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David Rose And Sectarianism

Brian Kelly


As I sit down to write a response to David Rose of the PUP, the headline in today’s Telegraph tells us that the ordeal of the children at Holy Cross is not yet over: a pipe bomb was found strapped to the school gates this morning. These are the children that David Rose, who describes himself as an anti-sectarian and an upholder of the ideals of the United Irishmen, could only find a “yawn” for in his previous letter of December 16th. My contention that any self-respecting socialist organization would expel him was not based on Rose’s shoddy and dishonest manipulation of history, but on the sneering sectarianism so evident in letter of December 16th. I will let your readers decide whether I was right to characterize Rose’s contribution this way, and I believe that any fair-minded person of any religious persuasion (or none) would support my view.

My guess is that many in nationalist working class communities across the north were cautiously enthusiastic when the PUP was first formed. Misgivings aside, the emergence of a party that aimed to bring non-sectarian class politics into Protestant working class areas could not be anything but positive. But along with other recent developments, the tone of Rose’s letter seemed to confirm that the PUP has reverted to sectarianism. In particular, their party leader’s posture around the events in the Short Strand has been unworthy of a party that calls itself socialist. For someone who spends so much of his airtime complaining about the “pan-nationalist alliance,” David Ervine’s decision to sign up to a statement with the DUP and other right-wing sectarians blaming the trouble on “republican-orchestrated violence” is hypocritical in the extreme-as was his decision to join the fur coat brigade for a unionist pow-wow in South Africa. The perception from the outside is that the PUP is locked into competition with others to prove that they are the best ‘defenders’ of Protestant areas against the fenians, a competition that can only lead back into the dead end of sectarianism.

There is a great deal in Rose’s latest letter that is simply not worth responding to. But I will respond to his assertion that I put forward an “Adamsesque Irish history lecture”. The grounds for this, I’m guessing, are that 1) I mentioned the fact that the United Irishmen set out to break the connection with Britain; and 2) I explained that the Orange tradition arose as a sectarian, counterrevolutionary force led by the gentry and egged on by the British, and that therefore loyalists would have been more likely to be found in Henry Joy McCracken’s hanging party than among his followers. If Adams agrees with this, then he is right, and there’s not much I can do about that. They are what you might call “facts”. If these facts are being conveyed to the young men and women of Ballymena and Harryville, all well and good.

I argued in my first response to Rose that one cannot straddle the Orange tradition and socialist politics, and that one cannot defend the empire and at the same time claim to share McCracken’s outlook. Rose provides us with a perfect example of that impossibility. “For us the link with Britain was and is the best guarantee of equality to Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter”. If you believe that, David, you certainly have no right to claim to follow in McCracken’s footsteps. The “link” has been the main prop to sectarianism for centuries, and even the most agile revisionist would have a hard time concocting an alternative reading of the past.

Despite my disagreements with the PUP, like many of those who have contributed to this debate, I believe that it cannot be anything but a positive development that working class Protestants are looking back at the history of the 1798 Rebellion. To a degree, I would also agree with their assertion that conservative nationalists (and large numbers of republicans would not fit into this category)-led by the Catholic hierarchy-have interpreted the events in a way that flattens out its complexities and robs the events of their radical content. Indeed the two pillars upon which British imperialism relied for suppressing the Rebellion were the Orange Order and the Catholic hierarchy, which despite the heroic actions of individual priests, threatened excommunication to those who took part.

Finally, despite the gloom that seems to hang over this place there are real opportunities for building an anti-sectarian and working class alternative. The recent march in support of the firefighters, which brought together workers from the Shankill and the Falls, offers a glimpse of what is possible. David Rose will be happy to know that FBU supporters recently collected almost £1000 in a period of two hours from shoppers in the Kennedy Centre on the Falls Rd., which would seem to suggest that opposition to British imperialism doesn’t get in the way of working class solidarity. Maybe it even strengthens it.




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