Is Reconciliation a Realistic Response to Sectarianism? Thoughts from Journey Towards Healing Seminar on Sectarianism

Sectarianism was the topic of last night’s Journey Towards Healing seminar at the Balmoral Hotel in Belfast. Fr Gary Donegan of Holy Cross in North Belfast, Jim Gibney of Sinn Féin and journalist Alex Kane covered a range of issues, some of which seemed to take the discussion quite far away from the topic of sectarianism. I left with some insights into how the  speakers had experienced sectarianism in their lives and a question: Is reconciliation a realistic response to sectarianism?

DSC06789Rev Gary Mason, a Methodist minister now working with Journey Towards Healing, opened the seminar by briefly sharing his experiences of participating in a ‘Working Party on Sectarianism’ in the mid-1990s, co-chaired by John Lampin and Mary McAleese. He tried to frame the discussion by highlighting some of the features of sectarianism that they had identified, including beliefs in:

  • One True Church (which can easily mean people divide the world into insiders and outsiders)
  • Error has no right (which can mean ‘tolerance isn’t a virtue, but tolerance becomes a deadly vice’)
  • Providence (which can translate into ‘God is on our side’)

Both Donegan and Kane shared personal stories about their experiences of sectarianism. Donegan grew up near the border in Newtownbutler and said although he was aware of difference during his upbringing, he first encountered ‘raw sectarianism’ shortly after he arrived in North Belfast in 2001. That’s when the infamous Holy Cross dispute began.

Donegan recounted how he and Fr Aidan Troy decided to go out into the streets to try and be a positive influence during the dispute, despite the fact that they received little support for this from the wider institutional church.

‘Our motivation for standing in Ardoyne was the gospel,’ he said, explaining that it is the same motivation that now brings him to the protest camp in Twaddell in the evenings.

‘The church has been deemed at best irrelevant, and at worst detrimental,’ he said. ‘The only way to be relevant is to stDSC06799ep out and step into the road.’

Kane also shared some of his personal story, relating how he was adopted at age six into a prominent unionist family in Armagh. He has no memories of his life in the orphanage before that point. His adopted father was deeply involved in the Presbyterian church, Orange Order and Ulster Unionist Party, and it was not uncommon for the likes of Terence O’Neil or Harry West to join the family for dinner parties. Kane said that during his youth ‘I had no idea what a Roman Catholic was.’

His first memory of meeting someone from the ‘other side’ was at age 14, while working on an inter-schools magazine. He fell in love with a Catholic girl who was working on the project, who he asked for afternoon tea. On his walk home, he was beaten up by three boys for ‘going with a Taig.’ Kane said he ‘had no idea what a Taig was.’ In another incident, he read aloud an essay he had written for A-level politics on why power-sharing was a good idea. He said it was greeted with silence by his classmates, till a boy who had been his best friend spoke up: ‘He’s just a Fenian lover, and it is people like him who will lose us our country.’

Building on his personal story, Kane argued that sectarianism is ‘a political question and a dispute over political allegiances,’ and that even if the churches all became ecumenical overnight and started having shared communion, ‘it wouldn’t make a difference’ to the deeper problems associated with political allegiance.

Gibney did not share from his personal story but focused his remarks around a 1,000-year lesson on Irish history. He said he wanted to emphasise that ‘the British government bears the lion’s share of responsibility for sectarianism in Ireland’ and that ‘decisions made before we were born’ created a ‘massive historical legacy.’ For him: ‘We all have the ability to think for ourselves, but injustice arose out of decisions made in London.’ Gibney added that the changes brought about by the Good Friday Agreement have created a situation where ‘this generation has the best opportunity for a new society on this island in the last 1,000 years of history.’ 

Such an assessment was quite a contrast to what Kane said near the end of his remarks – that the institutions brought about by the Agreement had not created a political structure where it was possible for the opposing blocks to work effectively together, so ‘we are no better off [than we were in 1968], and we never will be.’ 

Given that neither Donegan nor Kane focused on the historical development of sectarianism, I thought it rather unfortunate that the only historical perspective presented was a partial one that absolved other major actors for their parts in creating and sustaining sectarianism on the island of Ireland. Joseph Liechty and Cecelia Clegg’s Moving Beyond Sectarianism, first published in 2000, offers a more balanced view of that process.

During discussion with the audience, former victims’ commissioner Brendan McAllister asked ‘does sectarianism have an opposite?’ and wondered if the speakers could provide examples.

Donegan spoke of the example of a Protestant couple who had been put off their border farm, yet showed kindness to Catholic neighbours after the death of a child, organising meals and support for the grieving family. Gibney cited the friendship and cooperation of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness in their roles as First and Deputy First Minister as examples of ‘role models who challenge stereotypes.’

