Northern Ireland lumbering away from socially conservative past?

Well maybe not. But Newton Emerson reckons some lines of argument have irrevocably shifted in a political life that’s lived in mothballs for over thirty years: and some might say more like eighty.

What Northern Ireland had just experienced was its first full-on secular argument over a subject of religious contention. Northern Ireland has long been able to have secular arguments on secular subjects but it seems that a final political settlement has taken us one step further. There are many different models of secularism, from American’s formal separation of church and state to England’s informal indifference to the state of the church. In Northern Ireland, secularism apparently means “equality”, beginning with the lawful equality of all believers and then graduating to encompass everyone else as immigration and prosperity confuse the two-tone Protestant-Catholic assumptions of the peace process and its institutions.

Unfortunately, equality itself is an irrational belief system riven with contradictions and sectarian arguments. Even more unfortunately, some of these contradictions and arguments overlap with Northern Ireland’s original sectarian divide. Unionists have a cultural bias towards equality of opportunity while republicans openly favour equality of outcome. Few people seem aware that there is even a distinction, let alone that these two views are mutually exclusive. Where issues cut across cultural biases, tribalism remains the only consistency.

But even if the fights are the same, the arena is completely different. Arguments over equality will be addressed in Stormont debates and judicial reviews. Conclusions will be reached and they will be legally binding. The new assembly has already come to blows over British government proposals for a Single Equality Act, which would have brought all Northern Ireland’s equality legislation under a single instrument while adding new protected groups and categories of discrimination. Sinn Fein was in favour of all of this plus a basket of kittens.

The DUP grumbled loudly about an expensive “equality industry”. The empire-building Equality Commission ran its colours very high up the mast by calling for a focus on equality of outcome. It was a bad-tempered disagreement between two groups of people still casually defined by their religion. However, although the equality of all believers was instituted with those two groups in mind, it was the technicalities of equality rather than the doctrines of belief that occupied their deliberations.

Religion is still in the picture in Northern Ireland. But for the first time in history, it no longer frames the argument.

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  • Cruimh

    What are “muscle Mary gangsters” ?

  • Wild Turkey


    From Urban dictionary

    ‘A particular gay sub group defined by it’s overdeveloped muscular physiques. As a group they can be exceptionally camp and effeminate.
    A muscle guy (both straight and gay) who knows and sings, often in private, all the words to Christian Aguilera’s “Beautiful”. Broadway musicals, Liza Minelli CDs and his steroid set-up are among the stuff he’ll save in a fire.
    Will is such a Muscle Mary he practices body building competition poses while lip synching Cher!’

    … supposedly they also love to sing Carrickfergus

  • Cruimh

    Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee, who’d have thought?
    We don’t get many of those round Bengor WI!

  • Quaysider

    I like the idea of a new form of emerging NI secularism, policed by a tribal stand-off. Somewhere in-between the British and American versions of secularism?
    It sounds slightly better than the emergent southern version, which mostly consists of heckling priests in the street.

  • Hey, it’s called the last third of the Twentieth Century. Welcome to our new, late arrivals!

    “Equality industry”? Just wait until the bigots discover they are being outflanked by those they have been kicking around up till now: they’ll be next in the queue for the Tribunal. Once everyone is playing to the rules, the referee’s decisions are easier to accept.

    And, anyway (Quaysider @ 08:55 PM), what’s wrong with a bit of priest-heckling? They’ve been doing it to the rest of us for long enough.

    My impression, however, is that the NI started secularising some time back, about the time they took the Sunday locks off the swings. It makes the place almost habitable now.

  • wild turkey


    The calculus of social change is complex and, often, seemingly contradictory. I might have cause and effect assbackwards here but try this on for size.

    Having lived in Norn Ironland for 25+ years, I think the place started to secularise when cheap travel in the 80s; initially package holidays, enabled many people to take holidays ex-NI. The encounter with cultures and people whose underlying notions DID NOT include the fear that someone, somewhere, somehow might actually be happy and enjoying themselves irrevocably changed outlooks/assumptions

    … and restaurant menus in NI. Taste the difference

  • wild turkey @ 09:58 AM:

    Nice one.

    [Sorry, I’m still in fits of giggles over the Magherafelt arch. There’s got to be a novel in there somewhere.]

  • Sam Hanna

    Great – let us welcome secularization with its family breakdowns, rising alcoholism, rampaging crime, brutalising abortions, sexual diseases and streets that are terrifying to walk on at night.

    What a great experiment it was – got any more bright ideas to bring us back to the dark ages of pre-Flood days?

  • Sam Hanna @ 04:41 PM:

    Right on, there, Sam! What the world needs is that Old-Time Religion.

    So let’s have the death penalty for working on Sunday [Exodus, 31:14], for adultery [Leviticus 20], for rape [Deuteronomy 22] and for anyone reading Harry Potter [Exodus, 12:18 — incidentally, that provision seems also to cover predicting football-results and hore-races]. I notice that those who “deserve death” [Romans, 1: 29-31] include gossips, slanderers, God-haters, the insolent, arrogant and boastful, which must cover all bloggers, including trolls like Sam.

    Oh, and if I sell my daughter into slavery [Exodus 21:7], it’s for life, so none of that equal opportunities stuff will apply.

    Yeh! Let’s have some decent stoning to death for cursing [Leviticus 24:16] and for women (not men, however) who somehow mislay their virginity [Deuteronomy 22 again: 23-4]. Oh, and don’t do climbing anything called “Mount Sinai” [Exodus 19:13]. Or making perfume for private use. Or not being circumcised. And don’t expect to be paid interest on any money you lend me [Ezekiel 22:12].

    As for “family breakdowns, rising alcoholism, rampaging crime, brutalising abortions” etc., none of those used to apply, did they? So all that past documentation to the contrary, like fossils and the dinosaurs, was just inserted to test our faith?

    Or perhaps, Sam, they should let you out a bit more.

  • “hore-races”? That I would pay to see. Sorry? Neigh!

  • Quaysider

    “Secularisation, with its family breakdowns, rising alcoholism, rampaging crime, brutalising abortions, sexual diseases and streets that are terrifying to walk on at night.”

    False premise. All those things existed on much the same scale before Western secularisation and they always will.

    Also, the idea that religion holds the monopoly on morality is arrogance of the highest order.

  • “Secularisation, with its family breakdowns, rising alcoholism, rampaging crime, brutalising abortions, sexual diseases and streets that are terrifying to walk on at night.”

    Yes, perhaps they are present in every society. However, secular societies just seem more prone to them than others, don’t you think? Malcolm, you know enough about the Bible to quote it out of context but not to apply it accurately. Take your ignorance elsewhere, you’re making a fool of yourself.

    And yes, there are social changes within Northern Ireland, although it shouldn’t really surprise anyone. I wonder though if the Catholic side is secularising faster than the Protestant one. Once upon a time there were indeed plenty of Catholic conservatives.

  • Sam Hanna

    Well said Watchman,

    Malcolm has no answer when confronted with the true cost of his panacea – secularization. Only those imbibing “village idiot” social studies can understand that the areas of the UK with the greatest securalization have a proportionate breakdown in society. This is why those who oppose Christian moral values need to come up with an alternative structure that works – so far they can only manage Sharia Law.

    Malcolm claims the social ills that we have now where present in all societies – I can only assume he was born in 2001 as this was not the N.Ireland I recognize growing up in the 70s. Malcolm when your trousers are a little longer and you have studied a bit more then try and debate rationally.

  • The Watchman @ 06:55 PM:
    Ah, so sinister and threatening a pseudonym! Do you assume that others need to be watched?

    Sam Hanna @ 08:15 PM:
    Nice to make assumptions about my age. I think I must top you by fully two decades. As for “village idiot” social studies, the toilet-paper in No. 4 TCD, back there in the early sixties, was superscribed “Sociology degrees: please take one.” I didn’t demur. However, it goes to show I’m very rusty at this freshman stuff.

    So for some abbreviated and “rational” (in theology? “shurely some mistake” ©Private Eye) debate:

    If one can conceive of a truly “secular” society (which, as yet, remains largely an untried experiment), then it would by definition have to be one with higher standards of personal morality than one with a religious basis.

    As I understand it, a secular/humanist society would be based on behaviour in this world, rather than a rewards-and-punishment gamble with the next one. In other words, a secular/humanist (and at this point I am unsure whether therein is a distinction) morality would be judged by the individual’s relations with society, rather than to some divinity. That means the moral person would be the one would did most “good”, or the least “harm”.

    Furthermore, as I understand “secularism”/ “humanism”, if this life is all we get, then each of us is entitled to the most complete and fulfilled experience: to achieve our own satisfaction and completion we require others to respect our individuality, just as we respect that of others in return. A successful and moral life is one which impacts positively on those of others.

    At least that way we might stop hating and teaching others to hate on the basis of denominational, gender and superstitious prejudice.

    By the way, isn’t it odd how an old rationalist like Socrates got there half-a-millennium before Jesus and Paul of Tarsus? And still doesn’t get credit?

    So, if Irish and Northern Irish society is moving towards a more “secular” morality, that, to me, is the 104th “good thing” (© Sellar & Yeatman).

