The fact that a tradition of social exclusion, racism and intolerant British nationalism has been passed down the generations does not legitimise it.

First published in July 2021.

The comedian Billy Connolly used to quip that in an attempt to avoid answering the loaded question, “Are you a Catholic or a Protestant?” He’d respond that he was an atheist, only to be asked? “Aye, but are you a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist?” It seemingly being of huge importance to the questioner to know which god he didn’t believe in the most. Of course, in a Scottish and Irish context, the concept of a Catholic versus a Protestant atheist makes perfect sense. It is, as they say, funny because it’s true. That’s because as anyone from northern Ireland or West Central Scotland knows, it’s not really a question about your own beliefs or philosophy. The questioner is not asking whether you believe in the Transubstantiation, the Apostolic Succession, Predestination or the doctrine of church governance through an assembly of elders. In fact, they are not asking whether you even believe in a Christian God or indeed any type of deity at all.

That’s because what is really being asked is whether your family background lies in a community traditionally opposed to British rule and the British state. Historically – at least since the “Pacification” of the Highlands and the mass conversion of its inhabitants to Presbyterianism in the second half of the eighteenth century, by far the largest community in Scotland which was traditionally hostile to British rule and the British state was the Irish Catholic community.

That’s why it was this community that was subjected to systemic discrimination in jobs, housing and education in Scotland throughout the 19th and most of the 20th centuries. Since members of this community could not be physically distinguished from the majority Protestant (and at least until recently) British identifying part of the Scottish population, and because the children of Irish Catholic families born and brought up in Scotland could not be distinguished by accent or speech, religion became a convenient proxy for telling apart Scottish people whose family background lay in a traditionally non-British identifying community from those Scots who came from a community which was traditionally content to accept Britishness and loyalty to King and Empire.

What gets called sectarianism was not then and never was, primarily about religion. It was and is a means of asserting the dominance of Britishness and the British state. By calling it sectarianism or pretending that it’s only an issue for supporters of certain football clubs in the West of Scotland, the true nature of British nationalist anti-Irish racism is disguised and a false equivalence is set up, allowing British nationalists in Scotland to absolve themselves of any complicity with the bigotry and discrimination which played a vital role in establishing and securing a British identity in Scotland. But while there are plenty of instances of name-calling or football associated hooliganism on both sides, it was only ever Scots from Irish Catholic family backgrounds who were systematically excluded from certain professions, workplaces or social and sporting clubs. There was once a time in Scottish history when the only way that a Catholic got into university was if Burke and Hare stole their body.

Anti-Irish racism in Scotland was a fundamental component of British nationalism in Scotland. The means by which a British identity was established in Scotland was through exclusion and discrimination against those Scots whose loyalty to King and Empire could not be relied upon. A British identity in Scotland was founded upon social exclusion, bigotry, and discrimination. That’s the dirty secret that British nationalism in Scotland still refuses to face up to.

Every year Scotland is forced to endure parades through the streets of our towns and cities aggressively celebrating a British nationalist triumphalism, fostering the divisions that allow and create British rule. As MSP James Dornan points out in an article in The National a week ago, we would not tolerate annual parades to celebrate discrimination against Muslims or any other minority community in Scotland. However, the anti-Irish racism of Orange Walks is tolerated and allowed in the name of “tradition and culture”. Hatred isn’t culture, and tradition is no excuse for bigotry. Maybe your granny was a terrible racist – that doesn’t give you permission to be a racist too.

The fact that a tradition of social exclusion, racism and intolerant British nationalism has been passed down the generations does not legitimise it. If anything it makes it worse. An Orange parade is a drum thumping example of institutionalised racism. The only reason these annual hate-fests are allowed to continue is because they are one of the traditional pillars of British rule in Scotland and their fundamental association with British nationalism means that political parties and politicians who are apologists for British nationalism refuse to call them out. Because to do so would be an admission that British nationalism in Scotland is in itself divisive and founded in racism and social exclusion. It would be an admission that British nationalism and Britishness in Scotland is guilty of all those sins that apologists for British rule in Scotland accuse Scottish nationalists of. It would be an admission that Britishness isn’t the victim, it’s the victimiser.

Those same Conservative politicians who rail against the supposed divisions created by the Scottish independence movement and bewail the disruption to traffic and shoppers caused by peaceful and good-natured marches and rallies for independence say nothing about the annual displays of British nationalist supremacy which exult the anti-Irish racism upon which British nationalism in Scotland is based, followed as they invariably are by drunken brawls in our parks and on our streets. The Tories are far too busy wrapping themselves in Union flags to call out that flag’s associations with division and hate. Let’s be honest here, when you see a Union flag flying from a private house in Scotland, your first thought isn’t “Oh what a nice non-nationalist gesture of inclusion and tolerance.” It’s “I wonder if they hate Scots with an Irish Catholic heritage and immigrants along with independence supporters?”

The first step to tackling so-called sectarianism is to recognise that it’s really anti-Irish racism, the second is to recognise that it is not Scotland’s shame, it’s a shame of British nationalism in Scotland. 


Wee Ginger Dug, also known as Paul Kavanagh. Blogger.


Going Further:

[This piece was originally published in Wee Ginger Dug’s blog and re-published in PMP Magazine on 19 July 2021, with the author’s consent. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]

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