Sinn Fein’s North Belfast councillor JJ Magee has developed into something of a hate figure for unionists in the constituency. The provenance of unionism’s particular animosity towards him lies in his bringing to public attention a loyalist marching band exercising sectarian bragging rights outside a Catholic Cathedral 7 years ago.
Since then sharp exchanges have taken place between Magee and the local unionists, in what is now euphemised as a cultural war. Last year Magee went as far as to apologise for doing nothing more than retweeting something about the British national anthem that some unionists took offence at. In a world where taking offence is a premium, snowflakes soon become snowstorms, usually in a teacup.
Unionists depict Magee as a flaming bigot while nationalists consider him no more than a bit rough at the edges and remarkably restrained for one who lost a sister to unionist gunmen during the North’s violent political conflict.
The latest clash has blown up as a result of a Twitter exchange between Magee and a unionist in the wake of Karen Bradley’s stupid but revealing comments about the nature of attacks by British forces on civilians in the North - that they merely massacred "in a dignified and appropriate way."
Bradley will not benefit from the fool's pardon she is eminently qualified to obtain, even though she has since inanely claimed "I do not believe what I said." Damning her is that prior to her utterances about dignified massacres she had been advocating getting British military killers off the hook.
Unionism, sensing an opportunity to hold Magee over a spit, seems to be trying to cause him to join Bradley at silly point, by having him recant and apologetically proclaim that he too does not believe what he said.
Sinn Fein have ostensibly, but not really, rallied to Magee’s defence, reportedly claiming that their councillor "was responding to the first question on answering questions with questions." Which will lead seasoned observers to feel that the innocuous, rather than the insurgency, is what the party is intent on defending.
Unless there is something being withheld, it seems pretty clear from the above exchange that Sinn Fein's explanation does not bear scrutiny. The order of tweets would indicate that the questioned answered with a resounding "no" was the one about whether IRA killings were crimes.
From a republican perspective he has done nothing wrong. Bobby Sands and nine others died on hunger strike proclaiming both the existence and armed struggle of the IRA as a political endeavour, not a criminal one. Despite Nuala McAllister's condescending posturing on the matter, Magee is merely expressing a core tenet of republicanism - IRA killings were political, not criminal.
Such a stance does not mean Magee regards IRA killings as legal. They patently were not. He does not have to view them as either just or right. He might even feel the IRA campaign was seriously misguided, perhaps unethical. Quite possibly he may not approve of a single IRA killing while at the same time believing that they were not criminal, nor the IRA a criminal enterprise.
Despite the holier than thou breast beating from critics, stating that an action is not criminal is not to say that because it is political it is somehow ethically better. Political killings can often be much more heinous than criminal ones. What action from the criminal underworld in Ireland over the last 50 years has been as unremittingly iniquitous as the Kingsmill Massacre? The loyalist killings of nationalist civilians, including that of JJ Magee’s sixteen year old sister, were political not criminal. They were all the more calculative and crueller for that. When republican prisoners won political status in 1972 they did not object to it being extended to loyalist prisoners. They looked more benignly on nationalist criminals but acknowledged the essential political nature of the loyalists while despising them for their politics and political violence.
Where Magee is clearly wrong is in seeking to silence his unionist detractors through a legal cosh, arguing that his "position has been misrepresented on social media. On that basis I have initiated legal action." At first glance his case seems tenuous and the unionists are adopting a bring it on stance, with Jamie Bryson dismissing the legal action as "laughable litigation."
The legal firm representing him is not Paul Tweed, a robust advocate of conservative libel law, but an entity long associated with human rights, Kevin Winters Law. The same firm previously tried to silence criticism of the acquitted rugby rape trial accused, Paddy Jackson. This is a precarious path for a human rights law firm to be dragged along: the right to hold and express an offensive opinion is something human rights lawyers should be protecting not prosecuting.
Magee's legal muzzle is being manufactured for the jaws of his fellow councillor, Dale Pankhurst of the DUP. Magee claims to have been offended by Pankhurst's characterisation of him as depraved and sick. Not that Pankhurst is an innocent abroad. He had earlier threatened to muzzle Magee by complaining to the Local Government Commissioner For Standards on the grounds that what Magee said "cannot be allowed to be said by anyone holding public office."
In a race to the bottom of the censorship barrel, Magee and Pankhurst are trying to muzzle each other through what Kevin Myers once described as "politically correct gagging laws." Instead of the faux, for the optics, swooning, fainting and rattle tossing, in response to comments found offensive, there should be more vigorous exchanges, an aversion to the language of sameness decried by Professor Kathleen Lynch when she hit out at the neutralisation of public discourse and debate. Womack and Womack, with a slight tweak of the lyrics, could have provided the background music to all of this: 🎜Snowflakes on the dancefloor - remind me councillors of you.🎜
The solution to this is alluringly simple: Magee should not be hauled before the Local Government Commissioner For Standards. Pankhurst should not be subject to the law as muzzle. Let a hundred flowers blossom, not wilt like shrinking violets.
Anthony McIntyre blogs @ The Pensive Quill.
Follow Anthony McIntyre on Twitter @AnthonyMcIntyre