February 12, 2016

#NorthernIreland2016 Interview Series - Michael Hamilton Coulter McDowell

Michael Hamilton Coulter McDowell is 64. His early childhood was spent on the Holywood Road, East Belfast, then to adulthood he lived on the upper Ormeau Road at Rosetta, South Belfast. 

Michael went to school at Rosetta Primary, then onwards to Methodist College Belfast and Trinity College, Dublin. He worked for the Belfast Telegraph and the BBC, then moving to America became a Harvard Fellow and Lecturer. Michael is now a Senior Fellow of Washington DC/New York international think-tank. Previously Michael worked in Toronto, Canada for over seven years with The Globe and Mail national newspaper of Canada. He also worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) mainly as senior foreign affairs producer/editorial executive in Washington, till 1997. Back to international affairs world, think-tanks, foundations, World Bank, etc. Active progressive Episcopalian. University advisory board and non-profit board member. Passion: improving race relations.
Michael describes himself as Northern Irish first, and British and Irish second and third, "but not always in that order."

Brian John Spencer: "When did you first learn about the Easter Rising of 1916? Do the men, the act or the stated ideals in the proclamation mean anything to you?" Michael HC McDowell: 
"I suppose late in primary school and through my father, who was well read, talking about it. I had a rather sunny benign view of the rising and the IRA as "heroes" of a different Irish tribe, and remember hearing exciting pro-Old-IRA songs in the late 60s/early 70s on holidays in the R of I in Achill Island, etc, in pubs. It was a foolish uninformed and "romantic" view. I have vastly changed my mind from my late teens onwards and as an undergraduate at TCD and active in the college Labour club. I was a teenage member of the truly non-sectarian Northern Ireland Labour Party, which had support from the Protestant AND Catholic communities almost in proportion to their representation in the overall electorate. I was very proud to be a member but it was destroyed then the Troubles broke out and people voted tribally. I was also very active in the Irish Association for Cultural, Economic and Social Relations, which was a unique gathering and discussion forum for both Northerners and Southerners."
BJS: "When did you first learn about the Battle of the Somme?" MHCM:
"My father told me that his first striking memory as a young boy was of seeing weeping women, as telegrams came in to his East Belfast street informing them of the deaths of loved ones at the battle."
BJS: "Does this act, the men and their determination to show their loyalty to Britain mean anything to you?" MHCM:
"Yes, but I deplore the slaughter. I do maintain the view that hegemony by Wilhelmine Germany would have been a disaster for Europe and would have led to war with Britain at some point. The early German treatment of civilians in Belgium and France was appalling and almost as bad as the atrocities under the Nazis in some places. But the leadership among the British generals was mediocre and led to needless loss of lives on a huge scale."
BJS: "As a (British/Irish/Northern Irish*) person, is the 1916 Rising important to you and your sense of identity and sense of belonging on this island?" MHCM:
"As a Northern Irish (British and Irish second only) person I regard the rising now as an UNdemocratic UNsupported act by a fanatic few. I have revised my view of Connolly "socialism" and regard it as a lethal mixture of physical force nationalism and socialism and without major popular support. And the clearly unbalanced Pearse’s blood sacrifice language horrified me. Independence was coming to Ireland -- but the North would never have accepted inclusion in a Southern state; that view is nonsensical -- and only the brutally stupid actions of the executions by the military pushed the electorate to sympathise with the 1916 group AFTER the fact. I see no contradiction whatsoever in being Northern Irish (I don't like the term Ulsterman), Irish and British. Conor Cruise O’Brien’s book State of Ireland, published in 1972 was an epiphany to me; here was a Southerner who understood Northern Prods and despised the crypto fascism of the Provisionals."
BJS: "As a (British/Irish/Northern Irish*) person, is the Somme offensive important to you and your sense of identity and sense of belonging on this island?" MHCM:
"See above."
BJS: "Will you be commemorating or celebrating either of these two events in April and July of this year respectively?" MHCM:
"No. I am sick of “commemorations” and the politics of the last atrocity."
