Sectarianism: still Scotland’s shame

Written by Jenni Davidson on 25 June 2018 in Inside Politics

Is sectarianism still taken less seriously than other forms of bigotry in modern Scotland?

Orange march in Glasgow, 1 July 2017 - Image credit: Jane Barlow/PA Images

In 1999, on the eve of the new millennium, the Catholic composer James MacMillan suggested that “we as a nation have to face up to the ignominy of our most prevalent if unspoken bigotry if we are to move together into the next millennium with a sense of common purpose”.

Almost 20 years later, the Scottish Government has put “unprecedented” levels of funding into anti-sectarian initiatives, Professor Duncan Morrow is chairing a group to establish the definition of sectarianism in Scots law, new recommendations on hate crime have been produced by Lord Bracadale.

The anti-sectarian Offensive Behaviour at Football Act has been passed, and then repealed, and a cross-party group on combating sectarianism has just been established in the Scottish Parliament. It will meet for the first time this week.

Yet at Old Firm games, Irish tricolour and Union Jacks are flown from the two sides as if by opposing armies; effigies are hung; offensive songs are sung; abuse is hurled, in person and on social media; and people are assaulted because of their name or the strip they are wearing.

Across Glasgow and the former mining villages of central Scotland, Orange marches throughout the summer months celebrate a Protestant king’s victory over a Catholic rival three centuries’ ago.

And there are firms and organisations that still will not employ or admit a Catholic or Protestant.

On the 30 June, Arlene Foster, former first minister of Northern Ireland and current DUP leader, will attend the Boyne march in Cowdenbeath.

The parade, organised by the East of Scotland lodge, is one of the biggest in Scotland. She is expected to speak about inclusion and combatting sectarianism at the event, but her decision to attend is being seen by some as provocative.

However, Foster herself has more direct experience of the effects of sectarianism than probably anyone in Scotland. She lived through an IRA attempt to kill her father – an RUC reservist – as a child and as a teenager she was on a school bus that was targeted by an IRA bomb, yet went on to work alongside former IRA commander Martin McGuinness in the Northern Irish Assembly, until the power-sharing agreement broke down over the renewable heat incentive scandal.

In comparison to the Northern Irish experience of bombs and armed conflict, the songs and name calling of Scottish sectarianism may seem childish and insignificant, yet it is all on a continuum and it is widespread and widely tolerated compared to other forms of bigotry.

James Dornan, SNP MSP for Glasgow Cathcart, who has vowed to devote himself to tackling sectarianism and is behind the new cross-party group, is concerned at how sectarianism is still accepted.

He told Holyrood: “I think that one of the really important things is the only sort of group behaviour that seems to be still acceptable is sectarianism.

“I’m not saying that homophobic behaviour doesn’t exist, or racism, or misogyny, but they’re all now recognised as being unacceptable behaviours.

“Sectarianism isn’t in the same way. People sort of see it as being not nice, but it’s not seen in the same way as those others, and my aim is that if I can get people to see that sectarian language is every bit as offensive and dangerous as these other types of language, racist language and homophobic language, misogyny and stuff, that, I think, would be big thing.”

Hate crime statistics, too, attest to the extent of the problem. Religion is the third highest aggravating factor in hate crimes, after race and sexual orientation.

But while race-related hate crime has been on a downward trend since 2011-12, religious hate crime has not shown the same pattern.

Although religious hate crime dropped by five per cent in 2017-18, it remained higher than in the years 2013-16 following an increase of 12 per cent from 2015-16 to 2016-17, when crimes prosecuted under the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act were included, or 14 per cent when they were not.

The introduction and then repeal of the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act has made exact comparisons difficult, with some offences that would have previously been prosecuted as hate crimes coming under that offence instead and coming back under hate crime las from 2017-18, but there is no sign in the figures of the trend towards decline in the figures.

According to Scottish Government analysis, abuse of Catholics accounted for half of religiously aggravated hate crimes, 319 of the 642 cases that had a religious aggravation element.

Protestantism was the second highest religious-related aggravation, accounting for 174, or 27 per cent, of the crimes.

Suggestions of causes are familiar.

A survey for YouthLink Scotland and ScotCen Social Research earlier this year found that 76 per cent of respondents thought that football was to blame for sectarianism, while 73 per cent identified Orange marches, 63 per cent Irish Republican marches and 63 per cent cited the internet and social media as key factors.

Around 70 per cent had seen sectarian posts on social media and nearly three-quarters felt it harmed Scotland’s image and reputation.

Attempts to tackle the issue are not new. As Patrick Harvie pointed out during a recent debate on hate crime in the Scottish Parliament: “Parliament has debated these matters long and hard, and many times, pretty much since the beginning of devolution.”

Harvie mentioned the work of Lib Dem Donald Gorrie who pushed through an amendment to the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill in 2003, forcing courts to impose tougher sentences on anyone found guilty of religiously motivated violence.

James Dornan ran a consultation last year on a strict liability bill that would make football clubs responsible for the behaviour of their fans, in a similar way that a landlord of a pub can lose their licence for not controlling those drinking in it.

It has been suggested that strict liability could lead to clubs being forced to play games in private, being docked points or being fined for failure to control their fans. Such measures are already in place in Europe.

While Dornan has put the bill on hold temporarily, pending the results of Bracadale’s hate crime review, he tells Holyrood he will continue with it “if it’s required”.

Asked about his motivation for tackling sectarianism, Dornan mentions the lack of action by football’s governing bodies.

He explains: “What made me do it was there was clearly no move from the football authorities. Clearly no move.

“There was the trouble at Parkhead where there was hanging effigies, Rangers’ fans smashed the toilets and the two clubs, instead of saying, ‘We need to get this sorted’, the two clubs blamed each other’s fans for whatever had happened.

“And then there was the trouble at the cup final with Hibs and Rangers and at the end of it, when you saw hundreds of people on the park fighting at various levels, the SFA’s report was, ‘Nothing to see here, move on’.

“And I thought, ‘You don’t care. You either don’t care or you don’t have the powers, and either way, we have to do it’.”

Dornan also suggests that funding could be used as leverage to persuade the footballing bodies to act, noting “persuading sometimes means saying, ‘Here is what you get for what you do, this is what you have to do to get what you’re after’.”

Dave Scott, from anti-sectarian charity Nil by Mouth (NBM), agrees on strict liability and on funding. He points out that he is expected to provide clear evaluation of outcomes as a result of the funding his charity is given, yet Scottish football is funded to the tune of millions from the public purse without being held seriously to account.

Scott told Holyrood: “In Scotland, one of the things I think that has hamstrung legislation is that football is seen as different, so at the moment, there’s huge government investment in terms of Hampden Park and the professional game of football.

“We’re trying to say to the government, well look, on one hand, you’re investing in football, but we need to extract a bigger price from them. Hampden Park is pretty much built with lottery money and public money, why are you about to give Hampden Park for £2 million to the SFA, which is dysfunctional?”

He also maintains that whistleblowers’ reports on sectarian behaviour at matches have been ignored by the Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL), which would not be allowed happen on other issues.

“Now if a whistleblower came in public and talked about housing policy, childcare policy, things like that, the parliament would look into it and ask questions.

“It doesn’t do that with Scottish football and Scottish football say, ‘We regulate ourselves’.

“We need to get it back into the committee stage and I would like to see the Health and Sport Committee do an investigation.”

The SPFL said it was “fully committed to working towards preventing and, where present, eliminating incidents of unacceptable conduct within our stadia” and that it had “already taken significant steps to address the issue”.

A spokesperson told Holyrood: “Last year, following agreement with the Scottish Government, we began sharing and collating information at regular intervals throughout the season with both the Scottish Government and Police Scotland regarding incidents of unacceptable conduct at SPFL matches.

“Our collaboration with the Scottish Government and Police Scotland demonstrates the SPFL’s ongoing efforts to work with key stakeholders and help Scottish football address effectively any instances of unacceptable conduct at SPFL matches identified and reported by SPFL match delegates and Police Scotland.”

Labour MSP James Kelly, who was responsible for the member’s bill to repeal the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act, disagrees with the level of focus on football.

“I’m not trying to sweep football aside and say football should be excluded from any analysis of it. However, I think the government’s attempt to address this back in 2011 was too simplistic, in the sense that they thought if we introduce legislation around football, that will deal with sectarianism.”

Kelly explains that he would like three things: “We need a proper discussion that involves a wide range of people and has consent, there needs to be an emphasis around education and community projects which teach people respect and that sectarian and hateful attitudes are unacceptable, and thirdly, in order to support that, you need proper funding.”

While football may have been the focus of heated debate, other initiatives have been going on. In March, the Scottish Government announced £515,000 for nine projects to tackle sectarianism, covering teacher and youth work training, engagement with online communities and a school pupil exchange programme to Northern Ireland’s Corrymeela community. This follows 108 projects that have received £13.5m over the past six years.

While Kelly is critical about the decrease in Scottish Government funding from previous levels, Scott is relaxed about the decrease, saying: “We feel that half a million pounds is proportionate to the problem”.

Nil by Mouth is one of the most prominent organisations working specifically to combat sectarianism, and received the biggest share – £95,000 – of the funding.

NBM’s only publicly funded programme at the moment, ‘Beyond religion and belief’, is centred on dealing with sectarian attitudes in the workplace and in training. It works with apprentices, teachers, in industrial settings and with housing providers.

Since its launch, it has worked with around115 employers, ranging from small employers to Citizens Advice Bureaux and to employability schemes and modern apprentices.

Last year, they worked with 40 employers and 2,000 people. Some of that was one-to-one work as part of a disciplinary process, where people had posted something sectarian on the internet or said something sectarian in work. This includes in several local authorities.

Scott says: “You’d be astonished by the behaviour of how some people operate in workplaces now.

“We worked in one workplace where they hadn’t employed a Catholic for 40 years and they were bought over by a Welsh company and the first thing that the Welsh company did was employ somebody who was a Catholic because they didn’t know any different.

“And every password was changed to 1690, you know, the Battle of the Boyne, the staffroom was painted blue, those things happened.

“There’s legal firms that only employ Catholics and Protestants in Scotland.

“I’m not saying it’s endemic, but there are those places that hold on to it.”

Nil by Mouth also works in schools, normally between denominational and non-denominational schools. The Scottish Government funded that until 2016 and is now a legacy scheme that can attract other support.

Other initiatives don’t cost any money, such as a challenge with City of Glasgow College students to design an anti-sectarian campaign, which this year was ‘Sing Something Else’ where pupils from Catholic and non-denominational schools jointly make up alternative, non-sectarian football anthems.

Asked if he’s seeing any progress, Scott says there have been “huge changes, big, big changes”. But Scott maintains that the most common suggestions for abolishing sectarianism are not right.

“The solution that people have to sectarianism, the most common ones are: ban all Orange marches, close all Catholic schools, merge the Old Firm.

“What you tend to find are that people who want to do those are people that are not invested in them. The solution is always to give away someone else’s sweets.

“The key to dealing with sectarianism is the idea of identity and how you help someone to channel their identity in a more positive way to say that you can be British, you can be Irish, you can be Catholic.”

He suggests that Arlene Foster coming over may not be a bad thing, depending on what she says, because people will listen to her that wouldn’t listen to him.

“Her experience of sectarianism and violence is a lot more substantial than some of the people criticising her,” he says.

“That’s not to say I agree with the Orange Order. I don’t on those things.

“But I think you’ve got to realise there’s an Orange culture in Scotland, there’s a Green culture in Scotland and how do we actually accommodate these cultures in a way that allows them to have things that matter without this need in certain elements of it to be provocative and to try and go out of their way to antagonise one another?”

Kelly says the same. “I think what it’s all about is respect.

“It’s not about changing people’s identity. People have a right to identify as being part of certain religions and to celebrate the traditions around those religions.

“But where there is any hateful behaviour, that is unacceptable.”

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