Let me be honest: I’d never heard of Jim Sands before this morning. Jim, apparently, is a former Ulster Unionist Party candidate and a not particularly successful one: when he stood for office he got 38 votes. But Jim is in the news because the way he figures it, there couldn’t be enough tricolours on the Eleventh night bonfires. This, Jim states, is a peaceful way for young people who can’t vote to express their feelings. And in a classic case of presenting an issue in terms of false alternatives, he demands: “Is it not better burning their posters rather than their constituency offices?”
I remember years and years ago, when Bill and Hillary Clinton first came to Ireland, Hillary was glad-handing people corralled behind a pavement barrier. One male Dub pumped her hand and asked a question which you could tell left Bill’s wife a bit puzzled: “Are there any more at home like you?” The same question might be asked of Jim Sands: are there many of you in existence?
The sad answer to that is, Yes. If there weren’t, UUP MP Danny .Kinahan wouldn’t have had his photograph taken in front of a bonfire topped by a tricolour; our new Minister for Culture Paul Givan wouldn’t be shown grinning and thrusting a burning brand into a mountainous Eleventh night bonfire. There are clearly lots like Jim Sands out there, which I think we all suspected; what’s depressing is that no unionist politician seems prepared to stand up and say “Enough is enough. We are a self-respecting party and we call for, we demand an end of this barbaric practice of burning posters of election opponents, burning the Irish flag, burning religious icons. If you insist on carrying on like that, you’re doing it in the teeth of our loud opposition”.
What are the chances of that happening? Rien, nada, seans ar bith, below zero.
Why do these people do these things? Because they see it as a way of showing their defiance of the growth in nationalist/republican numbers and strength. Traditionally when faced with a challenge, the possibility of some gain by nationalists/republicans, unionism has turned to violence. I suppose we should be grateful, like Jim, that they’re not burning down constituency offices. Although, just so you’re maybe a wee bit clearer on the matter, Jim, it doesn’t have to be burnt flags or burnt offices – there are a whole range of other options. Like staying at home and watching telly. Like getting in some cans and getting drunk. Like treating people who’ve different political views from your own with respect. Yes I know, Virginia. But as Heaney said, sometimes we get lucky and the stars align, sometimes hope and history rhyme; and sooner or later people like Jim must see who is using them and who is offering them a better tomorrow.