A glorious, magical evening

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column.

"This thing is a bloody death trap." Curly is examining one of the light fittings in the caravan. We are on holiday, for the first time since baby Moe was born. It’s a free holiday, obviously; we have persuaded the parents of a friend to lend us their caravan in Essex. They warned me it was a little bit run-down but I assured them that I didn’t mind. I don’t mind anything that allows me to escape the four walls of the slightly-too-small flat for a whole weekend. The most exciting expedition I have had for months is to Ikea Edmonton; at this point, the Thames Estuary seems about as remote and exotic as the Galapagos Islands.

So I wasn’t bothered that caravan No 18 was the only one on the otherwise pristine campsite to be crumbling, peeling and propped up on bricks, or that the door swung on one hinge when we opened it, or that the steps had rusted and fallen apart. In fact, I was charmed by its retro interior, with the little lace curtains and 1950s-avocado green sofas.

I am slightly less cool, however, with the large scorch marks on the ceiling. The caravan is fitted with ancient gas-powered bulbs, which you have to light with a match. Each one has created its own blackened ring on the plywood roof. Every time I look at them, I hear a sinister voiceover from one of those TV reconstructions: “little did the young family know that, as they slept, the caravan was filling with deadly carbon monoxide . . .”

Bugger it, we’ll just have to use a torch. I throw open the door and, remembering just in time that there are no steps, jump out into the field outside. Everything is bathed in glorious evening light. The grassy slope runs gently down towards undulating salt marshes and a scrubby little beach. Gulls are swooping over the water and wood smoke drifts from one of the little huts lined up along the shore. In the distance, the looming cranes of Harwich harbour are strung with winking lights.

Larry, in a frenzy of excitement, is already halfway down the track to the beach. “Hurry up, Mummy. We need to go to where the pirates are to find the treasure.”

The little stretch of sand is deserted. After trying – and sadly failing – to find the pirates’ treasure, we collect some driftwood and light a fire. Curly produces a packet of marshmallows and helps Larry choose a suitable toasting stick. The sun is pink and low over the horizon.

“The sun has got its jim-jams on because it’s about to go to bed,” I explain.

“They’re even nicer than my jim-jams,” Larry says approvingly. He dangles his marshmallow over the flame, where it promptly catches fire. We rescue it just in time; melted sugar fluff oozing through sticky black caramel.

“Mmmmmm,” he says as he chows it down. “I like holidays.”

So if we do all die of carbon monoxide poisoning in the night, I reflect later as we snuggle up in the creaky double bed, at least we’ll have ended it all with a magical evening.

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column appears weekly in the New Statesman magazine.

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

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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.