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DUP mask and executive bill disputes provide food for thought

Kanyongope Martin

Aug. 02, 2020

So you wait around for ages for a DUP split and then two come along at once.
The first - already the subject of copious amounts of analysis - came at the start of the week with the abstention of 11 MLAs on a bill which clarifies the power of individual Stormont ministers.
The second - at the end of the week - played out over Twitter and was rather less theoretical.
Instead, two leading female DUP politicians decided to take on mask refusenik Sammy Wilson over his disdain for face coverings.
To extend our bus metaphor, the dispute over the Executive Committee Functions Bill is a bit of a magical mystery tour.
No one is precisely sure of the destination or how long the journey might take.
If former DUP adviser Richard Bullick is correct and the new law enables Sinn Féin ministers to engage on solo runs on policies which prove anathema to unionists, then Arlene Foster could be in trouble.
But if not, the leader will be able to stick to her line that it's a summer story blown out of proportion and she can calm her assembly troops with a few reassuring chats.
The second split is less hypothetical.
With parts of England showing worrying signs of a Covid-19 spike just as Northern Ireland's 80,000 shielders are being told they can leave their homes, there is a divide between those in the DUP prioritising personal liberty and economic recovery and others stressing the need to keep the community safe.
Ever provocative, the East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson posed on Twitter at an ice cream parlour in Islandmagee, County Antrim.
His message was "Support Local Business" and he went on to point out that "you can't eat ice cream when you're muzzled!"
The picture of Sammy with his "poke" (to use Ulster slang for a cone) illustrated an argument he has been making against the mandatory wearing of masks in shops - a policy recommended by the health minister and chief medical officer, but which the executive has so far stalled on approving.
In another tweet, Mr Wilson argued: "Given that there were five deaths related to, not caused by, Covid-19 in July and new infections remain low, it would be mad for the health minister to enforce the wearing of face masks in NI.
"Retail has been open for business throughout July with no Covid spike. Time to rethink." (This predated the latest NISRA figures released on Friday).
Predictably the MP's opponents objected to the argument, with Alliance councillor Danny Donnelly visiting the same ice cream parlour wearing a mask to show how you could step outside and then remove your face covering to eat your cornet in the open air.
Image copyright Reuters
More unusually, other DUP politicians publicly took on Mr Wilson.
His former office manager, Pam Cameron, who is now an MLA in South Antrim, replied: "Just your opinion Sammy - I for one will be wearing a face covering and doing the little bit I can to protect those whose shielding is paused today".
Then the former South Belfast MP Emma Little-Pengelly joined in, acknowledging that it's not advisable to eat wearing a mask, but saying that apart from that people should use them.
"Do you know what's worse than wearing a mask?" she asked her party colleague. "It is being in intensive care on a ventilator or not being able to breathe. If not for you, importantly keep our more vulnerable loved ones safe!"
Apart from being a former MP, Ms Little-Pengelly is currently Arlene Foster's special adviser (and as such was involved in the legal machinations around the Executive Committee Functions Bill).
It's hard to imagine she took on the East Antrim MP over face coverings without being pretty sure her leader would approve.
As things stand, Mr Wilson's view that wearing face coverings should be left to the individual, not government, remains just about in line with executive policy which is to use a PR campaign to encourage shoppers to cover up of their own accord (although the MP doesn't seem to be doing any encouraging).
That could change on 20 August when ministers will review the situation and could move to a compulsory policy.
Whether it's face coverings or climate change, Mr Wilson has a long track record of saying and doing what he likes regardless of what others think.
It might be refreshing if other DUP politicians follow his example in debating their contrasting views in public rather than hiding behind the veil of internal party discipline.
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