Gerry Kelly's clash with the clampers showed his contempt for the law
Sinn Fein don't appear to believe that they should be held to the same standards as the rest of us, writes Eilis O'Hanlon
The builder was late, but it wasn't his fault. His van had been clamped that morning, he told me. I sympathised, wondering how much it had cost to get it free again.
"Nothing," he said, and proceeded to tell me that he carried a pair of bolt cutters in the back of his van for just such an eventuality. He had a simple rule: "If you're clamped by the council, pay up. If it's by a private company, to hell with them." (He put it rather more forcefully than that). He also told me to give him a ring if I was ever in the same situation, and he'd come to get me out.
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A few months later, a misunderstanding did indeed lead to me being clamped, but, frustrated as I was, I wasn't tempted to call in the Drivers' Liberation Force. As much of a nuisance as clampers can be, rules are there for a reason. Private land belongs to its owners, and they're entitled, within limits, to decide who can be there and under what conditions, otherwise why can't we all just park where we want and expect to get away with it?
Clearly, none of these considerations come into play if you're a Sinn Fein MLA. Gerry Kelly came out of the gym in north Belfast last Friday morning, found his car had been immobilized, then borrowed a pair of bolt cutters to free it, after unsuccessfully attempting, according to the man himself on Radio Ulster's Talk Back yesterday, to call the clampers.
Cue a stream of black jokes about the former Maze Prison escapee being up to his old tricks again. Typically, some supporters even expressed their admiration. Unionist demands for Gerry Kelly's resignation in turn prompted Sinn Fein's Mid-Ulster MP Francie Molloy to say the incident was being "blown out of all proportion". And perhaps it is.
But that's politics in Northern Ireland. One's enemy's difficulty is always someone else's opportunity. Sinn Fein would be doing exactly the same thing if it was the other way round.
Compared to what Gerry Kelly has done in his time in the IRA, including planting bombs in London and running round Europe with guns, this is a minor misdemeanour. It's also a relief to know that he doesn't actually carry bolt cutters in his car, because that would make the incident far more disturbing.
But there's no getting round it. Breaking the rules is not a great look for a former member of the Policing Board.
Worse than that, the incident does seem to sum up something about Sinn Fein's attitude, not just to law and order, but to the whole political process. There's a cynical, half-hearted air to their official support for the normal, boring way of doing things.
"No one is above the law," Kelly declares grandly, paying lip service to the notion that everyone should be treated equally, because what else can he say? But in private, away from the microphones, they do think they're different. Better. The law is for little people.
That was obvious from Gerry Kelly's willingness to take this risk. He must have known how it would look, as a senior politician, if it did come out, and that, in any halfway normal society, it would be a resigning matter, but he did it anyway.
On radio, he called it a spur of the moment decision that he now regrets, and that may well be the case, but it was a decision taken in the context of republicans' contempt for being held to the same standards as everyone else. I too had a meeting to get to on the day I was clamped, but I made it by calling a taxi.
Kelly has since paid the fine, and a charge for damage to the clamp, no doubt having been ordered to do so by Sinn Fein's incoming new leader, Mary Lou McDonald, who takes the reins on Saturday and understandably wouldn't want to start her party presidency making more excuses for displays of alpha male bravado.
But his main crime will have been to be caught, thus causing the party embarrassment, rather than to have done it at all.
What's telling is how unsurprised we all were by this. Most of us probably saw it on the local news, rolled our eyes with weary familiarity, before slotting the story away in our mental filing cabinets under 'H' for "Here we go again". It's only seeing it hit the national news that makes one appreciate the true oddity of the situation. Morally and legally speaking, clamping is a grey area, but politically it's a no-brainer.
Caught in a similar situation, most politicians in most jurisdictions would instinctively know that you just don't do something like that. We seem to be so immune to what our own elected representatives get up to that it barely passes muster when they behave stupidly and with such a bloated sense of entitlement.
It's a fool's game to worry about how one looks to outsiders. That's like fretting over what the neighbours think of your new curtains; it's none of their business either way. But seeing how crass this incident must seem when seen through outside eyes was something of a revelation.
In recent weeks, Barry McElduff, now the former MP for West Tyrone, also hit the headlines nationally for balancing a loaf of bread on his head in what was taken as a mocking reference to the dead of the Kingsmill massacre, whilst Gerry Adams' foolishness went international after describing himself as a "Ballymurphy n*****". On the unionist side as well, we've had Sammy Wilson describing the Taoiseach as a "nutcase", and Lord Kilclooney calling him "the Indian" and getting into an unseemly row on Twitter about who is and isn't entitled to call themselves British.
We laugh at Donald Trump for the ridiculous figure that he is, and forget that we have plenty of clowns of our own in this neck of the woods, collectively mortifying us all with their witless antics.
If history really does repeat itself, first time as tragedy, second as farce, then we're evidently in the buffoonery stage of our story.
It's not the incident itself which matters. It's what it says about Sinn Fein's attitude to so much else, which is rendering it fiendishly difficult to make progress at talks on restoring Stormont.
Because that's the thing. If Sinn Fein hadn't recklessly collapsed the Executive last year, then MLAs would have better things to do with their time than mess with bolt cutters by the roadside near gyms. The devil will find work for idle hands to do.