Sectarianism won’t be healed by legislative sticking plaster

It probably seemed like a very good idea at the time.  To start as they mean to go on, to show how they intended to take Scotland forward from the outset, the SNP Government needed a hit-the-ground-running measure.  Something that could be delivered fast and furious and showed the new government in tune with the zeitgeist and in touch with the burning issues of the day.

So, having sidelined sectarianism throughout the first term of government, until events forced the issue to the fore, it has now been placed firmly centre stage.  The rush to outlaw odious expressions and even, thoughts, of sectarianism is causing many brows to furrow, not least because of the legal complexity of the proposed remedy and the haste at which the legislation will be formed.

The First Minister and his government are absolutely right to tackle the issue of sectarianism head on.  It is a blight and a scourge, but its manifestation in football-related ditties and fan forum discussions is but an outward display of a hugely deep-seated problem in our society.  Applying a sticking plaster to the symptoms of this issue or trying to fix a centuries-old malaise in a matter of weeks is the wrong approach.  The Scottish Government’s instinct to address the problems besetting Scottish football is sound – we simply cannot have another season like the last one – but even to focus on sectarianism as a mainly football-related issue is misguided.

There is no quick fix to a problem like sectarianism, and it is multi-faceted in the reasons for its perniciousness.  To only tackle its football-related manifestation by ill thought-out and hasty legislation will simply mask the problem, not resolve it.  Yes, having a statutory offence of incitement to religious hatred might help but there are other sticks and indeed carrots, which need to be applied.

Songs, chants, banter and offensive remarks and anecdotes are tolerated not only by football clubs, the moderators of internet forums and social networking sites, but also by employers, colleagues, family and friends, and even churches.  Frankly, there are grown men who indulge in sectarian bile who should know better, who often hold down responsible jobs and have respectable lives, and use their football allegiance as an escape valve.  Few will even practise any form of religion:  they wear their sectarianism lightly, mostly on match days.

If the newly enacted law is used to make an example of one such, it will send a clear message and encourage others to clean up their act.  But applying the law must sit alongside other measures – a clear signal to football authorities to stop passing the buck, equality training and measures led by significant employers, an approach in schools that amounts to more than banning football colours and a peer pressure education campaign.

But even all this will not unravel the threads that cause sectarianism to persist in our society.  In a welcome move, the First Minister made the link between sectarianism and alcohol misuse in his excellent Taking Scotland Forward speech in the Scottish Parliament.  But its relationship with violence and poverty must also be exposed and addressed.

Just as the poorest whites in the United States choose poorer African Americans as their foe and not their friend in a wider struggle against inequality, so do Catholics and Protestants living cheek by jowl in some of the poorest areas of Scotland.  It is easier for families and communities to turn on each other, to fuel those fires with a sense of religious difference and inequality caused by such difference, than face up to the common enemy in their lives.  Sectarianism cloaks some inconvenient and unpalatable truths in their lives.  The state and the rest of society are complicit in this, for we do not want people united in protesting at their lot in life, and demanding a more equitable fix or distribution of wealth and resources.  Sectarianism has been allowed to fester in certain communities because it suits us, the haves, well.

Moreover, outlawing sectarian thought and deed, will not address the availability of cheap drink, nor the reasons why so many approach every football game as an excuse to get bevvied, nor why so many, once fuelled and fired up by a sense of religious outrage, resort to violence as the most appropriate way to express their feelings.  Violence towards their partner, their children, their friends and family, and towards people they do not even know, their football colours being sufficient flag to justify wholly irrational responses.  To dress it up as religious hatred is to miss the point:  religion has very little to do with the modern phenomenon of sectarianism.

Modern sectarianism, intrinsically linked to poverty, violence and alcohol misuse, is largely (though not exclusively so) a male culture.  Women and weans are bit-part players, along for the ride, the bruises and the broken bones, whether they like it or not.  The reason so many eejits can issue idle threats to opposition players and managers’ safety so casually is because they dole them out daily.  Yet, as a society we tolerate grown men behaving as boors, for it to be acceptable for the tribe to be more important in many cases than family.  We nurture their tribal allegiances by never questioning the appropriateness of them.

Until society as a whole is prepared to tackle the underlying reasons why so many men behave so inordinately badly, using football and religious affiliation as a poor excuse, then sectarianism and its travelling companions of violence, crime and drunkenness will persist.  It will take more than a legislative sticking plaster to heal this particular disease.

12 thoughts on “Sectarianism won’t be healed by legislative sticking plaster

  1. Separate schooling has nothing to do with sectarianism. It doesn’t cause trouble anywhere else. So why should it cause trouble in Scotland?
    If that is the case it is the Scots that are the problem.

    What’s the next step. We all go to the same supermarket and we all go to the same place on holiday and we all live in the same house.
    If separate schooling causes the problem then surely those that go to Shawlands Academy and those that go to Glasgow High School should be at daggers drawn.
    Or is it just teaching people about the Catholic faith that causes the problem?
    That is the implication of this nonsensical “separate school” red herring that pops up every time some halfwits misbehave.

    If however you were to make the case that going to the same school might help to moderate the sectarianism that some children are already infected with due to family and environmental influence then that case could be put.
    But I don’t think it would make a huge amount of difference.
    I have lived in two different Scottish communities in which all the children go to the same school and there still are regular fisticuffs in the streets after OF matches.

    We are talking about the activities of eejits who have their counterparts in every society in the world.
    Their schooling has a lot less effect on them than one might expect.

    • Dave, my argument that separate faith schooling must cease is based exclusively on a wish to see an end to the very serious problem of religious sectarianism that exists within Scotland. I’m neither catholic nor protestant, therefore have no axe to grind here. Catholics and Protestants have every right to continue practicing their faiths but under the circumstances it’s clear that we need to stop segregating children into separate faith schools. I’m not coming from a secularist ideological angle either. I understand and appreciate that faith schools are a huge issue for the Catholic community but this must be grappled with if we are to move on from the madness of sectarianism.

      I would agree that separate faith schooling elsewhere has not contributed to sectarianism to anywhere near the same degree that it has in Scotland and I’m not sure why that is. The only plausible explanation I can think of is that as sectarianism in Scotland is caused by a combination of contributory factors, of which faith schooling is a major one, some or all of these other factors are absent elsewhere.

      Shawlands Academy versus Glasgow High is interesting. Sectarianism still exists but finds more subtle, less extreme, less visible and less violent forms of expression. Sectarianism is bred in homes, schools, universities, workplaces, pubs, schemes and communities across the country. Commercial contracts are won and lost on it. I’ve witnessed it in all these fora.

      I’d like to retract the question to politicians in my previous post. Politicians have a part to play in solving this but they will achieve nothing unless we, the people, are genuinely willing to address it. Have WE the courage?

  2. I cant see how yet another law outlawing something is going to reduce it. If the football side needs to be dealt with – dock the offending clubs points. They’ll soon deal with that side of it.

    Use existing laws on those who send bombs through the post, who incite violence etc.

  3. I agree with your main point: sectarianism won’t be healed by sticking plaster. I think it will be only healed by a number of changes in Scottish society, chief of which will be taking the very difficult decision to stop separating our children from their first day at school by sending them to different schools chosen on the basis of their parents’ religious beliefs. I should explain that I do not believe faith schools to be the only cause of sectarianism but they are part of the problem and the elephant in the room. It will take a long time to solve but the sooner we start, the better. Have our politicians the courage?

    Is modern sectarianism largely (but not exclusively) a male culture? I’d agree that it at least appears to be the case but I wonder if this might be because football, still very much a male sport, is the main delivery mechanism for religious hatred and it is highly visible – I’d say our media is obsessed with football to the virtual exclusion of all others sports. Either way, I feel the need to point out that, as a male, I find religious sectarianism repugnant and disassociate myself from it entirely.

    • Well said Graham

      I can’t believe the there are not more people pointing to the role separate schooling has in the equation. I have nothing against either Protestant or Catholic but taking kids who play in the street together until they are five and then tell them that they can’t go to the same school seems absolutely ridiculous.

      I lived in Berwickshire during my school years and I didn’t even know there was a difference – we all went to the same school…… Only when I moved to the central belt in my mid teens did the divide become obvious….

  4. Caroline

    I’m afraid the reason SNP did not support the Labour Party’s Knife crime suggestions were because they were incoherent, legally incompetent,made no sense and were unenforceable (according to the police). They were no more than a populist knee jerk set of proposals not thought through that fell apart immediately on scrutiny. On examination it was established that they could not be operated at all in the way Labour suggested they could and were no better than the present law which is operating very well. Knife crime is at its lowest level in over 10 years, with those guilty. of knife crimes serving longer sentences that they were under Labour (and under Labour knife crime hit its highest ever level), and with arrest and sentencing left where that should be – with the police and the judges.
    So the completely stupid Labour “policy” as promoted by the Daily Record sank without trace (everytime Boy Baker appeared on the TV in fact).
    I have to say I am not particularly enthused by the new proposals on sectarian crimes. I think that the present laws on drunk and incapable, breach of the peace, discrimination, threatening behaviour and so on, if properly deployed would do the job as well.

    I don’t believe sectarianism has anything to do with religious observance any more. It is tribal.and ,as the Burd points out very eloquently is a scourge in our poorest communities, some of them existing back to back, and it is a way for the disadvantaged (mainly men) to find identity and define themselves.

