Eilis O'Hanlon: Don't be fooled... political leaders, both unionist and republican, still use a nod and a wink to exploit sectarian sentiments to their own advantage
Sinn Fein's insistence - repeated again this week - that republicanism and bigotry are incompatible doesn't hold water, writes Eilis O'Hanlon
Never let it be said that Sinn Fein doesn't respect and honour members of the Protestant community. New leader Mary Lou McDonald even recorded a video at the weekend to publicise the party's latest anti-sectarianism drive whilst standing in front of a picture of one of these exotic creatures. Admittedly, it was Countess Markievicz, second in command of the rebels who occupied Stephen's Green in Dublin during the 1916 Easter Rising, during which she reportedly shot dead an unarmed 28-year-old policeman; but it still counts, right.
After all, some historians think Markievicz only shot the young man in the arm and that the fatal damage was done by a different bullet. And even if she did kill him, well, it happened a long time ago and it was all in a good cause, so why make a fuss about it now?
The answer to that is because symbolism matters. Sinn Fein's most senior current representative deliberately chose to trumpet her party's commitment to "confronting sectarianism and defeating it and building a new, inclusive society" whilst standing in front of that particular picture.
She must have had some reason for doing it. So, what was the thinking behind the choice?
Everyone in Northern Ireland is probably guilty of reading too much into every little gesture. Each side celebrates aspects of history which are problematic to the other tradition. But the video of Mary Lou McDonald, which can be watched back on Sinn Fein's Twitter feed, was put out as a direct appeal to people of all traditions and none to support the launch of the party's new anti-sectarianism policy, so what subliminal message was being conveyed by saying those superficially soothing words in front of a picture of Constance Markievicz?
If unionists took it to mean that Sinn Fein's idea of a model Protestant is one who renounced her Anglo-Irish heritage, burned the Union flag, and embraced armed struggle against British rule, then who can confidently reassure them that they're wrong? At the very least, it's not designed to make them feel welcome.
What would nationalists think, after all, if DUP leader Arlene Foster issued a similar video whilst posing next to a picture of the old Ulster Volunteers?
There are many fine sentiments in 'One Community', the title given by Sinn Fein to its new policy document. Mary Lou's appeal to "orange, green and every colour in between" is a snappy soundbite. Her willingness to stop by Twelfth of July celebrations if invited, coming a couple of days after Arlene Foster's attendance at the GAA Ulster final, is a welcome gesture, albeit one that is probably best interpreted in light of McDonald's insistence that she's "up for a deal" on restoring Stormont.
But the familiar insistence, repeated again this week, that bigotry is incompatible with Irish republicanism simply doesn't hold water. Whilst Sinn Fein is willing to make the right noises about particularly heinous attacks such as the 1976 Kingsmill massacre when they make the headlines again, the memory of countless other victims of sectarian attacks by the IRA is deliberately expunged in the unabashed celebration of the armed struggle by a supposedly new generation of republicans such as McDonald and deputy leader Michelle O'Neill.
There's also Sinn Fein's unfortunate history of sectarian campaigning to consider.
Gerry Kelly infamously let the cat out of the bag in the 2015 general election by distributing a leaflet in north Belfast which not only featured pictures of his unionist rival, the DUP's Nigel Dodds, wearing an Orange Order sash and standing by a Union flag, but also contained census figures showing there were now more Catholics than Protestants in the constituency. It was a crude appeal to sectarian competitiveness, and Sinn Fein was quickly forced to withdraw it. The thinking behind the leaflet, however, remains undimmed.
At the Sinn Fein ard fheis last November, the director of the School of Irish Studies at Liverpool University gave a guest lecture in which he said there are two forms of sectarianism. One is outright bigotry. The other is a belief in one's own group as more "virtuous, righteous and authentic" than the other. Professor Peter Shirlow put it this way: "The very idea that your identity and its related actions are beyond reproach is sectarian. The superiority complex is sectarian."
That's what we're up against in Northern Ireland and nothing in Sinn Fein's new initiative goes any way towards addressing it. If anything, it reinforces that superiority complex amongst republicans, who are invited to pat themselves on the back for opposing sectarianism without looking at what in their own tradition exemplifies and encourages it. Sinn Fein are hardly alone in defining sectarianism in a way which suits their own interests. Unionists are guilty of using exactly the same dog whistle tactics in an effort to trigger certain reactions from voters, including the DUP's appeal to unionists at recent Assembly elections to come out in force and stop 'Them'uns' on the other side being the biggest party.
Sometimes the sectarianism is crudely on display, as in the 2016 meeting held at an Orange hall in that same constituency of North Belfast by unionists, one of whom was Housing Minister at the time, to oppose plans to build more badly needed homes for nationalists in a nationalist district; sometimes the message is more subtle.
But it's all an attempt to stake out territory. And with good reason. Electorally, sectarianism works.
That might be deplorable, but it also happens to be the rationale which both underpins the Belfast Agreement and has been copperfastened by it. Does Sinn Fein have any answer to sectarianism beyond pretending that republicans are too sophisticated to suffer from it? Sadly, even the title of the new initiative suggests not. Challenging sectarianism is not about bringing everyone together under 'One Community', whatever that even means, but about being comfortable with difference, with diversity.
Until that cultural shift occurs, it's difficult not to conclude that nothing much has changed from the days when an academic embarking on a study of sectarianism in the 1990s was warned that it would just "make Catholics feel smug and Protestants feel got at".
And with flags now going up all across Northern Ireland in preparation for July, often in communities which census figures show to be more mixed than the triumphalist bunting would suggest, stoking resentment even among those of a moderate mindset, the timing couldn't be worse for having a nuanced conversation about the multiple ways that political leaders, unionist and republican alike, still use a nod and wink to exploit sectarian sentiments to their own advantage.