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Sectarianism and the Peace Process

Joe Craig

11th January 2002

When the peace process was created governments and politicians promised a new era of peace and prosperity in which the sectarian bitterness of the past would be left behind.  The brave new society would not be created overnight, though the hype led many to believe it could, but everyone would see real improvements in their lives.  Alone, literally, among political forces, Socialist Democracy argued that the process would not witness Northern society become less sectarian but would actually see it become even more so.

Recent reports have demonstrated that our analysis has been completely confirmed.  A recent paper presented to the Royal Geographical Society conference in Belfast by University of Ulster academic Peter Shirlow presents the evidence.  Prompted in part by the Northern Ireland Office’s denials that sectarianism was on the increase, his research interviewed 4,800 people in 12 Belfast estates, 6 Catholic and six Protestant.  The results are damning.

The Facts

The apartheid nature of northern society is being strengthened and deepened and most people are acutely aware of it.  Believing the hype about the peace process many, mostly Catholics, moved house to areas not dominated by their own religious denomination.  The Housing Executive report that three thousand moved between 1994 and 1996 but sectarian intimidation forced a reverse movement of 6,000 in the following five years.  Two-thirds of the population now live in areas which are either 90% Catholic or 90% Protestant.  In predominantly Protestant areas companies have a Catholic workforce of only 5% while in Catholic areas only 8% of the workforce is Protestant.

Sixty-two percent in areas separated by a peace line think community relations have got worse.  Sixty-eight percent of young people between the ages of 18 and 25 claim never to have had a meaningful conversation with someone from the other religious denomination and 62% say they have been the victim of physical or verbal sectarian abuse since the IRA ceasefire seven years ago.  If you take away political murders the level of sectarian violence has actually increased.

In a survey of 1,800 households last year 72% said religious divisions had increased since the Good Friday ‘peace’ deal.  Eighty-eight percent said they would not enter an area dominated by the other denomination, even by car, and 58% would not use shopping or leisure facilities in areas controlled by the other religion.  ‘Even those Protestants who shopped in Catholic areas discarded the carrier bags of a supermarket before going home because its name would reveal to their Protestant neighbours they had been in enemy territory.’

Apparently most shocking to those carrying out the interviews was the fact that those people who said they were not sectarian were afraid to admit it.


So why have ‘community relations’ got so much worse and why has the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement not made things better?  While many young people may be sectarian they aren’t stupid and in a previous report last year, again by Peter Shirlow, they explained why.  ‘This generation doesn’t know them (other denomination) at all, and they interpret the Good Friday agreement negotiations as the other side out for all they can get.  While older people might have been involved in violence, many of them had some ideology.  Now it’s pure, naked bigotry.’

Exactly right!  Far from being designed to end sectarian conflict the new political arrangements institutionalise and intensify sectarian competition.  We have remarked on this many times.  The British government and politicians may think that ordinary working class people are witless but when they are presented with a state of affairs where sectarian competition is the name of the game they respond accordingly.  Of course this does not prevent British ministers from hypocritically and self-righteously lecturing them on their barbaric behaviour, though it is they who created the jungle.


This report by Shirlow shows that the standard ‘solutions’ presented by the British are in reality part of the problem.  Thus cross-community youth work does more harm than good by allowing young people to identify their perceived enemy.  ‘All the kids we spoke to said these programmes were a waste of time and almost all the community workers thought likewise.  Of 214 kids who had attacked children of the other religion, 158 said they recognised them from cross-community schemes.’

In general this British funded community work has been a mechanism to corrupt political opposition among nationalists and on both sides give patronage to some of the most sectarian organisations.  Far from fighting sectarianism it has fed it.

While continuing to push such ‘community solutions’ as the way forward they give lectures, echoed volubly by the media, saying that local people should stop the blame game.  In other words they should not on any account say who is responsible for the sectarian hellhole that northern society has become for many of them.  For years British politicians have said the Irish are too concerned with dragging up their history of oppression.  Now it is their current situation that working class people must ignore.  How long before they really come clean and tell us to forget about our future?

One street

The history of one street reported in the Northern nationalist newspaper ‘The Irish News’ last week is emblematic of the reality of the peace process.  Interviewing 78 year old Bridie Cassidy she recalled how her street won the Best Kept Street award for Belfast in 1979. ‘The street was absolutely beautiful.  There were flower baskets hanging from every house and all the railings were beautifully painted…there were more than a dozen Protestant families living in this street until the first Drumcree.’

All that has now changed.  ‘If you look at it now you could mistake it for a war zone.  They were even throwing blast bombs and firing shots at children on Christmas day.’  Protestant families moved out long before as loyalist threatened to ‘burn the whole street down.’  Bridie Cassidy confirms the finding of Peter Shirlow that the Drumcree protests by loyalists was one major factor in bringing about the change.  The second is now the sectarian intimidation of children at Holy Cross Primary School.

No one wants to live in Newington Street now and Bridie Cassidy will continue to live in the same street in which her son-in-law was shot dead by loyalists three years ago.

A Different Solution?

In the Royal Geographical Society report Peter Shirlow proposes setting up an ‘experience commission,’ where Catholics and Protestants with similar experiences could share them and their knowledge.  ‘Currently Catholics see themselves as victims of loyalists and the British state, loyalists see themselves as victims of republicans and now the British state.  We have to show they are both victims and perpetrators.’

In this proposal the model of the Good Friday Agreement is seen as the way forward instead of the problem.  Shirlow, like supporters of the peace process, is incapable of explaining the increase in sectarianism because he does not understand the nature of either.  It is not a question of the attitudes in peoples heads but the political framework and dynamic which, for example, rewards sectarian intimidation of Catholic schoolchildren with government bribes.

What is required is not a blown-up cartoon version of an alcoholics anonymous meeting.  Northern Ireland is a political slum.  Like any slum it is the landlord who is to blame.



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