I had hoped to stay out of this debate, since almost anything anybody say makes things worse. But it won’t go away, and in the hope that most of Scottish population are rational and fair-minded, whatever their background and beliefs, and still display the healthy scepticism and willingness to question the hidden agendas of those who seek to persuade them that characterised Scots for most of my life, here is how I see it.
You can skip the next section (800 words) if you like, and jump straight to my views on the sectarian debate, but reading it may help you understand my position. To any religious bigots about to consider my views I would suggest that it will save you a lot of trouble later. Some of you won’t get beyond the first paragraph, perhaps even the first sentence. To others, it will induce a misplaced confidence that I am about to endorse your prejudices. I’m not ..
WHAT I AM AND WHERE I STAND
My background is that of a Glasgow East End Scot from a devoutly Catholic family with their roots in the Republic of Ireland. My mother was born in Glasgow, but my father and all my grandparents were Irish. I was educated in a cradle of Irish Catholicism in Glasgow, St.Mary’s Primary School in the Calton, fondly know by its historical name of St. Mary’s Ragged , with the church just round the corner in Abercrombie Street, the old South Witch Lone, renamed in 1802. St.Mary’s Church was built 40 years later in 1842. I attended its centenary celebrations in 1942 as a seven year old, the year of my first Communion. St. Mary’s was the cradle of Celtic Football club, founded by a Marist Brother, Andrew Kerins, known as Brother Walfrid. All of the males in my family were keen Celtic supporters.
I followed the natural progression for many St.Mary’s boys and went to St. Mungo’s Academy in early 1948, where I remained until 1950 when I left.
From the age of seven I had serious doubts and questions about religion, and at the point I left school, I was simply going through the motions of church observance for the sake of my mother and family. When I started my National Service in 1953, I was an atheist, and more than that, formed the belief that has stayed with me ever since, that organised religion, together with inequality, racism and greed was the root of much of Glasgow and Scotland’s problems and most of the world’s problems. I also believe that secret societies, organisations and clubs that include or exclude based on religious belief, ethnic origin, gender, or sexual orientation are inimical to democracy and a free society. I believe that totalitarian states and dictatorships are almost always structured on principles similar to those of organised religion, even when they are nominally secular, and are equally destructive to human values.
I was a Labour supporter and internationalist in my political beliefs for most of my life, but the progressive failure of the party in the post-war period to address Glasgow’s problems and the needs of the poor, the deprived and the under-privileged, eventually led me late in life to the Scottish National Party. I am totally opposed to nuclear weapons, but I am not a pacifist. I believe in defence and the concept of a just war, even though such a thing is an extreme rarity historically. I saw the Second World War as a just war, and one that had to be fought, but was appalled at the use of nuclear weapons to end the war with Japan.
My friends and social contacts cross religious, ethnic, sexual orientation, political and social boundaries, and such distinctions have never mattered to me in choosing friends nor in selecting employees when I was engaged in recruitment in industry, either as their boss or on behalf of another. In my recruitment and managerial roles over the years, in common with all who hire people, I have been accused of every kind of discrimination imaginable, the range of alleged discriminations effectively cancelling each other out.
I have never been interested in spectator sports, and support no football club, although like all Scots of my generation, I played street football, played school football and rugby, albeit under duress. For a brief period in the late 1950s I was involved in judo and the old Osaka Club in Glasgow.
All of the above – especially the lack of interest in football - should be enough to make me an object of suspicion and instinctive distrust by both sides of the sectarian divide in Scotland, and to cause them to dismiss anything I have to say out of hand.
But all my old Glasgow street experience - and experience of more subtle sectarian bigotry in industry - tells me that it is better to get it all up front than leave it to the kind of sordid speculation and nose-tapping that otherwise ensues. The old Belfast question can, of course, still be asked - “You say you’re an atheist, but are you a Protestant or a Catholic atheist?”
FACTS AND BELIEFS – SHARED AND PERSONAL
Let’s start with a few facts, ones that are accepted as fact – I hope – across the range of opinions on the subject.
1. Sectarianism is a significant problem in Scottish life.
2. No government, national or devolved, passed any legislation to combat it until the Scottish Government’s 2011 legislation.
3. The Scottish police believe there is a need for such legislation, and have welcomed the new powers it gives them to deal with sectarian behaviour.
