Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 17 April 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Carry on Girls plot is being re-enacted at Stormont

Sid James thought staging a beauty pageant was the way to get ahead. Now Basil McCrea reprises the role but no one's laughing, says Una Brankin

Miss Ulster competitors Hannah Kinning from Carrickfergus, Claire Gunn from Carryduff, Melanie Johnston from Lisburn and Fiona Anderson from Holywood.
Miss Ulster competitors Hannah Kinning from Carrickfergus, Claire Gunn from Carryduff, Melanie Johnston from Lisburn and Fiona Anderson from Holywood.

There hasn't been such a hullabaloo over a beauty pageant since Councillor Sidney Fiddler talked his mayor into running a lovely girls contest to improve the image of their rundown seaside town.

Formidable councillor Augusta Prodworthy, as head of the local women's liberation movement, had other ideas, however, and set out to sabotage the saucy event.

If the scenario sounds familiar, it's not just because it's the plot of the hilarious 1973 farce Carry On Girls, with Sid James and June Whitfield in the leading roles.

Incredibly, movie history is being re-enacted at Stormont, with the NI21 leader Basil McCrea in the starring role.

In what can only be a cack-handed attempt at populism, blundering Basil initially agreed to host the Miss Ulster competition in the hallowed halls of Stormont before wiser counsel prevailed and it was switched to Titanic Belfast.

Perhaps Mr McCrea believed competition organiser Michelle McTernan's assertion that it's about "allowing young people to get involved in politics". His party is, after all, in hot pursuit of the youth vote and has set out to appeal to young women, in particular.

But Mr McCrea seems to have lost all sense of political correctness, in the most ironically appropriate sense of the word.

One wonders if he consulted his party chairman, businesswoman Tina McKenzie, before accepting the hosting role. When I interviewed her after the launch of NI21 in June, I got the impression that communication between the two had, thus far, been to the bare minimum.

The problem with Basil seems to be that he means well, but does not think things out. It will be interesting to see how he handles the fall-out from "Miss Ulstergate".

He could, perhaps, learn a thing or two on how to spin it from the mini-controversy surrounding Labour MP Gloria de Piero (40), who has admitted posing for topless pictures when she was 15 to earn money for clothes.

In an obvious piece of media-trained PR manoeuvring, the former GMTV presenter says she isn't proud of the pictures, but feels it does help her relate to ordinary women and teenage girls today. Particularly, one presumes, those who like to send topless 'selfies' on their smartphones, or the legions who aspire to be the next Jordan/Katie Price.

De Piero's contention – that the Government needs more politicians who are in touch with everyday people and not just MPs who live their lives inside the confines of Westminster – chimes with NI21, which, as its name suggests, puts itself forward as a "modern party" and a "confident, generous and progressive pro-UK party", representing moderate political views, including Left-of-centre voters.

Hosting a dolly bird competition at Stormont – of all places – is an odd way to court this demographic. NI21 has been accused of style over substance since its launch on June 6 with a live-streamed Press conference in the trendy Mac (Metropolitan Arts Centre) in Belfast.

The glitzy event was criticised for featuring more glamorous office-bearers than hard policy proposals and, when Mr McCrea went on the Nolan Show the following morning and declared that the state should keep its nose out of polygamous relationships (in which one man has a harem of wives) it made for car-crash radio.

Supporting bigamy, which carries a sentence of seven years in the UK, is not the way to appeal to women voters.

So, while Gloria de Piero has attracted support from other politicians amid reports newspapers were offering thousands of pounds to anyone with access to her topless photos, nobody's speaking up for crisis-hit Basil.

It's impossible to envisage a beauty contest occurring in the corridors of power in London, Cardiff, or Edinburgh. Even populist 'man of the people' Bertie Ahern wouldn't have allowed it in his Dail.

But it seems there's a more anachronistic mentality among some of our politicians. We've come a long way since female representatives were moo-ed at in council chambers and referred to as "wee girl" in debates.

Yet the gender imbalance in politics remains steadfast and women are still significantly under-represented in public life here.

Women make up only 16 of the current 51 members on Belfast City Council. There are no female Ulster Unionists on the council and Belfast has only ever had two female lord mayors: the Alliance's Naomi Long (2009) and the late Ulster Unionist Grace Bannister OBE (1981).

The DUP was forced to change its recruitment process when the feisty Rhonda Paisley, a DUP councillor from 1985 to 1993, and Lady Mayoress in 1986-67, won an apology from the party after she launched a sex-discrimination case against it, following her failure to land a job as policy officer in 2004.

The party accepted its recruitment procedures were deficient and put in place best-practice procedures for future appointments, which went some way to boost female membership.

On the other hand, at Westminster, nearly half of Labour's Shadow Cabinet comprises of women and a third is made up of MPs elected in 2010. The Tories and Liberal Democrats lag behind, but are catching up. What are our ones doing?

Carry On Girls ends with Councillor Prodworthy's gang putting Operation Spoilsport into action, sabotaging the final contest with water, mud and itching powder.

With an angry mob after his blood, Councillor Fiddler makes his escape with contestant Hope Springs (Barbara Windsor) on her motorcycle.

Casting is still open for the 2013 version. Suggestions to info@ni21.com.