RIGHT MINDED people everywhere have been horrified by the displays of sectarianism that have taken place in Northern Ireland.

The stand off at Drumcree, coming as it did when the peace process was hanging by a thread, marked an all time low. But the events in Ballymena, when church goers were harassed and threatened and prevented from attending their place of worship, brought community relations to even murkier and more depressing levels.

To most of us, sectarianism is something that happens north of the Border. It would, we believe, be impossible that such events could take place in the South. But are we right to think so? Ms Cecilia Clegg and Dr Joe Leichty - a Scot and an American respectively - are more than half way through an Irish School of Ecumenics research project on sectarianism in Northern Ireland, which is throwing up some interesting observations on the nature of sectarianism.

The ultimate aim of the project, entitled "Moving Beyond Sectarianism", is to identify ways of moving towards an acceptance of social, religious and cultural differences in the community. But first, the researchers had to define sectarianism.

According to Ms Clegg and Dr Leichty, sectarianism is "a complex of attitudes, actions, beliefs and structures - at personal, communal and institutional levels - in which religion plays a significant part and which, typically, involves a negative mixing of religion and politics.

"Sectarianism," they say, "arises as a distortion of natural positive human needs for belonging, identity and the free expression of difference."

Destructive patterns

As a resuit "if is expressed in destructive patterns of relating. These include a negative re enforcing of the boundaries between the individual or the community and others, by overlooking other people or groups, by belittling or demonising them and by justifying or collaborating in their domination".

When we think about sectarianism, we almost inevitably identify it with violence and stand offs. To the two researchers, however, even the seemingly harmless joke or throw away remark have as much to do with sectarianism as have violence and intimidation.

Jokes, casual remarks and even body language help to create the climate in which sectarianism can thrive. "Our task," Ms Clegg explains, "is to highlight the sub system out of which sectarian activists emerge", adding that this subsystem is largely made up of good Christian people.

Sectarianism is something that is learned, she says. "We all model ourselves on family, friends, teachers and TV or sports heroes. We have to examine the kinds of models and attitudes that we ourselves are promoting."

When they began the project, Dr Leichty was told that it would make Catholics feel smug and Protestants feel got at. "There is a widespread belief that sectarianism is a problem of Protestant fundamentalism," he says. "Priests I talked to found the notion of Catholic sectarianism absurd or even offensive."

Range of types

However, during their time in the North, Dr Leichty and Ms Clegg have identified a range of types of sectarianism that exist on both sides of the divide. In many instances they could well apply to people in the South.

The most obvious form of sectarianism is fundamentalist sectarianism which, says Dr Leichty, "is rooted in an anxiety about maintaining an Orthodox truth by remaining separate".

Because the fundamentalists keep themselves separate and have no contact with other groups, they remain uninformed and have no way of correcting the misapprehensions they may have about others. They think only in stereotypical terms.

When the Brook Clinics (family planning) opened up in the North, both Protestant clergymen and Catholic nuns and priests protested against them because they regarded them as abortion referral centres," says Dr Leichty. "But both sides were reluctant to see it as an example of inter church co operation. It wasn't planned and they were doing it for different reasons, they said. One side said that they were protesting because they viewed life as Godgiven, while the other side were simply concerned about their numbers dropping.

A separatist view of the world is sectarian because it causes destructive patterns of behaviour, Dr Leichty argues. "It forces people to operate on the basis of stereotypes and have no recourse to correction. People need to recognise that they have chosen sectarianism along with separation."

Even more invidious to Ms Clegg and Dr Leichty is the liberal bigot who, in the name of toleration, hurls abuse on people of opposing views with no awareness that he or she is being equally intolerant. Meanwhile, the ecumenical sectarian has a negative view of non ecumenical types. "If sectarianism can make its way into ecumenism, it's a sobering reminder of how pervasive it is," says Dr Leichty.

Mirror image

The Catholic Church also contains sectarian members. "Although there's a tendency to regard sectarianism as a Protestant preserve, Catholic sectarianism exists and is, in fact, a mirror image of fundamentalism." The "we are the one true church" maxim underscores the intolerance of Catholicism.

Another distinctive and subtle form of sectarianism is that which dismisses the Protestant community by either denying its existence or regarding it as an irrelevancy. Viewing the problem in the North as a British/Irish one is a good example. Declaring that Protestants are really Irish is another. "Both derive from a failure to take seriously the Protestant community," says Dr Leichty.

All of us the researchers say, need to rethink our views on exclusion and inclusion, since conservative forms of sectarianism give too much weight to differences while liberal forms of sectarianism give too little weight to differences.