Legacy of sectarianism is the enemy within
Legacy of sectarianism is the enemy within

By Tom McGurk (for the Sunday Business Post)

At last week’s Downing Street meeting between Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the Irish government was adamant about adding a new part to the wider peace process agenda, post-IRA decommissioning.

Dublin is now determined that the wider crisis of sectarianism and its historical legacy in the North needs immediate and determined political address. If Dublin has its way in any new talks, the political parties will be required to address sectarianism directly.

Further down the road, it is hoped that they will give it the type of attention which the British government previously gave to the problem of racism.

As in that campaign, this would involve public exposition and opinion-forming, and perhaps even a new body charged with combating sectarianism similar to the role of the Race Relations Board in Britain. The ambition would be that it would eventually become a part of the education syllabus at schools level.

Ironically, as Father Alec Reid discovered last week, placing fingers into the historic wound that is at the heart of the North can be an explosive business.

Fr Reid didn’t directly address the historic sectarian context of the Six Counties, but there can hardly be any meaningful exposition of its political legacy without addressing the defining subtext, which is sectarianism.

Class and wealth played some small parts in determining Northern politics down the centuries. In the largest view, however, from the plantation of Ulster onwards, the Protestant/Catholic division across political lines was the defining influence.

Just as religion defined the 17th century political difference between planter and Gael, it is difficult to see any radical change in the political landscape in the 21st century.

The outlooks and attitudes that were frozen in time by the plantation have barely been disturbed down the centuries since.

In fact, it might be a very useful moment, given Fr Reid’s admittedly intemperate language, to consider the attitudes within unionism that drew this reaction, however unwise or inaccurate some might consider it to be.

Reid argued that, for 60 years - presumably since partition - the unionist community had treated the Catholic community like the Nazis treated the Jews. He has apologised for the remarks, but he has at least opened up a much-needed debate.

Creating a new future in the North requires the beginning, at least, of recognition and understanding about what so poisoned the society for so long.

Reid’s remarks were about degrees of prejudice. Of course, the comparison between the Third Reich’s anti-Semitism and the North’s avowed anti-Catholicism in the first 60 years of its existence are simply historically inaccurate.

But who can deny that, for all those years that anti-Catholicism, like anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany, was a defining part of political discourse, which received official and unofficial encouragement in the North?

Trapped in a rising tide of nationalist expectations at the turn of the last century, partition was simply a sectarian headcount to defuse the crisis that faced British rule in Ireland by 1920.

The Northern state was actually designed to be a Protestant enclave in nationalist Ireland. Is it any wonder, then, that its rulers would have thought or acted otherwise?

It was essentially a new colony created out of the ruins of a collapsing colony, a line of retreat that came to represent a demarcation line between coloniser and the formerly colonised.

Since the rationale for the new state’s existence was essentially sectarian, is it any wonder that it became “a Protestant state for a Protestant people’’, as Lord Brookeborough once stated?

The overwhelming political tragedy that ensued was that loyalty to the new state and asserting its citizenship became deeply embroiled with varying degrees of anti-Catholicism. Being loyal and being anti-Catholic became one and the same thing for considerable numbers of unionists.

What utterly complicated the whole context was that Ulster Protestantism largely had its origins in an Ulster Scottish biblical notion of covenant that saw Ulster as God’s gift to them - they were therefore a chosen people.

They were Israelites in the lands of the faithless Hittites and Canaanites who were evil outsiders. This Old Testament concept categorised all Catholics or ‘Romanists’ as ‘the enemy within’.

As Paisley’s Protestant Telegraph once described it: “We have a historic and divine mission, we are a special people not of ourselves but of our divine mission.”

In 1985, for example, a daily prayer for deliverance against the Anglo Irish Agreement was published in the Belfast Telegraph, which read: “O people of Ulster, you are God’s Israel, chosen seed, God gave your forefathers this land, these promises are yours.”

Fundamental to this notion was that all Catholics were unclean, unsaved, subversive, and idolatrous. Because these divinely ordained social and political arrangements were drawn up long ago, and since God is eternal, nothing can change. The past is a mere prism to determine the present.

“The fingerprints of the eternal God,” as Paisley put it.

The tragic result of this unique confluence of religious belief and political arrangement created a vast body of Ulster Protestants who saw it both as their civic duty to their state and their religious duty to their beliefs, to treat and regard all Catholics accordingly.

For 60 years, through organisations like the Orange, Black and Masonic orders and with unionist political leadership in dutiful quiescence, anti-Catholicism became the definitive subtext of the Northern ruling classes. Catastrophically - and consequently - there followed 30 years of republican armed struggle, which seemed to fulfil all the unionist nightmare scenarios. Indeed, as the subsequent rise of Paisleyism indicated, the retreat into barely disguised politico-sectarianism eventually became almost total.

Fr Alec Reid, a man of truly remarkable moral stature in whose head the peace process actually began, has now - however, clumsily and historically inaccurately - raised this hare. Perhaps the time has come to confront the poison of sectarianism.

The government’s new initiative on sectarianism may prove just as painful as Reid’s blunt words, but the task of creating a new civic society in the North requires a new social consensus. That such a construct could be cemented together using the old building blocks of sectarianism and mutual suspicion is impossible.

What Alec Reid was talking about was the legacy of sectarianism. In that, he has - perhaps unsubtly but nevertheless unavoidably - done us all a favour.

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