4. The most egregious examples of sectarian behaviour have been at football matches, especially Old Firm matches, or have been directly related to football, e.g. the bombs sent to Neil Lennon and others. That is not to say that they are the only manifestations of sectarian behaviour, nor to say that other, less visible instances of such behaviour may be damaging Scottish life in even more fundamental ways, e.g sectarian behaviour in employment, in the Police and in the Law.
If you don’t accept all of the above as facts, then little that I have to say will impress you, and vice versa. To misquote Sydney Smith – “We will never agree, we are arguing from separate premises (sic)”
Here are a six additional things that I believe - in addition to beliefs set out in my preamble - and I don’t expect general agreement on these, because there is abundant evidence that many religious believers and their spokesperson don’t accept them, or pay only lip service to them, and indeed the UK Government and the Scottish Government do not accept all of them.
The state and the apparatus of government should be secular and not religious-based, and should not favour any religious group over another, or over people of no faith.
The government of a country should permit all faiths to worship and believe as they choose, and should protect that right by law, except where the behaviour of any group seeks to impose a belief, or belief system, or practice by law on those who do not share it, or restrict their freedom within the law.
Individual and groups who are not elected by the democratic will of the people may be consulted about their views, providing they do not seek to bypass the democratic will of the people as expressed by the government they have elected.
There should be no such thing as an established church in a country or state, e.g. The Church of England.
A state or country should not be described as, or present itself as, or see itself as one specially linked to a specific religion, or indeed to religious belief, e.g. “The UK is a Christian country” etc..
There should be no such thing as faith schools or schools segregated on a religious basis or on the absence of belief, e.g “Only atheists children will be admitted to this school, and we will inculcate atheist values.”
But I start from the assumption that the Scottish Government accepts at least the first three as principles of government, tries to govern by such principles, and has consistently adhered to them throughout the debate on sectarianism, and will continue to do so.
HOW WE GOT HERE – RELIGION AND HISTORY
Certainly since Henry VIII, the history and politics of Britain and its monarchy have been inextricably bound up with, and distorted by religion, and the history of Scotland has been even more influenced by it. Central to all of this was the Holy Roman Empire and the Papacy, which claimed supremacy over all secular authorities and all nations. After the Reformation, the Papal worldwide influence progressively declined, but it still bulked large in relations between Scotland and England, and between England and Ireland. Monarchs and politicians ruthlessly exploited religion for their own ends, and organised religion reciprocated with enthusiasm, and exploited monarchs and politicians, in an unholy – in the truest sense of the word – set of alliances.
The effect of the Reformation and the ideas of Martin Luther were adopted with energy in Scotland, especially by those attempting to shift power to the people from prelates and priests, and there is no doubt that we owe much of our democracy to this great religious and intellectual movement, but with dreary inevitability it produced another kind of undemocratic autocracy of the mind, with the Kirk becoming the thought police, and proving themselves just as capable of the torture, hangings and burnings as the previous Catholic hegemony. On the credit side, the Kirk undoubtedly was also a binding force in Scottish society, vital in education and poor relief, and in defending the rights of ordinary people, up to a point. Such are the contradictions inherent in religion when it supplants democratic politics. But democratic politics as we know them are a comparatively recent thing, with for example, the full vote for women coming as late as 1928 in Britain.
But the fatal flaw of deference infected the Kirk too, and some of the writings of Scottish Presbyterian ministers on the fate of their flocks during the Clearances make depressing reading, with expressions of sanctimonious concern mixed with nauseating obsequiousness to landlords and clan chiefs and fatalism in the face of a gross injustice masquerading as faith in the Lord. During the Enlightenment, this fog of almost medieval superstition began to lift, but even a great thinker – and atheist – such as David Hume had to be circumspect: the Kirk still had people hanged for questioning religion, including a teenage boy.
In the late 17th century the Irish dimension began to exert the baleful influence it has had on Scottish politics and Scottish life ever since, and it is a sad fact of life that generations of Scottish children have grown to adulthood able to name only a couple of dates in British history – the Battle of the Boyne, or the Easter Rising, and have a greater identification with, and knowledge of Irish politics than the 21st century politics of their native country. Football clubs founded in the 19th century – Glasgow Celtic and Glasgow Rangers - with predominantly working class roots, admirable intentions and the wish to play a great game are now international money-making machines – or were up until recently – with players and managers who are often entirely unrepresentative of their native city, Scotland or indeed the UK. They are now the focal point for religious tribal loyalties based on ancient history that is largely irrelevant to modern Scottish life.
