Sectarian rhetoric

On 28 July a year ago, the leadership of the Irish Republican Army formally ordered an end to its armed campaign. All IRA units were ordered to dump arms. They were directed to assist the development of purely political and democratic programmes through exclusively peaceful means. “Volunteers must not engage in any other activities whatsoever” the IRA leadership declared. The IRA also authorised its representative to engage with the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD) to complete the process to verifiably put its arms beyond use as quickly as possible. Two independent witnesses from the Protestant and Catholic churches were invited to testify to this.

On 26 September last year the IICD declared “We are satisfied that the arms decommissioned represent the totality of the IRAs arsenal. We have observed and verified events to put beyond use very large quantities of arms which we believe include all the arms in the IRAs possession.”

The two Church witnesses Rev Harold Good and Fr Alex Reid said, “At the end of the process it demonstrated to us ... beyond any shadow of doubt, the arms of the IRA have now been decommissioned.”

Last month the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister both said they were satisfied that the IRA had kept to all its promises as did the Minister for Justice Michael McDowell.

On 12 July this year Ian Paisley said: “‘No unionist who is a unionist will go into partnership with IRA-Sinn Féin. They are not fit to be in partnership with decent people. They are not fit to be in the government of Northern Ireland. And it will be over our dead bodies that they will ever get there... Compromise, accommodation and the least surrender are the roads to final and irreversible disaster. There can be no compromise.’”

In the period since the IRA’s formal end to its campaign sectarian attacks have increased by one third. The majority are attacks on Catholics or Catholic owned property. Three young Catholic men have died as a result of beatings in the recent past and many have been injured. One of those killed was 15 year old Michael McIlveen, nicknamed Mickey Bo, from Ballymena. A local DUP Councillor declared that unless the youth had repented in the minutes before his death he would not go to heaven. Presumably because he was a Catholic. A bonfire in Ian Paisley’s constituency of north Antrim was adorned with the Irish national flag with the words ‘Fuck Mickey Bo’ emblazoned on it. Other bonfires were adorned with portraits of the H-Block hunger strikers or images of Sinn Féin representatives. Some carried the slogan ‘Kill all taigs’.

Despite all of this the Orange marching season, so far, has been the most peaceful for almost 40 years. This is because of the ongoing efforts of republicans, the residents groups and some elements within unionism. The DUP played no constructive role in any of this. But is there a connection between the IRA exiting stage left, the increase in sectarian attacks and Ian Paisley’s invective? I think so. Former unionist leader James Molyneaux once famously described the initial IRA cessation in 1994 as one of the most destabalising events in the history of the northern statelet. When Ian Paisley made his 12 July remarks I argued that republicans should not overreact. After all who could be surprised by his rhetoric? The Scarman Report into disturbances in 1969 cites examples of similar utterances in the build up to attacks on the Falls Road and the pogroms which followed.

This is not to say that we should become complacent about such comments. They are deeply offensive and are likely to act as an incitement to others. Many of those involved in the sectarian attacks are young people. While everyone has to take responsibility for their own actions, can we hold impressionable teenagers solely to blame, even if sometimes fuelled by alcohol or other drugs, if their leader speaks in such terms?

This issue of sectarianism has to be tackled head on whatever its source. Attacks on Protestants are just as wrong, as are attacks on anyone else. Interestingly enough UDA leaders were quick to repudiate Paisley’s comments. What does all this say about the upcoming period? It says that the two governments need to wake up. Ian Paisley’s rhetoric is a reality. Sectarianism is the glue which used to hold the orange statelet together. The Good Friday Agreement has the potential to transcend all of that. A new dispensation based on equality is the only way to end sectarianism. Is Ian Paisley likely to willing embrace this? Of course not. Does that mean he will not enter into the Executive? He may not. But our effort and that of the governments has to be to close down every other option for him.

I am repeatedly asked if Ian Paisley will sign up to a deal with Sinn Féin. The truth is I don’t know. I have already proposed him for the position of First Minister. I am prepared to do so again. He will only accept that position if he knows that the two governments are absolutely resolute about continuing with a process of real change. He will know then if he wants to exercise influence over these matters then he would be better on the inside. But he also knows that he will have Martin McGuinness standing beside him as Deputy First Minister. Either way with or without the DUP and its leader the process of change will continue.

Ian Paisley has a decision to make. But so have the rest of us. That includes giving no succour, or space or toleration to the sectarian sentiments expressed so often by the DUP leader.

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© 2006 Irish Republican News