IN the aftermath of the appalling “riot” by Rangers supporters in George Square, two themes have emerged that we find unhelpful and alarming. 

First is the impression that the events in George Square are representative of a much wider and insidious anti-Catholicism in Scottish society. The second theme is the claim that the term “sectarianism” serves – perhaps deliberately – to distract attention from the “real problem” of anti-Catholicism and anti-Irish racism.

Here, as long-standing scholars of these matters, we wish to put forward a different reading of contemporary Scotland. It is important, we feel, to resist alarmist claims, flawed conclusions and deliberately exaggerated rhetoric.

Hostility to Catholicism has had very deep and enduring roots in the history of Scotland over the last four centuries. The Scottish Reformation was a rejection of the old faith and rule from Rome.

The nation defined itself for centuries thereafter, in terms of both religion and popular culture, as a bitter enemy to Catholicism and the Papacy. After 1707, the two ancient foes of England and Scotland were soon able to bond within the parliamentary Union because of mutual detestation of – and conflict with – the Catholic powers of France and Spain that brought in the global wars from 1756 to 1815.

Then, in the 19th century, came mass Irish Catholic immigration, threatening not only the jobs of Scottish workers but the Protestant identity of Scotland itself.

There were more Catholic migrants in Scotland per head of population than in England and Wales by the First World War and their concentration in the industrial areas of the western lowlands magnified their new alien presence within the host society.

They become the “other”, not real Scots but a malign force in the Victorian and Edwardian periods, hated and feared as the vectors of social ills: epidemic diseases; gross intemperance; criminality; improvidence and much else besides.

Ancient antagonisms then metamorphosed into racialisation of the community on the part of the highest levels of Scottish society in the early 20th century. The Church of Scotland condemned Scots of Irish Catholic origin as inferior to those of Scots heritage in the notorious pamphlet The Menace of the Irish Race to our Scottish Nationality (1923). In that decade official Scotland aggressively struck back against the “invaders”.

The General Assembly began a campaign that lasted into the 1930s to convince government to halt immigration from the Irish Free State and deport back selected groups of natives of Ireland.

Having failed in this crusade, the Kirk then approached Scots employers and encouraged them at a time of profound economic crisis and mass unemployment only to hire and promote workers “of the Scottish race”. Thus was discrimination in the labour market legitimised and officially sanctioned.

Much historiography in the decades after the Second World War has sought to describe and explain the emancipation of the Scottish Catholic community in modern Scotland from the dark times of that pre-war past and explores a decline in old animosities.
Research has reported many positive developments since the 1950s. The advent of the Welfare State in the 1940s brought enormous benefits to one of the poorest sections in Scottish society. Post-war nationalisation of heavy industry and the growth of the “big state” opened up big opportunities in the public service bureaucracies that were perceived by many to be less interested in discriminatory practices than private employers.

Abandoning selection on entry to secondary education in 1964 and the mushrooming of higher education in that decade and afterwards created a new and sturdy ladder of educational opportunity for young Catholics, which many have exploited to the full. That built on the full incorporation of distinctively Catholic schools into the Scottish state sector in 1918.

All the Christian churches in Scotland have come together in a spirit of ecumenism in opposition to the onward march of secularism. Secularisation itself has helped to undermine some of the communal hatreds based on religious differences, though probably having less effect on tribal hostilities and inherited traditions of family prejudice.

READ MORE: Hugh MacDonald: George Square was a howl of rage but it may also be a cry for help

It is also striking that despite the close religious and familial ties between Ulster and Scotland, the bloody sectarian conflict of The Troubles did not cross the Irish Sea. This suggests Scotland was a very different society from that of the 1920s, when communal tensions were more inflamed.

Where, then, does ethno-religious division stand in the lives of Scots today? It might be useful to begin here with a recent claim by the organisation Call It Out that there 
is “mounting statistical evidence demonstrating that Irish Catholics face systemic discrimination in Scotland”.

This is entirely wrong. If we consider the major sources of statistical evidence over the past 20 years – hate crime figures, attitudes surveys, the Scottish Household Survey, the Census – we find a very different picture.

In these key sources the patterns are unmistakable: what differences we find between the major religious groupings are very small and the profile of Scotland’s Catholics is exceptionally similar to that of the largest Protestant group, that of the Church of Scotland.

Such sources demonstrate unequivocally that there is little or no difference in the occupational profiles of Catholics, Protestants, or the irreligious. Whilst across Scotland as a whole Catholics are more likely to live in areas of high deprivation when we look at individual local authority areas that relationship disappears – in almost every part of Scotland there are no statistically significant relationships between religion and area deprivation. 

In other words, it is the historic concentration of Scottish Catholics in the post-industrial central belt that makes them appear – to the too-casual observer – to be “more deprived”.

In fact, in places like Glasgow or Lanarkshire, West Lothian or Eilean Siar, Catholics are no more, nor no less, likely than their Protestant or secularised neighbours to live in deprived areas. This longstanding Catholic urban concentration – a very strong underlying “area effect” – feeds into other issues, such as the health differentials amongst older groups and the apparent disparity in the religious make-up of Scotland’s prison population.

READ MORE: Andy Maciver: Rangers treat George Square rioters as their target audience. They are not – they are the enemy within

As ever “headline figures” need careful and rigorous unpacking.

Further, Scottish Catholics who enter into a marriage or cohabiting partnership are just as likely to do so with a non-Catholic as with a fellow Catholic. 

The vast majority of both Catholics and Protestants describe having people of the other faith within their closest social circles. Families and friendships in Scotland are not divided by religion: they are intermixed within it.

In terms of both “life chances” (the socio-economic outcomes people experience) and “life choices” (the freedom to choose friends and romantic partners), a person’s religious background has largely ceased to matter in Scotland. Without such differences then there simply is no evidence for “systemic discrimination”.

We conclude with two simple points about hate crime statistics. Call it Out, amongst others, claim they that this show Scotland’s Catholics are disproportionately victims of religiously aggravated crime, and that this demonstrates that the term “sectarianism” is used to create a “false equivalence” around prejudice.

Far from “one side being as bad as the other”, goes their claim, the problem is essentially anti-Catholicism and anti-Irish racism.

Statistics on religiously aggravated offences do, on the surface, show that Catholicsism is consistently the most frequent target of sectarian abuse. In 2017-18, for example, there were 317 criminal charges aggravated by “conduct derogatory” towards Catholicism; and 174 towards Protestantism.

We know that most of these charges relate to breach of the peace or abusive behaviour, and are disproportionately carried out by young men, at weekends, in the west of Scotland. 

We also know that for the most part the abusive behaviour is directed at police officers or other workers, or indeed at the world at large, rather than at specifically targeted individuals.

This is a grim record of urban incivility – but the disparity in numbers is less sinister than it might appear. Given the simple fact that there are fewer Catholics than Protestants in the west of Scotland, then a small proportion of both communities indulging in religiously aggravated bigotry towards ‘the other side’ would quite naturally create this pattern.

We would caution against simplistic analyses of sectarianism in contemporary Scotland. Sectarianism is a problem, though a declining one, but it is not one of systemic discrimination.

Manufactured complaints of “false equivalence” are unhelpful, not least since it is clear that the expression of hateful religious bigotry goes in any number of directions – against Catholics, against Protestants, against Muslims, against Jews.

Our politicians and policymakers have a duty to the public to attend carefully to the evidence and to call out all forms of religious bigotry and racism. This is no time for selective hearing or interpretation.
Sir Tom Devine is Professor Emeritus of Scottish History at University of Edinburgh, where Dr Michael Rosie is Senior Lecturer in Sociology is who served on the Scottish Government’s Advisory Group on Tackling Sectarianism, 2012-15