22nd February 2016



Sorry I haven’t updated this blog for the past couple of days. Six long chess games (plus the blitz tournament), together with taking a look at Gawain’s games and catching up with friends from across Europe, made over the past twenty years, hasn’t left much spare time. I’m on my way home now, though, so it’s time to communicate again.


And if I had been writing, it would have been about my preoccupation for the weekend, my chess games, and I’m not quite enough of a politician to imagine that the performance of a middle-aged woman in the lower half of the bottom section, even of such a celebrated and popular tournament as Bunratty, can be of enormous general appeal. So I will spare you the move-by-move analysis, and reveal only that I won one game, lost two and drew three, that I played slightly less badly than in previous years, despite (or perhaps because of) having virtually no practice over the past twelve months, and that I had a jolly good time. In a climate that has seen a sharp decline in the frequency, standard and popularity of weekend chess tournaments across the British Isles, Bunratty is a beacon of glowing effulgence, showing how, with courtesy, efficiency, generosity and great good humour, an experience can be created that is attractive to players of all standards, from beginners to strong grandmasters, giving an ideal combination of challenge and conviviality.


For me, one of the best things about Bunratty, apart from the chess and the company, is the chance to spend a couple of days thinking only about things that don’t matter: whether to recapture the bishop with a pawn or a queen, which new microbrewery’s beer to try next, whether I’m even worse at Chess960 (‘Fischer Random’) than at conventional blitz, how long the queue is for breakfast. And because the mental activity involved during a chess game is so intense, it isn’t that stultifying fog of the Christmas-New Year bubble, that leaves you lethargic and dull, but a kind of cleansing, a sort of detox of the mind. The nearest thing I can find to explaining it is that Seamus Heaney poem about driving to the end of a peninsula:

And drive back home, still with nothing to say
Except that now you will uncode all landscapes
By this: things founded clean on their own shapes,
Water and ground in their extremity.


So, I haven’t thought about politics all weekend, apart from some general debate at dinner last night, and I feel all the better for it. I wondered how long it would take to get my enthusiasm back and, as much as a test as anything else, picked up a copy of the Irish Times to read with my breakfast. Not long. On page three is a substantial article about Fergal Smith, the Green Party candidate for County Clare (where we lived before moving north) and a photo of our friend Gerben with one of his posters. Yes, I’m ready to get going again.


19th February 2016

In Bunratty, County Clare, for what I can best describe as the Glastonbury of chess.  Less mud, but more rain.  I don’t expect my chess to be any better than in previous years, but I have a very nice view out of my hotel room window.  I’ve taken some photographs of it, but the combination of not having Photoshop on this computer and the rather lethargic wifi speed means that they will have to wait until I get home next week.  Meanwhile the journey, via Dublin and Limerick (bus, should have been tram, train, train, bus) was fine apart from the heart-stopping sign at the Luas stop to say that there was no service today*.  Fortunately a nice lady at Busáras told me where to find a bus to Heuston station. (I’ve always walked in the past, but there wasn’t time today.)

(*A strike, apparently.  I don’t know enough about the background to say any more.)

25th January 2016


I’ll give you a chess problem today, in an attempt to assuage the pain by sharing it.  I was White, in this game on chess.com (I play as ‘decombustion’) against my friend and fellow Fermanagh Green Party member, Jules.  I thought I was doing all right – if his queen stops defending the pawn next to his king, then I have mate in one.  But what clever four-move sequence (it is Black to move) have I overlooked?  With cunning like that, I plan to co-opt Jules as our strategy guru.

21st November 2015

Picture shamelessly stolen from Adrian.

To Omagh today, to take part in the 2nd rapidplay chess tournament there.  I had to miss last year’s inaugural event – looking back, I see that I was in Belfast talking to the Quakers about fracking – so was especially pleased to make it this time.  Rapidplay chess (25 minutes each for all our moves) is even more nerve-wracking than the full-length variety, but at least there’s no time to think about how badly it’s going.  Anyway,  I managed three out of six (in the lower section) which is respectable if hardly earth-shattering.  Many thanks to Ross for immaculate organisation, Anthony for making the school available, John for the lift and company from and back to Enniskillen and Paul and Adrian for being Paul and Adrian.

14th November 2015

1114The European Team Chess Championship is taking place at the moment, in Reyjavik, Iceland, and Gawain is playing in the English team, this afternoon against Georgia.

On the top board today, France are playing Armenia, and the French players are wearing black armbands in memory of those who died in Paris last night.  It must be hard for them to be away from home at such a time, and yet the support of the shared international community will mean a great deal.  Like any other small group of dedicated people, chessplayers forge close bonds across borders and boundaries, and it is rare at the highest level for national or ethnic prejudice to outweigh the things which they share.

There are many voices today, expressing many nuances of solidarity, outrage, sadness and caution.  I have read many thoughts with which I agree, and a few at which I tremble.  Paris feels very near to those of us in Ireland and the UK and we are rightly and understandably shaken.  It is easy for us to imagine ourselves in the place of those who have died, at a concert or football match, sharing the simple pleasures of a community and culture close to our own.  The intrusion of sudden and arbitrary violence into such domestic and familiar settings is shocking, the horror and pointlessness starkly obvious.

The difficulty is not in comprehending the terror of last night but in formulating the right response for tomorrow.  For all such violence breaks hearts along with bodies, communities along with individuals.  We in the West do not have clean hands.  A report in August of this year suggested that over 450 civilians, including a hundred children, had already been killed by US-led air attacks on ISIS targets.  None of those deaths justify any of these deaths.  And none of these deaths justify the next.

Across the chessboards of the world, queens and rooks launch fierce combined attacks, knights are exchanged and pawns sacrificed to protect the sacred inviolability of their kings.  The response to loss is revenge, immediate or subtly delayed.  Bishops are in the heart of the fray, as aggressive as any other piece.  But chess is a game, and has an end.  When it is reached, the pieces, unharmed, are replaced on the board, the players shake hands and retreat to the bar, to share a couple of drinks and a friendly analysis of what might have been.

Real violence, whatever names we might give it, has no end, unless we can make one.  And that end is the only fitting memorial to those who died last night.  Revenge will not bring them back; the murder of a young woman in Syria does not counteract the murder of a young woman in France, it only doubles the horror.  And the next, and the next, in an exponential wasteland of blood and grief and waste.  When we pray tonight, or whatever name we give to our thoughts of love and pain, I pray that we dare to remember.


10th November 2015

11332474144_b3ae3637b0_zThe 2013 London Chess Classic, including Gawain Jones (fifth from left) and Jonathan Rowson (eighth from left). Photo by John Saunders.

Back to Saturday’s conference. I was especially looking forward to hearing Jonathan Rowson, because I had seen him so often over the past couple of decades.  As fellow grandmasters and former British chess champions, he and our son Gawain have known and played against and alongside one another for many years.  I didn’t know anything about his life outside chess, and so when I first read the programme I wondered whether it was another chap of the same name.  But no, Grandmaster Jonathan Rowson and Jonathan Rowson, Director of the Social Brain Centre of the RSA are one and the same.

His work is excitingly multi-disciplinary – ‘trans-disciplinary’ as it’s described – in a way that’s been unusual for the past century or so.  Spirituality, psychology, sociology, economics and biology all inform one another in the work of the Social Brain Centre, creating really imaginative yet grounded ways to approach contemporary issue and dilemmas.

And there is no greater dilemma or more urgent issue than climate change.  As Jonathan pointed out, even when the science is utterly credible, the fact of climate change stays incredible for us; a challenge so vast that our rational responses bump up against their limitations and we remain impotent.  To find anything like appropriate resources, we need to dig deep into our roots, and it may be that spirituality, as much than science, can give us a felt sense of the problem we face.

One of the unexpected links between Jonathan’s talk and that of Molly Scott-Cato, which I wrote about on Saturday evening,  was the issue of death.  One of the symptoms Molly identified as part of the Max Weber’s ‘disenchantment of the world’ is a failure to encompass the idea of death.  If, as participants in a growth-obsessed society, we only exist to produce and to consume, then the idea of dying, of no longer being either a consumer or a producer, becomes literally unimaginable.

Jonathan’s insight was related, drawing a parallel between our ambiguous attitude towards our individual deaths and towards the communal, global self-destruction that is climate change.  Just as we both know and choose not to know that we will die, so we are both aware and wilfully ignorant of the existence and escalation of climate change.

Jonathan described himself as ‘not really Green or Christian, but close enough to both’ and his insights, as a ‘proto-Christian’ were invigorating and challenging.  He pointed out that climate change is not just an environmental problem, but about economics and power, and suggested some of the ways in which Christian approaches and concepts might help us to ‘get real’ in how we think, speak and work.  Some of what follows is Jonathan’s own phrasing, some my interpretation and response.

