Belfast Telegraph

The kindness of old ladies who love cats should give Stormont paws for thought

Treatment of Edna Watters and her friend has been like something out of an Ealing comedy, writes Gail Walker

Forget about the loyalist drug-pushers and intimidators of estate life. Forget about the dissident republican executioners and knee-cappers. Forget even about the extraordinary arrogance of elected representatives threatening voters with yet another poll to stuff more fivers in their collective underpants.

And you can certainly forget about the job holders who received their lay-off letters and some their 'letters of comfort' this week from the civil servants of Ulster.

Behold, instead, the principal Enemy of the People. I give you 76-year-old Edna Watters, who goes up each day to feed the cats in the grounds of Stormont. "I've never missed a day", she says. "Even when there has been two feet of snow, I've been there. Now, the powers-that-be are stopping me looking after my cats. They say I'm a security risk."

Read more: Stormont-ban Edna back feeding cats thanks to Tele

There you have it - if ever there were a postage-stamp-sized pen portrait of the perversity of our society, it is that judgement on Edna Watters. Edna and her friend Carol have been feeding the Stormont cats for 30 - yes, 30 - years.

In fact, they first started doing this when Edna herself was working at, er, Stormont for the, ahem, civil service.

To be clear, Edna started working up on the hill in the mid-1980s, shortly after the Hunger Strikes and before the ceasefires.

She worked at Stormont during the IRA campaign, the midst of bitter sectarian conflict and near-total civic collapse. She would have had adequate security clearance at that stage. So what is it about her tins of Whiskas and Felix that, loaded with those, she becomes something akin to a human bomb?

The vast correspondence devoted to Edna Watters and the cats - The Edna Ultimatum? The Watters Identity? - some of which has appeared in these pages, calls to mind nothing as much as the blind stupidity of the Alec Guinness character in The Bridge On The River Kwai.

As the world is in turmoil around him, as his Japanese captors torture their prisoners of war to construct the railway link across Burma, Guinness's martinet officer focuses more and more on the tiny details of ensuring excellent British workmanship on the manufacture of the bridge.

In the process, he loses sight of the big picture - the war waging outside, the values for which it was being fought, the need to retain perspective at all times.

Even as the fabric of our own civil society is creaking and crumbling in the absence of any political direction or clear strategic financial plans, it is amazing that the guardians of continuity and good order focus on the minutiae of who has entry to the grounds of a building and bring the full force of the state down on a harmless elderly lady.

When it's not River Kwai, it's an Ealing comedy.

Edna, however, doesn't blame the on-site security staff.

"They're only doing what they've been told", says Edna. "They're lovely fellows and they all know me because I bring them sausage rolls on Saturdays."

Cue a comedy trombone to underline the ridiculousness of it all.

"Stop. Who goes there?"

"It's Edna with your sausage rolls."

"But how do we know it's really you?"

You see, we all happen to know that this political system at Stormont does not safeguard against the kind of colossal waste of money which would ensure enough stockpiles of Felix and Dreamies to feed the feline population of the planet for decades to come. It could be argued, in fact, that the price of our peace is that authorities turn a blind eye to such excesses.

What of it, if millions disappear? As long as it keeps some hoodlums quiet in some locked-down estate somewhere. As long as it sweetens the voters west of the Bann … As long as it keeps the employment figures up … and so on.

But let Edna and Carol buy some Whiskas for Maggie, Ginger and Furby, and the klaxons go off. They are, absurdly, branded security risks. The stock of human empathy shrinks further.

There is a significant point here. Northern Ireland is not a big place. As we have found to our cost in recent years - and very obviously in the recent months of political turmoil - we are not nearly as interesting in world affairs as we think we are.

We have a relatively tiny population, with relatively tiny difficulties. We are bought and paid for by the economies of Britain, Ireland, Europe … But we do have a massive sense of our own importance and we have some grand sounding institutions and some impressive buildings, a few good sports people, nice lakes and the Causeway.

The late Martin McGuinness was very clear-headed about what the function of the Executive was.

It was a function the former First Minister Peter Robinson also reminded us all of on the death of the former deputy First Minister only a few weeks back, when he wrote: "The real decision for all of us was whether we wanted hostilities to continue or to end … Only a shared stake in the future and working with a collective purpose toward a common goal can do that … We ran the hard yards of jointly governing a deeply divided society while operating complex and demanding institutions in a manner that could instil confidence and bring delivery."

The reality of that function for all of us is painfully simple. It isn't rocket science. For us, the honest and caring instincts of Edna and Carol, far from being peripheral to our politics or, indeed, hostile to them, are, in fact, at the very heart of what our politics should be.

They are also at the very centre of what our population, as a whole, understands, appreciates and wholeheartedly supports.

Anyone who thinks otherwise should not be anywhere near the reins of government.

Our mission as a population, sharing these few tiny acres on an offshore island in Europe, is exactly to encourage as many genuine gestures of public care, human compassion, selfless service, as we can. Those are the actions which will save all our souls.

As a political community, we have no greater responsibility than to ensure the small decencies of life continue. What else could it possibly be? Once those are secure, everything else follows as a matter of course - mutual respect, tolerance, empathy, fairness.

And that means we can have no greater responsibility than to make sure two elderly ladies are able to feed the cats at Stormont, without let or hindrance.

That's your job, Stormont. Get on with it.

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