Europe was sectarian, not just Northern Ireland

Questions are being asked about what a Tory-DUP partnership would mean for powersharing in Northern Ireland. Photo: Jonathan Porter/Presseye
Questions are being asked about what a Tory-DUP partnership would mean for powersharing in Northern Ireland. Photo: Jonathan Porter/Presseye

Brooding on Ben Lowry’s comment (April 8) prompts me to write of his observation that it “is increasingly hard for anyone from a Protestant background to dispute the narrative that Northern Ireland was an apartheid state without the risk of being howled down by charges of sectarianism” by saying this is not a new phenomenon.

Craigavon’s remarks on Northern Ireland’s parliament being a parliament for “a Protestant people” were taunted repeatedly whilst de Valera’s assertion to which it was a response that Ireland was a “Catholic nation” was ignored, as was along with it on those grounds de Valera’s defence of rescinding a Church of Ireland librarian’s appointment to a public library. Such a librarian could not be trusted to safeguard the reading of “Catholics”.

To dispute Sinn Fein’s “apartheid” narrative is not to deny the past sectarian nature of society. But it was one in which Roman Catholics and Protestants discriminated – and not without some reason at the time - along sectarian lines with equal zeal. Also, again, as earlier in the European wars of religion from which the history of Ireland should not be separated, as it too often is.

Discrimination was not peculiar to the two Irelands, Northern and Southern. The Dutch in the Netherlands and the Germans in Bavaria were within living memory, residues of those earlier wars, equally prone to such religious discrimination at the communal level.

A growing secularism indeed played a role in undermining these mind sets and group think in much of Europe; but in addition, perhaps partly as a response, in the Netherlands and Germany, and elsewhere in Europe, the depth of theological and philosophical, religious and secular, reflection (nothing like it has occurred in Ireland) did much to undermine the group think or group mind that had long sustained confessional antagonism.

The fatuous remarks made by some churchmen recently, betraying an ignorance of Irish political activism, and the depth of the hatred of what is English, following on the death of Martin McGuinness give little cause for hope .

Yet, remember that when Pope John XXIII died in 1963 the Union Flag above the Belfast’s City Hall was lowered to half mast as a mark of respect. It was a wake up signal to those who saw their brand of a sectarian unionism threatened and to those who saw their brand of a separatist sectarian nationalism threatened. All that later happened to the present has been part of countering that threat.

W A Miller, Belfast