Duncan Morrow: Stop denial & end blight of bigotry

WHEN it comes to considering sectarianism, almost­ everyone in Scotland agrees that “things have got better”.

Police on horseback during an Orange Order parade in Dumbarton. Picture: Getty
Police on horseback during an Orange Order parade in Dumbarton. Picture: Getty

Sure, according to this view, there are the “90-minute ­bigots” and the odd problem around parades, but all of that is for a small band of “left ­behinds” in Glasgow and former mining villages. But for something that “no longer really exists”, mention of ­sectarianism can still stir up emotion on a dramatic scale. When the subject raises its head, all of a sudden sectarianism seems ever-present: Scotland’s hidden shame, an integral part of the community, the workplace and schools. Whatever it is, sectarianism has left its own traumatic mark on the ­Scottish psyche.

Between these poles of blank denial and hatred and exclusion on the scale of Belfast at its worst, something important still hangs around. It hangs around in assumptions, in habits, in the shape and form of our institutions, in pockets of violence, in unresolved resentment and in memories of bullying and intimidation that have lingered enough to shape our identity.

Everybody agrees that sectarianism mattered more in the past, that it comes as part of the package known as “history” when Catholics and Protestants faced off as enemies across Europe. Britain grew up as a Protestant bulwark, leaving its mark on the face of the state and the path of privilege even in this secular age. Everybody acknowledges that Irish immigration to the industries of central Scotland brought with it sectarian rivalries and stirred a cultural anti-Catholicism (and even anti-Protestantism) that infected the workplace, local politics and the 
shape of social life for generations. And most people can point to its mutation from religious ideology to everyday normality through organised bigotry, sporting rivalry and community separation.

In 1920, Glasgow had as much in common with Belfast as with Aberdeen. Even in 1950 or 1970 there was some evidence that discrimination was rife and that hatred was deliberate. But Northern Ireland’s descent into killing gave religious bigotry a bad name. More importantly, it revealed sectarianism not as harmless Saturday entertainment but as potentially deadly enmity, exclusion and violence. In polite circles at least, sectarianism disappeared from view. Political, church, trade union and community leaders worked hard to manage the strains and erase the stains of the past. Dramatic changes in the economy broke down the informal “closed shops” of yesteryear, and the welfare state – not least comprehensive education – eased the path towards shared participation in a new future.


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Scotland, free of the political contest over land and political power that beset the north of Ireland, need not blindly imitate the chaos but could and should find another way. Of course there were ongoing issues, in the playground, in the stadium and on the street, but none of these need be decisive. By letting the dogs sleep in public while managing the remnant, sectarianism was transformed in the public mind from a formative part of Scottish life into a historic legacy confined to a few paramilitary diehards among the less progressive elements of the West of Scotland underclass.

Except this was not quite true. Every now and again, ongoing issues emerged from the depths. Football was an obvious and persistent candidate, as were parades. Old Firm games continued to reflect (or generate?) the atmosphere, colour and slogans of a Belfast interface. There was persistent evidence that violence spiked in communities and homes when sectarian ritual was played out on the street and in the stadium. Deeply emotional divisions over the role of Catholic and non-denominational schools could rock all surface calm. When evidence of appeal to Protestant and Catholic division emerged in by-elections and local councils in Monklands in the 1990s, everybody could sense the danger. Claims of endemic anti-Catholicism in the structures of Scottish society were neither confirmed nor denied, but every commentator felt compelled to respond in support or denial.

On the other side of an informal consensus that the best way to deal with a historic poison is to minimise in public and manage in private, is that sectarianism is both reduced and sustained. When it re-emerges it is no longer a single unified phenomenon but a complex mix of legacy, systems, behaviour and attitude. Precisely because it is so complex, attempts to describe sectarianism or wrestle with its consequences fall foul of the absence of real evidence or fail to take into account that it always appears as part of a wider picture of class, race and gender which varies in certain places, is understood differently by different churches or is experienced more keenly in the Catholic minority than it is among Protestants, or the irreligious, or those who have come to Scotland with different concerns.

