So What Should We Do About Sectarianism?

It has been described as “Scotland’s Shame”. And indeed according to a new report published today by the Scottish Government and based on findings from the 2014 Scottish Social Attitudes survey, much of the Scottish public appears to agree that it is a problem. But what should be done about it is, perhaps, a rather more controversial issue.

According to today’s report, no less than 88% think that sectarianism (that is bigotry and discrimination towards Protestants and/or Catholics) is a problem in Scotland.  True, most do not think it is a problem everywhere – as many as 69% say that it is only a problem in some parts of Scotland, with Glasgow and the west of Scotland most commonly mentioned. But the perception that it is a problem in at least some places is felt all across the country from Kirkwall to Kirkcudbright.

And what do people think contributes most to the perpetuation of sectarianism? In one word, ‘football’.  As many as 88% reckon it is a contributor and no less than 55% think that it contributes more than any other aspect of Scottish life.  With just 5% of those who describe themselves as Protestant claiming to be a Celtic supporter, and just 3% of Catholics, a Rangers fan, one can see why the ‘Old Firm’ clubs in particular might still be regarded as perpetuators of religious division in Scotland.

The Scottish Government has, of course, taken a robust, indeed controversial stance towards sectarian chanting by Scottish football fans.  The Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012 makes offensive singing and chanting at football grounds illegal. However, it has not always proved easy to secure a conviction and Labour are now committed to repealing the Act.

What does seem to be clear is that some of the language at which the Act is directed is indeed not socially acceptable to most Scots. Only 9% say that that they would find the casual use in a conversation of the term ‘Fenian’ to refer to a Catholic as acceptable, while only another 12% reckon that ‘it depends’. The figures for using ‘Hun’ to refer to a Protestant in such circumstances are not dissimilar.

Still, while sectarian chanting on the football terrace has been banned, nobody has as yet suggested banning football itself. But when it comes to some of the other aspects of Scottish life that are also widely thought to contribute to sectarianism it appears that banning or getting rid of them is just what many people in Scotland might be prepared to do.

After football, what people are next most likely to pick out as contributors to sectarianism are Orange Order marches (79%) and their Irish Republican counterparts (70%). As many as 16% actually regard one or the other type of march as the principal contributor. Meanwhile, no less than 56% say that they oppose the right of Irish Republican organisations to march on the streets in Scotland, while 53% adopt the same attitude towards Orange Order marches. Nearly everyone who opposes one kind of march also opposes the other, so it is not a case of ‘my marches are OK, but yours are not’. Rather, these views reflect a reluctance to see either manifestation appearing on Scotland’s streets – albeit that a separate Stirling University study suggests that the reactions of those who accidentally witness a march are not necessarily as negative as perhaps we might anticipate.

Meanwhile, also relatively high on the list of things thought to contribute to sectarianism – they are selected as contributors by 37% – are denominational schools. Here too public opinion is none too favourable to their existence, even though they continue to have the support of all of Scotland’s principal political parties.  As many as 43% say they oppose having such schools, while only 24% are in favour, though opposition has fallen somewhat since the question was last asked in 2007 (when 50% were opposed).

But any attempt at banning marches or getting rid of denominational schools would, of course, raise its own difficulties. A blanket ban on Orange Order and Irish Republican marches would contravene the European Convention on Human Rights. Meanwhile, although many people who not identify as Catholics are opposed to denominational schools, no less than 62% of Catholics are in favour of them, and would doubtless regard their elimination as itself an act of religious discrimination. Agreeing that sectarianism is a problem is one thing; finding a policy solution could well be quite another.

Topics: National identity & cultural issues

About the author

John Curtice is Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, Senior Research Fellow at ScotCen, and Chief Commentator on the What Scotland Thinks website.