Tackling sectarianism in Scotland: review of implementation

Progress report on efforts to implement recommendations from Dr Duncan Morrow's report, 'Tackling sectarianism in Scotland'.

Section 3: Findings and recommendations

As the Advisory Group report illustrated, there is no single, simple answer to deep-seated issues of social division such as sectarianism. Real change will rely on a combination of actions, taken consistently, in communities and civil society, in responsible agencies and authorities and in legislation and government action.

This is reflected in the 'mixed approach' adopted by the Scottish Government, which includes public leadership, evidence-gathering, investigation and analysis and action at a variety of levels. The final Advisory Group report acknowledged that consistent principle is needed to encompass a variety of interventions to allow for differences in geography, class, age and gender, as well as for the different ways in which sectarianism is evident, for example, among young people, in different local authorities, sports organisations, schools, and in relation to marches and parades.

An approach which acknowledges that significant change depends on shared responsibilities runs the risk that it is misinterpreted as an issue for which nobody takes responsibility. The second, critical, dimension of the Advisory Group report was therefore to identify specific areas for specific action. The Minister's invitation to revisit these proposals only 18 months after the publication of the final report of the Advisory Group was a real opportunity to mark progress or otherwise and a chance to revisit specific actions to see how far these had influenced behaviour since 2015. Specifically, I was able to:

  • Highlight good practice and identify examples of good leadership which have been shown in relation to advancing the recommendations made by the Advisory Group.
  • Identify areas where progress and leadership are lacking and where sectarianism has been allowed to go unchallenged.
  • Highlight what further action is required to tackle sectarianism in Scotland and who is best placed to deliver this.

Blame and Denial


There is evidence that the community funding programme has begun to allow for a more evidence-based and practical approach to sectarianism that has been absent until now. Nonetheless, sectarianism remains an issue which causes discomfort and a degree of uncertainty among people in authority. The evidence for this is complex but clear:

  • Some of the responses to this exercise remained somewhat defensive and appeared to anticipate an unhelpful climate of blame or shame. While nobody denied the existence of residual sectarianism in general, sectarianism in any specific organisation or group was energetically refuted.
  • Attempts to name sectarianism, for example in flute bands, football, education, journalism or political and cultural life, are more often than not met with energetic denial, and a sense that the remedy will be destructive of associations and passions which are regarded as positive.
  • At the same time, responses to this Review by agencies such as Police Scotland and Youth Organisations, as well as the evidence of groups funded by the Scottish Government to tackle sectarianism, suggest that these issues remain significant in parts of Scotland.
  • The demand for 'evidence' too often appears to be a mechanism for defensiveness and minimisation rather than a interested inquiry for further information.


I make the following recommendations:

  • The Scottish Government should continue to make clear that the priority is to end the behaviours, attitudes and structures that underpin sectarianism rather than 'name and shame' any individual or group. The emphasis should shift from historic 'blame' towards failure to act in the present.
  • Where particular issues of sectarianism are identified, it is imperative that those with the ability to take specific actions do so, rather than hide behind general or shared responsibilities as a reason for inaction. The funding programme has created opportunities to highlight progress at community level to a wider audience, and these should continue to be encouraged.
  • The maintenance and development of a quantitative and qualitative evidence base will be critical to ensuring action to prevent both denial and unevidenced prejudice and to illustrate progress and achievement.



Sectarianism, like any '-ism', is not only a series of unique individual actions but a pattern of embedded attitudes, behaviours and structures which perpetuate exclusion, threat and isolation. A critical element of the Advisory Group Report was the recommendation that public bodies in Scotland should develop policies and capacity to identify and address issues of sectarianism where it emerged. In particular, we emphasised, that:

  • Local authorities should develop an explicit capacity-led action to tackle sectarianism where appropriate, possibly through inter-agency working under Community Planning mechanisms.
  • Sectarianism should eventually be treated routinely alongside other equalities, good relations and human rights issues within the frameworks of the relevant authorities.

The review process highlighted a number of issues:

  • The Advisory Group proposed that local authorities should lead community responses to sectarianism. We found no consistent evidence that policy had been further developed to date.
  • There is, however, evidence that particular local authorities have developed models of practice in relation to tackling sectarianism which have impacted on both the internal and external culture of the organisation. These models are highlighted in the report in relation to work by Nil by Mouth.
  • There is evidence that the support of the Scottish Government for community-based practice in a variety of areas and locations has been an important element in developing better practice in local communities and better relationships with local authorities.
  • I found very little direct evidence that tackling sectarianism is explicitly addressed within Community Planning in most of Scotland.
  • The relationship between sectarianism, as it is manifest in inequality, public order, youth, schools, cultural and community life and other equalities and human rights issues remains disjointed rather than seamless.
  • The Scottish Government could consider establishing a Forum for Community Cohesion Issues which could advise on tensions emerging at local level and on mechanisms for addressing these in a culture of responsibility rather than blame.


I make the following recommendations:

  • With notable exceptions, the response of local authorities, including the absence of any response to this review from COSLA, indicates a disappointing lack of urgency in relation to the findings of the Advisory Group. In the next period, local authorities should ensure that formal policy and practice guidelines are developed to address sectarianism at local level. This should include actions connected to other equalities issues.
  • Local authorities should actively consider how best practice in tackling sectarianism can be shared more systematically across Scotland.
  • In the event that further funding for community-based practice is made available by the Scottish Government, local authorities should be encouraged to partner with applicants to encourage capacity building and knowledge exchange between the voluntary and community sector and public bodies
  • Community Planning frameworks should integrate sectarianism explicitly into equalities strategies and create a tool for greater focus and coherence. The explicit integration of sectarianism within local attitudes surveys and within equalities and hate crime monitoring frameworks might encourage this.
  • Work by the Equality and Human Rights Commissions ( EHRC) and by the Scottish Human Rights commission ( SHRC) to identify both the difficulties and potential pathways to mainstreaming is important if sectarianism is to be treated within a 'normal' approach to human rights, good relations and equality.
  • A review of hate crime legislation should consider how sectarianism and sectarian incidents could be integrated into a more general approach.



The Advisory Group's final report expressly stated that sectarianism in Scotland is not exclusive to Football. Having said that, the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey published in 2014 confirmed that Scottish people associate sectarian behaviour very closely with behaviour at football matches, with the symbolism of colours and identity, and in the wider youth and social media culture connected with football.

The full report can be found here: http://www.gov.scot/Publications/2015/02/6038/0

As a consequence, the Advisory Report made clear that action was needed by the football authorities as an important contributor to tackling sectarianism in Scotland, indicating that the absence of any apparent interest or commitment in prioritising this issue among the football authorities left very few options other than the introduction of an approach consistent with the wider UEFA approach to tackling racism, known as strict liability. In the words of the report: "If not strict liability, then what?"

The review process highlighted the following issues:

  • The supporting evidence for the association between football and sectarianism remains very strong, for example in the evidence of Police Scotland around the demands on police resources for football, on the evidence of the projects sponsored by the Scottish Government on the impact of football and sectarian behaviour on behaviour at community level, in the evidence of the 2016 World Players Union ( FIFPro) report (in which 23% of players surveyed players reported that they were the victims of discrimination on a matchday), and in the evidence of social media being used in an extremely aggressive and sometimes intimidatory manner.
  • Discussions with the SPFL and the Scottish FA in relation to tackling sectarianism remain frustratingly circular. There appears to be a belief that football is singled out as a 'scapegoat' for a more general social issue and that football authorities and clubs have little scope to act independently. Issues of sectarianism in Scotland are often minimised or attributed largely to other elements in society. The authorities highlighted the role of wider social pressures and of the media in encouraging the use of terms such as 'battle' and war' in relation to football. Of the very wide range of interests and institutions we talked to - including other areas where blame has long been attached, such as education and marches and parades - the place where we encountered the most consistent resistance to taking responsibility for further action was in football.
  • The evolution of sectarianism from strictly 'religious' antagonism to political/ethnic/cultural rivalry is presented as evidence that the issue no longer requires attention. Football authority officials also expressed the view that there has been significant change over the last 5 years and a sharp reduction in sectarian singing at matches.
  • Since the final Advisory Group report, the football authorities have engaged directly with officials from the Scottish Government, while making clear that they do not support the strict liability approach. In its place, the football authorities have proposed a revised and more robust approach to tackle unacceptable conduct, including, but not restricted to, sectarian behaviour. Indeed, it is the view of the football authorities that the use of so-called 'pyros' or flares at football grounds is currently more of a risk to supporter safety. Once these changes have been approved by the SPFL Board, the evaluation and monitoring of unacceptable conduct should begin by the start of the new 2017-18 football season.
  • The Scottish FA have invested £30,000 in the Supporter Liaison Officer programme across Scotland - funding matched by the Scottish Government - and appointed a Diversity and Inclusion Manager to work with relevant organisations and to create a co-ordinated programme of education to serve the whole of Scottish Football.
  • In relation to grassroots football, the Scottish FA emphasised the significance of 'Positive Coaching Scotland.' This is focussed on young players and aims to promote positive values, although it does not directly address sectarianism in football.


