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.

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Why Spain is stuck between a rock and a hard place over British Gib

Not for nothing is this time of year dubbed ‘The Silly Season’ and my prediction for the summer of 2013 is that it’ll go down in the annals as one of the daftest yet.

With parliaments in long recess, official business on hold and politicos busy spending their ill-gotten gains in sunnier climes, we news types are left scratching around for something pertinent to report.

Then – lo and behold! – our prayers are answered by another gripping sequel to an on-going brouhaha concerning a 2.6-square mile pimple on the gluteus maximus of Europe, with a population of around 30,000.

Yes, Gibraltar is again making headlines for all the wrong reasons. And, regardless of which country’s media and jingoism you subscribe to, there’s no denying the fact that verbal exocets are exploding with increasing velocity from both sides of the great divide, though Spain’s more so than Britain’s.

To the Spanish El Peñón, as they call The Rock, is a long-festering scab that gets picked from time to time, often – surprise, surprise! – coinciding with economic gloom. It’s a sure-fire distraction to set Latin tempers aflame, because it pricks to the pride of a nation whose patchwork quilt of autonomous regions regularly threatens to come apart at the seams.

So, while Catalans, Galicians, Extramadurans and certainly Basques can’t agree on most issues, Gib is the glue that sticks the Spanish Humpty Dumpty together again.

ROCK SOLID: 99% of Gibraltarians want to remain British

ROCK SOLID: 99% of Gibraltarians want to remain British

General Franco certainly understood the emotional impact of playing the Gibraltar card, because he made much of expunging the British overseas territory from local maps and inventing ‘border incidents’ to suit his whims.

Following in the footprints of the fascist dictator’s jackboots, now centre-Right premier Mariano Rajoy is in high dungeon over the Gib government’s decision to create an artificial reef to protect fish stocks by dumping concrete blocks into its waters, ostensibly imperilling the livelihoods of Spanish fishermen.

However, at a time when corruption allegations swirl round Spain’s government, the economy is on the rocks and unemployment at one of the highest levels in the EU, 7,000 Spaniards daily cross onto The Rock to work – a fact not lost on union chiefs, livid with their leader’s posturing in far-off Madrid.

Despite the commerical benefits, in what smacks of the backdrop to a farcical Gilbert and Sullivan libretto, Gibraltar has become an international flashpoint – and not for the first time at the petulant Rajoy’s prompting.

In May, 2012, the Popular Party leader threw his toys out of the pram and banned Queen Sofia from officially attending her cousin, Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations, presumably because it somehow implied recognition of UK sovereignty over the craggy outcrop. And to add insult to royal injury, Spain formally objected to a visit by Prince Edward and his missus to The Rock as part of his mum’s knees-up.

Now, cranking up the pressure, Spain’s foreign minister, Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo, mutters darkly about to taking Gib to the United Nations – not that they could sort out a schoolyard scrap – or the International Court of Justice, bogged down as it is in The Hague with the mundane trivia of trying war criminals.

ON THE ROCKS: Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish PM, is using Gib as a convenient distration

GIB THUMPER: But is Spanish PM, Mariano Rajoy, simply using The Rock as a convenient distraction?

Meanwhile, a ploy being touted in Madrid is teaming up in common cause with Cristina Fernández Kirchner, Argentina’s pseudo-democratic dominatrix, who’s obsessed with ‘liberating’ the Falklands/Malvinas from British rule, despite all but one of the 2,841 islanders refusing her kind offer of citizenship.

However, Spain should realise that getting into the diplomatic sack with Hissy Crissy has its downsides, since she presides over a corrupt and bankrupt state that last year siezed YPF – the local arm of Spanish energy giant, Repsol – to pay off debts.

The odds, then, of a Spain-Argentina axis bearing fruit are, as my bookmaker says, about as good as a three-legged Chihuahua exploding out of Trap 6 to win the Greyhound Derby.

