Against the background of a Northern Ireland election campaign, I had called at the woman’s house. Her mother was seriously ill, her husband suffered a long-term debilitating condition, and she was struggling with the accounts of the family business. A newspaper banner headline spoke of the latest political strife, and on the radio voices sought to speak over each other in an argument that had been endlessly repeated. Noticing mention of the initials of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), she expressed frustration with the politicians, “I’m tired of the poops and dupes.” Twenty years later, living in Northern Ireland, under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, she will be able to ignore the current headlines, she will be able to turn off the radio.
The groups identified by the woman as poops and dupes will become things of the past as the Irish political process makes its slow progress; demographic and attitudinal changes continue to make Northern Ireland unionism a shrinking constituency. Were the woman to be living in England two decades later, she might find similar uncomplimentary terms for the politicians in Westminster where there is neither a competent government nor a functioning opposition.
Making a peanut butter sandwich and drinking a mug of tea against a background of cacophonous noise from the television, Prime Minister’s Questions seemed more closely to resemble the atmosphere of after dinner speeches at a gentlemen’s club than a gathering of parliamentarians who hold in their hands the future of the country. Speaker John Bercow seems to think it is all jolly fun, smiling at his own comments and witticisms, and the antagonists seem content simply to speak, even if no-one outside their own party is listening.
When those engaged in the political process bemoan the low rates of participation in elections, perhaps they might watch an instalment of Prime Minister’s Questions and ask what message it might convey to anyone unfortunate enough to catch a glimpse of it. At best with its constant interruptions and sniping, it resembles the behaviour of unruly schoolboys (or dinner-jacketed middle aged men who have drunk too much port), at worst it is a mockery of those whose lives are most sharply affected by the decisions taken, and the decisions avoided.
The woman in Northern Ireland did have the advantage that the poops and dupes might argue, but neither they nor any other Northern Ireland party had power. In Westminster, the poops and the dupes rule the country.