From top: Sinn Féin’s Michele O’Neil (second right) addresses media following Barry McElduff’s resignation as MP for West Tyrone; Derek Mooney

The essential ingredient of politics is timing.” So said Pierre Trudeau, former Canadian Prime Minister and father of Leo Varadkar’s current favourite politician.

The former member of parliament for West Tyrone, Barry McElduff, has learned this basic lesson the hard way. But he is not the only one.

If he had resigned last Sunday or Monday, much of the pain and distress of the past week could have been avoided.

The relatives and friends of the victims of the Kingsmill massacre would have been spared the nonsense excuses and the insult of seeing the Sinn Féin leadership, North and South, imposing and then repeatedly defending its three-month non-penalty.

Sinn Féin’s political opponents would have been denied the open goal presented to them to score points off them and the Sinn Féin leadership would have avoided the embarrassment of defending its slow and inadequate response.

Indeed, if Sinn Féin had not waited two full days to deliver its three-month suspension and had acted more speedily and decisively to address the spiraling McElduff crisis on the Saturday after the tweet it could have even helped to jump start the process of ending the year-long political stalemate between Sinn Féin and the DUP.

But it didn’t.

To paraphrase Abba Eban, some politicians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

So, one week later, Barry McElduff is no longer the honourable member of parliament for West Tyrone, a by-election is imminent and a return of he Northern Ireland Executive is as far off as it was before Christmas.

While McElduff did act over a week late, he is nonetheless entitled to some personal credit for doing the right thing. It does seem that he alone took the decision to resign, something that Sinn Féin’s Northern leader, Michelle O’Neill acknowledged in the opening line of her statement at the hastily convened press conference responding to the resignation.

Yet we see some “sources” in Sinn Féin attempting, this morning, to hint that McElduff may have been compelled to resign for the greater good, to ease the mounting pressure on senior Sinn Féin figures – particularly after Miriam O’Callaghan’s moving interview with the one survivor, Alan Black .

According to Fiach Kelly in today’s Irish Times:

“Sinn Féin sources maintain Mr McElduff made his own decision to resign but acknowledged it was impossible to defend his “stupid” actions as the controversy intensified.

“If I had been sent out to defend it, I would have found it very difficult,” said one TD.

One party source said that it was noticeable that Sinn Féin spokespeople did not seek to defend Mr McElduff in weekend media appearances. “No one was jumping to his defence.”

While that may be true for the Sinn Féin TDs who spoke with the Irish Times, it wasn’t quite true for all of them. It also completely misses the point that the problem was not just with McElduff’s tweet it was with the leadership’s paltry and derisory response. Together, McElduff and the leadership tainted themselves with the sins of the past.

There was no shortage of Sinn Féin public representatives happy to retweet McElduff’s original twitter video, including Sinn Féin’s former Finance Minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir. Neither was there any shortage of them to stand by McElduff in the days immediately after the tweet.

True, the solidarity did somewhat dissipate after last week’s suspension and the acknowledgement by Michelle O’Neill that the tweet was “ill-judged and indefensible” but some were still prepared to go out and argue McElduff’s cause and more were happy to defend how the leadership responded.

This included the usually adept Éoin Ó Broin TD who went further than most on Sunday’s Marian Finucane radio show on RTÉ Radio One, dredging the depths of the Sinn Féin lexicon to come up with the weasel phrase “unjustifiable killings” to describe what had happened at Kingsmill.

Just as we call what happened at Bloody Sunday “murder”, so too should we call what happened at Kingsmill “murder”. Ten brutal, callous, sectarian murders which Seamus Heaney described as ‘one of the most harrowing moments in the whole history of the harrowing of the heart in Northern Ireland’.

Heaney’s telling of the horrific story of Kingsmill in his 1995 Nobel Prize lecture is worth reading. In it, he tells how the masked gunmen, who stopped the minibus full of workers heading home, ordered the group out at gunpoint and called on any Catholics to step forward.

There was one. Fearing that the masked gunmen were loyalists, one of the protestant workmen took the lone Catholic’s hand and squeezed it in a signal that said, don’t move, we’ll not betray you. The catholic stepped forward, only to be pushed aside by the gunman who then murdered the others.