Neither has the weight of history on its side and both claims to territory that’s not theirs reek of crass hypocrisy.

Spain can blame the overarching ambition of Philip V for the loss of Gibraltar, because in 1701 he tried to usurp the French throne in what became known as the War of Spanish Succession.

Fearing a calamitous shift in European power, an alliance between Britain, Holland, the Germanic Holy Roman Empire and the Duchy of Savoy crushed the Bourbon’s biscuit.

Gibraltar was captured in 1704 by an Anglo-Dutch fleet and, in the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, ceded to Britain (along with Minorca temporarily) ‘in perpetuity’, which – the last time I consulted my lexicon – meant forever and a sunset.

Over the centuries the miniscule splodge of Jurassic limestone has played a defining role in Britain’s defences and, to some extent, still does. Moreover, in the last 13 years, its inhabitants have twice voted in plebiscites, by 99 to one, to remain British, which, under Europe’s rules of people’s self-determination, should render the issue beyond debate.

Like his Argentinian counterpart in the case of the Falklands, that doesn’t stop Rajoy banging on about bi-lateral talks with Britain over Gib’s future, bypassing the reasonable and legal aspirations of the locals.

However, when taken to task, he conveniently dodges the thorny topics of Melilla and Ceuta, the two enclaves of Spain’s North African empire, which the uppity Moroccans somehow consider theirs.

Let’s not forget, either, the medieval town of Olivenza, which the Spanish wrested from Portugal in the 1801 War of the Oranges and have retained with dubious legality ever since, irrespective of the fact that the Portuguese no longer kick up a fuss over its ownership.

And, if we’re discussing historical imperatives, add one from Osama bin Laden, whose first diktat as Al-Qaeda’s head honcho was to demand the return of Andalucía – El Andaluz, as his forbearers called it before 1492 – to Muslim dominion.

Verily, as pots call kettles black in the kitchen of international diplomacy, the vipers of historical fact have an unfortunate habit of biting the dissenter in the backside.

As the conspiracy mill grinds out lies, if anyone bumped off Hugo Chavez it wasn’t me

Let me begin by emphatically denying any culpability in the demise of Hugo Chávez, the thuggish, Venezuelan overlord, who shuffled off his mortal coil this week, aged 58, from pelvic cancer, as some of his doctors have now confirmed.

It would have been convenient if I’d had the odious autocrat ‘retired’, as the intelligence community mundanely refer to such ‘black ops’. However, I didn’t, so the wild conspiracy theories fanned by Chávists – no, they’re nothing to do with Wayne and Colleen Rooney – continue to gain traction.

According to them, someone slipped their Commandante, as he was known, a killer Mickey Finn virus while he was doing what he loved best, hectoring the world and squandering his nation’s oil riches. It was much in the manner of his soulmate, Iran’s nutter-in-chief, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a likeminded megalomaniac, who fritters away his country’s petroleum wealth on pipedreams of becoming a regional tyrant.

Obviously, the Yanks – rumoured to be aided and abetted by neighbourhood villains, the Colombians – are in the conspiracy frame for arranging Chávez’s date with his Maker.

All the same, in the far-flung unlikelihood someone fingers me, my alibi is: I was watching EastEnders.

I was also glued to the everyday story of quasi-incestuous Cockney folk when Chávez’s bosom buddy, Yasser Arafat, slid off the plate and I remember being transfixed to the goings-on in Walford when North Korea’s fruitcake, Kim Il Sung expired.

So, as Dot Cotton would say, ‘Nah, it weren’t me wot done it, but I’ll  ‘ave a sweet sherry all the same.’

Not that anyone’s denials will halt the conspiracy theory mill grinding into overtime.

Strange, though, that every time a nasty pops his clogs – unless there is incontestable proof he was terminated, as in the cases of Saddam Hussein, Mahmoud Gaddafi and Osama bin Laden – the loonies and mischief-makers don their thinking caps. And, thanks to the wonders of the internet, every hair-brained, crackpot, beyond-belief fantasy takes root.

