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A burning reminder of Johnson’s Irish amnesia

Posted on April 9, 2021

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Finally, we’re allowed to speak to each other in person, cautious and distant as we have to be. In different circumstances, we’d have plenty of catching up to do – places we’ve been, things we’ve done, funny or frustrating stories about that bloke from work. But that well of conversation is parched and so it’s not long before the inevitable question pops out: ‘You watched anything good at all?’

In the past, this query would have been an admission that your social and cultural life was in the throes of terminal decline. Not so now when reliance on the telly box is a universal experience. The decline of FOMO (the fear of missing out) means that we can be happily relaxed about swapping our box-set recommendations.  I’m grateful to the friend who prompted me to look again at a blast from the past.

Peter Flannery’s brilliant Our Friends in the North was first broadcast in 1996. It tells the compelling story of four friends from Newcastle and how they navigate their entwined personal and political lives between 1964 and 1995. A scene from an episode set in the mid-1980s has extraordinary contemporary resonance.

On the back of Margaret Thatcher’s burgeoning popularity, along with the floundering incompetence of the Labour Party, a former northern stronghold has turned to the Conservatives. During the scene in question, a local criminal has eventually been brought to heel – more through luck than judgement – by an increasingly beleaguered constabulary. The new Tory MP is quick to be interviewed on TV to proclaim the populist commitment to being tough on crime. Off camera, she is confronted by the indefatigable local councillor who tries to explain that the culprit is a victim of unemployment, lack of opportunity and the closure of community amenities.

The newly installed MP can scarcely contain her mirth and contempt. ‘Are you seriously trying to tell me,’ she sneers, ‘that this sort of criminality takes place because the local library has had to cut its Joanna Trollope section?’   

Fictitious it may be, but we’ve been treated to that crowing, tone-deaf voice too often in the last few days. The firebombed Belfast bus had barely slid to its uncontrolled demise before outrage poured from the commentariat and social media. As some attempted a sober analysis that might link the riots to decisions around Brexit, borders and – most tellingly – a sense of  being abandoned by the political classes, others met this suggestion with withering scorn.

Are we seriously proposing that bored, wild kids revelling in urban mayhem are doing so because of the fine print of the Withdrawal Bill or the minutiae of the Good Friday Agreement? ‘Recreational rioting’ is what’s at the root of it according to local politician, Doug Beattie. It’s ‘grossly irresponsible’ to blame the riots on the political process, proclaims Tory Peer, Lord Caine. Boris Johnson, emulating his fallen hero’s penchant for declaring policy via Twitter, calls for dialogue to resolve differences, ‘not violence or criminality.’

Which, coming from the man who, to all intents and purposes, had completely forgotten about Ireland in his juvenile haste to get Brexit done, is a bit rich. When the inconvenient realities of how, in an exact and detailed way, the issue of border controls on the island were to be addressed, we became witness to episodes of jaw-dropping incompetence, back-tracking and bare-faced lying on the part of the Prime Minister and his unlamented sidekicks. His breezy assertion that ‘there will be no checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ in October 2019 was as stupid as it was mendacious. In this, as in all things, his unruly willingness to skate over truths is the hallmark of his actions and character.

But then I would say that wouldn’t I? So when it come to a lifelong Tory advocate, a stalwart of the Daily Mail and the Telegraph, doing the same, that probably has a bit more heft. Peter Oborne’s book The Assault on the Truth is a grim catalogue of the Prime Minister’s passing acquaintance with truth and morality, going way back to his early days as a jobbing (and lying) journalist. Oborne reviews the career of someone he views as supremely talented, yet incapable of allowing facts and propriety to obstruct the road to personal ambition and self-aggrandisement. It’s an authoritative and astonishing read.  

Just as astonishing is the response to it from Johnson’s cheerleaders. The Conservative Home website has to admit that their hero may have been a bit of a rogue in the past, but who doesn’t want a ‘certain impudent lightness of touch’ from their leader? (Don’t bother checking: I promise you that’s a direct quotation.) What’s more, it’s simply not good form to call someone a liar, is it? People who do so, the homeboys insist, are in ‘possession of an untrammelled but intolerant self-righteousness which makes them sound like so many ranting, holier-than-thou hypocrites.’ I’ll just leave that there.

Johnson’s approach to Ireland has veered between ITV’s It’ll be Alright on the Night to Mr Micawber’s ‘something will turn up’ to the magical emergence of the Emerald City at the end of the Yellow Brick Road. Nobody in their right mind could think there’s no connection between lary kids chucking petrol bombs and various self-styled, urban Lords of Misrule, but to pretend that nobody saw this coming  is an abdication of responsibility of unforgivable proportions. And when it comes to swerving responsibility, the one thing we do know is that we’ve got an expert at the wheel.

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