Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: Judging current crop of politicians by those of the past is like comparing  X Factor rejects with The Beatles

But we in Northern Ireland have no right to feel superior, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

An embattled Theresa May speaks to the House of Commons yesterday after her revised EU withdrawal deal was rejected by MPs
An embattled Theresa May speaks to the House of Commons yesterday after her revised EU withdrawal deal was rejected by MPs
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn
Boris Johnson MP speaking during the debate

If Theresa May really is the worst prime minister in living memory, as many now miserably agree, then she is hardly alone in her talent for ineptitude beyond the call of duty. Transport Secretary Chris Grayling gave a multi-million pound ferry deal to a company which didn't have any ferries. There have been so many Secretaries of State for Exiting the EU that it's barely worth the bother of changing the name-plates on the door. As for Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley, enough said.

The British once ruled half the world. These days they can't organise the proverbial knees-up in a brewery and, under any other circumstances, ministers would be clearing out their desks.

Luckily for them, across the chamber in the House of Commons sits an Opposition leader so staggeringly inept that his party is actually 10 points behind the Tories in the opinion polls.

How is that even possible? It's like coming second in a race with only two runners, when the other guy has a wooden leg. Is it any wonder that Brexit has turned out to be such a shambles?

Shambles is definitely the right word. Historically, the word meant a butcher's slaughterhouse.

What's being slaughtered right now is the British political system's reputation for competence, because, whatever one might think of Britain's past deeds, it always went about them in an organised, methodical fashion.

That's no longer the case. The most historic change to the constitutional status of the UK in decades has been left instead in the hands of people who just aren't up to the job.

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It's not simply that they don't measure up to statesmen and women of previous generations. They're not even in the same category.

It's like comparing The Beatles to a boy band kicked out of X Factor at boot camp stage and polls consistently show that they're not fooling anyone when they insist that, despite all evidence to the contrary, they know what they're doing.

Public trust in politicians of all shades has never been lower and, if these last weeks before Brexit's date with destiny are anything to go by, it's set to plummet still further.

The latest "Meaningful Vote" in parliament yesterday merely confirmed that, even this late in the game, MPs can't agree on the time of day, let alone a small thing like the future of the entire country.

Brexiteers insist that the real mistake was placing the task of delivering Brexit in the hands of Remainers who never wanted to leave the EU in the first place, and there is some truth to that.

The only problem with this argument is that they never had a leader of their own in whom the country could have more confidence.

Boris Johnson, who is still the runaway favourite to replace Theresa May should she step down, was, is and always will be a prize buffoon. Other Brexiteers have hardly covered themselves with glory, either.

When it comes to those who dreamed at one time about putting together a coalition to stop Brexit, their search for a leader around which to unite has been even more pitiful.

The Liberal Democrats are so listless, they make Sleepy Gonzales look like a go-getter. Labour was split from the very start on its approach to leaving the EU.

A handful of Labour Remainers may have peeled off to form The Independent Group, but any excitement which that generated has proven as short-lived as Britney Spears' first marriage.

As things stand, so-called "People's Vote" campaigners have been reduced to roping in Tony Blair to front up the campaign for a second referendum. How desperate do you have to be to think that a figure as universally unpopular as Blair is the answer to, well, anything?

What's terrifying is that this is just the first stage.

Yesterday's House of Commons vote was only on the Withdrawal Agreement between the EU and UK. The real business of reaching a long-term trade settlement is yet to begin.

It could make the current stand-off over whether last-minute changes to the wording of the deal cobbled together in Brussels amount to "guarantees", or just "reassurances", seem like a walk in the park. Few people in Britain can have faith that what is to come will be any less tortuous.

Then again, does anyone in Northern Ireland have a right to feel superior? Things on this side of the Irish Sea are no more reassuring.

Disagreements over the Irish language and other equally minor matters have held up political progress here for even longer and there's still no end in sight. Dublin is restive and Brexit was one added complication too far.

Northern Ireland clearly voted to Remain in the European Union in 2016 and opinion polls suggest a majority still want to stay part of the customs union and single market in order to avoid the problems that might come from a hard border; but the balance of power at Westminster is held by the DUP, a party that is so bullish about leaving with no deal that it sometimes makes Nigel Farage look half-hearted.

The upshot is that the Good Friday Agreement currently rests in the gift of a party which opposed it back in the day, even if it is led by a woman who was at the time in a rival party which supported it; while across the political divide, Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald is sending out more mixed signals than a malfunctioning traffic light, seemingly unable to make up her mind between love-bombing unionists and threatening them with God-alone-knows-what if the Brits try to "take the north with them" as they leave the EU.

Meanwhile, a former leader of the SDLP is preparing to stand for the European Parliament elections in Dublin in two months' time for a completely different party than the one the current leader recently merged with, so that he can represent the interests of Northern Ireland in a political union to which it might not belong anyway after the next two weeks.

"Confused? You will be after the next episode," as the tagline for the American sitcom Soap used to say.

Politics everywhere is in the same alarming state of dysfunction. Brexit has brought it to the boil, but it was not the cause.

What lies beneath everything is the profound breakdown of trust in the political system. The repeated failure to make Brexit less of a shambles suggests that politicians on all sides share that lack of conviction in their own judgment.

What's more terrifying still is that it increasingly looks as if they are right to think so little of their own abilities.

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