As a close witness of the DUP’s surreal days in control of Ballymena’s council chamber in and around the 1990s, the recent conduct of Gregory Campbell has a very distinct echo of the way those DUP councillors spoke about those who didn’t look (or think) as they did.
It was summed up perfectly back then by a Nationalist friend in Ballymena who wasn’t the only person to explain that, partly as a result of DUP councillors’ actions, he felt “tolerated in my own town…but only as long as I stay quiet and know my place”.
It’s hard not to see a reflection of the same thinking in Gregory Campbell’s bizarre comments about an edition of Songs of Praise which, to the embarrassment of large amount of people in NI, gained attention far and wide.
Many people have found the subtext to Gregory’s comments to be perfectly clear: that BAME musicians are to be tolerated…but only until they become even slightly too visible.
How does this compare to similar incidents back in that infamous Ballymena council chamber? The whiff of a particular message from some representatives is still as strong 20 years later: that those outside DUP thinking are expected to quietly step off the kerb and doff their cap to their betters.
Further examples of this ethos are so common in many DUP representatives’ conduct – both back in 1990s Ballymena and in DUP representative’s statements today – that it is almost difficult to select highlights.
The Heady Days of the DUP’s Ballymena
Some incidents illustrating this point from the 1990s/ early 00s heyday (pun intended) in that DUP-controlled council come immediately to mind.
But one perhaps forgotten, and very aptly illustrative, controversy from 2002 stands apart: the refusal of DUP councillors to accept a brass plate, presented as gesture of friendship, from a Muslim group because – to quote one representative – “I do not believe in the Islamic faith or their traditions and I am suspicious because of the attacks on New York and Washington over six months ago”.
“A lot of people in the United States and elsewhere have been slaughtered by them.”
That underlying subtext again: you can live quietly in our town, if you must, but don’t expect us to acknowledge you.
The same conduct was also seen in DUP councillors’ approach to other groups. As a scene-setter for younger readers, this was a period when Belfast newspapers enjoyed a steady supply of what they referred to as ‘Bible belt’ antics from Ballymena such as chaining up playpark swings on a Sunday and banning the ‘devil’s music’ rock band ELO from a council venue.
So even atheists and non-evangelical Christians were tolerated but – and here’s that subtext again -as long as they don’t expect to use the (closed) leisure centre on the Sabbath, enjoy the locked play-parks on a Sunday or wish see a relatively sedate ‘rock’ band on council premises.
The More Things Change…1990s DUP Thinking in a New Era
Where to begin, then, with pulling out a few current-day examples of the same ‘doff your cap and stay quiet’ thinking in the party?
To almost randomly select three examples: a Nationalist sportsperson daring to hold an opinion (support for live and let live freedom of speech extending only to closer friends), local Republic of Ireland fans wishing to see their team celebrated, or Pride supporters hoping merely to see their flag flown. And that’s without going into famously stronger, and well-known, head-turning statements by the DUP old guard on various identity subjects.
On the subject of Pride: the actions and words of DUP representatives concerning the LGBTQ+ community represent, of course, a subject way too large for anything but an extended blog of its down. This is neither the right article, nor am I the right person, to do the subject justice.
Similarly, statements from the DUP, again featuring Gregory Campbell, about the Irish language – many people could easily see as including that familiar subtext discussed here – are well documented elsewhere and an entire topic in their own right.
Gregory’s ‘Double Down’ and Arlene’s Response
The messaging of his ‘double down’ position itself is, as such things go, so ill-conceived it is staggering to imagine that it was either produced with any input from any kind of DUP HQ media relations professional or – perhaps worse – released without their input.
In either case, it includes the surreal defence of “support….when you agree with me”; Gregory stating that he is against racism but giving an example (a sportsperson declining to ‘take a knee’) where he is, essentially, supporting someone who already agrees with his existing view. He is therefore, essentially, supporting himself.
While Gregory appeared to deny the existence of any content of concern in the original post, Arlene Foster said that it contained “sentiments” which she does not “identify with”. The mild tone of these words stands in contrast to an obvious broader context: calling for other people to be sacked is far from unheard of from DUP representatives, while the DUP’s own ‘party officers’ referral system remains not just famously the subject of amusement on social channels but apparently untroubled in this instance.
Ultimately, for many of those watching events unfold that subtext arises yet again. In this instance a perceived case of only just tolerating a community, as long as that community doesn’t wish to have its own half hour of television among an almost 60 year long history.
In Defence of the DUP?
Are there two points we should be considering in the DUP’s defence? That – firstly – individual representatives do not speak for the whole and also that some have a mandate for their views?
If individual representatives feel that contemptuous DUP representative statements about minority groups do not represent their views then they only need to speak out when it occurs. There are regular opportunities.
As for the mandate argument, surely no one is claiming that anyone can have a mandate for what some consider to be racist statements and, for example, suppression of simple LGBTQ+ representation as a ballot box demand. Especially when DUP representatives have, in the past, been handed their vote by the UUP based on the constitutional question and will now benefit from the same free pass again.
But if we’re suggesting that voters are in actively in support of the worst of DUP conduct, it says little for the ‘Union for all’ we hear described so urgently as a now-vital constitutional status quo-saving essential every party conference season.
With some support on social media for Gregory’s post coming from corners of opinion most parties would want to avoid, the DUP might want to be careful that, with a border ref looming sooner or later, the 20+ year old habit of expecting other groups to quietly know their place doesn’t cost them the one thing they hold most dear.
After all, there’s a choice between the 1990s Ballymena-style ‘clickbait right-wing’ and the future of the party, perhaps even that ‘Union for all’ Northern Ireland itself, to be made.
Meanwhile, the number of people prepared to doff their caps to their DUP betters is shrinking all the time.
The question therefore demanding action – not words – from the DUP…and fast: ‘Union for all’ or two-tier society?
The clock, by Unionism’s own admission, is ticking.
Conor Johnston – @CJohnstonNI – writes about subjects including culture, identity and media.
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