Spot the difference

By Jude Collins (for the Irish Herald)

‘Nothing has changed’ - that’s a common judgement on things here, sometimes accompanied by a shake of the head or a sigh, or both. Representatives from the north of Ireland may travel to the world’s trouble spots offering their advice on how to solve conflict, but back home ugly events ooze to the surface and show a less sunny landscape.

Some examples.

Kevin McDaid was a well-respected voluntary community worker living in Coleraine, Co Derry. On Sunday 24 May a loyalist mob came across town to the area where Mr McDaid lived, intent on removing some Irish tricolours in the area which they decided shouldn’t be flying. Hearing of trouble, Mr McDaid came out of his house to check that his son was safe. The invading loyalists set upon him and beat him to death.

Last week in South Belfast, over a hundred Romanian immigrants had to leave their homes, clutching their children and whatever possessions they could carry. Their homes had been attacked by loyalist youths shouting racial abuse and threats of worse to come. When some Belfast people organized a march in solidarity with the Romanians, the local loyalists hurled abuse and missiles at the marchers. When he visited them in temporary accommodation, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness found them frightened and concerned, with virtually all of them saying they wanted to return to their homeland. However poverty-stricken and dangerous, it’d be better than this.

The first incident makes clear the visceral hatred of Catholics that finds a home in the unionist community. This isn’t the first time Coleraine has seen sectarian murder. A couple of years ago a 15-year-old Catholic schoolboy called Michael McIlveen was chased, caught and beaten to death with a baseball bat by young loyalists not much older than himself. More covert sectarianism can be found among a surprising number of the unionist middle classes. Many find it difficult to see Catholics as their equals, let alone accept that the aspiration towards a united Ireland is as legitimate as unionist commitment to maintenance of the British link.

The second incident couldn’t have happened forty years ago, for the good reason that there were no Romanian immigrants on whom racist aggression could have been visited. But it was the same hatred of difference which motivated those who set fire to Catholic homes in Belfast’s Bombay Street in 1969, and that motivates those in the middle-class district of Malone who, when they see too many Catholics move in, move out.

But wait. This past week there’s been an event that’s been hailed as major change. The loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) has decommissioned a large part of its weapons arsenal. The move has drawn a welcome from all sides, since weapons which might have been used to kill innocent Catholics are now beyond use. But some remain sceptical. A number of families of UVF victims have suggested that UVF decommissioning is part of a deal to keep the circumstances of their loved one’s death unclear and to prevent investigation of collusion between loyalist killers and the British forces. Others find it impossible to forget that the UVF produced the Shankill Butchers, a group of men who in the 1970s captured, tortured and killed innocent Catholics, using butchering equipment to inflict obscene injuries before cutting their victims’ throats and dumping their bodies. Just like the killers of Michael McIlveen and Kevin McDaid, the Shankill Butchers didn’t need guns to go about their work. Not so much change there, then.

And in the poitical arena? Well, the past month has shown signs of major change, although maybe not of the kind all of us would wish. At the recent European election, the all-powerful DUP were challenged by Jim Allister, a former party member. Running on a platform of opposition to ‘Sinn Féin/IRA’ and rejection of power-sharing, he took 30% of the unionist vote. Amid much rejoicing, Mr Allister announced that his sights are now on the North Antrim parliamentary seat held for forty years by his former leader Ian Paisley and seen - at least until now - as a shoo-in for Paisley’s son, Ian Jr. The DUP has long time presented itself as the strong face of unionism, and its commitment to power-sharing was seen as a guarantee of stable, cross-community government. Now Allister has shown that guarantee to be shaky and is openly rattling at the gates of Paisley’s heartland.

All change on the unionist front, then? Not really. Allister is merely doing to Paisley’s party what Paisley’s party did to the Ulster Unionists - he’s accusing them of selling out to republicanism. The voting figures suggest a lot of unionists share his thinking.

At one level, the north of Ireland has changed markedly over the past ten years: sparkling new buildings, a functioning local Assembly, an absence of shootings and bombings. But for real change, you need to look deeper. Guns and explosives aren’t necessary if you want to kill those you hate, and political movement is pointless when it’s locked into a meaningless, vicious circle.

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