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.

Executive Summary


1. In August 2012, the Minister for Community Safety and Legal Affairs established the independent Advisory Group on Tackling Sectarianism in Scotland. As part of its work, the Advisory Group made recommendations regarding any further research that would be needed to guide future development of policy. They identified gaps where evidence was lacking and highlighted a need for qualitative research that explores if and how sectarianism affects particular communities, and how it may form part of everyday experience.

2. The Scottish Government then commissioned a number of research projects. The largest of these included a study of public processions, a nationally representative study of public attitudes and experiences of sectarianism, and the current project about community experiences of sectarianism. There were also other projects, such as an analysis of information from the 2011 Census and new questions added to the Scottish Crime and Justice Survey and the Scottish Household Survey.

The project

3. The research was carried out by a team of academics from Stirling, Newcastle, Glasgow, Loughborough and Queen's Belfast Universities. Their disciplines include law, music, social geography, and communications studies. The study was commissioned in March 2014, to conclude in spring 2015.

4. The Scottish Government asked the team to provide the Government and its partners with a more comprehensive understanding of public perceptions and experiences of sectarianism, where and how it manifests itself within particular communities in Scottish society, the impact and consequences of this and what more might be done to tackle it.

5. The methods used were qualitative: the team visited five case study sites across Scotland to hear from local people in interviews and focus groups. Participants were selected by visiting local hubs of social activity and making contact with people engaged in the social life of the community who would introduce us to others with a wide range of life experiences. The project's brief was to consider personal experiences of sectarianism such as perceptions of prevalence, trends over time, marriage and social networks, work, education, and the various settings in which sectarianism may occur.

6. The purpose of the study was not to provide a representative account of the nature of sectarianism in Scotland (an estimate of its prevalence can be found in a recent ScotCen study (Hinchliffe et al 2015). Rather, the team were asked to provide depth and context to research findings from other projects, such as national surveys of victimisation and perceptions of sectarianism, and criminal offending data.


7. What follows are the main themes that emerged.

The discursive deficit

8. Many of the 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. This included people from Protestant and Catholic backgrounds. Many seemed to be more fluent when discussing racism, and it may be that some Scots are more accustomed to using the term 'racism' in everyday conversation, and find it easier to make sense of it, than they are as regards 'sectarianism'.

9. The project team did find various experiences of sectarianism across all the case study communities but to widely differing degrees. The 'discursive deficit' was however common across all communities we visited. The reasons for this are not clear, but several possible explanations emerged.

10. It could be that in parts of Scotland today there is little sectarianism. Some participants, as we discuss later, suffered sectarianism frequently, but others were unable to think of examples of it in their community, and a few were unhappy about media or governmental discussions of sectarianism that implied it occurred Scotland-wide or that it was part of the national character.

11. Other participants however found it difficult to isolate the concept from other types of prejudice (this included religious prejudice and racism - all types of racism, not only anti-Irish racism).

12. Furthermore, it could be that there is a discursive deficit because some experiences of sectarianism are not spoken about: one participant referred to it as the 'silent topic' that 'you don't discuss'. What came out strongly is that even some participants who had seen or experienced sectarianism themselves had tended not to talk about it afterwards. This suggests that some victims of sectarianism (and we did hear many stories, some shocking) may be reluctant to seek social support and their stories will go untold.

13. Another possibility is that people are motivated to ignore signs of sectarianism if they do not see themselves as likely victims, and are resistant to viewing it as a problem in their community. 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.

14. The unfamiliarity of discussions about sectarianism may also be linked to the declining visibility of religion in Scottish public (and private) life. Many of our participants who described themselves as religious 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. Many also maintained that the religious faith of others, whether at work, school or in informal social contexts, was of no relevance to how they socially interact. Usually they asserted this strongly as being their own choice, although it is worth noting here that one young woman spoke about how the Catholics she knew kept their faith 'semi-quiet'.

