- Okay, just a few hours ago, we saw the white smoke, a new Pope has been chosen… What do you think of Benedictus XVI?
I actually met him in 1988, as noted before. He visited Cambridge while I was an undergraduate, and I remember being one of the gofers for the Catholic Chaplaincy on the great day; he received a friend of mine into the Catholic Church at a student Mass in the morning; I may well have shaken hands with him, I forget now; I attended a talk he gave in the evening attended by over a thousand students.
He’s very intelligent. He’s friendly but not warm. And he really doesn’t understand people who have different approaches to his. (It’s telling that his only real pastoral experience in a fifty-five year career in the Church was four years as Archbishop of Munich from 1977 to 1981.) I fear that he will emphasise the bits of John Paul II’s teaching that I had most difficulty with (on sexual morality issues) and soft-pedal the things about John Paul II that I found most attractive (opposition to war and to the death penalty; social justice).
I will of course pray for him to find wisdom and be guided by the Holy Spirit, as I do for everyone in his position. And I certainly am not one of the people who’s now muttering about leaving the Catholic Church in protest – I mean, c’mon folks, we’re no longer in the time of Pope Pius IX who expected his Syllabus of Errors to last for all time. And let’s face it, as
said, “On the up side, he is 78.“. We may be having this discussion again before many years have passed.
- What do you like most and what do you hate in Belgium?
Two questions, hé Maartje? OK… The Belgian health system really is the best in the world. I remember living in Belfast, and having to argue with the doctor’s receptionist about whether I was ill enought o qualify for an appointment with the doctor in ten days’ time. Living here, I’ve never had to wait more than 24 hours for a routine consultation, and never longer than a week to see a specialist. Most of my British friends have the idea that it’s better to have a health service that’s free at the point of delivery, and put up with the bureaucratic inconvenience. Rubbish. Far, far better to pay the small, largely refundable fee to see the doctor if it means you don’t have to wait for months. (I could also go on about the level of care for children with disabilities but I have less direct comparative experience.)
As for what I hate: there is a Belgian attitude that you don’t overtly question what the government bureaucracy does, you just try and undermine it by subtle means. I read a book a while ago that scraped the surface of this. It’s a bit frustrating when you’re looking for direct answers to anything; the secret code of how Belgians interact with their authorities is not at all obvious or accessible to the foreigner. (Of course, it does mean that a fascist takeover here is extremely unlikely – see below.)
- If you could give one person a gift, no matter how expensive or even impossible to give. Who would you give a gift and what would it be?
Since I have two daughters with learning disabilities, the only difficult part of the question is which one I would give the gift to…
- If you would get the chance to do a complete carreer change, what would you want to be/do?
That’s easy. Back in my earlier postgraduate days I got entangled with the obscure area of medieval astrology. I’d love to go back to that now; there’s something about dealing with medieval manuscripts, the feeling as you turn over the pages of vellum that perhaps ten other poeple have looked at in the last five hundred years, the crossword puzzle aspect of working out what the medieval scholars were trying to say (between the constraints of the normal paleographical abbreviations and their underdeveloped technical vocabulary), the fact that it has to do with historic concepts of the fundamental nature of the universe – I’d go back to it like a shot. If I could afford to.
- Ten years ago, where did you think you would be right now and doing what?
Hmm. At that point I was getting deeply into the Northern Ireland peace process, as a representative of one of the smaller and less exciting political parties. I thought that the best my future career might offer would be a second-rate academic track in a subject I wasn’t especially interested in, with trhe very outside possibility of a decently paying political job if there were ever a peace agreement in Northern Ireland, or if I had to move to England, a chance at a parliamentary seat with the British Lib Dems somewhere I’d never heard of.
The turning point for me actually came in November 1996. But that’s a long story, for another occasion.
- Somebody tells you, “Decide what to do with Northern Ireland. All government bodies involved, including the semi-official ones, will do whatever you say.” What do you do with it?
This is much the most difficult question to answer of this run of fifteen. I think a) disarm and disband all the paramilitaries, b) reinstall the rest of the Good Friday Agreement government systems which were working OK, c) abolish segregated education between Protestants and Catholics. I enjoyed my Catholic education but frankly the system allows all the churches to collude in perpetuating sectarianism.
- What long-term hopes/expectations do you have for your children?
Jeepers, you ask the guy with two daughters with learning disabilities… but to be honest, the answer comes out the same whatever the level of ability of the child: I’d really much rather they were happy in themselves than that they felt that they had to satisfy my expectations of them.
- Who have you met in the course of your work (or otherwise) about whom you had the most, “Wow! I’m actually in the same room with X!!” reaction?
As I’ve progressed up the tree this becomes more and more difficult to answer. Perhaps the first person of whom I had that kind of reaction was the British TV astronomer Patrick Moore, who I met a couple of times in my late teenage astronomy years in Ireland. As noted above, being in contact with Cardinal Ratzinger was pretty thrilling even in 1988. Around the same time I attended a lecture by Karl Popper which was also pretty cool. Also around the same time I attended two talks given by Terry Pratchett, which was pretty awesome. (Leaping forward fifteen years, the only two sf conventions I have attended in the last three years or so both featured as a guest of honour an favorite author of mine, who was gracious enough to blog one of my jokes).
