A short internet video intended as humourous by Sinn Fein MP for West Tyrone Barry McElduff caused a wave of sectarian recrimination this week when a loaf of bread he perched on his head inside a petrol station carried the word ‘Kingsmill’.
In the video, since taken down, he jokes: “I’m in the Classic service station here, but I’m just wondering, where does McCullough’s keep the bread?”
In a horrible coincidence, he uploaded the video on the anniversary of an infamous attack known by the same name, Kingsmill.
In 1976, at a time of the conflict when civil war appeared to be close and sectarian attacks on Catholics were routine, a notorious reprisal atrocity took place there, in which ten Protestant workmen died.
The group of twelve workmen were making their way home from a factory in Glenanne, south Armagh, when their minibus was ambushed by an armed and masked gang in the village of Kingsmill. The Provisional IRA denied involvement in the attack, which followed the murders of six Catholic civilians by loyalists the previous day. Sinn Fein has always repudiated the killings and accepted that they were sectarian in nature.
Mr McElduff has said did not notice he was using a Kingsmill brand loaf of bread in his video this week. The British firm has no connection to Ireland, but unionists quickly accused McElduff of a deliberate and painful insult.
Mr McElduff later apologised for the tweet and insisted he did not intend to cause offence.
“When I posted the video I had not realised or imagined for a second that there was any possible link between the brand name of the bread and the Kingsmill anniversary,” he said.
“It was never my intention to hurt or cause offence to anyone and in particular to victims of the conflict who have suffered so grievously. I apologise unreservedly for the hurt and pain this post has caused.”
However, Sinn Fein northern leader Michelle O’Neill described the video as “ill-judged” and “indefensible”. McElduff was handed a three-month suspension by the party as punishment, but it wasn’t enough for unionists or the media.
Hardline unionist Jim Allister accused Sinn Fein of “arrogance and disrespect for victims”. DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds claimed McElduff’s actions were part of a “wider attitude of disrespect towards the victims of terrorism”, and called for an apology for the ambush itself.
DUP leader Arlene Foster claimed Sinn Fein was ‘eulogising terrorists’ and sought to use the outcry to turn the tables on the party’s calls for truth and justice in the conflict. “Sinn Fein have not given respect to the victims community here in Northern Ireland and, by definition, the whole wider community in Northern Ireland,” she declared.
There was a further outcry when some unionists shared a horrific cartoon on the internet, depicting Gerry Adams, with a loaf of bread on his head, at the scene of the atrocity while lines of blood stream from the van. It carries the caption “Sinn Fein’s red lines”. It also provoked criticism from the Kingsmill victims and families.
Nevertheless, the political parties in the 26 Counties saw the political advantage in joining in the attacks on Sinn Fein. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar criticised Mr McElduff’s video as “very foolish, very inappropriate and very hurtful” .
“It was egregious. I hope that when he runs for re-election, or if he runs for re-election, that the people of his constituency will decide to elect somebody with more character,” he declared.
Sinn Fein’s Mary Lou McDonald apologised again for the video. “Barry fully accepts that he caused hurt and distress to the Kingsmill families, that was unforgivable. He is absolutely contrite. He has been disciplined by the party. It is very clear we do not tolerate behaviour like that and his membership has been suspended for three months,” she said.
Sinn Fein’s leader in the North, Michelle O’Neill, said the video “falls far short of the standard expected of Sinn Fein representatives and our members,” she said.
“I don’t believe that Barry’s actions were calculated or deliberately intended to be malicious.
“However, given the seriousness of the issue, I have suspended Barry with immediate effect for a period of three months. Barry accepts this suspension as an appropriate response to his social media activity.”
Mr McElduff, who has attempted stand-up comedy routines, is well known for posting humorous social media clips. One of these involved him putting a Snickers chocolate bar on his head, while another saw him carry a large plastic ice-cream cone out of the same service station featured in the latest clip.
The West Tyrone MP, who has never been accused of sectarianism, has now offered to personally meet with the families of the victims and the only survivor, Alan Black. But the furore has drawn attention to the much larger issue of the failure to heal the wounds of conflict. Previous efforts to initiate a truth and reconciliation process, such as those in South Africa and other conflict locations, have been repeatedly frustrated by the blanket refusal of the British government to participate.
On a positive note, comments on Thursday night have been widely welcomed, in which a former Sinn Fein minister described the Kingsmill attack as shameful and sectarian. He also spoke about how his relatives were murdered in sectarian violence less than 24 hours before it took place.
Mr O’Dowd said the massacre was wrong “regardless of who carried it out, whether it was the IRA, or others, or people acting from the IRA”. Speaking on BBC’s The View, he said he remembered the killings “very, very well”.
“I’ll tell you why I remember it well - I had two cousins and an uncle shot dead the night before and had another uncle left for dead,” he said.
His cousins Declan and Barry O’Dowd, and their uncle Joe, were shot dead by members of the Glenanne gang at a family gathering near Gilford, on the night of January 4. Declan and Barry’s father Barney, a member of the SDLP, was seriously injured in the hail of bullets. The attack took place only minutes after brothers three members of another family were shot dead at their home nearby. The Kingsmill ambush occurred the following night in an apparent response, but Mr O’Dowd described it as “shameful”.
“Those who carried it out did not in any way advance the cause of Irish unity,” he said.
“This is why I say I’m not surprised the Kingsmill families are so annoyed and will not believe what Sinn Fein have said, because republicans have hurt them and harmed them. But there is a responsibility, a broader responsibility, on unionist politicians, on republican politicians, to move this society forward.”
Responding, Doug Beattie of the Ulster Unionist Party said Mr O’Dowd’s contribution were “important words” and described it as a “positive moment”.