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Chapter 3: Belfast

by Frank Schnittger Mon Aug 7th, 2023 at 02:23:54 PM EST

Sovereignty 2045 Chapter 3:

Much has been written about the amazing result of the 2024 UK General Election. As I was now the Climate Change Correspondent of the Tribune, I didn't actually cover the lead up to the campaigns as a professional reporter. However, as an amateur enthusiast I kind of felt I knew how it would all play out, even though I had little hard evidence to back up my hunches.

This chapter follows on from:

Chapter 1: My private meeting with Rishi Sunak
Chapter 2: The Bombshell

I write this because I found myself getting obsessed with the political process, even though I was now supposed to be covering the climate change brief full time. My new editor, a distinguished environmentalist, must have been wondering why she had inherited a rugby playing Oxford PPE (Politics, Philosophy and Economics) graduate with no known scientific qualifications or particular interest in Climate Change matters.

For the most part this, didn't matter too much. I was not expected to write original content so much as cover scientific conferences on climate change and interview prominent climate scientists. My editor would give me a list of questions to ask and evasive answers to look out for. Even so, she found herself spending an inordinate amount of time editing my copy and asking me why I hadn't asked what to her seemed obvious follow up questions.

I fancy myself as quite a quick learner, but I could see I was trying her patience. She thought that my critique of the Sunak government resiling from many of its climate change commitments was quite good. I had become an expert in reading between the lines of quite bland (and often over promising) government pronouncements. She couldn't bring herself to read all those "stupid government policy documents," but I became quite good at parsing them and tearing them apart. It was the serious scientific stuff I had difficulties with.

Some weeks later I had a conversation with Julia, a colleague, and about the only other staff member I would count as a friend. If anybody knew the latest office gossip, it would be her! I explained that I was having difficulties with all the scientific jargon in the technical journals I was supposed to read, and felt I was bluffing and hamming my way through my brief. She told me on the qt that the word was my new editor was not best pleased to have been "dumped" with me. She had been looking for an assistant junior reporter for quite some time but had in mind a writer who was at least a post-doctoral student in Climate science.

My heart sank.

I did not want to be a charity case. I wasn't used to being totally incompetent at my job. Julia suggested I speak to HR and maybe they could sort something out for me. This suggestion took me quite by surprise. HR did not have the reputation of being there to help people. More likely they would be involved in hiring and firing.

However, I resolved to take the bull by the horns. If there was a problem, I was going to have to confront it sooner or later. I asked for an appointment with the Head of HR, a rather smooth, urbane operator by the name of Stanley Richards.

It was with some trepidation that I approached his office at the appointed hour. The secretary motioned for me to go on in. I knocked on the door and a rather peremptory "come in" boomed from within.

Mr Richards, I'm Jeremy Watson, sir, I asked to see you...

(I have absolutely no idea why the word sir crept into that sentence. Perhaps the scene reminded me, at some subconscious level, of being hauled in front of my old school headmaster.)

He snorted, beckoned me to sit down, and continued reading a file he had in front of him.
After a while he peered above his glasses, and said something like, "ah yes that Jeremy" you seem to have had quite a varied career in your short time working for us."

It wasn't really a question, so I said nothing. I was very conscious that nervous people tend to babble too much.

After a while, he continued, "I see you went to Uxbridge Public school, got a rather mediocre second-class honours in PPE from Oxford, played a bit of Rugby, and ended up as a sports reporter for the Wolverhampton Echo. I thought we had recruited you as a sports reporter. How did you end up in Ireland?"

"Well Sir," (damn, that word again) "I played a lot of rugby at Oxford, got an academy contract with Sale Sharks, and started writing a lot about rugby for the local rag. When my academy contract wasn't renewed after year one (I had spent quite a lot of it injured), I managed to pick up a junior reporter job with The Wolverhampton Echo, did reasonably well, and was then offered a job here."

"Yes, Yes, Yes, he harumphed impatiently, but why Ireland, and how the politics desk?"

"Well, eh" (I just about managed to avoid say Sir), "Ireland had just won the Rugby World Cup, and as our Ireland correspondent was on mat leave, I was sent over to cover the local reaction to it. You know the kind of stuff, colour pieces about the players and fans having a great time afterwards. The team were invited onto the Late Late show and to receptions with the Government and President and I kind of milked it and stayed on for a couple weeks because I slightly knew some of the rugby crowd from playing against them and was able to get some good gossip and inside scandal.

