Belfast Telegraph

DUP should not shoot messenger when the mask slips

By Fionola Meredith

Oh Sammy. Hasn't your colleague Jim Wells' recent experiences with open microphones taught you anything?

I wasn't a bit surprised when Wells made that fatuous remark about being unable to cope with women between the ages of eight and 80. For all I know he was speaking the truth. After all, the former Health Minister is a man who would deny pregnant rape victims a termination. His lack of trust in women's capacity to make decisions about their own lives and their own bodies is clear. So why would we be shocked when he gets caught out snickering foolishly like a schoolboy when matron's back is turned?

It was different when I heard Sammy Wilson appearing to agree with a member of the public that "the ethnics" - whoever they are - should get out of Northern Ireland during the filming of a BBC Spotlight programme about the EU referendum. Here I was surprised and disappointed. For all Sammy's blather and bluster, or perhaps because of it, he's always struck me as more recognisably human than many other members of the DUP. Yet here he was, captured off-camera but definitely on-mic, seeming to endorse the most egregious piece of nasty, casual racism.

The other possibility, which struck me soon afterwards, was that Sammy was simply in full-throttle, meet-and-greet electioneering mode and - like many politicians - would have been prepared to agree with virtually anyone about almost anything in order to guarantee a warm, positive encounter with a member of the voting public. To be honest, I'm not sure that would be much better. Servile hypocrisy in pragmatic deference to a bigoted viewpoint - which you may or may not share - isn't a great improvement on naked racism.

In his own defence, Wilson said that the man's comment had not registered with him at the time, and that when he, Wilson, said he absolutely agreed with what had been said, he was referring to the individual's support for leaving the European Union, not the "ethnics out" remark.

Besides, it was all the BBC's fault, really. "They chose to present this as if I had some secret conversation with a man, got caught out and those were my views," Wilson protested. "They know full well they were not my views." With mounting paranoia he attributed the decision to report on the controversial exchange to an active pro-EU agenda within the BBC, which apparently seeks to "detract from the compelling arguments for leaving the EU by painting those who wish to vote leave as racists".

Wild and entirely unfounded speculation about a secret BBC plot does nothing to help Sammy's case. The real issue here is that so many people found the possibility that Wilson had been racist all too believable. And that's not down to Sammy himself, but to deep-rooted perceptions of his party.

The DUP has painfully, haltingly learned to speak the language of equality. Members know, or most of them do, that overtly racist, sexist or anti-gay sentiments will not be received with the equanimity (or even enthusiasm) that they used to be.

Iris Robinson no longer feels compelled to phone radio talk shows to fulminate about the abominations of homosexuality, and it's impossible to imagine even the most unreconstructed individuals making "moo-ing" noises at female representatives, as DUP members did in the early days of the Women's Coalition. Even Willie McCrea, who said he would make it his lifelong mission to teach the female delegates to stand behind the loyal men of Ulster, seems to have faltered sadly in his quest.

That's not to say there aren't plenty of those prejudices still swilling around the bilges of the DUP flagship, but as long as they stay safely below the water-line, nobody's bothered. Sure, there have been a few telling blunders, some more serious than others: Ian Paisley jnr's remark in 2013 that he was "going for a chinky tonight", and of course Peter 'Raj' Robinson's magnanimous declaration, redolent of the glory days of Empire, that he would trust a Muslim to go to the shops for him and even bring him the right change.

Now the DUP has a new leader, Arlene Foster, and a new opportunity to scour out the layers of accumulated rot. It's not enough to issue terse, self-protective Press statements distancing the party from any controversial issues. Prejudice should never be indulged or ignored. In order for it not to fester, it must be confronted and robustly challenged. If this very necessary process happens, then proximity to open microphones need no longer be a risk.

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