Patrick Murphy: Religious sectarianism largely ended with the Good Friday Agreement – which replaced it with political sectarianism

Patrick Murphy

Patrick Murphy

Patrick Murphy is an Irish News columnist and former director of Belfast Institute for Further and Higher Education.

AS our politicians continue to wrestle in the sectarian mud and our waiting lists for health and housing grow longer, you may have noticed how the language of that wrestling has changed.

There was a time when sectarianism was presented in terms of religion, or what passed for religion. For example, Ian Paisley Snr said on the death of Pope John XXIII that “The Romish man of sin is now in hell”, and he later denounced John Paul II in the European Parliament as the anti-Christ.

What we might call religious sectarianism originated from taking sides in the Protestant Reformation from 1517 onwards, following Martin Luther’s disagreement with the Church’s behaviour and beliefs.

The language of those days has now largely gone, probably because organised religion has significantly declined. In its place we have developed new reasons for arguing with the other side.

Welcome to the changing face of sectarianism.

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Religious sectarianism continued during the Troubles. The Kingsmills massacre, for example, was based specifically on killing workmen who were Protestants. The main Church leaders (those who best understood theology) pleaded for peace, in the middle of what was supposedly a theological dispute.

Religious sectarianism largely ended with the Good Friday Agreement, which replaced it with political sectarianism. Gone were the theological differences over transubstantiation, stained-glass windows and statues.

Now we were two different nations. Sectarianism became secular. The Good Friday Reformation made flags our new dogma and the political sectarianism on which Stormont was built explains why it has never worked.

Martin Luther may not have mentioned flags, but we soon made up for his omission.

Martin Luther was the seminal figure in the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century
Martin Luther was the seminal figure in the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century

Secular sectarianism lasted until Brexit. It was eclipsed, but not totally replaced, by economic sectarianism, which uses selective economic data to support or discredit the case for a united Ireland.

Traditionally the case for Irish unity was based on Wolfe Tone’s concept of uniting us as a single Irish nation, later supported by the 1916 Proclamation. By abandoning those teachings in the Good Friday Agreement, Sinn Féin had to switch to economics, arguing that a single island should not have two states (except, they say, in Britain, which should have three following independence for Wales and Scotland).

Referring to Britain, Jeffrey Donaldson recently said that people here “will continue to vote to remain part of the sixth largest economy in the world”. Nationalists argue (rightly) that the British economy is a basket case and (wrongly) that it is the result of Brexit.

Britain’s economic woes were caused by Margaret Thatcher’s destruction of manufacturing industry. (The IRA failed to recognise that Thatcher was not the enemy. Thatcherism was. They picked the wrong target, as evidenced by SF ministers in Stormont subsequently implementing Thatcherite policies.)

In rejecting union with Britain’s economy, nationalists argue for unity with the EU’s, not recognising that it too is in trouble. According to the International Monetary Fund, Germany, the EU’s biggest economy, is the only developed economy which will not grow this year. Ending Russian gas supplies has made Germany’s biggest industries unproductive.

The German government recently had to pledge €10 billion to attract US microchip manufacturer Intel to Magdeburg. That’s where Martin Luther went to school. Now Irish Catholics rather than Irish Protestants pledge loyalty to the likes of Magdeburg. Changed times.

Modern sectarianism has evolved into an argument over German capitalism versus British capitalism. We are back to the start of World War I.

The irony in our sectarianism is that nationalist support for the EU and unionist support for the UK have the same end product. Both the EU and the UK strongly support Israel in the current conflict and our petty Irish divisions have become meaningless on the world stage.

So sectarianism is not what it used to be. Its language has changed, but as health and housing waiting lists continue to grow, it is as futile as ever.

We must be the only people in the world who take comfort in futility – by voting for it at every election.