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Just what was it that caused Tom Elliott to fume?

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Ulster Unionist Party leader Tom Elliott

Ulster Unionist Party leader Tom Elliott

Darren Kidd

Ulster Unionist Party leader Tom Elliott

It had been a bad day for Tom Elliott even before his outburst at the count. The loss of UUP seats and the particularly dismal performance in Belfast and North Down followed a campaign characterised by lack of direction and internecine squabbling.

Elliott's leadership had never begun to address the problem of how to respond effectively to the DUP's shift to the strategic centre ground of Ulster politics.

His own border roots, traditionalism and bluff farmer persona had little appeal to unionist voters east of the Bann.

In Fermanagh and South Tyrone, where Michelle Gildernew topped the poll, the Sinn Fein vote had increased by 4% and they had won an extra seat displacing the SDLP's Tommy Gallagher.

One of their new MLAs is Sean Lynch.

Lynch was shot and seriously injured by the SAS in 1986 in the same incident in which Seamus McElwaine was shot dead.

McElwaine had escaped from the Maze where he was serving a life sentence for the murder of a part-time UDR man and an RUC reservist.

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Both had been shot dead while off-duty, the UDR man was found by his brother in the cab of his tractor.

The IRA carried on a prolonged and relentless campaign in the border areas of Fermanagh and South Tyrone, claiming dozens of victims including a number of former members of the security forces killed after they had left the organisation.

Protestants were a minority in these areas and also experienced an economic war against their businesses and farms. This is the community from which Elliott comes.

However, this, while it might help to explain some of his emotion, does not in any way justify it.

This is not simply because as a political leader he should not be stoking up a sectarian slanging match. More fundamentally, his outburst will do nothing to help the many victims in Fermanagh and elsewhere who feel that their experiences are ignored and written out of the peace process consensus. In a subsequent interview he justified himself by saying that victims of violence should not be forgotten. Two days before the polls he participated in the launch of a UUP Victims' Charter. One obvious question is why it took so long for the UUP to produce such a document and it left the party open to the charge that it was an attempt to use the victims issue for political gain.

Of course, the UUP would not be alone in the exploitation of victims in the service of particular unionist, loyalist or republican agendas.

There was nothing in the UUP charter about the party's views on how Northern Ireland should deal with its past.

We know the Secretary of State is considering this issue at the moment so it would have been more fruitful if the UUP leader had made a constructive contribution to that process.

Elliott's sentiments were an unfortunate and rather morbid symptom of a society whose new political class pays lip service to the needs of victims but fears that too much 'dwelling on the past' might destabilise the undoubted political progress that has been made in last decade.

It has been the victims' groups and civil society organisations that have led the way in this area.

A couple of years ago the Church of Ireland Diocese of Clogher, which straddles the border counties of Northern Ireland and the Republic, published a detailed and impressive booklet and CD on the experience of border Protestants during the Troubles.

I do not know if Tom Elliott has read Whatever You Say, Say Nothing.

The quiet dignity of all those interviewed, men and women who had often endured the most horrific experiences, was a world away from the angry words and answering taunts at the count.

A dominant concern that came out of the Church's report was the feeling among those who lived at the sharp end of the Troubles that they had been forgotten about and marginalised.

They wanted recognition of their histories by the wider society and an end to what is described in the report as the 'keep your head down, say nothing and just get on with your business' approach.

Tom Elliott's words have produced predictable and at times pious criticism but they will also undoubtedly have a considerable reservoir of private support in sections of the unionist community, particularly in border areas.

For all the talk about the role of bread and butter issues in the election, the majority of votes were cast on communal lines.

A few weeks ago Martin McGuinness praised the IRA as a revolutionary force.

Did he consider for a moment how his words resonated with the families of those shot dead while ploughing their fields or delivering bread?

Northern Ireland may be more politically stable but it is still some distance from being able to deal with its past.

By raising the issue of victims in such a crass way Tom Elliott has done little to lessen that distance.

Henry Patterson is Professor of Politics at the University of Ulster. His book, Ireland's Violent Frontier: The Border During the Troubles, will be published in 2012


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