Rather than attempt to theorise the
interface between sectarianism and racism, this paper considers what these
linkages and relationships mean for policies and practices aimed at tackling
prejudice and discrimination in
The conflict in
However, the definition of sectarianism
runs broader and deeper. To invoke religious difference is to invoke political
difference – the assumption being that Protestants are ‘pro British’ (wanting
also about power and actualising dominance over the ‘other.’ Taking this further, sectarianism can be
viewed as the modus operandi of British imperialism and as the exclusive
experience of the colonised in
is, and who can be, sectarian implies a ‘hierarchy of victimhood.’ It is therefore more useful to
focus on “the quality of the relationship between the two blocs…than the
attitudes, behaviour or power position of one party.”
Indeed, sectarianism is perhaps best summarised as “that changing set of ideas and
practices, including, crucially, acts of violence, which serves to construct
and reproduce the difference between, and unequal status of, Irish Protestants
and Catholics.” Importantly, this definition allows for different
forms of sectarianism, and recognises that sectarianism is mutually expressed
by Catholic and Protestant communities in
Whilst the definition of sectarianism may
be contested, there is no doubt that it sustains prejudice and the
“dehumanised, emotionless, ruthless cynicism that leads to sectarian murder.” Since the outbreak of political violence known as ‘the
Troubles’ in the late 1960’s, over 3,000 people have been killed in
However, recent years have seen an increase in violence short of murder. Shootings and assaults average several hundred per year, and each year hundreds of people are intimidated out of their homes. As the overall level of political violence has subsided, conflict has shifted to ‘interface areas’ - where Protestant communities live directly alongside Catholic communities often separated by ‘peace-lines’ (specially built walls and fences). These areas frequently experience heightened tension as well as outbreaks of disorder and violence. Since 1994, at least 18 ‘peace-lines’ have been built, extended or heightened in Belfast – often as a result of pressure by one ‘side’ or the other, or both.
from the Police Service of Northern Ireland indicate that between 1996 and 2005
there were 392 cases of rioting and 1,700 disturbances in interface areas in
There are additional signs that
More generally, segregation is underpinned by duplication of services such as schools, health facilities, housing and transport, and it is estimated that this duplication costs £1 billion each year. That the state facilitates Catholics and Protestants living supposedly ‘separate but equal lives,’ has been criticised as a form of ‘benign’ apartheid and for ‘institutionalising’ sectarianism.
It is more difficult to assess sectarian
attitudes. The annual Northern Ireland Life and Times survey (NILT) has long
indicated that substantial majorities of both Catholics and Protestants express
the desire to live and work in mixed-religion environments.
Since 1996, there has been a downward trend in the level of support for
mixed-religion living and working environments.
However, 2005 data suggests a recovery in this regard. Importantly, sectarian attitudes pertain not only to disadvantaged communities who
have borne the brunt of the conflict in
Until recently, it was common to hear
people claim there to be no racism in
Such claims help explain why Northern
Ireland has lagged so far behind the rest of the UK and Europe in outlawing
racial discrimination – only passing the Race Relations (NI) Order in 1997.
However, other factors were also at play. The first race relations legislation
Although belated, the Race Relations (NI)
Order was particularly important because it marked the culmination of a
campaign by civil society and minority ethnic people in the region. The
legislation also provides insight into the concept of racism in
This suggests that in
The definition of Irish Travellers as a ‘racial group’ was
nevertheless important as they have long been one of the most marginalised and
disadvantaged groups in society. Evidence suggests discrimination against
Travellers is the most ingrained and ‘respectable’ form of racism in
Alongside indigenous Irish Travellers,
there has been a significant minority ethnic population in
This lag can partly be attributed to the
assumption that there were simply too few minority ethnic people living in the
region to merit intervention – particularly whilst the security situation
demanded attention. Furthermore, minority ethnic people have little ability to
influence the decisions that affect them because “politics in
At the same time, low levels of violence
and unemployment have accelerated the pace at which
Because the last census
took place in 2001, there are no accurate statistics as regards the current
size and whereabouts of
These trends have brought about an increase
in government activity aimed at supporting minority ethnic people. Notably,
‘hate crimes’ legislation was introduced in 2005, requiring judges (and giving
them greater powers) to treat racial and religious aggravation and hatred of
sexual orientation as well as disability, as aggravating factors when
sentencing. The legislation has thereby helped “send out the message” that
crimes based on prejudice and discrimination are unacceptable. A Racial
Equality Strategy for
Yet, there has been a recent significant
rise in racist incidents recorded in
The current picture in terms of racist
attitudes is less clear. Between 1994 and 2005, for example, NILT shows an
increase in respondents who say they are a little or very prejudiced against
people from minority ethnic communities (from around one in ten respondents in
1994 to one in four respondents in 2004).
