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.




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