An Examination of the Evidence on Sectarianism in Scotland

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


One of the most useful studies on sectarianism in Scotland was that commissioned by Glasgow City Council4 and published in 2003. The aim was to determine the scale, nature, and impact of sectarianism in the city. The central element of the research was a survey of a representative sample of 1,000 adults in Glasgow but the research also involved telephone interviews with key stakeholders and interest groups. The study also involved focus groups with Catholics, Protestants and those who had no religious affiliation, and focus groups with S4 pupils from a Catholic and a non-denominational school. The results highlighted that perceptions of sectarianism were commonplace. Approximately two thirds of those surveyed disagreed with the statement that 'discrimination along sectarian lines no longer exists' and the same proportion disagreed that 'sectarianism is becoming a thing of the past'.

According to respondents in the survey, sectarianism was most commonly observed through jokes between friends and by using sectarian terms to describe people. The majority of those involved in the research felt that sectarian jokes, terms of abuse, vandalism, violence, threats, intimidation, and harassment were common in Glasgow. Perhaps more alarmingly, around two-thirds (65%) of respondents felt that sectarian violence was very or quite common and a majority (58%) felt that sectarian threats and harassment were common. Although institutional sectarianism was perceived to be less common, 25% felt that it was very or quite common for people not to get jobs or promotion for because of their religion and 20% felt that it was very or quite common for the police to treat people differently due to their religion. That 5% said that they excluded themselves from particular areas of Glasgow because of their religion, and 6% because of football allegiance, suggests that concerns about sectarianism do have an effect on behaviour.

While over half (59%) of respondents believed that Catholics faced prejudice, a similar proportion (55%) felt that Protestants faced prejudice. This is reflected in the fact that three-quarters of those who responded to the survey believed that rather than being mainly anti-Catholic or mainly anti-Protestant, sectarianism in Glasgow tended to be equally aimed at Catholics and Protestants. Only a small minority said that sectarianism tended to be mainly anti-Catholic (8%) or anti-Protestant (2%). Even among Catholics and Protestant respondents, there was a strong view that sectarianism affected both religions equally, although Catholic respondents were more likely to say that sectarianism tended to be anti-Catholic (15%) than Protestants were to say that it tended to be anti-Protestant (3%).

The rivalry between Rangers and Celtic was most commonly seen as the way in which the sectarian divide in Glasgow is sustained. To a lesser extent, public processions, including those commonly referred to as Orange Walks and Catholic 5 parades, and separate Catholic schools were given as reasons for the continuance of the divide.

Since this study was published, more in-depth qualitative research by Deuchar and Holligan6 has explored how young people aged 16-18 in Glasgow viewed their city and provided them with an opportunity to comment on sectarianism. This qualitative study involved a total of 50 young people selected from nine voluntary organisations and five secondary schools in some of the most socially deprived areas of Glasgow. Amongst the main findings was the salience of territoriality related to gang activity. Although not necessarily sectarian, gang activity was associated with particular flashpoints, which the authors described as a vehicle for expressing aggression, particularly around alcohol and after 'Old Firm' matches. Indeed, most respondents indicated that they were very much influenced by football culture and its characteristic rivalry. Respondents intimated that the source of learning about football related sectarianism lay within the family, especially older male family members, and there was a clear link to learning about and conforming to particular expressions of masculinity. The young people often viewed sectarianism as harmless banter and football bigotry appeared to be a taken for granted aspect of Glasgow life. The authors claim that, "the use of sectarian language and humour may have become so deeply assimilated into these young people's social identity that it has become normalised"7. The research also revealed self exclusionary practices amongst young people - that there were areas that they would avoid ('hidden territories') when wearing particular football colours. The authors argue that this can affect life chances, by restricting networking and employment opportunities.

Finally, the researchers acknowledged the small sample size and called for further and larger scale research on urban youth culture and sectarianism.

More recent data on young people's views on sectarianism were collected in an opinion poll conducted by Action for Children and published in 20118. The poll was conducted during the introduction of the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) bill. The survey polled a small sample of 114 young people aged between 14 and 20, and reported that half claimed to have witnessed sectarian incidents on a regular basis. Although the detail of these incidents may have provided some useful insights, these were not recorded. Other findings include that around two thirds thought that schools should do more to tackle bigotry, almost half thought that the tougher sentences proposed in the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) bill would not be enough to tackle sectarianism and that 44% believed that sectarian views come from households rather than just religion.

Recurrent questions on conflict in the Scottish Election Survey and in the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey from the late 1970s through to 2000 also suggest that a sizable proportion of the Scottish population have, in recent history, believed that conflict between Protestants and Catholics is 'very' or 'fairly serious'. Responses over time are shown in Table 1 below.

Table 1: Public perceptions of conflict between Protestants and Catholics

How serious would you say the conflict is? 1979 1992 1997 1999 2000
Very or fairly serious 36% 34% 39% 51% 38%
Not very serious 41% 49% 48% 40% 49%
There is no conflict 21% 14% 11% 8% 12%
Don't know 3% 2% 2% 2% 2%
Base = 100% 660 957 882 1,482 1,663

Source: Scottish Election Surveys, 1979-1997 and Scottish Social Attitudes Surveys, 1999-2000. Reproduced in Rosie , Michael (2004) The Sectarian Myth in Scotland: Of bitter memory and Bigotry. Palgrave Macmillan. P.41 Table 3.6.

It should be noted, though, that the precise wording of the question was 'Turning now to Protestants and Catholics in Scotland. Using a phrase from this card, how serious would you say conflict between them is?' It therefore contains an implicit suggestion that conflict of some sort does exist and so, in that sense, the question could be considered to be leading9. Nevertheless, what is interesting in the data is that there was a sharp increase in the proportion of respondents who stated that the conflict was fairly or very serious in 1999. However, as Rosie10 notes, the 1999 survey was conducted against 'a media background in which football-related violence, bigotry and prejudice were prominent'. This is also the year in which Scottish composer James MacMillan gave a lecture at the Edinburgh International Festival on 'Scotland's Shame', reigniting the debate about the prevalence of sectarianism in contemporary Scottish society. As Rose notes, perceptions of the extent of sectarian conflict will have been susceptible to media reporting. The extent to which these perceptions reflect actual experience of sectarianism is the focus of the next section.


Email: Ben Cavanagh

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