Sectarianism: Still the Defining Characteristic of Northern Ireland

I’ve just put the following post up over at Cedar Lounge, and am putting it up here too. I should be back to blogging more regularly next week.

Yesterday nine men were charged in connection with the brutal gang attack that resulted in the murder of local community worker Kevin McDaid and the attempted murder of another man. In the aftermath of the conclusion of the Scottish Premier League season that saw Rangers take the title from Celtic on the last day, a loyalist gang mounted an attack on a predominantly Catholic area of Coleraine, and Mr. McDaid, his wife and at least one other man were brutally beaten. It seems that tensions in the area had already been raised by a planned loyalist band parade and the flying of tricolours in the area. There are a number of important strands to this story that go beyond the immediate tragedy of the death and injuries. The first is that this is a brutal reminder that despite the Good Friday Agreement and power-sharing, sectarianism remains the defining reality of life in Northern Ireland. It is especially virulent in many small towns where violent clashes and intimidation remain rife.

Beyond these obvious signs, we should not forget that the overwhelming majority continue to live lives completely separated from one another, and of course we now will have a private Catholic and a private Protestant transfer test for those wishing to go to grammar schools, which add class to religious segregation.

The murder of Mr. McDaid raises other issues. The first is that of paramilitary involvement. The police have specifically said that the attack was not an organised action carried out by the UDA. However, of the nine people charged, several are members of the local loyalist band whose parade has been a source of contention, and one is an ex-member of the UDP. This suggests very strongly that the people involved in the attack were linked to the UDA. This does not necessarily mean that the attack was a sanctioned UDA operation. There are parallels with other murders over the last number of years believed to have been carried out by members of paramilitary groups but where the organisation itself has been absolved of responsibility. This is probably the case, but the unpleasant reality is that the overall interests of the political process mean that the boat would probably not be rocked by membership charges in such cases even if it weren’t. It is a reminder as to why the structures of paramilitary organisations must be dismantled, something which has largely happened with the Provisionals but hardly at all with loyalist paramilitaries.

The response of unionist politicians has once again come under justified scrutiny. Newton Emerson in the Irish News hits the nail on the head

Responding to the murder of Kevin McDaid in Coleraine, DUP councillor Adrian McQuillan said: “What reason can you see for there being tricolours up yesterday afternoon, a Sunday afternoon? None other than for to get a reaction from the loyalist community and they certainly got a reaction this time, which is very sad.”
This statement stinks of equivocation. To equate flying a line of scruffy bunting with taking a man’s life is absolutely jaw-dropping. The eventual absent-minded description of the murder as “very sad” only adds to the insult.
Depersonalising acts of visceral violence is a standard evasive manoeuvre in Northern Ireland. First the act is characterised as “a reaction”, transforming the perpetrators into mere parts of a mechanism.
Then the consequences are imbued with some abstract property, like sadness, as if concrete human decisions played no part.

He also quotes Ulster Unionist MLA David McClarty on the allegation of UDA involvement in the murder. “We have to moderate our language and not go throwing blame where no proof has been given as to who was responsible for this incident.” This type of equivocal language is familiar across the decades of the Troubles, where unionist politicians have often been ambiguous in their attitudes to loyalist paramilitaries to say the least. The inherently sectarian nature of NI politics is evident here – we must extend understanding to “our side” who ultimately have their hearts in the right place unlike the other side. While such attitudes persist, there will always be a climate that enables day-to-day sectarianism and confrontation to flourish.

The McDaids have raised a number of concerns about police actions on the day in question. Firstly it was claimed that the police had stood by during the attack, something denied by the police themselves, who claimed that the initial officers on the scene had to withdraw due to weight of hostile numbers. Then today the family have released a statement questioning the police’s involvement in negotiations with loyalists over tensions in the area in the period before the attack. This from the family’s statement

The family wish to make it clear that they are concerned that the PSNI were involved in negotiations with a number of persons perceived to be from the Loyalist community on Sunday the 24th of May 2009.
“The family are concerned regarding the nature of these negotiations and the attendant claim that threats were made by individuals from this background to police that violence would ensue unless certain demands made by them were met.
“It is a fundamental tenet of a civilised society that individuals such as these should not dictate the terms of law and order.
“We are further concerned that given the prior knowledge of the threat, neither we and nor our neighbours were not properly protected by police.
“We want the community to support the police, but equally police must also support the community.

Hugh Orde has responded to the family by stating that there had been negotiations in the area between loyalists and the residents of the area attacked, in which Mr. McDaid had been involved, to try and reduce tensions. He also said that the police dictated their activities and no-one else. Except that’s not really true, is it? On first glance, the idea of the police negotiating with loyalists seems very problematic, especially in light of what followed. However, the reality is that in interface areas the police negotiate with all sides on a regular basis. And the reality also is that these negotiations can be and have been extremely useful in preventing and containing violence in many areas, including during controversial marches. Politicians and people from all sides praise the police when such tactics work. I doubt that this was the first time that the police in this area had been involved in discussions with the local residents, and I also suspect that such negotiations have had positive effects. The tragic death of Mr. McDaid should not blind us to this fact, nor should there be a knee-jerk response that assumes the police were automatically in the wrong to have become involved in negotiations. Clearly the police response to the mounting tensions and the violence must be examined for mistakes or negligence, but we need to keep things in perspective.

Overall then this murder should not be viewed as an isolated incident. It is the direct result of the type of society and politics we have Northern Ireland. Sectarian attitudes, and ambiguous attitudes to incidents of sectarian violence, permeate our society. They are a cancer, as is the presence of paramilitary groups. Until we root out these diseases, the symptoms will continue to break out. In the current circumstances, with peace and power-sharing, added to the economic crisis, we – north and south, as well as Westminster – have taken our eye off this vital issue. The binning of the Shared Future strategy almost as soon as the DUP and PSF assumed power was one such sign. There are many others. Sectarianism still has the capacity to kill workers. It still poisons and destroys their lives. Progressives must step up their campaign against it.


6 Responses to “Sectarianism: Still the Defining Characteristic of Northern Ireland”

  1. Frank the Canary goes down « Splintered Sunrise Says:

    […] eile: Garibaldy is very good on the sectarian murder of Kevin McDaid, beaten to death by a mob of drunken loyalists […]

  2. WorldbyStorm Says:

    That’s a pretty excellent post G and my apologies for not reading it earlier…

  3. Garibaldy Says:

    Thanks. And no bother.

  4. ancient monuments » Strathclyde Police Says:

    […] Sectarianism: Still the Defining Characteristic of Northern … […]

  5. Mick Collins Says:

    The election yesterday was nothing more than a mere sectarian head count!!

  6. Garibaldy Says:

    This is entirely true Mick. Just like all the others alas.

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