Since I got into politics, I’ve met more and more such people. I was always pretty thrilled to work with John Alderdice, the Alliance Party’s leader when I was most heavily involved, who managed unusually to combine a keen intelligence with leading a political party. At the initial stages of the peace talks in 1996 I was closeted with most of the senior party leaders from Northern Ireland, but to be honest none of them is so very impresive. I met Mary Robinson during one of her pre-election campaign meetings and again a couple of times while she was President, and while she’s not the warmest of individuals she nonetheless did more than anyone else to get Ireland out of the nineteenth century. (I also have met Garret Fitzgerald on several occasions, and while he’s very weird, he’s also very interesting.)
Working in Bosnia in 1997-98, I encountered Biljana Plavsic, admittedly a very dubious person but she was the local president at the time. Working in Croatia in 1998, I had some dealings with Stipe Mesic, at that time deputy leader of a small opposition party and the last president of the old Yugoslavia and now just starting his second term as President of Croatia. And in Macedonia, I always got on well with the late President Trajkovski. In my current job, I have actually shaken hands with Kofi Annan; I also work a bit with Chris Patten, who I really admire (even though he’s a Conservative). [Edited to add – I’ll also cheer for George Soros, who’s done more good than most governments.]
But the person who still stands out for me, despite his limitations (which he’s disarmingly made manifest by publishing two volumes of his diaries of being a British party leader), because of the important role he played in keeping a third option open in British politics and also because of the important role he’s playing now in repairing the worst damage of the wars of the 1990s, is Paddy Ashdown. When he stood as leader of the new party in 1988, I was determined I was going to vote for the other guy until the moment I read and compared the two platforms, and realised that his was far far better. And then I decided that Ashdown would be a risky but exciting choice. (I told him this 13 years later; he said “I’m glad it worked – I’d spent six years preparing it.”) He did more good for the party than three generations of Liberal leaders; he has done more good for Bosnia-Herzegovina than three centuries of externally imposed rulers. Definitely my favourite international statesman.
- What one thing would it make your job immensely easier if everybody knew and accepted? (“I’m always right,” doesn’t count.)
It’s along the same lines though. “The reason the other guy says what he does, is not because he’s evilly trying to destroy you, but because he’s sincere in his beliefs and by his own lights a good person.” I wouldn’t mind people misunderstanding my motives if it meant they spent more time thinking about and trying to understand other people’s.
- What were you expecting me to ask you?
Something about the comparative relationship between the Israel/Palestine situation and the Northern Ireland situation!
- What is your favourite language to hear?
That’s an easy one. I barely understand Italian, but hearing those beautiful vowels cascade from a native speaker is fantastic. The woman in the next office to me is from Naples, and though I can’t hear what she says when she’s on the phone I love listening to the intonation. Finnish is a close second, but I don’t get as much exposure to it. (Except when I’m listening to Sibelius’ Kullervo Symphony: Kullervo, Kalervon poika,/ sinissukka äijön lapsi!)
- What was your worst visit to a foreign country?
Back in 1993, my future wife and I were inter-railing (as has been mentioned before). We were due to spend Easter weekend with friends of hers in Portugal, and I had certain business in France to conclude earlier in the week (which I’ll write up one of these days) so obviously the thing to do was take an overnight train to Madrid, spend a day looking around, and move on to Porto.
Alas, the refuse workers in Madrid had been on strike for the ten days before we arrived, and the streets and even the metro stations were piled high with stinking garbage. The restaurant workers were also on strike and it was impossible to get a decent meal. We then headed out of town on another overnight train which, unlike the more northern European trains, did not have those seats you can pull down to make a bed-like arrangement in the middle of the carriage. So there were eight of us sitting on really uncomfortable seats as the train pounded through the Spanish night. Suddenly and abruptly one of the other passengers vomited copiously all over the place. Anne and I retreated to the corridor of one of the first-class carriages and spent the rest of the night on the floor there.
On the way back from Porto we found a train that (as far as I remember) didn’t even stop in Spain en route to France, let alone oblige us to set foot on Spanish territory again. I haven’t been back since.
- Would you ever consider coming back to live in Norn Iron?
I love the place dearly, and (see earlier answers to other people) would happily go back if I could afford it. At present my dream is to either move back when my career reaches the globe-trotting point that I can work equally well from anywhere and when the family reasons for staying put are less compelling, or just to plan on retirement in twenty-five years’ time.
- If Belgian turned into a fascist dictatorship, would you speak out? Even if it meant death?
I should note that it’s unlikely to happen, and even if the Vlaams Blok, god forbid, were to become coalition partners in a Belgian or Flemish government, the rule of law is such that the damage they could do is fairly minimal. (And the Belgian attitude to authority is such that even if they co-opted the judicial system, it still wouldn’t work.) But having said that the answer to your question is: No. My loyalty to Belgium is not so great that I would stick around and fight for the country’s soul; I’d move somewhere else, and oppose the forces of darkness from a relatively safe external vantage point, which is after all what I already do for a living with regard to certain other countries. That in itself wouldn’t be completely risk-free, of course, but it certainly isn’t the high-risk option either.
- And for curiosity’s sake, what Order did your ex-girlfriend join when she became a nun?
The IBVM, linked to the Loreto Sisters of Ireland. But it’s almost nine years since she came out (and, er, came out).