15/01/2012 17:30 GMT | Updated 16/03/2012 05:12 GMT

The New Face of Sectarianism in Northern Ireland

Plastic bullets and riot shields. Car bombs and guns. For our generation, these were the trappings of the movies. For our parents, they were the emblems of the violent conflict that would come to define our country for over 30 years, ever-present reminders of the period in time that would come to be known simply as the Troubles.

Today, we are beginning to tear down the so-called 'peace walls' erected to physically separate feuding communities. The police force has seen an overhaul, with the Royal Ulster Constabulary having been replaced by the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Countless advances have been made in ameliorating relationships between Nationalists and Unionists. Yet time and again sectarianism continues to rear its ugly head, the most recent example having arrived this week in the form of the brutal beating of Catholic teenager James Turley by a Loyalist gang.

Sadly, this is only the most recent in a string of sectarian attacks, from the murder of Police Constable Ronan Kerr by dissident republicans, to a recent attack on the school bus of Protestant children launched by Republican youths.

In light of these events, the question which now needs to be posed is this: are such actions indicative of a wider malaise in our society, or the work of rogue elements hell-bent on forestalling the peace process?

While the extremist views of certain echelons of Loyalism and Republicanism aren't shared by our communities at large, one can't deny that we, as a society, are still struggling to put the past behind us. It's hard to find someone who hasn't been personally affected by the Troubles and the events which followed in the immediate aftermath of the conflict, even if they weren't alive as the violence reached its crescendo. Whether one's personal connection constitutes the murder or injury of a family member, experience of internment or discrimination on the basis of nothing but your name or postcode, none of us can escape the spectre of the dark days of our recent history, which still looms over us. The conflict has left deep scars in our society which won't heal overnight, or, as is becoming increasingly evident, even within a single generation.

There exists a deeply ingrained sectarianism, which, coupled with a range of social factors, continues to give rise to atrocities such as those witnessed these week. With youth unemployment in Northern Ireland approaching 20%, it may be possible to set these attacks within the wider context of youth disillusionment to which the motivation for the recent riots in England has been attributed. A lack of opportunity, education and the perceived lack of any meaningful future is culminating in creating a sentiment of disenfranchisement in an entire generation. While we must do everything within our power to counteract this, it is equally pressing that we address the issue of sectarianism that many hoped would have been eradicated by now.

While I don't wish to undermine the tremendous advances made in Northern Ireland, this tragic story highlights that much work still remains to be done. Until such a time as occurrences like this are committed to history books, we cannot truly claim to have broken the terrible cycle of violence which plagues our country to this day.