Ballymena’s culture of hate
Ballymena’s culture of hate

By Tom McGurk (for the Sunday Business Post)

It has been fascinating to watch the ‘‘new age’’, as opposed to ‘‘stone age’’, DUP tip-toe politely around the funeral of Michael McIlveen. This 15-year-old boy was beaten to death with baseball bats by a group of teenagers of roughly the same age as himself. His ‘‘crime’’ was that he was a Catholic and that he was living in a town called Ballymena.

Ballymena is the DUP capital of the world. Is there a rational being on Planet Earth who can claim that the DUP’s vile history of sectarianism and Ballymena’s murderous sectarian culture are not linked?

In the event, after the murder, Ian Paisley, well out of sight of the cameras apparently, called to the family home and prayed with them, and the DUP mayor of Ballymena turned up at the family home on the day of the funeral.

In recent times, there has been a number of racist murders of young black boys in Britain, in circumstances not unlike those surrounding the killing of Michael McIlveen. In the aftermath, there was a massive public outcry in Britain, a frenzied political and police reaction and even new anti-race-hate laws.

As a result these murders became important milestones in the campaign in Britain against racism and towards a more tolerant society. How interesting, then, to compare the British reaction to the media and public reaction here to the McIlveen sectarian murder.

For a start, the media consensus here took the position that sectarianism dominates Northern society anyway, one side is as bad as the other, this time it was a Catholic getting killed by Protestants, and isn’t it all terrible?

The political reaction was not much different: a minute’s silence at Stormont and the usual condemnatory soundbites.

And so on and on it goes - until the next time.

At the funeral, Michael’s young friends tried to make a statement by attending in both Celtic and Rangers jerseys - but it was difficult not to feel the televised choreography of it all while off-screen Ballymena largely remained Ballymena.

Since the DUP first appeared as a political force in Ballymena and the north Antrim area in the late 1960s, they have been an unashamedly and overtly sectarian force. In this context, it is important to remember how important traditional unionist sectarian attitudes were responsible for the rise of what became known as Paisleyism in the first place.

When Terence O’Neill took over the leadership of unionism in the early 1960s, he inherited a Northern Ireland where the economic decline of the traditional, mostly unionist-owned businesses was creating economic and political problems.

As the traditional shipbuilding, fabrics, steel and rope production industries began to be replaced by multinational investment, the traditional sectarian unionist work practices were coming under pressure. For example, it was hardly possible to make it a condition of a Northern Ireland government grant to, say, an incoming German industrialist opening a new plastics factory that he must employ Protestants first.

And there were other straws in the wind back then to which O’Neill felt obliged to respond. Unemployment was rising again, as was the non-sectarian Labour vote in Belfast, Harold Wilson’s Labour Party was in power in Britain and the Second Vatican Council had set off a new ecumenical age.

O’Neill felt the moment had come to try to ease unionism down broader paths.

He involved himself in two visits with the Taoiseach, he visited a convent and he even pushed out a new agenda called Community Relations to help build relations across the sectarian divide.

History records that this was the political window of opportunity for a self-educated east Belfast hell-and-brimstone fundamentalist preacher called Ian Paisley.

Paisley had hung around unionism for some years, hoping to break through, but was regarded as too much ‘‘biblical rough trade’’.

With the simultaneous arrival of television, Paisley began his on-screen offensive against what he described as O’Neill’s ‘‘Romanist trend and sell-out of Ulster’’. He established the Protestant Unionist Party and with it a sordid newspaper called The Protestant Telegraph, which wrote about Catholics in much the same way as Nazi propaganda had about the Jews.

Whatever about O’Neill’s departure from the fundamentals of unionism, Paisley’s most powerful weapon against him was his unbridled and consistent usage of traditional unionist sectarian attitudes to undermine O’Neill. In a word, in Paisley’s political bible, a ‘‘fenian bastard’’ was still a ‘‘fenian bastard’’.

In the beginning, then, as unionism began to fragment around the O’Neill/Paisley split, the latter’s unashamed sectarianism became his greatest attraction.

His infamous Ulster Hall meetings, as he denounced ‘popery’ in all its manifestations, were in time to create a sinister and visible sectarian subtext that ultimately became the raison d’etre of the loyalist murder gangs. In the 1969 general election, he stood against O’Neill and the Ballymena Bible belt then began its relationship with him that still exists today.

Eventually the Protestant Unionist Party began subtly to clean up its act, and became the Democratic Unionist Party.

In the intervening years, Paisley, as he increasingly sought out the respectable Protestant middle-ground vote, tweaked his act. The cleric garb mostly disappeared, the ‘‘moral outrage’’ against ‘‘terrorism involved with democracy’’ was turned on, and soon the ambitious wannabes of unionism began joining up.

But, of course, the fully frontal sectarianism was now neither necessary, nor politically useful, as he supplanted Ulster unionism among the middle classes; and anyway, everyone knew that the old ‘‘wink and nod’’ subtext remained unchanged.

Michael McIlveen may not be the last to be killed because of his religion, there’s a marching season to come, but surely at a time like this, we need to understand and explain where this poison comes from.

Perhaps the DUP have changed their spots; maybe they do want to create a new society. But instead of tip-toeing to a Ballymena funeral, perhaps the moment has come when they might publicly address a sectarian crisis in the North that still has the power to kill?

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© 2006 Irish Republican News