Judging people by appearance can be a very dangerous game

The ‘similarities’ between Protestants and Catholics are listed on a blackboard in the TV show ‘Derry Girls’.

Tom said a killer could select a victim because Protestants and Catholics in the North look different, writes Terry Prone

Right, slap bang in the middle of Belfast we were, on a Friday at lunchtime: I was there with my colleague Tom Savage, who was also my husband, and with a printer with whom we were doing business. The restaurant was so jammers that we had to yell our orders at the waitress. Despite the fact that it was during the worst of the Troubles, everybody was in flying form, it being the beginning of a bank holiday weekend.

When our starters arrived, Tom took his newspaper off the table and put it on the windowsill behind him.

“Bloody nonsense,” he said, flicking a headline with his forefinger. The printer nodded. I squiggled sideways to read the headline, which turned out to be about a “random” killing in Crossmaglen. I looked a question at the two of them.

“No such thing as a random shooting,” Tom said. “The gunman always knows the religion of the stranger he shoots.” This made no sense to me and I said so. Tom — who had been educated north of the border and worked most of his life there — said that Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland look different to each other, so, without any information other than appearance, a killer could select a victim from the community he regarded as the enemy.

I was mortified at this evidence of bigotry in my beloved and, with the polite firmness of a properly raised suburban Dublin girl, reproved him. He wasn’t having any reproof, calmly stating that where you had two communities living side by side for several hundred years, without inter-marriage, of course they would develop subtle differences in physical appearance. I accused him of physiognomy and tried to remember the name of the 19th-century eejit who claimed to know how likely someone was to be a murderer by the shape of their head. I was particularly embarrassed by what he was saying because the printer was Protestant, although I didn’t mention that. That’s the kind of thing about which you fight with your spouse post-factum. (Meaning in the car going home.)

Tom put down his soup spoon and reached into the breast pocket of his jacket, filled, as always, with random notes and receipts, in the middle of which were a couple of narrow blank sheets of white paper. He flattened the two of them out and handed one to the printer.

“Starting here, on the left,” he said, gesturing at the table next to us, “You put down the religion of the people at each table. Number them.” The printer nodded, and, as the starter plates were taken away and before the main course arrived, the two of them went to work, each shielding his page from the other, like children in school preventing cogging. I could see that Tom just put down numbers, while the printer had gone further, drawing a little sketch of circles, with a number in the middle of each.

As the main courses arrived, they finished, each glancing around the restaurant for a final check, but covertly — it wasn’t a time to be seen making notes about other diners. Tom collected the printer’s bit of paper without looking at it and handed me the two. I pushed back my plate to make room and started to compare. They matched. Every single table designated as occupied by a Protestant family or group was so labelled by each of the two men. Ditto the Catholic groups. My tablemates were, of course, delighted with themselves. Indeed, the printer maintained that a certain blonde hair dye was used only by Protestant women from a specific area within Belfast. Tom promptly countered this by proposing that only Catholic men wore a particular kind of jacket.

It got odder and funnier as it went along; a version of that blackboard in Derry Girls that listed differences between the two communities, although less defamatory; neither Tom nor the printer suggested northern Catholics keep coal in the bath. A good time was had by all and a point proven to a pig ignorant Free Stater — me. I was forced to accept the underlying sadness of the game, which was that, in the six counties of Northern Ireland, it was, and remains, possible to identify a member of one or other community, thus, during the bad years, facilitating assassination. Even in times of peace, that capacity for instant identification could be used to advantage members of one community over another.

It comes back to the old advice about not judging a book by its cover and not making decisions about individuals based on their physical appearance. Advice that has always and ever been observed more in the breach than the observance. Take gender, for example. Newborn baby boys are given blue jumpers and cardigans, little girls pink. It doesn’t do them any harm, although I can’t understand what’s wrong with yellow and green.

It’s when toddlerhood arrives that the idiocy associated with first impressions begins to take hold. It’s most noticeable mid-morning, when small children get taken shopping after their morning nap and before the older children get home from school.

“Oh, look at your little princess,” someone will say to a mother or a grandmother, even if the female child is dressed in boots and denim and could pass as a worker on a building site, were it not for the size. I recently watched a little girl clutching a toy digger being asked why she didn’t have a doll. The child rightly, and silently, glowered. With luck, she forgot the question within minutes, along with the daft anti-feminist female who asked it. But the overwhelming presence in shops of gauzy, pink spangled dresses, hair ornaments covered in diamanté, and shoes embellished with blonde princesses would drive me crazy if I were the parent of little girls, right now. I’m not quite going for the look of Chinese children during the Mao Zedong years, but that uniformity of bowl haircut and unisex cotton outfit had its merits.

If you dress your toddler like Sleeping Beauty, for example, don’t be surprised if they become a passive adult attracted to a domineering partner. Well, OK, perhaps that’s pushing it. But a girl whose first six years are filled with princesses and unicorns and sparkly skirts, culminating in being dressed like a bride for First Holy Communion, may just miss the gender equality message.

Which brings me to the teeth-grinding class bias inherent in most current gender equality moves. Why is it acceptable to want 50/50 representation of women in academia and politics, while ignoring the possibility of 50/50 representation among plumbers, painters, tilers, and electricians? Those are great jobs: you don’t have to get regularly re-elected, and you can work freelance without going broke, setting your hours around the demands of your family. That equates to a perfect work/life balance and loads of money.

If feminism is to continue to be relevant, it has to be more than middle class.

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