Magical Scottish town appears briefly from the mist

Culture correspondents from several national newspapers shocked when a whole city appeared from nowhere. Reporters dispatched to cover the Festival was delighted at discovering a beautiful city, called ‘Edinburgh’, which they had never heard of before.

One BBC correspondent expressed his delight at the appearance of the town out of nowhere, reporting a place of beauty, with a fairytale castle and a mountain in the middle of the town. Old hands assured him that Edinburgh appears for just three weeks in the summer and disappears from sight in the media as if it had never been there.

Others reported the suddenly irrupted town to be filled with theatrical and musical events, and people pretending to be comedians as well as a few off the telly.

To avoid shocking readers, writers have agreed to report on the comedians competing for the best one-liners, leaving reports on ground-breaking performances of Peer Gynt and The Crucible to the back pages of the Guardian where no one will read them, or the front pages of the Guardian where no one will read them.

Brecon and Radical Rethink

What just happened?

It must make some logic, in the twisted, bizarre form of logic that Parliamentary politics has taken over the last few years. So we have:

  • A clear majority of the voters of Brecon and Radnorshire voting for pro-Brexit candidates, but splitting the vote to let in a rabid Remainiac;
  • The Brexit Party’s intervention making it more likely that Parliament will cancel Brexit;
  • MPs and candidates speaking most forcefully against a no-deal are preventing a deal, making it more likely that no deal will be reached;
  • (And this after we have seen MPs telling the press that they have always voted against no-deal when their voting records show they have always voted against a deal);

Then we have:

  • The LibDems, who or many years condemned UKIP as a one-issue party turning on the Conservatives as a one-issue party, when they themselves have become just that;
  • Conservative MPs of a Remainer bent hoping to avoid a small economic bump from Brexit by risking putting into Downing Street a mad Marxist team who would make the Great Depression look like a picnic;
  • Opposition MPs growing excited at the chance of toppling the Conservative government even in the knowledge that an election would most likely produce a thumping Conservative majority.

To some it may make sense, but to the average voter it tells a story of out-of-touch politicians producing exactly the frustration which caused the Brexit vote to be so emotional.

Close the Ulster Bypass

Ulster is poorly served by the government.  The Beeb are not too warm to the DUP’s urging of direct rule.  The norms of language are unfavourable; to ‘impose direct rule’.  Perhaps if the phrase were ‘to re-assume direct responsibility’ it would be better received. The language may be batted about, but the new government must face the immediate reality of Ulster’s position, and their predecessors’ failures to address it.

From 1921 to 1972, Ulster was an autonomous region, with a Governor and a Parliament of Northern Ireland, as if it had been a self-governing colony, and Westminster could practically ignore the place. Its institutions and laws were largely sundered from those of Great Britain and forced to fend for themselves. In 1972, the system collapsed in civil disorder, but instead of abolishing the Parliament and bringing Ulster back into normality, London enacted the suspension of the home-rule state with all powers passed to the Secretary of State, subject to Parliamentary assent to actual law-making, and the temporary became the permanent, until Tony Blair replaced it all with a new Assembly, which has been suspended for some years now.

Since 1921 then, Northern Ireland has been starved of all the advantages that the size of the United Kingdom brings. The old Parliament tried to keep up, but there were natural and financial limits to aspiration – that is the ‘Ulster Bypass’.

Today with the Assembly suspended, civil servants are left to run the show with no political oversight, and thus no motivation for innovation or even getting basic things right.  There is no authority to do anything new.

We moan at idiocies in government in Great Britain, but its vast size provides for every sort of expertise, not always wisely deployed, but there, and technocrats have produced what is effectively a luxury service, and we have come to expect that. Northern Ireland, though it is large in area, has a population which is barely half that of Manchester, and that is a small tax base and human resource.  You would not expect Manchester to run what would be virtually a national government, with all the luxuries and efficiencies that Westminster can command, let along half of Manchester.

Look at a few things we take for granted in our new, modern state, little things but which hint at what lies beneath.

Three sibling quangos in Great Britain, Historic England, Historic Environment Scotland and Cadw co-operate in best practice. Each has a website backed by a powerful database – the “National Heritage List for England“, “Canmore” and “Coflein“, each with a fast and efficient search function linked to extensive research material with academic references and an interactive Ordnance Survey mapping function. Every listed building or scheduled monument in Great Britain is at your fingertips. The Department for Communities in Northern Ireland has a cumbersome listed building search which has not been updated since 2015 the local government reform; for scheduled monuments and state care monuments – there is a PDF typed list if you can find it.

The Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland can provide no linked mapping because it is unresourced:  it sells to a far smaller market and so cannot do all that its counterpart in Great Britain does.  I have spoken to OSNI, and the equivalent in Dublin too, and they say the same:  they are small, have few customers and cannot provide the services.  This too then is an effect of the Ulster Bypass.

It would take very little indeed for the Ordnance Survey to take on six more counties, or for the NHLE or Canmore to take care of Ulster’s historic data, or for the Department of Communities to farm the historic estate out to the great resources wielded by English Heritage (‘Ulster Heritage’ perhaps) but without political direction and a willingness to dig up the Bypass, Ulstermen will be left behind, unable to dream of the conveniences those in the rest of the country take for granted.

Lobbing a wad of cash will not help if the structure is not there:  the structure does exist though in Great Britain, and can be deployed to serve the rest of the nation, namely Ulster.

I can give petty examples as symptomatic of the Ulster Bypass in operation and there could be many more.  Boris Johnson has given himself the title Minister for the Union, as in that role he should take these in matters in hand, and close the Ulster Bypass – otherwise Ulstermen will remain the poor relation in one of the richest countries in earth.

See also