Sectarian prejudice for top political nominations

The Economist recently published an article mooting whether Mormons such as Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman could secure a mainstream political party nomination for candidacy for the presidency of the United States (“When the saints come marching in”).

This isn’t the first instance of sectarian prejudice. As The Economist points out, it was an issue for Catholic John Kennedy in the 1960 presidential campaign.

An irony is that with the election of Barak Obama, the American public, while not yet resolving their legacy of slavery and racism, has at least expressed its willingness to not have race as a defining or most salient factor in the process of selecting candidates.

While Mormons are traditionally socially conservative — emphasising the centrality of family and virtues of enterprise — and arguably more inclined to vote Republican, there remains a hesitancy if not reluctance to accept Mormons as equals within the party’s ranks.

Here in Northern Ireland we know this score all too well. It would be highly unlikely for any denominational minority in either unionist or nationalist political blocs to achieve selection for top office (outside the Alliance Party, which has alternated its leadership between Protestant- and Catholic-community background naturally and without reference).

But sectarian prejudice is further extrapolated to the joint office of the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. Theoretically a co-partnership office and thus who holds which of the two seats shouldn’t matter, it does. Some unionists have a hard enough time accepting the concept of a joint office, let alone the fact that Sinn Fein holds the deputy post; the idea that a nationalist could win the top post strikes them with fear, and this will be used in the upcoming and future election campaigns.

Like John Kennedy’s defence in the 1960 campaign, what is required is a declaration by the candidate that they are seeking high office exclusively to serve the people (and no other authority), and for the public to accept this.

We’ll see how this develops in Northern Ireland.

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