Patrick Murphy: Debate on social and economic policy absent from north’s election campaign


IN Britain the general election has centred on the re-nationalisation of key industries, a Tory drive to capture working class votes in former Labour heartlands and a wider debate about conflicting definitions of national interest.

Over here, the main argument so far has centred on what one politician said about another politician’s hair.

Welcome to Not The General Election, the north’s alternative to the real world, in which one party abstains from Westminster and all of them abstain from normal politics.

Like the 18th century War of Jenkins’ Ear, we are engaged in the War of Michelle’s Hair. It is an issue which has prompted more outrage than, for example, the recent proposal to close 40 schools.

So for us, the election in Britain is a spectator sport, because none of our main political parties possess the ideology or even the vocabulary to seriously debate social or economic policy. As a result, local political comment on events in Britain has been limited to personalities.

Nationalist politicians have expressed indignation at Theresa May calling an election in the middle of the Stormont talks. Apart from the fact that the talks were less than promising, do they really believe that a British Prime Minister would forego the chance for a bigger parliamentary majority to avoid delaying a sectarian argument in Belfast?

Ah but, they complain, she does not care about us, because she only visited us recently for a few hours. Would they like to list British prime ministers who have cared about Ireland? Perhaps they are thinking of Lord John Russell who oversaw the Famine? Maybe they had in mind Lloyd George, who sent us the Black and Tans or perhaps Edward Heath, who was ultimately in charge on Bloody Sunday?

When voting for union with Britain, nationalists appear not to have noticed that the Good Friday Agreement contained no stipulation that British prime ministers should care for us or about us.

Indeed, along with every other agreement, from St Andrews to last year’s Fresh Start, the Good Friday deal had no plan for economic investment or what should have been special economic status for the north.

It would appear to be a bit late now to complain about Tory cuts, when that nice Tony Blair – who really did care for us – was implementing them in 1998 under a Labour government, as he signed the Good Friday Agreement.

An election victory will allow Theresa May to complete Margaret Thatcher’s campaign of diminishing the role of the state to American levels, resulting in the inevitable scaling down of the welfare state and other public services.

But she is doing it differently. She is aiming to shape a new, right wing Britain, outside the EU, by cleverly exploiting working class support for Brexit.

The recent tragic bombing in Manchester will strengthen her message for strong and stable government.

For the first time since the 1960s, there is a clear left wing alternative to the Conservatives. However, there has been little comment from our major parties on Jeremy Corbyn’s policies.

It would be nice to know what they think of his proposals, for example, to abolish university tuition fees, to rescue passengers from the huge inefficiencies and high government subsidies of rail privatisation and to tax financial transactions in the City of London. This is the only part of the UK where the electorate has to guess what the parties think.

We know that in the Executive they all favoured reducing corporation tax and cutting public sector jobs, which tends to align them more with May than Corbyn.

The problem is that our long war began under a welfare state system and ended under Thatcherism. There was no attempt to build an economic dimension into the peace process, in which the needs of ordinary people might have taken precedence over paramilitaries; had they done so, Stormont might have worked.

We are now paying the price for failing to develop real politics in the peace process. Hence the fallacy that Sinn Féin and the DUP merely agreeing to enter government means that Stormont is ‘up and running’, when the success of every other government in the world is measured in terms of outputs. It is in that political vacuum that arguments over hair colour tend to arise.

So if you think that Theresa May does not care for us, why should she? After all, if she glances across the Irish Sea and looks at what passes for politics here, she might reasonably conclude that we do not care much for ourselves.

The way local political parties are conducting this election campaign would prove her point.

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