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Agenda: Re-educating offenders will help banish the spectre of sectarianism

Since 2003, more than 6000 people have been charged with sectarian offences in Scotland ranging from violence, vandalism, verbal abuse, to posting threatening messages on the internet.

It's easy to bandy figures around but we should never forget that behind every statistic lies a person.

The charity Nil By Mouth was set up by Glasgow teenager Cara Henderson in response to the brutal sectarian murder of her friend Mark Scott by Jason Campbell as he walked home from a football match in 1996.

Cara was determined to do all she could to prevent others from suffering a similar fate to Mark. Yet what is too often overlooked is her equal determination to prevent others ending up like Jason.

For some young people identity isn't an option or a choice. Grudge and grievance, real or imagined, are unthinkingly handed down from one generation to the next.

Sectarianism thrives on the idea that there has always been a "them" and there has always been an "us"; outdated mindsets endure only as long as they can carry people along in this tide, safe in the knowledge that "things have always been this way".

Three men recently became involved with NBM and their stories are worth telling.

The first lost someone he loved to bigotry through a mindless act of violence. It has taken him a long time to talk about it; to shine a light on the grief, the loss, the anger and the quiet tears which still flow all these years on.

He finally pitched up at our office and told us that it was time. We took him to an area with a fierce reputation for sectarianism to meet a group of teenagers.

Loud, boisterous and full of the certainties of youth, they were far from a pliable audience, with several clearly expressing sectarian views at the outset.

Yet, by the end of his talk, many were visibly shaken, their old certainties challenged by the realities of sectarianism.

The second contacted us asking to become a volunteer. He told me about his past; about the violence, the hate, the time and energy wasted on fixating on "the other".

Ironically, it was religion that pulled him out of the darkness. He realised that anger and aggression were a poor substitute for the peace of mind and sense of direction his newly-found Christian faith offered him.

His story is a powerful one and the irony of religion trumping sectarianism shouldn't be taken lightly.

The third man came to our attention after he pled guilty to posting sectarian abuse on the internet. Encouraged by his family, he attended several of our workshops, where he heard others talking about the impact of sectarianism on their own lives and felt the anger and sadness of victims.

As he listened I watched this young man burning with shame as the grim reality of his actions finally dawned.

All three of these men have been scarred by sectarianism, yet each posseses the terrible gift of being able to use this scarring to serve as a lesson, or a warning, to others.

This is why NBM is campaigning for a mandatory rehabilitation scheme for anyone convicted of sectarian offences, involving victims, charities and past offenders themselves.

We are not naive enough to think that such a scheme would change every participant.

Yet our experience has shown that there are those prepared to grasp the opportunity, to acknowledge their mistakes and to help challenge attitudes they themselves once held.

If, as a society, we are to defeat sectarianism then we must adopt a twin approach in educating our children and re-educating offenders.

A mandatory rehabilitation scheme for anyone convicted of sectarian offences would tackle both issues in tandem.

And the time to do it is now.

Dave Scott is the campaign director of Nil By Mouth.

Contextual targeting label: 
Families

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