Not by chance have West and North Belfast been left behind when it comes to the cycling revolution transforming the city.
THE SDLP’s astute and increasingly impressive South Belfast MLA Matthew O’Toole best described a new unionist plan for a resolution of the Protocol saga when he said it was “a fundamentally unserious document” replete with “unworkable fantasies”. The most fleeting glance at what’s essentially a hardline anti-Good Friday Agreement wish list shows that analysis to be on the money. The report has been authored by an unelectable loyalist blogger and an unheard-of, student-age ultra-Tory operative with zero history of involvement in politics here. It recommends entrenching the supremacy of the centuries-old Acts of Union, which is illustrative of the mindset of the authors. It argues that existing EU laws which pertain to the six counties can be kept, but only so long as they are transposed into UK law and – laughably – only as long as they mirror British law. And the customs conundrum, it posits, can be dealt with by way of self-declaration – a facile suggestion which has been brought up and shot down countless times. The report is the work of two people who represent no-one, but it has received widespread coverage, mostly because one of the authors, Jamie Bryson, is believed to play a central role in advising DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson and in shaping the party’s anti-Protocol strategy. It is an embarrassing indictment of Mr Donaldson’s leadership that he has allowed his primacy in the campaign to overturn the Protocol to be hijacked in this way. Elsewhere, the serious job of repairing the mess brought about by the DUP’s blind pursuance of a hard Brexit continued this week as British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly arrived in the North to speak to the parties about a deal he has struck with the EU on data-sharing (a meeting hit by an attendance spat). Labour leader Keir Starmer and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar are both slated to arrive here separately on Thursday for a round of talks with the parties. Meanwhile, in another key sign that a deal is on the cards, Sinn Féin northern leader Michelle O’Neill said she’d had a positive telephone conversation on Protocol progress with Tanáiste Micheál Martin. The unremitting rancour and bitterness that has been the hallmark of the coalition government’s relationship with Sinn Féin has been set to the side as the prospect of progress looms larger, and that’s to be welcomed. Mr Donaldson, meanwhile, also had a talk with the Tanáiste and later said that any restoration of Stormont can only come about on the back of an accommodation “built on solid foundations which are supported by unionists and nationalists”. It is deeply unfortunate that the DUP’s laudable commitment to cross-community harmony was nowhere to be seen when the party went all-in the disastrous Brexit project which was opposed by a vast majority of nationalists, but let’s hope sense has been seen. The mooted February date for a deal will be on the DUP leader before he knows it and the work of preparing his base must begin now – if it’s work he’s willing to do.
THE very obvious choreography leading up to the mooted February Protocol deal between London and Brussels has escaped the attention of the main unionist parties, the most vocal of whose members have been busy repeating in their New Year messages their meaningless and increasingly desperate demands for the scrapping of the Irish Sea border. Before the ink was dry on their 2023 thoughts, new Taoiseach Leo Varadkar made a key intervention which has been interpreted by unionism as a belated but welcome admission of failure. What the Taoiseach said was that mistakes were made on all sides during the Brexit negotiations – which is as suprising and tendentious as noting that Liz Truss’s tenure as Prime Minister had encountered a number of difficulties.
THE city of Belfast has been infested in the past week with posters of new Taoiseach Leo Varadkar against the background of the rubble and chaos of the 1974 Dublin-Monaghan loyalist atrocity. The message underneath reads: ‘The possibility of violence is very real.’ The posters are to be found mostly in loyalist districts, but needless to say they have made their way into interface areas. The poster campaign is clearly an attempt to reference a crude piece of propaganda which is the keystone in the shaky arch of mistruths and bad faith that is the unionist anti-Protocol campaign. The claim is that nationalist representatives have won concessions from Europe and to a lesser extent the UK by raising the spectre of a renewal of the conflict in the event of a hard border on the island of Ireland. The incident referred to at every possible juncture was one in October 2018 when it is alleged that then Taoiseach Mr Varadkar held up a picture of the aftermath of the bombing of a border post in 1972 when speaking about his opposition to a hard border. In fact, Mr Varadkar had held up a copy of a story in the Irish Times about the possibility of dissident republican attacks on customs posts if infrastructure returned to the border. And in turn, that story was given credence by a statement from George Hamilton, then Chief Constable, fully 10 months earlier when he said that a fortified frontier would have to be guarded round the clock and that his officers’ lives would therefore be placed at greater risk from anti-peace process republicans.
