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Cara Henderson: in the Catholic debate, we must all listen to ourselves

Nil by Mouth founder CARA HENDERSON reflects on this week's re-opening of the debate over sectarianism and bigotry in Scotland

Cara Henderson
Cara Henderson

It has been twelve and a half years since I first wrote a letter to The Herald, the newspaper my parents and teachers read.

At the time I was lashing out. I was angry and I was frustrated. I didn't understand why, when I was at university, in a foreign country, with my whole adult life still ahead of me, I couldn't just move on; why we all couldn't just move on.

I am 33 now. I still don't understand and I suspect deep down nobody does.

When you're young, you assume that someone knows the answer to every question you could ever think of. It's one of the privileges of childhood. And it is one of the reasons why we don't try harder to think of more questions.

But as you get older and become more precocious, disappointment intervenes. Some people are more sensitive to this than others. These are the people who believe that if all else fails, they will somehow be able to work it out.

I envy these people as I now envy the child of my childhood. I wish I had asked more asked questions. It is easier to ask questions when you still believe someone knows the answer.

This is why the debate triggered by (Catholic Church spokesman) Peter Kearney's letter this week has provoked such strong and conflicting emotions in me and why, after more than a decade of "moving on", I have now decided to speak out.

On the one hand, I agree with a lot, if not everything he has said, on the issue of sectarianism.

I agree that anti-Catholicism was for a long time the elephant in the room. James MacMillan said it and many other people have no doubt said it since.

I thought it, but I never did dare say it. However, I will say it now.

Scotland was, and perhaps still is, anti-Catholic. But there are many different Scotlands, or at least Scotland is the construct of many different perspectives.

There are many people in Scotland who are anti-Catholic, but there are also many people (perhaps not as many, but I leave that to the statisticians and social scientists to hopefully work out) who are anti-Protestant, anti-English, anti-British, anti-Irish, anti-Muslim. We all know there are many anti-Celtic and anti-Rangers fans. The list could go on.

I remember hearing a radio programme in which a psychologist said the quickest way to forge an alliance with someone is to identify a common complaint. A common enemy will seal the deal.

And this is what makes me uneasy about the debate this week. Are we at risk of putting answers before questions? Are we at risk of framing the debate in a way which leads to a series of dead-ends so that we retreat into our usual cul-de-sacs?

I have a personal view on the issue of faith schools, but I am not going to share it. To do so would align me with a particular group and therefore alienate me from others who don't share that view.

But regardless of what that view is, I fear that the debate has been framed in such a way that those who disagree with the principle of faith schools risk being seen as part of the problem; as evidence of a prevalent and pernicious form of anti-Catholicism, or at least anti-religion.

Whatever the answers, and there will be many and sometimes conflicting ones, above all else we need to keep asking questions. We need to keep the debate open. We can't shut it down, either by sweeping it under the carpet or by setting up conceptual dead-ends.

Even if the respected statisticians and social scientists conclude that Scotland is, proportionately speaking, more anti-Catholic or anti-Protestant, is there anything to be gained by framing, and I would argue, limiting the debate in these terms?

There might be and it is certainly right to ask the question. Peter Kearney has made an important contribution to the debate, provocative as his words have been.

However, my own view, for what it is worth, is it is probably not the right way to go.

Charities and anti-sectarian initiatives like Nil by Mouth and Sense over Sectarianism do need to justify their continued use of public money. The question needs to be asked whether it was, and still is, a good use of that money, particularly in these straitened times.

It is true that in more than a decade since Nil by Mouth was formed, the problem hasn't gone away. In some respects, it may even be worse, though I think the process of highlighting a problem inevitably serves to magnify it, at least at the start of that process.

But is that evidence that the approach advocated by Nil by Mouth campaigns director, Dave Scott, in his letter to The Herald, is wrong? As he said, put simply, the problem is a fear of difference and we need to explore every avenue open to us to understand these fears and break the depressing cycle of bigotry.

Dave is the type of guy that can tell a good story. He makes you want to listen to him. He's funny and he's kind and he's angry. And together with his colleague Yvonne they do amazing and often thankless, and certainly not a well-paid job, of going into schools and youth groups across Scotland and talking to kids.

And they don't just talk to them about sectarianism, at least not in the lofty and often abstract terms in which it is debated on the pages of the broadsheets (of which I more than any other are guilty).

They ask kids what words like Catholic and Protestant, Hun and Fenian, Irish and Scottish mean. And most importantly they listen to what these kids say and by doing so they help these kids to listen to themselves.

We all need to listen to ourselves, some more than others. Because sometimes we speak loudly and we speak confidently and we speak authoritatively just so that we don't have to listen to ourselves.

Looking back, I do think it was easier to ask questions when I was a kid. In part, this was because I thought someone would always know the answer, but it was also because it was easier to ask questions of myself. I was not as scared of the answers back then, I was not as scared of being wrong.

David Bohm said: "In some sense man is a microcosm of the universe; therefore what man is, is a clue to the universe."

I don't think we can ever know who we really are. But we can find out more about ourselves and through doing so we can find out more about each other.

We can ask questions and the answers, such that they are, can lead to more and more revealing questions. It may not be much, but it is a start. It is something at least.

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