Representation of the people

Martin Mullaney and Salma YaqoobBy Dave Woodhall.

It’s always odd when something close to home makes the news. Many years ago the roof of the block of flats where I was living blew off and it was a strange feeling to turn on the TV and see my road on the news. Maybe it’s because we tend to think of real life and television as being two separate entities, as though everyone who appears on screen lives in some separate world to the rest of us, and are wheeled out to make their appearances before going back to a life of sex. drugs, rock and roll.

I thought of that moment last week, when the ReStirred forum, in whose predecessor I once played a minor part and which I regularly visit, hit the headlines because of the current spat between Birmingham councillors Martin Mullaney and Salma Yaqoob. For anyone who hasn’t kept up to date with this story, it all kicked off when Yaqoob and fellow Respect member Mohammed Ishtiaq refused to join a standing ovation for George Cross winner Lance Corporal Matthew Croucher, during the soldier’s visit to Birmingham council chamber last week.

In the current climate it was no surprise that their protest made the headlines, and given the nature of the individuals concerned, neither was it any great shock when Cllr Mullaney joined the condemnation of Cllr Yaqoob – the two of them have often been at loggerheads. However, Mullaney went on to claim on the ReStirred forum that, had one of the failed 2005 Tube suicide bombers been in the chamber, Cllr Yaqoob would have been demanding the council applaud the would-be terrorist for their past ‘heroic actions.’ He also repeated a story written by Cllr Yaqoob some years ago, talking about life in a future Islamic Britain.

Cllr Mullaney has remained an active contributor to the ReStirred debate, even when it began to make first local, and then national news. The Lib Dem councillor has found himself being hailed on several far-right fora, despite having in the past been the victim of attacks by assailants who he claimed were BNP members, and he has been quick to distance himself from his new-found supporters. He also finds himself facing demands from Cllr Yaqoob to retract his comments about her support for suicide bombers. I do wonder why, of all those present in the council chamber that day, Martin Mullaney is the only one who saw fit to repeatedly criticise the Respect councillors’ actions. Had he kept quiet, or even restricted his comments to a single condemnation, either on ReStirred or elsewhere, this story would not have received the publicity it has subsequently enjoyed. Maybe I’ve answered my own question.

Cllr Mullaney’s actions  in making such a provocative statement must also be open to question. I know there’s a tendency for some of the less intelligent members of the cyber-community to believe the internet has some special type of language which mean their ill-thought out beliefs can only be read by those who they want to read them. But surely such an experienced politician must have known that accusing someone, particularly a high-profile Muslim, of sympathising with terrorism lays himself open not only to a charge of libel, but is also bound to attract some very nasty fellow-travellers. Ironically, this story comes just days after another Birmingham councillor and ReStirred member, Gareth Crompton, was informed that he wouldn’t face charges resulting from allegedly offensive comments he made on his Twitter account.

Not that Salma Yaqoob has covered herself in glory during this episode. As a young, female Muslim politician she is bound to attract a lot of media attention, and she invariably handles herself credibly. Her moderate views give the lie to those who equate ‘Muslim’ with ‘extremist.’  However, in refusing to acknowledge L/Cpl Croucher’s bravery, she and Cllr Ishtiaq behaved in a way akin to attention-seeking children, no matter how much she subsequently apologised to anyone who may have been upset by their actions.

We all have to do things we sometimes feel uncomfortable about. On many occasions I’ve respected a silence for the memory of someone I may not have liked, or kept quiet when offensive comments were being made. It’s not a matter of hypocrisy or opting for a quiet life but there’s a time and a place for everything. In a later interview, Cllr Yaqoob claimed that L/Cpl Croucher had been brought into the council chamber as a deliberate move aimed at undermining Respect’s credibility. I can’t but think she did a much better job of that than anyone else could have.

I also wonder whether the people of Sparkbrook and Kings Heath & Moseley aren’t looking at this whole saga and wondering how, exactly, their own interests are being served by the politicians who were elected to look after them.