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Remarkable change in standing of Catholics

Until the 1990s sectarianism in Scotland was treated like the way a bad smell might be ignored at a polite dinner party.

Everyone was aware of it, but nobody said anything. The Pandora's Box was opened by the composer James McMillan when he gave his controversial lecture on "Scotland's Shame" in 1999. Scottish executives and governments held sectarian summits which were often much ado about nothing but occasionally did result in anti-sectarian legislation. The "Bombs in the Post" outrage triggered another wave of soul-searching, heated discussion and further legislation.

Scotland is the only jurisdiction in the world, where Irish Catholics and Protestants settled, which still feels the need to pass anti-sectarian legislation and promote anti-sectarian strategies in the new millennium. A convincing answer as to why that is the case has to be central to understanding sectarianism in this country and, hence, fundamental to an authoritative enquiry into its incidence and nature, and any resulting recommendations.

The suggestion is often made that sectarian attitudes fester in many de-industrialised small towns and villages. It is almost as if communities which lost much since the 1980s have looked to sectarian traditions to at least maintain a sense of collective identity and self worth. Does the evidence support this perception and, if so, what is to be done?

Catholics in Scotland aged below the age of 55 finally reached occupational parity with their fellow Scots in the 1990s. They occupy the highest positions in government, universities, cultural institutions and the judiciary. Catholic Church leaders no longer regard Orange zealots as the enemy; they have been overtaken by the bogey of aggressive secularism. Dr Duncan Morrow's group advising Scottish Government ministers on sectarianism may indeed find evidence of endemic anti-Catholicism in the country but it has failed to prevent a remarkable transformation in the status of many Catholics.

Peter Kearney, the Catholic church's spokesman in Scotland, and I can agree about a number of things. Among those who call for the abolition of Catholic schools are anti-Catholic bigots but they are not the only voices who do so. Others sincerely but wrongly believe denominational schooling fosters sectarianism. The campaign by a group of aggressive secularists against the last Papal visit brought intolerance to a new level of venomous intensity, probably because anti-Christian forces see the Catholic Church as their major enemy. But thereafter Mr Kearney and I part company. We seem to be living in different countries. He seems not to be aware that sectarian discrimination in the labour market had disappeared by the 1980s, and that, by the 1990s, most male Catholics in Scotland were on an equal occupational footing with their fellow Scottish citizens. They play a full and rightful part in national life.

The Catholic Church and its leadership has a much higher profile and influence in Scotland than any other faith. All of this hardly suggests the plight of the nation's Catholics to be that of an oppressed minority. The most recent polling suggests Catholics are more likely to support enhanced measures of devolution than the Scottish average, again indicating that they feel more at home in this country than Mr Kearney implies.

Much of his case rests on conclusions drawn from Crown Office data on sectarian-aggravated offences apparently showing that Catholics are more likely to be victims than perpetrators .But Mr Kearney ought be careful. Quite literally, the jury is still out on the interpretation of these figures.Their implications are slippery, ambiguous and more complex than he allows. As with other aspects of this vexatious topic, cool and impartial academic analysis must dissect the facts. Careful work by social scientists and statisticians has not yet been undertaken.When it is, I am sure Mr Kearney and I will reflect on the findings with deep interest.

Tom Devine is Senior Research Professor in History at Edinburgh University

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