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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Bigotry Imperils the Union

David Adams • Irish Times, 31 March 2006

When prime minister Tony Blair drew a direct parallel between Muslims who commit acts of terrorism in the name of their religion and Protestants in Northern Ireland, who have been prepared to murder Catholics in the name of theirs, it struck a particular chord with me.

It was a salutary reminder that recent comments I had made regarding Islam were in many ways applicable to my own community in Northern Ireland.

Aside from the right to freedom of expression, I had argued strongly that publication of the Danish cartoons was justified by the fact that Muslims need to know how outsiders view them.

I stressed the importance of moderate elements facing up to the fact that, by remaining silent, they had allowed the words and actions of a minority of extremists to be seen as wholly representative of their co-religionists.

And critically, that unless moderate Islamists moved to reclaim their religion this would remain the case. I could just as easily have been talking about my own community.

For a number of reasons, Tony Blair's words impacted far more than those of either President McAleese or Fr Alex Reid when, last year, they compared Northern Protestants to Nazis. Neither the President nor Fr Reid had prepared their comments beforehand: the former made hers during a live radio interview and the latter's came as the result of a heated exchange at a public meeting.

Almost immediately, both apologised for what they had said. The religious persuasion and perceived political sympathies of the two individuals concerned also allowed for a relatively easy dismissal of their claims.

Not least, such was the exaggeration in comparing the Northern Catholic experience with that of European Jews that it meant that by far the greater insult was to those who had suffered the obscenity of the Holocaust.

However, there are no such handy escape routes where Mr Blair is concerned.

His comparison formed part of a prepared speech so it was obviously deliberate; he is Protestant himself and a professed unionist; and he just happens to be prime minister of the United Kingdom to which we belong.

Neither, it must be said, has he made any attempt at an apology. Like President McAleese and Fr Reid before him, Mr Blair made clear that he was referring to a minority within the Northern Protestant community.

This was offset in the Protestant mind, however, by the fact that he signally failed to lay a similar charge against any section of the Northern Catholic community.

In reality, though, what really hurt was the fact that Tony Blair had given voice to something we know to be true: there is indeed a high level of sectarianism within our community, and it is by no means restricted only to those who would resort to violence.

Neither can anyone credibly claim surprise at learning that outsiders view Northern Protestants as bigoted. We have been aware of that unhappy fact for decades now: we just don't like to be reminded of it. To argue that Tony Blair has little room to talk given his pseudo-religious pronouncements on the war in Iraq, or that there is a high degree of sectarianism within the Catholic community as well, is merely to avoid the issue.

Regardless of the real or perceived shortcomings of others, it is high time that we in the Northern Protestant community stopped ignoring sectarianism, or making excuses for it, and tackled it head on.

It is irrational, corrosive, self-perpetuating and a destructive poison that, for far too long, has initiated violence and functioned as an authentic voice. A major contribution to undermining its influence would be the disentanglement of politics and religion.

The notion that if Protestant you must by definition also be unionist - or, conversely, if Protestant but not unionist, then virtually a traitor to your religion - works in the worst interests of politics, religion and community relations in Northern Ireland.

Not only is it self-evidently a theological absurdity, but it robs both civic and religious Protestantism of what is rightly seen as one of its greatest assets, individualism.

This parcelling together of religion and politics is also potentially self-defeating for unionism.

It virtually guarantees that unionists will never be able to attract anything more than a sprinkling of Catholics to their ranks.

Which, in turn, ensures that for the foreseeable future the unionist position will remain balanced on a demographic knife-edge? More critically, such an overlapping of religion and politics all too easily allows non-unionists to be painted, or subconsciously perceived, as anti-Protestant.

Political opponents can, and often have been, wrongly presented as being religious enemies as well: a recipe for sectarianism if ever there was one. While our politics and religion remain intertwined, unionists will remain open to charges such as those of Tony Blair.


Reprinted with permission from the author












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