To Share or not to Share – is in Question

Just a week after Ian Paisley was interviewed on RTÉ Radio One on September 4th Belfast, North, West and even South, as well as counties Antrim and Down, erupted into violence. This was precipitated by the refusal of the Orange Order to accept the rerouting of a march by the Parades Commission to prevent it intruding into a Nationalist / Catholic area of the city.

The rioting was quite serious, involved petrol and paint bombs as well as the discharging of firearms at the police and has continued this week, albeit with a reduced level of intensity.

Chief Constable Orde has laid the blame with Orange leaders who failed to maintain control over the marchers for there was closed circuit TV recorded evidence showing the Orangemen taking off their sashes, throwing missiles and clashing with police officers who were trying to contain the rioters.

The Orange Grand Master, despite this evidence, insists that the police were responsible for the trouble due to the heavy-handed way they had handled the parade. This ignored the fact that the petrol and paint bombs had obviously been prepared in advance of the confrontation. It also ignored the presence of armed Loyalist groups who were engaged in shooting at the police. There will, no doubt, be an investigation to identify the instigators.

Coming to the substance of that Paisley interview in which he was closely questioned about whether he and his party would share power with Sinn Féin if the Northern Ireland Assembly were reactivated.

During the ensuing discussion he condemned the attacks on Catholic churches in Ballymena and claimed that he had good relationships with Catholics in his own constituency.

Strangely, in evidence of this he said that he had taken signed photographs of the Prime Minister to the pupils of a Catholic school in his constituency which had been one of those attacked.

He also claimed that although he condemned such attacks across the piece, those on the Nationalist side who criticized him had themselves failed to condemn similar vandalizing of his Free Presbyterian Church property.

To the question about Catholic archbishop Brady’s offer to meet him he said that he was willing to do so, but it had not been followed up by specific arrangements. He would only meet Dr. Brady on issues concerning his constituents and not on any ecumenical matters. Such a meeting would be of a public nature, open and above board, in no way in secret.

On decommissioning he insisted that he wanted the conditions laid down by the Prime minister enforced. He had told and would tell Tony Blair again that in this respect he, Ian Paisley, was the best Blairite in Westminster. And indeed he had said to him that he hoped that he would not go back on his promise that decommissioning had to be complete and transparent before there could be joint power sharing with Sinn Féin.

Although he didn’t say it specifically, the impression I got was that he would still be sticking to his demand that there should be photographic evidence of weapon destruction. He said that they (meaning his party) would appoint witnesses to such action but left unsaid whether he was prepared to accept other nominations.

Words were not enough, the two governments had laid down the conditions – decommissioning had to be done in such a way that everybody could believe it had actually taken place.

However, he did not trust Republicans and all the while he parried questions about when he might accept them as partners in government. It was my impression that he was keeping his option open to continually raise hurdles so that power sharing would be indefinitely postponed.

He proclaimed that a miracle had been wrought - his party now held nine of the ten possible Unionist seats at Westminster, well beyond expectations. The Protestant people knew that he would not swell them down the river.

He had been pushed further than he had intended to go in the peace process and as a sinner himself he had been saved from hellfire by belief in the Lord Jesus Christ. Republicans, who had done evil things, needed to confess their sins – sackcloth and ashes were mentioned.

When pressed as to whether there would ever be peace in the country he said that spiritual revivals had occurred before in Ireland and there could be another one which would, with a return to true religion, make it possible.

This view, when one considers his own fundamentalist religious stance, hardly suggests that he could ever come to terms with power sharing with Sinn Féin. Indeed, it could be that the only ‘True Religion” he would be happy to accept is the one he himself proclaims. So, until everyone in Northern Ireland or all of Ireland accepts his interpretation no progress is likely.

In contrast to Paisley’s self satisfied super ego attitude as he expounded and presented himself as the way, the truth and the right light on the path to peace, the political spokesperson for the Progressive Unionist Party, David Ervine, had a shorter but more thoughtful view of the situation.

In his interview he quite clearly accepted that the IRA statement was serious and their intentions to decommission weapons should be accepted. His ability to do so seemed to have arisen from analyzing the situation and the outlook of the IRA that conditions were now in place to put ‘politics’ first and that they had now left the violent phase behind.

From what he said it appeared to me that if he had his way and the Loyalist internecine fight was to end on the streets meetings between Loyalist activists and their opposites could, without the political leaders being involved, help to end the present tensions.

Perhaps this is a sort of wishful thinking on my part but I think I did detect a little thread of an idea in his interview which I certainly thought much more practical and reasonable than that of what I believe to be a hypocritical Democratic Unionist Part leader.

I have seen a report today that Paisley and the new leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, Sir Reg Empey, have condemned the recent street violence. This has been done in such a way, according to Mark Durkan the SDLP leader, that it is not sufficient in that they have not condemned the refusal to accept that the Orange March should not be allowed to intrude into Catholic residential areas.

Much is now being said of alleged alienation of the Protestant population amid complaints that they are being treated with less consideration than Catholics, employment and job opportunities and community developments being more favourably directed towards the latter.

Historically, that was never the case in the ‘old Stormont’ days and even if the allegations were true it would be more of a catching up – a redressing of past inequalities.

The truth is more likely to be that the alienation being felt is rather withdrawal symptoms arising from their no longer being in sole control of events as in the former regime with the changes inherent in the Good Friday Accord of 1998.

They should not be led or accept the duplicitous mentoring by intransigent Unionist leaders who while on the one hand “tut tut” about the violence yet use its appearance to bolster their own blocking of political progress which would encapsulate the best interests of both communities.

The way is still open as David Ervine appears to understand. If the two sets of ‘activists’ can see the situation and come to terms the intransigent obdurate Unionist ‘front men’ will be forced to follow suit if they really are sincere. That is in question!

©: Samuel H. Boyd, Cwmbran, 18 September 2005..

Samuel H. Boyd