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.

17. Conclusions

17.1 From our discussions, several key findings emerged.

The discursive deficit

17.2 Many participants said they were not used to discussing sectarianism, and a few were unsure what the term meant, in many cases even when describing personal experiences. Many seemed to be more fluent when discussing racism.

17.3 The project team did find various experiences of sectarianism across all the case study communities, but to differing degrees. This 'discursive deficit' was however to be found across all the areas we visited. It is not clear why this is, but several possible explanations emerged. One is, as some participants said, that there may be very little or no sectarianism in their local communities. Some criticised media or governments for representing sectarianism as part of the Scottish national character.

17.4 Other possible explanations for the discursive deficit are that some experiences of sectarianism are not seen as suitable for everyday, or even private, conversation (the 'silent topic'). If so, there may be victims who are reluctant to seek social support. Some people who do not themselves feel subject to sectarian prejudice may be resistant to believing it exists in their communities, and be inclined to ignore signs of it. There can also be a problem of 'social indifference', where most members of a majority group do not actively look for markers of difference. This can be positive, but may also mean that they are unaware whether prejudice or bigotry exists.

17.5 It may also be that the declining visibility of religion in Scottish public (and private) life has made such discussions less common than they might once have been. Many of our participants described themselves as religious, but nevertheless said that religious faith, or identity, did not form a part of their everyday relationships with other people in the community, beyond places of worship, other than as a source of moral guidance.

17.6 Another possibility may be that for some Scots, sectarianism is normalised: overlooked because it seems to be a normal part of life. Some of our participants described incidents of prejudiced behaviour as being linked to ethno-religious identity, but they did not (or did not at first) classify them as sectarian. Many also described avoidance strategies they used, such avoiding certain places (perhaps at certain times) or concealing markers of religious identity such as school or family background.

Where sectarianism happens

17.7 It appeared that community experiences of sectarianism were more intense in west-central Scotland than in the other communities we visited, but stories were told about sectarianism in all of the communities. There were however specific places and times that our participants flagged up as increasing the likelihood of them experiencing sectarianism.

17.8 The days on which football matches happened (particularly those involving Celtic and Rangers) were mentioned frequently. Some participants referred to being cautious about visiting - or even walking by - specific pubs on these days and to being careful on public transport. Alcohol was frequently cited as an aggravating factor causing sectarian behaviour to spill out. Parades (whether Loyalist or Irish Republican or both) were also mentioned often. Social media, online environments, and email presented another set of locations where many participants recalled experiences of sectarianism.

17.9 What was striking however was not just where sectarianism happened, but where it did not. Even in the most troubled areas, sectarianism appeared to happen only within particular places or at particular times. Participants might live within a very short distance of each other, yet one might encounter sectarian behaviour daily, while another might have difficulty recalling any experience of it at all. This makes it particularly hard to estimate the prevalence and nature of Scottish sectarianism.

17.10 Concerns were raised by a small number of the participants about experiences of sectarianism in employment. There were however few accounts of this being personally experienced by participants.

17.11 Almost all discussions focused on everyday life. Other than a few mentions of the media, the impact of Mrs Thatcher's governments, and some religious divisions in local government, it was very rare for our participants to bring up the role of the powerful in society as a cause of sectarianism.

Gender, generations and families

17.12 The examples of sectarian behaviour our participants gave were usually masculine behaviours directed by men to both men and women. Stories about sectarian jokes, banter and abuse were usually about men engaging in such behaviour, and discussions about sectarian family influences also tended to focus on men. Women were also thought to pass on sectarian prejudices and participate in some sectarian behaviours, and develop avoidance strategies, but our participants mostly blamed men.

17.13 Despite rapid changes in Scottish society across generations, many participants nevertheless highlighted the role of families and of older generations in transmitting sectarian beliefs, particularly when these involved what some described as 'bitter' (more deep-seated and virulent) sectarianism. Sometimes this was done by grandparents rather than parents. Some of these participants nevertheless said that more 'casual' sectarianism, such as the careless use of offensive language, was however declining.

