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Opinion

What a row over Tayto crisps tells us about general election and the politics of distraction

Forget diversion plots, we need real-deal politicians

TUV leader Jim Allister has been tilting at crisps, unnecessarily. Image: MARK MARLOW/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

In Northern Ireland, they’re arguing over crisps. Stay with me, this is going somewhere.

While it may be a massive leap forward from armoured cars and tanks and guns, an argument over crisps, on the face of it, is a curious one. And it’s not even about the best flavour. There is a stooshie brewing because a flavouring additive needed to create smokiness in smoky bacon crisps (and presumably other smoky-related items) is being banned under EU regulations.

There are toxicity concerns over eight of these flavourings. And due to NI’s position as agreed within the Windsor Framework, that thorny post-Brexit legal agreement between the EU and the UK, many EU rules still apply in Northern Ireland. There is a flipside benefit to this as it allows Northern Ireland access to the EU single market for goods, unlike the rest of the UK.

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An issue with the flavouring hoo-hah comes with Tayto, the crisp manufacturer, a company with semi-mythical cult status in Northern Ireland. Tayto is an engrained part of the identity, like Irn Bru or the Grand National. Every schoolkid growing up waited for the day they’d get a trip to Tayto Castle. 

Tayto, if the smoky flavouring story is correct, would have to work out another way to make their smoky bacon crisps. (Incidentally, this should be no hardship. Smoky bacon is far from the best Tayto flavour.)

You’d imagine a pause on a foodstuff over toxicity concerns was a good thing. You’d be wrong. Jim Allister is furious. Allister is leader of the TUV (Traditional Unionist Voice), a party for whom the DUP is too wet and liberal. Jim is venting. “EU micro-managing and interference knows no limits when it reaches as far as dictating that Tayto in NI must stop producing smoky bacon crisps,” he thundered.

It’s down to what he calls the “iniquitous protocol”. That’s the Windsor Framework, which, remember, allows people in NI to have the best of both worlds. A good thing. NO! says Jim. “The fact that the government and its dud deal with the DUP does nothing to address such madness underscores the stranglehold that the EU is allowed to have over a proclaimed part of the UK.”

Jim is something of the Farage of NI politics – born of the establishment, but projecting as anti-establishment, raging about anything vaguely related to the EU, keen to bring down the bigger right-wing, pro-Union party. In fact, the TUV and Farage’s Reform have an electoral pact. There’s another similarity. While both trade on broad-stroke anger, both suffer under scrutiny.

In this case, it isn’t clear if Tayto actually use any of the banned list flavouring. Jim is tilting at crisps, unnecessarily. But I suppose, for some in the political game, it doesn’t matter, because as we see increasingly in election time, noise and attention is more vital a political juice that truth and clarity. Which makes it ever more important that we stand up and challenge. 

Jim and his crisps are a MacGuffin, a device employed in many films to make us think initially they are important but really they’re of decreasing consequence, and are duping us as the real focus is propelled forward. Frequently we get caught in the MacGuffin, but we need to stay alert and ask questions and demand better. 

I don’t believe every politician is the same. I don’t think, to use that angry phrase, they’re all as bad as each other. 

But I do think every politician should be scrutinised. And if they stand up to it, if their plans are real and deal with the issues so many bruised and battered people feel – particularly in terrible outcomes in housing or health – then those hammering hot with their MacGuffin can be set aside. Let’s see how that goes in the next few weeks.

Incidentally, the best crisp flavour is clearly Tayto cheese and onion. Put that in a manifesto.

Paul McNamee is editor of the Big IssueRead more of his columns here. Follow him on Twitter.

A version of this article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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