The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent
Sectarian Stereotypes


Liam O Ruairc • The Vaccuum, June 2003

How different are social stereotypes in Northern Ireland from those existing elsewhere? Are there social stereotypes specific to Northern Ireland? What differentiates social stereotypes in Northern Ireland from other places is their sectarian nature: there are stereotypes for Catholics and Protestants, Nationalists and Unionists, Republicans and Loyalists. In Northern Ireland people are being categorised according to their ethno-national group and are made to fit into some sectarian stereotype. This is not just in Northern Ireland, when people from Belfast are abroad, generally the first thing that they are being asked is whether they are Catholic or Protestant. Sectarian stereotypes are of course not the only kind of social stereotypes that exist in Northern Ireland, but they are the dominant categories of the two communities’ social consciousness and total ideologies. In his book “The Politics of Legitimacy” (1976) the anthropologist Frank Burton was the first to show how sectarian stereotypes were a form of ideological social relations of pervasive importance in daily life in Northern Ireland. It is a practical and necessary social skill to be able to “tell the difference” between Protestants and Catholics if the problems endemic to a sectarian social milieu are to be avoided. Telling the difference is based on the social significance attached to name, area of residence, school attended etc. These elements provide the material for fashioning in an ongoing and narrative manner the theories and stereotypes which each side has of the other.

As ideological representations, stereotypes are based on a mixture of myth and reality. In order to understand sectarian stereotypes, it is necessary to understand their material roots in society. To do otherwise is to fatally underestimate their strength and durability. Sectarianism is a material reality, it is totally mistaken to understand it as being a matter of individual ideas and prejudices. Sectarian stereotypes reveal the materiality of sectarian divisions at all levels in Northern Ireland. Segregated housing, occupational and unemployment distribution, voting alignments, schools, friendship networks and inter marriage rates all testify to the importance of the divisions. Sectarian stereotypes and ideas do not produce a sectarian organisation of society, rather sectarian social realities produce sectarian ideas and stereotypes. People have sectarian stereotypes because they grew up and live in a society which is sectarian in nature. Sectarian stereotypes are ideological constructions which serve to order the experiences of a sectarian social division, they are the “conceptual and cognitive ghetto of Northern Irish ideological social relations” (Frank Burton). They constitute a structuring which reflects the reality of this fundamental social division. Sectarian stereotypes are not just ideas in the head of individuals, they do not “fall from heaven” miraculously, they have an objective basis in reality. This is why all those “peace and reconciliation” programmes are profoundly idealist and conservative in nature, because they are based upon the axiom that it is a matter of “educating”, of removing individual prejudices and stereotypes rather than change sectarian realities. Change your ideas, then reality will change rather than transform reality and then your ideas about it will change.

Apart from their material roots, the main reason for the persistence of sectarian stereotypes has been their effective political and legal institutionalisation. One of the effects of the peace process is that it has effectively transformed the Northern Ireland conflict from a political one over national sovereignty into a cultural squabble over respect for “identities” (Brendan O Neill). Central to the peace process is the idea that Northern Ireland has two distinct communities whose culture and interests are different and who must be constantly policed and kept apart. Far from providing a basis for ending sectarianism, the 1998 Agreement has enshrined sectarian stereotypes in the new political structures it introduced. For example, the now suspended Northern Ireland Assembly institutionalises sectarianism, by demanding that "at their first meeting, members of the Assembly will register a designation of identity - nationalist, Unionist or other - for the purpose of measuring cross-community support in assembly votes" - effectively freezing different identities in law. Those refusing to define themselves in sectarian terms are effectively sidelined, since all key decisions require a majority within both camps. The peace process is not about resolving the conflict but about "celebrating cultural diversity" - not about overcoming the divisions between Catholics and Protestants but about recognising those "cultural differences" and respecting them. By the institutionalisation of "cultural difference" and “identities”, the peace process has reinforced existing sectarian stereotypes. Sectarianism has become the semi-official mechanism through which the different communities are forced to compete for ever-dwindling resources.

The consequences have been bleak. A report issued in 2002 by the Royal Geographical Society found that sectarian divisions have worsened since the peace process began in Northern Ireland. Prompted in part by the Northern Ireland Office’s denials that sectarianism was on the increase, Dr Peter Shirlow of the University of Ulster interviewed 4,800 people in 12 Belfast estates, 6 Catholic and six Protestant. The results are damning. Believing the hype about the peace process many, mostly Catholics, moved house to areas not dominated by their own religious denomination. The Housing Executive report that three thousand moved between 1994 and 1996 but sectarian intimidation forced a reverse movement of 6,000 in the following five years. Two-thirds of the population now live in areas which are either 90% Catholic or 90% Protestant. In predominantly Protestant areas companies have a Catholic workforce of only 5% while in Catholic areas only 8% of the workforce is Protestant. Only one in five people would take a job on the other side of the peace line. 62% in areas separated by a peace line think community relations have got worse. 68% of young people between the ages of 18 and 25 claim never to have had a meaningful conversation with someone from the other religious denomination and 62% say they have been the victim of physical or verbal sectarian abuse since the 1994 IRA ceasefire. If you take away political murders the level of sectarian violence has actually increased. In a survey of 1,800 households last year 88% said they would not enter an area dominated by the other denomination, even by car, and 58% would not use shopping or leisure facilities in areas controlled by the other religion, even if they were better. This report by Shirlow also showed that the standard ‘solutions’ presented by the British government are in reality part of the problem. For example cross-community youth work does more harm than good by allowing young people to identify their perceived enemy. ‘All the kids we spoke to said these programmes were a waste of time and almost all the community workers thought likewise. Of 214 kids who had attacked children of the other religion, 158 said they recognised them from cross-community schemes.’ For all those reasons, sectarian stereotypes are likely to persist for a very long time.




Index: Current Articles + Latest News and Views + Book Reviews + Letters + Archives

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



Intellectual freedom is essential to human society. Freedom of thought is the only guarantee against an infection of people by mass myths, which, in the hands of treacherous hypocrites and demagogues, can be transformed into bloody dictatorships.
- Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov

Index: Current Articles

27 June 2003


Other Articles From This Issue:


Dome of Deceit
Anthony McIntyre


Leave Them Be
Tommy McKearney


Fighting the Censors
Ryan McKinney


Pedro Albizu Campos and Irish Republicanism

Aoife Rivera Serrano


Sectarian Stereotypes
Liam O Ruairc


What Price Pretense?

Eoghan O’Suilleabhain


Pobal na h-Eireann Manifesto
Sean Mac Eochaidh


22 June 2003


Censorship at the Irish Echo
Patrick Farrelly and Eamon Lynch


The Pen Mightier Than the Sword
Mick Hall


The House that Who Built?
Anthony McIntyre


Angrytown News Responds

Jimmy Sands


Pedro Albizu Campos

Aoife Rivera Serrano


Ernesto Guevara
Liam O Ruairc


Motion Passed
Na Fianna Éireann




The Blanket




Latest News & Views
Index: Current Articles
Book Reviews
The Blanket Magazine Winter 2002
Republican Voices