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18 August 2014

Let the scoundrel George Galloway speak, but hold him to account

George Galloway

Should Belfast City Council withdraw permission for the Ulster Hall to accommodate the sell-out one-man show of the obnoxious George Galloway, rabble-rouser and self-proclaimed hater of Israel?

I've met ghastly people in my time, but I don't think I've ever met anyone as objectionable and creepy as Galloway.

We were on the same panel at the 2012 West Belfast Festival and, as I listened to his bullying and his bile, I wondered briefly if it would be worse to be on a desert island with him or with Gerry Kelly, who was on my left. Even knowing what I know about the unrepentant Kelly's appalling past and his hypocritical present, Galloway won hands down.

Galloway was so gross about Iris Robinson (he likes kicking those who are down) that even the partisan audience was uncomfortable. And his reaction to a young pregnant woman bravely identifying herself to that pro-Palestinian audience as a member of an Irish-Israel group was to belittle her sneeringly.

He's very smart and exceptionally articulate and intimidates by using his intrinsic nastiness as a debating tool.

I'm proud that he was discomfited when I told the audience that on Celebrity Big Brother in 2006, his jeering at poor, sad Michael Barrymore for his alcoholism was so disgusting that he was challenged by a 24-year-old musician, whose impassioned denunciation of his cruelty helped to have Galloway evicted the following day by a huge majority of viewers.

He's not nasty to everyone, though. The late Christopher Hitchens – who was his equal in invective – said, correctly, in their debate in New York in 2005: "You have been absolutely 100% consistent in your support for unmentionable thugs and bastards."

Galloway has worked for Iran's Press TV and Russia Today and his heroes include Castro, whom he has eulogised on Cuban TV, and Putin, whom he said should win the Nobel Peace Prize.

Who can forget his enthusiastic support for the brutal Saddam Hussein?

He opposed the 1991 Gulf War, which liberated Kuwait after Saddam had annexed it, and in 1994 told Saddam that he had been to the Gaza Strip and that "there was not a single person to whom I told I was coming to Iraq and hoping to meet with yourself who did not wish me to convey their heartfelt, fraternal greetings and support".

He ended with the unforgettable line: "Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability."

While Galloway is a supporter of the Islamist Hamas, it is the flame of his loathing of Israel that burns brightest.

In 2012, in an Oxford debate about whether Israel should withdraw from the Left Bank, he interrupted a speaker with: "Are you an Israeli?" When the student said yes, Galloway's response as he walked out was, "I don't recognise Israel and I don't debate with Israelis."

But, in his venom, Galloway has gone further, telling his party members in his Bradford constituency that Bradford was now an Israel-free zone and that, "we didn't want any Israeli goods, services, academics or tourists" and rejected "this illegal, barbarous, savage state that calls itself Israel. And you have to do the same". This goes down well in an area that is 25% Muslim.

I'm an enthusiast for free speech, but the law is the law and Galloway's an MP, so I signed the petition to the Crown Prosecution Service suggesting that these comments were a racially aggravated crime designed to "cause harassment, alarm or distress to a specific group of people".

With protest marches, shops and customers being harassed over Israeli goods, incidents of anti-Semitic violence and the shameful attacks on the plaque to Belfast-born Israeli president Chaim Herzog, the last thing Belfast needs is a megalomaniac preacher of hate to stir the Gaza cauldron.

I have sympathy with those who would like to stop it happening, but I think they're wrong. Unlike Galloway, we prize freedom, rather than repression, and, therefore, need to tolerate the intolerable.

Let the scoundrel speak, but make sure that the police not only keep the peace, but record the event and take swift action if he crosses the legal boundary into hate speech.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards