There is plenty that can be said – both good and bad – of the late Lord Bannside, aka the Rev Dr Ian Paisley. For me, he was the political colossus (in Northern Ireland) of my lifetime. That’s despite the fact for all my years living in NI, he led merely the third biggest party, after the UUP and the SDLP.

Unhappy with his church, he founded his own – the Free Presbyterian Church – in 1951. Unhappy with established unionist politics, he founded his own party, the Protestant Unionist Party (in 1966) and later the Democratic Unionist Party (in 1971), which succeeded to primacy at Stormont in 2003. It was four more years before he could be persuaded to take the helm of Northern Ireland’s devolved government, alongside Sinn Féin.

I was never a fan of the ‘Big Man’. His political style was tribal and abrasive. That appeals to many, but never to me.

He was extremely divisive, not just as a unionist arguing against Irish nationalism or as a Protestant denouncing Catholicism, he even divided opinion amongst the voters who might be expected to support him. An old friend of mine, a loyalist, found him obnoxious and refused to shake his hand during a Paisley visit to his workplace.

Paisley had a theological opposition to Roman Catholicism. His opposition to an all-Ireland state was born of his Protestant outlook. He feared his fellow Protestants would be subsumed into a theocratic Catholic Ireland. It was, in a sense, a civil rights issue. Ironic then, that he and his supporters would sabotage the (mainly Catholic) civil rights demonstrations of the late 1960s. Paisley was wary of a theocratic Ireland; the Catholics in the North were already suffering the drawbacks of “a Protestant Parliament for a Protestant State” (as it was described by Northern Ireland’s PM, James Craig in 1934). Those drawbacks included lesser access to housing and open discrimination in the jobs market. Voting rights were restricted to householders, indirectly favouring Protestants, and voting areas were gerrymandered, compounding the challenge.

Paisley’s attitude was often excessive. In 1969, at the height of community tension, he told a loyalist rally that Catholics “breed like rabbits and multiply like vermin”. In 1988, he heckled a visiting Pope (John Paul II) in the European Parliament and accused him of being the Anti-Christ. His most fervent religious supporters loved it, but such grandstanding would only serve to reinforce his marginal credentials.

He was never a supporter of violence, but some of the thugs who counted themselves amongst his supporters stirred up riots at the civil rights demonstrations. Just a few weeks after the first Moon landing, in the summer of 1969, the Army were deployed to help restore peace. Instead they attracted further violence by the IRA, and tit-for-tat retaliation by loyalist paramilitaries. Legitimate targets were very loosely defined.

It took three decades to restore peace. This period was known as The Troubles, and circa 3500 people were killed.

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement - rejected by Ian Paisley

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement – rejected by Ian Paisley

By the 1990s, while other parties were working towards a deal, the DUP were rejectionist. They campaigned against the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) in 1998, which was approved in a referendum by 73% of Northern Ireland’s voters. Despite such a clear mandate, independent polling suggested just a narrow majority of Protestants (51%) were in favour of the deal.

Paisley drew strength from this reticence. From the fringes he could pressure the moderate UUP for signing up to an increasingly unpopular peace deal. It was certainly a flawed document – how could it not be? As time drew on, elements of it began to unravel, particularly those which relied on an assumption that Sinn Féin (which signed the document) and the IRA (which didn’t) were one and the same. The IRA took years to decommission its weapons, and Sinn Féin took longer still to recognise and accept the new police service established to replace the RUC.

It was fully nine years from the signing of the GFA to the formation of the Paisley/McGuinness government in 2007. In my view, that is how long it took for the GFA to settle – for the turbulence to be laid to rest. In the four years from 2003-2007, the DUP and Sinn Féin were the leading parties from either side of the tribal divide, but they would not govern together, so Direct Rule from Westminster was the prescribed punishment.

It was during this era – when Paisley was essentially First Minister-in-waiting – when I met him at his church in Belfast. I was visiting my parents in County Antrim with an English friend. He wanted to hear Paisley preach, so off we went. He is as thunderous a preacher as you might expect, and sound in his Gospel teaching. A real experience, but not a church I could ever feel comfortable in. Perhaps that’s the point.

