Bigotry must be marginalised

ON 7 MAY, 15-year-old Irish Catholic school boy, Michael McIvleen, was cornered by a gang of baseball-wielding loyalists after being chased through the centre of Ballymena, Co Antrim in the early hours of the morning. He had been making his way home with friends after buying a a piazza.

After becoming separated, he was savagely beaten. The next day, his life support machine was switched off. In the wake of his murder - the third such murder of a teenage Irish Catholic in the last two years - the mandatory condemnations from politicans hit the airwaves and newspaper columns of Ireland's media. taoiseach Bertie Ahern called the killing "a shocking reminder of the evils of sectarianism".

Ulster Unionist Party leader Reg Empey said the killing illustrated "the distance we have still to travel as a society to what could be described as normality". The Orange Order said that "no claim to political loyalty or religious affiliation can possibly justify such a reprehensible and wicked crime".

But the SDLP North Antrim assembly member Seán Farren pointed out that the incident was not the first in the town, or elsewhere, in recent times.

"Unfortunately, we have witnessed similar attacks in Ballymena and elsewhere in the past and each one has brought pain and tragedy to the families and friends of those affected.

"This vicious circle of sectarian attacks must be tackled and must be broken if we are ever to see normal peaceful and harmonious relationships established between our communities," Mr Farren said.

When one nationalist newspaper in Ireland asked a DUP councillor whether he would be show solidarity with McIlveen family and wider Irish Catholic community by attending the funeral, his reply was telling.

"I won't be going to the funeral. Stepping foot in a Catholic church is against my religious beliefs," said councillor Roy Gillespie. "The Pope is the Antichrist and is the head of the Catholic church, which is not a true church or faith. I'm not going to listen to Mass in a Catholic church. I don't care if it's at a funeral, wedding or whatever else."

He added: "As a Catholic, he [Michael McIlveen] won't get into heaven unless he has been saved. If he did not repent before he died and asked the Lord into his heart, he will not get into heaven. Catholics are not accepted into heaven."

Such comments have fed sectarianism violence in the town for decades. And Ballymena can be seen as a microism of the north. The media reacted furiously to the "insensitive" comments. However, much of the anger seemed more directed at the newspaper that printed the comments than against the politician who voiced them. BBC radio attacked the paper for it's "cynicism" in asking the question; knowing what the response would be, and for printing the response. The British Broadcasting Coporation stuck with its traditional script of portraying sectarianism as a problem "on both sides".

This contrived sense of balance demonstreated, again, the media's inability to acknowledge that a section of unionism remains wedded to a sectarian fundamentalism and that Catholic Irish citizens are continuing to suffer fatal attacks in the atmosphere it has created.

Secretary of state Peter Hain also demonstrated a similar inability shortly after the killing. Last month, the SDLP called for the resignation of a Orange Order member David Burrows from the north's Parades Commission following the resignation of Portadown Orangeman Donald MacKay. Mr MacKay, a member of the Democratic Unionist Party, had been under mounting pressure to quit after it emerged he had used Upper Bann SDLP assembly member Dolores Kelly's name and that of Upper Bann MP David Simpson as referees - without their permission - to obtain the job last year.

Mr Burrows used the name of the Methodist minister Jim Rea to obtain his job on the powerful commission, again, without permission. "David Burrows faces many of the same questions as Don MacKay. We believe he should resign now," Mrs Kelly said.

The commission was set up in 1997 to make decisions on contentious parades, including the annual July march by Portadown Orangemen to Drumcree in Co. Armagh. Mrs Kelly also blasted the Northern Ireland Office and British secretary of state Peter Hain. She said:

"They tried to pull a stroke by packing the commission with Orange Order members without doing even basic checks on their suitability. "It still amazes me that no one in the NIO even thought it odd or worth checking that I would have acted as a referee for Don MacKay."

Peter Hain attacked the SDLP for criticising the commission, accusing the party of "mischief-making". In the wake of McKay's resignation, Hain defended Orange participation in the commission, claiming his appointments last November had been designed to introduce "fresh thinking" into the process. Like the BBC and other mainstream media, Mr Hain felt it neccessary to deflect criticism way from the bigots, and on to their critics.

Not only did Hain ignore the bigoted ethos of the Order and its past associations with loyalist paramilitaries, he blatantly ignored the fact that, as a tribunal, set up to rule on contentious parades, he should not have included people with vested interests on the commission.

It is a point the Garvaghy Road residents in Portadown have been making and why they have refused to take up a place on the body. It was also a position accepted by the High Court last month, when a judge ruled in favour of an injunction taken by the residents challenging the appointments of Mr Hain. The ruling was described as "unfortunate" by the minister.

As the people of the North of Ireland enter into this summer's matching season, sectarianism will remain a dangerously live issue. The British government and its agencies must be forced to acknowledge the problem fully and challenge it head on, instead of giving it political cover. Bigotry must be unequivically faced down.

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2006-07-05 18:58:41.
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