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3 February 2005 Edition

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What line did Mary McAleese cross?


Inappropriate, unfortunate, clumsy, embarrassing, over the top, offensive, outrageous, irrational, fanning the flames, spewing out hatred, deeply sectarian, wanton abuse. These are just some of the condemnations that have followed Mary McAleese's modest suggestion that there exists a culture of irrational hatred of Catholics in the North of Ireland.

As President of Ireland, McAleese was scheduled to attend an international commemoration to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp Auschwitz. In interviews with the media, she pointed out that she would be there to represent the people of Ireland in honouring those who died in the death camps. But a greater tribute would be to use those lessons of history as an impetus to challenge the racism, prejudice and discrimination of today.

"The Nazis didn't invent racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, prejudice — they built on them, triple distilled them into a murder machine. But wherever they lurk they are capable of being triple distilled again," McAleese told the Irish Times. Growing up in the Six Counties, said McAleese, and seeing recent immigrants to Ireland stigmatised, had steeled her to fight prejudice.

And then Mary, daring to draw on her own experiences, perhaps as a former pupil of Holy Cross School in Ardoyne, mentioned the C word.

Speaking on RTE, McAleese pointed out that the Nazis "gave to their children an irrational hatred of Jews" and then went on to say, "in the same way that people in Northern Ireland transmitted to their children an irrational hatred of Catholics, in the same way that people give to their children an outrageous and irrational hatred of those who are a different colour".

And there it was. Mary McAleese, the President of Ireland, had mentioned the unmentionable, had spoken the unspeakable in relation to the North. She had broken the golden rule of silence by equating anti-Catholic hatred as akin to racism and in doing so she had strayed from the 'tit for tat-street brawling-two tribes-as bad as each other' model of sectarianism favoured by the British and unionist establishment.

Ian Paisley Junior accused McAleese of "spewing out hatred of the Protestant community".

"Her comments are completely irrational and are designed to insult the integrity of the Protestant community and damn an entire generation of Protestant people," he said.

Meanwhile, Ian Paisley Senior, who has built his religious and political career on evoking anti-Catholic hatred within the unionist community, insisted that he "knew of no Protestant community that teaches hatred of Catholics". It was more a case of, "love thy neighbour", said Paisley.

But damning rather than loving thy neighbour appears to have been the impetus behind Paisley's foundation of the Free Presbyterian Church, which remains unashamedly anti-Catholic by promoting the doctrine known as the Westminster Confession, which brands the Pope as the anti-Christ.

In their biography of Paisley, Moloney and Pollak aren't shy about telling it like it is. "In short, they were bigots," they write, speaking of Paisley's fundamentalist movement. "They believed they were inherently superior to their Roman Catholic neighbours because of their religion." And "such a view tallied perfectly with the superiority they felt anyway as the descendants of the people who had 'civilised' Ulster".

If the DUP were maddened, David Trimble of the UUP was 'saddened' by McAleese's remark. "I have known Mary for years and these are deeply disappointing comments," Trimble told the Sunday Times.

Northern nationalists had been deeply disappointed when Trimble had paraded up and down with Orangemen, determined to march through a nationalist area at Drumcree. They were equally disappointed when he met with sectarian killer and leader of the LVF, Billy Wright, and when he indulged in a triumphalist jig with Ian Paisley after parading down the Garvaghy Road. But no one mentioned it.

And if the Jewish community appeared not to have been offended by McAleese, there were plenty of unionists ready to be insulted on their behalf.

Trimble accused McAleese of "trivialising the experience of European Jewry and the Holocaust" as well as causing "considerable offence in Northern Ireland". He called on the President to "reflect on what she said and consider withdrawing the image altogether".

For the Sunday Tribune, McAleese's comments showed a "serious error of judgement".

"Of course Northern Ireland was a sectarian state and Catholics suffered systematic discrimination for decades," admits Stephen Collins, but "to compare this in any way to the fate of the Jews — displays an amazing lack of proportion". Collins is perfectly correct in his assertion, but in fairness to McAleese, he is no longer responding to what she said but to what the DUP and UUP said she said.

McAleese did not say that the experience of northern Irish nationalists was comparable to that of Jews in the Holocaust. She did not label northern Protestants as Nazis. "That would be a dreadful assertion," said McAleese. She simply said that one impetus that can be traced as leading to the Holocaust was a culture of "irrational hatred" and she gave a few contemporary examples.

