Coming to a rounded view of unionists


Our text for today is from the gospel according to prominent nationalist commentator Brian Feeney. (That’s a ‘text’ as in a quotation from an author as distinct from a message on a mobile phone.)

“That’s another problem unionists have – they share the same illusions of ethnic superiority with Afrikaners and Israelis. Perhaps it’s a way of justifying to themselves the guilt that they stole the natives’ land? They both hate and fear the people they live beside,” Mr Feeney wrote recently.

Hmmm! Strong stuff! Whether or not it’s helpful to spell things out quite so stridently, Brian Feeney’s harsh verdict is at least partly correct. The problem is that feelings of superiority within the unionist community were, for generations, encouraged by their so-called ‘leaders’. In fact, it’s difficult to think of a group that has suffered from such self-serving and short-sighted ‘leadership’ as unionists.

Even working class unionist people, who had so little, were encouraged to believe they were special and different. Sometimes it was real, as for instance in employment opportunities in places like Belfast’s shipyard or in relation to special treatment for loyal order marches. At other times it was more illusory than real, but still the notion of superiority survived in the unionist psyche. Coming to terms with the new, post-Good Friday Agreement reality is still extremely painful for many.

It’s not entirely clear from the above quotation whether or not Mr Feeney’s reference to Afrikaners and Israelis stealing the “natives’ land” also applies to unionists, but it probably does. Now there’s an unwise notion that shouldn’t be encouraged.

Over the centuries wave after wave of settlers arrived in many countries all around the globe, including Ireland. The fact that descendants of those who came here in the 17th century have been so reluctant to integrate themselves into the Irish ‘nation’ is down to unique and complex circumstances.

The point is that there is no such thing as a pure Irish race. Were we to think there is, we would be guilty of the same “illusions of ethnic superiority” that Mr Feeney lays on Afrikaners, Israelis and unionists. We all need to be exceptionally careful about notions of ethnic superiority. It’s not something that just applies to unionists.

Also, when it comes to hating and fearing people we live beside, we all need to take care and not just unionists.

Fortunately, it’s a huge overstatement to say that unionists, in general, hate the people they live beside. The vast majority of them don’t hate their Catholic/nationalist ‘neighbours’. Some do, but they’re a relatively tiny minority.

Of course it’s true that unionists have tended to be fearful of the political ambitions of their nationalist neighbours. Again, far too many unscrupulous so-called ‘leaders’ have been eager to foster those fears. We can all think of politicians who have built their careers out of encouraging fear and then professing solidarity with the fearful.

I was going to write about last week’s really big story but it got saturation coverage and anyway, the situation was so very volatile.

Instead, I decided to preach this little ‘sermon,’ on a secular text. I’m hoping the kerfuffle over ‘on the runs’ (OTRs) will go away but, unfortunately, it looks all set to run and run, so to speak.