Racism: the Race is on

John Coulter with a piece on racism that featured in Tribune on 15 June 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? 


  1. Sinéad O'Shea who is a film maker and a journalist wrote an article recently on Ireland and how it's not a very nice place to be if you are a woman or an immigrant. Roy Greenslade is hosting it on his Guardian blog, and before him, Mick Fealty highlighted it on his google plus though not on his blog which was a pity as it is an article deserving of attention. O'Shea alludes to the nexus between state and media in Ireland much as Anthony McIntyre alluded to the nexus between police and the corruption of justice in his article on the Craigavon two.

    But as I read through this article by John Coulter it descends from speaking about the north and its particular set of circumstances and the whole of the island where the particular set of circumstances in the north do not really apply. The reason for the exsistence of the hard right in Britain is due to the failure of the main stream parties to deal with what is commonly termed as the abandonment of the white working class. If the parties in the north do not deal with the concerns of the working class then the working class will abandon traditional voting patterns and turn heavily to the right as we have seen elsewhere. UKIP owes its exsistence partially to this abandonment and although it only gained 3 councillors in recent elections that is two more councillors than it had before, along with the strong show of support for the TUV. Working class unionism has no where else to turn but to the right due to the failure of the left to get a foot hold in that community and the demise of the UUP which had some left leaning elements within its ranks.

    The demonstration against a young black man who was awarded a house is a failure of leadership of the political parties in unionism to deal with working class issues. This was in my view a fight over scarce resources more than an racist protest.

    The metropolitan tabernacle has no influence in Ireland as a whole and most couldn't give a stuff about what goes on there. I do not believe that there is a search on to find a fire brand preacher among the evangelical protestant churches, if there is they are keeping it very quiet. The circumstances for a figure like Paisley to rise up are not there any more due to the death of the Orange state, but what is in play is austerity and the social conditions that come from it.

    There is a housing crisis in Ireland north and south, with one case in the media recently paying 750 to a private landlord for an apartment for a couple in Ballymun. That is outrageous. The voters in the south have abandoned the labour party in favour of Sinn Fein and this is down to a protest vote over austerity, if SF don't meet the expectations of their enlarged mandate they won't keep those new voters, they will turn somewhere else to a party they feel will represent their interest better, and this is where new parties will come in, and could indeed be on the hard right.

    In Ireland the media tends to demonise the poor, much like is happening in Britain, if the Irish follow the footsteps of what is happening in Britain they will make the same mistakes and we will see much the same scenarios here as we do there.

    What is needed in this country is a recognition that unless money is put in to build a better infrastructure because if we don't the hard right parties will come and even more than that they will be welcomed...

  2. down with humans, they're the race i hate