Northern Ireland is well known for enduring conflict between sections of its Protestant and Catholic communities.[1] More recently however, Belfast has been branded the “race hate capital of Europe.”[2]  This paper argues that high levels of sectarianism and racism are more than just a coincidence. In fact, there are complex linkages and relationships between them.  Both emanate from a ‘politics of difference,’ can escalate upward through a ‘pyramid of hate’ from name-calling to violence, and feed on common factors such as a sense of entitlement, insecurity, media distortion, a culture of violence and territorialism.[3] 


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 Northern Ireland. More specifically, it examines whether actions to tackle racism can alleviate sectarianism and vice versa, the development of a new twin-track approach by government, and the potential of a human rights approach to create a ‘floor’ of shared values and enforceable rights.


Sectarianism in Northern Ireland


The conflict in Northern Ireland has taken different forms at different times, but has consistently been fuelled by sectarianism. Narrowly defined, sectarianism refers to adherence to a particular sect or party or denomination, often leading to a rejection of other beliefs. Sectarian conflict therefore implies conflict between sects within a particular religion, for example, between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, or between Shia and Sunni Muslims in Iraq.


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 Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK) in terms of their political allegiance, and Catholics ‘pro Irish’ (wanting Northern Ireland to be reunified with the Republic of Ireland). Sectarianism therefore acts, “as a social marker through which conflict is articulated rather than as a source of conflict in its own right.[4] 


Sectarianism is 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 Northern Ireland. This raises the question of whether Catholics in positions of power who discriminate against Protestants can be viewed as sectarian. Moreover, both communities are minorities and relatively disempowered within the context of the island as a whole. 


Deciding who is, and who can be, sectarian implies a ‘hierarchy of victimhood.’[5] 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.”[6]  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.”[7]  Importantly, this definition allows for different forms of sectarianism, and recognises that sectarianism is mutually expressed by Catholic and Protestant communities in Northern Ireland.  


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.”[8] Since the outbreak of political violence known as ‘the Troubles’ in the late 1960’s, over 3,000 people have been killed in Northern Ireland. Hundreds of thousands more have been injured, bereaved, or forced out of their homes and communities. The 1994 ceasefires and 1998 Good Friday/Belfast Agreement have significantly reduced levels of violence. For example, the number of deaths attributable to paramilitary groups has not since exceeded 18 in any one year.[9]   


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.[10]  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.[11]    


Figures 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 North Belfast.[12] Although the police are unable to provide overall statistics for rioting and disturbances more widely across Northern Ireland, their figures show that during ‘security related policing incidents’ in 2005, 281 baton rounds (plastic bullets) were fired, 403 police officers were injured, there were 548 petrol bomb incidents and 352 persons were charged.[13] 


There are additional signs that Northern Ireland remains a deeply divided society, with segregation increasing housing and education. Currently, thirty-five of Belfast’s fifty-one electoral wards have a population that is at least 90% Catholic or Protestant.[14]  Union Jacks, Irish Tricolours, Ulster flags and paramilitary flags are used to mark different groups’ and communities’ territory, or to lay claim to mixed areas. Only 5% of children attend formally integrated schools (where there are quotas for pupils from both the main Christian sects), although there is a growing demand for places in such schools.[15]  


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.[16] 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.[17] 


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.[18] Since 1996, there has been a downward trend in the level of support for mixed-religion living and working environments.[19] 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 Northern Ireland, but are also “the ghost at the feast” of much of polite society.[20] Moreover, prejudice starts young. Research shows three-year-old children are aware of categories such as 'Catholic' and 'Protestant' and are able to develop negatives attitudes about them.[21]

Racism in Northern Ireland


Until recently, it was common to hear people claim there to be no racism in Northern Ireland because there were so few minority ethnic people living in there.[22]  This implies that racism is caused by the presence of minority ethnic people. Yet, “racism has nothing to do with some putative quality of the racialised individual or his or her culture… racism is a quality of, and caused by, a racist society rather than racialised minorities.”[23] 


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 in the UK was passed in 1965, outlawing discrimination on the grounds of ‘colour, race, nationality, or ethnic or national origins.’  At the time, the local Northern Ireland government requested it not apply in Northern Ireland for fear that it might offer redress to Catholics experiencing discrimination. It also requested that this legislation not include religion as it would be an anomaly for anti-religious discrimination legislation to apply “everywhere in the UK other than the place where it was needed most.”[24]  Hence, government enshrined a legal separation of sectarianism and racism.


