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Why we must overcome the sectarianism which stains Belfast and stunts progress

Moderator was right to highlight this social cancer, but politicians have duty to deal with it, says Alban Maginness

Published 23/11/2016

Inspirational speech: Dr Frank Sellar was unflinching in his address about bigotry
Inspirational speech: Dr Frank Sellar was unflinching in his address about bigotry

The Presbyterian Moderator, the Rev Dr Frank Sellar, appropriately enough during his recent pastoral tour of the North Belfast Presbytery, made an inspirational address to the Ulster University, setting out his vision for 'A City of Hope'.

He said that hope came from outside, from God pointing forward to a vibrant and flourishing people released from the shackles of the past and liberated for the freedom of a future in a promised land.

True happiness, he said, was when the human heart is captured by an affection beyond self, to loving God and our neighbours more than anything else.

Dr Sellar spoke of the many people that he had met since coming into office in June who had demonstrated love and compassion. He visited them in nursing homes, drug rehabilitation centres and post-prison residential units.

It was an invigorating and challenging address for his immediate audience and beyond.

Though intended, in the first instance, for a faith-centred audience, there is much to commend his address to people without any religious faith at all.

There is much food for thought in his wide-scale speech, which, if followed through, could release our society from the shackles of the past.

He offered an alternative to a secular narrative as a way for the city's material development. The Church's spiritual message was for the city of Belfast to live in hope and truly flourish.

His message was a pastoral one, but emphasising the spiritual being acted out practically in the real world. In the context of an historically divided north Belfast, he highlighted, for example, the Fortwilliam and Macrory congregation initiative, that enabled young men from the New Lodge and Tigers Bay to flourish together within a safe, shared space.

His was a hard-hitting and thoughtful message, which identified sectarianism as sinful. Sectarianism was, for him, as a spiritual leader, a cancer that eats away at the very core of our hearts. Sectarianism was, in essence, a form of negativity, which is passed on from one generation to the next.

For the Moderator, that negativity was wrong and sinful.

This central message is an uncomfortable one for all of us, religious and non-religious, because none of us is free of that negativity.

We are all - to some extent - infected by the cancer of sectarianism. It is that collective sin that damages our spiritual and physical lives.

Dr Sellar was blunt in his message, because he was teaching all of us about the evil of sectarianism in the life of our city.

He spoke with the authority of a spiritual leader anxious to inspire his listeners.

The Moderator also went on to elaborate his point by referring to the traditional use of bonfires to commemorate key events.

They were part and parcel of identity and culture. Bonfires were neither good nor bad in themselves. They were like a motor car that can be either used or abused.

He referred to the fact that some bonfires are still contentious, but that many local leaders and people have turned bonfires into community-orientated events, so they are neither dangerous nor belligerent. However, there was still some way to go in this area and there is unfinished business to be completed.

But his crunch point was that, while bonfires were not, in themselves, sinful, they can become sinful when, instead of positively celebrating culture, they are hijacked to inculcate triumphalism and fear.

In short, when bonfires become demonstrations of sectarianism, then they are sinful and cancerous. Having said this, he was predictably criticised by some incandescent DUP politicians and told that he was wrong and should apologise.

But he was unfazed by these rebukes, because he was teaching as a caring Christian pastor, who clearly identified the manifestations of sectarianism as being wrong, indeed sinful.

The bonfires were but a small example of that sectarianism and he was right to say so.

Sectarianism is a sin and it is a social cancer that has bedevilled our society for generations. The Troubles were the violent and disastrous consequence of age-old sectarianism. It is the central issue that plagues our society and destroys progress. It needs to be addressed by our society and, in particular, by our politicians.

Our power-sharing Assembly was designed to address sectarianism through the creation of a dynamic, cross-community partnership that was to lead to genuine reconciliation. Palpably, it has failed to achieve that wonderful vision under the DUP/Sinn Fein duopoly.

What is needed is a real cross-community partnership in Stormont to tackle this all-consuming cancer.

Only then will a vibrant and flourishing people be released from the shackles of the past and liberated for the freedom of a future in a promised land.

Is all of this simply a pious hope?

Belfast Telegraph

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