However, in Chavez’s case, there’s method in the madness of concocting a fiendish plot to cast doubt on nature taking its course.

Apart from playing to Latin America’s obsession with a populist martyr (think Evita Peron), the red-shirted Venezuelan Leftists, whom Chávez bossed from for 14 years, desperately need to kindle the flame of his memory to keep their grasping mitts on the nation’s helm, because they were the chief beneficiaries of his ‘Bolivarian’ revolution.

These uncivil servants are the ones who man the vast tranche of needless ‘ministries’ he created and they needed his magic oratory at the polls, each time the fear of being rumbled in an election haunted them.

And Chávez never let them down. He was a master at mind-bending the masses’ will to his needs and those in his nepotistic, bureaucracy-batty United Socialist Party. He was also a dab hand at hiding behind a veneer of democracy, though, in reality, he always had the last word – usually a foul-mouthed one.

Having snatched the country in a coup d’état in 1999, the ex-army officer embraced a crude form of ‘ex-parliamentary’ rule that extended to suppressing the centre-Right opposition, emasculating the judiciary, stifling the electoral commission and censoring the independent media.

Freedom House listed Venezuela’s Press as being ‘Not Free’ in 2011 and Reporters Without Borders criticized the Chávez regime for ‘steadily silencing its critics’, branding Venezuela ‘now among the region’s worst Press freedom offenders.’

BYE BYE BULLYBOY: Chavez unleashed a new repertoire of repression on Venezuela

BYE BYE BULLYBOY: Chavez unleashed a new repertoire of repression on Venezuela

Yet, Chávez’s recipe of red-hot socialism, heavily laced with nationalist fervour and tinged with religious zeal, resonated elsewhere in the region. Brazil, Argentina, Nicaragua, Paraguay and even bourgeois Uruguay saw power shifts to the Leftists, for whom ‘statism’ was the war cry. Rafael Correa, in Ecuador, and Bolivia’s Evo Morales were Chávez’s most fervent copycats, riding roughshod over their national parliaments, supreme courts and constitutions, on the hallowed altar of ‘anti-imperialism’.

Only Chile and Colombia resisted the temptation and stuck, more or less, to credible, transparent democracy.

So, regardless of a commodities boom in which mineral-rich South America should have been a major winner, the countries that followed in the ranting demagogue’s wake – surging Brazil apart – have merely experienced corruption, inflation and dire shortages.

Naturally, Chávez’s defenders will insist he purged the country of just such malaises orchestrated by the old, Rightist cabal, which is partially true. What they don’t say is that he was the architect of an entirely new repertoire of repression, which saw the crime rate – particularly murders – soar unimaginably.

And, as always with neo-Marxist polemicists, there was always a convenient scapegoat for a country’s self-inflicted ills.

As Cristina Kirchner presides of Argentina’s woeful economy, she shifts blame to Britain’s refusal to negotiate away the Falkland Islands, while Morales goes ballistic about territory lost to Chile in the 19th century.

This behaviour is the hallmark of the autocrat and Chávez based the template for Latin America on the Fidel Castro model.

Unsurprisingly, then, he chose pariah allies…Iran, North Korea, Syria, the local states he urged to go beyond the democratic fringe and Ken Livingstone, when, as mayor of London in 2000, he welcomed Chávez, declaring he was ‘the best news out of Latin America in many years’.

If a person is judged by the friends they keep, such company speaks volumes for Hugo Chávez.

And so, too, were the enemies he cherry-picked, principally the Great Satan to the North, the USA, at whose door Venezuela’s many ills were laid. The first President Bush was tarred a ‘monkey’, the second a’devil’.

Almost with his dying breath Chávez underscored his scorn for Western values when he ordered the expulsion of a US diplomat from Caracas, as he scurried back and forth from Havana for medical aid, while teetering on the precipice of the hereafter.

