You’re most welcome….you’re most welcome. You’re most welcome. Everyone was saying this as we walked into the High Kirk Presbyterian Church, an anodyne 70s style building on a rise outside the main street of Ballymena, a few clicks north of Belfast.

What were we most welcome for? When had we thanked them for anything?

Brown-brick, with huge wooden doors, and a sunburst stained-glass window, the High Kirk looks as close to happy-clappy Uniting Church style as you can get. If Franciscus Henri came out in a skivvy and began singing Lord of the Dance I wouldn’t have been at all surprised.

“You’re most welcome,”… ah. It seemed to mean hello.

Whatever the 70s post-Christian schmick of the place, the cross itself had been relegated to a free standing palm version at the back, the sunburst window had a vaguely pagan air to it — you’d want to keep your wits about you. For this was the heart of North Antrim, held from 1970 until now by one Ian Paisley, for the Democratic Unionist Party. He’s retiring this year, and instead standing for the DUP will be one Ian Paisley Jnr.

It was Friday night, and over on the southern part of the island of Great Britain, all talk continued to be of a hung parliament, of David Cameron’s clear win in the third debate, of whether Nick Clegg and the Lib-Dems could hold their result until Thursday, and of whether Labour would actually slip to third place, under Brown’s leadership.

The fall-out from Bigot-gate, as I suppose we must call it, continued, with one newspaper — guess which son — breaking into the house of Mrs Duffy, the Rochdale woman the PM called a “bigot”, to try and secure a deal with her. She knocked ’em back when they wanted her to endorse Cameron. Good on ‘er.

But that was England, and England is not Britain. Elsewhere, the issues that dominate the Anglo south, the political divisions taken as a given, do not apply, and they drift across the territory like radio waves of old TV shows, pullulating uselessly.

Thus, on the way back from Dundee, and a fairly low energy meeting for a constituency that could change hands, we stopped off at Edinburgh Waverley station, and had a coffee with Tom Nairn, sage of Scottish nationalism, smiling quietly as has been for some time at the prospect of Scottish National Party gains, chaos and a crisis of legitimacy in the south, and a path towards a referendum on independence.

“This is the Mrs Duffy election,” he observed in his beguiling low Sean Connery drawl. “…she’s done it for us.”

“But will the SNP face a problem from resurgent Lib-Dems…?”

“No I don’t think so, but it doesn’t matter as much as the election here in 2011, with a referendum to follow. We don’t need to win that one as long as the process is underway.”

He had the quiet assurance of a man for whom things are going right, not a quality shared by any of the main party leaders.

By the time Tom had tied all the loose ends together we were late, we jumped the train barrier with seconds to spare, flat out for a plane to Belfast.

Now over in Northern Ireland the correct Republican term is the six counties, so take that on notice it was same same different. Until recently it had been assumed that NI would be the first to leave the UK, via various possible means. Now it is quite possible that Scotland will go before NI does, enmeshed as it is in complex cross-border arrangements, peace processes, equality processes, anything but a political process.

You could of course say that the last political process here weren’t all that great, and Ballymena bears the mark of the Troubles as much as anywhere, the mark of no mark, a riotous plethora of taxi firms, pubs of specific provenance etc. You don’t do voxpops in the same way in NI as you do elsewhere, rocking into a bar and upbraiding someone “so what’s all this united Ireland thing then? Two scotches, good woman chop chop.”

Ballymena’s experience of the years was towards the futile end of the scale a couple of IRA assassinations of police and then some, around 10 sectarian murders of civilians by loyalists, and so it goes.

“Must a had this pub a long time,” Radio Girl says to the stooped old woman pouring me us a couple of quick halves before the show.

“Fifty years.”

“You must have — I mean- changes-… oh look just a pack of cheese and onion crisps,” I stuttered. Where the hell would you even start on fifty years?

“Ian Paisley sends his apologies, he can’t be with us tonight,” the convenor of the event tells us, not clarifying whether it’s Snr or Jnr, or whether the name covers both as a unit.

The DUP holds this seat by 25,000 votes, to 8,000 of its nearest opponent. The outfit is not Paisley’s church, so he can happily tell them to go sod themselves. A pity, because whatever bizarre processes NI has gone through, the standard of debate and argument appears to be so much higher there than elsewhere that one is really in separate realms.

Yet this place of rawest violent politics, of struggles for recognition and identity, has seen that process rolled over into identity politics, a quite different beast. People who once went toe to toe with each other now spend half an hour discussing whether Christian B and B owners should be allowed to exclude gay couples. It’s the strangest thing about NI.

No actually the strangest thing about NI, to be blunt, is that a country that lived and died on the rhythm of timer-based explosive devices and called-in warnings, still hasn’t mastered reliable clock-time at a mass level.

Others have pointed this out to me before, and I noticed it in the chemist, where the pharmacist insisted on checking every prescription “because we have to be sure” and then spent most of her time selling chocolate bars to old dears “How are you Mrs Kafoops? Oh tis not too grand outside today and all, how’s that daughter of yours…?”

Above her an enormous clock swept the ponderous hours one hour late, because no-one had bothered to adjust it for summer time. Four of six rail stations visited had not switched theirs an hour forward. The hotel’s wake up call for an essential taxi to an essential flight came fifteen minutes. “It’s not an exact science,” came the reply.

Still, stereotypes can be deceptive. “Do you, ummmmmm, have the morning after pill?” someone asked beside me. “Oh no” came the reply. “We’re sold out today. Try Boots.”

The different cultural sense of time and space, and their relation to each other has always underscored Anglo-Irish relations: the “Irish joke” — “if I was going there I wouldn’t start from here” expresses that disjuncture, initially of ruler and ruled, and now within Ireland itself, between its desire to be a hot advanced-industrial centre on the one hand, and Craic-dealers to Europe.

The hustings showed this split, with the “responsible” parties of both sides Social Democratic and Labour Party, Conservatives and Unionists (the new Ulster Unionist Party brand) and Sinn Fein often talking like the Norwegian aviation minister announcing new standards, while the various unionist factions further over in the spectrum talked a mix of pure nostalgia and fantasy for a gone world of unquestioned fealty.

Thus, for Traditional Unionist Voice, Unionist independence etc, every question came back to the revival of a pristine Ulster. How could the deficit be reduced? Close the cross-border commissions which cost so much money. Efficiency savings? Abolish the assembly. And so it goes.

Weirdly, NI’s stumbling approach to the religious apartheid of the 60s, the equality commissions and tribunals of the 70s has entrenched a process whereby those processes come to apply to a wide range of other groupings, never originally anticipated. Can you imagine what the frik Ian Paisley Snr would have said about gay couples at B and Bs if he’d turned up? And that’s a measure of how the place has changed.

“Why do we need an assembly? Why can we not have ministers chosen from our own representatives at Westminster? Are ours more stupid than the Scots or Welsh?” asked one anguished independent.

“Aye they are,” came the reply from the pews.

But whatever happens, the politics will not conform easily to the wider process. They simply don’t map. Which will make things interesting if, as looks increasingly possible, the Tories get around 300-310 seats, and can contemplate side deals with minor parties to gain support, bypassing the Lib-Dems entirely. A Con-SNP-SDLP-Kidderminster Hospital coalition anyone?

Strange place which wears its insides out. “Sorry that took so long” I said outside the chemists. “I spent most of my time trying not to ogle the schoolgirls.”

“Yeah my god aren’t they sluts,” said RG.

It was true. In this city still old-fashioned in so many ways, the schoolgirls dressed like casbah houris and weimar cabaret trash. Oblivious to all around them, they stalked the city centre, mascara and bra straps, through the scenes of ancient crimes in a city of wrong clocks. You’re welcome, you’re very welcome.

Peter Fray

Save 50% on a year of Crikey and The Atlantic.

The US election is in a little over a month. It seems that there’s a ridiculous twist in the story, almost every day.

Luckily for new Crikey subscribers, we’ve teamed up with one of America’s best publications, The Atlantic for the election race. Subscribe now to make sense of it all, and you’ll get a year of Crikey (usually $199) and a year’s digital subscription to The Atlantic (usually $70AUD), BOTH for just $129.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW