Opinion

Sunday 16 December 2018

Mary Lou needs to put SF in the North back in its box

Mary Lou McDonald's willingness to defend the indefensible will taint her leadership of Sinn Fein, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

REMEMBERING THE PAST: Sinn Fein’s deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald during the annual Remembrance Sunday service at St Patrick’s Cathedral last November. Photo: Colin O’Riordannot
REMEMBERING THE PAST: Sinn Fein’s deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald during the annual Remembrance Sunday service at St Patrick’s Cathedral last November. Photo: Colin O’Riordannot

The row over a Sinn Fein representative releasing a video with a loaf of Kingsmill bread on his head on the anniversary of the Kingsmill massacre should have been over by now. In any other party, it would be over.

Punishment would have been handed out. Discipline would have been restored.

In Sinn Fein, a week after the original video was posted online at five minutes after midnight on the 42nd anniversary of that notorious atrocity, when 10 Protestant workmen were singled out for their religion and murdered by the IRA, the row still stumbles on. If any more proof was needed of the dysfunctionality of the party, look no further.

The offending prankster, West Tyrone MP Barry McElduff, is an old hand at navigating the often choppy waters of Northern Irish politics, and has stuck to his story throughout, insisting that he never made the connection between the brand name of the loaf that he picked up while shooting his video and the name of the small South Armagh village where the victims were murdered in 1976. What else could he say? The Kingsmill massacre was so heinous that the IRA continues to officially deny responsibility. It would be political suicide to openly admit to mocking the victims.

SUSPENDED: SF MP Barry McElduff with a Kingsmill branded loaf on his head
SUSPENDED: SF MP Barry McElduff with a Kingsmill branded loaf on his head

As long as he doesn't budge on that point, McElduff is safe.

Unionists will say the odds against it being a mere coincidence are too large to be credible. They may well be right about that. Critics will also point out that some republicans still privately believe that the Kingsmill massacre, while terrible in its savagery, did send a message to loyalists in South Armagh that any attacks would be met by overwhelming retaliation, thereby preventing further murders of local Catholics.

Barry McElduff larking about with a loaf on his head could be seen in that context as a piece of tribal triumphalist theatre for the amusement of anyone knowledgeable enough to decode the clues.

As someone with a habit of posting "light-hearted" content on social media, including other videos where he poses with items of food on his head, McElduff has his alibi sorted either way.

The MP has previously tried his hand at stand-up comedy at republican social events, and flippancy always carries the risk of misunderstanding. He can easily say, and has, that his intention was misunderstood; and in an age when insecure politicians seem to envy the attention enjoyed by celebrities, and regularly make eejits of themselves on social media in an urge to get a piece of it, it's impossible to say for certain that he intended to cause offence.

What matters at this stage is not what Barry McElduff did or did not do, but how Sinn Fein handled the fallout, and that has been another masterclass in insensitivity.

One by one, spokespersons have trooped up and claimed to be appalled by the video, even while dutifully peddling the party line that no mockery of the innocent dead was intended. At the same time, they've been forced to defend the official sanction which was imposed on McElduff, which was a three-month suspension from party activity. In actuality this means very little as he may be MP for the West Tyrone constituency, but, like others elected, does not take his seat in Westminster.

Not only has he been suspended from a job he doesn't actually do, the party also announced that he will be on full pay for the whole duration.

It was a risible response to an episode which has caused genuine hurt and offence to relatives of the dead men, and, in any other party, someone would have broken ranks to condemn the leniency. In Sinn Fein, there's tumbleweed. It takes more than a few dead Protestants to shame the party into living up to the standards it demands from others.

That the ranks of apologists for the party's feeble sanction included deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald is what really exposes the rottenness at the heart of SF. She took days to say anything at all, and when she did it was to parrot the line that a three-month suspension on full pay from a non-existent job was "appropriate and proportionate", when everyone knows she'd be denouncing it as inadequate if any other party in the Dail or Stormont had done the same.

Within a few weeks, the Dublin Central TD will, in all likelihood, and without a sniff of a challenge, be president of Sinn Fein, in overall charge of the party nationally. The first thing she needs to do to impose her authority on the party is put some clean water between herself and the Provos' darkest deeds. If SF wants to grow as an electoral force, it needs to bring on board voters who've yet to be persuaded that the republican movement has changed from the days when it made its arguments with explosives.

Instead, even before she's taken over as leader, Mary Lou has proved she has little autonomy, and is as much a prisoner of the past as SF's Stormont leader, Michelle O'Neill, who, in the year since succeeding a dying Martin McGuinness, has not so much stamped her personality on the party as been used to stamp out any chance of rekindling devolved government.

If a three-month suspension for causing significant offence to murder victims' loved ones is "appropriate and proportionate", then surely the six-month suspension of Meath West TD Peadar Toibin for voting against the Protection of Life During Pregnancy bill, which was introduced to the Dail following the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar, must have been excessive?

Yet McDonald manages to back both decisions with the same apparent conscientiousness, suggesting she does not weigh up cases on merit, but mentally rubber-stamps whatever decision those calling the shots in the party happen to make at any given time.

"Peadar is a colleague of ours, a friend of ours," she told the ard fheis last year, but "it is not credible for a political party not to have a position on... an issue of public policy".

Does she think it's credible to say, on the one hand, that what Barry McElduff did was "unforgivable", while, on the other, letting him off with little more than a slap on the wrist? Toibin's punishment was twice as severe for voting with his conscience rather than his party on abortion.

There could hardly be a cruder illustration of where the party's loyalties still lie, and that's with those who would minimise and make excuses for the brutality of the Provisional IRA. If she does not unshackle herself from that toxic legacy, it will taint her leadership every bit as much as it stained Adams's.

Leaders do not always act quickly and decisively to assert their authority. It took Leo Varadkar too long to realise that Frances Fitzgerald needed to step down over her handling of the case of Garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe; but the Taoiseach made clear his reasons for not immediately throwing the then Tanaiste under the bus.

Even when Fitzgerald did finally bow to the inevitable, the Fine Gael leader told the Dail that "a good woman is leaving office without getting a full and fair hearing".

His delay in acting could be criticised as foolish, but it came from a sincere belief in her integrity. No one in SF, by contrast, is attempting to publicly defend what Barry McElduff did, so why the reluctance to make the punishment fit the crime? What are they all so afraid of? Who is really pulling their strings?

Barry McElduff's behaviour was outrageous. What keeps the anger burning all these days later is that another generation of Sinn Fein representatives seems prepared, like lemmings, to fling themselves off the cliff of decency, rather than stand up to the moral sickness pervading the party.

Either Mary Lou takes charge of the Northern arm of the republican movement, or it will take charge of her.

There's no middle way.

Sunday Independent

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