Cancer of Sectarianism – A personal reflection by Michael Culbert

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I attended the CRC conference on Monday 14th May which was addressed by numerous politicians including Martina Anderson and Jonathan Bell.

Both made excellent contributions to the floor and the reception for what they said was, to me, overwhelmingly positive and accepting.  What we in the audience heard them say was that the legacy of our conflict and the need for rebuilding society  was not the sole responsibility of the working class- the class which constituted the majority of those imprisoned for participation in the conflict.

The media has picked up on the comparisons they both made to ‘golf club types’ and the sectarian attitudes such people hold. No-one among the group with whom I sat was under the impression that they were referring specifically to ‘golf clubs’  or their members, but that they were in fact referring to the middle classes, many of whom  do inhabit such places.

They no more meant to specify golf club members as would I be in specifying people who eat cucumber sandwiches when I may use the term ‘the cucumber sandwich brigade’. We know what we mean when we use these sweeping terms – so to deny that is ridiculous.

I cannot figure out what the big deal is about. I am a former IRA prisoner and currently work on behalf of the former political prisoner community. The conference title was ‘No more them and us?’ a sentiment with which I strongly agree. I do not hold a ‘neutral’ view on the political or social situation today but I do try to be objective. Nor do I consider ‘Sectarianism’ to be the core problem on this island.  But it certainly is one issue to be dealt with. One person I spoke with at the conference is a former senior RUC member. We are civil to each other. The war  is over, so why not?  I imagine he feels the same.

I think I can safely say that I hear reference to Sectarianism daily in the media; to it being the scourge of this society etc etc, and normally those comments are interlinked in some way to a violent event or comment or some issue relating to a violent event in the past. I do not think I have ever heard any comment in the media not implying that the issue is a working class issue.

Mr Bell spoke of good relations requiring ‘equality of opportunity for all’ in this society. He spoke of the need for a ‘shared and reconciled society’ and I agree with that. He also spoke frankly about the confidence required by his party leadership to move into Government with Sinn Féin – I am sure that it did and likewise I am sure for Sinn Fein. He also spoke of the need for strong leadership in such situations, and we all agreed there.

Ms Anderson spoke of the ‘hidden sectarianism’ of the middle classes and most nodded their heads in agreement. She then spoke of good relations and the requirement for them to ‘be built on equality’. Who could disagree?

Later Justice Minister  Mr Ford spoke and referred to ‘the underlying sources of/for divisions’ here and that ‘no where should be out of bounds for anyone’.

I cannot help wondering why the media did not pick up on these quite remarkable, positive comments from three different political parties – all signalling clearly the commitment to equality of citizenship for all of the citizens in this community.

As a Republican I am not content to remain in this political entity but I am content to support the structures as they exist because we do require a peace built on equality and justice for all of the people here – Unionist and Republican, Loyalist/ Nationalist and those who are indifferent. It is not all there yet but I am reasonably confident that changes will continue. We have travelled a long way politically in a few years. I personally am encouraged  by the language currently in use by people previously strangers to such usage.

It is about time that the ‘nice’ people were held to account for their silences, ignoring of realities, lack of questioning of obvious wrongs and living detached from the harshness of the decades we went through. If the media is so insistent on classifying sectarianism as a major issue here, and now the media is allowing the middle classes to say ‘not I’, then we have to ask the media – who exactly are the people with ‘sectarian’ views?

If the middle classes are to deny their roles – by actions, words or indeed by the lack of such then they have to be asked by someone- who did have  the power to discriminate in employment, to allocate funds to roads or factories or indeed decide on their locations? Who did have the ability to make decisions on housing, where estates were built, how they were designed and who should live in them? Who indeed decided on what schooling systems we should have? No-one in my street was party to such decision making and I would guess no one from any working class neighbourhood  in a Unionist area was – so back to those actually in the golf club who choked on their gins when confronted by Jonathan Bell and Martina Anderson and their comments. Working class people were never alone in being the manufacturers of our issues.

The above issues of housing and schooling were discussed at the CRC conference but unfortunately were looked at in the here and now.  From my perspective we have to go back and examine the root causes of our conflict, not the obvious, manifest issues of today such as segregated schooling and housing which are the outcomes of core problems. When we are looking back – for positive learning of mistakes in order to build for a better future, let us recall the questions I posed above – who were the decision makers and what underpinned the decisions made?

I am aware that Jonathan has since offered an apology for his comments. Perhaps this is an arena for some honest discussion. Is there anyone from the decision making class prepared to indicate anything other than denial of any responsibility?

I want to thank Martina and Jonathan for shinning a light on this issue.


Editor’s note: Since the drafting of Michael Culbert’s article above – Martina Anderson has also said that she regrets any confusion arising from her remarks. 


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About Author

Michael Culbert was an IRA member who spent 16 years in prison. Nowadays he is the director of the group Coiste, a group that helps republican ex-prisoners.


  1. Hi Michael – plenty of food for thought in this piece, and a big challenge to people to open their minds and their thinking. When we chatted the other day, I mentioned an article I’d written for the Presbyterian Herald. In it I quoted the loyalist William ‘Plum’ Smith saying the following:
    “The churches and middle-class society have not stepped up to the mark in terms of their culpability for the conflict. They are still in denial.”
    He’s right and you’re right. This conflict is not just about those who went to prison,and it’s not just about people from working-class communities. If, at some stage, there is some table of explanation, then there are many more who should be part of that information process – those living in denial and who would like to escape the stage free from blame, any responsibility or guilt.


