A deeply-rooted prejudice of DUP Minister Edwin Poots emerged in scandalous fashion this week when he issued a series of bigoted remarks in connection with Covid-19, peaking with the incredible claim that they weren’t sectarian as “most Sinn Féin leaders don’t attend the Catholic Church on a regular basis”.
His comments, which began with him blaming nationalists for spreading the coronavirus, provoked criticism and ridicule. But he has refused to apologise, claiming his words were “twisted” and that he would never intentionally cause offence to his “Catholic friends and neighbours”.
Poots represents the Lagan Valley constituency, and is a member of the so-called ‘redneck’ wing of the DUP associated with the late party leader, Free Presbyterian preacher Rev Ian Paisley, who regularly denounced Popery and the Catholic church.
Poots, also a Free Presbyterian and fundamentalist, has advocated old Testament teachings such as creationism and has put the age of the universe at just over 6,000 years old, and was involved in a similar controversy in 2017 in regard to homophobic comments about HIV.
His initial remarks to BBC Radio Ulster about the coronovirus were in line with a recent disinformation campaign by loyalist media. In a reference to Gaelic sports events and celebrations, Mr Poots claimed he know of one event where “people went to a bar after winning a particular cup and that cup was passed around the bar full of drink - and most of them caught Covid”.
He provided no details to support the accusation, but he later told a television journalist that Covid-19 cases are more prevalent “in nationalist areas”, a claim which has been repeatedly disproved by data analysts.
Poots also repeated a loyalist claim that Sinn Féin leaders who attended veteran republican Bobby Storey’s funeral in June had caused the virus to spread.
“I will abide by the regulations, as have most people in my community,” he said. “What I’m saying is, those people who didn’t abide by them, including the Sinn Féin leadership – because a lot of this started shortly after the Bobby Storey funeral.
“A lot of the problems started after that event, and people in that community saw the breaking of the rules. That’s why there is a difference between nationalist areas and unionist areas – and the difference is around six to one.”
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood branded his comments “pathetic” and called on DUP leader and First Minister Arlene Foster to “rein him in immediately before he does any further damage to the public health messaging”.
A Sinn Féin spokesman described the remarks as “an absolute disgrace and entirely misleading” and accused hom “trying to politicise and sectarianise” the pandemic, while even Ulster Unionist leader Steven Aiken said Mr Poots should “consider his position”.
However, the DUP’s Minister of Agriculture, Environment, and Rural Affairs doubled down in bizarre fashion when he said the remarks were not sectarian because “most Sinn Féin leaders don’t attend the Catholic Church on a regular basis”.
He went on to claim the “poor leadership” from Sinn Féin leaders “was replicated in some GAA grounds over the summer”. He said it was “undeniable that the spread has been much greater in the areas where this had happened”.
Sinn Féin branded his language “sectarian claptrap”, but Poots again refused to resign or apologise, insistently describing the funeral of Bobby Storey as “bad behaviour”.
“It is obvious such spread is related to behavioural issues, nothing more nothing less,” he said. “I cherish my Catholic friends and neighbours. I would never intentionally use words that would cause them offence.”
The North’s Chief Medical Officer was forced to issue a statement to say there is no evidence to support the claim that coronavirus is linked to “people’s political affiliation or religion”.
A geographic analysis points to increased levels of the virus in deprived areas and in cities associated with third level education, a trend in line with other regions across Ireland and Britain.
The DUP leader Arlene Foster was asked whether she shared Mr Poots’ view said only her colleague was right to “clarify” his comments.
“As far as I’m concerned that’s an end of the matter,” she said.
Sinn Féin’s John O’Dowd said the public had made up their own minds about the DUP minister.
“It’s simply unacceptable to bring sectarianism into this public health emergency, or into our politics at any time,” he said. “If any minister around the Executive table is incapable of this, they simply should not be there.”