frontline issue 4

Scotland, Sectarianism, and the Irish diaspora

In religion as in politics, sectarianism covers a multitude of sins. And like any other sin, no one likes to own up to responsibility for it. Religious sectarianism in Scotland is thus blamed on Catholic schools, in its turn the Catholic Church blames Old Firm football supporters, the football clubs blame extremists and the extremists, like the Orange Order, blame the Catholic schools. One way out of this vicious circle is just to blame the lot of them as a blight on Scottish society. In this article Danny McGowan looks beyond such superficial explanations to situate the origins of religious 'sectarianism' in Scotland's economic, political and cultural relationship to British capitalism.

Though Orange/Green are held up as two sides of the same sectarian currency, Catholics make up only 16% of the Scottish population, largely descended from poor Irish immigrants, and still largely working-class. They have never been able to systematically discriminate against their Protestant neighbours, though spurious claims are often cited. They are part of a historic exodus from Ireland ' a diaspora ' that met hostility and racism wherever they settled in the English-speaking world. Though Protestant migration made up a large percentage of the diaspora, it was the Catholic Irish that were racially categorised as different ' disloyal, disruptive, inferior, and untrustworthy.

Scotland was no exception to this rule. Indeed the Irish who came here appear to have struggled longer than those who settled almost anywhere else. Though overwhelmingly of Irish extraction, even by 1900 most Catholics were Scottish-born. Yet they were still known as 'Irish' up until around the Second World War. Unionist hegemony up until the 1960s marginalised them from public life, and the interwar years sparked attempts to scapegoat them for the crisis that anyone familiar with racism would instantly recognise. The residue of 'sectarianism' in modern Scotland came from this, and if the subject now seems out of date and irrelevant, we should perhaps ask ourselves why it wasn't raised more when it was an everyday experience for a large minority of our population.

Unionism and Anti Irish Racism

The Reformation did not launch a major religious civil war in Scotland. The biggest religious disputes here have actually been between Protestants: Episcopalians and Presbyterians, and between the various shades of the latter. The Reformation relocated Scotland, however, more firmly in England's political orbit. Even before the Union, Ulster was a 'Scottish colony', with religious dissenters from both Scotland and England used as a frontier force against the Catholic Irish Gaels. But the Union. allowed Scottish capital to industrialise far more rapidly than even England itself, especially after the feudal Jacobites had been defeated. Scotland's establishment had a material stake in the Union and emphasised its common characteristics with the English - White Anglo-Saxon Protestantism. With the old Highland society now crushed they could also steal and sanitise Celtic values of loyalty to the clan and its chief ' now the British State and its monarch.

Rangers' supporters chanting 'Rule Britannia' is now offensive to many Scots, but the song itself is not anti-Scottish ' a Scot wrote it. Militarism was a core component of Scotland's contribution to the Empire. Like the Irish, Scots disproportionately volunteered to swell the ranks of the British army, but there were important differences. Scots also provided colonial governors and generals in greater numbers, with such luminaries as Sir Colin Campbell (who suppressed the Indian revolt) General Gordon (of Khartoum) and General Haig. They had no sense of national unease, unlike the Anglo-Irish Duke of Wellington who is said to have remarked 'being born in a stable does not make you a horse'.

Surviving monuments in Glasgow and Edinburgh to crushed colonial rebellions show a pride in the Scots' own brutal contribution to colonial rule. At home , Glasgow flourished with the profits from slavery, and until recently you could find locals boasting about how it was once 'the second city of the Empire' on the back of the Victorian shipbuilding and engineering industries. The confidence of the Scottish Enlightenment has been preserved in the eighteenth-century splendour of Edinburgh's New Town. But Hume and Carlyle, leading Scottish-British intellectuals over a century, both regarded colonised peoples, the Irish and Africans alike, as inferior races. Scotland's modern sense of nationhood grew up in this era, like virtually all other nationalisms, and British imperialism was central to it.

Popular imperialism was central to the British ruling class's extension of the electoral franchise. Liberals had dominated politics since 1832, as the party of 'progress'. Anti-Irish violence had been widespread but remained disreputable. But the Orange Order was revived with Tory support and the Liberals were split by plans to grant Home Rule to Ireland. Liberal Unionists joined the Tories to launch the Unionist Party in Scotland in 1912. Unionism focused on a defense of the Empire as Britain began to decline as a world economic power. Industrialists, bankers, ministers, lawyers and media barons formed a solid Unionist establishment in Scotland right up until the 1960s. The party also built working-class support by emphasising the connection between Union, Empire and the fate of local industry. Protectionism here complemented Protestantism. Though Labour also had some prominent Orangemen, formal Unionist Party links to the Order remained until the 1930s and figures like Sir John Gilmour, the intermittent Secretary of State for Scotland in the 1920s and Home Secretary in the 1930s were Orangemen themselves.

Anti-Irish racism peaked in Scotland in the interwar years. Though Irish immigration was steadily falling, the continuing decline of Scottish industry, mass emigration and the international crisis of capitalism were blamed on oppressed minorities, as elsewhere in Europe. In response to the creation of the Irish Free State, the Church of Scotland's Church and Nation Committee called for immigration controls and the deportation of unemployed Catholics to Ireland - a country most of them by then had never seen. Scottish Catholics from the Highlands and Irish Protestants could stay, as 'they are of the same race as ourselves'. Pressure from these sources led Ramsay MacDonald's National Coalition cabinet to actively consider these proposals in 1933.

MacDonald's cabinet had two Scottish Orangemen, Gilmour as Home Secretary and Scottish Secretary Sir Godfrey Collins, who initiated these machinations. Unionists played the Orange card when it suited them, but were not as dependent on it as they were in Northern Ireland. Unionism itself was never the monolithic force in Scotland that it was across the water. This could lead to opposition on the extreme right in specific circumstances. An attempt by the Orangemen to force their agenda within Scottish Unionism spawned the phantom 'Orange and Protestant Political Party'. In 1923 it defeated the sitting Communist MP in Motherwell and Wishaw to win its one and only seat. In the Depression years specifically anti-Catholic parties - the Scottish Protestant League (SPL) in Glasgow and Protestant Action (PA) in Edinburgh -took up to a third of the votes in local council elections.

Ratcliffe of the SPL had previously been a member of the 'British Fascists', along with Billy Fullerton of the 'Bridgeton Billy Boy's. Fullerton was a thug who was awarded a medal for strikebreaking in the 1926 General Strike. Ratcliffe became an anti-Semite and follower of Hitler in 1939, but by then his support was waning. World War two also undermined the popular appeal of Nazis. John Cormack of Protestant Action lacked such fascist connections, and even led physical opposition to Oswald Mosley on his visit to Edinburgh in 1934. The Blackshirts sympathy for a united Ireland and Mussolini's associations with the Vatican were too much for them to take. But Cormack's own violent incursions into Catholic neighbourhoods and combination of electoral intervention with control of the streets suggested themselves 'at least an outline of a Protestant variety of fascism'(1).


Cormack remained a councilor in Leith for twenty years. But the SPL and PA did not survive the outbreak of war. They were a mass of contradictions, out of the control of the Kirk, Orange Order and Unionist Party who refused to support them. Though racism persisted, the Holocaust further discredited racial political movements. The televised Coronation of 1953, and the Church of Scotland's record membership of 1956, coincided with the Unionist Party's 50.1 per cent share of the Scottish electorate at the 1955 General Election. But as the sun set on the British Empire the primacy of Protestant-British associations also declined. The erosion of the Tory vote from 1964 accompanied this as it lost its working class base, and its name was changed to the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party in 1965. Though most Tories still identify with the Kirk, most Church of Scotland identifiers are not conservatives. As the 'established' Church it has adapted to secular post-imperial Scotland by advocating ecumenicalism and devolution. The SNP has only became a real political force following the decline of Scottish Unionism. In the 1930s it had advocated Home Rule within the Empire and its supporters had attacked the Irish as 'a foreign element'.

The Masons were perhaps more influential than the Orangemen in Scotland. Freemasonry still has a disproportionately large Scottish membership, and is strongly identified with Protestantism. Though they did not go in for public displays of racism (or anything else) their rituals, loyalty to the Sovereign and male networking amongst groups with marked Unionist associations all reinforced a socialisation process. It kept the Catholic Irish as outsiders, excluded from influence and mainstream public life. Skilled positions in industry were also difficult to obtain. Bairds in Coatbridge, a town with a large Catholic population, did not have a Catholic member of the skilled engineers' union until 1931.

