Head-spinning weirdness awaits G8 in Northern Ireland


This week’s news threw up two stories that neatly accommodate the mindsets of those who analyse world affairs in binary terms.

The bust-up in Gaza suggests nothing much has changed in that region over the last 40 years. Pol Pot has gone. The Americans eventually quit Vietnam. Almost nobody remembers who Archbishop Makarios is any more. But the bloodshed continues in that unhappy corner of the world. Nothing has changed. Right?

Meanwhile, David Cameron – making the best of that Eton education at a forklift factory in Craigavon – announced that the next G8 summit of world leaders would be held at some snooty hotel in Fermanagh.

Cameron oozed some syrupy guff to clarify what a “fantastic” and “beautiful place Northern Ireland is”. What he really meant was “normal” and “safe”. Don’t worry. There may have been a few lapses recently. But the people of Northern Ireland are now no more likely to beat one another to death than are the average citizens of Minsk or Marseilles.

My Northern brethren have some cause to feel cheated. You’d have thought that – in acknowledgment of this supposed normality – they’d get to host the Commonwealth Games or the European Football Championship. Even an Open golf tournament would have sufficed. Who cares that eight indulged politicians are flying in for an orgy of creative obfuscation. It seems unlikely they’ll poke their noses anywhere more authentically Irish than the Hotel Poshington’s Thai spa.

Anyway, the simultaneous arrival of these stories allows for easy binary classification: Gaza remains in a state of unaltered turmoil; and Northern Ireland has sorted itself out. Is there anything else you need to know? Space prohibits any lengthy analysis of the various twists and turns through which the Holy Land has progressed over the last few decades. But it is fair to assume it’s a very different place to the land over which Moshe Dayan and Yasser Arafat squabbled.

Northern Ireland certainly has moved on. A recent article in these pages by Gerry Moriarty, our Northern editor, eloquently made the case for “a quiet evolution” in attitudes. As the piece noted, new degrees of civility are creeping into conversations concerning loyalist parades. Retired guerrillas cosy up to elderly monarchs. Protestant politicians dare to attend funeral Masses. Those sorts of things.

All this is to be welcomed. But we are dealing with a very abnormal class of normality here.

Moriarty correctly noted the relative calmness Northerners brought to discussions concerning Rory McIlroy’s premature declaration for the UK Olympics squad. But the fact that the debate is taking place at all indicates the slippery nature of national identity in those six counties.

Nervous about recalibrating any of the controls that have maintained relative peace over the past 15 years, we try to avoid commenting on the head-spinning weirdness of the Northern Ireland Assembly’s take on democracy. Almost everybody is in power.

Virtually nobody is in opposition. The framers of the Belfast Agreement come across like hosts at a potentially fractious children’s party. Everyone gets a prize! Nobody goes home a loser! It remains a strange irony that, in order to bring the “communities” together, the Assembly members were forced to formalise their differences: every MLA is designated as nationalist, unionist or (good for them) other.

Outside cosy middle-class areas, segregation remains as entrenched as ever. Who, noting the institutionalised divisions in the Assembly, could pretend to any surprise at that intelligence? Meanwhile, culture is viewed as a bizarre zero-sum game. Any concession to one community must be balanced by a similar concession to its rivals.

Nothing illustrates this more effectively than the linguistic activities of the Ulster-Scots Agency. As a largely unwilling twig of the stark Ulster Protestant tree, I must acknowledge that we have our own culture: an unhappy melange of big drums, scowling, fatty breakfasts and Embassy Regal cigarettes. But, before the Ulster-Scots mob popped up, I was unaware that we spoke a unique language.

You know how these things go. It’s not fair! The Catholics get to have street names and official documents written in their tongue. Why can’t we have them written in ours? Give us money to promote a made-up language – actually a dialect – that seems to be based on the phonetic contortions found in the vintage Scottish comic strip Oor Wullie. Prizes for all! Oh well. This strange combination of accidental satire and applied hypocrisy remains preferable to the ill-remembered alternative. It is better to behave like amiable oddballs than homicidal lunatics. We offer Mr Putin and the rest a hearty welcome.

Or “fair faa ye” as, according to an Ulster-Scots dictionary, I am apparently more likely to say.

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