SUNDAY 21 JULY  2024


I support a united Ireland Michelle but I doubt you can achieve it in 10 years

 FIRST MINISTER: Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill

People seemed to be surprised when Michelle O’Neill, the new First Minister at Stormont, said she believed that Ireland would be reunited within 10 years. Why the surprise? She is a Sinn Fein politician, ergo she is a republican. It doesn’t mean that she will not be doing her job representing all, as she said in her acceptance speech, ‘I will serve everyone equally whatever their beliefs. Let’s walk this two-way street and meet one another halfway.’


But is she right that reunification will happen within a decade? While I hope and believe it inevitable that it will happen, my guess is more like 20 years. I hope I’m wrong because the separation of six of the nine counties of the province of Ulster on May 2, 1921 was a ridiculous artifice aimed at keeping nationalists (mostly Catholic) apart from unionists (mostly Protestant.)


The six counties had a majority Protestant population because over the previous four centuries they had been ‘planted’ there by successive Protestant monarchs. And the Free State, as the republic was known then, had little industry, was an agrarian land dominated by the Church and became more so when Eamon De Valera (a New Yorker by birth) was elected, first Taoiseach and then President. He wanted nothing to do with the North and never stepped foot on its soil.


How different it is today; the Republic’s economy is buoyant and the Church holds little sway. Tourism is a huge contributor to the economy and the shackles on birth control, abortion and gay marriage are long gone. Much the same applies to the North; it is a leading IT centre and as the location for the filming of Game of Thrones has given birth to a sector of its own in the tourist trade.


Most important, peace after the wretched bloodshed of the Troubles, has brought a huge dividend. Sinn Fein is now the largest party in the province and there are as many people identifying as Catholic as Protestant. The two entities on the island of Ireland have never seemed more alike.


So why do I think reunification will take more than 10 years? First, there needs to be a majority throughout the island and I suggest that there are many in the Republic who, for the moment, would rather leave things be. Understandably they believe that as a thriving European economy, taking in the six counties of the North might, indeed probably would, be too much of a shot in the dark. And that it might spark a return to violence, this time from unionist paramilitaries? 


Then there is the factor that Catholics in the North, far from being the poorest of the poor they once were, are now better off. In fact a majority of millionaires in the province are Catholic according to a survey by the Belfast Telegraph.


There are many other considerations: there is no NHS in the Republic (though you could argue there’s not much of a one in the North) and education would have to be aligned. Schools in Northern Ireland are in the main superb and, thanks to the grammar school system, they are mostly free. In the Republic the leading schools are fee paying and are expensive. I also think that a simple majority victory might be unwise, much better to be sure (to be sure to be sure) with a 60 per cent victory so there can be no doubt.


I was born into a Protestant Irish family going back hundreds of years and educated at a  brilliant independent school founded by the Methodist church which now has a majority of its pupils identifying as Catholic


I dearly want to see reunification in my lifetime but with so many hurdles to overcome before a referendum can be put I fear it will come after I’ve toddled off. And that saddens me.



It seems to be the season for rewriting history, at least as far as Coco Chanel is concerned. The New Look, a 10-part series on Apple TV begins tonight and explores the rivalry between Chanel and Christian Dior while the V&A is running a huge retrospective on Chanel and her revolution in women’s fashion. What neither does sufficiently is to point up her time as a numbered Nazi agent. So let me fill in the gaps which I discovered while researching for my book on the brave Allied spy Toto Koopman and her former friend Chanel.


Chanel was born illegitimate and raised in a children’s home in Correze, Central France, run by nuns, where she learned to sew. She worked for a time in a sweat shop and sang in night clubs. And that is where she met her first rich boyfriend, Etienne Balsan. From him she upgraded to a polo-playing English aristo, Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel. It was her entrée to the British upper class, many of whom were unreservedly anti-Semitic, most of all the stupendously rich second Duke of Westminster, Hugh Grosvenor.


Chanel  became his chatelaine until 1929 by which time she was almost as rich as he was thanks to her fashion empire and the eponymous Chanel No 5 scent. She was the darling of English society with Churchill in thrall to her.  


Then along came Hans Gunther von Dincklage, ostensibly another playboy, albeit a German one, but really a leading member of Hitler’s spy unit, the Abwehr, and working in Paris. When Paris fell in 1940, leading Nazis took over the Paris Ritz though one person was allowed to keep her permanent suite. Chanel lived there throughout the war and became Agent F7124, codename Agent Westminster.


 So why when liberation came for the French was she not prosecuted, at the very least for being a ‘horizontal collaborator’ as 200,000 other French women were? They had their heads shaved, a swastika stamped on their chests and made to parade in shame through the streets. Though she twice appeared in court charged with collaboration she was never punished, instead she stayed in her Ritz apartment until her old lover Westminster sent her an urgent message ‘Don’t lose a minute, get out of France.’


Three hours later she was on her way, her Cadillac full of the petrol no one else could find and she decamped in neutral Switzerland where von Dincklage soon joined her.


So enough of the feting of this great designer, let’s have the unvarnished truth which I hope will be seen in a proposed TV series based on my book. She was a wrong’un, a nasty piece of work, as simple as that.



My esteemed colleague Roger Watkins writes in the Drone of his schooldays with that great Welsh rugby stalwart Keith Jarrett. His memory seems a happy one. I, on the other hand, was at school with the Ireland and Lions scrum half Roger Young. He was head boy of my house and as such was allowed to punish miscreants like me. So after some minor misdemeanour (I can’t remember what) on my part, I was summoned to the small red-brick house where house prefects gathered and was given six of the best, whacked on the bum with a leather slipper.


I spoke to him a few years ago and Young, now living in splendour on South Africa’s Cape didn’t remember it. Well, I bloody did...



I’m a monarchist in so far as I can’t think of a better alternative. President Gove anyone or President Rayner? No I didn’t think so.


But what a ludicrous volume of gush we have had in the last few days following the King’s diagnosis of cancer. The Mail, never to be outdone, led the way on Tuesday with 11 pages and headlines like ‘Get well soon your Majesty, your country needs you’ and ‘He waited so long to be King, and now this.’


The next day it was seven pages and included Liz Jones unexpectedly masquerading as Barbara Castle. The headline on this tosh was ‘Charles, we need you to be OK so that we’re OK.’ Not to be beaten the Telegraph, which should know better, ran a piece by its royal editor who wrote ‘In a matter of hours yesterday the royal family’s world shifted on its axis, and Britain with it.’  


Man, 75, has cancer. I wish him well as I do all those suffering this awful disease.


(You can kiss goodbye to a knighthood – Ed)  



9 February 2024



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