The absolute (Secretary of) State of this


© The Belfast Telegraph


At certain eras in history, for certain sections of humanity, there were places to which you really didn’t want to go – places whose very name filled you with dread.


For members of the British underworld in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, it was Sydney Cove, Norfolk Island, Port Arthur, Van Diemen’s Land and the other brutal penal colonies that’d been established in Australia, to which you could be transported if you were convicted of anything worse than pinching five shillings-worth of goods.  For criminals in the Second French Empire between 1852 and 1953, the place that was synonymous with hell was another penal colony, the pitiless one at Cayenne, or Devil’s Island as it was better known.  And for German soldiers in the Wehrmacht during World War II, there were surely frequent nightmares about the prospect of being sent to the freezing and carnage-filled Russian Front.


Meanwhile, for members of the British government over the past half-century, the equivalent of the worst penal colony devised by the British or French Empires, or of the Russian Front, is surely Northern Ireland.


Political satirists have long been aware of this.  A 1984 episode of the BBC political comedy Yes, Minister had the British Prime Minister resigning and two ruthless politicians competing to take over as PM.  Both men threatened hapless minister Jim Hacker that they’d make him Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if they ended up winning and he hadn’t publicly backed their campaigns.  A generation later, a 2012 episode of a more abrasive TV satire, The Thick of It, showed slow-witted politician Ben Swain responding warily when he was offered the job of Foreign Secretary: “And you mean Foreign Secretary?  That isn’t code for Northern Ireland?  I’m not f**king going there.”


The position of Secretary of State for Northern Ireland came into being in 1972, when the old Northern Irish government at Stormont was suspended following the start of the long period of bloodshed and mayhem that became known as the Troubles, and when direct rule was imposed from London.  The first holder of the post was Conservative MP Willie Whitelaw, who set the template for many secretaries of state to come.  He was stiff and crusty, looked like he’d be more at home wearing tweeds and trudging around a grouse moor, and seemed perplexed that the half-dozen local Catholic and Protestant terrorist organisations and the mob of unruly local politicians wouldn’t play by Queensberry Rules.


Whitelaw wouldn’t be the first Secretary of State to look ill-at-ease in a province where though the two native communities were at each other’s throats, they had one thing in common, which was that they both hated his guts.  Nationalist Catholics saw him and his successors as stuck-up, patronising, untrustworthy English bastards who’d come to oppress them and keep them imprisoned in the United Kingdom.  Unionist Protestants saw them as stuck-up, patronising, untrustworthy English bastards who’d come to betray them and abandon them to a united Ireland.




Actually, I recall seeing, when I was a wee boy in Northern Ireland and just after Whitelaw’s appointment, satirical posters pasted everywhere depicting him as a grim-faced Wild West sheriff stalking nervously into an unsavoury-looking establishment called The Dead-End Saloon.  However, unlike many of his successors, Whitelaw’s political career didn’t come to a dead-end after Northern Ireland.  He served as British Home Secretary from 1979 to 1983 and became a favourite of Margaret Thatcher, who once said of him gruesomely, “Every Prime Minister needs a Willie.”


I also remember from my boyhood some political satire involving another 1970s Secretary of State for Northern Ireland – the Labour Party MP Roy Mason, who served there during James Callaghan’s three-year tenure as Prime Minister.  The Belfast Telegraph featured a cartoon caricaturing him as Henry II while the Reverend Ian Paisley loomed behind him caricatured as Thomas Beckett.  Mason lamented, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”  However, unlike Thomas Beckett, who was murdered by knights soon after Henry II made this plea, Paisley lived until 2014 and made life a misery for a further 14 secretaries of state.


After the Conservatives had returned to power under Margaret Thatcher, Northern Ireland had as its Secretary of State the luckless Jim Prior.  Prior was a leading member of the ‘wets’ – the moderates – in the Conservative Party and when he dared to question his boss’s economic policies, his fate was sealed.  Empress Thatcher had him banished to Devil’s Island.


I also remember – for the wrong reasons – Peter Brooke, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in the early 1990s.  One day in 1992, an IRA bomb slaughtered seven construction workers.  That evening, Brooke appeared on Raidió Teilifis Éireann’s chat show The Late Late Show and unwisely allowed its host, the twinkly-eyed shit-stirrer Gay Byrne, to talk him into singing Oh My Darling Clementine live on air.  And with that, Brooke’s political credibility was gone.  To quote the song: ‘lost and gone forever / Dreadful sorry, Clementine.’


When Tony Blair entered Number 10 Downing Street and 1998’s Good Friday Agreement was on the cards, Northern Ireland finally got a Secretary of State of some substance: Mo Mowlam, also the first woman in the role.  The down-to-earth and bluntly-spoken Mowlam helped to knock heads together in the run-up to the agreement, although she earned herself the displeasure of the Protestant politicians and was eventually side-lined by Blair.  When Bill Clinton flew in to grab a piece of the glory, she grumbled to him that her role had become that of ‘tea lady’.




The Good Friday Agreement paved the way for the Northern Ireland Assembly, which came into being while Peter Mandelson was the province’s Secretary of State.  An operator best described as an oil-slick in a suit, Mandelson had been a key ally and advisor of Tony Blair but he’d fallen from grace thanks to a scandal involving a dodgy home loan.  To rehabilitate himself, he had to do the political equivalent of donning sackcloth and ashes and beating himself with a scourge, which meant taking the Northern Ireland portfolio.  I imagine that Mandelson, a gay man, had his patience stretched to the limit by having to deal with Ian Paisley, who in 1977 had launched the infamous Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign.


With the Assembly up and running and its members responsible for the province’s governance, Mandelson’s successors as Northern Irish Secretary of State had less to do.  However, the Assembly collapsed early in 2017 because of a spat between the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein and since then London has had to administer things again.  The Secretary of State on whose watch this happened was James Brokenshire, who surely had the most appropriate surname of anyone ever to take on the job: broken shire.


Brokenshire stood down at the start of this year for health reasons – not, as you might expect, mental health reasons, but because he needed to have an operation on his lung.  And this brings me to his replacement, the current Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley.


Last week Bradley hit the headlines when she confessed in an interview that she accepted the Northern Irish brief whilst having a knowledge of Northern Irish politics that was less than encyclopaedic.  “I freely admit that when I started this job, I didn’t understand some of the deep-seated and deep-rooted issues that there are in Northern Ireland.  I didn’t understand things like when elections are fought… people who are Nationalists don’t vote for Unionist parties and vice-versa.  So, the parties fight for the election within their own community.  Actually, the Unionist parties fight the elections against each other in Unionist communities and Nationalists in Nationalist communities. That’s a very different world from the world I came from.”


Oh, come on.  Bradley was born in 1970, which means she grew up in a Britain where the Northern Irish Troubles raged continually in the background – and sometimes in the foreground, for the IRA also set off bombs in England, including the Brighton one in 1984 that killed five members of Bradley’s Conservative Party and nearly took out Margaret Thatcher.  And she makes a living as a politician.  You’d expect her to be aware of political arrangements in the UK’s four corners and have some inkling who the Alliance Party, DUP, Official Unionists, SDLP and Sinn Fein and their supporters are.  Especially as her party has been propped up in government by ten MPs from Ian Paisley’s old outfit the DUP (in return for a 1.5 billion-pound bribe) since the 2017 general election.


Are we really to believe she flew to Belfast to become Secretary of State for Northern Ireland ignorant of such facts as most Protestant households don’t have framed, signed photographs of Martin McGuinness sitting on their mantelpieces and Roman Catholic support for Arlene Foster’s DUP is somewhat on the scant side?


© The Irish Examiner


Then again, Bradley’s ignorance is no worse than that displayed by many members of the Conservative Party these days, especially Brexiters like Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg.  These are people whose attitudes towards the post-Brexit condition of the Northern Ireland / Republic of Ireland border – all squiggly, wriggly 310 miles of it, crossing towns, farms, fields and loughs and crossed itself by more than 200 public roads – suggest I.Q.s that are at basement-level.  They proclaim that the border isn’t important enough to worry about, or it can be policed the way it was back in the days of the Troubles (and what happy days those were), or – Boris Johnson’s opinion – all the immigration and customs issues on the border arising from Brexit can be solved with technology.  Maybe Johnson is proposing using drones.   Or maybe he’s thinking about using toy airplanes with cameras fixed to them that can be piloted by leprechauns.  He’s probably heard that there are still a few leprechauns on the go in Ireland.  And what jolly little fellows they are too.


The selection of Karen Bradley to be Secretary of State for Northern Ireland must have been because she sings from the same hymnbook as many of her fellow Tories.  And that’s a hymnbook from the Church of Stupid.


Big man in a box


(c) BBC


Imagining Northern Ireland – where I spent my childhood – without the Reverend Ian Paisley is a bit like imagining South Africa without Nelson Mandela.  Note that I’m making this comparison not in terms of virtue, but in terms of presence.  Just as Mandela (even in prison) was a colossus in South African politics, so Paisley dominated Northern Irish politics for generations.  The difference, of course, is that a Mandela-less South Africa is an undeniably sadder, sorrier place.  A Paisley-less Northern Ireland?  Probably not.


For years and years, and decades and decades, Paisley — or ‘the Big Man’ as his supporters called him — was always there in Northern Ireland.  Whether you liked it or not, he was a basic fact of life.  His name cropped up regularly in conversations among family-members at the kitchen table, among neighbours in the shops and pubs and even among youngsters in the playground.  A day rarely passed when you didn’t see his mug on the telly, usually uttering the word ‘no’ in a variety of permutations: no to the reformist policies of Northern Irish Prime Minister Terence O’Neill in the 1960s, no to the power-sharing initiatives in the 1970s, no to the Anglo-Irish Agreement in the 1980s and no to the Good Friday Agreement in the 1990s.


Alternatively, or simultaneously, he’d be castigating whoever or whatever had raised his ire at the time in extreme, often Biblical terms.  The multi-state EU, or the European Economic Community as it was in the 1970s, was actually the multi-headed beast forecast to rise out of the sea in the Book of Revelation.  Paisley’s antipathy to the EEC / EU didn’t stop him from becoming a Member of the European Parliament and drawing a hefty salary from Brussels.  The Pope was ‘the scarlet woman of Rome’ and ‘Christ’s enemy and Antichrist’.  I never had much time for the ultra-conservative Pope John Paul II, but I like how, while he was visiting Scotland in 1982 and trundling along in his Pope-mobile, he noticed Paisley and some placard-waving followers protesting against the papal visit at a street-corner, smiled beatifically and blessed the old bugger.


The Roman Catholic Church generally was the ‘seed of the serpent’, reeking of ‘the brimstone of the pit’ and acting as ‘the parrot of Beelzebub’.  Homosexuals were so unspeakable that in 1977 he launched a campaign called Save Ulster from Sodomy.  Margaret Thatcher, once she’d put her signature to the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985, was a ‘jezebel’ – I find that insult quite funny, actually.  Moderate (relatively speaking) Protestant / Unionist leader David Trimble, who got up onstage at a U2 concert in Belfast and posed with Bono and Catholic leader John Hume in support of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, had ‘rock and rolled with Satan’.  Alcohol was ‘John Barleycorn and the devil’s buttermilk’.  Dancing was ‘an incitement to lust’, with ‘sexual gestures and touching’.  And so on and so forth.


If you were a Northern Irish Protestant between the 1960s and the 1990s, Ian Paisley was a PR disaster.  A few others were visible in the media, like actor James Ellis and the BBC’s political editor John Cole, but if you asked most people in ‘mainland’ Britain to name an Ulster Prod, in 99 cases out of 100 ‘Paisley’ was the first thing you’d hear in reply.  Therefore, when you were introduced to somebody at a party and you identified yourself as being one, you’d spend the remainder of the evening wondering if your new acquaintance viewed you as a loud, blustering religious bigot.


Indeed, comedian Harry Enfield once performed a sketch in which a Paisley-like character called ‘William Ulsterman’ attends a party and starts bellowing at the hostess.  “I have made a legitimate and peaceful request for cheddar cheese and pineapple on a stick!” he roars when she offers him a quiche slice.  After she apologises, he rants, “I totally and utterly reject your expressions of sorrow!  Let nobody be in any doubt these are crocodile tears ye are crying!  For hundreds of years my community has enjoyed cheddar cheese and pineapple on a stick and today ye have been seen to trample our demands contemptuously into the mud!  Ye vile hag, ye shall be judged unreasonable!”


It wasn’t until the 1990s, when Paisley’s influence was finally on the wane and when younger and more normal-seeming folk with Northern Irish accents were starting to appear on TV, like actors James Nesbitt and Adrian Dunbar, that it became slightly cooler to be an Ulster Prod.  Fascinatingly, when there was talk a few years ago about a film being made of Paisley’s life, it was actually a Catholic actor, Liam Neeson, who was suggested for the lead role.  Neeson understandably didn’t seem too keen on the idea; though if the project had gone ahead with him on board, he’d have been in the unique position of having played both Ian Paisley and Michael Collins.


Yesterday, at the age of 88, Paisley finally departed for the great pulpit in the sky – although a lot of people are of the opinion that he’s actually gone to a different place.  (I noticed one person on an online comment-thread express the hope that he’s currently getting ‘a red-hot poker rammed up his arse’.)  When you write about the just-deceased, it’s customary to say a few positive things about him or her, though I have to admit it’s not easy in this case.  Oh well.  I’ll have a go.


Over the years, different people have told me that, as a member of the British and European parliaments, he was assiduous in looking after his constituents, whether they were Protestant or Catholic.  Supposedly, he took good care of the economically-fragile Catholic communities that he represented, such as the inhabitants of Rathlin Island and the eel fishermen living beside Lough Neagh.  I suppose from this you could argue that he did, quietly, regard Roman Catholics as human beings and what he said publicly about Popery and the Harlot of Rome was just the stuff of knockabout street politics.  Though it was knockabout indeed if you were a Catholic and ended up on the receiving end of mob-violence incited by his rhetoric.


And finally in 2007, of course, he did do the unthinkable and sit down with Sinn Fein and agree to a deal that saw him become Northern Ireland’s First Minister and Sinn Fein politician and ex-IRA man Martin McGuinness become his deputy – thus helping to ensure a more peaceful and stable Northern Ireland where the Troubles, hopefully, were a thing of the past.  Only the previous year, he’d said of Sinn Fein: “(they) are not fit to be in partnership with decent people.  They are not fit to be in the government of Northern Ireland and it will be over our dead bodies if they ever get there.”  Though many would argue that as Paisley didn’t qualify as a decent person, he could go into partnership with Sinn Fein without contradicting himself.


Paisley won praise for this compromise, although it’s worth remembering that already he’d destroyed David Trimble as a political force by opposing power-sharing and denouncing him as a sell-out and traitor.  Once Trimble was out of the way and Paisley was established as the indisputable and unrivalled political leader of Northern Irish Protestantism, he then performed a U-turn, climbed into bed with McGuiness and co., and enjoyed all the prestige and perks of being First Minister.


I suppose one more thing we should thank Paisley for were his services to comedy.  For many years he was an absolute gift to comedians, satirists, gag-writers and cartoonists – not only just Harry Enfield, but also Dave Allen, Phil Cool, Mark Thomas, Spitting Image and so on.  I must have heard a thousand Paisley jokes over the years, although my favourite one is short and simple: “Ian Paisley has been injured in a traffic accident.  His car crashed into a tree.  The IRA say they planted it.”


Once he’d settled into that cosy, if unlikely, partnership with Martin McGuiness, the laughs at his expense inevitably grew louder.  Paisley and McGuinness became known in Northern Ireland as ‘the Chuckle Brothers’, after the bumbling, slapstick-comedy duo on British children’s TV played by Barry and Paul Elliot.  Mind you, when I see pictures of Paisley and McGuiness together, it’s a different comedy double-act I think of:


(c) Newsletter

(c) ITC / Henson Associates


So that’s him gone.  It sometimes doesn’t feel like Northern Ireland has arrived in the 21st century yet; but perhaps, with the passing of the most formidable and vocal member of the political / religious old guard, we can now make some progress from where we left off in the 20th.