Since I do not aspire to be the poor man’s Tom Devine, I must move on …
THE SECTARIAN SITUATION – SCOTLAND IN 2011
sect: a body of people subscribing to religious doctrine different from others within the same religion, a group deviating from orthodox tradition, heretical, body separated from an orthodox church, nonconformist. Concise Oxford dictionary.
The definition also covers philosophy and politics, but we can confine ourselves to the religious dimensions, although there is an irony in the fact the sectarianism is now being used in a thoroughly contemptible way by unionist politicians in Holyrood as a tool of opposition, just as they used minimum pricing for alcohol in the last Parliament.
sectarian: bigoted or narrow-minded in following the doctrine’s of one’s sect. COD
(In these definitions one might argue that Roman Catholicism and Protestantism are sects of the Christian religion, and Protestantism undoubtedly has sects within its total body.)
Here is an unpalatable fact for the Scottish churches – there would be no religious sectarianism without religion. Sectarianism is a product of the religious mind, just as pogroms, persecution, burning of heretics, torture, the auto da fé, the suppression of scientific discovery, the suppression of free expression and free speech, homophobia and almost all of the key conflicts in our tortured world are a product of the religious mind.
In that, religion has its mirror image in totalitarian creeds such a Nazism and the Stalinist regimes of Soviet Russia, and their up-to-date versions around the world, which displayed and display all the characteristics of religious dogma – the Great Leader whose word must not be challenged, the acolytes who are uniquely gifted with the power of interpreting it, the sacred texts, the censorship, the intolerance of any alternative political view or religious challenge, and the whole apparatus of punishing the deviant.
The Scottish National Government is committed to governing a country, Scotland, that has many religions, historically Christian religions, but in the 21st century, other faiths as well, and also has many who claim no specific faith, but profess to believe in a God, and some who do not believe in a God. (If regular churchgoing and active participation in a church are the measures, Scotland is not a Christian society. If highly visible interventions into the ordered life of Scotland by religious groups and their spokespersons, either by violent or disruptive and sometime criminal behaviour, or statements by senior clerics to the media and to government are the measure, it is a Christian society.)
The SNP government tries, as any Scottish government of whatever political colour must, to balance these groups within Scottish society, firstly to protect their rights to believe and act -and worship where appropriate - in accordance with their beliefs, to ensure that they are not discriminated against for these beliefs, whether of faith or no faith, and to protect their rights to free assembly and free speech. They must also recognise de facto, the power of these groups, but also the limitations of that power, because in the case of organised religions, they are not representative of a majority of the population or anything like it, and they are, in their own organisation and structure, only partially democratic or completely undemocratic in the selection and appointment of the leaders. Where a form of election does takes place, it is by a small and unrepresentative group.
Let’s look at the dynamics of the situation that led to this legislation. Prominent Catholics had been calling attention to what they perceived as discrimination and actual violence directed against them as a minority group in Scottish society for some time. The behaviour of a minority of football supporters, notoriously those supporting the two Old Firm clubs, Celtic and Rangers, before, during and after games, on the streets, in the pubs and on the terracing had become increasingly inimical to public order, criminal and eventually lethal to a young man wearing a Celtic strip, who was stabbed to death for no other reason than his dress, an act that led to the establishment of Nil by Mouth, an organisation campaigning against sectarian violence, and its two close companions, alcohol abuse and domestic abuse.
The attacks on Neil Lennon, the Celtic manager, and the explosive devices sent to his home and that of others associated with Celtic, including an MSP and a prominent lawyer, led to a major police investigation and prosecutions.
On acts of violence that came with the definition of breach of the peace legislation, the police were and are adamant that the existing breach of the piece legislation is inadequate to combat such behaviour, especially the singing of partisan songs with with unacceptable religious and violent associations, offensive banners and chanting and deliberately provocative gesture calculated to inflame violence. (In this regard, there is a conflict with the Human Rights Act, and it has now become central to the dispute.) The flying of flags also presented certain difficulties, with no easy answers. Leaving aside the question of the violence itself, the cost of policing these games, cradles of violence, threatened the game itself, and the reputation of Scotland internationally.