The features Editor was quite pleased with my stuff and the politics editor said that I seemed to be quite good at making contacts and would I like to cover for our Ireland Correspondent while she was away on leave."

"Ah yes, I remember it now" Mr. Richards said. "So, you spent a few weeks in the sports department, moved over to features for a few weeks, then moved to politics for the Ireland job and now you're in Climate Change. Quite a rapid move through our organisation, I should say. You don't let the grass grow under your feet!" "Well, no point in harming the carbon capture process," I joked rather weakly, trying to emphasize my new environmental credentials... He didn't laugh.

"So why have you come to see me?"

"Well Sir (drat, that word again) I don't think I'm doing very well in my new brief. I think Professor Meeken (my editor) had in mind recruiting a more scientifically qualified reporter."
"Well yes, but needs must... what other job did you have in mind?"

"I heard a rumour we were thinking of appointing a Northern Ireland correspondent to cover the election and the Border poll there" I said hopefully.

"My, my, word does get around. We only discussed it a couple of days ago. You seem to have your ear close to the ground!"(I had been chancing my arm. I thought it would be logical for the paper to appoint someone to cover the Election and border poll campaign in Northern Ireland but had no idea they had actually formally discussed it).

"I'm not sure that would work out. You'd be working for Matt Meechan (my former Politics editor) again, and I'm not sure he has entirely forgiven you from the Chequers fiasco. Mind you Bill Featherstonhaugh, (the senior Foreign Correspondent I had offended) hasn't really been on the ball recently. He missed that Foreign Office briefing on the Border poll announcement, and everyone else had that story bar us. You at least gave us some profile on that story, and I gather the advertising department were very pleased. We haven't had so many clicks on our web site in a while and I gather your name peaked in google search statistics."

I had no idea HR followed all that stuff.

"Not that they would have found anything. You don't have a Wiki page and are just listed as staff with no particular title on our personnel page. We'll have to rectify that. Leave it with me."

Some days later my former editor Matt Meechan asked to see me. He was quite pleasant. He said he felt that I had been hard done by because of the Chequers episode and that anybody could make a mistake. "At least you actually showed up for the press briefing and made a bit of a splash. There's too much cosy background chats and nods and winks going on. We need someone to tell it as it really is."

Well, that's Bill Featherstonhaugh seen off, I thought to myself.

"I've done a deal with the sports department. You are to cover rugby in Ulster and Ireland as well, as Irish rugby has such a high profile nowadays. Our current Ireland correspondent hasn't got a clue about rugby and can't get behind the scenes as you did for your post-World Cup coverage. But your main brief is the politics, and you will be working mainly for me. Your rugby, public school, and Oxford background should be quite useful in opening some doors, especially on the unionist side. They can be quite difficult to get any information out of. But for God's sake be careful who you talk to. We don't want you to become the story again like what happened in Chequers."

I got the message, loud and clear.

So, there I was, back on more familiar territory even if I had never been to Northern Ireland. I was told the Tribune wasn't widely read in Northern Ireland and was somewhat distrusted by Unionists because of its generally left of centre stance. But with Unionists now formally allied with the Labour party it seemed a good time to build a deeper relationship. At least they knew who the Tribune was, and if I was the Tribune's Northern Ireland Correspondent, that was more than all the other British titles who now covered Northern Ireland from London, Glasgow, or Dublin.

I was told I was following in the footsteps of some very distinguished Northern Ireland political correspondents - David McKittrick, Ed Moloney, Simon Winchester, Henry Kelly, Conor O'Clery, Tommie Gorman, Henry McDonald, and Cathal Mac Coille - but that the Northern Ireland newspaper scene was in sad decline since their heyday during the Troubles. Circulations had collapsed with The Belfast Telegraph and Newsletter print editions now selling less than 20,000 copies a day.

Only the Irish News was holding up relatively well and was now the second highest selling regional daily in the UK. Of the non-local titles, only The Irish Times still maintained two journalists based in Belfast, Freya McClements, and Seanín Graham although The Irish Independent and the Belfast Telegraph were both owned by Mediahuis and shared quite a lot of copy between them.

Being a political reporter for a British daily based in Belfast was going to be a lonely place. I could understand why some in the office sniggered when I told them I was going to be our Northern Ireland Correspondent. I might as well have been posted to report from Kabul, as far as they were concerned. After such brief previous stints on the sports desk, Ireland, the political desk, and Climate change, it was obvious they felt I was being squeezed out of the paper altogether.

