Opinion

Patrick Murphy: Sinn Féin's battle for umbrella rights

Transparent umbrella under heavy rain against water drops splash background. Rainy weather concept..
Transparent umbrella under heavy rain against water drops splash background. Rainy weather concept.. Transparent umbrella under heavy rain against water drops splash background. Rainy weather concept..

In the future, when old men gather around the fire on a dark winter’s night, they will talk of 850 years of Irish resistance to British rule. They will reminisce about battles from Kinsale through Ballynahinch to the Bogside, about the 1916 Rising and the day we beat the British at Kilmichael.

Then in a hushed and respectful silence they will recall the latest blow for Irish freedom: when a Sinn Féin councillor asked Mid Ulster Council for a free umbrella last week. He already had a council-supplied umbrella, but it had a broken strut.

“That’s how the British kept us in subjection,” they will say. “First the Famine, then broken umbrella struts.” Just as American civil rights activist Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in 1955, this began the struggle for free umbrellas.

Fifty-five years ago next month, the first civil rights march took place from Coalisland to Dungannon. But the marchers forgot one demand: umbrellas. (“What do we want?” Umbrellas!” “When do we want them? “Now.”) However, SF bravely took up that struggle and righted the wrongs of centuries.

A rather sceptical approach to the proceedings of Mid Ulster Council, you say, but although it might be seen as trivial, umbrella-gate reveals a lot about northern life today.

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Firstly, it tells us about Sinn Féin. The SF chair of the council committee is reported as having backed the councillor. So free umbrellas on the rates appears to be SF policy. Self-serving unionism has been replaced by self-serving nationalism. That, we are told, is progress.

It would be basic human decency for all councillors in Mid-Ulster to agree to set aside the budget for umbrellas and give it to one of the 11 food banks in their council area. If children are going hungry in Cookstown, Dungannon or Magherafelt, you can be sure they also need shoes and clothes. How will they fare in the rain?

But in the culture of the Good Friday Agreement, the new political elite takes precedence over people. Like Paisley, SF did not want to change the system of power and privilege. They just wanted in on it.

The incident also tells us about our current local government system. In 1975-76 I spent a year observing every council and every committee meeting of the then Newry and Mourne District Council, as PhD research into public sector decision-making.

It was during one of the worst periods of the Troubles. The Kingsmill massacre, for example, happened up the road just before a council meeting was about to begin. Despite that, there was no sectarianism during council business. The debates were reasoned, informed and mannerly – a credit to the SDLP, UUP, DUP, Alliance and three independents.

Those councillors bravely offered what might be considered political asylum away from the murder and mayhem. They held society together. Local government today is a different sort of asylum. Based on a council system gerrymandered in 2015 by the main parties, it is a platform for sham sectarian fights concealing secret political pacts.

They said the new system would save money. By 2020 it had cost an additional £50 million. Previously councillors received only travel expenses. Today they receive a basic allowance of over £15,000 plus a variety of other expenses (including free umbrellas in Mid-Ulster).

Meanwhile, as this newspaper revealed, the members’ dining room at Stormont has been nominated for an award for fine dining. MLAs can eat subsidised, fine food at our expense but cannot turn up for work. Stormont has become a publicly funded food bank for the political elite, while families go hungry down the road in east Belfast.

And the old men will sit around the fire and marvel at how we won the Battle of the Umbrellas. “Ah but,” one will say, “that was only the start. Do you remember how SF then fought to get free overcoats as well?”