Catholics who have been born and raised up in the North of Ireland will have had some experience of being on the receiving end of comments like the following: Having a child with ADHD is “punishment for sleeping with a Catholic” or “no longer hangs out her washing at home, the smell of Catholics being atrocious." These comments were made in a workplace, not in a factory, not among blue collar workers - as polite society would have us all believe is the only place where sectarianism lurks - but in a social work setting.
A team of social workers dealing with Early Years was the setting for such hateful comments directed agains the only Catholic in the team. She was once the Social Worker of the Year for her work with child cancer patients. Yet she suffered terrible sectarian abuse from fellow professionals none of whom were formally disciplined and who continue to work for social services. Only after a four year legal struggle did the trust admitted responsibility. The victim was awarded exemplary damages. Middle class sectarianism is as prevalent as any other kind. What kind of society produces such hatred?
It has always been that way in Ireland. Ever since the days of the penal laws those who adhered to the Catholic Church have been the bottom of the pile in society. British propaganda pictured the Irish as almost inhuman,animalistic even. When religious disputes divided the Christian Churches the British played the “protestant card” and kept the Catholic irish at the bottom of the pile, scorned discriminated and banned.
One organisation that has played a role in this sectarianism has been the Orange Order a specifically anti-catholic organisation. Each year in July it parades to honor the victory of William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. They the loyal Orange men like to assert that it was from that victory they gained their freedom their religion and their laws. Yet William of Orange had the Pope’s support and allied himself to the Catholic King of Spain, among others to restrict France’s power.
After the Boyne he continued to fight on the Pope’s side until the war against France ended with the Treaty of Ryswick. Yet to this very day the Orange Order promotes the myth that their great Protestant hero, King Billy, fought to “overthrow the Pope and popery at the Boyne”.
The penal laws were not designed to simply penalise Catholics alone. Under William’s rule both Catholics and Presbyterians were banned from practising their religions.
“Anglican Church, to which Catholics and Presbyterians were forced to pay tithes, became the official and only Church permitted to worship legally in Ireland.
In 1704 the Test Act was introduced. Presbyterians were banned from holding office in Law, Army, Navy, Customs, Excise and Municipal Employment. This law was enforced all over Ireland. Presbyterian ministers were jailed for three months if caught preaching a sermon; they were not allowed to perform marriage sermons and were fined £100 (an enormous sum in those days) for celebrating the Lord’s Supper.”(ibid)
Presbyterian Schoolmasters could be imprisoned for teaching. No Presbyterian or Catholics could marry Anglicans or holding prayer meetings.
Of course these restrictions made rebels out of many Presbyterians. During the 18th century many emigrated to the colonies of North America where they became prominent in the struggle of the American colonists against British rule and went on to help found the USA. Back in Ireland northern Presbyterians welcomed the French revolution and became active members of the United Irish men. The defeat of the ’98 and the subsequent Act of Union combined with the mobilisation of Orange Terror drove a wedge between the differing religious traditions. Catholics came increasing under the control of a conservative and anti-revolutionary papacy, helped by British finances for seminaries in Ireland to stop the pollution of revolutionary ideas from Europe.
The British Government through out the 19th century continued to support the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland only reluctantly and under great pressure conceding Catholic Emancipation. (See here)
In the second part of the 19th century they fought a campaign against the Land League and later Home Rule. In all of these struggles the British freely unleashed the sectarianism that they nurtured and spawned in Ireland. They used the Orange Order a san anti catholic anti home rule anti land league battering ram to suppress discontent.Only when it got out of control for a time was it banned.
When the 1916 uprising smashed the Home Rule project the British divided the island into two separate states giving the Empire loving Unionists total control of the six counties, as a permanent base to defend British Imperial interests.
50 years of Unionist rule only cemented sectarianism. In small backstreet halls preachers ranted and raved against the Papacy and Rome rule and reinforced sectarian tensions between working class people especially when in moments of great economic crisis they appeared to be moving closer together.
One such preacher was Arthur Trew, a street demagogue, who founded the Belfast Protestant Association in 1894 and preached his hatred from the steps of the Custom House Steps . He also organised protests against Wolfe Tone Commemorations and disrupted Corpus Christi Processions for which he was jailed.
It was this same B.P.A. which on July 21st 1920 instigated workplace expulsions in the shipyards. To protect ‘protestant employment’ destroy left wing influences and get rid of the Trew over 7,400 people were driven from their jobs. Over a quarter were protestants, mainly trade union activists.
When the northern catholics began to assert their rights in the late 1960’s it was another demagogue, Ian Paisley who stirred up the protestant masses in sectarian hatred. At the same time in the drawing rooms and golf clubs of the protestant upper and middle classes there was general approval for the activities of the same Paisley, while distancing themselves from his crudity.
It is now clear that despite the gains made over the years and the introduction of equal rights legislation sectarian attitudes still seep through the pores of bigots. Sectarian attitudes are not confined to any one particular religious sect. But they are an instrument of state control. For example the PSNI will always be 100% unionist regardless of its religious composition.
There are issues such as marches etc which divide the working classes. But with sectarianism ingrained in the whole of northern society the way to deal with it is not by ignoring it or avoiding dealing with it altogether. Sectarian attitudes must be confronted on each and every occasion it arises. There can be no hiding place for bigots.