Fionnuala O Connor: Politics here is stuck, waiting for The End of Boris

Manufacturing NI chief executive Stephen Kelly
Manufacturing NI chief executive Stephen Kelly Manufacturing NI chief executive Stephen Kelly

There has been name-calling and telephone calls saying 'you need to watch yourself', according to Stephen Kelly.

‘It’s just a pattern of people trying to kind of bully you into being quiet or being silent or being complicit in some of the decisions and choices that they’re making.’

It was striking and alarming to hear this recently from the chief executive of Manufacturing NI. Voiced to RTE and then reported in the Belfast Telegraph. Threats? For saying business finds more advantages than challenges in the post-Brexit protocol?

An earlier Irish News report explained it, picking up on a News Letter interview with DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson. Sir Jeff accused Manufacturing NI of neglecting the anti-protocol complainants who contact him ‘all the time.’ Stephen Kelly responded that ‘business isn’t the enemy’. Careful reading across the three papers suggests that Manufacturing NI’s sin is in finding less unhappiness as time goes on.

A tragi-comic recent court report described one outcome of what the News Letter called the Larne ‘graffiti blitz opposing the Irish Sea border’, in February 2021. That graffiti, you may recall, was cited as evidence of loyalist paramilitary threats to anyone implementing EU rules. Unionist politicians said their community was furious. The patience of paramilitary groups on ceasefire was said to be exhausted. Or as the walls read: ‘All bets are off; Larne says no to Irish Sea border.’

Ballymena Magistrates court however gave two young men from the townlands of Kilwaughter and Raloo (caught running away) a community service order, apparently satisfied by the defence that one could not tell his lawyer ‘anything about Brexit’ and had ‘no political understanding of what the Irish Sea border was all about.’ Nor ‘links to any form of paramilitarism.’ The other was ‘completely apolitical’. Wanted to ‘join the armed forces’. The incidents happened during lockdown and ‘boredom got the better of him.’

So is unionism now more anti-protocol than before, and therefore more pro-boycotting Stormont? Or is that what unionists feel obliged to say?

In the narrow north, there cannot be many journalists who avoid being barraged at a family event with the grievance or grievances of past and present. Every time they read that ‘the politicians’ are blocking movement, people who are not unionist and becoming more anti-unionist by the day mutter ''but that’s not true! It isn’t 'all the politicians'. Why don’t they say it’s mainly the DUP?''

Everyone hears the unionist complaint that their anger is ignored. But the DUP Stormont boycott masterminded by Jim Allister consists of nothing else but anger. Many in the media must hear other people muttering what about us, hey.

Though where is this resentment to go. The two SDLP MPs have voiced it well in Westminster, recognised - by more than their voters at home - as ‘at least Claire and Colum/those two/Hanna and Eastwood get up on their hind-legs and let the Tories have it’.

Listen hard and read carefully and you can see that Sinn Féin supporters dislike this sentiment. Hard to openly attack, though – because that would point up their own absent, though admittedly mostly inarticulate MPs?

It’s also hard to locate a pulse on which to place a finger when politics is stuck as the north is now stuck, waiting for The End of Boris. Anger out of the side of mouths at a funeral or a wake has to go somewhere. Will it be saved up for the next election, fuel a switch of allegiance, a non-unionist and anti-unionist boycott of the polls? Internal exile and public silence? Hard to not see that as one big sulk. Older northerners know how that damaged their parents’ generation.

While awaiting revival of the political pulse there is a healthier option. Foster-Crocodile Irish, Curry-my-yoghurt Irish may not be as pure as the spirit that built the Shaw’s Road Gaeltacht. But aged antennae say it will also last.