An Examination of the Evidence on Sectarianism in Scotland

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


Not only did the 2003 NFO Study in Glasgow (mentioned above) reveal that most adults in Glasgow believed that sectarianism was an issue in Glasgow, it also revealed that a sizable proportion - 12% of respondents - believed that sectarianism affected them personally. One of the key aims of the NFO study was to measure the proportion of respondents who believed that they had been the subject of sectarianism in the city and to try to identify the nature of this experience. To gauge the extent of sectarian behaviour, the survey asked residents if, in the last five years, they had been the victim of various forms of discrimination, and if so, whether they believed that these actions were motivated by bigotry or prejudice.

Sectarian discrimination

The first point to note is that there was no significant difference in the level of discrimination experienced by Catholics and Protestants in respect of any of the forms of discrimination explored: discrimination when applying for work; treatment in the workplace; treatment by the police; treatment by the council; or treatment by another public service.11 Respondents who believed that they had been victims of discrimination were then asked to give the reason they thought they had been discriminated against. Respondents were shown a list of possible reasons including their race, religion, age, gender, the area where they live, and the football team they supported. With regard to religion, the key findings were as follows:

  • 1.1% (11 out of 1029) of respondents believed they had been discriminated against when applying for a job because of their religion, of whom: 4 were Roman Catholics and 1 Protestant.
  • 1.1% (11 out of 1029) of respondents believed they had been unfairly treated within the workplace because of their religion, of whom 3 were Roman Catholics and none Protestant.
  • 0.3% (3) believed they had been unfairly treated by the police because of their religion: 1 Protestant and 1 Roman Catholic.
  • 0.5% (5) believed they had been unfairly treated by the Council because of their religion: 2 Roman Catholics and 3 Protestant respondents.
  • 0.2% (2) believed they had been unfairly treated by another public service because of their religion: one was Protestant and one non-Christian.

The proportion of those who believe they have been discriminated against or unfairly treated because of their religion is very low and certainly too low to allow us to say whether Catholics or Protestants are more likely to experience this.

Sectarian crime and harassment

As well as being asked about discrimination, respondents in the 2003 Glasgow study were asked about their experience of crime and harassment in the past five years. Before the researchers could compare experiences of Catholics and Protestants, they first had to control for the impact of age - the Catholic population in Scotland has a younger profile that that of the Church of Scotland and crime survey data show that the risk of criminal victimisation reduces with age. Their analysis revealed that, after controlling for age, Catholic and Protestant respondents were equally likely to report being a victim of crime or harassment. Victims of crime were then asked if they believed that the crime had been motivated by any particular reason. The results revealed that:

  • 0.7% of all respondents (7 out of 1029) believed they had been physically attacked because of their religion, of whom, 3 were Protestants and 3 were Roman Catholics.
  • 0.6% of all respondents (6) believed they had been the victim of vandalism because of their religion: including 2 Protestants and 3 Roman Catholics.
  • 0.8% (8) believed they had been threatened with violence because of their religion: including 4 Protestants and 2 Catholics.
  • 0.4% (4) believed they had been the victim of other harassment because of their religion: including 2 Catholics and no Protestants.

The proportions are tiny and do not allow for meaningful comparisons between groups but, again, there are both Catholics and Protestants who believe that they have been the victim of crime and harassment because of their religion in recent times. What is more reassuring though is that while two-thirds of respondents perceived sectarian violence to be very or quite common in Glasgow, the very low numbers who claim to have personal experience suggests that it is actually fairly rare.

Other useful survey data with which to further test the prevalence of sectarian discrimination come from the Scottish Household Survey and Scottish Crime and Justice Survey12. In 2011 Scottish Household Survey respondents were asked if they had experienced any kind of harassment, bullying or violence in the last two years. Those who had experienced this (8% of all respondents) were then asked if they thought this was because of their religion. Our analysis of the responses to these questions revealed that, of the 922 respondents who had experienced this, 71 (7.7%) believed that it was because of their religion. Of this 71, 28 were Catholics and 4 were affiliated to the Church of Scotland13.

The Scottish Crime and Justice Survey (SCJS) also provides some relevant data on the proportion of crimes that are thought to be related to sectarianism. The survey interviews a randomly selected adult14 in 13,000 households across Scotland, is carried out every two years and asks respondents about crimes that they may have experienced in the past year. Those who are the victims of crime are asked whether they thought the incident may have been racially or religiously motivated or related to sectarianism. The proportion of crimes thought to be motivated by any of these reasons is very low and consistent over time. In 2008/09, 1% of crimes were thought by respondents to be motivated by sectarianism. In 2009/10 this dropped to less than 0.5% and then returned to 1% in 2010/11. The next data point in the series will be for 2012/13 and available from November 2013.

