The Blanket

A State In A Sectarian Society

Anthony McIntyre • 25.8.2002

One of the more attractive features of this year’s West Belfast festival was the debate on sectarianism sponsored by Fourthwrite magazine. Unlike some of the other debates or discussions the chances for micromanagement of each word uttered were thankfully non-existent. Those who went along could anticipate a vibrant rather than a ‘tutored’ discussion.

The speakers billed - all hailing from the political left - were Joe Craig of Socialist Democracy, Mark Langhammer, an independent councillor from Newtownabbey, the veteran radical activist Bernadette McAliskey and Tommy McKearney of Fourthwrite.

Despite promises from all the speakers that they would restrict themselves to ten minutes, and although each after Joe Craig undertook to be less wordy than the previous speaker, none of them abided by it. Fortunately, nobody seemed to mind. Each had something interesting to say, so the audience excused them their over-the-limit lapses. A generosity doubtlessly aided by the reciprocation from the chair who allowed plenty of time for questions from the floor.

The debate was surprisingly well attended given that it took place on a hot and humid Friday evening and did not seem to be advertised prominently in a week that pulled luminaries such as Robert Fisk and Jeremy Hardy to West Belfast. Nevertheless, the size of the audience showed that speakers from our own society addressing issues central to it can still capture the public imagination.

Chaired by Patricia Campbell of Fourthwrite, the first speaker of the evening was Joe Craig. He felt that sectarianism was on the increase; that in fact it had become so all-pervasive that we were not even aware of it taking place. He berated the Loyalist Commission and its no first strike call, asking was ‘a second strike okay’ and was the Commission merely trying to legitimise such a strike when it did occur? Somehow I felt, in his formalism, he had missed the point. He went on to reject the notion of culture as automatically achieving legitimacy, believing that people label their activities ‘cultural’ and then think that what follows from that culture should be beyond criticism. In the world view of Joe Craig sectarianism seeped through institutions such as the church; it was also at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement. The latter in particular came in for extended criticism on the grounds that it had released hundreds of loyalist sectarian killers.

On a night in which we were invited to listen to a polemic against sectarianism it seemed ironic, but characteristic of the Left, that Joe Craig should make a case for sectarianism by being critical of any tendency that might think loyalism ought to be critically engaged. For him loyalism was part of the problem and could not, therefore, be part of the solution.

Joe Craig’s contribution was made all the more focussed by his background - he is a Protestant socialist who initially lived on the Shankill Road. It requires no small measure of courage to make the break as he has so clearly done. And there were few surprises when his proffered alternative to sectarianism was to reject the notion of there being only two traditions and to work to develop a third - socialism.

Joe was followed by Bernadette McAliskey who wasted no time in rapidly firing from the hip as she set about ridiculing the narrow minded sectarianism of the ‘infinitesimally small Left‘. It was not what the floor had anticipated but they loved it all the same. It was vintage Bernadette - sharp, lucid, proudly awkward and very persuasive. She drew comparisons between the Left in Ireland and scenes from The Life Of Brian to the merriment of the audience. She disputed that sectarianism was on the increase, asserting instead that it was deeply ingrained within us all and like the herpes virus would erupt from time to time. Sectarianism was not something ‘they do’ nor is it manifested in the violent acts of ‘others’. It is deep within ourselves. She dissented from Joe Craig’s notion about culture, arguing that orangeism was a culture ‘not with a lot to recommend it but a culture nonetheless’, illustrating her point through reference to nazism which was also a culture, albeit it a very repellent one.

Mark Langhammer, who spoke next, was arguably the most interesting speaker of the night. As eloquent and talented as the others, the rarity of his presence at such events made his views all the more tantalising. He surprised his listeners by claiming that he shared the view of Charlie Haughey that Northern Ireland was ‘a failed political entity,’ adding ‘were he alive, I believe Sir Edward Carson would hold that view too.’ He felt that the Good Friday Agreement was a poor outcome of the peace process. It had ‘frozen politics and stimulated communal antagonisms.’ The centre piece of the Agreement was Stormont where 108 Assembly members equated to 4000 MPs at Westminster - even more staff than George Bush. It all sounded as if the big house on the hill was wrapped in a brown envelope where goodies for those within its walls rather than services for those outside determined its functioning and set its agenda.

With this crew of over-paid and under-talented place-seekers determined to maintain their privilege by - even unconsciously -keeping their respective constituencies perpetually suspicious of their opponents on the other side of the segregation line, there was now less space for centre ground or left wing politics than at any time in living memory. Stripped of anything other than one-upmanship against the other side, ‘breeding’ now forms the substance of politics. Agreeing with Joe Craig, he contended that sectarianism is on the increase. He pointed to the expansion in the number of interface areas where the marking out of territory has become akin to ‘dog leg activity.’ There is now more ‘engineered confrontation‘. He described the findings of the research by the academic Pete Shirlow as ‘frightening‘. The latter concluded that society was now more divided than ever. Elaborating on this Mark Langhammer charged the Good Friday Agreement with ‘creating an infrastructure of intolerance‘. As this continues to grow he feared that the PUP was in danger of reverting to type and failing to adequately confront the more sectarian chords that were strummed with increasing stridency within its constituency. Although he qualified this to some extent by arguing that the PUP ‘had been stripped of political cover by Trimble, who had been unpicking the Agreement from the day and hour he signed it’.

Perhaps his most interesting observations were reserved for the UDA. He disputed earlier claims by the Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams that the UDA was in the process of gravitating towards control being exercised by a supreme commander. Postulating that the organisation was ‘an unsophisticated apolitical body’ and was driven by local dynamics - for the most part shaped by a struggle of who is to rule the areas - he extended this reasoning to conclude that such a structural factor acted as a bulwark against the formation of a cohesive and centrally directed movement. He subsequently feels the problem posed by the UDA could be cleaned up very quickly if the political will was there.

