Friday 27 March 2009

Sidegate School- "Star of the Week"

Only home for a weekend before departing for Afghanistan, but it was nice to be able to fit in a visit to my local school- Sidegate Primary.

I love going to visit the school as the children always seem so full of life and though one of the biggest primary school's in Suffolk it still manages to have a homely feel to it.

Today I was there to see their weekly assembly, where a number of pupils received certificates for achievements over the last week. Three lads were given certificates for playing the 'giant' in the school production of 'Jack and the Beanstalk'. Others got certificates for maths, homework and for just being helpful.

At the end of the assembly, I was presented with my certificate, as the Headteacher- Andrew Waterman decided I could also be a 'Star of the Week'.

It did give me the chance to tell the pupils of the good work that the British army is doing in Afghanistan, and how I felt it was important that children in that country, whether boy or girl should get the chance of an education. Something that we take for granted over here in the UK.

I will take my certificate with me and it will hold pride of place in my bedspace in the Sangin District Centre in Helmand.

Thank you Sidegate.

Saturday 21 March 2009

Football goes to the dogs!

Today I went with a friend of mine too see Lisburn Distillery play Coleraine in the Irish Football League. The first time I had been to an Irish game since 1996. Now for any of you bored by the millionaire clubs of the Premier League or the same boring midweek Champions League games - this is the place to come and watch your football. Similar to the English Non-League scene, crowds are slightly higher but the football is if similar standard. The Irish grounds are like a flashback to the early 70;s and like non league football, you always seem to find yourself ending up in the social club!
My friend is a Coleraine fan so that is why we ended up in Lisburn. Actually it wasn't Lisburn, that is the club name but the ground is closer to West Belfast than Lisburn city centre. the ground is out in the country - on the outskirts of Belfast. the ground is also the home of greyhounds, and by the state of the racetrack restaurant, the dogs are doing better finacially than the football. They even have different names for their shared stadium, the football club calling the ground- New Grosvenor Stadium whilst the Greyhound fraternity use the Drumbo Park name. So if you want to pay £9 to see a game rather than £29 and be allowed to have a beer with rival fans in the social club, get yourself across to Belfast and get your fix of football with a 1970's feel.

Monday 16 March 2009

The Province is full of visual reminders – from all sides of the troubles

The Province is full of visual reminders – from all sides of the troubles. With the tragic events unfolding last week in Ireland and my return to the province, I have been drawn to any news coverage of the recent atrocities. Whilst doing this I read in Slugger O’Toole's excellent blog that Crumlin Road Gaol was on fire. I then felt a sudden sadness as I had spent some considerable time both working from the jail and from the army camp behind it. On further investigation I found out it was the courthouse not the jail that had caught fire- arson is believed to be the cause, vandalism rather than some politically motivated act.
But the fear that the jail had been burnt down, did make me think about that where ever you go in Northern Ireland you have reminders of the troubles. But what can we do to these buildings and places that are reminders of the troubles? Simple solution- bulldoze them all! But some are buildings that have a far longer history than just being reminders of the troubles. Sir Charles Lanyon who also built Belfast Castle and Queens University built the Crumlin Road Courthouse.
It was to become a luxury boutique hotel- but many wanted it be kept as reminder of the troubles.
But the trouble is that there are very few places that both Loyalist and Republican sides can agree on that they want keeping. The Maze Prison being one example, the Government would like to see it as a home to a new national sports stadium but the Republican side would like part of the prison turned into a museum. Both side’s prisoners were kept in the Maze but it is the Republicans who hold it as a ‘holy’ place –thanks to the 1981 hunger strike.
One thing that bots sides can agree on is the keeping of the street murals. You can now take a bus ride of the Falls Road and the Shankhill, to see examples of this political/troubles inspired art.
But there are more than two sides involved here – not just the Republican/Nationalist and Loyalist sides, what about the soldiers and those who had no part in the troubles.
How many soldiers would like to see the observation Post on the top of Divis Flats re- built, as a military museum? Only joking but for many of my friends the now long gone North Howard Street Mill and Fort Whiterock in West Belfast are buildings and locations that they will never forget.
Then we have the Observation Towers now torn down in South Armagh and the famous Baruki Observation Post in Crossmaglen.

