Book smarts and personal bests keep Ganiel grounded

In the lead up to the 1999 World Cross Country Championships in Belfast, the English and Irish athletes of Providence College, Rhode Island could be found winding each other up about the event. That type of friendly rivalry meant much more to an American in the group, new to Anglo-Irish connections. Up to that point Gladys Ganiel hadn’t yet heard of Northern Ireland. The undergraduate, who had already forged strong ties with her college’s most prominent Irish coach Ray Treacy, developed an affinity for Irish history and in particular conflict resolution. Without trading one for another as is usually the case for most graduates, athletics and academia emerged as dual interests from which Ganiel could reach the heights of elite level distance running and writing books.

Northern Ireland has since become home with the Maine born marathoner holding both Irish and British citizenship. Her analysis of politics at Stormont is as healthy as her most recent race in Glasgow at the Commonwealth Games. She sees the system of government and its mutual veto as serious faults of the post Good Friday Agreement period. “That system is really designed to produce deadlock and slowness. It’s not designed to encourage communities from both sides to co-operate and make a consensus.” Her sympathies toward those experiencing frustration with the pace of political progress are genuine. Falling short of outlining the main issues identified by the Haass talks, the 37 year old speaks of “the failure to come up with a way to deal with the past and the failure to look after victims properly.” When she mentions that those victims are being re-victimised, it is more an assessment taken from her many hours spent working with local religious figures and lay people than it is of succumbing to headlines of news print.

Having finished her politics doctorate at UCD in 2005, Ganiel took up a visiting scholar position in Cape Town only to make her way back to the island when the position of lecturer and co-ordinator at Trinity’s Belfast based conflict and resolution programme opened. “I cancelled other job interviews I had lined up, Northern Ireland was exactly the place I wanted to be,” she says. The continued desire to grapple with religious and civic debates of a post conflict and post catholic Ireland, have witnessed a dedication to research projects with peers of international repute. Historical and sociological findings have included collaboration with American Gerardo Marti, for their recently published book ‘The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity.’ In short, she says the book was written “so that people who are interested in some of the same hard questions emerging Christians asked about – the nature of truth, doubt and the nature of God – can identify with it or learn from it.” While some take heart from the spiritual overtones of her work, others marvel at her athletic achievements.

What began as a high school running habit has been transferred to battered Belfast streets, across peace walls and the mountainous region that overlook the city’s skyline. A hardened training route that includes all three of these elements has been favoured by her North Belfast Harriers club for over thirty years. The area, from start to finish is particularly distinctive as it passes communities from both sides of the so called ‘religious divide’. A proud record of the run belonging to everyone rather than one side or other remains since the darker hours of ‘The Troubles’. Ganiel now adds her Commonwealth profile to the run “I do think it is something significant that an athletics club could do that, (run through the mentioned route), even at times when things were tense. They just got on with it and that in itself is testimony to the human spirit.” Missing out on representing Ireland at the 2012 London Olympics might have tested her own human spirit to its limit but improved performances over 10k, half and full marathon distances a year later, meant ambitions with Northern Ireland were sure to be realised.

A 12th place finish timed at 2 hours 40 minutes on the Scottish streets was a welcome reward for maintaining tactical discipline among competitors who made rash judgments on their way to substandard performances.  “No one ran a personal best apart from the Australian girls who ran really well. I was closest to my PB than anyone else in the race. Most of the girls were minutes slower than their PB’s so I feel I acquitted myself very well on the day, given the course conditions were a bit windy and the fact that I ran more than half the race by myself.” As a part time athlete competing at Glasgow, Ganiel relied on support afforded to her by the Sports Institute NI, with benefits ranging from access to strength and conditioning coach to free blood tests. Failing to run four minutes faster has since seen those privileges revoked.

In spite of this, she is intent upon meeting qualification standards to race in the Rio Olympics in 2016 and the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games two years later. The winning marathon display of 39 year old European Champion Christelle Daunay in Zurich will have added further to her own belief that female distance runners “can keep on at a high level, and even improve, up to the age of 40.” Not that Ganiel draws inspiration from veterans alone. She is just as enthusiastic on the promise of fellow Games counterpart Katie Kirk. Ganiel cherished the 20 year old Co. Down athlete’s small semi final victory of finishing sixth over 800m with a lifetime best – despite failing to qualify for the Commonwealth Games Final. Away from the track, Ganiel’s devotion to peace and reconciliation at a grassroots level spur small victories in others. The journey toward peace in her adopted land is a long one, but then a marathoner wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Gladys Ganiel on her way to qualifying for the Commonwealth Games with a PB of 2.39 at the Berlin Marathon in September last year.

 

 

 

 

Frampton and Martinez to clash again with World Title rematch

It will be of no great surprise to the average punter in Belfast that Carl Frampton now stands a matter of months away from becoming a world champion. More unusual is the announcement of his opponent Kiko Martinez and further leftfield than the Spaniard’s name is the fact that no venue has been decided to host the IBF super- bantamweight world title event.

The anticipated match up between Frampton and Leo Santa Cruz had been the wish of chattering classes since April when the former became mandatory challenger for the Mexican’s WBC belt. Instead Martinez will put his IBF super-bantamweight title on the line in September as he attempts to avenge a knock out loss at the Odyssey fifteen months ago.

The twenty eight year old has been in terrific form of late, never nearing the full distance of any of his last four fights. Bouts that included Jhonatan Romero in the United States and Hosemi Hasegawa in Japan have shown he bears no travel anxieties either. ‘La Sensacion’ can look to Carl Froch for inspiration as the English man convinced Wembley Stadium and millions of pay per view subscribers that one poor performance can be righted with a second chance.

The past still remains ever present in the mind of Martinez, “Since the 9th February 2013, when I get up at five in the morning to go training, I remember him (Frampton)…. I will never forget that night and I will prove it was just a bad night for me.” It is expected that he will arrive back in Belfast when the location of the fight is announced in three weeks.

An outdoor venue is most likely with Frampton’s manager Barry McGuigan confident that 20,000 tickets will be sold for the event. The option of Ravenhill looks to be a non-starter as the newly formatted European Rugby competition is set to begin on the same weekend. Should Ulster begin with a home game, contractual television obligations would scupper the possibility of a Saturday night fight. Balmoral showgrounds has been touted as a potential alternative but the task to secure a suitable setting remains negotiable.

Stadiums aside, should Frampton win the contest he will be in the unprecedented position of having a greater say in who he fights and where. It stands to reason the proud Belfast man will continue to put on a show in his home town and deliver mouth watering battles against exceptionally talented boxers in the super bantam-weight division.

 

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Carl Frampton prepares to address the media at a press conference

announcing his IBF World Title Super-bantamweight fight with Kiko Martinez.

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In the spotlight. Frampton posing for photographers after the event.

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World Title fight in the offing for Frampton as he beats Cazares in style

To put on a successive sell-out show in Belfast is a rarity. To gather a crowd to their feet in anticipation of something great is rarer yet. To finally deliver explosive drama inside five minutes and leave the city breathless for more is the epitome of class. Only Carl Frampton could have journalists hastily trying to make sense of a fight that was so one sided, they had to believe his opponent hid from truthfully explaining the cause of defeat. Embarrassments happen in boxing but none are as bewildering as not being able to count to ten in English – for that is what Frampton claimed Hugo Cazares was guilty of.

Moments before the WBC super-bantamweight world title eliminator fight began at the Odyssey Arena, one fan could be heard shouting “Right away Carl, right away,” emphasising the confidence of a home crowd, safe in the belief that their man would win in the early rounds. And right away, Frampton dominated the middle of the ring on the sound of the first bell: just as he had been directed by trainer Shane McGuigan. Cazares sought to busy Frampton with extra work in the opening round by switching from orthodox to south paw but the local favourite delivered a hard right shortly before the bell that struck his rival flush on the head. 3 minutes of an intelligent battle done.

Devastatingly better boxing arrived immediately as the want of Frampton reigned with gusto. Separated by referee Victor Loughlin after a tangling of legs, both fighters were instructed as far from one another as possible. Upon assessing Cazares’ complaint that he had received an illegal punch to the leg, the contest restarted for the last time. Frampton, having to step away from a potential right hand to his head, ducked beneath it and opening his shoulders unleashed a startling left fist that dropped Cazares against the ropes.

No standard version of what followed has since been agreed upon by either camp but it is certain that Loughlin held ten fingers inches from the face of Cazares, as he failed to stand up right. Cazares point of contention centers on an idea that the spoken count differed from the action of the referee’s fingers. The suggestion among ringside galleries that he winked to Frampton moments after being knocked down adds little to his sorry words. He did however take manfully to the Odyssey’s Millennium room to give a post fight conference and continue his firm explanation for a premature loss. “I wanted to wait as long as possible (during the count) the referee should have looked into my eyes.” The stale air of defeat inside the room didn’t linger long as Frampton entered to a congratulating press.

Sat at his table, alongside Shane and Barry McGuigan, the 27 year old was keen to talk about the finishing punch. “One of my best,” he said with a knowing smile. What brought more delight to his promoter was not only the execution of his boxers left hook but the style of the winning shot. “He did it coming forward on the front foot.” It will not have gone unnoticed that a similar style and well-rehearsed combination ended Kiko Martinez time as European super-bantamweight champion.

Frampton seems to have improved on his already formidable punching power too, which he puts down to Shane. “He tells me I’m hitting harder and I’m taking on more weights in the gym.” On last night’s evidence few within the division will care to dispute the case Frampton puts forward of being the most powerful puncher in the division. While Belfast waits for a possible world title match up between Leo Santa Cruz and Frampton, it is likely that home fans will be disappointed, with the American East and West coasts standing as the two favourite potential destinations of the bout.

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Hollywood ending for Sullivan Upper ruined by Methody

Belfast school earns third schools cup in as many years

Methodist College 27
Sullivan Upper 12

“We don’t get a free pass to the final every year,” claimed Methody coach Nick Wells on Friday, and Sullivan Upper were less than charitable as the Belfast school earned their third schools cup in as many years after a pulsating contest.

Sullivan had hoped to put over 100 years of misery to right and win their first title, but thoughts of a fairytale ending for the Hollywood side never looked likely.

Methody were forced into replacing Ross McAllistair at tighthead after he suffered concussion in the semi-final but suggestions that this would upset forward dominance and defensive routines were short-lived, as their pack made a major difference in winning the game.

Full advantage
The Belfast side began the match intent upon taking full advantage of early Sullivan infringements. Josh Bingham kicked for touch after being awarded a penalty at the breakdown and their first line out led to the opening try from Connor McKee .

At times throughout the game, Sullivan captain Ross Todd stood upright as he was tackled, actively seeking to show himself as the epitome of an underdog, with the ability and tactical savvy to wrestle yards from an unforgiving defence stood before him.

Unfortunately for Sullivan, his performance did not count for more than winning well- meaning compliments upon losing. McKee soon took Methody to a 12- point lead when he scored a second try after intercepting a loose Sullivan pass.

In reply Chris Jordan brought the Ravenhill family stand – housing the majority of Sullivan supporters – to its feet after completing a deserved score that began withscrum half Charlie McEwan delivering a quick pass to Josh Davidson. The second row rambled through the Methody 22 and offloaded to Jordan for a try that proved to be Sullivan’s most entertaining moment of a difficult day.

Before the break, Alastair McIvor crossed for a third Methody try.

Things might have been different had Methody’s defence given way to a Sullivan drive at the end of 35 minutes, but Michael Lagan walked his team to their dressing home in full command of a 37th schools cup triumph.

Sullivan were heartened soon after the break by a try from full back Johnny Betts; that also encouraged neutrals to believe an upset might be emerging. Yet Methody never panicked and instead they produced the brand of rugby for which they are most revered – hard-hitting forward dominance that allow backs to score with seamless motions.

Their fourth and fifth tries were of this traditional ilk, as Josh Jordan finished in the right corner, before a delightful move that saw backs Fraser Wallace and Rory Cairns exchange passes before releasing full back Connor Kelly to cross Sullivan’s line, closed out the game.