Other political parties had talked about doing something – the SNP Government decided something must be done, but on the basis of cross-party consensus. After initially supporting the legislation, the other parties had second thoughts, and claimed that the legislation was being rushed through Parliament without proper debate: it was certainly being expedited with some urgency, in the hope of avoiding even worse scenes in the new football season than those that had disgraced the previous one.
THE REASONS FOR THE OPPOSITION TO THE LEGISLATION
There are two ways of viewing the opposition to the legislation. One is to say that it is soundly rooted in fears about the adequacy and the clarity of the legislation, and genuine concerns over its legality under the Human Rights Act and freedom of speech and expression.
The second perspective is mine, and I offer it as a personal viewpoint. Others may share aspects of it, but I doubt that any consensus supports my view. It does not represent an SNP view, since I can only judge the party and the Government’s view from their public statements.
I believe that the opposition to the legislation - leaving aside legitimate points on the drafting and implementation in practice, points that will be addressed in the review stages – is rooted in the same destructive opposition politics that lost the unionist parties the last election, namely, oppose blindly any legislation or initiative by the SNP Government that might actually succeed in addressing long-term problems in Scottish society, e.g. alcohol abuse and violence, on the basis that the SNP cannot be seen to succeed where unionist parties have failed for generations.
I believe it is also rooted in wish of small, innately undemocratic and violent minorities on both side of the religious divide, under the guise of football support, to retain their right to behave appallingly and illegally, to foment hatred and violence and perpetuate ancient and irrelevant feuds that feed their perverted sense of identity and tribal loyalty.
I believe that these groups are being exploited by both political and religious forces in Scotland, and perhaps beyond Scotland, in a manner that is at best short-sighted and misguided, and at worse, calculated and extremely dangerous.
I believe that a wider range of bodies have been sucked unwittingly and naively into this agenda, and with the best of motives, e.g. freedom of speech and human rights, are being manipulated.
I believe that the Catholic church hierarchy, having called repeatedly and forcefully for action against sectarian behaviour, discrimination and violence directed against them as a minority religious group in Scotland, are now behaving extremely unwisely in attacking the legislation and the Government, and run a grave risk in so doing of exacerbating religious tension and violence.
I find it extraordinary, to the point of being deeply sceptical, that two groups of supporters should suddenly, in what was virtually a synchronised protest, display elaborately crafted banners with closely similar core messages attacking the SNP Government’s anti-sectarian legislation.
I believe that the religious divide in the West of Scotland has been exploited for well over a century by political parties, especially the Labour Party, and that sectarian divisions have been used in complex and arcane ways to maintain the power of certain groups, especially in local government. (This is an open secret in Glasgow, and has been for all of my lifetime – in American cities run on similar lines, it isn’t even a secret, it is open and blatant, and an accepted fact of political life.) These political groups know which buttons to press, and are determined not to surrender the sordid apparatus of football loyalties mixed with tribal and religious loyalties and its associated provocative and polarised behaviour that underpins their power.
THE RELIGIOUS BIGOTS CREDO
I am loyal to my traditions and my faith – the other side is bigoted, discriminatory, and is determined to destroy all that I believe in. I want Government, the Law and the police to control and act against the behaviour of the other side. Since I never behave badly, such actions should never impinge upon my rights to proclaim my beliefs.
Democratic government is all very well, but I am answerable to a Higher Power. That higher power speaks uniquely to me, and through me, and other faiths and creeds claiming to interpret the Higher Power are mistaken if their interpretation conflicts with mine. I claim the right to demand that the secular, democratically elected government ignore the mandate of the people where I deem it necessary, and respond to my undemocratic and unelected religious principles and precepts. When the chips are down, I will use my undemocratic power to influence the democratic process.
The beliefs outlined above were taken to their profoundly destructive and violent conclusions in Northern Ireland for generations, distorting the democratic political process that tried to address the real inequalities and grievances. But the bitter experience of what such tribal religious divides, exploited by unscrupulous politicians, actually resulted in has led the Northern Irish people, painfully and agonisingly, into true democratic politics – the bullet and the bomb have begun to lose their lethal potency and rational debate, negotiation and compromise – and above all the ballot box – have gradually brought the Province back to sanity.
But the Scottish sectarian groups who have identified with one side or another in that long conflict, and who got their kicks vicariously from the agony of another people without actually having to experience the pain, are frozen in time, and politically and emotionally immature, unlike the Northern Irish people, who have achieve political maturity by actual hard experience. Of course, at the extremes, there are those on both sides of the religious divide who have been and still are actively involved in the old destructive ways, and they represent an ever-present danger not only to Scotland but to the stability of Northern Ireland’s new democracy.
