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Daft joke was embarrassing for SF ... even if MPs don't matter in their political world

By Tom Kelly

As PR gaffes go Barry McElduff's is in a league of its own for sheer stupidity. However, given he has made an art form out of making ill-judged and cringeworthy comments on social media, it's not going to be career-threatening.

When jewellery boss Gerald Ratner gave a speech in 1991 about his business he unwittingly told his customer base that he sold cheap crap. The bottom literally fell out of his business.

Anyone who shopped at Ratner's knew that quality was not the hallmark of the Ratner offer, but being told it was tacky tat by the man who was selling it was a step too far. Ratner sank himself.

About 25 years ago when a very maverick independent councillor was chairman of the then Newry and Mourne District Council, I led a group of disgruntled Housing Executive residents to a council meeting.

The chairman, to much laughter, rebuked the residents and me by remarking that how could a man of my intelligence with "A-levels, O-levels and spirit levels have the audacity to make a case against the Housing Executive when he with his limited intelligence could see there was no case!"

I thanked the chairman for his remarks, some of which I agreed with, in particular his reference to his "limited intelligence".

The chamber erupted with howls of laughter. The chairman demanded an apology. The then Sinn Fein leader on the council, the late Jim McAllister, remarked: "Chairman, you were condemned by your own words - there'll be no apology."

A week later the chairman joined a protest with the very residents he had ridiculed at the council meeting.

Few could do a volte face as effortlessly as the late Eugene Markey. He could weather any storm.

Ratner re-imaged himself as an after dinner speaker and Markey served several terms as council chairman. Both proving that it is possible to recover from damaging self-inflicted harm.

Last weekend, Barry McElduff, the MP for West Tyrone, confirmed his position as the clown prince of Sinn Fein. No one forced the honourable member to place a loaf of Kingsmill bread on his head and then put it on social media. He did it all by himself.

McElduff is a jocular figure who likes a joke. This time the joke backfired spectacularly. In a party renowned for self-discipline, McElduff is high risk. He is never off social media and has pedigree in being off message too.

Even if you were to be generous to McElduff and believed that choosing a Kingsmill loaf from amongst all the available bread brands on the anniversary of the Kingsmill massacre was purely an unfortunate set of coincidences - it still begs the question why is a MP exposing himself to ridicule by balancing a loaf on his head and making a YouTube video in the first place?

The really interesting aspect was the Sinn Fein reaction to McElduff. Social media was quite muted. He clearly had embarrassed them. It became a party-wide issue when it was apparent that former Finance Minister Mairtin O'Muilleoir re-tweeted it.

Then realising that this was a firestorm, Sinn Fein's chairman, the serious and considered Declan Kearney, described McElduff's actions as "indefensible and inexcusable". Excellent damage control by Sinn Fein.

Even for a party used to brass-necking it, Sinn Fein had no option but to take some action against McElduff.

He has demonstrated a remarkable lack of judgment and has undermined the dignity of his office - never mind insulting and upsetting victims and their families.

That said, McElduff has no monopoly on stupidity or offensiveness as several DUP members of parliament and the odd peer have made equally obnoxious remarks on social media.

But Sinn Fein's leadership will want to put this issue behind them as soon as possible.

They are victim sensitive, albeit to their own sense of victimhood. They are even more public relations conscious.

MPs aren't hugely important in the world of Sinn Fein. They play in the lower divisions, after TDs, senators and MLAs.

Some Sinn Fein councillors in Belfast have higher profiles than most of their MPs. A three month suspension of the party whip on an abstentionist MP is like locking Bernard Manning up with chocolate handcuffs.

But it's all about the perception.

Belfast Telegraph

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