Northern Ireland has experienced a political earthquake after an extraordinary election saw Sinn Fein surge and unionists lose their majority for the first time in history. A return to power-sharing is now questionable, as Sinn Fein has previously refused to rule along with the Democratic Unionists and now wields even more power at Stormont.
I’m never quite sure whether the political divide in Northern Ireland is a nationalist division, or a religious division. It’s probably both. Northern Ireland is Protestant and part of the Union, while Ireland is Catholic and a sovereign state – and has been a sovereign state since the Easter Rising a century ago (until it joined the EU, and ceased to be a sovereign state).
Before that, Ireland was firstly conquered by the same Normans who had conquered England in 1066, and who arrived in Ireland in 1171, during the reign of Henry II. And it was later reconquered by the Tudors in the reign of Henry VIII, and again very bloodily by Oliver Cromwell a century later. Ireland has a 700-year-long history of on-off English occupation.
I have a distant interest, because my mother’s side of my family originated from the Bog of Allen (a place that I only discovered some 10 years to actually exist, a little west of Dublin ) in Ireland, and I was raised as a Roman Catholic in Protestant England. And part of my religious education consisted of being reminded of all the Catholic martyrs who had died horrific deaths in England after the Reformation introduced by Henry VIII. There was intense persecution of Catholics in 16th century England. And there was also occasional equally intense persecution of Protestants, who also have their illustrious martyrs.
I never fully understood why these various persecutions and counter-persecutions took place, because nobody ever took the trouble to explain. But to the extent that I now think that I understand it, I believe it was because Catholics who owed religious allegiance to the Pope in Rome were regarded as being potential (and perhaps actual) traitors – much in the same way as modern Europhiles are regarded by some people as traitors.
Nor did I ever really understand the Catholic Christianity into which I had been inducted. Seven years of education by an army of Benedictine monks never quite made a lifelong Catholic out of me. Christianity never really quite made sense, in much the same way the chemistry lessons to which I was subjected never quite made sense either (while the mathematics and physics lessons usually made perfect sense). I’ve spent the rest of my life trying to understand both Christianity and Chemistry, with only modest success.
And perhaps a great many other people were never quite able to make sense of whichever brand of Christianity, Catholic or Protestant, to which they had first been introduced. Fewer and fewer people attend church. For in many ways, all Christians seem to believe much the same thing, with only slightly different accentuations and flavourings, and so all must be equally likely to experience the same doubts and incomprehensions. It’s in a deepening spiritual vacuum that a variety of different cults – including Islam – now proliferate.
There is no modern persecution of either Catholics or Protestants in Britain. Their churches co-exist side by side. But the spirit of intolerant persecution lives on: it’s simply that the targets of persecution have shifted elsewhere.
These days, you won’t be persecuted in Britain if you’re a Catholic or a Protestant, but you will be if you smoke tobacco. Just yesterday, I was reporting how antismoking persecutor-in-chief Deborah Arnott was demanding that smokers be forced out of all hospital grounds into the dangerous streets outside. And in next week’s Budget, Chancellor Philip Hammond will doubtless ratchet up taxes on tobacco another notch in the endless escalator of tax rises. The Arnotts of the world are driven by an antismoking religious fervour as passionate as any displayed by torturers of previous centuries. We smokers are supposed to recite the new litany, that Smoking Causes Cancer, that Smoking Causes Heart Disease, that Smoking Causes Premature Death, and so on. We are encouraged as assiduously to repent of our wicked and sinful ways, and renounce the Devil (tobacco) and all his works and pomps, as any condemned priest at Tyburn being shown the implements of torture which were about to be used to disembowel him.
In time we smokers will have our own books like Foxe’s Lives of the Martyrs. I’ve already begun one with The Smokers’ Graveyard. It will be an awful record of the people who fell out of windows, or off roofs or balconies, while trying to have a quiet smoke somewhere. And people will read it in incomprehension that so much cruelty and contempt and hatred could be displayed by supposedly civilised people towards something so innocuous.
In time, the accusatory finger of persecution will point elsewhere. 500 years ago it was Catholics and their satanic Pope. 50 years ago, it was the demon drug marijuana. In coming years it will probably be fat people, dog-owners, or skate-boarders who will be demonised and persecuted. The only constant is persecution. There is an endless supply of Arnotts who, having identified some new evil (obesity, dogs, skate-boards), will self-righteously and zealously work to eradicate it from the world. Catholicism. Marijuana. Tobacco. Coming soon, the great Custard Tart Prohibition.
And all these various persecutions leave lasting marks, and result in animosities that endure for centuries – just like in Northern Ireland -, and which modern politicians and pundits and reformers will work to exacerbate, even while they are stoking the fires of the latest witch-hunt on something else.