Gregory Campbell: ‘Yoghurt’ remark stirs fresh debate

Gregory CampbellGregory Campbell was banned for speaking for a day in the assembly, after his comments

Like all contact sports – politics requires resilience, stamina and focus.

But politicians often accuse each other of punching below the belt.

The controversy over Gregory Campbell’s parody of the Irish language has led to questions over what the rules of engagement should be in the cut-and-thrust of parliamentary debate.

The DUP MLA began a question to the Culture Minister Carál Ní Chuilín with: “Curry my yogurt, can coca coalyer.”

Ms Ní Chuilín accused him of “pure ignorance” and both nationalist parties made a complaint to the Speaker’s office.

Mr Campbell was banned from speaking for one day.

It’s the fourth time an MLA has been punished by having speaking rights restricted during the current assembly term.

The TUV leader Jim Allister is currently serving a four-week speaking ban after a clash with the Deputy Speaker Roy Beggs.


But Mr Allister claims politicians need to have thicker skins and that Stormont debates should be more robust.

“The rough and tumble of politics means it’s not for shrinking violets,” he said.

“I think if you try to sanitise it to the point it’s anodyne – as sometimes seems to be the desire of some of those who sit in the chair – then the assembly is the loser.”

He says Stormont is tamer than other parliaments, like Westminster.

But Sinn Féin MLA Chris Hazzard claims that political pummelling leaves voters feeling punch-drunk.

“American politics is more polarised than ever before, and the public are more disconnected from politics than ever before,” he said.

“It’s very important we don’t see racist, sexist or narrow-minded remarks in our politics, because that filters through the media into the public sphere, and people turn off.”

The SDLP deputy leader Dolores Kelly believes that the assembly’s standards of behaviour sink too low.

“I think some of the types of remarks that pass for comment in Stormont would not be allowed in other chambers.

Carál Ní Chuilín accused the DUP's Gregory Campbell of pure ignoranceCarál Ní Chuilín accused the DUP’s Gregory Campbell of “pure ignorance”

“You see comments of a racist or sexist nature sometimes.”

However, Peter Weir – the DUP’s assembly chief whip – believes there should be more room for verbal sparring at Stormont.

He believes the rowdiness at Prime Minister’s Questions in Westminster – where MPs sometimes struggle to be heard – is too much.

But he added: “I think there’s a danger that in the assembly we go too far the other way, and people are too insulated.

“A bit of atmosphere at times can add to debates.”

Most would say that a certain degree of confrontation is healthy for politics.

But one person’s vigorous contest might be another’s idea of a street fight.

There will be further analysis of this issue on The View on BBC One Northern Ireland on Thursday night at 22:35 GMT.

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