  2. As I was not at the conference I found your article very informative. It  was a pity that comment made the headlines. I agree with your comments re this, I knew exactly what was meant and I’ve nothing against golf clubs. The truth was middle class people did stay silent and their views were shared with their own. A couple of examples (of doctors and business owners) were shared  with me in recent years and I was shocked. Well done Martina and Jonathan for opening up the debate.  In retrospect it was good it was said!

  3. VictorCarmichael on

    All encouraging language from the politicians. Cant say I agree with dissecting the past 40-odd years, trying to find someone else to blame. Maybe we should go all the way back to 1916 and find someone to blame there? 

    It may be true that if you cut anyone in Northern Ireland deep enough there will be a bit of sectarianism present – but what do you expect? Different schools and peace walls still in Belfast 14 years after we were supposed to have drawn a line under things will ensure that for future generations.

    We need to look at the here and now, picking out constructive ways to move forward, not adding the man responsible for not giving Sammy or Sean a job in 1978 to a ‘table of explanation’Constantly lingering on the past gets us nowhere, and will not solve the problems in working class areas.

    As for golf clubs, cathedrals of snobbery and class more than sectarianism. All the dodgy attire put me off golf clubs. Golf balls were always something to throw at people where i grew up 😉


  4. Patrick Fahy on

    I always found it deeply ironic that those within the Catholic community who most vociferously condemned the actions of Republican armed groups were themselves often deeply sectarian in their approach to the Protestant community.”Them” and “us” featured  prominently in all their conversations; what “the Protestants” had taken from Catholics and how it could be taken back. The truth is that theNorth was, for historical political reasons, a deeply dysfunctional society at all levels, including the middle classes. Any crossing of perceived barriers was superficial and in some instances obviously self-serving. Given the political realities, it could hardly be otherwise. No one can escape the responsibility for contributing to real change in attitudes, now that a level political playing field has been created. What we dont need is the wringing of hands by those,  in golf clubs or elsewhere, who whether or not they accept it, sufffered the same symptons as everyone else reared in the unstable  Northern Ireland state.

  5. Jackiemcdonald on

    Jonathan Bell has received some criticism for his comments at CRC but wether you agree or disagree with what he said I commend him for having the courage to say it. We all need a reality check,not just on what was said at CRC but on where we are in the peace process and if we are serious about securing a better future for our children and grandchildren. Sectarianism is alive and well,you just have to listen to what some of our young people on either side are saying,or read what some of them put on Facebook etc. Add that to what is being said(more eloquently perhaps)by others from middle and upper class backgrounds and we are entering dangerous territory,words of war or a war of word cannot and will not help create the environment we all need to cement the peace process. Though I don’t agree with what many of our young people are saying I try to understand why they feel the way they do,and I try to convince them otherwise at every opportunity,however not enough is being done to address the lack of identity,self esteem or future prospects for the younger element in either community. Personally I don’t see any more serious threat to the peace process than bigotry and sectarianism and if it is encouraged by middle/upper classes what chance have our kids? Suttle sectarianism is still sectarianism and it encourages working class youngsters to demonstrate their bigotry in the only way they know,through violence. Surely we all have a responsibility to each other and to our young ones to choose our words and/or deeds carefully and to consider how they may impact on our overall situation,on the future of the peace process. As long as there is the THEM AND US attitude we could all be locked in the sectarian frame of mind,have we or will we ever have the courage to grab hold of Peace,cherish it and gift it to future generations? If someone was to offer us the chance to save one single life from the past would we not take it? We not only have the opportunity to save countless lives in the future we have the responsibility,all of us!

    • VictorCarmichael on

      Agree with the them & us attitude, but how do we change it?
      As long as communities remain divided on old religious terms then it will be extremely hard to remove from mindsets. Hating people you don’t know is very easy – sort that out and we are onto a winner.

      Now all we need is a politician that will make it his/her mission to integrate our small society and eradicate sectarianism…………not in my lifetime

  6. Katherine McCourt on

    I welcome what was said at the conference by the MLA’s and understood the reference to golf clubs was not specific but making the point you don’nt have to be so called working class (I hate reference to class, labelling people, but the point is I know sectaranism happens in the family law courts and I have evidence of this.  If judges and their elk are bitter and bigoted then it obviously needs to be top down and not not bottom up the change in bad attitudes.  I know a judge made reference to and insulted a Mother’s faith when the mum challenged the judge as to why a suspected sex abuser was not arrested and charged, instead of taking it out on the family by putting the child in care even though the mum had no knowledge ((*and that was a finding_)

    Reference was only made to what school the child went to even though it had no relevence to child protection what so ever.

    Also hearsay, malicious evidence was used by social services against the mum, that she had a member of a political party in her home, and these lies came from the suspect of the abuse who was absence from court, as it was mum who took the case to get child back from care.

    This was a political party the judge took exception to and she took her bitterness out on mum saying it showed bad attitude etc etc (*this is all in court transcripts_)

    The fact that mum had gone to police ombudsman about police failing to arrest or charge suspect of abuse was also used against her, this is just a snapshot.

    Social workers are sectarnian, police, barristers and judges.  Family courts are held in secret, with no jury, using hearsay, not to protect children but to protect secrecy of how corrupt, bigoted and sectarian so called professionals are.

    It is not social work in this country it is Social Engineering and it stinks, god help us all.