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Reid's sectarian slur

(Eamonn McCann, Sunday Journal)

It's been widely conceded that Fr. Alec Reid's remarks at a meeting in south Belfast on Wednesday evening were offensive to Unionists. This seems to me wrongly put. The remarks were offensive, full stop.

The reason they were offensive was not that he referred to the fact of Catholic oppression but because he defined this oppression as akin to Nazism and then laid the blame for it, not on sectarian institutions or political bosses, much less on British overlords, but on the mass of the Protestant people. He indicted the Protestant people of the North as Nazis.

No reference to the intensity of the debate or to insults apparently hurled at the Catholic Church by members of the audience can justify this. It was an ignorant, sectarian slur. People who defend Alec Reid on a "Yes, but" basis speak volumes about their own attitudes

Orange rule from Stormont was characterised by systematic discrimination against Catholics and contemptuous disregard for human rights. The civil rights movement was both inevitable and entirely justified. But Orangeism wasn't Nazism and it is an insult to the victims of Nazism to imply that their suffering was on a par with the pain of any section of the North's people under Stormont.

The plain Protestants never denied a Catholic a job or a house or anything else. They didn't have the distribution of these commodities in their gift.

Did the Protestants of the Fountain, Rosemount, Bishop Street etc. run Derry Corporation as a bastion of bigotry from the inception of the State to the onset of the civil rights movement? Hardly.

In all of that time, there was scarcely a woman and fewer than a dozen men of the working class on the Unionist benches in the Guildhall.

It's sometimes said that the clique in control in Derry was drawn from only a third of the citizens. In fact, about a fifteenth would be more like it. In suggesting that the majority community had control of the levers of power, Alec Reid vastly exaggerated the degree of democracy in the North.

He was singing counterpoint to the old Unionist tune. The sleek professionals, larded businessmen and landed elite who ran the North depended for the survival of their rotten system on persuading the mass of the Protestant people that their interests were served as long as the Catholics were kept down.

In every generation, thousands of Protestants broke from this decrepit alliance to make common cause with Catholics seeking a progressive way forward. This happened mainly, although not exclusively, in the context of the labour movement. Invariably, Protestants who took this path were denounced by the Unionist bosses as deserters. Not infrequently, too, they encountered hostility from Catholic conservatives urging their own community to stick together and not allow any split along class or other lines to develop. It is not possible to understand the sectarian history of the North, and particularly of Belfast, without taking these factors into account.

The smirk of bigotry on the face of the junior Paisley on Hearts and Minds on Thursday night suggested that he well understood how neatly Reid's remarks and reaction to them had fitted into the twisted, sectarian perspective of the DUP.

October 18, 2005

This article appeared in the October 16, 2005 edition of the Sunday Journal.