The British House of Commons is an interesting place. Its atmosphere is very important, so important that it’s going to get a makeover that’ll cost taxpayers billions. Like judges in wigs and barristers in gowns, the idea of the décor in the House of Commons is to intimidate newcomers with its sense of gravitas, history, importance.
That said, when a topic concerning the north of Ireland is raised, MPs normally vacate the debating chamber like ants on the approach of an ant-eater. Even when the camera gets locked on one of our wonderful MPs, you can still tell the chamber is next to empty by the echo.
But Brexit has changed all that. Now, matters affecting the north and the south of Ireland are of interest to many MPs, at least insofar as they may affect Britain herself. So you’d assume that the English, Welsh and Scottish MPs would listen carefully when one of our MPs – these days that means one of our DUP MPs – gets up to talk. Alas, not so.
In recent days the level of esteem accorded showed clearly when Sammy Wilson, Nigel Dodds and Ian Paisley Jr got up to speak. It wasn’t echo this time – it was a hubbub of talk. Normally, the people sitting directly behind or beside an MP who is speaking pretend to be very interested, sometimes nodding their heads or smiling when the speaker makes some limp joke. But when Sammy, Nigel and Ian spoke, they had to shout to be heard: it was like a classroom of unruly children, refusing to listen to the teacher who strains to be heard over the gabbling background noise.
What did Sammy, Nigel and Ian say? In the case of the first two, I’ll be honest, I can’t remember. And honest again and say I cant be bothered going back to check. Certainly Sammy and Nigel sounded as if they took what they were saying very seriously – which was as well, because nobody else appeared to do so. But Ian shone out. Ian was memorable.
Because Ian in his speech was really angry. The vein on the side of his neck, I do believe, bulged as he bellowed. Certainly his face got seriously red.
“Does the minister agree with me that it’s about time the Government demonstrated a no surrender attitude to the EU bureaucrats, who try to blackmail us, bully us over air flights, passenger duty and everything else….Stand up to them, man, and stand up to the EU and let’s get on with leaving the EU!”
Did this bring the MPs in the chamber to their feet, roaring their approval? Um, no. There was a small, half-hearted chuckle and hear-hear sound, but the prevailing background chatter went on, pretty well uninterrupted.
I’m sure Ian would have liked if he’d been the focus of all admiration, but he was probably happy enough. Because his speech was not for his fellow-MPs but for the folks back in the unionist heartland of County Antrim. Three things will have caught their ear.
The first is that time-honoured avowal of defiance No Surrender! You probably heard it from those lovely English fans who came to a game against the Republic of Ireland in Dublin, where they expressed their sporting interest with repeated chants of “No surrender, no surrender to the IRA/No surrender to the IRA!” I’m sure Ian wasn’t equating the EU to the IRA, but it was a good old-fashioned, uncomplicated rattling of the swill-bucket, hoping that it’d bring his electorate trotting up to him in approval.
The second notable element in his speech was the “Stand up to them, man!” line. I haven’t heard anybody called “man” for years, with the possible exception of a few old hippies from the 1960s who call everyone, regardless of sex, “Man”. But you got the message from Ian: this is a time to man up, display cojones, take the EU bull by the horns.
The third thing was his urgings for the UK to just get on and leave the EU. Special category status for NI? Farmers along the border going out of business? Cross-border trade in general being brought to its knees? Pshaw! Man up, you sniveling softies. Tell those greasy Johnny Foreigners to go take a flying fugue.
In a way, Sammy and Nigel and Ian helped remind us what the House of Commons means for Ireland. It’s full of people who haven’t the slightest interest in this place, except when it begins to annoy them, like a stone in the shoe. Then they maybe half-listen, before going back to discussing how matters affect them, not that bloody awful place across the Irish Sea.
Still, it’s good to know that the three DUPeers are delivering their thinking to the rest of the House of Commons, even if it does all look and sound a bit like, um, spitting into the wind.