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 Northern Ireland. In particular, the legislation defines a ‘racial group’ as ‘a group of persons defined by reference to colour, race, nationality or ethnic or national origins.’[25]  Thus, the Order identifies Irish Travellers (who are white) as a ‘racial group’ on the basis that they have “a shared history, culture and traditions including, historically, a nomadic way of life on the island of Ireland.’[26] 


This suggests that in Northern Ireland racial distinctions are made less on the basis of skin colour and biological ‘differences,’ than in countries such as the United States. There is a history of people identifying themselves as the victims of anti-Irish racism in Northern Ireland and Great Britain, and of Northern Ireland Catholics being referred to as ‘Blacks.’[27] Significant efforts have also been made to include white minority groups, and Irish people in particular, in anti-racist struggles in Britain (particularly by the British Commission for Racial Equality). This implies a definition of racism as “an asymmetrical power relationship across an ethnic boundary in an unequal way.”[28] However, minority ethnic people in Northern Ireland have been less keen to ally their equality struggles with those of Catholics in the region, and this is discussed later in this paper.    


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 Northern Ireland.[29]  For example, in a 2000 Racial Attitudes survey, over 40% of respondents said that nomadism was not a valid way of life. Approximately two-thirds of respondents said they would not be willing to accept Travellers as residents in their local area, as colleagues at work or as members of their family.[30] 


Alongside indigenous Irish Travellers, there has been a significant minority ethnic population in Northern Ireland for over a century. This relatively ‘settled’ population includes Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Latin American, Portuguese, Jewish and African communities. Since coming to Northern Ireland, all of these communities have experienced various forms of discrimination and exclusion, yet the first policy initiatives specifically targeting minority ethnic people were only developed in 2001.[31] 


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 Northern Ireland is sectarian and not about policies as it is elsewhere…There is not enough space for minority ethnic communities to become involved.”[32]  However, peace seems to be opening up this space, as minority ethnic people long resident in Northern Ireland have gained greater recognition in recent years.


At the same time, low levels of violence and unemployment have accelerated the pace at which Northern Ireland is becoming a more diverse place. Migrant workers are a fast growing category of employees providing the labour and skills Northern Ireland’s economy needs.[33] Since 2001, a substantial number of Portuguese nationals have taken up employment in the food processing industry, migrant workers from South Asia and the Philippines are increasingly prominent in the health care industry, and large numbers of nationals from the eight East European states that joined the EU in 2004 (notably Poland, Lithuania and Slovakia) have moved to Northern Ireland to take up employment.


Because the last census took place in 2001, there are no accurate statistics as regards the current size and whereabouts of Northern Ireland’s minority ethnic population. Moreover, any official figures available only provide information about the number of people taking up work in the region.[34] Best estimates suggest the minority ethnic population stands at about 45,000 approximately 3% of the general population.[35]  It also seems that in contrast to post Second World War migration from Commonwealth countries to Britain, these migrants are dispersed to rural towns and industries rather than concentrated in large centres of population and cities. 


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.[36]  A Racial Equality Strategy for Northern Ireland was also published in 2005 establishing a framework for Government – and for broader civic society – to tackle racial inequalities in Northern Ireland, eradicate racism and hate crime and promote good race relations. A first annual implementation action plan for the strategy was published in April 2006.


Yet, there has been a recent significant rise in racist incidents recorded in Northern Ireland. Reports of such incidents rose from 453 in 2003/04 to 813 for 2004/05 (an increase of 79%) and from 813 in 2004/05 to 936 in 2005/06 (an increase of 15%).[37]  Whilst these figures may partly reflect an increase in the number of people being prepared to report incidents to the police, as well as recent improvements to police systems of recording, they undoubtedly reflect a substantial real increase in the number of racist incidents.[38]


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).[39] 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 Northern Ireland society to be more of a problem than sectarian attitudes.[40]  Respondents’ attitudes were measured directly in a 2002 survey which showed 70% of respondents agreeing that ‘it would be better for society if groups adapt and blend into the larger society’ and 48% of respondents agreeing that ‘immigrants take jobs away from people who were born in Northern Ireland.’  However, more recent survey responses are not available. 


Perhaps, the significance of the 2002 survey is that it suggests another dimension to racism in Northern Ireland – racism based on the notion of a ‘way of life’ and ‘entitlement’ under threat by ‘outsiders.’ Thus, there is a relationship between racism, xenophobia and bigotry that requires study.


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.’[41]   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.[42]  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).[43]


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.[44]  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.[45]  


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 Northern Ireland, politics tends to be a zero-sum game and fear of the ‘other’ used to gain votes.  Whilst this has historically sustained sectarianism, there are concerns that politicians may use fear of immigrants and migrant workers to electoral ends in the future.       


The media has been maligned in Northern Ireland as a ‘war pornographer,’ for its allegedly biased coverage of ‘the Troubles,’ and for being “complicit in the politics of division” – helping to create and reproduce sectarian attitudes.[46] The media has also played a role in influencing racist attitudes in the region. Recent headlines such as, “Ulster disturbing descent into racism,” have focused attention on negative and violent incidents affecting minority ethnic people.[47] Whilst such coverage raises public awareness of racism, it tends to construct minority ethnic people as a 'problem category,’ thereby increasing their vulnerability.[48] 


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.[49]   


Both racism and sectarianism feed off a culture of violence. Continued violence in post-conflict societies or peace processes is well documented.[50] Indicators of Northern Ireland’s current culture of violence include an increase in hate crime (for example, recorded homophobic incidents increased by 17% between 2004/05 and 2005/06), domestic violence (a 10% increase was recorded between 2004/05 and 2005/06), and a general rise in anti-social behaviour.[51]  Perhaps one of the most worrying trends has been the increase in so-called ‘recreational rioting.’  Young people are increasingly engaging in violence out of boredom and bravado, suggesting there is still much to be done to rebuild the social fabric of society.      


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.[52]  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.”[53]


This raises the issue of paramilitary involvement in racist crime. Several representatives of minority ethnic communities have suggested that elements within paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland have extreme right-wing tendencies and links to organisations such as Combat 18 and the British National Party. Racist graffiti has also appeared interspersed with paramilitary slogans. In response to the 2005 report of the Northern Ireland Affairs committee into hate crime, the government acknowledged this:


“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.”[54]


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.[55]


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.[56]  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."[57] 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.”[58] 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.”[59] 


This sense of defensive territoriality is particularly associated with working class, Protestant communities in Northern Ireland. These communities have lost socio-economic status with the decline of heavy industries in the region, and are struggling with the social and political adjustments demanded by the peace process. Whilst racist incidents have been recorded across all six counties of the region, and in both Protestant and Catholic areas, “when one looks more closely at the micro geography of Belfast, it is evident that the majority of [racist] incidents have been recorded in predominately Protestant working class area”[60] However, the ongoing lack of engagement between Catholic communities and the PSNI may be impacting on the willingness of minority ethnic people living in Catholic areas to report racist incidents.


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.”[61]  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.[62]


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 Northern Ireland are being examined and articulated. There are concerns however, that minority ethnic people, and racism itself, are at risk of becoming ‘sectarianised.’  There is some evidence that this is already taking place, for example, Poles in Northern Ireland are seen as Catholics and Latvians as Protestants – and are treated accordingly by the two majority populations. For minority ethnic people, whether Protestants or Catholics are more likely to be racist is perhaps less important than the overall magnitude of racial prejudice in society. Moreover, minority ethnic people may be reluctant to ally their equality struggles with either majority community for fear that the distinctiveness of the discrimination, disadvantage and exclusion they experience may be lost, or ranked less important in a ‘hierarchy of victimhood.’[63]




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 Northern Ireland.[64] A Shared Future sets out how government, local authorities and civic society should work together to: eliminate all forms of prejudice; reduce conflict at interface areas; develop a shared community; promote civic mindedness; protect minorities and mixed marriages from intimidation; and shape policies, practices and institutions to promote good relations.