Memory and the power of 'exceptional' events

17.14 When asked what made something sectarian, participants often referred not just to the intention of the perpetrator (as is usually the case when people talk about racism) but also to the context. Often, this was historical or an old personal memory. Those who related sectarian stories they regarded as serious tended to do so late on in the interview, hesitantly. Two participants did not even remember a very serious incident until well into the conversation.

17.15 To consider incidents merely as unusual or exceptional is to discount what appears to be a lack of social support in some communities to discuss such experiences. This can make the impact of the incidents more severe, and also lead the victim to suppress or reclassify their memories. One issue for communities is not simply how much sectarianism there is, or how serious the incidents appear, but how it is spoken about and dealt with.

Jokes, banter, music and other signifiers

17.16 Whether jokes and banter were acceptable, many participants said, depended on the intention and the context. A joke made to friends, intended to be inclusive, would be less likely to be sectarian. If it was designed to be exclusive, or to justify one way of life as better than another, it was more likely to be sectarian.

17.17 Songs were often mentioned by our participants as having a particular power to create sectarian meaning. This included not just the literal words, but also where a song was sung or the way it was sung (such as a meaningful pause in a song that hinted at missing sectarian words), or even the tune. Such interpretations are not just assumed by individuals, but are shared and understood across different social groups.

17.18 Many still found sectarian significance in particular markers of group identity such as the colour of clothing, songs, tunes and flags, the name of the school attended, and the name and spelling of a surname. These were not necessarily understood Scotland-wide, however, and all of these distinctions were cut across by age, gender and football affiliation among others.

Football and Loyalist and Irish Republican processions

17.19 The rivalry between Celtic and Rangers was the issue most associated with sectarianism among our participants. Many spoke of this rivalry being used as a means to understand a person's cultural, religious, and political background, especially in west-central Scotland. Some supporters in other towns said that they would not go to Glasgow to see their own team play Rangers or Celtic because they expected to encounter sectarian aggression.

17.20 Throughout many of the interviews in the Glasgow and North Lanarkshire case studies in particular, there was an almost immediate conflation between sectarianism and football. The rivalry of Celtic, Rangers, other teams and their fans is a sporting rivalry, and not always sectarian in nature. However, many participants argued that the two issues were so intertwined that they could not be separated. Often, what was evident was the interchangeable nature of the terms Catholic and Protestant with Celtic and Rangers respectively.

17.21 For many of our participants, Catholicism and Protestantism appear to play a much more muted role in Scottish life than might be supposed from the rivalry of the two teams. Many of our participants did not associate themselves with any faith; several others who were religious nonetheless regarded it as a private matter. What is also important, though, is that a Catholic heritage remains a minority one. The focus on the rivalry between these two powerful teams obscures all of this.

17.22 There was particularly strong animosity expressed towards Loyalist and Irish Republican processions among our participants, with several arguing that they should be banned altogether. Some pointed out that the months spent building up to marches and parades was divisive in itself. However, the feeling was confined largely to those that were perceived as traditional 'flash points' for sectarian conflict.

Strengthening communities

17.23 Sectarianism in Scotland, where it occurs, is not confined to particular communities. It is however an elusive problem. The solutions that participants identified were often local ones rather than necessarily applicable Scotland-wide. In the Western Isles, it was the close relationships between the long-standing religious communities, in their own local area, that several participants saw as preventing and reducing the effect of sectarianism. Elsewhere, several participants in towns and cities said that the constantly changing populations in their area had diluted older sectarian identities and values.

17.24 Furthermore, if one result of the 'discursive deficit' is that people tend not to talk about experiences of sectarianism, then this may make it difficult for anti-sectarian initiatives to attract community support. In such cases, a local approach may be helpful. What communities also need, however, seems to be more open discussion in everyday life about what sectarianism is and where it remains, going beyond the context of football, and marches and parades.


Email: Linzie Liddell

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