Thursday, October 7, 2021

Declining Post-sectarianism

President Higgins Formally Asks DUP Are They For F***ing Real
 —Headline on the Irish satirical newspaper web site Waterford Whispers News, September 16
Many of us worry about what looks like increasing rates of sectarianism or divisiveness or polarization or whatever you want to call it. It seems like every issue or challenge that arises—the pandemic, extreme weather events, elections—immediately requires people to go to separate corners and politicize the atmosphere.

Is it ironic or inevitable that the division appears to get worse when things are actually going relatively well. To be sure, there are plenty of things to worry about, but many of the things people are anxious about—climate change, economic collapse, failure of democracy—tend to be looming things which, in some cases at least, may not even happen. Many are concerned about racial and economic inequality, but these problems are by no means new and, when viewed from a long historical perspective, actually seem to be on a trajectory, even if much too slow for those concerned, for getting better.

What worries me, among other things, is the polarization. It seems to be a phenomenon that waxes and wanes over history. Paradoxically, major wars—or more specifically, their aftermaths—appear to foster unity. Long-lasting, prosperous peacetime seems to give people time and space to dig into their differences.

A big part of the polarization problem is that it is human nature to readily perceive prejudices in others but not to recognize them in ourselves.

Ireland, a relatively small country, makes for an interesting laboratory for the armchair amateur social scientist. A century ago the island lived through a violent rebellion and war for independence and then a bloody civil war. In the process, the island was partitioned and two communities settled into an uneasy co-existence. Much of the past century was marked by violence from paramilitary groups and from the British military. Thankfully, since1998 there has been a peace agreement. Violence has not been completely eliminated, but it has been vastly reduced. Free trade and travel within the European Union, if not exactly equivalent to reunification, fostered a sense of unity on the island. That progress has been challenged in recent years by a narrow majority of United Kingdom voters deciding to leave the European Union, taking Northern Ireland with it.

Tensions have risen over issues of trade between and among Northern Ireland, the Irish republic and Great Britain—as well as the prospect of the return of some form of border controls. All this has been going on against a backdrop of centenaries for the events that resulted in independence for 26 of 32 Irish counties and the island’s partition.

At the birth of the current century, there was much salutary rhetoric over respecting and celebrating the diverse communities on the island. With the advent of Brexit, however, there has been at least a partial return to the old recriminations back and forth between unionists/Protestants on one side and nationalists/Catholics on the other. To be clear, those labels are generalizations and simplifications. The sectarian division is more accurately described as being between those who bear residual resentment toward the old colonizers and those who identify with the old colonizers. In other words, this is people harking back to their tribal roots and narratives.

The latest flashpoint in the tribal divisions is an inter-denominational service scheduled two weeks from now in the Church of Ireland cathedral in Armagh. Described by the organizers as a “service of reflection and hope,” its purpose is to commemorate the island’s partition on its centenary and, thus, the formation of Northern Ireland. Among the various dignitaries invited were Queen Elizabeth and Ireland’s President Michael D. Higgins. The latter has politely but firmly—and in the face of some criticism, defiantly—declined.

Usually, it is the unionist politicians who come off looking like intransigent dinosaurs, clinging to their fundamentalist religion and traditions in the face of a changing world. This perception really doesn’t do justice to how far the late firebrand Ian Paisley and his Democratic Unionist Party came to make peace with Sinn Féin, the political arm of the insurrectionist Provisional Irish Republican Army.

President Higgins’s decision to rebuff the invitation has been supported by a large majority in the republic. There is no way the president should have to “celebrate” the partition of his country, say his defenders—despite the fact event organizers have been clear it’s not a celebration. Unfortunately, the same logic could be used to justify all manner of intransigence on both sides of the sectarian divide. If both sides had stubbornly and consistently clung to such logic, there would have been no Good Friday Agreement ending the North’s Troubles.

The fact that the president’s position looks perfectly justified and reasonable to most of the republic’s citizens is a useful illustration of how much easier it is to recognize prejudice in others than in oneself.