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TV Review : The moderates and the hoods 

“Spotlight” discusses Sandy Row

Reviewed by Andrew Johnson

14th May 2004

The latest edition of BBCNI’s Spotlight featured an intriguing discussion about the intimidation visited on residents of the Whitehall Square complex by Sandy Row loyalists. Four South Belfast MLAs took part representing the four main parties. As one might have expected, the intimidation was condemned stridently by the SDLP’s Carmel Hanna and verbosely by Sinn Fein’s Alex Maskey. What was more interesting was the reaction of the two unionist politicians on the programme.

The DUP’s Mark Robinson joined the two nationalist panellists in forthrightly condemning the intimidation. Robinson, who is familiar with the realities of South Belfast, repeated what he has been saying for a couple of weeks now – that the “protest” at Whitehall Square was orchestrated by organised loyalists and motivated by sectarian hatred. The DUP, pitching towards Middle Ulster voters, seem anxious to shed their cornerboy image; there is also little love lost between them and the paramilitaries.

The fourth panellist was UUP member and former Stormont minister Michael McGimpsey, long the toast of the Dublin media set as a leading representative of “moderate unionism”. If Eoghan Harris or Ruth Dudley Edwards had been watching Spotlight, they may have shifted uneasily in their seats as the “moderate” McGimpsey positioned himself to the right of the Paisleyite. McGimpsey would not condemn what he described as a “spontaneous protest”. He dredged up every urban myth he could think of – some wee woman told him she had been shouted at from a Whitehall Square balcony, etc – to excuse the behaviour of the Sandy Row loyalists. Nor would he accept there was a sectarian motive behind the intimidation, instead describing Carmel Hanna as sectarian for “demonising” and “stigmatising” Sandy Row.

The main problem with McGimpsey’s intervention was that it was a load of old cobblers. Anyone who has even a passing acquaintance with Sandy Row knows that the area has been dominated by the UDA for over thirty years. There is no such thing as a “spontaneous protest” on Sandy Row, much less when hundreds of loyalists with bands and banners are involved. Doesn’t the sectarian graffiti daubed on the Whitehall Square complex constitute evidence that, far from the problem being an “unsavoury element” in Whitehall Square as McGimpsey suggested, a bigoted element in Sandy Row might be to blame?

In fact McGimpsey’s excuses merely illustrate “moderate” unionism’s long history of dalliance with paramilitary thugs, most spectacularly demonstrated in the UWC strike exactly thirty years ago when the UDA and UVF acted as muscle for the unionist politicians, the UUP no less than “hardliners” like Ian Paisley or Bill Craig. A more modern example was provided at Holy Cross by McGimpsey’s brother Chris, another famous liberal unionist. Chris McGimpsey startlingly suggested that Glenbryn loyalists were intimidating small schoolgirls because the Provos had made them do it. In the context of Holy Cross, Chris McGimpsey was not better than Billy Hutchinson was not better than Nigel Dodds. What politicians sit on the Loyalist Commission? Not the DUP – it is Trimble’s men who liaise with the paramilitaries.

Understanding grievances

Another constant refrain from the McGimpseys of this world is that we should understand and address the legitimate grievances of Sandy Row people. They said the same during the Holy Cross standoff and the loyalist assault on Short Strand. A similar line is taken by elements of the gormless left who seem to see sectarian mobilisations as a form of deflected class struggle. (The Socialist Party ascribed the Short Strand violence to “a lack of affordable housing” forcing people to move into “each other’s areas”. They blamed this on the boom in “yuppie flats”, like Whitehall Square presumably. If these jokers had been around in 1950s Alabama one suspects they would have complained that a lack of seating at the back of the bus was causing blacks to sit in white seats.)

Let’s get this straight, Sandy Row is a poor area and always has been. The working-class community there does have legitimate grievances. But the possibility that some Catholics might live in Whitehall Square – nobody knows what the makeup of the complex is – is not a legitimate grievance. As Carmel Hanna says, poverty is not an excuse for bigotry. And Sandy Row’s chronic health problems have not prevented loyalists from attacking the Filipino nurses who look after the area’s sick at the City Hospital.

What we are dealing with here is unionism’s long-running obsession with “encroachment”, especially marked in the almost totally segregated estates of Belfast. If you let a few Catholics in, goes the theory, they will take over. So they have to be kept out. Ethnic minorities are also unwelcome because they compromise the “Protestant character” of an area and open the door to Catholics coming in. Hence the recent anti-Chinese pogrom in South Belfast.

And what goes for working-class areas like Sandy Row goes for the unionist middle class as well. No republican mobs intimidated Protestant lawyers from the leafy Malone Road – they just didn’t want to live beside Catholics, even respectable middle-class Catholics. So they moved to East Belfast or North Down, solidly Prod areas as far as the sea. When their kids went to university, they refused to go to the “too Catholic” Queens but opted for the loyalist colony of Dundee. These people are the backbone of “liberal unionism”.

We need to face up to the fact that unionism is not an ideological spectrum, it is a political movement whose sole purpose is the defence of sectarian privilege. Therefore to even talk about “moderate unionism” is to miss the point. The UUP is not a lesser evil than the DUP. The point is to defeat the whole rotten edifice.



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