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Daithi McKay resignation over Jamie Bryson coaching claims: The critics may mock him, but Bryson has rocked the foundations of Stormont

Flag protester has been widely pilloried in the media, but as yesterday's revelations prove, he is a survivor and comeback kid who detractors write off at their own peril

By Ivan Little

Published 19/08/2016

Jamie Bryson at a flag protest outside Belfast City Hall
Jamie Bryson at a flag protest outside Belfast City Hall

The Jamie Bryson bashers were out of their blocks quicker than Usain Bolt yesterday to ridicule the true-blue flag protester who's found himself at the centre of a political minefield at Stormont over his odd-couple links to his former foes in Sinn Fein.

Within hours of the revelations that the Bangor-born blogger, who once refused to condemn the UVF, had been advised by an influential Sinn Fein figure and a party activist over his appearance in front of a Stormont committee last year, the cartoonists were poking fun at him. And a spoof Sinn Fein election poster with Bryson's face on it popped up online.

Yet the lisping loyalist, who used to be mercilessly mocked by mimics over his protests at the City Hall, wasn't getting many laughs among Sinn Fein supporters.

They watched stony-faced as their normally sure-footed party were completely wrong-footed by the storm over links between baby-faced Bryson and their erstwhile rising star Daithi McKay.

The Rasharkin man resigned after he admitted communicating with Bryson before he presented controversial evidence to the Stormont committee he chaired.

Bryson, who was once a Northern Ireland mascot at Windsor Park, may have failed to achieve his goal of getting the Union flag flying again at the City Hall, but the shock new revelations about him and McKay have rocked the very foundations of Stormont, where demands for inquiries by Assembly watchdogs and the PSNI into the affair yesterday reached fever pitch.

Even by the sometimes eyebrow-raising standards of political footballing here, the disclosures have been a game-changer of almost seismic proportions.

And it was inevitable that the main Sinn Fein player in the mismatch of the day - McKay - would quit and apologise for his "inappropriate, ill-advised and wrong" contacts after he was red-carded by his party for "coaching" Bryson in advance of the finance committee hearing into the Nama property scandal last September.

It was revealed yesterday that there had been exchanges between Bryson and McKay about how the loyalist should give his much-anticipated testimony to the committee.

It's hard to interpret the aim of the liaisons as anything other than to ensure that Bryson was able to name then First Minister Peter Robinson - who was supposedly working as an ally of Sinn Fein in government at the time - as having been involved in the Nama deal.

Yesterday's media accusations triggered a veritable volcano of reactions from the political parties, especially from Sinn Fein.

Martin McGuinness swiftly issued a statement saying that McKay should consider his position and, in a carefully choreographed move, the North Antrim MLA quit as Sinn Fein sources insisted he had been on a "solo run", which his party colleagues knew nothing about.

As for Bryson, whose mascot's outfit for Northern Ireland's Azerbaijan match at Windsor Park consisted of an outsized head in the shape of a football together with a pair of giant boots, he was initially defensive at the kick-off of yesterday's row.

But he showed little in the way of contrition, or embarrassment, for teaming up, no matter how briefly, with politicians who kick with the other foot and whose party he was not so long ago accusing of holding a gun to the head of democracy with a threat to return to violence if they didn't get their own way in government.

As the fast-changing story twisted and turned yesterday, ex-amateur footballer Bryson then put the boot into Sinn Fein for their "disgraceful" treatment of his "coach", saying they had thrown McKay to the wolves. And with language which could have come straight from Richard Nixon's Watergate accusers, Bryson said of the party: "This went to the very top. They knew."

Bryson has denied that he was a dupe for Sinn Fein and he's said that he won't co-operate with any inquiry into what has gone on.

But he's already found his old friends questioning his alliances. The TUV's Jim Allister, who spoke at flag protests, distanced himself from the blogger.

He said: "It's not something I'd have done, but I think Sinn Fein are more embarrassed, because they have been caught out as not being the players they pretend to be in the democratic process."

Bryson's own attempts at finding a foothold in that process haven't been impressive. He gained 167 votes in a local government poll in 2011.

But the next year it was the City Hall flag protest which catapulted him to prominence.

With a beanie hat on his head and a megaphone in his hand, he was soon leading the protests alongside victims' campaigner Willie Frazer, with whom he briefly fell out.

Bryson became a regular target for comedians, internet satirists and newspaper columnists, like me, who didn't always take him seriously. At one of his remand hearings in Belfast, Bryson approached me, but instead of complaining about the publicity, he said he loved it and encouraged me to write more about him - even if it was tongue-in-cheek.

For several months, it seemed that Bryson just couldn't keep out of the headlines. He was photographed claiming Jobseeker's Allowance before going to work in a taxi depot, where he said he worked on a voluntary basis.

And ever-defiant, the cocky Bryson said he was going to fight the European elections in 2014 - though he tried but failed to raise the money he needed for the deposit. A mickey-taking social media site launched a crowd-funding campaign for a make-believe rival to Bryson - a gorilla called Koko, who raised more money than the flag protester.

But people who were saying bye-bye Bryson were wrong. From out of the blue Bryson strolled up to Stormont last year to accuse Peter Robinson of corruption, delivering what's now known to have a pre-arranged script to the finance committee.

Bryson's evidence was quickly dismissed by the ex-First Minister as a pantomime. Now nearly 12 months on, the former DUP leader may just be relishing the fact that Daithi McKay's career appears to be behind him.

Belfast Telegraph

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