Question Time 21st January 2021
Arlene Foster (DUP)
Brandon Lewis (Conservative)
Louise Haigh (Labour)
Anand Menon (Politics Professor)
Michelle O’Neill (Sinn Fein)
Venue: Northern Ireland
Not surprisingly, there’s a consensus abroad that mental health will suffer during the coronavirus pandemic and its associated lockdowns. Your humble author must concede that he has felt slightly out of sorts the last few days; sleeplessness, sore teeth, mild headaches. Prose even more muddled than usual has replaced his attempts at rapier-sharp insight. A two week long game of Axis and Allies having not helped, I have self-diagnosed with mild cabin fever. Nothing to worry about. If Puffins were on a paddle steamer heading upcountry along a mighty tropical river, the ship’s doctor would prescribe me a non-job; counting portholes, checking the cargo deck water buffalo three times a day, banging the gong for tiffin. Nothing wrong with the chap, just needs a bit of a distraction. Back in a cold, wet Debatable Lands January, sat in front of the telly, might kicking the Irish be a help? Only one way to find out. How rude are Puffins allowed to be to Sinn Fein IRA? Oh, Really? Excellent, that’s decided then.
As all the world knows, Northern Ireland people are the kindest, most generous, humorous and warm-hearted souls that you’ll ever meet. As long as you’re not what they think your not, and as long as you don’t mention religion or politics. Or history. Or football. In fact, it’s best not to mention anything at all. Just sit in silence in the bay window of your digs on Queens Parade, Bangor, County Down, looking out over the Pickie Pool, watching the comings and goings on Belfast Loch while enjoying your full Ulster breakfast. As the son she never had, your landlady (Mrs Mac, an indestructible five foot two inch tall Gospel Hall regular and proud mother of two grown-up daughters) is spoiling you rotten.
But, if a life more interesting calls you to Dublin for a day, tread carefully. In previous, more innocent times, barefoot urchins jigged around the fresh rubble of O’Connell Street’s Nelson’s Column. The Phoenix Park Zoo had a crocodile. It was good luck to hit it in the eye with a threepenny bit. The streets smelt of smouldering peat. Gipsy girls sold bunches of fragrant blooms beside the Liffey, itself not unpleasantly scented by the Guinness brewery on Market Street. Along the Georgian terraces, the spirit of Joyce strolled amongst the Dubliners, which is a shame because he was a filthy bugger. Apart from that, all was well with the world. But I was going to be late back to my lodgings. Perhaps a handful of gipsy girl’s blossoms would help?
“You’ve missed your supper, Mr AWS,” scowled my landlady.
“These are for you, Mrs Mac,” I said with a grin, flourishing the flowers before her.
Och, they were lovely. The clock ran backwards. A daughter was called downstairs to prepare a late supper. I sat in the bay window with my knife and fork, looking out over a moonlit seafront. Meanwhile, on the far side of the lough, County Antrim’s coastal townships winked at me beneath the stars. Out of sight, while making an arrangement in her best Tyrone crystal vase, Mrs Mac caught me off-guard.
“And where are these from, Mr AWS?”
Unthinking, I replied, “I had to go to Dublin.”
Oh, dear. On the flimsiest of excuses, my supper was cancelled. I could hear it being scrapped into the bin. The flowers were never seen again. One can tell when a vase has been de-fumigated.
In the intervening decades, so much has changed. Or has it? We are about to find out. Last week, our virtual Ulster fact-finding mission got off to a bad start when Fiona Bruce announced that the recently formed QT50 panel of regular audience members, was being stood down. Those nice, posh people who know somebody at the BBC, were to be replaced by volunteers. Dare we call them our Black and Tans?
Brandon Lewis, Louise Haigh and Anand Menon have been on Question Time recently. QT Review biographies of the interesting Ms Haigh and Mr Menon are available via the links, highlights being Louise’s panic attacks when appearing in public and Anand’s inability to leave school, let alone get a job.
Despite coming from Northern Ireland, QT came from London, with the Ulster contributors and panellists up on a video wall.
The first question was, what was causing the province’s food issues? Was it the Protocol or the Brexit? Apparently, the shelves are empty in Derry but not Aughrim, in Enniskillen but not on the Boyne. Arlene Foster (DUP) described difficulties with haulage, pets and parcels. She was not wearing a mask, or a bowler hat. She had no need for an orange sash as she was wearing a bright orange jacket, emblazoned with a broach in the shape of a jewelled crown. Trade between the mainland was more important than between the north and the south. There was an Article Sixteen in the Protocol that Mr Johnson could put to use.
