John Mason has apologised at last but his remarks pose questions for party leadership writes Tom Peterkin
It took seven days for an apology to be dragged – kicking and screaming – from John Mason following his foolish comments about the IRA.
When it finally arrived, via an e-mail from the SNP press office late on Tuesday afternoon, it appeared reasonably fulsome.
“I deeply regret the offence and upset that has been caused to the relatives who lost loved ones and am extremely sorry that this has happened. I condemn and deplore all acts of terrorism. I do not intend to make any further comment,” said the SNP MSP for Glasgow Settleston.
His expression of regret marked a welcome change of tone from the mealy-mouthed utterances with which he had previously tried to justify his views.
But quite why it had taken so long for Mr Mason to make amends for a series of tweets that caused so much upset and anger is difficult to understand.
Also testing many people’s powers of comprehension is the question of why Mr Mason chose to make his remarks in the first place.
For those unacquainted with this sorry episode, Mr Mason found himself in hot water on both sides of the Irish Sea thanks to his suggestion that the IRA could be considered “freedom fighters”.
The offence caused by his description of one of the most vicious terrorist organisations the world has ever seen was compounded by the fact that his Twitter conversation concerned the execution of three young Scottish soldiers.
It was in the dark days of 1971 that teenage brothers John and Joseph McCaig, aged 17 and 18, along with 23-year-old Dougald McCaughey, were serving in the Royal Highland Fusiliers. They were off duty, unarmed and in civilian clothes when they were lured from a Belfast bar on a promise to meet some girls.
They were taken to a mountain road where they were shot in the back of their heads at close range. The murder of the young men caused widespread revulsion – not to mention unimaginable grief for their families. To this day the killings are regarded as among the most notorious of Northern Ireland’s brutal sectarian conflict.
It was against that background that Mr Mason was asked on Twitter to support a campaign to bring the killers to justice.
In response to the message: “Will you support this campaign, or are these brave lads not Scottish enough in your opinion?” Mr Mason said: “Happy to support all campaigns to bring about justice. But not taking sides between Irish and British.”
The Glasgow Shettleston MSP was also asked if he supported the IRA during the Troubles. He replied that he was not taking sides on Irish issues.
After being challenged about “not taking sides between Scottish soldiers and Irish murderers”, he replied: “You say Irish murderers. Others say Irish freedom fighters. I support Scottish soldiers if they do good but not if they do bad.”
Mr Mason’s assertion that there may be some sort of moral ambiguity over the murder of three innocent men by terrorists quite rightly caused anger.
As an adherent of the Baptist Church, Mr Mason must know that, when God handed Moses the tablets of stone, the sixth commandment did not have a sub-clause saying some forms of cold-blooded murder could be justified if it was done in the name of a violent struggle for a united Ireland.
Even so there will be those of a charitable nature who will believe Mr Mason’s apology to be genuine. It does at least avoid the “sorry if any offence was caused” formula, so often used by politicians when they try to get themselves out of a hole with minimum loss of face.
There will, however, be other who believe Mr Mason’s apology is little more than an attempt to spare the SNP high command any further embarrassment.
There is little doubt that the furore over his comments was reflecting very badly on the SNP. Opposition parties at Holyrood condemned them. In Ulster, the Democratic Unionist Party called on Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond to take action against Mr Mason to ensure that the MSP refrains from voicing such “grossly offensive” opinions in the future. These criticisms were amplified by an intervention from one of the soldiers’ family.
David McCaughey, a cousin of the oldest victim, was particularly withering. Mr Mason’s tweets, he said, were an insult to his family which made him “sick to the stomach”. He urged Ms Sturgeon and Mr Salmond to take action.
Against this chorus of condemnation, it is difficult to escape the impression that Mr Mason was under intense pressure to apologise from within the SNP.
Mr Mason may have done so, but the silence from the SNP leadership remains deafening. That point is not lost on Lord Kilclooney, who as plain John Taylor was the Northern Ireland minister for home affairs when the killings were carried out.
In a letter to this newspaper, Lord Kilclooney said the SNP leadership’s failure to distance themselves from Mr Mason was “even worse” than the remarks themselves.
He added: “I am appalled that Mr Mason should dismiss these IRA murderers in this way. I can assure the people of Scotland that the majority of people in NI, Catholic and Protestant, condemn the murders of three Scottish soldiers and deplore Mr Mason’s excuse for the IRA.”
Will Nicola Sturgeon do the same?