Sinn Féin’s disowning of West Tyrone MP Barry McElduff was unprecedented. The party has always previously defended erring members in public, then quietly dropped them. I must declare an interest: I know McElduff. When my late mother was ill, his constituency office was very helpful. He ran an excellent constituency service, for people across the community.
The Sinn Féin leadership’s handling of the incident indicated he was severely out of favour. Michelle O’Neill issued a statement: “I made it clear to Barry that his tweet was ill-judged, indefensible and caused hurt and pain to the victims of Kingsmill. That it falls far short of the standard expected of Sinn Féin representatives and our members”.
Then President-in-waiting Mary Lou McDonald said: “I do not for a moment defend the tweet, the very crass, very stupid tweet from Barry McElduff…We do not tolerated behaviour like that”. She called it “very hurtful” and “unforgiveable”.
Sinn Féin’s National Chairman, Declan Kearney said: “What has happened is absolutely inexcusable and indefensible and the party leadership is taking this matter very seriously indeed. I would like to express my own and Sinn Féin’s very sincere regret for the very understandable offence caused as result of this tweet…What happened is absolutely irresponsible. Barry McElduff has already made an unreserved apology and that was the correct thing to do in these circumstances but the reality is huge offence has been caused and I and Sinn Fein strongly disapprove of what has happened”.
After those statements, whatever about the three-month suspension, McElduff had no alternative except to resign.
His difficulties with Sinn Féin seem to date back some time. From 2007 to 2011 he was Chair of the Assembly’s Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee. He was recognised as Sinn Féin’s most effective committee chairman. Paradoxically, he was able to work well with the Unionist representatives on the Committee. Many expected him to become the Minister if Sinn Féin took the Department.
However, after the 2011 Assembly election, Carál Ní Chuilín became minister. She is recognised as able and as a safe pair of hands, but had no background in culture. It would have been useful for Sinn Féin to keep an experienced member like McElduff on the Departmental Committee.
It has never been fully explained why McElduff instead moved to the Department of Employment and Learning Committee. Many observers felt he was visibly not his usual self.
Earlier, McElduff had been moved aside as Westminster candidate in West Tyrone. From the late 1980s, he had been an organiser in the area. He had fought its predecessor, the Mid-Ulster seat, in 1992. Instead of him, in 1997 Sinn Féin moved in its then Vice-President Pat Doherty, who lived in north Donegal. Doherty retired last year, and McElduff took the seat.
McElduff always had a reputation for being jocular, bearing out the saying: “It takes a wise man to play the fool”. David Ervine of the Progressive Unionist Party suggested he be made ‘Minister for Fun’.
In recent years, the jocular McElduff came more to the fore. He published two books, one entitled ‘Keep ‘Er Lit’. For a while he contributed regularly as a comic act to the Stephen Nolan show on Radio Ulster. It is understood that not all in Sinn Féin were amused. He posted a string of videos of himself online: in one he sneaked into the DUP corridor at Stormont and bought a Snickers bar from the vending machine. He also appeared as a stand-up comedian in a club.
It was he who posted the offending video, which led to his resignation, online.
The DUP played the issue cleverly. They knew an all-out attack could backfire, cloud issues, and rally nationalist support round McElduff. So attack dogs like Gregory Campbell and Sammy Wilson were muzzled. Emma Little Pengelly, MP for South Belfast and the most socially liberal DUP MP, was put to the front.
McElduff will no longer have a front-line role in politics. As an abstentionist MP he is a paid employee of Sinn Féin and his contract is governed by employment law. He cannot simply be sacked. Not a man who ever comfortably fitted into the background, it remains to be seen how he will find a role away from frontline politics.