I’m sure it was not the way Sinn Féin imagined the start to a new year. Looking forward to a special Árd Fhéis in early February and the election of a new leader to usher in a new phase the last thing for which they could have wished was the public uproar following the Barry McElduff ‘selfie’ faux pas.
Barry is not the first, nor shall he be the last, to fall foul of the new technologies that facilitate us to instantly broadcast to the entire world how we are looking, or what we are doing, in a particular moment.
However, often what may seem like a great idea at the time (especially after that second bottle of wine) can all too often appear somewhat differently in the cold (sober) light of dawn.
I don’t know Barry well. In fact I’ve only ever met him on a couple of occasions at social gatherings but he has not struck me as someone who is inherently sectarian in his words or behaviour.
On the other hand it seems to me certain Unionists go out to be deliberately provocative.
Barry has always struck me as the type of guy who likes to ‘act the clown’, to take the piss out of himself and subvert the stuffiness that is often present in political institutions and it takes a wise man to act the fool.
In terms of his recent actions, which, understandably prompted such a furore, there are only two positions you can take in regards to his behaviour. One is that, being Barry, he spontaneously stuck a loaf of bread on his head, oblivious to the fact of what company had produced it, and tweeted the photo to get a laugh – Barry taking the piss out of himself yet again.
William Crawley, presenting ‘Talk Back’ on BBC Radio Ulster last week, said that he had spoken to several unionists who privately accepted that version of events. The other interpretation to take of his actions is that he deliberately set out to offend the relatives of those killed at Kingsmills and that he knew exactly what he was doing.
I opt for the former explanation; not because I think we should close ranks when a friend or comrade does something she or he shouldn’t have done, but because the thought that Barry would have consciously performed such an act with the specific intent to cause hurt is so anti-republican, and so much against everything for which we stand, that it is unthinkable.
I know that relatives of those killed in Kingsmills and many others, will find it impossible to believe that what Barry did was anything other than deliberate and the fact that it happened on the anniversary of the killings will be taken as confirmation of that. I know that if the situation were reversed I’d equally find it very difficult to believe otherwise. However, as the Irish author John McGahern once wrote, “Fiction has to be believable; real life often isn’t.”
Sinn Féin moved swiftly in the aftermath of the social media posting and a committee met to consider Barry’s actions. What puzzles me, however, is how they regarded his explanation and how they then responded. If they accepted that what he had done was simply another one of his boyish antics (that unfortunately had unforeseen and totally unintended and painful consequences), then the outcome would surely have been to state that, stand by him, and impose no sanctions. If the committee believed, on the other hand, that his actions were deliberately intended to hurt then he should have been instantly expelled from from the party.
However, the committee arrived at neither of those outcomes but Barry was suspended for three months. Why? Was it because it was regarded as unseemly that a sitting MP should take a selfie with a loaf of bread on his head? If so, watch out other members of the party, including some senior ones, who regularly send out tweets which which other party members often feel uncomfortable. Or was there the feeling that the party had to be seen to be doing something, taking some action, even if they fully believed in Barry’s innocence. In an excellent article in Slugger O’Toole entitled, ‘Lets not kid ourselves that we’re supporting victims’ (see link at the bottom of this article), the author writes;
“All silence is deemed uncaring so politicians add their voice, and which way are they going to go? The force is so great that it becomes a PR disaster to resist it and swim against the flow, so even Sinn Fein swim with it and eventually sideways with a wrap on Barry’s wrists.”
But the wrap didn’t work, and was never going to. It is not difficult to understand how the relatives of those killed at Kingsmills and other observers, regarded the sanctions imposed as meaningless and actually adding insult to injury. It is also not difficult to understand how the party felt they needed to respond to the demands of others even if they (the committee) did not regard those demands as being warranted and/or justified. To deliver a punishment is to recognise that a crime/misdemeanour has been committed and if Barry McElduff was being punished for something other then deliberately intending to cause hurt, what was it?
Such questions are irrelevant now. Opponents of Sinn Féin, both north and south, smelt blood and the issue of whether Barry McElduff intended to cause hurt or not was no longer an issue; it was taken that he did intend it, or certainly it was not being questioned, and what followed was a recounting of what happened at Kingsmills in South Armagh on that night in 1976.
No reasonable person could be anything other than deeply moved by the account given by the sole survivor of that attack, Alan Black.
It is not to trade ‘what-about-ery’, or to be callous, but unfortunately we have all too many people who can tell similar tales, whether it is the survivors of the Miami massacre, the Ballymurphy massacre, the Shankill Butchers and so on and so on. Each community has its collection of stories. I know, because I’ve worked with people to facilitate them tell those stories.
Barry McElduff, probably in the interests of the party, decided to resign his seat. I listened to Gregory Campbell on the radio refer to this as an example of ‘victim power’. If it is, then it must be the only demonstration of power that victims/survivors have as they have been campaigning for years to be treated decently and justly, without success. Even something so simple as a pension for the small number still alive and living with their injuries has been repeatedly blocked – and the DUP is one of the parties blocking the payment. As the article in Slugger O’Toole said, “Lets not kid ourselves that we’re supporting victims.”
It’s not just the DUP but southern politicians too; political opponents of Sinn Féin who seek to make hay while the sun shines (for them), who are treating victims/survivors in such a manner. The difference between what they are deliberately and consciously doing, compared to what Barry McElduff did, is exactly that – deliberate and conscious. When the media moves on to another story their interest in victims’ issues, if it ever existed, will be quickly dropped.
I’ve listened to unionist politicians down through the years regularly and openly insult the nationalist, republican community in the most crass, crude, obnoxious manner possible – including reference to innocents killed, be it Bloody Sunday or elsewhere – without ever an apology, a statement of regret, or a wrap on the knuckles from their party leaders.
Indeed, it was the very leader of the largest unionist party in the north, Arlene Foster, who just a year ago, very deliberately, and consciously said in a public address, “You don’t feed a crocodile; it only comes back to bite you.”
In the aftermath of the Barry McElduff incident she now lectures that it is time for Sinn Féin “to learn the lessons from these dark events and to deal with the fact that it, and many of its individual members, continue to publicly glorify the murderous deeds of the past.” Possibly with this new-found mantle of high morality that unionists, and others, are claiming in regards to holding public office, we can expect them to respond in a similar manner to Barry McElduff the next time one of them feels it ok to, deliberately or accidentally, insult those who do not share his or her political, religious, cultural, or social outlook. I wouldn’t be holding my breath. As the article in Slugger O’Toole stated, “let’s not kid ourselves that we’re supporting victims’ families.