Colum Eastwood, Leader of the SDLP, said at the start of his tenure that a “United Ireland” is “still the best idea we have“.
This was a peculiar comment. Northern Ireland is, as a matter of fact, divided along sectarian lines – choices in education, leisure and of course politics are defined by these. Yet those who believe that a “United Ireland” is “the best idea we have” are found almost exclusively on one side of that fault line, among those of broadly Catholic community (and religious and educational) background.
The fact remains, despite many efforts, that 85% of voters choose a party specifically associated with one or other side (by definition, “sectarian”); 90% are educated in schools whose pupils are 90%+ from one side or another (“sectarian”); entire communities in sport and music also grow up more often than not on one side (“sectarian”).
One area where there has been a major breakthrough since the start of the Troubles is the workplace. These too were often typically of one side or the other. It is within living memory that large company workplaces were bedecked in flags, stating clearly which “side” they belonged to. Into this century a specific Catholic unemployment rate was announced every month. Both would now be unthinkable.
The solution to the workplace issue was in effect to enforce pro-activity to tackle sectarian exclusion. Large employers who are found to be recruiting exclusively or almost exclusively from one side were and are asked to explain what they are doing to address this and to ensure that opportunities are open to as wide a range of people of all different backgrounds (from all sides) as possible. We have all seen the adverts – “X community is underrepresented so applications are particularly welcome” – although that is only one aspect. Sometimes much more specific action was seen to be required, most obviously with the police, whose 93% Protestant background workforce was evened up by 50/50 recruitment. This was of course strongly supported by Nationalists, which brings us back to the SDLP.
The SDLP was founded as an avowedly anti-sectarian party predominantly to unite workers and other promoters of civil rights. Yet its modern face is astonishingly one-sided. It is surely the case that the party’s elected representatives, officers and so on now come almost exclusively (more than 93%) from one side. Whatever their intentions, it is thus inevitable that the party will do things (canvass outside mass) or say things (“the north”) which also appeal exclusively to one side or alienate another side. They might even make a comment about “the best idea we have” without even the slightest notion that it is really only that to people who grow up with the national identity of one side, and absolutely not to the other.
This brings us to what really should be an unbelievably obvious point. People who grow up in Northern Ireland into a family with a broadly Irish identity (who will still, sadly, in 85%+ of cases attend a church, go to a school and vote for a party based on that) will tend towards the nationalist “best idea we have” side because that is what they grew up with. Those who grew up in a family with a broadly British identity, on the other hand, will attend a different church, go to a different school, and vote for a different party while tending towards strong support for maintaining the UK (thus for the unionist side) because that is what they grew up with. Selecting Nationalist or Unionist is the same as selecting Irish or British, or for that matter French, Australian or Thai – you are born into it and it is what you grow up with.
Thus the very notion of what is the “best idea we have” depends not on objective analysis or rational thought, but on preferences we were born into and experienced during our cultural upbringing. We are almost all, therefore, born into a side – in other words, born sectarian.
Then get this: pointing out that we live in a sectarian society with sides is not in itself an act of sectarianism; indeed, it is in fact the first act in tackling sectarianism. Ignoring it and pretending it is not there is only likely to make matters worse, as it gives us no basis even for recognising our different upbringings and the likely misunderstandings they will cause. We have to recognise it, honestly and openly, before we can overcome it.
For what it is worth, that is the fundamental difference between the SDLP and Alliance in 2017. The SDLP wants to pretend we can get rid of sectarianism by ignoring it as if it does not exist, and thus continues to retreat on to one side of the fence. The Alliance Party tries instead to recognise the problem and be proactive in addressing it – necessarily through compromise.
Actually recognising the problem and calling it out is not, of course, the generally popular option – after all, who wants to admit they have a problem? It is much more tempting just to pretend it is not there. But if we are to take Northern Ireland and, for that matter, all of Ireland forward, we are going to have to do some of this tough stuff.
It can be done – after all, the guy who said “We do these things not because they are easy but because they are hard” was elected! Let us hope a few more prepared to go the hard route are elected on 8 June.