Northern Ireland, the next handover

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The Independent Online
I asked a rhetorical question last week. I asked why the handover of Hong Kong had dominated the news, when it wasn't actually that interesting, except as an odd postscript to our imperial days, which were over long ago. The man who said that Britain had lost an empire and not yet found a role said it nearly 40 years ago, and judging from our nostalgic gamblings in Hong Kong, it is still true. But it was hard to find any intrinsic interest in the Hong Kong handover except as a parade, or as a dusty piece of symbolism, and people were so desperately short of real news that they were driven to speculate on why Geoffrey Howe had RSVP'd a Chinese invitation and why John Major had stayed behind for Denis Compton's memorial service.

(The answer to this last question has been provided on a postcard from a reader this morning, who says that John Major went to Compton's funeral because la Thatcher was in Hong Kong.)

But now that all the Hong Kong news is over, and it has been blown magically from our screens as effortlessly as the morning mist is blown away by a sea breeze, or the English batting is blown away by Shane Warne, I have discovered why our news media were taken over by Hong Kong last week.

It was to keep Northern Ireland out of the headlines.

On Monday morning, yesterday, sure as eggs come six to a box, the lead item was not about 4,000 men of the PLA flooding into Hong Kong to crack down on democracy (for which there was no need, anyway, as the British had already spent 100 years cracking down on democracy in Hong Kong) but about violence in the province in the wake of the marching season, yawn, Mcree, yawn, Apprentice Boys, yawn, Orange, nationalist, knit one, purl one ...

Please don't misunderstand me. I think these old traditions are wonderful. I think it is charming that Protestants should want to dress up like undertakers and march along to primitive kindergarten music, with all the natural grace of traffic wardens at a regimental reunion. I don't think anyone should stop them, although perhaps they might find somewhere else to do it, closer to their own homes. I just don't think that anyone should treat it as headline news, or that we should have to know about it.

Nor do I think this is a very daring idea, or one peculiar to me. I think they think the same in the Republic of Ireland. The last thing in the world that the Republic wants is to have Northern Ireland back. The reason that the British PM and the Irish PM can never agree on anything is that the Irish PM does not want Northern Ireland back (but cannot say so) and the British PM is desperate to get rid of it (but has to pretend that he wants it). Northern Ireland is like the useless child in the playground that neither side wants to pick for its team. What makes it worse is that the unwanted child is turning into a dangerous petty criminal.

Of course I can't prove that the Republic thinks this way, but I was impressed by a Channel 4 St Patrick's Day broadcast I saw this year, on which a Dublin comedian was expressing his views on the marching season.

"It's very strange, this," he said, "a country where people have a marching season the way other people have hunting seasons or football seasons. I mean, how do they know when the marching season begins? Do they all start to get little up-and-down motions in their legs, little jerks of the knees, and they say, `Ah ha! Time for marching!' And why haven't the Catholics devised better means of neutralising marches through their areas? It's no use throwing stones. It would be much better if the Catholics actually joined in! Yes, marched along with the Unionists! Brought their own bands as well, playing at slightly different tempos! That would sort it all out, I think ..."

Nice to know that Northern Ireland is seen as a bed of lunacy south of the border as well.

Still, I do have a solution to the problem. It came to me when I was talking to an old Hong Kong hand last week. He said: "What nobody has mentioned in all this is that although the Chinese don't like the British much, they can't stand the Cantonese either - and what we are doing in returning Hong Kong is giving them several million Cantonese back. Bad news for China."

What is my solution? To give Northern Ireland to China, perhaps as a present for the millennium. If nothing else, the men of the PLA should be able to restore law and order. I hope to expand on this at some future date.