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  • Writer's pictureGreg O'Loughlin

Confronting Sectarianism - Inclusion and Reconciliation In A New Ireland


The posting online of a vile video showing members of the Orange Order mocking the murder of Michaela McAreavey has been widely condemned. Last week in another video Pastor Barrie Halliday appeared on social media describing Catholics as ‘rats that need to be murdered with rifles and grenades.’

Both of these actions are evidence of an existing underlying sectarianism within northern society that has its roots in English colonialism and in the deliberate fostering by the British state in Ireland of division between Catholics and Protestants. The Loyal Orders have long played a prominent role in promulgating this.

That sectarianism still exists is not surprising. Unionist political leaders and their British allies often play the Orange Card as they seek to maximise their electoral vote or secure an advantage in a negotiation.

Since partition there are few Catholic families in the North that have not had direct experience of sectarianism, of discrimination in employment or housing, of collusion involving unionist death squads, the B Specials, the UDR, RUC and British Army or of pogroms. Orange marches with their ‘kick the Pope bands’ and sectarian songs – like The Famine Song; their posters of nationalist politicians or of religious statues on bonfires and their desire to parade triumphantly through or past nationalist areas have long been part of the nationalist experience.

The dignity and grace of Michaela‘s family is an example to us all.

Words like ‘abhorrent’ or ‘shameful’ or ‘despicable’ readily spring to mind when sectarianism rears its head. But if society is serious about challenging sectarianism there is a need to go beyond the rhetoric of condemnation. The fact is that sectarianism is written into the DNA of the northern state. The celebration/commemoration of the centenary of ‘Northern Ireland’ and the Orange Hall event which was a part of this, are a case in point. It is important to note that those involved are a bigoted minority. But they have to be stood up to.

So, what to do? The reality is that sectarianism will not be wished away. It cannot be ignored. The starting point must be positive leadership from political, cultural, religious and civic society. The law and the enforcement of the law also has a crucial role to play in this. That means a new legal definition of sectarianism entrenched in law with legal sanctions and robust incitement to hatred provisions.

Last year Sinn Féin published a policy paper ‘Inclusion and Reconciliation in a New Ireland.’ Its focus is on promoting inclusion and reconciliation, ending sectarianism and building an agreed New Ireland. It contains a wide-range of proposals and accepts that reconciliation and healing are essential if our society is to move beyond the historical antagonisms of the past. This means dealing with sectarianism in all its manifestations and embedding an anti-sectarian ethos, culture and commitment at the heart of all political and public discourse.

Among our proposals are the provision of an all-island Charter of Rights to protect the status, rights and aspirations of all citizens. This Charter will reflect the commitments in the Good Friday Agreement to the right to equal opportunity, the right of women to full and equal political participation and the right to freedom from sectarian harassment, and much more.

Sinn Féin also proposes an anti-sectarian charter to be included in the pledge of Office for Ministers, MLAs TDs and local Councillors and an all island reconciliation strategy under the auspices of the North South Ministerial Council.

Achieving inclusion and reconciliation will require maximum co-operation and good will across all sectors of society. But these are straight forward, common sense proposals that can help bring an end to the sectarian songs, supremacist chants and racist language that are too often a feature of discourse. A key component to making progress is using the manner in which public funds are disbursed. Bigotry and sectarianism should not be publicly funded. It should be illegal.

This article first appeared in the most recent edition of Unity News.

Read the full Inclusion & Reconciliation In A New Ireland report here.

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