Sectarian 'plague' revisits community

Gloom over peace talks: Today's negotiations must quell the hatred unleashed after Drumcree. Michael Streeter reports
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The Independent Online
Like the return of a cyclical plague, the language and pursuit of sectarianism once again haunts Northern Ireland.

After 18 months of relative moderation, the bloody fiasco of Drumcree - when an Orange parade past a Catholic area provoked Nationalist fury and days of violence - have re-ignited hatreds which optimists hoped had gone for ever. Its re-emergence will be one of the main problems the all-party peace talks, due to start in Stormont today, must tackle.

This resurgent sectarianism has revealed itself in many forms: nationalist campaigns to boycott Protestant businesses; desecration of churches; the hounding of families, many of them Catholic, from their homes; daubing of sectarian slogans, and attacks on schools.

Phrases such "Fenian bastard" and "Fascist Orangemen" are back in currency. In a strange transference of language, a nationalist cry after the Drumcree seige was "let's burn the black bastards out" - a sentiment both sectarian and racist in tone.

The RUC were decribed as "Fenians" by Orangemen during the Drumcree blockade, but after the parade the same officers were attacked as "Orange scum" by nationalists.

The outbreak of verbal hostilities may even have taken its cue from the highest level after Irish and British premiers John Bruton and John Major traded insults over the decision to let the parade go ahead.

Some people cannot remember such hostility in the air; but did this naked sectarianism ever really go away duirng the months of the ceasefire?

Dr Richard English, lecturer in politics at Queen's University, Belfast, thinks not: "The rising tension of the last few weeks has brought to the surface what has been latent throughout the ceasefire.

"What seemed to have gone - for example, the language of sectarianism - has boiled up again. People feel they can say what, privately, they were thinking all along.

"There has just been a masking of sectarianism in the last couple of years," he said. Those who thought it had disappeared had been naive, he added.

Church leaders are caught in the crossfire. In a recent statement, the Presbytarian church called for compromise on all sides but added that those who started actions which then led to violence could not shirk responsibility - a reference to the inflexible unionist stance at Drumcree. DUP MP Peter Robinson immediately attacked these words as "pathetic ... an outrage and a disgrace."

Perhaps Mr Robinson should have read another part of the churchmen's statement. "The apostle James warned us that even a spark of an inappropriate word can set the whole place on fire, with fire from hell," it read.

The church's Moderator, Dr. Harry Allen conceals his dismay at Mr Robinson's remarks and told the Independent that he wants politicians on all sides to use the language of love.

"Even if people disagree, they have be careful and temperate. The old saying 'careless words cost lives' still applies."

Bill Tosh, chairman of the CBI in Northern Ireland, admits he was "shocked" by the return of the violence and language which he thought a relic of the past. Such mindless sectarianism, he feels, which includes attacks on businesses, will cost the economy more than pounds 20m. "People still seem not to realise that they are shooting themselves in the foot."

One useful barometer of public mood can be found in the letters' pages of local newspapers. Billy Kennedy of the unionist Newsletter says the paper has extended its columns from three days a week to daily,and says correspondence is more strident than before. Tom Collins, editor of the nationalist Irish News says he cannot recall as strong a public reaction as he has seen over Drumcree.

SDLP vice-chairman, Joe Byrne, points a finger firmly at the events of Drumcree as the cause of unease and alienation now felt by nationalists."This is almost a throwback to feelings they had 20 years ago."

Equally, he condemns boycotts of Protestant businesses. "That is a road back to the Dark Ages," he says, urging political leaders to send a positive message to all communities by making the Stormont talks work.

It is not all is gloom, however. Father Brian Lennon ,a respected commentator, wrote recently that it was "nonsense" to suggest the Province is slipping back to 1969. "It is time now for us to get things into perspective," he wrote in the Irish News. 'In part, this means facing our own sectarianism."

One can only hope this positive mood is more telling than the fears of Ulster Unionist councillor Derek Hussey, whose constitutents face an economic boycott in County Tyrone.

"Perhaps," he says of the violence at and after Drumcree, "these events reached deep into people's true feelings."