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Sectarianism in Northern Ireland: It hasn’t gone away, you know

Viral video of men singing song mocking Michaela McAreavey highlights problem of how to tackle embedded sectarianism in North

Most in Northern Ireland have by now either seen the video or heard about it. The clip, which emerged last week, shows a group of men singing a song mocking Michaela McAreavey – a 27-year-old schoolteacher murdered on her honeymoon – during a celebration in an Orange hall.

Above them is red, white and blue bunting, while the table in front of them is littered with empty beer cans; some of those around them clap and cheer while others simply continue with their evening, apparently oblivious to the words being shouted out around them.

“This is what happens when sectarianism is the basis of your society,” says Prof Duncan Morrow of Ulster University and the author of the most recent major study into sectarianism in Northern Ireland.

“In any other normal world, this would be just absurd and aggressive and violent and absolutely not permissible, but within a sectarian world, at least in certain circles, [it] has a permission,” he says.

“Anything that gets at the ‘other side’ has a permission, including somebody who was killed in Mauritius on her honeymoon.

“At the extreme, that’s what becomes acceptable, and nobody in the room stopped it.”

The outcry came later, after it had been shared online; it was reported to the police, and within less than 24 hours two men had identified themselves as involved in the “singing of an offensive, vile and wholly abhorrent chant” which was, they said, “a matter of deep shame and regret”.

A police investigation is ongoing, with a file to be sent to prosecutors in “due course”; individuals have been sacked or are under investigation by their employers and by the Orange Order; other relationships have been summarily ended, such as that of Belfast-based football club Linfield with one of its voluntary coaches.


“When it’s looked at in the light of day,” says Prof Morrow, “everybody draws back and everybody goes, that’s unbelievable. But in too many places you’re still so kind of swimming in the water that you’d hardly notice it.

“When do you stop thinking this is normal? The only reason that stops, apart from the law and somebody intervening – which of course may be what has to happen – is that people stop thinking this is okay.”

This is the question thrown once again into the spotlight by this latest controversy: how to tackle the “latent” sectarianism which persists in Northern Ireland, as Prof Morrow wrote in 2019, “despite strenuous and continuing efforts on the part of government, voluntary organisations and others to deal with its many manifestations”.

The stark conclusion to that report, Sectarianism in Northern Ireland: a Review, was that more than 20 years after the Belfast Agreement, “we now have to ask if the capability exists to provide solutions to these problems or whether we must simply hope that with the passage of time they will somehow just go away”.

Three years on – though admittedly with two of those dominated by the Covid-19 pandemic – that question remains as relevant as ever. Can sectarianism be dealt with, and how to do so in a society in which sectarianism is so “very deeply embedded” that, as Morrow puts it, “division has become part of how people describe themselves in terms of identity … [and] we have structured our society along this basis”.

This extends to not just to the culture, politics and the system of governance in the North, but to segregation in many areas of life, not least education and housing.

According to analysis last year of Department of Education data by the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICIE), only about 15 per cent of schools in the North had at least 10 per cent of pupils from both Catholic and Protestant backgrounds.

‘Totally sectarianised’

“Our whole system is totally sectarianised,” says Linda Ervine. “We still think in that mindset, that’s how the system works, so it’s very hard to break down those barriers when everything is set up to actually function in that way.”

The manager of the Turas Irish-language project in east Belfast and the president of the area’s GAA club, Ervine – who is from a Protestant background – has suffered sectarian threats and intimidation, and last year the area’s first Irish-language preschool was forced to relocate due to an “ongoing social-media hate campaign”.

“It is fear,” she says. “Fear, scaremongering, lack of knowledge of how you would do it differently, lack of choice, I suppose, to do it differently.

“It can be very hard some days, because you’re putting your head above the parapet, it’s that simple.

“Sometimes you feel like you have a minority voice but your voice is not as much of a minority as you feel, it’s just other people are scared to voice it.”

“Every day in society I see it, I hear it. It’s almost endemic across society,” says Peter Sheridan, chair of peacebuilding charity Co-operation Ireland. “I’m not saying things haven’t improved but it’s still there, and it’s there in everyday life and in particular [for] people in the comfort of their own communities, it’s much easier to be sectarian.

“To some extent, I think we settled for peace but I don’t think we ever did the reconciliation, and that goes right from the top down, from politicians down… That divided nature of politics feeds back into society.”

“The whole peace process is, at least in part, an anti-sectarian project, of course it is, but we haven’t really had the urgency we needed on it,” says Morrow.

