Robinson and McGuinness try to lift the gloom

Opinion: Maybe we should cut our politicians a little slack while holding them to account

Morrissey... champion of cheerfulness. Photograph: Ethan Miller/Reuters

Morrissey... champion of cheerfulness. Photograph: Ethan Miller/Reuters


It’s not often that sitting and listening to Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness puts you in mind of The Smiths, their champion of cheerfulness vocalist Morrissey and, most particularly, their song, Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now. But it did.

Before the North’s First Minister and Deputy First Minister headed off to China last Sunday they called in a bunch of us reporters to Stormont Castle for a briefing about the business opportunities that country offers. On a separate matter entirely – creating a shared society in Northern Ireland – they told us how somebody of the calibre of the former US senator George Mitchell is required to grasp the necks of the North’s most intractable problems – parades, flags and the past – and give them a very good shake.

This was a bit of a Robinson/McGuinness ambush. The DUP and Sinn Féin leaders were as one in expressing their exasperation with local reporting of previous international trips, to China in November last year and to Brazil and the US in the spring of this year. They felt, like Morrissey, that some of us were on a bit of a misery trip.

Flying business class
Why were they staying in five-star hotels, some of the journalists and headline writers had wondered? Did Robinson and McGuinness have to fly business class? And what was the point of going to China last year during the Communist Party’s national congress? You were hardly going to meet many leaders on that gig!

One reporter at the table who dared to suggest that these were legitimate matters to pursue received a quick lash of the Robinson tongue. That sort of questioning attempted “to demean Northern Ireland’s political leaders by asking them to take a tent and go into a park”, he wildly exaggerated.

“You take away your own credibility by suggesting that the leaders of a country should go economy class and go into two-star hotels,” he added, equally cuttingly, but more sensibly.

McGuinness agreed. “Outside of this if I was offered a trip to China as opposed to a week in my own house in Derry and the opportunity to go out fishing on the Lennon River in Donegal, I would rather stay at home any day.”

Still, after the flags bother and the big dip in personal relations it was good to hear the pair of them so united in the face of a common enemy.

But they had a point. At a basic human level it must be dispiriting to be met with an onslaught of negativity when you are out on the international market pitching for Northern Ireland Inc or North of Ireland Inc.

Do the majority of ordinary people really take exception to their leaders stretching out on a comfortable airplane lounger or crashing in a top-class hotel as they jet around the world trying to drum up investment? Probably not. We’re not such begrudgers. The trouble is that the ones who are hogging the radio talk shows with their many variations on the Morrissey song.

Maybe the trick is to hold the politicians to account but give them a little slack – and ease off on the phone-in shows. Read The Irish Times – some misery, but much more variety. It reminds me of a friend who came home around the time of the last budget in the Republic to find a very strange sound in the house. After decades of the radio dial being permanently fixed on RTÉ Radio 1 it had shifted to Lyric FM.

His wife was responsible. She genuinely sympathised with everyone afflicted by this cursed age of austerity, but she could take no more desolation.

It was nothing personal but Cathal MacCoille and even huggable Áine Lawlor, Pat Kenny, Seán O’Rourke, Joe Duffy – especially Joe – and Mary Wilson had to quit the stage. Her survivalist view was more in line with the Roman philosopher Seneca’s than Morrissey’s: “A man is as miserable as he thinks he is.”

Which brings us back to George Mitchell. The former US senator can relax because while McGuinness said somebody of his stature was needed, he wasn’t actually calling him back across the broad Atlantic to Northern Ireland. He wanted somebody like him.

Moreover, it’s an important matter because that person must chair an all-party group which has until Christmas to design a way of tackling that most stubborn triumvirate of parades, flags and the past.

Racing certainty
It’s a racing certainty that whoever takes the job will not create a blueprint to resolve these issues by December. But he or she could help preside over a reasonable start to a very necessary, difficult and, probably, long journey.

Anyone reckless enough to take on the post will need a fair wind from the public and the press. Were George to return could his benign calm and quiet but compelling sense of optimism that were so important in getting that deal on Good Friday 1998 be able to withstand the barrage of negativity that would greet him now? Can Do versus Can’t Do, Morrissey or Mitchell? Who would triumph? It’s a tough one because misery can beget misery.

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