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Slur so symptomatic of problems within UUP

(Susan McKay, Irish News)

Nice unionists from the professional classes are appalled by sectarianism.

They shake their heads and murmur sadly about the dreadful things that go on in rough housing estates. They dissociate themselves from loyalist atrocities. Nothing to do with us. Everyone gets on fine at the golf club and the atmosphere in Dublin during rugby weekends is simply marvellous.

Last week the deputy leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, Danny Kennedy, said the position of the Police Ombudsman, Nuala O'Loan, was "slightly compromised by family relationships which link her to the SDLP". This was during a debate on law and order at the pretend assembly.

He added that "in the perception of the wider unionist community" this fact "remains a significant chill factor".

It was a "significant problem" and one that her office "will have to address at some stage".

O'Loan is in one of the most sensitive, powerful and tough jobs in the north. She has a high public profile and she is a Catholic. She is not in the SDLP and served on the Police Authority when that party opposed it. As it happens, she is married to SDLP councillor Declan O'Loan. He is not a senior party figure, though he is frequently in the public eye, appealing for an end to sectarian attitudes in Ballymena's council chamber and to sectarian attacks on the streets of that troubled town, the capital of Paisley's constituency.

We don't know the political affiliations of the wives of UUP representatives.

Sylvia Hermon is Lady Hermon because her husband was knighted for his years serving as chief constable of the RUC.

Eileen Paisley is a peer (nominated by her husband). Kennedy would most probably be outraged if questions were raised over the ability of a person in high office to do their job impartially, on the grounds that their spouse was in the UUP.

Kennedy claimed O'Loan was widely perceived to be "anti-police and most especially anti-RUC".

Look. Her job is to investigate complaints about the police and to scrutinise how the police do their job.

Obviously, she is going to criticise them and sometimes even arrest them and have them prosecuted. However, it is a fact that in most of the cases she has investigated to date O'Loan has recommended that there should be no prosecution because police officers had acted properly.

Would Kennedy suggest that a man in a big job (and let's face it, most of the big jobs in this place are still held by men) was compromised because his wife was in the SDLP? I don't think so.

No wonder O'Loan's office resorted to a little sarcasm. A spokesman commented that it might surprise some politicians that "women can have independent views from their husbands". It may not happen much in the notoriously male-dominated UUP.

But if the higher echelons of the UUP have difficulties with O'Loan, the 'wider unionist community' would appear, in fact, not to share them. She gets consistently high ratings from both Catholics and Protestants. The most recent survey showed that 74% of Protestants believed complaints against the police would be dealt with impartially by her office and, asked if the ombudsman's office would help the police do a good job, 77% of Protestants said yes.

Unionists don't like to be reminded of old Lord Brookeborough's infamous boast that he wouldn't have Catholic workers about the place because most of them were disloyal.

That is all in the past now, they say. Some say the shoe is on the other foot now, that Protestants are the new Catholics.

Last week's fine report from the Committee for the Administration of Justice gives the lie to that.

It sets out statistical evidence that shows the persistence of inequality in both employment and housing.

It also shows that the government has ignored this evidence and suggests this is in itself symptomatic of underlying problems.

Can Kennedy seriously be suggesting that O'Loan is incapable of impartiality towards the police because of her husband's politics? He produced no evidence to support the slur and he ignored evidence that she is held in high esteem.

Why did he do this?

It is hard not to conclude that what he was expressing was prejudice against O'Loan, a Catholic and a woman.

If that is so, it is a significant problem and one that he and his party will have to address at some stage.

September 27, 2006

This article appeared first in the September 26, 2006 edition of the Irish News.

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