A row has broken out between Scotland’s leading historian, Professor Sir Tom Devine and representatives of the Catholic Church over the extent of sectarian prejudice in the country.
It follows comments by the head of the Scottish Catholic Media Office, Peter Kearney, who described Scotland as “hostile environment for Catholics” in an article for the Sunday Herald newspaper and complained of a “residual and pernicious anti-Catholicism,” comparable to the institutional racism identified in London’s Metropolitan Police in the 1990s. His concerns were echoed by the director of the Catholic Parliamentary Office at Holyrood, Anthony Horan and some Catholic members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs).
Speaking to The Tablet, Sir Tom said: “Recent pronouncements from Catholic media sources and a few MSPs that Scottish Catholics are facing rampant sectarian hatred in 2018 were finally too much for me to take as a Scottish Catholic without speaking out”. He said that the “findings of impartial and reasoned academic research on this subject, founded on a robust evidential base, rarely attract public interest; but they need to be heard, because if considered with an open mind they comprehensively refute the shrill assertions of alarmists.”
Devine, emeritus professor of history at the University of Edinburgh highlighted his concerns in an article he co-wrote with Dr Michael Rosie in the Sunday Herald on Easter Sunday. Dr Rosie is a member of the Scottish Government’s Advisory Group on Tackling Sectarianism. They argued that “reasoned analysis of the evidential base can trump alarmist claims”.
While conceding that Scotland’s male Catholic population still suffers a small proportionate disadvantage in terms of issues such as health and imprisonment, Professor Devine argues that Scotland’s Catholics are enjoying occupational parity with the Protestant population and other citizens and evince a new cultural confidence.
Media coverage of the issue in Scotland has sharply increased in recent weeks, following the repeal of the controversial Offensive Behaviour at Football Act
Professor Devine has suggested that recent headlines, suggesting a wide incidence of hate crime against Catholics in the country are not substantiated and reflect a “persistent culture of victimhood.”
Asked why commentators are targeting supposed anti-Catholicism at this juncture, Devine told The Tablet that “a cynic might ask whether it was to deflect attention from some uncomfortable aspects of the Scottish Catholic Church in recent years.” The Catholic Church in Scotland’s spokesman, Peter Kearney, rejected Professor Devine’s comments, saying they were “ill-informed” and that anti-Catholicism in Scotland is “alive and well.”
PICTURE: Sir Tom Devine and Alex Salmond (right) pictured at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2014 ©PA