SCOTLAND’S eminent historian Sir Tom Devine believes that sectarianism in Scotland is dying — but the industry around tribal hatred is thriving.
The recently knighted professor who is retiring from his post at Edinburgh University this month is regularly interviewed by the international media on Scottish issues including recent events affecting both Celtic and Rangers.
Sir Tom who edited the landmark book Scotland’s Shame? recently reflected on the shifts that have taken place during the Neil Lennon years while giving some historical and social context to the problem: “Lennon’s personality, his background and what he stands for has caused difficulties for some people in Scotland; I think to some degree Lennon is a metaphor, he’s a symbol, a lightning rod for a lot of things, in terms of what he has suffered.
“I believe that sectarianism is dying, today I’m more interested in why there has been a huge increase in a so-called sectarian industry. I think that is the more interesting intellectual problem at the moment. It’s not to say it’s dead but it’s night and day and so the question for me is — when the beast is dying, why does attempts to control the beast increase?
“This is a quite expensive increase, it’s £2.5million per annum for some of these charities, I contrasted that in a recent lecture with the fact that 54,000 cases of domestic abuse cases take place in Scotland every year and there was less than 900 cases of sectarian aggravated breach in the Scottish courts last year.”
The 68-year-old suggests that sectarianism continues today in certain pockets around Scotland where the polarities of Irish culture developed a new context after a wave of immigration that began in the late 18th century.
The sectarian attitudes of some within that culture have remained, the treatment of Neil Lennon during his time as Celtic manager remains the most recent example: “I think to some extent it can be related back to the transformation of the Irish Catholic community going back over the last quarter of a century or more, the reaction Lennon causes is partly because there has been that revolution, there are elements in Scotland from other backgrounds that resent the growing success of the Catholic Irish because it’s not simply a question of occupational parity, the glass ceiling has been broken.
“Five of the vice chancellors in Scottish universities are Catholics, or at least were born Catholics. That could not have been possible 20 to 30 years ago. It reminds me to some extent of the situation in the Southern USA of the black population making their way and the so called, it’s a horrible phrase, ‘white trash’ being left behind.
"I think that has a lot to do with the reaction to Lennon and during his period as manager a trailed progress for the club while in the other polarity of Scottish sport and Scottish culture there has been a complete disaster. You wonder if he would have had such a rough time if there hadn’t been that disastrous set of consequences in the other side of Glasgow."
The historian believes the problem has continued for so long because the lion’s share of charitable funding has gone towards trying to control the problem rather than cure it.
“Most of the funding for plans and projects are aimed at attempts to control sectarianism — not to understand it. I don’t think there is one history project that would fund it which in my view is absolutely disastrous.
“What you do, in terms of public policy, is find out the causes of a certain problem. Having found out what the origins of it are, you act, you issue the attempted cure if you will in terms of policy initiative.”
The scholar also dispels the myth that sectarianism is a Glasgow problem: “One of the fascinating interests for me is the long term incidents of certain attitudes emanating from places where the Ulster Protestant community have settled in Scotland and basically that is parts of Ayrshire, some areas in Galloway in the extreme south west, parts of Lanarkshire and west Lothian.
“One of the reasons for relative harmony in Dundee is that you didn’t get the duality of the two communities, Dundee was free of Ulster Protestant migration. It’s basically in the two counties of Ayrshire and Lanarkshire because what happened there in the 18th and early 19th century was the steel masters and coal masters developed specific recruitment strategies.
“There are places in both these counties which have an emphatic Irish Catholic tradition, that’s not to say Protestants don’t live in them, often they are adjacent to small villages and towns of a different tradition.”
Sir Tom suggests it is important to disconnect Scotland’s sectarian problem with religion, the bigoted thinking that emanated from the divide-and-rule policies of the steel and mining industries has remained long after the demise of the era.
“These economic activities have all gone but without probably many of those individuals or communities knowing about it, knowing what their heritage is, it’s lived on because it’s carried down over time through the heritage and memories of families and that’s what gives it a continuing presence.
“It’s not based on religion anymore; the Church of Scotland adherence hit its high point in 1955.
“Very few of these individuals that we are talking about would have even entered a church; what we are talking about is tribalism.”
What strengthened Celtic was the club’s humanitarian values; many of Celtic’s greatest players were from a non-Catholic tradition, among them were Bertie Auld, Tommy Gemmell, Kenny Dalglish and Danny McGrain. But perhaps the most significant signing was Jock Stein, a man who against the wishes of many in his community not only played but became the club’s most successful manager.
Sir Tom said: “It certainly gave Celtic what we might call a moral advantage because it played up to the view that the other side was unambiguously sectarian in their recruitment policies and that Celtic had a much more catholic, with a small c, vision.
"They were prepared to look anywhere, that goes for the team as well. This was eventually a very important factor, in addition to the European Cup victory, in acceptance among the vast majority of ordinary Scots who were not really interested in all this stuff, from the outside it looked as though Celtic’s hands were cleaner.”
Richard Purden is the author of We Are Celtic Supporters and Faithful Through and Through