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McAleese, the Unionists and the Nazis

Andrew Johnson

16th February 2005

Free State President Mary McAleese has stirred up a hornet’s nest with her comments on unionist bigotry and Nazism – comments that were nearer the mark than most have admitted.

The row started when McAleese joined other European dignitaries in a commemoration service at Auschwitz on the 40th anniversary of the Nazi death camp’s liberation. In an interview with RTE radio the president made a few general and unexceptionable remarks about the Holocaust, and how it demonstrates that bigotry is a bad thing.

Then she said of the Nazis, “They gave to their children an irrational hatred of Jews in the same way that people in Northern Ireland transmitted to their children an irrational hatred, for example, of Catholics, in the same way that people give to their children an outrageous and irrational hatred of those who are of different colour and all of those things.” This should be unproblematic for anyone familiar with the pervasive anti-Catholicism of unionist political culture. Obviously the history of discrimination in the North is of an entirely different order to the Nazi Holocaust, but in the context of a general discussion of intolerance her argument was a fair one.

There are two salient points about McAleese’s statement. One is that she made it in the first place; the other is that she withdrew it under pressure, and gave the unionists the apology they demanded. These aspects of the affair derive from her personal background in the Northern Catholic middle class coming into conflict with her official position as head of the Southern state.

The original quote was the authentic voice of a middle-class North Belfast Catholic, somebody who remembers the unbridled supremacism of the old Stormont, the pogroms of 1969, and in general is acutely aware of the ingrained sectarianism of the Northern statelet. Although the Catholic middle class have prospered of late, they are not so far removed from the ghetto as to give unionism the benefit of the doubt. Not even the “liberal” unionists who lurk in the Trimble wing of the UUP or the Belfast Telegraph comment pages, trumpeting their moderation while complaining ad nauseam about how the Taigs are taking over the country – even some of McAleese’s former academic colleagues at Queens, who massively resented a Catholic woman holding a senior position there. This is not behaviour that strikes Catholics as being non-sectarian. Remember that McAleese is far from being a frothing republican, and it is not insignificant that the usually supine Mark Durkan of the SDLP leapt to her defence.

The withdrawal of the statement relates directly to the fanatical unionism of the Dublin political class. Let it be remembered that Mrs McAleese has over the last seven years assiduously followed the Dublin government’s line of sucking up to the unionists. She has frequently been found hymning the alleged cultural significance of the Orange Order, or entertaining loyalist paramilitaries at Aras an Uachtarain – indeed, members of the UDA were present at her recent inauguration. It is not surprising that the Dublin regime, after a token defence of their president’s dignity, soon whipped her into line.

Unionist reaction

The unionist reaction, meanwhile, boiled down to “Sectarian, us?” Much of this was beyond the realm of satire. A few choice quotes:

"Her comments are completely irrational and are designed to insult the integrity of the Protestant community and damn an entire generation of Protestant people. Her mask as being a healer of divided peoples has slipped. She is spewing out hatred of the Protestant community, whilst accusing those same people of hating Catholics." This from Ian Paisley Jr, a man who surely proves that sectarianism does not pass down the generations. He added, "I don't know of any Protestant community that teaches hatred of Catholics." Maybe Wee Ian has been sleeping through DUP conference all these years, and has missed the Fenian-baiting speeches Papa Doc lays on for the party faithful.

“It seems you can take the lady out of Ardoyne, but you can’t take the Ardoyne out of the lady.” Bobby Saulters, Grand Master of the Orange Order, an organisation which has not exactly endeared itself to the Catholics of Ardoyne over the years. Bro. Saulters is perhaps best known in Britain for branding Tony Blair a traitor because he had married a Catholic. There are many reasons for disliking Tony Blair, but that isn’t one of them.

“The feeling up here about Mary McAleese’s comments is one of absolute horror and disgust.” Belfast City Councillor Hugh Smyth of the PUP, explaining why the president wouldn’t be welcome on the Shankill Road. That would be the PUP, political wing of the UVF, a group well known for its promotion of tolerance and opposition to bigotry.

The shamelessness of the unionists is breathtaking. You would think Lord Craigavon had never talked about a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people, that Lord Brookeborough had never said he wouldn’t have a Catholic about the place, that discrimination never existed, that unionists have always been sinned against and never ever sinning.

Which is, of course, the impression they want to give and in many cases their sincerely held self-image. There are no surprises where the unionists are concerned. But it really says something about the state of southern politics when the head of state can’t call a spade a spade for fear of offending Paisleyites who find this uppity Catholic woman offensive simply for existing.


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