Belfast Telegraph

Unionists and republicans have little understanding of each side's cultural touchstones... the reflex action can be antipathy

By Laurence White

Joseph Heller's famous phrase from his novel Catch-22 - "just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you" - came to mind when reading the Orange Order's report on the treatment of Protestants in the Northern Ireland Civil Service.

It is easy to deride some of the findings of the report, which says Protestants feel threatened by Mass cards being displayed on desks, colleagues talking about GAA matches or their children's confirmation, or coming into work with ash on foreheads on Ash Wednesday.

Many of us would find nothing offensive, threatening, or unwelcoming about any of those things. However, the fact that some people do feel such displays, or chats, make their workplace a cold house for them does need to be noted.

For it is not so long ago that Catholics felt the Civil Service - and many other workplaces - were cold houses for them.

Blatantly sectarian displays of flags and Orange arches in some major places of employment, as well as discrimination in employment, eventually led to fair employment legislation that outlawed such practices with the aim of making workplaces neutral environments.

The problem with Northern Ireland is that it consists, in large part, of two monocultures. There is little understanding of the cultural touchstones of each community. Indeed, the reflex action on each side of the divide is antipathy towards the other.

What is clearly implied by the report is that discussion of GAA matches, talk of Catholic Church rites, or display of Mass cards are sometimes used to assert Catholic identity in the workplace, a sort of soft sectarianism.

That may be more in the mind of the beholder than in the intent of those deemed guilty of causing offence, but it demonstrates a kind of paranoia, a sense of victimhood.

That, if viewed in the wider context of the changing demography and legislative framework in the province, can be understood, even if it is not accepted.

A community brought up with the notion, carefully instilled by their politicians, that they were the dominant people in this society have seen that position of dominance eroded over the years.

As the Orange Order admits, the Civil Service was once the overwhelming preserve of Protestants. Now both communities are almost equally represented.

Orange parades can no longer pass where they want without official approval, and even the Government is based on power-sharing.

Inevitably, the once-dominant section of the community feels it is the one which is constantly losing out in the battle for equality.

At the same time, the Catholic population at large, as well as those in the workforce, have a new confidence.

They no longer have their own once deeply-held sense of victimhood.

So, can their confidence be misinterpreted by Protestants as displaying sectarian intent? It certainly seems so, according to this report, which, it must be stressed, is based on a very small sample of views - 25 out of a workforce of 25,000.

What it does highlight is the need to constantly monitor attitudes in the workplace. What one person may shrug off as of no consequence can cause offence to another.

But the great irony of all this is that the more Catholics feel at home in Northern Ireland - and, thus, as repeated polls have shown, making the Union more secure - the more uneasy Protestants, or at least some of them, feel.

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph