OPINION: I’m glad I’m in Ulster and not Brazil

Sammy Wilson MP
Sammy Wilson MP

Over the next six weeks I imagine that domestic bliss in many households will be shattered as family members wrangle over ownership of the remote control for the TV.

At the risk of being accused of gender stereotyping, while tens of thousands of males switch to the channels showing World Cup matches their wives, sisters, girlfriends will be plotting ways of escaping from the relentless invasion of the beautiful game into their homes.

Having the luxury of living by myself, no such conflict will occur in my house but then having little interest in football I wouldn’t have been trying to monopolise the TV in order to watch endless games of football nor will I be sitting up half the night to see the games.

If Northern Ireland had got through then out of a sense of patriotism I would have broken my love affair with the garden and given up green fingered pursuits to watch the boys in green but given our national team’s record I think there is little chance of that at any time in the future. Anyhow, I think I put the scud on them, since they always seem to be doing ok up to the time I turn on the TV to watch them.

However, in the run-up to the World Cup I have been fascinated by some of the programmes shown about Brazil: the investment in the infrastructure for the games undertaken by the government, the protests which there have been about the amount of spending on the stadia, the actions taken to deal with lawlessness in the areas around the stadia and the economic contrasts in the world’s fifth biggest economy.

It’s a country I knew very little about, and whilst I have a sceptical view of the ability of the media to give a balanced picture on any issue, behind all the glitz of this global event with all its razzamatazz, its pampered super rich players and the multi-billion pound industry which football has become, there is a dark side to the games.

Protestors have already clashed with the police as they express their anger about the £7bn which the Brazilian government has spent on the tournament, while within the shadow of the new, expensive grounds, thousands live in hovels with open drains running through narrow alleys, 10 people living in one room, no running water and neighbourhoods dominated by violence drug-dealing gangs.

One particularly disturbing documentary showed young girls – some only 11 years of age – selling themselves as prostitutes around the expensive hotels in which the fans and teams will be staying, while the police turned a blind eye to, or, in some cases, colluded in the trade.

Some of the children had been brought there by gangs from villages in the countryside where the strongest exploit the weak, throwing them off their land, destroying the environment with illegal logging or mining and the authorities are unable or unwilling to act. Some were forced into prostitution because they or their parents owe money for drugs.

One good impact of the international attention which the World Cup has brought is that the government has tried to gain control of some of the slums and armed police have taken on the gangs, forcing them out and bringing more normal life to some of these areas which have seen 3,000 people killed by gangs in the last year.

Building contractors have been accused of using virtual slave labour to build the stadia which we will see on our TV screens, showing little regard for the lives of the workforce – scores of whom have died in the push to construct the arenas in time. This is the dark side of this showcase event.

As I watched these disturbing documentaries I contrasted our experience in Northern Ireland with life for many in Brazil where safety nets for the poor and the exploited don’t exist. Sure we have many problems which we cannot ignore and need to address. However, we do live in a society where the rule of law exists, the police enforce the law and are accountable for their actions.

Significant public spending is directed towards providing decent housing, schools hospitals, etc; neighbourhoods are safe and crime is relatively low; workers are protected through minimum wage legislation and other workplace rights: things which we take for granted but which even in a relatively rich and growing economy such as Brazil are not universally available.

We have become accustomed to moaning about our lot, encouraged by a cynical and negative media.

We don’t live in a perfect country but we do have a government which has given priority to dealing with the issues affecting peoples’ lives.

Under the direction of Nelson McCausland, the DSD minister, a record number of 2,000 houses for low income families were built last year.

Nearly 11,000 new jobs were announced by Arlene Foster, the DETI minister, in the last 12 months.

Students fees have been pegged at £3,300 in order to encourage as many young people as possible to get a higher education qualification.

A record number of apprenticeships have been financed to give young people the opportunity to gain skills which make them employable.

Despite the bad publicity about the health service, since Edwin Poots has taken over thousands have been taken off the waiting list, hundreds more have been given free access to life-saving drugs, and record numbers of nurses are now employed.

We might not have the South American sunshine, we mightn’t even have a team in the World Cup let alone the buzz of the tournament being played in our country but I’m still glad I’m not in Brazil, I’m in Northern Ireland.

* Sammy Wilson is MP for East Antrim