The trouble with sectarianism

24 May 2019 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 24 May 2019

Picture: Wiki Commons

Last week saw the publication of an important report on sectarianism in Northern Ireland 

Professor Duncan Morrow’s paper attracted headlines for some the more eye-catching of its recommendations: a new sporting anthem, a dedicated government department. However the real meat of the report is a brilliant analysis of sectarianism which starkly outlines the scale of the challenge we face.

The review states it is “designed to move past simply ‘understanding the problem’ and instead to suggest positive and practical means whereby real progress might be made in bringing the issue of sectarianism here to successful resolution through reconciliation.”

The trouble is that most of us don’t really understand the problem, or else we understand it in different ways. And often the economic drivers of division are underestimated or ignored. This is what makes Morrow’s analysis a must-read.

The report opens with a definition of sectarianism. This is necessary not least because for most of us sectarianism is displayed by others, never ourselves. So therefore “it is perfectly possible, indeed likely, that attitudes, behaviours or presumptions that we take to be unproblematic or ‘normal’ are regarded as ‘sectarian’ by others.”

Furthermore many object to the use of the term on the grounds that it over-emphasises the religious dimension of division to the detriment of political and economic causes.

The term has its roots in the religious wars of the 16th and 17th century – a time when politics and theology were intertwined and when combatants on all sides regarded themselves as forces of good opposing evil.

Today division tends to focus on politics rather than religion but the historic association between religion and politics is still strong. The report states: “What is consistent is the hostility: what may have changed over the years is the precise role of faith and doctrine.”

Morrow argues that sectarianism is “part of the everyday” in Northern Ireland. It shapes our identity not just in terms of belonging to one community, but also not being  part of the other; our attitudes; our behaviour where we live, how we speak, what we wear; and the structure of political, sporting and educational life.

And as a result: “Friendships, of which there are many, usually thrive in spite of sectarianism, and often survive on the basis of tacitly avoiding giving offence or discussing divisive issues.”

So therefore we have been raised into a society where sectarianism is built in to normal life.

His analysis is important because it unflinchingly reveals the scale of the problem. Unravelling such deep seated assumptions and habits is a massive challenge. It also suggests that when it comes to sectarianism we should not be too hasty to exclude ourselves whilst pointing the finger at others and that it is as often unconscious as deliberate.

Discussions about sectarianism need to be framed against changing demographics. The 2011 census marked the first time that those defining themselves as Protestant fell below 50%. It showed 45% of Northern Ireland’s population were Catholic or brought up Catholic, 48% were Protestant or brought up Protestant or other Christian and 5.6% neither belonged to nor had been brought up in a religion.

More detailed analysis shows that only two of the six counties now have significant Protestant majorities – Down and Antrim and of our five cities, only Lisburn has a Protestant majority.

This shift is expected to accelerate because it is most marked in younger age groups – 40% of Protestants were under 35 compared to 51% of Catholics. Both universities have majority student populations.

This does not necessarily of itself imply clear consequences either for politics or perceived national identity. The census also showed a large rise – to 21% - of people defining themselves as Northern Irish rather than British or Irish. As the report points out we’ll have to wait until the next census in 2021 to see if that is a growing trend or a fad at a time when people had more faith in our political institutions than they do today.  

The population – as elsewhere is ageing. This will necessitate more immigration which should exert a positive pressure for creating a more pluralist society.

The report considers interface communities in Belfast – a city where there is likely to be a Catholic majority within a few years. Grinding poverty is a characteristic of communities on both sides of the walls, but changing demographics are already having an impact.

The report describes perceptions on Protestant side of interfaces as pessimistic, with a sense of community decline, abandonment and dereliction and increasing restrictions for community    celebration (eg parades, flags and emblems). And it sees a younger, more optimistic Catholic population having concerns about housing issues,  including overcrowding and multiple  deprivation, rooted in unequal access to space, homes and other amenities.

Changing demographics are mirrored by voting patterns. In analysing these the report concludes: “An unmistakable, if still uneven, historic trend was visible. In 1969, unionism claimed some 66% of the vote. By the 1980s, the consistent Unionist majority had slipped into the ‘high 50s’, and slightly above 50% by the 1990s. In 1997, it fell to less than half for the first time.  In the Assembly election of 2017, the combined Unionist vote (DUP+UUP+TUV+PUP) was 44.3%.”

The report finds that this gives little comfort to those that might have hoped that bread and butter issues would supersede identity issues and also provides a thoughtful analysis both of the collapse of the Assembly and the impact of Brexit in increasing polarisation, threatening the legacy of the Good Friday Agreement.

It concludes: “As the numbers of Catholics and Protestant become more equal, the potential for this to crystallise into political antagonism could grow unless there is consistent political partnership, clear and plausible commitment to sharing the future and a spirit of generosity in relation to past hurts.”

This points to a profound political dilemma – building reconciliation in a sectarian society at a time of shifting demographics where both communities have grievances with sharply different narratives.

Separation and segregation in both schools and housing is also discussed. And although the report notes that the number of highly segregated council wards is decreasing, that some communities may regard that as a loss (of territory) rather than a matter for celebration.

Finally the report addresses economic issues, finding that economic equality across society is much more significant than the differential between communities.

It concludes: “Since the Good Friday Agreement, there has been little change in the location and nature of poverty and deprivation. This has led to persistent complaints that the ‘peace dividend’ has not reached the most difficult areas. Until now the links between poverty and conflict have been addressed by policy in a largely piecemeal fashion.  Yet it is clearly true that poverty and the absence of any prospect of a prosperous future fuels resentment and alienation while sectarian division prevents any meaningful efforts to generate a flourishing economy by deterring investment and driving the flight of talent.

“Connecting anti-sectarian work with action to prevent and address poverty and deprivation is critical, especially in education, health, security and planning. Policy for a shared future must have a clear economic and social dimension.”

There are many high-level recommendations in the report and the Sir George Quigley Fund Committee that commissioned it is planning to hold a conference to share them. It might also be useful for it to fund a separate piece of work to create a detailed, costed policy paper on how they might be implemented.



Join the Conversation...

We'd love to know your thoughts on this article.
Join us on Twitter and join the conversation today.

Join Our Newsletter

Get the latest edition of ScopeNI delivered to your inbox.