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Sinn Fein winding up unionists with a ban on humour

By Ruth Dudley Edwards

Sinn Fein are just so good at winding us up," said a unionist friend the other day. "I'm nervous about the next few weeks."

This week's Winding-up-the-Prods Award goes to the Sinn Fein team of Mid-Ulster councillors, with a special badge of excellence being awarded to Councillor Cathal Mallaghan, who last month seized yet another opportunity to alienate unionists.

SDLP councillor Christine McFlynn had moved a reasonable motion about an issue which concerns many in all parties, calling for a multi-agency approach to bring to an end the illegal and dangerous practice of burning tyres at bonfires.

Lots of good people in councils and voluntary organisations have been labouring away to educate young people about the health hazards of toxic fumes from tyre-burning, so this was a motion likely to pass unanimously.

And then Councillor Mallaghan introduced an amendment that included a demand that flags, posters and effigies should be removed from bonfire sites on council property.

Last year, his colleague, Councillor John McNamee, had reported to the police that Sinn Fein electoral posters were being removed in the town and placed on bonfires; he had called on unionist councillors to "have the posters and symbols of nationalism removed".

I've no problem with him complaining about stolen property. If you want to burn political material, buy or make your own. But he should have restricted himself to that.

But what Councillor Mallaghan has achieved this year goes much wider than that. To ban the burning of effigies, or symbols, is an outright attack on free expression - a long-standing cultural tradition, a useful safety valve and a bit of fun.

In other parts of the UK, quite apart from the burning of Lundy (who may or may not be innocent) and Guy Fawkes, whom many disgruntled critics of parliament believe should have been allowed to get on with the job, Lewes in Sussex annually pulls through its streets enormous effigies of their least-favourite people before setting fire to them.

The line-up is nothing if not diverse and has included Osama bin Laden, George W Bush, Colonel Gaddafi, President Assad, Kim Jong-un, Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin.

Nor have local politicians been ignored. Home Secretary Charles Clarke was burned in 2005 because of his proposals for compulsory identity cards, David Cameron and Nick Clegg were targeted in 2010 and last year Alex Salmond joined the illustrious list with two effigies. The public turn up in large numbers and laugh.

Clarke, Cameron and Clegg and their supporters appear not to have raised an eyebrow - let alone a fuss - but cybernats complained to the police about Salmond, and forced the removal of his effigies.

Salmond himself was merely amused, describing himself as being "in pretty good company" with Merkel and adding that if the Tories in East Sussex "think that is a good thing to do it is up to them".

Quite. That's what mature politicians do. But Sinn Fein are made of more sensitive stuff and their feelings are easily hurt. If they had a vestige of a sense of humour, the party would present some election posters to the bonfire organisers and invite them to be their guest. That would do wonders for community relations.

But no. Bonfires, like everything else, are a potential weapon and, in this case, have the added bonus of setting bonfire-organisers against council officials and police.

There are 40 Mid-Ulster councillors, of whom 18 are Sinn Fein and six SDLP.

Unfortunately, as happens so often, the SDLP gets dragged along in the bigoted wake of republicans. So, the amendment passed and unionists were duly wound up.

This had come in the wake of a number of mean-spirited and anti-unionist initiatives on Mid-Ulster Council. All flags have been banned from council buildings, which means the Union flag no longer flies on designated days, no emblems may be sold on council property, which sees off poppies, and "uk" has been removed from council website names.

Oddly enough, Sinn Fein's party policy of neutral council spaces did not preclude them from nominating their general election candidate and their manifesto at two separate events on council property.

Just another example of "Do what I say, not what I do".

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