One of the major local headlines last week was that British Prime Minister David Cameron and Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny had “cleared their diaries” to lend their support to the inter-party talks at Stormont. It seems that no Stormont talks are complete without a crisis intervention from a Prime Minister, President, or some other person of note. We all remember Sir Reg Empey receiving his phone call from Hilary Clinton in 2010 over the crisis around the devolution of justice powers, and when this didn’t work, former US President George was tempted out of retirement to make another transatlantic telephone intervention by calling David Cameron. One wonders whether the crises are real crises at all, or just an opportunity for our publicity hungry politicians to have global leaders run after them, chalking up another anecdote for future reminiscence. One can hear Sir Reg remarking, “Did I ever tell you about the time David Cameron AND Hilary Clinton AND George Bush chased after me?” to which an eager researcher will respond, “No way!”
While our politicians are concocting ever more elaborate crises to get world leaders running after them (Will they really be happy that only David Cameron and Enda Kenny are in a panic and that President Obama isn’t warming up the White House phone in anticipation?), the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s autumn statement was setting the context for increased austerity, with The Guardian headline stating, “Osborne moves to cut spending to 1930s levels in dramatic autumn statement.” Inevitably, this will affect the poor the most, and just as some overzealous evangelical preachers blamed the debaucheries of the poor in Sri Lanka and New Orleans for the devastation caused by natural disasters, so the poor are blamed for the current economic crisis – it’s caused by immigrants, lazy people on benefits, the idle and feckless. It’s nothing to do with greedy bankers and speculators bringing down the world economy. Bankers and speculators have been bailed out and seemingly learned nothing – while the poor and vulnerable are left to pick up the pieces, increasingly relying on food banks and charity to get by. While the stock markets approach apparently record levels, the poor are begrudged an extra bedroom in their homes.
I sometimes wonder how world leaders achieve the seemingly remarkable and get our politicians to reach agreement – do they dance, do they sing, or prostrate themselves like prophets in the Old Testament and cry out and beg. Perhaps it’s all three, or just maybe the decisions our politicians have to make aren’t that hard at all and they just like to see a little cabaret. As I write this, David Cameron is probably picking his tunes – will he sing The Smiths? Deciding on his costume – a hat or a tiara? Will he do a duet with Enda Kenny? I’m sure it must be nerve wracking. He’ll want to get the performance just right. If it takes a song and a dance to get someone to listen, then maybe I should prepare something for his arrival. Perhaps I can convince him that the poor aren’t idle, feckless and undeserving after all. Just maybe George Osborne’s budget statement is his own version of a political crisis in Northern Ireland, it’s not really that bad, and with the right song and dance everything will be ok. It’s worth a try.
I wonder what music will work best? Perhaps I could start with a line from Pink, “Dear Mr Prime Minister, come take a walk with me. Let’s just pretend we’re just two people and you’re not better than me.” Then I could maybe break into Tracy Chapman (“Here in Subcity, life is hard”) or some Gil Scott-Heron (‘You never dig sharing, always had to have the most”). Perhaps not, this will just depress him. Maybe I’m no good at show business. I’ll take him on a walking tour of the Shankill Road and ask him – “Do you really think these children, older people and hard-working families struggling to make ends meet are the cause of all our economic woes. Do you really think they are less deserving that the wealthy and multi-national corporations?” I’d also ask him to tell Ian Duncan Smith to stop using the language of social justice to mask his sustained efforts to reduce the living standards of the poor and to make their lives worse – “being poorer is good for you – it makes you appreciate things more.”
If I did take him along Belfast’s Shankill Road, what would he see – social deprivation, educational under-attainment, isolated and vulnerable pensioners, unemployment and physical dereliction? I could introduce him to my friend Joe Bloggs, a single man living in a small flat who can’t afford to heat his house in the winter; or there is Mrs Smith who took the bus to the bargain store to buy a canvas to hide the damp on her walls that a private landlord wouldn’t repair. Mrs Smith’s daughter wants to be a doctor when she grows up – the closest she’s come to achieving her dream is being a community care worker on a zero hours contract for £6.31 an hour. Mr Jones is an electrician by trade, but he needs surgery on his knee and is working through pain. The NHS is supposed to be sending him to private care but the funds have dried up and his knee is getting worse. He can’t understand why the private clinic is operating out of the local NHS hospital. Surely the TTIP agreement hasn’t led to the NHS being sold off just yet? I think Mr Cameron will have had enough by then, “Take me home, this is more depressing than The Smiths. Can we please avoid the war veterans sleeping rough, I don’t think I can take another look.”
I doubt he would reflect much on his walk through Shankill as he is taken on the journey to Stormont, it’s much easier to sing for our politicians at Stormont than it is to stand up to the wealthy and say the poor aren’t to blame after all. It’s also easier for our politicians to exacerbate fake crises of their own making, sling some mud at each other, then settle down for a good old cabaret courtesy of the British and Irish Governments. A few songs, a few dances, a stand-up comic and some good wine, everything is ok and they are all getting on again. “I didn’t really mean it when I asked if you could put curry in my yoghurt” and “Our leader was only joking when he called you all bastards.” However, while the behind the scenes chumminess resumes, greased up by a good old sing-a-long chorus, the poor are still the poor – whether they live in Shankill or Falls – and they are still left wondering who is going to come and sing and dance for them and do something to make their lives better. “Did I ever tell you about the time…………..?”