The Racial 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.”[65] It is worth noting here how the Racial Equality Strategy and A Shared Future diverge from ‘community cohesion’ strategies developed after race riots in Britain in 2001. Central to community cohesion is “promoting a sense of common belonging and cohesion” centred on “a shared British identity.”[66] Similarly, people from various racial and national origins living in the Republic of Ireland are referred to as ‘national minorities’ – implying that ‘Irish’ national identity can be regarded as an umbrella under which different ethnic identities can exist. However, the history of the conflict in Northern Ireland has illustrated the impossibility of basing any policy on a shared British or Irish national identity. Both the Racial Equality Strategy and A Shared Future therefore talk in terms of complex, multiple identities:


“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.’”[67]  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.”’[68]


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”[69]  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.”[70]


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 Northern Ireland predicted that progress in the peace process would result in an increase in racist violence. Unfortunately, their predictions seem to have been borne out.


There is 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 Northern Ireland, there may be a temptation at official level to concentrate on racism seeing this as less entrenched and more amenable to resolution. However, as argued above, the factors which give rise to racism and sectarianism are closely intertwined and cannot be tackled in isolation. It would be naive to believe that racism could be eliminated from a society still scarred by sectarian prejudice and intolerance. The key is to tackle the common roots of both problems. 


A human rights approach may have something to offer here. Whilst not making claims that a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland can solve the deeply-rooted problems described above, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) has worked to raise the debate about the need for additional enforceable rights at a constitutional level, as promised in the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement. Equality is at the root of justice, and all such international instruments, such as the Universal Declaration of Rights (1948), have an equality or non-discrimination clause. 


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 Rights for Northern Ireland. Among the issues for consideration by the Commission are:  the formulation of a general obligation on government and public bodies fully to respect, on the basis of equality of treatment, the identity and ethos of both communities in Northern Ireland; and a clear formulation of the rights not to be discriminated against and to equality of opportunity in both the public and private sectors.”[71]


It is anticipated that a Bill of Rights could form a ‘floor’ of common values for Northern Ireland. However, public reaction to the original consultation document has been mixed, with complaints that the draft had both gone too far and not gone far enough. Political concerns expressed include: whether a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland would mean a break with Great Britain; why the UK Human Rights Act of 1998 does not suffice; and the costs of an enforceable charter of economic and social rights. More generally, the Bill is contentious because the term ‘human rights’ is often seen as having been appropriated by the nationalist or Catholic community. 


  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.  


The community and voluntary sector has a particular responsibility to focus on sectarianism and racism as human rights issues. Throughout the Northern Ireland conflict, the voluntary and community sector bore the burden of improving community relations and working to maintain contact and dialogue in a polarised society. These bridge-building activities were critical given the absence of a coherent government policy on community relations. Whilst the publication of A Shared Future has put a comprehensive strategy in place for the first time, the voluntary and community sector continues to be the driving force in improving relations on the ground.


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 Northern Ireland on racism.[72] This reflects the historic ‘benign neglect’ of minority ethnic people living in the region. Yet, the idea that there are linkages and relationships between sectarianism and racism, and that these linkages and relationships may be useful in reducing different forms of prejudice and discrimination, is not new. In the late 1960’s, for example, there was a view was that anti-racism could offer redress to Catholics experiencing discrimination in Northern Ireland. More recently, government has sought to exploit the potentially “leavening effect” of the region’s growing diversity on its “two traditions divide.”[73]


It is less common to hear discussion about how anti-sectarianism might benefit minority ethnic people living in the region. However, tackling Northern Ireland’s culture of violence, as well as its deeply ingrained patterns of segregation and territorialism, would undoubtedly provide immediate, tangible benefits to majority and minority communities. It is therefore the common roots of sectarianism and racism that should be the priority for action. Government’s new twin-track approach of A Shared Future and the Racial Equality Strategy is a significant development in this regard, as is the proposition for a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.


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 interdependent relationships.[74] 

[1] 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.

[2] Angelique Chrisafis, ‘Racist war of the loyalist street gangs: Orchestrated attacks on minorities raise fears of ethnic cleansing,’ The Guardian, 10 January 2004.

[3] Paul Hainsworth, ed., Divided Society: Ethnic Minorities and Racism in Northern Ireland, (London: Pluto Press, 1998), 270; Anti-Defamation League, ‘Pyramid of Hate,’ at; Rachel Monaghan, ‘Is there a ‘culture of violence’ in Northern Ireland? Hate crime and paramilitarism,’ (2006), at

[4] John Brewer, ‘The parallels between sectarianism and racism: the Northern Ireland experience,’ in One small step toward racial justice, Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work, (London: Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work, 1991), 101.

