Drag Queens a Family Tradition in Europe

Who doesn’t like a guy in drag?

Who doesn’t love a drag queen? Republicans, apparently, judging by the number of bills filed in red states seeking to ban drag performances, prohibit children from attending them, or classify them as adult-oriented businesses. Really? You’re going to cancel Ru Paul and Mrs. Doubtfire?

In Europe, going to a pantomime (more familiarly, a panto) is a cherished Christmas and New Year’s tradition, much like going to church on Christmas Eve or trying not to blast your fingers off while celebrating the new year.

A panto is a fractured fairy tale that’s hosted by a dame, generally a guy in a dress. Cross-dressing usually features prominently, as do music, bad jokes, double-entendres, triple-entendres (thruple-entendre, anyone??) and much hilarity. And fart jokes. Definitely fart jokes.

I had never heard of a panto until we started going to Europe regularly during the fall months, but it’s become a tradition for our whole family. Shortly after we arrived in Belfast in January 2017, I bought us tickets for the Belfast panto at the Grand Opera House, which that year was “Cinderella.” Even a few weeks after the new year, tickets were nearly sold out. For our performance, the audience was composed mainly of schoolchildren.

Let me put that in italics: The audience was composed mainly of schoolchildren.

They were young. They were in their school uniforms. They were laughing hysterically. They weren’t being groomed.

The Belfast dame is May McFettridge, who’s been hosting the holiday panto at the Opera House since 1990, save for the pandemic year. She also works tirelessly for UK charities that support disadvantaged children, so much so that she was awarded a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) for her charity work and had an audience with Queen Elizabeth in 2007 at Buckingham Palace.

The Grand Opera House lobby features busts of two people: the architect of the building – and May McFettridge, who was given her own bust during her 25th panto in 2014. John Lineham, who formerly was a car mechanic, has a wife and two daughters.

Let me put that in italics: John Lineham has a wife and two daughters.

He became an accidental drag queen when a relative who was hosting a radio show asked Lineham to phone in to liven it up. He pretended to be a Belfast housewife, the show was a huge success, and May McFettridge was born.

The Grand Opera House closed (fortuitously, as it turns out) after the 2019 panto for a year-long refurbishment. The venue was supposed to open in time for the 2020 panto, but Covid intervened and delayed the reopening. In March 2022, Prince Charles was on hand for it, sharing a few quips with May.

In Shakespeare’s time, men assumed both male and female roles. That tradition lives on today in the modern panto. Nothing to see here but entertainment for the whole family.

UK Election a Tangled Web

If you thought James Comey’s congressional testimony was the political highlight of last Thursday, you better go back and read what’s been going on in the UK.

Teresa May’s Conservative Party already had a majority in Parliament when the prime minister called a snap election party leaders believed would tip the scales even further in their favor and help at the Brexit negotiating table. May was pushing for a “hard” Brexit after 52% of voters last year opted to leave the European Union.

The Tories’ main rivals are the Labour Party, led by a Bernie Sanders-like man called Jeremy Corbyn, a declared socialist. No one believed Labour had a chance, except those like our English friend Ian Almond.

Going door-to-door

Ian is a professor of world literature at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar, but before that, he was at Georgia State University, where he taught with Marilynn. Despite his support for Arsenal archrival Liverpool, we quickly grew fond of this lad from Preston, who didn’t learn to drive until he lived in Georgia.

Leading up to Thursday’s vote, Ian spent several weeks going door-to-door for the Labour Party, which stunned the Tories by adding 31 seats, while the Tories lost 12. The result is a hung Parliament, with the Conservatives cozying up to Northern Ireland’s staunch Unionist party DUP in order to form a majority bloc. It’s an unlikely marriage and one that Corbyn intends to fight.

“Although it’s not a victory, it’s a huge step forward for the Labour party,” Ian says, “particularly since Corbyn was subjected to such an intense hate campaign and widespread demonization by, sadly, almost the entire spectrum of the UK mainstream media.”

He notes that only the Mirror and the Guardian endorsed Corbyn and that the TV channels were largely against him. The Labour Party’s gain, the biggest swing since 1945, was made more significant because few believed Labour had any chance before the votes were tallied, Ian says.

Strange bedfellows

The DUP is the same party that in Northern Ireland can’t agree to share power with the republican party Sinn Fein, following its own snap election earlier this year after Deputy Minister Martin McGuinness resigned (and then died). DUP’s leader, Arlene Foster, has been in the cross-hairs recently for her dictatorial management style and a funding scandal related to when she was enterprise minister. The parties have missed a deadline to form a power-sharing government, and a second deadline is looming. Failure to agree would mean either another snap election in Northern Ireland or the return of direct rule.

Many of DUP’s stances (denying climate change, refusing to recognize LGBTQ people) are out of step with a majority in the UK, one of the many reasons Corbyn is looking to form his own coalition government. Although Sinn Fein won seven seats, its MPs won’t participate, owing to their longstanding stance against UK rule.

The prospect of a “hard” Brexit has been taken off the table since the Conservatives no longer have a majority and Labour favored staying within the EU.

This election should be a wake-up call to Democrats in the US that change is possible, one person and one issue at a time.

I’ll let Ian have the final word, commenting in a recent Facebook post about going door-to-door:

“It’s a curious thing, this canvassing business: some people argue, some don’t say anything, some are lonely and drag the conversation on, some just tell you to piss off, some people don’t answer the door at all – you turn around and see a flicker of the curtains as you walk away. Going door to door, you see the damage twenty years of consensus, cross-party politics has done – so many people see no reason to vote at all. Does make you reflect on a system which actually preserves itself through its own ineffectiveness.”

Trump Not Going Anywhere, Says The Hill Correspondent

“Barring some cataclysm,” there’s little chance of Donald Trump leaving office before his four-year term is up, says Niall Stanage, White House correspondent for The Hill.

The Belfast native addressed a packed crowd of nearly 200 last week at The Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University Belfast. The public event occurred during the university’s spring break, making the turnout even more impressive. Stanage has been in America for 17 years, covering four presidents.

Numerous missteps from the nascent politician have left Trump with the lowest approval ratings of any modern president. However, nothing so far has risen to the level of impeachment, an unlikely event given the Republican majority in the US House of Representatives, Stanage said. Removal from office is even less likely because it requires a two-thirds vote in the Senate, a body that is evenly split between Republicans and Democrats.

Americans in the audience (maybe just Marilynn and me) wanted more insight into Trump’s first 100 days and his relationship with the media. Unfortunately, that sort of dirt was lacking for the most part, partly because of The Hill’s decidedly non-partisan stance.

However, Stanage did air some cringeworthy clips of Trump, including the famous interview where he describes the circumstances under which he told Chinese President Xi Jinping about the bombing of Syria (which he mistakenly called Iraq in the clip) while the president was enjoying “the most beautiful chocolate cake you’ve ever seen.” (See Stephen Colbert’s take on the clip here.)

He also described tense situations during press conferences with Press Secretary Sean Spicer. “It’s politically useful sometimes to be annoyed, but Sean Spicer gets personally annoyed.”

Reason for the win

Although Hillary Clinton won the popular contest for president by nearly three million votes, the crucial difference boiled down to 77,000 votes in three pivotal states, according to Stanage.

Stanage explained the concept of the so-called Blue Wall—Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania—and how the Electoral College turned on those three states. “He won by the rules of the Electoral College,” Stanage said. “The whole thing came down to states in the Blue Wall.”

Trump won Wisconsin by 22,000 votes, a state that last went Republican in 1984; Michigan by 11,000 votes and Pennsylvania by 44,000. Between 1993 and 2017, one-third of US manufacturing jobs disappeared, including many in those three states. Trump’s election success can be pinned on “the loss of jobs (in these areas), and they’re being ignored by Washington politicians,” Stanage said.

Stanage cautioned those who hope Trump is removed for some reason that Vice President Mike Pence is a more orthodox conservative on such issues as gay and women’s rights. Trump’s volatility continues to ignite liberals, which should make the 2020 presidential race very interesting, he noted.

Is US Treatment of Muslims Creating Another Troubles?

With the passing of IRA leader and later Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness this week, thoughts naturally turn to the man’s place in history. Should he be remembered as a statesman who helped negotiate the Good Friday Agreement that brought an end to the Troubles? Or as a terrorist who, despite his protestations, is widely believed to have directed and participated in terrorist activities?

His status as a Catholic from the Bogside of Derry played a huge role in his decision to join the IRA. According to the Guardian, after attending technical college, McGuinness was turned down for a job as a mechanic because he was a Catholic. Three years later, in 1968, he joined the IRA after seeing bloody pictures of Gerry Fitt, the Catholic MP for Belfast West, after he was hit by police batons.

McGuinness’s radicalization didn’t turn on a single incident, I’d imagine, but occurred gradually over time as mistreatment piled atop mistreatment until he reached the breaking point.

Marginalizing a class of people

It got me to thinking about what I feel is America’s mean-spirited (not to mention clumsy and likely illegal) recent efforts to ban Muslims from traveling to the US. The latest is the odd ban on electronic devices larger than a cellphone in the cabins of flights originating from most Middle Eastern countries. (Side note: what about those dangerous lithium batteries in laptops in checked baggage? I’m more afraid of exploding lithium batteries than I am of terrorists.)

Maybe there is a compelling security reason, but does taking your shoes off at airport security and leaving your big tube of toothpaste at home make you feel any safer? Logic does not favor the government in these issues. But I digress.

Have you ever been treated unfairly for what you think was no good reason? How did it make you feel? Now take those feelings and multiply it by the 4.3 million Muslims in the US, many of them naturalized citizens, then add in the 178.3 million Muslims in the six countries affected by the travel ban.

Even if I was the straightest-laced Muslim imaginable, I’d be pissed off. Now imagine those already disadvantaged by lack of education or high unemployment where they live, and you begin to see how the seeds of dissent are sown by those who truly want to do harm to Westerners.

Let me be clear: we’re talking about an infinitesimal number of radical idiots in a vast sea of people, nearly all of whom share the same dreams of building a better life for themselves and their children as we do. Americans don’t hold a patent on this idea.

I consider myself a Christian, yet I’m truly appalled at many of the things allegedly done in the Lord’s name in the US and around the world. Conservative Christianity no more reflects my values than radical Islam reflects the values of all but a handful of Muslims.

Martin McGuinness was radicalized after being put down for his religion and seeing people just like him being cast to the sidelines of society time and time again.

But through personal growth and empathy, McGuinness risked his life to negotiate peace and later served admirably in the resulting power-sharing government with former enemies, including rabid unionist Ian Paisley. How will he be remembered? He will be seen both as a terrorist and as a diplomat, I’m sure.

Life must go on, regardless

How many future terrorists is the US risking through its heavy-handed efforts to keep us “safe,” while at the same time decimating the State Department budget that funds outreach to the world and beefing up what’s already the world’s largest military?

These efforts don’t make me feel safe. They just make me embarrassed for the country my family has been a part of since before the Revolutionary War.

Earlier this week, there was a terrorist attack in London. Declan and I are visiting there next weekend, attending a football match with 60,000 other people, visiting the Tower of London, Harrod’s and the British Museum, all top tourist attractions.

And the whole family will be in Antwerp next month, the scene of another incident just yesterday. Oh yeah, and we’ll be in Paris and Berlin on that trip, too.

Like it or not, we all are citizens of the world, and what the US does in the name of “security” has impacts that likely will ripple for years. On this matter, I take my cue from ‘80s pop star Joe Jackson and the title track of his 1986 album, “Big World.”

“It’s a big world – so much to do / And plenty of room for me and you”

About the photo: Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams (left) and Martin McGuinness.

First-Hand Stories from the Troubles

My editor would have killed me, if I still had one of those. I attended a roundtable discussion among a republican, a unionist and a British Army soldier who fought during the Troubles and didn’t get anyone’s names.

I was a guest of the Agnes Scott College group visiting Belfast and Derry earlier last week at the session and didn’t want to intrude. I was more interested in what they had to say than who they were. And they said a lot.

The Roots of Riots

At least two of the participants were from lower socio-economic classes, the disaffected more prone to do what’s necessary instead of what might be necessarily right. The British soldier, who did two tours in the North before quitting, was a council house kid who dropped out of school at 16 and apprenticed with a butcher’s for a year, because the local mine was closed.

So the British Army was a step up, despite the misogyny, the beatings and the “you’re not paid to think” mentality. “We were given no Irish history—we were ignorant of the situation,” the former soldier said. “The Army doesn’t do complicated. It was black and white to them that the republicans were the enemy.”

They were taught that anyone is a possible suspect, even children who could grow up and become IRA soldiers. In open areas, they were taught to surround themselves with women and children to deter potential snipers.

He eventually came to realize, “We were part of the problem.” He left the army in 1996, got his qualifications, an education, settled in the North and started a dialog with former combatants.

Hey, hey, mister union man

The unionist also came from a working-class Protestant background and was indoctrinated into the unionist cause by an uncle who was a staunch supporter of Ian Paisley. He joined the youth wing of the UDF, a paramilitary organization, and later volunteered to be a gunman in 1981. He admits to being involved in murders, attempted murders and armed robberies and pled guilty to murder after being arrested. He was given four life sentences and imprisoned for 16 years until after the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998 that, for the most part, ended the armed conflict.

About five years into his sentence, “I began to see Paisley as part of the problem.” While still in prison, he began to work for peace, and he still does. Spotting a trend here?

Getting to the heart of the conflict

The nationalist joined the IRA as a teen-ager after seeing how the British Army treated residents in the Short Strand area of East Belfast, an island of Catholicism in a deep sea of Protestants. The Short Strand backs up to the Lagan River.

Basically, he saw an occupying army come in and take over houses, schools, hospitals, sports grounds and parish halls, turning them into fortresses. “Soldiers are not trained to keep the peace, they are trained to kill,” he said.

Like the soldier, the former IRA man said that everyone was treated as a threat. Teen-agers were targeted, forced against walls, searched and questioned. And if they gave the soldiers any “cheek” they were taken in for interrogation that lasted four hours or more.

He got arrested in 1973 and spent most of the next 26 years in prison, also being freed after the Good Friday Agreement. At first, those arrested were treated as political prisoners, which afforded them certain rights. But in 1976, the UK withdrew political status and started treating them as criminals, including taking away the right to silence and allowing torture, the nationalist said. At one point, he says 85% of people appearing in court were convicted by their own statements, most of which were obtained through torture.

The situation resulted in the hunger strikes in 1980-81, in which 10 men died. Although the government never did return political status to the prisoners, the hunger strike did shine a harsh light on the worst practices.
“Troubles” doesn’t adequately explain the circumstances that caused more than 3,600 people to be killed over a 30-year period. “I refer to it as the Conflict,” the republican said. “Trouble is what you have with a neighbor or when kids are fighting. It doesn’t capture the depth and gravity of what was happening here.”

NI Political Situation Clear as Mud

Talk about muddy waters. Thursday’s special election in Northern Ireland raised more questions than answers about power-sharing and a potential border poll.

The unionist DUP wound up with 28 seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly versus 27 seats for the republican Sinn Fein. Fewer than 1,200 votes separated the parties.

But looking beyond the main parties, to those that lean one way or another, it’s pretty much of a tie. The main parties have three weeks to form a new power-sharing government, which remains very much in doubt as the leaders of both parties remain entrenched in rhetoric.

Failure to form a new government could mean the return of direct rule from London, which I’m not sure anyone wants. The election was historic in that unionists will not have an overall majority should the new government be formed, the first time in 100 years.

Election differences to US

This was a special election triggered in January by the deputy first minister from Sinn Fein resigning and the party not appointing a new minister. After a short election period, which saw greater Belfast blanketed with election placards affixed with zip ties to utility poles, nearly two-thirds of voters turned out. In the last US election, which was regularly scheduled and much expected, only 55% of eligible voters turned out. I think that speaks volumes about participation in the political process.

