Belfast Telegraph

Sectarianism: it hasn't gone away, you know

The 'Golfgate' row misses the point. The Executive should focus less on the PGA and more on CSI (that's Cohesion Sharing and Integration), says Ruairi O'Kane

If Jonathan Bell ever met John Wayne, then he really would be sorry. "Never apologise, never explain. It's a sign of weakness," was The Duke's maxim in the 1949 film She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.

But, in recent days, junior minister Bell found himself doing just that, as he sought contrition for what he called his clumsy use of language at a conference on tackling the religious divide in Northern Ireland.

His crime was to state that prejudice and hate still exists in Northern Ireland and is not confined to working-class communities - scratch the surface and look behind closed doors, he said, and it will be whispered and joked about in golf clubs, or over dinner parties.

A furore ensued, whipped up by wounded golfing bodies and worried politicians getting their collective plus-fours in a twist over the comments and Bell backed down.

We still wait to see if the makers and participants of Come Dine With Me were similarly offended.

Bell's plea for clemency was swiftly followed by a similar mea culpa from his playing partner in the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, Martina Anderson, who having referenced the original remarks at the same event, rather more pointedly said she was only sorry for people who had misunderstood the use of the metaphor.

Only in Northern Ireland could community relations week be soured by a row over community relations.

However, in the course of the debate, apologies and explanations, the real point - as Martina Anderson quite rightly highlighted - is being missed.

While progress has been remarkable, sectarianism has not gone away, you know.

It still exists, it still thrives and it is not the intellectual property of any one section of our society.

For far too long, sectarianism in Northern Ireland was someone else's problem. For nationalists, it was unionists who were sectarian. And vice-versa.

Our political parties, of course, are all clean, too. So much so that one party feels the need to market itself as the only one which isn't sectarian.

In many ways, the junior ministers were exactly on the money with their statements.

No one was really suggesting that golf clubs are sectarian hotbeds.

But given the Executive's bankrolling of the forthcoming Irish Open in Portrush and our reliance on golfing tourism and the currency of our recent Major winners, it was, at best, unwise to use golf as an example.

For golf clubs, they could have said night-clubs and the dinner table could easily be the Executive table.

Sectarian politics, unity pacts and carve-up are still very much part of the political landscape. And no matter how hard we try, there are still those who are determined to destabilise and it remains in the interest of some to reinforce the divide.

It is to our eternal shame that, since 1998, the number of so-called 'peace walls' erected across Northern Ireland has increased from 22 to 88.

Mercifully, the levels of sectarian murders and attacks are nowhere near what they once were.

However, sectarianism will continue to manifest itself in various ways - especially as most Protestant and Catholic children continue to be taught separately as well as living apart. Sadly, sectarianism itself has become subconsciously an acceptable parlour, or dinner party, game.

Clues are sought from the names, birthplaces, and backgrounds of contestants of The Voice, or X Factor, in order to work out if they are one of them, or one of us.

For some people, it was easier to cheer for Rory McIlroy after seeing his First Communion photograph and for others easier to abuse James McClean, following his declaration for the Republic of Ireland.

The First and deputy First Minister deserve credit for the gestures they have made in the last 12 months - attending GAA, rugby and soccer games.

In reality, their seriousness will be judged not by attendance at sporting occasions, but attainment of real and tangible good relations.

This will be tested in the number of walls that are brought down, when flags are flown with respect and respected when flown and spaces and services are actually shared.

In the days and weeks ahead, our Executive ministers should focus less on the PGA and more on the CSI (Cohesion, Sharing and Integration).

Apologising for potentially offending figures in a sport which, in some places, still thinks men-only clubs are acceptable is the least of their worries.

The good words of junior ministers Jonathan Bell and Martina Anderson and others must now be backed by further good deeds.

Sectarianism is no longer our secret shame, but is our inconvenient truth.

And, for as long as that continues, we should all be truly sorry.

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