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Sunday 30 January 2005

President detonates the tribal time-bomb

FOR once, I agree with David Ervine of the PUP (the UVF's Sinn Fein) - a man whose combination of dodgy friends and unctuous rhetoric usually makes me squirm - rather than with decent, straight-talking Michael McGimpsey of the UUP, who believes that Mary McAleese's fervent apology to Ulster Protestants "puts the matter to rest - the sooner we forget about it and get on with what needs to be done the better - least said, soonest mended". 

Ervine, however, feels that "the damage is massive and the questions are massive". And he's spot-on. Despite his later conversion to the lady's cause, Eoghan Harris was right when in 1990 when he described Mary McAleese as "a tribal time-bomb". It's taken her a long time to go off, and the consequences are devastating. 

Sure, Ervine is rather hacked-off with the McAleeses. He was probably not too thrilled that Martin McAleese played a round of golf at the K Club with Jackie McDonald, aka, God help us, the South Belfast UDA brigadier. Neither was I too thrilled. Making friends with Protestant as well as Catholic gangsters isn't my idea of what the President calls "outreach". 

But to their shame, nationalists seem to find the convivial criminals of the Shankill Road preferable to the hundreds of thousands of God-fearing, law-abiding, hard-working Prods who think them a disgrace to unionism. (Unlike Catholics, Protestants don't vote for murderers and robbers. It's a tribal thing.) 

Still, this time Ervine is more in tune with Ulster Protestantism than is McGimpsey, who probably was too busy on Friday to listen to the riveting 90 minutes of outpouring of hurt and rage on Talkback, BBC Ulster's phone-in programme, or to follow the illuminating debate on www.sluggerotoole.com. 

President McAleese's advisers let an embarrassment turn into a mega-crisis that had innumerable hurt people calling for her resignation. Reports that she had said that the Nazis "gave to their children an irrational hatred of Jews in the same way that people in Northern Ireland transmitted to their children an irrational hatred, for example, of Catholics" caused Protestant Ulster to react as it had not since in 1974 when it took personally Prime Minister Harold Wilson's reference to anti-Sunningdale strikers as "spongers". 

Had she immediately issued a clarificatory statement saying a) that she had said "for example, of Catholics" and b) that she had culpably failed to add "or Protestants", the sting would have been drawn. As the Reverend Brian Kennaway put it on Talkback, the problem was the half-truth. 

But because she hesitated, Ulster Protestants had all day to brood on being identified by the Irish President as the only bigots in Northern Ireland and compared to the Nazis. 

Ireland is sectarian. We all know, because northern nationalists never shut up about it, the discrimination and occasional violence that Catholics suffered in the north. We are in denial of what every Northern Ireland Protestant knows - that in the south tens of thousands of Protestants were killed, exiled or intimidated into silence. And in the south we are in ignorance and in the north also in denial of the sectarianism that infuses the Catholic community and particularly the IRA. 

In The Informer, Kerry-born Sean O'Callaghan describes how as a naive volunteer in Tyrone, he was shocked at how border republicans talked of "Prods" and "Orangies" and "black bastards" and wanted to kill their Protestant neighbours. In a much smaller way, I had a perception-changing shock when an ex-denizen of the Falls Road told me how he had scored after a dance and driven home punching the air and shouting to himself: "I f**ked a Prod. I f**ked a Prod." He also claimed not to be sectarian.

'Ireland is sectarian. We all know, because northern nationalists never shut up about it' 

As a tribe we go in for self-deception. When Protestant and Catholic murderers went to jail in the early Seventies they all knew they'd killed their neighbours for sectarian reasons. After intensive IRA brainwashing, the Catholics discovered retrospectively that they were freedom fighters who had killed for Ireland. Hideous sectarian massacres like Kingsmill, La Mon, Tullyvallen, Darkley and Enniskillen have been repackaged as unfortunate errors. And, as Arlene Foster of the DUP said on Talkback, there is no acknowledgement that in many areas what is seen as anti-Catholicism is simple fear of those who have killed or maimed relatives and friends. 

Davy Adams, once a spokesman for the UDA and now one of its targets, commented that the President's remarks had demeaned the Jews' experience (as republicans demean black South Africans when they compare themselves with the ANC); that having grown up in a Catholic area she didn't know Protestants; yet that she had opened up a worthwhile debate - a sentiment that was echoed by many other contributors. 

The President now has a worthwhile mission: if she seeks to atone by coming to terms with, acknowledging and challenging the sectarianism of her own tribe, she could yet transform relationships with the Protestant community. Contrary to Catholic perceptions, they are a forgiving lot.  

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards