We're Not Sectarian: They Are!

28 September 2005


Are any of the following statements sectarian? If so, why?

  • `The Catholic Church is the whore of Babylon.
  • `Protestants are sectarian, Catholics are not: look at Paisley'.
  • `Nothing annoys me more than Catholics claiming not to be sectarian: Republicans have been murdering Protestants for years'.
  • `Focussing on sectarianism diverts attention away from the British presence in our country'.

1. Some questions

  • People are entitled to strong beliefs, including negative ones, about other groups. So what's the difference between strong beliefs and sectarianism?
  • Does religion have to be central to sectarianism?
  • Is sectarianism present in organisations in Northern Ireland, or only in individuals?

Where does sectarianism come from?

  • Is sectarianism always wrong or negative?

2. What is sectarianism?

Different people give different answers. Here are three:

  1. Sectarianism is one type of prejudice. It is prejudice based on religion. To be prejudiced is to condemn someone on the basis of an unreasonable bias.
  2. A second view is that sectarianism is the same as prejudice. It may or may not refer to religion.
  3. A third view is that sectarianism is present when individuals or groups in a divided society ignore or overlook others.

    How do you define sectarianism?

3. Who is sectarian?

Depending on how they use the term people give different answers. Here are some samples:

From those who say sectarianism is religious-based prejudice:

  • `Protestants are. They always go on about the Catholic Church whereas Catholics don't bother about Protestant Churches. We're interested in politics, not religion'.
  • `Catholics are sectarian as well: look at their treatment of Protestants in mixed marriages, their refusal of communion to other Christians, and their claim that other denominations are not true Christian Churches'.
  • `No: this is Catholics simply following their beliefs'.
  • `Then don't call Paisley sectarian because he does the same thing'.

From those who think sectarianism and prejudice are the same:

  • `The yobs rioting at interfaces are sectarian. We're not'.
  • `Protestants are sectarian because they don't want a Fenian about the place. Look at the way they changed the ground rules to block power-sharing. Nothing Republicans could do will ever be enough for them'.
  • `Catholics are sectarian because they support Republicans. They claim to accept the 1998 Agreement. But Republicans still haven't got rid of their weapons, they're up to their necks in crime and they expect us to to go into government with them'.
  • `We will talk to Protestants, but they won't talk to us'.

From those who see sectarianism as ignoring other cultures and communities:

  • A Catholic priest said to a Presbyterian: `I will pray for your loved ones who have died'. He was trying to be kind, but did not realise that Presbyterian's do not pray for the dead. He had never taken the trouble to find out what Presbyterians believe, so he ignored an important aspect of their beliefs. People with good intentions can still be sectarian.
  • `Republicans are all criminals': this statement overlooks and ignores the vast majority of Republicans who do not commit crime.

4. Sectarianism and Systems

Some believe this is the most important form of sectarianism. We all belong to some groups: Churches, political parties, etc. These may have lots of good things in them, so how can they be sectarian? Some responses are: 

  • `Churches and political parties build separate and opposing communities. In Northern Ireland, given our segregation, this leads to violence'.
  • `If this is true, it is morally neutral: what do you want me to do? Give up being a Protestant or a Catholic?' 
  • `We are sectarian when hostility towards others becomes central to our identity. Our lives revolve around our enemies'. 
  • `Why wouldn't they when we are being attacked?'

What organisations do you belong to? Are they sectarian? If so, in what way?

5. Moral superiority

Calling others sectarian can make us feel morally superior. Why do we do this?

  • Because we know we're right? Or
  • For the sake of law and order? Or
  • To defend our own group? Or
  • Because we hate the other crowd group and calling them sectarian gets up their noses?

6. Are we looking at the same conflict?

Some say we are sectarian because of our conflict. But who opposes whom in the conflict? Some answers to this question are:

  • `Protestants are completely focussed on Republicans'.
  • `Republicans are focussed only on the British Government and overlook Protestants'. 
  • `The British overlook both. All they want is a settlement to get the problem off their plate'.

Do we make other groups fit into our view of the world, or do we listen to how they define themselves?

7. Are we sectarian?

  • Do we defend our group against all criticism? 
  • Do we apply the same standards to our own and other groups? 
  • Do we take the trouble to find out what others believe and why? 
  • Do we focus only on our suffering or do we take seriously the suffering of others? 
  • What do we do to overcome the negative impact of segregation?

Can we avoid being sectarian if we do meet and try to understand our opponents?

(Being involved in this is no guarantee that we are not sectarian).

8. How will we handle our differences in the future?

2016 will be the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme and of the Easter Rising. What kind of future do we want? By 2016:

  • Will we be free from sectarian deaths and intimidation?
  • Will we express our different cultures in peace?
  • Will we recognise our multiple identities (family, religious/humanist, gender, etc)?
  • Will our political parties be focussed on bread and butter rather than sectarian issues?
  • Will we have a common commitment to each other, despite our differences?
  • Will we take responsibility for our own actions?
  • Will we challenge sectarianism in ourselves and others?
  • Will we look for sectarianism in our organisations?
  • Will we still be segregated into Unionists and Nationalists, with continued sectarian attacks and murders?
  • Will we still ignore and overlook others or will we listen to the way they define themselves?