The Sunday Tribune was prepared to dismiss Paisley Junior's response. "The attack on President McAleese by Ian Paisley Jnr does not carry much credibility given his family's role in fanning sectarian flames over the years," says Collins.

But the Tribune was distressed that, "decent unionists" like Michael McGimpsey were equally appaled at the President's claim. "It shows a total lack of understanding and sympathy for Jews under the Nazis and it shows deep-seated sectarianism," said the UUP Assembly member.

Sadly, McGimpsey was less eager to condemn the words and actions of a 500-strong unionist paramilitary mob demanding the forcible eviction of Catholic residents in the Whitehall complex in Sandy Row earlier this summer.

Instead, McGimpsey felt compelled to join the mob gathered outside the homes of a handful of terrified Catholic residents, while insisting it was nothing more than a "non-threatening protest".

McGimpsey's "non-threatening protest" had followed door-to-door leafleting within his constituency calling for Catholic residents to be expelled from the area. It also followed a number of sectarian and racist attacks against both Catholic and Chinese residents.

UUP party colleague and local Councillor Bob Stoker refused to condemn the sectarian leaflet, claiming that it was not an exercise in anti-Catholic intimidation because he "would like to see them leave voluntarily".

Acting as an apologist for sectarian anti-Catholic violence, the UUP claimed that the 'protest' had been a response to 'attacks on Protestants'. When the media pointed out that there had been no reports of any attacks on Protestants and the PSNI confirmed it, McGimpsey admitted it was less a question of attacks as more a matter of Protestants being "insulted".

McGimpsey claimed that Protestant residents in Sandy Row had been insulted by the sight of a Tricolour "hung from a window" and a resident wearing a Celtic football shirt. Most people were very sceptical of both claims.

At the time, Sandy Row was festooned with unionist paramilitary flags and sectarian anti-Catholic and racist graffiti ,but apparently no one was "insulted" by this. And to suggest that such an incident had given the mob the right to target all Catholics in the area is racist in itself.

But Collins made no reference to any of this in his article condemning Mary McAleese.

And as for what passes as 'rational' in the Paisley household, we might consider the outburst that accompanied a commemorative stamp issued to mark the second direct elections to the then EEC. The stamp celebrated the birth of European culture with a depiction from Greek mythology of Europa being carried off by Zeus in the form of a bull.

For Paisley, the European Union and its forerunner, the EEC, has always been a Catholic conspiracy with the Devil and in 1984 he had proof of it. Paisley's religious rhetoric is often peppered with pornographic imagery used in relation to his anti-Catholic message and this sermon, entitled "the woman rides the beast", is a classic example.

"Here we have a woman — not the true Church of Christ, but the church of the anti Christ — this harlot woman," Paisley told his congregation. According to Paisley, the woman was the Catholic Church and the beast the EEC. And just in case his audience hadn't got the message, he spelt out the nature of the nightmare.

"There's a hundred million more Roman Catholics in the Common Market than Protestants." And behind this popish conspiracy is the Devil. It is held together by "Satanic powers", said Paisley.

For northern nationalists, who have been living with the consequences of this kind of hateful anti-Catholic irrationality for decades, McAleese's passing reference was a small acknowledgement of their experience. But in the Looking Glass world of 'Northern Ireland', the mere acknowledgement of this is sufficient to brand you a racist and puts you at risk being labelled 'deeply sectarian'.

So what line did Mary McAleese cross? Since the imposition of Partition and the creation of a "Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people", continued British occupation in Ireland has relied on the maintenance of a sectarian anti-Catholic and anti-Irish state in the north. This is the unspoken truth at the heart of the 'Troubles'.

Partition was imposed by violence and maintained by the ritual violence of anti-Catholic organisations like the Orange Order. The unionist dominated body politic held on to its power through discrimination and disenfranchisement of the Catholic population.

The Civil Rights Movement, which emerged out of the Black Civil Rights Movement in America, was met with violent repression from both state and pro-state forces. The uprising that followed faced the full might of the British war machine.

McAleese, in her small acknowledgement, broke the agreed silence imposed upon the northern nationalist experience; she stepped beyond the rhetoric of the favoured discourse and in doing so the Irish President inadvertently legitimised the struggle for equality and justice in the north. In the rather dramatic words of Michael McGimpsey: "What she is effectively doing is giving justification for the IRA."


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