April was quite a month in Northern Ireland. Despite the best efforts of Irish President Michael D. Higgins and Queen Elizabeth II to increase understanding between Ireland and the UK, serious problems occurred in the North, including rioting, racist attacks, and petty sectarian speeches.
It is hard to be sympathetic toward some of the political/terrorist groups and individuals that still break the law and make inflammatory remarks. It is not that Unionism is dying; it is more that their leaders are being marginalized. Like the more moderate Republicans here in the United States who have to beware of Tea Party extremists, the Unionist leaders have to curry favor with the extremists in their party.
Meanwhile on the Nationalist side, Martin McGuinness and other Sinn Fein politicians, including Sinn Fein Lord Mayor of Belfast Mairtin O Muilleoir, are basking in praiseful daily headlines for their generous participation in the queen’s dinner for the Irish President at Windsor Castle in London. It was a thinking reaction to an opportunity to further the cause of peace.
In a reaction to Sinn Fein attendance, an English Conservative radical, Lord Norman Tebbit, former member of the British Parliament, called for Minister McGuiness to be “shot in the back by the IRA” for attending the dinner. It was a comment typical of the intensity that still exists. After some pointed media reaction, Tebbit apologized.
It is a fact that extremist views amongst the Unionist groups are still held firmly in Northern Ireland. Those who see things that way seem possessed by animosity towards anything Catholic or anything other than themselves. Jim Allister, a Unionist member of the of the Northern Ireland Assembly known for his extremism, has called for a ban on GAA shirts on University campuses. He claimed the shirt was “creating a substantial chill factor” for Protestant students at the University of Ulster. He was roundly criticized and ridiculed by many but he clearly thinks at least some of his constituency approved of his call for the ban.
Peter Robinson, the Unionist First Minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly, in a grand gesture and with an apparent change of heart, now says he will be happy to meet Pope Francis if he visits Northern Ireland. He previously had said he would not meet the Catholic pontiff. The reversal may have come after all the praise McGuinness received from his attendance at the queen’s dinner. All of this makes the Unionists appear to be playing some sort of game rather than focusing on better government policies.
Late March and April witnessed more violent attacks on police and members of the Belfast community by Unionist/loyalist paramilitaries. Police said both the Ulster Defense Association (UDA) and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) were involved. In the town of Larne on the night of March 30, a hundred or so men, a number of them hooded and masked, attacked and destroyed the houses of new immigrants to Northern Ireland. Police said the many of them were carrying sledgehammers and wielding baseball bats. Several cars were burned. Police arrested some of the hoodlums, and the next week another riot was held in nearby Carrickfergus to protest the arrests. This caused police to publicly warn residents to stay away from Carrickfergus. This is a strange way to encourage business investment.
Attacking immigrants is not new. Unionist/Loyalists paramilitaries have decided Catholics are bad enough; they don’t want foreigners, too. Polish families, Chinese families, and anyone different-looking have been beaten and had their houses damaged. Police have said the attacks in Larne were carried out by the UDA. Not to be outdone, the UVF was actively attacking immigrants and their homes Unionist strongholds East and South Belfast, police said. The newspapers call attacks on foreign immigrants racist while attacks between Catholics and Protestants are called sectarian.
According to the Belfast Telegraph, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) has released figures indicating that two racist attacks occur every day in Belfast. Most are against Polish and Chinese immigrants.
These are not North/South issues or Catholic /Protestant issues; they are a sickness within the Loyalist paramilitary community that leadership in the city has been unable to overcome. Educators in Northern Ireland will tell you that one of their biggest problems in the classroom is the prevalence of illiteracy amongst male Protestant youths. How do you communicate the values of right and wrong if a portion of the community can neither read nor write? All the while, the ground is shifting in Northern Ireland, especially in education. The Belfast Telegraph published its rankings of Northern Ireland’s grammar schools on March 31, 2014. They announced their study with the headline, “Every one of Northern Ireland’s top five schools is a Catholic grammar.” Month by month, the Catholic community seems to be achieving more. Maybe Unionist leaders would better serve their community by strengthening the education of their young people.