This article was published by The Irish Times on Tuesday 18th March 2014

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It’s not Songs of Praise or the Antiques Roadshow

With a distinguished career as a broadcast journalist and long-time voice of Irish rugby, Jim Neilly sees his beloved sport as more than a game for Sunday evening television.

Jim Neilly has already apologised for being late before our scheduled interview to discuss his career and the state of Irish rugby. On his original call, he wasn’t sure if it was “just the traffic” or something more time consuming. Now as he settles into a large cappuccino, the barista finishes his sentence about the sketched like froth on top, looking like “an atomic bomb.” Once comfortable, more sincere sentiment about his delay from Hillsborough arrive on account of three lanes being reduced to one. He hasn’t reached the impassioned tones that have come to characterise his familiar commentary on major rugby international matches or world title boxing bouts; but there is a distinctive gravitas to the voice peeved by traffic congestion. He is certainly beginning to warm to speaking at an excitable if less audible level than he might otherwise at Ravenhill, the Aviva or Twickenham.

 Aside from the support of his great friend and broadcaster George Hamilon, Neilly ventured into a career as a broadcast journalist almost by chance. On that subject he describes himself listening to a rugby game between Instonians and the City of Derry in 1977. “I met George for a beer that night and said he (the commentator) wasn’t very good and he said why don’t you try it?” A week later Neilly broke his hand with Instonians (he won’t tell me how), and was forced to stop playing rugby for six weeks. While recovering he accompanied Hamilton to a Murrayfield trip for an Ireland Scotland B international. Equipped with a tape recorder and microphone borrowed from his friend, Neilly completed his first novice broadcast at the back of the Murrayfield stand.

 He recalls the event proudly, clearly entertained by its amateur gloss. “We played the cassette in the car on the way back to Stranraer. We laughed so much using words you wouldn’t want to hear on broadcast journalism (programmes). At one stage George missed a turn and we drove into some woman’s farmyard. It was so funny.” From there his cassette reached the head of BBC sport, by way of Hamilton’s hand. After receiving a phone call from the BBC asking him to try “some stuff” on their Saturday afternoon Sportsround programme, Neilly began formal commentating with Collegiates against Civil Service from Deramore Park in December 1977.

Names, dates and times are never missed on Neilly’s watch – not even at this Belfast coffee shop where it would be easy to skip a few while being distracted by two restless babies within spitting distance of our conversation. In between a series of broadcasts in 1978, he suffered another lengthy layoff (this time a dislocated shoulder) and decided to concentrate fully on a career in broadcast. No longer a member of the teaching profession as he had been for the previous seven years, (including educating those at Belfast’s Boys’ Model), he progressed to live broadcasting with the Ulster Schools Cup Final. That game saw Bangor Grammar defeat Annadale Grammar. As though only recently prepared notes on the former school’s performance that day, he picks out their winning captain Kenny Hooks, “who went on to play for Ireland quite a few times.” Following 35 commentaries of the event, Neilly has yet to mention a grandson of local friends and family.

Ulster schools rugby has traditionally been dominated by Methodist College Belfast, Campbell College and Royal Belfast Academical Institution. The schools cup in the province predates all other rugby competitions with the exception of the Hospitals Cup. With distinct love for his alma mater RBAI, Neilly rattles off their greatest achievement in the sport, that of their contribution to the international game. “They have produced more internationals than any other school in all of Ireland. 85 internationals, 13 lions and 2 lions captains. Not even Blackrock has come close to that.” The professional type of structure within schools rugby has often been admired by outsiders looking in but Neilly is convinced the pressure to succeed at such a young age has a negative effect on those who commit themselves to stepping out at Ravenhill on March 17th. “You wonder sometimes, by the time they leave school have they had enough of rugby?” He says with concern. “The numbers playing rugby after (Secondary) school have dropped, in my mind, alarmingly because they think if they aren’t making it as a pro there’s no point in playing. I think that’s wrong and it’s very sad.” Away from rugby at schoolboy level, Irish rugby is in rude health presently with three sides involved at the quarter final stages of the Heineken Cup. The national side have added to expectations befitting past grand slam teams also.

To be consistently within touching distance of these pulsating moments has been a pleasure for Neilly. Just out of shot from front-line, bruising competition is his most treasured position. “It’s not Songs of Praise or the Antiques Roadshow. It’s live, vibrant, muscular rugby.” He seems to remind himself of the fact, as though Ireland holds her breathe before a crucial game to be won or lost on Johnnie Sexton’s right boot. No less enthused about manager Joe Schmidt (always very heavily focussed) and players Devin Toner (everyone thought he was a big, lanky giraffe but he has been a revelation this year) and Peter O’Mahony (he has been working his socks off) to name two; it is refreshing to hear the full complement of players being mentioned by Neilly.

While much has been written and broadcast about supposed or actual divisions among Northern and Southern team mates in the past, no such tension has been obvious from their performances of late. Indeed the recent displays of Ulster men in green jerseys have been notable across the pitch. Dan Tuohy made the absence of captain Paul O’Connell a moot point after victory against Scotland. Rory Best’s return to the front row after suffering a broken arm against New Zealand has been powerful – so powerful, as to create crushing mauls from which Ireland rumped to win over Wales. A try for backs Andrew Trimble (Scotland) and Paddy Jackson (Wales) have helped the cause too. As a proud Ulster man Neilly wouldn’t have it any other way.

What can Wannabes Learn From The Life Of Georgina Henry?

Georgina Henry

Georgina Henry

Georgina was the former deputy editor of the Guardian who died this month of cancer, aged 53.

At her memorial service in the Round Chapel Hackney last week, friends, family and former colleagues weaved personal stories into their speeches, each full of uplifting remarks, making the occasion more than a typically sombre affair. Such a tone accompanied a request from Georgina herself that the event not be mawkish and full of sadness.

It feels difficult to suggest to aspiring journalists what is required to reach the upper echelons of the profession because of the vast contribution Georgina made to it; but clearly those who spoke of her skills and attitude to journalism did so with ease. This is because Georgina was an easy subject to write about.

SELFLESSNESS AND DEDICATION

Close friend and Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger spoke of her genuine selflessness and dedication to the pursuit of a story. Ian Katz, now editor of Newsnight told of his favourite trait of hers; he recalled that George (as she was known to most) used to lick her finger tips before beginning an assignment like a person starved of food ready to eat at a feast.

A TEAM PLAYER

Roger Alton made a point of how the collective audience would have wanted George on their team. During a flight the pair both shared, an air hostess informed George that she was seated at the emergency exit and in the event of an emergency she would be responsible for opening it. So George asked “What exactly do I do?” The air hostess motioned the manoeuvre of pushing and turning the handle; to which George replied “Oh yes of course I will do that!” When Alton finished, “She bloody well would have n’ all”, everyone laughed and nodded approvingly.

CONSIDERATION AND A KIND HEART

There were other mentions of her consideration for fellow journalists, not least trainees and new writers. Merope Mills admitted that without George her career at the Guardian would never have happened. Breaking from the idea of senior figures’ often cold reputations, she recounted that upon recognising anguish in a writer at an appraisal with George; the meeting was put on hold to discuss their relationship break-up.

That kind-hearted, human face of journalism is something that George has entrusted to this generation of journalists and which she will be fondly remembered for. For those who continue to be inspired by her, (recent Guardian trainees included) and those yet to be, it is obvious that becoming a better journalist means supporting the work of others and not becoming immune to the wider issues of human experience to suit ourselves.

STANDING UP FOR JOURNALISM

To the point of cliche and deadened words, journalism in some quarters seems to have lost its reputation as an honourable profession, but wannabe hacks can draw on the exceptional talent of George to change this trend immediately. This might mean taking on a fiery persona at times and identifying with positions of right and wrong on the basis of principle.

For George this meant opening up conversations to all, not reserving them for newsprint writers. It would be remiss not to make mention of the wonderfully courageous and brave effort she brought to the Guardian offices when conceiving and developing Comment is Free.

DEVELOPING A RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN READER AND WRITER

Comment threads form a special and central relationship between writer and reader; Georgina’s foresight brought that to bear better than most. While her interests were deeply political, she clearly enjoyed extending debate to an unlimited audience through digital media.

