Why rejecting the McElduff stunt matters wherever you come from politically
Independence, reason and character are what counts, not tribal ideology, says Fionola Meredith
We are accustomed to regular outbreaks of sectarian squabbling in Northern Ireland. Much of it is tedious, petty stuff - idiotic skirmishes about who hung what flag where - and is better ignored. This week's row over whether Derry City Council officials should or should not be sent to a garden party at Buckingham Palace is a case in point.
But occasionally something happens that cannot be ignored.
Something that is so profoundly revolting that you feel the disgust viscerally, right in the pit of your stomach. Something that brings back an evil stench from the abyss of the Troubles and reminds you that the twisted hatred and horror of that time has never entirely gone away.
For me, Barry McElduff's antics with a loaf of Kingsmill bread, on the anniversary of the IRA massacre in Kingsmill, was one of those moments.
It took me back to 1992, watching Orangemen holding up five white-gloved fingers as they paraded past Sean Graham's bookmakers on the Lower Ormeau Road, where the UFF had recently murdered five people. I was a young student at nearby Queen's University. At first, I didn't understand what the marchers were doing, what the gesture meant. But then I got it. And the lurch of incredulity and revulsion I experienced was exactly the same.
It is one thing to seriously attempt to defend or justify murder on political grounds, as Sinn Fein did for so many years, a position they have never renounced. To most normal people, that is unthinkable.
But to fool around and make some sort of casual, triumphalist joke about one of the worst atrocities of the Troubles, as if the murder of 10 men in a blitzkrieg of bullets could ever be a thing to laugh at, or mock? Like the Orangemen who held up five fingers outside the bookie's shop in 1992, that shows a different level of depravity.
This is not an ordinary PR gaffe or a political mis-step. It is grotesque. It's quite simply inhuman.
Of course, Barry McElduff has said it's all a coincidence, no malice intended. He just happened to be clowning around with a loaf of bread - you know Barry, always the joker - and had no idea of the significance of the day. He offered a "deep and sincere" apology to the Kingsmill relatives.
As punishment, Sinn Fein has given the Westminster MP the daintiest tap on the wrist, a three-month suspension - essentially a paid holiday from a parliament which his party does not attend anyway. "A proportionate response," according to SF leader-in-waiting Mary Lou McDonald, which tells you a great deal about the party's true attitude to equality, respect and integrity.
And now we learn that 89-year-old Bea Worton, the mother of murdered Kingsmill worker Kenneth Worton, has been receiving abusive calls over the last few months, asking for slices of Kingsmill bread for toasting. Which makes me wonder if this is quite the running gag in some sick republican circles.
The appalling McElduff episode has been widely described as causing outrage to unionists. And it's true that unionist politicians have been leading the condemnation.
But to represent the stunt as predominantly an affront to unionists, rather than an affront to every single person of reason and character in this country, is a bad mistake which plays into the ongoing sectarian narrative and only serves to perpetuate it.
It must not be seen as just another stupid tribal spat, destined to descend into the usual pointless whataboutery, because that is to treat it on a par with far more trivial, relatively inconsequential cross-community rows, like the one about who gets to attend the Queen's garden party.
McElduff's Kingsmill lark is an error of such gravity that it goes beyond tribalism. It doesn't matter whether you're a unionist or a nationalist, a loyalist or a republican, or, like me, none of the above. Political ideology is irrelevant here. What matters is that you are capable of recognising the utter moral foulness of ridiculing murder victims and their still-grieving families.
Whatever their political convictions, or lack of them, I believe that most people in Northern Ireland are able to do that. I have to believe it, or my half-stunted hope for the future of this place would wither entirely.
The truth is that you don't have to be a unionist to repudiate McElduff's Kingsmill antics. You just have to be a human being with a functioning mind and heart.