[5] Healing Through Remembering, ‘The Report of the Healing Through Remembering Project,’ (Belfast: Healing Through Remembering Project, 2002), 30.

[6] Marie Smyth and Ruth Moore, ‘Researching Sectarianism,’ (1995), at

[7] Robbie McVeigh, ‘Cherishing the Children of the Nation Unequally: Sectarianism in
Ireland,’ in Irish Society: Sociological Perspectives, eds., P. Clancy, S. Drudy, K. Lynch, and L. O’Dowd, (Ireland: Institute of Public Administration, 1995).

[8] Community Relations Council, ‘What is Sectarianism,’ at http:www/

[9] Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), ‘Statistics Relating to the Security Situation 2005-06,’ at

[10] Northern Ireland Housing Executive, ‘34th Annual Report 2004-2005,’ at

[11] Tony Kennedy, ‘Cooperation Ireland Speech to ICC Leadership Academy,’ at

[12] Ibid.

[13] PSNI, ‘Statistics Relating to the Security Situation 2005-06.’

[14] S.A. Bollens, On Narrow Ground. Urban Policy and Ethnic Conflict in Jerusalem and Belfast, (New York: State University of New York Press, 2000).

[15] Michale Wardlow, ‘Sharing not Separation,’ at; A. Montgomery, G. Fraser, C. McGlynn, A. Smith and A. Gallagher, ‘Integrated Schools in Northern Ireland: Integration in Practice,’  (University of Ulster: Coleraine, 2003).

[16] Alliance Party, ‘Tribal politics costs Manifesto,’ at

[17] Ibid.

[18] Joanne Hughes, ‘Attitudes to community relations in Northern Ireland: grounds for optimism?’ (Belfast: Northern Ireland Social and Political Archive, 2003); ARK,  Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey, (2005), at

[19] Ibid.

[20] Community Relations Council, ‘What is Sectarianism.’

[21] Paul Connolly, Community Relations Work with Preschool Children, (Belfast: Community Relations Council, 1999).

[22] Paul Connolly, ‘‘Race' and Racism in Northern Ireland: A Review of the Research Evidence,(Belfast: Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, 2002).

[23] Lentin and McVeigh, Racism and anti-Racism in Ireland, (Belfast: Beyond the Pale, 2002), 6.

[24] A. Dickey, ‘Anti-incitement legislation in Britain and Northern Ireland,’ New community 2, no. 2. (1972), 128-133.

[25] Office of Public Sector Information, Race Relations Order, Article 5, at

[26] Ibid.

[27] Robbie McVeigh, “Is sectarianism racism? Theorising the racism/sectarianism interface,” in Rethinking Northern Ireland, ed. D. Miller, (Harlow: Addison Wesley Longman, 1998).

[28] Ibid.

[29] Commission for Racial Equality, ‘Discrimination against Gypsies and Travellers is the last 'respectable' form of racism, says the CRE,’ at

[30] Paul Connolly and M. Keenan, Racial Attitudes and Prejudice in Northern Ireland, (Belfast: Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, 2000).

[31] In 2001 the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister established the ‘Minority Ethnic Voluntary Organisations Fund.’

[32] Helen Lewis, Race/Ethnicity, Disability & Sexual Orientation in Northern Ireland: A Study of Community Organisations, (Londonderry: INCORE, 2005), at

[33] Kathryn Bell, Neil Jarman and Thomas Lefebvre, “Migrant Workers in Northern Ireland,” (Belfast: Institute for Conflict Research, 2004).

[34] Excluding those who subsequently return home and move, as well as family members, dependents and undocumented workers

[35] Ibid.

[36] John Spellar in Northern Ireland Office, ‘New laws to combat ‘hate crime’ and ‘joy riding’ come into force,’ 28 September 2004, at

[37] PSNI, ‘Hate Incidents and Crimes 2005-06,’ at In this report the PSNI define a hate incident as “any incident, which may or may not constitute a criminal offence, which is perceived by the victim or any other person, as being motivated by prejudice or hate.”

