We Need To Talk About Sectarianism, Again – By Roy Fisher



The sectarian displacement of four families from Cantrell Close has rightly been given significant attention by politicians and the media. While the condemnation of intimidation, along with support for the families, is to be expected and welcomed, the discussion around it has presented various examples of bias.

I’ve previously conducted academically accredited research, showing how a problem exists at the very core of how we treat and talk about sectarianism and identity.

‘Together: Building a United Community’ (TBUC) is a huge challenge. Cynically, and certainly in the current climate, I consider the strategy to be unrealistic. However, upon its release I was impressed by the scope of its aims, and the cooperative sentiments expressed from our consociational leaders.

I thought it showed Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness could take courageous steps forward together, and I thought it further confirmed McGuinness’s efforts to make here a better place in which to live, even if that might slow the prospect of Irish Unity.


Sectarian Bias

Much of the media report political or cultural issues here in binary terms. Last week in its report on Cantrell Close, BBC NI said TBUC is a strategy “to encourage Catholics and Protestants to live together” (Newsline 28/09). This shows a sectarian ‘two communities’ media bias, as TBUC recognises that the diversity of identity in this society is much more complex. Post-troubles migration and secularization have changed the make-up of our society – including in controlled schools, which some media have recently realised should not be referred to as “Protestant schools”.

Discussing Cantrell Close on Talback, William Crawley told us the demographics of Belfast were changing, claiming the city is now 42% Protestant. The source wasn’t cited, but the census takes this measurement, and this statistic matches the 2011 census for Belfast’s “Religion or Religion Brought Up In – Protestants and Other Christians (including Christian related)”.

The organisation of the census data by NISRA is partly to blame, but in a broadcast conversation about sectarianism thousands of Belfast atheists (including Jedi Knights), as well as any Christian Orthodox denominations, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and many other minority Christians, even including “mixed Catholic/Protestant” respondents, were interpreted simply as being “Protestant”.


Is Majority Rules Okay?

Further Cantrell Close coverage on Friday’s Nolan Show included a prerecorded interview with Gerry Kelly, featuring the following exchange.

Nolan: Is this a sign that mixed-community housing will not work in NI?

Kelly: No, I don’t think it is. I think we must always strive to find spaces where people, willing people, who want to move the whole community forward in terms of that, and I’m not against loyalist or unionist areas, or for that matter Catholic, and Republican or Nationalist areas. But where people want to do that, and it is at times quite a brave thing to do, then we need to continue to make the space for that. Now, I don’t know enough about specific areas here. I think we have to pick these places carefully and all of that.

Nolan: But if these mixed areas are in perceived Protestant areas or perceived Catholic areas will they work?

Kelly: Well perception is a very broad word.

For a start, mixed-community housing already works in many places. Does it need to be pointed out that it is not important to everyone what religion, if any, or what political persuasion, if any, our neighbours may identify to?

My main issue with this exchange however is its reinforcement of the concept of single-identity areas, despite there being minority identities everywhere. As a citizen of Belfast who is not Protestant or Catholic, not Unionist or Nationalist, anywhere I go is a mixed area. Yet, there seems to be a perpetuation, by local and national media outlets, that there are ‘Protestant or unionist areas’ and ‘Catholic or nationalist areas’. I consider this to be along the lines of ‘locals only’ graffiti, telling anyone with a minority identity, who is living, working or socializing in such an area, that they do not belong.

Labelling areas by majority race or sexual orientation when discussing racism or homophobia would, I hope, be challenged on phone-in shows, yet despite the changes within society, labelling areas by majority religious or political identity goes unchecked.

Kelly also suggests that the leadership shown in TBUC should actually come from brave, willing citizens, and his sentiments about single-identity areas should have led to Nolan questioning if Sinn Fein is no longer committed to “Together: Building a United Community”.


Words Need to Represent Actions

Contributing to Talkback, the Chief Commissioner for the Equality Commission, Michael Wardlow, of course condemned the intimidation, and said they are actively trying to build a shared society, rather than the “monochrome” one of Protestants and Catholics in which he grew up in. He also expressed regret that people sublimate sectarian prejudices.

While I commend much of what the Equality Commission has achieved, I’ve challenged it repeatedly for sublimating prejudices as it advises that “whether we practice a religion or not, most of us are seen as Protestant or Catholic”.

Supposedly to afford us equality of opportunity, thousands of irreligious people are treated as Protestant or Catholic, with religious community labels assigned based on our names, addresses, schools attended, sports played, qualifications earned, etc. This is despite the EU minority right which should allow us to be treated how we choose (FCNM, Article 3).

Also, when the Equality Commission produces its annual equality monitoring reports, it provides square bracket percentages for Protestants and Catholics only, disappearing the proportions of those workers who can’t be determined to belong within the legislation’s monochrome frame.

Monday’s statement from the main six political parties regarding Cantrell Close said they “condemn all forms of sectarianism”. I’ve tried to engage with all of these parties about the use of ‘community background’ as a way to organise citizens for equality measures and the census, as I argue we should be allowed to fully exit the religion into which we were born, and that it is sectarian to legislate to keep people within a religious community. In the process of equality monitoring I believe it is wrong to expect an atheist to affirm to being “a member” of a religious community, and I don’t think the census need concern itself as to which church I was brought as a child – they don’t ask this question in the rest of the UK. The Alliance Party has condemned such practices, the other parties have not, despite some claiming that “all identities should be respected”.


