Magazine article The Spectator

Lonely Hearts, Open Minds

Magazine article The Spectator

Lonely Hearts, Open Minds

Article excerpt

BROWSING through the lonely-hearts section of the Belfast Telegraph as the politicians made their latest tortuous manoeuvrings, I felt more optimistic about the political situation than for many months. In the chorus of the dispossessed - people yearning to share the good things in life with someone who is honest and caring and has their own house and car - I could hear the still, small voice of peace. For ten exhilarating minutes, as I travelled through the city-centre in a taxi, it was the eternal acronyms of love - TLC, GSOH, NS, WLTM - that echoed in my ears, while those other acronyms that have rung through Northern Ireland's history - IRA, RUC, UVF, INLA - seemed like distant rumblings. The silent majority had spoken. They had made clear their priorities. Things were going to be all right.

Is Mr Adams lonely? Could Mr Trimble fit the bill as a professional man, 50-60, physically and financially fit? Does Dr Paisley hanker for a curvaceous female, recently widowed, who likes walking and going to the cinema? Is Mr McGuinness in the market for a broadminded woman seeking fun, friendship and frolics? Then let them read, as I did, this testament to the human spirit. As the lovelorn bleated their lunatically detailed demands - for slim, sporty women who cared about the environment, for men aged between 45 and 54 with a good sense of humour - it was like a spontaneous outburst of sanity.

Never was the gulf between the politicians and the people they serve so apparent. Never did the common sense of the people of Northern Ireland shine through so strongly. For it was what was not there that was so striking. Accustomed to the Capulets-and-Montagues rhetoric of the province, I had expected at least a subtext of sectarian distrust.

The sort of people who advertise in these columns the world over are notoriously picky. Their romantic wish-lists stretch out to the crack of doom. If female, they want a man who is sensitive and athletically built and in his early thirties and a non-smoking vegetarian. If male, they want a woman who is vivacious and slender and a cat-lover and a sagittarian and a member of the Ramblers' Association. Later, after much haggling, they may moderate their demands. She amends `athletically built' to include a beer belly. He decommissions his cat. But their opening gambits are implacable. They draft their manifestos as fastidiously as any politician.

Where, then, was what one would have expected in the lonely-hearts column of a Belfast newspaper? Pickiness on the most thorny issue of all? Advertisers are debarred by law from demanding that suitors for their hearts must be of a particular religious persuasion. But there is nothing to stop them referring, en passant, to their own religious persuasion; and I expected a significant number to avail themselves of the opportunity. Not a bit of it. Of 69 female advertisers, just seven included 'Protestant' in their description of themselves; not one put 'Catholic'. Of 153 male advertisers, there were 11 'Protestants' and two 'Catholics'. On this evidence, freely tendered under the same conditions of secrecy as the ballot-box, more people in Northern Ireland care whether their partners smoke than care about their religion or politics.

I pointed out my findings to the taxidriver, who was very amused, particularly by the fact that 'Protestant' or 'P' was more common than the Catholic equivalent. …

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