In light of discussions about sectarianism, this is an excellent piece
by the Community Relations Council (2003)that is well worth a read.
What Is SectarianismAnti-sectarianism is a very long word – can we spell it?
Paraphrasing the childhood word game underlines the strangeness of the word and our unfamiliarity with the concept. For me ‘anti-sectarianism’ is community relations in action – a positive, life affirming concept which promotes the acceptance of diversity in Northern Ireland’s divided society. This paper hopes to examine the meaning of anti-sectarianism and attempt definitions of it and of sectarianism and non-sectarianism. In doing so the paper suggests that different levels of sectarianism must be identified and that there is a continuum from sectarianism through to anti-sectarianism.
Sectarian attitudes, behaviour and structures have been a feature of Northern Ireland life – and in cultures and societies far from Northern Ireland – for a considerable time. Writing in the 19th century, William Carleton summed up what he thought was the essence of sectarianism:
“If you hate a man for an obvious and palpable injury, it is likely that when he cancels the injury by an act of subsequent kindness, accompanied by an exhibition of sincere sorrow, you will cease to look upon him as your enemy; but when the hatred is such that while feeling it, you cannot on a sober examination of your heart, account for it, there is little hope that you will ever be able to stifle the enmity which you entertain against him”.
That these feelings and these actions are almost endemic within Northern Ireland society, in spite of a respectable veneer at some levels within that society, is almost a truism.
Business and Public Life
Few, if any, parts of Northern Ireland life and society escape from the sectarian attitudes and behaviour which exist in this society between Protestants and Catholics. Many of those involved in business and public life would, however, seek in formal terms to distance themselves and their organisations from these attitudes and behaviour. That these continue to exist rather indicates that this distancing has not been successful against other trends in our society. Many organisations in business and the public sector seem to embrace the concept of ‘non-sectarianism’. This document is an attempt to examine whether and how far non-sectarian attitudes and behaviour can be taken a step, or even a stride, forward into something we describe as ‘anti-sectarian’.
Sectarianism and Anti-Sectarianism
The definition of what we actually mean by ‘anti-sectarianism’ rather depends on what we mean by ‘sectarianism’. It is not fully possible to entrap the nuances of feelings, passions, intellectual nicety or gut reaction conjured up by a discussion of sectarianism. It is not just the bigotry and prejudice, the de-humanised, emotionless, ruthless cynicism that leads to sectarian murder. It is also the ghost at the feast of much polite society in Northern Ireland. While it can and often is the reality of life in working class housing estates, it is equally present in the leafy and apparently more ‘civilised’ suburbs. It is ingrained into the fabric of society – but what is it?
Roots of Sectarianism
Clearly, it is not possible to examine the roots of sectarianism in any detail here and what follows may thus seem somewhat superficial. However, the dispute is not, it seems to me, at heart religious. It is rather about allegiances – one community to ‘Britain’ and ‘Britishness’ and the other to ‘Ireland’ and ‘Irishness’. Clearly religion is a major part of the identity of the two communities but it is much more important as what has been described at a ‘stereotypical cue’. It is a major apparent difference between the two communities and the difference that conveniently labels each one. Religion is important in this context,
‘…as a social marker through which conflict is articulated rather than as a source of conflict in its own right…. Sectarianism operates whenever religion is invoked to draw boundaries and to represent or reduce patterns of inequality and social conflict” (Brewer, 1991, p101).
Other stereotypical cues include: residence, name, school, personal displays of cultural symbols as well as beliefs about variations in language and pronunciation, physical appearance, dress and physical features. These cues are only possible because of the social significance that is placed on assumed or real differences in behaviour. In other words, attaching importance to them already constitutes sectarianism. Sectarianism thus depends essentially on a popular culture which invokes religion as a boundary marker between the two communities and hence this perception is itself already sectarian.
It is an almost universal practice in Northern Ireland that when we meet or come across a person for the first time, we want to know what ‘side’ he or she comes from. So pervasive is it that, even for those of us who believe that it is genuinely a matter of no practical or even theological interest, fall into the practice to some extent.
Crude definitions of ‘sectarianism’ are one of the signs – the stereotypical cues – of which side a person comes from, what his or her political perspectives are. For those of a unionist/loyalist bent, sectarianism is generally something to do with the personal – one individual Protestant discriminating in practice or in their attitude against individual Catholics. For those of a more nationalist/republican turn of mind, sectarianism is an integral part of state power – in Northern Ireland a Protestant state actively and inevitably discriminating on a sectarian basis against those whose loyalty is suspect. The truth is perhaps more complicated than that.
Sectarianism is not just a matter of economic, social or political consideration; nor is it simply a question of personal attitude or behaviour. It is an historical and cultural phenomenon arising out of religious and political differences and perpetuated by group and self-interests.
Non-sectarianism and Anti-Sectarianism
If sectarianism is a complex phenomenon what about the counters to it? Non-sectarian is the position adopted, usually formally, by most voluntary and community organisations and, more informally by public and private bodies in Northern Ireland.
Something apparently more pro-active has more recently, echoing developments in anti-racism and anti-sexism work, come to the fore – anti-sectarianism. Non-sectarianism is normally taken to be a neutral term referring to a neutral position, reflecting the fact that it is about staying in the middle and not getting involved. It implies that religion and politics should not be discussed in our workplaces and that ‘normality’ should not be disrupted by any unpleasant talk. We tend in this mode to stick to the things which unite us – and often have no difficulty finding lots of those – and avoid those which divide.
There are, of course, many individuals and organisations who would hold to this view, rather caricatured above, and there are compelling arguments that the sectarian differences which certainly exist in our society should not be allowed to invade every nook and cranny of our lives. There are, however, equally compelling reasons to suggest to us that while talking about different political and religious differences may not make sectarianism go away, not talking about them will certainly ensure that it does not go away.
Behind the Blue Door
In his book, The Glass Curtain, Carlo Gebler examined many aspects of life in the Troubles here. He tells this story which illustrates how, although we know sectarianism and other ills exist in our society, we often find it hard to pin it down or to recognise it in ourselves. He writes about the ‘house with the blue door’:
“If you believed what you read in the papers”, she said. “you’d think civil war was raging everywhere in Northern Ireland. But if you live here, and you think of trouble, you think of it as happening in certain towns. And if you live in those certain towns, you think of it as happening in certain districts. And if you live in those certain districts, you think of it as happening on certain housing estates. And if you live on those certain housing estates, you think of it as happening in certain streets. And if you live in those certain streets, you know that the trouble is being caused by the man at the end of the road in the house with the blue door.” (Gebler, 1991, p73)
It is all too easy to attribute the problem of sectarianism to somewhere safely ‘elsewhere’, behind the blue door. It is, unfortunately, not so easy and sectarianism in all its forms is something we in Northern Ireland – and beyond – must address.
Copyright Community Relations Council 2003