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Eilis O'Hanlon: Our politicians are playing with fire by surrendering the public space to bigots

Fine words are not enough to end the almost daily sectarian incidents, says Eilis O'Hanlon


The Frazer insult on a Newry anti-internment bonfire

The Frazer insult on a Newry anti-internment bonfire

A UVF mural

A UVF mural

Painted kerbstones in Limavady

Painted kerbstones in Limavady

Painted kerbstones in Limavady

Painted kerbstones in Limavady

McCreesh park in Newry

McCreesh park in Newry


The Frazer insult on a Newry anti-internment bonfire

The six main parties came together last October to issue a joint proclamation deploring loyalist paramilitary intimidation of Catholic families in south Belfast. "We as political leaders condemn all forms of sectarianism, intolerance and threats of violence," the statement said.

Splendid words. Less than a year on, sectarian incidents continue almost daily across Northern Ireland. It seems that expressing disgust is the easy part. Much harder is acknowledging when sectarianism happens, and actually doing something to stop it.

The latest high profile incident comes in the form of a republican anti-internment bonfire in Newry which celebrates the 1975 murder of the father of Willie Frazer.

The victims' campaigner has condemned those behind the mockery of his dead father as "mindless, uneducated, entrenched individuals", but this summer it seems once again that there are plenty of them about.

Derry is still recovering from recent sectarian violence in the Bogside, while the flags of Protestant football teams have been seen burning on another anti-internment bonfire in Craigavon, an act slammed by Sinn Fein's Upper Bann MLA John O'Dowd as a "hate crime".

It's imperative that local representatives publicly distance themselves from these ugly outbursts of bigotry; Sinn Fein's MP for South Down, Chris Hazzard, also said of the bonfire mocking Frazer's late father that "if you think this type of behaviour makes you a republican your (sic) a fool".

But what moral high ground can the party sincerely take on this issue when, not far from the spot where the murder of Willie Frazer's father was being celebrated, there's a children's playground named after IRA hunger striker Raymond McCreesh?

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In many ways, that's worse. The offence to Willie Frazer's family was disgusting, but it could be dismissed as the work of a few unelected, unrepresentative bigots. The playground was approved by the forerunner to what is now Newry, Mourne and Down District Council, and stands there every day as a testimony to the IRA campaign, inculcating another gullible generation into thinking of the Provos as martyrs rather than murderers.

Supporters have resisted every attempt to have it renamed, and even raised a banner over the park back in March lauding McCreesh as "our hero".

This, about a man whose convictions included attempted murder, conspiracy to murder, and possession of firearms with intent to endanger life.

"There can be no place for sectarianism, racism and misogyny in our society," declared Sinn Fein's Westminster election manifesto last year. But apparently there is plenty of space for it in children's playgrounds, not to mention in GAA clubs, a number of which are also named after IRA killers.

Meanwhile, posters have been put up around Moygashel and Dungannon to remember UVF hitman Wesley Somerville, who died in 1975 after a bomb he was planting on a bus carrying the Miami Showband exploded prematurely, killing him and another terrorist. Both were members of the infamous Glenanne Gang, which comprised loyalist paramilitaries and delinquent RUC officers and British soldiers. Three members of the showband were murdered shortly afterwards, in an incident which still has not been fully untangled.

One could argue that these examples are not so much instances of sectarianism as the straightforward glorification of terrorism, the kind that would have its proponents arrested in any normal law-abiding society.

But it's sectarianism which underpins them all. At its heart is an inability to see the world through someone else's eyes. It's not enough to celebrate one's own culture. That of others must be denigrated as well.

So Unionists decry the flaunting of overtly Gaelic symbols in nationalist areas, while defending the rash of Union flags and British emblems across Northern Ireland every July as harmless and legitimate expressions of culture, while Sinn Fein condemns the red, white and blue painted kerbstones in Limavady, but defends murals to IRA killers in nearby Dungiven, some of which are directly outside a Church of Ireland - and neither side is prepared to acknowledge its own hypocrisy.

It's these attitudes which lead inexorably to homes and churches being targeted by blinkered thugs, such as the attack on homes in a small Protestant enclave in north Belfast in the early hours of Thursday.

Windows were smashed.

Paint balls thrown.

The PSNI is treating it as a sectarian hate crime.

This is what happens when those who hold a different identity are contemptuously dismissed by one pro republican black taxi tour guide in West Belfast as having "no culture of their own". It's what happens when insults to Willie Frazer's family are quietly excused on the basis of whispers that the unionist campaigner's father, a part time UDR member at the time of his murder, was involved in loyalist terrorism, despite that long-standing rumour being rejected by investigators from the PSNI's Historical Enquiries Team.

Social media adds to the frenzy. Even some of those who publicly condemned what happened in Newry felt the need to denounce Willie Frazer at the same time, apparently insensitive to the effect that this kneejerk whataboutery has on fuelling prejudice in the first place.

Every time another outrage hits the headlines, fine sentiments are uttered by elected representatives on all sides, but little is ever done, because it's easier to condemn sectarianism in the abstract than it is to admit the extent of its persistence in the communities on whose support they draw.

There's also an underlying complacency that feelings are bound to run high over the summer, when normal politics take a back seat to atavistic folk traditions, and it's best just to hunker down and wait for the cloud of mutual intolerance to blow over.

The continuing lack of a functioning Assembly doesn't help either. It's too easy to blame everything that goes wrong in Northern Ireland on the breakdown of devolved government. There was too much wrong in the country when Stormont was up and running to justify the lie that getting it back will magically make things right.

People don't have to behave like animals, just because their elected representatives couldn't negotiate their way out of a paper bag right now.

Even so, there's no point denying that politics hates a vacuum, and the failure to provide responsible leadership has left a hole that has only ever been filled in the past by enmity and malice. It could be that the past will, for the first time ever, prove an unreliable guide to the future, but it would be foolish to bet on it.

As that repulsive sectarian pyre in Newry proves, politicians are literally playing with fire by surrendering the public space to bigots and pretending that there won't be some very nasty consequences.

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