That ebullient and creative academic Pete Shirlow recently wrote a piece in the Belfast Telegraph discouraging the indulgence of Northern Irish whinging about ourselves as “ a place apart”, and unloved in GB. You can argue this either way. As he says: “ The idea that most people in Britain do not give a monkey’s is as true as it is false… I am sure most people in Britain never think about Northern Ireland, but they probably never think much about Glasgow or Cardiff either.
His opening sentence lingers with me.
Tim Shipman, political editor of The Sunday Times, has declared that “most people in Britain don’t give a monkey’s about Northern Ireland. They think it’s a strange sectarian place and feel more at home in Cork, Washington or Paris than Belfast. Theresa May does not share this view but she might have to come around to it to get out of this mess”.
The question is, do they give the right monkey’s?
Theresa May’s thoughts are unlikely to be anything like as sophisticated as Pete Shirlow’s. Guardian columnist Martin Kettle recently described May’s approach which is simply blind to the evolving relationships between the component parts of these islands.
May was in Belfast the day before I arrived there. She said, as she always does, how precious the union with the north is to her. Yet her view of the union is as rigid as a flagpole. It is a home counties English Conservative view that has little feel for the human and cultural suppleness of the UK union, or of the European one either. She gives no inkling that she possesses the emotional or imaginative space for the complexity of these islands or their history. You would never know from her Belfast speech that Northern Ireland voted 56%-44% against Brexit, let alone that support for remain in Northern Ireland has risen to over 70% in a recent poll – still less that her government is propped up by the DUP, which she never mentioned.
I was struck by the fact that on her recent visit to give herself an alibi that she’d visited the border ( the Belleek pottery, just 200 yards inside), the local MP Sinn Fein’s Michelle Gildernew was not included. She stuck with Arlene Foster alone. At the very least, Foster should have been dropped. This gesture of unthinking, automatic public favouritism towards the DUP creates a toxic equation, DUP equals the Union, the UK looks after the unionists, the Irish government is guarantor for nationalists. I suspect with the prime minister it’s instinctive and not wholly dependent on the DUP deal. But the split produces the opposite to the desired effect. Both the Union and the GFA are weakened, not strengthened.
Many Conservatives believe this is a harsh and ungenerous reading of Mrs May’s position. After all she’s staking her premiership on Chequers and against Canada because it would be “something that broke up the United Kingdom” leading to the activation of the backstop on Northern Ireland which she will not countenance. The mantra is part of the core message for ministers at the Conservative party conference.
Theresa May has launched a concerted campaign to keep her job, announcing a crackdown on foreigners buying homes in the UK and revealing plans for a “historic” festival to celebrate Brexit Britain.
In a signal that she wants to defy rebel MPs and stay in Downing Street for several years, May also gave the green light to a nationwide festival of innovation and culture, starting in January 2022, just four months before the next scheduled general election.
The event, called the Festival, is designed to pump billions of pounds into the economy and has conscious echoes of Queen Victoria’s Great Exhibition in 1851 and the Festival of Britain in 1951.
May said: “We want to showcase what makes our country great today. We want to capture that spirit for a new generation, celebrate our nation’s diversity and talent, and mark this moment of national renewal with a once-in-a-generation celebration.”
Ministers are to set aside £120m to plan the event and hire a creative director.
Neil MacGregor, the broadcaster and former director of the British Museum, and senior figures from the London 2012 Olympics are in the running to take charge.
The festival will be one of a number of celebrations already due to take place that year — including the 75th anniversary of the Edinburgh International and Fringe festivals, the 100th birthday of the BBC and the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.
Will this merge with “Expo 100,” DUP plans to commemorate the centenary of the Northern Ireland? Don’t tell me the government’s master planners hadn’t noticed!
An attack on May’s motives comes from Andrew Adonis, a former Labour minister and leading Remainer now campaigner for a “People’s Vote.” who himself discovered Ireland north and south on a recent visit:
May struggled to avoid the backstop, and was ferociously attacked by Foster and the DUP for agreeing to it. But she and Boris Johnson had no choice – just as, despite the latest bluster, whichever of them is by then prime minister will have no choice but to maintain it in any exit treaty with the EU.
However, there was a poison pill in May’s capitulation to Foster, which she saved up until the eve of the Tory party conference – the proposed Festival of Great Britain and Northern Ireland announced at the weekend for 2022.
There was instant derision. “Parade of empty supermarket shelves”, “flypast of passenger jets unable to leave the country” and “world’s longest lorry queue” were a few of the suggestions.
However, few have woken up to why May announced it as the “Festival of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” and why the timing is significant – 2022 marks a century since the creation of Northern Ireland. You can make a case for 2021 as the official centenary, but 1922 was when the full constitutional revolution in Ireland took place, which saw the Irish Free State break away from the UK with virtual independence after a terrible civil war, while the six most “Protestant” counties of Ulster remained within the UK under a devolved government and parliament sitting in Stormont in Belfast.
I suspect May isn’t familiar with the sweep of Irish history. She has devoted less attention to Ireland than any modern prime minister. She hasn’t even done what I and others regard as her bounden duty – to camp out in Belfast until a power-sharing government was formed after the last Northern Ireland election. Instead, there has been no government or assembly in Belfast for nearly two years, and civil liberties and unrest are once again in an alarming state.
But one thing May could do to help would be to cancel her “festival of partition”.
As for Boris’s bridge.. enuff said. Mrs May’s insistence on “no border down the Irish Sea” is overblown. Any Brexit outcome short of no deal will have to compromise on those checks, DUP or no DUP.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London