Martin McGuinness is dead

Martin McGuinness 1950-2017.

Former Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness has died, aged 66. Along with Ian Paisley, McGuinness was one of the two key figures in making the Northern Ireland Good Friday peace agreement work. The partnership of Paisley, a hard-line Unionist preacher and McGuinness, a former-IRA leader was unlikely but somehow worked in a relationship that was so friendly at the end the pair earned the nickname The Chuckle Brothers. These tribal warriors both surprised us as men of peace and brought the province back from the precipice of deadly conflict and made it boringly normal.

Born in Derry in 1950, McGuinness grew up in a city with a long history of sectarian violence. He was educated in Catholic schools but it was Unionists and the British that made him a republican not the Christian Brothers. Derry was predominately Catholic but ruled by Protestants in a gerrymander across provincial and local council boundaries. He spent school holidays on his grandmother’s small farm across the border in Co Donegal and the difference was palpable. “Even at a very young age, I could never understand why, when you went over that line, you were supposed to be in a different country,” he said in a 1998 interview. “Coming back to the North again was always like coming back under a big black cloud.” When aged 15, he was interviewed for a job in a Protestant-owned firm and he said it came down to two questions. “What’s your name? What school did you go to? And out the door.”

Derry Catholics suffered discrimination in other ways. They lived in crowded and inadequate housing and suffered massive unemployment. Decades of resentment blew up in the seminal rebellion year of 1968. A new breed of charismatic leaders like Bernadette Devlin and John Hume demanded change and universal civil rights. Derry was the focus of groups such as the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association and the Derry Housing Action Committee aimed at fixing sectarian injustice. However many Protestants saw them as a front for republican organisations and many marches were banned. By the end of the decade tensions in Derry had broken out into violence with the 1969 Battle of the Bogside one of the key starting points of the Troubles. McGuinness, then 19, would later admit that Battle had hardened his republican attitudes.

McGuinness did get a job as an apprentice in a Catholic-owned butchery but butchery elsewhere convinced him his service lay elsewhere. By then he had joined the Provisional IRA though they were not very active in Derry. Most violence in the early days was between soldiers and stone-throwing youths. Matters escalated in 1971 when a British Army soldier was killed when his vehicle was petrol bombed in the Bogside. When two rioters were shot dead in July it was the cue for an IRA campaign in the city. The government introduced internment without trial in August 1971 directed almost exclusively against republicans and 21 people were killed in three days of rioting across Northern Ireland.

McGuinness worked his last day at the bacon counter on 8 August 1971. As internment began he went on the run rarely sleeping in the same bed twice. By 1972, he was second-in-command in the city as Bloody Sunday unfolded in the city. He always denied claims he was involved in bomb handling on the day and the 1990s Saville Inquiry found “he did not engage in any activity that provided any of the soldiers with any justification for opening fire”. Regardless “the Butcher’s Boy” gained notoriety while the Provos bombed Derry commercial centre methodically, with far less civilian casualties than Belfast.

McGuinness was never convicted of any offence in Northern Ireland but served time in the Republic. In 1973, he was convicted by the juryless Special Criminal Court, after being arrested near a car containing 110 kg of explosives and 5000 rounds of ammunition. Like many republicans, McGuinness refused to recognise the court but declared his membership of the Provisional IRA : ‘We have fought against the killing of our people… I am a member of Óglaigh na hÉireann and very, very proud of it”. He was sentenced to six months imprisonment at Port Laoise.

He claims to have left the IRA when he was released in 1974. He joined the IRA’s political wing Sinn Fein eventually becoming its best-known face after Belfast boss Gerry Adams. He was elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont in 1982. He did not take his seat but was involved in irregular contact with the British government. As the war dragged on towards an unsatisfactory stalemate the Army used its intelligence unit to infiltrate the IRA in Northern Ireland but the Republicans continued to have success with its operations on the British mainland. The bomb with the largest economic impact was the 1992 attack on the Baltic exchange in the City of London. Three people died but the £800m damage bill eclipsed by £200m the entire damage of the conflict to date and raised the prospect of devastating the British economy. The British made coded messages to the IRA that if they were prepared to call off the violence, anything might be possible.

In 1997 McGuinness was elected to Westminster as the MP for Mid Ulster and in April the following year he was Sinn Féin’s chief negotiator in the talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement, ending years of violence. Following its agreement he was nominated by his party for minister for education in the power-sharing executive. Suspicions between republicans and unionists dogged the new body with many talks failing. However when McGuinness helped secure IRA arms decommissioning in 2005 a significant roadblock to peace was achieved. His success helped him lead negotiations during talks that paved the way for the 2007 St Andrew’s Agreement. It resulted in the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly, a new Northern Ireland Executive and Sinn Fein’s support for the Police Service of Northern Ireland, courts and rule of law.

In May 2007 McGuinness became deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, with former Democratic Unionist Party leader Ian Paisley elected first minister. While the disagreements about the status of Northern Ireland never went away, the pair forged a remarkable partnership successfully bringing investment and business confidence back to the province and a sense of optimism.  When Paisley died, McGuinness held back the tears as he said “Over a number of decades we were political opponents and held very different views on many, many issues but the one thing we were absolutely united on was the principle that our people were better able to govern themselves than any British government.” McGuinness, like Paisley, proved to be just as astute in peace as he was in war.

Saving the Great Artesian Basin

gab-mapOne of Australia’s greatest hidden gifts to the life that colonised it is an enormous water resource far below the ground. Spanning four states and territories over a fifth of the continent and continuing out into the Gulf of Carpentaria the Great Artesian Basin is the largest and deepest artesian water basin in the world. In some places it does resemble a basin, but it is mostly solid rock with water stored in the pores.

GAB water is ancient, falling as rain or leaks from rivers west of the Great Dividing Range over a million years ago. That water takes a slow journey of one to five metres a year percolating through cracks in sandstone sheets (aquifers) held together under pressure from the impermeable stones (aquitards) above and beneath. As well as heading roughly west the water also trickles down under gravity.

Over time water is stored in vast quantities. It emerges to the ground naturally under pressure through springs and geological faults. Native plants and animals rely on springs in parched landscapes, particularly in the south-west where the Basin is shallower. Humans arrived on the continent 50,000 years ago and quickly fanned out to every corner. It is likely they swiftly found this precious resource. Burial sites 20,000 years old showed evidence of trading posts alongside artesian springs. Use of bore water dramatically increased with the arrival of Europeans into central Australia.

The first bore in 1878 found water 53m below the surface at Killara in north-west New South Wales. Within ten years, substantial finds were made at Cunnamulla and especially Barcaldine, both in Queensland. The Barcaldine bore pumped 700,000 litres a day unleashing a drilling boom and pastoral settlement in the central west. By 1900 there were more than 500 bores in the Basin thought it wasn’t easy to find water and not all were successful.

Enough reliable water was pumped out to support 120 towns and hundreds of properties in Outback Australia. Initially the pastoral industries took the most water but recently water release by oil and gas has caught up. Mining of copper, uranium, coal, bauxite and opals also depend on water, much of it artesian, while tourist spas are also an intensive user of Basin water.

Human activity will unlikely ever dry up the Basin. In 120 years of bores about 0.1 percent of the total water was extracted from the Basin. But what it has done is lower the pressure declining the flow of water, sometimes by 80%. A third of bores have stopped flowing altogether. The springs have been severely damaged by excavation, stock and humans while exotic pests degrade the area around springs. Early bore technology was flawed with many leaking and most were uncontrolled in their discharge of water, 95% of the water ended up in open drains.

Diminishing flow was recognised as early as 1912 when New South Wales introduced licensing of bores and eventually vested groundwater to the state. They also brought in bore construction standards. In 1990 governments agreed on a Great Artesian Basin Sustainability Initiative to cap and pipe bores. Across Australia capping programs rehabilitated free-flowing bores and replaced drains with pipes but most of the 3000 uncontrolled bores and 34,000km of open drains remain in place.

A Strategic Management Plan was put in place in 2000 and agreed by the Council Of Australian Governments.  But just like the Murray Darling (river) Basin plan, the issue of licences and multiple jurisdictions means the issue is inescapably political. The jury remains out on the impact of the extraction of large use of water for mining, especially coal seam gas mining. Graziers have to be convinced capping and piping will help them decrease their operating costs as well as increasing the pressure of the water and the reliability of its supply.

In Queensland the GAB is managed by a 10-year-plan which expires in June this year. Queensland’s government wants to cap and pipe all uncapped bores and bore drains in the next 10-year cycle. It is, as the government policy maker I spoke to told me, “an aspirational target” but it helps show the state is serious about the problem. The new draft plan (now out for community consultation) allows for action if a licence holder fails to comply with conditions.

