Sectarianism and Racism Must be Defeated

The establishment of the Tomás MacGiolla Centre for Citizenship and Reconciliation will help the direct confrontation of the related problems of sectarianism and racism, writes Seán Garland. 

Sectarianism and its near relations racism and xenophobic nationalism, are menaces princi­pally because they poison relations between members of different traditions; stultify the creation of a decent society for all citizens; and lend spurious justification to odious practices, including murder. 

In identifying these menaces the ambition is not to obliterate cul­tural differences between citizens. Cultural plurality is an undeni­able feature of human experience, love of one’s culture is an entirely appropriate emotion. The prob­lem arises when this love takes extravagant and exclusive forms, which deny our common humanity and work against the possibility of members of the same society shar­ing a common citizenship. 

Sectarianism and racism involve intolerant attitudes and actions that exaggerate and exploit our differences. It creates antagonistic divisions in its extreme preoccupa­tion with its own religious/cultural political interests and sense of superiority. 

Citizenship is the political cate­gory that provides the best antidote to sectarianism and racism. 

Thinking of ourselves as free and equal citizens enables us to ap­preciate what we share in common despite our differences. It encour­ages us to cooperate for the sake of creating and sustaining a society we can all share and participate in. Its inclinations are inclusive rather than exclusive; it fosters respect of difference; and it emphasizes our mutual indebtedness. 

Unfortunately in Northern Ireland there has not been enough done to supplement the insti­tutional and structural changes introduced through the auspices of the Good Friday Agreement to bring about the transformation of sectarian attitudes. An unhelpful tendency has developed that at­tempts to reify traditional sectari­anism as “culture.” 

The point is if sectarianism is culture then it is a malign culture: one whose beliefs, attitudes and practices must be scrutinised and challenged. 

There are practical steps that can be immediately undertaken to op­pose sectarianism and racism in the name of citizenship. These include speaking out against sectarian attacks and practices, conducting an advertis­ing campaign to promote civic values, advocating the benefits of dialogue, supporting all positive initiatives in the workplace, in trade unions, in sporting organisations and so on. 

In order to aid these efforts to create an inclusive concept of citizenship in Ireland, and honour a man who dedicat­ed his life to confronting sectarianism, I’m pleased to support the establishment of the Tomás MacGiolla Centre for Citi­zenship and Reconciliation. 

Key to this new body’s objectives will be the cultivation of common ground among citizens and the encour­agement of respect of cultural, religious and political difference. 

In order to achieve this a number of strategies will be adopted including the development of programmes of public education, the facilitation of intercultural dialogue and the hosting of conferences which will seek to promote transnational debate on problems of citizenship and reconciliation in divided societies. 

Tomás MacGiolla Centre for Citizen­ship and Reconciliation

Chairman: Rev Chris Hudson MBE Secretary: Ultán Gillen

Keep updated on the Tomás MacGio­lla Centre for Citizenship and Reconcili­ation at

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