I’ll point you to a previous column about the political situation in Northern Ireland for the reasons behind the special election, but I wanted to point out the differences between the election systems.

Regardless of your political position, I think you would agree that many US voters wished they had had more choice among candidates, that neither Democrats nor Republicans truly represent their feelings. But in a two-party, winner-take-all system, voting for a third-party candidate is like whizzing in the wind.

In Northern Ireland, fractional votes count. In other words, you don’t just vote for a single candidate. You rank the candidates according to your preferences. In some cases, the fourth or fifth choice could swing an assembly seat one way or the other, which happened in this case. Some voters we talked to take great delight in listing their most-despised candidates 12th and 13th out of a field of 13.

To me, that seems like a much better way for the electorate to be heard.

Now for the border question

Beyond the power-sharing question, political pundits also are talking about the potential for a poll on whether Northern Ireland remains in the UK in the wake of Brexit. The divorce of Great Britain from the European Union means the border between Great Britain and the EU will become the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

The island is accustomed to free movement of people and goods. The only way you know you’ve passed from one country to another is whether the signs are also in Irish and whether the speed limit signs are in kilometers or miles per hour.

No one is talking about a hard border and immigration checks, but Brexit and the nationalist gains in this election bring up larger issues about where Northern Ireland believes it belongs in the world order.

And if no government is formed in three weeks, yet another snap election is possible. So stay tuned.

Nobody knows the Troubles they’ve seen

No trip to Belfast would be complete without learning more about the deep, rich and often painful history of Northern Ireland. It’s a complicated interplay among the North, the Republic of Ireland and England that stretches back centuries.

The story you’ll get depends on who you ask, more specifically, the religion of who you ask. While there are no absolutes in religion or politics (just ask pollsters before the US presidential election), generally Protestants support the union with England and Catholics want Ireland to be one country. There, 350 years of Irish history wrapped up in a bow, just for you.

But you’ll get widely divergent takes on the same historical events by visiting the Museum of Orange Heritage and the Eileen Hickey Irish Republican History Museum, which we did over the past several days.

The origin of ‘hillbilly’

The Museum of Orange Heritage is all about how King William of Orange beat back the Catholics in 1690, how they again were victorious following battles during the early Irish republican rebellion of 1798, how the Orange Lodges got started around the same time, their participation in the first World War and how they came under attack during the Troubles. There’s more to it than that, obviously, but that definitely hits the highlights.

Opened in 2015, the museum was built, in part, through the support of the European Union. We paid 10 pounds for a family ticket, and the museum has regular museum-like hours, Tuesday-Saturday. We were surprised to discover that football great George Best (for whom Belfast City Airport is named) was a member of a junior Orange society when he was a lad.

You can see parts of King William’s saddlecloth, a pair of gloves and a letter he wrote. If you look closely, you can see an American connection—Protestant immigrants to the US were called “King Billy’s Men from the mountains or hills” because, like at home, they celebrated significant Protestant war victories with music. This was later shortened to “hillbillies.”

Prison life detailed

On the other hand, the Irish Republican History Museum is open four hours a day, Tuesday-Saturday, takes no government money and is run by an all-volunteer organization. Admission was free, but we kicked 10 pounds into the donation box to even things out between the Unionists and the Republicans. The museum was founded by (who else?) Eileen Hickey, a Provisional IRA leader who spent more than four years in Armagh Prison between 1973-1977, during a time in which hundreds of people (mostly Republicans) were jailed—often without charge.

After the end of the Troubles, she started collecting artifacts and stories from those who had been imprisoned, along with other Republican history. The museum opened in 2007, one year to the day after her death from lung cancer, in a former social hall (read: drinking establishment).

While there were few visitors at either museum when we visited, the Orange museum seemed rather sterile, artifacts under plexiglass with museum-quality interpretation beside them. Other than the nice woman who took out money, the only other museum person we saw was a maintenance man swabbing down a hallway.