[38] Government response to Northern Ireland Affairs Committee report into hate crime in Northern Ireland, at

[39] Chris Gilligan and Katrina Lloyd, ‘Racial prejudice in Northern Ireland,’ (Belfast & Londonderry: ARK, 2006).

[40] Connolly and Keenan’s 2000 Racial Attitudes Survey suggests this.  In particular, Connolly and Keenan found racism to be around twice as significant as sectarianism in the attitudes of the general population. Around twice as many respondents in the survey stated that they would be unwilling to accept or mix with members of minority ethnic communities than they would with members of the other main religious tradition to themselves.

[41] Hainsworth, 1998, 270.

[42] Anti-Defamation League.

[43] The PSNI 50/50 policy requires a 50% intake from the Roman Catholic community and a 50% intake from all other non-Christian and ethnic groups (including the Protestant community).

[44] Sir William Macpherson of Cluny, Tom Cook, Dr John Sentamu and Dr Richard Stone, ‘The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry,’ at 

[45] Equality Commission, ‘A Wake-Up Call on Race - Implications of the Macpherson Report for Institutional Racism in Northern Ireland,’ (Belfast: Equality Commission, 2002).

[46] Northern Ireland Centre for European Co-operation (NICEC), ‘What Shared Futures? Local and European Challenges in Diversity and Conflict Management,’ (Londonderry: INCORE, 2006), 3; Alan Bairner, ‘The Media’ in Northern Ireland Politics, eds. Arthur Aughey and Duncan Morrow, (London: Longman Group Limited, 1996).

[47] Mark Oliver, ‘Ulster justice system ‘institutionally racist.’’ Guardian Unlimited, 26 June 2006.

Michael McHugh, ‘Ulster disturbing descent into racism,’  Belfast Telegraph, 27 June 2006.

[48] Fawcett cited in Connolly, 2002, 53.

[49] Lewis, 2005.

[50] Monaghan, 2006.

[51] PSNI, ‘Domestic incidents and crimes 2005-06,’ at

[52] Neil Jarman, ‘From War to Peace? Changing Patterns of Violence in Northern Ireland 1990-2003,’ Terrorism and Political Violence, 16 No.3 (2004).

[53] Eleanor McKnight in Hainsworth, 1998, 45.

[54] Government response to Northern Ireland Affairs Committee report into hate crime in Northern Ireland.

[55] Independent Monitoring Commission, ‘Tenth  Report Of The Independent Monitoring Commission,’ April 2006, at

[56] The Loyalist Commission is an umbrella group that includes members of paramilitary groupings.

[57] David Porter in ‘Loyalist aim to ‘tackle racism,’’ BBC News, 10 March 2005.

[58] Suzanna Chan, ‘‘God’s little acre and ‘Belfast Chinatown:’ Diversity and Ethnic Place Identity in Belfast,’ (2006), at

[59] Chan, 2006.

[60] Neil Jarman and Rachel Monaghan, ‘Racist Harassment in Northern Ireland,’  (Belfast: Institute for Conflict Research, 2004).

[61] Connolly and Keenan, 2000, 27.

[62] Gilligan and Lloyd, 2006.

[63] Healing Through Remembering, 2002.

[64] Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, A Shared Future - Policy and Strategic Framework for Good Relations in Northern Ireland, (Belfast: OFMDFM, 2004); OFMDFM, A Racial Equality Strategy for Northern Ireland, (Belfast: OFMDFM, 2005).  A Shared Future sets out the fundamental principles and aims which underpin how government, local authorities, civic society, should work together to bring about a shared future between and within communities. It aims to improve relationships through explicitly encouraging ‘Sharing over Separation’ in the delivery of policies and services.

[65] Reena Bhavnani, Heidi Mirza and Veena Meetoo, Tackling the Roots of Racism, (Bristol: Policy Press, 2005), 63.

[66] Home Office, Improving Opportunity, Society Strengthening Opportunity: The Government’s strategy to increase race equality and community cohesion, 2005, at

[67] Bhikhu Parekh, The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain – Report of the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain, 2000, at

[68] Ibid.

[69] Racial Equality Strategy, 2005, 29.

[70] Ibid.

[71] The Agreement: Agreement reached in the multi-party negotiations, at, 21

[72] Connolly and Keenan, 2002, 344.

[73] Ibid.

[74] John Paul Lederach, The Moral Imagination, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).