And if more police stations are knocked down, should part of the fences and walls with the British Army cap badges and dates of tours be kept- just as the murals in Belfast and the Free Derry wall are now accepted visual reminders of Ulster’s recent troubled times.I would like to see next to Crossmaglen GAA field the wall left which had the slogan – “Welcome to XMG” and the smiley face, for me that is as much part of my history as the Free Derry wall is to Martin McGuinness.

Friday 13 March 2009

Not going back to the "Bad old days"

My return to the Army has seen me return to Northern Ireland after a 11 year absence, and the change to Belfast and the remainder of the province in that time is very noticeable and the biggest surprise to me as an ex soldier was the pace of that change.

Anywhere you went in Northern Ireland and anyone you spoke to could not see a return to the " Bad old days".

You can then imagine how surprised and shocked most people over here are by the events of the last week. Rumours of activity by dissident republicans has never gone away and over the last few weeks that talk had increased and the events of the last week can see that that talk was justifiable.

But will the events of the last 6 days see us slip back into that endless daily story of terrorist atrocities. I for one do not believe so, if anything the events since the murder of the policeman have shown that the dissidents are now entering the 'Last chance saloon'. The wave of demonstrations all over Ireland has certainly not only shown the world that the people of Ireland do not want to see a return to the troubles but it has also shown Republican politicians especially those in Sinn Fein that there can be no return to the 'Long War'.

My Regiment lost a large number of soldiers in the conflict, all murdered by the IRA, not only in Ulster as we also saw our band callously blown up in London and because of that it is hard for many of my former comrades to see the likes of Adams and McGuinness as elected leaders of Northern Ireland . I am sure that there are many in Ulster (and not only protestants) who feel the same. But in the end it is the sight of Peter Robinson and McGuinness sitting together in Stormont and the likes of Alex Maskey at the funeral today and Tom Hartley as the Sinn Fein Lord Mayor of Belfast attending the peace march during the week that gives us hope.

It does show that the leaders of Sinn Fein see that peace is the only answer and that they also do not want to see a return to the "Bad old days".

But though the majority of people in both the North and the South of Ireland want to see the peace kept, the dissidents have a larger support than many would want us to believe, they can call on many ex PIRA members who have vast terrorist experience and they also have the support of many other nationalists in areas such as South Armagh and Fermanagh, even in Derry and West Belfast - the political homes of McGuinness and Adams there will be support for the 'Real' IRA but it will be test for Sinn Fein leaders if they can keep that support suppressed and stop other ex PIRA members 'jumping ship'.

But I hope that they can achieve that as I would hate to see Ireland return to what is was like at the end of the 20th Century.

Thursday 5 March 2009

Miners strike- 25 years ago but still remembered - even in Ipswich

Last night on the BBC, 'One Show' saw the first of what will be Summer of features about the miners strike of 1984. The piece last night featured Roy Hattersley and was a good short piece that featured ex miners and an ex policemen who had been a miner before he joined the force. though 25 years has passed it is obvious from the film that the strike is far from being forgotten and in some area's- South Yorkshire - for one, there still remains bitterness. I do have a worry that many of the articles and programmes over the Summer will portray the strike in more romantic terms. A sort of 'Billy Elliot' view.

I believe the miners were right to strike and what has happened to the coal industry since has proved they were right but they were badly led by Arthur in what became a Scargill v Thatcher battle and that took away the focus from the real suffering of the miners and their families.

Of course some good came out of the strike and the efforts of the wives and mothers introduced a number of females to the Labour movement.

