What is it? What is the difference between Donegal and Tyrone? And I don’t just mean in Gaelic football.
Last Friday morning, I was trying to put my finger – or, more accurately, my foot – on it.
Yes, it is something tangible. Crossing the bridge between Lifford and Strabane, I felt it underfoot – or, rather, underwheel. Tyrone is harder.
Donegal is chilled out; Tyrone is decisive. Donegal is relaxed; Tyrone means business. Whereas at 11am last Friday, Donegal was an open-air ice rink, Tyrone was gritted.
The difference between the North and the south is grit – granular, abrasive grit.
In Donegal, the sensation under the wheels of my car was of soft, flaky, unpredictable snow. As I slid down the hill in Letterkenny and skated down the road towards Raphoe, my car and those around me transformed themselves into treacherous, mechanical versions of Torvill and Deane, pirouetting, slithering and sashaying chaotically down the N14.
Driving in the snow was a huge game of chance.
At the roundabout outside Letterkenny, as my wheels tried to grip the road, I was overtaken by a happy-looking fella on a horse. ‘‘Fuck you Mitsubishi, I’ve a horse outside,” as the Rubberbandits might say.
Once over the bridge at Lifford spanning the river Finn into Strabane, however, just past Caldwell’s Motors, the unnerving driving lottery gave way to easy predictability.
Cruising through SionMills, Newtownstewart and Omagh, the experience was almost pleasant. There was no shortage of grit in Tyrone; nor was there a salt shortage because it had to be imported from Spain.
The snow fell, the roads were treated: job done ,move on. It can’t be too hard.
But that basic function seems to be beyond us in the south.
Why do we tolerate this down here?
Why do we tolerate a council that can’t grit properly, or a National Roads Authority with no evident authority?
Why do we put up with a banking system that gambled our money – and other people’s – and destroyed the economy in the process; state boards being stuffed with acolytes just weeks before the government falls; or our children being given the bill for the reckless borrowing of Irish banks and the concomitant reckless lending of the German banks?
Why do we tolerate emigration as a solution?
Why do we go along with the economic drivel spouted by those with obvious vested interests who argue that more debt is the solution to an economic problem which we all know was caused by too much debt in the first place? How long will this go on? Not for long, is the short answer. We are on the cusp of what could be huge political change, if the last few weeks are anything to go by.
Last Thursday night in the wonderful GrianÃ¡n Theatre in Letterkenny, I finished a three-week nationwide tour of Outsiders, the show I have been doing around the country. With emigration on the rise again, it seemed appropriate to finish a national economics tour in Donegal – a county that has seen more than its fair share of emigration. An GrianÃ¡n was packed and, when we opened the house for a questions and answers session, the appetite for political change was palpable.
Up and down the country, from Cork, Ennis and Waterford to Longford, Tralee and Galway, the same pattern had played itself out. The same question came up again and again. It went something like this: ‘‘I know Fianna FÃ¡il has ruined the place, but I am not seeing a real alternative.”
Last Tuesday in a packed DraÃocht Theatre in Blanchardstown, Dublin, the unanimous verdict of the audience was that they didn’t want to vote for Fine Gael or Labour either.
The dissatisfaction with the alternative was as obvious as the disdain for Fianna FÃ¡il.
Maybe this is a little unfair on the opposition parties, b ecause there are obvious policy differences between them and the government, but Fianna FÃ¡il has succeeded in destroying the credibility of the whole lot of them. Some achievement!
Thousands of people from all walks of life, from rural Ennis to suburban west Dublin, from Galway and Waterford city to Cork, Letterkenny and the commuter belt around Newbridge, all expressed the same frustration. They want an alternative – not just to the government, but to the whole system.
They feel let down by the entire political establishment. Here is an electorate suffering the biggest economic crisis in a generation, and it has no faith in the opposition’s ability to drag us out of the crisis.
From what I have seen, I just do not believe the opinion polls – or at least I know that people are ticking boxes out of a sense of resignation, rather than enthusiasm.
They realise that the IMF/EU deal means we are borrowing from tomorrow to pay for yesterday and, in so doing, forgetting about today. They know the state boards are stuffed with mates and hangers on, and they know that they are going to have to pay the salaries of these quangos.
They know that, thus far, the opposition has not been radical enough. They fear it has become institutionalised, when the institutions themselves are at the core of the problem.
This means that the election is wide open. It is difficult to explain why the main opposition parties have failed so manifestly to galvanise the people, but clearly there is a vacuum. There are plenty of good people on the opposition benches, but they haven’t managed to convince many voters of their merit.
Nature dictates that the vacuum will be filled – by someone or some movement. Sinn FÃ©in is gaining ground at the moment because it is radical.
Change is coming: if those in our mainstream political class don’t control it, the change will control them.
People feel it is time, not for tinkering with the old system, but for totally rebuilding it. This is an exhilarating and slightly frightening proposition.
Last Thursday, driving to Letterkenny via Sligo, deep in Yeats country, I passed under mighty Ben Bulben and thought of how apt at that moment was the opening line of his poem, The Second Coming, penned in 1920.
‘‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”