Sectarianism Special Report: Bernard Ponsonby reflects on the roots of ‘Scotland’s shame’

Sectarianism is defined by one online dictionary as "an excessive devotion to a particular sect, especially in religion". By that definition, the Pope is sectarian, as is the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and even the Tartan Army. By other dictionary definitions, none of the aforementioned are sectarian at all unless narrow-minded or bigoted. Confused? You are not alone. Scotland’s lawmakers can’t decide what it means either.  

When politicians talk about sectarianism, they really mean criminal behaviour which is aggravated by prejudice based upon an individual’s religious or ethnic identity. Rather unhelpfully in Scotland, this tends to be looked at through the prism of football. Yet the crime statistics tell us that this is only part of the problem.

Section 74 of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act deals with religiously aggravated crime. Figures published in 2006 reinforce an earlier study. Catholics are five times more likely to be the victims of such crime. Interestingly, in 70% of cases, football and parades with a religious or political overtone, had nothing to do with the crimes.

Michael McGrath, from the Scottish Catholic Church, said: "I think the figures confirm what we have been saying for some time. They are of concern to the church, to the Catholic community. More importantly, they should be of concern to Scots as a whole. It is a blight on Scotland that to be Catholic makes you more vulnerable to attack, aggression, violence."

The routes of religious tension lie in the split in the church. Catholicism was institutionally challenged when John Knox lead the Protestant Reformation, breaking formally with Rome in 1560.

Catholicism was then marginalised before Catholics became the victims of institutionalised discrimination. By the 19th century, opprobrium of religion became suspicion, even hatred, of the large number of Irish immigrants who came here and adhered to the Catholic faith.

Professor Tom Devine, of Edinburgh University, commented: "We reckon that in the mid-19th century, about a third of the incoming Irish were Protestant people. Ironically enough, it was ancestors who migrated to Ulster in the 17th century from south-west Scotland.

"They were God’s garrison against the papist Irish, and they brought with them as did the Catholic Irish, the decanting into west central Scotland, and parts of east central Scotland, the decanting of centuries old tribal tensions."

In 1923, the Church of Scotland produced a report called "The menace of the Irish race to Scotland". It was nakedly sectarian and is something the church has since apologised for.  In the 1930s, the Scottish Protestant League won seats on Glasgow council. The legacy of those attitudes took a long time to recede.

"Learn from our mistakes"

Rt Rev David Arnott, the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, said: "I think in all honesty, we need to try and figure out ways of looking forward, asking ourselves the question what kind of society do we want in Scotland today and building on that, and learning from our mistakes in history.

"We need to get to know people as people. We need to get to know them not as Orangemen, or Roman Catholics, or whoever. Let’s see who we are as our neighbour and let’s learn to love our neighbour."

Educational advancement created a Catholic middle class which was to break down barriers within the professions. Legislative and social change also dealt with many of the issues where ordinary Catholics were experiencing prejudice in post-war Scotland.

Many Protestants believe that historical discrimination against Catholics has been used to camouflage that sectarianism is a two-way street. They also believe that it has been used to make those of the reformed faith feel guilty about their heritage and identity.

There is a paradox about sectarianism in modern Scotland. Attendances at religious services are at an all time low.  Scottish national identity is now pre-eminent, unionism is a devalued currency compared to where it once was, and yet tribal attitudes anchored in religious and national identity play a large part in making our society more unpleasant.


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