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.

15. Understanding how stories are told

15.1 One phenomenon we often noticed in interviews was how long it took for some stories to emerge, and then to be told. We analysed some of our transcripts using the method of narrative analysis, which looks at the ways that participants introduce and present individual and collective stories.

15.2 It is through the use of stories and storytelling - between friends and family as well as in the mass media - that we position ourselves and our lives, in relation to other people and wider social forces. Furthermore, the stories that people tell about their experiences tell us something about the cultural framework within which individuals make sense of their lives. In essence, 'narratives are never simply reports of experiences, rather they make sense of and therefore inevitably distort those experiences' (Elliott 2005: 23).

15.3 The structural elements in several narratives relating experiences of sectarianism were very similar. Many were set a long time ago and/or in another place. Glasgow was recalled as a setting for a disproportionate number of the stories, particularly combined with a setting in the past:

Oh yeah. I used to love the parades, I would run along. [...] I love it. I missed it, I used to love it. And I remember you are not supposed to run in front of them, a band between each band, and this guy grabbed me. He was such a really, really nice guy, explained it all to me. He says, 'Listen son you don't that, you are not supposed to do that. Just wait until they all pass and then cross over.' And I used to love the music, but I got a terrible shock in the late 70s, the mid-70s in Queen's Park and they were all there. And there was this horrendous Northern Irish politician speaking in the bandstand, which I think is gone now, Queen's Park. And the bile and the vicious, evil, bigotry from him about killing Catholics and horrendous, and they were all clapping. That was my worst experience ever, that was Glasgow ...
(Man, Focus Group 1, Western Isles)

15.4 Here, in the abstract of the story ('I used to love the parades') the participant sets up and summarises a significant event that was problematic enough to have brought a change of outlook. (That is: 'I used to love the parades [but I don't anymore, for the following reason ...]') After setting up the story - a mini-story in itself, about 'a really, really nice guy', that functions to illustrate the storyteller's previously positive experiences of parades - the storyteller presents a complication evaluated as 'terrible' and 'horrendous': not only did they hear a public speech inciting violence against Catholics, they also witnessed an audience applauding such a 'vicious, evil' message. Notably, the speaker was an outsider to Glasgow, a Northern Irish politician, and, as such, not someone who would have had to deal with the local repercussions of his violent rhetoric. Whether this implies that 'Glasgow's problem' is a reflection of hatreds played out elsewhere, is unclear. But it appears to suggest the participant believes that the conflict in Northern Ireland has been a (historic) driver of community conflicts in Glasgow.

15.5 Another story, although shocking, was also striking because of the way that it was told. The woman in the interview spoke with considerable enthusiasm about her life, and at one point, speaking about experiences of sectarianism, said 'I have never in my life really experienced anything of any consequence whatsoever in that area. I really haven't.' It was only very much later in the interview that she suddenly remembered the following story, becoming quite upset.

Participant: Well I'll tell you. There was a very bad incident. And this is the last one I am going to tell you.

Interviewer: Sure.

Participant: [...] I always wanted to work with the poor and I always wanted to help those less fortunate. I really did. I don't want to be with those who have everything. [...] so I chose the Order and they were wonderful. And the Convent said, you know, that to practice at that time was actually to work eh work in a job and come in at the weekends, to see how you get on and everything. [...]

But then about the June of the following year, so I'd been down there for about 9 months, one of the sweet Sisters, lovely lady, she said, 'you know I think maybe you could go off to a contemplative order to have a go there, you know, because I think you're more….' And it's just so funny because I am so outgoing!

Interviewer: [laughs]

Participant: … and my family thought I was completely batty. So anyway, I said 'oh yes, that would be fine.' [...] I won't go into the experience of what happened, but something happened which told me most explicitly as if he had come down from Heaven to say 'come on I'll take you back to Edinburgh. You've done enough here.' And it was so profound, er, you know like St Paul and the road to Damascus, that I closed the book, said thank you, went in and said my thank yous in the chapel. [... And then I was resumed into the path. That was 1979. Very happy, very happy. Thatcher came along with all her dreadful policies in the 80s and things started to get very bad at that time. [...] I think they brought in hatchet men from America and em there was, there was some nasty people about at that time. And they were trying to work out how many managers were going to be getting the sack at that time, redundancy. It was a bad time. [...]

And then, the hatchet men appeared […] It was like the Inquisition. And also someone from the so called training unit, she was there. She wasn't allowed to say anything. There was the one main interviewer and it was poison. It was absolute poison. They were talking about the work being adequate but not adequate enough, you know, because they wanted all the profiteering to begin, you know. And em. You know. But then they were trying to find a way for me to go but I dug my heels in and fought my corner very very well. I have always been tenacious, what you call tenacious. But then when he came out with it and 'you'd gone somewhere in the 70s to some kind of nunnery or something like that', it was dreadful, it was a dreadful dreadful thing that happened that day. And that was definitely sectarianism. There is no question about that. Well. You know, I was just blown over and [pause] I left that room [pause] I left that room and you know I was in a very very bad state that day. That was a bad, bad day. A very bad day. And I ended up at the doctor's, and eh I ended up here, and that was one of the days of my life that I think I cried for about eight hours non-stop. And it was dreadful. And em Arthur put me to bed and, the girl from the Staff department, she phoned the next day or something and er Arthur said 'I don't wish to hear from any of you. My wife is not well.' [...]

Now was that the time that I took redundancy? [pause] Yes I think I had I think it was very soon after, I can't remember the events then but I really received a reasonable pay-out at the time when, when there was another batch of people to go which was what they wanted to do. I said no I didn't want to. But then of course the Lord came to my aid again [...] And I was here, and I was thinking 'mmm maybe I should really start looking for another job now'. I was only 48. And the phone rang and that was me for the next thirteen years until I retired. But that was bad. That was bad.

15.6 Here, the participant recounts two episodes from her life, linked together by sectarian discrimination. In the first, she tells of how she was called to work in a convent, 'to help those less fortunate'. This chapter in her life closed, and she resumed her career - a decision that made her 'very happy'. The second episode starts when the employer 'brought in hatchet men from America [...] to work out how many managers were going to be getting the sack' in her Scottish workplace; in contrast to the previously happy experience, this 'was a bad time' in her life.

15.7 The transition between these stories is significant: the storyteller marks the passage of time not only through reference to the year (1979 into the 1980s), but also to a change in political-economic outlook that she directly places on Margaret Thatcher and her 'dreadful policies'. It is this changed political-economic attitude, and the 'poison' that it introduced to her workplace, that are identified as underlying the story's complicating action: she, like other workers, was targeted for sacking or redundancy, in order to maximise profit; and as part of this, the 'hatchet men' interviewed her, in order to try 'to find a way for me to go'. During this interview, one of the interviewers raised the issue of her time in the Convent: 'you'd gone somewhere in the 70s to some kind of nunnery or something like that'. The context of the interview, and the way this was raised in order to question her commitment to the company, means it can only be read as sectarian bullying; that the storyteller then says that this event contributed to her decision to take redundancy suggests it was a constructive dismissal, on the ground of religion.

15.8 The event clearly affected this woman in a significant way. In the days that immediately followed, she was too ill to work. In the recording of the interview, the moments in her story immediately after she declares 'that was definitely sectarianism' are marked by a distinct lack of fluency, involving longer than usual pauses, repetition and false starts ( 'Well. You know, I was just blown over and [pause] I left that room [pause] I left that room and you know ...'). Finally, her evaluation of the story is peppered with repeat intensified evaluations ('it was dreadful, it was a dreadful dreadful thing'; 'I was in a very very bad state that day. That was a bad, bad day. A very bad day'). These are all indications that, still, after 30 years, she finds these events difficult to talk about.

15.9 Such stories indicate the contribution of qualitative research methods, where participants can be asked more about what they what they recall, in order to examine the extent to which those opinions are stable. They also reveal the limitations of past research on sectarianism that took participants' first response as their final response.


Email: Linzie Liddell

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