Sunday, August 26, 2007

Only secular schools will overcome sectarianism

Reposted from:,,2156652,00.html

There is an old Glasgow story about a Rangers fan who blunders into the wrong end of an Old Firm match. He is rumbled by three Celtic fans who threaten to expose him unless he fetches their Bovrils. He agrees but has to leave behind a shoe to guarantee his return. On re-appearing with the drinks, the poor bluenose finds a lump of excrement has been put in his footwear. Limping home later, he is confronted by a BBC reporter who is interviewing fans to ask if they think the city's sectarianism might end soon. 'Nae chance,' says the fan. 'Not while they keep crapping in our shoes, and we keep peeing in their Bovril.'

Now the joke is not new, I admit, but the link between bigotry and bodily functions came irresistibly to mind during a recent visit to Ibrox. During the Champions League qualifier against the Montenegro team FC Zeta, the crowd was in fine, affable form - until half-time. Then a small throng gathered in the toilets in the Copeland Road stand for an illegal public smoke and a sectarian sing-song. Puffing away, the group - no more than two or three dozen youths - went through a number of Protestant oldies, returning to 'The Billy Boys' with its banned references to Fenian blood spillage.

After this, two choristers became particularly inflamed and, back in the stand, began howling more sectarian abuse. A middle-aged man with his daughter walked out to escape the barrage. Several members of the crowd then turned on the choral pair who, after receiving 10 minutes of sustained invective and threat, left the stadium.

Now the incident was unpleasant but it was not without hopeful aspects. If nothing else it indicates the Ibrox faithful is now well aware it needs to clean up its act and is prepared to do so fairly forcibly. More importantly, if sectarian singers feel they have to hide in toilets, along with illicit smokers, to avoid detection, it shows both habits - once the hallmark of the Glasgow 'hard-man' - are being marginalised to a degree that would have seemed impossible 10 years ago. So yes, I could see encouraging signs, though only a few.

The trouble is that smoking and bigotry are two very different evils: the first is a cause of misery, the second just a symptom. Banning tobacco will undoubtedly save lives but outlawing sectarian songs, from Celtic or Rangers fans, will not deal with the fundamental reason for the embittered divide between Scotland's Protestants and Catholics.

The real cause is not surprising, of course. Any nation that partitions its population at youth and teaches young people at schools for Catholics or at schools for Protestants is bound to end up with sectarian problems. The impact on that country's psyche is destined to be corrosive, a point stressed by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion. 'The troubles of Northern Ireland would disappear in a generation if segregated schools were abolished,' he says.

And what is true for Ulster is true for Scotland. The two countries are bedevilled by sectarianism and also support almost identical policies that separate Catholic child from Protestant offspring at school. Each sustains a 'wanton and carefully nurtured divisiveness', as Dawkins puts it. Or as Christopher Hitchens states in God is not Great: 'In the name of God, old hatreds were drilled into new generations of schoolchildren and are still being drilled.' Hence chants about 'Fenians' and 'proddy scum' at Old Firm matches.

Scotland's previous Labour administration made much of its intent 'to kick sectarianism into the dustbin of history' and claimed it was its priority enemy. Thus ministers became tough on sectarianism. Sadly, never once did they get tough with the causes of sectarianism. To do that, of course, they would have had to address the problem of Scotland's denominational schools, a vote loser if ever there was one. No church will give up the chance to influence young minds without a bitter fight. So politicians concentrated instead on the songs and the chants. And, yes, they have had success but it will remain a limited one until Scottish people enjoy a proper, secular education.

And that, of course, is an unlikely prospect - not just for Scotland but for the rest of Britain. During Blair's term as Prime Minister, the building of faith schools was encouraged across the UK. Far from realising the dangers of segregated education, the construction of schools specially for Muslims or fundamentalist Christians or orthodox Jews has been embraced enthusiastically. Thus Britain seems bent on repeating Scotland's errors - not avoiding them. As Scotland struggles to evade its sectarian past, the rest of the country seems bent on repeating it. Of course Gordon Brown may halt the practice but it will still take time to undo the damage. Our secular future remains some way off. The taste of Bovril is not going to improve overnight.

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