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18 January 2018

The man with bread on his head

The man with bread on his head

Two decades on from the Good Friday Agreement, reconciliation is still a huge issue in Northern Ireland. The peace process was designed to provide a suitable framework for Northern Ireland  to have an operational executive and to offer a structure for opposing parties to rule together. It has often been undermined by individuals who have either mistakenly, or deliberately sought to open closed wounds caused by events during the Troubles. 

On 5 January 1976, 16 men were travelling home on a minibus from their work in Glenanne, five of the men being Catholic and 11 Protestant. Four of the Catholics departed at their stop, and the bus continued on its way where it was then halted by a man in combat uniform, before 11 gunmen began an ambush on the minibus. Near the village of Kingsmill in County Armagh, the workers were ordered to line up in front of the bus. Richard Hughes, the only remaining Catholic from the workmen, was told to run away by the gunmen and not look back. It was then that the 11 Protestant men were brutally shot. Ten men died in this horrific event, and one man, Alan Black, remarkably survived. 

On 5 January 2018, the Sinn Fein MP Barry McElduff posted a strange video of himself balancing a loaf of bread on his head in a service station. He had previously released other bizarre videos, such as his mission to retrieve a Snickers bar from a vending machine on the DUP side of Stormont, so this video didn't seem too out of the ordinary. However the video quickly generated a hugely negative response. Barry McElduff said that it was just a "terrible coincidence" that he had been balancing a Kingsmill loaf of bread on his head on the 42nd anniversary of the Kingsmill Massacre. Many others, including Alan Black, perceived the video as a gloating and sinister affront to the memory of those who were murdered. One member of the IRA who quit the terror group after the Kingsmill Massacre said that Barry McElduff's video was 'blatant sectarianism'.

In the days that followed Barry McElduff was suspended, on full pay from all party activity for three months by Sinn Fein. One week later he resigned, maintaining that he had not intended any reference to the massacre but recognising that he had caused 'deep and unnecessary hurt' to the families of the victims. Whether intentional or not, the video was incredibly untimely in a moment where relationships between the parties are extremely fractured and there is no Executive.

The resignation of Barry McElduff importantly sparks the first by-election for a seat in Westminster since the 2017 general election. Under any usual circumstance this seat made available by McElduff in West Tyrone, a largely nationalist area, would go the next Sinn Fein candidate. This is still likely, however given the controversy surrounding this by-election, there are already calls for a unity candidate, perhaps from the victims and survivor community, who other parties and voters might unite around. If this were the case, or indeed if an agreed unionist candidate was put forward, this by-election will pivot on a very distinct axis.

Whether the message sent out on his recent video was coincidental or deliberate, Barry McElduff has triggered a very painful but important conversation about reconciliation in Northern Ireland. The past few weeks has been a sobering reminder that deep and unresolved hurt remains across our community and particularly within the hearts and minds of many survivors. 

This argument about bread has caused hurt and division but bread broken together is a sign of our Christian unity. Our prayer is that any new agreement and power-sharing arrangement will prioritise the urgent needs of survivors and those who remain most affected by our troubled past. We pray that politicians and parties would pioneer a culture of out-honouring each other in acts of boldness and bravery and grace and goodness. May this become our bread and butter.