Life

Mary Kelly: Biden has come and gone, and leadership in unionism has gone AWOL

Joe Biden and Rishi Sunak met in Belfast (Paul Faith/PA)
Joe Biden and Rishi Sunak met in Belfast (Paul Faith/PA) Joe Biden and Rishi Sunak met in Belfast (Paul Faith/PA)

“HERE'S your hat, what’s your hurry?” seemed to be the main message of President Joe Biden’s whistle-stop visit to Norn Iron, where he paused long enough for a few photo-ops and a speech at the University of Ulster in York Street, before heading off to the main trip down south to search for long-lost relatives. And who could blame him?

Ah well, sure wasn’t it nice while it lasted? When we once basked in the spotlight of the world’s attention, 'our wee country', where presidents and prime ministers came and went, opening doors to politicians of all stripes – those with vision, and many more without, as the recent churlish remarks by Arlene Foster attest.

Dame Arlene Foster. Photo by Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye.
Dame Arlene Foster. Photo by Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye. Dame Arlene Foster. Photo by Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye.

But those days are over. The visionaries and the brave in political life have long departed and now we’re left with an Agreement that did successfully bring an end to civil warfare, but failed to create a stable political environment. We are just a footnote in history now, a lesson in what might have been.

The spotlight was back for the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, but it’s gone again – maybe the 50th will bring a brighter picture? The UUP’s former press boss, David Kerr, recently suggested a lasting political settlement would take a further 25 years and another generation to achieve. He might be right.

But in the meantime, it’s up to us to get back to the drawing board to try to come up with improved structures to prevent constant collapse of government and worse – apathy and cynicism about the future. 

Ulster Unionist Leader David Trimble pictured with Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness in the 1990s
Ulster Unionist Leader David Trimble pictured with Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness in the 1990s Ulster Unionist Leader David Trimble pictured with Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness in the 1990s

Looking back at the size of the issues that were agreed in 1998 - reform of policing and the disbanding of the RUC, early release of paramilitary prisoners, eventual decommissioning of weapons - these were all much greater problems than trade differentials between us and Britain. But leadership is needed from unionism, and that’s what’s gone AWOL.

We also need to stop expecting global attention and the involvement of outside parties to help sort out our difficulties.

I’m grateful to Eamonn Mallie for tweeting a letter written by David Trimble to a dying Martin McGuinness. Trimble wrote to thank McGuinness for his even-tempered approach and to convey that he and his colleagues believed he’d been indispensable in bringing the Republican movement along with the process.


Trimble also paid tribute to his reaching out to the unionist community “in a way some of them were reluctant to reach out to you.”

“There are many today, as we sit with the clock ticking down to the deadline for getting the institutions up and running again, who think that if you were at the helm, we would face this prospect with greater optimism.”

Ask yourself this: Can you imagine the generosity of these words, from a unionist leader to an ex-IRA commander, ever being repeated by any of today’s cohort? I think not.


POLITICS is not for the high-minded, so I thought Michelle Obama’s comment “When they go low, we go higher” was admirable, but unrealistic.

But the latest attack ad from Labour, featuring Rishi Sunak’s grinning face over a claim that he doesn’t think child sex abusers should be jailed, doesn’t look like such a great idea.

Labour canvassers say they’ve not had much impact on the doorsteps yet, although they have focused media attention on the two parties’ attitude to crime, which is supposedly high on a voter's list of concerns.

Sir Keir Starmer insists the ads will continue as he seeks the No More Mr Nice Guy strategy. Sadly, Mr Dull Guy is still sticking around.

Sir Keir Starmer (Danny Lawson/PA)
Sir Keir Starmer (Danny Lawson/PA) Sir Keir Starmer (Danny Lawson/PA)

Sunak wasn’t even an MP at the time the ads are concerned with, so why target him with messages that are as irrelevant to people’s lives as Ed Miliband looking awkward while eating a bacon sandwich?

Why not instead spend time making posters that tell voters what Sunak and his ilk are really about? Here’s a suggestion: "Rishi Sunak’s new private heated swimming pool used so much energy that the local electricity network in his Richmond constituency had to be upgraded to meet its power demands".

How’s that for entitlement? And recent research has shown that the swimming pools, well-watered gardens and clean cars of the rich are driving water crises in global cities as least as much as the climate emergency or population growth.

Unprecedented workers’ unrest, cuts in public services, the rising cost of living and a health service on its knees: there are plenty of real things to attack the Tory leadership about. There’s no need for Labour to look in the wrong direction.