The Commandante also despised the International Monetary Fund, the ‘rich’, and the then Columbian leader, Álvaro Uribe, for taming the Chavez-back Maoist insurgents of FARC and introducing a reformist, liberal agenda.

So who can claim surprise that Chávez’s lackies are crying foul and a claiming a dastardly plot was behind the death of their sainted leader, a great man of the people for the people, who conveniently forgot his people?

All I know is: don’t blame me. I was watching Jack Branning duffing up Phil Mitchell at the time. But if the Queen Vic was a real pub, I’d be in it…drinking a toast to one less bullyboy stalking the planet.

Why Falklands’ flag tribute got Hissy Crissy’s knickers in a twist

Depending on who interprets it, history can be a murky topic, but it does provide pointers to why things are as they are, which can have a direct bearing on law – particularly international law.

Such is the case of who has rightful claim to the Falkland Islands, whose flag proudly flies over 10 Downing Street today, marking the 30th anniversary of Britain’s defeat of Argentina, after their back-stabbing invasion of the archipeligo.

The tribute has certainly got the knickers of Argentina’s feisty president, Cristina Kirchner in a twist. Which is why she’s huffed off to the UN Committee on Decolonisation – as if they could even decide which day of the week it was – screaming abuse at what she perceives to be Britain’s obduracy in not agreeing to ‘negotiate’ the islands’ future away to Argentina and entirely against the wishes of their 3,140 inhabitants.

For good measure, Kirchner – who ‘inherited’ the presidency after her husband, Nestor – took a sideswipe at the UK’s roles in Iraq and Afghanistan, saying, ‘They will not find us there.’ Amen to that, I say, and gracias.

In a final stab, she added, ‘We are just asking to sit down at a table to talk. Can someone in the modern world deny that possibility and say they are leaders of the civilised world and defenders of human rights. No, the truth is one cannot do both.’

Funny the nubile Cristina should bring up the tetchy subject of human rights, which Argentina hasn’t exactly – er, how shall I put it politely? – excelled at, not even under her democratic veneer.

For instance: who was it who cracked down like a sledgehammer on Press freedom, purloined private pensions to prop up the bankrupt state sector, refuses to do a jot about unequal income distribution, recently siezed YPF – the local arm of Spanish energy giant, Repsol – and whose country has one of the highest levels corruption (see Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index for 2011)?

So, come on, Hissy Crissy, fess up.

FLYING THE FLAG: The Falklands ensign flutters proudly over 10 Downing St

However, to be fair to Kirchner, she’s a comparative paragon of virtue by the appalling standards of previous Argentinian rulers, many of whom had an unhealthy predisposition towards fascist dictatorship.

Such was the case with President Leopoldo Galtieri, who ordered his troops to attack the near-defenceless Falklands on April 2, 1982, thus igniting a war that cost the lives of 649 of his countrymen, along with 255 British military personnel and three islanders.

Finally, let’s return to the beginning and the rudiments of the historical record.

Argentina wasn’t constituted a unified nation until 1862 – 22 years after Britain declared the Falklands a colony, though Argentina had used the islands briefly as a prison in 1832.

Hence, Kirchner might well be advised to consult the history books, before she spits more venom at Britain. And what might catch her jaundiced eye is the offer by the UK to resolve the Falklands’ issue by letting the International Court of Justice, in The Hague, decide in 1947. She might also note Argentina turned the idea down flat.

So why is Hissy Crissy now so vocal about ‘negotiating’ the transfer of the Falklands to Argentina and renaming it Islas Malvinas?

There’s virtually no historical precedent, despite the islands’ geographical location (which is much the same as the Channel Islands’ juxtaposition to France and the Isle of Man’s to Ireland).

So could it be somehow, however remotely, linked to oil exploration in the Falklands’ waters, whose result are believed to show there’s enough black gold down there to keep an armada of Ford Fiestas full tanked for the next billion years?

That’s just a wild guess, of course.