Conflict is over politics, not religion

(Published in The Express-Times on July 23, 2001.)

When terrorists sprayed gunfire Friday morning into a children’s community center in Belfast, Northern Ireland, two women “bundled the children into the cupboard after they were sprayed with splinters from the bullet-riddled door,” The Irish News of Belfast reported Saturday.

The Irish News identified one woman as Protestant, the other as Catholic.

Take notice. The violence in Northern Ireland is not a religious war. Victimization knows no denomination. No matter how many times you read it in American newspapers or hear it described that way on television or radio news, don’t believe it: It’s not a conflict over religion. It’s a conflict over politics.

Nationalists want a united Ireland, something they’ve fought for (sometimes violently) at least since the Republic of Ireland gained independence from Britain in the 1920s. Unionists want to maintain the separate state of Northern Ireland as part of the British Empire. Loyalists are extremists who violently lash out against nationalists, whether those targets are statesmen or families.

That’s how Irish media report the conflict and its peace process, using the words “nationalist,” “loyalist,” and “unionist.”

The loyalist group claiming responsibility for the attack on the children’s center threatened to “escalate” its campaign adding, “We consider all nationalist people as hostile and legitimate targets,” according to The Irish News.

Note no mention of “Catholics.” Apparently, religion doesn’t matter to them. Politics does.

Yet, nearly every American newspaper you read, from The New York Times down to the local papers printing Associated Press wire dispatches, refers to the conflict there as between Catholics and Protestants. Many of the journalists actually report the news from London rather than Ireland. We read these newspapers and scratch our heads, wondering why on earth there’s another holy war going on. Then, tired of religious squabbles, we turn our eyes and look away.

The anachronistic terms date back to the beginnings of the conflict. Essentially, most Irish were Catholic. Most British in Ireland were Protestant. It became an easy way to distinguish an Irish national from someone loyal to the British Empire.

Hence, you have your divisions. True, today nearly all loyalists are Protestant, and probably most nationalists are Catholic.

But not all of them. That’s important. As the Irish News reported, Catholics aren’t the only victims of loyalist attacks. Religion’s just a convenient – but inaccurate – label.

American journalists haven’t updated their terminology, and as a result, many people truly think religion drives the conflict in Northern Ireland. It often sounds more like a religious squabble than what it really is – an ongoing struggle for democratic self-determination.

When 3,000 members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, America’s largest and oldest Irish Catholic organization, made their way into Bethlehem this past week, I posed the question to some of them. Why do you think the American, British, and world media report the conflict in terms of religion? Rita O’Hare, a top executive for Sinn Fein, Northern Ireland’s largest political party, had an interesting answer.

“(One top Sinn Fein leader) doesn’t come from a Catholic family,” O’Hare said, stressing the person’s name should not be published. “Many nationalists aren’t Catholic. It explodes the myth that it’s Catholic versus Protestant. It’s about politics. Religion is just a handy thing. It’s an easy way of setting people against each other.”

So if Irish Protestants number among the nationalists, why don’t they announce themselves as such and prove to people this isn’t some idiotic war over Christian beliefs?

“Identify themselves and they’d be dead,” O’Hare said. “The loyalists would kill them.”

As a reporter, I realize how easy it is to manipulate readers’ perceptions through choosing the right words, and it’s our job to avoid this at all costs. Yet, American international reporters perpetuate a myth by reporting the conflict in terms of religion. It’s status quo reporting by journalists and editors who apparently haven’t questioned themselves in far too long.

Now, full disclosure time: I’m an Irish-American. You can’t find an ancestor on my father’s side that wasn’t Irish Catholic. My father and grandfather christened their boat “Sinn Fein,” – which means “ourselves alone” in the Irish language – and they had a great time winning races off Long Island against people who voted against John F. Kennedy because he was Irish Catholic.

However, I’m an American first, and then I’m a reporter. For me, that supersedes my ethnic background. Say what you want about the state of the media, but I’m an idealist. Truth stands highest among my sentiments. By incorrectly describing the conflict in Northern Ireland in religious terms, American journalists do a disservice to American citizens, many of whom are of Irish descent and care about the people in Northern Ireland.

If journalists report correctly, maybe Americans won’t turn their eyes away.