Was Barry McElduff being deliberately offensive?

I watched a TV documentary on Michael Palin, shortly before the Barry-McElduff-and-Kingsmill-bread storm broke. In the documentary, Palin discussed what was funny about the fish-slapping dance, where as the name suggests, two men dance and slap each other in the face with a fish. Palin said it was hard to pin down the humour but a lot of people thought it hugely funny.

Anyone familiar with Barry McElduff will know that he posts short videos of a similar quirky nature. There’s one of him deep in DUP territory, getting a bar of Snickers from a snack machine at Stormont. Not on the face of it the funniest thing ever but the way McElduff did it, it was a laugh.

The loaf-on-the-head routine came from the same stable. What’s funny about putting a loaf on your head and walking around a small store? For many, not a lot, but it’s fairly typical of what McElduff does.

And the fact that it was a loaf of Kingsmill bread, on the anniversary of the Kingsmill massacre? I pass on that. I find myself faced with two facts which are contradictory and yet co-exist.

The first is the one that McElduff’s critics – and they have been more than many and loud  –make a reasonable charge when they claim he knew that ‘Kingsmill’ was written on the loaf and he knew that his performance would be very offensive, especially for the relatives of those who were killed at Kingsmill. Like most people, say ‘Kingsmill’ to me and the first thing I think of is the massacre. Barry McElduff is an experienced politician and it’s hard – virtually impossible – to believe that the same thought hadn’t occurred to him as he reached for the loaf.

The contradictory fact is one that’s articulated this morning by John McAreavy, the GAA star and widower of Michaela McAreavy, who was murdered on their honeymoon. He said he knows Barry McElduff and that “his character isn’t capable of being snide and malicious. He would never say or do anything to intentionally hurt anyone.”

I know Barry McElduff to speak to – I’ve interviewed him a couple of times – and that was the impression I came away with as well. I’ve seen him interacting with unionist political opponents and it’s always been in a friendly and good-humoured way. In short, I’m convinced McElduff is free from sectarian or vindictive streaks.

But this conviction clashes directly with what he did, which I think the Kingsmill families are entitled to feel outraged about. The wrath of  the many politicians who have piled into the fray I have found less convincing – their compassion for the Kingsmill relatives is less persuasive than their unholy delight in putting the boot into McElduff and Sinn Féin.

Barry McElduff has said he had no intention of hurting the relatives of those who died at Kingsmill. Knowing what I know of him, I find that a totally credible statement and one I believe. But I’m still left with a brutal fact: what he did was offensive and deeply offensive at that.

Do I think McElduff is lying when he says he didn’t intend to cause hurt? Knowing of him what I do, the answer is No. But do I think McElduff  realized  his antics might be seen as offensive and hurtful? The answer is Yes. My instinct tells me Barry wouldn’t have deliberately rubbed poison in the wounds of those suffering from Kingsmill. Yet the fact is that his actions did just that.

So if there’s an answer to the conundrum, it evades me. Maybe Barry should be asked to explain what he was thinking of. So far, no one has bothered with that.


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