Posted By: May 18, 2013


Irish News.  Saturday, May 18, 2013.

Patrick Murphy.


IF, BY some miracle, we were to awaken tomorrow morning to find that sectarianism had somehow disappeared from our society, what would happen to our main political parties? That is right, they would all become irrelevant.

What would happen to Stormont? Yes, it too would have to disappear, because without the oxygen of sectarianism its power-sharing system would be redundant.

So, as you listen to the assembly’s political wrangling on a shared future, remember that it is in the interest of every single party – and the assembly – to retain sectarian division. (Sadly the Alliance Party’s overt unionism must also be regarded as sectarian).

Thus the collective ambition of our five main parties is not to kill the weed of sectarianism but to cultivate it as a political cash crop under controlled conditions.

Oh dear, we are in a cynical mood today, I hear you suggest. Maybe but let us put that theory to the test. What would the parties reply if asked: are you prepared to abandon your constitutional position (which is the political manifestation of sectarianism) to facilitate the development of a non-sectarian society? Most would probably opt for a St Augustine-style answer: “Lord, make my party non-sectarian – but not just yet.”

A ‘yes’ answer would require a party to disband, because all our parties are predominantly constitutional. The expected universal ‘no’ would indicate that just as Home Secretary, Reginald Maudling, spoke of an acceptable level of violence here in 1971, our political parties are prepared to settle for an acceptable level of sectarianism: enough to keep them in power but not so much as to create instability.

Since we do not have normal left-right politics, none of our parties offer an ideological analysis of society. It was therefore inevitable that the Good Friday Agreement would accommodate rather than eradicate sectarianism. It made no attempt to suggest what sort of social or economic conditions our people might expect.

History shows that, like a virus, sectarianism mutates into different forms to adapt to changing environments. The Good Friday Agreement represented sectarianism’s fourth significant mutation since the creation of the state. Its stages might be seen as: empowered, polite, polarised and pragmatic.

The empowered stage (1922-63) was represented by the Stormont government’s use of sectarianism as a weapon of power and patronage. Polite sectarianism (1963-70) emerged under Captain Terence O’Neill. He drank tea in convent parlours with reverend mothers as part of his programme of civic weeks.

He was ousted by Paisley’s polarised sectarianism (1970-98) which was subsequently fuelled by the IRA’s military campaign.

The campaign’s defeat led to the new pragmatic sectarianism of the Good Friday Agreement: it guaranteed you political power provided you did not overdo it. (Overseeing the lot has been palatial sectarianism – the fact that only a Protestant can be monarch. Apparently it is not mannerly to point that out).

The First and Deputy First Ministers’ recent announcement on a shared future illustrates a return to a more complex model of empowered sectarianism. They exclude the other executive parties from most decision-making as a weapon of power and patronage by claiming, quite incredibly, that in doing so they are tackling sectarian division.

The two men’s proposals are dangerously simplistic. To suggest that removing peace walls will cure sectarianism, for example, is a bit like claiming that scrubbing the spots off a child’s face will cure measles.

Of course you could reasonably argue that if they were serious about building a shared future, they would send our 108 MLAs on a summer camp to learn how to integrate with each other.

You might also suggest that all 108 are effectively Neets – not in education, employment or training and could usefully learn from work experience. (No, you may not argue that sitting in Stormont constitutes employment).

Without a conceptual framework for analysing society, no party here can tackle sectarianism. They could begin by studying GCSE or A Level sociology – except for the fact that our Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) does not offer the subject at either level.

God forbid that we should teach the next generation to see through our political parties.

Our leaders propose to tell our children that shared schools are a solution but not to teach them how to understand the problem.

The solution to sectarianism is education in the sense of learning, not just educational administration. There is little evidence that any party wants a solution. That may explain why our leaders are proposing to send young people to stack supermarket shelves rather than offering them learning. But as someone once said, “So what?”