Thursday 5 December 2019

Mary Kenny: 'Northern view on Brexit: 'It's like throwing petrol on a fire''

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has promised that in the event of a second referendum he would stay neutral as Prime Minister. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has promised that in the event of a second referendum he would stay neutral as Prime Minister. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

The landscape of politics is changing all over in Britain's volatile general election - Jeremy Corbyn, still behind in the polls, is in danger of losing some of the heartland of old Labour votes.

Is the political landscape similarly shifting in Northern Ireland? I walked along the Newtownards Road in East Belfast, hub of working-class Ulster loyalism, to get the flavour of the place.

"Yes, it's changing," a local man, aged 39, told me. "The DUP has become too closed in on itself, so it has. A lot of younger Unionists now feel differently - they'd have gay friends and they don't like all this negativity."

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Whether he would switch his vote from DUP to the Alliance challenger is something else. When people get into that voting booth, old tribal reflexes can kick in.

The Newtownards Road itself is changing, and the point of change is probably around CS Lewis Square, where a statue of the Christian storyteller is in evidence, portrayed with his Narnia wardrobe. (There's a CS Lewis Festival on currently.)

Lewis, Van Morrison and George Best are the trio of new "inclusive" Belfast hero figures, I was told at local "hipster" cafe Freight. (Yes, you can get avocado on toast with chickpeas on the Newtownards Road these days - a sure sign of gentrification.)

A 54-year-old poet and songwriter said he would be inclined to vote Alliance or Green, but would be worried it might be a wasted vote.

"The real problem here is that we have had no real government since the breakdown of the Assembly in 2017. No policy decisions can be taken because of that. Even something as trivial as getting insurance on a motorised bike hasn't been regulated because there's no legislation in Northern Ireland."

An articulate 40-year-old East Belfast woman also vented her frustration about the lack of political movement. The National Health Service is completely adrift because there is no government direction.

"Who's running the country? No one!"

She would vote to "get Brexit done" simply because she felt it would represent action, rather than inaction.

"Get it out of the way and move on to support local industry here."

Speculation about Brexit pushing the North towards a United Ireland doesn't go down well, however.

"It's like throwing petrol on a fire," I was told by a man who identified as a "soft nationalist".

"It only encourages dissident IRA groups now active in Derry."

*******

"Super Proddy Boys - No one likes us and we don't care!" - one of the banners on sale in the 'Union Jack Shop' at the hard-Loyalist end of the Newtownards Road. Ah, bless! Sure, they're only defending "the ashes of their fathers and the temples of their gods".

*******

"Do you think that Claire Hanna will get elected in South Belfast?" I asked a woman sitting in a cafe on the Malone Road. "Never heard of her!" she replied.

She will, though: Claire Hanna of the SDLP has a good chance of following John Hume and Seamus Mallon, and returning to Westminster as a voice for the moderate nationalist community. Sinn Fein's outdated abstentionist policy has made a mockery of representative parliamentary democracy: at least SF has now stood aside in this middle-class constituency, site of Queen's University. So it's likely that Ms Hanna will defeat her DUP opponent Emma Little-Pengelly.

Claire Hanna is 39, with experience in the Belfast Assembly and in local politics: she is married, and the mother of three children (and has campaigned to support mothers in the workplace). She was born in Connemara.

One of her electoral admirers says of Hanna: "She's lively, bright, intelligent, and very good." Sounds admirable!

*******

Meanwhile, back in GB, we're "almost back to the days when a Catholic couldn't stand for parliament" according to the former MP for Stoke-on-Trent, Rob Flello. "You can't be a Catholic and a Liberal Democrat candidate." Mr Flello has been "de-selected" - essentially, kicked out - by the LibDems because "his values don't align".

He's a Catholic convert and adheres to the quaint notion that marriage is between a man and a woman and the equally "unaligned" view that the unborn is a human life. So, out he goes.

LibDems enjoy an image of being compromising and moderate: that they follow in the nonconformist tradition of respecting individual conscience. Moreover, Baroness Shirley Williams, now retired at 89, is their doyenne and a lifelong Catholic, as is Lord David Alton, one of the outstanding LibDems in the Upper House.

But politics is getting harder on the individual conscience, and the pressure to be "woke" is increasing. Although Jo Swinson, the "bossy head girl" LibDem leader, has lost ground in the polls - mainly because her insistence that she would just "stop Brexit" is seen as undemocratic.

Proposing a second referendum is one thing; blatantly abolishing the results of the first referendum is quite another - and even Remainers don't like it.

*******

The "Brexit Election" is producing think-tank papers, essays and books galore, including such gems as The Little Book of Brexit Bollocks - a robust collection of lampoons directed against all sides.

Some definitions: "Stockpiling: Jacob Rees-Mogg's Irish bank accounts."

"Remoaners: people who welcome immigration in towns where they don't have to live."

"Brexodus: Jews fleeing Britain to avoid Jeremy Corbyn."

"To Bojo: To stutter, bumble, bluster, reference Greek mythology, ruffle your own hair and quote Latin in order to conceal what an inverted pyramid of piffle you really are."

"Facilitated customs arrangement: a hi-tech system whereby guns can be carried back and forth across the Irish border."

Truth in jest?

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