I make the following recommendations:

  • Change in the approach to displays of sectarianism or the expression of sectarianism in public in Scotland will not occur without change in the culture of football. This is not a question of singling out football for blame or of an exclusive focus on football. On the contrary, the current focus on football has become inevitable because it is the most obvious area of Scottish life where the expression of hatred on sectarian grounds is tolerated, normalised and yet simultaneously denied, with those who point this out dismissed. Every effort should continue to be made to involve the football authorities, clubs, supporters organisations and youth organisations directly in active measures to address sectarian behaviour and attitudes in football.
  • In its final report, the Advisory Group was careful to underline that football was only one part of the jigsaw of sectarianism in Scotland. The Group also recognised the risk that external solutions such as strict liability could have unintended consequences which could be avoided through a constructive and collaborative approach to addressing sectarianism with those directly involved in football. The continuing reluctance of the football authorities to demonstrate serious commitment on this issue, means that strict liability must remain a real and present option.
  • The football authorities have brought forward proposals to improve their ability to address unacceptable conduct. They have worked closely with the Scottish Government Active Scotland policy team to develop initial proposals in this area. While these are obviously welcome, I am sceptical that they will be sufficient to change the evident sectarian behaviour in Scottish football, and I remain seriously concerned that the primary concern of the authorities remains to avoid responsibility rather than to take action. However, in keeping with the spirit of the Advisory Group's Report that change should be evidence-based and collaborative, the sincerity and effectiveness of these proposals must now be explicitly and fully tested. Mechanisms to monitor and evaluate progress should be identified as soon as possible so as to allow shared evaluation of the outcomes from next season in 2017-18. At minimum, a successful outcome must be evidenced by:
    • A measurable reduction in police presence before, during and after football matches required to prevent violence or disturbance.
    • Measurable evidence that sectarian singing at football matches has reduced and has been replaced by other forms of identification.
    • Measurable evidence that Positive Coaching Scotland is effective in addressing issues among young football, including sectarianism.
    • A measurable reduction in the reports of abuse of players by members of the crowd.
    • Measurable evidence of a reduction in aggressive and intimidatory social media associated with football and sectarianism.
    • A commitment, including a financial commitment, by football clubs and authorities to anti-sectarian programmes with young people, including active engagement with projects supported by the Scottish Government.
  • A baseline study to enable a monitoring framework should be established by agreement with the Scottish Government, the football authorities, Police Scotland and other relevant stakeholders. The outcomes of robust monitoring and evaluation on this basis should be published annually to allow for a genuine debate about the extent of sectarian behaviour and attitudes in football, its impact on culture and the effectiveness of measures to reduce it, and to help further reviews.
  • Consideration should be given to ensuring that sectarian aggression is fully included within any revised definition of hate crime in Scotland.

