It is difficult to explain the British “Honours” System to my American friends. It is an undemocratic nonsense. But here goes.
Britain is a “monarchy”. The Head of State is Mrs Elizabeth Windsor. Now well into her eighties, she has been playing the part of the Queen even longer than Helen Mirren. The Monarchy is the worlds longest running soap opera. A Soap Opera you either love or hate. Elizabeth Windsor is an aristocratic, tweedy lady who is as conservative as anyone else in her social class. Yet the part she plays is of a political neutral.
This is not unusual in Soap Operas. William Roache (a dyed in the wool Conservative) has been playing Red Ken Barlow in Coronation Street since 1960. Coronation Street is the worlds second longest soap opera (unless you count some American show like Days of Our Lives).
Anyhoo in the “Royal Family” the part of Duke of Edinburgh (man with a kilt) is played by a Greek guy…Philip Somebody. Not a very convincing Scottish accent, to be frank….but Billy Connolly was unavailable.
And so to the rest of them. Alas soap operas say goodbye to old characters. The Old Queen Mum, the nations favourite Granny was good comic relief. Apparently she had strong opinions on black soldiers in the Grenadier Guards. And “Princess Margaret” was a bit of a slapper. And Soap Operas need new characters. “Lady Di” never really settled into the role. Neither did “Fergie” who left to take a part in slimming commercials and “Knots Landing”…..or am I confusing her with some lady from “Dallas”.
Anyway the British love the Royals. Well actually they dont love them at all. Guardian readers and panelists on “Mock The Week” hold them in contempt but even then, it is a safety valve for sensible republican thought.
The mantra is that an attack on the Royal Family is an attack on the basic institution of Britishness. And an attack on the Monarchy is a cowardly attack on an “ordinary” family who have served Britain well…and selflessly …for centuries.
In truth Britain…unlike France, Germany, Austria, Russia etc has not had a violent revolution since 1688 and the Royal Family has not been guillotined by republicans or forced to flee or faced a Bolshevik firing squad.
Indeed the British Monarchy (the most undemocratic of institutions) works alongside Democracy. I am of course a Republican and Irish Nationalist.
I have two enemies…..The UNITED Kingdom …and…the united KINGDOM.
So two nights in a year…in June and late December we have the farce …the news-embargoed farce of the Birthday Honours and New Years Honours.
Because it is not enough for Britain to have a Queen. Necessarily all “honour” flows from the Queen. While every Prince, Duke, Earl, Viscount (and the female equivelant) is hereditary and spoken for…there are lesser titles which are eagerly sought.
A “Lord” or “Lady”….well there are two types. One is hereditary. Reforms in the last decade means that only a proportion of these “hereditary peers” are entitled to vote in the House of Lords (the Legislature) but it still means that people, mostly party political time servers can be appointed to serve and vote in the House of Lords. They have no mandate.
Thus recently retired cabinet ministers like Gordon Brown and Alasdair Darling might find themselves honoured tonight.
And some other politicans, chief executives of banks and celebrities will find themselves on the Honours List tonight.
Heading a British bank or major British company such as Marks and Spencers practically guarantees a knighthood. Thats central to theBritish “establishment”. Yet they get away with it. Handing out baubles to bankers, businessmen, politicians and (seemingly) political donors is justified because the headlines will be made by celebrities and “ordinary people”.
Thus we have SIR Patrick Stewart, SIR Anthony Hopkins, SIR Sean Connery and DAME Helen Mirren. And probably around twenty or so other actors. SIR Bruce Forsyth, SIR Cliff Richard, SIR Elton John.
Lets not mention the late SIR Jimmy Savile.
But below these ranks are the OBEs and MBEs …the “BE” in the title refers to the “British Empire”. Understandably some people from ethnic minorities dont like that very much and decline such an “honour”. And oddly in alleged multi-cultural Britain (SKY News are noting only 6% of those honoured will be from minority ethnic backgrounds).
And yet the farce continues and thrives.
Already …under rules of embargo…interviews have been taped and newspaper stories written to cover the knighthood of another actor or OBE for another soap star or a heartwarming story of a midwife who covers the Highlands of Scotland for forty years. Worthy as they are, they are the people who give credence to the unworthy.
And so to Norn Iron.
Six weeks ago, a letter to the Cabinet Office in London will have been delivered to about one hundred homes in Norn Iron. “Her Majesty wants to give you a knighthood/OBE/etc. Please reply indicating acceptance”. It will of course be a “balanced” list…but a disproportionate number of Catholics/nationalists will reply with a polite but firm “stuff your OBE up your arse”.
But around seventy people will have accepted the honour and held to secrecy until Official Announcement.
Thus we will see “Mary Johnson OBE…for services to charity fundraising at a local hospice” And I daresay ardent unionist “Mary” will have already ordered new business cards for “Mary Johnson OBE”.
“Paddy Murphy OBE….services as a Catholic Primary School teacher in County Fermanagh” might be more problematic. If his wife has not said that she will not speak to him again if he accepts the bauble”, there is that awkward moment for his friends. Do they congratulate “Paddy” or do they call him an “Uncle Tom”.
Of course the real meat and drink of Honours in Norn Iron is the “political”. We may well have parity of esteem but there is more “logic” in a unionist accepting a bauble than a nationalist.
Thus in a year when many local councillors have been forced into retirement or electoral defeat by new council boundaries, then there is a certain logic in veteran councillors being given a little momento. It would be politically impossible for any member of Sinn Féin to accept an honour and I think political suicide for any senior SDLP figure to accept one. And indeed even a minor SDLP figure would be marginalised within the Party. Maybe South Belfast is “different”.
Simply put, accepting a British or Royal honour is not possible for a nationalist or republican politician.
But arguably it is different for mainstream nationalist, republicans and Catholics …the midvives, the vereran schoolteachers, social workers…to accept recognition of their service.
They are not all of the “stuff your OBE up your arse” tendency.
Thus….we might have “SIR Liam Neeson, Actor”.
Liberal unionists would love that…Dimbleby-Walker on Slugger O’Toole would wet himself at that thought….or indeed the thought of any high profile Catholic taking the Queens Shilling.
So….LADY Anna Lo? SIR Mike Nesbitt ? SIR David Ford? SIR Peter Robinson?