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Sectarian Scotland?

Leave religious prejudice to die a natural death, says Meg Henderson

To deny that sectarianism is rife in all walks of Scottish life, we are told, is to be self-deluding. So says composer James MacMillan, thereby enforcing the 'heads you lose, tails you win' brand of logic. Those who try to counter his argument are in denial, ergo, they are not to be listened to. There are some times more than others when dear old Rabbie Burns seems like a sage instead of a poet, wishing for the gift to see ourselves as others see us. What, I wonder, can the rest of the world possibly make of the country described recently by a certain American evangelist as 'a strange, dark country'? And to think we laughed at him.

In May we had leading QC Donald Findlay caught in the act, singing provocative, anti-Catholic songs at a private function, and splashed all over the newspapers and TV. Findlay sobered up, promptly apologised and resigned as vice-chairman of Rangers FC, but he was still hounded to the point of near suicide. Anybody who dared to suggest that there was more than a hint of theatrical umbrage being expressed, and that reaction to Findlay's little sing-a-long suggested a certain lack of maturity, was immediately castigated - myself among them, I might add. In August Findlay appeared as a football pundit on a Scottish TV sports programme, gave an interview about his infamous performance and apologised once more, and once more the yells of protest rang out. The only acceptable penalty for getting drunk and singing silly songs up here is, apparently, public execution.

Next up was hapless Scotland football coach and (nudge nudge) former Rangers FC player Craig Brown, who was accused of being the talentless tenor on an ex-lover's crackly answering machine tape, once again singing anti-Catholic songs. Brown has denied this and is now taking legal action. But there is still some mileage in the subject, thanks to James MacMillan, who admits seizing on the opportunity to embarrass Scotland in front of an international audience at the Edinburgh Festival, to announce that the entire country is a festering heap of anti-Catholic bias. He's doing it in a loving way, you understand, to make us do something, not courting publicity for any ulterior motive. It's the way all progress is made, after all, through the mutterings of musicians; and all Scots have now seen the light as spake by MacMillan, and are now openly weeping in the streets. The man who, but a few short months ago, wrote and conducted the music for the opening of our first Scottish parliament in 300 years, now says that Scotland is Northern Ireland without the bullets and bombs. There are those who might think that's a fairly important difference, but let's not nitpick.

Now hereabouts I had better nail my colours - or lack of them - to the mast. I was brought up in Glasgow with an Irish Catholic father and a Scottish Protestant mother, one grandfather a Knight of St Columba, the other grandmother a loyal and bitter Orangewoman. There is no better vantage point from which to oversee the madness of both sides and to decide at a very early age that they were welcome to each other. Religion has always mattered in the west of Scotland, there is no doubt about that, but in the rest of the country nobody cares a jot. There is a question that has always been asked: 'What school did you go to?' In Glasgow the reason behind it is to find out your religion, in Edinburgh to deduce your financial status - fee-paying or not? And then there's the old chestnut about the Jewish boy starting school in Glasgow, who is asked if he's a Catholic or a Protestant. He replies that he's a Jew, to be asked once again, 'A Catholic Jew or a Protestant Jew?'.

It was also my misfortune until I married to bear my father's Irish surname, so both sides assumed I was Catholic, something that annoyed me greatly. I had to take my father's name, but why should I take his religion any more than his politics? And what those who wanted Donald Findlay crucified choose to ignore is that bigotry, or prejudice, runs both ways. Having an Irish name had me as automatically admitted to one 'club' as it had me disqualified from the other, and I have to say that the Catholic 'club' is far more subtle and efficient than the Protestant one. The Freemasons go around giving their 'secret' handshakes and saying their 'secret' words - known to generations of schoolchildren - and the Orange Order march with their bands and their sashes and flaunt it. Agnus Dei does its business very quietly, and Hibernian marches were banned so long ago that they've faded from most living memories. We do have Orange walks up here, just like Ulster, but apart from the odd drunk who shouts at them the only hatred they encounter is for disrupting the traffic for the rest of us. The days of anti-Irish feeling have largely gone, and in Scotland we frankly don't care very much about Orange walks, we just wish they'd march about at dead of night, or on the outskirts of town, so that we can get from A to B during the day.

So there is sectarian prejudice in Scotland, but on both sides and only in the west. If left to die a natural death it will do so, whether James MacMillan accepts that or not. There is, however, a growing resentment about segregated Catholic schooling, the means by which the Catholic Church keeps its young free from the taint of outside ideas for as long as possible. I attended a Catholic school and I know that the resentment is not, as MacMillan claims, simply based on sectarianism - it is based on the knowledge that every taxpayer pays for those who choose to send their children to Catholic schools, pays to 'protect' Catholic children from their own children, pays to uphold the spurious nonsense that a Catholic education is morally superior. If there's one thing that has prolonged anti-Catholic feeling it is the present system of segregated schooling, but the Catholic hierarchy would rather maintain the myth of persecution than allow all children to be integrated. And to paraphrase James MacMillan, to deny that is to be self-deluding, to be in denial.

Meg Henderson is an author and journalist. Her latest book, Bloody Mary, will be published by HarperCollins on 15 November

Old Firm, old foes - Celtic and Rangers

Reproduced from LM issue 123, September 1999



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