Speaking from the audience, victims campaigner Paul Gallagher intervened to say that ‘the antithesis of sectarianism is reconciliation … building new relationships with people,’ and that reconciliation needs to happen at all levels: personal, historical, communal, political, etc.

Donegan agreed, noting that the ‘reality is that we have to sort this out,’ not the British or Irish governments.

Kane rather wearily said that he thought ‘reconciliation was one of those strange words’ because ‘you could reconcile yourselves to it not getting any better.’ Kane added that political reconciliation is not possible because of the opposing parties’ conflicting political goals (a united Ireland or remaining in the United Kingdom). But he did admit that ‘social reconciliation’ is possible if people decide to make that journey themselves.

Responding to that, Donegan told the story of Fr Alec Reid from Clonard, a man he described as ‘driven by reconciliation.’ He said:

‘We wouldn’t be where we are today without the courage of people like him. There’s an Alec Reid in all of us. … That means I need to take responsibility for my life and the lives of those who come after me.’

I was left thinking more time was needed to discuss Gallagher’s observation, which might be phrased as a question: ‘Is reconciliation a realistic response to sectarianism?’

Interestingly enough, there may be further opportunity to move  discussion in that direction at the next seminar in the Journey Towards Healing series on ‘What does “National Reconciliation” mean?’, 19 February, 7.00-9.00 pm in the Baskin Room at Skainos on the Newtownards Road. It will feature Sinn Féin’s Declan Kearney and the DUP’s Jeffrey Donaldson. You can confirm your attendance by email to Sarah Caldwell ( Journey Towards Healing is a project of NIAMH Wellbeing.




  • Korhomme

    “Does sectarianism have an opposite?”

    Perhaps it’s secularism, the “freedom of religion; the freedom from religion”.

  • Good to see you last night, Gladys. You beat me to the punch on Slugger; here is my article:

    Similar observations. I maintain we will have a shared future, because we have at least a 400-year shared past, albeit with much enmity. Perhaps instead of blaming others, we should blame ourselves — get over our collective denial so we can embark on a collective recovery.

  • Hedley Abernethy

    I thought it was an interesting discussion last night although I left with many unanswered questions. I am naïve enough to think that sectarianism is prejudice of someone based on their religion, and smart enough to know that the conflict about Northern Ireland was not about religion. It was somewhat frustrating then that a conversation about sectarianism was then taken up by talking about the constitutional status of the North! While I appreciate the link I don’t think it’s necessarily inextricable – you can talk about one without talking about the other. I thought Brendan’s question was appropriate. Reconciliation is a reaction to sectarianism but not necessarily the opposite – respect I would venture is the opposite?

  • I’m not disagreeing with your definition of sectarianism, but as our politics are ethno-nationalist (Protestant-Unionist/Catholic-Nationalist), then it is difficult to talk about religion without our brand of identity politics.

    Likewise, interesting that last night the proposed antidote to sectarianism was reconciliation, not secularism (or separation of church and state). Probably reflects our truth that sectarianism (benign and malign) has so deeply affected our political world views.

    And for which I thought Rev. Dr Gary Mason contextualised very well at the start of the seminar.

  • looks interesting.

  • Zeno

    “I’m not disagreeing with your definition of sectarianism, but as our politics are ethno-nationalist (Protestant-Unionist/Catholic-Nationalist), then it is difficult to talk about religion without our brand of identity politics”

    I’m not sure I agree with you Allan. All Catholic Nationalists and Protestant Unionists are not sectarian. In fact very very few are. I think sectarianism can and should be separated from politics and religion since it is not a symptom of or consequence of either. Sectarianism comes from poor education and indoctrination by peers, and Parents. Linking it with religion or politics only serves to give it some sort of raison d’etre.

  • barnshee

    “Sectarianism comes from poor education and indoctrination by peers, and Parents”

    Personal experience is also a big “help”

  • Zeno

    It depends on what sort of person you are. If you were brought up in a sectarian environment, it will effect your life. But If you were mugged, you wouldn’t become a mugger would you? So if you suffered sectarianism you shouldn’t automatically practice it.

  • eireanne

    education is the only way to weaken sectarianism – education in human rights (the 1948 UN declaration, the EU charter of Fundamental rights), civics etc. with grass-roots associated debates on each clause.

  • Zeno

    It’s got nothing to do with human rights or the 1948 UN Declaration.
    It is purely and simply about teaching people to behave like human beings instead of illiterate savages.

  • Croiteir

    Can anyone tell me what the word National means in National Reconciliation?

  • Beating someone up — as Alex Kane was — for dare going out with someone of another religion (denomination) is sufficient for my definition of sectarianism.

    To recognise sectarianism as such in Northern ireland doesn’t take away from sectarianism throughout the world.

