MUCH confusion this week after a DUP ‘source’ told Radio Ulster’s Stephen Nolan that they would oppose an Irish Language Act as long as the Irish Sea border remains in place. It’s not entirely clear how a five-year-old in the bunscoil sandpit singing ‘Is mise tiománaí traenach toot, toot, toot’ was responsible for the technicalities of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, but perhaps that will become more evident over time.

60 minutes later the actual DUP – as in an official spokesperson – told UTV’s Tracey Magee that what the ‘source’ said simply wasn’t true. So Squinter called Arlene Foster to see if he could make any sense of what’s going on...
– So the DUP is not going to oppose an Irish Language Act if the Protocol remains in place?
– We’re not, no.
– So what’s happening?
–  Irish language legislation will be brought forward, hopefully by May next year,  as part of a package on identity and culture.
– Even if the Protocol remains in place?
– Oh, yes.
– So why are party ‘sources’ briefing that the Irish Language Act is going to be blocked?
– I couldn’t possibly say.
– Some people – you might even call them sources – are saying that this is a DUP to strategy to spread confusion and instability.
– Are they now?
– They are.
– Well, anyone who knows me knows that I’m a typical Ulsterwoman. Shoot from the hip. Tell it like it is. No ifs or buts. No back doors. Straight down the middle...
– Yes, yes, we get the point.
– What I’m saying is that when I say something I mean it. You can take it to the Ulster Bank.
– Like the “gateway of opportunity” thing?
– The what?
– You told Andrew Marr in January that the Protocol was “a gateway of opportunity”
– Correct.
– Did you mean that?
– In a way.
– What way?
– It was a gateway of opportunity for me to have a word with the LCC and change my mind.
– Speaking about the Loyalist Community Council, how’d you find them when you met them?
– Great bunch of lads altogether.
– You said at the weekend that a veteran restorative justice campaigner from West Belfast released under the Good Friday Agreement should be put back in jail.
– I did. And so he should.
– Why’s that?
– Because it was the anniversary of The Thing That He Did.
– Do you think the UVF, UDA and Red Hand Commando people you met in the LCC should be back in jail?
– No.
– Why not?
– Because it’s not the anniversary of The Things They Did.
– What do you think would happen if the PSNI scooped a guy released under the GFA and put him back in jail because it was the anniversary of The Thing That He Did?
– People would breathe a sigh of relief.
– Wouldn’t that be the end of the peace process?
– No, no. Things would be just fine. Trust me.
– Says here you recently addressed a Women in the Media conference about the treatment women in public life receive.
– I did.
– The deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill was speaking too, wasn’t she?
– Was she? I never noticed.
– Do you remember what you said when the Sunday Independent asked you what word you would use to describe Michelle O’Neill?
– No, but I know you’re going to tell me.
– Blonde. You said you’d describe her as blonde.
– Ah, yes. That was meant as a compliment. I said so at the time.
– You did. But you hesitated before giving the answer and said you didn’t want to say the word because “I am not going to be sexist”.
– That’s right.
– And then you said it anyway.
– I did.
– So how do you think the straight-talking thing is going?
– Who mentioned straight-talking?
– Well, you did a few minutes ago... Never mind.

