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Last Updated: Monday, 29 August 2005, 09:03 GMT 10:03 UK
That's all jokes
By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News website

How does one crack jokes about sectarian hatred, internecine violence and murder?

It's not easy, but such is the state of Northern Ireland politics that anyone who sets out to poke fun at the situation there needs a finely tuned sense of humour - and a strong nerve.

For the past four-and-a-half years that's been the role of Newton Emerson, editor and sole writer of the Portadown News.

Don't be fooled by the title, the Portadown News is not a local paper but a sharply satirical website that has become something of an institution among locals and ex-pats. Former Unionist leader David Trimble was a reader, says Emerson, and a print out is even said to have landed on Tony Blair's desk.

Farewell

In a region still characterised by the centuries-old divide between Protestants and Catholics, Emerson, 35, has injected some much-needed humour into the political scene.

But his followers will have to look elsewhere after Emerson's decision to "decommission" the site, having been offered a column in a "real newspaper".

So it's farewell to stories such as the one from a recent edition about the baffling state of competing loyalist paramilitary groups: "Police in East Belfast have refused to tackle a UVF mob which is tackling an LVF mob which police refused to tackle."

The worst thing you can say about anyone in Northern Ireland is that they can't take a slagging - it's what saved me
Newton Emerson, editor, Portadown News

Or, following the IRA's offer to shoot the killers of Robert McCartney, a Catholic who was killed outside a pub earlier this year: "That IRA statement in full - Following an investigation of ourselves alone by ourselves alone several volunteers have volunteered to be shot."

"I think it's served its purpose," says Emerson. "I've said all I can say in this format and face the risk of repeating myself."

Humour and politics are never natural stable mates at the best of times, but in Northern Ireland they seem almost mutually exclusive. So what inspired Emerson to start the site in 2001?

"I'd been living in my home town of Portadown and for nine years we'd had this Drumcree stand-off," he says referring to the annual July march by Protestants that had, periodically, ended in sectarian rioting.

"Like most people I was annoyed with these groups who had completely destroyed my town - the night life, the commercial life. That was where the frustration came from.

"I started it as a joke, for a few friends," he says. But within a couple of months a local paper, sniffing controversy, seized on it. Suddenly visitor numbers to the site rocketed to about 10,000 and have hovered around that mark ever since.

"It got into all the papers around the world. I think there were a lot of journalists looking for a new angle on the stupid, boring Drumcree story."

Reprisals

But Emerson, who is from a Protestant background, was still dipping his toe in the pool. Despite mocking both sides in equal measure, he remained anonymous, fearing reprisals.

"That's how we thought it worked in Northern Ireland, but it turns out when you do something like this, nobody really has a go at you at all.

"I'm not saying real journalists are safe. But the days when you couldn't stick your head above the parapet are gone."

Emerson used humour as a shield.

"The worst thing you can say about anyone in Northern Ireland is that they can't take a slagging. That's the biggest insult in our culture. It's what saved me. If I'd been making the points I have been in standard prose form, I'd have been sued and shot and had my arse kicked a hundred times over. You're protected if you're cracking a joke I think."

That's not to say he isn't threatened, on average a new threat against him is e-mailed or posted on the web every couple of months. But he has relaxed, saying: "a sports reporter would get more than that."

Puncturing pomposity

By and large though, public figures have tolerated him, shaking his hand "through gritted teeth" when they would "prefer to wring my neck".

Emerson views Northern Ireland politics as patently absurd.

"Part of the reason Portadown News has been so easy to write down the years is that when you have parish pump politicians swanning around world capitals, appearing on CNN and demanding to be treated as if they are international political leaders... the absurdity and pomposity of that is just a total gift to comedy."

But how does he judge the humour in what can still be a bitterly divided community? It would have been "difficult to write something like the Portadown News when people were dying in large numbers".

"The murder of Robert McCartney was not amusing at all," he says, setting out his stall. "You simply wait a little while until the political hypocrisy emerges and then the hypocritical responses that follow, and so forth.

"When you've got bombs going off that's a rather hair-splitting distinction."


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