15. Another possibility may be that for some Scots, sectarianism is normalised: overlooked because it seems to be a normal part of life. We heard from participants who told us of overt and disturbing incidents of sectarian behaviour in their communities, and who regarded it as a part of their daily life. However we also heard from people who said that they never encountered sectarianism, but who then went on to describe quite developed strategies for avoiding events that they later described as sectarian.

16. Hence, one reason that sectarianism is often seen as a contentious issue may be because it is currently poorly understood in Scottish society. Not only is there widespread variability in people's understanding of what constitutes sectarianism, but also some of our participants did not classify certain forms of prejudiced behaviour as sectarian, even though they had described them in ways that suggested these were based on ethno-religious identity.

Where sectarianism happens

17. 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.

18. 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 that could cause sectarian behaviour to spill out of contained environments. Parades (whether Loyalist or Irish Republican or both) were also mentioned often. On these sorts of occasions, some participants said they were particularly careful about the colours they wore.

19. Aside from these events, participants referred to a range of places and times when they had experienced sectarianism, or when friends and family members had encountered it. Some were cautious about revealing their surname, their educational background and their family history to others they met because they were concerned about being associated with having a particular religious affiliation.

20. Concerns were raised by a small number of the participants about experiences of sectarianism in employment recruitment practices - such as during interviews when the interview panel have access to their CV and knowledge of their surname and educational background - as well as general treatment in the workplace and access to promotion opportunities. There were however few accounts of this being personally experienced by participants. Social media, online environments, and email presented another set of locations where many participants recalled experiences of sectarianism.

21. 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 (such as explicitly anti-Catholic or anti-Protestant abuse) if working in a pub, while another might have difficulty recalling any experience of it at all.

22. It is these distinctive elements that perhaps create so much difficulty for attempts to estimate the prevalence and nature of sectarianism in Scotland. Both in public and in private, there are a great many spaces where sectarianism either does not exist or is not expressed. However there are other times and places where serious problems remain. Where sectarianism does take place it is experienced with varying intensity - sometimes as being aggressive and serious, other times as being subtle and covert.

23. 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.


24. Participants described a strong gender element. The examples of sectarian behaviour they gave were usually masculine behaviours directed by men to both men and women. Nearly all of the recollections about sectarian jokes and banter were about men engaging in such behaviour, and indeed, pubs and drinking culture were often the context in which such actions were experienced, overheard or engaged in. Discussions about sectarian family influences too tended to focus on men rather than women.

25. Our participants also criticised masculine cultures. Football, marching, music and parades were often said to create unnecessarily aggressive and intimidating environments. This shapes communities and can infiltrate other spaces, notably public transport and main retail streets on the days around major events.

26. Women were not said to be entirely passive in this. They take evasive action to avoid the risk of conflict, they develop strategies to protect their families, and like men they are vulnerable in public spaces such as the street, the school and the workplace, and in their homes. They too can transmit prejudices though, as some participants mentioned, and women take part in some controversial activities. Nevertheless, when our participants spoke about sectarianism, it was typically men whom they blamed.

Generations and families

27. 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' sectarianism. Sometimes this was done by grandparents rather than parents.

28. Some participants said that more 'casual' sectarianism, such as the careless use of offensive language, was declining. However, 'bitter' sectarianism was passed down more successfully. Participants described this sort of sectarianism as more deep-seated and virulent.

Memory and the power of 'exceptional' events

29. 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.

30. Stories of sectarian experiences were sometimes slow to emerge. Participants 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 a couple of cases the person did not even recall a very serious incident until well into the interview.

31. Participants in the Western Isles however tended to speak differently, in a more 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.

32. It may also be connected with the exceptionally deep and frequent interaction between practising Catholics and Protestants in many parts of the Western Isles. 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. The Western Isles experience is an interesting counterpoint to the common argument that with cosmopolitanism or secularism comes tolerance.

