Hamill’s Beat - Elections are always sectarian headcounts

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One of Derry’s top trade unionists has asked voters to concentrate on bread and butter issues in the coming election. Liam Gallagher, secretary of Derry Trades Council wants to avoid a “sectarian headcount”.

It’s a good call. The prominent trade unionist is right to make it and I couldn’t agree with him more but we all know it won’t happen. Every election in the North of Ireland is a sectarian headcount. We ought to be ashamed of that but it’s been the case since Gladstone first proposed home rule. We should be embarrassed about it and conscience-stricken for allowing it to continue for so long.

It’s particularly regrettable that religion remains linked with politics. Social and economic issues count for relatively little. So much for separation of church and state in our minds!

Fair enough we also vote according to notions about our national identity. At least that’s a little more sophisticated than voting according to our religion. It probably means we’re tribal as well as sectarian. But the greater scandal is the part religion continues to play in keeping us so far apart.

We’re the victims of past generations. After “The Liberator” Daniel O’Connell achieved Catholic Emancipation in 1829 Protestants began to feel more and more threatened by their Catholic countrymen’s growing power. This fear gradually put paid to earlier notions radical Presbyterians had about being United Irishmen. By the turn of the century an overwhelming majority of Protestants were unionists.

They feared home rule would be “Rome rule”. And so the tragedy of partition befell us. The North got its “Protestant parliament for a Protestant people” and the south got its theocratic constitution. Along with the famine these were the great tragedies of modern Ireland. Both states then developed in an unhealthy way. Without partition Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants would have come to much more respectful terms with each other.

This column is intensely critical of politicians who exploit sectarianism for their own selfish ends. It’s a tactic particularly favoured by unionists. But we shouldn’t forget the failure of many church leaders to speak out against it either.

‘Smugly comfortable’

With some honourable exceptions many church leaders have been cowardly, preferring not to risk offending their hard line parishioners. Many are smugly comfortable with, “you in your small corner and I in mine”.

God was a Free Presbyterian, firmly behind the Reverend Ian Paisley in his early days. Wasn’t he? Was God for or against the civil rights movement? Or is he a Catholic? Of course, we don’t know. But ‘not-knowing’, didn’t stop some religious ‘leaders’ from claiming they did know. “Religious sectarianism rears its ugly head when we absolutise our particular interpretation of the meaning and application of the gospel as the only one true valid one and worship the dogmas and doctrines which we have formulated, instead of worshiping the one God and Father of us all”.

That’s how former Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, Victor Griffin puts it in his book, “Enough religion to make us hate”.

“Such absolutism, which has caused so much misery, hatred and bloodshed, brings all religion into disrepute – a God of love no longer universal and global but tribal and sectarian,” says the Dean.

But as if religious absolutism weren’t bad enough it’s when we use it to determine how the state should be run that things get nasty. Cromwell, for instance, believed he was doing the will of God by annihilating his opponents. Ok so Cromwell was here in the 17th century and we’ve moved on since then. Or have we?

If we had really moved on wouldn’t the link between religion and politics have disappeared long ago?

The church we go to, or don’t go to should have nothing to do with our national identity or with how we vote in an election.

Our next sectarian headcount will be in May. The result will be ‘inaccurate’ by at least one.

Read more Hamill’s Beat in the Journal every Tuesday