We All Need To Eat More Pizza

We had friends visiting last night so treated ourselves to Dominos Pizza, given it was buy one get one free Tuesday. It was too good an offer to miss out on, so we ended up going buy three, get three free. And try saying that with a mouthful of ham and pineapple deep crust. Everyone got stuck in and I could barely move by the end of the night. Good job I went for a run earlier in the day.

Calorific intake aside, is there anyone out there who doesn’t like pizza? Certainly not at chez Black last night. The kids attacked it with their usual famished relish and, to be fair, the supposed grown ups weren’t that far behind them. There were a multitude of toppings on offer, something for even the pickiest palate. Ham, pineapple, mushroom, chicken, you name it we had it.

I came downstairs this morning to find Hannah munching happily on a cold slice. Despite our best efforts the night before, there was still loads left over. I reckon if Jesus appeared on Earth today he would be performing his ‘loaves and fishes’ miracle with a Meat Feast 12′ and sides of garlic bread. Everybody loves pizza, it has a universal appeal, right? World peace would be a dawdle if world leaders sat down and discussed it over pizza.

If only everything was that simple. Our world is so fragmented at present it feels as if nothing works. We can’t seem to agree on anything. Nations clash and politicians fail to grasp the nettle. In Northern Ireland, we have been without a functioning government for over two years. I think that’s a world record which we inherited from Belgium the other month. Or somewhere like that.

This is staggering. Even the amiable Belgians are at loggerheads with each other. When did Belgium ever start an international incident? I know they have had their differences with the Dutch down the years but they even make the Swiss look like bloodthirsty warmongers. Us Northern Irish are comparatively off the scale. 3000 dead during 30 years of our ‘Troubles’ is testimony to that.

We cannot agree on our past, our present or our future. Our politicians bicker and bluster but nothing is agreed, and we seem further away from agreement than ever before. At times it is akin to a schoolyard squabble. You feel like banging their heads together and sending them to bed with no dinner. And no cold pizza the next morning either. That would teach them a lesson they’d never forget.

Cold pizza. Cold comfort. This morning is bitter as I sit and write this, and that’s not just because Jack Frost paid our fractured land a visit overnight. Some days the zombie apocalypse doesn’t seem such a bad alternative after all. At least you know where you stand with zombies. They are as predictable as they are hungry. Although don’t try to entice them with a Hawaiian thin crust. That simply won’t work.

Back in the day it was a Noah and a flood. Today fingers hover over nuclear launch codes, and people have nightmare about Brexit, while disease and famine ravage large swathes of the globe. If we can’t agree on the small things then how on earth will we ever agree on the issues that truly matter. I just don’t know anymore. Maybe we all need to eat more pizza. A lot more pizza.

What is your favourite pizza topping?

Can your leaders agree on anything?

I’m With The 39%

According to a poll taken yesterday, 61% of its population think the United Kingdom is in crisis. The reason? Why, Brexit of course. The ongoing saga reached new depths last night when Prime Minister Teresa May’s proposed Withdrawal Agreement was defeated by over 200 votes in Parliament. This triggered the Labour opposition calling for a vote of no confidence in her leadership.

That vote will be tonight and, no doubt, front page news tomorrow morning. The television news has almost exclusively led on Brexit for months now. It’s everywhere, you cannot escape it wherever you turn. Even Donald Trump is tweeting about it which, I guess, makes a change from building walls. Northern Ireland certainly has had its share of walls down the years, primarily to keep our opposing communities from killing each other.

Northern Ireland lies at the heart of the dilemma. If the U.K. withdraw then it causes all sorts of problems regarding the ‘invisible’ border between ourselves and the neighbouring Republic of Ireland. It’s a logistical and trade nightmare. The threat of a ‘hard border’ terrifies many. Unionists insist it will lead to a weakening of the relationship between our little country and the so called mainland.

I went for a run this afternoon. The sun was shining and I was surrounded by blue skies and mild temperatures. I ran two miles out of the city to a park where I completed two circuits of an idyllic lake, inhabited by graceful swans and inquisitive ducks. After three weeks of sickness, I was finally starting to feel healthy again. I forgot the worries of my world for an hour and focused on the next mile, the next bend in the road, the next step.

