An ATM. Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images
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I blame my present woes on the abolition of old-school cash machines – remember them?

Money is becoming an idea actuated these days by an act no more physical than waving a card.

And so farewell, then, the cashpoint down the road. Two cashpoints, really, but standing together, like conjoined twins, their screens now announce that they will turn for ever dark, and go gently into that good night, on 27 March, although they do not put it exactly like that. We’ve had some good times over the past seven years, that cashpoint and I. Actually, not that many. I think I can count the number of times I have queried my balance and been pleasantly surprised at what I have discovered on the fingers of one hand; a hand that, moreover, has been involved in at least one horrible accident involving agricultural machinery. The rest of the time I either look at the figure on screen with horror or just decide not to conjure it up at all.

The worst time was when bandits inserted some kind of gadget inside its very maw: my card was swallowed up, and later retrieved by them so that they could go on a shopping spree among the fleshpots of east London branches of Argos. But that was hardly the cashpoint’s fault. (Incidentally, fact fans, the term “cashpoint” is, unless Wikipedia is jerking our chains, a trademark registered by Lloyds TSB, so you can’t really use it unless you’re referring to a machine outside one of their banks. But if you do, I won’t tell.)

I remember the first time I saw one of these things. Younger readers are not going to believe what I’m going to say next, but it’s true, I swear. What happened was this: you got a plastic card (two, in my case) with, I am fairly certain, a few holes punched in it, like early computer programming cards; these, instead of any magnetic strip, constituted the card’s identity, distinguishing it from others. You put one in the machine, and out came £10. The machine ate the card, which would be retrieved by the bank and posted back to you. Whether you keyed in a code or not I cannot quite remember. We’re talking a long time ago now: the early 17th century, I suppose, around the time Milton was composing “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity”.

A tenner in those days was a stupendous sum, especially to a teenager. You could buy five copies of Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division and still have change left over for a Wimpy with all the trimmings (a bun, some onions and a squirt of ketchup, as I recall). But the interesting thing about the system was the way it combined immediate with delayed gratification. The money came out at once, but you wouldn’t be able to make it do so again for a couple of days, unless you wanted to buy ten Joy Division albums and two Wimpys, in which case you used both cards at once, and then counted the days until they came back to you and you could do it all over again.

Such a system might, if it still existed, have gone some way towards preventing the financial crash of 2008. Well, maybe not that precise system, but one in which cash only came round every two or three days and you had to think carefully for those three days. I blame a good deal of my present woes on the ease with which one is allowed to bump up continually against the limits of one’s overdraft. (Though that is a piffling sum compared to the amount I’ve had to pay out over the past seven years as a direct result of ejection from the family home: a sum, I was rather perturbed to work out the other day, that could have bought me a couple of brand-new Aston Martins, never mind Wimpys, should I have wanted them.)

Anyway, it does not do the heart good to dwell on such things, so instead I will contemplate the way that money is quitting its darksome house of mortal clay (Milton) and becoming an idea – the pulsing of electrons – actuated these days by an act no more physical or determined than a kind of feeble or noncommittal waving of a card at a device.

I bet you it won’t be long before you don’t even need the card; you’ll soon just be able to think about your supermarket bill and the transaction will be complete – assuming, of course, that you have sufficient funds in your brain. (Which reminds me to pass on a tip: the best way to curb your cash spending is to ask for cashback at the end of a shop for victuals. The resulting inflation of the bill will make you reel, and turn over every 10p bit several times before spending it in future.)

OK, over the road there’s a branch of another bank which isn’t closing that I’ll be able to use after 27 March, but it’s over the road.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Russia vs the west

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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.