Referring to the earlier political documents of Glen Barr and Harry Chicken and a later one by John McMichael, he claimed that these were things that were never read, discussed or debated within the UDA itself. People like Davy Adams and Gary McMichael who had some political nous had ‘been hung out to dry‘. The organisation lacked sophistication and most of its members ‘probably voted the DUP.’

The tightening of the UDA grip was linked to three other developments. The social cement in Protestant communities was traditionally provided by the churches. But their urban presence and influence have been on the wane. Whereas in previous years the trade union movement in Protestant communities ensured that there was always experience around on the ground in terms of negotiating skills, it too had diminished to a point where the vacuum is an open invitation to brawn rather brain.

On top of these two elements Trimble, according to Mark Langhammer is refusing to take responsibility for his backwoodsmen, gives no leadership and is in part responsible for the directionless afflicting working class loyalist communities.

These three factors have combined to allow an apolitical UDA to acquire a prominence, but it lacks any of the political savvy of its forbearers of 30 years ago and has degenerated considerably since then.

The proposed way forward is through the application of normal party politics north and south. Fine Gael would have little problem working with the unionists and Martin Mansergh was said to be working on setting up Fianna Fail in Derry as a pilot project for the North in general. Ultimately Mark Langhammer concluded that sectarianism would be eroded by the application of strong state power whereby people would be dragged into the processes of government and away from the tribe that they presently belong to.

Tommy McKearney in his presentation argued that sectarianism was not a genetic ailment. Nor was it a theological dispute. It had been carefully nurtured and put in place by the ‘ruling order in the interests of power.’ He drew on the experience of the Southern states in America where in the interests of control issues were manufactured within the power centre for the explicit purpose of maintaining a divide between black and white working class people. Although sectarianism was ‘managed from the top down’ many at grassroots level are content to benefit from ‘passive sectarianism‘. Consequently ‘we are all vulnerable to sectarianism’. Tommy McKearney warned that it was imperative that ‘we eject the smug notion that because we are nationalists, republicans or socialists that we are somehow immune to sectarianism’. He dismissed the plague on both houses thinking at the heart of liberalism which sees sectarianism as ‘six of one and half a dozen of the other‘ finding in it a self assured evasiveness resulting in an abysmal abdication of responsibility for tackling the problem. And in a statement consistent with the sentiment of the evening he raised no hackles when praising North Belfast DUP MP Nigel Dodds for the gesture of sympathy he made to the family of Gerard Lawlor recently murdered by loyalists. In summing up, Tommy McKearney stressed the need to avoid the temptation of handing responsibility over to armed secret groups. ‘Answers are not to be found in gurus or Vaticans.’

The audience participation was very lively with a wide variety of questions coming from the floor. But the whole debate was devoid of any notion that sectarianism, rather than being something that was merely manipulated from the top down, is in fact a powerful discursive formation which was generated from below by a combination of mutually reinforcing micro power points. In this Foucauldian sense it is therefore “essentially contingent, localised and context-specific“. Subsequently this makes it all the more entrenched and not susceptible to the dubious curative powers of any one panacea. In fact such panaceas may nourish its resistance thus making it even more ineradicable.

One woman from a North Belfast interface whose home had been attacked on numerous occasions asked the speakers for answers, not theorising. The responses showed the difficulties that confront the Left in an environment like that of the North of Ireland today. The Left is regrettably exposed when it comes to offering short term solutions, opting instead to take the longer view. And this makes little impact on people who want answers that apply to the ‘here and now’. With the Left unable to plug the gap the space is created for the quick fix sectarian approach which only seems to feed into the problem rather than obviating it; living with it rather than confronting it. Perhaps it is futile to hope for more in a region seemingly communally immune to the more overarching projects of the Left.

Unfortunately I came away thinking that try as they did the speakers gave us an insight into the depth of the problem but not much really in terms of what to do about eradicating it. They are certainly not the first which this can be said of. The ‘socialism’ of Joe Craig sounded little other than a rhetorical aid with which to sidestep any real answer. Mark Langhammer’s view that the application of state power would lead to its erosion seemed not to deal with state power as a structural ensemble, indicating instead that if only the will was there the problem would be tackled. Yet state power, whatever else may constitute it, is very much shaped by and bears the stamp of the sectarian society we live in. Bernadette McAliskey and Tommy McKearney avoided offering any easy answers and perhaps they were most sagacious in doing just that. Their reminder that sectarianism was deeply embedded in us all was the one sobering thought to leave the hall with. Better that we walked home along the Falls Road looking uncomfortably within ourselves for sectarianism rather than gazing across the segregation wall to the Shankill for the easy answer.








Index: Current Articles + Latest News and Views + Book Reviews + Letters + Archives





If they give you ruled paper, write the other way..
- Juan Ramon Jimenez

Index: Current Articles

30 August 2002


Other Articles From This Issue:


Four Women Political Prisoners Die On Hunger Strike
Mags Glennon


A State In A Sectarian Society
Anthony McIntyre


Derry Homily
Brian Mór


The Violence of Curfew
Sam Bahour


Colombian Solidarity
Sean Smyth


The Oldest Profession
Eoghan O’Suilleabhain


25 August 2002


Compassionate Parole
Marian Price


Culture of Hate?
Billy Mitchell


An Agenda Less Hidden
Davy Carlin


The Rioting Police
Anthony McIntyre


Still Life of Sorts
Brian Mór


No Surrender!
Brian Mór


Not An Inch!
Brian Mór


The Adventures of Super Stake Knife
Brian Mór




The Blanket




Latest News & Views
Index: Current Articles
Book Reviews
The Blanket Magazine Winter 2002
Republican Voices