Full employment in the post-war era eased workplace competition, however. The expanding public sector allowed for more equal opportunities, and the discrimination associated with small manufacturing concerns was not replicated in nationalised industries. Though there is a mainstream assumption that multinational corporations did not care for local prejudices, earlier in the century the American-owned Singer Sewing Machine company had established a factory in Clydebank specifically to take advantage of a divided and docile workforce. It is more realistic to assume that foreign companies who came to Scotland after the war themselves adapted to a changing environment.

Shared working class expectations were reflected in Labour's landslide victory in 1945 and the introduction of the Welfare State. Slum clearances and new council housing helped to erode the limited 'ghettos' that had previously existed. Catholic students entered University as never before, and were further aided by the introduction of comprehensive education. Respectable Scottish Catholics have since headed such bastions of Unionist Scotland as the Police, the Faculty of Advocates and even the Tories, though a lingering stench still surrounds such bodies. The last major Scottish institution to practice overt anti-Catholic discrimination was Rangers FC. Their racist recruitment practice established itself around 1912 and went uncriticised in the press until the late 1960s, when the Unionism it championed first began to be questioned in wider society. It still took a further twenty years to lapse.

The Welfare State was a crucial factor in integrating 'Irish' Catholics into Scotland, and it gave working-class people from both denominations a common cause. But it did not simply replace the Empire as the 'cement' of the Union. Racism against Black people existed in Scotland before substantial numbers of people from the Indian subcontinent settled, and their migration provided a new set of scapegoats. World War Two also gave British militarism a renewed populist appeal, and public support for the Scottish regiments remains high. Renewed conflict in Ireland politicised a minority in Scotland, but it found a more significant resonance within the British Army. Scots regiments again distinguished themselves with brutal reputations in the North, including the Black Watch and KOSB. The Daily Record and at least 26 Scottish MPs supported the 1990s campaign to free two Scots Guards who shot a young unarmed Catholic they had already searched, in the back, as he ran away. A number of central characters in loyalist/British forces collusion also had Scottish connections, including an Aberdonian Brigadier. The connections between them and the England football hooligans who chant 'No Surrender to the IRA' are not so hard to see.

Assimilation, identity and oppression

Pushed by poverty and pulled by industrialisation, substantial numbers of Irish immigrants had been arriving in Scotland from the eighteenth century. In the nineteenth century Scotland and Lancashire were the main Irish centres in Britain, as a whole class of agricultural labourers was driven off the land at home. Immigrants to Scotland largely came from the North of Ireland. Up to a third were Protestants, though the theory that Orange migrants brought religious division to Scotland is at best disingenuous given Scotland's contribution to the initial colonisation of Ulster. Not all of this number would have had Orange connections and there are suggestions that some only joined the Order after moving to Scotland, where aggressive loyalism distinguished them from the 'other' Irish.

Immigrants encounter racism rather than create it. Like modern racism against black people, anti-Irish racism did not originate with large-scale immigration, but it gave a focus for existing hostility. General contempt for the poor was compounded by racial stereotypes. The Irish migrated to an urban squalor where drink offered a temporary escape, yet found themselves blamed for causing the squalor through their own drunkenness. Their communities were criminalised and subject to excessive police surveillance. Though the spectre of an Irish 'threat' still figures in some historical explanations, they were 'despised rather than actively feared'.

Historians now often comment on the success (or otherwise) of Scotland in 'assimilating' the Catholic Irish, an approach which puts the onus on vulnerable outsiders to conform and change their ways, rather than demanding that unequal power structures be changed. Diversity itself is not divisive, and resistance to assimilation is not futile. The Irish contribution to Scotland is substantial. And Scottish society has experienced change. Scottish nationalism, like all nationalisms, remains a two faced animal but the emergence of a collective sense of anti-Thatcherism in the 1980s also allowed a more inclusive national identity to develop. The popularity of the British Royal Family has sunk furthest in Scotland while 46% of Scots in one survey favoured the immediate withdrawal of the British Army from Northern Ireland (2). Republican marches are often included in criticism of Orange parades in Scotland, but many can distinguish between the political aims of the two. And who would have a pint in a trendy chain of Orange Halls?

A residue of oppression remains. Men with Irish surnames have higher death rates than the general population in the West of Scotland, in particular from heart disease, even allowing for relative deprivation and other risk factors. Other studies show that the lower rate of social mobility for Catholic men began to decline from the 1950s, but though recruitment policies today show no apparent bias, such research suggests a 'glass ceiling' operating against aspirational Catholics (3). There are also recent claims that Catholics are over-represented amongst the prison population. Despite this Scottish Catholics do not largely define themselves as Irish anymore. Irish symbolism and allegiances amongst Celtic supporters are now more about working-class alienation in modern Scotland, and this is perhaps shared with their 'loyalist' counterparts at Ibrox. What is different however is the objections to the existence of the Irish flag at Celtic Park, the singing by supporters of songs like 'The Fields of Athenry', and even the Harp on the Hibernian FC badge. Celtic were even threatened with expulsion from the Scottish league in the 1950s for flying the Irish flag!

Although the objections are now often 'anti-sectarian' they have their origins in a Scottish version of Norman Tebbit's cricket test, and such cultural racism towards expressions of Irish nationality leaves a sense of unfairness lingering on. The confrontational 'Irishness' at Celtic, where drink, sport and weight of numbers can combine to lower inhibitions is perhaps a reaction to the pressures not to publicly display such origins in Scotland.


Religion, rather than a foreign nationality, has defined the diaspora for the last fifty years. Partly this is because of advances in working class unity. But it has also been the strategy of the Scottish Catholic Church. It remained controlled by the tiny Catholic enclaves in the Highlands and North East and though a few rebel Irish priests have been sensationalised over the decades, the Catholic hierarchy actively discriminated against Irish priests until this ceased as a common practice in Unionist Scotland. The hierarchy was part of this system, and its agenda was not the mass re-conversion of the Scottish, but again the assimilation of the Irish. Scottish Catholic historiography still emphasises the indigenous and aristocratic pedigree of the Church, its medieval monasteries, saints and scholars. This is a world away from industrialisation and Irish immigration. Initiatives to attempt to change the law to allow Catholic monarchs have more in common with this tradition than tackling oppression. Of course even such symbolic discrimination is wrong, but monarchy is by definition a rejection of social equality. This also serves to advance the Scottishness of Catholicism ' the religion of the Stuarts ' while presenting discrimination as essentially anti-Catholic rather than anti-Irish. Thus the Church itself becomes the victim of a racism it never resisted, and all criticism of it is tainted with the suggestion of bigotry, whether real or not.

Catholicism has sought to take advantage of social 'pluralism' by installing itself as the legitimate expression of a sanitised 'identity'. But there is no respect given to other minorities, as the Section 28/Clause 2A episode shows. Concern about the protection of children is all the more hypocritical given the Church's reluctance to apologise for the abuse of children in its own care, an attitude remarkable even by international Catholic standards. Cardinal Winning took a left-wing position on poverty and nuclear weapons, but his guidance on 'moral issues' came straight from the hard-line authority of the Vatican of which he himself was a representative.

Defending diversity in the face of oppression cannot endorse those who oppress others. That includes the academic sympathisers with Orangeism. These people have discovered through a blend of postmodernism and Irish historical revisionism (which now blames Irish Republicanism rather than British imperialism for all the country's problems) that the Order represents a misunderstood Protestant working-class identity. Applying the 'politics of perception' legitimises forms of racist paranoia, however, and the outbursts of Orange leaders continue to be offensive and bizarre. Most Protestant workers find the Order and its parades an embarrassment, even an insult. Its membership is almost entirely working-class only because of the Order's own failure to attract elite sponsorship, and this is not through lack of effort, as its former attachment to the Unionist Party illustrates. Lodges can provide some form of social centre in the forgotten schemes and villages of central Scotland, but this is at the expense of excluding Catholic neighbours. The best that can be said about the Order is that has been unable to undermine working-class struggles, and that it has made some attempts to distance itself from the fascists who regularly try to latch onto it.

The Catholic hierarchy's rapprochement with Scottish nationalist politics focused on an SNP endorsement of Catholic schools, and the opportunity devolution could give for extending the Church's influence. Cardinal Winning's outburst against the Scottish parliament as a 'failure' after its repeal of Section 28/Clause 2A illustrates that moral conservatism motivated the Church's earlier enthusiasm for this institution. Catholic schools remain central to the Church. They are opposed from both 'sectarian' and 'anti-sectarian' positions and sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish between the two. It's important that a socialist argument is put with clarity here.

