Comment: If we want rid of sectarianism, let’s ignore it

Agonising over claims of anti-Catholicism could make what is a relatively minor problem worse, writes Michael Kelly

Those pesky Catholics are at it again. Not the traditional Scots ones who live quietly in their isolated rural communities. I’m talking about the grandsons and granddaughters of the immigrants who moved into Scotland in droves from Ireland during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, taking jobs, depressing wages and causing serious social problems in housing and public health.

Now, having been accorded the status of equal citizens with no job opportunities denied them across business, politics or public service (except that of head of state, either now or in an independent Scotland), they’re at their moaning again.

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No sooner has the Scottish Government generously set up an advisory body on sectarianism than the Catholics want special treatment. They argue that the terms of reference of this group – as set out by its leader Duncan Morrow – are so vague and broad that it is like setting up an enquiry into road traffic offences when what you are aiming to reduce is drink-driving. It’s anti-Catholicism they want tackled, not a six-volume report.

Community safety minister Roseanna Cunningham’s comments added to Catholics’ suspicion when she said that “the work being carried forward by Duncan Morrow and the sectarianism advisory group to gather evidence on the nature of sectarianism and the impact and effectiveness of the different approaches being taken will help us gain a broader understanding of the problem in Scotland”. Apologists for the Catholic Church would argue that this is more a topic for a PhD thesis than an attempt to change public policy. “Kicked into the long grass” is one phrase which might be used if it were not for the unfortunate sectarian football reference.

Now that football has come up, can I add that the usual fallback position of the Scottish Government to pick on football for harsh treatment in the attack on sectarianism must now be abandoned for good. Last year, in a knee-jerk reaction to a couple of minor incidents at what used to be called an Old Firm game (a bit of sectarianism showing there, perhaps), the police called for legislation and the First Minister obliged by introducing severe curbs on freedom of speech. Police now spend every 90 minutes staring at CCTV footage to detect what naughty words might be being mouthed, while violence gaily continues inside and outside stadia.

Let’s separate football from discussion of sectarianism. They may use religious and political chants to provoke the opposition, but these are thugs, not religious fanatics. Ignore what they say. Punish what they do.

But back to these Catholics. Instead of giving this new group on sectarianism the five or so years it will need to analyse fully all aspects of Scotland’s shame, they wish simply to rely on existing evidence. They point to government figures showing that the majority of offences where religion is an aggravating factor are committed against Catholics. And they want action taken to reduce that statistic. How naive! As the learned Professor Tom Devine has pronounced on Peter Kearney’s claims about the victimisation of Catholics: “Quite literally, the jury is still out on the interpretation of these figures. Their implications are slippery, ambiguous and more complex than he allows.”

Where exactly this jury is out and whether it consists of 12 or 15 men and women with different views on sectarianism, Catholics are not told. But it is just too simple to expect opponents to accept at face value statistics which conclusively prove your case. Much more sensible to leave it to government experts who can interpret them to fit in with their preconceived notions of the necessary policy prescriptions. Kearney already has experience of how this government turned a massively negative result on consultation on gay marriage into proposals to implement it. He should know the score. Don’t be cheeky to your betters.

As someone who grew up in the west of Scotland with a defining name and who went to a Catholic school, I have never been conscious of being the subject of religious discrimination. Maybe it was just too subtle to notice. Maybe I’ve got a thick skin. Maybe being a member of Glasgow City Council’s Labour group offered a distorted perspective. I would not argue that this sample of one has any statistical significance. But it does suggest that even in the 1950s and 1960s anti-Catholicism wasn’t universal.

There is no doubt that some individual Catholics are still subject to abuse. But the most severe assaults on the Church nowadays are from those who want to pursue a secular agenda. Despite the insulting language that they use – making a cardinal Bigot of the Year must surely breach at least one of Mr Salmond’s new laws – secularists would argue that they are merely engaging in a vigorous debate on the future of society and that cannot be termed anti-Catholic in any sectarian sense. It is a philosophical position.

It seems to me that we are all making far too much of the problem of sectarianism in Scotland. Not to deny its existence, but often it is better to leave stones unturned so that the nasties trapped under them are allowed to die a natural death. Sectarianism is on the way out. But a social and cultural change of that nature will not be rushed by advisory groups, government expressions of intent or by legislation.

Agonising over sectarianism is going to exaggerate its importance in the list of social problems that we face. Poverty, unemployment, deprivation generally, education and health all demand public resources ahead of relatively minor inconveniences to relatively few individuals. Anti-Catholicism is wrong and the current discussion has established the validity of the Catholic Church’s complaint that it is not being properly recognised.

However, while I must be careful here and not fall into the trap of blaming the victims, there is a danger that continued carping will exacerbate the situation. There is a better, Christian way of dealing with it: turn the other cheek.