Comparing Catholics to black Americans is ‘over the top’ says Tom Devine

A LEADING historian has hit out at claims that Scottish Catholics are subjected to bigotry comparable with that suffered by black people in 1950s America.

A LEADING historian has hit out at claims that Scottish Catholics are subjected to bigotry comparable with that suffered by black people in 1950s America.

Professor Tom Devine described the comments by Peter Kearney, director of the Scottish Catholic media office, as “intemperate”, “over the top” and “insulting” to black people.

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In a letter to a newspaper, Mr Kearney said that, in the same way black people were urged to “whiten their complexions” during the US civil rights turmoil half a century ago, Catholics in Scotland were in danger of being forced to turn their backs on faith schooling and shun public statements about their religion.

He said Scotland had to confront sectarianism in the same way it deals with domestic violence and not blame the victim.

Mr Kearney also said it was important to talk about “anti-Catholicism”, and not “sectarianism”, which he said was a blanket term which disguised the real problem.

Prof Devine, author of The Scottish Nation, who recently retired from the chair of Scottish history at Edinburgh University, said the “intemperate” language was used by Mr Kearney to gain media coverage, and that the church was in danger of being seen as resorting to “megaphone politics” to make itself heard, rather than gaining influence through the “careful articulation of opinion”.

He said: “I think to say that there is a comparison between the terrible injustices done on the black people of the USA until the last few decades, when the civil rights movement achieved its goals, and the Catholic position of Scotland at least over the past 25 years, is erroneous and is in fact insulting to the black cause of the USA.

“The caveat to that is, there is undoubtedly clear and unambiguous evidence that discrimination against people of an Irish Catholic background in the work place was deep-seated in Scotland to at least the 1970s. So there are still a lot of people who are still alive who suffered from that process, as well as those who were actively involved in promoting it.

“There’s a lingering hurt about, there’s a lingering sense of victimhood, and that’s the way to some extent that Kearney’s comments should be seen. But they’re certainly over the top.”

Prof Devine said that there was “no doubt” that there was the perception among Catholics that the ongoing controversy surrounding denominational schools in Scotland reflected a deeper bigotry, but also said he thought that the perspective of those who believed such schools encourage sectarianism were “fundamentally wrong”. He said the church’s main threat now came from aggressive secularism, rather than another faith, which muddied the concept of what sectarianism really was.

But Liz Leydon, editor of the Catholic Observer, defended Mr Kearney’s language.

She said: “The suggestion a culture of anti-Catholicism prevails in Scotland is often disputed because the bigotry experienced today is a great deal more subtle than that of yesteryear.

However, it is equally if not more dangerous as a result. 
Anti-Catholic bigotry may not be something that every Scottish Catholic experiences on a regular basis, nonetheless it remains ‘Scotland’s shame’.”