THIS week’s BBC Spotlight exposé of loan-sharking by loyalist paramilitaries was first and foremost a shocking indictment of the PSNI’s utter failure to act against those UVF and UDA gangland bosses who preside over the daily abuse of their own communities. But it is too a vivid illustration of the bottomless hypocrisy of those senior unionist politicians who regularly sit round the table with the same narco-thugs who are inflicting this reign of terror on their neighbours. The IRA left the stage two decades ago and more, and while the usual allegations of continued Army Council influence within Sinn Féin are bandied about, that canard is resorted to only because of the total absence of IRA activity or presence within communities and on the streets. Add to that the commitment shown by Sinn Féin in refusing to give any time or credibility to republican micro-groups involved in their risible and sporadic ‘armed struggle’ and it is clear to see that on that side at least, promises were delivered upon. What we see being waged now is a ‘culture war’ in which the enemy is not IRA volunteers with guns and bombs, but ordinary nationalists and republicans who don’t speak and act in the way unionists believe they should. So it is that words, lyrics and ideas are furiously denounced as if they were weapons. Young people singing songs about a conflict they never knew is an assault on every unionist victim of the Troubles. Politicians expressing an opinion on the dynamic of the outbreak of violence in the late ’60s is hate speech. Academics engaged in a respectful and outward-looking debate on the future of the union are denounced and harassed at their places of work. Meanwhile, the same unionist politicians who express horror at ‘Ooh, ah, up the Ra’, who react hysterically at any analysis of the conflict that doesn’t elide with theirs, who obsess about a mild-mannered professor who dares to conduct a debate they don’t like go about their business. And their business is giving legitimacy and cover to the very people who were the subject of the Spotlight report by sitting around the table with them. Sitting around the table with men responsible for the financial and mental misery that they have unleased on loyalist communities with their greed and brutality. Sitting around the table with the men behind the attack on the Irish Minister of Foreign Affairs in Ardoyne. Sitting around the table with men who have other men shot down in car parks in front of their children. But while these politicians give cover to the narco-thugs, the media in turn gives cover to them by seeing nothing unusual about them meeting the UVF and the UDA. Michelle O’Neill is questioned endlessly about her recent words on the genesis of the conflict. Have unionist politicians had their feet put to the fire with similar enthusiasm over their relationship with gangsters and killers? Evidently they have not.
THE death of five-year-old Stella-Lily McCorkindale from illness related to the Strep A infection has brought unimaginable heartbreak to her family and shock and sadness to the wider community.
HOT on the heels of Jeffrey Donaldson’s expression of “regret” for his erroneous claim that children’s heart operations had been adversely impacted by a delay in the delivery of machinery parts due to the Protocol (nothing to do with it, needless to say) came two more embarrassing DUP interventions on the subject that would also be comical if it weren’t for the seriousness of the issue.
ANOTHER week, another ‘Ooh, ah, up the Ra’ controversy pushes ongoing loyalist paramilitary activity from the headlines.
THE British Chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, said on Tuesday that he and his government are “absolutely determined” to get the £400 Energy Bills Support Scheme up and running here in the North. People in England, Scotland and Wales began receiving their payments last month while those here struggling to cope with crippling energy costs are no closer to knowing when the crucial aid will come than they were when it first became apparent that they were at the back of the queue through no fault of their own.
THE weekend Sinn Féin Ard Fheis was a museum-quality example of the task facing those of us who are intent on moving forward from the most recent phase of conflict here.
THE latest act in the grotesque and continuing charade that is British politics took place on Tuesday when new British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak reshuffled the cabinet – the most intriguing part of which for us was his decision to retain the services of the current London plenipotentiary, Chris Heaton-Harris. Doubtless he is today feeling pathetically grateful, because the cameo role that he played in this latest episode of this unending Tory psychodrama was to declare a final, desperate act of loyalty to the thoroughly discredited and disgraced liar Boris Johnson moments before he slunk away yet again.
IF Liz Truss’s calamity-strewn time in Downing Street is not yet over, her brief experiment with Iron Lady politics is most certainly consigned to the dustbin of posterity.
THERE’S not a day goes by without the DUP showing in spades its utter inability to accept – never mind come to terms with – the rapidly changing political, social and demographic changes that are reshaping not only this corner of our island, but the entire United Kingdom.
ANY brief hope that the DUP would be brought to their senses by the triple whammy they’ve been hit with recently was unceremoniously dashed on Tuesday as two senior party figures signalled a return to the trenches where they’ve historically felt the most comfortable. The changing demographics here revealed by the latest tranche of census information was followed in short order by a significant quickening of the debate about a new island and the frankly jaw-dropping sight of the hardest of Brexit hard men, NIO Minister of State Steve Baker, eating humble pie while the EU and Dublin looked on. There’s been a crunching change of gear on the Protocol negotiations – technical talks were under way almost as soon as Mr Baker revealed his softer, more accommodating new persona and Westminster insiders have been increasingly pointing towards the UK accepting a deal on the Protocol that is less than optimal for unionism. That new Tory realism has been driven by a compelling mixture of the Tories’ current tsunami of domestic travails and its recent humiliating trade deal slap-down by the United States. Rather than prepare its base for a compromise on the Protocol – something that is going to happen whether the DUP accepts it or not – the party has decided to play its last desperate card. Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots told RTÉ that unless he and his colleagues get their way on the Protocol, President Joe Biden will be visiting Ireland next year on the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement not for a celebration of the treaty, but for its “funeral”. His colleague, Ian Paisley MP, warned that power-sharing will never return to the North if the House of Lords blocks British PM Liz Truss’s hardline Protocol Bill.
LONG before the keenly anticipated religious breakdown census figures were released last week it was clear that great change is coming to the North of Ireland. Much as loyal Ulster has, Chicken Licken-like, been pretending that everthing’s fine, much as agitated senior unionists today argue that Catholics outnumbering Protestants does not automatically equate to a united Ireland, and much as we might agree with them, there can be no underestimating the visceral impact that the official ending of the Protestant state has had on people and their forebears whose lot in life – and that of their forebears – was to be the permanent underdog and scapegoat.