Religious Sectarianism: Scotland's Disease
By John Wight
The news that letter bombs intended for current Celtic manager Neil Lennon, Glasgow QC Paul McBride, and former Labour MSP Trish Godman were intercepted recently has focused the minds of politicians, the police and the entire Scottish establishment on the fact that the roots of religious sectarianism are as firmly embedded in Scottish society today as they’ve ever been.
Religious sectarianism, football and the west of Scotland have long been inextricably linked, constituting component parts of the region’s culture, social traditions and political terrain. For almost as long as they have existed the political turbulence and social divisions which have defined society in the North of Ireland have found an echo in the west of Scotland; though not usually to the same deadly effect.
Much of the population of the west of Scotland trace their roots and cultural heritage to Ireland, from whence waves of migrants have made the short journey across the Irish Sea to Scotland over centuries; the vast majority seeking sanctuary from starvation during the Irish Famine of the mid-19th century, or compelled to by economic necessity, persecution, or both in the years before and after.In fact both Scotland and Ireland’s histories are intertwined.
According to many historians, Scotland’s very name derives from the name of an ancient Irish tribe, the Scotti, who mounted raids on the west coast of Scotland as far back to Roman times before migrating to the country sometime in the 7th century and subsequently fanning out east and northwards to either exterminate or assimilate the native Picts and their culture on the way to forging a new Scottish identity in conjunction with the many other ethnic groups and cultural influences that arrived later.
The Celtic Football Club was formed in 1888 specifically to raise funds to help feed Glasgow’s large Irish immigrant population, the vast majority poor and destitute and huddled together in squalor in and around the East End of Glasgow. It was the idea of an Irish Marist Brother, originally named Andrew Kerins but who took on the name Brother Walfrid and who himself had moved to Glasgow in 1870, where he dedicated his life to working to alleviate the suffering of his Irish compatriots.
Inevitably, in conditions of extreme poverty and hardship which the working class endured in Britain throughout the 19th century into the 20th century, the arrival of large numbers of immigrants in port cities like Glasgow, Liverpool and Cardiff created tension and hostility. The Irish who immigrated to the United States around the same period were also met with extreme hostility, for example, and in fact a political movement, the Nativist movement, was formed and gained traction for a few years, particularly in the eastern states in reaction to the waves of European and particularly Catholic immigrants who were arriving in the country.
In Scotland the hostility directed towards the Irish migrant population was made worse by the added ingredient of Protestant fundamentalism that traced its history back to the Scottish Reformation of the 16th century and Scotland’s status as a redoubt of Presbyterianism thereafter. The role that was played by Presbyterian Scotch Planters (Scottish settler colonists) in repressing the native Catholic population throughout Ulster during the 17th century, forcibly expelling them from their land and starving them from their homes, was also a source of continuing hostility, which has also fed into the west of Scotland’s enduring sectarian history.
Though many would assert that structural discrimination against Roman Catholics in Scotland no longer exists, recent sets of statistics have revealed that in areas such as crime and social exclusion Catholics fare worse than any other demographic. Back in January the Scottish Prison Service released figures which showed that 30 percent of the nation’s prison population are Catholics, nearly double the percentage of Catholics in the population as a whole. Back in 2007 the leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, led calls for a government investigation into the findings of a census which revealed that 19 percent of the country’s Catholic population occupied 10 percent of the most deprived housing areas, compared to 14 percent of Muslims and 8 percent who described themselves as Church of Scotland. He also seized on figures which revealed that in 64 percent of cases of sectarian-motivated abuse or assault in Scotland the victims were Catholics. At the time the Cardinal’s spokesman said:
“It is a matter of some concern that Catholics are disproportionately represented in Scotland’s prison population and are more likely to occupy the poorest-quality housing. Wider research on these phenomena would be very helpful in attempting to ascertain what, if any, social trends underpin such disadvantage.”
The truth is that anti-Catholic discrimination and sectarianism continues to scar and blight Scottish society, particularly in the west of the country, with the latest shocking news that three prominent Roman Catholics, each with a connection to Celtic Football Club, have been targeted with letter bombs its latest and very public manifestation.Relations between the fans of Glasgow’s Old Firm clubs have always been defined by the religious and cultural differences that predominate, with songs reflecting those differences the norm throughout football grounds in Scotland whenever one of either team visits. When both teams play each other the hatred is palpable.Celtic fans would argue that Irish rebel songs are politically and not religiously motivated, and objectively in claiming this they are correct. However, there is no getting away from the fact that Celtic are regarded by wider Scottish society, the club’s fans and its hierarchy as a Catholic institution and that songs celebrating the club’s Irish identity are perceived as anti-Protestant.
Songs glorifying the IRA certainly fall into this category, though over recent years these have become less prevalent and are sung by a minority rather than the majority who sang them throughout the 1970s and 80s at Celtic Park.Rangers are a different matter altogether, however, illustrated in the fact that the club is currently under investigation by UEFA over the continued sectarian chanting of its fans. Indeed on any given Saturday at Ibrox you will hear songs celebrating being “up to our knees in Fenian blood,” and a particularly offensive song celebrating the Irish Famine. This latter - The Famine Song - has been deemed racist in the courts and yet it was still being sung by Rangers fans as recently as the Carling Cup Final at Hampden between the Old Firm last month, when afterwards both sets of fans were lauded for their good behaviour by Strathclyde Police and Scottish Justice Minister Kenny McAskill.
Surely this typifies the extent to which heads are turned the other way when it comes to the issue of religious sectarianism in Scotland, with politicians and the police alike failing to tackle it head on: the first motivated by the fear of alienating potential voters; the second by institutional apathy towards an issue that is so embedded in the nation’s culture it seems, well, normal; the natural state of things.
The prevalence of Orange and Loyalist flute bands throughout Scotland consitutes further evidence of the extent to which an accommodation with anti-Catholic and anti-Irish bigotry in Scotland has been tolerated in the country, and with few exceptions even the left has failed to deal with the issue, again motivated by fear of alienating potential support and votes.
The Rangers hierarchy it must be said haven’t helped matters by refusing to acknowledge the culpability of their own fans in response to UEFA’s current investigation; instead claiming that the club is being unfairly treated.Celtic manager Neil Lennon has been a special target of hatred on the part of proponents of anti-Catholic and anti-Irish bigots in Scotland. Since joining Celtic first as a player in 2000 and latterly as a coach and now manager he’s been assaulted in the street, received numerous death threats, had bullets sent to him in the mail and now a letter bomb. He was also forced to stop playing for Northern Ireland after receiving a death threat from loyalist paramilitaries when he came out publicly with his support for the concept of united Ireland national football team. In Scotland he and his family now live under constant 24 hour protection and he daren’t step out for a social event or evening without putting his life at risk.
It has become common currency here in the West to point to the religious and ethnic intolerance that exists in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq as lamentable evidence of the regressive nature of those societies. However, the social disease of religious sectarianism in the 21st century in Scotland says more about the true state of Scottish society than a hundred tourist brochures and sadly seems no closer to being cured or eradicated.