Almost inevitably, part of the population wants to minimise and even reject the issue even as others are driven mad by the refusal to face “facts”. For that reason, the independent advisory group appointed by the Minister for Community Safety and Legal Affairs, Roseanna Cunningham, has been careful to move slowly and carefully to avoid drawing conclusions which could be interpreted as exaggerated or moving to deny facts. Indeed, most of our work has been dominated by two basic questions. What is sectarianism? And what might be done to address it?


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The approach has taken us in a number of directions. First we need to seek evidence of discrimination, in attitudes and in the real lives of communities. Sectarianism in Scotland is a subject which is full of feelings but less certain on the facts. The statistics suggest that progress has been made in discrimination in health, employment and other important social indicators. But there are plenty of stories of everyday sectarian abuse, of playground banter that turns into on-street harassment, evidence of serious sectarianism in some social media or among some young people in prison, and of a feeling among some that the history of Scotland and Britain still weighs on attitudes to Catholics in too many places. And there is lots of evidence that it takes on a different face in different places, at different times and in different contexts. Without a clear understanding of what we are talking about, there is a real risk that every effort to address the issues will be based on presumption and prejudice and do as much harm as good.

Second, it is crystal clear that a legacy as deeply rooted in the complex strands of politics, migration and everyday life will not be eliminated by a single action or gesture or through acts of legislation isolated from community action. Sectarianism sometimes shows its face in the obvious – such as violence or direct discrimination – but it has a more subtle and more pervasive face, in unspoken chill factors in certain places or communities or in local and public institutions, and in what the police call the “permissive environment” which allows people to think that behaviours unacceptable at most times are subtly encouraged in others.

Until now, action against sectarianism has been left to a few brave pioneers in Sense over Sectarianism and Nil by Mouth. Our focus has been to expand that work by finding and supporting community approaches to naming and addressing sectarianism which avoid the twin pitfalls of denying the problem and imposing a one-size-fits-all solution, and which develop better practice in churches, with young people or in local settings.

Third, we have spent much of the last few months engaging with people of knowledge and influence in different walks of life in Scotland to find out how sectarianism still influences their choices and responsibilities. Sectarianism is pernicious when it leads to violence, inequality and hostile separation, and it has long ago mutated from its origins in religious doctrine and church power struggles and attached itself in complex combinations in communities, cultures and institutions. Most importantly, we have found broad agreement that the problems of sectarian division, mistrust and discrimination will only cease to matter if there is a will to name it when we find it and to address its consequences in a way which confirms a common commitment to a shared and equal Scotland. For that to happen will require the leadership of those in positions of authority and influence across civic Scotland – including football clubs, local authorities, churches, schools and education, police and community life – and the emergence of a public debate which promotes acknowledgement and effective action over denial or sensation.


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There are grounds for optimism in Scotland. In spite of the fact that mention of sectarianism, anti-Catholicism or anti-Irishness tends to send some to the barricades and the rest to the hills, there is growing evidence of a willingness across Scotland to stop grandstanding and start to act for change on a cross-society inter-party way, for the benefit of all, based on evidence and genuine commitment to an open, plural and equal Scotland.

There will always be an important role for anti-discrimination law, much of which is already in place. Likewise, there is a key role for politicians of all parties to ensure that sectarianism has no place in public life, and we have been pleased to find real political encouragement for our work. But alongside law and politics, our approach has been to expand the evidence base, to encourage people to develop real solutions in real places and to insist that things will only change if those in leadership across society foster a new spirit of generosity and openness, accept responsibility to take action and stop the denial and blame.

If that is the culture that the advisory group can foster in policy and public debate, we will have made a positive contribution. «

• Duncan Morrow is chair of the Advisory Group on Tackling Sectarianism in Scotland, which was set up by the Scottish Government in 2012. He is also director of community engagement at the School of Criminology, Politics and Social Policy at the University of Ulster