Lessons in Lambeg Leadership

As another Marching Season rolls into view, clear signs of faux outrage from unionist politicians are already discernible, feeding the paranoid loyalist masses.

To stand at a sectarian interface for two years in a working class district, marching towards it at nights, making frequent, angry, menacing yet futile speeches every week, erecting new flags and banners to face the Other to provoke annoyance; such is the station of many working class loyalists in north Belfast.

The abdication of leadership within political unionism continues to leave such individuals without any sense of direction. And there is little sign of change.

The latest illustration of unionism’s leadership deficit has been brought to us courtesy of the carefully co-ordinated faux unionist outrage at the pending prosecution of Pastor James McConnell for his comments about Islam.

It is worth reflecting for a minute on how McConnell’s comments bore no relation to sectarian tensions that exist in north Belfast between protestant loyalists and catholic nationalists.

But when you’re trying to stoke the flames, that is a minor obstacle to overcome.

And so, within hours of news that Pastor McConnell is to face prosecution from the Public Prosecution Service for comments he made in which he described Islam as “Satanic,” DUP MLA William Humphrey picked up the Orange Drum.

Humphrey screamed that this was double standards because the PPS had not proceeded with charges against The Druids band, following comments made at a concert in Ardoyne last summer.

The DUP could have addressed the McConnell incident on its own merit. That could have involved defending freedom of speech and opinion, noting the need to balance views, including those of clergy in a church setting, with the responsibilities of all in society to protect vulnerable minority communities from those blinded by prejudice and intolerance.The DUP could have walked that middle line, defending their opposition to the prosecution of Pastor McConnell whilst addressing fears and concerns of the minority communities who have bore the brunt of racist attacks in Belfast in recent years.

They could have. But they didn’t.

Instead, they chose the easier path, deciding it would be best to sectarianise the issue, doing so in the usual cack-handed manner which leaves them vulnerable on a number of fronts, which I will demonstrate below (I appreciate the pastor’s comments brought sectarianism front and centre, but we’ve a traditional interpretation of sectarian to maintain ’round these parts….)

A PPS Spokesperson wasted no time in dismissing the spurious charge from Humphrey:

“The assumption that these cases are directly comparable is wrong. The only similarity is that a decision was made in both cases that the test for prosecution for an offence of stirring up hatred or arousing fear, contrary to Article 9 (1) of the Public Order (Northern Ireland) Order 1987 was not met.

“The decision to prosecute Pastor McConnell relates to the different offence of sending, or causing to be sent, by means of a public electronic communications network, a message or other matter that was grossly offensive, contrary to section 127(1) of the Communications Act. There was no evidence available to support the bringing of such a charge in the case of the Druids.

“We consider that this matter is now most properly left to the courts to decide.”

What is fascinating is that William Humphrey had this to say in defence of his charge that The Druids should also have faced prosecution:

“There seems to be a double standard being applied here and it is up to the PPS to prove that this is not the case.

“The implied justification for PSNI and PPS inaction on the matter of The Druids was that the speech was given to a nationalist crowd in a nationalist area.

“This is false. This was an open air event, with a concert-standard PA system. The sounds travels far, as evidenced by noise complaints from previous years.

“The event takes place in the grounds of the Holy Cross Boys’ Primary School. The grounds are yards from the interfaces of Ardoyne/Woodvale and Ardoyne/Lower Oldpark. It also ignores its distribution on the internet.”

The MLA went on to say: “The differential behaviour by the PSNI and PPS in dealing with these two complaints in north Belfast is contributing to distrust in and disengagement from our policing and legal processes. These problems need to be acknowledged and addressed. Therefore I call on the PSNI and the PPS to offer full and public explanations of why they behaved differently in these two cases.”

Let’s leave aside the comments from the PPS. From the stance outlined by Humphrey, the DUP position would appear to be that either song lyrics or words spoken in public in a non-contentious area are grounds for prosecution.

Well, now, doesn’t that just open up a whole new can of worms?

Firstly, this would effectively mean that any and all loyalist bonfire sites which proceed to play loyalist songs which include lyrics that could be deemed offensive could leave individuals associated with the events open to prosecution.

Secondly, loyalist bands participating in parades in non-contentious areas (ie as exclusively unionist as Ardoyne is nationalist) are now vulnerable to being prosecuted if they play songs with lyrics that could be deemed offensive if the music can be heard in the distance.

And on that vein, footage released last night shows a loyalist band participating in Friday night’s Tour of The North parade striking up The Famine Song immediately after passing the point outside St Patrick’s Church on Donegall Street where the Parades Commission had decreed the bands had to maintain a single drumbeat. Using the DUP criteria outlined by William Humphrey, this band would need to face charges.

So. To recap.

What started as an issue about a pastor commenting upon Islam was quickly deflected by a senior DUP politician into a sectarian squabble aimed at deepening divisions with the most significant Other (as opposed to the less significant Other referenced by McConnell), with grassroots loyalists falsely being told along the way that they are being victimised by the police and the courts and that the Catholics are being treated more favourably than them.

Thus is the story of how the flag protesters were created. The bogus grievance narrative requires careful nurturing, you know…..