The Bloody Hand of Protestant Privilege

Argus title : Protestants must play their part for peace

I didn’t know the servants at my paternal grandparents’ house in South Africa – largely because domestic workers never stayed very long.

I rarely saw their faces. They were constantly down on their knees, polishing the floor. As a small child, all I remember seeing of them was buttocks stretched under uniform servants’ shorts and their dim reflection in the lethally shiny floorboards.

I recall the smell of wax, the swishing of the polishing cloth and the simmering resentment which rose from them, as they buffed the floor back and forth.

They were always men, or ‘Boys’. My grandma and aunt, who ran the household, would not employ a Black woman. ‘Girls’, that is adult female servants, were uncontrollable, ‘cheeky’, and moreover a sexual threat.

My aunt usually sounded the alarm, shouting “There’s a girl in the Boy’s room”. Just so she might have yelled that there was a snake in the shed or a rat in the attic. She and my grandma and aunt would caw and flap like a couple of Highland crows until the men of the household saw the Jezebel off.

They were of tough Scottish Protestant stock, ill-educated and bigoted to their backbone. Bitter, disappointed and angry, their lives through generations had been distorted by poverty and a joyless fundamentalist faith.

My father always said they feared Black people because their own ancestors had been poor and illiterate, sleeping in huts and living a tribal life. Deep down, he said, they knew they were really no different. So they hated them.

However much they hated Black people, their loathing of Catholics ran deeper, being rooted in the bloody history of conflict between Ireland and Scotland. In the view of my father’s family Scottish Protestants were superior to Irish Catholics because God wanted it like that.

In the same way that they would speculate that white people with dark shadows around the base of their fingernails had “a touch of the tar brush”, they’d say that you could tell an Irish Catholic by their “high cheek bones”, and “monkey” features.

They were just the latest in a wave of Scottish settlers who served Britain’s imperial interests, actively colluding in the subjugation of conquered peoples. Britain had learned the techniques generations earlier in its first colony – Ireland.

At that time, Scottish Calvinist families similar to my father’s were sent out to subdue indigenous Irish Catholics and provide a bulwark against their religion. This was the so called ‘plantation’ of Ireland.

Bearing names like Bell, Irvine, Robinson and Paisley, they were given land and privileges and a free hand to dominate a population they were taught to view as feckless, dangerous and even sub-human.

Their descendents maintained their privileges well into the 20th century. It was they who – with the support of Conservative M.P.s in the British Parliament – fought to subvert the will of parliament in respect of Home Rule for Ireland. They helped partition Ireland, creating the ‘province’ of Northern Ireland.

Following partition, the ‘loyalists’ as they were now known, reserved to themselves the best jobs, housing and other services. Working with the Protestant ‘Orange Order’, they dominated all local organs of state and military power, denying Catholics basic civil rights and subjecting them to blatant discrimination.

Manipulation of housing deprived many Catholics of the right to vote, while gerrymandering made Catholic votes almost worthless.

The peaceful civil rights protests of the 1960’s were met by suppression and intimidation, including bloody sectarian attacks by Protestant paramilitary groups, revived with the aim of preventing Catholic equality. The IRA was reformed and 25 years of ‘Troubles’ followed.

Now the IRA has disbanded and is putting weapons ‘beyond use’. However, the Protestant community is not content. For peace with Catholic equality was not what it was promised.

Over the past week, 100s of Protestants have rioted in the streets of Belfast. Police have been shot at by armed gangs and firearms have been recovered. Bombs have been thrown and cars and buses high-jacked, set alight and used as barriers. Occupants been robbed and in some cases injured.

A 70 year old woman had stones thrown at her car. A small boy travelling in his father’s car sustained a suspected fractured skull. Nationalist homes have been attacked.

The pretext for the riots was the re-routing of an Orange Order march by 100 metres. However, most commentators agree that the violence was pre-planned by the paramilitaries of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), both of which are supposed to be on ceasefire. Neither has been under pressure to decommission arms.

Sir Hugh Orde , the Chief Constable of Northern Ireland issued a powerful statement condemning the role of the Orange Order:

“Petrol bombs don’t appear by accident, blast bombs do not appear by accident and certainly fire arms have to be planned to be produced in the way they were produced”.

He added “I have seen members of the Orange Order in their sashes attacking my officers. I have seen them standing next to masked men. The Orange Order must bear substantial responsibility for this. They publicly called people on to the street.”

The leadership of the Orange Order has refused to condemn the violence and has rejected the Chief Constable’s remarks as “inflammatory”. Despite this, Peter Hain, the Northern Ireland Secretary, has refrained from calling the leaders of the Orange Order to account and has not condemned Ian Paisley, leader of the DUP, for his comment that the parade could prove the “spark which kindles a fire there could be no putting out”.

Despite the fact that there is clear evidence of the central involvement of more than one loyalist paramilitary group Peter Hain has declared only one – the Ulster Volunteer Force – to be in breach of ceasefire.
The UVF has a bloody history. According to the University of Ulster’s Sutton database the UVF was responsible for 426 killings during the Troubles. Forty one of these were loyalist paramilitaries, 6 were British soldiers or police officers and just 21 were republican paramilitaries. The other 358 victims were civilians, almost certainly Catholic victims of sectarian attack.
It is estimated that the UVF has killed more than 30 people since its 1994 ceasefire, most of them Protestants.
Despite the appalling death toll of civilians, and repeated allegations of drug-running and sectarian attacks upon Catholics, Protestant politicians have been put under little pressure by the British government or media to end the violence.

This follows the pattern set during the Troubles when British authorities presented the IRA as the problem, rarely publicising Protestant paramilitary violence and criminal activities.

Now, as the unrest in Belfast continues, the talk is of ‘unfairness’ towards the Protestants. British TV journalists sympathetically report statements by Belfast Protestants that the ‘Taigs’ (an insulting sectarian term for Catholics) are “getting everything”.

In reality, old injustices are very slowly beginning to be redressed. Ancient privileges are going and people on low incomes, who used to see themselves as ‘better’, now find themselves bumping along the bottom with poor Catholics.

I heard a Protestant woman say of the IRA “Violence worked for them so we might as well try it”. In fact, Loyalist leaders have traditionally called out Protestant mobs to prevent progress and social change. It is very possible the recent riots are in part an attempt to provoke former IRA members to violent resistance and so discredit Sinn Fein.

There is a clear note of envy in working class Protestant voices when they speak of what Sinn Fein politicians have achieved for the despised Catholics. The Protestants’ world has turned upside down and, like poor whites in South Africa, they don’t know who they are any more.

Sinn Féin’s Chief Negotiator, Martin Mc Guinness, called for an end to the absurd situation in which unionist leaders are able to delay political progress by refusing to talk to Sinn Fein, warning that: “The political vacuum….is being filled by unionist paramilitary violence.”

Martin McGuiness is right. The Protestant working class is being let down by its leaders. It’s alienated, battle-weary and drug scarred and can be persuaded to work for a just and safe peace. It’s in their interest to do so.

Ironically, it is most likely to be their former enemies who will reach out and help them achieve this.

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