The phrase moral equivalence is much bandied about at the moment in the sectarian debate. The spokesperson for the Catholic Church and the Catholic community feel that there is a conspiracy by government and the forces of law and order to conceal the fact that the statistics on acts of sectarian violence do not show a balance of illegality – acts of violence against Catholics are far more prevalent than sectarian actions against Protestants.
Michael Kelly, in an article in The Scotsman, SNP will pay a heavy price ... claims that over an 18-month period, 64% of acts of violence were against Catholics and 36% against others, and draws two conclusions from this – one, that since Catholics only form 16% of the population, the ratio is much higher than 2:1, and that “any anti-sectarian campaign must focus on stopping attacks on Catholics …”
Whatever the validity of these statistics, the reality is that the new legislation can only focus on sectarian attacks and unacceptable and inflammatory behaviour wherever it occurs and on those who break the law. Any other approach would be the religious equivalent of racial profiling, i.e. targeting police action on Protestants.
I believe that Michael Kelly’s article is profoundly damaging to the debate and to the cause that he espouses, namely the Roman Catholic cause, because he conflated it with Labour Party and Unionist politics and an attack on the SNP. At all times when listening to a West of Scotland Labour apologist commenting on sectarian behaviour, we must remember that such behaviour has always been concentrated in the West of Scotland under a Labour fiefdom that goes back for over half a century, and Labour-dominated local government, of which Michael Kelly is a former leading light.
I also question the moral priorities of senior religious figures in Scotland. At a time when the world is a more unstable place than it has been for a long time, when our economy is in a state of near collapse, the poor, the sick, the underprivileged face an attack on the very fabric of their lives, while weapons of mass destruction are based in our country, draining our limited finances and posing a threat to millions and to the environment, the Scottish churches are obsessed with gay marriage, alleged discrimination and the right to bawl out sectarian songs and fly the flag of the UK and the Irish Republic at football matches in the name of freedom of speech. This is a strange sense of values, and if moral equivalence must be trotted out, there is a distorted sense of morality at work.
I have a last word for the Catholic hierarchy. I found this news report disquieting – if anybody else did, I have not yet come across their comments. Cardinal O'Brien present papal knighthood at Red Mass
The Papal Knighthood is an award by the Vatican – a legally constituted foreign state – to prominent Catholics who have distinguished themselves in their field of endeavour. (I am not aware that it is ever conferred on non-Catholics, but am happy to be corrected on this point.)
This award was made at a special mass to Lord Gill, the Lord Justice Clerk of Scotland by Cardinal O’Brien representing Pope Benedict XVI. Present at the mass were the Lord Advocate, the Dean of the Faculty of Advocates, and the vice president of the Law Society of Scotland. (I do not know the religious affiliations of those attending.)
The report from The Catholic Observer quotes Cardinal O’Brien as follows -
“In his homily at Sunday’s Mass, Cardinal O’Brien urged Catholic lawyers in Scotland to remain strong and true to their religious beliefs.
“There is no doubt that one of the biggest challenges facing Catholic lawyers in Scotland today is a challenge which has faced many people and different groups in society down the ages: how do you live and act out your professional lives while at the same time remaining true to the teachings and doctrine of the Church?” Cardinal O’Brien said. “Specifically for lawyers the challenge must be how can you represent your clients’ interests to the best of your abilities while applying the law of the land, when at times these two pressures may be in conflict with your own Catholic Faith.”
I can only say that I am deeply uncomfortable with such an award and such statements at a time when religious divides in Scottish society are problematical and legislation to combat excesses produced by them is being attacked by prominent religious leaders, including Cardinal O’Brien. I can only speculate about how such an event and such statements are interpreted by extremists in Scottish society.
I do not believe they serve the interest of the Catholic community in Scotland well, nor do they accord with my ideas of how the relationship between religious groups and a secular democracy should work. At worst, they can exacerbate religious tension.
I have to say that the award, and the status and roles of those attending does not suggest a Catholic professional population being discriminated against, at least in the legal profession. I can only express the wish that lawyers in Scotland, of whatever religious persuasion, remain true to the principle of the rule of law and the secular state of which they are a part.