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Separate but equal is order of the day for the well-heeled

By Suzanne Breen

Published 05/11/2016

The Boyne Bridge in Sandy Row, Belfast
The Boyne Bridge in Sandy Row, Belfast

It's not us, it's them'uns!" cry the middle-class when it comes to the problem of sectarianism that still plagues Northern Ireland. "It's the men with the shaven heads and tattoos. It's the women with bleached blonde hair, angry faces and feral kids. It's the rabble from Ballymurphy and Ballybeen who are to blame," they insist.

That's the convenient lie taken as gospel in any mainstream conversation about the persistence of prejudice and bigotry here. It was rightly nailed as nonsense by Ulster Unionist Danny Kennedy yesterday.

Despite the focus on bridge-building in working-class communities, sectarianism is "alive and well in the drawing-rooms and parlours of our middle-classes", he said. It was always so. The rural rich may have lived side-by-side in the same small towns and villages, but more often than not they went to their own butcher's, newsagent's, and hardware stores. Business, where possible, was kept in-house.

Segregation in our cities isn't just restricted to deprived estates. In leafy Belfast, when the rising Catholic bourgeoisie moved in, their Protestant counterparts moved out. North Down is overflowing with unionist migrants from the Malone Road.

Separate - although now increasingly equal - is the order of the day. The image persists that it's those found in the Felons in Andersonstown, or Sandy Row Rangers' Supporters' Club, who are holding Northern Ireland back.

Well-heeled professionals from both communities may drink and dine in the same hip pubs and restaurants but I don't see any evidence that many are dating, let alone marrying each other. And that is quite an indictment. Because these aren't people who bore the brunt of our conflict. Compared to the working-class, they didn't suffer or sacrifice much during the Troubles. Overwhelmingly, it wasn't they who went to early graves or filled our jails. They didn't kill, or be killed, for Ireland or 'God and Ulster'. They don't bear the scars.

And yet 22 years after the IRA and loyalist ceasefires, they choose to live as two tribes. The cappuccino culture hasn't significantly shifted old habits.

While the Protestant working-class got the bad press, the fault for structural sectarianism in Northern Ireland lay firmly at the door of the unionist establishment. It was they who presided over decades of discrimination and misrule.

The Catholic middle-class has emerged as the big winner of our conflict. At least a section of them displays a worrying sense of entitlement. They behave as though they were born to run the show. Their hissy fit over Brexit - how dare the great unwashed vote to take us out of our beloved EU - shows a shaky commitment to democracy. While there are signs of greater educational integration - more Catholic children are attending State primary schools and Lagan College is heavily over-subscribed - the situation isn't so rosy in our leading university. As the number of Catholic students at Queen's has risen, more Protestants opt for campuses across the water.

The behaviour of some nationalist students in the Holyland shows that swaggering supremacism isn't just restricted to the worst elements of the Orange Order. In the past, Catholic students proudly marched for civil rights and challenged sectarianism. Now, our future lawyers, teachers and accountants drunkenly run rampage through the streets wrapped in Tricolours.

We're not living out what those glossy NIO ads promised. We may temporarily unite behind Rory McIlroy and Carl Frampton - and Van's still the Man - but we're a long way off liking, let alone loving, each other.

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