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18 September 2003 Edition

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How high are the flames?

BY LAURA FRIEL

If the images of unionist protest outside Carnmoney cemetery can tell us one thing it's this; anti-Catholic bigotry is not confined to the UDA and UVF paramilitaries. In the Irish News, the photographs show two inoffensive elderly Catholic women, one carrying an offering of flowers, being confronted by unionist protestors.

But these are not the images of burly men, tattooed and t-shirted in the traditional 'simply the best' garb of unionist militarism; these are ordinary women from the nearby Protestant Rathcoole estate. Two women are carrying posters demanding, "Let our beloved sleep in peace" while another poster declares "Shame on Mr Dan Whyte".

Fr Dan Whyte is the elderly local priest, but apparently extending the simple courtesy of addressing him with his proper title is beyond the bigotry of people declaring his 'shame'. The elderly Rathcoole woman holding the poster appears entirely respectable.

And there's the real shame of it. Like the American white supremistics of the early South, or the average German citizen during the Nazi period, in unionist heartlands across the Six Counties manifestations of race hatred are still considered sufficiently acceptable to ensure the participation of some very ordinary people.

The woman holding the poster looks like anyone's grandmother but behind her accusation of 'shame' hides the far more disreputable figure of the sectarian gunman. On the eve of the scheduled Cemetery Sunday ceremony, Fr Dan Whyte was informed that his life was under threat from unionist paramilitaries.

"What can you say about someone who would threaten to kill a minister of the Gospel for trying to conduct a religious ceremony?" asked Fr Whyte.

A caller purporting to be from the Loyalist Action Force, probably a cover name for the UDA, warned that the local priest "would be executed". But just what was Fr Whyte's 'crime' that warranted a threat against his life?

According to the cemetery protestors his 'shame' stemmed from the use of a modest public address system to ensure those taking part in the service could fully participate. And just who would Fr Whyte and his parishioners be disturbing? Well, apparently the cemetery's Protestant Dead, hence the slogan "Let our beloved sleep in peace".

Backing the bigots

Local Ulster Unionist Party Councillor Ivan Hunter doesn't view Fr Whyte and his parishioners as victims of a scurrilous sectarian campaign of hatred culminating in a UDA death threat. Like most other bigots, Hunter sees the victims of sectarian race hatred as culpable in their own victimisation.

"Father Whyte has an agenda," Hunter told the media. What agenda the UUP councillor isn't quite sure. But hatred needs no qualification. "Father Whyte has an agenda that we don't seem to be getting to the bottom of," said Hunter.

Two days after the desecration of Catholic graves in Carnmoney, sectarian graffiti was daubed on the door of a local Catholic Church, St Mary's on the Hill. The letters KAT, an abbreviation of a sectarian slogan, Kill All Taigs, were painted in large white lettering on the front entrance of the building. Daubed on the wall at the side of the door was UYM, an abbreviation of the UDA's youth wing, Ulster's Young Militants.

"You can't get more sectarian than 'kill all Taigs' on a Catholic Church door," said Fr Whyte. "This shows what ordinary Catholic people are up against in Newtownabbey. People are sick of it."

But in the eyes of Ivan Hunter, while Protestant bigots are free to protest against a Catholic blessing within 'hearing' distance of Protestant graves, Catholics should accept a violent sectarian threat against their community without any public protestation.

The fact that Fr Whyte appeared in the media condemning that attack on his church was sufficient to give credence to the subsequent threat against his life. "The very fact that he [Fr Whyte] didn't remove the graffiti [on the church doors] shows that he has an agenda," said Hunter.

"It is quite evident that they [the Catholic Church] have made a determined effort to segregate and sectarianise Carnmoney," said the UUP councillor. "He [Fr Whyte] is not doing his best to reduce those tensions."

The sanction of "not doing his best" seems wholly disproportionate to the threat of death but then Fr Whyte is a Catholic living in a sectarian state, which Ivan Hunter is clearly determined to defend.

And seemingly, the Protestant Dead can be disturbed in more ways than the possibility of 'hearing' a Catholic blessing. Carnmoney is a mixed graveyard in which Protestant and Catholic graves stand, if not side by side, at least in some proximity.

In a recent development, the graveyard has been extended, bringing the possibility that Catholic graves could be situated even closer to the Rathcoole estate. It's a possibility that has inflamed the bigotry of the UDA. Unionist racist paranoia apparently now includes the irrational fear of being overrun by dead Catholics.

Last week, in a threat delivered to council workers at the site, the UDA said it would 'trash' "Taig graves". A few days later, five Catholic graves were desecrated, with many of their headstones smashed. In June 2003, more than 20 Catholic memorials in the cemetery were vandalised. In the mind of the bigot, the sanctity of one relies, apparently, on the desecration of the other.

Commenting on the development of the Carnmoney site, the local priest said he had declined the district council's offer of a separate Catholic area. "They wanted to know if I wanted a separate Catholic area. I had said that segregation of the dead doesn't exist in my books so we opted for a mixed grave arrangement," said Fr Whyte. It's a decision some unionist bigots hope the local priest may be forced to reconsider.

Desecration compounds grief

A Catholic widower described his family's devastation at the destruction of his late wife's grave. The man said the latest attack had compounded his grief and that of his 12 year-old son and nine-year-old twins. The family said they were considering exhuming the grave and removing the body to another cemetery. "I can't go on like this," said the widower.

