Friday 28 October 2016

Political storm over loyalist's odd-couple links to former SF foes

Ivan Little

Published 20/08/2016 | 02:30

Former NI First Minister Peter Robinson was named in testimony to a Stormont committee by Jamie Bryson. Photo: REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton
Former NI First Minister Peter Robinson was named in testimony to a Stormont committee by Jamie Bryson. Photo: REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

The Jamie Bryson bashers were out of their blocks quicker than Usain Bolt to ridicule the true-blue flag protester who's found himself at the centre of a political minefield at Stormont over his odd-couple links to his former foes in Sinn Féin.

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Within hours of the revelations that the Bangor-born blogger, who once refused to condemn the UVF, had been advised by an influential Sinn Féin minister and a party activist over his appearance in front of a Stormont committee last year, the cartoonists were poking fun at him. And a spoof Sinn Féin election poster with Bryson's face on it popped up online.

Loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Yet the loyalist, who used to be mercilessly mocked by mimics over his protests at Belfast City Hall, wasn't getting many laughs among Sinn Féin supporters.

They watched stony-faced as their normally sure-footed party was completely wrong-footed by the storm over links between Bryson and their erstwhile rising star Daithi McKay.

The Rasharkin man resigned on Thursday after he admitted communicating with Bryson before he presented controversial evidence to the Stormont committee he chaired.

Bryson, who was once a Northern Ireland mascot at Windsor Park, may have failed to achieve his goal of getting the Union flag flying again at the city hall, but the shock new revelations about him and McKay have rocked the very foundations of Stormont, where demands for inquiries by Assembly watchdogs and the PSNI into the affair subsequently reached fever pitch.

Even by the sometimes eyebrow-raising standards of political footballing here, the disclosures have been a game changer of almost seismic proportions.

And it was inevitable that the main Sinn Féin player - McKay - would quit and apologise for his "inappropriate, ill-advised and wrong" contacts after he was red-carded by his party for "coaching" Bryson in advance of the finance committee hearing into the Nama property scandal last September.

It was revealed that there'd been exchanges between Bryson and McKay - and another Sinn Féin member Thomas O'Hara - about how the loyalist should give his much-anticipated testimony to the committee.

It's hard to interpret the aim of the liaisons as anything other than to ensure that Bryson was able to name then-First Minister Peter Robinson - who was supposedly working as an ally of Sinn Féin in the North's government at the time - as having been involved in the Nama deal.

The accusations triggered a veritable volcano of reactions from the political parties, especially from Sinn Féin.

Martin McGuinness swiftly issued a statement saying that McKay should consider his position and, in a carefully choreographed move, the North Antrim MLA quit as Sinn Féin sources insisted he'd been on a "solo run", which his party colleagues knew nothing about.

This came completely out of leftfield for observers on the sidelines, who cried foul about a well-oiled Sinn Féin machine which doesn't usually allow any of its members to do or say anything without consulting the party hierarchy.

Bryson was initially defensive at the kick-off of yesterday's row.

But he showed little in the way of contrition, or embarrassment, for teaming up, no matter how briefly, with politicians who kick with the other foot - and whose party he was not so long ago accusing of holding a gun to the head of democracy with a threat to return to violence if they didn't get their own way in government.

As the fast-changing story twisted and turned, the ex-amateur footballer Bryson then put the boot into Sinn Féin for their "disgraceful" treatment of his "coach", saying they had thrown McKay to the wolves.

And with language which could have come straight from Richard Nixon's Watergate accusers, Bryson said of Sinn Féin: "This went to the very top. They knew."

Bryson has denied that he was a dupe for Sinn Féin and he has said that he won't co-operate with any inquiry into what has gone on.

But he's already found his old friends questioning his alliances.

The TUV's Jim Allister said: "It's not something I would have done, but I think Sinn Féin are more embarrassed, because they have been caught out as not being the players they pretend to be within the democratic process."

Bryson has been a regular target for comedians, internet satirists and newspaper columnists, like me, who didn't always take him seriously.

At a remand hearing in Belfast, Bryson approached me, but instead of complaining about the publicity, he told me he loved it and encouraged me to write more about him - even if it was tongue-in-cheek.

Which wasn't a difficult request to fulfil, as he was wearing a pair of tartan shorts at the time.

For several months, it seemed that Bryson just couldn't keep out of the headlines. He was photographed claiming Jobseeker's Allowance before going to work in a taxi depot, where he said he worked on a voluntary basis.

And ever-defiant, the cocky Bryson said he was going to fight the European elections in 2014. He tried, but failed, to raise the money he needed for the deposit.

A mickey-taking social media site launched a crowd-funding campaign for a make-believe rival to Bryson - a gorilla called Koko, who raised more money than the flag protester.

But people who were saying 'bye-bye Bryson' were wrong. From out of the blue - and in a similarly-hued three-piece suit - Bryson strolled up to Stormont last year to accuse Peter Robinson of corruption, delivering what's now known to have a pre-arranged script to the finance committee.

Bryson's evidence was quickly dismissed by Robinson as a pantomime.

Now nearly 12 months on, the former DUP leader may just be relishing the fact that Daithi McKay's career appears to be behind him.

Irish Independent

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