Fionnuala O Connor: Anti-unionists who tweet woman-hating abuse have lost the plot

Fionnuala O Connor
Fionnuala O Connor

The bottom of Belfast’s Botanic Avenue turned briefly into a cultural melting pot last Wednesday.

Tables on the footpath were full of Turks gambling on their phones and smoking shisha pipes. Inside it was all-day breakfast Turkish-style, delighting us visitors from a more sedate street marooned by parades.

Also a cheery 60-ish Scot who blessed the caff with a papal-looking wave as he left after his complimentary baklava.

He sounded like a first-timer to tomatoes and olives with yoghurt and feta, so maybe not frae Glasgae, long accustomed to Turkish breakfast.

His dip into old-studenty/now sketchy Botanic looked like a break from the booze-fest around the corner, where the march goes by to the far-off Field and returns long hours of drunkenness later.

He missed by minutes another Botanic visit by sozzled local females in pink shorts, ciders by the neck, belting out a ballad urging Roman Catholics to engage carnally with their rosary beads. (Can’t see it? Nor me, but political journalism is a sheltered life.)

This is all a timid lead-in. The least popular propositions I have ever written have urged calm about unionists who delight in being anti-‘woke’, in offending the sensibilities of Irish, Catholic, republican, socialists; feminists this past while, environmentalists.

Sammy Wilson, say, hard man to empathise with, exactly how he likes it. When someone gave those holiday photos, Sammy-in-socks, to a sensationalist rag/left-leaning weekly/paper of the people, I tried enlisting one-off sympathy for him. This was Sammy’s least offensive outing, I wrote. Near-nudity harmed nobody. His blonde companion took most of the scurrilous comment. "Save your sympathy, you eejit," said friends and colleagues, "it gave us all a laugh".

No social media around then, another world. Be-sashed and be-suited Drumcree Orangemen still pose annually opposite blank-faced police. Everyone reads their lines, everyone goes home. 2023’s squad registered their grievance that for the 25th year in a row they have been denied the route home of their choice, their traditional route.

In the House of Commons and on air local DUP MP Carla Lockhart recited their demand, though her spoken English and her sense of history let her down. Among most unionists, poking a sleeping Drumcree has few takers.

The chief effect of her plea has apparently been a Twitter and Facebook ‘pile-on’ of obscene woman-hating.

But then bile about her appearance, presented as response to what she says, has been the central feature of comment on Lockhart. Most if not all of it clearly comes from anti-unionists. Other women in politics, anti-unionist as well as unionist, have sympathised with her, with reminders that they also face disgusting abuse, some sparked by Orange events. Like those bonfire effigies of Naomi Long and Michelle O’Neill.

Here’s my thought. O’Neill and Mary Lou McDonald should call very strongly and explicitly on all tweeters who would deem themselves republicans to stop posting woman-hating filth as political comment. Those two strong Sinn Féin women should tell vile tweeters how they damage their cause. And 25 years on from the hatred of Drumcree, as others have said, how about urging republicans to try empathising with unionists, demoralised, leaderless.

In 2000 the very best chronicler of the Troubles laid out, for a readership in Britain, the self-destructiveness of unionism as demonstrated by Drumcree. This was his conclusion:

"The Portadown Orangemen went through the Troubles demanding the imposition of law and order; now they have reached the point of refusing to condemn the violence which is being used in their name. Somewhere along the way they lost their image of themselves as law-abiding citizens and turned instead to something reminiscent of nihilism. Their inability to move with the changing times means they probably will never again regain any personal feel-good factor: they are a lost tribe which has lost the plot." (David McKittrick, London Independent.)

McKittrick’s neat summary still stands. And anti-unionists who tweet woman-hating abuse have also lost the plot.