33. 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, 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. The contrasts here suggest that one issue for communities is not simply how much sectarianism there is, or how serious the incidents are (even in the eyes of the individuals themselves), but how it is spoken about or ignored, and how it is dealt with. What can be most harmful is a lack of social support.

Jokes, banter, music and other signifiers

34. Many participants emphasised that the context of potentially sectarian speech is important. Whether jokes and banter were acceptable, many participants said, depended on the intention and the context. If a joke was made to friends, or intended to be inclusive of the people there, it 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.

35. 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). Certain songs such as 'The Sash' can at times carry that meaning in the tune alone. Such interpretations are not just assumed by individuals, but are shared and understood across different social groups.

36. 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.

37. These were not necessarily understood Scotland-wide, however. Furthermore, all of these distinctions were cut across by age, gender and football affiliation among others. There was no simple east/west, north/south or island/mainland division.


38. The rivalry between Celtic and Rangers[1] was the issue most associated with sectarianism among our participants. Despite it not being explicitly asked about by the interviewers, a great many participants pointed to Celtic and Rangers as two of the principal sources of sectarianism in Scotland. 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.

39. 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. 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. Pubs and bars affiliated with supporters of either Rangers or Celtic were frequently referred to as Protestant or Catholic pubs, strengthening this association. 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 singing, chanting or violence that they felt were sectarian.

40. Recent problems faced by Rangers aside, the modern history of Celtic and Rangers is of two powerful teams with similarly large fanbases and strongly-asserted identities, somewhat evenly matched and in a combative struggle with each other. However, this does not map on to the larger society of Scotland. 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 have religious beliefs and did not associate themselves with a faith. What is also important, though, is that a Catholic heritage remains a minority one; most of the Scottish population come from families that were, until recent times, practising Protestant.

41. The focus on the Celtic and Rangers rivalry obscures all this. The rivalry of the teams and their fans is not always sectarian in nature. And when it is, it is not a mirror image of how Scotland's religious groups interact.

Loyalist and Irish Republican processions

42. There was a great deal of animosity expressed towards these events among our participants, with several arguing that they should be banned altogether. Some pointed out that the months spent building up to 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

43. The solutions that participants identified were often local ones rather than necessarily applicable Scotland-wide. In the Western Isles, it was the close, interactive relationships between the long-standing religious communities, in their own local area, that several participants felt was particularly helpful to preventing and reducing the effect of sectarianism. Elsewhere, several participants said that the constantly changing populations in towns and cities encouraged cosmopolitanism and diluted older, possibly sectarian, identities and values.


44. What has emerged from this study is that sectarianism in Scotland, where it occurs, is not confined to particular communities. It is however an elusive concept. Many participants described it as what might be called a hand-me-down identity, passed on through generations. It is also one that Scots do not appear to discuss in everyday conversation very much. Furthermore, those who have suffered sectarian prejudice and bigotry tend, it seems, to have done so in silence.

45. We encountered many personal stories of experiencing bigotry, but not many of discrimination. However, several participants cited examples of where they felt discrimination still exists. If people believe discrimination to be continuing, they may adjust their lives accordingly so as to avoid instances of it, which would have impact in itself.

46. People's experiences vary hugely. This can depend on the nature of their local community, their religion/religious background, national and ethnic origins, socio-economic status, age, gender, family relationships and all the other familiar factors that might intersect to influence experience and perceptions.

47. But it can also depend on such things as how much time they spend in particular places - and what places, and times, they are able to avoid. Some of our participants did not consider sectarianism to be a problem. For others, there seemed to be a process of 'normalisation' happening, with strategies in place to avoid problematic behaviours and places. A few lived lives where sectarian experiences were difficult to escape.

48. A project such as this one cannot estimate how prevalent sectarianism in Scotland is, nor compare it to ethnic and religious bigotry in other countries. What its findings suggest is that more open discussion is needed, beyond the context of Celtic-Rangers matches and Loyalist and Irish Republican processions, to face down what problems remain and decide how best to deal with them.


Email: Linzie Liddell

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