One article that stood out for me, in the plethora of publications last week was Steven McCaffrey’s “Unionist leaders risk steering Northern Ireland into uncharted waters.” You can read the article here.
He charts how RHI faded, and an Irish Language Act came to the fore. He covers Gregory Campbell’s “curry my yoghurt”, and the less remembered “we will treat their entire wish list as toilet paper.” The renaming of the ‘Banrion Uladh’ to ‘Queen of Ulster’. Paul Givan’s withdrawal of the Gaeltacht grant scheme. McCaffrey drills down to the deeper question; what does parity of esteem for both British and Irish traditions look like?
If he’s right, then “curry my yoghurt” became part of collapsing a legislative body. Or rather, this comment, when taken as evidence of underlying intolerance, assisted in bringing down a government.
Three thoughts occur to me. Firstly, our politicians need to realise that when they wind up their own base, there’s also going to be reaction from elsewhere. Gerry Adams, at the funeral of Martin McGuinness, roused the crowd with “Martin McGuinness was not a terrorist; he was a freedom fighter”. The line played well, but if you had been caught in the terror that McGuiness helped create, I imagine it would have been hard to hear the humanity that followed. Adam’s listed McGuiness’s memories that never made it to a book, his courtship of Bernie, his love of poetry, how he liked to grow herbs, play chess and fly fish. I would suggest these were missed by many, because by that point only the base was listening.
Secondly, it’s a digital age. Things are seen and heard again and again. “Curry my yoghurt” was first said by Campbell in November 2014, just over three years ago. It’s on camera, and it’ll be around forever. While it was a start, it’ll take a good deal more than Arlene Foster saying ‘thank you’ in Irish to repair the damage. Our leaders need to get wise to the fact that cheap comments that amuse their colleagues or their base are going to linger for a long time, and that response rather than reaction would be the better choice.
Thirdly, if words and actions never go away, how do we respond to that? We’re still talking about Sammy Wilson’s holiday (and that was before social media in 1996). More seriously, Barrry McElduff and his loaf is now ingrained in the memory. But when someone says or does something in the heat of the moment either on social media, or that finds its way to social media, shouldn’t there be some grace offered so that one action doesn’t define that person forever after? Otherwise, who’s left standing? I’ve never had a Barry McElduff moment, but I’ve certainly said things I’ve regretted on social media. I’m sure there’s times I have caused offence, without ever meaning to. Without excusing myself completely, isn’t that the nature of social media; nuances and context get lost? Leeway is needed from all of us, for, if not all of us, quite a few of us.
We undoubtedly need greater professionalism in northern politics, but there is also a need for greater respect, decency and a little give and take from all of us. Small amounts of tunnel vision, intolerance and intransigence add up.