By Brian Feeney (for Irish News)
Last Friday night loyalist thugs broke into a house in Ballygomartin in west Belfast and attacked a 22-year-old man with iron bars and a hatchet. He had the temerity to think that he, a Catholic, could live with a Protestant woman in a Protestant district. The incident is one of an endless litany.
Hardly a day goes past without news of sectarian assaults, graffiti, an Orange hall burnt, a GAA pitch attacked. Here’s the bad news - it has always been the same. Low level incidents occurred regularly during the Troubles but hardly registered because, let’s face it, why would you bother reporting that somebody sprayed ‘KAT’ on a wall or threw a petrol bomb when a 200lb bomb had exploded killing people or demolishing a building?
There’s a myth among Unionists that this was ‘a great wee place’ until the civil rights campaign or until the IRA campaign. Up until some indefinable moment in the 1960s many older Unionists believe everything was going great. It wasn’t. Everything stank.
Rewind 50 years ago to before the civil rights campaign and after the collapse of the IRA border campaign to, say, 1962.
In October that year a mob of Linfield supporters after a match in Windsor Park tried to march through the lower Falls along Raglan Street waving Union Jacks and singing The Sash.
The RUC saved their lives by dispersing the mob and prosecuting three of them. In November the court jailed six Protestant youths for attacking a 19-year-old Catholic for visiting his girlfriend, a Protestant.
On another occasion police arrested a crowd of drunks stomping along Chapel Lane in Belfast singing ‘We will follow Linfield’, at the Lourdes grotto.
You could go on and on. Band concerts in the Falls Park had to be cancelled after the musicians were attacked for playing God Save the Queen at the end of the concert. Were they mad? Local hurlers saved them. Statues in the grounds of Holy Cross Ardoyne were painted red, white and blue.
There’s plenty more and that was only 1962. Let’s omit Paisley’s provocations in 1963 and 1964 and glance at 1965.
In November that year loyalists blew up a tree, yes a tree, in Bessbrook because there was a tricolour at the top.
For every incident that happened this year or last year you can cite one exactly the same or worse 50 years ago.
So nothing’s changed? Yes of course there have been changes, most notably in policing, the professions and the civil service but also most dramatically in Unionist politics, though not in a good way. The most glaring difference in unionist politics is the absence today of liberal Unionists. In 1962 and for the next 10 years there were Unionist politicians glad to see the back of the rancid old bigot Basil Brooke.
They were anxious to reform Unionism, join the twentieth century and reach out to Nationalists. People like Bob Cooper, Hon Sec of the Young Unionist Council who later devoted his life to fair employment. Basil McIvor, in the forefront of O’Neillism, later minister of community relations.
Liberal unionists - O’Neillites - were driven out of politics not by Nationalists or the IRA but by the growth of the malignant tumour of Paisleyism in the Unionist community.
Castigated as ‘traitors and Lundys’, some of them physically assaulted in Stormont in 1974, they left political life. No-one has replaced them. The result is that now there are no liberal Unionists or at least no one with the nerve to admit it. There are only reactionary Unionists and extreme reactionary Unionists.
The best evidence for the demise of a moderate, modern, thinking unionism is that the UUP’s intellectual cowardice suppurate in the gap where it should be.
The intimidation and persecution of liberal Unionists by semi-literate Paisleyite bible-bashers and bigots continued relentlessly into the 1980s.
It has left the field clear for the toxic DUP, the only party in these islands with a membership, both elected and unelected, dominated by a religious sect.
In short the DUP’s elimination by violence and the threat of violence of any opposition within unionism has left northern nationalism without any partner willing to run the north.