Reverend Dr Gary Mason facilitated a panel discussion with Jim Gibney (Sinn Féin), Father Gary Donegan and Alex Kane. The title was “Sectarianism”, and is part of a Journey Towards Healing series organised by Niamh Mental Wellbeing.
Dr Mason described his time investigating the nature of sectarianism, as part of a working group, and presented three conclusions:
- One True Church i.e. my church is the only true church, and your chances of salvation is greatly diminished if you do not belong to my church
- Error Has No Right, with origins of St Augustine, was used to suppress heretics and in Ireland, as a justification for the Penal Laws
- Providence, which is God’s will and purpose
Combinations of the above can have particular results. For example, Dr Mason explained, (1) with (2) means that tolerance is not a virtue, but a vice. Likewise, (2) with (3) means that God is on our side, God wants us to suppress others; this is frequently evoked to justify war against others (e.g. “For God and Ulster”). Dr Mason posed a question for the panellists, “How do we deal with sectarianism in our new beginning?”
Father Donegan told his story of him becoming a priest, leading him to work with Father Aiden Troy during the Holy Cross blockage of the local school. “I had never seen raw sectarianism of that nature before,” Father Donegan remarked. He described how he survived on black coffee, bacon buddies, and Cooper’s cough medicine. While that gave him physical sustenance, he was driven by the gospel: “You don’t need leave the monastery to collect critics; I could have stayed in the monastery [and not got involved]. But I love the people of Belfast and the people of Ardoyne … You have to step out and into the road.”
Mr Gibney began by stating that the majority with most responsibility for sectarianism — the British government — is not present tonight. He reviewed how we are a product of a thousand years of history, from decisions made by the English government and that impact upon us: “We are dealing with a massive historical legacy.” For him, the plantation of Ireland in the 17th century “changed the whole situation; it put Protestants in a privileged position”. Partition was also a pivotal moment, with the emergence of two states, the northern one based on discrimination against Catholics, while Mr Gibney acknowledged that Protestants in the southern state “experienced effects”. Yet in sum, it was British government policy that “stunted growth of a natural democracy”. Mr Gibney concluded that for the first time in our long history, this generation has the best opportunity to realise a new beginning, and not to repeat the mistakes of the past.
Alex Kane began with an alternative approach to history, not what-aboutery but that he believed history is very personal, unique to each individual, and that we mustn’t insist on burdening new generations with any particular legacy. He continued with very personal accounts of sectarianism that he experienced, particularly as a teenager and young man. For example, at the age of 14, after an afternoon tea date with a Catholic girl in Armagh, he was physically attacked with a hockey stick by several slightly older teenage boys, who shouted at him, “You’re going out with a Taig — why not one of your own?” “I didn’t know what a ‘Taig’ was.” Subsequently, Mr Kane developed three characteristics that have remained with him:
- An avowed atheist
- Prefers republican democracy over monarchical power (“everyone who has power over you should be able to be removed”)
- Support for power-sharing government (“democracy is more than being in the majority”)
In regards to the last point, this cost him personal friendships. Mr Kane described how after reading an essay in school, outlining the merits of power sharing, in class his best friend responded, “Alex is a Fenian lover and will lose us our country.” They have never spoken to each other since. Mr Kane made reference to the plantation of Ireland, but put it in the wider context of Europe, where the political arena wasn’t political parties but churches: “We are in a really bad place if we are still arguing over religious texts hundreds of years old.” Instead, Mr Kane argued that our division is not on religious grounds but on constitutional grounds. For evidence, he described what he called the “scratch-the-surface” nature of Northern Ireland politics, when you ask any apparently non identity-based party whether they would care if there was a united Ireland tomorrow. “My reality is my citizenship. I’ve never had difficulties listening to others’ views, but no one has persuaded me to change for an alternative option.” For him, the question is not how we cure sectarianism, but whether it is possible to create a political system where both [constitutional allegiances] coincide. In the subsequent Q&A session, I suggested to Mr Kane that the codification of both British and Irish identities in the Good Friday Agreement, by birthright, should be recognised as perpetual. That if there was a united Ireland tomorrow, how would a new Ireland deal with 800,000 British citizens (in contrast to 800,000 ‘re-united’ Protestants)? I also asked what dialogue is there amongst southern Irish about this dimension. Likewise, Linda Ervine asked Mr Gibney whether Sinn Féin would consider a united Ireland that, while fully independent, would have closer institutional links with Great Britain. Mr Gibney replied that any arrangement must be the will of the people, and that his party’s vision is the one option that hasn’t happened in all the constitutional experiments to date.