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When N. Irish Protestants stone Catholics, it's not about religion


The scene is an unfriendly crowd of a thousand Protestants milling around a small Catholic church, shouting abuse, jostling the few hundred Massgoers and pounding their cars, throwing firecrackers and generally making an unholy racket to drown out the liturgy inside the church. It seems to confirm the American media's tendency to describe life in Northern Ireland in terms of religious antagonism.

No one would describe a similar scene in, say, Israel as a conflict between Judaism and Islam.

This mob scene in the Harryville district of Ballymena, Northern Ireland -- the Rev. Ian Paisley's electoral district -- has been staged weekly for over six months. Its intensity grows weekly.

Its organizers threaten to double the number of bands to 22 and to increase the number of picketers to 2,000. No one doubts their capacity to do so.

Yet it is an egregious error to label this scene sectarian, the cliché much favored by correspondents who write their stories from far away.

Violence in Northern Ireland is not religiously based. It's as political and territorial as that of the Middle East. A handier analogue is the black-white issues of civil rights, jobs and housing in our own country.

More so than elsewhere, cultural and political statements in Northern Ireland are represented by parades. The tumultuous weekly scene in Harryville is intimately related to a parade that never took place last summer.

Loyalists, also defined as Protestants or Orangemen (though not Orangewomen), mount over 2,000 parades or marches each year. Nationalists or Catholics organize a small fraction of that.

Nationalist marches are less flamboyant and tend to be confined to their own or neutral areas. Loyalist parades typically insist on passing through Catholic areas, sometimes with anti-Catholic banners, often with bands trumpeting tunes offensive to Catholics.

Tiring of this provocation, Catholics with a view toward mitigating the 17th-century triumphalism of these parades have demanded that organizers of Orange marches request permission to pass through Catholic areas.

Even though a blue ribbon committee recently appointed by the English government and chaired by Sir Peter Robinson, vice-chancellor of Oxford University, found compromise in this vexatious matter to be reasonable, the loyalists gave their usual response: "Not an inch!"

The unwillingness of loyalists even to talk about modifying their route exasperated the Catholics in the village of Dunloy last summer to the point where they cordoned off their area, denying their streets to the loyalist marchers.

It is for this reason that the loyalists are revenging themselves upon the few hundred Catholics in Harryville.

Religion in Northern Ireland is a label for politics. If you are Catholic it is assumed you are a nationalist, that is, in favor of the reunion of the country, which was partitioned by the imperial Parliament in 1920.

If you are a Protestant it is assumed you are in favor of the status quo, that is, the retention of the political union with Britain. Hence you are a unionist, loyalist or Orangeman (harking back to the 17th-century defeat of King James' Catholic army by his son-in-law, William of Orange, a Protestant).

Unless a person is visibly (that is, politically) a Protestant, he/she is suspect (that is, a "Catholic," hence not "loyal"). This paranoia could be farcical were it not destructive of community relationships.

Recently David Trimble, head of the Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, worried that the British Labor Party might win the upcoming English election, attacked Tony Blair, the Labor leader and therefore the likely next prime minister, as unfit because he had married a Catholic.

To Trimble, this was sufficient proof of Blair's "disloyalty."

"Loyalty" is the shibboleth in Northern Ireland. A few years ago, the Rev. Ian Paisley, head of the extremist Democratic Unionist Party, publicly accused Queen Elizabeth of "treason" because of an ecumenical attitude. Even the queen can stumble.

Intolerance toward Catholics is justified on the basis that no Catholic, baptized or not, can be "loyal."

Not too long ago in Northern Ireland, the head of the government publicly proclaimed that Northern Ireland was a "Protestant state for a Protestant people." And only now are the Unionists (who governed Northern Ireland from 1920 to the resumption of direct rule by Britain in 1972) beginning an internal debate on whether Catholics might be admitted to membership in the party.

The boundaries of Northern Ireland were carefully drawn to guarantee a 60-percent majority of loyalists in the new state. To this end the historic province of Ulster was truncated to six counties, an area of only 5,000 square miles, one-sixth of the whole island. The "minority" -- 40 percent -- were assured of second-class status.

From the outset, allegiance became a problem. The 60 percent favoring the union with Britain felt besieged by the 40 percent of "Quislings" who obviously had to be controlled.

Thus, the 40 percent became the blacks of the North, denied basic civil rights. Periodic violence flared until the great eruption of 1969, which has not yet been resolved.

"Protestants," "loyalists" and "unionists," then, are virtually synonymous, as are "Catholics" and "nationalists." There are, of course, Protestant nationalists and Catholic unionists: These are the exceptions, however. Indeed, if a Buddhist were to espouse nationalism, a loyalist would count him or her "Catholic."

Thus, for "the good of the state," Catholics had to be contained.

As recent English attempts at remedial legislation confirm, from 1920 on, nationalists were systematically discriminated against in jobs, housing and even in voting. (Remember the nationalist marches in the late 1960s for "One man, one vote.")

The ongoing siege of Harryville reminds the Massgoers of their subordinate position in Northern Ireland.

The story is told about an English pilot on a flight from London to Belfast who announced, "We are on our final approach to Belfast. Set your watches back three centuries."

Eoin McKiernan is an Irish specialist with a doctorate from the National University of Ireland. He is also a feture writer for Irish America magazine in New York.

National Catholic Reporter, April 11, 1997