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.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty