Sectarianism in Scotland event: “resolutely controversial”?

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by Jennifer Hilder (PhD Intern)

On a very wet March evening, over 80 people came together for the inaugural event of the Scottish Religious Cultures Network (SRCN) supported by Knowledge Exchange. Professor Tom Devine from Edinburgh University spoke on the subject of ‘Sectarianism in Scotland: Is it really a problem?’ and aimed, he said, to be “resolutely controversial” in his argument.

Professor Tom Devine, Edinburgh University.
Professor Tom Devine, Edinburgh University.

As a historian, however, Professor Devine is anything but controversial. The problem with the current debate around sectarianism is that there is a lack of evidence and an over-emphasis on rhetoric, sound bites and the hysterical media reaction. Devine was disappointed by the recent Scottish Government’s Advisory Group on Tackling Sectarianism in Scotland which failed to provide any further evidence for the phenomenon or even to properly define the concept (read their report here).

Devine’s lecture, then, began with his two definitions of sectarianism – one a subjective description of “attitudinal sectarianism” and the other a definition from the field of social science. He then looked to present evidence over the longue durée, tracing sectarianism in three phases from the end of World War 2 to the present day.

For Devine, the key turning point was the “silent revolution” of the 1960’s, a consequence of increasing secularisation, the collapse of “dinosaur industries” (ending discrimination in the labour market) and, most importantly, a revolution in education. Increasing accessibility of education provided a dynamo for upward mobility and removed the “structural sectarianism” that had previously affected the life chances of whole communities.

The hardest phase to discuss is the most recent, 2001-2014, because of the lack of evidence. However, by looking at court records related to Section 74 of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 2003 he concludes (with the necessary reservations) that sectarianism is really a “young man’s game” in the West of Scotland, and in most of Scotland it “hardly exists at all”. Devine questioned whether convictions for sectarianism were statistically significant, giving figures of 673 cases in 2011/12 compared with 56,000 for domestic abuse in 2013).

So now he is moving away from sectarianism and thinking about anti-sectarianism instead. Why was anti-sectarianism not discussed until the late 1990’s? And why is the government giving over £2 million to anti-sectarian charities now?

There were many more questions than there was time for, but Devine clarified his position on the Orange Marches (an expression of identity, “nothing wrong with that”) and asserted that sectarianism had never been just a problem for men, but for both sexes. Historically, the teaching of Scottish History in schools was also a problem but current anti-sectarianism training may be equally problematic.

In the future, Devine hopes to do more qualitative research and compare the history of sectarianism in specific territorial areas. This, he hopes, will finally provide some much needed evidence to help guide public policy in an effective direction.

If you would like to give a lecture, set up a network, or help fund a project like Professor Devine’s at Glasgow, please get in touch at

Post Author: Nicole Cassie

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