Religious divisions in society have greatly diminished since 1918, when such schools were brought into the state system. The most obvious indication is the rate of mixed marriages ' even in the 1970s over half of Catholics who married wed Protestants. Denominational schooling in England is more associated with snobbery than bigotry, as the controversy around Tony Blair's choice of a Catholic school for his own sons highlighted. Those who focus on educational segregation in Scotland also tend to ignore the elitist 'public' schools, which reinforce Scotland's class divide, particularly in Edinburgh where a quarter of school pupils receive a privileged private education. Here the question 'what school did you go to?' is asked to exclude not by religion, but by wealth and class. Suggestions from Tory and Labour politicians that Catholic schools in working-class areas should be closed on grounds of cost are all the more insulting given the tax-free charitable status of these institutions. While discrimination in promoted posts in Catholic Schools against non-practicing Catholics is wrong, it has moved many a letter to the Herald or Scotsman, while The Church of Scotland's Board of Social Responsibility openly excludes all non-practicing Christians from its employment without a murmur. The Board is the biggest care provider in the 'voluntary sector', and most of Scotland's Asian population is quietly excluded from its state-subsidised workplaces.

Such hypocrisy is frustrating, but does not excuse Catholic schools from their own flaws. The most damning weakness in the 'pluralist' defense of Catholic Schools is their rejection by those who know most about them ' almost half of former pupils in some studies. The authoritarian, exam-orientated focus of such schools and the 'discarding' of 'slow' pupils has been noted by Catholic clergymen, even in Cardinal Winning's own schoolboy recollections. Though Catholic schools are credited with allowing Catholics to achieve and advance in Scotland, even Bishop Joseph Devine recognises that the establishment of comprehensive education in 1964 helped working-class Catholics more than the incorporation of the schools into the state sector in 1918. An ethos of collective obedience to authority and Church doctrine may improve exam results, but it does not value children's own ability to develop a critical understanding of the world and make their own choices in life. The free rein that groups like SPUC have to distribute anti-abortion propaganda without alternative viewpoints, and the prevention of material on gay and lesbian sexuality being discussed show an attempt to control sexuality that demonstrates the authoritarian nature of the Church. Non-denominational schools are still not secular in Scotland, but have generally more tolerance in such matters.

While Catholic schools also claim to provide a sense of identity for their pupils, English studies have accused them of providing this at the expense of denying Irish children their own cultural identity. These of course are the schools now fashionable with some middle-class parents, and this is why. Children should not be segregated by class, colour or creed. The Church will never accept these arguments but many left-leaning Catholics will, and many more are at least open to them. And perhaps more would if the sense that their religion was not blamed for other social problems for which it is not responsible was removed.

From 'sectarianism' to socialism

Anti-Irish racism existed in the workers' movement all over Scotland, and indeed Britain. But working-class struggle could also expose the contradictions and limitations of imperialist ideology, and make workers open to alternatives. In Glasgow the rent strikes of 1915 saw the Unionist slogan ' No Surrender' applied to 'Landlord Tyranny!'. In 1919 the Orange Order attempted to establish a strikebreaking 'Patriotic Workers League', but the same year Irish tricolours mingled with red flags among the 100,000 at Glasgow's most militant May Day march on May 1. Sinn Fein speakers shared platforms there with socialists. John Maclean sold 20,000 copies of his pamphlet 'The Irish Tragedy: Scotland's disgrace' in 1920 at the height of the Irish civil war, and raised the issue of Scottish soldiers shooting Irish workers at every opportunity. 1926 even saw the largest single drop in those taking Presbyterian communion in the twentieth century, after the Church of Scotland and United Free Church attacked the General strike with stories about 'Catholic manipulation'.

Any reader of Engels' work 'The Condition of the Working Class in England' will be struck by the offensive stereotypes used to describe the Irish in Manchester. Engels did, however, see the Irish pool of surplus labour as crucial to both British capitalism and the development of working class resistance to it. Though they were imported as strikebreakers on a few specific occasions ' most notably into the Lanarkshire coalfield in 1837 ' Orange and Masonic organisations were more often used to undermine workplace organisations. Once settled in Scotland the Irish participated in local radical, Chartist and trade union movements, and were often prominent within them.

