Menu Close

‘Sextarianism’ is drawing new battle lines in Northern Ireland

Livid. EPA/Paul McErlane

If you grew up in Northern Ireland during the 1970s and 1980s, sectarianism pervaded every aspect of your everyday life. In fact, such is the pervasiveness of sectarianism that it’s almost been normalised. These days, it’s sometimes not even recognised or regarded as a problem.

In simple terms, sectarianism is the dislike, hatred, and distrust of another religious faction, a bundle of ideas, beliefs and practices including verbal and physical intimidation and violence as well as political, economic and institutional discrimination.

The intent is to reinforce social stereotypes, perpetuate cultural differences and, ultimately to uphold the political and economic inequality between Northern Ireland’s Protestants and Catholics. Put another way, it’s all about securing and exercising political, economic, social and cultural power.

Simmering down?

In symbolic terms, the signing of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and the Belfast Agreement marked the beginning of the end of sectarian violence by mainstream republican and loyalist paramilitaries.

And while sectarianism still looms large in Northern Ireland, statistics from the Police Service of Northern Ireland show an overall downward trend in sectarian incidents and crimes. Meanwhile, recent research by Paula Devine shows that the majority of both Catholics (71%) and Protestants (70%) would prefer to live in a mixed-religion neighbourhood.

Although there is still a long way to go in terms of eradicating sectarianism, these statistics offer a sign of optimism and improvement. But sectarianism’s sideways move on the political agenda has only made space for other social issues in the same hateful part of the spectrum.

Two issues in particular have caught the attention of NI Assembly members and local councillors, especially those from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), in recent years. On the one hand, sexual citizenship – gay rights, abortion and reproductive rights – and on the other, sexual commerce: the sale and consumption of adult goods and sexual services.

The attitudes of individual politicians and political parties, and, more importantly, the policy responses to issues of sexual citizenship and sexual commerce have taken on a deeply conservative and fervently activist bent. Northern Ireland has become a hotbed for what we might term “sextarianism” – a politicised dislike of those whose sexual identities, beliefs and practices are non-heteronormative, “deviant”, or commercialised.

Minorities targeted

Sextarianism revolves around religious and patriarchal ideas, beliefs, practices and policies that stigmatise, physically harm, and criminalise members of sexual minority groups, and deny them their human and labour rights.

Whereas civil and political sectarianism is about various religious and nationalist/republican and unionist/loyalist factions fighting one another, sextarianism sees civil society and politicians from both sides of the old sectarian divide coming together to fight common “enemies”.

An indication of the extent and scale of violent sextarianism can be gleaned from data on “hate motivated” incidents and crimes: year-on-year, the number of recorded homophobic incidents increased by 20% in 2013/14.

And in terms of political sextarianism, there has been considerable controversy, about a local bakery refusing to make a gay-themed cake for an LGBTQ customer. The case over the bakery’s refusal ended up in the High Court.

And while the bakery ultimately lost, related battles are being fought on other fronts.

War of words

Political sextarianism has seen Northern Ireland consumed by a range of sexual rights issues, among them gay adoption, gay marriage and gay blood donation. On these issues, there has been particularly strong opposition from the DUP.

The nationalist political parties, SDLP and Sinn Fein, have expressed some measure of support for gay marriage – but in the recent NI Assembly vote on it, a number of SDLP members “missed” the vote, and as such, the motion failed.

The undercurrent of hostility that greets gay rights periodically comes to the surface. Recent homophobic comments by the then minister for health Jim Wells, who claimed that children were more likely to be abused within same-sex households, resulted in him stepping down.

Sex shops are another bone of contention. Belfast City Council recently ruled that the number of sex shops in the Gresham Street area, where one of the first two sex shops in Northern Ireland opened in the early 1980s, should be zero. The argument was that “the presence of such premises would have an adverse impact upon the current and envisaged character of the area.” This resolution was moved by Tim Attwood, a councillor from the SDLP, a nationalist political party, but seconded by Alderman Guy Spence from the DUP.

Protests by religious groups, mainly the Free Presbyterian Church, were a common feature outside Belfast’s one and only lap dance club, the Movie Star Café, back in the early 2000s. This adult entertainment venue was also vehemently opposed by Belfast City Council, which sought to refuse a renewal of the club’s licence. The lap dance club closed within about a year of opening. There have been no clubs since.

More recently, Marie Stopes, which opened its first abortion advice centre and clinic in Belfast in late 2012, has been the subject of regular protests from both Protestant and Catholic religious groups as well as some women’s groups. The founder of one of the most vociferous pro-life organisations, Bernadette Smyth from Precious Life, was issued with a five-year ban from approaching the Marie Stopes offices after being found guilty of harassing its recently departed director, Dawn Purvis.

Come together

But one of the starkest incidents of political sextarianism was the saga of the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Further Provisions and Support for Victims) Bill by the NI Assembly in late October 2014.

The Bill, due to become law on June 1 2015, will introduce a version of the so-called “Nordic Model”, which criminalises the purchase of sexual services but not the sale of them. It was supported by 81 out of 91 NI Assembly members, spanning the ethno-sectarian divide.

As part of its “research” on different ways to regulate sex work, the NI Justice Committee visited Finland and Sweden to examine their much-ballyhooed models close up. This fact-finding fly-by does not represent a considered inquiry; it was clear at the committee’s hearings that many members had made up their minds in favour of the so-called Nordic model before all the evidence had been tendered.

If the committee were sincere in gathering as much evidence as possible about how best to regulate sex work and ensure the safety and well-being of sex workers, it would have bothered to look beyond the Nordic countries, and would have engaged properly with sex workers and sex worker organisations in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, and the rest of the UK.

The suspicion and harsh questioning that greeted the one and only current sex worker, sex work support organisations and academics researching sex work showed that there was little if any interest in being genuinely analytical of the Nordic model. Conversely, the Catholic and women’s organisations from the Republic of Ireland who gave oral evidence were welcomed with open arms, strange given Unionist politicians’ longstanding distrust of all things Irish.

This shows the sheer power of sextarianism. This sort of political alliance between Protestants and Catholics would have been virtually unimaginable about ten years ago. But since both Catholic and Protestant politicians have both long laid claim to the moral high ground on sex and sexuality, the human trafficking bill created the perfect conditions for a sextarian marriage of convenience – another sign of how nothing heals old wounds like a new enemy.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 133,900 academics and researchers from 4,161 institutions.

Register now