Belfast Telegraph

When symbolism remains a toxic reality in our society

By Alf McCreary

No Catholic may enter the Protestant University of Trinity College, Dublin without the previous permission of the ordinary of the Diocese. Any Catholic who disobeys this law is guilty of mortal sin, and while he persists in disobedience is unworthy to receive the sacraments."

These are the words of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid in 1944. He collaborated with Eamon de Valera in the construction of the theocracy of the Irish Free State.

This was at a time when Northern Ireland, and the south, were still coming to terms with the trauma of partition, and no doubt there were equally shocking examples of Protestant bigotry in the north, dating from that period, and from the early days of Ian Paisley.

However, times have moved on, to some extent, but some of the recent headlines here have been deeply depressing and dispiriting.

They include the refusal of Sinn Fein to re-title a children's play park in Newry which is named after a former, now dead, IRA activist. The SDLP councillors had an opportunity to show leadership earlier on, but their lack of political courage by not voting on the issue has allowed Sinn Fein to slam the door on further discussion.

Now we hear that the new Mid-Ulster Council has banned, pro tem, the sale of poppies in its facilities, ahead of a period of public consultation.

Why does the council need any public consultation about this, in an era when the controversy about the poppy seems to have been settled with good sense, even in the Republic?

One hopes that the people of Mid-Ulster will show more toleration than some of their councillors, but the whole issue makes me wonder yet again why symbolism remains such a toxic reality in our society. This is evident in so many ways, ranging from the 'flegs' issue in east Belfast to the graffiti on the walls of both main sectarian enclaves, and perhaps even in the polite living rooms and clubs of those who should know better.

Maybe this doesn't upset us anymore.

Yet, while such sectarianism exists, the headlines which it generates will continue to strike a hollow undertone to the continued efforts of our political leaders to attract new jobs and more inward investment.

One section of our society which has long grappled with sectarianism is the Churches, and it should be underlined that they have tried hard in recent years to emphasise the issues which they share in common, rather than those which divide them.

At the grassroots level there are many small Church groups working hard to cross the community divisions, but at the top level there is perhaps a need for a renewal, and a greater drive towards emphasising the best of both main traditions for the common good.

The recent week of prayer for Christian unity was one of the most low-key in my memory, with hardly a line in the papers about what any of the Church leaders said.

I also find that the Church statements for the set-pieces such as Easter and Christmas are too often the words of those speaking to the converted.

Where are the strong prophetic voices in today's Churches, and also the political parties, issuing the clarion calls to help move us all towards a better future?

Nevertheless the naked sectarianism of the Archbishop McQuaid days is somewhat more muted in high and low places these days. We should at least be thankful for that, and move on.

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