I’ve always maintained I go to Fermanagh for sanity, and after the past few months, I need a return to sanity more than ever. Fermanagh is by far the least populated of Northern Ireland’s six counties and it’s beautiful. I grew up here in the countryside, playing in fields, and now live near Brookebrough in the east of the county. From the sanctuary of Fermanagh I think about the fact that the new DUP leader and his team will now have to negotiate with Sinn Fein to get the first minister nominated again. Once I resigned, it meant that the deputy first minister was also out: for both ministers to be appointed there has to be agreement between the parties. This is not an easy process, as you might imagine. Sinn Fein are adamant that Irish language rights have to be legislated for before all else (health service recovery, economic renewal etc), and they are making the most of the leverage they’ve got. In Irish, Brookebrough means ‘Field of the Blackbirds’. I walk round the fields with my better half, in the evening sun. It feels good for the soul, and I think to myself: life is not too bad.
Life is certainly better than it was when I was growing up. Back in the 1970s, innocent people were being killed all the time. But I do worry about protests and the possibility of a return to violence. The disaster which is the Northern Ireland protocol continues to loom large in political discourse and it has an effect on the street too. Brexit was supposed to be about taking back control, but all that Northern Ireland has taken back is a great pile of EU red tape. We have been left with EU rules and regulations without even the ability to voice our objection as the rules are made in Brussels without any voice from NI. This is the very opposite of taking back control — and everyone here knows it. The situation must be changed by our own government, which of course retains the right to do so, firstly as our sovereign government and also under Article 16 of the protocol itself.
This is Northern Ireland’s centenary year, and on Tuesday Belfast City Council put on a show to mark the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Northern Ireland parliament by King George V. The King’s speech was read aloud again and images of the royal visit were projected on to City Hall. The DUP will now celebrate the centenary led by Sir Jeffrey Donaldson. Like me, he quit the Ulster Unionist party when we realised that it was no longer the best vehicle for unionism. He understands the heartbeat of Northern Ireland and knows instinctively why it is so important to secure and promote the Union for future generations. Leading the largest party of unionism is quite a challenge but I can assure him that it’s hugely rewarding — right up until the moment you’re betrayed.
The problem with Westminster isn’t political rats, it’s real live mice. It’s full of them. When Sajid Javid was home secretary, I once met him for a negotiation and was doing a good job with my steely poker-face, until I saw one. I ended up getting up on the chair, while he looked on. I’m not easily scared. Only small, scurrying objects scare me.
No matter how many times I explain the damage the protocol is doing to NI, it falls on deaf ears in Brussels and Dublin. And, until recently, in London too. The protocol was meant to do two things: first to protect the EU single market from all those nasty products coming in from GB. Second, it was designed to protect the Belfast Agreement. Well, the protocol is certainly protecting the EU single market, but in doing so it has ruptured the east-west relationship envisaged in the Belfast Agreement. The Eurocrats seem to be utterly unaware that they themselves are breaching the agreement by their continued insistence on the current protocol. They will tell you that the UK signed up to the protocol and therefore it cannot be changed — despite the fact that the protocol itself in Article 13 (8) envisages change. I think I need another calming walk.
My elderly mother fell quite badly the weekend before the ‘Great Betrayal’, as I am now calling my removal from office. She spent a few weeks in hospital but is now back living at home, a few miles away, and she has wonderful carers who visit to check up on her four times a day. ‘The girls’, she calls them, and she likes them very much, although she is not at all keen on her new fall monitor which she wears around her neck. ‘It’s too sensitive,’ she tells me when I visit. ‘I only have to bend over and suddenly someone is talking to me and asking me if I’m all right. I think I’ll take it off…’ ‘No you won’t, Mum! What if you fall again?’ ‘I’m taking it off…’ Being stubborn and resilient is in our Northern Irish bones.
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