Testing times as MOT centres are back again


BEEN a while since Squinter’s car last got an MOT. Seems like it was around the time of the Good Friday Agreement, in fact.
The postponements understandably necessitated by the Covid pandemic meant that the annual ordeal was put off, one of the few high points in a low year. But every good thing must come to an end and at last through the letter box dropped the letter with the date.
Inevitably, the return of MOTs has led to something of a gridlock within the system and finding a spot proved to be rather problematic. Boucher Road, Castlereagh Road and Lisburn are no-gos until around 2025, if Squinter remembers correctly. Being an adventurous type, Squinter would have been happy to head to Ballymena, Larne, Craigavon or Newtownards, but again the DVA dance-cards proved to be stubbornly full.
Then, just when things appeared to be hopeless and an email appeal for a time extension appeared to be the only option, a spot opened up in Newtownabbey. A good spot, too. Thursday, noon. Not too early, not too late. Not too far. Job’s a good ’un.
The usual grim routine began. First the car was dropped off at the garage, and to be honest it could have been a lot worse. The MOT check did all the little bits and bobs that MOT checks do and, as for the bigger jobs, only two new tyres were needed and the brakes were fine as they were.
The ten-quid mini-valet in a grim tarmac wasteland, the lazy motorist’s most important asset, is not available, of course, so Squinter set about washing the bodywork, cleaning the windows, vacuuming and tidying the interior and Mister Sheening the dashboard and the doors. But just as there’s no mini-valet, there’s no MOT under-car wash, but there was nothing to be done about that and Squinter reassured himself that the inspectors would understand that the undercarriages coming their way would be a good bit muckier than usual.
Squinter rolled up at the centre in Mallusk in good time, parked in the sprawling DVA test centre and went for a dander. He’s been in Mallusk before, but he’s never been in the heart of its industrial centre, a clamorous, soulless place, full of grinding lorries, whining forklifts and hot food caravans. After surveying the concrete splendour of the Sandyknowes roundabout, he resolved that sitting in the car listening to a podcast on the phone was a better bet. Ten minutes to showtime and Squinter pulled up in his designated lane. And for once he was called forward at the allotted time.
If you’re a driver, chances are you’ll know the routine. Drive just inside the hangar and a wand is stuck up your exhaust pipe (oooh, matron!) to check you’re not emitting cyanide or asbestos. The car is hooked up to a diagnostic computer and you’re instructed to do the lights and wipers routine. The headlight machine is rolled forward and when that  check is completed you’re invited further forward on to metal roller bars where the inspector takes over and abuses your brakes like he’s an alpine rally driver. On you go further and you’re invited to take a seat in a little fenced-off area while your car goes up on the hoist and the undercarriage is checked while you look on trying to read something – anything – into the inspector’s expression.
The good news is that that’s all finished. You don’t even get to see the inside of the hangar. Keeping his distance, the inspector asks for the keys, points to the area where he wants you to wait and tells you he’ll bring the car round in 20 minutes. Then he fits a disposable white plastic cover over the driver’s seat and off he goes.
The waiting area has one small green metal bench. Social distancing could just about be observed if two people sit on it with one bum cheek only at opposite ends. Otherwise, it’s standing room only. Perhaps seven or eight people are milling around, a couple of younger people sitting cross-legged on the tarmac, the others leaning against the hangar – all on their phones. Squinter settles precariously on a low brick wall and makes the phone thing unanimous.

The minutes tick by and then along comes a car and an inspector. Out he gets and the owner steps forward like he’s being led to a firing squad. It’s a top-of-the range Audi, sleek and shiny as the day it left the showroom, and yet it’s a fail. Squinter knows this because the entire conversation is taking place just ten feet away. Every driver waiting is engrossed in the mini-drama, understanding that in five, 10, 15 or 20 minutes this could be them. The Audi guy, who’s maybe mid-30s, is plaintively asking the inspector if he can come back if he gets a part quickly and the guy in the uniform seems amenable. Audi guy gets on the mobile phone and the audience waits and listens, then another car and another inspector arrives...
Squinter and the changing audience watch the encounters over the next 15 minutes with increasing fascination. It’s mostly delighted smiles and elbow bumps, but there’s one more fail – a middle-aged woman who accepts her fate without demur, listening with a blank expression as the inspector details the faults she needs to get fixed and tells her what to do next.
When Squinter’s car finally hoves into view he feels a jolt of dread – all this drama has upped the emotional ante considerably. He steps forward, the instructor steps out, hands Squinter a white A4 sheet, says everything’s fine. Squinter extends a bent elbow and he does the same. A warm ‘Thank you’ followed by a friendly ‘No problem’ and in 30 seconds Squinter’s out and on his way home wondering whether this new MOT isn’t a bit intrusive and whether passing on bad news in front of an audience is the professional thing to do.

Or could it be that the MOT should cost more because of the added entertainment?