There was an article in yesterday’s Irish Times, drawing uncomplimentary comparisons between what the Scottish Parliament has done to stamp out sectarianism in that country and the absence of an effective policy against sectarianism here. It’s a daft article – sectarianism has been here since at least 1784, when in Co Armagh they established the Peep O’ Day boys - also known as the Protestant Boys or Wreckers, which eventually morphed into the Orangemen.
The article mentions two areas here as sources of sectarianism – housing and education. Oh really? I spent my working life going into Catholic and state/Protestant schools, working with Catholic and Protestant teachers and students. Never once did I hear a bigoted comment from any of them. The reverse in fact. The notion that Catholic schools foster intolerance is so much facile bunkum. Catholic schools work to offer Catholic values to their students, and as that good East Belfast Protestant C S Lewis said, “Education without values, as useful as it is, seem rather to make Man a more clever devil”.
As to housing – it’s true that the overwhelming percentage of housing here is located in areas that are overwhelmingly Protestant or Catholic – i.e., not mixed. Regrettable, I believe, since variety is always more interesting than monotone, but it’s where people choose to live – the middle class as well as the working class. Regrettable, perhaps, but other than the social equivalent of a shotgun wedding, I don’t think there’s much can be done about it.
What can be done is for our leaders to lead with good example. When we see the DUP and Sinn Féin working together, we tend to take our cue from them. But for this to work, both sides have to be equally committed to openness and friendliness, and the unhappy truth is that the DUP team sometimes seems to be digging its heels in. Witness Peter Robinson’s by-now famous “Not on my watch!” remark, when the possibility of change to the badge or title of H M Prisons was raised.
Unfortunately you can’t legislate for people to cleanse their hearts of sectarianism; you can only show them the benefits of getting rid of it, as (paradoxically) the same Peter Robinson did when he attended the inauguration of Michael D Higgins as President of Ireland. Above all, we need to listen to each other, work together and show each other equal respect, whether it's a question of wearing poppies or Easter lilies. The fact that two major centenaries are approaching – the signing of the Ulster Covenant and the Easter Rising – would be a good opportunity to exemplify good behaviour. Maybe set up a cross-party group to explore the facts and the best way to commemorate these events. Realising that all of us on this island are bound together by our history would be a good practical start to tackling the roots of sectarianism.