Belfast Telegraph

The road from Bing to bling ...

By Lindy McDowell

Deck the halls with boughs of lolly, tra la la la, la la la. Tis the season for a jolly, tra la la la, la la la. Not just a festive anthem - but the theme song possibly for the NIO. As this paper revealed this week, spending chez Hillsborough Castle went through the roof on tinsel and mince pies last year. A rise of 9000% on the previous five years. Yes. You read that right - 9000%.

I didn't even think there was such a percent.

To spell this out, in the year 2002/2003 when Paul Murphy was in change of the baubles and mistletoe, the spending was under £500. However, after the string of fairy lights had been handed over to Peter Hain the bill for festive cheer in 2006 shot up to over £37,000. Which is a hell of a lot of tinsel in anybody's terms. True it may not be considered a massive sum of money in the grand scale of government budgetary considerations. But if you are a pensioner trying to scrape by on a tenth of that per annum you might not see it as quite so insignificant. No wonder that over on the Slugger O'Toole website they're now referring to the NIO as the NI Ho Ho Ho.

So what on earth did they spend it on? I have a vision of the transformation of Hillsborough Castle from the time of modest Mr Murphy when it would presumably have been bedecked with traditional holly and wreaths. Back then there would have been a nice tree with a sprinkling of lights and a string or two of glittery paper decorations. In the background perhaps a CD of Bing Crosby crooning White Christmas. Maybe even, the odd balloon here and there. (And, no, I'm not just referring to local political visitors.)

And then Christmas 2006. The year of the NIO went from Bing to bling.

Where did the money go? In my vision I see Hillsborough Castle done up like one of those houses that you see in the papers where the neighbours are all complaining because it's constantly lit up like a power station.

There are giant inflatable lit-up Santas, snowmen, full size reindeers (the entire squad), elves, fairies and piped Christmas music. There are strobe lights up the path, icicle lighting around the roof, a tree so big it appears to have been a present from the people of Norway and, to cap it all off, a cheery Santa eternally climbing an electronic ladder up and down the chimney.

OK, so maybe it never happened like that. But this only leads us back to that question - what on earth DID they spend the money on then?

I know Mr Hain was very keen on promoting the notion of peace and goodwill in Northern Ireland.

But did it really need illumination to this extent?

I'm Browned off at Basra

From Gordon Brown to the people of Iraq this Christmas - the gift of Basra. That's the way Team Labour would like us to think of it anyway. Except, let's not kid ourselves, this is not a post-modern miracle of Christmas. This is not O Little Town of Bethlehem.

A giveaway is the fact that the handover ceremony had to be held in the heavily fortified British Army sector. And even there, all the television journalists were still wearing flak jackets as they presenters their reports. Always a pointer that.

In Basra the fighting and the killing continues. What television calls the militias - what we would call paramilitaries or just plain old terrorists and gangsters - still wreak mayhem.

The British troops sent there by Tony Blair did the business. But as events have shown, the New Labour government that deployed them had no real notion of strategy. More shamefully still they displayed little sense of respect and gratitude for the brave men and women they sent to do their dirty work.

The withdrawal from Basra can be termed many things - not least a comfort for the families of British soldiers.

One thing Gordon can't call it though. A victory.

Omagh will eat away at guilty for ever too

In the immediate aftermath of this week's Omagh case the feeling among the families and among those who support them was understandably of terrible disappointment and anger.

In some reports there was also talk that this was the end - that those who carried out that atrocity that day will never be brought to justice now.

Never is a long time.

The families' civil action has yet to be heard.

This one is not over till it's over.

And Omagh will never be over, of course, for the hundreds who were left bereaved and injured in the town that day.

But if grief lasts forever, so too does guilt. The guilt not only of those who conspired or planted the bomb - but of those who know something about it and have said nothing. What kind of so-called human beings are they?

Terrorist organisations have always been quick to claim responsibility for their respective campaigns. But oddly not so quick to take "credit" for the specifics.

Can you blame them?

In their heart of hearts the people who bombed Omagh know that what they did was perverted, depraved, inhumane, evil.

They will carry that to their graves. And so will their families after them.

To use old-fashioned terminology they have the mark of Cain upon them. As imperceptible maybe, as a speck of low copy DNA. But they know themselves it is there.

Maybe it's foolish to continue to hope that some day the truth about those people who bombed Omagh will emerge. But that is still a distinct possibility.

Those who massacred men, women and children and those who later sheltered them, live with that knowledge.

Let's hope they are haunted by it.

Omagh isn't over yet.

Bride shows her new man who's the Boss

Story of the week?

Has to be the one about the bride and groom who cut short their wedding reception so that both of them, still dressed in their wedding finery, could attend the Bruce Springsteen concert. It's a new take on that jokey old line of advice to newlyweds: "Start as you mean to go on. Show them who's the Boss."

Last word ... I want to wish you all a Happy Christmas. but I know that not everybody reading this will have one. There are some who will be lonely this Christmas, some aching for a loved one who won't be there to share it with them. My own brother died earlier this year. It was sudden and shocking and he was far too young. This Christmas for my family will be overshadowed by his loss. That doesn't mean we won't do the traditional things - put the turkey on, have friends round, mark the passing of another year. Just that it won't ever be the same again. Hope that whatever your circumstances, your Christmas will be a good one. A great one, even. Happy Christmas!

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph