The Spectator's Notes

The Spectator’s notes

25 March 2017

9:00 AM

25 March 2017

9:00 AM

We keep being incited to find it heartwarming that Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley were known as the Chuckle Brothers. But what were they chuckling about? Their shared success at outwitting the British state. Both, though for opposite reasons, had made their careers out of harassing Britain, and both, in their later years, had acquired money, power and status by doing so. In the case of McGuinness and his gang, Britain greatly underplayed its hand. Having militarily beaten the IRA, successive British governments could have marginalised them, but instead they accepted them as authentic representatives of the Irish people who had to be included in any settlement. The process for doing this systematically disadvantaged the moderates and bigged up the thugs. It created arrangements which virtually guarantee that Sinn Fein and the DUP will permanently carve up (‘share’ is the wrong word) government between them. So Martin and Ian’s collusive chuckles were at the expense, not only of Britain, but also of the non-sectarian people of Northern Ireland.

My only encounter with Martin McGuinness was on BBC Question Time in 2001. En route to Belfast, I bumped into David Trimble, who was also on the panel. He advised that McGuinness was a good television performer but could be stirred to injudicious anger. In the greenroom beforehand, McGuinness exercised his famous charm on all of us, surrounded by grim-faced heavies. On air, everything went pleasantly until a question about Afghanistan prompted someone from the floor to ask how McGuinness justified people being shot in the back of the head. Trimble said there was a new book about that — by Liam Clarke — and left it there. Instead of ignoring Trimble, McGuinness foolishly rose to the bait and said the book was all lies. I had read the book, and this gave me the cue to quote a sentence from it about how McGuinness had been ‘influential’ in a number of incidents in which dead bodies were found by the roadside. He started screeching ‘Where’s the evidence? Where’s the evidence?’ I went on, through the yells, to speak about his involvement in the Remembrance Day bombing in Enniskillen and the killing of the informer Frank Hegarty, who came back home because McGuinness had assured his mother he would be safe. Martin screeched some more, and looked absolutely murderous, and therefore less charming. As the lights went down, McGuinness whispered to David Dimbleby, ‘That was libellous,’ so I rushed round to see the editor (the programme airs shortly after it has been recorded) and begged him not to cut it. To the BBC’s credit, it did not, so viewers could see the charmer’s mask slip. Now some people are wearing black ties on television to mark what they call his ‘passing’. There are better people to mourn, some of them killed on the orders of Martin McGuinness. He definitely, as one dignified brother of a terrorist victim at Claudy acknowledged on Tuesday, ‘changed his ways’. He never, however, changed his mind: he saw the ‘armed struggle’ as a necessary phase, not as something of which he should be ashamed.

Last week, this column called for an organisation to keep fighting for the Union, whether or not there is a Scottish referendum in prospect. I should have mentioned Scotland In Union. It is a non-party organisation which began two years ago. I am pleased to report that it is now flourishing, thanks to Nicola Sturgeon. The SNP’s attempt to turn independence into a permanent campaign has belatedly galvanised people who don’t agree. Last week, with Ms Sturgeon’s call for a referendum following Brexit, saw Scotland In Union’s best recruitment ever.

The CPRE has produced a report laying out the evidence that the building of new roads creates more traffic. It would seem logical. If you make it easier to get somewhere, more people will tend to want to go there. The new, better road does not simply make life easier for those who travelled the old one: it also encourages new people to travel along it. One must question the CPRE’s conclusion, not its research. It thinks its evidence proves that more roads make everything worse. To a normal mind, it surely shows how much these roads are wanted, and how much they contribute to general prosperity. To see how peculiar the CPRE’s logic is, one should follow its natural course (which the report does not). Why stop at not building new roads? Why not close down a lot of existing ones? Why not block the M25? After a bit, you would undoubtedly discover that fewer people were using the roads. There might be some ill effects, however, like the collapse of the modern economy, and dire poverty. It reminds me how many country-dwellers argue against building any new houses there. When you suggest that they could help by knocking their own houses down, they go curiously quiet. Large parts of Britain need more (and/or better) roads, and no part needs fewer. The environmental debate should be all about how to make them as quiet, unobtrusive and clean as possible.

If Health and Safety is (are?) your thing, you must always be dreaming, like Alexander the Great, of new worlds to conquer. The next one, I predict, will be cooking at home. Recently I have noticed talk about the bad effect of ‘particles’ produced by hot food cooked in or on ovens. The sequence will go thus: a study will prove that people who cook at home inhale more particles than others, reducing their life expectancy. A woman seeking divorce will win a higher settlement because, she says, she was forced to spend hours of each day in such dangerous culinary conditions, suffering various ‘harms’. Then it will be shown that children are the innocent victims of passive cooking. Ovens, except for microwaves, will be forbidden in new-build homes. After a few more years, the only ones to be found will be on display in National Trust houses. The word ‘kitchen’ will gradually become as archaic as ‘butler’s pantry’.

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