Written By: John Coulter
Published: June 15, 2014 Last modified: June 11, 2014
Racism has become the new sectarianism in Ireland, judging by post-election fever. A furore was sparked when one of Northern Ireland’s most prominent Christian fundamentalist preachers, Pastor James McConnell of the Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle in Belfast, preached a sermon condemning Islam. His filmed comments were beamed around the world and the Irish media was dominated by the fallout, which even dragged First Minister Peter Robinson into the row.
The storm became a hurricane when Northern Ireland’s sole ethnic Assembly member, Anna Lo of Alliance, dropped a tearful bombshell that she was quitting politics, partly due to racist abuse.
But let’s put some brakes on the situation. Ireland is not about to be engulfed in a Crusade-style race war between Christianity and Islam. Racism has existed on the island for generations.
It was the sectarian conflict in the north between Unionist and Republican which covered over the racist cracks in Irish society. The Irish travelling community has suffered racist abuse for decades. Fascist groups such as the National Front, British National Party and even the Ku Klux Klan have tried unsuccessfully to take advantage of the sectarian strife and gain a foothold in Northern Ireland.
In the north’s recent super council elections, the BNP was wiped out and UKIP only managed three councillors – hardly a major breakthrough for the hard right as has been witnessed by UKIP in England, the Front National in France and Golden Dawn in Greece.
So why does it appear that the Muslim community in Ireland is fair game for Christian fundamentalists? The answer is alarmingly simple: the race is on to see who can succeed former firebrand the Reverend Ian Paisley as the island’s leading hellfire evangelist.
Earlier this year, the former DUP leader and Stormont First Minister announced his formal retirement from preaching. As well as being one of Ireland’s leading Unionist political figures, Paisley senior – now Lord Bannside – rapidly climbed to the top of the Bible Belt’s hellfire evangelists. He even formed his own denomination in 1951, the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, of which he was Moderator – or leader – for more than 50 years before a hardline loyalist clique in the denomination decided he had to quit following his decision to share power with Sinn Fein at Stormont.
With Paisley retired, fundamentalists across Ireland – and especially in Ulster – began flicking through their Bibles to find topics which would trigger instant media fame. It could have easily been topics such as divorce, gay marriage, abortion, drug abuse, child abuse and witchcraft. But McConnell hit the ground running with his controversial filmed sermon on Islam.
McConnell comes from the Pentecostal tradition of Christianity. He was quickly followed by a less hard-hitting but equally contentious statement on Islam from a Free Presbyterian cleric. It’s only a matter of time before others firebrands from fundamentalist denominations, such as Elim, the Brethren and Baptists, get in on the act. Fundamentalism is on the hunt for its new Christian martyr.
But such preachers need to be careful they do not provide a springboard for the far right in Ireland.
The far right has always found it difficult to gain an organisational foothold because of the loyalist and republican paramilitary groups. The existence of the UVF, UDA, IRA and INLA meant it was impossible for mainland racist groups such as Combat 18 or Column 88 to organise in Ireland. But all it takes is one racist rant from someone senior – such as a cleric – and the dar right has got the recruiting card it so badly needs.
The big danger from the far right will come on Irish streets. Already in the north, the police are reporting a rise in the number of hate crimes. Hardly a week passes in that the media are not reporting on an attack on a migrant worker’s home.
While thousands recently attended a rally in Belfast city centre to protest against racist attacks, there could equally be many who would conclude that McConnell was stating in public what many believe in private about Islam.
One question remains unanswered: how racist is Ireland really?
This article first appeared in the Tribune Magazine June 2014.