Accusations of sectarianism are as commonplace in Northern Ireland as the phenomenon itself. While it used to be an everyday occurrence for unionist and nationalist extremes to mutually accuse each other of sectarianism over any and every sort of political disagreement, in these post-Chuckle Brothers times such allegations are more often directed towards both sides from the constitutional centre. While this may please the core anti-sectarian voter, it is a tactical error. It is time to retire the S word.
Nobody defends sectarianism. It is a motherhood and apple pie question, to which only one answer is possible. Although the dictionary definition of sectarianism is anodyne – “excessive devotion to a particular sect, especially in religion” according to dictionary.com – it has become so linked in the popular mind with “conflict” and “violence” that to accuse someone of sectarianism smacks of hyperbole, tantamount to an accusation of evil. The common reaction is to scoff, and follow up with a counter-allegation of condescension. And there is some justification to scoff at modern “sectarianism”. Compared to the violence and fiery rhetoric of the recent past, the antics of politicians today are relatively tame.
On the other hand, the accusers have plenty of their own justification. Despite peace, attitudes are still hardened. Security walls in urban areas are growing, not shrinking. Politics is still organised along the same old lines which to many seem to be the very definition of sectarianism. But “sectarianism”, like “apartheid”, is too loaded a term to use for the uneasy peace. “Tribalism” is often heard as an alternative, but has undertones of savagery. The shared-out future needs its own terminology, one that recognises the progress that has been made, while highlighting the distance left to go.
Our divisions are probably best described as communalism: “loyalty to the interests of one’s own ethnic group rather than to society as a whole”. This one term captures the fundamental problems of Northern Ireland – the lack of common purpose, the assumption of unbridgeable difference, the inward-looking defensiveness – while lacking the shrill overstatement of other more commonly used terms. Its unfamiliarity encourages a more thoughtful approach to the issues than hackneyed phraseology could hope to achieve. But most importantly, it is possible to imagine being in favour of communalism, so to accuse someone else of it is a substantial charge, less easy to dismiss as empty rhetoric.
If progressive politicians wish to attack the record of the major parties, particularly on the CSI strategy but also on their limited popular mandates, it is the charge of communalism which will stick.