Danny Morrison may see signs of warming in Northern Ireland’s glacial political atmosphere, yet he cautions against predictions of a return to government at any time this year. Our readers are largely with Danny: with a whooping 34% going even further and believing that we won’t ever see a return to the institutions imagined under the Belfast Agreement.By Danny Morrison
April Fool’s Day is but three weeks off. You have been warned! So, if you read a story in your morning newspapers about work commencing this summer on the draining of Lough Neagh for a new housing project to deal with “the flood of immigrants and asylum seekers” you know to treat it with contempt. Planning permission takes longer than that.
There is a side to our nature which tends to the gullible – even after we grow up… some time in our thirties.
Just look at how many people pay obeisance to their seniors out of some misplaced notion that experience and wisdom comes with age. Look at those who take orders on the presumption that there is some sort of order. Look at the millions who honour royalty or who blindly follow philosophies or interpretations of how to live and conduct their lives devised by dubious and plausible leaders, or obey religious edicts written by man but which claim divine guidance.
At a more commonplace level, newspapers, radio and television also command credibility – albeit of a different kind. This is obvious every April 1st when millions are fooled by the hoaxes perpetrated on them.
These are just some samples. In the nineteenth century there was the story in the Chicago Times announcing that powerful telescopes had discovered a penal colony on the moon. In 1957 BBC television announced that Swiss farmers had enjoyed a particularly good spaghetti crop from the country’s spaghetti trees. In 1962, eight years before colour television was available in Sweden, an announcer on the country’s one television channel said that thanks to new technology all viewers could now watch in colour. All they had to do was pull a nylon stocking over their television screen and this would convert their favourite shows into colour. Hundreds of thousands of people – out of a population of seven million – struggled to pull stockings over the box!
In 1976 the astronomer Patrick Moore announced on BBC radio that at 9:47 a.m. a once-in-a-lifetime astronomical event was going to occur that listeners could experience in their very own homes. The planet Pluto would pass behind Jupiter, temporarily causing a gravitational alignment that would counteract and lessen the Earth’s own gravity. Moore told his listeners that if they jumped in the air at the exact moment that this planetary alignment occurred, they would experience a strange floating sensation.
When 9:47 a.m. arrived, the BBC began to receive hundreds of phone calls from listeners claiming to have felt the sensation. One woman even reported that she and her eleven friends had risen from their chairs and floated around the room.
April Fools and straw-clutchers share a lot in common. That is, they ignore objective realities. I have to say I have been a bit of a straw-clutcher in my time. I cringe to think that I thought (and – what was worse! – told people in their thousands) that I was going to beat John Hume in the European elections in 1984. What an eejit!
Of course, I haven’t been alone in clutching at straws. I remember the late Paddy Devlin in great form in June 1971. Unionist Prime Minister Brian Faulkner had just announced that the SDLP could be involved in a parliamentary committee system at Stormont. Paddy described the speech as Faulkner’s “finest hour”. But within a fortnight the SDLP had withdrawn from Stormont in protest at the British army murdering two Derry men and within a month Faulkner had introduced internment. (And within a year, as a result of nationalist resistance and the armed struggle, the negotiating position of the SDLP was vastly improved.)
A friend of mine who knows about these things (he has a Rock Bar doctorate in politics) brought to my attention a story last week on UTV. He was quite proud to have been the first to spot what he believes is a subtle change in the DUP’s language. Apparently, DUP deputy leader Peter Robinson referred to ‘Sinn Fein’ and not ‘Sinn Fein/IRA’.
My friend said that this was definitely a sign. True, Robinson had spoken like a normal politician attempting to make a valid point. He said that it was regrettable that Sinn Fein and the SDLP appeared to be adopting an all or nothing approach to the resumption of power-sharing. He said that his party’s call for the revival of the Assembly short of full-blown devolution was not, as some nationalist critics claimed, an attempt to set up a talking shop.
However, to justify the refusal to share power with Sinn Fein Robinson had once again to rely on an old crutch: “The Independent Monitoring Commission has said criminality by the IRA is still going on and in that context you cannot expect us to go into government with Sinn Fein.”
Perhaps the DUP is beginning to realise that the prospects of a restored Assembly are slipping away and that the longer it procrastinates the less nationalists could care.
Not just nationalist but loyalist areas have suffered as a result of direct rule decisions. Yet, the DUP has poorly represented its own working-class constituents if last week’s statement from the Ulster Political Research Group is to be believed. In relation to North Belfast it claims that the DUP has done little or nothing to secure funds for their benighted areas, except to come in and claim credit for the efforts of others.
Another sign that the DUP is vulnerable to criticism – especially of its double-standards in relation to ongoing loyalist paramilitary activity – came with the announcement that Peter Robinson and Nigel Dodds had met with the chair of the Loyalist Commission, the Rev. Mervyn Gibson, to discuss the possibility of the UDA and UVF moving away from crime and paramilitary activity. At the time of writing there are reports that the officer board of the DUP will decide shortly whether to meet the UDA, in an effort to persuade it to stand down and decommission weapons.
Yet, the DUP, the major party within unionism, is terrified of the big step of taking responsibility and sharing power with nationalists in case that will ultimately undermine the sectarian exclusiveness at the heart of unionism. Which, of course, it will.
So, if on Saturday, April 1st, or, indeed, on any date throughout this year, you hear – and believe! – that direct rule is ending and Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness are to take over as First and Deputy First Ministers, Pluto will have just passed behind Jupiter and any minute you will experience weightlessness, otherwise known as eejitness.
First published in Daily Ireland
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty