By Al Harron
On the 12th of July 1691, thousands of people fought and died at the village of Aughrim, County Galway. There were Irish, Scots, English, French, Dutch, and Danes, all fighting over whether one aristocrat of a particular religion or another aristocrat of another religion should be king of England, Scotland, and Ireland, and all the implications and consequences therein. It’s a complicated saga in the history of these islands, and its legacy resonates to this day.
Divide & Rule has been a handy tool for the rulers of nations since time immemorial, and the British Empire were masters of the technique. Tribe was set against tribe in Nigeria, Sudan, Kenya, and all across Africa; ethnic groups were skilfully divided in India, Malaysia, and Zanzibar; the peoples of the Middle East were manipulated, all according to plan. So it was in Ireland, – divide and rule had to start somewhere, and it started at home.
The British Empire is dead and buried, safely ensconced in history where it can be eulogised in wistful nostalgia – but like its mother Rome, it casts a long shadow, the scars still evident, the pain still sharp. This is the cost of history, and it will be with us all for a long time – even longer, if those with vested interests seek to exploit those scars and pains for political gain.
Thus, when the leader of the Scottish branch of the UK Conservative & Unionists Party actually says that the leader of the UK Labour Party “actively wanted the IRA to win,” and that “simply seeking peace is offensive to anyone who’s worn the uniform,” she is clearly and unequivocally stoking the fires of sectarianism which have blighted Scotland’s social history for centuries, and which her party is ruthlessly utilising for political gain.
This is not new to either the Conservative Party, or the independence debate, by any means. All the way back in July 2014, George Galloway alleged that independence supporters assailed him for his views on Catholic schools, directly linking support for independence to opposition to Catholic schools – a very sensitive subject in sectarianism – and making a point of linking the SNP’s past to anti-Catholicism:
As if it bears stating the obvious, religion has nothing to do with Scottish Independence. People of all faiths and none have their own opinions on the constitutional future of Scotland, just as they do on politics, or any given subject. So any politician, of any persuasion, linking religion to politics is perpetuating a classic ploy of the ruling elite – to set the people against one another.
That’s more difficult to do when the population is more knowledgeable in political and historical matters, and especially when information unfiltered by press or spin is so easily accessible. It seems the people of Scotland are so fed up with sectarianism, 6 out of 10 have disavowed themselves of religion entirely:
In spite of the deep-rooted religious differences that have played a key part in much of Scotland’s history, the last few decades have seen a significant drop in religious identity. According to the most recent data from ScotCen’s Scottish Social Attitudes survey, 58% of Scots now have no religious affiliation. This is the highest level ever recorded in Scotland, and represents a significant change from the picture in 1999 when only 40% expressed no religious identity.
These figures also highlight that whilst younger generations continue to be less likely to profess that they belong to a religion than their older counterparts, the general decline in religious identity in Scotland over the past two decades is pronounced across all age groups…
… But what is it about today’s society that nurtures an increasingly secular environment? At the same time as witnessing a decline in the prevalence of religion, Scotland has seen a number of significant changes in how people think about a whole host of social issues including same-sex marriage, parenthood, and pre-marital sex. These changes in public opinion have often been reflected in legislation, which has the effect of reinforcing the legitimacy of such views by acting as a moral endorsement by the state of a more socially liberal outlook on life. In contrast, religion is perhaps seen by many as a socially conservative endeavour – indeed, we know from previous analysis of Scottish Social Attitudes data that those who express a religious identity are more likely to hold socially conservative views than those who don’t. There is now a significant (and often highly publicised) difference between the stance of a number of religious organisations and that of both the state and the majority of public opinion on many social issues. Therefore, if an increasingly liberal population find that they are unable to square their views with the views of any given religion, they may be less likely to feel like they identify with that religion.
The same Social Attitudes Survey showed that certain forms of prejudice are fading in Scotland:
The proportion of people who say that they would be unhappy if a close relative married someone of the same sex has almost halved from 30% in 2010 to 16% in 2015, whilst the number who say they would be unhappy if a relative married someone who has undergone gender reassignment surgery has fallen from around a half to just under a third over the same period. Further, whilst 55% of respondents stated that they would be unhappy if a relative married someone who cross-dresses in public in 2010, 39% were of this inclination in 2015.
The number of people who believe that someone who is gay or lesbian, or has undergone gender reassignment surgery, is unsuitable to be a primary school teacher has also fallen considerably during this timeframe. This shift in attitudes is particularly notable in relation to the latter group; between 2010 and 2015, the proportion of people who said that those who have undergone gender reassignment are not suitable to teach at primary school level fell by 11 percentage points.
These changes have occurred in tandem with a rise in the number of Scots who think that sexual relations between two adults of the same sex are ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ wrong, from 58% in 2010 to 69% in 2015. Taken together, these figures may suggest a broader shift in people’s attitudes towards those who challenge traditional norms of gender, sexuality and relationships.
You might think, then, that sectarianism is no longer a problem: Scots are more secular and more tolerant, and sectarian hate crimes are lower than they were in the past. Yet in 2015, almost 9 out of 10 Scots believed that it was still a problem – just in different ways:
For many people, sectarianism appears to be viewed as a problem that happens elsewhere in Scotland. While the vast majority of people in Scotland believe that sectarianism is a problem (88%), over two-thirds (69%) view it as a problem for specific areas of Scotland, with just 19% seeing it as a problem throughout Scotland. Glasgow and the West of Scotland generally were the most commonly mentioned areas where people saw a problem with sectarianism –around a third thought it was only a problem for Glasgow or the West of Scotland. However, those who actually live in the West of Scotland were more likely to see sectarianism as a problem across the whole of Scotland.
Sectarianism, like racism, sexism, and other prejudicial -isms, will not alleviate themselves. We got where we are today through the hard work of countless individuals, groups, organisations, and communities, fighting against not just the sectarianism itself, but those who ignore it – or use it for their own ends. Constant vigilance and recognition of its consequences will be crucial if we’re to have a hope of eliminating it once and for all.
The Conservatives have just made that much more difficult. The key to brokering peace between two groups is to treat them equally, without favour – yet how can the UK Government do that, when they’ve just handed billions of pounds to an extremist group on one side, and depend upon their votes to keep them afloat? How can the Conservative Party claim to be responsible when their Scottish Branch leader could say such irresponsible things? How can they possibly square their plans for leaving the European Union with the Good Friday Agreement?
I’ve lived in the shadow of sectarianism for all my life, as has my family, on both parents’ sides. It is not the pursuit of peace which is “offensive,” but the cynical manipulation of deeply-held beliefs, all for the baubles and trinkets of power. We must not be caught in this game of divide and rule, no matter the strength of the provocation.