A sectarian peace

As schoolchildren get caught up in sectarian clashes in north Belfast, Brendan O'Neill explains how Northern Ireland's peace process deepened the sectarian divide.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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‘The world is watching in disbelief.’ So said Northern Ireland security minister Jane Kennedy, as the dispute in north Belfast over the route to a Catholic girls’ school erupted into violence on Monday 3 September 2001.

The Holy Cross Catholic primary school is located in a Protestant-dominated area in north Belfast – and images of schoolgirls crying as their parents protected them from Protestants shouting abuse and hurling stones sent shockwaves around the world. So what is behind Northern Ireland’s rising sectarian tension?

‘It’s the one thing some people can’t get their heads around’, says Dr Pete Shirlow, senior lecturer in human geography at the University of Ulster in Coleraine: ‘this strange fact that although we’ve had nearly 10 years of peace process in Northern Ireland, sectarianism seems bigger and uglier than ever before.’

Shirlow caused a minor storm in the British and Irish media in July 2001. After studying ‘the relationship between cultural diversity and the perpetuation of fear in Belfast’, he concluded that not only had sectarianism worsened during the peace process years, but that the peace process itself was partly to blame. ‘Some peace initiatives, like celebrating cultural diversity and cross-community youth schemes, might be well-meaning’, says Shirlow, ‘but they often end up reproducing divisions and further isolating one community from the other’.

Shirlow based his research on interviews with 1200 families around Belfast’s ‘flashpoints’ – ‘those parts of the city where tensions are high and hopes for the future low’. He found that 64 percent of residents thought that ‘inter-community relations had deteriorated since the ceasefires’, and that young people were most likely to be antagonistic to the ‘other’ community.

‘Teenagers and those in their twenties feel the divisions quite intensely’, says Shirlow. ‘Previous generations had some relationship with the other community, or remember a time when relations were better – but this generation doesn’t know the “other side” at all. Older people might have been involved in violence but it was often based on ideology – now that’s gone, and today it’s just pure, naked bigotry.’

Shirlow’s latest research follows his studies in 1999 of those parts of working-class north Belfast where the tension over school routes has now erupted: the predominantly Catholic Ardoyne and the predominantly Protestant Upper Ardoyne. There he found that the number of residents who worked in mixed workplaces had fallen from 75 percent to 33 percent over the previous 10 years; that around 80 percent of residents would not shop in areas dominated by the other community; and that ‘despite five years of relative peace and the continual decline in the level of violence between Ardoyne and Upper Ardyone, social relations between the two communities have not significantly improved’ (1).

So where did the peace process go wrong? When it was kickstarted by the Downing Street Declaration in 1993, one of its main aims was to ‘end sectarian division’ by ‘embracing cultural diversity’ and ‘celebrating the worth’ of both Catholic and Protestant communities. But add to north Belfast’s sectarian school dispute the annual sectarian spats over Orange parades, the rise in sectarian attacks on people’s homes, and the increasing number of church burnings, and you have a Northern Ireland that seems more divided than ever before. ‘These divisions, this tension, threatens the very core of the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement’, said Northern Ireland secretary John Reid in July 2001.

In reality, the deepening divide is a result of the peace process, not a threat to it.

Over the past 10 years, many of the root causes of sectarianism in Northern Ireland have gone – but still sectarianism persists. From the start of the conflict in 1969 to the IRA ceasefire in 1994, much of the British media depicted the Troubles as a sectarian feud between Catholics and Protestants, fuelled by historical animosities, religious antagonism or just the inability of Irish people to live together. But in truth, sectarian tensions in Northern Ireland were caused by the everyday reality of inequality and discrimination within the Northern Ireland state.

Since the partition of Ireland in 1921, Catholics in Northern Ireland suffered discrimination – first under successive Northern Ireland Unionist governments and then, after 1972, under direct British rule. In the 1920s, the rate of unemployment among Protestants in Northern Ireland was 6.6 percent while for Catholics it was 17.3 percent. Sixty years later, in 1983, this disparity still existed – with 14.9 percent unemployment among Protestants and 35.1 percent among Catholics.

According to a study published in 1987, ‘Over the period 1971 to 1985, Catholic men were about two-and-a-half times as likely as Protestant men to be unemployed’ (2). Catholics also suffered discrimination in housing, education, harassment by the largely Protestant police, and a lack of political representation.

It was this inequality, rather than simply history or religion, which led to the two communities being divided. The advantages of this set-up were marginal for the Protestant community, but considering that Northern Ireland was the most impoverished part of the UK such material divisions assumed a great importance. And the cultural symbols of the Protestant community, like Orange parades, were not just cultural expressions, but were about Protestants defending their position in society.

Northern Ireland’s Protestants tended to see concessions to Catholics as a threat to their position, while Catholics saw change as the only way forward. It was Catholic demands for civil rights over housing and employment that sparked the conflict at the end of the 1960s – which soon became a struggle over whether Northern Ireland was Irish or British, with Catholics putting their hope in Irish reunification and Protestants wanting to keep the Union between Northern Ireland and Britain. In short, Northern Ireland had sectarianism built in, where Catholic and Protestant interests were often at loggerheads.

Now all that is changing – and Catholic inequality is becoming a thing of the past. A report issued by the Equality Commission in August 2001 showed that ‘the Catholic share of the workforce has risen from 34.9 percent in 1990 to 39.6 percent in 2000’ (3). The commission found that the share of employment between Protestants and Catholics is now almost the same as the share of the population: the economically active population in Northern Ireland is 58 percent Protestant and 42 percent Catholic, while the overall composition of the workforce is 60.4 percent Protestant and 39.6 percent Catholic.

And with the share of Catholic workers in the university sector rising from 21 percent to 33 percent over the past 10 years – and from 23 percent to 32 percent in insurance companies, and from 18 percent to 32 percent in banking – one of the few areas where Catholics are seriously under-represented today is in the security sector (8.7 percent Catholic and over 90 percent Protestant).

Yet as Protestants and Catholics move closer to being equal, the more divided they seem to become. The material divisions between Protestants and Catholics might be narrowing, but sectarian tensions are widening – and it is the peace process that is driving them.

The Irish peace process has division and instability built in. With its aim of containing the conflict rather than resolving it, the peace process draws the political parties into a dialogue without resolving any big political questions or fundamental differences. So throughout the peace process, both Unionism and nationalism have been robbed of their rationale.

Unionist parties cut their teeth by defending the link between Britain and Northern Ireland against the threat posed by republicans – but now that no such threat exists, Unionists often seem to lack a sense of purpose and direction. On the other side, republicans have ditched the principles on which their movement has been based since the early 1900s – no longer talking about being the ‘legitimate government of Ireland’, but instead effectively accepting their position as a minority movement within the six counties of Northern Ireland.

With the national question off the agenda, and the conflict robbed of its political content, all sides in Northern Ireland are turning to culture and identity. The peace process is not about resolving the conflict but about ‘celebrating cultural diversity’ – not about overcoming the divisions between Catholics and Protestants but about recognising those ‘cultural differences’ and respecting them. This might sound like an improvement on the past, when Protestants lorded it over Catholics and the IRA was fighting a war with the British army and loyalist paramilitaries – but in reality it means that divisions have intensified.

As political questions have moved down the agenda, so cultural and purely sectarian conflicts have risen to the fore. Consider the annual problem of the Orange marching season, particularly around Drumcree in Portadown – often presented as a case of history repeating itself year in year out, but which in fact has its roots in the peace process itself. The number of Orange parades has risen exponentially as the peace process has progressed. In 1985, there were 1897 loyalist parades, rising to 2467 in 1990 – and then upwards throughout the 1990s, from 2411 in 1993 to 2520 in 1994 and then 2581 in 1995 (4). According to the Parades Commission, there were 3200 parades in Northern Ireland for the year 1998 to 1999 (5).

Violence and rioting as a result of Orange parades is also more frequent today, becoming an annually predictable feature of life in Northern Ireland. No doubt, most Catholics were never very fond of Orange marches and would do their best to avoid them – but since the mid-1990s Orange parades have resulted in more and more serious disturbances. In 1986, nine Orange parades were re-routed by the Royal Ulster Constabulary – in 1998/1999, 203 Orange parades were judged to be ‘possibly contentious’ and 119 were re-routed by the Parades Commission.

By elevating ‘cultural difference’, the peace process has unleashed a new round of sectarianism – driven not by inequality and discrimination but by the idea that Northern Ireland has two distinct communities whose culture and interests are different, and who must be constantly policed and kept apart. Cultural diversity is the new sectarianism – and in many ways, this new sectarianism is even worse than the divisions of the past. Stripped of any political content, today’s conflicts in Northern Ireland are now what many wrongly assumed them to be during the Troubles: base, atavistic, sectarian clashes. Or as Pete Shirlow described it, ‘Pure, naked bigotry’.

Even worse, these divisions are being set in stone. Each new institution of the peace process is built around the question of how best to accommodate the two distinct communities. So the Parades Commission’s role is to balance the rights of Protestant marchers against the rights of Catholic residents – as if Protestant and Catholic rights are clashing things that need to be managed by an outside force (6). And the Northern Ireland Assembly institutionalises sectarianism, by demanding that ‘at their first meeting, members of the assembly will register a designation of identity – nationalist, Unionist or other – for the purpose of measuring cross-community support in assembly votes’ (7) – effectively freezing different identities in law.

But setting up more bodies to ensure respect for cultural differences and to police the two communities is like fighting fire with petrol – and can only drive another wedge between Catholics and Protestants, as they are increasingly encouraged to see themselves as distinct from each other.

Welcome to the New Northern Ireland.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

‘It has nothing to do with finding the truth’, by Brendan O’Neill

spiked-issue: Ireland

(1) Fear, mobility and living in the Ardoyne and Upper Ardoyne communities, by Dr Pete Shirlow, on the CAIN website

(2) Equality and Inequality in Northern Ireland: Part 1, Employment and Unemployment, DJ Smith and G Chambers, Policy Studies Institute, 1987

(3) Report shows progress of Catholics in workplace, Irish Times, 22 August 2001

(4) See Material conflicts: parades and visual displays in Northern Ireland, by Neil Jarman, Chapter 6: The Endless Parade

(5) Annual Report, Parades Commission, 2000

(6) See The great parades debate, by Brendan O’Neill

(7) See Northern Ireland: Trimbling at the brink?, by Brendan O’Neill

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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