racist.


I complained to the BBC, The Independent and The Irish Times about their sloppy use of language in describing the last days of the LTTE in terms of the government trouncing “the Tamils”. Robert Kaplan, in the Atlantic Monthly September 2009, wrote, “Sri Lanka has experienced more than a quarter of a century of civil war between ethnic Sinhalese Buddhists and Hindu Tamils.”


In my writing for western audiences, I have tried to disabuse my readers of the delusion that Sri Lanka is a nation where two races are always at each other’s throats. I tell them that, for such a small nation (a little larger than West Virginia, a little smaller than Ireland, but with 16 million more people than Ireland) there are many fault lines of ethnicity, political philosophy, language and religion. I tell my western readers that, despite difficulties, people of all groups co-exist reasonably well.


The Sri Lanka cricket team has been a good example of multiculturalism. In his Lords speech, Kumar Sangakarra said: “I am Tamil, Sinhalese, Muslim and Burgher. I am a Buddhist, a Hindu, a follower of Islam and Christianity. I am today, and always, proudly Sri Lankan”.


David Cameron said multiculturalism has failed, arguing for a stronger sense of British identity (a difficult concept for most Brits to understand). Cameron was speaking in Germany where Chancellor Angela Merkel had already said “multikulti” did not work, and immigrants needed to integrate. A recent survey suggested more than 30% of people believed Germany was “overrun by foreigners”. Nazism is on the rise.


Susanne Wessendorf argues that support for multiculturalism stems from changes in Western societies dealing, after World War II, with the racist trauma of the holocaust and ethnic cleansing. African and Asian nations became independent, highlighting colonial racism and exporting their people. In the USA black militants criticised assimilation, implicit in which was prejudice against those who did not act white. Multiculturalism in western countries was seen as a useful strategy to combat racism.


Supporters of multiculturalism argue that culture is not one definable thing based on one race or religion, but the result of multiple factors changing as the world changes. Multiculturalism allows people to truly express who they are within a tolerant, adaptable society.


Anti-multiculturalism covers a spectrum ranging from genuine anxieties to outright toxic racism. I recently read an extremely distasteful blog post entitled “Multiculturalism kills another Libtard”. A young Swedish woman was violently raped, killed and mutilated. The culprit was black. Someone chastised the blogger: “Since you don’t know this woman, how dare you call her a libtard in your title — do you know her political leanings?

Multiculturalism doesn’t kill, people kill. The right wing favorite “Guns don’t kill, people kill” meme applies here too, not just for your NRA bumper stickers. Depending on monitor / browser settings those who do not wish to see a mutilated corpse (me, for example) may see it despite your lame warning. The only person you have effectively insulted with this disgusting post is the dead woman. Classy.” The source blog the poster got his information from was pornographic with comments along the lines of “Kill all niggers”.

Academics have noted legitimate public fears about multiculturalism. Harvard professor of political science, Robert D Putnam, surveyed 26,200 people in 40 American communities and found that the more racially diverse a community is, the greater the loss of trust. People in diverse communities “don’t trust the local mayor, they don’t trust the local paper, they don’t trust other people and they don’t trust institutions,” writes Putnam. In the presence of ethnic diversity, Putnam maintains that “[W]e hunker down. We act like turtles. The effect of diversity is worse than had been imagined. And it’s not just that we don’t trust people who are not like us. In diverse communities, we don’t trust people who do look like us.”


Australian ethologist Frank Salter writes : “Relatively homogeneous societies invest more in public goods, indicating a higher level of public altruism. For example, the degree of ethnic homogeneity correlates with the government’s share of gross domestic product as well as the average wealth of citizens.” Salter has developed a theory of Universal Nationalism. “The realisation that ethnicity is extended kinship at the genetic level led to the realisation that individuals have a large genetic stake in their ethnic groups, which could help explain the ubiquitousness of ethnic identity, solidarity and conflict from tribal times to the present.” Salter does not recommend strengthening the gene pool by interracial marriage. He is popular with the American New Right and those who believe it is vitally important for whites to defend their legitimate group interests. However, Salter is not quite right-wing enough for them.


This is all rather depressing as many scientists argue that the concept of race or ethnicity is meaningless. According to John H Relethford, author of The Fundamentals of Biological Anthropology, a race “is a group of populations that share some biological characteristics….These populations differ from other groups of populations according to these characteristics.” Race is fluid and thus difficult to pinpoint scientifically. “Race is a concept of human minds, not of nature,” Relethford writes.


I recently had my knuckles rapped for using the word “gypsies” to describe a group of people living in the Aligambay area. Their mother tongue is Telugu and they seem to originate from Andhra Pradesh. They are, inaccurately, referred to as gypsies in Wikipedia and The Island. What’s in a name?
I asked my knuckle-rapper what I should call them. She thought they would prefer to be classed as Tamil, as that would place them in one of the common ethnic groups in Sri Lanka. Although ethnicity is a fluid concept, these people are definitely not Tamil and it is doubtful if Tamils would accept them as such. My interlocutor said people settled in Sri Lanka, whatever their historical origin, would like to be identified as Sri Lankan. However, this is an aspiration rather than an actuality. Whatever they might hope, they are not as fortunate as Sri Lankan cricketers. People do see them as outsiders.


Categorisation and the act of naming can exclude. However, it may be necessary to identify and name those in need of affirmative action to encourage their inclusion. Naming should be sensitively applied.


Something Rotten in the State of Norway?

This article was published in the Sunday Island on August 13, 2011 


Mankind cannot bear too much reality. People who are unhappy in the now of where they are, delude themselves that there is a better society elsewhere. Utopia might be located in an after-life or it might be in a different part of this planet, or another time in history. I recall that in the 1960s Professor Joan Robinson was telling us that Mao had it all sorted and we should try to emulate Communist China. C Wright Mills told us capitalism was finished and Castro had found a way to make Marxism human – look what a great health service Cuba has! In the 70s, I studied a fat compendium of essays arguing that worker participation in Tito’s Yugoslavia could teach Britain how to solve its industrial problems. For a while, Costa Rica, which does not have a standing army, seemed heaven on earth.


Only yesterday, I read in Huffington Post that Bhutan had all the answers, with its concept of Gross National Happiness. Someone commented: “I am Bhutanese, and I think the Bhutanese government has been milking this happiness thing for all it’s worth… The Bhutanese government should realize the special nature of their situation before it goes around promoting resolutions, or telling other countries how they should rank happiness in their list of priorities”.

I recall reading of a survey that said Ireland was the happiest place on earth. That was before the economy went down the toilet and the industrial scale of the Catholic Church’s abuses was proved beyond doubt.

My personal knowledge of Scandinavia is limited to a brief visit to Denmark (another one-time contender for happiest nation on the globe) in the early 80s. It seemed to be entirely populated by sensible teachers and social workers in home-made clothing (apart from the raving drunks on the street). My knowledge of Sweden was gained from Ingmar Bergman films – not much joy there.

When I was blogging on Open Salon, exchanges with a blogger calling himself Norwonk were always pleasant. He was a fan of the great Tommy Cooper and was grateful when I introduced him to the works of Al Read. I was surprised to learn that British comedy was popular in Norway, with Norwegian versions of Steptoe and Son and Hancock’s Half Hour.

Norwonk was understandably shocked by recent events in Norway: “I suppose I should give you some kind of unique Norwegian insight into the terror attack but I’m sorry: I’ve got nothing. This attack makes no sense to any sane person. There’s a political motive, to be sure, but not one which sane people would identify with. I just hope this is a signal to my country to not change at all. Sure, if there are some simple and sensible measures we can take to improve our security, we should do so. But frankly, I doubt it. ‘’

There is a good deal of delusion about the success of the Scandinavian social democracies. It is true that in Norway women occupy 40% of important jobs. It is true that justice minister Knut Storberget and children’s minister Audun Lysbakken are able, like ordinary citizens, to take generous time-off for paternity leave.

“This tranquil and most peaceful of all communities” is, nevertheless, a foolish cliché.

Scandinavian crime novels have become very popular and reveal the dark underbelly. The Norwegian author Jo Nesbo, like many of the Scandinavian crime writers, was an investigative reporter, and the Breivik story would probably not have surprised him. Robert Fox wrote in The Week: “The truth is Norway, like Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands, still has the traumas of the past to contend with – the shadow of Nazi occupation, collaboration and resistance – as well as the huge recent changes in society, including the sudden impact of new immigration and the new political Islam.” Norway is not immune to crime, corruption and racism.

In addition, Norway has lost its international ethical niche. Norway got rich because of oil but has somehow managed to avoid the opprobrium attached to other oil explorers and exploiters. The Government Pension Fund takes surplus funds from Norwegian petroleum. The fund accounts for just over one percent of all global stocks. The Fund’s Advisory Council on Ethics was established 19 November 2004 by royal decree. Companies are excluded from the fund if their conduct is judged unethical.

Nevertheless, Norway remains one of the biggest shareholders in the controversial Indonesian logging and palm oil group Sinar Mas, with, according to its most recent published accounts, a holding of more than $16m in Sinar Mas’s palm oil arm, Golden Agri Resources.

The Norwegian government also invests in Burma, gaining profit from the human rights abuses of the totalitarian military government which employs slave labour and summary executions to do business.  According to a report by Earth Rights: “The Norwegian people, through their government’s sovereign wealth fund, have USD $4.7 billion invested in 15 companies – hailing from eight countries – involved in the oil and gas sector in Burma.”
“Apart from direct human rights impacts, the Shwe gas and oil transport pipelines appear to be exacerbating rising ethnic tensions in Burma’s contested borderlands, specifically in the ethnically diverse territories of Shan State.” The Shwe gas consortium and several other companies in the Fund are engaged in onshore infrastructure construction in Burma, an activity that the Norwegian Ethics Council itself determined poses an unreasonably high risk of leading to human rights violations.

Although it has a large aid programme and strongly supports the UN, in reality, Norway has joined the club of rich nations exploiting the planet for their own benefit. There is a failure to regulate Norwegian corporations. Mark Curtis wrote in the Guardian: “Norwegian weapons sales have tripled since 2000, reaching GBP 336 million in 2007. Norwegian arms were used by the US and Britain during the invasion of Iraq, while a lack of controls have allowed high explosives to be sold to the US and re-exported to Israel.” Norway has a presence in Afghanistan and Libya.

National Geographic asks: “Why Is Japan Whaling’s Bogeyman When Norway Hunts Too?” Claire Bass, marine mammals programme manager with the WSPA (World Society for the Protection of Animals), says other whaling nations appear to get off lightly compared with Japan. “I think it’s part of the strategy of countries like Norway to stand behind Japan and use them to take most of the flak”. It is strange that, in the face of opposition from around the world, a rich nation like Norway is one of a small number of countries actively engaged in commercial whaling, despite the negligible contribution it makes to the economy, and despite, according to documents released by WikiLeaks, President Obama putting pressure on Norway during his Nobel Peace Prize visit.

While one has every sympathy for the innocent Norwegian citizens who suffered in the recent outrageous event, one is also dismayed by the opportunity it afforded to stoke the national myth and dangerous self-delusion that Norway is usually a paradise on earth and that the nation behaves like a paragon of virtue in the ugly reality of the world.


Click to access Broken-Ethics.pdf


The Death of Dag



This article was published in the Sunday Island on September 3, 2011 


We saw and felt the bare fangs of commercial interests cornered on a patch of gold.

The UN seems to have a lot of enemies in Sri Lanka. I find this sad because I have felt a sort of affinity for the organisation because we share the same birthday, although the UN is a year older than I. Also, Ireland has, over the years, lent its troops to many UN peace-keeping operations.

In the early sixties, I was staying at the Grand Union Hotel in Cobh, County Cork. The hotel was run and owned by the Allen family. Captain Allen of the Irish Army was home on leave from service with the UN force in the Congo. He gave us a slide show presentation about the Congo. He did not go into the atrocities that occurred during that time of the assassination of Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba and the secession of Katanga province under Moise Tshombe.