I have already mentioned the parallels between our simultaneous awareness and denial of death and of climate change, and Jonathan sees the Christian centrality of Easter, that ‘very grown-up story’, as a source of strength and hope.  We already have, at the heart of our tradition, an understanding of suffering and humiliation, and a pattern and promise for how they can be transformed and overcome.

The sacramental narrative of baptism speaks of being thrown into a chaotic, destabilized world and finding order and meaning, while that of the eucharist tells us of the centrality of the tangible, of our bodies, and of how the body can be a tool for liberation.  Climate change is fundamentally an attack on our collective body, and we cannot overcome or contain it without acknowledging the vulnerability and resilience which we share.

Prayer, in its sustained attention, holding the gaze of the contemplated with care and patience, is a model for the way we need to consider climate change, deeply and seriously, without turning away to facile distractions and simplistic non-solutions.

And the concept of sin, so often what makes the Christian faith appear unsympathetic and anachronistic, makes bitter sense in a world broken by human action and inaction.  Francis Spufford’s definition of sin as ‘the human propensity to fuck things up’ describes precisely the unbelievable stupidity of our wreckage of our own planet, our being out of kilter with our own nature and the brokenness, depth and darkness of the world we find ourselves in.

But the Christian faith tells us that sin is not the final word, that there is hope of overcoming the darkness, and that hope is love.  Not the watery sentimental kind co-opted by romance, but the ‘fierce loves’, the maternal, the fraternal (embodied in the figure of Sam in The Lord of the Rings) the loves that will struggle and work and weep and struggle again for those who need them.

We have the power and the duty to speak boldly and strongly – Jonathan sees the divestment movement as a particular source of optimism, and exactly what Christians should be doing.  Every tradition needs to find its own ‘beating heart’ to face the climate challenge. For Christians, perhaps the cross leads the way, in its juxtaposition of community and transcendence. Now we need, honestly, humbly and courageously, to take up that cross.



14th October

1014cThis is turning into an eventful day.  Yesterday Queen’s (the Students’ Union, I think – please correct me if I’m wrong)  held a referendum on whether the university should divest from fossil fuels.  I’ve written a bit about this before – specifically David McNarry (of UKIP)’s response to the campaign – and I’m delighted to see the the referendum result was an overwhelming Yes – over 83%. Pictured left is Green Party Councillor Ross Brown being interviewed about the campaign.

Meanwhile the inaugural meeting of present and potential Greens in Cookstown which I went to recently, has made front page news in the Mid Ulster Mail.  Here’s their coverage, and congratulations to Caolán for discussing this difficult subject with so much eloquence and sensitivity.




1014dIn other news, the paint in our back yard has dried enough for M to be able to put the chess pieces out. Unfortunately I’m off to a meeting of the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation group, so haven’t got time for a game tonight. Maybe the rain will hold off for tomorrow….

And finally, it’s Rory‘s birthday.  Happy birthday to the poet.


10th April

0410I was in Bangor last night, as one of twenty Northern Ireland people playing chess simultaneously against Grandmaster Raymond Keene. I haven’t yet heard how the other nineteen fared, but after two hours I extended my hand in resignation.  It was an excellent event, efficiently and courteously organised by James O’Fee, and I met some extremely interesting and likeable people.  Two of them weren’t allowed to talk to me; or not officially anyway: BBC Ulster sent two reporters from two separate radio programmes, but because of the strict limits on coverage of election candidates, they had to be careful not to interview me. It seemed slightly bizarre, as I would have been talking about chess and Gawain, not politics, but rules is rules, and I was happy to have an evening out of the limelight.0410a

James had kindly arranged for me to stay in the Salty Dog, a wonderfully eclectic hotel overlooking the harbour, where I had called in for a coffee last year when I was actually (for once) early for a Green Party meeting.  My room, opposite the RNLI, was huge and richly decorated, with imaginative touches like the scented candle on the edge of the bathtub and the ambiguous note saying that if I had children and therefore didn’t want the candle and matches, ‘they’ would  be removed by reception.  I had thought I would have to forgo breakfast, as I had to leave so early, but service began promptly at seven, so I could enjoy a gorgeous pile of County Down delicacies.

North Down, of course, is famous for its abundance of Green representatives, with its MLA Steven Agnew and councillors John Barry and Paul Roberts continuing something  of a tradition of Green politics in the area.  With brilliant candidates, a strong and friendly constituency party and a track record of working hard on local as well as wider issues, it isn’t surprising that Bangor and Holywood are getting Greener and Greener.  But are there other factors which make Green politics work in Down in a way that it couldn’t in Fermanagh?

