IF the disgraceful events at Friday night’s anti-Protocol rally in Lurgan came as a surprise to anyone then they have only themselves to blame because they simply haven’t been paying attention.
For months now, warnings have been issued that the tone and nature of the protests are raising the political temperature to dangerously high levels. Those warnings gained considerable traction when the leader of the UUP, Doug Beattie, distanced himself from the rallies, from their organisers, from their bombast and their hysteria. And when a poster of his appeared with a noose around his neck, the grim images we saw online, on television and in the newspapers the next day were greeted not with shocked intake of breath, but with a heavy and resigned sigh. Because this is what happens when unionism contracts out its politics to an unidentified and unaccountable small group of hardline loyalists.
Who is behind the rallies? The fact is that we don’t know, and of course that anonymity suits perfectly people whose intention it is to ratchet up tensions to the point where incidents such as this can take place. When worse happens, and it almost certainly will, who will be asked to explain? Who will be  brought to account? The answer is no-one, and what we see is speaker after speaker piously proclaiming that he didn’t know this was going to happen and he didn’t know this person was going to be invited.
All we can say with any degree about these rallies and their publicity-shy promoters is that there appears to be a fair degree of local autonomy. The cowboy-hatted pastor who claimed as much publicity as the poster after the event was the main speaker days earlier at an inflammatory protest outside Craigavon District Hospital, a short distance from Lurgan, and it’s almost certainly the case that his invite was extended by someone who was at the hospital protest with him or who shares his lunatic views on women. Which begs the question, who’s going to be on the stage at the next rally?
If DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson and TUV leader Jim Allister, both of whom have distanced themselves from the Texas demagogue, decide that next time they’re going to make sure they know they kind of people they’re going to be standing next to at the next event, then that’s to be welcomed. But it has to be said that their failure to do their homework on the Lurgan rally was a fairly basic failure to observe normal public appearance caution. A politician who is happy to turn up to an event with no idea of who he’s going to be photographed with is either very cavalier or very foolish, and perhaps even both.
There’s no sign that Friday night’s disgraceful scenes have given the nameless organisers pause for thought; indeed, a slew of further events is being promoted on social media and none of the listed speakers has been appalled enough to think again. The May election, it seems, has trumped common sense.