Community Experiences of Sectarianism

This study explored community experiences and perceptions of sectarianism, based on in-depth qualitative research within five case study communities across Scotland. The insights obtained provide depth and context to other research about sectarianism, including quantitative survey and national criminal offending data.

8. Memory and the permeability of time

'The past is never dead. It's not even past.'[10]

8.1 Both personal memory and historical context came up regularly in the interviews and focus groups. When asked what made something sectarian, participants often referred not just to the intention of the perpetrator (as is usually the case when laypeople conceptualise racism) but also to the context. Often, this was historical or an old personal memory.

8.2 An important location where sectarian experiences occur is in schools. It may seem that because some people's only stories about sectarianism were schoolday stories, this means that the problem has declined over time. This may well be so. However another possible explanation is that schools are places where (a) people who would not normally mix are forced together, whether they come from different social backgrounds or simply do not like each other and (b) people are marked out by a uniform or other such symbol.

8.3 Nonetheless, some participants described a very different, harsher history. One participant described Glasgow as a 'divided city' that you could 'cut in two' when she was growing up during the 1970s. She likened the situation to that in Northern Ireland, where groups were socially segregated:

It was bad. Really bad. It was something like your Northern Ireland situation really. You didn't play with Catholic weans and you didn't really talk to them. That is a lot more milder now ...There used to be gang fights and everything back then. You don't want to experience that divide, you know?
(Focus Group 1, Glasgow).

She continued, saying:

... We kept to our own wee community, if you know what I mean? And as I say I cannae really remember ... who the other Catholic schools were. But, once you found out they were Catholic, you didn't talk to them again. That's how deep religious it was back then. You see this carry on in Northern Ireland where they walk one side down the street, or they are not allowed to walk down some streets something like that. That is the way it used to be near enough here as well.
(Focus Group 1, Glasgow).

8.4 Another participant spoke of his grandmother forbidding his father from joining the Scouts because their town did not have a Catholic troop. His grandmother, an Irish Catholic, disapproved of the oath scouts were required to swear to the Queen and the use of the Union Flag, so his father was not permitted to join.

I said to my dad ... did you go in the Scouts? 'No, no, I really wanted to join.' And I said, 'Well why didn't you join?' And he was like, 'Well, your granny wouldn't let me, because there wasn't a Catholic troop in Greenock', where he grew up ... And I thought, 'a Catholic Scout troop, how, what? What the f*ck would you need a Catholic scout troop for?' And I think they had different variations on some of the terms, you weren't exposed to the Queen stuff so much and the Union Flags on the wall and all that. So my dad said to me, 'No it is bonkers but that is the way it was, you know.' But at the same point, my granny was perfectly happy for all my uncles and my dad, to go down to the park after the Orange parade and collect lemonade bottles so they could take them back to the shop for money after the parade. So ... I don't know if I would call her like, yeah, I would call her a hypocrite, I suppose.
(Man, Interview 7, Glasgow).

8.5 Childhood stories are often dismissed as belonging to a superseded past, but as Leonard (2006) has pointed out, 'children have greater problems in having their stories heard compared to adults'. People who have memories of sectarianism 'may have to wait until they reach adulthood before their voices are heard and their memories listened to'.

'Thatcherism' and Scottish identity

8.6 The move towards neo-liberal politics, which Scots in particular have identified with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the late 20th century, was mentioned several times by interviewees. In three of the interviews, the participants became impassioned, using harsher or more insulting language than they used elsewhere in the interview, and they personified negative trends in Scottish life by reference to the government that Mrs Thatcher managed. They argued that this had created a deep social dislocation that created a door through which sectarian abuses could travel. (In contrast, the current Conservative government was only mentioned by one participant.)

8.7 An intriguing and contrasting argument was put forward by another participant. He argued that Thatcherism and clubbing culture were two factors that worked to erode some (but not all) of Scottish sectarianism. Because the Thatcher government was seen to target Scotland, this brought Scots together as a minority and so displaced sectarian divisions; at the same time clubbing culture and ecstasy use (which brought young people into clubs in city centres and away from their neighbourhood and sectarian-based pubs) also worked to erode this.

8.8 The only other frequent mention of political allegiances was regarding the recent referendum on Scottish independence. A few participants took the view that the referendum had inflamed the issue and, as a result, sectarianism had mutated during the course of the campaign. Polarisation between British-Protestant Scots and Irish-Catholic Scots had been coloured by new alliances for and against Scottish independence. Most of these participants thought that this was short-lived, although a couple feared it would persist.[11]

Exceptional events

8.9 Sociologist Steve Bruce and others[12] have pointed to the exceptional ('exotic') nature of severe sectarian incidents and have been critical of those who treat them as the norm. There is some force in this argument but it ignores the context in which people experience such events. It also minimises the presence of the tacit sectarianism we mentioned above. An interesting feature of the Western Isles fieldwork was that participants did not always describe the islands as free of sectarianism, although most did not regard it as a deep-seated problem, but they did speak about personal experiences very differently from most other participants.

8.10 Participants in the other case study sites who related stories that they regarded as serious tended to do so at a late point in the interview, often with much hesitation and rushing through the key details - and what was particularly striking was that in some cases the person did not even recall the incident until well into the interview. We describe in chapter 15 a story from a woman who had suffered an incident of workplace prejudice so upsetting that she resigned from her senior post shortly after: it would be reasonable to regard this as a life-changing incident.

8.11 Yet throughout the interview she had asserted that despite being devoutly and openly Catholic, she had suffered very few and mostly minor incidents. Only after about an hour did she suddenly recall the incident and became quite upset as she began to remember it and then to recount it to the interviewer. Many years it seemed had passed since she had last thought about it. To consider this incident merely as 'exotic' is to discount what appears to be a lack of social support in some communities to discuss such experiences, making the incidents' impact more severe than they might otherwise be, and also leading the victim to suppress or reclassify the memories of what took place.

8.12 The Western Isles participants in contrast tended to speak in a relaxed way about both their views about sectarianism and any personal experiences. This may be related to the long relationships among individuals in those communities that are part of the everyday life of the islands. It may also be connected with the exceptionally deep and frequent interaction between practising Catholics and Protestants in many parts of the Western Isles. Group religious observance remains an important part of island life and the two denominations are closely involved in each other's worship, not just in secular spaces. We were told a variety of stories about ministers and priests visiting local people of the other denomination and welcoming them to services when for instance a Catholic married a Protestant. Many spoke about attending each other's services for important community occasions.[13]

8.13 Sectarianism in the Western Isles (where it appears) has a distinctive and older history related to local Scottish Catholicism and relatively little Irish Catholic inward migration. This was mentioned by two of the interviewees in the context of a question about anti-Irish racism. It may not be possible to apply lessons from the Western Isles to tackle sectarianism more generally, because the features of the island communities are so distinctive, but it is valuable as an example of resolving religious differences when the two denominations live so closely together.

The Western Isles experience is also an interesting counterpoint to the common argument that with cosmopolitanism or secularism comes tolerance.


Email: Linzie Liddell

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