19 May 2006

Comment: Sectarianism: it's not both sides

Derry Journal

19 May 2006

SINCE THE horrific murder of Ballymena teenager Michael McIlveen last week much attention has been paid to the County Antrim town and indeed some surprise has been expressed that such sectarianism still exists.
Hopes have been expressed that the death might serve some good in that it appears to have brought a section of the town's population together in sympathy and mourning. No one could fail to be moved by the sight of young teenagers in both Celtic and Rangers tops mourning together.
But once again the perceived wisdom and experts have been trundled out to tell us how sectarianism must be tackled and that it is a problem besetting 'both sides.'
The PSNI certainly subscribe to this view with the comments of Terry Shevlin of that organisation how sectarianism in Ballymena is 'a two way street'. Who does he think he is kidding?
The Community Relations Council was on telling us how sectarianism exists on 'both sides' and how everyone had a responsibility to tackle this cancer in our society.
At least a presenter on Radio Foyle challenged this assertion and asked does it really exist on both sides.
For too long in our society sectarianism has been seen as a cancer on both sides and therefore any solution that did not tackle both sides was a non starter.
But in many ways this attitude has allowed sectarianism to fester and the tragic results of that were all too clear in Ballymena.
Certainly there are elements of sectarianism in the nationalist community. The conflict at interface areas is evidence enough of that. But that problem is being tackled by the local community who have even mounted patrols to help stamp out sectarian attacks on the Fountain Estate.
Nationalists have never exhibited the same deep sectarian hatred as loyalists seem to do and maybe it is time that instead of hiding behind this myth that 'both sides' are to blame politicians and groups focussed their attention on where the problem really lies.
Unfortunately it has to be said deep rooted sectarianism is a feature of the unionist community to a far greater extent than anything found in the nationalist community.
Can anyone say where the nationalist equivalent of Ballymena is? Can anyone say where the nationalist equivalent of Portadown is?
Would ordinary nationalists have allowed anything remotely resembling the Harryville protest outside a Catholic Church to go on? No chance.
Would the disgraceful scenes at Carnmoney Cemetery happen in a nationalist area? Again the answer has to be no.
There is no town in the North where ordinary unionists/Protestants can say that they cannot enter certain parts of the town centre on fear of their lives. We have been told stories about Derry city centre but a walk through the town on any given afternoon will reveal uniforms from almost every school in the city equally represented.
There is nowhere in the North where ordinary Protestants are stamped and battered to death simply because of their religion as happened to Michael McIlveen or Robert Hamill in Portadown.
And even amidst the outpouring of grief in Ballymena this week we still had reports of mourners cars being attacked by loyalists near the cemetery and a Sinn Fein councillor being prevented from attending the funeral because the PSNI told her she was not safe to drive across the town.
Sectarianism is alive and well and living in places like Ballymena and Portadown and many another place in the North and unfortunately it is ordinary nationalists who are at the receiving of these often murderous attacks.
It is no good mouthing pious platitudes about sectarianism being a plague on both sides when the reality is so much different and until everyone starts recognising the true nature of sectarianism it will never be tackled.
Ian Paisley deserves some credit for his reaction to the McIlveen tragedy - by all accounts he was supportive of the family. But the real acid test for the DUP leader will be in what he will do about one of his councillors in Ballymena who when commenting on the McIlveen case said that Catholics don't get into Heaven anyway.
I doubt he will do anything.
Is it any wonder that there are a section of people running about in our society who look upon Catholic lives as being less valuable than Protestant lives if this is the attitude from their civic leaders.
There is an aspect of sectarianism that is never talked about and therefore never addressed by all the bodies and groups set up supposedly to bring 'both communities together' and that is the religious underpinning of unionist hostility to nationalists.
Unionists have severe problems with Catholicism in itself and there is simply no equivalent on the nationalist side of this phenomenon.
A little example may suffice. A leading unionists in this city was engaged in a friendly conversation with a nationalist and both seemed to be getting on great.
But as they parted the unionist told the nationalists that they could never be friends. The nationalists wondered why not as they had been getting on great and was told 'But you believe in transubstantiation and so we could never be friends."
The nationalist to be fair hardy knew what transubstantiation was never mind why it would be a hurdle to friendship.
But this underlying attitude of anti-Catholicism feeds into the unionist psyche and leads to the sectarianism that manifests itself on the streets of Ballymena and Portadown.
Unionist political leaders and Protestant church leaders have to address the causes of sectarianism within their community and stop pretending that there is nothing they can do because it affects 'both sides.'
Until it is recognised that sectarianism is a malaise that primarily affects the unionist community nothing serious will ever be done to tackle the problem.
Unfortunately this does not look like it is going to happen for some time to come.

(The author of this article is from Derry city)

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