Sectarianism in Northern Ireland: time for a definition in law

Publication of Equality Coalition commissioned expert paper “Sectarianism in Northern Ireland: time for a definition in law”

In light of the plans, as part of the NI Executive’s community relations strategy, to include a definition of sectarianism in local law for the first time, the Equality Coalition has published an expert paper on the subject, written by Dr Robbie McVeigh. The paper sets the context and provides commentary on a number of potential definitions of sectarianism.

The Equality Coalition is a broad alliance of NGOs and trade unions whose members cover all the equality groups listed in section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, as well as other equality strands. The Equality Coalition is Co-Convened by CAJ and UNISON, was founded in 1996, and now has over 80 members, many of which are umbrella organisations and continues to provide a forum for unity between all sectors when working for equality.

A draft of Dr McVeigh’s paper was presented and considered at a roundtable discussion, held under the Chatham House rule, last month. This was attended by researchers, academics, public bodies, anti-sectarianism practitioners, Equality Coalition members, the Community Relations Council, and Equality and Human Rights Commissions. The roundtable was chaired by Patricia McKeown of UNISON, with Professor Bill Rolston acting as a Rapporteur. The discussion fed into the final version of the paper.

The Executive’s ‘Together: Building a United Community’ strategy was published in May 2013 and the strategy envisages that, provided there is consensus on wording, a definition of sectarianism will be included in the legislation emerging from the strategy. The public consultation on this is likely to take place shortly and the paper is produced as a contribution to this debate. The strategy itself does contain a definition of sectarianism for the strategy document itself. However this, given as it was derived from a proposed provision in the Justice Act 2011 which dealt with sectarian chanting at sports matches rather than sectarianism per se, is restricted more to hate speech and related individual behaviour rather than other manifestations of sectarianism.

The paper covers issues as regards to the conceptualisation of sectarianism and the positions taken by United Nations and Council of Europe anti-racism committees which locate sectarianism in Northern Ireland as a form of racism, and the utility of the concept of ‘institutional racism’ developed in the UK following the Macpherson report. It covers the issue of the undertheorisation of sectarianism, developments in the legal and policy frameworks in Northern Ireland, Scotland, England & Wales and UN & Council of Europe levels before scoping and critiquing potential definitions of sectarianism.

The expert paper can be found by clicking the link below (PDF 875kb)

Sectarianism in Northern Ireland Towards a definition in Law April 2014 Final