‘Barry McElduff is too clever for it to have been an accident’

The Sinn Féin MP’s West Tyrone constituents react to his Kingsmill Twitter video

'Sinn Féin talk about equality? There can be more no talk of equality now, they can’t mention that again,' says Robert Gilchrist, above, with Laura Kelly

'Sinn Féin talk about equality? There can be more no talk of equality now, they can’t mention that again,' says Robert Gilchrist, above, with Laura Kelly

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On the main street of Omagh, Co Tyrone, everyone is talking about Barry McElduff.

Even those who hurry past, heads down, along the town’s main street, calling over their shoulders that they “haven’t seen the video”, appear less uninformed than trying to avoid controversy.

One man simply rolls his eyes at the mention of the local MP’s name; others explain that he’s being discussed “everywhere”.

“I’m not a Sinn Féin voter; I’d be very middle of the road,” says Laura Kelly. “I’ve loads of friends on both sides and we don’t talk about politics but we have been talking about Barry McElduff.

“We’ve all said we don’t feel it was an accident, I just think he’s too clever for that – well, he wasn’t that clever.”

The video in question – of Mr McElduff posing with a loaf of Kingsmill bread on his head – was posted on Twitter a week ago.

It was the 42nd anniversary of the massacre of the same name, in which the IRA killed 10 Protestant textile workers in south Armagh.

The tweet has been widely condemned. The sole survivor of the massacre, Alan Black, said it was “absolutely disgusting” and had “devastated” the families of those killed as well as both Catholics and Protestants in south Armagh.

Mr McElduff has since apologised for the hurt caused by his “ill-judged” actions, saying he “genuinely meant no offence”. He has been suspended from Sinn Féin for three months.

The Irish Times has attempted to contact Mr McElduff but has received no response.

Complaints have been made to the PSNI and the House of Commons; the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has appealed to voters in Mr McElduff’s constituency to “elect somebody with a little bit more character” the next time they go to the ballot box.

On Thursday, Sinn Féin MLA John O’Dowd told the BBC’s The View that the Kingsmill murders were “wrong” and “shameful”, and said he was not surprised the relatives of those killed would not accept Barry McElduff’s apology because “republicans have hurt them and harmed them”. His comments were welcomed by, among others, the DUP MLA Edwin Poots, who said he hoped the two parties could now work together to help restore the North’s devolved government.

‘He’s innocent’

Omagh is the main town in west Tyrone – and one of Sinn Fein’s electoral stroingholds. A market town of about 20,000 people, it is irrevocably linked to the 1998 bombing that killed 29 people, including a woman pregnant with twins – more than any single atrocity of the Troubles. Sinn Féin has held the Westminster seat since 2001; Mr McElduff, a former MLA who went to school in Omagh and who is from nearby Carrickmore, was elected as an MP for the first time in June.

The constituency – which was more than two-thirds Catholic in the last census in 2011 – elected Mr McElduff with a majority of more than 11,000, or just over 50 per cent of the vote.

“I actually think he’s innocent, he’s a joker anyway, and he just put the thing on the top of his head and never thought,” says one Sinn Féin voter, who declines to give his name.

Tweets:

He explains he used to vote SDLP, but has voted for Sinn Féin – and Mr McElduff – in the last two elections as he believes they are the strongest opponents of the DUP.

“I’d vote for him again. I know him personally, I know his background, and he’s a genuine bloke who, if he could do you a good turn, he would.

“He’s got a good base here and he does a lot of good work for people. I can’t see it affecting him electorally.”

Rob Gubbins: “I think it’s totally irrelevant. A lot of voters don’t vote with their brains in Northern Ireland”
Rob Gubbins: “I think it’s totally irrelevant. A lot of voters don’t vote with their brains in Northern Ireland.”

Another man explains he has voted for Mr McElduff in the past, and will continue to do so in the future.

“You need to know Barry as a character to understand. That’s just the way he goes on – it’s silliness, lack of maturity, on his part.

“It wouldn’t put me off voting for him.”

‘Absolutely disgusted’

Others feel the opposite. One woman, her voice trembling with rage, says she’s “absolutely disgusted”.

“He should be put out of his job and kept out.”

For Christine McLaughlin – who describes herself as a nationalist who “would never vote for Sinn Féin” – the sanction imposed on Mr McElduff was “disappointing”.

“I do think there was an opportunity there for Sinn Féin to do something different and to be seen to be standing and representing all the things they articulate, but I don’t think it creates a lot of confidence that things have changed.”

Ron Gubbins agrees. He doesn’t vote because he believes it’s a waste of time, and says while he would like to see voters choose other parties, he doesn’t believe anything will change.

“I think it’s totally irrelevant. A lot of voters don’t vote with their brains in Northern Ireland. They vote for parties according to religion, and not according to the competence of the candidate.”

Only Laura Kelly is doubtful. “I don’t know if he’ll get in again or not, but then he wouldn’t be my choice anyway.”

In the continued absence of a government at Stormont – a year and counting – and the increasingly polarised nature of voting patterns in the North, the controversy over the video has yet again illuminated the apparently irreconcilable divide at the heart of the current political deadlock in Northern Ireland.

In Omagh, there is disappointment – and a sense that controversies such as this one are adding to that sense of division.

“It’s left everything further back now than ever,” says Robert Gilchrist.

He felt Mr McElduff should have been expelled from politics for the “insult” to the Kingsmill families.

“Sinn Féin talk about equality? There can be more no talk of equality now, they can’t mention that again,” he says.

Ms McLaughlin agrees. “This type of event gives people mileage and then there’s the point-scoring, and we’ve seen that played out over the last few days.

“None of it is about the real work that needs to be done.”

Nationalists embarrassed

Another man, who identifies himself as from the unionist community and stresses he has no time for Mr McElduff – who he refers to as “head the ball” – explains that the significance of the video is that it has outraged people of all backgrounds.

“Barry McElduff is anti-union and he was always known as that in this area.

“But people from the nationalist community are embarrassed about it, and when they’re embarrassed about it there must be something wrong.”

Many emphasise that Omagh has always been a “mixed” town. In November a plan was unveiled for an ambitious shared education project, which it is hoped will eventually educate 4,000 pupils, Protestant and Catholic, on the site of the former Lisanelly army base.

It’s one of many ways in which Omagh has worked hard to move on from the trauma of the 1998 bomb, which some argue gives everyone from the town a particular responsibility.

As one unionist voter puts it, “there are some names you’ll always associate with the Troubles. Omagh is one. Kingsmill is another.”

“I think it has brought us to a new low,” says McLaughlin.

“Based on Omagh’s own experience as a town of the Troubles – and Barry’s only from out the road – I would have that we of all people should be mindful of victims and survivors,” says McLaughlin.

“It’s a shame, because this is a great place with great people and on a day-to-day basis we work together and people’s backgrounds aren’t a big issue.

“I think in our heads we have moved on quite considerably, but it’s the politicians that drag us back.”

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