If you thought it had disappeared, think again.
Almost eight years up close and personal with political unionism in Belfast City council taught me an important lesson, Unionist sectarianism has not disappeared. It has merely adapted and refined its language.
Now let me say clearly, not every political unionist is a sectarian bigot. There are indeed many very decent councilors and MLAs, and perhaps one or two MPs, who are not sectarian but in my view they are in a minority and even they are all too willing to keep their heads down and their mouths shut when their party or a colleague adopts a position that is clearly sectarian, anti gay or anti Irish. Let me give you some concrete examples of this.
During the course of my time in city hall I attended thousands of council meetings, full council, ctte, working groups and party group leaders’meetings. During those 7 years unionist cllrs of every political unionist persuasion, consistently opposed additional funding for St Patrick’s Day activities, Gay Pride, the West Belfast Féile, GAA pitches, the Irish language, proportionate investment in deprived Nationalist wards, the installation of Irish or Republican symbols, (remember the recent case of Winifred Carney? ) planning permission for homes that may have led to a significant number of Catholic families moving into certain areas. There is a proposal coming before Belfast council to install a stained glass window to recognize our gay heroes of the city and the positive contribution of that community to the life of Belfast. Let’s see how Unionists respond to that one?
Unionists have done so consistently and regularly regardless of which party, DUP, UUP, TUV and PUP. To a man and to a woman! They did so conscious of their actions and in full cooperation with their party colleagues and their party leaders, time and time and time again.
I can still hear a well known unionist Cllr proclaim, “There’s not a sectarian bone in my body” on radio, only to oppose tooth and nail in Committee, Féile funding or funding for the GAA.
Let me state something very clearly about unionist attitudes to the Irish language and an Irish language Act. Opposition to an Irish language act is sectarian. It is motivated by a deeply held anti Irish sentiment.
Opposition to the legal recognition of same sex marriage is sectarian and is motivated by a deeply held anti-gay sentiment.
The DUP blocking of this basic human right, a right now recognized on both these Islands, is shameful and is actually helping sustain an environment which is destroying the lives of young gay people. Sectarianism, just like mindless Republican militarism, still has the power to kill!
As many cried crocodile tears for Lyra Mc Kee, ( and I must digress slightly and state clearly that I include the Catholic hierarchy in this and many Catholic priests ) they continue to deny her the respect in death she so deserved in life.
I can hear political unionists queuing up to cite examples of their impartiality, their commitment to fairness, the projects and the funding they supported, etc. In most of these cases political unionists were brought kicking and screaming to these positions by Sinn Fein – or they did so as part of a quid pro quo agreement with Sinn Fein or by section 75 obligations.
I cannot remember one single example of real voluntary generosity emanating from within political unionism. Well perhaps that is too unkind of me, there may have been a few but I cannot recall them.
We all have a good laugh about the ridiculous antics of Jolene, Ruth or Jamie. We kid ourselves however if we think these caricatures represent some sort of extreme form of unionism. They continue to represent the views of mainstream political unionists. The only difference is that most seasoned unionist politicians have learned not to use the old language of extremism and sectarianism.
So proportionate investment in the most deprived working class areas, largely though not exclusively nationalist, was consistently opposed on the basis of ‘fairness.’ Opposition to marriage equality is couched in sympathetic language, conscience, etc. Orwell would have recognized the clever double speak. The use of respectable words to hide the unspeakable.
Poverty could only be tackled if the remedy was split 50/50. When that tactic failed, they simply moved to other excuses, “it’s not our job to tackle poverty”, “we are letting government off the hook”, “we cannot spend rate payers money in this way”.
One unionist Cllr who represented the Shankill ward, one of the most deprived wards in the city, opposed the council adopting an anti poverty strategy and commented “poverty has always been with us!”. Yes, actively tried to prevent an anti-poverty strategy. Simply because ‘the other side’ would receive too much funding. I kid you not!
Dickens and Humbug came to mind or cutting one’s nose off to spite the face. Tragically it was and is the Protestant working class who continue to be the unwitting victims in this sectarian game.
Funding for GAA pitches and facilities, an attempt to begin to redress decades of discrimination and chronic under provision of pitch facilities, was implacably opposed by every unionist and every unionist party.
Occasionally the mask still slips, even for the most intelligent among them, an unguarded word, a clumsy phrase, is spoken in a moment of tension or crisis, or media interrogation, “crocodiles” “house trained” “quarantined” “unfit”…..
Only recently we had the example of ‘Local houses for local people’, from an ex-unionist Cllr, a person who had previously acted as a senior policy advisor to a DUP minister –
mps justifying the marking out of territory with flags by loyalists paramilitaries, on the spurious grounds of historical commemoration.
Most times political unionists simply ignore certain issues or projects, bury them in procedure and process. Projects and proposals are opposed on the basis of probity and affordability. Blatant acts of sectarianism or racism are explained or “contextualized.”
I use the phrase political unionism very deliberately because I am very much aware that there are very many Protestants and unionists, particularly within civic society, the community and voluntary sector, the educational sector, the faith community, the business sector, who are not in the least bit sectarian. They too have been let down and misrepresented by political unionism, by a unionist elite only too eager to exploit division and suspicion to maintain their political hegemony within the PUL community.
There is a cancer at the heart and at the top of mainstream political unionism and it is called sectarianism. We must recognize it, call it out and confront it once and for all. Until we do so, there is little prospect of a return to any sort of meaningful and genuine power sharing.