HAS Tony Blair ‘done a McAleese’ by comparing ‘Protestant bigots’ with Islamic extremists? Are Ian Paisley and Abu Hamza really two sides of the same coin? In a major speech on foreign policy, Blair was making a point about how religious extremism can lead to terrorist acts, but the specific choice of analogy at this delicate point in the peace process might not be seen as the most helpful or balanced by unionists. Nationalists might also ask if such loyalist terrorism was not at times encouraged by the British Government – an analogy that would also hold true for certain Western democracies that have supported foreign extremist groups in the past… groups which sometimes come back to haunt us, such as the Taliban.Blair clearly believes that there is a connection between terrorism and “extreme” religious beliefs – and how he defines this can be seen in the recent Terror Bill, in which he promoted the “closure of a loophole” that would allow the arrest of people openly encouraging terrorism or “glorification” of terrorism.
Concerns had been expressed here at the time by some Protestants that had the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill passed, it would have prevented a certain style of preaching in Northern Ireland, which might then be regarded as illegal. This claim was rubbished, but there was a story a while back IIRC in which Iris Robinson claimed that this law basically existed in Northern Ireland already. (Will check later.)
Regardless, does Blair have a point, as Sir Reg Empey seemed to hint in the Tele in a more nuanced response than the other politicians who’ve been quoted today?
Even if it wasn’t made well, I think the answer has to be ‘yes’, based on the evidence, there’s a point in there somewhere. Former loyalist terrorists have claimed to have been strongly influenced by hardline Protestant preachers, and some have singled out Paisley for particular attention (describing him as the Grand Old Duke of York, for example), though others, such as Clifford Peeples, have sought to stir up an anti-Catholic frenzy at times. Some people are more easily persuaded or gullible than others, and religion is a powerful influence on some people – but not everyone.
If the PM believes that manic street preachers are the significant factor in persuading Protestants or Muslims into a life of terrorism, I think that would be a facile assumption to make. There are many others, most of which will never be legislated for, but which Blair will also have to deal with at some point.