    Just as the particular brand of racism in America doesn’t diminish what we witness in Europe and elsewhere.

    We could explore sectarianism within a political vacuum here, but I don’t think we’d get very far — so many people’s allegiance to place here, north and south, was forged by sectarianism.

  • I like your definition of secularism. Unfortunately, most clerics only apply the latter half, not accepting that you can be religious without granting it privilege in the affairs of state.

  • The freedom of religion is a recognised human right. Education on the expression and limits (yes, nearly every right has limits) would benefit all.

  • Korhomme

    It’s not my definition, it’s how the National Secular Society describes itself and its aims.

    The standard dictionary definition of “secularism” is, like the clerics’ view, only the second part.

  • T.E.Lawrence

    Jim Gibney : “the British Government bears the lion’s share of responsibility for sectarianism in Ireland” would disagree and say Irishmen bear the responsibility !

  • barnshee

    “But If you were mugged, you wouldn’t become a mugger would you”

    No but you might wait and see the “mugger” separately to have a word or two with him

  • SeaanUiNeill

    “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind,” banshee, and the knee-jerk political responses that have fertilised our own situation here began long, long before the recent “muggings”. No one side can claim to be blameless, and the choose to practice sectarianism or not is an expression of what used to be called “character.”

  • eireanne

    glad to see you agree Allan – People won’t change their behaviour unless they understand why they should and until they make that knowledge their own.

    That s why putting Reconciliation before preparing the ground for it with education in human rights is putting the cart before the horse – that cart will never roll!!!

  • Zeno

    Do you think that religion or politics makes people sectarian? I don’t, because the same people would be sectarian no matter what side they come from. Therefore it has very little to do with what tribe you come from. Children are not born sectarian, but their up bringing makes them so.
    A child with educated Parents is much less likely to become tainted by the sickness that is sectarianism.

  • aber1991

    Yes, I am glad somebody is getting close to the truth.

  • Thanks for posting your thoughts – always useful to have different perspectives on an event …

  • I am not sure exactly what it means – hopefully that will be clearer in the upcoming seminar. I have only really heard Sinn Fein use the term ‘national reconciliation’ consistently – most other groups that speak about reconciliation tend to just use the term ‘reconciliation.’

  • JM Scott

    While agreeing with much of what has been written, I think the most
 telling comment
    in Gladys’ excellent summary is that the final two speakers
especially and many
    questioners took “the discussion quite far away from
the topic of


Without going into all that could conceivably have been said and wasn’t, I was 
struck by two questions: “What are the mechanisms by which sectarianism affects/infects the non-religious?” and “What are the internal 
dynamics and effects of sectarianism?” This isn’t a criticism of the speakers individually. But
 I hope it is fair enough to throw some comments into the ring.

    The first question was prompted, in part, by Alex Kane’s analysis in
 which I
    thought he downplayed the religious aspects of political
 conflict. This is
    certainly one approach with a long and well-argued history. But
 there wasn’t
    in the whole evening any mention of the processes by which
 religion and
    politics reinforce each other negatively (differently in catholic and
    contexts). There is a shedload of good stuff written on this, among it things 
    Gladys, Claire Mitchell, and historically by Marianne Elliott. I think it’s
    that we didn’t even allude to these kinds of ideas. 

For me the second
    question, about the “internals” of sectarianism, was
 prompted by Alex’s story
    of being roughed up for having a coffee with a 
Catholic girl. How do our
    communities “police” ideas and behaviour in a
 sectarian way?

    Throughout the evening phrases from Terence McCaughey’s wonderful book,
“Memory and Redemption” kept coming to mind, particularly his idea of
“conscience as consciousness of the other”. The exclusion and supression of
dissenting and
    internally self-critical ideas is part of the structure of 
sectarianism. It
    doesn’t just damage “the other” it damages us and stunts both 
religion and

    “Bad religion feeds sectarianism, and sectarianism feeds bad politics.”
 What would
    good religion look like, and where are the resources within the religious 
    political stories on this island that can help to undo the damage?


I struggled to find an entry point to the discussion as it followed along a
 predictable “two-community track”. (I readily recognise that this
    is most people’s 
experience in this place. I am a Jesuit-educated, liberal Presbyterian minister from County Wexford, so I know that I am a demographic of one!) But there are also sectarianisms in me, and the 
sectarianisms of others have shaped my life experience, so I was disappointed that we 
didn’t have a more nuanced discussion and was left wondering how such conversations could
 be better structured. 

    Although the contributors, especially Fr Gary Donegan, were very 
impressive in their
    own ways I was wondering where are the voices of the 
“in-betweens” and the
    dissenters within our multiple communities that I meet every day and might we
    develop a more multi-dimensional understanding of sectarianism if we
    those voices.