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Heat of election brings out the primitive side of politicians who appeared house-trained

The social media gaffes by Jim Wells and Naomi Bailie say a lot about our divided society, says Fionola Meredith

Remember David Trimble's controversial remark about republicans needing to be 'house-trained' before they could become true democrats? I was thinking about that phrase again this week after both the DUP's Jim Wells and Sinn Fein councillor Naomi Bailie made embarrassing messes on the floor. It all happened on social media, of course: the natural medium for verbal incontinence and unfortunate accidents.

Mr Wells got in to trouble for claiming that Sinn Fein election workers were 'not welcome' in the 'unionist town' of Rathfriland - "particularly on a Sunday". The tweet has since been deleted, but not before a row blew up about freedom, respect and the nature of democracy. After Arlene Foster decreed that "everyone should be allowed to canvass where they want", it was clear that Wells was being left to rail against the South Down Sunday Shinners on his own.

Before departing his role as Health Minister, Jim used to be quite the man in the DUP. His bellicose swaggering and proudly oppositional stance on issues such as abortion and prostitution played well. Now he is an increasingly isolated and erratic figure and his remarks frequently make him the butt of easy jokes.

Meanwhile, Sinn Fein's Naomi Bailie was apparently upset about a junior Orange parade in Bangor. Everything was going swimmingly - "nice weather, ice cream, pop-up market" - when suddenly: "Disaster! What should have been a lovely day for everyone just turned into a KultureFest session!" Ms Bailie was so outraged that she resolved "never in my life again go near that s***hole that is Bangor." She later admitted that her comments were inappropriate and withdrew them unreservedly.

Sinn Fein constantly seeks to present a front of inclusion, respect for all, and high moral principle. The party has long pursued this line of smug, socially-enlightened rhetoric, blithely unburdened by its past as apologists for politically-motivated murder. Essentially, SF has weaponised equality - indeed, Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams was once recorded saying that "the Trojan horse of the entire republican strategy is to reach out to people on the basis of equality". But they like to keep the Trojan horse itself well out of sight, perhaps in an obscure extra-large stable somewhere near the border.

Even the DUP is slowly beginning to realise the benefits of assuming a controlled stance rather than working themselves into a red-faced, undignified, intolerant tizzy, while republicans watch from the sidelines, looking on with lofty amusement and satisfaction as the unionists make eejits of themselves again. Both parties now know that it is unacceptable to be nakedly sectarian. A cannier game must be played.

But this week, those masks of acceptability slipped and exposed some ugly faces.

I'm prepared to believe Jim Wells's assertion that there were "many complaints about Sinn Fein canvassing in Rathfriland". Wells was just naive enough to tweet it. And we caught a rare glimpse of republican reality when Naomi Bailie gave vent to her feelings on Facebook. The 'KultureFest' reference was the big give-away - as though the Ku Klux Klan, flaming torches and all, had suddenly charged through the pop-up market, scattering artisanal ice-creams in their wake.

As we know all too well, there is a rump of people out there who see the whole world, but especially Northern Ireland, through the two-dimensional prism of sectarianism. Territory is crudely butchered up into 'unionist towns' and 'nationalist towns'. People can be legitimately despised because of what they are, not who they are. This retrograde 'us versus them' mentality which is constantly reaching for the political pitchforks is, of course, the fundamental reason why we now have a defunct and inoperable non-government at Stormont.

Heightened political tension makes these outbursts more likely. Back in 2000, when David Trimble made that remark about republicans, he had just rescued the Northern Irish peace process from yet another disaster, convincing the Ulster Unionists to back a deal to save the Good Friday Agreement and return to power-sharing. It was a precarious moment for him, and he clearly felt the need to invoke the power of the old sectarian codes.

Likewise, it's no coincidence that both Wells and Bailie lost the run of themselves when an election is imminent. In the uncertainty of the campaign, with all to play for and all to win or lose, deeply-rooted hostilities and fears spring up to the surface, and they are shared by many.

The two biggest parties may have largely learned to behave themselves in public. They are almost fully house-trained. But the events of this week show that the most primitive instincts can still prevail.

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