Belfast Telegraph

Robert McCartney: Unionists unequivocally support civil rights for all... but that doesn't extend to a minority using threats or violence to determine who governs them

It is to the Protestant community's credit that only the tiniest percentage has ever supported political parties linked to violence, writes Robert McCartney QC

Loyalists have never garnered much support politically
Loyalists have never garnered much support politically

Oh wad some power the giftie gie us to see oursels as others see us (Robert Burns, 1759-1796)

Professor Marianne Elliott, in enjoining the readers to start dealing with sectarianism, admits that, for most people, it is quite unconscious and therefore they can sustain sectarian systems without ever recognising it in themselves.

Recognition of that of which we are unconscious will present a difficulty for almost everyone. It begs the question of what each individual understands sectarianism to be.

For many it may amount subconsciously to nothing more than a preference for a form of activity in their life, whether it be religion, politics or an ideology.

Perhaps it can only be defined more specifically in terms of the related issues of religion and politics and only identified objectively, not in the thought, but in the action.

Namely, behaviour which patently denigrates or degrades the views and beliefs of those who do not share one's own opinion.

To venture into the area of the thought police to determine sectarianism when there is no actual expression of it in word or deed seems a very questionable exercise, as Robbie Burns puts it above.

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Perhaps Professor Elliott, in the presentation of her case, is guilty of some subconscious bias? If she is, is it anything more than a human frailty in exercising a judgment to which none of us, including academics and lawyers, are immune?

Nevertheless, this frailty is evident in the language used by her concerning education.

Referring to the alleged ethnic snobbery and sense of superiority of Protestants towards Catholics, she writes: "It infected every denomination and every class of Protestant", as if it was a malign disease infecting the entire Protestant community. As a result of this contagion, she wrote that when Protestants found the number of Catholic university students in the civil rights marches this was unsettling for them, as they had no tradition of their working-class progressing to third-level education.

As a working-class Protestant among thousands of others who progressed to university, I found this statement not only inaccurate, but a subconscious expression of sectarianism.

If those Catholic students were working-class, then ironically their tertiary education was funded by a unionist government - and rightly so.

For the first time in 1948 working-class children of all denominations were entitled on merit to free grammar school education, an education which many could not previously afford. The result in Protestant working-class areas was an avalanche of children entering the grammar schools.

Existing grammar schools could not cope with the numbers and new local authority state grammars, such as Grosvenor and Annadale in Belfast, had to be opened and expanded, all this more than 20 years before the civil rights marches.

In 1948 there was not, to my knowledge, any pupils other than from the working-class attending Grosvenor Grammar.

My contemporaries included the late Professor Norman Nevin, a world authority on genetics, and Sam McCready, a cultural icon in the arts world, together with a host of other professionals - doctors, engineers, teachers and senior civil servants.

Children from almost every road in working-class areas and from all compass points were represented. Within 250 yards from my home on the lower Shankill I can identify by name a dozen or more grammar school pupils. The Protestant commitment to higher education is still manifest in the number of children from state primary schools sitting qualifying tests for grammar school entrance.

Professor John Whyte, a distinguished Catholic academic at both Queen's University Belfast and later University College Dublin quoted by Professor Elliott, said that the most divisive aspect of segregated education was the hidden political and cultural agendas that were informally transmitted. He was equally adamant that the most guilty party in this respect was the Catholic Church.

In his major work Church And State In Modern Ireland, he wrote: "The remarkable feature of educational policy in Ireland has been the reluctance of the state to touch the entrenched position of the Church, not because its claims have been moderate, on the contrary it has carved out for itself a more extensive control over education in Ireland than in any other country in the world."

This policy in the Free State was mirrored in Northern Ireland after partition. The Church refused to participate in a single state system in order to maintain a political and cultural agenda.

Even in the 1970s equal employment legislation, the Church secured an exemption, permitting it to discriminate in the appointment of teaching staff.

Professor Elliott infers that Catholic education was discriminated against in terms of capital funding, but fails to point out that in refusing to transfer ownership of their school buildings (as did the Protestant Churches) the Catholic Church could not reasonably expect the state to fully fund the upkeep and maintenance of buildings over which it had no control.

In the USA, if you wished to operate a school system outside that of the state, you received no funding of any kind.

While describing the historical stereotypes formed by political Protestantism and Catholicism in the past, with the appearance of conscious balance, Professor Elliott then opines that there is a qualitative difference in their respective sectarianism. The Catholics, she infers, had it much worse and as such were perhaps more justified in their attitudes.

She asserts that the Protestant states, pre and post-partition, were unwelcoming to moderate Catholics willing to join the system. This is to ignore that, pre-1921 such Catholics were despised by their fellows as "soupers" if they accepted charity and "Castle Catholics" if they accepted preferment.

After partition their leaders refused to accept or participate in Northern Ireland's political or administrative affairs, while adopting a sterile policy of absenteeism, a political attitude mirrored by the Catholic hierarchy.

It is easy to confuse sectarianism with the politics of identity, because the former is simply an offspring of the latter and only one of a number, such as culture and history. The essential division in Northern Ireland is one of political identity. Unionists and Protestants, for such terms are largely exchangeable, see their identity as British, while nationalists and Catholics, in general, see their identity as Irish. The reasons for this difference are almost as complex as human DNA. They include, but not exclusively, ancient enmities, mutual massacres, cultural and religious differences and received concepts relating to the authority of Church and state.

Each harbour resentments and fears of political domination. Their politicians seeking election exploit all of these. The present constitutional arrangements institutionalise division and, as Professor Elliott points out, heighten sectarianism, but this is only a symptom of the malady and not the cause.

It is perhaps overly optimistic that there is any quick or effective remedy for such a complex and historically engrained condition. The approach from a unionist point of view is this: they should fully endorse and give unequivocal support for the fullest implementation of equal rights for everyone, but stand firm on a majority's democratic right to choose who will govern them. Such a right is not an absolute one, but is subject to the guarantee of certain fundamental rights, such as are set out in the United States Bill of Rights.

What is positively not a human or civil right is a demand of a minority, by threat or violence, to choose who will govern them, as opposed to how that minority will be governed.

In terms of sectarianism, it is to the credit of the Protestant community that it has never in any election offered anything but the most minimal support to any party fronting a group committed to terrorist violence.

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