There are therefore recent national survey data that show that some in Scotland - albeit a very small proportion- believe they have been the victim of sectarian crime and harassment.

Other data that has been drawn upon to test the extent of sectarian crime in Scotland are the official figures on religiously offensive conduct that come to the attention of the criminal justice system. Sectarian behaviour is included in measures of 'hate crime'15 reported to the procurator fiscal and published in an annual official statistics publication, Hate Crime in Scotland. The most recent figures, published in June 2013, are for 2012-1316. By far, the largest proportion of hate crime is that which involves racial aggravation. (A total of 4,012 charges relating to race crime were reported in 2012-13 - 68% of all hate crime.) Twelve percent of hate crime in 2012-13 involved a religious aggravation17. While in 2011-12 there had been a large increase (of 26%) in religiously aggravated offending reported to the procurator, the proportion dropped by 24% in 2012-13. The large increase in 2011-12 had been attributed, at least in part, to increased awareness, reporting and recording of these crimes, following several incidents that received significant media attention during 2011-12. Part (but not all) of the recent reduction could be explained by the use of the new Section 1 charges under the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012 (which came into force on 1 March 2012)18

A separate analysis of religiously aggravated offences is contained in a Scottish Government research report, Religiously Aggravated Offending in Scotland 2012-1319. The aim of the report was to provide an insight into the nature of religious offending that comes to the attention of the procurator fiscal by presenting a further breakdown of the charges reported in 2012-13, including information about the nature of the religious belief that formed the focus of the offensive conduct. Previous analysis was carried out by the Scottish Government and Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) and published for the years 2006, 2010-11 and 2011-12.

There are a number of points that should be noted about the data. First, the analysis does not provide a comprehensive picture of the prevalence of religiously offensive conduct in Scotland. Not all incidents of religiously aggravated offending come to the attention of the police, or in circumstances where they are able to charge offenders with a religiously aggravated offence (for example on occasions where there are large groups of people singing religiously offensive songs). Second, the research relied on information provided in police reports submitted to the COPFS. These reports are designed to provide prosecutors with sufficient evidence to prosecute an accused person and did not always provide information which, although relevant to research, may not have been relevant to prove a charge. Third, this study may not have provided a complete account of charges aggravated by 'sectarian' prejudice because some of these types of incidents may have been reported to COPFS as racial aggravations rather than religious aggravations. This might be the case if the incident was directed at, for example, an Irish Catholic. Finally, the report was not based on analysis of the religious beliefs or affiliations of the people who were the reported victims of the offensive conduct. Legislation defines a religiously aggravated offence as an incident where the offender evinces towards the victim "malice and ill-will based on the victim's membership (or perceived membership) of a religious group or a social or cultural group with a perceived religious affiliation" and so the actual religious affiliation of the victim is not relevant to securing a Section 74 conviction. In fact, there is no separate section within police reports for the police to state which religious belief was targeted. An assessment, of the religion that was the focus of the charge was therefore made by the researchers involved in the research, based on a description of the incident and the details about what was said or done by the accused.20

The researchers' assessment of the religion that was the focus of religiously aggravated charges in 2012-13 is provided in Table 2 below.

Table 2: Assessment of the religion that was the focus of religiously aggravated offences reported to the Procurator Fiscal in 2012-13.

Religion Number of Charges As a proportion of all religiously aggravated offences
Roman Catholicism 388 56.5
Protestantism 199 29.0
Islam 80 11.6
Judaism 27 3.9
Christianity (General) 5 0.7
Unknown 4 0.6
Other 3 0.4

Note: Because some charges relate to incidents that targeted more than one religion, the total number of religions targeted slightly exceeds the number of charges.

As the table shows, Roman Catholicism was the religion that was the focus of the majority of cases - 56.5% of incidents were derogatory towards Catholicism and 29% derogatory towards Protestantism. The proportion of incidents derogatory towards Catholicism has changed very little in recent years - the proportion was 58.1% in 2011-12 and 57.7% in 2010-11.

The general identity of the person to whom the offending behaviour was directed was also examined by the research team. This revealed that in 40% of cases the religious prejudice was directed towards a police officer, in 34% of cases it was directed towards the general community, in 25% of cases towards a member of the public and in 12% of cases to someone else working in their official capacity. The fact that so many incidents were directed towards the police or someone acting in their official capacity suggest that, in many cases, the accused was unlikely to have known the religion of the victim and that the religious abuse may have been arbitrary in nature.

Most offences occurred in the west of Scotland, the most frequent locus being a police car/station, followed by a street, and residential area. Only 16% of charges related directly to football. Religious aggravations were most commonly added to 'threatening and abusive behaviour' charges (this was the main charge for 56% of aggravations) and 20% of aggravations involved a charge of breach of the peace. Only 4% of aggravations involved an assault charge. The vast majority of the behaviour that involved a religious aggravation was therefore anti-social, rather than violent. Of the accused, 91% were male and 49% were aged between 16 and 30. Just under half (49%) of all charges with a religious aggravation were reported as being alcohol-related.

As already mentioned, crimes aggravated by 'sectarian' prejudice may be reported to COPFS as racial aggravations rather than religious aggravations. To explore whether there has been any increase in incidents directed towards Irish victims, data on racist incidents were examined. Figures on the number of racist incidents recorded by the police are published annually by the Scottish Government and contain some information about the ethnicity of the victim21. Racist incidents are defined as "any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person". (It should be noted at that not all of these incidents will result in a charge.) The most recent figures are for 2011-12. Over 5,000 racist incidents were recorded - 10% higher than in recorded in 2010-11. Two percent (95) of the victims of racist incidents recorded by the police were defined as 'White Irish'. This proportion has remained fairly stable since 2006-07. The most common crimes/offences recorded as part of a racist incident were racially aggravated conduct22 (57%) and breach of the peace (19%).

The fact that the Scottish Crime and Justice Survey shows there has been no increase in the proportion of victims who believe that the crime they experienced was related to race, religion or sectarianism suggests that the increase in the numbers of religiously aggravated crimes that had been reported to COPFS in recent years was, as COPFS suggested, simply due to changes in reporting and recording practice.

Another recent source of information about sectarian crime and harassment is the analysis of charges under Section 1 of the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 201223. The Act criminalises hateful, threatening or otherwise offensive behaviour that is likely to incite disorder and is associated with a regulated football match. The analysis reveals that of the 268 charges in 2012-13, 106 (40%) were related to religious offence and, of those, 88 were derogatory towards Catholicism and 16 towards Protestantism.

Sectarian discrimination in the workplace

What emerges from the 2003 Study for Glasgow City Council is that, if there is sectarian discrimination in Scotland, it is most likely to present itself in the form of discrimination in the workplace. This form of discrimination has been the subject of a number of other quantitative and qualitative studies on sectarianism.

One source that has been used in the literature on sectarianism is the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey (SSAS)24. In 2001, the survey contained a module on religion that included some questions on religious attitudes generally as well as some on perceptions of discrimination. The data were analysed by Bruce and Glendinning25 and reveal that, in 2001, 1 in 5 Catholics claimed to have experienced discrimination in gaining employment or promotion. It should be noted, however, that the question was about discrimination generally and not just on the basis of religion. It is possible then that some of these respondents felt discriminated against for other reasons (such as age or gender) and for this reason cannot be used as a measure of the prevalence of sectarianism.

Some useful qualitative data on sectarian discrimination in the workplace was generated by Walls and Williams26. As part of a wider study of health disadvantage among the Irish and those of Irish descent in Britain, they conducted 72 in-depth interviews with Protestants and Catholics in two areas in Glasgow in the mid-late 1990s. Subjects were sampled from those who were involved in the West of Scotland Twenty-07 study27 and were selected to reflect the socio-economic profile in the city. Two age groups were interviewed: those who, in 1998, were aged around 46 (38 subjects) and those who were aged around 66 (34 subjects) and subjects included those who were Irish Catholic, Scottish Catholic, Irish Protestant and Scottish Protestant. The sample was composed this way to allow the researchers to explore the relative impact of Irish ethnicity and religion. All interviewees were asked directly whether or not their religion had ever been a factor in getting work, and whether there had been any changes over time in the perceived relevance of religion to experiences of work.

Seven out of the 39 Catholics who were interviewed (in both age groups) described what they believed to be personal experience of discrimination. For example, a 46 year old Catholic claimed to have been told in 1979 that he had secured a job only to have the offer withdrawn when he revealed that he had attended a Catholic school. Many others described what was believed to be discrimination against friends or family.

The authors explain that Protestants were also likely to mention discrimination against Catholics. One 66 year old Protestant who became the director of a large company until 1986 described how Catholics were restricted to certain lower grade roles28 :

There was no Catholics in the office at all, none at all, none of the directors, none of the officials, none of the clerks, were ever Catholics, or typists, no. But the works had them...

When asked if this was an active effort on the part of the company he explained:

Oh no, no, no, it was a Glasgow trait, it was a Glasgow firm and I think the people had grown up just as I had grown up, I wouldn't have broken the mould latterly. I never employed anybody that was a Catholic, not that there were many Catholics applied.

Although there was a general perception that discrimination had reduced since the mid 1970's, there were still examples from the 1980's and 1990's. The authors also concluded that 'the fact that Irish Protestants were not discriminated against, despite Irish connections, clearly demarcates religion as crucial to identification of otherness'29.

Finn, Uygun and Johnson30 have also conducted research on discrimination in the workplace in Glasgow for a report to the Scottish Trade Union Congress and the Scottish Government. The research aimed to explore the experiences of sectarianism amongst younger workers in Scotland aged up to twenty six years and was to specifically include the topics of education and training. In part of the study, participants were expected to have a trade union background and so the STUC agreed to arrange the focus groups. Although focus groups were conducted to explore the issue in depth, the authors note that these were difficult to arrange and suggested that this may have been due to the sensitive nature of the topic and the reluctance of some employers to allow the issue to be discussed. In addition to the groups arranged via the STUC, the researchers also set up some separate Catholic and Protestant groups by seeking volunteers from students who were weeks from the conclusion of a four-year undergraduate degree in Primary Education31. A total of six focus groups were convened. The study also included interviews with trade union officials. This was a small qualitative study, and although not generalisable, offers some relatively recent insights into what were perceived as experiences of sectarianism in the workplace, and from respondents who were relatively young.

The focus groups revealed that in the workplace, sectarian jokes and banter were fairly commonplace occurrences, but the context of these was particularly important in terms of whether offence was caused. Some participants perceived that the normality surrounding these occurrences could not be challenged and that any objections to these in the workplace could be inflammatory. The study also revealed other forms of discrimination in the workplace, including religious prejudice that was not restricted to Catholics. There were also allegations of favouritism in some workplaces (both for Catholics and Protestants), and there was a perception that prejudice in recruitment along religious lines still exists. For example, one Catholic student reported the benefits she gained when her boss had learned that they had both attended the same Catholic school:

"I worked in that place for four years and it was very clear that she favoured me over other people, and she would give me more important jobs. And it was only myself and another girl who were the only Catholic people who worked in the whole store, and you could tell straight away. She would automatically do things for me and this other girl. I got days off that I had asked for, that I couldn't get, and stuff like that. It became really apparent."

The interviews with trade union officials revealed that although older interviewees recognised that substantial progress had been made in tackling sectarianism in the workplace, nearly all of them judged sectarianism still to be a serious problem. An older official identified how difficult it had been for Catholics to obtain employment in engineering jobs on Clydeside. Even where Catholics had not been disbarred, once employed they had no, or very limited, prospects of promotion. These practices had begun to end around thirty years ago, but there was a perception that some of these attitudes still remained, even if they were now "underground". Very recent acts of direct employment discrimination against Catholics were reported: one example in the finance sector and another in the public sector.


There is evidence that, while the numbers are very small and it is not as overt or as common as in the past, there are still some examples of sectarian discrimination in Scotland. The empirical evidence, although limited, also suggests that sectarian discrimination is something that is experienced by both Catholics and Protestants. While the evidence from the 2003 Glasgow study suggests that this form of discrimination is most likely to manifest itself in the workplace (rather than in treatment by the police, council or other public services), the proportion of people who experience this is very small. There is also evidence that some victims of crime are targeted because of their religion, though again the proportions are very small. While, in recent years, there had been an increase in religiously aggravated crime that comes to the attention of the criminal justice system, data on victimisation suggests that this was due to changes in reporting and recording practice. However, neither this, the very small numbers involved nor the fact that sectarian discrimination appears to be less common that in the past are reasons to be complacent.

What is obvious from the material examined in this section is that more research is needed to allow us to explore the extent and nature of sectarianism in Scotland. Not only do we need national sources of data that will allow us to quantify sectarianism experiences but we also need qualitative research that explores if and how sectarianism affects particular communities in Scotland. This is something to which we return in the final section of this paper.

The next section of this paper examines data of a different nature to consider whether there is any evidence that Catholics in Scotland suffer any obvious disadvantage across a range of social outcomes.


Email: Ben Cavanagh

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