I first noticed the gap between the media construction of the world and the world as it actually exists when I was living in Northumberland in the mid-1970s. I’d been a Match of the Day fan for much of my life and had been impressed by the happy chants of the crowds in support of their various teams. So it was with a spring in my step that I clicked through the turnstile to my first in-the-flesh game featuring Newcastle United. Well. There were no Match of the Day microphones to muffle the chants of the crowd, no jolly decent BBC commentator to butt in on any embarrassing yells. Ninety minutes of sustained racist, homophobic and obscene chanting ended forever the sporting-Englishman caricature I’d carried with me for some three decades. Match of the Day was soccer terraces lite; this was the real, revolting thing.
Those Newcastle days come back to me every time I read a columnist or editorial or poll which tells me that people here care only about Real Politics: will they have a job, the cost of groceries and petrol, what’s the value of their house. Hah! I say. Those are concerns indeed, in the same way that some wit and good humour were detectable at St James’s Park, back in the 1970s. But once in a polling booth, people here vote for or against the constitutional link with Britain. They do, you know. Check the figures. And if they think a party hasn’t got the cojones to defend their constitutional position or work for a change in it, they dump that party. Ask the UUP or the SDLP.
You may think this deplorable (especially if you’re being asked by a pollster on the street) or you may think it’s highly desirable (if you’re having a drink with your mates who kick with the same foot) but it’s the foundation on which politics here is constructed. The Good Friday Agreement says the constitutional position will remain as it is – tied to Mother England - until such time as a majority vote for change. On the core issue that haunts us today, it’s the head-count that counts.
Talk to unionists, though, and it’s surprising how many of them have a gut feeling that things are drifting away from them, that the nationalist population is on the rise and at some point not too far ahead, the population here will vote to sever the link with London. Bluntly put, their fear is that nationalists will out-breed them. The media don’t talk about it but it’s there.
So to all such unionists I say, take heart and fear no more. In today’s paper (no, not the VO – it’s too busy thinking up tabloidy front-page headlines), there’s a report of a charity called Project Prevention in the United States. This outfit has recently arrived in Britain and is getting ready to offer drug addicts £200 to be sterilized…
I can see you’re ahead of me. Statistics show that male nationalists are more likely to be out of work and/or living in poverty than their unionist counterparts. Yesterday George Osborne made sure that life is going to be a lot, lot tougher for the poor. What better time, then, for a far-sighted unionist party to hew a vote-winning plank for next May? ‘Welcome, Project Prevention!’ could be their slogan, or more accurately ‘Welcome, Modified Project Prevention!’ Hard-pressed nationalists, muttering ‘The hell with constitutional issues!’ would flock to collect their £200, in their Celtic live-for-the-day way submitting their softer bits to permanent alteration. At one stroke or snip, Protestant fears would be allayed, the swelling nationalist population would subside, the constitutional position would be safe for at least half a century, and Catholics, as Captain Terence O’Neill promised so long ago, would finally have learned how to live like Protestants.