Sectarianism goes beyond football matches and a proper understanding is vital if we are to release the hold it retains on some, writes Peter Geoghegan
In Scotland, “sectarianism” is one of those words that are guaranteed to spark debate. For some, bigotry is a poison that infects every pore of society, from the workplace to the terrace. For others, it’s a relic of a dim and distant past, overstated, overindulged and often met with a rolling of the eyes.
Responses to last week’s report on sectarianism commissioned by the Scottish government typify Janus-faced attitudes to what James McMillan (in)famously dubbed “Scotland’s shame”.
“Scotland growing tired of sectarianism”; “Sectarianism still a force in Scotland”; “Old Firm still to meet bigotry study group” and “Sectarianism not caused by denominational schools” were among the eclectic headlines that greeted the findings of the advisory group on tackling sectarianism in Scotland.
Sectarianism, as Duncan Morrow, the chair of the advisory group established last August, noted at the report’s launch in Glasgow on Friday, “is an issue that is either dealt with by silence or sensationalism”. Having spent his career toiling at the coalface of community relations in Northern Ireland, Dr Morrow knows a lot about sectarianism and there is much to commend in his report – not least that now, almost a decade and a half after being established, the Scottish parliament has a firm basis on which to ground its well-funded anti-sectarianism strategies.
While the report’s sections on football and education have understandably grabbed most attention, arguably its most useful service is in providing a clear definition of what sectarianism actually is.
Sectarianism is often understood in purely religious terms – Catholic or Protestant – but the way these identities are formed owes far more to ideas about politics and ethnicity. Just as in Northern Ireland, bigotry here has little, if anything, to do with doctrinal differences between Catholics and Protestants: calling someone a “Hun” or a “Fenian” is not a cipher for a theological debate about consubstantiation versus transubstantiation.
Instead, as the advisory group recognises, sectarianism has everything to do with how “them” and “us” are created, and then maintained through symbols, from football clubs to flags to parades.
The report also brings a much-needed dose of reality to the often febrile conversation about sectarianism in Scotland. Bigotry exists – there have been more than 7,000 sectarian incidents reported since 2003, with only 30 per cent of those occurring at football matches – but it is not the over-arching structural inequality it once was.
Large-scale migration to Scotland from Ireland began almost 200 years but it was only in the 1950s and early 1960s, with the advent of new foreign-owned industry and the nationalisation of older manufactures, that discrimination against Catholics started to end.
Fifty years ago someone like me – a first generation Irish Catholic who has lived in Scotland for almost ten years – could have expected to face discrimination in most avenues. Certain firms categorised job applications by religious affiliation, and Catholics were rarely given skilled posts.
But in my time on this side of the Irish Sea, I’ve only been on the receiving end of sectarian discrimination once, and that was from a foul-tongued teenager in a bus station in Glasgow at one in the morning.
That is not to say that sectarianism does not exist in Scotland. At last Friday’s press launch for the advisory group report, in Glasgow, Dr Morrow was grilled about the focus placed on institutions, and specifically local authorities, in failing to adequately address sectarianism.
It has become a truism to say that sectarianism is a thing of the past in Scottish workplaces – since 2003, it has been illegal for employers to discriminate on grounds of religion and belief (and no belief) – but there are plenty of recent examples of sectarian behaviour in the public sector, from the two Stirling council staff investigated in 2011 for posting anti-Catholic messages on social media to the bin man in Airdrie who, because he supported Rangers, was attacked with a shovel by a colleague.
“All local authorities should embrace the issue of tackling sectarianism with the conviction and confidence with which they have approached other equality issues,” last Friday’s report avers, quite reasonably.
But the problem remains one of leadership. Despite the best efforts of Jack McConnell, sectarianism was largely absent from public discourse in Scotland until 2011, when a combination of parcel bombs and fisticuffs aimed at Celtic manager Neil Lennon catapulted the issue on to the media agenda, nationally and internationally.
The clumsy Offensive Behaviour at Football Bill (which has, if anything, inflamed the situation) quickly followed. Justice minister Kenny MacAskill caught the shrill mood of the time when he declared at the 2011 SNP conference” “It’s not about the Boyne in 1690 or Dublin in Easter 1916, it’s about dragging a small minority of folk in our country into the 21st century.”
The Scottish government has, to a large extent, put its money where its mouth is. Around £9 million in funding is being invested in anti-sectarian work; while a lot of this cash is going to the police, a sizeable chunk has been handed to voluntary and community groups. But there still seems to be resistance in some quarters: as many headline writers noted last week, neither Celtic nor Rangers managed to find the time to meet with the advisory group during the last 16 months, despite both clubs profiting handsomely from public funding for anti-sectarian initiatives (to the tune of around £1m each over the last decade).
The danger now is that having done sensationalism for the last couple of years, Scotland could revert to the status quo when it comes to sectarianism, silence. The advisory group report makes a series of useful recommendations – including the suggestion that parades balance the right to march with the rights of communities and that there is no need for further legislation to tackle sectarianism – but institutional change will require active political will at every level. A genuine discussion about shared campuses in our schools is long overdue.
As David Scott, head of anti-sectarian strategy Nil by Mouth, says: “Sectarianism is not the biggest problem Scotland faces but we should not underestimate the hold it has on people who inhabit that world.”
Nil By Mouth has itself contacted 120 quangos in Scotland offering free anti-sectarian training. One would hope that each organisation takes up the offer.
A couple of days before the advisory group report was launched, I found myself standing beside a 40-foot high corrugated metal fence at Cupar Way in West Belfast. The euphemistically titled “peace wall”, the longest such barrier in Europe, separates Catholics on the Falls Road from Protestants on the Shankill. Every night at seven o’clock a gate linking the two sides is bolted shut. Nobody I met in West Belfast thought the wall would come down any time soon.
Thankfully walls topped with barbed wire do not divide Catholics and Protestants in Scotland, but many still live largely separate existences. Sectarianism here is not the all-encompassing behemoth, but there are still too many barriers in too many people’s minds. Dr Morrow’s advisory group has provided the Scottish government with a road map; they now need to follow it.
• Peter Geoghegan is the author of A Difficult Difference: Race, Religion and the new Northern Ireland (Irish Academic Press)