The Grand Union Hotel long ago succumbed to recession and subsidence. It was located in Casement Square. The square was named after Sir Roger Casement who exposed Belgian atrocities in the Congo and was executed for his part in the Irish rebellion of 1916. (See:

In the pages of the Island itself some criticism of the UN has centred on the incumbent Secretary General. K Godage on August 21 declared “Moon has prostituted himself and brought this great office, graced by the likes of Trygve Lee, Dag Hammarskjold, U Thant, Peres De Cuellar, Kurt Waldheim, Butros Ghali and Kofi Annan into disgrace and disgraced his country in the process”.

Ghali’s reputation became entangled in Yugoslavian horrors and larger controversies over the effectiveness of the UN and the role of the US; Waldheim concealed his complicity in Nazi war crimes at Banja Luka in Yugoslavia. Hammarskjöld had a good reputation. In these pages, Jayantha Dhanapala, a past potential Secretary General wrote: “By common consent no one has enlarged the scope and stature of the job as much as Dag Hammarskjold (1953-61) did. Was his exemplary character pre-judged?”
Only last week The Guardian claimed that “new evidence” had come to light that Hammarskjold’s plane had been shot down over Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and that British colonial authorities had arranged a cover-up of the assassination. Residents of Ndola said Hammarskjöld’s DC6 was shot down by a smaller aircraft and the crash site was sealed off by Northern Rhodesian security forces.

Unpublished telegrams show US and British anger at an abortive UN military operation that the secretary general ordered on behalf of the Congolese government against a rebellion in mineral-rich Katanga . Katanga’s secession, which had followed the Congo’s independence from Belgium in June 1960, was engineered by Belgium-based mining interests keen to continue mineral extraction in the province. Tshombe was, as Conor Cruise O’Brien said, their “black stooge”. Belgian settlers, white mercenaries and former Belgian Army officers provided military support. Hammarskjöld suspected British diplomats secretly supported the Katanga rebellion and had obstructed a bid to arrange a truce.

Hammarskjöld upset the major powers on the UN security council with his support for decolonisation, but his re-election was virtually guaranteed by support from developing nations. Days before his death, Hammarskjöld authorised a UN offensive on Katanga – codenamed Operation Morthor – despite reservations of the UN legal adviser (British) , and the fury of the US and Britain.

In 1992, George Ivan Smith and Conor Cruise O’Brien, who in 1961 were UN representatives in Katanga, wrote to The Guardian: “Vividly we were made aware of the brutal work of mercenaries, hired guns employed by European industrialists to prevent the UN from resolving a crisis at the heart of Africa …We saw and felt the bare fangs of commercial interests cornered on a patch of gold”. George Ivan Smith was himself beaten in a failed attempt to kidnap him. O’Brien was convinced that the industrialists sent two planes to intercept Hammarskjöld before he met Tshombe. O’Brien does not believe they meant to kill. Ivan Smith claimed to have evidence that the industrialist gave their agents permission to fire across the bows.

Matthew Hughes has examined Smith’s papers, including accounts of meetings with former mercenaries in the Congo, in the Bodleian and written about it in the London Review of Books (August 2001):

“According to Smith…‘The fear was that Tshombe, left free to negotiate with the United Nations, would understand the principles on which it was operating, i.e. non-interference in the domestic affairs of the Congo, but under obligation to encourage actions to integrate the country by the Congolese at the behest of the Security Council . . . The decision was taken by the control group at Kolwezi (the European industrialists) to attempt to reach Hammarskjöld before he could get to talk with Tshombe at Ndola.’ If Tshombe came to terms with the UN, he goes on, ‘it would put in jeopardy the position of Europeans not only in the Congo, but also in the Rhodesias and in all parts of Africa . . . where white minorities still held immense power.’ The objective thus was to kidnap Hammarskjöld.”

Harry Truman is reported to have said that “Dag Hammarskjöld was on the point of getting something done when they killed him. Notice that I said, ‘when they killed him’.”

