Issue 2 - 2024 200dpi

16 December 1999 Edition

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Banging the loyalist drum

A year of bigotry, attacks, and censorship by omission


The fact that during 1999 there have been fewer loyalist murders than in previous years does not diminish the individual trauma suffered by those families whose loved ones have been killed, nor does it lessen the misery and fear of those forced to leave their homes by orchestrated mobs of loyalist youths
Looking back over the last year, do you remember during those tortuous months of negotiations up at Stormont when Word of the Week - every week - amongst many of the politicians and most of the political commentators was ``choreography'', a word which was used with embarrassing and tooth-grating regularity? This was closely followed by the ubiquitous use of ``sequencing'', which in the political context meant exactly the same thing but which added a little bit of much-needed variety to the clichés. Well, as the year draws to a close, the Word of the Week at the moment in these rarified circles is, it seems, ``whinging''. The great, the good and the incredibly stupid amongst the right-wing media and those of unionist persuasion have been nodding sagely at one another and agreeing with themselves that the problem with those damn Catholics is that they whinge too much.

For example, a few days ago Bairbre de Brún came in for an unusually deranged attack, even by his standards, by Kevin Myers. Kevin decided that Bairbre was guilty of whinging for the simple reason that on a visit to the Royal Victoria Hospital in her new role as Health Minister, she (a) pointed out the self-evident fact that plastic baton rounds kill people and that those people tend, on the whole, to be Catholic, (b) is angry about this, and, get this, (c) is a woman.

And some weeks back, the allegedly intelligent and allegedly abjectly remorseful David Ervine also decreed from his own personal moral high ground that Catholics would have to just get over what he described as their ``victim mentality''. Despite the much-vaunted brain, he is obviously incapable of the relatively simple intellectual process which would conclude in an understanding that perhaps this mentality is somehow related to the fact that Catholics actually are victims; years of discrimination, harassment, burning, torture, and murder are not figments of their imagination, as he would clearly have the world believe, and he should know this better than most. For a man with his past to say such a crassly insensitive thing defies comment. Catholics are victims, David, because people like you made them so in the name of obscene, racist political objectives. And others continue to this very day to do just that.

Amazingly, however, Ervine was allowed to get away with this monumentally imbecilic comment by an admiring media, which is itself also very good indeed at ignoring the undercurrent of loyalist violence against the nationalist population, which continues despite the new political dispensation. Ervine, like others, is also in the habit of portraying the unionist community as the principal `victims' of the past 30 years of conflict. This is not only because of the deaths suffered by that community but also, crucially, because unionists and loyalists are no longer able to live in a supremacist, one-party state, predicated on sectarian principles in which all social, economic and political power is in British hands, and because their efforts to slow down or even halt the pace of change is being resisted. Nationalists are constantly fed the line that unionism has made huge sacrifices and should therefore be indulged in its tardiness. Unionism, particularly its middle class, hasn't made any genuine sacrifices at all. It has been made to give up what didn't belong to it and has fought it all the way. For that, it doesn't deserve anybody's sympathy. Making this point, however, is decried as `whinging'.

But then, Ervine, Myers and their unionist friends in the media are all in good company. Just as the resident psychotics of the Red Hand Defenders were putting 400 masonry nails end-up in a football pitch to be used by two Catholic under-11 teams (an event which went totally unreported in the British media), they were also warning Catholics of their intention to exclude them from educational institutions, most specifically East Antrim College of Further and Higher Education, saying: ``If they keep this whingeing [sic] up, we will make sure that no Catholic sets foot in the place. This applies to any other establishment as well!''

Very well then. If being voluble in opposition to such racism is whinging, so be it. If campaigning to have a discredited police force disbanded is whinging, fine. If highlighting the daily harassment and burning out of Catholic residents is whinging, that's OK too. If fighting tooth and nail to bring to justice those who committed and colluded in the murder of Rosemary Nelson and others is whinging, then we should all be world-class whingers. And now I'm going to whinge some more.

