Morning Lemmings. OK, before we get cracking I have a confession to make. I know bugger all about Northern Ireland. Like many of my English brethren, watching news about Northern Ireland is a lot like watching the weather forecast. You start with good intentions (“I’m out and about tomorrow so I must check to see of it’s going to rain”/”Northern Ireland is an important part of the UK that has only just tentatively emerged from generations of bloodshed so I’d better pay attention to what’s going on”) but quickly find yourself drifting off, caught up in some daydream about whether there are more socks or people in the world and only come round in time to hear the presenter sign off. It’s shameful, but unfortunately true. In our defence however, Northern Irish politics does not make it easy. We can cram it in to our heads that there are two sides: One lot who want Ireland to be British and one lot who want it to be Irish, but after that it starts getting complicated (a fact that is not helped by most of the Unionist parties simply conjuring their names out of the same sets of letters, usually a ‘U’ and a ‘P’) and unless something has been blown up, Gerry Adam’s is having his voice dubbed or Dr. Paisley is ranting with flecks of spittle showering the audience, it doesn’t really grab us (and let’s face it, Gerry Adam’s hasn’t had his voice dubbed for a very long time). Even our grasp of the history of events is pretty shaky and usually boils down to the conclusion that those who may have once filled their days plotting death and carnage are not very good at painting murals. I’m not trying to justify this lapse of mass-cognition, I’m just saying that’s how it generally is. Oh and the format has gone completely to the dogs this week thanks to QTime playing fast and loose with the rules. Six panellists? Madness.
In the Red Corner: Shaun Woodward, Labour MP. Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and Floor Crosser of Note.
Conventional wisdom has it that turncoats are deeply unpopular and should be spurned lest they infect others with their underhand ways. Surprisingly, given that Shaun Woodward also ticks some other pet-peeve boxes (ex-Tory parachuted into safe Labour seat, dyed-in-the-wool Blairite), I always end up being quite into him. Part of it comes down to a careful balancing act he’s perfected that involves projecting an air of pervasive calm whilst occasionally dropping softly spoken ‘don’t mess with me’ shots across the bow. It’s a surprisingly potent battle-plan that he put to good effect this week. First up was the ‘did the government cover up torture’ question that should, by rights, be a sticky wicket for him. True to the Woodward Tactical Field Manual he lulled us with a spot of “firmly against torture” (repeated for effect) and some standard issue “people are concerned” before busting some “put at risk the lives of of many people” posturing. It worked and he emerged unboo-ed which is not bad going for a ‘no-win’ question. The next question (can Sinn Fein ex-terrorist really be involved in policing) was much easier, largely thanks to Jim Allister being a complete shit moments before and totally alienating the audience. All that was left for Shaun to do was imply that Jim Allister’s a twat, give props to crowd and then suck up the applause. Not bad going for a Labour minister in this day and age. It wasn’t all plain sailing though as the next, tediously inevitable question was about expenses and Dimbleby was sharking for some action by asking him why he claimed for his mortgage, even though he’s rich. A brief kerfuffle ensued with Woodward doing a ‘right back attcha!’ on also-rich-Dimbleby and seemed to come out as the nominal victor with an ‘Equality, innit?’ beatdown. Again, impressive work. The rest was pretty standard fare with some fairly sensible sounding stuff on the Greece crisis and a late outburst of ‘I love the Beeb!’ in the final lap, all of which ensured that he came out looking pretty rosy, Whether he is or not is a matter that’s beyond my knowledge, but in the QTime stakes he amounts to a very steady pair of hands, unflustered by rough and tumble.
A steady-as-she-goes 7/10
In the Blue Corner: Baron Trimble, Tory peer, former First Minister of NI, Bizarro World Nicholas Parsons counterpart.
You know when you just don’t like someone for absolutely no good reason? Well I get that a lot with Trimble. I think it’s because he strikes me as some bigwig from the local Rotary Club who won’t sell his raffle tickets to regular people for fear that might turn up and scuzz up whatever Competitive Jam Making malarkey they had planned. He’s also shared much screen-time with Iain Paisley and that association inevitably becomes engrained in our fickle, ignorant English minds. Having said that, he didn’t exactly do a great deal to endear himself to me tonight. Going down the ‘it’s down to the Yanks’ road on torture resulted in no palpable gains whilst being pulled up for claiming expenses for some “gentleman’s club” by Dimbleby really didn’t help the cause (note to all future panellists: Laughing nervously when Dimbleby calls bullshit on you is not a good defensive strategy. It just encourages him). On the Euro he said nothing of consequence although he did did try and trump everyone on the BBC question by not only calling for transparency (which pretty much everyone else had said), but also GOVERNANCE . That probably made him feel a little better, but was left unrewarded. To be fair to the Baron Trimble, he could have said something of great wisdom and import on the Sinn Fein/Police question but I must confess to have lost the plot at that point, largely for the reasons described at the top of this report. With this in mind, please allow for certain margin of error in his final score.
A buttoned down 4/10
In the Green Corner: Gerry Kelly, former Provo, current MLA Member for North Belfast.
Now here’s a rare thing in UK politics: A bonefide convicted terrorist turned legit politician with a ton of history behind him. In terms of performance, he’s largely got the politician angle covered, displaying a good ear for the audience and not straying too far into Controversy Land, but every now and then he does get this far-away look that serves to remind you that this guy has done some really bad shit. Tonight however, he managed to largely play it down the line. On torture he quite obviously condemned it (having probably been at the sharp out of some highly nefarious counter-bullshit) and got a steady clap for pointing out that intel based on torture is pretty shonky. However, it was the policing question where he really got the chance to get amongst it thanks, once again, to a sudden outburst of unrestrained rage from Jim Allister. After the short angry guy got a bit personal and said that Kelly was “not fit to be involved” with politics, Gerry came straight back at him with “I’ve got a HUGE mandate!” (big applause) and a “political dinosaur” bitch slap (huge applause). The rest of the show was a much more restrained affair for him with no real stand-out moments, but it was clear that he had the crowd behind him and scored the biggest point of the game. That’s quite a feat for a guy who bombed the Old Bailey, escaped from the Maze prison and was later arrested with a shitload of guns and ammo. QTime is a forgiving god.
A rousing 7/10
In the [insert corresponding colour…..look, I really know nothing about NI politics] Corner: Sammy Wilson, MLA Member for East Belfast, Minister of Finance and Personnel, MP, DUP bod and a whole shed load of other stuff.
I don’t know much about this guy, but fuck me does he have a lot of jobs. Anyhoo, Sammy Wilson didn’t come across too great. He reminds me of a nerdy secondary school teacher who’s secretly terrified by the students and never gives out detentions, just in case they wait for him at the school gates. He started inauspiciously enough with a lacklustre ‘MI5 have a very hard job’ response to the terror question but did manage to garner some solid applause on policing by taking the ‘us all mucking along is best for NI line’….which was nice. However the rest was pretty piss poor as his expenses answer was pretty much a long, drawn out “blah” (he probably feared being called on why exactly did he have ten million jobs) and a little bash at “Europhiles” on Greece achieved precisely fuck all. He tried to pull it back at the end with some joke about TV or something, but it floundered with only a few kind souls tittering out of sympathy. On the face of it, he didn’t say anything too stupid or drop any massive clangers, but the image he presented was one of a man who was terrified that something awful was going to happen to him. QTime seldom rewards the timid and this is doubly true when you’re sitting next a guy who has actually blown stuff up.
A best forgotten 3/10
In the I Really Haven’t Got A Clue Any More Corner: Margaret Ritchie, Minister of Social Development, Leader of SDLP.
OK, I really have no idea who she is, but she was good! The atmosphere seemed pretty male that night, but Ritchie seemed completely unperturbed, answered solidly on torture and got a highly impressive string of big applause by issuing a series of ‘deal with it, stoopids!’ on the policing issue. Greece and ‘spenses were both steady away and she got some last minute points by calling top BBC pay as “disproportionate”. All in all, it was a solid effort and she came across as a grounded and likeable person. If I knew a little more about her, I might find something to take the piss out of, but right now she’s a cleanskin in my book. Enjoy it while it lasts.
A robust 7/10
In the WTF Corner: Jim Allister, General Blowhard and Angry Man.
Save the best to last, eh? Again, I didn’t have much prior knowledge about this panellist but luckily I had no call for it as he pegged his colours to the mast from the get go. So what of these colours? Well, by the look of it they are mainly, blood drenched red and hate filled bile green. I’m betting he buys his shirts with collars a size too big so he doesn’t asphyxiate every time his gripped by an incandescent urge to kill everything and his neck swells up to twice its size under the sheer pressure of bitterness. On torture he was thoroughly unconcerned, but he didn’t really get going until the policing question where he got the first pop and went straight for a personally denunciation of Gerry Kelly. When this failed spectacularly, the crowd and a few of the other panellists declared open season and he ended up being kicked all over the room. On the no-brainer of ‘spenses he decried the whole nasty business, but it was too late. Fatally wounded, he limped on, implying the Greeks were wimps and just about summoned the energy to gasp “transparency!” for the Beeb before the whole ordeal ended and he crawled back to whatever bunker he hailed from. The sad part about watching him was that you could see that somewhere, deep down, he knew that he was yesterdays man and that the world had left him behind. However, admitting that would be to admit defeat, so he carries on, lashing out blindly and hoping that none of this is true. Not a pretty thing to watch.
A queasy 2/10
The Crowd: Belfast
After last week’s rather tepid affair I was thoroughly heartened by tonight’s audience. As I mentioned early, Northern Ireland is something of a mystery to me, but watching QTime tonight was like catching a soap you haven’t watched for years. You have a rough idea about the characters, can vaguely remember who did what to who five years back and once it all kicks off you can’t quite remember why you stopped watching in the first place. I thought this report was going to be bastard to write up and that it would be full of local stuff that I didn’t understand, but it actually turned out to be quite dramatic and most of that was down to the crowd. OK, some of the questions were a bit ‘meh’ but what really struck me was people actually having very clear cut views on something other than ‘spenses. These days, most QTimes involve a rush to the middle and huge blurrings of traditional boundaries. Tonight however, you could tell that people felt incredibly strongly about the Peace Process and that this was a priority that trumped more mundane divisions. That’s good, positive stuff that gives me a great deal of hope for the future there. Also, a vicar got to ask a question. I love it when vicars ask questions on QTime as politicians have no idea how to react to them. More vicars plz.
An uplifting 8/10
So there we have it, a first win for the crowd and an epic fail for a shouty man. See you next week for more QTime nerdiness.