Desmond Tutu wrote that the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission “discovered, during the course of other investigations, documents purporting to be from an institution called the SA Institute of Maritime Research discussing the sabotage of the aircraft in which the UN Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskjöld, died on the night of September 17/18, 1961.” One TRC letter said that a bomb in the aircraft’s wheel bay was set to detonate when the wheels came down for a landing.

A counter-view is that Hammarskjöld travelled from Léopoldville to Ndola in the middle of the night in order to prevent a full-scale war caused by the UN in the Congo, defying the Security Council and instigating a botched military coup in Katanga. Hammarskjöld was on his way to Ndola to apologize personally to Moise Tshombe at the insistence of the British government. Pilot error involved flying to Ndolo instead Ndola and misjudging the altitude. In this view, it was more convenient for the UN to have Hammarskjöld portrayed as a saint and instigate rumors about an assassination than to have the world know that he was to apologize for a military coup where 155 civilians, UN “peace-keepers” and Belgian soldiers were killed.

A book by Susan Williams is soon to be published, Who Killed Hammarskjöld? The UN, the Cold War and White Supremacy in Africa. Williams recounts that: “British High Commissioner Lord Alport was waiting at the airport when the aircraft crashed nearby. He bizarrely insisted to the airport management that Hammarskjöld had flown elsewhere – even though his aircraft was reported overhead. This postponed a search for so long that the wreckage of the plane was not found for fifteen hours. White mercenaries were at the airport that night too, including the South African pilot Jerry Puren, whose bombing of Congolese villages led, in his own words, to ‘flaming huts …destruction and death’. These soldiers of fortune were backed by Sir Roy Welensky, Prime Minister of the Rhodesian Federation, who was ready to stop at nothing to maintain white rule and thought the United Nations was synonymous with the Nazis.”




Reflections on Stray Dogs

This article was published in the Sunday Island on January 15, 2011

I was saddened to read in the Sunday Island of fears that the President’s no-kill policy might be falling into abeyance as street dogs at Galle Face were being rounded up for who knows what fate. I am going to make a confession here and admit that I was once guilty of dog-napping. More of that later. First, some personal observations about different cultural norms about animals. In urban England dogs are generally on a lead and accompanied by an “owner”. This is euphemistically referred to as “exercise” but the main purpose is for the dog to defecate a reasonable distance away from the owner’s domicile. I admonished a neighbour as he watched his dog downloading on my front lawn. His basic argument was that the dog had to do it somewhere and my garden was not as neat as his.


In rural Ireland, dogs might be owned but they wandered around having an independent existence. Every day we saw a Jack Russell trotting purposefully along for quite a large distance from one house to another to get its breakfast.

In Sri Lanka, it is unusual to see a dog on a lead. Many dogs would appear to be strays or feral but they are actually community dogs. They may not have a warm bed, but they do indeed belong to a house or section of a village. In some villages, the dogs roaming the post-tsunami wreckage were still at “their house” even though the sea had taken away the house.

A couple of years back, several Sri Lankan newspapers gave prominence to an English animal welfare campaigner who was planning to set up a shelter for Sri Lankan street dogs. The Sunday Leader quoted her: “We were overcome by the quiet despair, misery and silent suffering of thousands of strays, pets, wildlife and livestock alike…The attitude of a majority of locals who prefer to turn a blind eye to the suffering of an innocent stray and instead pay thousands for a purebred that they take care of like their own children has also contributed towards the suffering of these animals.”

She was shocked to see advertisements for pedigree pups. “Dogs are bred whilst thousands of unwanted strays roam the streets looking for love and compassion from humans. Suffering of owned animals is often equal to the suffering of the strays.”

“Ireland is synonymous with puppy farming. It is the most, vile despicable trade in misery,” says one reputable dog breeder in Northern Ireland. Breeding bitches are kept in filthy conditions to produce pups to sell at premium prices just below what reputable breeders charge. A puppy farmer in Australia wrote to me to express his outrage at being victimised: “similar to what happened to Jews in the beginning of Hitler’s rein [sic] of terror.” Peter Singer and JM Coetzee have been criticised for comparing intensive animal rearing to Nazi behaviour. It is a new twist to hear a puppy farmer comparing himself to victims of the holocaust.

