Scottish Irish Conversations on Sectarianism–Edinburgh Festival of Politics

imageThis year’s Edinburgh Festival of Politics is underway. On Friday I took part in one of the opening sessions of the festival, a panel discussion billed as ‘Scottish Irish Conversations on Sectarianism.’ The discussion was an initiative of the University of Aberdeen’s Institute of Irish and Scottish Studies (IISS). While part of the festival, it is also the first in a planned two-year series of discussions on various topics affecting these nations.

I was joined on the panel by historian Professor Richard Finlay of the University of Strathclyde and Rev Dr Alan David Falconer, former Minister of the Cathedral Church of St Machar, Aberdeen, and a former director of the Irish School of Ecumenics. 

My contributions focused on Northern Ireland, while Finlay’s centred primarily on Scotland and Falconer brought a comparative perspective.

Finlay suggested that sectarianism is akin to racism and that in the case of Scotland, the sectarianism and racism overlapped and reinforced each other. Falconer spoke about positive ecumenical developments in both Ireland and Scotland, noting that while sectarianism often makes the news – cooperation and reconciliation usually don’t.

I’ve reproduced a version of my opening comments here, which focus on the structural and systemic nature of sectarianism in Northern Ireland.

What can an Irish perspective add to conversations on sectarianism?

First, I think the experience of Ireland can help us get beyond the idea that sectarianism is only about individuals’ attitudes. Sectarianism is often thought to be the preserve of the bigoted or the prejudiced. There are doubtless bigots in Ireland, as there are everywhere, but I think Ireland (especially Northern Ireland), helps us to see that sectarianism, at its worst, is actually a system that engulfs everyone.

Some years ago, my School (the Irish School of Ecumenics), coordinated a research and outreach project called ‘Moving Beyond Sectarianism.’ A book by that same name was written by the academics leading the project, Joseph Liechty and Cecelia Clegg.

They developed a comprehensive definition of sectarianism that I think remains valid. It includes the individual aspects of sectarianism but also goes beyond them. It’s a long definition, and though I risk using my entire speaking time reading it out, I think it’s worth it. Listen carefully:

[sectarianism is] “a system of attitudes, actions, beliefs, and structures at personal, communal, and institutional levels which always involves religion, and typically involves a negative mixing of religion and politics. [It] … arises as a distorted expression of positive, human needs especially for belonging, identity, and the free expression of difference and is expressed in destructive patterns of relating: hardening the boundaries between groups, overlooking others, belittling, dehumanising, or demonising others, justifying or collaborating in the domination of others, [and] physically or verbally intimidating or attacking others.” 102-103

In my notes, I have highlighted the words ‘system’ and ‘structures.’ In Northern Irish society especially, there are sectarian structures and people can very much get trapped in its sectarian system.

Some of those structures include:

  • Political Structures (our political parties are largely organized along ethno-religious lines and the consociational political system put in place by the Belfast agreement encourages continued segregation)
  • Housing (largely segregated along religious lines; in some areas, Catholics and Protestant areas are separated by imposing peace walls)
  • Education (again, segregated along religious lines)
  • Intimate relationships (‘mixed’ marriages remain rare, still under 10%)
  • The churches themselves (for the remaining churchgoers – and Northern Ireland remains one of the most religious places in Europe even with increasing secularisation – there is little appetite for ecumenism. Nor do most people in the churches see ‘religion’ per se as part of the ‘problem’ in Northern Ireland, either as a contributor to conflict or as a potential player in ‘moving beyond sectarianism’ during the present post-violence phase)

Second, I think Northern Ireland teaches us that legislation can soften sectarian systems.

It’s worth pointing out that some British Government policies during the Troubles (and continuing today) have actually contributed to a softening of Northern Ireland’s sectarian system. For example, the British Government’s series of Fair Employment legislation throughout the Troubles eliminated much of the discrimination against Catholics in the workplace. The extension of free third level education to Northern Ireland meant more Catholics, who were economically disadvantaged due to Northern Ireland’s sectarian system, got educated and got jobs and closed the employment gap. The creation of the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council, which distributed funding to civil society groups doing ‘cross community’ relationship-building work, provided financial support to the people ‘on the ground’ who saw a need for and were already engaged in anti-sectarian or reconciliatory work. I think most analysts now agree that while Northern Ireland still has a sectarian system, it is no longer a system in which one group has overwhelmingly more social, economic and political power, and that makes it a softer sectarian system.

But third, and finally, I think the experience of Ireland teaches us that active anti-sectarianism is a rare and precious thing.

Because sectarianism so often gets reduced to individual attitudes, most people on the street don’t see sectarianism as any of their business. We all see ourselves as kind people, without prejudice, so why would we bother to become involved in activities that would smash the sectarian system?

That attitude is especially problematic in Northern Ireland right now, because it allows Northern Ireland’s sectarian system to continue.

For example, the political parties who are running the Northern Ireland Assembly have no incentive to smash the sectarian system, because their votes depend on it.

Civil society activists may be focused on softening sectarian attitudes at an individual or grassroots level. Yes, this is important. But even if they succeed, changes in individual attitudes don’t automatically translate into changes at the systemic level.

In their recent book, Religion, Civil Society and Peace in Northern Ireland, John Brewer, Gareth Higgins and Francis Teeney argue that the churches (when they bothered to engage in peace activism, which wasn’t always a given!) focused too much on reconciling individual relationships, at the expense of tackling sectarian social structures. Now, they claim, the churches seem even less interested in reconciliation even at this grassroots level. The churches are even less prepared to think about how they might address the structural nature of sectarianism.

I would like to think that the experience of Ireland could teach us a fourth lesson, that the churches – due in part to their unavoidably and inherently religious nature – could lead the way in coming up with creative ideas about how to address the systemic and structural nature of sectarianism. But I have to admit that I do not see many signs that this is happening.

Gladys is a Research Fellow in the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University Belfast. She also blogs on religion and politics at