I MET Ian Paisley once and, as I recall, we shook hands. It was shortly after I’d attended a service in his church on the Ravenhill Road in Belfast. This was sometime around 1995 when Paisley was still in the pomp of his sectarianism. I wasn’t meeting him to confess the sins of my Catholicism or to discuss the strands of my Birmingham Irishness. I was there as part of a university course I was on and any doubts I might have retained about shaking hands with the North’s most famous bigot were allayed by the fact that one of my fellow students was from the Falls Road.
If he was going to stick out his hand it was hardly on me to keep mine in my pocket.
The church service had been nothing short of utterly strange. It mainly consisted of Paisley berating, at full throttle, the ‘whore of Rome’ that was the Catholic Church and its champion, the pope. It was knockabout, carnival, showtime prejudice. Like a literate, scriptural, Trump.
After the service, when we were introduced to Paisley himself, I remember being struck by how one of his sons simply called him dad and how the big man himself was slightly tremulous. Even sectarian showmen are human too.
I was thinking about this recently after footage emerged of a woman chanting ‘Ooh ahh, up the Ra’ while standing next to Arlene Foster after asking for a photograph. The event was some kind of business awards dinner which you would imagine attracting a certain kind of conservative-thinking person.
Now Arlene Foster is not a person I would agree with politically in any way I can imagine. She is a right wing politician who is, even, so far to the right that she has a show on, God help us, GB news. She writes for the, God help us again, Daily Express and is, heavens above, a fervent admirer of Margaret Thatcher. No, I can’t see us enjoying a quiet pint together. She is an ardent unionist. At a guess I’d say we would disagree on virtually everything.
But I’d like to think I wouldn’t ask her for a selfie and then record myself singing something I know would deeply offend her.
Not because I’m some kind of moral saint, far from it, but just because that is not something I would feel proud of doing.
Quite simply, why would you seek to conduct yourself in that way and then publish it for everyone to see? It would be like recording every drunken conversation you’d ever had, the ones where you talked absolute nonsense, where you cried or laughed or became deeply emotional about very little, and then made sure everyone saw it all.
Why on earth would you do that? We’ve all done things we wished we hadn’t but alerting everyone to them is just very, very odd.
There is, of course, a larger component at play here and that is one about social discourse. When it comes to how we talk to each other or how we behave towards each other has the rise of social media made us crueller? After all, why taunt a woman whose father was shot by the IRA if no one gets to see it? Would that woman have done that thing if there was no phone at hand to record it? Indeed, does the media of the internet mean that the old hatreds that bedevil the north have been given a new lease of online life?
From Michaela McAreavey taunts to ooh ah up the Ra to we all hate Catholics how much of our sectarianism now breathes anew on the various channels of social media?
Yes the north of this island remains a troubled, divided place, for all the progress that has been made, for all the peace. And those old hatreds may well just bubble beneath the surface anyway. But something seems to bring them to the fore, something to do with a lack of civil conduct and discourse and the spiteful oxygen of Twitter or TikTok or whatever you’re having yourself.
Just imagine for a moment if that woman had put down her phone, looked Arlene Foster in the eyes, and had a conversation with her. Not about anything deep but just, say, about the event they were both attending. Who knows, perhaps they might have had a quiet pint together. That would be better, wouldn’t it?