The Roots of Sectarianism in NI

Year published: 2017

Gareth I. Higgins and John D. Brewer

Queen’s University of Belfast

The project funded by the Central Community Relations Unit under the title, ‘The Roots of Sectarianism’, on which we both worked, was a small and modestly funded affair, lasting six months, to examine some of the tap roots to sectarianism in Northern Ireland, specifically to explore the role theology played in social division. Given the small scale of the project, we restricted ourselves to one dimension, the belief that there is a Scriptural basis to anti-Catholicism. This focus was chosen because it forms part of the self-defining identity of certain Protestants and inhibits reconciliation between the two communities by suggesting that divisions are immutable as a result of being upheld by theology.  As sociologists we wanted to explore the social dynamics to this claim and to show how Biblical hermeneutics amongst certain Protestants formed part of a sociological project to develop, sustain and rationalise social inequality.  In this view, Scripture was appropriated to justify social divisions at a particular historical context in Protestant-Catholic relations and can be located sociologically by the socio-economic and political processes that led to theology being used in this way (the results are discussed in Brewer, 1998; Brewer and Higgins, 1999). This research was later augmented by a study of one form of anti-Catholicism, the papal antichrist myth (Higgins, 2000).  We believed that an analysis of the roots of anti-Catholicism could inform public debate about the nature and causes of some features of the Northern Irish conflict, as well as assist in overcoming common sense myths that inhibit reconciliation.