Why Francis, the People’s Pope, has to be my Man of the Year for 2013

ON my first tour of duty as a newsman in Northern Ireland I was sternly counselled to avoid three topics of conversation, however polite: Sport, Politics and Religion.

Back in the early 1970s, when I showed up in Belfast, The Province, Six Counties or Ulster – whatever term an indigenous inhabitant used to describe the region was usually a dead give-away to their ethnic origins – was a pretty wild place. And, though it might not have borne the wanton destruction of downtown Beirut, in parts it was nonetheless a war zone.

So, while I could well comprehend why politics and religion might be off-limits, I couldn’t get my thick head round the injunction to avoid all mention of sport. After all, that was the default topic of most fellas, the glue that joined us together over a pint in a convivial hostelry.

‘Kick sport into touch,’ explained my guide – himself a sportswriter – to the arcane ground rules that applied then. ‘For instance, what soccer team someone supports is usually an indicator of their political and religious affiliations, Proddy or Mick.’

Now, though Ulster/The Province/Six Counties may have been host to an example of extreme sectarianism, it did teach me the salutary lesson of treating certain subjects with kid gloves, however superficially innocent they may have first appeared.

All the same, part of my job is to air views some may find unpalatable – incendiary even – and be prepared to take whatever flak flies in their wake.

So, since it’s that time of year when talking-heads like me are expected to nominate their Man of the Year (MotY), without fear of favour, prejudice or prevarication, my award goes to Pope Francis I.

And, lest there should be any unforeseen misunderstandings, I single him out for non-religious reasons, especially since I’m not a Catholic.

I hasten to add, despite 2013 being an annus horribilis of likely candidates – you might say a veritable biblical famine in this context – the first non-European to wear the fisherman’s ring of St. Peter would have won my MotY vote anyway.

PEOPLE'S POPE: Francis has quickly established himself as a favourite - even with non-Catholics

PEOPLE’S POPE: Francis has quickly established himself as a favourite – even with non-Catholics

He became a smash hit from Day #1 of his papacy, when he ceased to be the anonymous Jesuit, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, and took the name Francis I, after his sainted hero, Francis of Assisi.

Radiating humility and genuine warmth, the 266th Bishop of Rome has swept through the Vatican like a Zonda, the blast of wind that whips off the Andes across the new Pope’s Argentine homeland, bringing welcome rains to the reinvigorate the arid pampas pastureland.

Figuratively, he’s imitating it – ridding the world’s fustiest institution of its cobwebs of conformity and initiating a renaissance of the essence of belief …compassion, understanding and respect for other faiths or others with no religious affiliation at all.

It’s transparent in Francis’s disdain for formality, the trappings of his office and crackdown on the old boy network, one of his first edicts being to abolish the €25,000 annual bonus paid to cardinals serving on the Board of Supervisors for the Vatican bank.

He smiles readily, has a quick wit and enjoys cracking jokes – a far cry from his immediate predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, a stern traditionalist and long-time Curia insider, before becoming only the second pontiff in 600 years to resign.

In stark contrast, Francis chooses to reside in a humble guest house, not the ornate apartments of the Apostolic Palace; he prefers simple vestments – as pointedly demonstrated after his election last March, when he refused to don the ritual red, ermine-trimmed mozzetta, opting instead a simple white cassock; his preferred mode transport is a second-hand Peugeot; and he’s sacked his bodyguards.

To me, then – albeit an outsider – Francis, the soccer and tango fan, is a People’s Pope, hewn from the ‘no frills’ mould of John Paul II, who also favoured modesty over decoration, right down to his Doc Marten boots.

However, unlike the Polish pontiff, the 76-year-old South American, born of Italian immigrant parents fleeing Mussolini’s fascism, seems less straightjacketed by doctrinaire conservatism – which may dismay some of his flock – as he emphasises more the church’s pastoral duty to tend the poor and marginalised.

His calls for world leaders to end Syria’s civil war and his highlighting of the plight of illegal African immigrants stranded on the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa inspired the prestigious magazine, Foreign Policy, to name Francis as ‘the most impressive voice in the international arena.’

