Monthly Archives: June 2014

Racism: The New Sectarianism?…Dr. John Coulter

John Coulter

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.


Hurdles on the Road to Irish Unity: Dr. John Coulter.

John Coulter

Written By: John Coulter
Published: June 1, 2014 Last modified: May 28, 2014

Former Sinn Fein leader Eamon de Valera must be spinning in his grave with laughter at the thought of his party laying the foundations for another 1918 election landslide. Yes, you read correct. I said 1918. World War One had just ended the previous month and the United Kingdom went from war footing to election mode.

Sinn Fein was only 13 years old and the Irish Volunteers had really messed up the Rising of two years previous. Founded in 1905, Sinn Fein had been one of the main organisations along with the Volunteers and the Irish Citizens Army which instigated the militarily doomed Easter Rising of 1916.

The republicans were really naive if they thought they could sneak a united Ireland in by the military back door while Britain was at war in Europe. Ireland was one nation under the British Empire and had 105 seats in Westminster.

De Valera had survived the executions and arrests of British general “Bloody” Maxwell, who crushed the Rising with alarming force.

It was those executions which propelled many of the Rising organisers into republican martyrdom status instead of being written off as “those silly Irish”.

Initially, as the Volunteers were marched into captivity to await sentencing, they were even spat upon by Dublin working-class Catholics.  Those arrests also catapulted Sinn Fein from the butt of this Dublin Catholic venom in 1916 to the largest political movement in Ireland two years later. That 1918 election saw Sinn Fein capture a massive 47 per cent of the entire vote across the island, giving it 73 of those 105 seats.

Until then, Irish nationalism was represented for decades by the moderate Irish Parliamentary Party, but 1918 saw it all but wiped out by the Sinn Fein bandwagon, winning only six seats.

The British and Irish governments have created another de Valera with the arrest, questioning and release of Sinn Fein president and Louth TD Gerry Adams.

When Sinn Fein entered the Stormont power-sharing Executive with Ian Paisley’s DUP in 2007, it must have realised the Northern Assembly would be a very unstable institution.

A united Ireland will not be achieved through victory at Stormont; it will be brought about by being part of a Dail government.

Look at the Scottish lesson. Scottish nationalists did not gain their referendum on independence by winning seats in London. Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond’s SNP is one step away from quitting the Union by winning seats – and becoming the majority party – in the Scottish devolved government in Edinburgh.

Likewise, Martin McGuinness becoming First Minister at Stormont in 2016 with Sinn Fein as the largest Assembly party will not guarantee Irish unity.

Sinn Fein must win Dail seats. The Adams arrest debacle could well position the party to at least becoming a minority government partner in the next Dail.  That could never happen, you sneer. Leinster House currently has a right-wing Fine Gael coalition with a left-wing Labour partner.

In Britain, the Tories share power with the Liberal Democrats, so why not a Fianna Fail-Sinn Fein coalition as the next Dail, with Adams as Tanaiste (Deputy Prime Minister)?

But the scars of the Irish Civil War in the 1920s run deep. There are many nationalists across Ireland who never want the Shinners to be in power again, especially in the south. For this brand of southern nationalism, it’s all very well Sinn Fein winning Stormont and Westminster seats. This makes Sinn Fein an English problem. But when the TDs start stacking up in Leinster House, the alarm bells begin ringings. If the Irish and British grey suits thought attacking Adams would derail the Shinners, they badly miscalculated.

If Salmond can lead the SNP from the political fringes to government at Holyrood, Adams can take Sinn Fein to becoming the majority partner in a Dail coalition.

In the meantime, McGuinness must become Stormont First Minister and the Shinners need to take their Westminster seats.What will block Irish unity is the Tories and UKIP merging with Nigel Farage as Prime Minister.

Don’t laugh – politics is now the art of the totally weird.