WHEN one of Northern Ireland’s most experienced and respected figures in the world of community relations tells Scotland it must stop denying it has a problem with sectarianism, it is surely time to sit up and listen.
Dr Duncan Morrow, who is currently Director of Community Engagement at the University of Ulster, knows bigotry when he sees it. And he knows the degree of hard work necessary by a community - from government ministers to schoolteachers to sports coaches - over a long period of time if sectarian divisions that have no place in Scotland are to be drained of their poison.
In a landmark essay in this newspaper today, Morrow makes many wise judgements, but none wiser than his simple plea that Scotland must not go into denial about sectarianism. It may not fit with our image of ourselves as a nation characterised by communitarianism and the belief that we are “all Jock Tamson’s bairns”, but sectarianism is a cold, hard, inconvenient fact about the nation we live in, and not just, as some believe, a problem limited to isolated pockets of the West of Scotland on Old Firm match days.
The work of Morrow’s advisory group is among the most important being carried out in Scotland today, and its recommendations, when they come, deserve to be considered with the utmost seriousness by government ministers. The sad truth is that the record of this SNP administration, and the last one, on the issue of sectarianism is patchy at best. Alex Salmond called a halt to the anti-sectarianism summits set up by his predecessor, Jack McConnell, which had brought groups as disparate as the Catholic Church and the Orange Order together around the same table for the first time. Many of the people involved in these summits found them uncomfortable, and were glad to see the back of them. There was a suspicion that SNP ministers disliked the impression that Scotland was a land scarred by ages-old hatreds, and that this sat uneasily with the more positive image of Scotland the Nationalists were keen to project. There was even a question mark over whether one of the country’s pioneering anti-bigotry initiatives, Nil By Mouth, was to retain its government funding.
What seemed to change minds in St Andrew’s House was the deplorable spate of parcel bombs sent to prominent Catholics in Scotland - including Celtic manager Neil Lennon - in 2011. Unfortunately, the way the Scottish Government chose to respond - by hastily introducing new laws criminalising the singing of sectarian songs at football matches - has in some ways only made matters worse. This newspaper is on record as calling the new legislation ill-conceived, poorly drafted and incoherent. Some sheriffs have signalled their displeasure with it, with a number of cases thrown out of court accompanied by stinging criticism from the bench. Worst of all, confusion about what constitutes a criminal act under the terms of this legislation, and therefore confusion about when police are entitled to act, has allowed some unsavoury elements of the Old Firm support to complain of unjust victimisation. When bigots start to claim the moral high ground, something is badly amiss.
Credit where it is due, Roseanna Cunningham, the Minister for Community Safety and Legal Affairs in the Scottish Government, is to be congratulated for appointing Morrow to look in more depth at this issue. The working group he leads is doing great work. We should not be coy about learning lessons from Northern Ireland to rid us of Scotland’s sectarian shame.
Camera shouldn’t lie
They are hard to love in their grey metal casings and easy to hate for their unfeeling policing of the speed limits. Public acceptance of the safety cameras that punctuate our journeys along Scotland’s trunk roads has been hard won and has mainly been achieved by official figures that show there are significantly fewer deaths and serious injuries on highways where the cameras are installed. This has led to a widespread perception among 85 per cent of the public that the cameras have genuinely contributed to road safety and are not just a Treasury money-grabbing exercise, for it is to the Exchequer that most of the millions of pounds in fines raised annually by the cameras eventually end up. But if this process of acceptance is to continue then it is vitally important that the officials who run the cameras do not over-state the case as they have been accused of by the UK Statistics Authority, as we report today. When a body like the UKSA starts using words and phrases such as “politically driven” and “impartial” it is a major and significant diversion from the arid language of government. It may be that the fault here is more of presentation than substance, but if motorists are to remain convinced that the cameras are an essential part of the driving experience then the statistical case on which they rest must be robust and unchallengeable.