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14 July 2017

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Fearless leadership is needed against sectarianism – Sinn Féin National Chairperson Declan Kearney

“Sinn Féin believes that the complete eradication of sectarianism and sectarian segregation in our society is essential to political progress and building a shared future” – Declan Kearney

AS I grew up, my republicanism was inspired by the United Irish tradition synonymous with my home area of County Antrim. So, I was honoured to speak at the annual Sinn Féin commemoration for Wolfe Tone, the founder of Irish republicanism, in June.

Local Antrim United Irish leaders such as Henry Joy McCracken, Roddy McCorley, and William Orr are remembered to this day in song and poetry.  Jemmy Hope ‘The Weaver’, from Templepatrick, became a revolutionary reference point for later generations.  They, and other men and women, personified the central doctrine of emergent Irish republicanism in the 1790’s, the unity of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter.

As modern-day republicans following in the United Irish tradition, Sinn Féin is dedicated to the achievement of an agreed, united Ireland which celebrates diversity and equality, and shuns bigotry and discrimination.  Sinn Féin stands against all forms of sectarianism, racism, homophobia, sexism, and intolerance in society.

Sectarianism is a scourge on the social and political landscape of the North of Ireland.  In the decades following partition it was cultivated to maintain communal divisions.  Sectarianism dictated employment, education, housing and voting rights.

Election posters on a loyalist bonfire.

Today sectarianism and sectarian segregation influence our society’s approach to educational preference, choice of sport, how and where citizens choose to live and socialise, and to some degree the location of their employment.

Sectarian attitudes are the most incendiary catalyst for violence now and in the future, and for excusing continuous communal instability and division in the North.

Sinn Féin has consistently pressed for agreement on the adoption of anti-sectarian measures as an important foundation upon which to build reconciliation and healing.

We believe that anti-sectarianism must be embraced by all sections of our community and must be at the heart of a rights-based approach to government in the North.  

We published proposals which argued for:

·      A legal definition of sectarianism as a hate crime;

·      An anti-sectarian pledge for Executive ministers, MLAs and all other publicly elected representatives;

·      A citizens anti-sectarian charter;

·      Concrete anti-sectarian measures within the next Programme for Government;

·      And that anti-sectarian priorities to be implemented by the next Executive Office.

Such an approach would be the manifestation of the Good Friday Agreement which set out the requirement that all citizens have ‘the right to live free from sectarian harassment’.

Sinn Féin believes that the complete eradication of sectarianism and sectarian segregation in our society is essential to political progress and building a shared future.

This week, the annual Battle of the Boyne Orange celebrations took place across the North.

All sections of our society have the right to celebrate and commemorate their cultural traditions when that is done in a respectful way and without giving offence to other citizens or sections of society.

The building and lighting of bonfires is a significant feature of the 11th/12th July celebrations. 

Some bonfires are managed and regulated in an appropriate way. However, many others fall outside any form of public control or regulation.  These are ‘rogue’ bonfires which are built on land without the permission of the landowner.  They are dominated by criminal and extremist elements acting without any community mandate.

‘Rogue’ bonfires have become bywords for sectarian hate crime and environmental vandalism on an industrial scale. 

In my own constituency of South Antrim, and all across the North, on the Eleventh Night, thousands of rubber tyres and other combustible and carcinogenic materials were burned.  Election posters, Irish national flags, Irish and other cultural emblems, as well as religious symbols were destroyed on these pyres.  In a particularly vile act of hatred in east Belfast, an image of the late Martin McGuinness on a coffin was placed on a bonfire.

All relevant statutory agencies, including the Housing Executive, Environment Agency, PSNI, and local councils are in dereliction of their legal obligations by facilitating these ‘rogue’ bonfires to happen, and in direct violation of the law, environmental regulations and the rights of the wider community.

‘Rogue’ bonfires are not culture. They indoctrinate sectarian hatred and communal division. They cause untold levels of damage to the environment, they threaten public health, they endanger nearby property, and they cause widespread community disruption.

The Orange tradition is an integral part of Irish society. It deserves to be respected and affirmed.  However, those who choose to celebrate that tradition on the 11th and 12th July and throughout the summer must do so responsibly, lawfully, and without causing offence or causing destruction or disruption.

The failure of the unionist parties’ leaderships to disassociate themselves from ‘rogue’ bonfires and to publicly call for them to be stopped is a disgraceful abdication of responsibility.

Their sponsoring of a narrative that republicans are engaged some type of ‘cultural war’ or seeking ‘cultural supremacy’ is preposterous and an attempt to deflect away from their own failure of civic and political leadership.

Political unionist and Orange leaderships are complicit with what happens at these bonfires by refusing to disassociate themselves or their organisations from the sectarian hatred which is promoted.

Bonfires regardless to which section of the community they are associated should be subject to statutory regulation and control. Only bonfires that are lawful, safe and legally compliant should proceed. No community benefits from illegal or dangerous bonfires. The four court injunctions imposed this week by Belfast City Council are an important step in the right direction. Other public bodies should now follow that lead.

All forms of sectarianism, racism, homophobia, bigotry and intolerance in our society must be eradicated. Expressions of hatred should be subject to legal sanction.

Sectarianism is the antithesis of republicanism. Sectarianism is the anti-thesis of a shared future.  Zero tolerance against bigotry and hatred must be reflected in legislation and public policy.

This is a challenge which should be embraced by all sections of society. Political and civic leaders need to be fearless champions for anti-sectarianism.

The current leaders of political unionism and Orangeism need to end their complicity and ambivalence, and instead give decisive leadership against sectarianism.

For our part, Sinn Féin will ensure that tackling sectarianism remains a central focus within this society.

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