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
was a salutary reminder that recent comments I had
made regarding Islam were in many ways applicable
to my own community in Northern Ireland.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
there are no such handy escape routes where Mr Blair
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
parcelling together of religion and politics is
also potentially self-defeating for unionism.
virtually guarantees that unionists will never be
able to attract anything more than a sprinkling
of Catholics to their ranks.
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.
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.
with permission from the author