Politicians will drift from one St Patrick’s gathering to the next until the tide goes out leaving everyone beached

“Many journalists have fallen for the conspiracy theory of government. I do assure you that they would produce more accurate work if they adhered to the cock-up theory.” Thatcher’s former press secretary Bernard Ingham.

I’ve been ‘doing’ the Washington, D.C. St. Patrick’s Day Week circuit more on than off for most of the last ten years. A relatively egalitarian atmosphere with people laughing, meeting and talking (and not that thin-lipped smile – “so what did you say you do?” thing that regularly passes for interaction at events with “dignitaries” on the list), the Irish and Irish-America throw a pretty unique and enjoyable extended party that leaves other smaller nations’ diplomats with good reason to turn a little green with envy.

Picture a few tight rooms, well stocked, over a few consecutive evenings, correspondents from Ireland’s dominant media, Irish and American politicians and staffers, plus a decent cross-section of the diaspora, and you can see why this week provides a decent annual pulse-reading of recent and pending events across the shore.

Having approached this year’s get-together with a knawing gnawing sense of atrophy regarding matters back in the north, a few days later my pessimism has crystalized into no little concern.

Here’s the thing: On the Washington stage, speaker after speaker could do no better than measuring “Northern Ireland’s progress” against the apparently inconceivable possibility of “returning to the dark days” of conflict and regular shootings.

But look: Just because we’re not condemned to repeat the past does not guarantee a secure future. A banal observation to a point, yes, but I fear people are keeping score a little too complacently. Dozens of new potential causes of collapse lay in wait. Moreover, as the last 10 months have illustrated, many of the greatest sources of stress and potential instability are actively percolated by some of the very politicians who have enjoyed accumulating record air miles stamped “peace process speaker”. Yet as Stormont drifts and flaffs, the stock ‘we’ve come so far’ speech wears a little thinner each year.

If 2013 is not the time for new speeches, new priorities pursued with a fresh new urgency and, let’s be honest, a few new faces then this is only because that time already passed – it was 2006 after the St Andrews Agreement.

The echo this week (the halls are a little emptier each year now) of the First and Deputy First Minister seeking applause for nothing more than sharing a foreign stage with one another is worse than weak. It’s worrying.

If it is unfair to present OFMDFM as Northern Ireland’s main problem it is more than fair to ask what solutions they have to offer? Whatever about Washington, where are OFMDFM’s united fronts and joint statements of substance in Belfast where and when they’re needed most?

I asked more than one local representative these past few days where they see Northern Ireland five years from now. I would like to have written about their answers but, other than interpreting my question through the prism of their respective party’s electoral prospects, few got further than passively commentating on their frustrations with the present.

Happy St Patrick’s Day.

  • Ruarai,

    You have forgotten to note that if free drinks and food are provided, there are a class of people/politicians who will turn up simply to avail themselves of the facilities. (Some folk will sell themselves cheap). And I’m not just talking about the Washington crowd. If there is a further chance of getting a vote or two, they’ll be even keener to turn up. Yep, I’m a cynic.

  • JoeBryce

    Of course it would be good if we all had a better idea of where we were going. But let’s pause for glass-half-full moment. On the front page of the BBC News website is a photograph of the black American President with his arms round the joint first ministers of Northern Ireland, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness. Send that photograph back in time to your younger self of 30, 20, 15 years ago: would it not have seemed like science fiction? No room for complacency, of course. In America, the President faces implacable racism from the bulk of the Republican party, and in NI there are opportunists on both sides who want to take us back. We must all pray and work against the efforts of those who, frankly, are the enemies of civilisation. But no harm, no harm at all, in occasionally pausing to marvel at how far we have come, and to thank God for it.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    JoeBryce, have you ever come across the concept of inverse-racism? Obama being simply black does not make him, ergo, a good, effective president any more than Peter Robinson appearing to co-operate with Martin McGuinness is a good thing if the OFMdFM are secretive and arbitary in their governance, and if the first minister still has an enquiry into his financial dealings hanging over him after all these years. See Wikipedia: ” the Standards and Privileges enquiry has still not been completed three years after it was ordered by the Assembly, and remains ongoing”

    One should have the self respect to demand good rather than politically correct government. And you really should hear what the more radical Democrats are saying about Obama!

    All government is a “conspiricy to defraud in the strictly legal sense that we are all lied to and our property alienated by taxation (or more importantly government borrowing) that we are seldom in any position to argue with in any meaningful sense. Anyone who has read my other posts will know how much value I place on the ability to repalce Tweedledum with Tweedledee every few years.

    My own feelings are that Ingham is being disingenious, politicians obviouusly conspire (not in big Dr No ways, however) but they are disorganised enough to cock it all up usually.

  • Ruarai, I think there’s an unpalatable stew of conspiracy, cock-up and cover-up, not just involving politicians but also public servants and lobbyists.

    Have a look at the OFMDFM press releases; there’s nothing from Washington and just one item from LA during the course of their time in the USA.

    “One should have the self respect to demand good rather than politically correct government.”

    Seaan, I had a curious encounter on the telephone with a government department ‘press officer’ recently; it produced the following response:

    Thank you for your email.

    As you can appreciate, we cannot monitor all blog sites and restrictions on internet access makes it difficult to access many of the sites.

    However, we will respond promptly to any questions you may have and would ask that you submit these via email to this address.

    This looks like a stock response; I explained during the call that I rang to draw their attention to some questions posed in a blog and an offer to add their responses.

    There is no email address on the ‘media centre’ web-page; just some phone numbers. It looks a little dated to have just ‘press officers’ in a ‘media centre’. When I pointed this out, I was asked, “Are you a member of the media?” to which I replied, “Yes – new media”.

    I look forward to receiving the responses as I fear both minister and civil servants are attempting to evade responsibilty.

  • BarneyT

    We could take the St Patricks festival and call it Apple Fest! That way we can justify the jaunts to New York. It would also help counter the Orange Parades at home. All that remains would be to answer the question, “Are all apples green?”

  • “Are all apples green?”

    Barney, will Cox’s Orange Pippin be enough to bring you out in an ‘orange flush’? 😉

  • Lionel Hutz

    “It would also help counter the Orange Parades at home”

    I dunno. Surely you would be comparing apples and oranges there.

  • Ruarai,

    Nice piece but I ask you, what did you really expect? it’s a week of celebrations not hard questions. Here in QLDits just the same. K Rudd was at the QLDi Irish club for dinner on Friday night telling us bout our great contribution to life here, no talk of trouble or what not.

    Lots of questions will be asked but it’s Irish Christmas, time for sweaters and drinks etc., not a time for serious reflection, that’s on New Years Day, 12.10am or whatever the Irish equivalent is (Good Friday?)?

  • babyface finlayson

    I can’t find much to disagree with so I am resorting to low pedantry.
    ‘knawing’ is excellent. I think we gnow what you meant.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Nevin, you really are one of the few bloggers who, I would feel, consistently has “the self respect to demand good…government.” I really value your attempts both here (Slogger) and at the North Antrim Local Interest List to draw peoples attention to serious social and political issues in a precise and committed manner.

    Thank you for pointing out the “unpalatable stew of conspiracy, cock-up and cover-up, not just involving politicians but also public servants and lobbyists” that we all face every time we attempt to discover if any government department is actually doing anything othert than mouthing platitudes every time we query their actions.

    And for sharing that Kakfkaesque experience of “email us but no email address” which many of us can confirm from our own similar experiences with “our masters.”

  • Ruarai

    Babyface, good catch. That’s the late night publishing for you. That will gnaw at me all afternoon now…

  • Many thanks, Seaan. As for ‘our masters’ , it’s always worth remembering that those who govern us are our ‘public servants’ 😉

    PS See the Housing Executive thread for a speedy NIAO reaction to my ‘grumpy old man’ whinge.