PUSHING BEYOND THE MAINSTREAM

To make the site work, George and her team constantly pushed beyond mainstream political culture. She commissioned the translation of the Qur’an from Arabic to English in the wake of the stigma of terrorism being attached to Muslim communties after the 7/7 bombings in London. Writers of colour were approached, female voices were given more of a hearing, so too the young and old.

Here was the Guardian side-stepping the so-called ‘experts’ within journalism and academia and creating a fresh, diverse range of opinion from which its readers could learn. Some didn’t like it but George was proven to be right in the long run.

QUESTIONING ‘LAZY JOURNALISM’

Her example exposed and corrected the problems of lazy journalism too as she interrogated writers’ copy, while committed to the values of the Guardian. Accepted wisdom has its merits but it shouldn’t go unchallenged. Injustices require careful attention from journalists regardless of experience. While the conversation at the memorial never directly turned to what makes a great journalist, phrases like ‘fairness’ and ‘good judgment’ were spoken of consistently.

MODESTY

Above all else, George was an honest and modest person to the point of naivety. Her last conversations with Rusbridger were characterised by this sense of herself, “I can’t imagine too many people will turn up (at the memorial)” she said.

The swell of people who arrived at the service denied any truth to this statement and learned of a highly motivated woman who drew strength from a work ethic borrowed from her novelist/screen writer husband Ronan Bennett, “Dry your eyes and do your bird (bird translates as time/work).” These words are fitting inspiration to hacks, as George’s legacy is left to journalists ready to pursue what they believe in.

This article was published by Wannabe Hacks on Monday 3rd March 2014.

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HOW CAN NEW MEDIA HELP WANNABES SHAPE LOCAL STORIES?

I had never really considered Twitter to be of particular importance in developing my craft as a journalist, until the day a respected London freelancer sent me a direct message on the micro-blogging site.

I had been blogging on WordPress for the past seven months and after a series of failed pitches to local newspapers in Belfast, I decided to turn my attention to national print outlets. After reading that boxer Carl Frampton was holding a press conference open to the public at the Europa Hotel (for his world title eliminator bout with Jeremi Parodi), I went along to the spectacle knowing that national media would be interested in the story. I took a note of the Guardian reporter’s name and detailed the press conference (including a preview of the fight) in a blog post.

The idea was to pass the story on to the freelancer and ask of his advice on how to make a better go of gaining a byline in a national. After reading his post-fight report, I tweeted my story to him. He wrote back telling me to “keep up the good work”. Some more correspondence on Twitter followed and in early January he asked if I would like to contribute to The Irish Times’ Schools Rugby supplement.

I took up the opportunity and wrote a preview of the competition, interviewed two prominent coaches and learned of the prospects of 24 competing schools, communicating with each one directly. The Irish Times published the piece complete with my byline.

Getting noticed this way may seem fortunate or unlikely but I can say with confidence that what grabbed the attention of my freelancing contact was the local angle I had originally taken with Frampton. Local news is a commodity that wannabes can readily use to their advantage. Using Twitter to establish contacts and share stories is not a guaranteed way to gain local coverage but it can be successful.

Having a product you are proud of like a blog is one way to get noticed, but lose the fear of having to be an expert to succeed with local pitches. Being clear about your story and its angle is what will separate an editor from running your story or not.  If you do get the opportunity to write, be meticulous with facts and sources. I may cringe now at my original handwritten proforma and countless tick-boxes for the Schools Rugby supplement, but it was a simple attempt to ensure I got each and every detail right.

Upon completion of my story, The Irish Times sports editor asked that I cover future stories. It feels good to be asked for once, not doing the asking!

To turn local pitches into winning ones, email press offices to snuff out possibilities of interviews with local organisations, from public officials to voluntary charity workers. Shoot emails off to local start-ups and ask them for their latest news. Get absorbed in your local news and ask yourself what is missing from the standard angles that the paper is taking. Constantly think about what is new, and not just in terms of stories, but media opportunities near you. Found a new political publication in the area? Send them a short bio and a pitch or two.

There is no getting around having to work for free sometimes, but when you manage to get the byline you want, firing off an invoice instead of a pitch will make it all worthwhile.

This article was published by Wannabe Hacks on Monday 17th February 2014.

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Máirtín Ó Muilleoir: new media new Belfast

Since taking up his high profile role in the City Hall, lord mayor of Belfast Máirtín Ó Muilleoir has been at the forefront of a campaign to publicise the achievements of his city’s people. It’s all good stuff, too. From his latest make over, complete with dyed purple and green hair for Belfast children’s festival, to celebrating the trends of local fashion designers and art dealers, Ó Muilleoir has found an embracing audience from which to spread native charm. Say it right and chances are the lord mayor will retweet your every word. Such is his inclination to include all positive vibes arriving to his Twitter account @NewBelfast, that neither nationalist nor unionist communities could ever feel discriminated against by way of Twitter equality. Diverse interests of ethnic minorities to business alignments between Ireland and America are championed just as extensively.

Ó Muilleoir’s effective social media campaign comes at a time when local politicians continue to lose face by dithering on the issues of flags, parades and the past. While they court controversy, his modern approach to the post peace process era, ensures he steers clear of Stormont’s madding crowd. Yet he was not as fortunate to avoid angry crowds at Woodvale Park in August where his presence was greeted with scenes of public disorder by loyalists. Despite the assistance of his minders and a police entourage, Ó Muilleoir was harangued and attacked whilst officially opening the park. History came in November when his attendance at the City Hall commemoration of British war dead made him the first Sinn Fein Mayor to do so.

But what happens to those who seek to chronicle these events and his time in office? Wanting to engage with Máirtín Ó Muilleoir directly to discuss any of the above presents notable obstacles, not least his busy schedule. Enquires made to Belfast city council press office must include the series of questions intended for discussion prior to permission for interview being granted. Any questions that have a direct or indirect association with Sinn Fein mean the process shifts to their press representatives.

In preparation for publication of January’s edition Off the Record went through this process during December only to be declined an interview. On the record, Ó Muilleoir has been strong to point out that he will continue to defy further threats to his safety to further the interests of public office, a man bent on championing people and political issues but sees fit to talk with and about them, on his terms or not at all. It is disappointing to think Sinn Fein are insistent upon Ó Muilleoir being kept from the spotlight where party matters are concerned. If bringing the 1916 Irish proclamation of independence into office at City Hall is not a political statement or symbolic of Ó Muilleoir’s republicanism then we can all assume politics is dead. Is it reasonable to ask that he speak about this? Or gauge his thoughts on the stumbling blocks that effected the Haass talks? How about the future? Will he continue to concentrate on his role with the Belfast media group and extend his entrepreneurial profile after leaving office in June? Or the past? Is he comfortable with the characterisation of him being in the political wilderness? For now, those answers can only be speculated on. Like much else at the City Hall. Flag or no flag.

This article was published by Off The Record NI on Monday 3rd February 2014.

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Battle for Provincial Honours

If expectation runs to form, Methodist College Belfast and Sullivan Upper will meet on St Patrick’s day

One day last November marked an ugly blemish on Sullivan Upper’s otherwise exemplary set of results this season.

The occasion saw old rival Methodist College Belfast win by 29-14 and if expectation runs to form, these two will return to battle for provincial honours at Ravenhill on St Patrick’s day.

Throughout the Holywood school no less than 15 players have been blooded at underage level for Ulster. Youth development under the watchful eye of former Irish international Willie Anderson and addition of first XV manager Stephen Finlay has inspired a belief in those who won the medallion shield last year that they can enjoy victory once more. Only three members of that side have moved beyond second-level education. Being able to call upon such a wealth of experience and winning mentality will be considered a fearsome combination unmatched by most.

Reasonably then, Finlay views the competition as a “once in a blue moon” opportunity for his charges. He concedes understandable anxiety about Methody’s physicality but producing a fast open style has proven successful against Nick Wells’ team. So successful was the second half November performance that it left the Ulster schools cup holders fortunate to register a converted try.

Preparations of both squads will have included tours of Portugal before entering the draw in February – a worthwhile reminder perhaps that these two gladiatorial groups can’t be separated by their robust training routines.

With Wells at the helm, his defending champions are not to be written off. He insists on a professional approach and will deliver a typically stirring “there is no tomorrow” mantra to all in Methody colours when the cup campaign begins.

Keen to point out that recent success has been achieved in spite of tough draws.

“We are used to going away from home and playing the top seeds year in year out. We did it last year starting with Campbell [College] and did it with RS Armagh when they were seeded top.”

Latter stages of the competition aside, first round highlights saw Omagh Academy progress after edging out Tyrone derby opponents RS Dungannon 20-14.

Grosvenor Grammar had Zac Smith to thank for a comfortable win over Cambridge House, after he scored a hat-trick of tries. Their efforts have been awarded with a home tie against an inconsistent Bangor Grammar.

Should Jason Morgan’s side wish to avoid an upset, inside centre Ross McCloskey will want to improve on his impressive goal scoring record. The Ulster development squad player has looked a promising prospect on his way to tallying over 150 points this season.

While Campbell College have had by their very high standards a poor year, it will be no surprise if alongside usual suspects RBAI and RS Armagh they mount a challenge that disregards season long disappointment. After all, previous performances do not matter when cup glory is at stake.

This article was published in The Irish Times on Wednesday 22nd January 2014

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The struggle to eulogise Mandela’s death

You wouldn’t wish Nelson Mandela died everyday. Least of all it would mean that the task of unpicking his achievements rests with politicians. How uneasy it has looked for David Cameron and George Osbourne to speak sympathetically about South Africa’s first black president. Their eulogies have added to the considered and reflective tributes that continue to feature across broadcast media this week. At his address to the British public on Thursday night, Cameron talked of “A man who suffered so much for freedom and justice,” an acknowledgement of Mandela ending apartheid and uniting his country after a bloody racial hegemony.

Few can imagine the type of personal sacrifice required to commit to a struggle that once vilified racial equality and only absolves past indiscretions after 27 years of incarceration. That select group will always be one for whom David Cameron is unlikely to chair. Believe who you will about his fact finding trip to South Africa in 1989, but the very fact that he has since apologised for his parties mistakes with the ANC, is a sure summation that he and much of his party were on the wrong side of the struggle.

The historical significance of Mandela‘s life is quickly being turned into a posthumous narrative that sees him as the greatest politician of the 20th century. George Osbourne cuts a figure far removed from struggle of any kind and further down the list of competent politicians in the 21st century. His latest financial predictions eschew the idea that financial inequality in Britain remains a growing problem. It is painfully unjust that the human story that touches hearts and minds across the world is being interrupted by those (like Osbourne) who continue to leave them weak and narrow. With character and charm, Mandela led his people to freedom and guiding them on a course to their imperfect but important democracy, was an unforgiving personal journey. In the weeks ahead those at Whitehall won’t be asking themselves what would Nelson do?  but they would do well to try and act as though their ‘struggles’ were planned by such a thought.

In truth, conservatives have gained nothing from sticking to a tight script of praise and admiration for a man they once viewed as a criminal. Their sentiments are not viewed sincerely and never will be. That is the cost of failing to shed light on controversial excursions to apartheid South Africa, an indictment of democracy only outdone by Mr. Osbourne losing sight of his nation’s finances. The political rifts and personal conflicts that Mandela had with Britain prior to a post-colonial South Africa are disappearing from modern memory. Shame on those who take to television and radio to spin a story of grief as a personal headline, when it is only an aside to cover themselves from a story of wrongdoing.

On the other side of the Atlantic, president Obama made a legitimate claim to being inspired by Mandela when he spoke of attending his first anti-apartheid protest. Though it is difficult to suggest a direct cause and effect model is responsible for a black South African president in 1994 and a black American president in 2008, there can be little doubt that history will ordain it so. With ever increasing regularity it is the struggle with his own conscience that Obama must master before he can ever be considered worthy of mention in conversations of life changing elder statesmen.

This article was published by Roobla online on Monday 9th December 2013. 

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