Heaney observed:

“The birth of the future we desire is surely in the contraction which that terrified Catholic felt on the roadside when another hand gripped his hand, not in the gunfire that followed…”

It was – and it still is.

While the past 10 days have brought back many painful memories from a dark and difficult past, it is possible for political leaders from all sides, North and South, to still siphon some progress from the wreckage.

While all politics is about timing, Irish politics is also about tone.

Arlene Foster’s tone in her speech to Killarney Economic Conference last Saturday was way more positive than we have heard from her and the DUP in well over a year, not only that, but it was delivered to a southern audience.

While the test of that changed tone will be to see if it is followed up with actions, the odds of seeing them would be dramatically increased by a similar improvement in tone from Sinn Féin. One that indicated that they are ready to engage in the real dialogue essential to see a return of the Executive and a meaningful input on Brexit from Northern Ireland’s elected leaders.

While Sinn Féin may feel content that the current crisis is benefiting them electorally, the current impasse is not working for nationalists or republicans on the ground. It is time for a new strategy. The events, missteps and bad judgements of the past ten days may, inadvertently, have given them the space to move to it, if they can acknowledge them.

Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil-led government 2004 – 2010. His column appears here every Tuesday morning. Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney

Pic: PA

17 thoughts on “Fatal Hesitation

  1. Frilly Keane

    “Weasel Phrase”

    really Mr Mooney?

    of all the Anti Sinn Fein ranting you’ve been allowed here, that
    “Weasel Phrase”
    is the one you’ll regret the most
    I promise you

    1. Rob_G

      How is “unjustifiable killings” anything other than weasel words?

      Your vague threat in this context is kind of sinister tbh, Frilly.

      1. Frilly Keane

        for starters
        Éoin Ó Broin is highly likely to be a future Government Minister
        and for an FF strategist to be tagging his comments as Weasel is asking for trouble

        and I have every intention of reminding him of such when
        say
        The FF influence behind the Pedophile Kenneally – containing the story I believe is the term used by the FF Whistleblower
        a bit rich for John McGuinness who was only up the road himself, ta’ be screaming blue murder about the ‘Grace’ scandal

        1. newsjustin

          “for starters
          Éoin Ó Broin is highly likely to be a future Government Minister…”

          That’s only assuming he doesn’t make a video of himself to mock murder victims Frilly. I hope he doesn’t, he seems a sensible enough fella. But you never know.

        2. qwerty123

          “Éoin Ó Broin is highly likely to be a future Government Minister” I would say the complete opposite. Economy doing better, less people on the dole, therefore less SF supporters. FF/FG will never go into coalition with them, especially now given McElduffs antics and the above. IMO mind. FF will never go into coalition with SF.

          1. ahjayzis

            FF will never go into coalition with FG either, though.

            No sirree.

            Oh wait.

            Any FF TD would sell your granny to the dog food factory for the chance at even a meagre ministerial pension and slaps on the back from their dodgy mates.

          2. Cian

            “Any FF TD would sell your granny …”
            I think you mean “Any FF TD would sell their granny”.

            I mean, why wouldn’t they sell someone else’s granny for dog food?

        3. Rob_G

          I’m sorry, but what has any of this got to do with the price of eggs?

          You don’t have to be a FF supporter to acknowledge that Mooney is right on some things; O’Broin referring to the Kingsmill murders as ‘unjustifiable killings’ was mealy-mouthed weasel words, and he was 100% right to call him out over it.

    2. ahjayzis

      You’d be fine then if Theresa May referred to murders committed by UK soldiers and policemen as “unjustifiable killings” then? That wouldn’t raise an eyebrow?

      Murder is a powerful word, when you don’t use it to describe an actual cold blooded murder, it’s obvious to people, and obviously purposeful. It’s equivocating on the roadside execution of men on their way home from work.

      The PIRA still maintain they had nothing to do with Kingsmill, that makes this whatabouttery even more damning from SF.

  2. Catherine costelloe

    Did he make a terrible mistake and forget the Kingsmill anniversary was the following day? I suppose if he posted this photo in August we may have thought he was acting the eejit? I doubt, somehow he did it maliciously . I read he was always posting daft photos so will give him the benefit. FF covers up the murder of Fr Molloy , brought in arms for the IRA , hypocrites.

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