For race and community relations, fundamentalism has no answers

The present race row reminds me of a story from the bad old days.  To give the camera crews a decent sequence of the Saturday matinee in Derry, a very tall black squaddie used to sprint down Chamberlain St and run the gamut of stones, bricks and bottles from the freedom fighters. Back safe he turned to the cameramen. “There, told you,” he said, breathless but beaming. “The problem of this place  isn’t Catholic and Protestant. It’s race!” Black humour then in both senses but greater reality today.

Isn’t it heartening to see that the focus of criticism in the case of the First Minister and the Ayatollah of North Belfast has remained on racism rather than turning inwards as  I thought it would?  A shift in intolerance is credibly explained here:

Public attitudes reveal a shift of antagonism. This trend points to prejudice moving away from the traditional Catholic/Protestant cleavage to outsider groups such as migrants, Travellers and sexual minorities. For example, evidence from the 2012 Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey demonstrates that only 20% of those surveyed object to inter-marriage between Catholics and Protestants, a decrease of 19 percentage points since 1989.

But when people were asked whether they “would accept an ethnic minority as a relative by way of marriage to a close member of my family”, higher rates of intolerance were exposed: some 54% of respondents said they wouldn’t accept a Muslim and 53% said they would not accept someone from a Traveller background. Two-fifths of the public would not accept a marriage by a relative with a member of the Chinese or Asian community.

These shifts in intolerance demand an explanation. A dual-track analysis is needed here. One part focuses on the nature of so-called post-conflict transition. In this analysis, as part of the peace process a number of policies have emerged designed to make sectarianism socially unacceptable. At the same time, given that these policies have done little to tackle the legacy of sectarian divisions, the groups have refocused their intolerance onto other groups who are not so well covered by the legislation of the peace agreement.

Good to hear too that the last Executive meeting ended with a literal “eff off” to DUP excuses. Still, Sinn Fein’s moral authority is hardly greater than the DUP’s. It would great if all the moral energy generated by the anti-racist protests could also be turned to cracking the even tougher nut of our established community relations. The general decline of religion even in Northern Ireland has probably blunted alertness to what is problematical about a strain of fundamentalist religion. Now there can be no objection to people talking to God as if He was their big brother next door or checking out if they should scoff another iced bun when they’re putting on the beef. But when it comes to big things outside the womb so to speak, quite a lot can go wrong.

I  cannot see how moral positions can be reached other than by chance, by treating the Bible as a gigantic book of clues for the crossword puzzle of life. Why are they so stridently sure that it’s God speaking and not the devil in themselves?  By “protesting” so much they reveal underlying doubt and suffer the torments that turn to wrath.  This is not enlightened Protestantism with or without a capital E but Protestantism in the cul de sac that resorts to  attack. Often  it conceals ignorance and suppresses underlying doubt.

The treatment of Paisley by the church he founded is an epic example of lack of basic humanity as was in fairness, the old man’s attack on Robinson.  This was the behaviour of lost souls, a moral compass with a broken needle.

But yes, he betrayed his principles  by striking  the despised deal after failing to force Sinn Fein to don “sackcloth and ashes”. He should be grateful that they didn’t give him the verbal stoning that he dished out to others in his time.

Condemnation of course can be appealing. On the Catholic Church hasn’t Paisley been proved right? In the Spectator Melanie Me Donagh, a self confessed left footer of the free speech persuasion makes a free speech case for Pastor McConnell.

Pastor McConnell is, from the biblical and evangelical perspective, entirely within his rights to condemn Islam on the basis of its own tenets. Indeed he may consider he has a duty to do so. I wouldn’t have dreamt of preventing him sounding off about popery in the old days – and I am simply assuming that, like Ian Paisley, he would have given it short shrift; he shouldn’t be gagged now when he turns his Protestant fire elsewhere.

Free speech by all means, but with respect for our common humanity, regard for the consequences  and the beam in one’s own eye.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London

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