Is it sectarian for a Catholic to abuse or insult another Catholic in a way that is commonly used by Protestant fanatics? I think it is. Others disagree.
A few years ago, when a newspaper columnist called me Taig, I tried to complain to the Press Complaints Commission. He did not accept the complaint because the person who had called me Taig was, like me, of the Catholic extraction, and therefore liable to be called Taig himself.
Maybe they thought it was something like how black rappers would use the N-word among themselves. He was a Taig; I was a Taig. What was there to complain about?
The same columnist drew on terminology used in black culture when he also referred to me as Uncle Tom.
The context was that I had attended a meeting of the Ulster Unionist Assembly Party with Lord Bev and Eoghan Harris to facilitate discussions on its boycott of Stormont over the decommissioning deadlock.
I think the same columnist and editor who passed it on for publication should have been guided by the Press Complaints Commission to see the wisdom of a profuse apology.
And this is now in my mind because an example of that time may be indicative of those who now use these terms so lightly that by so doing they dishonor themselves and their cause.
Last week I recorded a Red Lions podcast with Claire Mitchell and Ben Collins discussing our books on the idea of a united Ireland. Mark Carruthers moderated the debate and aired part of it on The View.
I said that I was curious that both Ben and Claire referred to the journeys they had taken as a reflection of identity. I said I don’t have any internal conversations with myself about identity. I have no question about myself whether I am Irish or not.
I don’t need constitutional reform to remove my fragile sense of Irishness. i am irish What is a question?
But insults became the norm on Twitter. I am a Token Tag, a Castle Catholic, a Sooper, a Turncoat and, as the columnist said all those years ago, an Uncle Tom.
All these terms are communal.
They arise from the presumption that one who was born into an Irish Catholic family, as I was, lives under an obligation to represent the Irish case for island unity.
There is no such obligation. The republic, the democratic ideal, is that individuals have the freedom of conscience to inform themselves and evaluate the political conditions around them, and to decide for themselves what outcomes they would prefer to support.
This needs no explaining to those who consider themselves Republicans.
And yet, to some, the prospect of someone like me raising sincere and genuine questions about the validity of the Irish republican tradition is so inconceivable that they have to assume I’m being paid off by the British state. Is or I am by nature. A perverse adversary. They fail to consider that I may be expressing a well-considered opinion.
I think the Press Complaints Commission missed an opportunity to point out one of the evils in our midst and make an authoritative pronouncement on Catholic sectarianism.
A Catholic calling another Catholic a Tiger or an Uncle Tom is sectarian in that it attempts to limit the other’s freedom of thought. It is an imposition. It says you should know your place, boy. And it says that it is for others to decide for you what is your place, and they have already done so.
And it envisions a future in which those who have stifled your freedom to speak your mind will mold the nation to their vision.
This is identity or communal politics. It sees the conflict not as a clash of ideas but as a clash of identities.
And if there is any hope of winning in the clash of identities, people have to stick with themselves and hold fast.
Taigs’ future victory over Turncoat, Soper, Castle Catholic and Token tag prods.
Likewise, Lindy threatens Prod’s victory over Tags, so we treat people like Ben and Claire to the same kind of insults, the same assumption that they have no right to think for themselves.
And we get calls for unionist alliances before every election.
Here’s an alternative idea.
Instead of trying to keep people within their sectarian camps and belittle them when they break out of them, why not try to win over sectarian divisions?
The failure of identity/communal politics is that it favors your birth certificate more than your cause.
It is through persuasion and winning that political movements grow. So we have people whose families voted Labor to beat the Conservatives generation after generation. Thousands of voters who never wanted an independent Scotland are now campaigning for it.
Even in the Republic, where politics for decades was framed by the civil war of Fine Gael opposing Fianna Fáil, has broken down.
I don’t celebrate all of these specific changes, but I do see them as evidence of agreement on the breadth of political ideas and their appeal.
Those who decry me as a soper and a Castle Catholic should take heart from the fact that Republican ideas can win over people like Ben and Claire.
Go ahead with developing your ideas and abandon prejudice.
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