Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: Nationalists accuse unionists who object to Irish language signs of being 'snowflakes'... then have a fainting fit at the sight of the Queen's portrait

A civil servant taking offence at the monarch's picture is like a vegan getting a job in McDonald's and then complaining about the burgers, says Eilis O'Hanlon

A portrait of the Queen
A portrait of the Queen

Warning: This article contains imagery which people of a sensitive disposition may find offensive. Proceed at your own risk.

The jaw-dropping claim that a member of the Parades Commission received £10,000 in compensation after complaining that he felt offended by portraits of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh hanging on the wall in his previous job is so bizarre that it's tempting to wonder if it's an urban myth, like those stories about people retiring to the Bahamas after getting millions of pounds in compensation for a hangnail.

It could be, fingers crossed, that we'll wake up in the morning and discover that this was just a bad dream, similar to the infamous episode of Dallas where Bobby Ewing stepped out of the shower.

Until then, all we have to go on is what former Ulster Unionist MP Ken Maginnis told the House of Lords. Namely that Lee Hegarty, who worked at the time in the Northern Ireland Office (NIO), objected to walking past portraits of the Queen, took a complaint under human rights legislation and duly received £10,000 for his hurt feelings, later going on to become "commission secretary and accounting officer", whatever that is, of the Parades Commission.

As you do.

What's worse is that the whole incident, which was reportedly signed off by former Secretary of State Theresa Villiers on the advice of her permanent secretary, was then dealt with on the quiet, presumably to avoid unwanted negative publicity.

This windfall came directly from hard-working people in Northern Ireland. They have a right to know where their money is going, to whom it's going and on what grounds.

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It's unlikely that they'd guess it was being squandered on nonsense like this.

It's like "compo". If you know how the system works, then there's a small fortune to be won from making bogus claims of injury.

Being "offended" by things is just the new whiplash. In fact, it's worse, because it's possible to find out that someone's lying about their physical injuries if they're subsequently seen jumping up and down at a pop concert, but how do you prove that someone isn't really offended? You can't.

Which is just another reason to be suspicious from the start. How can any functioning adult be offended by a picture? The portrait in question was hanging in the Northern Ireland Office, which is a department of the British Government. The clue is in the name.

That's like a vegan getting a job in McDonald's and then complaining about all the burgers. Any person who's that easily triggered must spend every day in a state of high dudgeon.

Take the £10,000 - as this fellow allegedly did with open arms. It's possible that he could withdraw his windfall from the ATM entirely in nice, neutral Northern Irish bank notes, but, if he then tries to spend it, he will get some of his change in coins, all of which bear the Queen's head. Will he be offended by that, too?

What does he do when he wants to buy a stamp? Does he refuse to walk down Royal Avenue in case the name brings him out in a cold sweat? Does steam start pouring from his ears when he realises what the letters BBC stand for on his TV?

This charade is why it's not possible to have a mature discussion about symbols and emblems. Everyone just adopts absurd positions and proceeds to dig in their heels.

Nationalists are certainly fond of accusing unionists who claim to be offended by the prospect of Irish language street signs being erected around Belfast of being over-sensitive cry babies.

As identikit Sinn Fein spokespersons put it so very often: "The Irish language threatens no one."

There have been a couple of instances in recent months. In January, some unionists complained when Belfast City Hall was lit up to mark the anniversary of the first public protest in favour of an Irish Language Act.

A few months earlier, there were similar objections to the erection of Irish language signs at Ulster University, on the grounds that it was creating a "cold house" for pro-Union students. In both cases, the reaction from republican activists couldn't have been more withering.

The students who objected were described online as "bigots" and "snowflakes", who were guilty of "anti-Irish prejudice". Nationalist commentator Jude Collins even wrote some years ago that the few words spoken "as Gaeilge" by his beloved Sinn Feiners were so "inoffensive and often welcoming" that to get annoyed about them made people look "churlish and even stupid".

Well, then, what does it make those who complain about pictures of the Queen look when they do the same? Elizabeth II is fairly inoffensive, too, but some nationalists still appear unable to see her picture without having a fainting fit like a Victorian gentlewoman and needing a dose of smelling salts to recover.

How insecure must a person's identity be to get offended by a portrait of an unassuming 93-year-old woman who's never made anything remotely resembling a controversial political remark in her life? Just as worryingly, how skewed must the NIO's judgment be to imagine that the situation could be saved by replacing the offending portrait with one of Queen Elizabeth meeting IRA leader Martin McGuinness, as is reported to have happened? Are these two people morally equivalent now?

It's possible to have some fun with this in a "you couldn't make it up" kind of way; but there's a more serious side to it, too. As Ken (now Lord) Maginnis pointed out, these payouts are being made at a time when victims of the most appalling historical institutional abuse are being dragged through the wringer in order to qualify for relatively modest amounts of compensation for their ordeals.

The amount which this gentleman is said to have received for being offended by a portrait of the Queen is actually one-third greater than the £7,500 minimum standard payment recommended by the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry in its 2017 report for people who were sexually, physically and psychologically abused in ways which blighted their whole lives.

That is little short of obscene and drawing a veil over the affair in the hope no one sees what's going on doesn't make it any less objectionable.

Even now, all the NIO will say when asked to respond is: "We will not comment on individual personnel matters."

No one should be offended by a picture, but thousands of people would be entirely justified in feeling offended at the way the NIO takes them for idiots who don't even deserve to know what's being done in their name.

Where are our barrowloads of cash?

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