These initiatives echo his past in Argentina, when he opened up his cathedral to leaders of the Jewish, Muslim and Orthodox Christian communities and improved inter-faith dialogue.

The one criticism levelled at him then was his lack of vocal opposition to the military junta when thousands disappeared, victims of the armed services’ death squads in Argentina’s so-called ‘Dirty War’ between 1976 and 1983.

Artist and human rights activist, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1980, said, ‘Perhaps he didn’t have the courage of other priests, but he never collaborated with the dictatorship.’

In defence of the man who was to become leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, former judge, Alicia Oliveira, recalled how Bergoglio helped people flee the repression and how he was ‘anguished’ and ‘very critical of the dictatorship.’

TRADITIONALIST: Pope Benedict was a more conservative pontiff, before he stepped down

TRADITIONALIST: Pope Benedict was a more conservative pontiff, before he stepped down

Now as Pope – at least for the time being – Francis hasn’t courted controversy over such thorny issues as contraception, abortion, homosexuality and the remarriage of divorcees. Surely, though, a time will come when he’ll be sorely tested on what many regard as pillars of their faith.

But, as Catholic writer, Cristina Odone, says, ‘It’s too early to predict whether students from Berkeley through Bristol to Brisbane will replace posters of Che Guevara in his beret with the Pope in his white skullcap. Too early to say whether Francis I is at the helm of a “Vatican spring” that will revolutionise the curia.

‘Already, though, I am so grateful to him for making “Catholic” a word that does not automatically conjure up thoughts of homophobia, sexism and paedophilia.’

Clearly, Pope Francis I is someone else’s MotY besides mine.

French ‘Non’ saves President O-Blunder from another fine Middle East mess

AS the major powers queued up to rubber-stamp Iran’s application to gatecrash the Nuclear Club, it took the pragmatic French to break ranks, recognise a drastic reality check was needed and toss a huge dollop of mushy foie gras in to gum up the works.

Well, something approaching that occurred in Geneva a little over a week ago when France’s timely intervention put the brakes on the P5+1 – that’s the USA, Britain, China, Russia, Germany, plus, of course, the Gallic sceptics – nodding through their misbelief that the turbaned terror-mongers’ nuclear ambitions were purely peaceable.

It was supposed to have heralded a ‘first-step agreement’ to a final deal to grant Tehran’s cherished wish to enrich more uranium, continue manufacturing centrifuges and build a plutonium reactor to generate energy…purely for domestic consumption, you understand.

In return up to $50 billion in petroleum revenues, laying frozen in international banks under tough sanctions custody, would be released and future prohibitions shelved.

The fact that the conniving mullahs are swimming in dirt-cheap oil and natural gas, and need atomic energy like Roman Abramovitch craves another super-yacht, apparently barely registered.

Neither did a decade of forked-tongued deceit and downright porky-peddling by the Shiite theocracy’s mouthpieces, a point proudly admitted to by the nation’s latest president, Hassan Rouhani, long-time head of their negotiation team.

So, after days of being assailed by Iranian schmooze and shallow promises, the West – I exempt Russia and China, since they’d trade with Lucifer if they could trouser a profit – only the French had the temerity to say ‘Non!’

Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, went even further, describing what Iran offered as ‘a sucker’s deal’, which reportedly left uber-pacifist President Obama so seething, he actually cancelled one of his hallowed, weekly golf games.

Of course, French obstinacy isn’t new to America. In 2003 they famously – infamously if your name was George W. Bush – were branded ‘cheese-eating surrender monkeys’ for not backing the invasion of Iraq.

NO DEAL: France's Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, vetoed agreement on letting Iran pursue its nuclear ambitions

NO DEAL: France’s Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, vetoed agreement on letting Iran pursue its nuclear ambitions

This time, however, even The Wall Street Journal sang Gallic praises for protecting the world ‘against a historic security blunder.’

The bible of America’s financial community added that the deal, as conceded by all but France, would have given ‘Iran immediate, if incomplete, sanctions relief’ and allowed it to ‘keep its nuclear infrastructure intact’, with ‘no meaningful mechanisms for verifying compliance.’