Afterwards, somehow we stumbled into his office by accident (it’s a long story). His thunder was no more and we were heartily encouraged to “come on in lads”. Less the demagogue and more the gentle giant, he engaged us in a few minutes of small talk before praying for us and bidding us a good evening.

Our face-to-face experience is shared by many. Journalists and politicians in NI and Westminster and Brussels were well accustomed to encountering the different faces of Paisley. He was a man of sincerity and kindness, who for many years was so personally close to his political rival John Hume they would share Christmas (soft) drinks and fly together to their MEP engagements in Brussels and Strasbourg.

I have little doubt that, once upon a time, Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness (reportedly a former IRA chief of staff) would have happily put a bullet in Paisley’s head – if it was strategically helpful. But after they had served together in the Stormont Executive, they soon became known as the Chuckle Brothers, such was their evident comfort with each other.

The tweeted reaction to Rev Paisley's death by Martin McGuinness MLA

The tweeted reaction to Rev Paisley’s death by Martin McGuinness MLA

None of this is to excuse Paisley for his very real, and negative impact on Northern Ireland’s community relations, particularly at the outset of The Troubles, but also in later years. During the research for my university dissertation (which compared the GF Belfast Agreement with an earlier abortive deal at Sunningdale), I became convinced that the course of history could have been very different were it not for Paisley’s stirring in the 1960s. But there is no counter-factual history. We will never know how things might have been without Paisley.

I do not believe he was evil, nor necessarily wrong in his political outlook (though this is not to side with him). The unfolding of history is a complex process, and the greatest blame must be attributed to the terrorists on both sides.

After years as the ultimate rejectionist, parochially known as ‘Dr No’, he eventually agreed to share power with Sinn Féin in 2007. Paisley was First Minister for just over a year before he had to stand down on health grounds. In my view, his major achievement was the very act of sharing power at all. Symbolically, it was enormous.

But it was widely seen – at least amongst unionists – as a sell-out. I am sure he compromised (apparently out of character), but I don’t believe he betrayed his core beliefs or supporters. By 2007 Sinn Féin had finally accepted the policing institutions, and the major sticking points of the GFA were at last resolved.

Speaking after his death, the BBC’s former Ireland Correspondent Denis Murray said he believed Paisley was “intellectually convinced” of his decision to share power. But it took courage to do it, and he naturally lost support, both politically and subsequently within his church, from which he was later unceremoniously sacked after six decades of service. He threw a strop and never again darkened its doors.

About a decade ago, Paisley was rumoured to be gravely ill. I later – in 2005 – heard him give an address in London, in the St Mary Undercroft cellar chapel of the Palace of Westminster, on the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot. At the beginning, he reflected on his illness and confirmed the rumours. But he was now fighting fit:

“Let me share with you a little secret,” he said quietly, before booming, “I will be around for some considerable time to come.”

“Really!” I thought, “you know this?”

It was classic Paisley bravado, and it turns out he was right.

But now, at 88 years of age, he has been called home.

According to Twitter sources, he’s already struck up a power-sharing deal with his maker…

Ashya King (5) has been found with his parents in southern Spain. He’s safe, but unwell, with a brain tumour that was previously treated at Southampton General Hospital. His parents took him out of hospital on Thursday, apparently against medical advice.

He was not taken ‘without consent’ as was claimed by Hampshire Constabulary and widely reported by mainstream print and broadcast media. Without a court order, hospitals have no legal authority to give or deny consent to parents or legal guardians taking a child away.

Ashya King

Ashya King (Handout from Hampshire Police)

Ashya is seriously ill. He needs pain relief, ongoing feeding by a special machine, and urgent treatment for his tumour. It is understandable – and welcome – that our authorities should take an interest in his welfare. But the people with primary responsibility for his care are his parents, not the State. The intervention of the State is only required if there is evidence that Ashya’s parents are not meeting his needs.

