If Paisley finally says ‘yes’, we in the South are in no position to gloat

THE moment of truth is approaching in the North. On past performance one might be hard pressed to believe Ian Paisley is finally going to say ‘yes’.

But if he is ever going to do so, it will be on Monday simply because he is unlikely to have another chance.

The vast majority of people in the recent election voted for candidates supporting devolution.

Bob McCartney, leader of the United Kingdom Unionist Party — which previously included Conor Cruise O’Brien — was wiped out. McCartney lost his own seat and his party failed to win even a single seat in its campaign against devolution.

The British and Irish governments have now paved the way with gold in the form of an extra £1bn for the new executive to spend. Of that amount, the Irish Government has promised £400m if devolution is restored on Monday. That is on top of £35bn already allocated by the British government.

If Paisley and company turn down the £400m pledged by our Government, see if we care! Not going ahead with the new Assembly on Monday would betray the democratic will of the Northern people.

In that event, Stormont should be dissolved, the newly-elected members declared redundant and new elections held once the magnitude of their betrayal got through to the people.

Hopefully, they have already got the message that the two governments are determined to ensure that this is the new Assembly’s only chance.

They have until Monday, and not a minute longer. If they give Paisley a minute, he will want a month and then another month.

A surprising aspect of the forthcoming deadline has been the scarcity of comment. On other occasions Paisley conducted a constant circus, garnering daily headlines. He relished the spotlight in opposition over the past 50 years, but this island has changed in that period.

Next month, it will be exactly 50 years since Paisley, then an obscure Northern clergyman, became involved in the Fethard-on-Sea controversy.

In April 1957, Sheila Cloney fled to the North because Fr William Stafford, the local Catholic curate in Fethard-on-Sea, Co Wexford, insisted her children attend a Catholic school whether she liked it or not. She was a Protestant from the locality who had married a Catholic and, in line with the Ne Temere decree, promised that their children would be raised as Catholics.

Since her Protestant father had helped her flee to the North, Fr Stafford sought to victimise the local Protestant business people through a perverted sense of justice. The clergy initiated a local boycott in the naive belief that this would compel Sheila Cloney to submit to clerical dictates.

The whole thing was blown from a local controversy into an international incident.

Desmond Boal, who later co-founded the Democratic Unionist Party with Ian Paisley, took up Sheila Cloney’s case. “The unhappy events in Fethard-on-Sea are a reminder to the loyalists of Ulster as to what could happen if Northern Ireland were submerged in an all-Ireland Republic”, declared Lord Brookeborough, the Northern Ireland prime minister.

Preaching to a congregation in Wexford that included John Cardinal D’Alton and six other bishops, Bishop Michael Browne of Galway endorsed the sectarian boycott. He described it as “a peaceful and moderate protest” in response to what “seems to be a concerted campaign to entice or kidnap Catholic children and deprive them of their faith”.

In the Dáil later that week, the Taoiseach, Eamon de Valera, courageously denounced the “boycott as ill-conceived, ill considered and futile”.

Brendan Corish, a local deputy and future leader of the Labour Party, asked: “Will the Taoiseach endeavour to ensure that certain people will not conspire in this part of the country to kidnap Catholic children?” Dev dismissed the vexatious question.

Seán Cloney eventually traced his wife to the Orkney Islands, and he went there and reconciled with her. She returned with the children, and they were educated at home. The 1999 movie, A Love Divided, was based on the controversy.

A quarter of a century after the boycott another curate caused problems in Fethard-on-Sea.

When denied control of a local hall by a committee that included Seán Cloney, the curate, Fr Seán Fortune, denounced “an evil influence” in the parish.

The remark was taken to be a reference to Cloney, but it was Fr Fortune’s evil behaviour that wreaked perverted havoc on the community between 1982 and 1987. Fr Fortune threatened that if he was brought down, he would bring Bishop Comiskey down with him.

IN March 1999, Fr Fortune committed suicide. He left a note protesting his innocence and accusing those who made allegations against him of being a pack of liars. Since there was conclusive evidence against Fr Fortune, no credence can be placed in his protestations of innocence. His allegations against his victims and a scurrilous denunciation of Bishop Comiskey were either very malicious or the delusions of a very sick man.

Fr Fortune was one of more than 20 priests in the Ferns dioceses accused of sexual abuse of children. Some of the behaviour outlined in the Ferns inquiry report of 2005 was not only vile but also utterly blasphemous.

If Ian Paisley had made such allegations against any priests 50 years ago, he would probably have been right, but people down here would have called for him to be institutionalised. If Paisley does finally say ‘yes’ to power sharing on Monday, nobody in this country can afford to be triumphal. There have been wrongs on all sides.

Last year President McAleese provoked a storm with her remarks about the Nazis giving “to their children an irrational hatred of Jews in the same way that people in Northern Ireland transmitted to their children an irrational hatred, for example, of Catholics”.

There was nothing wrong with what she said, except she did not say enough. If she had said “Catholic or Protestants” she would have been spot-on because the bigotry and intolerance in the North has been on both sides of the religious divide.

She recognised that and apologised for her faux pas.

All our lives we have heard stories about discrimination against Catholics in Northern Ireland. Such discrimination unquestionably existed, but neither was there any shortage of intolerance on the Catholic side. We were blind to our own discrimination against Protestant values in the Republic. For decades we allowed unelected bishops to have a veto over public affairs.

Frequently their pronouncements had nothing to do with religion. They were entitled to their views, but they should not have been given a veritable veto.

This has little to do with Northern Ireland now, but it did legitimise many people’s fears. We would be better able to understand the problems there if we were more conscious of own failings here over the decades.

The first real attempt by the British to insist on comprehensive civil rights in Northern Ireland was the Sunningdale Agreement of 1974, which was essentially undermined by Sinn Féin and radical unionists like Paisley.

Our politicians gave them political ammunition by making extravagant claims that the proposed Council of Ireland was a real step towards Irish unity.

The whole island has accepted that partition can only be ended with the support of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland. If this is ever to be achieved, there will first have to be normalisation of relations between the two communities. Hopefully Monday will mark a new beginning, and our £400m will have been well spent.

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