Have we lost a sense of perspective on the meaning of sectarianism? Both an electoral pact between the DUP and UUP and a students’ union referendum on a United Ireland have been labelled sectarian in recent days. It seems that increasingly entirely legitimate political actions by Nationalists and Unionists are written off as sectarian. Is this effectively a smear that runs counter to democratic freedom or a fair characterisation of campaigns of self-interest that serve only to divide and conquer in a Green versus Orange smash and grab?
The idea that it is sectarian for Unionists to identify with other Unionists, with whom they share common ideas, is irrational. Nationalism and Unionism centred on opposing constitutional beliefs are valid positions and there must be freedom for their expression. This is a purely political endeavour, despite its appearance due to our divided society.
Taking another example, QUB Sinn Fein are totally entitled to pursue their referendum for a United Ireland. One could argue that it may lead to division and tensions between students and on the whole it would be better for the “greater good” to let the issue lie but that decision is theirs to make.
Furthermore these issues have nothing to do with religion. We should differentiate between constitutional politics and religion rather than assume they are inseparable. Claiming such votes are sectarian head counts denies the legitimacy of holding a Nationalist or Unionist constitutional position and ignores the fact there are exceptions to the rule, albeit a minority.
A pact does not prevent voters from choosing who represents them. It does not discriminate against, in Northern Ireland’s case, the “other side” and there is nothing unethical about it. Of course a Unionist pact favours a Unionist candidate being elected but there is no negative impact on the electoral potential of those outside of it.
Is there an argument that it is sectarian to put constitutional issues above all others? I’m open to debate on this. However I would still be reluctant to go so far as to call it sectarian. At the very centre of Nationalist and Unionist politics is the belief that a United Ireland or maintaining the Union are fundamental to our governance. Is it wrong for that to supersede issues such as economics, health or social issues? For parties that identify first and foremost as Nationalist or Unionist, I believe the answer would have to be no.
While pacts may not be sectarian, they certainly limit voters’ choice. It must also be demoralising for those in the local party associations whose hard work is not rewarded by the opportunity to contest an election. Beyond that there is no guarantee that a pact results in a higher vote for the single candidate with turnout often dropping. There have to be questions about the wisdom of pacts for long term growth.
It is essential that we do not lose the weight of meaning conveyed by the word sectarianism through overuse and particularly misuse. Tolerance requires respect for differing constitutional ideas not just in theory but also when those ideas are put into action. Ultimately, we should not automatically project perceived religious divisions between sections of our communities onto political principles.