DUP – Determined to be Upset Party


(c) Reduced Shakespeare Company


A comedian – it may have been the great Dave Allen, about whom I wrote a few entries ago – once told a joke about somebody dying and going to heaven, where he was shown around by St Peter.  Passing through the heavenly throngs, St Peter pointed out a group of people who were Jews, a group who were Hindus, and also Buddhists, Muslims, Orthodox Christians, Episcopalians, Methodists, etc.  Then the newcomer saw a high wall and asked what was on its other side.


“The Roman Catholics,” explained St Peter.  “It’s so they think they have the place to themselves.”


I hope that if heaven exists, God has also seen fit to build a smaller enclosure to house the members of the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, which was founded by and had as its moderator for 57 years one Reverend Ian Richard Kyle Paisley – so that they think they have the place to themselves too.  Otherwise, folk in heaven might have to spend all eternity listening to Paisley raging about them letting in ‘heathens’, ‘pagans’ and ‘idolatrous’ Catholics.  Folk in Northern Ireland, after all, have had to listen to Paisley fulminating for most of his 87 (and counting) years against this, that and everything else, and that’s been painful enough.


This week the Reduced Shakespeare Company was supposed to stage two performances of its play The Bible: the Complete Word of God (Abridged) at the Theatre at the Mill in Newtownabbey, Northern Ireland.  Now, however, the Newtownabbey performances of the play, which reviewers have described as being a bit silly but certainly not blasphemous and which hasn’t attracted a single complaint at any of the other 42 venues on its current UK tour, have been cancelled.  This was thanks to pressure put on the local borough council’s artistic board by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) – another prominent body in Northern Ireland set up by Paisley.  Indeed, it shares much of its membership with the Free Presbyterian Church.  The Belfast Telegraph reported the cancellation with the headline BIBLE SPOOF PLAY BAN MAKES NORTHERN IRELAND A LAUGHING STOCK.  That’s a pretty international laughing stock, by the way.  The ban has been reported in journals as distant as the New York Times.


It’s depressing but I suppose it isn’t surprising.  The DUP / Free Presbyterians in Northern Ireland have always been quick to mobilise, rush out, picket and shout down anything that offends their pronounced senses of morality and holiness.  In the mid-1970s, I remember seeing crowds of them on the TV news demonstrating outside a Belfast theatre that’d dared to mount a production of Jesus Christ Superstar, the satanic musical show that’d been authored by the Antichrist himself, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber.  Then in 1982 somebody tried to open an Amsterdam-style sex shop in Belfast, which had them protesting on the streets again.  (I suppose to the DUP / Free Presbyterian mind-set, Holland hasn’t exported anything of value since King William of Orange in the late 17th century.)  That year, incidentally, saw approximately 110 people die because of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.  No wonder at the time of the sex shop furore someone wrote to one of the local newspapers and politely inquired what the problem was with people wanting to ‘make love, not war.’


In the Bible Jesus famously said, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone” (John 8:7).  So I assume those DUP members who’ve cast metaphorical stones at musicals, sex-shops and satirical plays over the years, being well-versed in the teachings of their Saviour, are devoid of sin themselves.  That presumably includes the party’s leader, the Northern Irish First Minister Peter Robinson.  That presumably also includes Robinson’s wife Iris, who has served as a DUP councillor, a DUP mayor and, from 1998 to 2009, a DUP member of the Northern Ireland Assembly.  In fact, Iris Robinson has declared that “the government has the responsibility to uphold God’s laws,” and has been quick to condemn unbiblical activities such as homosexuality.


Oddly though, Iris’s own holiness wasn’t enough to prevent her, back in 2008 when she was in her late-fifties, getting embroiled in an extra-marital affair with a 19-year-old youth and in a financial scandal.  This was an unwise move for a member of an organisation as sanctimonious as the DUP, and indeed the laughing stock it made of the DUP at the time was 100 times greater than the laughing stock that its members made of Northern Ireland last week with the Reduced Shakespeare Company farrago.


Of course, having an extra-marital affair with a man 40 years her junior was also an unwise move for someone whose title happened to be ‘Mrs’ and whose surname happened to be ‘Robinson’.  And now here’s a totally unrelated youtube video.