Ireland also has the highest per capita rate of stray dog euthanasia in the EU, with 23,000 dogs put down annually.

I have heard the argument that sterilisation is contrary to Buddhist precepts. I do not know how true this is but surely Buddhist precepts would be against dumping unwanted puppies on the roadside.

We noticed a resistance to sterilisation among the Catholic population in rural Ireland and wondered if, in some bizarre way, this was related to the Church’s doctrine on abortion. Certainly, one of the Christian precepts is “Thou shalt not kill”.

It seems that in reality the UK is not the animal loving nation that it was once thought to be. In the UK in 2007, there was a 42% rise in the number of custodial sentences for cruelty to dogs. Operation Gazpacho, conducted by the RSPCA, revealed a sickening increase in organised dog fights. In 2008, following a BBC documentary on the horrific genetic disabilities of pedigree dogs, the RSPCA withdrew its support from Crufts Dog Show.

The Christian festival of Christmas in the UK is the traditional season for abandoning pet dogs. Dog dumping has got earlier every year since the early 2000s and now starts well before Christmas. Barking (no pun intended) and Dagenham Council covers a borough in Essex which is thought to have the highest dog ownership in the UK. ‘Essex man’ and ‘Essex girls’ are stereotypical figures of fun in England. Perhaps in America, rednecks might be a rough equivalent. A pit bull terrier would be the dog of choice for this stereotype. Because pit bulls are a very popular breed and can be sold for between £250 and £750, many Barking residents have decided to breed them. Litters are typically between six and ten puppies. Many are dumped when they are past the cute puppy stage and become expensive to feed.

Sri Lankans seem to me to be guilty of negligence and ignorance rather than active cruelty. It is not too different from what we encountered in Ireland. Everyday, three dogs came a quarter of a mile up the road from an elderly neighbour’s house to take us for a walk. One of the dogs was a female that our neighbour had purchased as a pet. The other two were skanky, abandoned creatures that had wandered to her house and been allowed to stay. One was a Scottish terrier with a distressing skin condition which had probably caused his ‘loving’ owners to dump him.

Our neighbour loved all three dogs equally. For some reason we were never able to fathom – but suspected might have something to do with religion – she never got any of the dogs sterilised. Every year the female produced a litter of puppies which our neighbour’s son drowned.

The lady died and the dogs were well-cared for by the son. Still the female was not sterilised. One day she came to us in great distress, covered in blood. It was clear that another litter had been drowned. After she had the chance to recover, we took her to a friend who ran boarding kennels. From there we took her to a vet who sterilised her. After a few days recuperation back at the kennels, we returned her home. No-one ever said anything about the fact that she had been missing. No-one remarked on the fact that she no longer had puppies. Don’t ask, don’t tell. As Seamus Heaney wrote: “Whatever you say, say nothing”.

There are many aspects of animal welfare in Sri Lanka that are in need of improvement. Perhaps the most important is for the media to help create a culture of responsible pet ownership.

Rules and regulations are important because even if you cannot change the attitude of everyone, you can change behaviour. The Sri Lankan Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Ordinance enacted by the colonial government in 1907 is ineffective mainly because its sanctions have never been updated. The maximum fine is only Rs100. The authorities have tended to think it not worthwhile to pursue even cases involving heinous cruelty to animals.

An Animal Welfare Bill was gazetted long ago as a Private Member’s Bill by the Venerable Athureliye Ratana Thero, MP. It still languishes in legislative limbo. A petition is being circulated to get it passed.



A fake image is worth zero words

Poet's Corner

Poems, poets, poetry, writing, poetry challenges

Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Casual, But Smart

Pop Culture From An Old Soul

PN Review Blog

‘The most engaged, challenging and serious-minded of all the UK’s poetry magazines’ - Simon Armitage

The Manchester Review

The Manchester Review

Slugger O'Toole

Conversation, politics and stray insights

Stephen Jones: a blog

Daoism—lives—language—performance. And jokes

Minal Dalal

Spreading resources for potential living.