Nationalism’s residual prejudices against Unionists

Alex Kane believes that in her comparison between Northern Irish some Protestants and Nazis, President Mary McAleese let slip a thought that’s harboured in many a Nationalist’s chest: that they despise Unionists more than armed Republicans.I think it was George Bernard Shaw, who, on hearing a very frank outburst from an actress, commented; “her slip is showing.” In President Mary McAleese’s case, it was her Freudian slip which was on display last week. Her comments were unwise, historically inaccurate and un-Presidential, and it is no surprise that she caused offence to so many within the pro-Union community.

Now, had it all been a mere slip of the tongue, I think that a gracious and genuine apology would have brought the matter to a close. But I don’t think it was a slip of the tongue. What she said was certainly crass and her choice of platform inappropriate; an apology was required and subsequently delivered, albeit one which smacked of spin-doctor manufacture. Yet the impression remains, in my mind at least, that she strayed because she really does believe that Protestants are taught to hate Roman Catholics.

And that impression was confirmed by the reaction of local nationalists to her comments. Neither Sinn Fein nor the SDLP believed that she needed to apologise. The Irish News was full of letters from readers who expressed a similar view. Most of the non-unionists who contacted Talk Back agreed with her. In other words, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Roman Catholics/Nationalists really do believe that they are hated by Protestants/Unionists.

This may explain why Sinn Fein, the political wing of an armed and still active terrorist machine, has continued to increase its vote so substantially. Right across Northern Ireland, from the poorest parts of South Armagh, to the leafy suburbs of the Malone Road, Sinn Fein candidates have been piling up the votes and winning council, Assembly, Westminster and European seats. They have beaten the SDLP into second place and are well positioned to finish them off in a few months time.

All of which begs one question: why would educated, articulate, professional and generally successful middle-class Roman Catholics desert the SDLP in favour of a political party which has excused and endorsed a campaign of terror and murder against Protestants? And the question has even more relevance when you consider that the political fronts of Loyalist terror have never made the same electoral breakthrough within the unionist community.

Or, let’s put it another way: if it is true, as President McAleese hints, that Roman Catholics believe we hate them, is it also true that they carry a psychological baggage which enables them to endorse a machine which has terrorised those of us who believe in the United Kingdom? Let’s face it, irrespective of what the IRA does, or how slippery Messrs Adams and McGuinness have proved to be, yet another swathe of the nationalist vote rows in behind them.

That being the case, it is hard to see how we will ever get the present so-called Agreement, let alone any alternative to it, up and running. The SDLP seems prepared to provide political cover for Sinn Fein, in yet another indication that their core vote would rather run with the gunmen than rally around the democrats. Again, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that “moderate” nationalists hate unionists more than they hate armed republicanism. How very depressing.

I was not taught to hate, and today, as an adult and an atheist, I have no political hang-ups about Protestantism or Roman Catholicism. But I have to admit that experience has taught me to doubt the political motives and sincerity of the “other community.” In my opinion, Northern Ireland is a less trusting and more polarised place than it was in April 1998.

President McAleese was wholly wrong in her effort to draw parallels between Nazism and Unionism. Nevertheless, she has succeeded in turning over a stone and revealing a dark and very unpleasant facet of the nationalist psyche. It isn’t just IRA disingenuousness which has made it so difficult to deliver a democratic settlement. The President’s apology is meaningless, for it is as offensive as her original comments. Beam and mote, Mary. Beam and mote.

First published in the Newsletter, Saturday 5th February 2005