Scottish Catholics are more likely to vote yes

Ian Dunn examines how the legacy of anti-Catholic sentiment in Scotland will affect the upcoming referendum

In a few weeks, the Scottish people will vote on whether they should become Independent from the United Kingdom. The bookmakers are adamant a No vote is the most likely outcome, but a Yes vote would be assured should voting be restricted to Scots of Irish descent.

Research suggests that Catholics – some 16% of the population, who in Scotland are overwhelmingly of Irish origin – are more likely than any other religious group to vote Yes to independence.

Sir Tom Devine, the historian, and himself a Scot of Irish descent who has declared his support for independence, has cited recent data from the Scottish Social Attitudes survey that stated Catholics were both most supportive of independence and least fearful at the prospect of a Yes vote.

In 1999’s Social Attitudes survey, just 21% of Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) identifiers backed independence, compared to 34% of Catholics, and 31% of those of no religion. By 2012, 30% of Catholics supported independence, compared to 26% among those of no religion, and 17% among Church of Scotland identifiers.

Catholics were also “comparatively relaxed about the prospects of Scottish independence”, with just 16% very worried, significantly fewer than the 26% of Church of Scotland members.

Intriguingly, the reasons behind this support are both a legacy of anti-Catholic sentiment in Scotland and a sign that Scotland has moved beyond it.


The historic animus towards Scots of Irish descent is now largely a thing of the past, Sir Tom Devine suggests.

“One of the chief manifestations of that is the emancipation of the Catholic Irish working class,” he said. “In 1901 their American cousins gained wage, occupational and educational parity. In 2001 the same thing happened here. So that tells us a substantial upward mobility has been going on in Scotland which took place between the early 1960s and the mid-1980s.”

So, while the Catholic middle class in Scotland has expanded rapidly over the past two generations, the legacy of that mistreatment means that Scots Catholics still are proportionally more likely to earn less and live in poor areas.

A 2011 Scottish government survey found Catholics were the most likely religious group to live in the country’s most deprived areas. Polls and academic research have consistently suggested that a clear majority of voters earning under £25,000 would vote Yes, while in most higher wage brackets, No voters were dominant, particularly for those earning over £60,000 a year.

While financially their lot may not have improved as quickly as expected, the old bigotries that were previously expected as part of life for many Scottish Catholics are widely accepted to be in decline, if not entirely evaporated.

Devine has suggested that this has encouraged Scottish Catholics to shift from their traditional role as Labour Party supporters to backing the Scottish National Party and independence because they have “for the first time felt comfortable in their Scottish skins”.

“This may also be attributed to the decline of Britishness, in a similar way to the experience of the Asian community,” he said. “I think that the Irish community finds it easier to identify with Scottishness rather than Britishness, because the latter still has vibrations of former imperial power.”

Dan McGinty, editor of the Irish Voice, a newspaper for the Irish community in Scotland, concurred, saying he also believed that many Scots of Irish origin naturally flocked to independence as a way of rejecting the British establishment.

“There’s an anti-establishment strand to the Irish Catholic identity that’s been there since they arrived in Scotland,” he said. “People are now seeing their Scottish identity as a more comfortable fit than a British identity, which they would have struggled with, despite being grateful for the security it granted.”

That shift towards a shared Scottish and Irish identity is something that has developed even during the two-year referendum campaign.

“Before, it was perhaps easy to dismiss the Scottish identity, feeling there was no use for it,” McGinty said. “But the referendum has engaged a lot of people, made it easier to feel an attachment to Scottishness without feeling it undermines your Irishness.”

That said, he added that there were still considerable numbers of Irish Scots who were “very reluctant to identify as Scottish, particularly older voters, but young people too”.


That scepticism has found loudest and most frantic voice in George Galloway, the Respect MP who has returned to his native Scotland on a speaking tour to defend the Union, entitled ‘Just say Naw’.

“My own experience of growing up as a Roman Catholic in Scotland has led me to fear independence in Scotland,” Galloway has said. “Of course, most Scottish people are not swivel-eyed, loyalist sectarians but there are a large number of them. A large six-figure number, and if I were living in Scotland as a Roman Catholic, I would be worried about that.”

However his fears seem to have limited resonance among Scots Catholics who live here.

Certainly Fergal Dalton, a Dubliner who moved to Scotland two decades ago and is now a Scottish National Party councillor and campaigner for independence, said that he believed sectarianism in Scotland was now “a symptom of poverty” rather than deep-seated religious bigotry.

“I think if you look at the relationship between the different Churches, they are very strong,” he said.

“My church, St Simon’s in Patrick in the west of Glasgow, does a lot of work with the other denominational Churches; my son helps out at a food bank run by the Church of Scotland.”

He suggests that the way to tackle any remaining rump of anti-Catholic sentiment in Scotland is to try and alleviate the poverty in the poorest parts of the country.

“The life expectancy for men in the poorest areas of Glasgow is the worst in Europe,” he said. “If you stuck those guys on a plane to Gaza, they’d maybe live longer. And that breeds bigotry. So I think the best thing we can do to fight sectarianism is to fight for social justice.”

That theme of social justice is at the heart of why he believes independence is necessary for Scotland. 

Social justice

“As a Catholic, I do sometimes wonder why I’m caring so much about the constitution of Scotland,” he said.

“But it’s because, in an independent Scotland, there’s more of a chance for social justice. There are no guarantees but I think, within the Union, with the entrenched power structures, there’s no chance at all. If we go it alone, we’ve got a shot at a fairer country, so I think you’ve got to go for it.”

Whether or not the arguments of Dalton and his ilk will persuade a majority of Scots remains to be seen, but they do seem to have persuaded many Irish Scots that, for the first time, they are truly welcome in Scotland.