Yank in Edinburgh

I was part of an Alliance Party delegation (with David Ford, Colm Cavanagh, and Margaret Marshall) that travelled to Edinburgh to speak with individuals and representatives about how Scotland is dealing with the scourge of sectarianism.

I was perturbed at Fred Forrester’s suggestion that much of the basis of sectarianism between Protestants and Catholics, especially in the Glasgow area, was the provision of denominational education, i.e. Catholic schools. It was obvious that he favoured the abolition of such schools.

However, ‘mainstream’ schools are not ‘non-denominational’, when they have school chaplaincies, however consensual. This presents a fundamental flaw in Mr Forrester’s hypothesis. Surely the antidote would be more thoroughly religiously integrated, if not truly secular, schools.

Nonetheless, I appreciated Mr Conboy’s (Commission for Racial Equality) remarks about the improvement in attitudes about racism in Scotland. At least an organisation such as the CRE is in place, to try to deal with Scotland’s small ethnic minority population and any increase in its immigrant/asylum seeker population. The CRE reminded me of a cross between the Community Relations Commission and the Equality Commission in Northern Ireland. It was clear that the CRE is still finding its way in Scotland.

The most significant difference between Northern Ireland and Scotland in dealing with sectarianism and racism is political consensus and will. Scottish politicians and its civic society are far ahead of Northern Ireland in its desire to develop an integrated society. One must remember that this is easier to accomplish when there is no fundamental argument over national identity. Nevertheless, no one we met described any section of society wanted to defend communal rights.

This may present a chicken-and-egg scenario for Northern Ireland. Is it possible to develop political and civic will to defend a shared vision (or at least platform), as more important and relevant for people, than the less challenging resort of defending an agenda of group rights for one section of society? I’m even more surprised that civic society in Northern Ireland has not so far argued for the benefits of a shared society.

One example of the difference in attitudes is the situation of harassed individuals in public housing estates in Scotland, where legislation has been used to prosecute the perpetrator. I replied with the converse application in Northern Ireland, where the victim is commonly removed from the housing estate as a matter of first instance, i.e. the course of action is to take action against the victim, not the perpetrator. Political will is required, if the local authorities, housing executive, police and the courts are to have the necessary confidence to implement a policy of defending those who suffer sectarianism and racism.

Another lesson learnt was that relying on ‘breach of peace’ legislation is not enough. While it could be adequate in theory, it will not suffice in practice, because it is applied inconsistently with varying results. Instead, more specific legislation is required, with consistent application, in order to send a clearer signal to society of what is unacceptable behaviour.

The NIO’s consultation document, “A Shared Future” represents progress. It would appear the public authorities are at least willing to accept some political leadership in this fundamentally important issue — the vision for Northern Ireland society.

A shared consensus in Scottish society is underlined by a virtuous circle of serious discussion, common desires, political leadership, public authority, effective solutions. I think it would be possible to create ‘a united society’ in Northern Ireland, without the entanglements of a single nationalism (which may never exist here).

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