Belfast Telegraph

Why politicians jumped on the Eoghan bandwagon

By Maurice Hayes

At last, it seems, the Brothers Grimm (successors in title to the Chuckle Brothers) have found something to smile about, something on which they can agree in public without having to look over their shoulders or without attracting the scorn of Jim Allister and the Traditional Unionist Voice.

It is, perhaps, and sadly, a reflection of the essential triviality of Northern politics that the occasion was a common declaration of support for a young Co Derry boy in the final of the X Factor on TV.

This is not in any way to diminish the achievement of Eoghan Quigg, a 16-year-old schoolboy from Dungiven, whose verve, exuberance and natural ability won him millions of admirers and supporters, not only in the North, but across the UK.

Unfortunately, the limitations of the phone-in system prevented him from enjoying the voting support of the wider Irish dimension.

Almost single-handedly he succeeded where so many of his seniors and politicians had failed, in bringing the Northern communities together in a celebratory mood.

For a few weeks, he brought people together in appreciation of his talents, which is no small thing, and he attracted affection, respect and generous support from all sides in the North.

And what of the politicians, while all this has been going on? It is ungenerous and inaccurate to say they have agreed on nothing. They have managed to settle the question of the transfer of responsibility for criminal justice and policing, which is a sign of growing confidence.

This, in turn, has been enough to release pent-up energy in the Executive and bring forward a series of practical policies and programmes. In addition, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness have managed a joint visit to the US to show that they were in business in earnest, to attract inward investment, and to take their leave of George Bush — a decent, if economically pointless, gesture. Together, too, they have managed to persuade some extra funding out of Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

There are signs, too, that the arguments about the status of the Irish language and the development of the Maze Prison site may be resolved without too much heartburning on either side.

Despite the continuing differences about education policies and academic selection, it seems the DUP and Sinn Fein are slowly learning to live with each other in government, and that each, to an extent, must depend on the other.

For some, however, this arrangement can be too cosy. The UUP and SDLP, for their part, show fears of being marginalised as the larger parties see them as bit-players, needed only to make up the numbers.

This is manifest in the UUP playing footsie with the Tories and by the SDLP minister threatening to withdraw from the Executive as a result of being bullied at the trough (from which resources are allocated to competing priorities and programmes) by colleagues from the larger parties.

However, the real difficulties for the Executive are likely to arise from the realisation that, in the appalling triage of resource allocation, government is about the harsh reality of choosing between competing priorities.

Their troubles are likely to arise less from internal differences than from external events over which they have no control. Chief of these must be the state of the UK economy, with sterling plunging towards parity with the euro.

That is the real X Factor: how much farther the economy has to go into recession; how long it will stay there; how long before any sign of improvement; and how many will suffer in the interim.

With its inordinate dependency on public sector employment, the North will be particularly vulnerable, when the inevitable cut-backs come.

The failure to make decisions when the Executive was in hibernation means that infrastructural schemes which might have gone ahead when finance was available may now have to be shelved, if not lost altogether.

As in the rest of the island, bank credit has dried up, houses are not being bought or cars sold, and the squeeze on small businesses is likely to kill the very confidence required for continued political development and stability.

Small wonder then that there has been a rush to cheer any endeavour which seems to promise success — even if it is a young boy singing his heart out. Well done to him.

Belfast Telegraph

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