Sectarianism and the search for political progress in Northern Ireland

The challenge that faces political actors in Northern Ireland is to offer real choices to ordinary people and to provide the leadership and encouragement that will enable these choices to be realised. The priority, in other words, has to be building a shared future based on tolerance and mutual respect instead of propagating division and segregation.

For the last 40 years, political leaders of whatever hue in Northern Ireland have pursued and implemented policies that have reinforced division and have thereby fanned the flames of conflict. In the absence of mutual knowledge and in the context of conflict, it has been possible for people to dehumanise one another to the point where it becomes easy to hate and to regard violence as legitimate and unremarkable.

Those policies that serve to promote and prolong existing segregation or division conspire in the continuation of violent conflict.

The conditions that spawned the ‘Troubles’ had been in place for a long time. And I am not just talking about discrimination and sectarian politics. I am talking also about segregated education. Almost all children in Northern Ireland - 96% to be precise -attend schools that cater solely for their own ‘community’. School is one of the biggest influences on a child’s life so it is easy to imagine the effect of separate schools in marking out ‘difference’. This segregation fosters widespread mutual ignorance, the ‘not knowing’ each other. Picture the attitudes of these children as they grow into adults. This was recognised as something that was contributing to the conflict and in 1976 the campaign for shared schools was established.

Opposition from various quarters and in particular from the Catholic Church meant that the first Integrated School in Northern Ireland only opened in 1981 and was initially funded not by the state but rather by parents and activists. Three decades on, there remains some hostility towards integrated education. Parents and activists still have to raise money to open and keep schools running.

It has traditionally been the case that educational choice for children in Northern Ireland has been based on religious distinction. Government policies have cemented that division and now it is time for the Assembly to show courage and leadership by making shared schooling a real choice for parents and children. It should pursue this objective not just by mainstreaming integrated schools but also by implementing policies that actively discourage division, promote integration and reward educationalists that contribute to our shared future. A report published in 2006 revealed that pupils taught in integrated schools were more likely to reject traditional, divisive identities and allegiances. Its authors concluded that those children who experienced integrated education had the potential as adults to create a new common ground in Northern Irish politics. While the dismantling of educational segregation represents a major challenge for political actors it would yield considerable benefit for Northern Ireland.

In the early 1970s, we saw people on both sides of the religious divide fleeing burning homes to be with ‘their own side’, to ‘feel safe amongst their own’. Housing policy has been shaped by the conflict ever since. For many years, if you applied to the Housing Executive for social housing you were asked if you wanted to live in a Protestant area or a Catholic area. It was a long time before the option of residing in a ‘mixed area’ even appeared on the form.

Various attempts in the past to promote mixed housing have failed. The latest is one where residents have to sign a contract to say they will not put flags up, paint kerbstones or any other sort of display that might offend. I am not sure this is the type of tolerant and mutually respectful society that I want to live in. ‘Neutral’ to me is as dull as it sounds. Would you paint a room in neutral colours? We talk of neutral working environments but is that our idea of a shared future – ‘neutral’?

Today, 94% of social housing in Northern Ireland is segregated. The challenge for political actors in Northern Ireland is to turn this figure around. This will, of course, be no easy task. But with some real imagination and vision in the policy-making arena, politicians could help transcend the sectarian competition for scarce housing resources. David Ervine once said that sectarianism was like a flower growing in a window box. It didn’t survive on its own, it was nurtured, watered and fed. Segregated housing provides the window boxes for sectarianism to grow.

A Government commissioned report estimated that the various expenses arising out of the divisions in Northern Ireland – such as providing separate schools and houses, policing interfaces and other sites of sectarian unrest - amounted to £1.5bn (€1.7bn) every year. No estimate was given for the extent to which sectarian division increases the cost of public services like hospitals, doctors’ surgeries, post offices, and cemeteries because it is too difficult to extrapolate the figures. In the context of the current economic recession, we can ill afford to foot the bill for duplicate services. Now if you are quite comfortable going to your own school, living in your own area, working in your own area and not moving outside it much then you may not really care how much segregation costs or how it impacts on peace and stability. But you really should, as the prospect of a peaceful and stable Northern Ireland affects everyone living on this island. It is the challenge for every politician, North and South, to make people care, and they can do this best by instilling confidence in those traditionally regarded as the other, allaying long-running fears and building a vision for a shared future for Northern Ireland.

That means, for Sinn Féin, recognising Northern Ireland’s status as part of the United Kingdom and working within existing institutions for the interests of all the citizens of Northern Ireland. For the DUP, it means recognising the Irish Language as part of the rich cultural diversity of this island and encouraging policies to promote shared public services. It is only by working together that political actors can take on the challenge of dismantling the divisions and so cement our peace and stability. Otherwise, segregation will undermine democratic accountability and the long established pattern of sectarian competition for scarce resources will continue indefinitely.


 Image top: eltpics.