My understanding is that Ashya was not formally discharged from hospital by his parents. They would not have signed forms to absolve the hospital of further responsibility for his care. So the hospital authorities were in an awkward limbo where their paperwork suggested they remained responsible for Ashya’s care, but did not have him in on their premises.

Given this scenario (or similar), they called on the police to get him back. When it was established the family had left the UK, a European Arrest Warrant was issued and the family was eventually found in Velez Malaga on Saturday evening when hotel staff recognised the parents from media reports.

Earlier, Ashya’s father Brett posted this video on YouTube, in which he called on the police to “call off this ridiculous chase.”

In the video Mr King explains that Ashya’s needs (outlined above) were being met, and further explains why he withdrew his son from hospital. His explanation suggests it was Hobson’s Choice, ie no choice at all. Listening only to his side of the story, it is difficult to disagree. Unfortunately, due to issues of patient confidentiality, we are unlikely to hear – in detail – the hospital’s side of the story, and so Mr King’s accusations against the hospital must be treated with caution.

Given the apparent facts of the case, it seems to me doctors were right to be concerned for Ashya’s welfare, the police were right to seek to find him, and Ashya’s parents made a reasonable judgement call in trekking him across France and Spain for further/better treatment. Strictly speaking, I understand they needed to release money from their business interests in Spain before buying treatment elsewhere.

At the time of writing, Ashya’s parents remain under arrest in Spain, while Ashya himself is being treated at a hospital in Malaga. I hope this is a (brief) temporary arrangement until it can be established that the events of the past few days were not ‘maltreatment’ (as per the arrest warrant). The King video cannot answer this. Hopefully the police will be able to establish the facts very quickly, so the family can reunite.

I got into a little trouble once…

My son Caleb was a day old, and a few hours. His mum was weak and tired and needed peace to sleep in her maternity bed. I needed coffee. And – as a dad perceives it – Caleb needed to see the world.

So I took him out of the maternity unit to a Costa café in the same hospital building. A jolly hour we shared together: Caleb mostly sleeping whilst being admired by fellow patrons, and me mostly drinking coffee and staring at my boy.

Soon we returned to the maternity unit, waiting to be buzzed in through the security door.

Then we were confronted by anxious officialdom. I shouldn’t have taken him out of the unit, apparently. I shouldn’t have taken him without consent, and certainly not before he had been discharged. I had broken hospital procedures.

I apologised.

I shouldn’t have apologised. No-one had previously instructed me not to take my own son out of the maternity unit. If there are procedures, they are there for the hospital to uphold. It’s not for me, the father, to follow hospital procedures, unless I’ve already shown that I understand and accept these.

I do have a responsibility not to remove someone else’s child from the maternity unit. Clearly that would be abduction, and the hospital procedures are in place, at least partly, to ensure that does not happen. But if that is perceived as a threat, then security is the responsibility of the hospital, not of an abductor, or in this case the father.

With hindsight, when challenged, I should not have apologised to the unhappy midwife. I should have been openly concerned. Why were the procedures not upheld? Why were they not more robust? Why was a dodgy-looking man (me) allowed to remove a newborn infant from a ‘secure’ maternity unit?

I was accused of taking Caleb away without consent. He’s my son – no consent needed.

Back to Ashya…

It is heartbreaking to see what this family is going through; so much suffering for a little boy, just five-years-old. While there is much public support for the family’s behaviour, there is also a great deal of criticism. We should avoid judgement until we’ve walked a mile in their shoes.

Sunday’s police statement, from Hampshire Constabulary – click here

Sunday’s hospital statement, from University Hospital Southampton:

Our priority has always been Ashya’s welfare and we are delighted that he has been found. We are now working closely with colleagues in Malaga to ensure he receives the essential medical support he needs.

“We are aware of the comments made online by his father. Throughout Ashya’s admission we have had conversations about the treatment options available to him and we had offered the family access to a second opinion, as well as assistance with organising treatment abroad.

“We understand how distressing this situation is for everyone involved, particularly Ashya’s family. We will continue to do what we can to support them and assist the police in providing any information they require.

If you’re a pope and you’re reading this, why not find another pope and watch tonight’s match together? There has never been a better time to do this, and there probably never will be. It should be obvious who to support. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is German and Pope Francis is Argentine, though only the latter is understood to care much about the beautiful game.

But most of us are not popes.

What if you’re English? Who then will you support?

After England were ejected from the last World Cup (2010), I blogged on how match stats suggested Fabio Capello was the most successful England manager of all time. The problem then, as I noted, was that England were knocked out by Germany, one of their two footballing nemeses (the other being Argentina).

Tonight, for the third time, Argentina and Germany (or West Germany) face each other in a World Cup final.

  • 1986 – Argentina 3-2 West Germany
  • 1990 – West Germany 1-0 Argentina

If you’re an England fan, it may not be easy to decide who to support, or who you want to lose. Perhaps it’s jingoistic – British forces have shed blood fighting both nations; Argentina’s president remains antagonistic over the Falkland Islands and Germany is the clear hegemonic power in the ever controversial European Union.

Both teams have brought great strife to England in previous international competitions. An excerpt from my 2010 blog:

  • World Cup 1966 - England defeated West Germany at Wembley. An anomoly.
  • World Cup 1970 – West Germany defeated England in the quarter-final in extra time.
  • World Cup 1982 – England drew against West Germany in the second round group stage, costing them a place in the semi-final, which the Germans later won.
  • World Cup 1986 – Argentina defeated England in the quarter-final.
  • World Cup 1990 – West Germany defeated England in the semi-final on penalties.
  • Euro ’96 – Germany defeated England in the semi-final on penalties.
  • World Cup 1998 – Argentina defeated England in the round-of-16 on penalties.
  • World Cup 2010 – Germany 4, England 1 in the round-of-16.

Who will you support this evening?

Choose wisely, but don’t expect it to make a difference…

Which Vladimir Putin are you? Apparently I am Warrior Putin: “You came to power vowing to “wipe [terrorists] out in the shithouse,” and you’ve never looked back since. Islamic insurgents across the Caucasus squeal when they hear your name. And one steely stare from you is all it takes to scare NATO off moving its missile shields a step closer to your borders. Glory to Russia!”

What city should you actually live in? Apparently I should actually live in Portland, Oregon. Having seen a series of Portlandia, I’m not convinced…

Which arbitrary thing are you? Apparently I am a box of hangers (not hangars – that would require a very big box). BuzzFeed says: “You’re a box of hangers! Maybe you’ll come in handy one day. You’re persistent, ever present. You’re always there, lurking. Your purpose in life is clear, though not always necessary.”


In the world of Buzzfeed, I have to be one of a number of Vladimir Putins. It simply won’t do to not be Mr Putin at all. I should, apparently, actually live in Portland rather than just outside London, even though my job is in London, my baby son lives in Epsom, my post arrives there, and my wife would presumably be living in Cape Town, which is where Buzzfeed reckons she should ‘actually live’. And due to my persistent, lurking, purposeful but unnecessary existence, it seems I am a box of hangers.

Thanks to BuzzFeed, I’ve been able to shortcut a lot of self-analysis. No need to navigate these tricky questions, as a quick multi-choice quiz has revealed the startling truth about core aspects of my being.

Except there is no meaningful truth here at all. The quizzes (and many of the interminable lists) are banal, revealing nothing valuable about the state of our world or our selfish being. They are conceived of a light-bulb moment in the BuzzFeed office, born a few hours later, posted on Twitter and Facebook (and God knows where else), shared ad nauseum and then shunted aside nanoseconds later to make way for the next clickbait.

Maybe I’m late to the party, but I’m pretty sure I hadn’t heard of BuzzFeed six months ago, even though it launched in 2006. In recent months it seems to have gone viral. Sometimes it seems like every other viral link lands on BuzzFeed. There is a danger of saturation. And when the headline oversells the product (very often) there is a danger web-surfers will be disappointed once too often, especially when the destination page is littered with bizarre and irrelevant two-second GIF animations. Make them stop!

In desperation, every BuzzFeed headline seems to cry “14 amazing reasons you should click right here!” Follow the herd into the abyss of internet pointlessness! All too often there is simply nothing to see here.

I’m convinced we are at peak BuzzFeed. Unless there is a change of pace to recognise this, burnout beckons.

Update (9.45pm, 11 Feb 2014): We really are at ‘peak BuzzFeed’. My good friend Adam Swann has alerted me to this: The Definitive Ranking of Poop. It’s a list of 14 (it would be 14, wouldn’t it).

This simply cannot be bettered.

Spicy Fire Poop

According to BuzzFeed, “Spicy fire poop is pretty funny after the fact, but it’s never a fun experience. At least you’ll have something to talk about at work tomorrow.”

Children. In agony, dying or already dead.

These were the most tragic victims of chemical attacks on the outskirts of Damascus on 21st August. They suffered unimaginably. According to the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, 426 children were killed, along with 1,003 adults. That’s 1,429 dead, and many more treated for the effects of poison-gas.

Most of us will feel a natural emotional response to the suffering of children. Perhaps, as a new father, I feel that even more acutely than a year ago. My work involves dealing with breaking news video on the world’s headline stories. I make editorial decisions about what the BBC might broadcast on our TV news outlets. Filtering some of the most horrific images from those we actually broadcast on 21st August was traumatic to say the least.

Syrian flag

I feel angry about what happened. To see the bodies of small children should always stir strong feelings. What happened was unjust and we should not accept injustice. Something must be done.

Something must be done.

Yes, indeed. But what?

Much has been done already, but not external military intervention. There has been much chatter amongst world leaders and admonishment of Syria’s President Assad. Syrian rebels have been given diverse support and our collective distaste for the Assad regime has been expounded ad nauseum in the media.

Well over 100,000 people have been killed so far in the Syrian civil war. And the killing goes on. None of the soft power wielded by Western nations or Syria’s allies (primarily Russia & Iran) seem to have made any difference to Assad’s attitude.

But his regime’s intensive use of chemical weapons crosses a Rubicon for the West. Syria is a full signatory to the Geneva Protocol established in 1925 (Syria signed in 1968). The massacre of innocent civilians is always wrong, but breaking the chemical weapons taboo is deemed to be a special wrong. They were last deployed by a state (by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq) in the 1980s, both internally in Halabja and externally against Iran.

The assumption is that Assad or his generals were responsible for the chemical attacks in question. I have had my doubts. I remember feeling bewildered on 21st August. Knowing the outcry that chemical weapons would provoke, knowing it would constitute a ‘red line’ for President Obama, and having welcomed UN chemical weapons inspectors into his country just days previously, why would Assad deploy chemical weapons at such a time? Militarily, Syrian forces were regaining the upper hand in the conflict. Why threaten that with behaviour likely to provoke fury and resolve amongst powerful Western enemies? My immediate inclination was to assume a false flag operation by enemies of the regime (rebels or third parties).

Countering this, several Western governments (especially the USA, the UK and France) seem convinced of Assad’s guilt. John Kerry reports that “Syrian regime elements were told to prepare for the attack by putting on gas masks and taking precautions associated with chemical weapons.” He also said the host rockets were launched “only from regime-controlled areas and went only to opposition-controlled or contested neighbourhoods.”

I am in the fortunate position of not needing to judge President Assad’s guilt or innocence, but it is a critical question for those considering military action against Syria. Few seriously doubt that chemical attacks took place.

Something must be done. But if the trigger is Assad’s use of chemical weapons, we must be sure he was responsible. And if the ‘something’ that is done is to fire rockets into Syria then we need to be confident of a better outcome than if we do nothing, or if we do something else.

On Thursday evening, moments before MPs narrowly rejected a preliminary motion on military action, the BBC broadcast a horrifying report from northern Syria by its correspondent Ian Pannell. There were more images of dying children, this time victims of an incendiary bomb dropped on their school.

Parliamentarians would not have seen that report and Twitter was alive with the wisdom of those who were convinced it would have swayed them. It may well have done, but that would have been wrong-headed.

Anger should spur us to action, but emotions should not distort our judgement. We may be inspired by our hearts, but we should make decisions with a cool head. All the more reason to sleep on important decisions before committing to them.

After Thursday’s vote, the Prime Minister almost immediately ruled out British military action in Syria.

I strongly believe in the need for a tough response to the use of chemical weapons. But I also believe in respecting the will of this House of Commons. It is clear to me that the British Parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action. I get that and the Government will act accordingly.
(David Cameron, Thursday 29th August 2013)

Strictly speaking, that wasn’t what parliament called for and while in the moment it seemed magnanimous, with hindsight it seems rash. The body of evidence against Assad has evolved since the vote took place, and the weight of opinion inside parliament would only have to shift by 7 votes to change the outcome. However, the PM’s stance has since been reaffirmed – in even clearer language – by senior ministers including the Foreign Secretary, the Chancellor and the Deputy Prime Minister. Nick Clegg said the Government would not return to Parliament with “the same question on the same issue in response to the same atrocity”.

In a microscopic change of tone, this afternoon, the Defence Secretary Philip Hammond told the House of Commons that “Parliament has spoken clearly on this issue and is unlikely to want to revisit it unless circumstances change very significantly.” The hidden implication is that another vote is indeed possible.

I am not arguing for military action in Syria. Nor against it. I’m simply pointing out that the question seems to have been abandoned by David Cameron on a whim, apparently (perhaps wilfully) misjudging the will of parliament. My perception, from watching the debate, is that while many MPs were unconvinced; few were resolutely opposed to military intervention.

In fairness to the Prime Minister, he recalled Parliament only after consulting the Leader of the Opposition, who apparently pledged his support for the motion before adding caveats later. I cannot see the question being revisited until and unless Ed Miliband takes the initiative to call for it and signal Labour’s support.

Meanwhile what of the other P5 nations, the permanent members of the UN Security Council?

China seems agnostic, likely unwilling to interfere in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. It is what might be called a self-interested point of principle.

Russia (an ally of Syria) described the chemical attack accusations against Syria as ‘absurd’.

The presidents of the United States and France will both seek legislative approval before committing military resources.

Whatever, if any, military action there is against Syria, it will be a ‘coalition of the willing’, reminiscent of Iraq. This will be no UN-sponsored adventure, despite the UN Secretary-General’s acknowledgement there should be “no impunity” for the wielders of chemical weapons.

But UN-backing is a lesser order issue. More important that the judgement is correct, and in such a complex question, it is no surprise that Presidents Obama and Hollande are also seeking political cover for their decisions.

For the perpetrator of atrocities, there must be ‘no impunity’. Something must be done. On the question of military action, it may be argued that it is a necessary evil. In this case, inaction is also an evil. Neither option is necessary, but the question cannot be ducked.

This is no Hobson’s Choice. Both options are real and both carry difficult consequences.

Which is the lesser evil?

Let us pray that those with the power to act get this judgement right.

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II walked by my desk this week. “So what!” I hear you cry. Huw Edwards and Daniel Craig walk by all the time. Sure, they’re all household names, but neither Huw nor Daniel are Head of the Commonwealth. And Daniel has not, in fact, ever walked by my desk.

My desk is in the middle of the BBC’s shiny new newsroom at Broadcasting House in central London. The Queen’s carefully planned route took her through a number of key areas in the building, including Radio 1, the Today studio and the area where Sir Bruce Forsyth happened to have been standing. In the newsroom she walked past the main UK radio, television and online news production areas, followed by the central newsgathering hub. And then, subversively ignoring our clear signage, she came to rest in front of Studio E, the showpiece studio from where the most high-profile TV news output is broadcast.

Queen in the BBC Newsroom

We’re a cynical lot, journalists. We’ve seen a disproportionate number of household names, politicians, celebrities and royals. When they breeze by our desks, we barely stifle our yawns. Partly it’s genuine insouciance, and partly it’s a need to project that sense to others. Any germ of excitement must be smothered at birth.

But I polished my shoes on Thursday night. And I shaved on Friday morning. Many colleagues wore their best ties or wedding guest dresses. Unusually we looked like a professional newsroom. Apparently Molton Brown toiletries were placed in the designated toilet for the duration of the visit.

We were encouraged not to crowd around the Queen, but simply to act naturally and either stand or continue working as she walked by. Taking a short break from actually covering her visit, I stood by my desk. I was almost crowded into oblivion by other colleagues, acting ‘naturally’. By the time Her Majesty reached me, she had already walked past some of those standing next to me, in another part of the newsroom. It reminds me of one of those long exposure school photos in which the boy on the left also makes it onto the right hand side before the shutter closes.

We’re a diverse bunch at the BBC. We’re not all pinko lefties, nor establishment small ‘c’ conservatives, as popular myth might suggest. There are both monarchists and republicans amongst us, and many of the latter seemed just as eager to see and applaud their Queen as the former.

The moment when she stopped in front of the studio, facing on-air presenters Sophie Long and Julian Worricker, was both surreal and moving. Our standing ovation was indeed a natural response to a much-loved 87-year-old lady with a lifetime of service to the nation. Whatever our feelings about the Royal Family as an institution, they did not feature in our appreciation of the Queen herself.

It was all a bit much for some viewers. At least one complained to Newswatch: “Can’t your BBC newsroom staff behave? It was embarrassing to see them mob the Queen in such a manner and thrust their mobiles in her face for a picture. Surely they were all told to behave beforehand?”

“They were, and they didn’t,” responded the presenter Samira Ahmed. The Queen has a star quality like no other. And it turns out we journalists aren’t quite as cynical as we like to think we are.

Disclosure: I am a Northern Irish Protestant who has prayed with Rev Ian Paisley. My wife is a Catholic.  Together we went to see Pope Benedict XVI preach at the Colosseum in Rome on Good Friday 2010. I believe he is a Christian who is as human (and therefore fallible) as the rest of us. Controversial I know…

Joseph Ratzinger will step down from the Papal office on 28th February at 7pm GMT. It is a rather big deal. This is his resignation statement. He is “well aware of the seriousness” of his decision. I immediately wondered if it was unprecedented. But it has happened before, most recently in 1415 (just three months before the Battle of Agincourt). The precedent is real, but distant.

The Pope has concluded that “in order to steer the boat of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognise my incapacity to adequately fulfil the ministry entrusted to me.”

Pope Benedict XVI at  the Colosseum on Good Friday 2010

Pope Benedict XVI at the Colosseum on Good Friday 2010

There can be few, if any, callings so prominent as so be the successor of St Peter. So it is little surprise that his decision has sparked a lively debate about the acceptability of handing in his notice. It is normally only through death that God calls Popes away from their duty.

In that respect, it’s a dangerous profession. As Danny Wallace tweeted: “The vast majority of Popes die while being Pope. It’s bloody dangerous. Good move, Benedict.”

The Catholic former MP, Louise Mensch, seemed disappointed with the decision: “Bad news that the Pope is resigning. Didn’t know it was possible. John Paul II, many predecessors, continued til death in the worst health.”

I was extremely surprised at the news. I would be equally surprised if the Queen abdicated. But I wonder if it is simply romantic notions of  spiritual calling which prompt a belief that the Papal calling must be until death.

Although Papal resignations are not unprecedented, 598 years is long enough to establish a pattern that makes it seem unacceptable. The Papacy is, as Mrs Mensch also noted, not a “job”. She is quite right, it is a vocation to which one is called by God. In a similar way, she was called by the voters of Corby to be an MP. That too is a vocation, from which she resigned in August last year. I am sure her reasons (regarding her family) were honourable, but one must be careful not to judge others.

I believe that all Christians have a calling, often several callings. One may be called into a regular job, or to be an MP, or to be Pope. As well as regular work, I am called to be a husband, and hopefully soon a father.

I wonder if the calling of the Holy Father is more important that the calling of any other father. If a calling is from God, I believe that none is more important than any other. But the truth is that I don’t know; who am I to judge? Perhaps Father Ratzinger’s final calling will be even more important than his current responsibility. Only God knows the answer.


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