timing and her giving offence to nigh on one million
non-jackbooted Northern Protestants ensured that
the issue President McAleese was trying to raise
was immediately swamped by a chorus of raised voices.
typical Northern fashion, all the usual suspects
jumped to attack or dutifully defend, so it became
just another "us and them" argy-bargy.
Hardly Mary's finest hour.
aside the insult, her mentioning ancient Northern
Catholic grievances in the same week, never mind
virtually the same breath, as Holocaust Memorial
Day was, to say the least, stretching things a bit.
experience of Catholics in Northern Ireland is as
closely related to the plight of the Jews under
Nazism (or, for that matter, black South Africans
under apartheid) as toothache is to decapitation.
So an opportunity to begin a rational and much-needed
discussion around the obscenity of inculcating young
children with hatred was missed.
skilfully sidestepped, more like, by a people well
practised in avoiding a harsh truth when it applies
to them. A fulsome, if belated, presidential apology
barely caused the combatants to draw breath. Instead,
they moved effortlessly on to another circular discussion
around whether or not only one side teaches their
children to hate; one side more than the other;
or if both are equally guilty.
notion of actually tackling the problem didn't get
a look-in. That most children in Northern Ireland
have, from an early age, already developed a deep
antipathy to "the other side" is beyond
question. Recognising that and then agreeing, collectively
and genuinely, that it must be tackled, should be
our first step. We should dispense, as well, with
the many well-worn devices we use to avoid responsibility
or downplay the problem. Trying to heap all or most
of the blame on one side or the other is an arrogant
evasion that only perpetuates the problem.
while a discussion about whether Catholics are politically
sectarian and Protestants religiously so might prove
interesting at a head-scratching academic level,
it hardly matters in a society where religious conviction
virtually dictates political allegiance.
the same reason, the nonsense of describing communities
as unionist or nationalist instead of Protestant
or Catholic when we want to insult them is mere
word play that fools no one.
education has its supporters, myself amongst them,
but any suggestion that it might cure all ills is
either touchingly naïve or indicates a lack
of ideas. Besides, is teaching our children not
to hate one another yet another parental duty we
should be trying to offload on to already overwrought
school teachers? According to a recent survey, children
as young as three display sectarian awareness, so
the major damage is already done before a child
gets to try on its first school uniform. From the
beginning, attitudes in the home are soaked up by
children and, whether positive or negative, automatically
adopted as their own.
neither is anti-sectarianism merely a passive thing:
a case of parents watching what they say in front
of the kids. Parents have to compete actively, not
only with negative influences from outside the home,
but also with a child's natural inclinations.
the worst possible sense, it's an all-too-natural
part of the human condition to identify, be wary
of and even attack difference. If you doubt what
I say, think on this: how many children have to
be taught to bully, be greedy, jealous, violent,
or take things that don't belong to them? None:
all of that comes quite naturally.
are natural traits that most individuals, through
good parenting and societal restraints, learn to
move beyond. What we do, by example and discipline,
is spend our time trying to teach children not to
blindly follow their natural inclinations. It follows
then, that battling the poison of sectarianism must
be a proactive, ongoing thing that should begin
in the home and continue there.
course, any measure of success depends on the parents
themselves being anti-sectarian and determined to
raise their children to be the same. Not something
we can rely on in Northern Ireland. That is where
wider society, with a particular onus on those in
positions of authority and influence, must play
should no longer be any degree of tolerance for
sectarianism. No more turning a blind eye or a deaf
ear; no more smiling and shaking the head with an
indulgent "we all know what he's like".
Be it parson, priest, politician or pauper - and
irrespective of how "vital" any individual
might be to the peace process - if they transgress
they should be arrested, charged with incitement
to hatred, and, if found guilty, subject to a heavy
against all odds and over a relatively short period,
we have managed to make homophobic and racist attitudes
no longer socially acceptable. With a similar determined
and collective effort, there is no reason why we
couldn't do the same with sectarianism. Like the
homophobes and racists, we should relegate the religious
bigots to the margins of society: not continue affording
them centre stage.
with permission of the author.