"We have people in our area who have become so deeply corrupted that they no longer can see how appalling smashing graves is," Fr Whyte had said. In a similar incident, Catholic graves in St Patrick's cemetery near Scarva, County Down, were attacked four days later, leaving another eight graves desecrated.

Meanwhile, the ordinary women of Rathcoole were determined to disrupt the Catholic graveside blessing that was 'disturbing' the peace of their 'beloved' dead. Blowing horns and whistles and shouting sectarian abuse by protestors disrupting a religious service is apparently not disturbing. It was, according to the DUP's Nigel Hamilton, a legitimate protest carried out with a 'degree of dignity'.

Hypocrisy, as the poet John Milton wrote, is "the only evil that walks invisible", well invisible to Hunter and Hamilton at least. Hamilton, it has to be noted, was less enthusiastic about the 40-strong unionist mob among the protestors that attacked the service with bricks and bottles. Having worked themselves up into a frenzy of sectarian emotion, the mob went onto to riot, hijacking and burning a number of vehicles.

In a recent lecture in West Belfast, media commentator and professor of journalism Roy Greenslade described how British journalists, who arrived in the north of Ireland in the late 1960s knowing nothing after years of media silence, were initially shocked by the reality they found.

Faced with Ian Paisley "fanning a campaign of violence against Catholics", British journalists initially identified with the nationalist community and sympathised with the objectives of the civil rights movement. The Daily Mirror even compared Paisley to Hitler.

To eyes as yet undimmed by years of anti-republican propaganda, the Six Counties was easily recognised as a brutal police state pursuing its own particular brand of anti-Catholic apartheid. But the initial recognition was short lived.

With the arrival of British troops the British media shifted back to their tradition role of supporting their boys. The conflict was presented as religious and the media's emphasis shifted to violence rather than politics, concentrating on the effect rather than cause, said Greenslade.

In other words, rather than explaining events, the media became preoccupied with simply describing them. As Greenslade put it, coverage of the political struggle in the North was reduced to the question "how high are the flames".

Greenslade makes a significant observation but we shouldn't be too quickly dismissive of detail; it is, after all, the bread and butter of explanation and in the end the measure against which our understanding must be tested.

Necessary Illusions

In Necessary Illusions‚ a study of thought control in democratic societies, Noam Chomsky uses the fine detail of events on the ground to disrupt and discredit the 'illusions' promoted, in their own interests, by powerful elites.

In the north of Ireland, the detail recently preoccupying the media has been concerned with ongoing sectarian attacks against Catholics. In recent weeks the media has catalogued a series of sectarian attacks against Catholics in their own homes, at their places of work, at school, at church and during leisure activities.

A key notion used in explanations of conflict in the north of Ireland has been that of sectarianism. Within the dominant discourse, sectarianism is used to support the idea that conflict can be understood in terms of two warring tribes. But as events on the ground have clearly shown this week, sectarianism cannot really be understood in terms of the 'tit for tat' model.

Two years ago, throughout the summer of 2001, in a scenario remarkably similar to this week's unionist 'protest' against Catholic parishioners in Carnmoney, unionists from the Glenbryn estate in North Belfast staged a 'protest' against Catholic primary schoolchildren walking a short distance to Holy Cross School.

In the weeks that followed, the media desperately tried to depict the violent sectarian attacks of grown adults targeting school girls, some as young as four years of age, as a dispute of 'competing rights' in which both sides were culpable. But the dominant discourse was blatantly at odds with the detail of what was actually happening on the ground.

While the British and unionist media attempts to impose the dominant discourse on the interpretation of events became increasingly absurd, the images of distressed children making their way to school through a daily barrage of bricks and bottles and pipe bombs and sectarian abuse told a completely different story to the international press.

Like British journalists of the late 1960s, their eyes undimmed by the 'necessary illusions' of continued British rule, American and European journalists simply described what they saw - a race hate mob attacking some of the most vulnerable members of society in a state that refused to protect them.

Holy Cross compared to Alabama

This week in Belfast High Court, a judicial review sought by the mother of a Holy Cross pupil challenged the failure of the British Secretary of State and the RUC/PSNI Chief Constable to provide effective protection. The court has granted the petitioner anonymity because of fears that by pursuing legal redress her life will be in danger.

The violence and hatred directed at the Catholic schoolchildren and their parents was compared to the treatment of black people in Alabama in the '60s. Barrister Seamus Tracey told the court that the authorities had failed to prevent unlawful and violent protests orchestrated by unionist paramilitaries.

"This went on not for one day or one week but over a period of months. The most basic human rights of the children were trampled upon with devastating and long lasting consequences," said Tracey. "The evidence is overwhelming that the authorities failed in their duty to secure fundamental rights to the parents and their children."

The lawyer's words were borne out in affidavits from school principals, priests, governors, human rights commissioners, doctors and parents. An affidavit by the chairperson of the girls' school board of governors, Father Aiden Troy, read: "The children were placed in a grievously dangerous situation by the manner in which the protest was policed." The barrister accused the authorities of even today‚ persisting "in refusing to acknowledge their breach of duty".

Unlike the widely accepted understanding that racism necessarily implies a power hierarchy in which the racist attempts to reinforce the oppressed structural status of the victim, the operation of sectarianism in the north of Ireland has often been obscured not only by a preoccupation of 'how high are the flames' but also by the imposition of an ideological model more appropriate to the clash of rival street gangs.

This 'necessary illusion' denies the very nature of the northern state by obscuring its sectarian anti-Catholic and racist anti-Irish power mechanisms. Dispelling this illusion cuts to the core the legitimacy of continued British occupation.

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