NI society must decide to tackle sectarianism, says academic

Author or most recent major study on the issue says the lack of political will meant Northern Ireland had only “dabbled” in addressing the problem

Northern Ireland must decide if the will exists to seriously tackle sectarianism or simply accept it, a leading academic has warned.

Professor Duncan Morrow of Ulster University, the author of the most recent major study into sectarianism in the North, said that almost 25 years after the signing of the Belfast Agreement the lack of political will meant Northern Ireland had only “dabbled” in addressing the problem.

“Twenty-five years later you have to be real about these things,” he told The Irish Times. “The key thing is, are we going to deal with it, and if so, then we need to get on with it, because there are a lot of very practical, very difficult problems in there.

“The alternative, [and] this will happen as sure as night follows day, [is] that we will be subject to this sectarian zero-sum game all the time.”

He said the song about Michaela McAreavey, a 27-year-old schoolteacher murdered while on honeymoon in 2011 – which prompted an outcry when it was shared on social media recently – was a demonstration of “what happens when sectarianism is the basis of your society”.

“What has to happen is that people stop thinking this is okay.”

He said there had been a “policy failure to take this [sectarianism] as seriously as possible and to deliberately target it, partly because it’s not clear that it’s in the interests of political parties to do so”.

“It’s not going to change unless political leaders take seriously what is in the [Belfast] Agreement, which is that this is a project aimed at reconciliation.”

Addressing sectarianism, he said, was “essential if you want to stabilise Northern Ireland” and potential future constitutional change would not solve it.

“Whoever wins the sovereignty question will have the sectarian question to resolve,” he said.

Prof Morrow said that while much had been done on a “symbolic” level, there had been a lack of urgency in tackling the problem.

“People have talked big and promised long internationally, but when it’s come to doing the hard yards at home and really looking at how difficult it is to change these things we’ve had very little energy around it.

“For me the symbolic example of that – and we’ve had multiple examples – was the commitment to have peace walls removed by 2023. I’m not sure that’s on anybody’s agenda anymore. I’m not sure that even exists as an issue.

“Another example is that 25 years after the Good Friday [Belfast] Agreement we still don’t have any sustained model of increasing the level of sharing of our young people in our schools and education.”

He suggested “space for a civic voice as an independent space” may be necessary to allow for political progress but warned that the tendency towards unilateralism from the current British government could block progress.

“If we’re looking for a resolution to this, you would be looking for the British and Irish governments to sit down and try to work out what would upholding the [Belfast] Agreement actually look like under these circumstances.

“The key to stopping sectarianism is stopping the see-saw that means if you get something I lose it … and then you have to put in place something which means it won’t go back. We stopped the see-saw and put nothing in place and the see-saw started again.”

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times