Education and Young People


Education and tackling sectarianism among younger people remains a priority. The Advisory Group was clear that change in this area needed to be effective and consistent. The Review found:

  • Following work sponsored by the Scottish Government to tackle sectarianism, the quality of educational resources available to teachers and facilitators to deal with sectarianism has improved. However, it is impossible to tell how often these are used in the classroom and how they are integrated into the curriculum on other equalities.
  • Ensuring consistency of approach on equalities issues across all schools in Scotland remains important. While the needs and priorities of schools may vary, this remains an issue of uncertainty.
  • Resources and teaching materials depend on confident teachers and support. Opportunities to develop good practice and support teacher training in this area continue to depend on committed individuals and schools.
  • The Advisory Group was clear that tackling sectarianism was not dependent on the closure of one sort of school or another. However, they were also clear that progress depended on active local partnerships and relationships developing between schools at local level. It is not clear that this has been a priority to date.
  • The importance of peer education and youth work approaches was highlighted by the Advisory Group. The use of web resources was widely praised as a model of how youth work can support intervention not only on sectarian issues but on all equalities issues.


I make the following recommendations:

  • It is important that Education Scotland is seen to lead on equalities issues in schools, including sectarianism. Maintaining a visible commitment to this issue in the coming years is vital, especially after the publication of resources on 22 February.
  • Mechanisms to monitor the use of resources would help to ensure that change is supported in the classroom and with young people.
  • Highlighting the importance of monitoring equalities within inspection in schools should be considered. This would offer an opportunity to recognise models of good practice, as well as identifying practical opportunities for improvement. Sectarian issues should be explicitly part of any equalities inspection framework.
  • Local partnerships between schools of different backgrounds should be encouraged, including sharing of resources and topics of interest.
  • The inclusion of anti-sectarianism as an element in teacher education remains an area for active development.
  • Youth work providers should be encouraged to learn from the experience of the groups funded by the Scottish Government under its tackling sectarianism programme as a model for other equalities issues.

Other Issues


In the course of this Review a number of other issues were raised which merit direct comment:

  • The value of a community-based approach was emphasised by many people including local authorities and VAF. While the Advisory Group was clear that funding should not be permanent or create a separate 'sector', this review was made aware of the value of the capacity which voluntary and community base organisations can make to addressing sectarianism in real situations.
  • Detailed work on marches and parades is the subject of a separate and parallel Review undertaken by Dr Michael Rosie and published by the Scottish Government in October 2016. Dr Rosie makes a number of key recommendations to help fine tune a system that, by and large, works well. All partners, including marching and parading organisations, local authorities, Police Scotland and, where appropriate, the Scottish Government, should be encouraged to give full consideration to these recommendations. Progress has been made in terms of marshalling events and in liaison with the police and local authorities.
  • In the course of the Review, the issue of the press and the approach of the press to sectarianism in Scotland emerged. There have been no formal changes to press approaches to this issue since the final Advisory Group report and complaints continue to be regulated on a UK-wide basis. In general, the press are strongly opposed to external regulation as an infringement of freedom of speech and believe that progress depends on specific evidence rather than general allegation.


I make the following recommendations:

  • The programme to support community-based projects in tackling sectarianism has increased capacity and engagement with this issue, has developed models of intervention for wide application and has raised the issue of sectarianism as a practical one for intervention in society at large. Further funding for community organisations in tackling sectarianism should be tied to explicit outcomes and learning. The key priorities in the short term appear to be building capacity at local authority level, in schools and among professionals working with young people, among young people in inter-church and inter-faith work and in sport-related activity. There is no obligation to provide public support to any specific identity-group, except where that support can deliver shared outcomes.
  • Parading organisations should continue to develop their engagement with communities, police and local authorities. This is the primary vehicle for improving the climate around processions and parades. The recommendations in Dr Rosie's report should also apply to Councils and the police.
  • Precisely because sectarianism remains both contested and controversial, the availability of robust data and information in this area remains critical. In particular, the maintenance of information on sectarianism within equalities, data on violent crime and hate crime and social attitudes should be prioritised. In addition, qualitative information should be encouraged and enhanced.


Email: David Ross

Back to top