By putting ‘tackling sectarianism’ under the banner of Community Safety the Scottish Government changed how we go about dealing with sectarianism. Of course, the initial funding to tackle sectarianism in the community arrived at the same time as the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act – but it was the first time money was set aside on a Scotland-wide basis to challenge the issue in our towns and cities.

But what do we mean when we talk about ‘community’? Are there ‘sectarian communities’? What does sectarianism look like in Scotland today – and how can it be challenged? Is there now a community of anti-sectarianism practitioners? This short article, based on the experience of the Scottish Community Development Centre and Community Links (South Lanarkshire), addresses some of these themes.

Scotland: A land of sectarian communities (a brief history)?  

Scots have, by and large, had enough of sectarianism. This isn’t a recent phenomenon: many were never interested in the first place.  Sectarian attitudes, behaviors and beliefs have never saturated Scotland’s culture and society to the extent that they did in Northern Ireland (see video below) – where access to work, housing, neighborhoods and social life – were all shaped by political and religious attachment.

Unfortunately, at certain times, and in particular places, some groups, organisations and individuals (often socially and economically powerful) were keen on fostering tension and resentment between different groups of Scots. 

Some of these divisive sectarian sentiments did manage to seep into some of Scotland’s communities. In Scotland, during the twentieth century, in some of the traditional industries, job opportunities were limited to those of particular denominations, schooling was denominationally partisan, and social tension found expression in territorially and religiously segregated street gangs. Meanwhile, the demonstrative ‘walks’ carried out by the Loyal Orders) were/are, depending on one’s perspective: an insult; an expression of cultural identity; a celebration; an insensitive show of strength; a nuisance; an irrelevance. 

Throughout the history of Scotland’s sectarianism, the idea of ‘community’ has been both central and ambiguous. On the one hand, the development of communities and shared social resources on ‘non-sectarian’ grounds have been essential. Equal access has been the norm in diverse areas from housing and education to the overwhelming majority of Scottish sporting institutions. However, community has also been a closed concept: Perhaps most famously, Rev. John White’s Menace of the Irish Race - a  dour wee pamphlet’ - which invoked a miserly, closed, spirit of ‘community’ where Irish Catholics were not welcome.

(Getting rid of) Sectarianism in our communities. 


What does sectarianism in Scotland’s communities look like today? Well, it looks like lots of different things – from XChange Scotland’s walking tour which highlighted meanings buried deeply within Glasgow’s places, statues and iconographyto new social media spaces. It’s not black and white – it comes in shades of grey. It doesn’t come with a name badge on.

 “I’m  glad that I wasn’t on a project with an outcome that was ‘change people’s opinions’[…] it’s easier than going in to a group where there are problematic sectarian identities that you have to say, this is wrong and it needs to change” (SCDC co-inquiry participant)

 Thinking about sectarianism as a Community Safety issue rather than simply one of criminal justice changes how we think, act and challenge sectarianism. It’s also different from challenging sectarianism in school contexts. Both of these are hugely important and valuable areas of work – but community approaches are different.

In the community context, participation and involvement is neither guaranteed nor mandatory. Encouragement, support and relevance come to the fore and the emphasis is on exploring sectarianism and related experiences.

The community projects we worked with exemplified this approach: Both Yipworld in Cummnock and Shotts ‘Getting Better Together’ used their expertise to develop a programme of anti-sectarianism youth work culminating in an innovative learning exchange; Inverclyde Community Development Trust explored related prejudices and built on previous drama projects; Fauldhouse Community Development Trust explored prejudice and intolerance in the round.

Each of the projects SCDC worked with developed local understandings of sectarianism. For example, Glasgow Women’s Library thought about sectarianism as being at an apex of intersecting prejudices.  Projects then used the resources of staff and the community to challenge the issue in a relevant and accessible way – sometimes, as the Pilmeny Development Project shows, developing new types of practice along the way.

What makes community led approaches to challenging sectarianism novel and important is this multifaceted, resolutely constructive, and dialogue based approach. Moreover, there is much to be gained from shared learning and practice between community and education sectors – an approach demonstrated by Central Scotland Regional Equality Council’s work with Forth Valley College.

The emphasis on dialogue and inclusion, and attempts to understand the ‘greyness’ and intersectional nature of contemporary sectarianism, combined with the  flexibility, local knowledge, and ingenuity make local community projects important catalysts of change.

 Community of Practice

 The funding-led creation of a large number of projects challenging sectarianism is a new development in Scotland. Prior to the 2011 tranche of funding, only Nil by Mouth and Sense Over Sectarianism were solely dedicated to tackling sectarianism. With few specialist practitioners and officers, learning new skills and capacities was a key challenge – a process which SCDC supported with a range of groups.

We’ve described above some of the approaches adopted by participating projects – the local projects were very much experts in their local area and community. SCDC’s role in the 2012-2015 funding was to develop action research process where learning could be shared and developed – we called these ‘co-inquiry’ sessions.  

On reflection, what emerged from the 5 ‘co-inquiries’ was something akin to a ‘community of practice’. We all know ‘real’ communities don’t come pre-packaged.  They are messy places where individuals rub along together, share, support, annoy, help, disagree, forgive and survive in concert. Thinking about and practically challenging sectarianism isn’t too different: 

“The co-inquiry has been a good space for grey areas to be discussed and put out there, thrown around and talked about, but a lot of the time people’s default positions are the easy options; get rid of catholic schools, even practitioners.  Our role is not necessarily to have an opinion but to facilitate meaningful conversations, not to simplify the issue right down. There is not an easy way to boil it down as the Scottish Government definition shows. But some people are boiling it down…so important not to do that. The discussions are still being simplified so maybe the discussions aren’t over yet”. (SCDC co-inquiry participant)

 Already well equipped with relevant technical skills and strong community buy-in, the co-inquiry sessions facilitated the sharing of concrete practice and experience – and also provided a forum for openness and ‘professional vulnerability’: 

 “Informal support mattered a great deal to everybody - that was important as it gave us the space to be emotionally vulnerable in a safe space and allowed us to discuss all those things that we wanted to talk about”. (SCDC co-inquiry participant)

Community, when it is in its positive, productive and helpful mode, encompasses all of these aspects: openness, safety, greyness, support, dialogue. It’s not a place of easy options and solutions, but it is a place where nobody has a monopoly on speaking or thinking.  That’s not too say that ‘anything goes’. It’s also a place where wrongs can be addressed with confidence - as the young people of Inverclyde demonstrate.

Moving Forward

Whilst criminal justice and school-based interventions are essential (and often high profile) ways of hammering the final couple of nails into the coffin of sectarianism in Scotland, we hope that ‘community’ is recognised (in its fullest sense) in these efforts. Because whilst much has been achieved, there is much still do: there remain hard-to-reach groups who cling on to unhelpful attitudes. New approaches will need to be developed to engage with these audiences.

Community is not just a place where prejudice happens – but a process and a practice through which issues like sectarianism can be effectively challenged. Community matters doubly for officers and practitioners – who recognise the importance of local understandings and ways of tackling the issue – and who benefit from the development of effective formal and informal networks and communities of support.

Written by Robin Jamieson and Kate McHendry (SCDC)