In Ipswich, I remember miners coming to collect money in buckets and my parents helping them on the Cornhill and putting up a number of strikers in our house. I was home a lot of that summer as I was on extended sick leave from the Army after badly breaking my leg, what I can dispel is the urban myth that soldiers helped on the picket line, I have never found any soldier who was involved. In the military hospital we did have a number of policemen as it was thought they may get a hard time from NHS staff if they went to a normal hospital.

I also remember the music of that era, Paul Weller and Billy Bragg remain my favourites from musicians who got behind the miners and who would eventually become 'Red Wedge'.

This link, takes you to a BBC site, that features a slide show of photographs from the strike with a musical backdrop featuring both Weller and Bragg. I hope we do see a number of well made programmes about the strike but let us also look at how some communities have recovered and also how some are still suffering.

Sunday 1 March 2009

Ipswich 'Not in the Swim'

The Tories with their Lib Dem lapdogs have decided they will not take up the Labour Govt offer of a grant towards fee swimming for our senior citizens and also to be included in the £140 million investment in swimming that will include the upgrading of local swimming pools.
The Tories state that the Ipswich Council tax player will be left to foot the bill, strange then that the other Tory led District Councils in Suffolk have all quickly joined the Govt scheme.
Free swimming will also soon be offered to Under 16’s- part of the 2012 Olympic legacy, this will also help with improving the health of all our population, but again in Ipswich our youngsters will not be included. So for our senior citizens it will be jump on a free bus (courtesy of a Labour Govt) to Felixstowe and there be able to have a free swim.
But this is only just one example of the portfolio holder for leisure in Ipswich being “out of her depth” pun defiantly implied!
We have had the promise of a further Heritage Grant for Holywells Park – not gained and all sort of other pie in the sky promises- Art Gallery outside Christchurch Mansion?
But it is the sport side that she does seem to (with her Tory colleagues) have no clear plan. They came into power promising to assist with the re-opening of the Broomhill Lido and then there was talk of a 50M pool on the Portman Road car park and away from swimming we are in line for an outdoor cycle velodrome- all I would say to you sports enthusiasts – don’t hold your breath!
All this came to me attention today as I opened one of my birthday presents, a book called “Great Lengths” by Dr Ian Gordon and Simon Inglis, it is one of a number of books from English Heritage in a series called ‘Played in Britain’. I am a bit of a sports heritage and sports stadia spotter so anything like this appeal’s to me. The beauty of these books is that they also show the link between sport and social history.

The new book is about indoor swimming pools and includes pages on both Fore Street swimming pool and St Matthews Pool (now a social club). I actually learnt to swim at Fore Street so it holds special memories for me and I would hate to see it close. But there should also be a balance between keeping old facilities open (because of sentimental reasons or because the building is listed) and offering sporting facilities to the whole population, and even then there you have another consideration to be looked at the facilities needed to produce top level athletes and the facilities needed for the general public. In swimming this is the argument between fun pools, 25/50M pools and open air lidos. Swimming again has the added factor of public safety and it should be an achievable target that by the age of 11 all children can at least swim 25M.
Coming back to Judy Terry and the Tories- we have no plan, it is time we had a joined up programme for the provision of swimming in Ipswich, the future of Broomhill, Fore Street and Crown Pools needs to be decided on once and for all. In my view Crown Street needs money spent on it urgently (pity we did not get put in for that Govt money!!) and Fore Street has a future, with its proximity to University Campus Suffolk, it should be able to increase its use and the future of Broomhill needs to be decided on, one way or the other. We can’t just leave it as it is, costing money on security and actually year by year with the indecision making it harder and far most costly to ever consider re-opening it.
Back to the book and reading about Fore street, one of the three Ipswich residents who put their financial backing into the opening of the pool was Felix Cobbold, a lifelong Liberal who thought that the baths should be classless, a pity our present day Liberals are more happy to support the Tories who would rather see private sports clubs- where high membership fees would be required.
For History buffs, Fore Street opened in 1894, St Matthews was open from 1922-1984, Pipers Vale open pool 1937-1979 and Broomhill was open from 1938-2002.
If you would wish to purchase the book, visit the ‘Played in Britain’ website here.