The Blanket

Sectarianism
A response to Hazel Croft

Billy Mitchell

Jennie Lee, lifelong socialist and champion for social justice, remarked that, "In matters of great moment, right or wrong depends largely on the point of the political compass from which events are viewed". A favourite remark of her husband, Aneurin Bevan, was "This is my truth; now tell me yours".

What Jennie and Nye were saying is that there are two, or more, sides to every story. We need to examine them all. It is impossible to deal honestly with common issues if we are only content to tell our truth and ignore the other person's truth. Nationalists and unionists look at the interface violence in North and East Belfast from different points on the political compass, and both appear only to listen to the "truth" as they have experienced it.

Hazel Croft’s (Sectarianism and How it Can be Fought) search for answers to sectarianism and interface violence looked only for a nationalist perspective. Her interviews were only with ‘socialists’ who appeared to examine sectarianism through nationalist lenses only, and she got what she obviously wished for - a pro-nationalist analysis of loyalist sectarianism. One would have thought that an honest desire to examine sectarianism and sectarian violence would have required a more balanced process.

Perhaps Hazel does not know any pro-unionist socialists. Even if she adheres to the sectarian notion that one cannot be a socialist while rejecting the concept of Irish nationalism, she could have interviewed a number of trade unionists who hold pro-unionist views and who have experienced sectarianism from a different perspective. Has Bob Gourley of USDAW, who has been the victim of several sectarian bomb attacks, not got something to say about sectarianism? Has Shop Stewart Jackie Nichol, whose little baby was killed in a no warning sectarian bomb attack, got nothing to say on the subject of sectarian violence? Have the workmen who were shot in the back while boarding up damaged homes in Cluan Place a few weeks back nothing to say about sectarian violence?

Each of Hazel Croft’s respondents lay sectarianism squarely at the door of loyalists. Those within the unionist community who have suffered as a result of sectarian violence and intimidation coming from the nationalist community are written out of the script as if their experiences and suffering are of no consequence. The killing of Trevor Kells, Thomas Mc Donald and William Morgan by nationalists are written off without a word of protest. The wounding by gunfire of seven Protestants in North Belfast and five in East Belfast between January and July of this year appear to have no significance for Hazel Croft of her respondents. The token turnout by trade unionists in Derry to protest against the killing of Mr. Caldwell shows just how many trade unionists in the maiden city really care about anti-unionist violence. While Niall Morton flags up the picket of a doctors surgery in East Belfast he neglects to mention the physical assault of a female patient and her daughter that led to the picket. None of these incidents justify what has been happening to members of the nationalist community and we could get into a cycle of whataboutery and blame and counter-blame that would take us nowhere.

Surely there is a case for balanced investigative approach which seeks out all points of view and gives a balanced response. By ignoring the unionist experience of sectarian attacks Hazel Croft and her respondents appear to be suggesting that there is no valid unionist point of view, that truth is on the side of nationalists only. The fact is, unionists and nationalists both have legitimate experiences to record and neither will be complete until we have heard and validated the truth of the other.

It is too simplistic to lay all the blame on loyalist paramilitaries. If there were no loyalist paramilitaries we would still have sectarianism. Sean Smyth, to his credit, seeks to analyse some of the social and economic reasons behind sectarian violence. To my mind his analysis does not go far enough. Interface problems have more to do with issues around contested space and the ever-shrinking unionist enclaves. The unionist population of North Belfast is shrinking with each passing year and the people of Torrens, Westland, Glynbryn, White City, Mountcollyer and Tiger Bay increasingly feel isolated and threatened. They are not so much concerned about economics as they are about the survival of their communities. Many of these enclaves have no social amenities and, because of nationalist sectarianism, it is not safe to use amenities in neighbouring nationalist areas. When people have to travel by car, sometimes in convoy, to friendly areas in order to do their shopping, it brings home to them the real nature of sectarianism and marginalisation.

Hazel Croft’s respondents all place great faith in the trade union movement as a vehicle for addressing sectarianism. As the single largest organisation in civil society, with some 250,000 members in Northern Ireland, the trade union movement ought to have the potential to address sectarianism. Yet the movement is not representative of both communities at leadership level. Peter Bunting (Northern Committee ICTU) has noted that “Our own anecdotal evidence points to a situation where protestant shop stewards and activists are no longer emerging as they did before”. If protestants are twice as likely to secure employment as Catholics one would expect this to be reflected in the strength of protestant representation in the trade union movement. Protestants are either not joining the trade union movement as they did in the fifties and sixties or they are joining but are not being adequately represented at activist level. This augurs bad of the movement as a whole. Again, to quote Peter Bunting, “If one community ceases to be significantly engaged at this activist level, the repercussions will be seen down the line at senior leadership levels”.

If the ICTU is to effectively address sectarianism, not just in the workplace but across society, it must address the perception that it is controlled by nationalists and that it is only concerned about anti-nationalist sectarianism. It must be said that non-sectarian nationalists like Peter Bunting and Brendan Mackin are seriously seeking to address some of these issues and their decision to meet with both the Loyalist Commission and the UDA is to be commended. They are clearly trying to understand loyalism as opposed to constantly demonising loyalists. It is time that more trade unionists followed suit and engaged in a process of dialogue rather than selective condemnation and prejudicial point scoring.

The Trade Union Movement also has to address the new class prejudice that has been developing within certain professions represented mainly by NIPSA. The crass, uncaring and dictatorial approach by many (un)civil servants, social workers and housing officers towards people living in socially deprived marginalised areas is as responsible for as much human hurt and stress as sectarianism. About 30% of the work of our community mediation service relates to conflict between ordinary people and so-called public servants who treat them like dirt. What confidence can those living in marginalised communities have in the trade union movement when they are regularly treated as ignorant “poor white trash” by trade unionists. Is prejudice against unionists or nationalists any worse than prejudice against the socially deprived and the educationally disadvantaged?

The author is a member of UNISON (and some of our members are just as prejudiced).

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Index: Current Articles

8 August 2002

 

Other Articles From This Issue:

 

Sectarianism
Billy Mitchell

 

Frances McAuley - Resisting the Loyal Sons of Hate

Anthony McIntyre

 

Intense Winters
Miguel Castells Artetxe

 

Modernising Republicanism
Davy Carlin

 

Another Death in Turkish Prison Hunger Strike

 

4 August 2002

 

Priorities

Davy Carlin

 

Sectarians For Peace?
Sean Smyth

 

Nuff Said
Eoghan O'Suilleabhain

 

Saol Nua

Sean O'Lubaigh

 

Stake Knife Runs the Rafia
Brian Mór

 

The Death of Cú Chulainn
Brian Mór

 

SAS Stake Knife
Brian Mór

 

No Punishment Too Great

Anthony McIntyre

 

Foul Shots

Karen Cox

 

Insanity or Security?
John Chuckman

 

 

 

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