BJS: "Are you happy with the series of commemorative events put on by the Irish State? And what do you think of Arlene Foster's take on the events of Easter 1916 (she has refused to attend any commemorations)?" MHCM:
"I am disappointed that the R of I Government has felt it had to almost match SF in these commemorations. I note too that the Irish Army is heavily front and centre, and while I understand the wish to outflank the illegal IRA "army" (not) I find the idea of soldiers going to give talks to schools pretty offensive. Keep them out of it. I don’t see a reason for Arlene Foster to feel compelled to attend, but then she is not someone who crosses any political divide but a political opportunist who cynically betrayed her party leader and party by crossing to the deeply bigoted DUP. She may be a smart lawyer but she is intellectually shallow like all the DUP “leaders.” The GFA was backed by a majority (OK, barely) in the Prod community and she was against it and she was a young politician, not an older one. We look for progress among the young, and she was never a progressive on any front."
BJS: "As a person on (or from) the island are you happy with the where we are now at in terms of culture, cosmopolitanism and broad-mindedness?" MHCM:
"No, I want to see same-sex marriage in NI, abortion on demand under GB law, a really major push for integrated education (it is a disgrace that it is about 6 per cent still) and TRUE power sharing, not cynical power carving up, and agreement on the past and the future and if the latter is not agreed then we should draw a line under this for the paramilitaries and the state. NI is still a pretty bigoted and prejudiced place on multiple fronts, including against immigrants, who are good workers and not a drain on the economy. I couldn’t in good conscience vote for the DUP, or possibly the UUP either (maybe an exception or two), definitely not SF, and possibly not the SDLP (again with an exception of two). All are tribal parties; I would vote Alliance by default. But I wish there was a left of centre non-tribal party."
BJS: "What are your hopes for the future of this divided province and island?" MHCM:
"I would like to see positive relationships between N and S but also between West and East. Gerry Adams, et al, have no interest in W-E relations at all, only N-S, but we have strong links with Scotland and Britain and these need to be nurtured. If there ever was a so-called “united” Ireland, I would want to see a level playing friend where the Irish tricolor would be replaced by a flag acceptable to Northern Protestants, the dropping of the Soldiers Song, the removal of Irish as the “first official language” of the state, integrated education in the North, no church powers over schools in the public sector and limited control in the private sector. In addition, under a “united” Ireland there would be no good argument against Ireland being a member of the Commonwealth and that would be another safeguard of Northern Protestants’ cultural connection with Britain. 
My father served in an Irish regiment in WW2 in North Africa and Italy alongside Southerners who he loved. The latter could only come to commemorations of their WW2 service in the North then, and Dad welcomed them but was saddened they were shunned so much in their own country. Dad wore shamrock on St. Patrick’s Day. That kind of tolerant tradition has largely vanished in the majority community thanks to the absolutely sectarian and horrific IRA murder campaign. Fighting Hitler was a totally honourable decision, in marked contrast to the 1930s/1940s IRA leadership which sought Germany’s victory (as in WW1, with the Casement gun running etc.). Irish nationalists, especially in the South, had, until recently, no understanding of unionists and indeed contempt for them, largely on the basis of archbigot Paisley’s domination in the media and unionists in general had no understanding of the South and Irish nationalists. John Hume was seen by nationalists and Irish Americans as crossing a sectarian divide in the North. He did not; he was a brilliant messianic leader of his own tribe, and totally opposed to integrated education. He got rid of the social democrats in the SDLP like Gerry Fitt, and Paddy Devlin – to me Hume was a Christian democrat. Irish nationalist icons like Parnell and O’Connell and Casement (even if he was from the North) had no affinity or understanding of Northern Protestants, which was utterly unrealistic and bizarre. Similarly, the DUP is not really a unionist party but a deeply conservative Northern Ireland nationalist party above all with narrow and bigoted views not just against the other community but on social issues which are the law of the land in the Britain them claim to treasure."

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