Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: Why the party that's so quick to take offence is a past master at adding insult to injury

Michelle O'Neill had the perfect opportunity to demonstrate that 'respect' is a two-way street for republicans, but she blew it, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Three months' suspension from work for holding 10 murder victims up to ridicule is, by any standards, a pretty meagre punishment. Three months' suspension from work for a job that you don't even do simply adds insult to injury.

Barry McElduff is the MP for West Tyrone in name only. In common with other Sinn Fein politicians, he's never taken his seat at Westminster and all insist that they never will.

When they say he's suspended from "all party activity", what exactly is he being excluded from? Karaoke night at Connolly House?

Sinn Fein clearly expected people to accept this week's decision as an appropriate gesture of disapproval of an elected representative for posting a video of himself walking round a service station with a loaf of Kingsmill bread on his head on the 42nd anniversary of the IRA's massacre of 10 innocent Protestant workmen in the south Armagh village of the same name in 1976.

It simply ended up demonstrating that they don't get why his action caused such upset at all.

What he did was treated as a minor disciplinary matter, which should now be forgotten, when it's not up to republicans to decide when the matter is over and done with. They're not the injured party here. The victims are.

McElduff denies that he intended any offence and has apologised "unreservedly" for the hurt caused by his actions; and on the surface, it does defy belief that he would have deliberately released a video which took the murders of 10 innocent men so lightly.

He does, after all, have a habit of posting adolescent, attention-seeking, "light-hearted" content on social media.

The only problem is that it also defies belief that McElduff picked up that particular loaf by chance while mucking about in a shop, before posting his video online five minutes after midnight into that fateful anniversary, without realising the significance of either act.

The odds against that being an accident stretch credulity; but then the chances of DUP members not realising the tastelessness of singing "Arlene's on fire" to the tune of the Northern Ireland football chant "Will Grigg's on fire" at the party conference in Belfast's La Mon House hotel, scene of the IRA's 1978 firebomb attack, which murdered 12 people, are immense, too - but they did it.

They quickly apologised, admitting that "hurt can be caused even in an unintentional manner". The apology was accepted by victims' relatives and Sinn Fein surely hopes that McElduff is given the same benefit of the doubt.

It was much easier to accept, though, that DUP members meant no offence, because it would make no sense for them to mock the victims of an IRA atrocity and those who did so were young and over-excited.

McElduff is old enough to know better; old enough to remember outrages, such as Kingsmill, as real, lived events - not simply entries in the history books.

That people are less willing to accept his integrity probably comes down to the fact that it would not surprise anyone for Sinn Fein to disrespect IRA victims by sending out a coded message which could easily be denied later, if it went down badly.

Despite demanding respect for its own traditions, the republican movement continues to have nothing but contempt for unionist "b******s", as Gerry Adams infamously called them.

The anniversary of events which affect republicans must be remembered with due respect and solemnity, whereas those which they inflicted on others are simply forgotten as unimportant.

The word 'Kingsmill' meant nothing to Barry McElduff, because it was not a tragedy which was visited upon his community, but one committed by them and those ones simply don't count in the hierarchy of commemoration.

There's no way he would not immediately have realised the significance of words such as 'Loughinisland' and 'Greysteel', both sites in Northern Ireland where loyalist savages murdered innocent Catholics. These are names which will always carry a dark charge and Kingsmill is another.

If he genuinely didn't realise the magnitude, that's a terrible indictment of him, too. Abstentionist or not, he is meant to be MP for his whole constituency, but evidently cannot imaginatively put himself in the shoes of neighbours who do not belong to his narrow political sect.

That the party continues to sell IRA memorabilia on its official website and Stormont leader Michelle O'Neill unapologetically glorifies IRA terrorism is part of the same malaise. McElduff's punishment - if it can even be called that - reflects this small-minded insularity.

Sinn Fein's national chairman, Declan Kearney, said that "what happened is absolutely inexcusable and indefensible", adding that "the party is taking this matter very seriously indeed".

But a three-month suspension is evidence of the exact opposite, especially as the party immediately confirmed that the non-MP would continue to be paid throughout his time on the naughty step.

Peadar Toibin is the party's TD for the Meath West constituency in the Dail.

In 2013, he was suspended for six months for voting against legislation allowing for abortion under limited circumstances, which the party had pledged to support. Colleagues at the time described his actions as a "serious breach of party rules".

Dublin North-West TD Dessie Ellis, a former IRA prisoner, was also given a written warning by the party last year for voting in favour of a private member's bill to ban hare coursing, which Sinn Fein officially supports.

Whatever about the coded messages in McElduff's video, what sort of signal does this send out to party supporters, when elected representatives voting with their consciences on moral issues are treated with the same disciplinary zeal as those mocking murder victims?

The PSNI is looking into the Barry McElduff video as a possible hate crime, but it would be hard to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he intended to cause offence.

What is beyond doubt is that Sinn Fein would not accept these begrudging apologies if it happened the other way round.

It has spent the past year, since the suspension of Stormont, taking offence at the most trifling of imagined slights and this week had an opportunity to practise what it preaches.

Given a chance to show good authority at a politically delicate time, the party's leadership deliberately chose instead to do the barest minimum to satisfy itself that it was doing the right thing, while not even pretending to hold itself to the standards it demands from everyone else.

It's impossible to say for certain whether Barry McElduff was knowingly mocking the dead of Kingsmill, but, on the charge of mocking everybody in Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein has proven itself guilty again.

Belfast Telegraph

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