Some would say so, that County Down is more sophisticated, more urban and urbane than County Fermanagh, and that it is therefore more tolerant, more progressive, and more open-minded towards the concept and practice of Green politics.

I don’t think so.

0410cThe reason I had to leave Bangor so early, was that I had an appointment at noon in Kesh, to find out about the North Fermanagh Valley Group and and the work it is doing to build a truly shared community.  The group brings together the neighbouring villages of Ederney and Kesh, close to the border with the Irish republic.  The two are traditionally Catholic and Protestant respectively, and until recently, as one speaker put it, “lived cheek by jowl but knew nothing of one another”.

That is changing, and changing rapidly and deeply, thanks both to the innate goodwill of the local people and of the hard work of the NFVG.  They have identified a shared vision of what they want the area to be: a strong resilient community, confident in making its own destiny and not solely dependent on decisions made in London, in Belfast or even by the new council in Omagh or Enniskillen.  There are practical plans for shared sports and leisure facilities, for which an ambitious funding application is in train, but the project is not just about the success or otherwise of this bid.

The components of the North Fermanagh Valley Park – the football pitch, biking trail, running track, tennis courts, petting farm, community gym etc. – represent a significant departure from the old ‘two of everything’ mindset; the idea that community services need to be replicated on parallel lines to serve what was viewed as two autonomous social structures.0410b

And it’s not just leisure.  There is huge untapped potential in the rural areas of Fermanagh for exciting and imaginative tourism initiatives, small entrepreneurial businesses, creative ways of integrating all sorts of different people into communities, the creation of alternative transport networks (one of my favourite aspects of the project is a walkway between the two villages) and the use of agricultural spaces in more productive and sustainable ways.

What the North Fermanagh Valley Group demonstrated today is what we in the Green Party mean by grassroots democracy and what I have seen across Fermanagh during the past nine years, in the work of the Fermanagh Churches Forum, the frack-free movement and many other groups.  When people work together with a shared vision, shared ideals and shared practical needs, the artificial barriers of mistrust and unfamiliarity fall down at a nudge.

The sharply divided electoral politics of Fermanagh and South Tyrone does not stem from sectarian attitudes in the voters’ everyday lives.  It arises from the statistical phenomenon of an electorate almost precisely divided between the two traditions and from the symbolic importance of the seat in recent history.  (As I am writing now, Sinn Fein’s party election broadcast has come onto the television, with a glimpse of a Bobby Sands ballot paper as a backdrop to Michelle Gildnernew’s talking about ‘the future’.)  All of these elements: the statistics, the history and the symbol, are used by the two political blocs to entrench their power.

It’s ten to midnight now, so I’ll explain more about what I mean tomorrow. Meanwhile here’s a photo of our elite poster team at work yesterday.  I saw some of their handiwork from the bus window coming home, and only just resisted the temptation to point it out to the rest of the passengers.




23rd February

Gawain with IM Tom Rendle
Gawain with IM Tom Rendle

On the train from Limerick to Dublin, gradually acclimatising from the chess world to the ‘real’ one – always a bit of a wrench. Last night’s blitz tournament was as fast, furious and friendly as always – pictures below when I can upload them.

Many thanks to everyone who made me so welcome at Bunratty, especially Gawain, Gerry, Gary and Brian.  Whatever happens in the next twelve months, I’m pretty sure I’ll be at Bunratty 2016 at the end of it.

Meanwhile there’s a patient queue of emails waiting to be replied to, and I’m reading Nicholas Shaxton’s Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World, so I’ll very soon be immersed back in the inspiring current of Green politics.

And there’s a distinct rainbow over to the north …


IM Lawrence Trent, the great chess commentator, playing Gawain in the blitz event.
IM Lawrence Trent, the great chess commentator, playing Gawain in the blitz event.


The Ginger GM, Simon Williams



IM Malcolm Pein, organiser of the London Chess Classic, whom Gawain famously beat nearly twenty years ago, making chess history as the youngest player ever to beat a titled one in a formal game.
IM Malcolm Pein, organiser of the London Chess Classic, whom Gawain famously beat nearly twenty years ago, making chess history as the youngest player ever to beat a titled one in a formal game.


The final, and Ga's only defeat in the blitz, to GM Wesley So of the USA,  ranked number 7 in the world.
The final, and Ga’s only defeat in the blitz, to GM Wesley So of the USA, ranked number 7 in the world.