The Politician With The Loaf Of Bread On His Head

Every now and then a politician does something dumb.  It’s just human nature, of course, and the rest of us are just lucky that we don’t have people watching and recording everything that we do and say, waiting for a slip-up.  In New Zealand when a politician is caught out buying ridiculously expensive boxer shorts on expenses, donating a painting to a charity auction and just assuming that everyone will realise that she’s far too busy running the country to have painted it herself, or indulging their ponytail-pulling fetish, we roll our eyes and say, really?  What were they thinking?  That’s a bit off.  We’re not, as a rule, overly exercised about it because they tend to be excesses of ego, maybe blurring a line a little bit, but nothing to create a real scandal.  Some are worse than others, of course.  Metiria Turei admitted to benefit fraud, which put her clearly over a line, although in what I would consider a fairly minor way, and it turned out to be a career-limiting move.

When someone in the public eye does something stupid here it tends to have far more serious consequences because the country has a history of violence and terrorism that people have not forgotten.  There are people still hurting; the families of the Disappeared, for example.  The Disappeared are a group of eighteen people, all Catholics, who, well, disappeared during the 70s and 80s.  They were abducted, killed and hidden during the Troubles, mostly by the Provisional IRA.  One was a widowed mother of ten, taken from her home in front of her children.  Over the years various ex-IRA members and others have revealed the locations of most of the bodies, but four are still missing.  They have families who would like to know, and there are people out there who do know.  The Troubles officially ended with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 but not all the wounds have healed.

Meet Barry McElduff, the (now ex-) Sinn Fein MP for West Tyrone in Northern Ireland.


In his local dairy he made a video of himself wandering around with a loaf of bread on his head and posted it to social media, as you do.  He should have thought this one through, though, because not only did it turn out to be a career-limiting move, it also caused deep, deep hurt and offense.

In the early seventies Northern Ireland was a battleground.  The UK security forces were carrying out regular searches and raids and the various Republican groups were trying to get them out of Ireland by attacking and killing them in the hope that they would give up and go home.  The SAS was operating covertly and the IRA had been infiltrated.  In 1975 a truce was negotiated between the security forces, who would stop the raids, and the IRA, who would stop attacking them.  There were dissenters on both sides, however, and during the year that the truce lasted, sectarian killings rose.  Loyalists – mainly Protestants, who were loyal to the UK – were worried that the UK would withdraw from Northern Ireland so they attacked Catholics, killing 120 in 1975 alone, in the hope of provoking the IRA to retaliate and break the truce.  Most of the dead were civilians.  The IRA began to lose control of its members and various paramilitary groups formed, carrying out their own raids on security forces.  From more recent enquiries we now know that the Loyalist groups included police officers from the Royal Ulster Constabulary and soldiers from the Ulster Defence Regiment.

1975 was a bad year for Northern Ireland.  In July, Loyalists stopped a van at a fake military checkpoint and, after a time bomb they were trying to put inside went off early, shot five musicians who were travelling home to Dublin after playing a gig.  Four of the gunmen were serving British army soldiers.  In September five Protestant civilians were shot in a village hall and a week before Christmas five Catholic civilians were killed and twenty-six injured in two pub bombings involving several police officers and a serving army officer.  A week later three more Protestant civilians were killed in another pub bombing, and four days after that loyalist gunmen burst into the homes of two Catholic families and shot three people dead in each.  Again, police officers and a British army officer were involved.

Northern Ireland is a very small place.  It’s not like all the violence was happening ‘somewhere else’ – wherever you were, you would have cause to be worried.  Can you imagine going about your daily business, taking the kids to school, doing the shopping, wondering whether today is the day that the next car is blown up, or the next family shot in their own home, and whether it’ll be you or yours? I can’t, but this is how people lived, and it wasn’t very long ago, and it’s not forgotten.

On January 5 1976 a van carrying twelve textile workers home from work was stopped on a rural road by a man in military uniform.  They assumed it was one of the standard stop-and-search checkpoints regularly carried out by the British army.  As the van stopped, eleven gunmen came from behind a hedge.  They ordered the men to line up outside the van.  They asked which man was the Catholic.  The one Catholic identified himself and was told to run and not look back.  The other men were shot at close range with automatic rifles.  136 rounds were fired in less than a minute.  Then the gunmen walked away.

One man survived, despite being shot 18 times.  Ten died.  The Provisional IRA were later found to be responsible, and there is some evidence pointing to one of the gunmen having been a British agent.  More troops and security forces were sent to County Armargh and the sectarian leaders came under more pressure than ever before to stop the violence.  This event became known as the Kingsmill Massacre, and it was the last in the series of tit-for-tat killings in the area.  A retaliation attack was planned to take place in a local primary school, but it was cancelled because the leadership deemed it ‘morally unacceptable’, and because they suspected that the member who suggested it was a double agent working for British Military Intelligence whose agenda was to provoke a civil war.

Nobody has ever been charged in relation to the Kingsmill Massacre.  It’s still a live issue from time to time.  As recently as 2012, a proposed ‘March for Justice’ for the victims’ relatives was planned, opposed, allowed then postponed after one of the organisers received threats that he would be shot and his church burnt if it went ahead.

And then, on the 42nd anniversary of the Kingsmill Massacre, our friend MP McElduff put a loaf of Kingsmill bread on his head, videoed himself acting like a dick in his local dairy, and put it on Twitter.  ‘What was he thinking?’ doesn’t even begin to cover it.  He apologised, but there’s no coming back from seemingly publicly mocking the cold-blooded killing of ten innocent people.  He was suspended from his post, then resigned.

Mr McElduff is a stand-up comedian in his spare time.  Perhaps it’s his day job now.  He claims he was just trying to be funny.  In 1992 he was arrested and given a suspended sentence for ‘assisting the IRA in the false imprisonment of a suspected police informer’, which is a nice clean way of saying that he helped abduct somebody for the purpose of torturing information out of them.  When you have a history like that, I’d say you should be pretty careful about what you call funny.  It certainly seems that nobody else was laughing.

There are people in Ireland, North and South, still living with the grief of losing family members to sectarian violence.  Some of these victims were killed by people who should have been protecting them – soldiers and police officers.  Many of the perpetrators have never been punished, and were in fact protected at the highest levels.  Losing a loved one is bad enough; knowing there will never be justice because it was done by the people who control these things must be incredibly hard to live with.  Perhaps Mr McElduff really did just grab the nearest bread loaf to hand and the fact that it was the Kingsmill brand, on the Kingsmill Massacre anniversary, was a tragic coincidence.  I don’t know.  I think the real moral here is, try not to be a dick, and if you really can’t hep yourself, at least don’t record it and put it out there in the world where it could potentially hurt someone.







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Repealing the Eighth: I just want to say this one thing

The Eighth Amendment, giving the lives of mother and unborn baby equal significance, makes abortion illegal in the Irish State.  There will be a referendum in May giving people the chance to vote on its repeal, and it is currently the topic of much discussion in the media, in the Oireachtas, or Parliament, and on the streets.  The politicians are more or less united in the view that the law needs to be updated; what to change it to is the subject of far greater disagreement.  There are protests and marches by both ‘sides’, there are people on street corners handing out leaflets, there are women telling their stories.

When we arrived here something that caught my attention often  – and still does – was how many people with Down Syndrome there are.  Every time I go out I see them waiting at the bus stop, playing at the park, in cafés with friends, walking in school groups, on the bike thingy at the gym, doing their shopping.  I see them with carers, on their own, and in peer groups.  Daniel’s high school, with a roll of around 300, has a special needs unit comprising two full classes.  I think the reason I found it so noticeable to begin with is that, when I came to think of it, I couldn’t remember the last time I saw somebody with Down Syndrome out and about in the community in New Zealand.  I know they’re there, of course they are.  But as far as I can recall, by the time we left, times that I would see them were few and far between.

Ireland's Chris Farrell (left) alongside John Ryan, Quinn Roux and Jack McGrath pose for a photo with fan Jennifer Malone on arrival for the training session at Carton House, Co. Kildare. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday February 22, 2018. See PA story RUGBYU Ireland. Photo credit should read: Brian Lawless/PA Wire. RESTRICTIONS: Editorial use only. No commercial or promotional use without prior consent from IRFU. No alterations or doctoring.


Then I read an article, which I can’t reference for you because I can’t remember where it came from, about the very low rate of birth of babies with Down Syndrome in New Zealand, and how, in effect, you could see this as a form of eugenics.  We have the technology and the medical expertise to prevent people from coming into the world like this and it’s possible that in the near future Down Syndrome will be eradicated entirely.  The author was asking, is this what we really want?  Are we making the world a better place by doing this?  We can do it, but should we?

Down Syndrome has become the poster child for the ‘pro-life’ movement in the lead-up to the abortion referendum.  There is an enormous billboard on the side of our local shops showing a very cute baby with Down Syndrome and the information that in the U.K. 90% of pregnancies with this diagnosis are terminated.  Mothers are talking about their children, advocacy groups are saying don’t assume you know how people with Down Syndrome and their families feel about the abortion issue, and, for World Down Syndrome Day, the Down Syndrome Centre has released this lovely video.

As I move through my community here surrounded by people with Down Syndrome living their lives, this is what occurs to me.  If I was given this diagnosis during pregnancy when I was living in New Zealand, I imagine I would be scared.  I would be worried for my baby’s future.  I would wonder how we would cope as a family with the extra stress and medical needs.  I would wonder what sort of quality of life my child would have and how they would manage as an adult.  Part of the reason for my fear, I imagine, would be that I have no experience with the condition.  I have known no children with it and no mothers of children with it.  Because it is pretty much an invisible condition in NZ I would worry that my child would be the only one.  That he or she would be isolated, different, would be stared at and pointed at by other children who had never seen anyone who looks that way.  I would worry that there wouldn’t be sufficient support available, or adequate funding or medical resources, because that’s what happens when a medical condition becomes rare –  less money is put into it, less expertise is available, resources are diverted into other areas.


The talent show at the local high school

These worries may be unfounded.  Perhaps I would do my research and discover that plenty of help is available.  I don’t know.  But I would still be scared of what the future would bring because it would be a big, huge unknown.

If I was in the same situation here, I would also be scared.  Of course.  But it wouldn’t be so much of an unknown.  Every day I would be seeing children with the same condition as mine swinging and sliding at the playground.  Teenagers at the local food court sitting around a table scattered with phones, keys, drinks, chatting away as teenagers do.  Adults looking through clothes on the rack next to me in Penney’s.  I would know that my child has a decent chance at the sort of quality of life that is worth having.  I would know that they wouldn’t be the only one, they wouldn’t be seen as anything particularly out of the ordinary, they would be accepted by other children as different, maybe, but not unusually so.  If I wanted to, I could go down to our local village any day of the week and just rock up to a person with Down Syndrome, or a parent, and say, talk to me.  Tell me what to expect.  Tell me what my child’s life might be like.  Be realistic.  Tell me the hard parts.  Tell me the great parts.  Discuss.

SN GM 8 14 SUN_ED3_S01 SUN_ED4_S01 Read-Only

I have never been in a situation where something’s come up during pregnancy that has required any major decisions.  There but for the grace of God.  I cannot say what I would do and I certainly can’t say what anyone else would or should do.  It seems to me, though, that if I were pregnant here with a baby with Down Syndrome I would be less scared than if I were in the same situation in a country where it’s so much less visible.  And that might make a difference to my decision.

Common sense tells me that in many cases when parents decide to terminate because of fatal foetal abnormality or a diagnosis such as Down Syndrome, it’s not because they didn’t want the baby.  At least, not in any higher proportion than with any other pregnancy.  In most cases, surely, the baby was planned, loved, and very much wanted, and the decision to terminate would be absolutely heart-breaking.  It would be made sometimes out of  love for the baby, because nobody wants to bring into the world a child who’s going to experience more pain and misery than anything else, and sometimes out of fear of not coping, of the stress damaging the existing family unit, of the potentially enormous difficulties ahead.  For whatever reason, we know that in countries where abortion is freely available, many parents choose it after a prenatal diagnosis of Down Syndrome.

Rally for Life 1211

Here’s what I wonder.  If you took this group of parents before they made their choice and put them here, in Sallynoggin, Dublin, Ireland for a few months, how many would choose differently?  I believe some would.  I believe some who desperately want their child, but are worried about whether bringing it into the world would be an act of cruelty, would find at least some of the weight of worry about the unknown lifted, and maybe that would be enough to make the difference.  If that were the case, how happy they would be.

This situation, it’s nobody’s fault.  Each individual and each society, we have to believe, is doing their best.  The cycle of more people choosing to terminate certain pregnancies because of the increasing invisibility of people with various conditions, therefore contributing to this invisibility and perhaps making it more likely that the next parent faced with the choice will do  the same, was presumably an unintended and unforeseen side-effect of laws put in place to allow people the freedom to choose the best path for their own family.

I have no idea what the solution is.  I doubt that there is one.  I am not saying the Eighth should not be repealed.  For one thing, abortions are happening plenty in Ireland already, and they’re illegal and unsafe.  I would never presume to tell anyone else what they should or should not be doing in such a situation.  I am sure that even here, life as the parent of someone with Down Syndrome or any other high-needs condition is often gruelling and stressful.  I do know this, though: when I come back to New Zealand to live, I will miss seeing people with all sorts of disabilities out there living life in their community, on a daily basis.  That’s all I’m saying.







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