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Sectarianism in the North- two more examples
30th January 2003
Many are familiar with the saying that it is only enough for good men to do nothing for evil to triumph. In the North this may be translated as evil will definitely triumph if there is no opposition. Thus many might have hoped that the evil of sectarianism would face opposition from the trade unions and left, but such is the increasingly diseased state of Northern society that these forces are sometimes to be found defending sectarianism.
Lest anyone think this is exaggeration a recent radio and television interview on BBC Northern Ireland will come as a bit of a jolt.
Firstly on 20th December on the Good Morning Ulster radio programme the head of the Irish National Teachers Organisation, which organises mainly in Catholic Church controlled schools, was asked to respond to the possibility arising from the Equality Commission of anti-discrimination legislation being extended to the recruitment of teachers. Asked whether he supported this extension Frank Bunting gave one of those answers which is not an answer. Pressed to give a straight response he once again waffled on about how it wasn’t that simple an issue. Eventually asked if he supported anti-discrimination legislation being applied to teacher recruitment sometime in the future, an opening allowing him to say yes without this meaning anything, it eventually became clear that he opposed such a development. When the interviewer pointed out that the leader of the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers supported such a development he described such a call as ‘pious.’
He gave as his reason the fact that Northern Ireland had an educational structure built on denominational schooling, that this was government policy and so it was not possible to impose anti-discriminatory legislation on such a structure. He gave as a further reason that such a development would not be supported by the Good Friday Agreement.
So according to this union leader sectarian discrimination is ok to protect Catholic Church control of education because this is British government policy and the Good Friday Agreement, which was supposed to herald an anti-sectarian future, is there to protect it through its respect for the two sectarian traditions.
The second example is less important for the personality involved than for what it says about the political environment in general and the inability of socialist politics based on economism to deal with it.
On the 21st November edition of the BBC Northern Ireland current affairs programme ‘Lets Talk’ Eamonn McCann, a prominent spokesperson for the Socialist Workers Party, utterly failed to provide a socialist response to the growing sectarianism in the North. The tenor of the programme can be gauged from the remarks of the first of four panellists to speak, Gary Mason, a Methodist minister from East Belfast and a member of the Loyalist Commission which has been the political grouping including churchmen, unionist politicians and paramilitaries that have provided apologies for the sectarian pogroms of the UDA and UVF.
He informed us that we are all in the North ‘recovering bigots’ and that we had all to be ‘honest’ in admitting this and stop being ‘in denial.’ The second panellist, Chris McGimpsey of the Unionist Party, agreed, saying that everyone had sectarian bones in their body. When asked by the BBC journalist hosting the show whether he agreed with these assessments Eamonn MCann might have been expected to state clearly that socialists are definitely not sectarian and that if the previous two panellists admitted to such this only proved that the socialist analysis of these people was correct.
Instead, when asked if he had any sectarian bones in his body, he stated ‘I suppose I must do. I come from Northern Ireland..No one has the right to deny it’ (being at least partly sectarian).
It is not a question of being holier than thou to state that such a reply is disgraceful.
His ‘Marxist’ gloss on this reply was that such sectarianism was the product of history and material circumstances including the influx of Catholics into Belfast seeking work in competition with local Protestant workers. The way to overcome it was through supporting the firefighters strike.
Hamlet without the Prince
The remainder of the programme will have been wearily familiar to those living in the North who have watched innumerable such programmes which consist of mutual hand-wringing, despair of both sides and statements of the banal. To be fair to McCann he scotched the notion advanced that the two sides were equally to blame but singularly failed, as did everyone else, to name the real guilty party.
No one mentioned the role of the British in creating and sustaining the state or their obvious role in the most recent events. Without such a focus such ‘debates’ can never go anywhere and McCann’s observation that Catholic sectarianism is less of a problem than Protestant bigotry is only that, an observation.
This of course is nothing new, what is new is that the cancer of sectarianism has become so pervasive and deep that a self proclaimed socialist cannot even answer a question that asks is he sectarian by saying No; worse, he says yes!