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.

  • HeinzGuderian

    How about we just educate children together,without any religious mythology…….see how that goes ?
    I’m pretty sure,in a generation(two at the most),sectarianism would be dead !! 😉

  • Gerry Lvs castro

    Good idea Heinz, but as the painfully small integrated sector illustrates, public support for such a move remains low.

  • HeinzGuderian

    The public gets what the public wants…

  • Mister_Joe

    Democracy sucks, Heinz.
    Totally agree with your first post, though.

  • Zig70

    So if we agree to keep religion out of education but fall out over things like teaching Irish history, language and sports and seek to exclude overtly British aspects like jubilee celebrations, then it isn’t a sectarian disagreement?

  • Pigeon Toes

    “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”

    No shit Sherlock….

    Having been in receipt of some rather nasty remarks when I was introduced to a local “respectable businessman” in a Scottish village`

  • HeinzGuderian

    Zog…..little children at school couldn’t care less about irish history/sport/mythology or anything else.
    They learn English ( the language of the world),Maths,History( World History),and Science.
    If you want your child to be taught a dead language,with absolutely no benefit to everyday life… do so in your own time and at your own expense.

    Sports shall consist of Football,(the most popular sport on the planet),Hockey,Rugby,Cricket,Basketball,Baseball,and a smattering of lesser sports that the children might want to engage in.

    The religious myths shall be taught in Science classes,with the emphasis put on the total lack of evidence for said mythology.

    Again,if you want your child to play the lesser irish sports,you will have to do so in your own time,at your own expense.

    That isn’t sectarianism. It’s reflecting the ethos of the United Kingdom.
    If you do not agree with the ethos of said United Kingdom,you should not be living here.

    ALL religious symbols are left outside the gates,and,no doubt,discarded at the end of the day.

    Of course ‘parents’ will seek to impose their bigotry and sectarianism on their children,but this will be counteracted,instead of encouraged,by the school.

    I put these proposals to you in all hope of them being accepted. For too long we have let our children fall into the clutches of priests/nuns/ministers/vicars and similar spreaders of hate,intolerance,and yes,abuse !!

    I say enough is enough,for the sake of all our futures,ACT NOW !! 😉

  • Zig70


  • ayeYerMa


    Before repeating the same old clichéd mantra on employment “discrimination” might want to read some more studies:

    “patterns of under-representation in employment are complex and cannot be simply equated with discrimination as has so often been done in Northern Ireland. Employment practices today are tightly controlled and widely viewed as fair and yet imbalances have grown since the days of unionist government. What many observers fail to take into account is that labour forces are continually in flux. If Catholics gain more jobs in a situation of rapid growth and a consequent persistent oversupply of labour, one common result is to increase the number of economically active Catholics. 45 As a result the level of imbalance remains the same or even grows.”

    Also, the idea that we have moved from a more to a less “sectarian” system is codswallop. The system before was simple democracy; the system now is explicitly sectarian. The very people who insisted that we introduce such a sectarian system (under the euphamism of “power-sharing”) are those very same pious do-gooders of the Appeasement Process brigade claiming to be things such as “anti-sectarian”.

    Given that this talk was supposed to be on the “Irish perspective”, it is interesting also that there is no mention of any “sectarian system” in the south.

  • ayeYerMa

    When it comes to education OTOH, the system is indeed sectarian — something which lies firmly and squarely at the feet of the bishops.

    I have to laugh though at those discussing things like the history syllabus when it sounds like those discussing it haven’t actually looked at a recent version of it themselves — a syllabus which is common across all NI schools and if you’d had a look at it recently IMO has an excessive focus on Irish history.

  • Reader

    ayaYerMa: I have to laugh though at those discussing things like the history syllabus when it sounds like those discussing it haven’t actually looked at a recent version of it themselves — a syllabus which is common across all NI schools and if you’d had a look at it recently IMO has an excessive focus on Irish history.
    It’s not even recent – at a state grammer school in the early 70s I spent half of my 1st from history lessons working from a book on Irish history written by my headmaster. It was a bleak book – it always seemed to be raining on the portacabin during those lessons, and the weather fitted the mood of the book well.
    I think the problem is that nationalists are baffled by the unionist lack of interest in Irish history, and put it down to no teacher having ever made the effort. In reality though, to a unionist, the country is far bigger than just Ireland, and far more interesting and important things were happening elsewhere – all the time.

  • Interested by Reader’s comment. By the time I was at school, in the 1980s, the A level syllabus had a big chunk of Irish history, but also important elements of modern European history – chaps who may seem irrelevant to local navel-gazers like Mussolini and Lenin, but who might, just might, have had a greater importance to the great scheme of things than Pat Pearse or Ned Carson. What was left out was a broader British history – I’d have liked to have known more about what the English were up to. Them being the largest population of the British Isles and the politically dominant ones, you know. But, as a teacher myself, I appreciate you can’t have everything. I certainly wasn’t taught that one side or another in Ireland was right.