A re-tread of tired approaches: A review of ‘Sectarianism in Northern Ireland: A Review’ Guest post by Brian Gormally, Director, CAJ

“The attention paid to ‘sectarianism’ in this paper, is not intended to be judgemental or pejorative, but to describe a common predicament: we were raised in a society where sectarianism was ‘built in’ to normality.”

That single sentence taken from page 8 of Sectarianism in Northern Ireland: A Review, published in early May, encapsulates the theoretical weakness and practical aridity of what turns out to be a dispiriting trek through old arguments and older solutions. The review is not “judgemental” about a philosophy of hate but bewails a “common predicament” – that an unfortunate history means sectarianism in Northern Ireland is normal. “Escaping this bind” is how the purpose of the review is described.

In fact, sectarianism is a form of racism. So say the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, the Committee of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), the Council of Europe and CAJ itself. Racism is the antithesis of human rights and dignity; it is the source of hatred, discrimination and violence and needs to be fought, criminalised where necessary and ostracised from civilised human society.

There is no attempt to define sectarianism in this review. The “brief introduction to a contested concept” consists of a very brief and selective historical overview that concludes that the “common predicament” still exists, even after the successes of the peace process. However, the descriptions of sectarianism suggest that the author sees it as “separation”, the “old divisions”, and “deeply rooted” “assumptions and habits”. It seems that difference itself is the problem, the unfortunate fact that different identities, aspirations and beliefs exist and there is sometimes hostility and prejudice between them.

There are a number of problems with this broad conception of sectarianism as the latent hostility between two traditions, formed historically and intensified by the experience of conflict. First, it conflates quite separate behaviours. A sense of superiority over another group of humans, accompanied by openly expressed contempt and hatred, systematised into a supremacist ideology is a different phenomenon from a lack of familiarity or sympathy with a different culture. To use the same word to describe them in practice de-toxifies racist attitudes and behaviour since they are only extreme versions of what is seen as ‘normal’.

Second, the vagueness of the non-definition of sectarianism leads to a similar woolliness in the prescriptions for dealing with it. About half of the 50-odd action points at the end of the review are exhortations to different sectors to promote various attitudes or programmes. Some of these are about worthy but vague aspirations, such as “entrepreneurship”, “civic responsibility”, or “volunteering,” but there is also a focus on undefined “anti-sectarian” work and education. There are descriptions of this kind of activity, for example, “an anti-sectarian education framework which encourages young people to explore issues of difference and build friendships of lasting value”. While it is slightly odd to see “friendships” as an outcome of a government sponsored programme, there is nothing inherently wrong with these ideas; it is just questionable whether they confront the poisonous, racist ideology that kills people.

Third, the failure to identify sectarianism as a form of racism leads to a failure to recognise or even mention the concept of intersectionality. This refers, in this context, to the fact that forms of prejudice tend to cluster – sectarianism is associated with other forms of racism and prejudices like misogynist and homophobic attitudes. This means, again, a conflation of vicious and dangerous prejudice with a lack of cultural empathy. It treats sectarianism as a little local difficulty, exclusively contextualised by Northern Ireland’s particular history, not as part of a world-wide struggle against racism and other violent prejudice.

This definitional issue would not matter so much if it were not reflected in the prescriptions for combating sectarianism and if this half-century of proposals did not obscure and replace a proper strategy. In addition to the exhortations mentioned above, the proposals in the paper suggest the establishment of half a dozen new quangos or other agencies and about seventeen funding pots for various purposes. Any of these proposals can be considered on their own merits, but there is a glaring omission which contributes to the hollowness and vacuity of this entire ‘review’.

There are only two mentions of “human rights” in the text: one in a quote from a section of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement and another in a quote describing the agreement. These references are not developed in the text and, in fact, the entire aspect of the peace process promoting human rights is ignored. The concept of equality gets more of an outing but largely in order to deny its relevance as between the two communities. The following quote is typical: “Economic inequality across society, especially in the area of employment, is now clearly more significant than the differential between communities.” It is hardly any secret that the inequality between rich and poor, though currently increasing, has always been greater than that between the two main communities in Northern Ireland but any discrimination against people because of irrelevant characteristics is deeply “significant” for the victims. It is a classic distraction technique to pose one form of inequality against another with the intent or result of belittling both. Inexplicably, the review says: “Sectarian divisions complicate efforts to apply equality-based criteria to social policy.” In fact, sectarian divisions necessitate the application of equality-based criteria to social policy as the legal requirement for an anti-poverty strategy based on objective need (1) demonstrates.

The lack of recognition of the role of human rights and equality in combating sectarianism is both a result of failing to see sectarianism as racism and the dismissal of their significance in the author’s apparent worldview. In contrast, if we see sectarianism as a form of racism, that necessarily requires a robust response based on international human rights standards and a vision of a future society that fully respects all on the basis of equality and respect for human dignity.

A human rights approach means, amongst other things, the consistent suppression of hate expression – by the criminal law when it incites hatred, fear or discrimination. This may require the strengthening of Part III of the Public Order (Northern Ireland) Order 1987, which deals with incitement to hatred, but would certainly involve its proper application. Public authorities should also be banned from supporting or facilitating hate expression and supported when taking action against unlawful manifestations, whether graffiti, bonfires, parades, flags or commemorations.

In a more positive sense, anti-sectarian action needs to consist of a broad campaign against prejudice, led by a coalition of those groups committed to equality who currently have to fight against discrimination and disadvantage. Intersectionality of prejudice has to be countered by an alliance of victims of discrimination, working together and understanding the interconnectedness of their struggles. If that were the guiding principle, many of the institutional recommendations made in this review would make sense – otherwise they will amount to a re-tread of failed solutions.

This review sees the end result of combating sectarianism as “reconciliation” (2). This is unusually defined as toleration and respect of the right to hold differing views rather than as better personal relations between members of the main communities and in general in society. When reconciliation, even defined as toleration and respect, is posed as a desired end in the abstract, without proposing the conditions and legal structures on which it must be based, it is at best hollow and at worst obfuscatory. Consider how ludicrous it would be to suggest to someone struggling for LGBT+ rights that the solution to their problem would be reconciliation with – toleration and respect of the views of – the homophobes discriminating against them. Without equality and the ostracism of racist views, reconciliation is simply the institutionalisation of discrimination and the victory of prejudice. When equality is guaranteed by properly enforced laws and human rights are protected and promoted, then personal reconciliation, as well as toleration and respect for varying views, is both proper and a guarantee for the future. Without that, it is a delusion and a diversion.

Human rights are the antithesis and cure for racism, including sectarianism. Seeking a society based on human rights and equality is not a vague, utopian enterprise but a hard-headed demand for relevant laws and institutions to enforce them. It is in the solidarity that that search requires that we will be reconciled with each other and be that much more capable of eradicating sectarianism in this place.



(1) A product of the St Andrews Agreement but unlawfully not implemented by the Executive. See the judgement in CAJ’s Judicial Review.

(2) Defined in the Terms of Reference on page 5 of the report as follows: “‘Reconciliation’ is understood as meaning a general willingness on the part of people throughout the community to tolerate and respect the rights of other law-abiding people to hold views at variance from those which they hold themselves.”