Sunday 25 September 2016

Ireland's politicians should learn lessons from the UK election

Gerard O'Regan

Published 02/05/2015 | 02:30

'Nicola Sturgeon and her Scottish National Party look likely to be the kingmakers.'
'Nicola Sturgeon and her Scottish National Party look likely to be the kingmakers.'

It was junk food and comfort food - which we are repeatedly warned is responsible for clogging up the arteries and much else.

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But this was not the time nor place for such lofty considerations. This was Manchester in deep and dark December, with a sharp cold wind blowing in from God knows where.

We had all been to Old Trafford to watch Manchester United have their wicked way with the opposition, and now that the game was over we adjourned to a nearby hostelry for some much needed warmth and sustenance.

The menu was simple and straightforward. It could be burgers, sausages, and chips, or seemingly an array of pies, comprising all sorts of unhealthy content. But the pie option was the one favoured by the majority of the more seasoned United fans from England. So it seemed the obvious and sensible thing was to join the natives, so to speak, and go with the flow.

Outside the wind howled and the rain thundered down as the evening gloom gave way to a swarm of darkness. This was a north of England winter, all right.

Leaving out the smattering of Irish supporters who had travelled over for the game, and some other Man United aficionados who had journeyed from places further afield, all round was a sea of English faces wolfing down the consolations of the post-game nosh-up.

It was impossible not to feel these were mostly people whose forbears were hewn by the legacy of hard industrial lives. For many of the families spawned in the great cities across northern England have, over two centuries and more, been irredeemably fashioned by the thumping grind of factory work. The soulless and dangerous option of hewing for coal deep in the bowels of the earth was the lot of countless others whose descendants now try and make their way in the modern age.

Charles Dickens chronicled the unforgiving nature of Britain's industrial revolution for the masses, back when the country bestrode the world with its empire a century and more ago. In time, soccer would become a kind of opium for the "common man''. It has survived in all its artistry and beauty, long after many of the factories have closed and wide-scale mining is no more.

And, of course, in recent years so-called new tech industries and such have come on board to fill the void left by the demise of the old industrial jobs. But there are not enough of them. The fact is that in some of the great urban conurbations, on both sides of the Pennines, too many people are still without work, or are getting by on very low levels of pay.

Life can be tough in some of the sprawling estates in the likes of Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle, and Leeds. Maybe the gloom-filled winter backdrop brought it into particular focus in the aftermath of that football game.

This is also all a reminder that what passes for the UK is really a patchwork of geographical entities that are remarkably different in so many ways. Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, all have their distinct identities. But the British general election campaign has provided a jolt, in highlighting the great divide between, on the one hand, London and the "home counties'' in the south-east, and on the other the northern half of England.

This has become all the more profound, as the capital and its hinterland forges ahead with more jobs, and more money, all round. The recession has been less severe down south - and the return to better times seems to be unfairly concentrated in this part of the country.

So maybe it's no surprise that Nicola Sturgeon and her Scottish National Party look likely to be the kingmakers in the British general election. Her bailiwick is, of course, Scotland - where the SNP is certain to garner a record number of seats.

In what was an unprecedented intervention in the campaign, she claimed the north of England deserved special treatment under the next government. As a Scottish nationalist this is really outside her ken completely. It was also a hardcore jibe at the Labour Party, and what she regards as its failure to look after its north of England heartlands, where she says the jobless rate is far too high.

Maybe it's also another reminder that more than a few of those pie-eating enthusiasts at the United game are among those falling too far behind their more affluent fellow citizens down south.

Yet, for all its class-consciousness, the figures show there is not a remarkable disparity in income across a broad swathe of British life. Average pay last year was around £25,044 - and surprisingly only 10pc of people earned more than £48,250.

But one way or another those on the fringes are convinced they are being hard done by - and are not getting their share of the cake. Those who feel disaffected - and who are living outside the south-east of England - more than any other group will determine the outcome of this election. It will almost certainly be a hung parliament.

Irish politicians of all parties take note. Provincial and rural Ireland feels every bit as alienated from the centre of things, as is the case with the disaffected regions on the other side of the Irish Sea. It too will wreak its revenge in our own upcoming general election. Beware the mouse that roars.

Irish Independent

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