Anand Menon (Politics Professor) said there was a learning curve with new rules and regulations. There were grace periods and a pandemic, at the other side of which we would be able to judge. There would be checks and delays. There was change, as we’d left the EU. There was also a calculation of cost. For some, it might not be worth selling from the mainland to Northern Ireland.
No good would come of it, claimed Michelle O’Neill (Sinn Fein). This was adjustment shock. A direct result of Brexit, rather than Covid. Michelle wanted to uphold the Protocol, nothing would come of Brexit. By the way, Michelle, that was an Article Sixteen, not an M-16.
O’Neil is the £123,000 a year Deputy First Minister of the Stormont Legislative Assembly. From a notorious Republican family, Ms O’Neill’s close relatives were IRA terrorists. Some family members have been jailed, others killed by the security forces. An uncle, Paul Doris, is a former president of Noraid, a North American IRA fund raising organisation.
While Puffins become annoyed about Noraid, bear in mind that you raise funds for he IRA too. Yes, you do. There are twenty seven Sinn Fien IRA members in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Your taxes pay their wages, expenses and staff costs. All of them will be Irish citizens. There are seven Sinn Fein IRA MPs elected to the Westminster Parliament. They do not take their seats and do not receive a salary but do claim expenses. After completing her education, 16 year old (and pregnant) Michelle O’Neill worked as an ‘advisor’ to Sinn Fein IRA MLA Francie Molloy. Last year you paid Molloy (now Westminster MP for Mid Ulster) £21,289.23 in Westminster expenses despite the fact that he’s an Irish citizen, hasn’t taken up his seat and has never been to Westminster.
Another Sinn Fein IRA MP is John Finucane, son of the late IRA staff lawyer Pat Finucane. In his list of Member’s interests John declares £1608.74 from Belfast City Council, honestly stating that the number of hours worked in return for the renumeration are, ‘none’. He also declares an income of £4,672 a month (in return for between 40 and 80 hours of work) as a director of his own legal practice in Belfast, Finucane Toner Ltd. The sum seems rather modest given that in 2015, according to the Irish Times, his practice received £721,346.26 from the British public purse via legal aid. Meanwhile, in the same year, his late father’s practice, Madden and Finucane, had received £2.2million. Pat Finucane’s former apprentice, Kevin Winters, now of KRW Law, also received £2.2million.
On his website Kevin boasts of his ‘civil litigation against state agencies’. i.e. using your money to prosecute you. One wonders why there’s no victim’s litigation against Sinn Fein IRA? In the lucrative areas of ‘defamation and reputational management’, Kevin’s clients include Bernadette (Devlin) McAliskey and George Galloway.
On one level, Sinn Fein IRA always was a money making racket for gangsters. One longs for the simpler times of contraband ciggies, drinking dens, the black taxi mafia, protection rackets, kidnappings et al.
As an aside, on 28th October 2020 the BBC reported that three Sinn Fein offices received £10,000 under a Covid grant scheme.
Brandon Lewis (Conservative) moved blame towards Covid and ‘Dover before Christmas’. This Northern Ireland Protocol began to sound a bit like God, interpreted differently by different communities. Bruce read out a liturgy of paperwork to be filled in. The single epidemiological entity of the island of Ireland, said Brandon with the confidence of a parish priest repeating what the Pope had told him.
Lousie Haigh (Labour) said Covid caused less disruption not more. With orange hair and a dark green top, Louise made the tempting but futile outsider’s mistake of trying to please everybody. There was denial and dishonesty she said.
If it’s not a border down the Irish sea asked Philip from the audience, what is it? Brandon didn’t see it as a border, whether it was or not. He didn’t want tariffs to be charged to goods destined for Ulster, as those in transit to the Republic would be (I think).
Michelle said there was an English agenda not an Irish one, and the Protocol was to protect herself (I think). She had a framed poster on the wall behind her, containing little black and white pictures and pen portraits, presumably of terrorists. Which jogged my memory.
Previously, when the shelves were full of food, Puffins may recall what Irish Republicans used to do with it after it had passed through them. If Ballygobackward’s F W Wellworth’s shelves are shorn of Tato crisps, might it be a relief? And if your Sandy Row wine merchant is out of red, white (and blue?) wine and VAT 1690, and your favourite delicatessen on the Falls Road can’t re-stock its
fenian cheeses fine cheeses, why not buy British? Why not visit our friends at Ashers, on outer North Belfast’s notorious exclusive Rathcoole Estate? As with politics, religion, history and football, it might be best not to mention gay cakes.
Michelle wasn’t wearing a mask either, nor a beret or dark glasses. She did have a black top on though.
Did Arlene regret not voting for the Teresa May’s backstop agreement? A picture of Ailsa Craig, I think, was on the wall behind her, Paddy’s milestone? Arlene looks to the rest of the Union. The protocol was there to protect, both the communities in Ulster and the East-West relationship, she said. Theresa May had fallen into a Republican trap.
