A confession: I am an inveterate reader of problem pages. Recently, one letter described how a wronged wife was struggling to come to terms with her husband's years of infidelity.
He vowed to turn his back on his bad old ways, and wanted to move on, together. She found that the pain of the infidelity was too great, and she just could not trust him. In turn, the husband complained that he felt hurt by her lack of trust. After all, he had made the right decision, hadn't he?
What a mess. Oddly enough, I was reminded of that letter again this week, following the row over DUP MLA Jim Wells' remarks to Sinn Fein Culture Minister Caral Ni Chuilin, and her then special adviser, Mary McArdle.
Ms Ni Chuilin claimed that Mr Wells spoke to her in an “angry, venomous and intimidating” manner. Some weeks later Ms McArdle alleged that Mr Wells said “there’s the murderer herself” as he passed her in a Stormont corridor, a remark that she considered a verbal assault. Mr Wells said that he did not call Ms McArdle a murderer, but used the phrase “monster adviser”.
The Assembly Commissioner for Standards upheld the two women's complaints, but Mr Wells refused to apologise. This week, following a classic sectarian carve-up, in which the entire unionist and nationalist blocs reverted to the tribal solidarity vote, he avoided the censure of being excluded from the Assembly for seven days.
So what's the link with the infidelity letter? Well, it seems to me that Sinn Fein is akin to the straying husband, now committed to matrimonial harmony. He is hurt and outraged because his wife refuses to forget what he's done in the past, and keeps casting it up to him.
This is exactly the way that Sinn Fein are behaving over Wells' remarks. In an almost farcically self-righteous response, Caitriona Ruane said that the comments were “about anti-Catholicism, sectarianism and misogyny”, adding that Sinn Fein “will not tolerate bullying behaviour, we won't tolerate inequality ...and we won't tolerate anyone being treated as a second class citizen”.
Hang on a minute, Caitriona, before you get completely carried away by the sheer force of your own complacent moral piety. Jim Wells may have been guilty of rude, aggressive, inflammatory behaviour. I — like many people — find his personal stance on issues like gay rights, or abortion, repugnant, ignorant and extreme.
But the fact remains that what he said, in this case, was true.
Take away the bluster and the blether and the foolish finger wagging, and you're left with the cold, undeniable reality. Mary McArdle was convicted for her part in the 1984 murder of magistrate's daughter Mary Travers. Mary (22) was shot and killed as she left Mass with her father.
Mr Wells called Ms McArdle a monster adviser. She was indeed guilty of a monstrous act.
Stormont — and the so-called ‘peace process' as a whole — only works because we have collectively decided to turn a blind eye to the gross iniquities of the past. That's the deal, we all know it: politicians, media interviewers, the often-invoked dogs in the street. If we hadn't made this enormous, unspoken pact of silence, the machinery of government — already sluggish — would grind to a complete halt, choked by accusation and counter-accusation. The alternative is to embrace TUV-world: no workable political answers, but plenty of splenetic fury. At his party conference last Saturday, Jim Allister ranted colourfully but ineffectually about Martin McGuinness being the “personification of evil”. Very few of us have the appetite to join Jim's punitive yet powerless one man band.
That doesn't mean, though, that we're happy to indulge blatant sanctimoniousness from republicans either. It sticks in the craw to hear Ms McArdle complain that being called a murderer was a verbal assault on her.
Likewise, it is profoundly offensive, and more than a little absurd, to hear Caitriona Ruane cry misogyny and anti-catholicism when McArdle was involved in the murder of a young woman as she walked home from Mass.
Sinn Fein regularly lays claim to the secular, rights-based higher moral ground, leaving the holy variety to the DUP enthusiasts, but in this case they are wilfully deluding themselves. It is enough that we have moved on from the foul acts of the anguished past. To mask them with the language of freedom, respect and equality is a step too far.