But, where the Middle East in concerned, the recurrent problems aren’t just Iran (or the Israel-Palestinian impasse). No, it’s Obama – now renamed ‘O-Blunder’ by his growing band of critics – who plainly still doesn’t know which way is up.

Variously, he totally misread the runes of the Arab Spring-cum-Islamic Winter; failed to intervene in Syria two years ago, when arming the secular rebels would have given them a real edge in ousting the odious Bashar al-Assad; turned up too late for both Egyptian revolutions; then got the collywobbles over his ‘red line’ ultimatum for the Butcher of Damascus to ditch his nerve gas arsenal (latest update: he hasn’t).

Instead, Obama hung the only two real friends the West has in the world’s nuttiest neighbourhood out to dry: Saudi Arabia and Israel. Not exactly bosom buddies, nonetheless they are at one on the existential threat to world peace posed by Iran’s lust for atomic muscle.

The Kingdom has consistently warned that if the Shiite crazies go nuclear, so will it. And, as BBC2 Newsnight recently revealed, Saudi Arabia will buy off-the-peg A-bombs from Pakistan when – not if – its arch foe across the Persian Gulf crosses the nuclear threshold.

So, underscoring its opinion of abject US diplomacy, the Saudis passed up a seat on the UN Security Council to emphasise their contempt for Obama’s ignominious retreat on Syria and pig-headed refusal to see the Iranians for what they are: conmen, hiding behind Rouhani’s grinning façade, who have used every ruse imaginable in a bid to gain extra time to fulfil their aim.

CASHING IN: Ayatollah Khamenei - Iran's real boss - controls a vast business empire, worth $95bn, according to Reuters

CASHING IN: Ayatollah Khamenei – Iran’s real boss – controls a vast business empire, worth $95bn, according to Reuters

Now, to further Obama’s discomfort, a six-month investigation by Reuters has exposed Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – the real power in Iran – as covertly running a business empire built on thousands of properties snatched from ordinary Iranians, that now extends from finance, oil trading and telecoms to producing contraceptive pills and ostrich farming.

Estimated to be worth $95-billion, the humble cleric appears to know his way around a balance sheet as well as he does the Koran.

So, how much further evidence does the most gullible leader in recent US history need for the scales to be lifted from his eyes and see Iranian perfidy for what it is? That’s a question many would love to ask (not doubt along with whether Obama also believes in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny).

Meanwhile, like the Saudis, Israel has constantly stressed the reality that Armageddon looms large if the fanatical Khamenei gets his itchy finger on the trigger of a piece of ordnance his previous poodle, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, vowed to use to ‘wipe the Jewish state off the map.’

For its audacity in stating the glaringly obvious, Israel faces arm-twisting by Obama’s lackey, Secretary of State John Kerry, and buckling to a White House-imposed deal that rewards Palestinian terrorism and an on-going refusal to recognise the right of a sovereign nation to exist.

No surprise, then, that the Israeli are looking East towards India and China as military partners, because  with friends like the feckless, peacenik US President, who needs enemies (the question’s purely rhetorical).

While darkly muttering about its intent to acquire a nuclear capability, bellicose Turkey, too, has all but given up on the Americans and has bought a Chinese weapons system, which NATO fears will plant a ‘virus’ in its operational and command structure.

Meanwhile, Russia rubs its hand in glee at the colossal cock-up the US continues to make of the Middle East.

Apart from checking American pressure on its pet tyrant, Assad, Vladimir Putin sees opportunity exploding everywhere and his first gambit has been to woo Egypt with a no-strings, $1.6-billion package of military aid to replace hardware Obama has frozen (Background note: The US tied aid to Egypt on progress towards democratic elections and a civilian government, completely ignoring that democratic elections brought the repugnant Islamist, Mohammed Morsi, to power and forced the Egyptian army to step in and avert a civil war).

The Europeans – specifically Britain and France – also see a chance to fill the armaments void forfeited by America. And they’re quickly exploiting it, the French already having signed a €1-billion defence contract with Saudi Arabia and the UK salivating to do business with Iran.

Come hell or high water, though, it seems nothing will alter Obama’s egotistical perception of himself as a great peacemaker – even if his legacy of incompetence leaves this world a far more dangerous place than ever, with a Middle East bristling with nuclear weaponry.

Wear your poppy with pride and remember the real meaning of Remembrance Day

AS a post-WW2 Baby Boomer I was brought up to remember the fallen in two world wars and respect all those who’d served king and country in whatever humble a capacity.

My grammar school always held a Remembrance Day service and once I was conscripted to read the oration, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Ecclesiasticus, 44:1), shards of which are still ingrained in my subconscious.

In those austere days we kids were surrounded by the detritus of war. Bomb sites littered my city, Anderson shelters rusted in back gardens, almost every home had a photo of someone who’d soldiered and my teachers, almost to a man, bore the scars of conflict, some more bizarrely than others.

Our physics master insisted on being called Major not Sir – ‘I never got a bloody knighthood,’ he’d rumble, ‘but I got a commission and a load of shrapnel in my a*** at Monte Casino’ – a fact underscored by the service-issue Webley revolver he used as a paperweight on his desk.

Mad-eyed Harding barked Latin at us and had a baseball pitcher’s accuracy with a blackboard duster, notwithstanding a deformed right hand. Always clad in a thick, white, rolled-necked sweater, he’d hum constantly and seemed to exist on jam butties.

Naturally, we all joked he was bonkers, but were still stunned when he went completely off his rocker in mid-lesson one day, bursting into tears and fleeing the classroom, never to be seen again.

A week later our PE instructor, a D-Day veteran, told us Jammy – our clichéd nickname for Harding – had commanded a cruiser escorting Arctic convoys to ice-bound Murmansk. Manning the bridge for hours on end, all he ate were sarnies smeared with raspberry preserve, humming to anaesthetise his mind from the incessant din of exploding enemy shells. The reward for his courage, lunacy and frostbite that cost him four fingertips was a Distinguished Service Order.

Most of the men I grew up around never spoke of their war service; there was a tacit understanding you never asked. Instead, almost in defiance, we became action junkies at the cinema, goggling at the derring-do of John Wayne clearing out Jap machinegun nests on Guadalcanal (though, in reality, Duke never saw active service on account of his age and an old, sports injury).

However, even as impressionable youngsters we learned to discern the demarcation lines between Hollywood heroics and the terrible, horrific reality, evidenced by what was all around us in terms of human suffering and architectural destruction.

Which is why today – Remembrance Sunday – many of us will show we’ve not forgotten and wear a poppy in tribute to those called upon to make the supreme sacrifice and others who survived, having ‘done their bit’.

LEST WE FORGET: The annual Remembrance Day ceremony at the Cenotaph, in London's Whitehall

LEST WE FORGET: The annual Remembrance Day ceremony at the Cenotaph, in London’s Whitehall

Some now question the sentiment of this public/personal display of patriotism.

In fact, as early as 1919, acts of commemoration provoked outrage amongst huge numbers of returning veterans, when faced with what they saw as the glorification of the squalid and meaningless loss of life.

In 2010, Muslim extremists burned poppies and chanted ‘anti-crusader’ slogans during the two-minute silence in protest against British forces in Afghanistan and Iraq (this year, say the community’s leaders, a million Muslims will wear poppies, perhaps recalling their many co-religionists who fell in action).

And, in a crass gesture, Channel 4 newscaster Jon Snow generated a frenzy by refusing to wear the little red flower, attacking what he termed ’poppy fascism’ and ‘intolerance’, claiming the symbol had become cheapened and politicised.

‘Their proliferation now means that not having one on display is to commit the ultimate social faux pas,’ Alice Eccles asserted recently in The Cambridge Student Magazine.

POPPY FAUX PAS? According to the 'experts, the little green leaf on Prime Minister Cameron's poppy is pointing in the wrong direction

POPPY FAUX PAS? According to the ‘experts, the little green leaf on Prime Minister Cameron’s poppy is pointing in the wrong direction

To expand in defence of Alice, her piece inspired some sensible – and sensitive – debate, querying whether the message of the remembrance poppy has remained faithful to its original ideals.

Alice asks how the widows or the mothers of The Great War dead would react to flashy, showbiz ‘B-Listers’ gatecrashing Poppy Day, which this year include pop songstresses, Alesha Dixon and Pixie Lott.

‘It would seem that nothing is immune to commercialization in the heady atmosphere of the 21st century, as the British Legion website offers poppy-themed stocking fillers, umbrellas, and salt and pepper pots,’ she points out.

Fuelling that debate further are high street jewellers, flogging garish, stone-encrusted poppies for £45 – with just £4.50 going to the worthy cause of the Legion – thus despoiling a potent symbol of sacrifice and perverting it into a fashion bauble.

Then there’s poppy etiquette…like when is it appropriate to start wearing one? According to an informed source, it should only be in the week preceding Remembrance Day and, rather like decorations being taken down after the 12th day of Christmas, the emblem should be removed immediately after Armistice Day, November 11.

So much, then, for the jingoism of Jim Devine, the then Labour MP for Livingston, who was widely mocked in 2007 when he began sporting his poppy in the mid-October.

And where should it be worn? On the left lapel for men, on the right side for women, advise those who’ve made a forensic study of poppy protocol.

Finally, what about the little green leaf that’s become an added adornment to poppies in recent times – where should that point?

To eleven o’clock, naturally, insist the experts, signifying the end of WW1 hostilities on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month (maybe someone should have a quiet word with David Cameron, since the Prime Minister has been snapped wearing his poppy leaf at variously anything from mid-day to three p.m., tut, tut, tut).

All this cranking up of ritual propriety, though, makes me think the whole notion of symbolism is in dire danger of being hidebound by the holier-than-thous, out to hijack the public’s heartfelt compassion, personified by the act of donning a humble, paper poppy.

So, as I wear mine with pride, I hope Alice is right when she says, ‘This little red flower might still act as a vessel through which we can come to grips with the very real sacrifices made by the men and women of this country, for our present and future freedoms.’

Stop bleating about being bugged – everyone’s playing the spy game

I SPY with my little eye somebody beginning with M. Or, more currently, it should be: I hear with my big ear someone called Merkel gabbling on her cellphone – quaintly known to Germans as a ‘handy’ – and have done for yonks.

Handy is an apt word if you’re an eavesdropper from the US National Security Agency, the NSA now unofficially renamed Nosy Snoopers on Anyone, as they cock a snook (or spook) at friend and foe alike, all treated without fear or favour.

In almost any other context such equanimity would be laudable. In this case it’s upset the balance of trust that existed between allies and prompted a storm of diplomatic outrage that shows no sign of abating.

It’s always been a given that all’s fair in spying and prying where enemies collide. Hence the lack of uproar when the Russians were said to have presented ‘Trojan Horse’ gifts of USB flash-drive pens and cellphone chargers to delegates at the G20 summit in St. Petersburg that relayed info back to the Kremlin.

But, scuppering your friends? How low can the spooks stoop, even if it’s only commercial, industrial and financial espionage? Answer: No-one’s off limits.

NOT SO HANDY: Angela Merkel is raging over the NSA's hacking of her cellphone, know in German as a 'handy'

HANDY HORROR: Angela Merkel is raging over reports that the NSA hacked her cellphone, know in German as a ‘handy’

Small wonder German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is incandescent with rage that the NSA nobbled her Nokia – she’s now swapped it for a more secure Blackberry Z10 – while thunderclaps of diplomatic indignation have been resounding across Europe.

Thanks to whistleblower and former CIA contractor, Ed Snowden, currently dossing down out of CIA clutches in Moscow, it appears the good ole boys at America’s ace electronic surveillance squad, in Fort Mead, Maryland, have been scanning heaven-knows-how-many telecons and emails across swathes of Western Europe and the Americas.

