The leader of the far-right British National Party, Nick Griffin, will be investigated by the police after referring to Catholics as 'fenian bastards' on Twitter.
Griffin, who was attending events commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Ulster Covenant, a major landmark in Northern Ireland unionist history, was apparently incensed by people he believed to be Irish republicans attacking him on Twitter. His response was:
'So Ulster pics have upset my Republican stalkers. Tell you what, the bodran (sic) can't match the lambeg, you Fenian bastards.'
After a torrent of outrage, Griffin clarified that he was ONLY referring to Irish republicans as fenians. This is a little like calling a black person a racial term of abuse, and then later claiming you were only calling that particular person by that name, and that no other black person need be offended. The argument is further weakened by referring to the traditional Irish instrument the Bodhran, comparing it unfavourably to the Lambeg drums often used at unionist rallies.
The word 'fenian' has long been a sectarian term of abuse for Catholics in Northern Ireland. Its use is deemed to be increasingly shocking amongst many. It is a word stuffed with history, hardened down the ages. Many Northern Ireland Catholics, this one included, can remember the first time they were called a 'fenian' - this outpouring of anger is in no small part due to the associations that people have with the word.
This isn't the first time Griffin has used this term on his Twitter feed however, so perhaps he felt safe enough using it this time. However, his use of the word during a time of heightened tensions in Northern Ireland - with many significant centenaries coming up - is particularly foolish and unhelpful.
Unionist politicians and even the Orange Order were keen to put as much distance as possible between themselves and Griffin after these comments. Perhaps they are rightfully embarrassed that someone as odious as Griffin identifies with the supremacist overtones in the celebration. It's hard to argue that the anti-Catholic Orange Order, for example, with its "No Catholics allowed" policy, isn't a million miles away from the BNP's "Whites-only" vision.
It's also worth remembering that it hasn't been that long since unionist politicians would be out making the kinds of comments that Griffin has. In fact, our own current Finance Minister, Sammy Wilson, was reported by the Andersonstown News as saying that 'Fenians aren't ratepayers' while he was Mayor of Belfast in 2001. Notorious DUP member George Seawright claimed in 1984 that '(Catholics are) just fenian scum... taxpayers money would be better spent on an incinerator and burning the lot of them. Their priests should be thrown in as well.'
Unionist politicians have learned, and learned well, to keep such pronouncements behind closed doors. Or at least, to stop just short of verbally articulating what they think, relying on innuendo instead. With the same unrepentant people in control of the DUP for decades, I find it impossible to believe that they have truly changed their tune about what they really think about Catholics. Outside of mixed-religion circles, there will be plenty of utterances of the word 'fenian' on a daily basis. There will be a lot of unionists and loyalists silently agreeing with Griffin's statement. Does anyone really believe that the DUP and it's rank and file have undergone such a transformation in such a short time? I know of many unionists who speak of "republican scum." Such hate-fuelled language makes me think that in their minds, there is little difference between "republican" and "catholic."
The truth is, what Griffin has been caught saying in public is simply a more unvarnished version of what many unionists and loyalists think of Catholics. You don't have to look far to see the same sentiments expressed in non-verbal form; the recent incident where a loyalist band played the sectarian 'Famine Song' outside a Catholic church. That is not to say that sectarianism exists in everyone, nor that it is a problem on only one side of the community. Just that it's worth pointing out that some condemnations of sectarianism by the province's politicians sound a little hollow. The majority of my friends are from the unionist and loyalist traditions. Some of the ones I know best know of how deep this hidden sectarianism can go into communities. It has to be rooted out if there's ever going to be a proper reconciliation in Northern Ireland. I challenge unionists - and nationalists too - to say that they don't know anyone who uses language like this.
And at the minute we live in a climate where a DUP junior minister was torched and his remarks deliberately misinterpreted for suggesting that sectarianism hides in all walks of life, in all social classes. This isn't the climate to begin a proper discussion about sectarianism.
And before someone jumps in and accuse me of being a nationalist (I'm not) or a unionist-basher (I'm not), I was relieved to discover that prominent unionist commentator Alex Kane at least broadly agrees with my view:
"If you're looking for evidence of the 'prejudice and the hatred whispered behind closed doors' you could begin with most of our political parties. While it is certainly not true that every individual member of the UUP, DUP, SDLP or Sinn Fein is a bigot, with a deep-seated prejudice against political opponents, I have seen enough evidence (much of it behind closed doors) to suggest that most of them do. And I have also been involved in politics--as an activist, columnist, commentator and guest speaker--long enough to know that political parties are broadly reflective of their voters."
Griffin's intrusion, however unwanted, has at least united all sides in condemnation of him. Narrowly elected to the European Parliament in 2009 as the BNP's first representative there, he has been the BNP's leader since 1999. His strategy has long since been to 'modernise' the party in the style of French fellow travellers, the Front Nationale. This involves a strategy of talking about 'national identity' rather than race and attempts to distance the BNP from its roots in the British neo-nazi movement. His increasingly erratic Twitter postings, along with the multiple resignations, personality conflicts and election failures of the BNP, is indicative of a party in self-destruct mode as Griffin's strategy to make the party a mass movement fails.
Follow Adam McGibbon on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@adammcgibbon