Irish sectarianism sometimes has breathtaking qualities.
At a Dublin murder trial last Friday, the defence counsel stated his client was a “decent, hardworking, ordinary, middle-class man and a member of the Church of Ireland”.
“And a member of the Church of Ireland”, what does that mean? Is it a suggestion that our community is somehow immune to the failings of the rest of society? Is it a suggestion that people like us “don’t do that sort of thing”?
Why was it relevant? Why would a leading barrister even make mention of a person’s denominational background if it were not for the fact that he believed that the label “Church of Ireland” would prompt certain thoughts amongst the jury?
Is it intended to conjure up thoughts of garden fetes and men in suits and women in floral prints and businessmen and professionals and country farmhouses and soft accents and old money and nice cakes and home made jam? Is it meant to elicit thoughts of wholesomeness and trustworthiness? One assumes so.
It is difficult to imagine the outrage that would ensue if a defence counsel in Belfast suggested that being a member of the Church of Ireland was a reason why a jury should see things differently. Imagine if a barrister at the Old Bailey in London stood up and said his client came from a community that was perceived as being “nice” or “good sorts” or “a better class of people”.
It seems odd that the judge did not intervene and ask his learned friend how reference to his client’s denomination was relevant to the matter, other than to play on stereotypes the jury might hold in their minds. (Similarly, it seems odd that the defence counsel’s reference to the victim’s boyfriend as a “half-Italian gigolo” should have passed unchallenged: does being half-Italian mean one is less worthy of esteem?)
If sectarianism in the courts is not sufficient, the Irish Times today suggest that more Protestants would lead to less corruption. Has the writer ever been to a large Loyalist estate in the North? Has she ever tried dealing with people involved in the ‘organisations’?
Meeting with members of a Loyalist political group back in the 1990s over concerns about intimidation and punishment beatings, one of them reflected that problems arose from the fact that violence was seen as a way of solving disputes by working class people. People had not recourse to professional channels or to the courts; if someone caused offence to the community, they would be beaten up, was his argument. Similarly, people trapped in the cyclical poverty of some communities found criminality an easy avenue to prestige amongst one’s peers and money for one’s desires.
Being Protestant no more makes a person less corrupt than it makes one immune to the crime of murder; the differences in perception arise not from theological convictions but from an amalgam of factors including history, social class, education, wealth, cultural influences and personal opportunities.
Church of Ireland people in this country tend not to resort to violence because our predominantly middle class community resolves its differences in other ways. Protestant people often come from long-established backgrounds, were they part of a culture where there has been a struggle for wealth, their patterns of behaviour might be very different, as they are in the North.
Stereotypes, even if complimentary, are not helpful. They misrepresent reality and perpetuate our misunderstandings of each other.