Beware myths that tarnish 'sectarian' Scots

TWENTY years ago, I published the first serious social-science study of sectarianism in Scotland, called "No Pope of Rome".

I offer two items from a large array of data to support this optimistic view.

First, social class: disadvantage is not itself proof of discrimination, but the link works in reverse - if Catholics are victimised in schooling and employment, they should have a lower class profile. What the 2001 Census shows is that there is now little difference between those raised as Catholics and those raised as Protestants. The group with the worst class profile is that of those raised with no religion (and, no, we have no idea why either).

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Second, integration: just over half of married Catholics under 35 have non-Catholic spouses. In Northern Ireland, only 6 per cent of marriages are mixed. In the US, inter-racial marriages are also about 6 per cent. Despite segregated schooling, Scots now choose partners with no regard for religion.

Yet, the perception is different. In a recent Glasgow survey, 53 per cent said they thought employment discrimination was common, but only 1 per cent said they had suffered any (and half of those were not Catholic).

One explanation for this paradox may be mistaken baseline expectations. One person said her firm discriminated against Catholics because only three out of ten people were Catholic. Because we talk about the Catholic Church and the Kirk, Catholic schools and state schools, and Rangers and Celtic as matching pairs, it is possible to suppose that half of Glaswegians are Catholic and, hence, only three Catholics in ten people needs explaining. Actually, three in ten is a slight over-representation, because Catholics make up only 25 per cent of lowlands Scots.

We see the same paradox with violence. Two-thirds of the Glasgow survey said sectarian violence was common or very common, but less than 1 per cent had suffered any. When those who had suffered various forms of abuse were asked the reasons, it turned out that most violence was domestic. Residential area was much more commonly cited than religion, as were gender and sexuality. So, again, we have a mismatch. People think something is widespread but somehow they have not experienced it.

This is what I mean by a social myth. How do we explain it? A large part of the answer is that opinion-leaders such as politicians and the mass media believe that sectarianism is a major problem and that belief distorts their perceptions.

I will cite just two examples. Since June 2003, it has been possible for a criminal offence to be "aggravated" by religious prejudice. A mugger can now be hit with a second charge if he calls his victim "a Proddie b******". Last November, the Crown Office and the Procurator Fiscal Service released their analysis of the first six months of the new system. The Daily Telegraph was typical in leading with "Catholics are twice as likely as Protestants to be the targets of sectarian abuse". What was not stressed in the reporting was that, in more than 90 per cent of cases, the original offence was breach of the peace, not murder, robbery or assault. More than a third of the victims were police officers, not civilians, and more than half the perpetrators were drunk. More than a third of cases were associated with football matches or Orange marches. And the sectarian abuse was verbal.

This is not Nazis wrecking Jewish shops: it is young drunks ranting at coppers and others who get in the way of their inalienable right to get drunk and disorderly.

What was striking about this episode was that the Crown Office (aided by uncritical reporting) created an entirely false impression of Catholics as victims. The perpetrators do not know the religion of their victims and nor do we. What we know is the content of the verbal abuse. It tells us about the identity of the abuser, not the abused. Two-thirds of the perpetrators expressed anti-Catholic sentiments; one-third expressed anti-Protestant sentiments. If the drunken hooligans of Glasgow divide two-thirds Protestant and one-third Catholic, that is about par for the area. Incivility is evenly distributed.

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Second case: last November, the Sunday Mail reported the burning down of a Catholic chapel in Stornoway under the banner headline "Real toll of Old Firm mayhem". The police later announced that the fire was caused by an electrical fault and that no crime was suspected, but that fact did not get the banner-headline treatment. Thus are myths sustained.

Steve Bruce is professor of sociology at Aberdeen University.