An Examination of the Evidence on Sectarianism in Scotland

This is a review of existing research and survey data on sectarianism in Scotland.


In broad terms, sectarianism in Scotland is understood as behaviour which is characterised by historical intra-Christian conflict between Catholics and Protestants (the majority being Church of Scotland - by far the largest Christian group in Scotland). Some commentators also argue that there is an ethnic as well as religious element to the problem with Irish Catholics being a key focus of sectarian behaviour.

That Catholics in Scotland suffered prejudice and discrimination in the past and were socio-economically disadvantaged is generally not disputed amongst scholars. The fundamental questions are whether and how far such attitudes and behaviour persist in modern Scotland, what form they take and whether they result in disadvantage. To help explore this, the Scottish Executive published a review of the evidence on sectarianism in 2005 that focused on the research published between 2002 and 2004 - Religious Discrimination and Sectarianism in Scotland: A Brief Review of Evidence 2002 - 2004, (2005)1. (An earlier briefing paper had highlighted that there was very little empirical research in sectarianism up to 2002.) The conclusion of that review was that while there was a perception of sectarianism in Scotland, there was little consensus about whether this was underpinned by empirical evidence. The review also recommended that policy-makers stay up-to-date with the debate and evidence. This current paper provides a further up-date of the evidence but also draws on some data from the criminal justice system and from census and survey data to add another perspective to the debate. The aim is to identify not only what we do know about sectarianism in Scotland but also to highlight what we do not know and to try to set an agenda for future research on the subject.

The subject can be read across a range of disciplines and so the review makes no claim to having identified all evidence and sources which might be relevant to discussions of sectarianism. However a broad corpus of literature has been identified, and accessed through web-based search engines, including academic and government library searches and government policy and research sites2. While there is a great deal of literature in which academic commentators debate the existence and extent of sectarianism in Scotland3 , this paper does not seek to rehearse these arguments but instead focuses the discussion on the empirical evidence.

The paper begins by examining data on perceptions of sectarianism in Scotland before moving on to explore the evidence on experience. In exploring the extent to which sectarianism actually presents itself in Scotland, the paper draws on an important study conducted for Glasgow City Council, some national data on sectarian-related crime and a number of studies that explore the specific issue of sectarian behaviour in the workplace. Given the limited research on the experience of sectarianism, the paper also explores, as some academic commentators have, whether there is any evidence of structural disadvantage for Catholics in Scotland and briefly summarises some analysis on intermarriage between Catholics and those of the Church of Scotland. The final section of this paper makes some suggestions for further research on sectarianism.


Email: Ben Cavanagh

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