If Kingsmill was sectarian, as Sinn Fein now admit, what about Tullyvallen and all the other IRA atrocities?
Barry McElduff debacle has turned the focus on the Provisionals' litany of massacres, writes Nelson McCausland
Sinn Fein generally manage their party and the media very skilfully, but recently they have been making more and more mistakes. There has been a series of resignations and there is a sense that all is not well. However, the party's problems have now been taken to an entirely new level.
Just after midnight on January 5, Sinn Fein's West Tyrone MP Barry McElduff posted a video of himself with a loaf of Kingsmill bread on his head. It was the 42nd anniversary of the Kingsmill massacre, when the Provisional IRA murdered 10 Protestants at Kingsmill.
The video caused outrage. Throughout the Friday and over the weekend, there was a wave of revulsion across the community.
Sinn Fein lay low and callously waited to see what would happen, but that was a mistake, because their silence exacerbated the outrage. It seemed that their priority was damage-limitation for the party, rather than any concern for the Kingsmill families. Sinn Fein got it wrong again when they thought they could save both the party and McElduff, by applying a meaningless sanction of a three-month suspension with pay. They misjudged that entirely and it was too little, too late.
The story was reaching beyond the local and national media to the international media. Throughout the week, the story kept running and Sinn Fein kept struggling.
Mary Lou McDonald, their leader-in-waiting, came out of it particularly badly. Gerry Adams, the current president, has honed his skills in avoiding awkward questions, whereas Mary Lou McDonald has not.
Eventually, on Thursday evening, John O'Dowd had to admit that the Kingsmill murders were "shameful" and "sectarian". It is not the first time that a Sinn Fein politician has described the Kingsmill murders as "sectarian", but it has reopened another question. If these murders were sectarian, how many other IRA murders were sectarian?
Not all of them were sectarian, because the IRA killed many Roman Catholics, but what about some other atrocities, such as the night in 1975 when the IRA machine-gunned the members of an Orange lodge meeting in Tullyvallen Orange Hall. Were those five murders not sectarian as well?
And when will Sinn Fein admit that Kingsmill, Tullyvallen and many other atrocities were carried out by the IRA? There isn't much "respect", or "integrity" in denying that these murders were carried out by the IRA. Sinn Fein has brought these questions back into the public square.
Then, on Sunday, Alan Black, the sole survivor of Kingsmill, was interviewed by Miriam O'Callaghan on RTE radio. McElduff resigned the next day, a full 10 days after the initial incident, but the day after the RTE interview. That highlights the fact that Sinn Fein is more concerned about the Irish Republic than it is about Northern Ireland, which may well create more strains within the party.
On this side of the border, the forthcoming by-election will tell us what impact it has all had on support for Sinn Fein in West Tyrone. But Tyrone has always been a stronghold of hardline republicanism and the answer may be very little. Any impact will probably be felt in some other constituencies.
I can recall a senior Sinn Fein politician saying that they had maximised their vote among core republicans. There was a small dissident republican vote that they had lost and would probably not be able to retrieve. Their aim had to be to garner support among nationalists who had not previously voted for them.
The McElduff debacle, including the Mairtin O Muilleoir retweet, has damaged those efforts and I suspect many voters in South Belfast will not have been impressed by O Muilleoir's claim that he saw it as "wholly apolitical and retweeted it on that basis".
Sinn Fein must hope that the resignation of Barry McElduff draws a line under the issue and that they can move on. But it may not be as simple as that.
The damage done by McElduff and his party and the hurt they have caused are still there and Sinn Fein is still on the back foot.