Just like old times …

Sectarianism is firmly on the political agenda in Scotland. During the week, the Scottish Government decided to delay the proposed Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Bill – we responded like this:

“The Scottish Government is to be commended for the intentions which lie behind the proposed Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Bill . Recent expressions of sectarian behaviour – particularly surrounding football matches – have been shocking and are unworthy of the tolerant and open society which Scotland aspires to be. There is a responsibility on any government to act so as to preserve peace and order. However it seems to us that this proposed legislation raises two issues.

“The first is that rushed legislation often turns out not to be good legislation. We are also aware that it may be difficult to secure convictions under this kind of legislation. Under the Incitement to Hatred legislation which was introduced in Northern Ireland, it was very difficult to secure convictions.

“The second is that the proposed legislation addresses symptom rather than cause. However distasteful expressions of sectarian speech and behaviour may be, they are simply the outward signs of a deeper and systemic malaise which afflicts our society. Churches and faith groups should be particularly sensitive to the religious dimension which is a core element of sectarianism. But there are many other historic patterns and traditions which are part of it. We hope that the Scottish Government will establish a broad-based process which will allow our society to come to a deeper understanding of the distasteful phenomenon which sectarianism represents so that together we can begin to address its roots.”

What surprises me is how little of the long and painful learning of Northern Ireland seems to have made its way across to Scotland – the debate seems very immature to me. The proposed legislation addressed symptom and not cause. But in the Assembly, some immediately rushed to the other end of the spectrum and wanted to explore whether denominational/faith schools were at fault. In the middle is a huge area of learning and exploration – about the systemic nature of sectarianism and the efficient way in which it can pervert even our best attempts to build community; about the way in which religion can give ultimate authority to negative expressions of identity and about how it suits religion to be used in this way; about the complex of other issues which are all part of this – everything from housing distribution to parading to social and economic deprivation.

This is the start of a long journey.

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