Laying the beast to rest

Laying the beast to rest
Davis Clark asks whether Scotland is still haunted by anti- Catholicism


The recent assault of a Catholic priest during an Orange parade has lent an extra bite to an age-old debate about the historical treatment of Catholics in Scotland.

The assault, along with a report released this year by the Scottish government which found that around half of all religious hate crimes in Scotland are perpetrated against Catholics, has spurred outrage among many in Scotland who have criticised the government for not taking adequate action to curb perceived anti-Catholicism.

As tensions begin to rise, it becomes more important than ever to rigorously consider the history of the problem, as well as ask to what extent it still plagues the lives of Scottish citizens.

The Protestant Reformation transformed Scotland, changing the nation’s state religion from Roman Catholicism to Presbyterianism. In those days, religion was a far more dominant part of national identity, so the arrival of Irish Catholic immigrants meant the introduction of a stark cultural “other”, one which found itself subject to various kinds of discrimination.


Perhaps paralleling contemporary events, many natives felt that these immigrants threatened their security and employment prospects. This perceived competition, exacerbated by a separation of Catholics and Protestants in terms of where they lived within cities and towns, helped to add an edge of resentment and apprehension against Catholics.

And this continued for many years, such to the point that labour market discrimination against Catholics could still be observed as late as the 1970’s. In the light of the recentness of this institutionalized discrimination, many have argued that it remains alive and well.

Daniel Harkins, editor of the Scottish Catholic Observer, has commented extensively on the issue. “It’s not the problem that it was 50 years ago, but religious sectarianism is still a problem”, says Mr Harkins. He points to the statistics released by the government that show that roughly half of all religious hate crimes are against Catholics.

Mr Harkins also sees the language surrounding the issue as obscuring the problem. As many have pointed out, “sectarianism” seems to imply two factions of equal power and culpability, perpetrating offense in equal measure. “The most important thing is for politicians to call anti-Catholicism for what it is. There’s an issue in Scotland where unfortunately, politicians will refer to anti-Catholicism as sectarianism. They need to start using the correct words.”

Indeed, many would agree that the use of the term “sectarianism” denies the history behind the oppression of a Catholic minority. He lauds Scottish Justice Secretary Humza Yusef’s recent call to “defeat anti-Catholicism”, calling it a “landmark moment”. “I’m not aware of any minister previously using that term in any official capacity. It’s a big step forward”, says Mr Harkins.

However, it may be possible that a narrow focus on religious sectarianism may be in itself creating the problem. Modern Western societies are characterized by the coexistence of individuals adhering to different, and often multiple, spheres of identity.

With so many nuanced intercultural relationships influenced by generations of history and spanning religion, race, and gender, it becomes difficult to separate the extant antagonism from the perceived, the actual striking hand of animosity from its phantom limb.

Prof. Sir Tom Devine, historian and Emeritus Professor of the University of Edinburgh, argues that this is rather the case, that Scotland is haunted by the ghost of sectarianism, not the flesh and blood enemy.


Earlier this year, Professor Devine and University of Edinburgh Professor of Sociology Michael Rosie co-wrote an essay in the Sunday Herald, which offers a thorough statistical and sociological analysis of the religious hate crime figures released by the government. That the data says Catholics are assaulted far more often than Protestants is misleading, they argue, due to the massive population imbalance.

“If you have a situation which you have even in the west of Scotland which is that the majority of people are Protestant, maybe not church attending but brought up in that tradition, and the minority is Catholic, its statistically inevitable that most of the religious hate will be against Catholics because we are in the minority”, says Prof.Devine.

He points to the fact that Catholics and Protestants alike have been reared in an environment that has taught them to conceive of the other in antagonistic terms. “It’s very ingrained. You’ve got to remember the history of Irish Catholic descent in Scotland.

“Labour market discrimination was still practiced as late as the 1970s, and so it may be easy for me, who’s seen the hard evidence, but it’s difficult for people who have been brought up in that environment, in that tradition, in those stories coming from relatives, it’s very difficult for them to abandon the view that they are still under siege”, he says.


Then from where do such incidents as the assault on Canon Tom White, complete with the slur “Fenian”, arise? Professor Devine says that one could blame any number of ethnic and cultural divides that exist within Scotland and the world. “It could be simple tribalism, fear and hatred of the other. It doesn’t necessarily spring from religious values anymore. It’s cultural and tribal. The beast of anti-Catholicism, as I say in the article, is not dead, but it’s nothing like the way it was in my lifetime. I lived through it.”

In his essay, he further points out that religious hate crime is far from being the most common, eclipsed significantly by assaults motivated by race, and those motivated by sexual orientation. Due to the attention that sectarianism receives, less focus is given to other, often more prominent, issues.

And this is indicative of what Prof. Devine would consider a significant problem surrounding the issue: the media coverage. Because it’s such a historically charged issue, and one so neatly packaged in a certain football rivalry, Prof. Devine says that “sectarianism is, at least for journalists, very sexy”.

Daniel Harkins has previously responded to arguments like Devine’s. He agrees that structural anti-Catholicism may be dead, but asserts that Catholics still experience sectarianism in Scotland.

Speaking to the Irish Post, Daniel Harkins said “only last month we reported on 15 employees of a local authority who had complained to their union of anti-Catholic discrimination by their supervisor – a convicted bigot”.

He identifies the nature of his arguments correctly: “Our evidence is anecdotal, not statistical – but it has always been difficult to accurately measure levels of anti-Catholicism in Scotland.”

Prof. Devine’s arguments may run the risk of invalidating the everyday experiences of individual Catholics in Scotland. As the minority, Catholicism will bear the disproportionate brunt of whatever animosity exists between the two communities, and therefore great care must be taken as these problems are slowly unravelled. But to fan the flame and push these two communities further apart is not helpful.  The beast can only die if we let it.