Lidl was better than Tesco, according to Thomas the volunteer. Our next footsoldier had found everywhere fully stocked. He’d been able to get a doormat, boot polish and some headphones for tonight’s programme. As for petrol, it comes from the mainland and there was no shortage. Now here’s something you didn’t know. Back in the day, there was a very interesting chap, worked for BP, lived in Bangor, County Down and had a son the same age as me. A boy who turned out to be not of our parish, a certain Mrs Eddie Izzard.
Next question, deaths are rising in the hospitals, is this lockdown enough? Louise quoted the seven-day rolling death rate.
Much has been made of the UK having the ‘highest Covid death rate in the world’, the caveat being ‘daily average during the last seven days’. The following figures are taken from Oxford University’s Our World in Data Project on Wednesday 20th January. Regarding the death rate since the beginning of the pandemic, Belgium, in fatalities per million, is the worst in Europe:
1st 1773 Belgium
2nd 1554 Slovenia
3rd 1375 Italy
4th 1374 Bosnia
5th 1349 UK
On other metrics, the UK scores even better. Being well down the list on ‘case fatality rate’ and ‘new cases per day’. Interestingly, the highest weekly change in the number of deaths is (by a mile) the Republic of Ireland, with an increase of 170%.
Britain scores very well on vaccination, 6.96% of the population have been vaccinated, nearly ten times more than in France. As usual, the mainstream media and a large proportion of the political elite chose their figures very selectively in order to show ourselves and our country in as bad a light as possible.
One of the questioners said ‘North of Ireland’, keep an eye on him, Corporal.
There will be a day of reckoning for the Tories, said Michelle. She rambled on without saying much, as did Arlene. Michelle included ‘an all’ in a sentence, which took me back.
The next lady contributor was a doctor. She had her doctor’s certificates on the shelves behind her but pride of place went a giant 3D jigsaw of the Houses of Parliament. Was she planning a mortar attack? Keep an eye on her too, Corporal. The next, had her (Tyrone?) crystal on display. The one after that, a light green wall with some journal-style file holders on the shelves. The next sat beneath a giant painting. Infuriatingly we could only see the bottom of the frame. Elizabeth had pictures of her family on top of a piano. I must say, we’d attracted a much better class of Black and Tan than the nineteen twenties ever did.
Arlene reminded us that she isn’t a doctor and had to take the advice of the senior medical officers. The first dose of the vaccine only gave so much protection. 80% of care home residents had received their second dose.
Liam asked about Brexit border posts? The painting behind him depicted the lower half of a table of drinkers. Michelle said Brexit was a catalyst for a discussion of the constitutional issue. “A narrow English inward-looking Brexit,” she said, suggesting being stuck with the Euro, in a German-dominated EU, was somehow ‘outward-looking’.
Excuse me, I misheard, not ‘border posts’, a ‘border poll’. And not the pole across the border road at Ballygobackwards that keeps the moonshine lorry away from the Pig and Whistle. No, a voter’s poll, the issue being a united Ireland. Brandon talked and talked and talked and, not surprisingly, said he wanted a conversation. It is his strong point. The UK benefits from Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland benefits from being in the UK.
Our next volunteer was called Lesley. She was either still on the dirty protest or had voted for gaudy, swirly green wallpaper. Nobody could hear what she said. Lousie Haigh wanted to set a context. Louise held the principles of the Good Friday Agreement. It was up to the people of Northern Ireland to have an opinion, not Louise and the Labour Party.
Arlene thought the Union was a rational choice and, for her, an emotional one too as she was a British citizen. Three billion pounds had come from the English to help with Covid. There were UK wide vaccinations. A tangible, rational reason for staying in the Union was Northern Ireland’s contribution to the UK. Queens University (her alma mater) beats Cambridge. Northern Ireland also had a strong education system and a strong health service. The opinion polls show we want to stay, she reminded us all.
Anand said opinion might be volatile. It was important to make the present protocol work. “The paperwork?” said Bruce. There’d be paperwork between a united Ireland and the mainland, their biggest market place. Not a well thought out argument, Fiona.
Liam from the audience said the Brexit referendum was a shambles, so he wanted another, this time on ‘unity’. Michelle agreed with him and wanted to start planning a referendum now.
Michelle, there is an Irish Republic. If you must, then go and live in it, or shut up. In recent years, hundreds of thousands of ‘New Irish’ have been dumped on the South. Half a million old Irish might come as a nice surprise for the urchins, gipsy girls, Phoenix Park crocodiles and that spirit of Joyce.
© Always Worth Saying 2021
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file