This is my Broadsheet column from Tuesday last on the fallout from Sinn Féin MP, Barry McElduff’s callous Kingmill video tweet. It was written just before DUP MLA, Christopher Stalford sent out another unwise and insensitive tweet** (since deleted at request of the families of Kingsmill victims)
Precisely how do you suspend an abstentionist MP?
Do you make them show up and take their seat in the House of Commons for 3 months as part of their punishment?
Eh, no… you don’t.
But, as we have learned since Sinn Féin “acted quickly” to deal with Barry McElduff’s tweet mocking the Kingsmill massacre, he will be on full pay while he is suspended from party activities for three months.
It is almost worthy of a Lewis Carroll story. “Acting quickly” means waiting two full days to gauge public reaction and decide what is sufficient to assuage any anger among the middle ground.
“Suspending” means no actual loss of definable privileges for the guilty party, just the appearance of a loss of some non-specified ones.
To be fair to Sinn Féin’s leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill, she did concede that what McElduff had done in his online video was “inexcusable and indefensible”. This is something that many of McElduff’s online defenders, both named and anonymous, were not prepared to accept or acknowledge at any point on Saturday or Sunday.
O’Neill also accepted “the seriousness of the issue” and – directly addressing the families of the Kingmill’s victims – told them that she “recognised the hurt this has caused and I wholeheartedly apologise for any distress.”
While her words give the impression of a leader who gets it, even if it had taken her a few days to get it, her inaction tells a very different story.
She had the opportunity to properly sanction McElduff and send out the message that the next generation of Sinn Féin leader was different from the last one – and she flunked it.
The deliberate irony in her statement is that McElduff’s non-punishing punishment bizarrely fits his offence. His online joke, at the expense of the victims of the provo atrocity at Kingsmill, was aimed at an internal audience. So was his punishment.
His joke was intended to go over the heads of those outside the provos. It was an in-joke. The problem is that he forgot that others would see it and might just wonder what the hell was funny about a guy walking around a convenience store late at night with a sliced pan on his head.
The in-joke, for his provo audience, was probably not intended to mock the victims as such, just to tell his own people that the victims of the provos terror are not to be accorded as high a place in any hierarchy of victims as their own dead.
It was type a dog whistle to the provos not to pay much heed to the next day’s anniversary commemoration of Kingsmill and not to take any of the media coverage of the provos callous slaying of 10 protestant workmen in 1976 seriously.
McElduff has carved out a role for himself over the years as a sort of in-house court jester. He is the one warming up the crowd at Sinn Féin gatherings with jokes at the expense of others. Every party has such a figure. But in other parties they, or those around them, know what is suitable for joking and what is not. It does not take them three days to cop on.
What Elduff got wrong was that he forgot that Sinn Féin’s public position is that all victims are equal and that all victims are due equal respect. He gave the game away.
He demonstrated with his buffoonery that Sinn Féin believes that its dead are superior to everyone else’s. It is an old tactic. Dehumanise the other side. See them as less than you. That way it is easier to inflict the terror. The “war” may be over, but the attitudes continue.
McElduff’s punishment is a bit better crafted than his in-joke. The three-month apparent suspension is primarily aimed at the external audience – at you and me. It is intended to convince us that Sinn Féin’s new leadership takes this matter seriously and that its words about respecting all equally have meaning.
But the internal audience is the more important one.
That older audience within Sinn Féin will know the three-month suspension is meaningless. All those who defended McElduff over the weekend will see that this is not even a slap over the wrist.
They will take this message the way it was intended. They will see that the “new” leadership is telling them, just as the old leadership always did, that what they are saying and doing is all ok.
The message is clear, nothing at all has changed.
**These are the Stalford tweets referred to above: