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Book review:When the Lord’s words become a call to arms

February 15, 2011

By Staff Reporter

GOD AND THE GUN: The Church and Irish Terrorism, by Martin Dillon. Routledge Press. 244 pp. $25. .

America has Rev. Jerry Falwell, the Middle East has its ultra-Orthodox rabbis on one side and fanatical mullahs on the other, and Belfast has the Rev. Ian Paisley. Are religious fundamentalists – of whatever stripe – more trouble than they’re worth? Based upon the existing evidence, it would certainly seem so. Whether it’s a bombing at an abortion clinic in Atlanta, a doorstep shooting in West Belfast or a wholesale massacre inside a Jerusalem mosque, twisted individuals who take the word of God to be a license to kill, along with the leaders who egg them on, have been responsible for quite a lot of human suffering over the last 50 years or so.

In this new book, Martin Dillon explores the problem as it relates to Northern Ireland, and many of his conclusions are disturbing, to say the least. In a series of interviews with priests and preachers on both sides of the conflict, the author paints a picture that is nothing if not bleak.

The first of these interviews is with Kenny McClinton – also known as “The Maniac” – who was among the worst of the UDA killers, admittedly a sadistic brute even before he found politics, and an associate of the notorious Shankill Butchers gang. He killed indiscriminately, innocent Catholics and dissident Protestants alike, but underwent a miraculous “born again” conversion following his 1977 arrest. This ultimately led to an early release from prison. McClinton today walks the streets of Belfast a free man, preaching his message of intolerance under the guise of religion.

Another case of miraculous conversion occurred with the notorious Loyalist killer Robert “Basher” Bates. He too was released to proselytize on behalf of anti-Catholicism until some of his former Protestant allies decided to murder him.

And to say that these “conversions” are the source of much skepticism would be an understatement, since they are often followed by the drastic commutation of prison sentences by the British authorities.

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On the Catholic side, the author presents things as being a bit more muddled. There is no member of the Catholic clergy who could reasonably be compared to Paisley, and no former IRA assassins who’ve turned in their balaclavas for the collar of a priest. As an institution, however, the church itself is less than sympathetic to the Republican cause.

No, the problems confronted by men of God on the Catholic side are seemingly quite different. To wit, a priest hears the admission of atrocities in the sanctity of the confessional, or performs the wretched duty of administering the Last Rites to a badly beaten informant about to be executed, and all the while he labors under an official Church position that IRA membership is, in itself, sinful.

Ultimately, Dillon’s conclusions are troubling and none too optimistic. He finds the hard-line Protestant position simply too intractable to allow for any foreseeable outcome but a further continuation of violence, regardless of what the politicians do.

Whether this view is correct remains to be seen, especially in light of events that have taken place since the book was written. Still, this is an absorbing study, and one that approaches the problems in the North from a unique perspective.

– Mike Hudson

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