Belfast Telegraph

Malachi O'Doherty: Why failure to remake Northern Ireland society is always themuns' fault

'Big ticket' constitutional issues ultimately proved to be solvable, so why are cultural questions proving so intractable, asks Malachi O'Doherty

Former PSNI constable Peadar Heffron who lost his leg in a terrorist attack
Former PSNI constable Peadar Heffron who lost his leg in a terrorist attack

It's not easy to grasp why former friends in the GAA shunned Peadar Heffron for joining the PSNI. No responsible person opposes policing.

Yet, it is clearly unsafe for some to join and the latest recruitment drive acknowledges that insufficient numbers of Catholics are joining to enable a balance between two communities in the service.

This is despite the fact that Sinn Fein, the party most of them vote for, does support the police and also despite the fact that the dissident republican groups which still target the police are minuscule and ineffective.

The message hasn't filtered down. The head has made a choice, but the heart hasn't registered it.

The GAA club which treated Peadar Heffron like a pariah has made no statement defending its position, or criticising those who disowned him.

What this indicates is that, despite political parties having sought formulae to resolve the big constitutional question and their having acknowledged the need for policing and sat on policing boards and community partnerships, many of those who vote for those parties feel content to go on sneering and contributing nothing.

Politics can change. Culture, it seems, cannot. It is in the DNA of some strands of the Gaelic tradition to treat the police as the enemy and those people are not going to be argued out of it. Faced with one of their own who buys into the hope that things can change, they shun him as a traitor.

I know some of this as a writer and journalist, faced routinely with online abuse from people who articulate no argument against me other than that I am letting a side down. They think I have inherited a way of thinking and should, like them, stick to it.

Many in nationalist politics have insisted down the years that they are not sectarian, that their issues are the constitution and equality. But there is no bigot like a blind bigot.

Once, for a radio programme, I went out into Sandy Row and stopped people and asked them if they were sectarian and almost all of the people I recorded said, yes, they were.

I then went over to Divis Street and repeated the experiment. "Are you sectarian?" I asked people, men and women, young and old. They were similarly consistent in their replies. They said they weren't.

So, who is sectarian? Those people over there. They are.

Cardinal O'Fiaich once famously said that there was a difference between Protestant and Catholic bigotry, the Protestant form being more religious, the Catholic more political. That annoyed people, but the important observation was that deep prejudice functioned in both communities.

It had been expressed down the years through religion, football, public festivities, voting patterns, social morality, language, even international politics, with nationalists tending to support the Palestinians and oppose American wars.

There are differences between these communities which are nothing to do with national identity.

The Northern Ireland Life and Times survey has measured them over the last 20 years and found that a Catholic would more readily admit to having a gay relative.

More Catholics than Protestants (in 1999) were in favour of the teaching of religion in secondary schools. In the 2000 survey, more Catholics thought the world was getting better. More Catholics than Protestants also thought equality should be a priority for government.

In 2002, more Catholics than Protestants thought of themselves as European. More of them thought that a female politician was more likely to be able to compromise, though some may have changed their minds about that in the last year.

Protestants have tended to emphasise justice over compassion, Catholics have emphasised the reverse. That contrast can be traced back to theology and challenged in its outworking, for unionists have supported governments that suspended justice and Catholics have supported merciless paramilitaries.

And the contempt continued to thrive when the excuses for it had been dealt with. The Army was removed, the police disarmed and reformed.

Two communities were given interdependent status in Stormont and a means for achieving Irish unity were agreed by all parties.

Yet, the problem is still themuns over there. There is also, though it is said more softly, a sense that Sinn Fein, like Peadar Heffron, went too far in cosying up to unionists, was indecently eager to meet British royalty, for instance. What we are familiar with is acrimony. They want to hold onto it.

Unionism is as bad. From the unctuous smugness of Orange culture to the stridency of Arlene Foster, to the petty caricaturing of the Irish language, there is an easy presumption that the base will be pleased to hear Irish nationalist and republican cultures mocked.

They conceded things that were painful to them, like police reform and the Parades Commission, but they are not looking for any thanks for that, or expecting any.

Sometimes, both sides treat culture and tradition as something to beat the other side with, as in the petty-minded removal of funding for kids going to the Gaeltacht by a Communities Minister.

The political landscape can change, agreements can be made and come under strain and perhaps be remade. But there is an underlying division between communities here which is infused with contempt - and that is not going away. At their deepest cores, these communities do not like each other.

All of this is contradicted, of course, by other experiences; the friendships, marriages and relationships across the divide, the determination of young people not to be branded by the past. But the evolution away from raw rivalry is slow. It always has been.

You can see how when the Irish went abroad to Boston and Glasgow they took their animosities with them. Some of the bitterness dissolved in the new climate, but much still hasn't. The sectarianism survived in Scotland and is still expressed through football.

In a thousand political debates about the problem here, people have insisted over and over again that the root of it is in constitutional concerns, the question of whether Northern Ireland is Irish, or British.

And I have heard many people down the years mock the notion that the problem is community relations, or cultural traditions, or the failure of two peoples to assimilate.

But what constitutional change would appease the rednecks who could not even rouse a little humanity for one of their own when others put a bomb under his car seat?

And when will unionists recognise that, if the Irish language has been "weaponised", that is only because it annoys them already at a level they can't justify.

If they weren't so easily annoyed by it, it would be a useless weapon against them.

It's not just Stormont we have to fix; it is our native culture.

Belfast Telegraph


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