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Scotland pushes to bring lingering religious divides into the open

A new report says sectarianism remains a problem in Scotland, where hostility between Catholics and Protestants often plays out at soccer matches and in public services.

In October 1995, Mark Scott was walking home from a soccer match in Glasgow’s East End when he was fatally attacked on a busy street. 

Scott, who was just 16, was murdered because he supported Celtic, a Glaswegian team strongly identified with the Irish Catholic community that migrated toScotland from the middle of the 19th century on. Scott’s killer, Joseph Campbell, also from Glasgow, had a father and an uncle in the Ulster Volunteer Force, a notorious Protestant paramilitary group involved in the conflict in Northern Ireland.

Scott’s murder focused attention on an aspect of Scottish society that is seldom publicly acknowledged: sectarianism.

While religious discord is more often associated with Northern Ireland, in parts of Scotland relations between Catholics and Protestants remain defined by mistrust, fear and, occasionally, violence. Since 2003, more than 7,000 sectarian incidents were reported in Scotland.

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The Scottish government at Holyrood, in Edinburgh, has pledged to tackle sectarianism. In 2011, a controversial law banning the singing of certain songs at soccer matches was passed. Now a specially convened advisory group has weighed in, finding that sectarianism remains a problem – from football clubs to public services. 

“Scotland is weary of the lingering impact of sectarianism and is ready to change. To do this we need to ask some difficult questions, search deep within ourselves for the answers and build empathy and understanding,” the group’s chairman, Duncan Morrow, a respected Northern Irish academic, wrote in the foreword to the report, which was published last week and is expected to inform the Scottish National Party administration’s ongoing strategies. 

Since 2003, it has been illegal for Scottish employers to discriminate on grounds of religion and belief. But recent examples of sectarian behavior abound, including a garbage collector who was attacked with a shovel by a colleague for supporting Rangers, a Glasgow soccer team widely identified as Protestant, and an Irish Catholic journalist who received vicious sectarian abuse for her work on a book about the demise of Rangers. (The Rangers club was liquidated and reconstituted in 2012.)  

The advisory group also found, however, that the power that religious difference holds on Scottish life is waning. One indication is the employment parity that Catholics and Protestants have enjoyed since the 1990s. ‘[S]ectarianism has had its day in Scotland, and there is an increasingly large groundswell of people who are tired of its worn-out rhetoric and the way in which it manifests itself in exclusionary and confrontational behavior.’ 

“Sectarianism is not the biggest problem Scotland faces but we should not underestimate the hold it has on people who inhabit that world,” says David Scott, the head of Nil By Mouth, an antisectarian charity founded in honor of Mark Scott (the two were not related). 

In Scotland, sectarianism is largely manifested as attitudes, rather than physical violence, and has little, if anything, to do with doctrinal difference between different religious groups, says Scott. “In Scotland, sport, politics and religion have been bound up together and, particularly in the west of Scotland, it is football that ties it together.”

Celtic and Rangers, Scotland’s two most successful soccer clubs, are both based in Glasgow, and the rivalry is among the world’s fiercest: When the two sides met in the Scottish Cup in March 2011, the game ended with three dismissals, and both current managers, Ranger’s Ally McCoist and Neil Lennon of Celtic, scuffling on the touchline in front of almost 60,000 fans. In the aftermath, parcel bombs were mailed to Lennon and other prominent Catholics. 

“The two clubs say you can’t blame us, it’s society’s fault. That’s consistently been the line they have taken with sectarianism,” says Michael Rosie, a lecturer in sociology at Edinburgh university. The two clubs often engage in “dog whistling,” says Dr. Rosie, using symbols and phrases that appeal to specific elements of their fan base. Celtic was recently fined £42,000 by European soccer’s governing body, UEFA, for a banner depicting IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands and Scottish nationalist hero William Wallace. 

“The problem is who the ‘Old Firm’ are whistling at – they are people who take a very ethno-national view of their identity or see their football as representing an ethno-national cause,” says Rosie. In the wake of last week’s report, both Celtic and Rangers were criticized for failing to meet with Morrow’s advisory group, despite receiving significant public funding for antisectarian initiatives.

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But sectarianism in Scotland is not confined to soccer grounds. Among the incidents reported, only 30 percent occurred at soccer matches. 

Sectarianism is not the overarching structural inequality it was for generations of Irish Catholics, but campaigners are hoping that the new report will finally bring the problem out of the shadows and into the cold light of day. 

“When it comes to sectarianism the biggest thing is getting around the noise. This is the first attempt to put something down on paper,” says Nil By Mouth’sScott. “The question now is what needs to happen to make this report work?”