Tackling institutional sectarianism: Revealing truths of Northern Ireland’s education systems
by Malaina YODER for Shared Future News
17 February 2020
In an upper room in Parliament Buildings, representatives from diverse political parties and human rights organisations convened to discuss a new framework for understanding sectarianism in Northern Ireland, as revealed by the research report, Sectarianism: The Key Facts.
The launch event, sponsored by Mike Nesbitt MLA and Colin McGrath MLA, was a call to refocus the conversation around sectarianism from interpersonal to institutional. As PPR representative Seán Brady explained, “The deeper problem is when power is actually interwoven with the inequality of sectarianism, when it actually depends upon the maintenance of it. That’s where we are at present.” In several responses, both major political Northern Ireland political parties were obliquely mentioned as benefitting from ongoing sectarian division.
Sectarianism: The Key Facts was commissioned by the Equality Coalition, with research undertaken by Dr Robbie McVeigh. It is a direct critical response to the 2019 report, Sectarianism in Northern Ireland: A Review, sponsored by the Sir George Quigley Fund. Dr McVeigh felt that report was a regression to the language and attitudes of past generations, and that it held false ideas of Northern Irish exceptionalism and approached equality conversations as ones that ought to be ignored or problematised. The new report sets up a framework in which sectarianism is understood as a specific form of racism; this opens new avenues for discussion around equality, intersectionality, and is inclusive of the ever-growing “other” category, McVeigh argued.
After Patricia McKeown of UNISON, Daniel Holder of CAJ, and Dr McVeigh presented the report, Mike Nesbitt MLA and Colin McGrath MLA both spoke on the need to take the report’s recommendations seriously when creating policy.
“Sectarianism isn’t an abstract concept,” McGrath said. “It’s omnipresent.” He then went on to pledge that sectarianism would be addressed from a policy perspective in order to preserve the rights of citizens.
In a similar vein, Nesbitt stressed the importance of moving away from a binary understanding of Northern Irish identity and toward a more complex, intersectional conversation. He made a call to Unionism to be aware of the changing society and to stop disregarding the importance of human rights.
Also in response, Kat Healy, of the Social Justice Trust, spoke on the intersectionality of identity and class. Specifically, she told of those people from mixed backgrounds whose experiences are disregarded, because on surveys they’re told, “You’re not going to count.” According to Healy, class aligns interests regardless of other identity markers, but the political structure currently incentivises sectarian votes and policy.
Gráinne Ní Ghillín, of An Dream Dearg, spoke on how institutional sectarianism had politicised the Irish language and severely hindered Irish language education and expression. Specifically, she listed events of 2016 and the setbacks experienced.
PPR’s Sean Brady spoke on institutional sectarianism in housing, arguing that the physical design of a gerrymandered city incentivises violence as a political tool. “How long will interfaces dictate policy?” he asked. “How long will threats of violence and violence itself dictate the shaping of public policy? That’s the question we’ll be looking out for in the next 20 years. Or we’ll be looking at more walls, more barriers, more families separated, no integration, and we’ll be having this conversation in 20 years with a new Minister.”
Elaine Crory, of the Belfast Feminist Network and the WRDA, explained the ways in which women bear the effects of sectarianism. She said that it’s not enough to avoid interpersonal sectarianism; she called on citizens to be actively anti-sectarian. However, “in this great and wonderful building,” she said, “there are people sitting on the floor below me who are actively being sectarian. And it’s our duty to call them out and everybody out.”
Similarly, Women’s Sector Lobbyist, Rachel Powell, described the need to view Northern Ireland’s problems in a way that acknowledged the complexity for more than just one or two populations. Specifically, she explained the failure in the national conversation to acknowledge intersectionality for women, though there are many conversations about “working-class Protestant boys” or “working class Catholic boys”. Powell said, “Sectarianism will continue to be rife in Northern Ireland if we don’t seriously look at gender inequality and intersectionality as a whole and put this into all of our policy making.”
The most discussed viewpoint of the afternoon came from Nesbitt, who said this report indicates that Northern Ireland ought to move into a singular education system and remove all four [Ed. six] current systems to create a new “best-in-class” system, in which students are not segregated from one another. This would address sectarianism early and often.
Various members of the panel and attendees disagreed on this, though the majority spoke for their organisations in favor of such an initiative.
Ní Ghillín spoke of the need for education that’s specific to communities. She would hope students would be given a choice, and that various cultures not be asked to “have the edges worn off”. Nesbitt specifically asked Ní Ghillín how she proposed to pay for this, to which she responded that she wasn’t a politician.
Healy, McGeown, and Holden all advocated for a dramatic change toward the type of system Nesbitt referenced. McGeown also stated the need for all teachers within the system to be paid by the state and only by the state.
From the viewpoint of equality as outlined in the report, McVeigh referenced a well-known precedent set in equality studies by the United States court case Brown v Board of Education. In this framework, he said, “separate but equal” is never a system that leads to genuine equality.
Largely, though, the room was unanimous on a human-rights centred approach to tackling institutional sectarianism. The report is available at the Equality Coalition website.