I know crisis. Often it has been self inflicted, but on other occasions it has been simply life pulling the carpet from under our feet as only life can. You’re drifting along minding your own business when BAM! Your world collapses around you. Be it bereavement, illness or financial hardship we’ve all been there at one time or another. Crisis is as much part of life as the air we breathe.

We often become desensitised to the true meaning and impact of the words we casually throw about. How many of the 61% who took that poll will sleep in a doorway tonight or worry where their next meal is coming from? How many are picking up the telephone to be informed that a loved one has been killed in a road crash or diagnosed with a terminal illness? How many?

Brexit sucks and, yes, it will impact many people. But is it really a crisis? I didn’t feel in crisis today as I ran out of the city centre. I was alive and grateful. Grateful that I could run and had a well paid job to return to afterwards. Grateful to drive home to a loving and supportive family. Grateful to have loyal friends, willing to stick with me through the good times and the bad.

I’m proud to be one of the 39%. Count your blessings and not your woes. Love your loved ones and block out your foes. I’ve spent most of my life wallowing in a half empty glass, but no more. Even if it’s only 39% full I’m going to focus on it and not the ‘what if or could have been’ culture which blinkers many of us. Brexit will come and go, just like the many other temporary storms sent to test us. Look beyond them. For there lie the blue skies.

Are you a 61% or a 39% kind of person?

Who Would Win A Fight Between Donald Trump’s Hair And Tom Selleck’s Moustache?

Living in Northern Ireland, a country obsessed with politicians who are utterly incapable of agreeing about anything, you would think an educated, intelligent young man about town like myself would have more than a passing knowledge of the subject. Well, yah boo sucks to you, for I have very little interest in our learned leaders. As they are, by and large, buffoons of the highest order.

I don’t understand Brexit other than it appears to preoccupy the majority of the United Kingdom. Hard borders? Me no understand. Nor do I care to. No, whenever the news is on, I tend to zone out and focus on matters utterly irrelevant to what is actually being said. This happened earlier today when I watched an interview of Donald Trump on the White House lawn. He was about to get into a helicopter.

Firstly the background noise suggested that he was standing quite close to the helicopter for he could barely be heard about the sound of its rotor blades. He was shouting, something else which he tends to do a lot. I couldn’t tell you what he was shouting about, but I’m sure it was very important and probably involved the Russians or the Saudi Arabians. Possibly both.

No, there was only one question burning a hole within me. Why doesn’t somebody tell the helicopter pilot to turn the engine off.? That way, there would be no need for POTUS to bellow like an angry hippopotamus and become so red faced I feared he was about to suffer an embolism. You would think he could hold fire a few minutes, to allow the most powerful man in the free world to speak in more measured tones.

Equally disturbing was Mr. President’s hair which has always fascinated me. It has a strangely mesmeric quality. Whenever it appears on my television screen, I am hopelessly glued to it which is all the more ironic given it’s attachment to Donald’s skull. Yet, in the face of high powered chopper blades, it didn’t budge an inch. Not an inch, I tells ya!

Is there where the NASA budget is currently being siphoned off? To fund top secret government research into industrial strength hair products. I suspect this may lie at the heart of improved US-North Korean relations of late. Kim Jong-Un anyone? Never a hair out of place. I’m right you know, I know I am. Putin has no need for such products. Never mind the hole in the ozone layer, if it even exists that is. More hairspray please.

The only man who even comes close to matching Trump with regards follicular matters is Tom Selleck. He of Magnum P.I., Friends and most recently, Blue Bloods. Quite frankly, the man has most magnificent moustache I have ever set eyes upon. His face furniture is unparalleled. I’m convinced he got the Magnum gig, due to similar helicopter/hair related issues as referred to above.

Which brings me to the heart of this post. Never mind international trade treaties or gun law restrictions? The real debate is – If Selleck and Trump were to go toe to toe in a wind tunnel then who would prevail? The immovable barnet or the unstoppable lip caterpillar? I ask that you give this matter your urgent consideration and comment below. The world thanks you.

Hannah The Campaigner

We are not protestors by nature but yesterday took to the streets of Belfast with many other concerned parents to protest against plans by the Education Authority to close seven special needs schools in the Greater Belfast area and merge them into three ‘super schools’ which would be created to cater for students with physical disabilities and learning difficulties.

Our daughter, Hannah, has been attending one of these schools, Fleming Fulton, since she was three years old. Hannah was born with spina bifida and hydrocephalus and is a wheelchair user. We were very proud of Hannah yesterday as she spoke at the gates of Belfast City Hall in front of hundreds to express her opposition to the proposed closures. Here are some of her words.

‘I was born with spina bifida basically my legs don’t work but my brain does and that’s thanks to the hard work and dedication of my parents, doctors, teachers and workers at my school. I have been going to Fleming Fulton since just before my third birthday, it is like my second home, I have made the best of friends that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

If the Education Authority goes through with what it is planning I will be separated from my friends and will have to go to a different school which I don’t want to happen. I love my school the way it is and don’t want it to change.’

Fionnuala and I are proud of all the kids but Hannah took the bar to a new level yesterday. Sometimes you have to stand up to the faceless government mannequins who put cuts before kids and who deny our most vulnerable young people the education and health care they are entitled to. Hannah deserves better and she spoke out for herself and her classmates today. She made us very proud parents.

This is a full recording of Hannah’s speech if you would like to hear it.

Northern Ireland – A Potted History

Well that was an exciting St. Patrick’s Day. Ireland defeated England 24-15 to win the Six Nations Rugby Championship and the Grand Slam in the process. This is a massive deal over here as the country is rugby mad. And it’s always satisfying to beat the English at anything. Ireland are now ranked second in the world at rugby ahead of England, Australia, South Africa, France and Wales to name but a few. Not bad for our tiny little island. Roll on the World Cup in Japan next year.

I posted earlier today asking for your questions on life in Ireland. I received a LOT and have replied to some of them already. But hopefully this post will answer a few more. We live in Northern Ireland which comprises Counties Armagh, Antrim, Down, Fermanagh, Derry and Tyrone. There are 32 counties on the island of Ireland and the other 26 comprise the Republic of Ireland. So basically Ireland is divided into two countries with different governments, currencies and customs.

The island was divided up this way by the Act of Partition in 1921 which followed the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921). Northern Ireland was created to placate its largely Protestant population who sought to remain part of the United Kingdom with England, Scotland and Wales. They regard themselves as British as opposed to Irish and swear allegiance to the British monarch. Queen Elizabeth II is monarch of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

This section of the Northern Irish population regard themselves as pro-union or Unionists. The Catholic population by and large want a United Ireland free of all British influence. They are known as nationalists or republicans. Political life in Northern Ireland is largely drawn along these religious lines. The two largest parties are the Democratic Unionist Party (unionist) and Sinn Fein, pronounced Shin Fane, (republican). Protestants largely support the former while Catholics vote for the latter.

Following the partition of Ireland there were a number of violent conflicts where republicans sought to overthrow British rule in Northern Ireland. The bloodiest of these was between 1969-1998. This period ,known as ‘The Troubles’, resulted in over 3000 deaths as the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) launched a guerrilla campaign against the British Army and Northern Irish police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). Loyalists retaliated with the formation of their own paramilitary groups, most notably the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF).

Many innocent men, women and children died during the Troubles as a result of countless shootings and bombings. Peace was finally reached via the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 but a number of breakaway republican groups refused to accept the terms of the agreement and continued the armed struggle. The single largest loss of life in Northern Ireland was when the ‘Real’ IRA detonated a no warning car bomb in my home town, Omagh, on 15 August 1998, killing 29 civilians and two unborn babies.

Below is a photograph taken by tourists minutes before the bomb detonated. The bomb car is in the background. Notice how low the car’s suspension is sitting to the ground. That’s the weight of the explosives weighing it down. Chilling, isn’t it?

I wasn’t in the town that day but my parents were. Thankfully they were at home and not in the town centre. It is probably the rawest, personal experience of the conflict I have. The bomb exploded on a street I have walked along hundreds of times. Fionnuala grew up in Belfast during the Troubles and has similar stories of carnage which happened literally around the corner from her. The violence is largely in the past now although deep divisions still exist between the two communities.

I was raised a Protestant and Fionnuala a Catholic. Many people disapproved of our marriage, including my parents. Old wounds heal slowly. We are seeking to bring up our children with an understanding of our country’s past and the struggles we both faced growing up in ‘The Troubles’. We regard ourselves as non denominational Christians who are neither ‘Protestant’ or ‘Catholic’. We now live in a modern, vibrant country but the legacy of violence is hard to shake off. A lot of people refuse to move on and you often don’t have to scratch too far beneath the surface to reveal the old prejudices and bigotry.

Some of you will know that I’m currently writing a novel. It is set in modern day Belfast but there are several ‘flashback’ chapters which focus on the main character when he was a young boy growing up during ‘The Troubles’. His experiences then explore a number of issues which I have touched upon above. I hope this post has been of some use and taught you a little more about our country and heritage.

Have you any Irish blood?

Has this post assisted you in your knowledge of Northern Ireland and it’s troubled past?

Bonfire Night 

It is 6:44 a.m. on 12th July. A public holiday in Northern Ireland. Why am I awake this early on a holiday? I do not know. It’s not out of excitement anyway as we do not plan to stray far from home today. Because for those of you who do not know today is a big day for our little country. Well a big day for half of our community. The other half tend to dread it and wish it was all over for another year.

On 12 July 1690 the Protestant army of King William of Orange defeated the Catholic army of King James on the banks of the Boyne River near Drogheda. Ever since Northern Ireland loyalists have celebrated this victory over their age old enemy by holding band parades across the country. They view these as a celebration of their culture and their fundamental human right to mark a significant historic and religious event.

Nationalists, however, view the parades as naked triumphalism. A deliberate attempt to provoke the other side of the community via an antiquated event that celebrates sectarianism and bigotry as opposed to history and culture. Whatever way you look at it this is always a tense time of year and in the past has been marked by large scale public disorder which has stretched our forces of law and order to the limit. 

I can see both sides of the coin. I was born a Presbyterian, a member of the Protestant community. I went to a Protestant church, attended a Protestant school and had only Protestant friends. My grandfather and father were both members of the Orange Order. This did not make them bad people as the majority of ‘Orangemen’ are decent, law abiding citizens. 

I was not truly exposed to the ‘other side’ until I left home and went to university, aged eighteen. There I was given the freedom to make my own mind up. I discovered that Catholics were not the enemy, rather ordinary human beings just like me. At college most of my friends were Catholics and this continued into my working career. I married a Catholic girl who is probably the most open minded person I have ever known. She hasn’t a bigoted bone in her body. 

So I can see the good and bad in both communities. The large majority on either side want to live in harmony and peace. They want to move on from the legacies of hatred and violence that scarred our country during ‘The Troubles’ of 1969-1988 which left over 3,600 dead and many more physically and emotionally damaged.

The loyalist side of the community, as part of their celebrations, light bonfires across the country on the eve of the parades. These ’11th Night’ bonfires seem to get larger each year as rival loyalist areas attempt to outdo each other. To the extent this year that residents are genuinely worried for their safety should one collapse and fire fighters traditionally prepare for their busiest night of the year.

I see little to celebrate about these bonfires. They are usually accompanied by loud music, drunkenness and anti social behaviour. Fire crews and police are attacked as they try to keep the peace. The flag of the Republic of Ireland is set alight along with images of nationalist politicians and religious leaders. They are bonfires of hate.

As a historian the 12th celebrations intrigue me. As a spectacle they are colourful and vibrant. The Orange Order has done much to turn them into a family event and a tourist attraction. But the bonfires and the behaviour around them show what lies just beneath the surface. They are bonfires of hate whose purpose is to antagonise and divide. 

My prayer on this holiday is that these bonfires of hate are replaced by bonfires of love across our still divided land. Not towering, physical monstrosities but fires that spark and alight in people’s hearts. Fires that spread through families and communities. Fires that rage with an intensity that wipes out every trace of our bloody past. Fires that burn down the barriers of suspicion and misinformation that still keep the two communities apart.

Catholic? Protestant? Many masquerade under these religious titles in order to promote their most definitely non Christian agendas. But many more are genuine followers of Jesus who do not want their children to live through the horrors that they endured growing up. When Christianity first burst outwards from Jerusalem two millennia ago it spread like an uncontrollable wildfire through the then civilised world. This Holy Spirit fuelled explosion could not be extinguished. And at its core burned a white hot love.

I pray that this fire rages across Northern Ireland today on a tidal wave of love. And I pray that God uses you as a conduit to spread that same fire throughout your sphere of influence.

1 John 4:18 – ‘There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.’

What do you know about the 12 July tradition in Northern Ireland?

What is the largest bonfire you have ever seen?

What can you do today in your community to spread the white hot love of Jesus?’

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