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.