Ben Lowry: Radio grilling of UUP leader exposed the folly of unionists blaming Simon Byrne alone for funeral

The Ulster Unionist Party leader Steve Aiken had on Radio Ulster on Friday what is known as a car crash interview.

Saturday, 3rd April 2021, 6:29 am
Updated Sunday, 4th April 2021, 9:11 am
Gerry Adams, Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill were at the funeral, the policing of which has led to calls for Simon Byrne to quit as chief constable. Cartoon by Brian John Spencer

Mr Aiken was brutally grilled by Stephen Nolan about his demand that the chief constable quit over the Bobby Storey funeral.

He was asked why he was calling for this, given that police had recommended charges against Sinn Fein politicians over the gathering.

When Mr Aiken pointed out that the prosecutors had said that police engagement with the funeral organisers had made prosecution impossible, he was asked if he thought they should not have engaged. He struggled to answer this.

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When he later said that a Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary investigation into the affair was like the PSNI ‘marking their own homework’, he was grilled on whether he was saying HMIC lacked independence — and if so why.

Again he seemed to struggle.

The interview lasted what must have been for Mr Aiken an agonising 45 minutes.

A few things struck me about it.

The first thing was the perils of broadcasts. Prior to 2015 I had done barely any radio but have long since done enough to know that, as with driving a vehicle, there is an ever-present risk of sudden carnage.

The second thing that struck me about the interview was that it made Steve Aiken one of the biggest casualties so far of the funeral.

Mr Aiken is fair game for a grilling, as leader of a political party who was calling for a public official to lose his job for, among other things, allegedly losing the confidence of the people of Northern Ireland (a point he repeated with increasingly desperate emphasis in the broadcast). But I marvel at the way there has been no commensurate grilling of a Sinn Fein figure for what happened on June 30.

If anyone deserves an entire programme devoted to a merciless grilling, it is the leaders of a political party that has been so sanctimonious about Covid, yet presided over such a flagrant breach of the rules at the IRA commemoration.

They have been asked about the funeral, including persistent questioning of John Finucane MP on BBC Talkback last week when he claimed that even as a lawyer and politician he was confused by the rules that applied on June 30.

But I am unaware of any interview on either side of the border which forensically put Mary Lou McDonald or Michelle O’Neill on the spot the way Mr Aiken was.

This is partly because Sinn Fein boycott Nolan. But they have had it easy at times.

On January 14 for example, Simon Byrne made his first appearance after the funeral at a Covid press conference with Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill, which was an obvious opportunity for heavy questioning from media of the chief constable and deputy first minister, on both the presence of the Sinn Fein leader at the helm of the funeral and the PSNI handling of it.

It was also a chance to grill Mrs Foster on why she returned to joint conferences telling the public what it can’t do alongside someone so defiant as Ms O’Neill about her own discarding of Covid rules.

But there wasn’t a question.

Imagine if Dominic Cummings (who had to face an entire press pack on his own after his own flagrant breach of Covid rules) had appeared at a Downing Street Covid press conference and not a question had been put to him.

Yet in that 35 minute Foster-O’Neill-Bryne conference there wasn’t a question.

Not one (the conference can still be viewed online).

The third thing that struck me about the interview of Mr Aiken was that it exposed real problems with unionists focusing on the PSNI chief constable to quit.

The demand is not of itself unreasonable. In fact, Mr Aiken had the misfortune of being interviewed 24 hours before this edition of the News Letter was published.

Our front page story (see link below) details a consistently lenient PSNI response to illegal republican gatherings and displays in at least 10 incidents, several involving hundreds of people, which have led to only one charge.

But the problem with calling on Mr Bryne to quit is that it hones in on one aspect of a culture of appeasing republicans. That culture implicates far more culpable people, including all government leaders in Dublin and London since 1998.

And I am not referring to the Belfast Agreement of that year which, as it happens, I backed, but the unceasing special treatment that has been given to republicans since it.

It is also unfair to single out the police given that, as the saga involving the policing of the Ormeau Road massacre memorial showed, an event which entailed a breach of social distancing, there is uproar if PSNI ever tackle republicans.

But let us set all such concerns about appeasement aside for a moment.

Let us imagine that everyone who has investigated the Storey funeral has got it right.

For example, the Coll report into the closure of Roselawn cemetery for a terrorist while other families were unable to get in struck me as unsatisfactory to put it mildly. But let’s say it was right to find that there was no republican pressure to close the facility. It just happened.

Then let us say that the police were right to liaise with Sinn Fein over the funeral, and then to do nothing when it became an event involving thousands of people.

And finally let us say that prosecutors were right to judge that no-one deserved so much as a caution over the funeral because the regulations were so complex and because the police helped arrange it (which, for the purposes of this thought experiment, we have already accepted the police had to do).

Well if all this is so, then we are into an almost Alice in Wonderland world in which everything is topsy turvy and full of logical absurdities and impossibilities — that something can be so obviously wrong that even a child who lived through lockdown would intuitively be able to see its wrongness, and yet an intricate system of policing and law and justice cannot adjudicate it to be wrong.

Then let me finish on a final blackly comic aspect of this saga.

When I tweeted out our Thursday front page, about the PSNI refusing to say if they might fine people for Covid breaches such as going for a walk this Easter, there was the usual hostile reaction to our coverage. More than one person said you should strive to be better than those who break the rules.

Well yes of course. But is that not like placating a child who gets punished for a lesser deed than another child, who has openly done wrong but not been punished, by telling them “but you are better than that”.

So if police fine you for a non essential drive to enjoy the weather this weekend, think of a truculent Michelle O’Neill, who had the audacity to break the rules that she drew up for everyone else, then think “I am better than that.”

Repeat this again and again like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz saying ‘there’s not place like home’.

It should do the trick.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor (other articles by him below)

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