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Last Updated: Monday, 14 February, 2005, 17:46 GMT
'First steps' on end to bigotry
By Doug Kennedy
BBC Scotland news website

Bringing an end to sectarianism may be one of the most difficult and complex targets a government could set itself.

Sectarianism summit at University of Glasgow
Dozens of organisations met to discuss religious hatred

Nevertheless, the first minister vowed more than two years ago to consign bigotry to the "dustbin of history".

Any journey needs a first step and on Monday Jack McConnell heralded a summit in Glasgow as the "starting point" on the road to tolerance.

The summit members met the first minister for more than two hours and agreed to establish a national plan to tackle the problem.

The complexity of the task in hand can be measured by the variety of groups and interests present, with representatives from more than 30 organisations including the police, councils, Catholic Church and Church of Scotland.

Despite Mr McConnell's concern that religious hatred has become a "national shame", it is perhaps not surprising that the summit was convened in Glasgow.

Sectarianism is inextricably linked to the west of Scotland, historically and culturally, and, not least in the minds of some supporters, to football.

I don't think there is any organisation who hasn't left thinking there's something they have to do
Alison Logan
Sense Over Sectarianism

Cardinal Keith O'Brien was keen to show that things had started in a spirit of co-operation, revealing that he had shared a car to the event with the moderator of the Church of Scotland, Dr Alison Elliot.

He said the summit had gone well and had heard a "full and frank exchange of views".

Subjects up for discussion were faith, education, sport and parades - four separate subjects but each linked.

Cardinal O'Brien said: "Obviously there were differences of opinion expressed, that's why we were there.

"But we all stressed the value of education as being vitally important with regards to sectarianism, education in our schools, whether Catholic or non-denominational.

Moderator Dr Elliot and Cardinal O'Brien
Moderator Alison Elliot arriving with Cardinal Keith O'Brien

"Education perhaps also for those who have been responsible for any forms of sectarianism and consequently landed up in prison, young offenders or prisoners, so that being in prison is not just a punishment."

But the cardinal "absolutely" denied that faith education played any part in seeding differences which may develop in later life.

"Catholic schools give full education in Christianity, in Christianity there is no room for sectarianism," he insisted.

The Sense Over Sectarianism organisation is a partnership between Glasgow City Council, Nil By Mouth, the churches and Rangers and Celtic.

Co-ordinator Alison Logan said: "There were so many points for action that came out of the discussion that I don't think there is any organisation who hasn't left thinking there's something they have to do.

'Foul abuse'

"It's up to the Scottish Executive to take two steps back now, think about what was said, and hopefully develop an action plan for all of us."

Ms Logan said education would have to be key in the battle to challenge attitudes and values.

She added: "It's part of where children have grown up, it's part of the communities they are living in, it might be part of their mates and how their mates support football. Children buy into that whole culture without fully understanding what it's all about."

The Old Firm clubs accept that sectarianism is a problem that blights their reputation as one the greatest football rivalries in the game.

It goes far, far beyond being an Old Firm fan or supporting the Old Firm
Peter Rafferty
Affiliation of Celtic Supporters

Yet the clubs, probably wisely, are reluctant to place the blame on the attitudes of some of their fans and keen to stress that football-related bigotry is part of a wider schism in Scotland.

Lawrence Macintyre, head of safety for Rangers FC, said: "There's a thing in a football ground called a 90-minute bigot, someone who has got a friend of an opposite religion next door to them.

"But for that 90 minutes they shout foul religious abuse at each other and we've got to handle in the first instance the 90-minute bigot.

"If we can get the person that doesn't mean it then we'll isolate the real racists and real bigots in numbers that are manageable to deal with."

Peter Rafferty, from the Affiliation of Celtic Supporters, said he was hopeful the broad range of bodies involved in the summit would find a way forward.

He said: "As far as we're concerned people are Celtic supporters, many of them Catholic supporters, and we don't have a problem at Celtic football club with denomination, colour or creed.

Jack McConnell
Mr McConnell described the summit as a "starting point"

"It's a much wider issue, it goes far, far beyond being an Old Firm fan or supporting the Old Firm and we have to look at much wider issues.

"But this is a start and it appears to be a positive start and we'll see where we go."

The only clear voice of dissent came from the Orange Order.

Grand Master Ian Wilson, while not disagreeing with Mr McConnell, accused him of exaggerating the problem.

He said: "I think sectarianism has declined in Scotland in my lifetime and I'm quite frankly surprised that the first minister should be making such a crusade.

History claim

"I think there are bigger issues in Scotland that he should perhaps be turning his attention to other than this."

Following the summit, the first minister hailed it as a "historic event".

"What we have today is a concrete agreement that every organisation represented here will now commit to our discussions and our action to combat sectarianism in Scotland," he said.

Modern politicians have a habit of declaring themselves present at, and sometimes responsible for, defining moments in the history of their nation.

What Mr McConnell seeks is an end to sectarianism. Monday's event came nowhere near establishing how that could be achieved, but was perhaps the beginning of the end.

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20 May 03 |  Scotland


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