DAME Nuala O'Loan has sparked outrage by telling a national radio programme that it was her understanding Protestants were brought up to distrust Catholics.
The former Police Ombudsman told a BBC Radio Four programme: "One of the things that surprised me, because I grew up in England, was that people here (Northern Ireland], Protestants – and I only learned this fairly recently... Protestants would have been taught as children that they could not trust Catholics.
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"I found that astonishing but when I explored it with Protestant friends, they all agreed that was the case."
The News Letter was made aware of the remarks by listeners to the Woman's Hour programme who were "deeply offended" at Mrs O'Loan's remarks.
One said: "Most people in the Protestant community would be outraged because this is not the case at all."
Contacted last night, Mrs O'Loan stood by what she had said, but sought to clarify her position – stressing it was what she had been told and that other Protestants had confirmed it.
"I could never understand why it mattered that I was a Catholic Police Ombudsman, it baffled me," she told the News Letter.
"But eventually I was told this was the teaching of some churches to their people and that meant I could understand a lot of what has been said about me."
During a lengthy discussion on the matter, Mrs O'Loan said she was sorry if her radio remark was deemed offensive "but I simply report what was said to me".
"What I said was what I was told and I checked it with other senior people in society and I was told this is true and I said I found it astonishing," she continued.
Asked why she had not clarified or said that "some" Protestants may be brought up to distrust Catholics, Mrs O'Loan reflected that she personally "would not expect all Protestants" were brought up this way and that is why she said she was astonished.
"But I was told by Protestants that they were and I checked it and checked it and checked it," she declared.
When it was put to Mrs O'Loan how her remark would reflect on the Protestant community in the Province, to listeners to the Radio Four programme across the UK and worldwide, she said that she had not had time on the Woman's Hour programme to get into further discussion or add clarification, as the interview was then drawn to its scheduled close.
The ex-Ombudsman's comments follow those of other senior figures in the Catholic community about Protestants in recent years.
In 2005, at a public meeting, Father Alec Reid compared the unionist community to Nazis.
"They (Catholics] were not treated like human beings," he said. "It was like the Nazis' treatment of the Jews."
The same year, Irish President Mary McAleese also compared Protestants to Nazis.
"They (Nazis] gave to their children an irrational hatred of Jews in the same way that people in Northern Ireland transmitted to their children an irrational hatred, for example, of Catholics, in the same way that people give to their children an outrageous and irrational hatred of those who are of different colour and all of those things," she said.
Later Mrs McAleese said she had not meant to single out Protestants.
However, last night, UUP MLA David McNarry said all of these remarks, from within the Catholic community, exposed a nationalist or republican view that Protestants were inherently sectarian and bigoted while Catholics were non-sectarian and egalitarian.
"Nuala O'Loan's remarks are very reminiscent of what Mary McAleese said about people being taught to hate or distrust Catholics and these are broad, sweeping generalisations which are deeply hurtful and offensive to all right-thinking Protestants who will not recognise them to be the case at all," he said.
DUP MLA Mervyn Storey added: "Remarks like this only serve to show why Nuala O'Loan was herself distrusted by the unionist community (as Ombudsman]."
In her conversation with the News Letter last night, Mrs O'Loan concluded: "I think that as a society we need to be able to reflect on all the possible cases of divisiveness."
If, as a result of an open discussion on these issues, it emerged that some churches taught this distrust of Catholics "we need to talk about it and work it out because we all worship the same God".