IN 1998 when the European Convention on Human Rights became a cornerstone of Scots Law a ripple of satisfied approval passed across liberal Scotland.

The nation was now set fair on its voyage of devolved self-discovery fortified by perhaps the most beautiful, secular testament to human dignity ever created. No matter what might befall Scotland and how it might be governed in future the basic human rights of its citizens, respecting their faith, sexual orientation, race and political beliefs were now deemed to be sacred. In future there might still be greed and corruption and malfeasance at the heart of public life and in the grand offices of state but the people had now been empowered by something greater than them all.

The beauty of the ECHR lies not merely in the clarity and nobility of its language but in the way that no detail pertinent to the peace and happiness of the individual is overlooked. Article 2 in the substantive protocols to the ECHR has this to say about education. “No person shall be denied the right to education. In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and to teaching, the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching is in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.”

This protocol seemed to reinforce another great legislative testament to Scottish enlightened and progressive thinking, the 1918 Education Act. This guaranteed the right of Scotland’s Catholic population to have their children educated by the state according to the norms and mores of their faith. The Act wasn’t an endorsement of religious indoctrination; it didn’t grant a licence for sectarianism. It was simply an acknowledgment of the important role that faith plays in the lives of many of its citizens. Following the harrowing experiences of the Great War it was also an acknowledgement by the state that Catholic children, ravaged by high levels of malnutrition and the effects of multi-deprivation, might be needed to fight any future existential threat to our freedoms and democracy.

For more than a century now Scotland’s Catholic schools have flourished and are regularly found to have excelled, under strict inspection, beyond the boundaries of their initial remit. Over several decades when the influx of Irish-Catholic refugees fleeing the Great Famine risked inflaming tensions with the indigenous Protestant working classes the existence of these schools has helped in the process of peaceful integration. They act as bridges where the old and cherished beliefs of a religious minority can meet and converse with the greater Scotland beyond. In disadvantaged neighbourhoods they continue to perform heroically and offer children in these places hope and a slender chance of a rewarding life. Scotland should be proud of them. And we Scots of Irish-Catholic stock should be proud too that we live in a country which cherishes difference and diversity and values our community’s distinctive contribution to its public life.

Nicola Sturgeon recognised this last year at a celebration to mark 100 years of Scotland’s Catholic schools. She said: “2018 is the centenary of the legislation that brought Roman Catholic schools into Scotland’s state education system. In that time, Catholic schools have made a tremendous contribution to Scottish education, and this is something we want to see continue. We value the contribution that Catholic schools make to modern Scotland. We want that contribution to continue in the years ahead.”

One year on from the First Minister’s eloquent endorsement attacks on Catholic schools remain predictably depressing. The most recent follow skirmishes in Glasgow earlier this month when an Irish republican parade was confronted by protesters. Predictably, this was portrayed as another outbreak of religious sectarianism. Yet, it probably owed more to the current heightened tensions surrounding the prospect of a hard Brexit, the Irish border and inflamed British nationalism. In a remarkably ignorant and badly-written article a former deputy chief constable in Police Scotland used this isolated and rare occurrence to justify shutting Catholic schools. “We also need to look at the roots of the problem and question what divides us,” he wrote. “And if we do that then we simply cannot escape questioning our system of religiously segregated education.” His words were a sinister reminder of why large sections of the Irish-Catholic community traditionally beheld Scotland’s police forces with deep mistrust.

The independent Advisory Committee on Tackling Sectarianism set up by the Scottish Government has produced several wide-ranging and exhaustive reports. These specifically and unequivocally stated that Catholic schools were not even remotely a cause of sectarianism in Scotland. It also pointed out that, in any case, sectarianism was largely in retreat in modern Scotland.

So, in the absence of any evidence that Catholic schools contribute to sectarianism and in spite of counter-data that they actually foster multi-culturalism and tolerance what lies at the root of these attacks? Let’s speak frankly here. The people who are most vociferous in their hostility towards Catholic schools also purport to cherish diversity and equality. Yet they want these only within the bounds of a narrow and illiberal agenda. It is group-think that relies on old and discredited tropes that were once used to alienate and target minorities. These people simply don’t like the idea of Catholic schools but have nothing to justify their hostility. Each year they are reduced to scanning Scotland’s cultural horizon looking for any little wrinkles that can be swollen into false outrage.

Professor Sir Tom Devine, Scotland’s foremost historian, said of this: “If there was one action certain to inflame sectarian tensions in Scotland it would be any suggestion from the Scottish ‎Government of an intention to abolish Catholic schools. That would rightly be regarded as an attack on the Catholic community itself.”

Laughably, the same people who attack Catholic schools are often to be found in the cultural vanguard that disdains Orange Parades. Of course, nice, well-dressed climate and political protests where we all stop for croissants and smoothies at some chi-chi deli are deemed acceptable. But Orange parades where the marchers, often poor, are hanging on to that pillar of their existence that lends meaning to their lives are considered beyond the pale. Not for the first time this Scot of Irish-Catholic heritage finds more common ground with the Orange Order than with the intolerant liberals who seek to ban their walks. It seems that we have a common and implacable enemy.