Moving the Goalposts

In Monday’s Newsletter Alex Kane renamed the strategy as “Together: Building United Communities”, and more worryingly the initial statement on Monday from the six political parties also called the strategy “Together: Building United Communities” – this statement was later retracted and updated, removing any reference to TBUC.

Obviously we can interpret things differently, but “building united communities” is just part of the strategy, which along with many other TBUC aims and projects, and with good leadership, was hoped could lead to the actual aim of “a united community”.

The strategy commits to ten new shared housing developments, but it is 116 pages long and is by no means limited to creating a few shared pockets where Catholics and Protestants live together, while existing so-called single-identity areas remain. Rather, TBUC states “in moving from contested spaces to shared spaces, we aim to create a community where division does not restrict the life opportunities of individuals and where all areas are open and accessible to everyone.”

I recognise that the misuse of identity discussed above is not comparable to the trauma and inconvenience inflicted upon four families in Cantrell Close, nor is it as obvious or intimidatory as the paramilitary related flags which were erected, but it is an insidious form of sectarianism which is not condemned enough. Indeed, instead of condemnation, it is disseminated regularly by those who define our society.


3 thoughts on “We Need To Talk About Sectarianism, Again – By Roy Fisher

  1. Declan Kearney is going to propose a bill to make the hanging of flags on public property (poles, posts etc.,) and the painting and display of murals glorifying paramilitaries, politicians, political issues and dead heroes a breach of the peace! The pen is mightier that the sword!

  2. Roy,
    Part of our problem is that too many self-described “moderates” – mostly to be found among the ranks of Alliance and the Green party, either naively or dishonestly muddle the significant difference between a personal sense of nation(al) identity and a preference for a particular political ideological position.

    I highly recommend, you read my old blog post on this topic: ‘Northern Ireland: succinctly label your constitutional politics position?’ http://belfast-child.blogspot.co.uk/2017/05/n-ireland-succinctly-label-your.html

    • Ruaidri,

      I think I know where you’re coming from here, but I will elaborate and explain why your post isn’t particularly relevant, and why being ‘neither’ doesn’t mean you’re naive.

      I’m not in the ranks of any party, I would need to be more enthused by one to want to get involved. While, as I wrote, the Alliance Party has condemned the related legislation publicly in the past, it hasn’t managed to bring the issue into the public forum or place any pressure on the status quo.

      I’ve been addressing these issues with the census, equality monitoring and binary language sporadically for a long time. This isn’t chronological but I have I emailed all my MLAs, MPs, MEPs and DFP – as it had responsibility for the census. I had exchanges with some politicians, was ignored by more, and had an infuriating interaction with DFP (while Arlene Foster was minister). I met with an Alliance MLA and got a written question submitted at Stormont, the answer was poor, the MLA agreed it was poor but left it at that. I’ve written a few articles for this website, and tweeted at many politicians and many media outlets. I wrote a submission for the Haass talks. I’ve met with NISRA and contributed to the consultation for the 2021 census. I’ve met the Equality Commission twice, and with BBC management twice (after a very, very long time dealing with BBC Complaints). I reported the Belfast Telegraph to the then Press Complaints Commission, it ruled against me, the PCC Independent Reviewer agreed with me and sent it back to the PCC, PCC ruled against, Independent Reviewer sent it back, PCC ruled against – at which point the Independent Reviewer has no power. I wrote to the Community Relations Council about the sectarian interpretation of identity throughout the Peace Monitoring Report No.3. I did a Masters in Research, and worked with a Slugger contributor for an article based on my research. This has been anything but a moderate response from me to this form of sectarianism.

      As to your other points, my national identity is mixed, and that’s ok by me. With the options in front of me on the 2011 census, I ticked Irish, British and Northern Irish. Just 1% of the population did the same. I agree with what Claire Mitchell wrote about mongrel identity (on perviously mentioned competitor platform), and how the ratios of nationality can fluctuate within oneself over time. Adding to that is an internationalist identity, a strengthened European identity and the impact of local, national and international culture(s). There has to be more than a fixed ideology for me; war & arms dealing are issues, as are human rights, the influence of the church, my love of Donegal and the possibility of a manned border between us, and the horrible histories of all the states involved. I don’t think there’s a box for all that.

      It is pointless to imagine myself outside a polling booth regarding a border poll when there hasn’t been a campaign – I think this is a flaw in how some opinion polls ask about this too. If there was to be a border poll, there would need to be an actual plan for how this part of the island could be afforded. Will the EU help Ireland fund the transition to the same or greater extent as the bloc grant (a disputed £10b)? There are unanswered questions about health care services and benefits. Will Ireland do more for the victims and survivors of institutional abuse and the troubles? I’d like to hear, from experts, if the currency change could impact us, or the island as a whole.

      Who knows if this will be an option we are given, but before hearing the campaigns I’m most likely to vote for the two-state solution.

      You may see people who don’t identify within the ‘two communities’ as accepting the status quo, I see politicians who haven’t articulated anything practical to support, and I don’t need to be governed from Dublin to be Irish.

      While it cannot be why a border poll doesn’t happen, there is also a consideration of what might happen to this society at the hands of the ideologically immovable during the campaign and most significantly afterwards – there is not the leadership to deal with this. Politically we are getting further away from TBUC than when it was released, it’s now 6 years until we’re supposed to have the peace walls down and I just don’t think that’s going to happen. I said in the article TBUC could slow the prospect of unity because a comfortable society may not want to risk change. However, while it may be a slower game than achieving 51% of the vote after a bitter campaign, I think McGuinness may have reckoned that if this society was going to be anywhere near ready to deal with reunification it has to be more at peace with itself.

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