In politics, timing is crucial… so too is tone – the fallout from the #McElduff and #Kingsmill saga

20 Jan

This column on the lingering effects of the McElduff fiasco first appeared on Tues Jan 16, 2018 on Broadsheet.ie under the headline: Fatal Hesitation 

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“The essential ingredient of politics is timing.” So said Pierre Trudeau, former Canadian Prime Minister and father of Leo Varadkar’s current favourite politician.

The former member of parliament for West Tyrone, Barry McElduff, has learned this basic lesson the hard way. But he is not the only one.

If he had resigned last Sunday or Monday, much of the pain and distress of the past week could have been avoided.

The relatives and friends of the victims of the Kingsmill massacre would have been spared the nonsense excuses and the insult of seeing the Sinn Féin leadership, North and South, imposing and then repeatedly defending its three-month non-penalty.

Sinn Féin’s political opponents would have been denied the open goal presented to them to score points off them and the Sinn Féin leadership would have avoided the embarrassment of defending its slow and inadequate response.

Indeed, if Sinn Féin had not waited two full days to deliver its three-month suspension and had acted more speedily and decisively to address the spiraling McElduff crisis on the Saturday after the tweet it could have even helped to jump start the process of ending the year-long political stalemate between Sinn Féin and the DUP.

But it didn’t.

To paraphrase Abba Eban, some politicians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

So, one week later, Barry McElduff is no longer the honourable member of parliament for West Tyrone, a by-election is imminent and a return of he Northern Ireland Executive is as far off as it was before Christmas.

While McElduff did act over a week late, he is nonetheless entitled to some personal credit for doing the right thing. It does seem that he alone took the decision to resign, something that Sinn Féin’s Northern leader, Michelle O’Neill acknowledged in the opening line of her statement at the hastily convened press conference responding to the resignation.

Yet we see some “sources” in Sinn Féin attempting, this morning, to hint that McElduff may have been compelled to resign for the greater good, to ease the mounting pressure on senior Sinn Féin figures – particularly after Miriam O’Callaghan’s moving interview with the one survivor, Alan Black .

According to Fiach Kelly in today’s Irish Times:

“Sinn Féin sources maintain Mr McElduff made his own decision to resign but acknowledged it was impossible to defend his “stupid” actions as the controversy intensified.

“If I had been sent out to defend it, I would have found it very difficult,” said one TD.

One party source said that it was noticeable that Sinn Féin spokespeople did not seek to defend Mr McElduff in weekend media appearances. “No one was jumping to his defence.”

While that may be true for the Sinn Féin T.D.s who spoke with the Irish Times, it wasn’t quite true for all of them. It also completely misses the point that the problem was not just with McElduff’s tweet it was with the leadership’s paltry and derisory response. Together, McElduff and the leadership tainted themselves with the sins of the past.

There was no shortage of Sinn Féin public representatives happy to retweet McElduff’s original twitter video, including Sinn Féin’s former Finance Minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir. Neither was there any shortage of them to stand by McElduff in the days immediately after the tweet.

True, the solidarity did somewhat dissipate after last week’s suspension and the acknowledgement by Michelle O’Neill that the tweet was “ill-judged and indefensible” but some were still prepared to go out and argue McElduff’s cause and more were happy to defend how the leadership responded.

This included the usually adept Éoin Ó Broin TD who went further than most on Sunday’s Marian Finucane radio show on RTÉ Radio One, dredging the depths of the Sinn Féin lexicon on to come up with the weasel phrase “unjustifiable killings” to describe what had happened at Kingsmill.

Just as we call what happened at Bloody Sunday “murder”, so too should we call what happened at Kingsmill “murder”. Ten brutal, callous, sectarian murders which Seamus Heaney described as ‘one of the most harrowing moments in the whole history of the harrowing of the heart in Northern Ireland’.

Heaney’s telling of the horrific story of Kingsmill in his 1995 Nobel Prize lecture is worth reading. In it, he tells how the masked gunmen, who stopped the minibus full of workers heading home, ordered the group out at gunpoint and called on any Catholics to step forward. There was one. Fearing that the masked gunmen were loyalists, one of the protestant workmen took the lone Catholic’s hand and squeezed it in a signal that said, don’t move, we’ll not betray you.

The catholic stepped forward, only to be pushed aside by the gunman who then murdered the others. Heaney observed:

“The birth of the future we desire is surely in the contraction which that terrified Catholic felt on the roadside when another hand gripped his hand, not in the gunfire that followed…”

It was – and it still is.

While the past 10 days have brought back many painful memories from a dark and difficult past, it is possible for political leaders from all sides, North and South, to still siphon some progress from the wreckage.

While all politics is about timing, Irish politics is also about tone.

Arlene Foster’s tone in her speech to Killarney Economic Conference last Saturday was way more positive than we have heard from her and the DUP in well over a year, not only that, but it was delivered to a southern audience.

While the test of that changed tone will be to see if it is followed up with actions, the odds of seeing them would be dramatically increased by a similar improvement in tone from Sinn Féin. One that indicated that they are ready to engage in the real dialogue essential to see a return of the Executive and a meaningful input on Brexit from Northern Ireland’s elected leaders.

While Sinn Féin may feel content that the current crisis is benefitting them electorally, the current impasse is not working for nationalists or republicans on the ground. It is time for a new strategy. The events, missteps and bad judgements of the past ten days may, inadvertently, have given them the space to move to it, if they can acknowledge them.

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