Ailbhe Rea writes that there is a misunderstanding between Sinn Féin and its voters: that the party sees no discontinuity with its IRA past, while the voters have decided that there is (Observations, 14 February). The reality is even more serious. It does centre on the normalisation of Sinn Féin – it becoming an Irish party among others – but the nature of that normality remains a matter for public discussion and an unavoidable decision.
There are two very different outlooks. The first, favoured by most Irish journalists, is that Sinn Féin’s IRA links are in the past and it is positive to welcome it into the establishment. The second, favoured by Sinn Féin, is that the actions of the Provisional IRA are to be celebrated and themselves made part of the establishment.
The difference is enormous and could have consequences beyond Ireland. Should a respected state come to honour those who planted bombs in public places, a line will be crossed: no longer will it be possible unequivocally to condemn such actions.
Lucan, Co Dublin, Ireland
Jason Cowley’s ideas for a railway “mutual” might have more support than he thinks (Editor’s Note, 14 February). There’s a general recognition among rail professionals that rail franchising is no longer fit for purpose. Equally, there is little appetite for a return to a centralised British Rail. I worked for British Rail in the 1970s and it was hardly a model of socialist enterprise.
A few of us in the Rail Reform Group have submitted detailed proposals to the government-sponsored Williams Review arguing for a new approach to running our railways as mutual businesses. The ideal operation to pilot this is Northern, which becomes a state-owned business from 1 March, with the Department for Transport’s “Operator of Last Resort” running it on a short-term basis. This provides an opportunity to develop ideas for a mutual business that could integrate workers, passengers and other interests across the North. If Boris Johnson is serious about “levelling up” the country it should be a great opportunity to do something a bit radical that ensures our railways make a much greater contribution to the North’s economic prospects.
Prof Paul Salveson
The paradox of our overcrowded and expensive railways is that, for environmental and economic reasons, we need more people to travel on them more cheaply. Changing the ownership back to the state isn’t a solution – it is passing the buck. I sympathise with Jason Cowley’s recent experience on a packed train. I remember a similar occasion 30 years ago when it took me two hours to travel seven miles from Sevenoaks to Tonbridge on a train so crowded I could hardly breathe. I went into my office at the Daily Mirror the next day and said I was resigning because of it. I stayed, but only because the paper’s owner, Robert Maxwell, provided me with a car for the rest of my time there.
I hear that premium prices will be charged on HS2. This is mad. At present costs, every man, woman and child in this country will have paid £1,750 before the first wheel has even rolled. The biggest sufferers of the current railway pricing system are the commuters, sometimes paying £5,000 or more for an annual season ticket. So, allow them to put all season tickets against their basic rate of income tax. Or allow employers to buy their employees’ season tickets and put the cost against their corporation tax, the employees being taxed as a benefit in kind.
At least these changes would show that a change of ownership meant more than putting a new name on the company’s notepaper.
Tunbridge Wells, Kent
Chris Deerin’s article on the SNP (Observations, 14 February) succinctly analysed how the party has managed to stay in power and enjoy continued popularity by acting like an opposition party while in government. As a politics nerd, I am keen to see another independence referendum within the next few years.
The SNP is confident it could be won. Yet it would be up against a Johnson/Cummings machine that knows how to win. In terms of drama, a second independence vote could put the furore of Brexit in the shade.
Take your seats
Given that Jeremy Corbyn’s previous link to the IRA is still toxic to many UK voters and that Sinn Féin is keen to be seen as a modern party that has moved beyond that era, would now be a good time for its elected MPs to take their seats at Westminster? (Observations, 14 February).
Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk
Losing ladies’ loos
I loved Amelia Tait’s column on toilet codes (Out of the Ordinary, 14 February). Another political toilet issue is gender-neutral toilets, now de rigueur in cultural venues and new offices, including my own. These may be preferred by non-binary people, and I sympathise. But outside of the home women do not, in general, wish to share their toilets with men. Most important is safety – male predators may use the seclusion of toilets to make sexual assaults (speaking from personal experience). Women do not want to routinely run into the office letch in this secluded space when working late, or go to the toilets alone with three or four unknown men when leaving a film late at night.
In a previous office I worked in there was a transgender woman who used the female toilets – not a problem. In our new offices there is nobody who identifies as transgender or non-binary but we still have gender-neutral toilets. Is this right?
Overall I agree with Ray Monk and Ruth Buckley-Salmon (“How to get to net zero”, 7 February). But I am concerned by their position on cattle farming. The article makes great points regarding animal feed, but falls down on clearing land used for animals. Research shows that non-industrial farming has positive effects on the environment: grazing animals help land store carbon. Some land is not ideal for planting and better suited for animals. We need to focus the argument on industrial farming, and support natural farming: it would penetrate better if farmers were on side.
Nicola Sturgeon’s review of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song (The Critics, 31 January) was interesting as we once lived in Old Gorbals, Glasgow. One of my favourite books is The Magic of the Gorbals by Eddie Perrett. For him, it was the people who created the magic. Even Ralph Glasser in his book Gorbals Boy at Oxford took old Gorbals with him: it was part of him.
Glasser campaigned against the destruction of traditional communities and their tried and tested values. And though we now live in England, old Gorbals is still part of us.
Shock of the Beard
Thank you Rachel Cooke for exposing the shockingly poor programme Shock of the Nude presented by Mary Beard (The Critics, 7 February). Like Ms Cooke, I remember Robert Hughes not only for his wonderful series of the 1980s, Shock of the New, but his later work on Goya. He was a great critic. Mary Beard should stick to what she knows. As a man and an artist with over 40 years of experience drawing the life model, I found the programme patronising and offensive.
Northwood, Greater London
Life after Twitter
Peter Wilby is correct when it comes to Twitter (First Thoughts, 7 February). I was encouraged by my publisher to start a Twitter account, predicated on the belief that tweeting to an army of followers would help book sales. The first and most horrible experience I had was the deluge of default emails telling me I had a new follower or someone had retweeted something I had said. I disabled every alert, which meant I was in blissful ignorance of any reaction. I struggled on for a year or so, learning that to express an opinion is fatal, to engage in any dialogue is lunacy, and that every second spent on Twitter was a moment lost forever.
Unlike Peter Wilby, I broke free entirely. I have never looked back.
Guy de la Bédoyère
Britain the colony
Most train operators in Britain are foreign governments; only two are Chinese. Given China’s success with its new Silk Road Railway, its African constructions and its Wuhan hospitals, why not invite it to complete HS2 in double-quick time along with all our nuclear and broadband facilities?
Hong Kong was once a British colony off the Asian mainland, and so now the UK can become a Chinese colony off the European mainland. What’s not to like?
The New Statesman anthology edited by Jason Cowley, Statesmanship: The Best of the New Statesman 1913-2019, is a splendid historical read. I should like to add that if you can find it, the 1963 anthology New Statesmanship, edited by Edward Hyams, makes an excellent companion volume. I have been reading nightly from these volumes – only one article, “Primatives” by Paul Robeson, appears in both – alongside my latest magazine subscription, and feel I am all the better for it.
Lancaster, Texas, USA
I once hoped I would write a letter to this publication on some matter of great importance. Alas. Nicholas Lezard’s column (Down and Out, 31 January) mentioned The The’s “Uncertain Smile”, but names the band as “the The”. A typo or the consequence of drinking Malbec too quickly?
Our letters editor writes: It is NS style to use a lower-case “the” for band names; the The have to follow the same rules as the Beatles.
We reserve the right to edit letters.
This article appears in the 19 Feb 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The age of pandemics