Belfast Telegraph

Marianne Elliott: When God took sides - Sectarian identities still influence daily life in Northern Ireland


Graffiti on a wall outside an orange hall in north Belfast
Graffiti on a wall outside an orange hall in north Belfast
Graffiti in east Belfast

By Marianne Elliott

The "parity of esteem" aspect of the Good Friday Agreement is often denounced as creating a sectarian "carve-up", as if sectarianism is something over there and nothing to do with us.

If we are ever to start dealing with sectarianism, we could do with a more honest recognition of its pervasiveness.

That can only start if we recognise it in ourselves, in whatever form, for you cannot operate in a sectarianised society such as exists in Northern Ireland without imbibing aspects of sectarianism, if only to be able to function.

For most people it is quite unconscious. However, people can sustain sectarian systems without ever recognising it in themselves.

Even that characteristic self-censorship of what we say - the "whatever you say, say nothing" syndrome - is based on instinctive sectarianism.

It is, of course, absurd to think that religious identities take primacy over others in deciding human behaviour.

Yet sectarianism always has a religious element and you don't have to be actively practising a religion to espouse a sectarian identity based on religion.

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The stereotypes formed by political Protestantism and political Catholicism in the past still inform our core cultures, even as society secularises.

While there have always been exceptions, for all of modern Irish history until very recently the Christian churches have had no hesitation in taking sides.

It is no accident that Protestants had anti-popery as a defining element of their identity. This, after all, is what the Protestant Reformation was about. It is why Catholics sometimes argued that Protestants were bigoted and they were not.

That, of course, was a delusion. Catholic nationalism has taken the form of not accepting Protestants as properly Irish and of holding them responsible for all the wrongs of the past. And both stereotypes are represented in the pseudo-history of our street murals.

There is a qualitative difference in Catholic and Protestant sectarianism and in the stereotypes which have resulted.

Catholics, politically and economically, were on the losing side. The land and the political power which went with it was Protestant from the late-17th to the early-20th centuries and for much longer and more completely in Ulster.

The Protestant states (first in the whole of Ireland, then in Northern Ireland after partition) were unwelcoming of moderate Catholics willing to join the system.

The result was that social leadership devolved to that other Catholic elite, the clergy.

It was they who developed the Catholic-Irish-Gaelic identikit in the 17th century, making the Catholic elite's bitterness at the loss of land and status to Protestants core to Catholic identity.

After the securing of the Protestant order in Ireland, Catholics found themselves pushed down the social scale, then caricatured for the consequences.

Such "ethnic snobbery" and sense of superiority towards Catholics infected every denomination and every class of Protestant and I was to find it also in loyalist literature during the Troubles.

The sight of civil rights marchers in the late 1960s (so many Catholic university students when there was no tradition of working-class Protestants progressing to third-level education), and more recently the rise of a new consumerist Catholic middle-class, was profoundly unsettling to this mindset.

Even today, Catholics get irritated at the kind of Protestant sense of entitlement behind excessive displays of loyalty and Britishness - a continuing Protestant belief that the state and its institutions are "ours".

Protestants have had much to say about what they see as whingeing by Catholics and have a keenly developed persecution origin-myth of their own.

The English Protestant martyrs of Queen Mary's reign and the massacres of Protestants on the continent and during the 1641 Catholic uprising in Ireland (as many as 12,000 having died, a third of the entire Protestant population) became part of the Irish Protestant story.

Popery was deemed a persecutory system, its adherents denied any individuality, or independent thinking. Modern orangeism replicates the 17th-century imagery in its pageantry and survives because of a Protestant fear that if Catholics became the majority, they would be made the victims.

Education has been one of the main battle grounds and its history in Ireland is not a pretty one. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Protestant proselytisation in schools was a major factor in the progressive shift to separate Catholic education.

In Northern Ireland, Catholic schools did not receive 100% state funding for capital costs until 1992.

Of course, the Catholic Church had little reason to trust a state which exuded anti-Catholicism. But discrimination in schooling did not figure in the civil rights campaign of the late 1960s and the Northern Ireland government's record in education was as good as it could have been in such a divided society.

The underfunding of Catholic schools owed as much to the Church's refusal to have representatives of the new authorities on governing bodies.

That was not widely known and in the Catholic mind, primed by the kind of collective memory that I have described, such underfunding was slotted into the story of endless persecution that has defined Catholic identity.

The Catholic Church's ambivalence towards integrated schools is well known. Since 1989, all schools have been permitted to opt for integrated status, but so far only 20 have done so and all are Protestant.

The jury is out on the role separate denominational schools may have played in the problems of Northern Ireland. Yet their very ethos did not promote understanding for the other culture.

As John Whyte concluded in 1990, segregated education was divisive, not so much in what was taught as in the hidden political and cultural agendas informally transmitted.

The large percentages supporting integrated education in opinion polls have not translated into pressure to achieve it. Northern Ireland society generally supports denominational schooling.

All the churches were happier with the recent shared education policy, since it did not involve changing the ethos of the school. In divided societies worldwide schooling remains a problem.

Even so, in Northern Ireland the sharing of sites, where one group goes in one door and the other another, may seem like progress.

But if we substituted different races for different religious affiliations, would we be quite so accepting?

Have we really progressed since the Education for Mutual Understanding programme of the early 1990s?

The Troubles would show how deeply the nastier side of religion was embedded in our polarised identities.

The Troubles happened because everyone seemed to be behaving the way the sectarian stereotypes said they would.

The speed with which formerly mixed communities became polarised by the Troubles is a stark reminder of how sectarian undercurrents can tear apart normal relationships.

The ups-and-downs of politics can also be a chill factor and that will continue until (and if) Northern Ireland ever gets anything like "normal" politics. We have had too many elections in which sectarianism has kept people in their fold.

Discouragingly, sectarianism increases in times when devolved government is in place and declines in periods of direct rule.

Devolved administrations have shied away from addressing it, shelving reviews and accepting communal division.

Nevertheless, the prevalent blanket criticism of our politicians is unhelpful and is simply shifting blame from ourselves.

Neither the Churches nor the politicians have ever been able to take their people where they did not want to go.

Can we realistically expect sectarian structures to combat the very sectarianism on which they depend?

The various Life and Times Surveys - the most recent in April 2019 - found roughly equal numbers of Catholics and Protestants favourably disposed towards the other community. Yet, significant numbers opposed mixed schooling: 32% Catholic, 25% Protestant, even 11% of those professing no religion.

Asked about a close relative marrying someone from the other religion, 46% of Protestants, 31% of Catholics, even 38% of those professing no religion said they would mind.

We should be concerned and ashamed, collectively, that Northern Ireland is still the main example of sectarianism cited in multiple online and printed sources.

And however consciously you protect your children, they will encounter it. Even mixed estates and education are only partially a solution.

Is there a bigger, more joined-up picture, involving wider society in the recognition of the issue? Will we ever get to the point where we have normal parties, where we don't have "good relations" policies, as if we are talking about foreign countries, rather than the people we live with.

In the final analysis, we are a society in transition. But we should be starting to think about the kind of society and structures to which we ultimately want to transit in the medium to long-term.

"The issue of ethnic division and divisiveness must join the economy at the top of the public agenda," Sir George Quigley told an audience in 2011. "Radical, transformative action, not tinkering, or glacially slow incremental change, is needed."

Professor Marianne Elliott is director of the institute of Irish studies at the University of Liverpool. Adapted from an address to the Beyond Sectarianism conference at Ulster University. © Marianne Elliott 2019

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