A Catholic priest who compared the treatment of Catholics under unionist rule to Nazi-era Germany is to be investigated by the North’s police over the remarks.
The comments, made by Father Alec Reid during a rancorous public debate in south Belfast, created a furore in the mainstream media.
Fr Reid was one of two clergymen who witnessed the recent decommissioning of arms by the Provisional IRA.
During a public meeting in South Belfast on the decommissioning issue, a heated argument arose between him and William Frazier, the leader of anti-republican lobby group FAIR.
Fr Reid said that not only unionists had grievances over the past, nationalists had them too.
“The reality is that the nationalist community in Northern Ireland were treated almost like animals by the unionist community,” he said.
“They (Catholics) were not treated like human beings. It was like the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews,” he said.
Fr Reid later the audience he had “said some very hard things” about the unionist community.
“There is something else I believe. Their history in the last 60 years put them in a position after partition that they did not want. They were forced to treat nationalists the way they did.” He said nationalists puit in the same position would have reacted the same way.
But unionist leaders immediately denounced the comment as sectarian, and denied there had been any serious discrimination against Catholics in the past. The remarks have also been cited by the DUP as a reason for the party to refuse participation in peace talks.
Similar comments by Irish President Mary McAleese in a radio interview earlier this year led to death threats against her by unionist paramilitaries.
Although evidently exaggerated, the ‘Nazi’ comments reflect the widely perceived Catholic experience under unionist rule.
Fr Reid later apologised for the remarks. and said he had been provoked by confrontational exchanges -- but this has not prevented him being accused of incitement to hatred. The PSNI police said they were now investigating a formal complaint by Mr Frazier.
Leading unionists lined up to voice their outrage. DUP MP Gregory Campbell said sectarianism was “endemic” among nationalists, and that it helpd to explained “their [nationalists] desire to prevent our cultural expression”.
North Antrim representative Ian Paisley jnr said Fr Reid had “insulted an entire community”.
The party’s North Belfast MP Nigel Dodds said Fr Reid’s comments had gone “beyond President McAleese’s remarks”.
Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey said the unionist community was “absolutely appalled and deeply shocked” by the comments.
“His comments have destroyed the community’s confidence and trust in the decommissioning process.”
However, Sinn Féin’s AlexMaskey argued Fr Reid had merely been pointing out “the elephant in the room”.
“If we are going to meaningfully challenge it then we need to have an honest debate about the true extent, nature and causes of sectarianism within our society,” he said.
“Unionist leaders are in denial about the history of the state, their own responsibility for this and for the conflict which resulted from this.”
Meanwhile, Sinn Féin Chief Negotiator Martin McGuinness challenged the DUP to “stop looking for excuses” for not engaging in talks.
“The recent historic initiatives by the IRA have dealt with genuine unionist concerns about republican intentions in a definitive way. It is my belief that we now have a major opportunity to move forward and make progress in the time ahead,” he said.
“The DUP as the political leaders of unionism need to stop looking for excuses for not engaging and instead join with the rest of us in re-establishing the political institutions and delivering for the people who elect us.”