“When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to Fly by those nets.” 
James Joyce

Breaking bread with the dead

Breaking bread with the dead

There is rarely a quiet moment with Northern Ireland and this has been reaffirmed in spectacular fashion this week thanks to a loaf of bread.

Sinn Féin MP Barry McElduff posted a video of himself online in a service station with a loaf of bread balanced on his head, stating that McCullagh’s was a great service station “but where do they keep the bread?”.

Sounds simple enough except the loaf was Kingsmill and it was the anniversary of an atrocity in which ten workers were shot dead for being Protestant outside the County Armagh village of Kingsmill.

Was he intentionally making reference to this? Was the timing and brand of the loaf a deliberate shout out to an IRA atrocity? Not a clue. So I’m gonna stick a pin in that one and move onto the interesting part.

This video sparked a tidal wave of condemnation. Politicians and supporters from across the political spectrum condemned Barry, the Kingsmill victims’ families condemned him and eventually (the next day) Declan Kearney (SF) called his actions indefensible. Barry deleted the video and apologised stating he did not mean to draw a comparison or upset others. Calls for his resignation continued and people defending him as “just an eejit who means no harm” continued as well.

A meeting was held with Gerry Adams and other SF higher ups and McElduff was suspended for three months (with pay). 

Did this settle it? Not a chance.

A fair few Sinn Féin supporters were vocal in their support for McElduff insisting he didn’t mean offence but if he did then:

Unionism fired back with comments along the lines of “so much for Sinn Féin’s “respect” agenda, they have none for the Kingsmill families”. Alan Black, the survivor of the Kingsmill atrocity called for Barry to resign as the three month sentence was not sufficient.

People across the board criticised the light punishment and Unionist politicians battered the Shinners with statements declaring a lack of respect for victims of IRA atrocities, quoting the SF campaign buzzwords of “Respect, Equality and Integrity”. The effort by SF to have a playpark named after an IRA hunger striker who was found with a weapon used in the Kingsmill atrocity was also cited as further proof of mockery of the victims.

In steps local artist Brian John Spencer to allow the Shinners a chance to try and spin this back around.

He posted a cartoon showing the Kingsmill van riddled with bullet holes and a trail of blood pouring from the back of it. The cartoon was titled “Sinn Féin’s redlines” as Gerry Adams stood over the blood, a loaf atop his head and “EQUALITY!” being proclaimed from his mouth.

A number of Unionist politicians shared this cartoon that perfectly fit their talking points of dismissing Sinn Fein’s demands because of  Barry McElduff’s behaviour. Sammy Morrison (TUV) praised it, Christopher Stalford (DUP) and Doug Beattie (UUP) both shared it.
Doug Beattie defended the comic and cited Charlie Hebdo when questioning whether people would condemn them.

(I would point out Charlie Hebdo suffered a literal terrorist attack on their office for their drawings, while people were just voicing their disgust with Spencer’s cartoon and condemning people for sharing it).

Stalford captioned it with “Sinn Féin are offended by everything and ashamed of nothing.” A popular slogan in terms of reminding everyone that Sinn Féin supported the IRA (it was a whole big thing, we nicknamed it The Troubles).

McElduff’s supporters smelt blood in the water and swung back.

The cartoon was a tasteless use of the Kingsmill victims as a political football. Stalford should be ashamed of himself. He should resign! Because He Is Just As Bad As Barry™. 

Naomi Long (Alliance) got into a public dispute with Stalford on Twitter and accused him of political point scoring using the atrocity.

Eventually Stalford removed the post, citing a request from a representative of a family member of a Kingsmill victim. Doug Beattie also removed his retweet of the post. 

Brian stated he did not mean to cause any hurt with his cartoon but the image was “obscene but that part of our history is obscene”. 

Stalford defended the piece on Talkback as just hard-hitting political commentary in response to Sinn Féin’s “lecturing” on Equality issues.

Which are naturally null and void because Whattabouttheira (a fresh new DUP rhetoric that has never been used before).

The entire saga sparked a stream of people lamenting about opening wounds of the past and further division within political discourse. There were comments made by some Unionists on Twitter about dialogue with Sinn Fein being pointless and Mark Simpson of the BBC quipping that Stormont had been replaced with Twitter.

And now we stand in this uneasy tension. DUP and SF keeping each others at arms length as we are all waiting to see if this situation can be diffused.

A loaf of bread had again launched the bodies of the Northern Irish Conflict into the forefront of political discourse and fortified the trenches in the narrative war.

What happens next? No idea but I have a distinct feeling once the Parachute Regiment flags go up on social media and lamp posts on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday we will be revisiting this dispute. It may very well haunt the attitudes of those entering talks (if any) to try and restore power-sharing as we approach the 20th Anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. 

I feel that both Sinn Féin and the DUP did use the Kingsmill atrocity as a political football. Whether Barry McElduff was as malicious as people think is anyone’s guess.

Whilst the intent was debateable, the results of his effort were evidenced online with SF and DUP supporters performing incredible whataboutery across social media as mentioned earlier.

We saw people capitalise upon the outrage to push political points because naturally that will happen here. The empty chairs at tables around this country will follow us in our political discourse whether we want them to or not.

A lot of the entire rhetoric around parties such as SF and DUP (or even just Jim Allister’s entire purpose on this earth) are built around keeping that front and centre and they cannot afford to give that up or climb down from their selected body-counts as it will be a betrayal to somebody’s narrative on the conflict.

With regards to the cartoon, I personally feel its message was a shallow parroting of the usual DUP line of reminding everybody about “Sinn Féin/IRA” except instead of it being to defend the DUP against criticism on a policy point, it was just a targeting a Sinn Fein policy point off the back of the loaf incident.

Using the campaign for equality as some sort of hostage in demanding Sinn Féin sack Barry McElduff is cynical and using the imagery of the atrocity as an excuse to do so is a tad tasteless in terms of showing your deep respect for the victims.

Spencer cited “hypocrisy” as the target of the cartoon yet the Gerry Adams character shouts “Equality” a buzzword for their demands around Irish language rights and marriage equality.

Do I think we can police what Brian John Spencer draws or how he draws things to promote a message? Nope.
Do I think we have the right to criticise what he draws and others for promoting it? Of course.

It’s one of the perks of having the right to freedom of speech and expression. I was surprised the “culture of being offended” defence wasn’t used in the discourse around this since it seems to be the go-to response whenever someone says they think something is bad.

The fact that such an incident with McElduff can spark some rather vicious discourse is just symptomatic of the unresolved issues we’re carrying with us from the conflict. The fight over who excuses or justifies which atrocities surrounds the impasse on legacy and was illustrated perfectly by how quickly people just assumed McElduff was clearly making a mockery of a massacre.

It’s a difficult situation to try and find a path out of because the two groups primarily involved are so stalwart in their opposition of conceding to the other.

I would suggest McElduff and Sinn Féin in general dwell on why people assumed he was mocking murder and take a hard look at how their narrative around the conflict and IRA atrocities continues to fill our citizens with such anger.

Republican rhetoric acknowledges reaching out to unionists in pursuit of a United Ireland.I feel they will continue to struggle to achieve this whilst they refuse to acknowledge that naming something like a playpark after an IRA member might upset people without indulging in “whattabout Royal Avenue” type responses.

I would suggest that political Unionism make an attempt to stop relying on the victims of those atrocities as a manufactured high ground upon which to oppose any sort of progressive demand put forward that happens to also be supported by Sinn Féin. Stopping our citizens getting married isn’t going to unwrite our bloodsoaked history or magically stop a United Ireland. Regardless of how many Trojan horse memes can be thrown at it.

I appreciate these comments can be dismissed because I’m just a dirty Lundy, West-Brit, Pan-Nationalist, Shared Future type who’s singing from the <insert whatever party you don’t like> hymn sheet.

I feel there is a more constructive approach to steering this country forwards (and island if I may be so bold to acknowledge that) than digging trenches and sniping at each other. All that has done in the past has created the same graves we’re arguing over today and a failure to resolve it will always carry a terrible risk of new graves in the future. This is still the daily cycle of our lives and politics and with the 20th Anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement looming, the progress we can claim to have made beyond “at least we’re not killing each other” is laughable. “Just get along” has been said a million times before and the fact it still needs said is embarrassing and frustrating and we as a people can do better. We have to do better.

The Artist

The Artist

Karen Bradley already teeters on the edge of a Glass Cliff

Karen Bradley already teeters on the edge of a Glass Cliff