By Stephen McKinley
The Portadown News website is probably not the best source of news about Northern Ireland — but it must be the funniest.
To date, the controversial comedy site (PortadownNews.com) appears to be the only one that savagely satirizes Northern Ireland’s infamous sectarian divide in the manner of The Onion in the U.S., attacking both sides in equal measure.
A recent “news” article began, “More trouble has broken out in North Belfast, after local residents were once again prevented from taking their children to a riot.” It continued, ” ‘It’s terrible having the kids hanging around the house all day,’ local mother Millie Slapper told our reporter. ‘If things don’t improve soon, I might even have to consider sending them to school.’ ”
For the website’s founder and editor, Portadown man Newton Emerson, the surprise is that no one thought of doing something like the Portadown News before.
“I set up the website in March,” Emerson, who’s 32, said in a recent interview, “just because I couldn’t find anything on the net that seemed to represent Northern Ireland the way my friends and I talked about it.”
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Within a few months, the website certainly had a following, but not all of it approving. In November, the website’s Internet Service Provider, Freeserve, closed it down, although it has since reopened. Emerson, who until last December chose to remain anonymous, was then outed as the editor after an article in the pro-republican Andersonstown News in Belfast.
A self-described “liberal Unionist,” he accuses the newspaper of causing him to lose his job as a technical writer in Poleglass, after he says the News protested to the U.S.-based parent company of his employer, CC Network Systems.
The San Jose-based parent company was sent a copy of his post-Sept. 11 edition of the Portadown News, he says, where Emerson satirized the attack on the World Trade Center.
“The Angrytown News as I call it published an article in September, calling the site ‘sick,’ ” Emerson said in a recent interview. “A few months later they accused the letters page [of the website] of being sexist, racist.”
A third article followed, where an Andersonstown News columnist under the name of “Squinter” accused Emerson of updating the Portadown News website while he was at work at CC Network Systems, giving a list of times of his bulletin board postings.
While the website has made fun of the Orange Order, Emerson has also thrown brickbats at Sinn Fein and the IRA. A recent edition of the Portadown News carried the following exchange of “dialogue” between Gerry Adams and Fidel Castro, on Adams’ss recent trip to Cuba:
“Castro: So Gerry, tell me what you have done to achieve World Socialism?
“Adams: We’re now the third-largest party in devolved local government.
“Castro: What the [inaudible]! You murdered 2,000 people for that?”
Emerson says that CC Networks were informed that they could be held liable under Northern Irish legislation as holding “secondary liability for facilitating a campaign of sectarian harassment.” As a result, he agreed to leave his job.
Neither the Andersonstown News or Emerson’s former employer would comment on the issue. By contrast, Emerson had plenty to say about the incident and Northern Irish politics in general, in the characteristically provocative style of the Portadown News.
“This gives the lie to the Andersonstown News’ claim to support job creation in West Belfast,” he said, in reference to losing his job. “My real crime was being an uppity Orange bastard on their turf,” he said, referring both to the News and the largely republican area of West Belfast.
Emerson continued that the act of censorship he alleges “could the best thing that has ever happened to me,” adding that since then through the publicity of losing his job, he has been “offered lots of work writing for magazines, writing sketches.”
It will, he said, allow him time to challenge what he sees as the 30-year-old “stupidity” and moral ambivalence among Irish people about the ongoing situation in the North — a challenge in and of itself.
Emerson said that after the murder of 20-year-old Catholic postal worker Daniel McColgan by loyalist gunmen last week, he thought long and hard about publishing his site that week, but in the end he did, adding at the bottom of the home page the words “Remember Danny McColgan.”
Thousands joined in protests against the killing across Northern Ireland.
“People are not prepared to accept killings like this as part of the background noise of everyday life in Northern Ireland,” Emerson said, although he asked the question why this killing should attract the moral opprobrium of the public any more than the killings of other innocent Troubles victims.
“We’ve been overindulged in our stupidity in Northern Ireland,” he continued, “and what makes this problem so persistent is that people won’t tell us how stupid we are.” Emerson also said that he will continue to satirize aspects of the Good Friday agreement, because “it needs to be criticized,” even though he voted for it.
“It’s the only game in town,” he said, “but the fundamental problem with it is that all the parties see it as a tactical chance for another victory over the other side.” Meanwhile, other issues in Northern Ireland, such as racketeering and rising crime, meant that “we’re going to turn from Palestine into Sicily.”
To date, Emerson’s website is providing the only satirical game in town as well. Referring to the incident in which he lost his job and in which his website received even more attention than before, Emerson said, “This could be the best thing that ever happened to me.”