What do the Labour Party conference, Glastonbury and sex have in common?

They’re good to watch on TV but it’s better to be there.

Conference has a special atmosphere, even in the difficult times. The superficial thrill of seeing national politicians and TV pundits wandering around the streets adds to it. The pleasure of feeling part of something relevant and important is deeply satisfying. As is being able to drink lots of free booze.

One of my guilty pleasures is observing the different types of people you get at Conference. Here are just a few…

Call of the mild

Who’s that pretending to take a call while wandering into shot? The political equivalent of the blokes on Booze Britain who can’t walk past a camera without being lairy, these individuals try to be more subtle. They’ll drift into view with their phone firmly stuck to their ear but their eyes give it away. They’re looking right at the camera. See if you can spot a mate doing it. Every year I wish someone would shout “oi oiii” at Andrew Neill. Every year I’m disappointed. Please, if you’re going, do it for all of us.

Out of office

Former leaders and ministers can breeze about at a slower and more relaxed pace than they used to. They look happier and less tired. Well, most of them do. Others feel awkward about being there and wear the embarrassed expression of someone who’s discovered their flies have been down all afternoon.

A load of stunts

In any other week of the year trying to grab a politician’s attention with an inflatable sperm would seem like madness. Not here. It appears to be the rule that each member of staff on an exhibition stand has to have ridiculous gimmick. What’s even more amazing is that politicians will flock to these bizarre photo opportunities like looters to JD Sports. “You’re campaigning against Sunday trading so you want me to put a rat on my head? Sure.”

Drink Tank

“Hi, I’m Lawrence Howitt from BS Public Affairs, we’re hosting a thought event about citizen engagement via online packages that click through to a consultation matrix, would you like to come along?”

“Will there be free booze?”

“Yes”

“I’m there”.

Suffer these tieless types for they will feed and refresh you.

Deja Who?

“Yes, we’ve met before” they say after you introduce yourself. If you have met them before you’re always impressed that a shadow cabinet minister has remembered you. If you haven’t met them before, you’re left questioning your sanity. For years I thought there must have been something particularly memorable about me as the great and the good always seemed to know who I was. It was upon meeting George Osborne that my world changed. “Yes, we’ve met before” he said. It was impossible so the words rang around my head. “Why would he say that if we hadn’t?” I thought. Then it hit me. They all do it. “Son of a…”

Glare in the community

Characterised by their rigid posture and thousand-yard stare, this particular breed of political animal is deeply insecure. They want you to think “hey look at that guy swanning around, I bet he’s dead powerful and charismatic”. What you’ll really think is “what a tool”. It’s not that these individuals are bad, it’s just status is the only thing that validates their existence. Which makes for dreadful conversation. Listen out for their trademark inflection when they utter dull phrases such as “we need to work on messaging”.

The protest with the mostest

“You what mate? Chewing gum is made out of human waste and old trainers? No I won’t ‘like’ your Facebook group”. Avoid placard wavers at all costs. No good ever comes from talking to them. Have you ever heard someone say “you know what, I’m really glad I spoke to that woman over there covered in lamb’s blood and sawdust, she really opened my eyes about education policy”?

Of course there are plenty of normal people who go to conference, but they’re no fun to spot.
 

Ed Miliband and Ed Balls at the party conference. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Matt Forde is a stand-up comedian and talkSPORT presenter. He also writes for 8 Out Of 10 Cats, Stand Up For The Week and Russell Howard’s Good News. He recently performed his critically-acclaimed show ‘Eyes to the right, nose to the left’ at the Edinburgh Festival. He used to work for the Labour Party.

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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution