De je vu All Over Again?

Posted By: September 10, 2013

Note : Loyalists are again threatening Catholic school children : to take ” military action against them.”

The writer reflects on this “Unionist cynicism.”



Fionnuala O’Conor. Irish News(Belfast). Tuesday, September 10, 2013

AFTER the distress and ugliness of Holy Cross 12 years ago, this was surely a sight few could imagine anyone wanted to recreate. North Belfast had enough woe this summer, before police arrived on Monday morning to guard children on their way into school. Better not build tension, though, by lending credence to a mangy old fiction. Whoever made those phoned threats – let’s remember that the ‘Red Hand Defenders’ emerged in the first place as the flimsiest of fake titles – few if any credited this as a new grouping, separate from the UDA. The flag of see-through convenience brandished cynically over Rosemary Nelson’s blown-up car gave the big-name paramilitaries cover, if only for the benefit of northern Ireland office record-keepers and in their own minds, when they issued limp denials while talking up their commitment to peace. Today’s unionists and loyalists have worked up cynicism into a strategy of sorts, limited but stubborn.


Some came out and disowned the school threats. But why would anyone take them seriously after the summer’s tap-dancing around and away from responsibility? From leadership level down to party activist, unionist politicians who used to routinely and reflexively object, furiously, to being accused of sectarianism, now use the word as a weapon. They throw in ‘intolerance’ and the comparatively recent discovery of a ‘culture war’ to attempt to dismiss and belittle republican and nationalist objections to marches, to swat away criticism of bands blattering their way past St Patrick’s. What is truly sectarian, unionists insist, is the criticism, not orange or Black or Apprentice Boy or band behaviour. The bigots – unionist politicians and loyal order spokesmen say – are the critics, not the bandsmen and never the marchers. It wouldn’t convince a child, particularly not a child whose earliest days at school have to be guarded by police. It cannot possibly convince many unionists at a grateful distance from north Belfast, and by all accounts it doesn’t even fly with orangemen elsewhere.


But too few have come right out this summer and said this is shocking stuff. Nice new NI21 and senior clergy got round to it eventually but there was no immediate chorus of disgust.


It is just too hard for Protestants to criticise elements in their own community – hard in terms of threats and ostracism, harder on their families. Watch what happens to the Alliance vote next time out, particularly in East Belfast. Note the swithering of unionist commentators, trying to disown the entire marching season, unable to follow through.


Stand the words sectarianism and bigotry on their heads, turn the evidence of eyes and ears inside-out, and if you are a unionist leader in want of ideas there’s a serviceable plan heading into a run of elections. Accuse nationalists of dancing to republican tunes, blame republicans for fomenting trouble where bandsmen and marchers are merely celebrating their ‘culture’, and you have the makings of platforms and statements to ward off cracks from Jim Allister about sharing power with the IRA’s descendants. Not that they can silence Allister, nor set their own people up with any reason to be positive about the future.


Billy Hutchinson, once a heartening voice for the most disheartened loyalist districts, thinks to claim the threats against north Belfast Catholic schools in reality came from republicans. If he believes it himself that’s bad enough. If he simply says it, without the least evidence or care for the implications, there is small chance of decent politics emerging from the shell of Progressive Unionism. What’s left is the UVF or groupings round local hardmen, various UDAs likewise, plus a range of individuals at various stages of ‘transition’ to peaceable politics.


It is a grim, unpleasant and dishonest approach from people who think no further than their own next vote and voice nothing counter to the instincts of their own least privileged potential voters.


The flags protest morphed swiftly into a disorderly mess that many wanted nothing to do with but it didn’t pay to say so. The DUP sniffed the soot on the air and trooped into court to support Ruth Patterson. Peter Robinson tinkered with his text, reversed its message, and presumably decided to hide out in the Everglades for as long as possible – eat burgers, ride his bike, maybe play a little guitar of an evening.


It will be harder than ever to take him seriously when he re-enters our sphere. not a good note to quit on, but surely time to consider those offers from the business world.