A new report by researchers at the University of Ulster recommends the setting up of a new Stormont department to tackle sectarianism in society. Divisions remain prevalent, even among younger generations.

The killing of Lyra McKee in the Creggan area of Derry gave a glimpse of the potential for a return to open sectarian conflict of the kind that marked the Troubles. Lyra was a self-described “ceasefire baby” – a member of a generation who remembered only the relative peace since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. As a campaigner for LGBTQ+ equality and equal marriage, Lyra represented the progressive change that an overwhelming majority in Northern Ireland want to see. Her murder elicited mass outrage, including from the community in Creggan and from young people on both sides of the divide, with a determination that there is to be no going back to violence in the streets and paramilitary control within communities. Yet at the same time, this young generation is more alienated from their peers on “the other side” even than the preceding generation, and old prejudices can be inherited and renewed.

“We were the Good Friday Agreement generation, destined to never witness the horrors of war but to reap the spoils of peace. The spoils just never seemed to reach us.”

Lyra Mckee

The call for a new government body can reflect a well-meaning attempt to overcome community divisions and preempt a return to violence. However. without identifying and addressing the factors that create the conditions for sectarianism, there’s a very concrete limit to how much change such an initiative can achieve. Aside from rivalries between the main parties, who rely upon sectarian division to maintain their support, the lack of jobs, affordable housing and accessible services created by austerity and ‘free market’ policies can often become framed in terms of sectarianism in our divided society. In short, the terms imposed by the capitalist system are at root of sectarianism as a wound that has never healed.

Building a real alternative

The need for an independent force representing working people that can take up issues of sectarian division grows more urgent by the day. A truly cross-community alternative could oppose and stop both state repression and the unaccountable paramilitary gangs who claim to defend communities, but who bear responsibility for indefensible killings like that of Lyra McKee.

In a deeply segregated society, where working-class people generally live and are educated separately, workplaces and trade unions are some of the only places where people come together across the sectarian divide. When workers organise to fight for better pay and conditions at work, the ruling pro-capitalist parties will use sectarian divisions in attempts to undermine these struggles, as austerity and privatisation are among the only things that the DUP and Sinn Féin largely agree on. In the course of these struggles, it becomes clear that their success depends on resisting all attempts to divide workers.

Unions have a key role to play in laying the basis for a party for working class people that is genuinely cross-community. In this would lie the path to a real alternative that could stop the turning back of the clock and the drive toward sectarian polarisation.

By Eleanor Crossey Malone