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How sectarianism thrives in the North
27th October 2003
In the article by Mark Langhammer on the sectarian nature of the Good Friday Agreement and of the Assembly it spawned he commented on the raw and primitive nature of the ‘protest’ at the annual Catholic blessing of the graves ceremony at Carnmoney cemetery. This involved a very noisy and virulently sectarian demonstration against Catholic relatives observing a religious service for those interred in the mixed cemetery, on the spurious grounds that the ceremony itself was noisy and sectarian! For many this bitter demonstration was a new low in bigotry, plumbing depths previously excavated in Holy Cross and Drumcree.
While there were the ritualistic cries from the usual political and establishment suspects that such scenes were unacceptable a number of episodes since the ‘protest’ demonstrate that the pit of sectarianism gets deeper precisely because such outbursts are acceptable. And their acceptance is in no small part a result of the Good Friday Agreement.
The first episode involved the President of Ireland Mary McAleese in a tour of the loyalist museum on the Shankill Road in Belfast a week after the demonstration, in the company of political front men for the type of loyalist paramilitaries who organise such actions. Both the visit and the funding of the museum bring together the prime means by which the legitimacy of loyalist paramilitaries has been promoted during the peace process through the theme of equal recognition of the two traditions. It almost goes without saying that in the prominent publicity for the visit no media outlet put a question to McAleese on why she was lending her office to legitimating loyalism after such a brutal display of what in reality is the loyalist tradition.
The second episode did receive widespread attention; it was repeated statements by a local Unionist Party councillor contriving to blame the loyalist ‘protest,’ and also the death threat against the local priest, as the fault of the Catholic population itself. The failure of the priest to immediately remove sectarian graffiti plastered over the church was apparently evidence of a hidden Catholic ‘agenda.’ While being roundly condemned by many, very few seemed to note publicly that this came from a representative of the same party being relied upon to create a new non-sectarian future in partnership with nationalists in the Good Friday Agreement. The excuses for sectarian intimidation were explained by the electoral competition between the Unionist Party and Democratic Unionist Party that the Assembly has done so much to enhance.
In the popular mid-day Radio Ulster programme ‘Talk Back,’ hosted by the wearily condescending voice of enlightened liberalism David Dunseath, questions on the appalling nature of the demonstration and death threat were asked of a local unionist councillor. While registering the unacceptable nature of the death threat, and inviting the unionist representative to concur, Dunseath sought such agreement through acceptance not just of the right to protest in general but of the legitimacy of ‘protest’ in this particular case. It did not strike him, nor did he pursue a line of interviewing, that called into question the legitimacy of such a naked act of sectarian bigotry. So deep has the legitimacy of the ‘two traditions’ approach to politics bitten that these must be accepted no matter how appalling their expression.
The final episode, so far, in this sorry story occurred this morning on the ‘Inside Ulster’ radio programme where the prominent representative for the loyalist UVF Billy Hutchinson explained his meeting with the local priest, who was subject to the death threat, in the company of Tommy Kirkham who is aligned to the UDA. He was intervening apparently to see what problems had given rise to the ‘protest’ and how by addressing these problems it might be prevented in future. He did not have to answer for the action of the protestors despite it being organised by the Red Hand Commandos who are allied with the UVF. Instead he was allowed, as loyalist spokesmen always are, to pretend that the most bigoted actions of members and supporters of their organisations have nothing to do with them. Instead the theme and tenor of the discussion became one of what the problems of the bigots were and how they could be addressed. In the past this has meant how they could be bought off or the legitimacy of their sectarian views validated through some sort of apartheid arrangement.
So an interview on the threats and intimidation of Catholic relatives of the dead becomes a discussion of how their persecutors might be helped!
This legitimating of loyalist bigotry by the media and unionist politicians follows the actions of the British State which has protected and promoted these organisations in novel ways over the period of the peace process. From releasing their members from jail; devising special electoral rules to enhance chances of success; giving selected members jobs and certain organisations funding, through to routine policing of loyalist acts of intimidation which appear determined more to facilitate the intimidation than to protect those under assault, the British State has promoted loyalism even when it seems determined not to play ball. Even then the British State has bent over backwards, for example to deny any breach of loyalist ceasefires when the evidence to the contrary has been overwhelming.
This is to say nothing of the routine collusion between State forces and loyalist paramilitaries which has gone on throughout the last thirty years. Only today is it reported in the ‘Irish News’ that the sister of notorious loyalist killer Billy Wright has claimed that her brother was an agent of the British. So commonplace and unsurprising does such a properly shocking statement appear that the claim gets only a rather small inside story. The lead front story is about a stolen dog.
The growth of sectarianism during the peace process is a mystery only to the latter’s supporters. It is an inevitable outworking of a political deal that strengthens imperialism and allows it to openly patronise groups whom it previously had to keep at arms’ length. Everyone else in society has followed this cue to the extent that certain representatives of loyalism have been held up as socialists by some on the left. The ritualistic despair of politicians, churchmen and media when this sectarianism takes on a particularly vicious spectacle only further obscures the origin and nature of the problem and strengthens the obstacles to its destruction.
There is no credible force that can honestly claim to be anti-sectarian and until such a socialist political party is created we cannot expect any effective opposition to sectarianism.