Religious sectarianism in Northern Ireland and how to deal with it


Talk by Gregor Kerr at the WSM's 'Ideas and Action', May 2002.
Religious sectarianism in Northern Ireland and how to deal with it has been a problem which has bedevilled Irish political and social life for decades - indeed for centuries. It is obviously something which must be overcome if anarchism is ever to be successful, so challenging it and coming up with ways to overcome it is a challenge to us all.

Clearly those of us who do not live 'on the coalface' in the North cannot fully appreciate the daily difficulties of trying to organise politically - indeed of trying to just survive - in communities which are riven apart by sectarian hatred and strife. Nonetheless - just as we don't have to live in Jerusalem to try to provide political analysis of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, or didn't need to live in apartheid South Africa to comment on how we might have felt the South African working class should organise to rid themselves of that particular evil - despite our lack of on-the ground experience, it is useful to analyse the problem and attempt to come up with suggested ways of dealing with it.

It of course goes without saying that any political theory is only any good if it passes the test of real everyday practice, so it is in that context that I want to put forward these few ideas on tackling religious sectarianism which I hope will provide a stimulus for some discussion here today.

I think it is useful to begin with a historical analysis of the origins of sectarianism, and I want to then look at whether what is happening on streets has changed in any way over the years. And if so, what are the consequences for coming up with a strategy for attempting to get rid of the hatred and bigotry?

When the Northern state was founded its borders were drawn along strictly sectarian lines, it was in effect established as a protestant state for a protestant people, and for the first fifty years of the stateās existence this situation was maintained through the gerrymandering of electoral boundaries, allocation of housing and employment along strictly religious lines etc.

This gerrymandering was done so effectively that nationalists went from controlling 25 local councils out of 80 in 1920 to only controlling 2 at the next election in 1924. In Derry, with a 66% catholic majority, electoral boundaries were fiddled to return a protestant controlled city council. PR was abolished and only people paying rates were allowed to vote. This had the effect of disenfranchising the poorer sections of society who did not have any property to pay rates on - who were principally catholic/nationalist. It also of course meant that the allocation of houses by local councils took on an added significance as each new house allocated created a new ratepayer and voter.

Housing allocation therefore was a powerful tool in the hands of the unionist politicians in terms of keeping their 'own' side loyal and keeping the 'other' side out. Protestant employers were of course also urged/encouraged to employ only protestant workers, so in working class terms protestants/unionists were seen to have a distinct advantage/privilege in terms of both housing and employment.

All of this did not happen because there was something inherently superior about protestants, nor even because protestants were naturally in favour of maintaining the link with Britain and catholics naturally in favour of an independent Ireland. Partition came about and two clerical states were established north and south for purely economic reasons.

If Ireland had achieved complete independence, it would have resulted in huge losses for the textiles and shipbuilding industries located in the north-eastern corner of the island, which relied on selling their goods to the rest of the British Empire. In 1907, for example, 95% of goods manufactured in Belfast were exported to other parts of the empire.

The rest of Ireland was much less industrialised, still largely based on farming which was one of the principal reasons why the southern bosses wanted independence and the economic protectionist policies that would go with it. This was the clear difference between the northern bosses and those in the rest of the country. In addition, Britain had more of a strategic interest in holding on to the industrialised regions of the north than any of the rest of the island.

Even the drawing of the border was done in such a way as to maximise the protestant majority, taking in just 6 of the 9 Ulster counties.

In the run up to and following on from the establishment of the state, religious sectarianism was quite openly used as a tool by the bosses to divide and rule the northern working class. By playing up religious differences, they were able to dupe one section of the working class that their common interests lay in forging alliances with the bosses and against the 'other' section of the working class.

This playing up of religious sectarianism allowed the northern state to survive for the first fifty or so years of its existence. The fact that the living standards of all members of the working class were lower than those in the rest of Britain was cleverly hidden by playing the 'orange card' at regular intervals i.e. by stirring up religious differences, any show of strength/confidence by the catholic/nationalist population was portrayed by unionist/protestant leaders as a direct threat to the livelihood of protestant workers

It was as a result of this religious discrimination that the civil rights' movement emerged in the late sixties. What followed was thirty years of guerrilla warfare, years of a struggle for freedom if looked at from one side of the divide or of terrorist warfare if looked at from the other. They were years in which the working class community of the north was even further divided. Blatantly sectarian atrocities were carried out by both sides, and even when military operations were carried out against specifically military targets, they were seen by many as sectarian. After all if 95% of the security service personnel come from one side of the religious divide, any attacks on that security service are going to be seen by many as attacks on their co-religionists.

It isn't possible in a short talk like this to go into any great detail about all the pros and cons of what happened over those thirty odd years. For the purpose of looking at the situation today, all that is necessary to say is that the ultimate consequence of the war and the half-settlement that is the Good Friday Agreement is, it can be argued an entrenched sectarianism but a sectarianism that is in some ways quite different than what went before.

The situation on the ground in many areas has worsened. In the past year we have seen on our television screens the horrific pictures from Holy Cross Primary School when loyalist residents of the local area lined up screaming abuse at children and their parents as they made their way to school along 'their' street. Annually at Drumcree, Lower Ormeau and elsewhere we see the two communities lining up on either side - one group determined to exercise their traditional right to march; the other equally determined not to allow it to happen.

And of course thatās not the half of it. As Jason from ASF pointed out in a letter to a recent edition of 'Workers Solidarity' sectarian rioting takes place in many 'interface' areas on an almost nightly basis, kids with nothing to do hanging around, many not even from the area but all hoping to get some action, to 'have a go' at 'the other side'. Of course if it was just kids then it would be relatively easy to deal with but itās not. The feelings of hatred for 'the other side' are personal and run deeply throughout the community.

Partly, this can be put down to the nature of the settlement. Given that votes in the Assembly, for example, are counted on the basis of 'nationalist' and 'unionist' and that a majority of both sides is needed to have something passed, the agreement appears to be predicated on the basis that there will always be two communities, and that the best that can be hoped for is that the 'moderates' on both sides will hold sway.

That's not what happens of course. In the absence then of any real political alternative, it's all too easy for everyone to fall back into the trap of blaming the other side for every ill.

One of the principal difficulties for anarchists or lefties in terms of actually tackling sectarianism in a real way is that sometimes the very challenging of sectarianism can in itself appear sectarian. By this I mean is that taking a stand on any particular issue can be seen by one side or the other as sectarian.

For example, take the example of Holy Cross school. When we see the levels of hatred being spewed at children on their way to school, there is only one reaction. It must be opposed. Whatever grievances people have or feel they have, whatever ways in which they themselves feel under threat, as anarchists we obviously have to say clearly that picketing a school in that manner is completely wrong. But doing that, saying that is possibly going to be seen by the protestors as being sectarian against them, as taking the green side if you like.

That's something of the nub of the problem - politics is seen as being either orange or green. If you oppose the pickets on Holy Cross, the picketers are never going to listen to you for long enough to hear you also condemning/opposing sectarian attacks on their homes/areas. Yet we cannot allow ourselves to be forced to remain silent just because we will be painted as either orange or green for opposing a particular action.

Another real bone of contention is obviously the annual orange parades. While orange marches have always been contentious, the opposition to them has taken on a new form in recent post-ceasefire years. The fact that there are areas in which the marches are not welcome points out graphically the sectarian divisions. As with the Holy Cross situation instead of there being a local school, it was 'them' going to school in 'our' area, similarly with Drumcree, Lower Ormeau etc., 'they' should not be allowed to march down 'our' road. And of course 'they' wouldn't want to march down the road anyway if 'we' didn't live here!!

But again opposition to marches going through areas where they are not welcome cannot be shirked just because you will then be painted into one particular corner. Obviously as anarchists we shouldn't involve ourselves in any way with calls on the state to prevent/ban these marches. What we need to try and do is to challenge the exclusive focus on the Orange Order as an anti-Catholic body, focussing on and highlighting its role as a body that is anti-left, that is opposed to workers' unity, that has always been responsible for quashing radicalism among the protestant working class.

I'm not saying this is easy to do. What I am saying is that we cannot just wish the issue away or, ostrich like, bury our collective heads in the sand for the 'marching season'.

Identifying and building support for cross-community issues is the key to tackling sectarianism. Giving people a vision of a new society worth fighting for is the challenge that we have. Building unity around bread-and-butter issues such as fighting health cuts or for better education facilities is a starting point. Sectarian barriers can be broken down when people meet in the workplace, integrated schooling is a step forward, all these are ways of starting a process.

It is giving people the ideal of a new society that is the key. When the fight is for improved housing, it must be for improved housing for all so that one community does not believe that better houses for the people down the road means less money to spend on them.

I don't believe there is an easy answer. I believe that those living in the North have an unenviable task in attempting to challenge sectarianism. It's a challenge that anarchists cannot shirk and itās one that can ultimately be successful. In the end what is needed is movement that does not simply deal with sectarianism, but which challenges the very nature of the political system of which sectarianism is an inherent part, and which challenges the capitalist system which has for so long depended on sectarianism to survive,