    It would be useful for us to face the fact that there is along history of deeply ingrained anti-Catholicism, anti Irishism in Scotland’s not very distant past which lives on incoherently today, violently and noisely in some but present to a lesser degree in many others.
    When I was young it was perfectly normal to take the kids to watch and applaud Orange marches, many of them violently sectarian and under minimal control and I can still remember the “No Catholic need apply” addition to advertised vacancies right up the 1960s in Glasgow.
    As was inevitable as time past the Catholic population of West Central Scotland, almost entirely of immigrant stock, became settled and developed a reactive and defensive bigotry in response to the very real discrimination it suffered well into the twentieth century in Scotland.
    The remains of this division is what we face today.
    I have to say, however, that behaviour at football matches has improved out of all recognition compared to what it was like forty and fifty years ago. I have been on the terracings at Ibrox, Hampden and Celtic Park in those days as hundreds of beer bottles,many of them half full, rained down on the crowds and mini riots were played out all around the grounds.
    We didn’t see any of that because the TV cameras weren’t on it . We are encouraging the present nonsense by giving it too much publicity.
    And doesn’t segregating crowds at matches not just perpetuate the problem.
    They should be made to mix and behave themselves.

    • “And doesn’t segregating crowds at matches not just perpetuate the problem. They should be made to mix and behave themselves.”

      Dave, it’s a good point and not one I’ve ever come across before. I quote you not to score a cheap point but to genuinely ask whether it might be a good idea to apply the same logic to schools.

  5. Martin is spot on. The legislation is already there to arrest idiots for sending letter bombs or singing about fenian blood, or indeed the IRA.

    In the case of the singing, it is not the lack of legislation but rather the lack of action which has been the problem hitherto.

    We are in danger of becoming one of the most over legislated countries in the world with three legislatures spewing out laws.

    I really hope that whatever emerges does not give religion another boost in its already disproportionately elevated and protected position in our society.

    I work in a West of Scotland working class town and I have a direct interface with the public. The real issues are as you allude to, poverty, alcohol & drug abuse and people conducting their chaotic and noisy lives in the public realm.

    However, I never seem to encounter sectarianism at all unless in the media.

    Mind you I’m an atheist and a non OF fan!

  6. Act in haste regret at leisure, hate crime, is hate crime, separating it, or pigeonholing is not the answer, dilutes and fragments solutions which will lead to the possibility, that some hate crime is more serious than others..
    In my experience hate crime, its not unique to any creed, sex, race colour or class, and often, each see their hate as more justifiable and understandable by history than the other.
    Hate crime is Hate crime deal with it, and those who pretend they do not support it directly or indirectly, right through establishment and all organisations including the media.

  7. Maybe there’s not a rat, but I’d like to know why we can have such severe sentencing for this and not for knife crime and why we can find prison space for this and not for knife crime because there was no space beforehand and the POA threatened strike action if they put more pressure on the system… and why Mr Salmond said he wasn’t interested in the populist vote on knife crime yet Kenny MacAskill says the public want sectarianism dealt with, so we are dealing with it. There’s a massive inconsistency here and I’m really disappointed in that..

  8. Growing up in Northern Ireland, this was such a part of our life that few people could see it; it was our blind spot. And because it’s a deep rooted belief, sticking plasters will not work.

    One of my favourite quotes comes from Martin Luther King Jr who said that legislation will not change the heart, though it will constrain the heartless. If hearts and minds can’t be changed (a cause dear to my heart), then effective legislation must be in place – and there is a real risk here that this is rushed through unless of course the Lord Advocate and others have been working on it behind the scenes. Hate crime has seen a big increase so it needs to be a priority – but here are my concerns.

    1. The speed it’s being rushed through at – we’ve done that before with major ramifications for appeal further down the line
    2. Why is it being rushed through? Is it because a QC and an MSP have been directly impacted? Please tell me no. While our public representatives deserve our protection, this was exactly the argument I used when it came to my despair at knife crime before I resigned – “what is it going to take, the murder of a politician or judges child, to make people act?” And right now, I’m very concerned that where this has happened, suddenly legislation is a priority, heavy sentences are being suggested where this couldn’t be done with knife crime/violent crime as there was no room in the prison system. Huh? Excuse me if I smell a rat somewhere here.
    3. Are they really that daft to think they can isolate it just in football? Seriously? The Rangers/Celtic thing perpetuates it of course, but it doesn’t just happen there. What are we doing about dealing with this from primary school up? Will the question of segregated education be addressed as an element of this? See point 2 then about a rat.

    What’s the real story, morning glory?

    • Good question Caroline. I’m not sure I share your unease at smelling a rat but I agree wholeheartedly with the hearts and minds approach. Sectarianism is so invidious and so entrenched that no matter how many are prosecuted and convicted, it will persist. MLK, as usual, articulates it so eloquently.

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