RYLE DWYER: Sectarianism has been rife across the whole island for decades

ONE of this week’s news spectaculars was Ian Paisley launching Dana Rosemary Scallon’s autobiography, All Kinds of Everything. Anywhere else, that would have been just another photo-op but in Northern Ireland it was an event of real significance.

Northern Ireland’s First Minister and Dana come came from opposite sides of the sectarian divide. Dana was an outspoken Catholic evangelical politician from Derry, while Paisley was seen as probably the most anti-Catholic of Protestant evangelical politicians.

Among the congregation were other Derry people, including — Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, former SDLP leader John Hume, Bishop Edward Daly, who is best remembered as the priest waving the handkerchief on that Bloody Sunday in 1972. Former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds was also there, and Paisley greeted him affably.

What made the occasion so different was Paisley’s willingness to mingle cordially with all of those people.

As a politician, he was prepared to work for any of his constituents, but for years he exhibited a different public persona.

When Pope John Paul II visited the European Parliament in October 1988, Paisley shocked the assembly by bellowing that the pontiff was the Antichrist.

Paisley was ejected amid a chorus of disapproving howls. He later said he was “pummelled and hammered” during a brief skirmish.

People abroad were shocked, but few in Ireland were surprised because we had come to expect such behaviour. Paisley made a name for himself in the early 1960s, when Pope John XXIII was making ecumenical overtures to Protestant churches. Most responded receptively, much to the indignation of Paisley, who traded insults publicly with the Presbyterian Moderator, Austin Fulton.

Referring to Paisley, Fulton warned of a “fascist-type” movement led by “manipulators whose interest is power, and who are skilled in rousing passion and inculcating hatred in the name of religion”.” When Pope John XXIII died in June 1963, the Union Jack at Belfast’s City Hall was actually lowered to half-mast. Paisley ranted against “the Iscariots of Ulster” who were betraying Protestants. “This Romish man of sin is now in hell,” he shouted, and his followers cried, “Hallelujah.”

Later, at the European Parliament, Paisley quietly worked with any Irish politician on behalf of Northern Ireland. Síle de Valera said that, privately, he was charming to her. They got on very well and had no problems cooperating on political matters.

Paisley has changed his tactics but we should not be smug about Northern sectarianism because, in this part of the island, we have had to emerge from our own episcopal backwater.

The 1950s, when Paisley first came on the public scene, was the decade in which the hierarchy was allowed to hijack the republic by exerting a virtual veto over our democratic process.

The Mother and Child healthcare controversy was followed by a ridiculous episode in 1955 when then agriculture minister James Dillon tried to establish an agricultural institute under the aegis of Trinity College. The Conference of Bishops objected, and the government promptly capitulated.

You couldn’t have people educated at a Protestant-controlled institution harvesting, or tending to Catholic cows, pigs and sheep, could you? This was a farcical reenactment of an incident in 1942 when Robert Corbet, the master of the Coombe Women’s Hospital, was appointed professor of gynaecology at University College, Galway. Bishop Michael Browne of Galway objected to the appointment, because Corbet, a Catholic, had been educated at Trinity College, Dublin. In the face of the bishop’s opposition, Corbet became so disillusioned that he moved to Britain and went into private practice instead.

In 1956 there was the Clonlara affair, in which a group, led by local curate Fr Patrick Ryan, roughed up two Jehovah’s Witnesses, seized and burned their literature, and told them to get out of town and never return. The victims complained to gardaí, and the offenders were prosecuted.

Yet the victims were bound to the peace, ordered to put up a surety of £100 each and two independent sureties of £100 each, or spend three months in jail. They had not even been charged with anything.

“Your worship’s decision is unprecedented and contrary to the law of this country,” solicitor Gerald Goldberg protested.

Of course, Bishop Joseph Rodgers of Killaloe was in court that day. He complained afterwards to then Taoiseach John A Costello, not about the travesty of justice but of the prosecution of Fr Ryan and the others. “I find it hard to credit that the attorney-general, had he been fully aware of the pernicious and blasphemous literature distributed and sold in my diocese would have proceeded against one of my priests for upholding and defending the fundamental truths of our treasured Catholic faith,” the bishop wrote.

“We censor obscene literature. Your attorney-general prosecutes one of my priests for doing what I, and all good Catholics here, regard as his bounden duty and right,” Bishop Rodgers continued.

Instead of telling the bishop to sit on his mitre, the Taoiseach cravenly replied that he fully appreciated “the just indignation aroused among the clergy and the people by the activities of the Jehovah’s Witnesses”.

COSTELLO was ousted in 1957 but the bishops remained as arrogant following Eamon de Valera’s return. The Fethard-on-Sea controversy erupted after a local curate insisted that the Protestant mother of two children of a mixed marriage had essentially no say in the their education. She fled with the children to Northern Ireland, where Paisley helped her. Local people in Fethard, responded by boycotting Protestant businesses.

Bishop Michael Browne of Galway — in the presence of John Cardinal Dalton — publicly endorsed the sectarian boycott 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”.

The next quasi-religious fiasco was the Rose Tattoo affair, sparked by an actor pretending to drop a condom on stage. That seemed like the final absurdity. Poor Dev had gone blind and the country had gone daft.

Our politicians were kissing the bishops on all four cheeks until President Mary McAleese stood up to Archbishop Desmond Connell, who publicly denounced her for taking Communion at a Protestant service in Dublin’s Christ Church Cathedral. In contrast with the gunmen-turned-politicians who cowered in fear of a proverbial belt of a crosier, Mrs McAleese had the exquisite audacity to announce she would do so again.

A poll afterwards found that 78% of people agreed with her. In effect, she told the bishops who had hijacked the republic where to put their crosiers. It was a bold stand for ecumenism and a long overdue assertion of the republican primacy of the people.


New series explores Ireland's remote townlands and its people

James McAvoy is a Glass act in latest film

Turning 30: Regrets, advice and reflection from those who've hit the milestone

Mild winter inspires new season’s looks

More From The Irish Examiner