The Catholic hierarchy always reserved its strongest opposition for its socialist opponents, and raised money for Franco's fascists in Glasgow Churches in the 1930s. They remained archenemies of the Communists, organising against them both at elections and within the unions. But they could not prevent their followers from recognising a basic class interest and voting Labour, once the Irish question was effectively removed from Scottish politics in the early 1920's. The Unionist Party was not a popular alternative for obvious reasons. Acceptance of this gave the hierarchy some influence in ensuring this support was as non-political as possible. It also aided their hopes of assimilating the Irish in Scottish society and extending their own influence. Catholic Labour politicians have helped to achieve these aspirations for them, but Scotland's Irish diaspora also produced Marxists like James Connolly and Harry McShane.

Religious divisions in European politics are not unusual, but Catholic support for the traditional left is. Conservative parties dominate Ireland itself. Catholics in surveys are more likely to identify themselves as working class and consistently take more left-leaning positions on every social issue except abortion. Labour's unusual support from 'middle-class' Catholics relies on a faulty definition of white-collar public sector workers, where we would expect to find proportionately more educated Catholics. As late as 1992, double the proportion of Scottish Catholics to Protestants voted Labour. In absolute terms, however, most Labour supporters have always been Protestants.

Catholic support for Labour has always antagonised establishment Scotland, who have exploited the links whenever it suited them. The 'Monklandsgate' scandal of 1994 falls partly within this tradition, though it was also aided by new critiques of 'Old Labour'. Complaints by four Labour councillors in Airdrie (all Catholics) became sensationalised as allegations of Protestant discrimination. This rested entirely on apparent bias against 'Protestant' Airdrie in favour of 'Catholic' Coatbridge, but both towns had 'minority' populations of over 40 per cent. The Carfin fiasco earlier this year revived these impressions of Lanarkshire, Labour and sectarianism in the press. But the prediction of riots by local MP Frank Roy, should the Irish Taoiseach unveil a long overdue memorial to Irish famine victims, was dismissed together by both Catholic locals and the Protestant workmen who built the monument as an insult.

Some historians blame Irish influences for the dull 'machine politics' of Clydeside Labour, as if Labour elsewhere was a centre of dynamic radicalism! The real scandal of Monklands Labour council in 1994 was its attempts to implement Thatcher's poll tax through the use of warrant sales. Frank Roy's influence at Carfin rested largely on his connections with John Reid, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, in the familiar position of appeasing Unionists. Reid is a Catholic and he illustrates Labour's consistent defense of partition in Ireland. It is right to criticise Labour's compliance with the Catholic Church, but its loyalty to the British State has been far more corrupting.

The SNP struggled for votes among Catholics in Labour's heartlands even in the 1970s, but Catholics and nationalists are no longer suspicious of each other. The SNP's adoption of a 'left of centre' agenda attracts many away from New Labour. Its leadership also defends big business, the Royal Family and the Scottish regiments, however, no less than Labour and the Tories. Though this displays the conservative side to Scottish nationalism, it is not objectionable to the Catholic hierarchy who can co-exist with the market, monarchism and militarism. But it leaves a space for a genuine socialist movement to organise amongst working-class people of all backgrounds and traditions in Scotland.

While Catholics of Irish descent are no longer oppressed in any real sense, later immigrants are still marginalised by racial oppression. So there are important lessons to be learned from how the Catholic Irish faced and overcame racism, the solidarity they established and the society they helped to shape, with all its limitations. We do not have to wait another hundred-odd years for black and white unity. An independent socialist Scotland means a fundamental break from all forms of racism, exploitation and oppression. That must also include an honest reassessment of Scotland's own racist and imperialist past as we fight for a new society based on mutual respect and equality.


(1) Tom Gallagher, 'Glasgow: The Uneasy Peace', Manchester University Press, 1987.

(2) Scottish Election Study, 1992.

(3) Joanne Abbots, Rory Williams and George Davey Smith, 'Association of medical, psychological, behavioural and socio-economic factors with elevated mortality in men of Irish heritage in the West of Scotland' in the Journal of Public Health Medicine, Vol 21, no 1, 1999; pp 46-54.