Darkness at the Heart of Unionist Supremacist Values
Fr Alec Reid, a quiet, self-deprecating and normally circumspect man, was thrust into public life recently when it was announced that he and the Methodist Minister, the Reverend Harold Good, were the two independent witnesses to the IRA putting all of its weapons beyond use. Both clerics appeared at the same press conference as General John de Chastelain and his two commissioners on September 26th, when the announcement was made.
Fr Reid, of course, is also the Redemptorist priest from Clonard Monastery who acted as a mediator in various republican feuds (and helped end those between the IRA and the Workers Party in 1975 and 1977), brought Sinn Fein and the SDLP together for talks in 1988, and acted as a conduit between Charles Haughey, when he was Taoiseach, and the republican leadership. He was famously photographed giving the kiss of life to the two plain-clothes British army corporals who were killed after they inexplicably drove into the funeral of IRA Volunteer Kevin Brady in 1988.
He is not a supporter of armed struggle. In fact, he never gave up trying to persuade the IRA to abandon its campaign. But he is an Irishman who believes in Irish independence and would like to see his country reunited, as his entitlement, but with the consent of the unionist community.
He and the Reverend Harold Good set out to persuade the sceptics about the historical importance and decisiveness of IRA decommissioning and came to address a public meeting of about 200 people at Fitzroy Presbyterian Church in Belfast last Wednesday night.
There were heated exchanges and some unionists, according to Fr Reid, slighted and insulted his faith and the Catholic Church. He was interrupted and he lost his temper. He said that there would have been no IRA but for the way unionists treated nationalists.
“They were treated almost like animals by the unionist community. They were not treated as human beings… they were treated like the Nazis treated the Jews.”
There was shock in the audience and it triggered a shouting match and a bit of a walkout. Fr Reid apologised almost immediately, an apology that was accepted – albeit his remarks regretted - by many of his friends in other denominations, including the Reverend Ken Newell whose church had hosted the meeting.
There was also an immediate outcry at his remarks from unionist leaders, including the leading party in unionism, the anti-Agreement DUP, which rubbished the affidavits of Reid and Good in regard to decommissioning and still seeks pretexts to avoid sharing power with Sinn Fein.
Father Reid’s remarks certainly smarted many unionists. He should not have demonised an entire community. You cannot compare the suffering of the Jews under the Nazis, and their genocide, to the nationalist experience in the North, however unpleasant that was.
Nevertheless, Fr Reid, a moderate, must have said what he said out of frustration and desperation – a natural human reaction. Prior to those remarks, the last person not of the republican physical-force tradition to have said something similar was President Mary McAleese earlier this year. During ceremonies to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz concentration camp she suggested that Catholics in the North suffered like Jews during Hitler’s war on Europe. Of the Nazis she said: “They gave to their children an irrational hatred of Jews in the same way that people in Northern Ireland transmitted to their children an irrational hatred of Catholics – in the same way that people give their children an outrageous and irrational hatred of those who are of different colour.”
Within 24 hours she too apologised and said she was “deeply sorry”.
McAleese’s and Reid’s comments represent something visceral which even peaceful nationalists believe but only express in unguarded moments for fear of being regarded as sectarian, even though the analogy with fascism is in fact legitimate and rooted in certain fact.
The evidence is that the traditional unionist establishment has strong anti-democratic and fascist tendencies.
Firstly, unionists, who had no problem with a united Ireland when they were in political ascendancy, opposed the extension of the franchise to the Irish working class and opposed a measure of devolution, Home Rule, because they would lose their sectarian supremacy. They opposed ‘lawful’ authority, organised the first right-wing paramilitary army of the 20th century, the UVF, threatened civil war, got their way and set up what was basically a state of one-party government.
To ensure they maintained control they used terror. They gerrymandered constituencies. They discriminated in employment and investment and reinforced the traditional ghettoes in which Catholics had gathered for safety. They used the Orange Order to keep nationalists in fear. At the foundation of the state they drove the few Catholics that had work in Protestant industries out of their workplace. In 1921 alone 9000 Catholics were driven from work, 30,000 were rendered destitute and thousands were rendered homeless. Catholics were in a minority but made up the majority of those who emigrated. Unionist newspapers regularly carried job advertisements with the unashamed pronouncement that ‘No Catholics Need Apply’.
Loyalist paramilitaries boast of their connection with neo-Nazi groups, including Combat 18. (The ‘18’ in their name is derived from the initials of Adolf Hitler, A and H are the first and eighth letters of the Latin alphabet.)
To this day Ian Paisley uses insulting and derogatory language when he refers to ‘Papishers’ and ‘Romanists’. His party displayed fascist tendencies in its Ulster Resistance mode, Third Force rallies and when it united with loyalist paramilitaries in the UWC strike. One of Paisley’s councillors, George Seawright, said of Catholics in 1984, “Taxpayers money would be better spent on an incinerator and burning the whole lot of them. The priests should be thrown in and burned as well.”
Former Home Affairs Minister, William Craig, set up the Vanguard Movement as a pressure group within the Unionist Party. At Vanguard rallies unionist leaders arrived flanked by motorcycle outriders. At one rally in the Ormeau Park, Craig addressed 100,000 people, which included serried ranks of masked men carrying cudgels. He said: “We must build up a dossier of the men and the women who are a menace to this country… it may be our job to liquidate them.”
Commenting on these rallies, the veteran British journalist Peter Taylor wrote many years ago: “To nationalists they represented a menacing display reminiscent of Hitler’s Nurembourg rallies.”
So, yes, there is an analogy to be made, though not on the same scale as the Nazis. Unionists are genuinely appalled that nationalists should think this way of them and they reject such a view. They do so because they themselves are in denial about their part in the origins of the conflict. Certainly, the IRA’s campaign devastated them, led to a litany of loss, pain and bereavement, and a sense of great victimhood. But that sense of victimhood is also conveniently used to mask some of the real truths about their own ethos and their attitude to Catholics.
For them it’s more comforting to view the IRA as completely ruthless as to examine the darkness at the heart of unionist supremacist values.
Unwittingly, Fr Alec Reid’s outburst has done just that.
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© 2007 Irish Author and Journalist - Danny Morrison