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.

5. Ethnicity and other identities beyond the religious

5.1 Something that often comes up in academic discussions about sectarianism is the ways in which people assume that one identity is tied to another. We will discuss this in the context of football later, but it is worth mentioning here that none of our participants expressed any assumptions linking Catholicism or Protestantism to any identities beyond Irish and British. We did not come across anyone who linked Catholicism or Protestantism to other ethnic groups (for instance people of Polish or Italian ancestry).

5.2 One participant in the North Lanarkshire case study said that, in her view, Polish people suffered from negative stereotypes. She had previously mentioned several examples of anti-Catholic abuse towards indigenous Scots, so the interviewer asked her if she thought that the animosity towards Polish people had anything to do with Poland being a mainly Catholic country. She replied: 'I couldn't tell you, I didn't know that Polish people were mainly Catholic.'
(Woman, Interview 1, N Lanarkshire)

5.3 Multicultural values and immigration were sometimes raised by participants in focus groups when exploring how sectarianism might be manifested in the community. Positive stories were told, but also problems were discussed, such as the social distancing of indigenous Scots from migrants through their use of languages other than English at social events and in local shops, and perceptions of unequal distribution of benefits, unequal allocation of housing in favour of recently-arrived migrants, and so on.

5.4 What is important about these particular stories is that discussion of religious identity quickly shifted to discussions of ethnic and racial identity and so participants tended to speak about these as part and parcel of the same issue. Many participants seemed more fluent on these topics, whether they were making supportive comments about other ethnic groups or criticising them. This would suggest that the argument made in the 1980s, that experiences of racist exclusion were displaced by the significance of divisions between Catholics and Protestants in Scotland (Miles and Dunlop 1987, cited in Hopkins and Smith 2008), has been overturned. Some of our participants focused more on differences between ethnic groups rather than on sectarianism (there can be a racist element in sectarianism, such as anti-Irish prejudice, but our participants here were speaking about other ethnic groups).

5.5 This is not to say that there was more or less racism or sectarianism in the 1980s compared to the present day, and nor is it to suggest that those who are racist are also sectarian (although this may be the case for some people); instead, the point here is that the views of our participants suggest they have a heightened awareness of issues of race, and an openness to discussing such issues, compared to the 1980s in Scotland when such matters tended to be eclipsed by concerns about sectarian divisions.

5.6 Social class is relevant here too. One of our elderly Polish interviewees spoke about her experience of Irish-born Catholic families arriving in Scotland at the same time as hers did. The Irish families, she said, had arrived (in both Glasgow and Edinburgh) as very poor, and were uneasy about socialising. In contrast, the Polish families had arrived with much greater personal wealth and social capital, and had become part of the Scottish Catholic community much more easily.

5.7 Irishness however was usually treated differently. Our Polish participant above was unusual in treating the Irish as a migrant group. Mostly, our participants who did not have an Irish heritage spoke about Ireland and Irishness in the light of religious or political contexts. A Glasgow participant who originated from Fife commented specifically on this:

You don't ask a Polish person, 'what religion are you again?' You know, despite the fact there is a 90% chance they will be Catholic. You don't ask a Spaniard when you are in the boozer, 'what school did you go to?' You know? Do you? It is only Irish people that get treated like that. So it is all tied up with the sectarian elements of people's predeterminations of what you should, what you are. Whether or not you are west Belfast or east Belfast or ... Derry or Londonderry or that, you know? So there is a ... there is no doubt in my mind that Irish people get treated absolutely appallingly.
(Man, interview 6, Glasgow)

5.8 There were several examples where participants assumed that anti-Irish prejudice was something different from racism. For instance, a Glasgow participant who described himself as Scots Irish said:

'just because of the history and geography of where we are it happens to be ... eh ... you know, the Irish conflict ... eh ... it could just as easily be, you know, if we happened to be in New Orleans it could be a racial conflict.'
(Man, interview 7, Glasgow)

5.9 Others expressed puzzlement about displays of Irish nationalism because they felt that the people expressing Irish identity were in fact Scots. For instance, in one focus group where participants raised this topic, a woman said about her Celtic-supporting relative:

He is actually born to Scottish parents, but was born in England. Raised in England until he was about 17, and then he came back to Scotland. And then went back to England and now lives in England again. And he considers himself Irish. I do not know why and it is ridiculous. He is ... he boggles my brain, he really does.
(Woman, Focus Group 1, Glasgow)

5.10 Another, talking about Orange parades, observed that this applied to Protestant Irishness too:

... I think probably we will never be able to do it right. ... You know, because, it's really funny but if you look at the Ulster Scots narrative and to an extent, it is quite dominant within, well not dominant, but it's being told to stay within Northern Ireland.
(Man, Interview 5, Glasgow)

5.11 Some participants seemed to be arguing therefore that people of Irish origin are expected to relinquish an Irish identity and adopt a Scottish identity. If so, this limits the choice of identity for people who have Irish origins. It makes them 'contingent insiders' (Back 1996). This would however be different from forms of racism in which certain groups are never permitted to acquire the default identity. (A familiar example is 'African-Americans', who are rarely referred to in popular discourse as simply 'Americans', despite hundreds of years of American ancestry, regardless of which individuals want to have both identities and which individuals do not.)


Email: Linzie Liddell

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