Sectarian bigotry is no myth - it's a very real problem

ONE of the key functions of universities in a civilised society is to challenge conventional wisdom, establish the need for assertions to be critically based on hard evidence and, through rigorous research, help to separate out myth and assumptions from proven reality.

Sectarianism is, of course, a difficult and slippery concept. Technically, adherents to any religious belief can be described as "sectarian", or followers of a sect. But this definition is too benign. Today, "sectarianism" is almost always used pejoratively to describe division, bigotry and hostility between different groups based on real or perceived religious allegiance.

In Scotland, it relates directly to the historic tensions caused by the vast influx of Irish Catholics in the 19th century and the reaction of indigenous Scottish Protestants. The presumed heartlands of sectarianism still follow the territorial contours of Irish settlement - Glasgow and its hinterland, other parts of the Central Lowlands and West Lothian, a region which attracted not simply Catholics from the north of Ireland but a substantial minority of Ulster Protestants. Ancient tribal conflicts which germinated across the Irish Sea spread to Scotland like a virus.

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The Steve Bruce thesis has much to commend it and is, in large part, unexceptional. He tries to stress its novelty and freshness by contrasting his conclusions with the notorious assertions of the composer James MacMillan in his August 1999 speech at the Edinburgh International Festival. But MacMillan’s views, in the opinion of this writer at least, are so extreme as to be considered easy prey for the revisionist social scientists.

Prof Bruce’s arguments that institutional discrimination against Catholics has declined over the past couple of decades, that intermarriage between different faiths has increased, that young Catholics below the age of 40 experience significant levels of social mobility, and that there is now precious little distinction between Catholic and Protestant voting patterns are incontestable and have been widely accepted by historians, sociologists and political scientists since the 1990s. However, I part company with him when he goes on to suggest that, as a result of these developments, sectarianism can now be dismissed as a thing of the past.

Indeed, Prof Bruce reminds me of a scholarly Canute, standing firm and resolute as the waves of contrary opinion gather around him. Those who believe sectarianism is a continuing problem in parts of the country not only include the Scottish Executive, the First Minister and all the churches, but organisations as varied as the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Commission for Racial Equality, the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, all political parties and all TV, radio and print media - and this is by no means an exhaustive list.

In 2003, NFO Social Research conducted a detailed investigation into perceptions of sectarianism in Glasgow. A mere 9 per cent of the large sample of respondents agreed with the proposition "discrimination along sectarian lines no longer exists", while less than 32 per cent thought "sectarianism is becoming a thing of the past".

How is this extraordinary contradiction between the Bruce view and that of the overwhelming majority of contemporary expert and lay opinion to be explained? I believe the problem stems from his research method. Prof Bruce is much more interested in social structures than in relationships, emotions, mindsets, prejudices and attitudes. But it is in this more complex and intangible area that bigotry flourishes.

Let me select three examples. First, Section 74 of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act came into force in June 2003. It allowed for an offence to be aggravated by religious prejudice. Of 450 charges submitted to procurators-fiscal between June 2003 and September 2004, 108 were analysed in detail by the Crown Office. Offences were heavily concentrated in Glasgow, Lanarkshire and some other areas of the Central Lowlands. They were not simply limited to youthful hooliganism fuelled by drink - 48 per cent of males accused were aged 31 or over - or directly to incidents at football matches. Only 14 per cent of offences related specifically to football or support of a particular team.

The Roman Catholic Bishop of Motherwell, whose diocese covers Lanarkshire, took a pessimistic view. "I am left with the view that what we are presented with is an appalling and dismal image of entrenched hostility," he said. "I feel this analysis has very usefully cast doubt on the widespread presumption that sectarianism in Scotland is little more than alcohol-induced post-match revelry and hooliganism. It is sadly deeper, wider and altogether more pervasive than that."

Second, there is the issue of "Orangeism". The Orange Order would deny that it is a sectarian organisation and rather sees itself as innocently committed to the celebration and preservation of Protestant heritage and liberties. But much of the content of its official organ the Orange Torch, is concerned with exposing the "degeneracy" of Roman Catholicism and, in the formal "qualifications of an Orangeman", it is stated that members of the order should "strenuously oppose the fatal errors and doctrines of the Church of Rome" and "resist the ascendancy of the Church, its encroachments and extensions of its power".

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Orangeism is very much alive in central Scotland. It claims an official membership of 50,000, many more than any Scottish political party, organised in 1,000 lodges, a figure which does not include the many "hangers-on" who follow the marches and others who identify with the values of the order. In evidence to the recent Review of Marches and Parades in Scotland, conducted by Sir John Orr, the police stated that Orange parades had increased in frequency over the past few years and that some, at least, "caused significant concern, disturbance and intimidation".

Finally, there is the question of the Old Firm. I, like many others, used to believe that Rangers and Celtic games acted as a safety valve for sectarianism. Some now take a different view: far from defusing tensions, Old Firm matches are often seen as a key part of the problem. No-one can deny that the intensity of feelings on the part of both armies of fans goes far beyond mere sporting rivalry. There is something in the venomous and malignant atmosphere of these games that is much more sinister and baleful - nothing less than the public face of Scotland’s old sectarian problem on display for all the world to see.

Tom Devine is Glucksman Research Professor and director of the AHRB Centre for Irish and Scottish Studies at the University of Aberdeen.