In a year of previously unimagined change, continuing loyalist violence and bigotry has been the one constant which the UUP in general and David Trimble in particular have refused to properly condemn. The daily rhythm of attack with petrol and pipe bomb, as well as the murders of Rosemary Nelson and Elizabeth O'Neill, serve to remind nationalists of the huge difficulties they are up against in trying to achieve some kind of reconciliation, both in the sense of being able to forgive their tormentors and to function with them in a supposedly normalised society.

The faces of hatred which I witnessed in Portadown were truly shocking, partly because being on the receiving end of such abnormal behaviour has itself become normal for the residents of the Garvaghy Road and partly because it forced me to ask myself: how does one reach out to people like those Orangemen and their supporters? How can one even begin to overcome the murderous loathing and contempt in which they hold anyone outside their tribe? How can one respond adequately to men who wave broken Barbie dolls as they march to church and who glory in the death of another human being? And yet, in the face of this, the British government throughout the year has still urged the residents of Garvaghy Road to find some way of accepting an Orange march through the area to which Catholics have been confined by the racism of the same people who also gloated over the death of Rosemary, friend and champion of the besieged residents. Her loss was incalculable.

But then, these people who call themselves Christians are akin to those who in recent days have encouraged schoolchildren to engage in protest against Martin McGuinness, democratically elected Minister of Education, and who have helped turn such demonstrations into no more than ugly displays of sectarian ranting. The television footage last week of a small boy, immaculate in his uniform, obviously quoting well-worn nonsense from either his parents or their political representatives, would have been funny had it not been so sad. ``He'll take the Queen's shilling'' he trilled, ``but he won't worship.. er.. respect the Queen''. D minus for you, young man, for mucking up your lines when they were so carefully rehearsed only moments before the camera crew turned up. I wonder what it's like being a Catholic in this little darling's school.

Occasionally however, and to be fair, there have been times throughout the year when paramilitary violence has made all the major British news bulletins and the front pages of all the newspapers. This, of course, has been restricted to when blame can be attrtibuted to the IRA. In such circumstances, violence has been of immense interest and consequence to Conservative politicians and the British media. In the same vein, this year saw the emergence of John Taylor's previously well-hidden social conscience, which expressed itself in his sudden and uncharacteristic concern for such victims of punishment beatings; this was very touching but would have been more convincing had it extended to those receiving punishment beating from the UDA. But then there was no political capital to be gained from it; indeed for Taylor it could have been politically detrimental. Throughout this year, as every other year in living memory, questions about loyalist paramilitary activity have been routinely dismissed by unionist politicians.

Perhaps the subliminal message being sent out in respect of the hundreds of unreported and uninvestigated sectarian attacks this year is that the Catholic population of the Six Counties has implicitly been asked to accept a certain level of violence as the price for political power, a level of violence which would be considered outrageous and unacceptable in any other democracy. Whilst the UVF and UDA have managed to resist the urge to go on the customary Taig-hunt whenever things weren't going their way, loyalist elements have found old habits hard to break. Catholics who are living in the shadow of real and threatened violence are being ignored and silenced by the shiny, happy people of the SLDP, UUP and British Government holding hands up at the big house. There appears to be an unspoken assumption that loyalism has to work out its frustration at the loss of absolute dominance and can only do so by venting its anger on helpless residents. A sinister version of the old boys-will-be-boys indulgence of appalling behaviour.

The fact that during 1999 there have been fewer loyalist murders than in previous years does not diminish the individual trauma suffered by those families whose loved ones have been killed, nor does it lessen the misery and fear of those forced to leave their homes by orchestrated mobs of loyalist youths.

In the wake of the murder of Stephen Lawrence, the British Government promised a policy of ``zero tolerance'' of racism in its institutions, most particularly the police, and of racist attacks on its citizens; a similar policy of zero tolerance has been desperately required in the Six Counties over which the British government still has jurisdiction. Only now is it starting to make promises to try to eradicate sectarian hatred. Perhaps, and we can but hope, the new millennium will finally see such promises upheld.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1