Derry & Strabane Council unanimously back anti-sectarian policy aimed at tackling intolerance, bigotry and fear

Derry & Strabane representatives from all sides have backed implementing a new anti-sectarian policy aimed at tackling intolerance, bigotry and fear.

Sinn Fein Councillor Conor Heaney.
Sinn Fein Councillor Conor Heaney.

Councillors have spoken of horrific incidents of sectarian abuse perpetrated locally and the need to tackle recurring issues head on to eradicate the threat of tensions and hatred spilling over into violence.

The new policy wass proposed in a motion brought to full council by Sinn Féin Councillor Conor Heaney, who said: “As long as we fail to successfully address sectarianism and division, then intolerance, bigotry and fear will continue. The potential for instability and conflict will be ever present.”

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The Foyleside Councillor added: “Sinn Fein calls for an agreement on a new legal definition of sectarianism which is entrenched in law with the legal force of legal sanctions against actions which are motivated by sectarianism including robust incitement to hatred divisions. Mutual respect for all traditions must be a benchmark for progress towards a shared society.”

Statistics from the PSNI show that there were 247 sectarian incidents and 192 sectarian crimes catalogued in Derry & Strabane over the two years to June 2020.

Various Councillors spoke of the scourge of sectarian hatred, as manifested by flags being tossed onto bonfires and in one incident football fans spitting on a two year old child in a Rangers top, as they warned that mindsets must change.

Aontú Colr. Emmet Doyle however said political parties have been part of the problem. “Come election time this place turns into a madhouse, rampant on sectarianism.

“This is the only place where you will find people of the same denomination stepping aside for one another in order to win seats at elections,” he said. 

Supporting the motion, SDLP Councillor Brian Tierney described the motion as a ‘no brainer’.

“We will see sectarianism rear its ugly head in this City over the next number of weeks and we have seen it rear its ugly head right across the north over the last couple of months,” he said. “I don’t understand, and I have tried to comprehend, what someone gets from burning the Irish tricolour or the Union Jack on a bonfire. I also don’t understand why anyone would want to hang a Parachute Regiment flag on the roads into our City whenever that has an untold effect on many, many families across this City and District.”

Colr. Tierney said addressing sectarianism needed to start with children.

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Adding an amendment which addressed poverty and inequality, People Before Profit Colr. Shaun Harkin welcomed ‘any initiative that challenges sectarianism’ adding: “We are told every day in society that the biggest division in society is unionist versus nationalist. We as socialists believe the biggest division is between the elite and the vast majority of working class people. Since the foundation of this State, sectarianism and sectarian segregation has been used to maintain social injustice and inequality.”

Independent Colr. Gary Donnelly said: “Sectarianism doesn’t just appear, sectarianism is used to divide and conquer to have people at each other’s throats. The problem I have is that the system in the Six Counties is sectarian.”

DUP Alderman Maurice Devenney said: “Sectarianism is rife in this city. I think the worst sectarian abuse I heard was from a woman who came to me a year ago. She was in a shopping centre with her two-year-old baby in the pram wearing a Rangers top and two adults wearing Celtic tops spat at the child in the pram, now that is sectarianism and it’s wrong.”

UUP Alderman Darren Guy described sectarianism as ‘a major blight’. “One side claims the other to be sectarian, hate filled and bigoted and we have all been guilty at some stage. Mindsets must be changed because sectarianism is an awful thing which just divides.”

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Summing up, Colr. Heaney added: “We will be the first council to directly focus on this issue and I would like to see other councils follow the lead of Derry and Strabane District Council.”

By Gillian Anderson

Local Democracy Reporter