This may reflect an increase in actual prejudice, or simply an increased
willingness to report prejudice. More generally, the evidence suggests people
perceive racist attitudes in
Perhaps, the significance of the 2002
survey is that it suggests another dimension to racism in
Linkages & Relationships between Sectarianism & Racism
There are clear parallels between sectarianism and racism. Each relies on an asymmetrical power relationship, as well as an ideology of the superiority, and greater ‘entitlement,’ of one group over another. Thus, both sectarianism and racism emanate from ‘a politics of difference.’ The processes by which racism and sectarianism operate can also be similar – escalating upwards through a ‘pyramid of hate’ from prejudiced attitudes, to acts of prejudice, to discrimination and harassment, to violence, and finally to genocide. In terms of lived experiences, racism and sectarianism may feel alike.
Furthermore, sectarianism and racism are both frequently described as being ‘institutionalised.’ The phrase ‘institutionalised sectarianism’ is generally used to refer to the duplication of public services; the requirement that Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly designate themselves as Unionist, Nationalist, or Other, and that there be cross-community support for controversial decisions to be taken; and to the 50/50 recruitment policy of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).
Calling these policies and procedures ‘institutionally sectarian’ implies they reflect and produce inequalities between Protestant and Catholic communities, and treat people differentially because of their religious/ethnic origin. But many also argue the case for institutionalised sectarianism in Northern Ireland. For example, the PSNI’s 50/50 recruitment policy is also viewed as positive discrimination to address historic imbalances in the religious background of membership of the police. Similarly, the Northern Ireland Assembly’s powersharing arrangements are viewed as having facilitated political elites reaching the Good Friday/Belfast peace agreement.
In contrast, there seems to be wide-spread agreement that ‘institutional racism’ is “the collective failure…to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin,” and something to be eliminated. In 2002, the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland published a response to the MacPherson report (on insitutionalised racism in the UK) highlighting the presence of factors in the region which have contributed to racial tension in British cities, for example, frustration borne out of poverty and ignorance about other communities.
Racism and sectarianism also feed on common
factors such as a sense of denied or eroded ‘entitlement’, insecurity,
unemployment, fear of the future and loss of faith in public authorities/the
political establishment. The media and politicians bear particular
responsibility for stoking such fears.
As politicians generally have the support of only one community in
The media has
been maligned in
Furthermore, by failing to criticize, contextualize or analyse politicians’ reactions to racist incidents, the media often facilitates communication of prejudice. Local minority ethnic people have subsequently called for more positive stories about their communities to be portrayed, as well as for the media to avoid stereotypical depictions of minority ethnic people, to accurately report acts of racism, and to refer to a person’s actions without reference to their origin where this is irrelevant.
Both racism and sectarianism feed off a culture of violence.
Continued violence in post-conflict societies or peace processes is well
It is argued that ‘the Troubles’ have desensitised individuals and communities to violence, contributing to a permissive environment in which violence is seen as the best means to achieve political and social objectives. This is further sustained by popular culture and numerous celebrations and commemorations of the violence of ‘the Troubles.’ Moreover, ‘rough justice’ as delivered by paramilitaries continues to be legitimised, tolerated and accepted. Significantly, the conflict also legitimised the use of violence against those who were ‘different.’ The current fear on the part of minorities is that those who thrived on sectarian violence may now “be looking for a vulnerable target, another source of victim.”
This raises the issue of paramilitary
involvement in racist crime. Several representatives of minority ethnic
communities have suggested that elements within paramilitary groups in
“Manifestations of intolerance have always been present in our society, however as…sectarian conflict is dramatically decreasing…many individuals, who previous were protagonists in that conflict, now seem intent on venting their intolerance on vulnerable people from minority communities.”
Moreover, the Independent Monitoring Commission has repeatedly called for various loyalist paramilitaries to stop targeting members of ethnic minorities, and for associated advisory bodies and political parties to provide a clear and robust lead on this.
Following the linking of loyalist paramilitaries to racially-motivated attacks, the Loyalist Commission has printed leaflets stating ‘Loyalist or Racist - You Can't Be Both.’ This was designed to mark the beginning “of getting across to a community that part of their identity is this willingness to embrace the other, and that they shouldn't define themselves just in antagonism." However, the ongoing presence of paramilitaries in Northern Ireland has yet to be fully addressed as a ‘legacy of the conflict,’ let alone as a factor impinging on good racial/ethnic relations.
The interspersal of paramilitary and racist graffiti highlights another link between sectarianism and racism – territorialism. Residential segregation means that “for ethnic minorities, place often means negotiating the challenges posed by tensions between the two majority communities.” This can mean not only, ‘taking sides,’ but even taking on the racist attitudes, such as anti-Traveller sentiment, of the majority community. These problems are compounded in working class areas, where local white communities are often insecure about their future and face threats in terms of gentrification and commercialisation. In this context, the arrival of new minority ethnic groups is often “another blow to the territorial control of a majority…that feels itself besieged.”
This sense of defensive
territoriality is particularly associated with working class, Protestant
Nevertheless, the high level of racist incidents in Protestant areas raises the question of whether Protestants are more likely to be racially prejudiced than Catholics. A 2000 survey suggested just that, although the authors were careful to note that such general comparisons, “represent a rather blunt instrument…incapable of identifying and distinguishing between the many differences that exist…within each community.” Similarly, in 2005, NILT shows Protestants being almost twice as likely as Catholics to say they were either very or a little prejudiced against people from minority ethnic communities. Again, this could signify either a real difference in the levels of racial prejudice between these two communities, or simply an increased willingness to report prejudice on the part of Protestants.
Another contributing factor may be that in the wake of socio-economic decline there is a greater stock of low-cost public housing available in inner-city Protestant areas. Anecdotal evidence suggests that minority ethnic people are therefore more likely to live in Protestant than Catholic areas. This implies higher levels of interaction between Protestant and minority ethnic people, than between Catholic and minority ethnic people.
That people are
beginning to question whether Protestants are more racist than Catholics,
demonstrates the extent to which the linkages and relationships between
sectarianism and racism in
This raises the question of how to exploit
the linkages and relationships between sectarianism and racism in order to
reduce prejudice and discrimination, without losing a clear focus on minority
ethnic people and the distinctiveness of their experiences. There is an
increasingly explicit acknowledgement within government that the legal
separation between racism and sectarianism enshrined in law is no longer
tenable. Thus, government’s recently published Racial Equality Strategy has been developed in line with A Shared Future - Policy and Strategic Framework for Good Relations in
Equality Strategy cross-refers to A
Shared Future and draws out the ground upon which the government’s attempts
to tackle both sectarianism and racism is situated. In particular, it sets out
to tackle not only racist actions, but the attitudes and ideologies deeply
embedded in majority
society – the
“roots of racism.” It is worth noting here how the Racial Equality Strategy and A Shared Future diverge from ‘community
cohesion’ strategies developed after race riots in
“We must learn the lessons of multi-ethnic societies that work well…these societies “recognise that the complex make-up of each individual is what gives us our unique ‘identity’ - rather than the latter being a blunt label attached to whole groups. And this identity is something that also evolves over time…not something unchanging which seals us off from those who are ‘different.’”
This approach recognises that minority ethnic people are not, and have never aspired to be, separate enclaves. They are not locked into unchanging traditions, but interact at every level with mainstream social life: ”constantly changing and rewriting themselves through fusing their traditions of origin [which in any case were not monolithic] with elements of the majority culture. The process of mixing and hybridisation will increasingly be the norm where rapid change and globalisation have made all identities potentially unstable.’” Both A Racial Equality Strategy and A Shared Future must face the reality of a Northern Ireland in which ‘community’ no longer implies “a homogeneous set, with fixed internal ties and strongly-defined boundaries.”’
In summary, government’s developing view is that racism and sectarianism must be tackled together. Growing diversity is seen as offering Northern Ireland enormous economic, social and cultural benefits, as well as a unique “opportunity to alter the way that people living here have viewed each other” It is anticipated that increasing numbers of migrant workers and immigrants will have a “genuinely leavening effect on a society that has long been frozen in a “two traditions” divide.”
At the same time however, there is a clear
recognition articulated in policy, although less well developed in practice,
that tackling one form of prejudice and discrimination does not necessarily
lead to a lessening of all forms. Indeed, anti-racism activists in
also a danger that a greater focus on addressing racism may come at the expense
of efforts to tackle sectarianism. Given
the intractable nature of sectarian divisions in
A human rights approach may have something
to offer here. Whilst not making claims that a Bill of Rights for
Under the peace accord, the Belfast/Good
Friday Agreement and the ensuing Northern Ireland Act, the NIHRC was tasked
with consulting and advising the Secretary of State on the scope of a Bill of
It is anticipated that a Bill of Rights
could form a ‘floor’ of common values for
However, there is significant work ongoing to promote more widespread ownership of human rights. The Commission is also supporting efforts to bring politicians together with civil society representatives in a ‘roundtable forum’ to reach consensus on the nature and contents of a Bill of Rights. There is optimism that this may happen in September 2006; but progress has been slow.
community and voluntary sector has a particular responsibility to focus on
sectarianism and racism as human rights issues. Throughout the
The knowledge and experience built up in voluntary and community groups, and their acceptance and penetration in local areas, places them in a key position to assist in tackling racism and sectarianism. This is acknowledged in A Shared Future, which provides for their participation in the development of local Good Relations Action Plans, and calls for partnership and collaboration between the state and voluntary sectors. Moreover, since the sector works in the most disadvantaged communities (which also tend to be those with the highest incidents of sectarian and racist violence) it appears to be the ‘natural home’ for these discussions to take place, but the sector requires education and resources to deliver.
There is a surprising lack of research on
the effects of sectarianism and the conflict in
It is less common to hear discussion about
how anti-sectarianism might benefit minority ethnic people living in the
region. However, tackling
However, achieving an inclusive, peaceful and
prosperous society for all will ultimately require the transformation of
attitudes on the ground. The community and voluntary sector have an important
role to play here. Whether to reduce sectarianism or racism, the sector must
change the Northern Ireland mindset of ‘dominate or be dominated,’ encourage
people to engage with those they least understand and most fear, and help
people to see themselves as existing in, and benefiting from, a web of
 The author would like to thank Neil Jarman, Tony Kennedy, Miriam Titterton, Francine Blache-Breen and Elsje Fourie for contributions and co-authorship of this paper.
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