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Don Harry and the East River blues.

March 19, 2011

Last Thursday night I found myself thinking about Harry Atherton, my old Spanish teacher from the sixties. The school I attended was very much of its time and ethos: selective, all male, study orientated, and, being run by the Irish Christian Brothers, a major proponent of corporal punishment and all its attendant rituals. Harry was very different: gentle, thoughtful and well aware that the boys’ macho swaggering was no more than a cover up for teenage insecurity, a strategy for coping. He also realised, I know now, that beyond exam results and sports cups, we would need to develop as thoughtful and reflective adults, were we to get the best out of our lives.

Of course, all this is with hindsight. At the time, we just thought he was soft. When he paused in his teaching to philosophise (I know lads …….I know you call me Don Harry), we mostly switched off. smirked at each other, or doodled in our jotters. You would think we would have appreciated that he neither used the belt nor savaged us in the manner of most of our teachers, but, no. Such a system brutalises all within it: we expected the violence, and if we didn’t get it, we dismissed the teacher as timid and pathetic, rather than recognising them as principled and child centred.

Harry had a large family and the boys attended our school, a couple of them in my year or close to it. They all made a big show of how much they hated their dad. It seemed odd at the time, but, again, hindsight tells me, in the prevailing school ambience it would have been difficult for them to portray their feelings in any other way. I don’t doubt it was a loving and close family.

He taught us well and he encouraged us to think; not, I fear, a priority in education in those days. I sometimes wondered what the other staff thought of his approach: whether they secretly admired him, or hated him for pointing out what could be – an escape from the daily round of beltings and sarcasm. Far from gentle and timid, Harry must have been strong and secure in his professionalism and in his determination to espouse our school motto: Show our faith by the way we live, rather than merely paying lip service to it.

I thought of him, too, in New York, last year, when I finally managed to visit the UN Building by the East River. For ‘baby boomers’, the UN is an iconic building, never far from our screens over the past sixty years. However, keen as I was to visit the site, it has always been the ethos of the UN that has attracted me, and the cynical manipulation of its organisations for political ends and narrow national advancement has always annoyed me.

Those who think small will always label those with vision as ‘naive’: it’s a convenient put down, but, through history, it’s clear that the dreamers have achieved more than the cynics; or, more accurately, if the dreams have been unfeasible, at least steps have been taken in positive directions, rather than merely sneers being cast from the sidelines.

So the USA’s dismissals of the UN when it’s failed to persuade it to the American world view has been, I feel, more demeaning to the US Government than the UN Itself; Britain’s complicity pre-Iran was a nadir, but, to be fair, all the major players in world affairs have abused the UN for their own ends through the years. Maybe that is inevitable; maybe the bureaucracy, the lack of transparency, the blind spots in policy, all its shortcomings – maybe they are what you get when you try to get 192 countries to sit down together for the common good. However, like Don Harry standing against the prevailing bullying ethos, maybe there is a role for the smaller nations on FDR East River Drive: they don’t have to follow the cynicism of their bigger more driven colleagues; they have the opportunity to remain true to the ideals of the organisation.

Being stuck somewhere between Irish and Scottish, there are often moments when I gaze longingly at Ireland’s ability to make decisions for the common good – and, yes, Iain Gray and other small minded politicians – to get it hideously wrong as well. However, no Irish achievement gives me as much pride as that small country’s contribution to UN Peacekeeping and Relief forces over the years. Punching far above its weight, Irish Defence Forces have been in all parts of the globe, risking life and limb to help positively rather than to invade, terrorise or subdue. You would only need to hear the sneers of some when they speak of Ireland’s military capacity, and to look at where they come from, to know the moral strength of the Irish position. The small countries of the UN have the capacity to be its conscience and Thursday’s decision to come to the aid of the beleaguered people of Libya was due in no small measure to the work of the Arab League, prompting, while the bigger nations, as always, flicked the beads on the self interest abacus to see which way to move.

If anyone is any doubt as to the true meaning of the unionist parties’ favourite word – ‘separation’, take a walk into the main chamber at the UN and see the the desk space between the alphabetically positioned Saudia Arabia and Senegal. That’s when it really hits home what it means to be ‘separate’ – separate from the world, from opinion making, from decision making. And, to those Scots who will rebut this, as they always do, with the inane reference to ‘Scotland’s world infliuence as part of the UK’ – let them justify the decisions made by that ‘influential superpower’ on Iraq, for starters, and then say it’s a matter of pride for Scotland’s only presence at the UN to be filtered through that particular, narrow, mean spirited, US dominated world view. Scotland has a lot to offer, it could be a small but significant force for good, if it was allowed a voice.

So, despite a deep rooted resistance to war planes flying over foreign territory, and in trepidation of what will, inevitably, be called ‘collateral damage’, I was pleased to see the vote for a no-fly zone on Thursday night: pleased for the Libyans suffering under a despot, but pleased for the UN – in the hopes that they might raise their eyes to the suffering of others denied basic human rights, and will operate as they should for world peace and cooperation, rather than as the lap dog of the wealthy and powerful.

Many of my left leaning acquaintances take issue with this – they see oil and influence behind every decision taken by the Security Council, but I disagree, I remain ‘naive’ in my support of the world community. Don Harry’s thoughtful approach has served me well. I hope I teach as he did.

As Dag Hammarskjold memorably said of the United Nations:
This organization is created to prevent you from going to hell. It isn’t created to take you to heaven.


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