In 1971, the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Reggie Maudling talked about “an acceptable level of violence”. Fifty years later we are wallowing in what could be justifiably described as ‘an acceptable level of sectarianism’.
Recent events have once again highlighted the depths to which this society has sunk.
We have witnessed young people inanely chanting about and glorifying three decades of murder, sectarianism and terror, that they fortunately did not have to live through, yet more bonfires burning images and symbols designed to heighten community divisions, the grossly insensitive and provocative display of Parachute regiment flags in Derry and, perhaps the most telling of all, the vitriolic, unapologetic and tribal reactions on social media, radio phone in programmes and from elected representatives and commentators.
Offensive and sectarian acts are not only being justified, they are being normalised through a narrative which argues that ‘they do this and we do that – so that’s alright’.
All sorts of cover is offered as justification for the vilest and most divisive behaviour. It is defended as ‘culture’, it is minimalised in an attempt to make it insignificant, it is boasted as a ‘right’. It is shamelessly and brazenly defended without apology or concern. These are the depths to which we have sunk.
Such is the polarisation and division in this society that it now seems impossible to call out one sectarian act without reference to another, often unrelated, incident by way of justification.
The levels of vitriol and invective, particularly on social media, evidences the arrogance, the confidence and the assuredness of the perpetrators, in what amounts to tribal warfare.
Arguably, we have reached what many view as ‘an acceptable level of sectarianism’, as any pretence at uniting the community is swept aside and battle lines are drawn between competing nationalisms, British and Irish.
All the while, the major political parties happily reap what they have sown, retaining their positions of power and privilege at the expense of working-class people including, ironically, those who act out the sectarian script on their behalf.
That this is happening during one of the worst a cost-of-living crisis in recent memory makes it all the more frustrating for those on the political left who seek unity amongst workers, an end to sectarianism and a radical change in the structure of society.
History will not look favourably on our condemnations alone if we do not seek ways to build a bulwark against the tribalism of our times.