Stamping out sectarianism will take cultural revolution…

When I was in P7 there was a great debate around our table, are the colour of curbs “red, white and blue” or “blue, white and red?” We hadn’t the foggiest notion of the subtext much less because many of the kids at the table (born in peace) lived in 1980s/90s suburban semis rather than the pebbled dashed terraces of our grandparents whose curb stones were the topic of debate at the table.

Already we were being normalised to the sectarian symbolism of this place, the marking of territory with flags and emblems that has continued like a ritual for generations. If sectarianism is purely socio-economic or the rotten edifice of a state punishing those at the margins, why did its imagery seep into my relatively middle-class primary school classroom?

It doesn’t matter how we might try to poeticise it, there is a bigotry here which takes two main forms. It is not just a structural problem but a cultural one beyond the resources of a state or the vast reserves of private finance in the form of FDI and will only be extinguished through cultural revolution.

The first is a medieval hangover, what I will call ‘ethno-religious’ sectarianism. This is a form of racism whereby notions of ethnic difference are fabricated and then amplified to embed division. This can range from silly jokes about the distance of a person’s eyes, how a person pronounces the letter ‘h’ or even the colour of a person’s hair. All are of course false, white northern Europeans are a racially homogenous grouping and instances of ginger hair (as one example) occur right across these islands no matter if a person perceives themselves as ‘Celtic’ or ‘Anglo-Saxon.’

These are the names of ancient tribes, mostly names given to them by outside Roman invaders, and racial differences between them bare no basis in scientific fact. Yet still we have instances where ‘planter’ is used to slur non-Catholic Christians (‘protestants’) or unionists in NI (perceived as Anglo-Saxon and non-Celtic) or Gaelic words are invoked to slur Catholics in NI. The attempt at reviving the former term is not driven by some purified quest of historiography but an attempt to skew modern political events into distant historical grievances.

Which leads us onto the much more complex form of sectarianism here, ‘political sectarianism.’ This is much more benign than ethno-religious hatred as it disguises itself behind high ideals of political philosophy. We all slip into this at one stage or another, I often decry the socio-economic ineptitude of the 1921-1972 majoritarian unionist government at Stormont but without explanation or nuance my comments can appear bitter – Twitter is a perfect example of where this is common.

Expressions of Irishness or Britishness are not sectarian but when used to mark territory or structurally exclude any person then they can become methods of hate. That is why it is incumbent on all who want to see this place prosper that we begin to challenge ourselves and each other. Nearly immediately I found that NI twitter had begun blaming middle class people for the riots at working class interface areas.

The middle class cannot be completely let off the hook, they have spent decades closing themselves off in the name of security and social mobility from the working class. But only by creating a stronger middle class can we raise the standards of the working class and hopefully someday have a society like north America where a thriving lower middle class own the majority stake in society.

Until then the middle class needs to dig out its own instances of sectarianism which is inherently more structural than the painted gable walls of working-class estates – think grammar schools, leisure centres, professions such as teaching and political parties themselves all bastions of the middle class and all segregated.

Only by confronting this head on without excuse will we confine it to the dustbin of history, long before partition this place was called “the black north” because of its industrial pollution but also because of the outbursts of sectarian rioting – those using the term blaming the presence of protestants for the tensions. Whether it was Catholics being thrown out of Belfast factories or Protestants being thrown off their land in Armagh this place has been filtered off from the world by a dark gauze of hatred. The factories are gone, the land is farmed by machines and the social problems are mounting – cultural revolution is needed to stamp this out forever.

Untitled (undated) – Eduardo Viana (1881 – 1967)” by pedrosimoes7 is licensed under CC BY

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