Arriving in Belfast was a bit of a culture shock. I didn't have a clue about the cultural and political geography of the city. I wasn't quite as bad as a Karen Bradley, a former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland who admitted in 2018 that she hadn't realised that "nationalists didn't vote for unionists and unionists didn't vote for nationalists" and that "she was slightly scared of the place".

But it was close.

She had been appointed to the Cabinet position by Teresa May as "a safe pair of hands" at a particularly sensitive time in Northern Ireland on a previous occasion when the devolved Executive had collapsed in the wake of Brexit and local scandals like the Renewable Heat Initiative and an Irish Language Act. Imagine having a government collapse over a language issue in England! She said it was "very different to asking voters in Labour held Staffordshire Moorlands to switch to voting Conservative."

I at least knew of the seemingly irreconcilable differences between the two communities and that protestants and unionists lived mainly in East Belfast, and Catholics and Nationalists in West Belfast. But what were the difference between unionist and loyalists, and nationalists and Republicans? And did political affiliation always correspond to religious belief? Having been raised Church of England in a largely agnostic society, I was surprised by the number of churches of many different hues and had difficulty following the accents.

I had booked myself into the Europa Hotel which seemed appropriate as I was a committed European (I admit to having been a Remainer!) and learned it had been bombed throughout the Troubles. Some claimed it was the most bombed hotel in Europe although I didn't see that highlighted on the Hotel Website! My first task was to find a place to live. Expenses didn't cover hotel living after the first couple of weeks, but where should I live? I soon discovered that Belfast was also divided into middle class and working-class areas and that class divisions could be as sharp as the sectarian divide.

The Tribune didn't have an office in Belfast so I decided to locate myself close to the university sector near Queen's where I hoped to find a lot of students and academics to talk to who could fill me in on the local flora and fauna. (I had learned a lot of words in my brief stint as Climate Change correspondent!). But it was now October and all the student haunts seemed already fully booked up. I eventually found an apartment in Ballyhackamore in East Belfast on the fringes of a loyalist area but also not far from the middle-class areas of Knock, Campbell College, and Stormont. It had good WIFI and a spare room for an office, and that was all I really needed. I didn't realise it at the time, but it was also in the heart of the East Belfast Constituency which had become the epicentre of the battleground between unionism, loyalism, and Alliance.

I was soon down in the pub trying to make conversation with the locals. Apparently, my name gave me away as "a likely protestant" and my slightly posh English accent confused many. I soon found myself developing a northern lilt and adopting some of the local patois. Apparently, I came "from the mainland" or was "an English bastard" depending on your point of view. My rugby background marked me down as middle class, but my PPE degree meant my political affiliations could be a little dubious. I tried to keep people guessing for as long as I could. I didn't like being pigeonholed. When asked was I "a Prod, a Mick or a Taig" I just replied I was English, and that seemed to settle the matter.

I encountered very little hostility whatsoever, especially in nationalist area, which surprised me. In fact, it was difficult to reconcile all the friendly people I met with the sharp and vituperative divisions in politics I was expecting. There was lots of banter, of course, and no little "slagging." But I fancy myself as being well able to handle that sort of thing. In fact, it is an aspect of Irish life I was beginning to enjoy. I am not blessed with the middle-class English penchant for politeness and reserve.

I was soon engrossed in meeting every politician who would talk to me and found my calling card "Northern Ireland Correspondent of the Tribune" opened many doors for me. Unionists, in particular, were keen to influence the coverage of their politics on the mainland. They were also very keen to get my take on how the mainland election campaigns were playing out.

Anxious to give them a quid pro quo for all the information I was hoping to get from them, I was as forthcoming as I could be. Besides, I like talking politics and it was important to build up relationships. I had little first-hand information from my colleagues back in the Tribune head Office, but Julia kept me in touch with the stuff I couldn't read in the papers.

That campaigns were now in full swing, with Labour, marginally, still ahead of the Tories by about 5% - a big drop from their former 20% lead. But interestingly, most of those lost voters seemed to have drifted to the Liberal Democrats rather than to the Tories, who remained at rock bottom. Voters disappointed by Starmer's many about turns in response to Tory about turns still couldn't bring themselves to vote Tory, it seemed.

In retrospect it seems quite logical for the majority of voters, who now regarded Brexit as a mistake and most of whom even wanted to re-join the EU, to vote for the only major English party who had consistently supported EU membership even when the Brexit fever was at its height.
In contrast, Starmer wouldn't even commit to re-joining the Single Market or to "dynamic alignment" on product standards, and it was unclear what he meant by "a closer trading relationship with the EU" and why the EU would agree to it.

As far back as 2023, Sunak had performed one of his many about terms on Brexit and re-instated the  EU "CE" [Conformité Européenne] product quality assurance marking for British businesses all but abandoning the Johnson Governments proposals for new UKCA ((UK Conformity Assessed) and UKNI (for products intended solely for the Northern Ireland Market) quality assurance marks which were to enable British and Northern Irish products to depart from European standards for products not intended for the Single market.

So much for "Taking Back Control!" Businesses could obtain a CE mark for their products only by paying an accredited agency in an EU country to test and certify their product as conforming to EU standards. "Dynamic alignment" in all but name because they would also have to align their standards with any changes in EU standards on an ongoing basis. It meant that even products produced for and sold in Britain would continue to be tested and certified by agencies in EU countries as companies where hardy likely to produce the same products to different standards for the British market.

As might be expected, The Mail was apoplectic, accusing Sunak of "another Brexit climbdown," but there was remarkably little backlash from Brexiteers. Businesses were ecstatic, of course, because many had already incurred considerable costs preparing their products to meet two or perhaps even three different standards, and many simply did not have the resources to do so. "What was so bad about the CE standards in the first place" was the reaction of one Business source who asked to remain anonymous, "it's a pity they didn't make this decision a while ago, because it cost a lot of time, created a lot of uncertainty, and hampered business investment".

What my new unionist contacts didn't appear to realize, however, was that this also meant that "the border down the Irish sea" would be much less significant. Products with the CE mark didn't need to be checked because they had already been certified as Single Market compliant by an EU certification agency. I thought they would be thrilled and was shocked when my DUP contact declared that this didn't matter. It was the principle of being subject to EU rules that was wrong. "We can't have that Papist conspiracy, the EU, and the Irish lording it over us."

I had never thought of the EU as Catholic or Irish!

I quickly changed the subject back to the UK election campaign...

I didn't mention it to my new unionist contacts, but I didn't think Starmer's stance in favour of the "Union of Britain and Northern Ireland" was doing Labour any favours on the mainland. People simply didn't have strong feelings about it and were much more exercised about how Labour were going to fix the damage to the NHS, social and educational services. Reporters constantly queried how Labour would fund all their promises, and Labour didn't seem to have clear answers.

Whatever the reasons it was clear that the Tories were in big trouble, even if Labour had lost its big lead. (Julia said it was also because of the preponderance of people of colour in Tory party and government leadership positions didn't go down well in the shires). The Liberal Democrats were doing very well in former Tory strongholds, and Labour seemed to be having some success in recovering ground in some "red wall" seats.

 The Scottish National Party was cleaning up in Scotland despite their recent scandals as voters were outraged at the holding of a referendum in Northern Ireland and not in Scotland, The Greens and some leftwing Corbynista anti Starmer candidates seemed to be doing well in some constituencies, but overall, the picture was very confused.

Some opinion polls began to show Labour, the Conservatives, and even the Liberals running neck and neck, but nobody seemed to know how that would play out in terms of seats. Most UK election models simply don't cater for a situation where there are three parties with almost equal support in England. The first past the post system means you can win a seat even with the less than a third of the vote if the remaining vote is split badly enough.

Election night was going to be some night!

/To be continued: Chapter 4: Election Night

One year ago:

PSNI data breach: 'Dismay and anger' from Police Federation over information dump | Belfast Telegraph |

Identifies every serving police officer and civilian staff with 345,000 pieces of data, prompting security nightmare

'Sapere aude'

by Oui (Oui) on Tue Aug 8th, 2023 at 08:14:25 PM EST
Who'd have thought a spreadsheet could have more than one tab, and that the summary information on the first page was calculated from the detailed information on the second tab?

Seems like standard spreadsheet design to me. Someone obviously thought they were publishing just the front sheet and forgot that this was linked to the second sheet.

Index of Frank's Diaries

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Tue Aug 8th, 2023 at 08:54:48 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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