I was on BBC Radio Ulster/Raidio Uladh recently, discussing the topic “Sectarianism: our dirty little secret?” Well, secret it ain’t. Anyone who hasn’t noticed sectarianism here needs help, fast. The question is, when should we put our hands up and admit to it?
Well, not when we’re trying to sell ourselves to the outside world. Say you want a big multi-national to invest here. You can’t very well list all your virtues and then add “Oh, by the way, we hate all taigs/prods”. Or even most taigs/prods. If you clean the house before the visitors come, it makes sense to present your good qualities to the outside world – and we do have some – and shove the damning stuff under the sofa.
No, the real problem begins when you start to kid yourself about sectarianism. When, for example, you go on and on and on about the Titanic, while refusing to admit even to yourself that the shipyards were always a cockpit for sectarianism. And not two-way sectarianism. It wasn't Protestant workers were beaten up at the shipyards, no Protestant workers were thrown in the water, no Protestant workers were sent fleeing for their lives. So next time you hear the BBC or some other media outlet glory in the Titanic (daft idea, anyway – we built this wonderful ship that sank on its maiden voyage), keep in mind that they’re twisting history in a – that’s right, sectarian way.
We had something a bit like that last night. Arlene Foster of the DUP was on, talking in encouraging tones about the gas supplies beneath the ground in Fermanagh, which allegedly could supply the north with power for the next fifty years. I’ll resist the temptation to ask if there’ll be a Northern Ireland in fifty years and simply note that Arlene never once mentioned the word “Leitrim”. Does she really think these exploration bozos are going to go in there and develop the gas right up to the border, then down tools and start afresh on the other side in Leitrim? Give us a break, Arlene. If ever there was a case for cross-border thinking, it’s this one. Whether the people of Fermanagh and Leitrim will gain from any such boom is…I was going to say ‘a moot point’, except it’s not. Rest easy: as with all of Ireland’s resources to date, the bulk of the profits will go into the coffers of exploration company.
Denying the unpalatable truth about yourself is deeply harmful. If you’re overweight, it’s stupid to tell yourself you're thin. And vice versa. Likewise, we’ll never beat the demon that is sectarianism until we admit to ourselves that it’s there. And then do something about it.
You could go the Trevor Ringland route and do one little non-sectarian thing every day, to make our world a shinier and happier place. Alternatively, you could admit the most unpalatable sectarian fact of all: it was on sectarianism - literally a sectarian head-count - that this state was founded. All the nice modern buildings in the world with ship-like shapes won't change that unhappy fact. So maybe it's that seminal piece of sectarianism we should be addressing. Or better still, redressing.