“Twenty-five years after the Good Friday Agreement, we still don’t actually have any sustained model of increasing the level of sharing of our young people in our schools and education.

Peace walls

“The commitment to have peace walls removed by 2023, I’m not sure that is even on anybody’s agenda any more, I’m not sure it exists as an issue.”

Though some progress has been made, more than 100 so-called “peace walls” – barriers which separate Protestant and Catholic communities – remain in Northern Ireland. According to International Fund for Ireland (IFI) research, attitudes towards them are changing but support for their removal remains low, with only 19 per cent in its 2019 survey in favour of removing barriers “now”.

“Once something comes up like that video, there’s almost this paranoia of ‘Let’s get out there and tackle this sectarianism that’s rampant,’ and that isn’t always how it’s perceived in those communities or how the real world is,” says Rab McCallum, the project co-ordinator with the North Belfast Interface Network, the lead agency for the IFI’s peace walls programme in the Twadell/Ardoyne/Shankill areas.

He emphasises that it is important to “understand what the reality of life on the ground is rather than people from different classes or who don’t live in those sort of environments … When people feel under threat, they feel under threat.”

With their groups, he says, “we look at what is sectarianism, what is non-sectarianism, what is anti-sectarianism, and we get people to talk about their experiences and try to see how they deal with it or how they contribute to it”.

“We have had quite significant success in doing that and trying to move people from saying ‘I’m not sectarian’ to being anti-sectarian in terms of the things, to challenge negativities or false perceptions that are out there.

“I think we’re now in a place where people aren’t acting it out in the way they did in the past. That’s not to say people don’t still hold some prejudices, but the acting on it part has been significantly reduced in the areas that we work in.”

But, he emphasises, “you can’t just wish it away … nothing will be resolved by us just smiling at each other if we don’t rectify the problems that have created the discourse in the first place.

‘Something real’

“This notion that sectarianism is about Catholic and Protestant, we are dealing with the issue of two separate identities and this is all revolving around us at the minute.

“This notion of do you want to remain within the UK or be part of a united Ireland, we’re not talking about interpretations of scripture here, this is actually something real and people have concerns and fears.”

“There’s no doubt Brexit, the protocol, has served to polarise society and split people up into their community groups or homogenous groups again,” says Sheridan.

Almost 25 years on from the Belfast Agreement, says Morrow, Northern Ireland is caught between a multiplicity of factors and dynamics; among it all remains the problem of how to make sure the “peace dividend … reaches down into communities where actually the alienation has a lot to do with economics and education and very basic issues like that”.

Yet there has also been change, not least among the “Good Friday” generation of young people. Though he is careful not to overstate it – “the people singing that song about Michaela McAreavey weren’t 70 or 60, they were youngish people” – McCallum also points out: “We don’t have that same issue of young people out rioting as we did in the past. Young people have told us, ‘They’re not our peace walls, yous done this, we have to live with the consequences.’”

Ervine, too, describes “a rise in people who are defining themselves as others and who don’t want to be defined by their background or what somebody else perceives their background to be.

“I think there’s space for those people, and I would include myself among them. That space is opening up, but it’s still a difficult space to inhabit.”

How, then, to build on this change? Strong legislation is the starting point, says Sheridan: “Things can change culturally once legislation is enforced and we as a society start to behave differently and it’s not okay to have [sectarianism] in the room just because you’re with your own group.

‘Zero tolerance’

“Zero tolerance,” says Ervine, and “do not accept it from our political leadership”.

For Morrow, “whether you politically invest in it is the big question”; he posits whether an independent, civic space “may be necessary to allow politicians to move”, as well as a joint approach from the British and Irish governments.

The “potentially significant change”, he says, is the cross-community Alliance Party’s recent electoral success, and what that could mean. “Maybe this is not a 50-50 society, but a 40-40-20 society?

“Are they just a middle-class group of people who reject this, or is this a sign of something that’s changing underneath, that young people no longer want this issue to dominate?”

In the years ahead, this is one question that will be answered. Among the new Alliance MLAs elected last month was 23-year-old Eoin Tennyson, a former pupil of Michaela McAreavey at St Patrick’s Academy in Dungannon.

“She radiated passion for the Irish language and for religion and approached everything in such an inclusive and caring way. She was a role model,” he says.

“When I contrast that young woman who was beautiful inside and out with those vile, abhorrent comments in that video, I find it unbelievable, to be honest.

“So it shows there is still a long way to go, but I do think we have made progress. There are more people now from mixed and multiple backgrounds, and people have more exposure to different communities. Slowly we are starting to break down barriers.”

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times