Subtle Sectarianism

Just one more about this. At the Sectarianism conference, the Moderator raised a question about the way in which sectarianism inhibits open debate between churches. I think she was expressing the hope that we could reach a stage of maturity where churches could take issue with one another without the media and others placing that debate in a sectarian context.

Is it true that the latent and subtle sectarianism of our society hinders open debate? Yes I think it is difficult to debate issues such as faith schools or the social and moral positions set out by the Cardinal. It’s not totally the fault of the churches – just that some element of sectarianism enters in or is imputed to the debate in a way which makes it very difficult to conduct. It’s as if there is always more at stake than the issue itself.

And that in turn takes me back to Northern Ireland – where one of the signs of the presence of sectarianism was the presence of anger or passion which was out of proportion to the significance of the issue itself.


  1. Perhaps I was too negative, Elaine. A few of us in the early sixties (before all the excitement of People’s Democracy) were indeed taking the first tentative steps towards ecumenical activities, but the soil was not particularly fertile. My greatest regret about that time was our collective failure to realise how privileged we were to have in the University some rather exceptional people. Ray Davey was Presbyterian chaplain, and James Mackey was on the academic staff. Nevertheless, people were inhibited by their inherited attitudes from taking advantage of what these towering figures had to offer.

  2. Yes of course that’s so. But my impression is that, apart from an early engagement with Peoples’ Democracy and the early days of the Civil Rights Movement, the student body remained politically uninvolved. In latter days, the DUP and Sinn Fein seemed to garner a radicalised youth vote very successfully. But the middle classes in Northern Ireland – many of whom were formerly students – tended to remain politically uninvolved throughout the troubles.

  3. Did not the mere fact of reading and learning together have some impact? I agree discussion of many issues was avoided, but as a Queen’s student forty years ago, rubbing shoulders with Catholic students, and being taught by some impressive Catholic scholars widened my horizons immeasurably.

  4. Yes always a disappointment that the universities in Northern Ireland never became places where the next generation modelled new ways of relating. And, of course, the universities here in Scotland had/have large numbers of NI’s brightest – many of whom will not go home again. And tolerance tips over into, ‘We’re not going to deal with this’ And if that doesn’t work, there is the tyranny of the strong feelings of others unexpressed, ‘If we begin to talk about this, we won’t be able to control what happens. Some people will become very upset.’ Subtle stuff indeed how sectarianism remains entrenched.

  5. Sad to reflect that this is still the case in NI, nearly fifty years after my time as a student at Queen’s. The University prided itself on being a very tolerant place, but the reality was that people left their prejudices at the door when they entered, and picked them up again when they left. The relative calm within the walls was purchased at the price of sedulously avoiding discussing issues, as it was felt that they were unlikely to be discussed dispassionately.

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