    It might mean that 16-year olds don’t rashly impregnate each other, and speak to “the other side”. It might mean that ordinary folk can sleep easily at nights without fear of the midnight knock or the shot through the window or the drunken lout (doubtless god-fearin’) in the street. It might mean we start to care for this little island, rather than destroying it with bonfires, sectarianism and the bungalow culture. And, on a personal note, it might mean that no 4-year-old, like mine once was, will be told she “hated Jesus” because she was born to “heretic” parents.

    Etc. etc.

  • Sean

    The US is a prime example of a non secularist society and the only countries whith higher crime statistics are in war zones(wars mostly started by the US)

  • Sam Hanna


    The USA has become increasingly secularized since the late 60s – hence the rapidly decline social breakdowns. Don’t be fooled by the strength of the Evangelical Vote.

  • Sam Hanna


    Your freshman arguments are juvenile at best. Any half wit knows that the principles of Biblical Christianity is a little bit older than 2,000 years. I note your puerile attempts to wrench the Bible out of context that Watchman has already dealt with. Biblical scholarship has dealt with your rehashed “liberal” assaults in the Tubingen School of the 1800s so don’t bore us all again and god and read someone like Burgon, Warfield etc.

    Secondly, please don’t continue to embarrass yourself by using terms like “good” when you have no absolute or objective source to determine this. It is amazing that village philosophers like you can throw out thousands of years of scholarship without realising the precarious foundations of your premises. If there is no God, what right have you to tell us what is good and what we “ought” to do?

    Now, go home and read a little before you come on here again.

  • snakebrain

    Sink the knife in there Malcolm, he’s all trussed up on the altar ready for it….

    Or maybe I’ll just twist it a little first.


    “Good” is not a theologically derived concept. The etymology of the word is largely secular, ie “This is a ‘good’ knife”. Its original meaning had more to do with the degree of adaptation of an object to a function.

    Principles of morality can of course be derived from bases other than the theological. Non-theistic schools of Buddhism for example, or Taoism, or Heraclitan or, as previously stated, Socratic doctrine all contain the possibility of strict moral guidance without the ghost of a god.

    What right have you to tell us what is good?

  • páid

    Two thousand year old Semitic social codes, with their associated parables and stories are ofttimes fascinating and profound.

    The religions they spawned did well, mainly due to sensible rules about hygeine and not shagging your sister.

    But things that your liable to read in the Bible ain’t necessarily so.

  • A small, passing thought: since many of its users credit it with so much significance, how does one “wrench the Bible out of context”?

    páid @ 12:37 AM:
    As Oscar is supposed to have observed, “I wish I’d said that!” [And, as Whistler is supposed to have replied: “You will, Oscar, you will.”]

    Oh dear, © Monty Python: but I heard it years previously. The trouble is, there’s so little originality in the world, even in abuse. Eventually it all sounds like … Trowbridge H. Ford.

  • Obscure Reference

    “how does one “wrench the Bible out of context”?”

    Take the texts and claims at their face value, rather than tempered by reason, secular morality and wishful thinking the way that moderate Christians would have it.

  • Nothing sinister about my pseudonym, MR. It’s the same position to which the prophet Ezekiel was appointed over the house of Israel.

    Your reasonong about the ideal secular/humanist society is very interesting. We’ve heard all this idealism since the 1960’s, of course, not that it seems to have done society much good.

    A quick observation: post-religious societies usually discover a vacuum where religion ceases to be socially significant. Suddenly people have no objective basis for morality, no canons of interpretation to determine the correct course of action. Not my words or those of a Bible thumper, but one Trisha Goddard, of morning infamy on Andrew Neil’s late night programme. All true. Such is atheism’s New Jerusalem.

  • Sam Hanna


    You claim that “good” has nothing to do with morality and then proceed to try and demonstrate that its moral basis is found in other religions. Can we proceed past kidergarten arguments please!

    AS to a non-theistic objective morality such as Buddhism, please demonstrate how that would work. I never claimed you should obey Biblical morality because I said it but because God did.. That is the difference between you and me – you live by your feelings whereas I live by an objective and infallible revelation.

    To those who play infantile hermeneutics with the OT, please go and read some true scholars of which there are multitudes. May be start with Isaac Newton’s copious works on the Bible.

  • snakebrain

    An “objective and infallible revelation”?


    You are incapable of considering the possibility of the fundamental error in your position. Instead, you patronise and insult. I didn’t attempt to demonstrate that the moral basis of good is found in any other religion. I said nothing of the sort in fact.

    I made an etymological point about the word “good”, in an attempt to suggest that you examine the concepts you’re dealing with a little more closely.

    And I pointed out that there are plenty of rigorous moral or ethical systems based on rationality rather than religion, demonstrating that morality is not the exclusive preserve of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Those systems are typically based on reasoned analysis rather than religious mania, or as you say, feeling.