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22 December 2014

In politics, you really have to be cruel to be kind

Prime Minister David Cameron

I was involved last Tuesday morning in what can politely be described as a "lively" debate on Stephen Nolan's BBC Radio Ulster show.

I've become a connoisseur of insults, and quite a bit of it was routine shouty stuff about me being uncaring, ignorant, offensive, useless, prejudiced and so on. But I was amused at being called a "jump start" and being accused of opposing the taxation of companies like Google.

In the context of the talks debacle, the discussion was based on a question asked in the House of Commons and a press release from the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.

Nolan conducted a lengthy interview with Conservative MP Nigel Mills, a member of the Northern Ireland Select Committee, who had asked if he might "agree with the Secretary of State's earlier sentiment that the solution to every problem in Northern Ireland cannot be more money from the English taxpayer?" To which she had replied: "As I have said many times, the solution to these problems cannot be a big cheque from the UK Government."

Mills's basic message was that the United Kingdom is hard up, we're all in it together, Northern Ireland has had more than its share of special treatment and the English taxpayer was fed up.

The next interviewee was ICTU assistant general secretary Peter Bunting, whose press release had been headed 'Unions to go on the offensive against cuts to jobs and services.'

Basically, his argument was a variation on "Ulster says no": Northern Ireland could cope with no more cuts, local politicians were commended "for standing up to David Cameron" and enjoined to refuse "to impose these Draconian measures… including welfare reform".

To force Westminster to recognise Northern Ireland's special needs (poverty, investment, security, sectarianism, education and mental health), he made vague threats about strikes.

I was trying to make the case that much though I love Northern Ireland and quite a lot of its people, it's time it showed self-respect, stood on its own feet and stopped running to Mummy in Westminster for money since she's hard-up herself and fast losing patience with people shaking begging bowls.

I've lived most of my adult life in England, where friends are bewildered by my interest in Northern Ireland. Insofar as they know anything about it, they think unionists ran an unattractive sectarian state, but that republicans overreacted and wrecked the place. They think they did their bit by sacrificing young men and paying a fortune to keep the peace between the warring tribes, putting up patiently with IRA bombs in England and paying over the odds to try to restore the province to normality.

But they resent the perceived ingratitude.

During the Scottish referendum, arguments about the Barnett Formula made many English discover they were subsidising the rest of the United Kingdom (in 2011, public spending was £8,529 per head in England, £9,709 in Wales, £10,152 in Scotland and £10,876 in Northern Ireland). They were annoyed, too, by the abuse levelled at them by Scottish nationalists and - hard-hit by austerity themselves - are in no mood to look favourably when Northern Irish politicians demand special treatment. There are plenty of poor people in England.

My main point on Nolan was that Northern Ireland was suffering from an unreasonable sense of entitlement, had duties and responsibilities as well as rights, and should try being a bit grateful, stop whingeing, put aside the collection plate and concentrate on trying to create a decent society with a strong private sector.

I wasn't surprised that the message was unpopular with callers and on social media, but was pleased to have private messages of support.

To those who found me offensive could I point out that it's easy in public to tell everyone they're terrific and should have whatever they want, but it's foolish, dishonest and bad advice.

Being an unwelcome member of the United Kingdom who is also unwanted by the Republic of Ireland is not an enviable position.

I was grateful for a tweet saying that if I'm an enemy of Northern Ireland, "then we need more enemies!" I am a friend, but no amount of insults will stop me being critical.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards