Why Northern Ireland’s anti sectarianism is semi permanently stuck in “the crawler lane”…

In a couple of recent Belfast Telegraph articles Malachi O’Doherty has developed the idea that the core division in Northern Ireland is about more than sovereignty and divided loyalties to either Ireland or Great Britain.

‘We are divided territorially’, he argues. This includes education, schooling, residential segregation, sport, religion, cultural preferences, language ‘and whatever issue some councillors we’ve rarely heard from will choose to quarrel over next’.

That the British government has resiled from tackling that fundamental problem of sectarianism is something to be regretted. Amidst the furore over amnesty, the fact that the government had strengthened its language in that regard was largely overlooked.

For instance, the July 2021 Command Paper ‘Addressing the Legacy of Northern Ireland’s Past’ went beyond previous platitudes about tackling sectarianism to promoting ‘anti-sectarianism’. This more assertive tone was dropped in the subsequent Bill, though an amendment currently before the Lords requests that it be reinserted.

What is anti-sectarianism?

Part of the reason for the reversion to the idea of ‘reconciliation’ and promises to challenge sectarian division might be that it is difficult to imagine legislating for anti-sectarianism. It’s perhaps easier to see what anti-sectarianism is not rather than defining what it is.

Extrapolating from O’Doherty’s columns, anti-sectarianism really ought to be decoupled from reconciliation (which itself, is impossible to define being both a (transitive) verb and a noun – in short, a process and an event). Whereas the latter depends on a vague hope that the ‘two communities’ can come together on some imagined common ground, the former involves resisting and questioning the exclusivist ethno-religious assumptions that are the preserve of the ethnic blocs (and that are taken as a given by that two communities model or way of thinking).

It is difficult to underestimate the depth of that way of conceptualizing the ‘Northern Ireland problem’ and the extent to which it saturates the way politics are thought about and done here.

Arguably it operates as a fully fledged ideology: It describes the world (divided sovereignty, divided communities), it provides a roadmap for overcoming problems (reconciliation and moving forward), and, in the coinage of Michael Freeden, the doyen of ideology studies, it decontests meaning – it provides a common language and frame of reference for people to get the gist of understandings.

What it’s not

That ideology is epitomized in the work and ethos of the Community Relations Council. Companies Housereturns suggest that the CRC gets an annual budget of around £3m from the Executive, £2m of which it uses to fund various local projects. The CRC’s ‘vision’ goals are terms that are difficult to argue with but equally difficult to substantiate: ‘interconnectedness’, ‘diversity’, ‘equity and equality’, ‘respect and dignity’ and so on. But, on that point of substantiation, with the litany of incidences of sectarian division outlined above together with the fact that there has been an uptick of sectarian hate crime offences reported to the PSNI (2020-21: 1,067 reports), if the CRC did not exist would anyone notice?

Of course, in part, the answer to that is Yes: the middle-class do-gooders who subscribe to the ideology of two communities because it enables them to preach reconciliation while demarcating themselves as not part of the problem.

As O’Doherty says, this is a political issue for Alliance, all of whose most recent Assembly seats come from the unionist-dominated east of the Province – they can’t be seen as being too patronizing to their voters in case it will cost them transfers: to amend E.P. Thompson’s famous phrase, no one likes being subject to the enormous condescension of prosperity.

Knowing it when it’s seen

Sectarianism itself is never far from the Northern Irish Overton Window – thanks to ill-judged communal singing and malignant Twitter contributors. But anti-sectarianism resides as a kind of photo negative indirectly relating to a range of topics. It can be read, for instance, in Mick Fealty’s, allusion to the resilient moral compass of Patrick Kielty in disavowing Tommy Tiernan’s minimizing of rebel songs (‘That’s so harmless’): If the bloody follies of the last fifty years have taught us anything useful, it’s surely that forcing the matter is deeply counterproductive?

This could be described as anti-sectarianism in a positive form (positive implying change or intervention, rather than a value judgment): It is a refusal and a resistance to the idea of tolerating the banter and craic of ethnic sentimentality. This is the exact opposite of the type of nudging paternalism and wishful thinking behind the CRC and the two-communities-reconciled ideology.

A complementary negative form might look like the kind of self-educating that, in another recent and widely shared interview, Jarlath Burns spoke about unionist sensitivities and the need to respect cultural values simply because ‘[the GAA] can’t be our culture and nobody else’s’. There is a performative dimension to this – Burns is a school principal and is running to become the next GAA president. In other words, on the one hand one might expect him to say such things, but, on the other, he doesn’t necessarily need to.

Fealty quotes Trevor Ringland who also mentions ‘respect’ and frames it similarly in relation to stating hard truths and the avoidance of both whataboutery and the seemingly cultural constant of the politeness involved in not mentioning the elephant in the room. In his Newsletter article, Ringland highlights one of those hard truths: ‘There was always an alternative to the violence that involved cooperation while respecting differences’.

The notion alternatives is important because it points to the limits of respect – it is simply incommensurable to, for instance, Michelle O’Neill’s repeated claim that the ‘war … came to [republicans]’. The incommensurability means that, unlike Burns, O’Neill’s putative aspiration to try’ to find ways in which to ensure that those of a British identity feel protected’ falls flat: things are too far gone for that.

Getting there

Getting the history right is one way to challenge anti-sectarianism. It is a challenge to the contradictory hopes of republicans that, time out of mind, the conflict will be reframed as an inevitable civil rights struggle. And it is a pre-emptive corrective to the fundamental sectarian temptation to ‘remember the past not in order to get it right, but in order to get it wrong’.

Secondly, given that ethno-religious identities are not essentialist or essentializing, then they can be changed. If the government is serious about anti-sectarianism, then, it might begin by looking at the banal nationalism inculcated in our sectarian education system.

Finally, we need not be waiting to hear ‘from political leaders and others that this is what they want’. O’Doherty suggestion is caustic because the very structuring of Northern Irish politics around the two communities model means that sectarianism is precisely what politicians want and need; though, of course, they cannot say that.

Better to look to people and organizations that have been on the frontline of resisting sectarianism – trades unions, for instance, or the nonaligned groups who have traditionally be pushed to the margins of a society that valorizes conformity, sameness and exclusion.

The politics of dissent and resistance have as long a history on this island as those of sectarianism. These pages are another iteration of that history. These pages play a role in fostering change – in challenging the ideology that two communities and sectarianism are ubiquitous and inevitable.

In that regard, O’Doherty suggests that, 25 years after the 1998 Agreement, it might take us another quarter century to get beyond the two communities model. Beginning to imagine possibilities and potential beyond that model, in short, to take anti-sectarianism seriously would be a first step to shortening that timescale.


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