SECTARIANISM is in decline and claims of widespread anti-Catholicism in Scotland are “unhelpfully alarmist”, according to the country’s leading intellectual, Professor Sir Tom Devine. The University of Edinburgh historian claims there is little chance of coming up against religious prejudice in 2018, apart from at Old Firm matches, and accused politicians and church leaders of “brazenly spreading fear” and reinforcing “victimhood” among Catholics.

Devine, a practicing Catholic, chose Easter Sunday to make the intervention in an essay published in this newspaper today, co-authored with Dr Michael Rosie, a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Edinburgh, who has analysed sectarian hate crime statistics. However, Devine’s comments have sparked an angry response particularly from the Catholic Church’s Scotland spokesman, Peter Kearney, who called the claims “ill informed”.

Devine insists discrimination against Catholics of Irish descent in education and employment is but a “memory” which only serves to explain the “sense of victimhood” in the Catholic community. According to Devine, sectarianism is largely evident in occasional drunken incidents when the perpetrator may not even know the religion of the victim.

In each of the last five years, more than half of religiously aggravated offences were anti-Catholic, prompting Labour MSP Elaine Smith and SNP MSP Fulton MacGregor to speak out in the Scottish Parliament on March 15. Smith suggested targeted action to protect Catholics from discrimination, and MacGregor raised concerns about vandalism at a Catholic Church and a cenotaph in Coatbridge, a town both politicians represent.

Devine said the “beast of anti-Catholicism may not be dead, but it is no longer red in tooth and claw” and accused Smith and Macgregor, as well as the Catholic Church, of “arousing concern and perhaps even alarm that the beast is still alive”. Speaking to the Sunday Herald, Devine said: “Anti-Catholicism has always been a key factor in sectarianism, though Catholic hostility to the Orange Order and Rangers FC for its earlier discriminatory practices has also had a long history. If anti-Catholicism is on the wane, then it is also highly likely that sectarianism in general is also in decline in Scotland.”

The historian also took a swipe at the Scottish Government’s anti-sectarian strategy, which includes an “independent working group” which will come up with a legal definition of sectarianism. Last week the community safety minister Annabelle Ewing announced a further £500,000 of funding for anti-sectarian initiatives, bringing the total funding to £13.5 million in six years.

Devine said he is not opposed to establishing a legal definition but described the move as “part of this overreaction”. He added: “It’s the same aspect as the funding of anti-sectarian charities. If any honest-minded person reads this essay we have written, how can they possibly say we have a major social problem in Scotland that requires government action? And that’s a rhetorical question.”

When asked whether he fears criticism from fellow Catholics about his views when he attends Easter Sunday Mass, Devine said “I couldn’t care less because it’s based on evidence and it’s my honest intellectual conclusion.”

He added: “In reality the chances of coming up against sectarianism in 2018 – apart from at a certain football match – are extraordinarily limited.”

Kearney, for the Catholic Church in Scotland, strongly rejected Devine’s thesis: “Anti-Catholicism is alive and well in Scotland and it affects our social, political and working lives to the present day. Tom Devine’s ill-informed attempt at portraying it as simply post-match, drink-fuelled, rivalry, is sadly a superficial trope from someone who should, and I suspect does, know much better.” Elaine Smith MSP said “many incidents of anti-Catholic prejudice go unreported”, while Fulton MacGregor MSP insisted “different parts of Scotland experience sectarianism differently and most people in my constituency who I have spoken to still think it is a big issue that must be tackled.” That view was shared by Dave Scott, director of anti-sectarian charity Nil By Mouth, who said: “There remains those in our society who all too zealously peddle sectarian hatred and bigotry against others. The problem lingers still.”

Rev Dr Martin Johnstone, Secretary of the Church of Scotland’s Church and Society Council, said: “Any act of sectarianism is an act too many and the Church of Scotland will continue to work with others not only to challenge it when it does occur but also to foster the best possible relations between the different branches of the church.”

Community Safety Minister Annabelle Ewing said: “Reports from the independent Advisory Group on Tackling Sectarianism in Scotland found that [it] remains a persistent problem and concerted efforts are needed to eradicate it, which is why we have invested record amounts to address sectarianism since 2012.”