The Republican museum was chock-full of objects, including a fair amount of weaponry and a ton of artifacts made by prisoners. Harps galore, banners, furniture, mirrors, Celtic crosses. These people obviously had a lot of time on their hands.

You can see artifacts from Long Kesh and Armagh prisons, including a recreation of an Armagh cell and Eileen Hickey’s prison card. Hickey’s sister was there on the day we visited, showing obvious enthusiasm for the museum her sister founded as a way to tell the Republican story.

But when Marilynn asked about the current political climate, days after the Republican party Sinn Fein triggered early elections, she was more circumspect. The Troubles impacted the lives and outlooks of an entire generation, but today’s teens are growing up in a time when they know nothing but peace.

And perhaps that’s the best place to leave it, both this column and the Troubles, with wishes for continued peace.

Photos: The one to the left is an example of an Orange arch located outside the Museum of Orange Heritage. The one to the right is a mural of Bobby Sands, a member of the Provisional IRA who died during a hunger strike at the HM Prison Maze in 1981. This mural is just off Falls Road about two blocks from the Republican museum.

Interesting times … on both sides of the pond

Just two weeks ago, we were looking forward to getting away from the tit-for-tat government spats that were occurring during the presidential transition from Barack Obama to Donald Trump. Inauguration? What inauguration?

And then Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness resigned a week ago, which has triggered a new Northern Ireland election for March 2. Oh boy, just in time for my birthday.

It’s hard enough to describe the political situation in Northern Ireland during tranquil times. But the past two months on the island have seen a sharpening of the divide between the Democrat Unionist Party (DUP) and nationalist party Sinn Fein. The two parties had been running a coalition government in Northern Island under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday agreement, which ended decades of direct rule from London and is generally considered to mark the end of the Troubles. The resignation of one of the main ministers can trigger a snap election after one week in the absence of a replacement being named, which is what happened earlier today.

Try to keep up

Ostensibly at the heart of the debate is the renewable heat incentive (RHI), a scheme that Arlene Foster set up as energy minister before being named first minister last year before the May 2016 election. The terms of the scheme seem to have been quite generous, especially in light of drastically falling fuel prices. That’s not to say that all who received RHI funds—mainly farmers who also invested heavily in new technology—were doing anything wrong. But the terms were extremely favorable to those who participated in RHI, with a total potential outlay to taxpayers of nearly £500 million.

When details came to light, Sinn Fein asked Foster to step aside while an investigation took place. She refused, setting the stage for last week’s showdown. Fueling the flames, so the speak, during the so-called “ash for cash” scandal was the DUP communities minister’s decision to cut £50,000 out of a program to help Irish language students visit the Gaeltacht region of Donegal, where Irish still is spoken. This happened on the Friday before Christmas. Nollaig Shona, indeed!

The week between McGuinness’s resignation and the calling of early elections saw a flurry of he-said, she-said between the parties. The money for Irish language instruction, a key point for Sinn Feiners, was returned. Foster refused to step aside, and Sinn Fein declined to name a new first deputy unless she did.

But wait, there’s more!

A snap election suspends the power-sharing agreement for the first time in more than a decade, and Stormont, where the Northern Ireland Assembly meets, will cease operating in the next couple of weeks. Will it mean the reimposition of direct rule or could it tip political power in another direction?

A change in the constitution aimed at gradually reducing the size of the legislative body also means that there will be 18 fewer representatives, which could hurt fringe parties but could also rebalance power among the main political parties. In a world where virtually no one predicted Brexit or in the UK or Trump’s election in the US, we’ve all learned that anything is possible.

Finally, the new election puts in doubt Northern Ireland’s solution to the bedroom tax, which taxes people for having unused bedrooms in an effort to get them to downsize. Large carveouts were made for pensioners, but there just aren’t enough smaller homes to go around—despite the threat of taxation. The collapse of power-sharing also leaves this issue up in the air.

In announcing the mandated election, Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire expressed hope that the parties could “… find a way forward to secure the continuation of devolved government.”

Can you image power-sharing between Republicans and Democrats? When considering how this issue will affect Northern Ireland over the next six weeks, remember how far both sides have come over the past 15 years.