Belfast Telegraph

Society must cast sectarianism aside

Ian Marshall
Ian Marshall

Editor's Viewpoint

It is depressing that 20 years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement sectarianism is still so deeply embedded in Northern Ireland society. True, the vast majority of people abhor division and want to see a better future for themselves, but particularly for their children.

After 30 years of bitter sectarian conflict costing more than 3,000 lives and countless thousands more people injured in mind and body, it is not surprising that society needs time to heal.

As Ian Marshall, the first Ulster Unionist to be elected to the Republic's Seanad told a Sinn Fein event in Belfast centring on anti-sectarianism, we can never demand of those whose lives were torn apart by the conflict to forgive or forget but we have to separate the horrors of the past from the rebuilding work now required.

And that rebuilding has to take place right across society. Many people believe sectarianism exists only in working class areas controlled by paramilitary groups. That may be its most evident expression, but there is no strata of society where hatred of the other side does not exist.

What Mr Marshall told the conference is not new, but it is a message that needs to be continually reinforced. He is right. We need leadership from politicians, church and community leaders and influential individuals. As Arlene Foster said when she attended the Ulster Championship GAA final on Sunday, there were people within her community unhappy with that decision, but she wanted to point towards a better, more inclusive society.

Such gestures as that by the DUP leader or Sinn Fein supporting Mr Marshall's election are important and paint a picture of what is required to be done to break down barriers. However there is a danger that we begin to tot up the number of gestures made by leaders within each community and demand that they be equal.

But as Mr Marshall said they should not be regarded as special events but rather everyday occurrences. It is right to applaud gestures of reconciliation, but it is only when those gestures become part of society's DNA that we can really say that we have overcome sectarianism.

We need to co-exist in Northern Ireland and we need to work hard to create a society that allows us to do so in harmony and safety. Leadership is not merely reflecting the views of a particular constituency but of exploring, explaining and embracing alternative ones. That is the mindset required for progress.

Belfast Telegraph

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