”2011” just sounds peculiar

Some predictions for the fancifully titled calendar year ahead of us.

By the time you read this, it will probably be 2011. There's no doubt that, as we get older, the years are starting to sound more and more peculiar. The Eighties and Nineties were nice, manageable enough numbers. But once we were into 2000, it was hard to shake the feeling that we'd all stumbled into a sci-fi movie.

The whole decade from 2000-2010 was full of such lurid dates that we were too unnerved even to give it a name -- the "Noughties" was tried for a bit but it never caught on because it made ten years of our lives feel like an extended Carry On film. Now we're into another as-yet-nameless decade and 2011 is probably the most bizarre milestone so far. It sounds more like a rugby score than something you would be confident writing on a cheque.

There are two options in the face of an increasingly futuristic present: have a nervous breakdown or stare confidently down the barrel of what is to come. I've tried having nervous breakdowns before and they tend to be a rather short-term solution to your problem. So, instead, here are some predictions for the fancifully titled calendar year ahead of us.

Coalition exposed as hoax. Looking at it in the cold light of day, it all just seems a bit unlikely. The Conservatives teaming up with the Liberal Democrats, a party they have virtually nothing in common with? Nick Clegg, whom you couldn't have picked out of a line-up at the start of 2010, getting to be the second most powerful man in parliament? People routinely referring to "the coalition", as if we were in some Orwellian state where the idea of "the government" had been quietly phased out in favour of a smoother euphemism? I don't quite see it. The general election was ever so confusing. I think we'll learn some time in 2011 that, while we were all bamboozled by the mathematics of a hung parliament, somebody took the opportunity to launch the ultimate reality show, in which our reactions to the fake Tory-Liberal axis were secretly taped for Channel 4.

Andy Murray not to win Wimbledon. It's become a tediously predictable annual event to stack 50 years of our national frustrations about tennis on Murray's young shoulders and then mutter about what a grumpy bugger he is if he doesn't do the conga after winning a break point. Cool customer though he is, anyone would feel the pressure of expectation: Tim Henman certainly used to. So let's avoid the mistake we always made in more or less implying that Tiger Tim only had to turn up to win the tournament. I hereby predict that Andy Murray will definitely, definitely not win Wimbledon 2011, even if Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal break each other's legs in a freak locker-room collision. So, now that we've put that on record, (whisper) maybe he actually will win it. Clever stuff.

The Queen appears on Strictly Come Dancing. Unlikely? But did anyone forecast a year ago that a whole swath of the population would spend their autumn watching as Ann Widdecombe was dragged across a dance floor like a sack of laundry? The producers of Strictly have set themselves a pretty high bar. John Sergeant was an audacious choice and Widdecombe took the pantomime a stage further. Now, what elderly citizen can they drag out for next year's contest? Logic suggests they can only go right to the top. Aside from that royal wedding, which will be done and dusted by May, Her Royal Highness could certainly fit in the eight weeks' training to get the basics down and then the popular vote would surely keep her in for at least a few episodes.

Snow. Some time in early December, a completely unexpected series of snowfalls will lead to "arctic conditions". The nation's transport infrastructure will be paralysed, Christmas plans will be ruined and all the news channels will run more than three weeks of interrupted coverage of the crisis. The nation will rise up as one to ask why on earth we can't cope with the weather over here, when places like Canada are so good at it. This will continue for a couple of weeks. Then the sun will come out on 29 December and everyone will forget about it until the exact same point next year.

That is pretty much how I see the year shaping up. I went down to the bookies and they offered me fairly generous odds on an accumulator. I think it must have been the Queen-on-Strictly bit that tempted them.

Well, we'll soon see who is right. In the meantime, whatever plans you might be hatching to survive 2011, best of luck with them and have a Happy New Year.

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 03 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The siege of Gaza

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.