Row over religion sours Ballymena's award to actor

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The Independent Online

The actor Liam Neeson has turned down an offer of the "Freedom of the Borough" from Ballymena, his birthplace, because of objections by members of the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

They claimed the actor, who is Catholic, had made derogatory remarks about growing up in the predominantly Protestant Northern Ireland town - an accusation he denies.

In a fax to the town council, Neeson, famous for his roles in the films Schindler's List and Star Wars, said he appreciated the offer, but could not accept the award. "I believe it would be inappropriate for me to accept in view of the stated opposition of some members and the resultant controversy which has been extensively canvassed in the media," he said. "I will always remain very proud of my upbringing in and association with the town and my country of birth, which I will continue to promote at every opportunity."

James Currie, the mayor of the borough of Co Antrim, said yesterday: "It's desperately sad. Ballymena and Northern Ireland have lost out. It would have been a gold opportunity and a terrific boost for tourism. I hope the people who voted against him realise that."

But Morris Mills, a DUP councillor, said the actor had made the right decision. "The position is that Mr Neeson has made certain derogatory remarks about our town. The question we must ask is have we to buy the goodwill and honour those who have allegedly made derogatory remarks about this town and the majority of its Protestant and unionist citizens? I don't think we have."

The DUP has also complained that Co Antrim failed to bestow the same honour on its leader and founder, Mr Paisley, who, although born in Armagh, has been MP for North Antrim, which includes Ballymena, since 1970.

Neeson, 48, made his comments in an interview with George, an American magazine, last year. The Hollywood star, who had already angered Unionists by his sympathetic portrayal of the republican leader in the film Michael Collins, was quoted as saying: "I had a feeling growing up that we [Catholics] were second-class citizens - intuitively. I only intellectualised it when I got to about the age of 19 or 20, and started to analyse it by reading about the history of our country."

Then, in a passage that infuriated hardliners, he added that the annual festival of the Battle of the Boyne commemorated "some bloody obscure war, where some bloody Catholic king was defeated by some bloody Dutch king, who was Protestant".

Mr Currie, who said Protestant members of the community had approached him about honouring Neeson, has said "If you leave the word 'bloody' out of it, it is quite a factual report of history."

But Mr Mills, who circulated the George article among councillors, said: "Mr Neeson has vilified the people of this town and in particular the Protestant people. He has questioned the celebration of 12 July. That to us is a very important event as far as Protestantism is concerned."