Brick Walls, Sectarianism and Citizenship

Political, social and economic life here has come to an almost complete stop.

Twenty-five years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and its overwhelming endorsement by the vast majority of people on this island we are left facing a brick wall with little, if any, prospect of progress.

The Agreement offered new hope and optimism, but the vicious and deadly battles between British and Irish nationalism, played out on our streets for thirty years, is now being replicated in Stormont and the Assembly, characterised by the all too familiar debasements of negativity, tribal confrontation and, sectarianism.

Perhaps now is the time to review our relationships and seek a way out of the political cul-de-sac we have been forced down by Sinn Fein and the DUP.

More than fifty years ago thousands of people in Northern Ireland took to the streets campaigning for a better, more equitable, society. Their demands were not devalued by issues of cultural identity, community background or tribal loyalties.

Relationships

Perhaps now is the time to review our relationships and seek a way out of the political cul-de-sac we have been forced down by Sinn Fein and the DUP.

If there is no way through the wall then we must go around it. Not as Catholics, or Protestants, not as unionists or nationalists. Not as British, Irish, Northern Irish or any other origin. Those of us who believe that better is possible and who refuse to sit and wallow in the sectarian status quo need a basis, a platform, on which to progress and to move society forward.

The concept of socialist citizenship, based on class politics, working class unity and solidarity, would help to re-define our relationships and responsibilities to each other and to the institutions of government through clear and guaranteed relationships underpinned by a Bill of Rights.

Tribal positions

Of course, there will be those who will not want to avail of such an opportunity. There will be those who will actively oppose it in an attempt to tie the rest of us into their tribal positions. But the choice is there for those of us who want to explore the possibilities offered on the other side of the political brick wall that we have been facing for the last twenty-five years. Citizenship offers a way forward.

Unless we re-calibrate our relationships and understanding of each other we, and our children, will be facing this same brick wall in twenty-five and fifty-years time.

The Sinn Fein / DUP strategy has been to manipulate and manage sectarianism, rather than seeking to eradicate it. The failure to tackle sectarianism therefore has nullified much of the good intent contained within the God Friday Agreement.

Tackling sectarianism

We cannot afford to do nothing and hope that time alone will resolve this issue. Unless, and until, the issue of sectarianism is comprehensively tackled, we will never realise the vision of a new society which leaves behind the out-dated attitudes and prejudices which have been the cause of so much misery and despair.

Those of us who oppose sectarianism must organise as strongly and as stubbornly as those who promote and profit from it. The concept of socialist citizenship gives us that commonality and base camp from which to progress

Socialist citizenship is not a silver bullet. It is not a quick fix panacea.

However, it could form the basis for a constructive, respectful and forward looking society, as an alternative to backward, parochial ethnocentricity. Neither Sinn Fein nor the DUP can hold out that hope

What does this say about citizenship?

With a significant number of people remaining unvaccinated, or refusing to be vaccinated, the risk of increased community infection, hospital admissions and even further fatalities persists.

In the last two weeks there have been over 17,000 positive cases recorded. 60% of Covid patients currently in hospital have not been vaccinated. Twenty-eight people have died in the last seven days and infection rates are now twice as high as they were during June.

Refusal, or reluctance, to get vaccinated against the worst global pandemic in over a century raises serious questions about how we discharge our social responsibility to each other, the value we place on institutions like the NHS and what role, if any, citizenship plays in our society.

Many of those refusing, or reluctant, to take the Covid vaccination rely on spurious claims based largely on social media generated myths and deliberate misinformation to justify their ‘freedom of choice’ arguments. Others fall back on conspiratorial, religious and paranoid beliefs.

What does this say about citizenship and collective responsibility in our society? 

Amongst other things, it says that there is an unashamed culture of “I’ll do as I please and to hell with the consequences.” It says that many people don’t believe they have a responsibility to others, let alone to themselves, and that they are sufficiently emboldened to proclaim that publicly.

It says that the core values of the dominant culture in our society – individualism, selfish disregard and an absence of personal accountability – are now jeopardising the vulnerable, the future health of the population, the resources of the NHS and the possibility of a further wave of infections.

What is welcoming is the fact that the majority of people are and have acted with a real sense of social responsibility in spite of the lead given by many so called political and social elites. Recent months have been littered with examples of well-known people and organisations blatantly flouting their responsibilities and compounding the indignity of their actions with self-justifying and insulting ‘apologies’.

The very concept of responsible citizenship has been under assault for many years – indeed the many social gains of post-World War II era, including the NHS, have been subject to systemic undermining since their inception. Margaret Thatcher’s infamous ‘… there is no such thing as society- only individuals’ speech encapsulates the campaign to erode the principles of citizenship.

Thatcher’s declaration in 1987 was a demonstration of the determination of the class she represented to wage war against the unions, dismantle social benefits and gains and to privatise health, education and public utilities in favour of individualism. It was also an open assault on the socialist principles of benefit for the many not the few. 

Failure to take responsibility through firm and decisive action at the outbreak of the Covid crisis, rapidly led to managing the pandemic through a reliance on personal responsibility, social distancing and mask wearing.

The combination of government failures, the arrogance of elites and the ignorant and self-centred attitude of those who have bought into the capitalist myth of ‘personal freedom of choice’ has serious consequences throughout society. 

It puts health and well-being at risk, it provides cover for corporate exploitation and challenges the concept of social responsibility and citizenship.

Educating children, and adults, in the benefits and responsibilities of citizenship is an important and ongoing task. However, only a radical transformation to a socialist society can ultimately establish citizenship, social responsibility and a collective society as our core values.