Friday, 10 August 2012

British Israelites — Some of Our Best Friends?

During the past year the Blether Region was in the crowd at two memorable events in Belfast, the first being the annual Cearta is Ceiliúradh bash held by Pobal at St. George's Market last autumn, and the second, just last weekend, the Gay Pride parade through Belfast city centre.

Now, on the face of it, very few people speak Irish, and very few people are gay. In fact, Newton Emerson once memorably claimed that no one in Northern Ireland speaks Irish (Nelson McCausland's estimate was "about 20"). We know that there are a few gay people because Iris Robinson, Jim Wells and co. wouldn't otherwise get so exercised about them. When one actually witnesses events such as the above, however, it becomes obvious just how many people are actually in those groups. In fact, the Blether Region could count a good half dozen who fall into both.

Let's apply that information to another group, the British Israelites, the evangelical Christians — nothing to do with actual Jews — who believe, or affect to believe, that the various British ethnic groups are descended from the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. While BI is not a racist or sectarian belief in itself, various British Israelites have been associated with racist or sectarian organisations, for example, Christian Identity in the United States, and in Northern Ireland TARA, the National Front and dissident anti-Agreement Loyalist groups. Other groups in Northern Ireland that one might not (reflexively) put in (quite) the same category have been notable for the large numbers of British Israelites in their ranks, for example, the Ulster Independence Movement, and the Cross of St. Patrick LOL 688 (right back to the days of its co-founder William McGrath and its most iconic member, the unfortunate Rev. Robert Bradford).

But how many British Israelites are there? Well, counting the number of BI churches might give us some idea. In Belfast, one, that of Pastor Alan Campbell (Cregagh Covenant People's Fellowship), is based in Downshire Hall opposite Cregagh Library. Another, the Church of God, is based on the Mount just behind Woodstock Link. Those who live in Belfast will know that Woodstock Link and the Cregagh Road form a single arterial route. Until a few years ago there was another, much larger church in Belfast linked with BI thinking, Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle in the north of the city, which has a congregation of 2,000. That church has since disassociated itself from the movement.

And in the person of one noted BI devotee and convicted dissident Loyalist terrorist, Clifford Peeples (a protégé of Campbell), yet another church, Bethel Pentecostal off the Shankill Road, has been linked to BI.

There are more than likely other BI churches, gospel halls and smaller groups across Northern Ireland of which the Blether Region is unaware.

Furthermore, there is a cluster of interdenominational Protestant organisations with a disproportionately large number of declared and undeclared British Israelites in their ranks — the Loyal Orders. Not to mention various ostensibly apolitical and non-sectarian Ulster-Scots organisations (generally the ones that claim it's a language).

One is forced to conclude that, while BI is not a mainstream belief, it is a surprisingly widespread and influential one — and never excluded anyone from a mainstream role.

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