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Basic respect for others extends to our politicians too

By Gail Walker

Published 28/04/2015

Jim Wells
Jim Wells

After the online bullying of SDLP Fermanagh-South Tyrone candidate John Coyle, the resignation statement of Health Minister Jim Wells raised the issue again.

While Wells later apologised for his assertion that neglect and abuse of children were more likely in the care of same-sex couples, conceding that it was groundless, it unleashed what he called "deeply personal, nasty and in some cases threatening" and "particularly abusive and menacing" comments online.

This element of his statement has not received the same coverage as the issue which brought matters to a head, or the family pressures he also cited.

News of his remarks was first made known online from people present at the hustings in Downpatrick and were met with many strong rebuttals.

Politicians don't figure highly in the public's sympathies. They do set themselves up for attack as they seek to progress in public life and we are all well-used to robust exchanges.

But there are choices to be made regarding how one reacts to anyone's political, or social, views.

What is clear is that the fact Wells was Minister for Health and, particularly, because he was a member of the DUP, made him "fair game" for all manner of comment, including some he considered to be menacing to him and his family.

One of the posts which I saw myself suggested that Wells "needs to be dead". Another made callous jokes about his seriously ill wife.

Now, we have entered a political world where debate has progressed considerably from the mindless catcalling of the past. Politicians here have done what we asked them to do - stop the killing, lead from the front, do the deal.

Yes, there remains plenty that the public could say about many of our political representatives, regarding past lives. There is plenty that our politicians could say about each other, and may already have done across the table. Much of all of it would be true.

But most of it remains unsaid and for very good reasons. One of those is that people put themselves forward in public life out of the best intentions. In Northern Ireland, people of all political parties know the challenges that such a stand presents them with. Political life in Northern Ireland is fraught with risks far greater than those faced elsewhere in these islands.

There isn't a Sinn Fein candidate, for instance, who won't have to take very deep breaths before knocking on doors in certain constituencies; but that is the duty of democracy. You have no means of knowing what life - or death - story lies up that garden path, or up those flights of stairs; but those steps must be taken.

Likewise, while there will always be "safe" areas for DUP candidates also, there will be similar challenges to be faced, especially when social or political views tend to differ widely and deeply here.

And the issue which Wells' comments highlighted is indeed deeply divisive, here as in the Republic, which is facing a referendum on it shortly.

There isn't much, if anything, in what Wells said, even wrongly, on Thursday that wasn't echoed by the Catholic Church on Sunday in the diocesan letter from Bishop Treanor to the parishioners of his Down and Connor diocese.

Characterising Wells as a Protestant fundamentalist fascist because of his views on equal marriage is easy, but nonetheless a parody. Like it or not, the opinions he articulated are shared across the religious divide; just, indeed, as contrary views are.

None who holds those views deserves to be threatened, especially by anonymous digital loudmouths.

The divisions in our society run across every conceivable political and moral stress line. Sometimes, it's amusing how our society gets compared by idle middle-class Tweeters and Facebookers, who should know better, with neighbouring societies which haven't experienced daily bombings, shootings, distressing incidents to the accompaniment of armed police and rogue paramilitaries. Where do they think we are living? Switzerland?

Every politician elected has a mandate. That simple fact, taken for granted in other democratic countries, has to be hammered home here time and time again because it is the very founding principle of the peace process. It's not up for being side-stepped, or bullied, or threatened out of existence.

As it is, Jim Wells has apologised and resigned. We should wish him and his family well in the human challenges which face them.

And we should all learn, in the words of Seamus Heaney, to govern our tongues.

Belfast Telegraph

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