Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: Two weeks ago, John Dallat MLA told the DUP to order the book How to Win Friends and Influence People in bulk ... doesn't sound so clever after his tweet about the dissident bomb, does it?

Is there a more unedifying sight than the high-and-mighty SDLP riding on the New IRA's coat-tails to shore up its opposition to Brexit, asks Eilis O'Hanlon

The scene outside Londonderry Court House on Bishop Street following the car bomb explosion
The scene outside Londonderry Court House on Bishop Street following the car bomb explosion
Deirdre Heenan
The SDLP's John Dallat

Social media brings out the absolute worst in some people, so it was no great surprise that Saturday's car bomb attack outside the courthouse in Londonderry inspired the traditional gaggle of attention-seekers wishing to exploit the situation for their own political ends.

What was unexpected is that one of them should have been an elected representative of the moderate SDLP, rather than the sort of angry, anonymous dissident Provo who calls himself something along the lines of IrelandUnfree1916 and hides his true identity behind a profile picture of the Tricolour.

John Dallat, MLA for East Londonderry, managed to trump all those usual suspects by taking to Twitter and Facebook in the immediate aftermath of the bombing to declare: "Not even the appalling behaviour of the Brits towards Ireland justifies this."

Since that unwise leap into the dark, Dallat has been desperately rowing back in the face of criticism for seeming to temper his condemnation of the actual bombers by setting it alongside whatever it was he reckoned these "Brits" had done, laying himself open to the accusation of blaming the actions of the so-called New IRA in Derry on other people, in some not altogether obvious way.

Dallat tried to insist that 'Brits' was a common usage, without any implicit malice. Indeed it is, when used in a less-contentious context. In Northern Ireland? Not so much.

He was also keen to stress that the "appalling behaviour" to which he referred was not those 800 years of history which republicans have often cited to justify violence, because that's a rabbit hole down which no sensible politician should ever want to venture, but rather the "current political crisis" caused by the British mishandling of Brexit.

But did that really make it any better? If anything, it's rather more worrying, suggesting that Brexit may about to open up a whole new avenue of lunacy in the traditional game of Blame The Brits.

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What sort of person sees a car bomb exploding, after all, and instantly thinks: 'How can I make this all about Britain's bungled effort to leave the EU?' Surely, the answer is: someone who's been sent slightly stir-crazy by Brexit and sees its perfidious shadow everywhere.

In a way, that describes all of us right now as the date for the UK's exit from the EU fast approaches, but most observers still managed to hear Saturday's news without instantly drawing such a clumsy, desperate connection - especially not when the date also happened to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the first shots being fired in the Black and Tan War, a much more obvious tie-in. Republicans of all hues do love a commemoration.

It's not just that Dallat's words detracted attention from those who carried out the bombing. Such an overly simplistic interpretation of events also hands dissidents a ready-made excuse in advance should the worst happen and Northern Ireland, along with the rest of the UK, leaves the EU without a deal on March 29.

Were violence to spark up again in the coming months, those behind it will be able to point to Brexit as a trigger, confident that plenty of mainstream voices will unwittingly muddy those same waters.

John Dallat wasn't the only one, either. Ulster University's Professor Deirdre Heenan, who sits on the Irish President's esteemed Council of State, responded to the explosion by sending a tweet directly to the Prime Minister, attacking the Government's failings.

Again, the implication appeared to be that certain misjudgements at Westminster might be underpinning acts of violence, rather than, say, the venality of a stubbornly intractable ideology that long pre-dates the EU.

Like John Dallat, Professor Heenan hurriedly attempted to explain why tweeting Theresa May to criticise Brexit had apparently been her first response on hearing that a bomb had gone off in Derry. Neither attempt was very convincing.

Meanwhile, on RTE radio, there's been a concerted effort to imply that the British are making all this happen by their stupid desire to leave the EU, as if there's no end to the things which might send those unbalanced northerners back to the bomb and the bullet, so it's best not to do anything to provoke them.

If loyalists had carried out a terrorist attack on Saturday night and unionist politicians had waded in to point the finger at Dublin for provoking a backlash with its current wave of Anglophobic rhetoric, nationalists would have recognised the stench of prevarication at once and condemned it accordingly.

But the SDLP is so much on its high horse that it never recognises when the stirrups have snapped, sending it tumbling into the mud. The SDLP tends to treat other political parties as slightly shop-soiled, confident that their own representatives will - and must - be given the benefit of every doubt.

SDLP spokespersons constantly look astonished at criticism, seeming to say: "Don't you know who we are? We are the heirs of John Hume, we are above reproach."

The party's entire brand rests on the pitch that, if only people were more like them, Northern Ireland would be a much better place; and perhaps it would. It's still tiresome to see such smug indignation when one of its exalted representatives turns out to have feet of clay.

There's undoubted cause for fear as to what will happen after Brexit, not least with no end in sight to the continuing stalemate at Stormont. Political vacuums have been filled before by violence. It's naive to believe it couldn't happen again. Events in Derry at the weekend are a grim reminder that it only takes a handful of nutters to destabilise the situation.

Seizing on a car bomb to prove that Brexit is reckless looks dismayingly cynical, though, when it's done by politicians who always thought Brexit should be stopped anyway. It's too convenient to find confirmation of one's pre-existing opinions in the latest headlines.

It's much harder - and, therefore, far more valuable - to recognise when events challenge those same preconceptions. But then the high-and-mighty SDLP has never been very good at that, has it?

What makes all this doubly ironic is that, just a couple of weeks ago, John Dallat was mocking unionists on Twitter with the message: "(The) DUP need a bulk order of the book How to Win Friends and Influence People." The SDLP man suggested that they make it "compulsory reading". It sounds like someone needs to follow his own advice.

That would certainly be a better use of the SDLP's time than riding in on the coat-tails of the delinquent actions of terrorists to shore up its animus towards Brexit. Aren't they supposed to be above that sort of thing?

Belfast Telegraph


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