There are more than 25,000 bores tapping the Queensland GAB, taking 315,000 ML a year. A diagram from the draft plan I saw at a Mount Isa community meeting showed that in 2016 around 90,400 ML was accounted for in losses through seepage and evaporation from uncontrolled bores and open bore drains. This exceeds the amount extracted by stock and domestic of 66,000 ML and the oil and gas industries 64,000 ML with other uses accounting for 93,000 ML.

Since 1989 almost 1000 bores have been rehabilitated under the government-funded program but one in five uncapped bores in Queensland remain untreated while 28% of bore drains have yet to be replaced with pipelines. All stock and domestic water users will be required to deliver water through water-tight delivery systems by the time the plan expires in 2027. Stock and domestic licences that permit free flowing bores or bore drains will require a bore management plan outlining what steps will be taken to deliver a water-tight delivery system.

The future of the Great Artesian Basin is exciting if it is managed properly. GAB water has a role as an energy source. Birdsville already has a geothermal power plant and other towns such as Winton are looking to copy it. It will make water available for future development and social and cultural activities that depend on water, including for the aspirations of Indigenous peoples in native title areas. It is crucial it is not destroyed in the same way humans are destroying Australia’s other natural wonder: the Great Barrier Reef.

Pixilated: A night at the Pixies in Brisbane

When I was planning a long weekend in Brisbane, I asked my up-with-the-music-pulse mate Muddy were there any interesting bands playing the city that weekend. Well, he said, the Pixies are playing the Thursday night and a few mutual friends were going. That was enough for me. Though not a huge fan, I did have a Pixies album in my collection (admittedly it’s a “best of” but whatever,). I was also aware of their reputation as one of the most influential bands of the 90s, though I missed them at their peak. Importantly there were still tickets available and with my credit card still smoking from the cost of the flights from Mount Isa, I forked out another $100 there and then to join the fun.


The gig was on in the Riverstage, a new venue for me and on the Thursday night the meeting point was the Buffalo Bar before a pleasant walk through the Botanical Gardens. Just outside the Riverstage venue was this Polo with the personalised plates “Pixi35”. The car was empty but we presume there was a big fan nearby somewhere.


Then it was inside the venue which was far from packed on the night. The venue holds 15,000 but there was only 3000-4000 or so inside. Yet the queue for the bar was a mile long so it was a dry concert for us. The other annoying fact was the 10pm curfew, crass stupidity imposed by Brisbane City Council. Given there are no homes for at least 500m in any direction, perhaps they are worried we’d keep the fruit bats awake. Dumb.

pixies11I took a photo on my phone of the foursome I went with but Muddy and Hugh have disappeared into the gloom while JD is visible but engrossed in his phone. That made the photo all about Joe, who at least looks happy to be here.


Muddy and I took a spot towards the front. Hugh claims they were only a row or so behind us, but that’s a quantum difference in moshpitness. In any case, it’s lights on and excitement building as the band is about to come to the stage around 8.15pm.

pixies7Finally the band take the stage and blast into their set without too much formality. As the Brisbane Times reviewer said, the Pixies don’t leave time to draw breath with 28 songs in 90 minutes. And it wasn’t long before I was dancing along with their pounding rhythm. The other comment I made to Muddy was that I like a band that does the old-fashioned thing of putting their name on the drums.pixies10

Singer and lead guitarist Black Francis didn’t interact much with the crowd preferring to let the music do the talking for him. I was surprised how many songs I knew Veloria, Where is My Mind, Monkey’s Gone to Heaven, Here Comes Your Man, Debaser and finishing up with Into the White. Plus several more I’ve forgotten.


Paz Lenchantin has been the bass player since 2014 replacing original female bassist Kim Deal. She was ace and sang a couple of songs too.pixies6

The Pixies were wrapped up and encored out by 9.45pm (at least plenty of time to find another pub). Wouldn’t rush to go back to see them again but they have a great catalogue and entertained with their performance. They were a tight outfit on stage and the drummer/bass combo was top notch. Yeah Blank Frank’s bantz was a disappointment but there is an undoubted aura of something special.


For a far more musically considered take on the Pixies – and better photos – check out Muddy’s blog piece with links to other reviews. While I admitted took it a bit for granted on the night, reading the reviews reminds me of their importance in the scheme of things and it was a privilege to watch them play.  When I got back to Mount Isa and told people I was at a big concert in Brisbane on the weekend, the usual response was, “oh, did you enjoy Adele?”


The Bengal Lion


I hate to admit it but I shed tears while watching the new film Australian film Lion. I’ve always hating crying at the movies ever since I was kid and used to laugh at my mum when she cried at the drop of a hat in any emotional scene of a movie, no matter how silly the premise. “Stop it, you” she would say to me while drying her tears, her anger at me betrayed by a smile. Mum has been dead ten years now but I remembered her and her tears as I watched the first meeting of a man and his mother in 25 years at the end of Lion. I was annoyed at myself, knowing full well my emotions were being played on by the filmmakers but like my own mother all those years ago, I could not help myself. My eyes are capable of betraying me again at the memory the following morning.

Lion tells an incredible true story and it has been turned into one of the best Australian films in years. Saroo Brierley was born in 1981 in a small village near the Central Indian city of Khandwa. His father had left home and the desperately poor family relied on the money his mother made from carrying rocks from a quarry. Saroo’s older brother Guddu supplemented their income by stealing coal from trains to sell for food and would take the five-year-old Saroo with him on adventures. One night Guddu and Saroo travel to a nearby city on a train where Guddu earned money working as a sweeper. The pair get separated and Saroo falls asleep on a train. When he wakes up his brother is gone and the train is moving.

Saroo could not escape from an empty locked cabin and his calls for help at stations were unheeded. After two days the train ended up in faraway Calcutta – 1500km from Khandwa. Saroo escapes into the station throng but is lost in a strange city where no one speaks his native Hindi. Sleeping rough, he narrowly avoids being kidnapped at night into child slavery and according to the film he meets a woman who befriends him and takes him home (in real life it was a male railway worker) .

Saroo becomes suspicious of her intentions when she invites a man over who checks him out and he distrusts their promises to help him find his family. Saroo escapes once more and befriends a man, who takes him to the police station. The illiterate Saroo tells police he from “Ganatelay” but no one knows a place of that name.

Saroo is placed in an orphanage but ads in the Calcutta paper fail to locate his family. Eventually he agrees to be adopted by an Australian couple and he flies to Tasmania, where the Brierley couple played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham take him home. They fill his life with love so he is happy though is affected by a second Indian adoption into the family a year later. The second boy is less happy and practises self harm but they get on with life regardless.

The timeframe moves forward from the late 1980s to 2008 when Saroo Brierley is now an Australianised young man, played by Dev Patel. Saroo moves from Tasmania to Melbourne to learn hotel management and becomes involved with an American student (Rooney Mara). They are invited to a meal at the house of an Indian couple where the sight of traditional Indian food stirs long hidden memories in Saroo. He tells them his story of travelling two days on a train to Calcutta and all he can remember is a train station with a water tank. Someone suggests he work out how fast Indian trains travelled in the 1980s and to use Google Earth to find his home.

It was a massive undertaking but the search obsessed Saroo. Working out in a 1500km radius from Calcutta he finally found landmarks in Google earth that matched his childhood memories: a waterfall where he played as a boy, the quarry where his mother worked, a train station with a water tower and a town called Ganesh Talai. This was his home town he garbled as “Ganatelay”. From memory he followed the route to where he believed his house was and knew he had found his home.

In 2013 Saroo flew to Ganesh Talai. To his disappointment the old house was long abandoned and turned into an animal compound. With his Hindi long forgotten, he had difficulty making people understand his quest. Finally he told an English-speaking local his story and the man took him to meet an old woman. It was Saroo’s mother, who instantly recognised her son. The proof was a bump on the head from a long-forgotten accident when he was run over by a bike while carrying a watermelon and the melon smashed against his head.

After many tears of happiness, Saroo asks about his older brother Guddu. He was dead, he was told. There were tears of sadness soon replaced with more tears of joy when his mother told him a younger sister was still alive. The film closes with the real Saroo bring his Tasmanian mother to India to see his Indian mother. The end credits tell three important facts. Firstly Guddu died the night they went missing, after being struck by a train. Secondly Saroo’s mother never gave up hope of finding her other boy and deliberately stayed in the same village so she would be easy to find. Lastly, Saroo found out that not only did he pronounce the name of the town wrong, he also pronounced his own name wrong. He was Sheru, not Saroo. In Hindi Sheru means Lion.

The New Yorker was right to say the second half of the film was a slow and muted affair after “the Dickensian punch of the first” but Saroo’s disappearance and rediscovery remains remarkable. It also throws light on 90,000 children who go missing in India each year, something authorities ignore, with officials complicit in the problem. According to children’s rights group Bachpan Bachao Andolan 10 times more are trafficked, and forced to beg or work in farms, factories and homes, or sold for sex and marriage. Thousands of innocent young lives are destroyed every year for profit.