Latest Weekend Argus column, as submitted. Unedited. -- AD
THERE’S an old joke about a visitor to Belfast, Northern Ireland, who finds himself on the wrong side of town. A drunk, spoiling for a fight, asks him whether he’s Protestant or Catholic. Thinking fast, he replies that he is an atheist. The drunk ponders this, before responding, “Yes, but are you a Protestant atheist or a Catholic atheist?”
In Belfast, it’s not a particularly funny joke. There, whether you’re a Catholic or a Protestant has little to do with religion but depends largely on whether you were born on this or that side of the Falls Road.
I visited Belfast in February 2005, shortly after a Sinn Féin supporter, Robert McCartney, was murdered in a pub brawl there, allegedly by members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army.
On the face of it, the brawl had little to do with politics -- McCartney was defending a friend who had allegedly insulted some women in the pub, Magennis’s, and for his troubles, he was attacked with a broken bottle and dragged into an alley where he was clubbed with metal bars before his throat was cut -- but his death would, in the months ahead, go on to have quite extraordinary political consequences.
The IRA initially denied involvement in the murder, but then later admitted that two of the four men directly responsible for McCartney’s death were IRA volunteers. They approached McCartney’s family with an offer to shoot those involved in the killing. The family, of course, would have nothing to do with this, but instead took their fight for justice to the US, where American support for Sinn Féin was waning.
What struck me about the incident, though, was the “wall of silence” that descended on Magennis’s. I visited the pub three days after the murder, and the reception I got was chilling. No-one would speak to me.
It was worse for the police. They weren’t called to the scene, but had noticed McCartney and his friend in the alley during a routine patrol. They were set upon by a mob of youths, and had to withdraw from the area until reinforcements in riot gear arrived. During this time, surveillance tapes from the bar’s security cameras were removed and destroyed, and the jackets and other items of clothing worn by McCartney’s attackers was burned. There were 71 potential witnesses to the brawl. Everyone of them said they were in the pub’s toilets at the time -- a cubicle that measures a little more than a square metre in area.
Later, I had dinner with a social worker who explained that, among Irish nationalists, contempt for the police was as bitter as ever, and that, since the 1998 Good Friday cease fire agreement, it was to the former paramilitaries that these divided communities looked to for law and order -- with some horrific consequences.
He told me of a Catholic woman, a single parent, who was concerned about her teenage son’s apparent delinquency, so she called in some IRA members to have a word with him. “The first time, the boy wakes up in the middle of the night, and there are these men in balaclavas in his bedroom, telling him to behave himself. It works. For a while. The second time, a few months later, they pull out a gun and kneecap him in front of his mother. Cripple him.”
I was reminded of all this and how religion poisons everything by the frenzied brouhaha following the president’s rather stupid comments about heaven and hell during a voter registration rally in Mthatha.
Here I must side with the ANC secertary-general, Gwede Mantashe, who has described the reaction of opposition parties to Jacob Zuma’s remarks and their charges of blasphemy as “childish”.
As a Catholic atheist -- thrashed and beaten by the best Irish teachers his parents could buy, all holy men good and true -- I’d suggest that anyone making a fuss about such nonsense could well be described as childish. And superstitious. And backward.
Unfortunately, that includes the ruling party as well, as they’ve somehow seen fit to install among their ranks an official ANC chaplain-general, one Rev Dr Vukile Mehana. Quite what his duties are, apart from leaping to the defence of the president in supposedly ecumenical matters, remains a mystery.
Perhaps he makes party members feel better about themselves. All politicians, by definition, have dysfunctional personalities, but this doesn’t mean they can’t be happy from time to time.
A far better response to Zuma’s remarks would have been to suggest that, yes, maybe there is a reward in heaven for ANC voters. But sadly nothing for them while they trudge the vale of tears this side of the pearly gates. Where it really counts.