When Gerry met Jesus

The Sinn Fein president showed he lacked biblical wisdom just when it could have been of benefit.

Channel 4 is reported to be braced for a ritualistic public stoning over its decision to screen a documentary about Gerry Adams's own personal Jesus, to be broadcast this weekend. In fact, the first stones were cast at the station's big glass house in Horseferry Road, London, as soon as the news emerged, shortly before Christmas, that the man who has fronted the Irish republican cause for over a quarter of a century was heading off to the Holy Land to shoot his film.

Sinn Fein-IRA's dramatic rebranding as "Gerry and the Peacemakers" was never going to soften the self-righteous scribes who update the modern bible of Middle England every day. There was an almighty wail from the Daily Mail about how Adams was going to meet victims of the Troubles and talk about repentance and forgiveness. They don't do soppy notions like personal redemption at Northcliffe House. (Which is located in -- of all places -- London's Derry Street!)

This weekend, viewers across these islands will find out what all the fuss was about when the latest parchment of Channel 4's current Sunday-night God-slot offering, The Bible: a History, is aired. The series kicked off with Howard Jacobson on Genesis and then gave us Rageh Omaar on Abraham and Ann Widdecombe on the Ten Commandments. Gerry got Jesus.

 

Shinners' spin

But does he really get Jesus? Does Adams truly understand why this strange street preacher steadfastly rejected the path of political violence in the face of imperial atrocities? His answer: "Sometimes I was in tune with the Jesus message and sometimes not . . . I'm not a pacifist and I don't believe that non-violent protest would have got justice in Ireland."

Trailing the show on his personal blog, the Sinn Fein president wrote:

If Jesus had been Irish what would he have done? He too lived in an occupied country. There were a number of uprisings before, during and after his life. The desire of the Jewish people to be free of imperial rule was very strong. Indeed, many of them were waiting for a Messiah to liberate them and to bring back the Kingdom of David. Did any of them see Jesus as a liberator? Is this what the Romans feared?

If Jesus had been Irish . . . What a tragedy that that crucial hypothesis wasn't contemplated seriously before a terrible beauty was born in Dublin's General Post Office in 1916, or before a small band of zealots eschewed the nascent civil rights movement and plunged into their foolish and futile "armed struggle" against the British imperial state.

If you want to see through the Shinners' spin and understand what a whole sorry waste of time -- and thousands of lives -- their struggle was, read Henry McDonald's Gunsmoke and Mirrors: How Sinn Fein Dress up Defeat as Victory.

The year 1916 was dripping in Christian symbolism. The timing of the Easter Rising (still an event of totemic significance for northern nationalists) was anything but accidental.

This was insurrection as Resurrection. Patrick Pearse spoke of blood sacrifice and Michael Collins even subsequently called his crack assassination squad the "Twelve Apostles". Disappointingly, that vital historic dimension doesn't feature at all in the documentary that Channel 4 will screen on Sunday.

 

"Give us Barabbas!"

The film does contain a bit about Barabbas, who was banged up in a Jerusalem prison for taking part in an insurrection against the same city's ruling authorities -- and for murder.

"From someone else's viewpoint, he might well have been a freedom fighter," muses Adams, clad in a keffiyeh to demonstrate his solidarity with the Palestinians. No surprise there. Faced with the very same choice as Pontius Pilate put to the multitude in Jerusalem -- Jesus or Barabbas? -- generations of Irish republican zealots (what Joyce would have called the "Rabblement") have yelled back: "Give us Barabbas!"

They've done so unwittingly, for sure. As Adams acknowledges, an Irish Catholic upbringing doesn't tend to encourage critical interrogation of the gospels. Yet, in contrast to a growing number of his compatriots, the Sinn Fein leader still describes himself as "an Irish Catholic, despite all the let-downs and scandals that the Church has become embroiled in".

Paedophilia scandals now also engulf the Adams family. As Gerry was heading off to the Holy Land to shoot his film on Jesus, the sensational news broke back in Belfast that his brother Liam was on the run in the Republic after being charged with sexually abusing one of his daughters throughout her childhood. According to the victim, the Sinn Fein president failed to protect her.

Adams repudiated his niece's allegations straight away in a local UTV documentary, screened in Ulster in December, and has since spoken in some detail on Dublin's leading chat show about the traumatic impact of the revelations on his whole family and what he perceives as the cruel treatment of the Adamses by elements of the press. (One leading local satirist now delights in lampooning the "Perversional IRA").

The Channel 4 film sadly misses out on this fascinating angle, which surely demonstrates how abuses of power and cruel domination are sins committed not only by occupying imperial armies.

 

Moment of insight

Adams's audiovisual essay should have been about Judas as well as Jesus, because he had a fascinating take on the most infamous act of betrayal in human history but it ended up on the cutting-room floor. It certainly fascinated his theological mentor for the programme.

"I had always thought of Judas's betrayal as something active, something he chose to do, rather than a situation he was forced into, perhaps under duress," says Dr Helen Bond, a senior lecturer in divinity at Edinburgh University. "But Gerry instinctively understood the defection.

" 'That's what happens,' he said. 'They got to him.' "

In other words, Judas Iscariot was a "tout" (the Provo term for "informer").

Not surprising that Adams should have this piercing insight. As more and more darks truths about the Troubles emerge, even the dogs in the streets of Derry and Belfast now know that Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA was thoroughly penetrated at every level by British security agents. In fact, it was riddled with supergrasses (even Adams's personal driver, Roy "the Rat" McShane, was a spook!).

 

Another Judas

The programme-makers should have listened to Michael Davitt, who was cured of his brutal fantasies after a long, dark spell in Dartmoor for terrorist activities on behalf of the IRB (Irish Republican Brotherhood) at the end of the 19th century.

Realising that underground, armed conspiracies would always be infiltrated and undermined by the Special Branch, Davitt turned his back on the physical force tradition to campaign for Irish self-determination and social justice by peaceful means, becoming leader of the Land League and then an MP.

Davitt inspired Mahatma Gandhi in his non-violent struggle against the British empire. But only since the onset of the peace process has the "one-armed patriot" been admitted to the pantheon of Irish republican heroes.

Until the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, Davitt was deemed a Judas. In truth, he understood what Jesus also clearly understood: an imperial state can be the coldest of cold monsters, and those who would seek to slay such leviathans need to be wise as serpents. Alas, Gerry Adams lacked such wisdom, just when it could have been of benefit to him.

Rob Brown is senior lecturer in journalism at Independent Colleges, Dublin.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

***

Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.