Francois Hollande, the French President, was incredulous when told the NSA secretly monitored 70 million calls, texts and emails made in France; Premier Mariano Rajoy was similarly gobsmacked to learn 60 million were trawled in Spain; and the Italians choked on their cannelloni at news of 46 million intercepts.

The leaders of Brazil and Mexico were also furious at reports they were victims.

In fact, the only national leader not to quibble his handpiece was hacked is Prime Minister David Cameron, presumably on the basis that Britain’s GCHQ has a mutual, back-scratching deal with the Americans.

Just for the record the mindboggling tallies I’ve listed cover only one month of NSA snooping…between December, 2012, and this January, although it was heartening to know the listeners had the good grace to take off December 30, New Year’s Day and January 2.

Using software appropriately branded ‘Boundless Informant’, the NSA apparently noted where calls were made, the series numbers of handsets, SIM card data and duration of calls.

It makes allegations against former Murdoch newspapers’luminaries, including ex-News of the World editors Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson – on trial at the Old Bailey, in London, on charges variously related to hacking voice-mail messages and corruption – seem playground frolics by comparison.

Meanwhile, according to Glenn Greenwald – the Brazil-based US journalist, who has worked with Snowden to publish the spying revelations – though call content was not recorded, intercepts included intrusion in personal information through internet browsers, emails and social networks such as Twitter and Facebook.

CENTRE OF THE STORM: The NSA's headquarters, in Maryland, where the hacking was said to be authorised

CENTRE OF THE STORM: The NSA’s headquarters, in Maryland, where the hacking was said to be authorised

As the evidence stacks up, President Obama has been forced into humiliating apologies to his nominal pals, telling Merkel, ‘Your phone isn’t being tapped and will not be.’

In subtle contrast, he is said to have told Cameron, ‘Your phone has never been tapped, isn’t being tapped and will never be’, which clearly indicates America’s commander-in-chief knew his German counterpart had been a target, if no longer.

So, despite attempts to paint Obama as an ‘ignorant party’ to his eavesdroppers’ operations, he can’t wriggle off the hook and blame his predecessor, President G ‘Dubya’ Bush, for authorising the earwigging in the first place. Contrary to Hollywood myth, information gathering of this type – codenamed COMINT (communications intelligence) – at this level isn’t some ‘black op’ handled covertly by a rogue outfit working outside its remit.

Strangely, US spooks are unrepentant over this furore. Even more bizarrely, their cloak-and-laptop buddies across Europe don’t seem particularly fazed either, even if their political masters are in a blue funk, or feign as much.

Because, the simple truth is everyone’s at it, not just the usual suspects, principally China – which hacks into US and British IT systems countless times a day – and Russia’s FSB, which morphed from the KGB.

According to The Sunday Times, Bernard Squarcini, ex-head of French intelligence, admits, ‘All countries, even allies co-operating in the anti-terrorist struggle, are spying on each other.

‘The Americans spy on us in the commercial and industrial field and we spy on them, because it’s in the national interest to defend our companies. Everyone knows it.’

And Merkel’s a fine one to moan. The BND, Germany’s equivalent of MI5, fessed up to the Bild newspaper that it monitored phone calls, text message and emails in the USA, saying, ‘We take what we can get. If someone offers us information, for instance about the Americans, we will not throw it in the bin.’

Neither is Britain an innocent bystander. In fact, the UK is hugely respected as maestros of the spying game, numbering amongst its virtuoso performances bugging the Bundesbank, tapping the handpieces of UN Security Council members and – if ex-Labour minister Clare Short is to be believed – nobbling UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan’s cellphone in the prelude to the 1990 Gulf War.

Professor Anthony Glees, an expert in espionage, is pretty sangfroid in his assessment of the intelligence community, saying that despite co-operation between friendly nations, spying on one another was routine.

‘Any agency worth its salt would do it,’ he states blandly. ‘You’d want your money back if they didn’t.’

So the next time a world leader bleats about being bugged, I suggest they recall the biblical exhortation along the lines of, ‘Let he (or she) who is without sin cast the first stone.’