Belfast Telegraph

Why the Stormont securo-cats should be feline rather silly

Powers that be up on the Hill need to focus on real problems facing us, says Eilis O'Hanlon

It's traditional for any motorist pulled over for a minor traffic offence to say to the police officer in question: "Shouldn't you be catching real criminals instead?" It must be infuriating to hear this umpteen times a day, but drivers do have a point. It's about priorities.

Politics is no different. Northern Ireland currently has, well, let's say a few problems. There's no Executive. Talks are dragging on longer and more frustratingly than the final season of Lost.

Whatever Sinn Fein's ceremonial Northern leader Michelle O'Neill might say, if Secretary of State James Brokenshire's Easter deadline is not met then there's a very real prospect of a return of direct rule - or, worse, another election. We're all paying the price for this inexcusable inertia.

So what is exercising the minds of the powers that be up at Stormont as we hurtle towards the brink?

Cats.

Specifically, the three stray cats who've made the grounds of Stormont their home, and which pensioner Edna Watters goes out 365 days a year to feed, through snow and rain and wind, including Christmas Day.

The 76-year-old from east Belfast had been barred from entering the estate, on the pretext that she poses a "security risk". No, seriously. That's what they told her, following a review of protective measures which ordered that anyone without a proper "business reason" to be there must henceforth be refused entry by the guards at the gate.

That part of the story could probably have been predicted. Whenever those in positions of influence want to stop someone doing or saying something, security is always the reason. It sounds official. It sounds serious. No one wants to undermine the wellbeing of the realm, after all.

It's the political equivalent of "health and safety", that catch-all formula that is trotted out everywhere to stop us having fun.

Of course, MLAs and ministers must be kept safe, but it beggars belief what security threat those up on the Hill at Stormont decided was being posed by Edna feeding the cats. Did they think she was a sleeper for Islamic State, secretly training up Ginger, Maggie and Furby to become a crack squad of suicide bombers?

If so, then the pensioner's taking her time about it, because she's been feeding stray cats at Stormont for 30 years without any apparent danger, ever since she worked as a civil servant there and the cat colony was much larger.

To put it another way, Edna has spent the last three decades doing absolutely no harm whatsoever, which is far more than can be said for some of the people inside Parliament Buildings. There are former Provo terrorists working there as special advisers, and loyalists trousering millions of pounds for heaven alone knows what.

But wait, what's this? It's a harmless old lady feeding cats. Call in a SWAT team immediately. This is not a drill!

If that isn't a metaphor for the dysfunctionality of Stormont right now, what is?

It's easy to laugh at the pettifogging ways of officialdom, but what was done here is actually quite cruel. This isn't some funny story to squeeze into the "And finally" section of the news. This is Edna Watters' life, and has been for an admirably long time.

She and her friend Carol, another former civil servant, do it because it gives them satisfaction, and because it's a kind thing to do.

They've paid out of their own pocket for years to have the cats neutered and spayed, and to provide food for them, bringing some of them home to domesticate and rehouse.

The world is topsy turvy when that level of selfless dedication becomes a source of irritation to others. It's even worse when officials come up with nonsensical excuses to stamp down on it.

The key word there is 'excuses'. No one in their right mind believes that Edna poses a security threat, either to delegates taking part in cross-party talks or anyone else (proof of that came yesterday after this newspaper broke the story and Edna was quickly given temporary access to feed the moggies. Is she no longer a threat?).

The original reason given was just some meaningless babble that penpushers came up with to justify doing what they always wanted to do anyway, which was evict the uninvited feline residents once and for all.

Edna says "they've never liked the cats", and wanted rid of them from the start, even bringing in a pest control company in the past to gas them.

The cats are blamed for everything, she says, from making the place look untidy to encouraging vermin - which must be news to the mice and rats, who tend to keep their distance when cats are around, not move even closer in the hope of being eaten.

Once she was even called in for questioning and shown a dossier containing surveillance photographs of her feeding them.

Ian Paisley thinks it's scandalous that his MP father's phone was being tapped. That pales into insignificance next to what Edna's had to put up with.

What is it about cats that those close to power resent so much? Cherie Blair infamously wanted shot of Humphrey the Downing Street mouser when her husband Tony was Prime Minister, believing cats to be unhygienic.

Following a public backlash she was forced to pose for pictures holding Humphrey to prove she meant him no harm.

The only way to reassure cat lovers in Northern Ireland that the 'Stormont Three' are safe is for Arlene Foster to be seen treating Maggie with the respect due to any moggie who shares its name with a former Conservative and Unionist Party leader, and Mrs O'Neill to start patrolling the grounds, not holding an armalite and ballot box like her predecessors, but with a tin of Whiskas in one hand and a catnip toy in the other.

That would have the added advantage of showing voters who they could really trust.

When he was pictured with Cherie Blair, poor Humphrey looked absolutely petrified. Cats can tell when someone doesn't like them. Unlike gullible humans, they're not fooled by insincerity or photo opportunities.

Bring Maggie, Ginger and Furby face to face with the party leaders, and let's see what they make of them. And if the cats decide to scarper away from both, who could really blame them? We've all felt that way lately.

In the meantime, couldn't some enterprising MLA take on Edna as an unpaid special adviser, so that she too can have a pass that lets her come and go freely from Stormont on a permanent basis? Better still, put her on the payroll.

The thousands squandered each year on Spads with dubious qualifications would be much better spent on cat food.

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