SO, farewell, then, Simon Byrne, the Crossmaglen Rambo. After a week of circling the Land Rovers he’s emerged from behind the shields and the guns and the water cannon to wave the white flag, his epaulettes ripped off by Jeffrey Donaldson and his sword broken over the knee of Jim Allister in the courtyard of Tayto Castle.
It was sadly inevitable, of course, the gormless Englishman having been caught up in more controversies in recent times than BBCNI – the difference being that in this case somebody has finally stepped forward and taken responsibility.
Rarely has Squinter seen Loyal Ulster enjoy itself more, as every angry DUP/TUV word was fallen upon by a media smelling blood in the water. The blood they smelt, however, was not that of the unfortunate Simon, but that of deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, whose concern about the Sean Graham massacre memorial arrest which led to this sorry mess has been moulded into a threat to withdraw support from policing.
According to Policing Board “sources”, she “indicated” to Mr Byrne that she and her party would withdraw their support for policing if something wasn’t done about the decision by the PSNI to question some of those in attendance at the February 2021 commemoration. “Indicated”, is a rather unusual word to use when attempting to inform readers and viewers. Had she “said”, “threatened”, “promised” or “vowed” then we would be on fairly firm ground, but when Squinter was told that an anonymous person had told someone that someone else “indicated” something to another person, a fair amount of confusion inevitably arose.
Was the threat to withdraw policing “indicated” by the medium of dance, perhaps? Did the Mid-Ulster MLA engage in an elaborate mime to convey her thoughts to the police chief? Semaphore? Morse code? Sign language? The handy thing about the word “indicate” for the Policing Board sources is that it’s a win-win situation. If it turns out that Michelle said no such words, it can be argued that she “indicated” as much by the steely glint in her eye, the aggressive pointing of a finger, the uncompromising folding of her arms, the thinning of her lips. Yeah, she might not have said it in so many words, but...
As is so often the case with a media that is overwhelmingly unionist and for by whom stories are approached from a determinedly unionist position, the narrative was one that had the main pro-union parties nodding with satisfaction: “Young constables” (always “young”; inadequate briefing; an aggressive crowd; clueless commanders; republican opportunists; two-tier policing. The reality, of course, as revealed by the transcript of the High Court ruling that the two officers had been unfairly disciplined, was anything but black and white.
And just as importantly, context was abandoned in the furious pursuit of divisive simplicity – the context being that the decision by the PSNI to insert themselves in the February 2021 massacre commemoration came just three days after another headline-grabbing incident – one with infinitely more important and concerning implications for policing than a decision to discipline officers.
In Pitt Park in East Belfast, a crowd of around 25 masked and hooded UVF took to the streets. The gathering and the failure to socially distance were the least of the concerns of police on the ground – turned out the lads were mobilising to evict a family from their home. Now Squinter’s not what you would call a Gold Commander – he’s never directed policing operations from a command centre and he knows more about nuclear fission than he does about crowd control. But he has a vague idea that if a crowd of black-clad paramilitaries takes over the streets with the intention of inflicting harm the policing response should not be to send a handful of officers to have a look, hitch their thumbs in their flak jackets and do nothing. Which is exactly what happened.
Not surprisingly, the police decision to cede control of the streets to a loyalist narco-gang didn’t go down well in nationalist circles, with serious questions being asked about the PSNI decision to have a whistle and a smoke while the UVF went about their business. And it was in this heated environment that two policemen came across a group that was, the High Court acknowledged, masked (in a good way), distanced, peaceful and dignified. We’re told the officers had no idea what the gathering was about, although Squinter’s been there time without number and it wouldn’t take a Sherlock Holmes to spot the tribute to the five Sean Grahams dead on the wall and the fenced memorial at the corner. And while it’s entirely possible that the two officers had heard nothing of the media storm over the Pitt Park incident, knowledge of the failure to act on that gathering would not have been necessary to understand that here was the perfect opportunity to do what was done at Pitt Park: Stand back, observe, gather video and act later if required.
If there’s another lockdown, Squinter suggests the Ormeau relatives dress in black, wear balaclavas and move the event to East Belfast.
The Shankill-Falls equation – you do the math
SQUINTER’S not great at equations. Even the sound of the word makes him wince. And when you mix equations in with the marching season, well... things start to get very, very ugly very, very quickly.
Here’s the latest equation that’s got Squinter chewing splinters off his stubby pencil: If X=Ooh, ah, up the Ra in the Falls Park and Y=the Shankill being taken over for a day by the UVF, the coverage of the two from the usual noisy suspects is...?
Five days the Wolfe Tones got in the papers and on the radio phone-ins, Squinter seems to remember. It’s not a new news story (happens every year) and it’s a few minutes at the end of a jam-packed 10-day event that’s one of Europe’s largest community festivals. But not only was the kitchen sink thrown at it – the dishwasher, the fridge, the microwave and the air-fryer went flying as well. It was almost impressive how new and undreamt-of new angles were sought and found in an attempt to convince us that the rebel band was the greatest threat to decency, peace and prosperity since Vlad the Impaler saw his first sharp stick.
Zero days the Brian Robinson parade got. Zero hours, come to think of it. Heck, zero seconds if we really want to be forensically accurate. Not a peep about the same bands that feature on the happy-clappy evening TV round-ups on the Twelfth morphing into Shankill Butchers fanboys for a day and banging out songs about sloshing around in Fenian blood.
Excellent day today for the annual Brian Robinson memorial parade on the shankill, great crowds out along the route pic.twitter.com/vFdx456pwh— Jimmy Linton (@JimmyL1912) September 2, 2023
Obviously a song late at night at a paid-for concert in a park is a million times worse than a loyalist killer-narco-gang taking over an entire road for a day, and Squinter’s not saying for a second that dancing and singing with delight for hour after hour about a bigot shooting an innocent Catholic in the back is anywhere near as reprehensible as the three-minute Celtic Symphony. But what do those of you more proficient at equations than Squinter think would have sufficed for the Brian Robinson carnival, given the amount of time and attention given to the Celtic Symphony? An hour? Two hours? 30 minutes? A page? A double-page spread? A column? Two columns?
Truth is, Squinter would have been pathetically grateful for a passing reference. He’d have fallen to his knees and thanked the media gods had he stumbled across a single reference to the fact that one of the city’s main thoroughfares was closed for the day so that bands could bang out sectarian tunes for the family of Paddy McKenna to hear half a mile across the city.
But we didn’t even get that.
And as the normalisation of Robinsonfest advances with every year that it’s ignored, a few questions occur to Squinter. Last Friday the Orange Order marked its annual Orange Victims Day in Dungannon, paying tribute to the 341 Orangemen and women killed during the Troubles. It was a solemn and moving occasion, and the fact that the next day Shankill Butcher Eddie McIlwaine wore his Orange sash and white gloves to Robinson-fest does not detract from its sincerity.
But on the basis that the Order is implacably opposed to terrorism from whatever quarter it comes, might it be an idea for the brethren to stop allowing UVF-supporting bands (that’s the 1989 UVF) to provide its music on the Twelfth? And might unionist politicians who were so inspirationally vocal about the Falls Park Celtic Symphony atrocity say they will refuse to walk behind bands that mix opposing the fatal doctrines of the Church of Rome with a bit of casual weekend murder celebration?