Eminent Scottish History Professor Tom Devine Attacks ‘Anti-Sectarianism Industry’ and Calls for Qualitative Research to Inform Policy

Published: 31 March 2014

Paul Goldie discusses Tom Divine's talk entitled 'Sectarianism in Scotland. Is it Still an Issue?'.

On the 5th of March in the Gilmorehill Centre Professor Tom Devine made his latest contribution to the debate on the issue of sectarianism in Scotland. At the sold out event run by the Scottish Religious Culture Network, Professor Devine began by saying that academic knowledge on the subject of sectarianism is limited and weak in the extreme. Crucially, he feels that any discussion on the issue is also hampered by sound-bite, rhetoric and semi-hysterical press hysteria.

In his lecture entitled 'Sectarianism in Scotland. Is it Still an Issue?' Devine offers an historical analysis over the long durée incorporating three periods of Scottish history. Firstly, focusing on the post-war period to the late 1960s, he asserts that this was an era where structural discrimination was endemic within Scots society. Devine offers both an objective and subjective definition to act as a conceptual base from which to work from. These are that ‘there was an entrenched and popular hostility towards individuals based on their religious beliefs’ (subjective) and ‘significant social gulfs between different social polarities’ (objective). Therefore, the social milieu of this time is characterised by pervasive discrimination against Catholics by institutions such as the Church of Scotland, which talked of the ‘menace of the Irish race’. In summarising this period, Devine states that this was the era where one was often asked ‘what school did you go to?’ with the answer you gave having a direct affect on your life chances.

Secondly, from the early 1970s to the late 1990s Devine argues that a silent revolution occurred within Scotland which saw a number of catalysts for change act to loosen sectarianism’s grip on society. These included an increase in secularisation, a rise of the international ownership of firms abolishing archaic employment practices and most significantly for Scotland’s Irish Catholic community, the revolution within the state education system. The latter point cannot be understated for Devine, because this removed a glass ceiling for a Catholic minority which were previously ‘trapped’ in a working class location. Therefore, the silent revolution enabled Scotland’s Irish Catholic community to achieve occupational class parity during the 1990s and early 2000s. This equalisation of occupational status however was in stark contrast to their American cousins who attained similar levels 100 years prior to this period.

Finally understanding the scope and scale of sectarianism over the past 14 years poses the greatest challenge for Professor Devine. He draws on two sources in an attempt to arrive at conclusions; one of which is Glasgow City Council’s Sectarianism in Glasgow report 2003. This research shows a dissonance between the perception and reality of sectarian incidents because 2/3 of those surveyed felt sectarianism was still a major problem; however, only 0.1% had ever actually experienced any actual incidents. Also using crime figures from Section 74 of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 2003, Professor Devine showed how reported crime for sectarianism is dwarfed in comparison to other ‘antisocial behaviours’. This was illustrated by comparing domestic abuse figures which registered 56,000 cases compared with just 673 sectarian offences in 2013. It is from these rather limited findings that Scotland’s foremost historian concludes that sectarianism ‘is on its death bed or moving towards it’. Tom Devine now proclaims his focus will be on the ‘anti-sectarian industry’ which he feels is receiving large sums of government money without any evidence to justify its very existence.



Reflections and Comments

This latest contribution to the debate on sectarianism is indicative of the wider discussion within the academy on the subject which sees scholars adopting positions that are both entrenched and polarised. For example, Walls and Williams (2003) of the University of Glasgow who, using qualitative research methods, argue that structural discrimination within employment still exists. Conversely there is the position adopted by Bruce et al (2006) of Aberdeen University who talks of the powerful myth of sectarianism and attacks the ‘methodological suspect nature’ of this research. Bruce favours his own statistical research design which echoes (and perhaps even influenced) Devine’s position on occupational class parity. This is just one example of the opposing stances taken by academics in the debate on sectarianism; but they do draw our attention to how differing methodological traditions when used in opposition will come up with conflicting conclusions. In particular looking at the category Catholic in a census is indeed useful but further qualitative investigation is needed to fully explore and understand an Irish Catholic ethnic identity (Kelly, E. 2005).

Professor Devine under questioning does say that sectarianism for researchers is not an ‘exhausted field’; in particular he feels qualitative research work is needed to understand if the current generation still has a ‘hangover’ from past decades.

The lecture was planned to be ‘resolutely controversial’ and achieved its aim; however, I would argue for different reasons than he intended. This is so because it left those in attendance with more questions than answers; these questions included why is there such a dissonance between perception and experience of sectarian crime? Are the ‘low’ levels of crime due to low reporting of incidents by Catholics who choose to keep their ‘head’s down’ as some writers suggest? These low level crime figures are on a par with those motivated by homophobia; therefore is professor Devine saying that this is also not an issue within Scottish society. For me the biggest question I had was on the fundamental contradiction between his opening and closing statements, where he talks of the wholly inadequate evidence base; yet, arrives at such a strong conclusion that sectarianism ‘is on its death bed or moving towards it’.

All things considered I am fortunate in that I have recently taken up the challenge of contributing to the debate by beginning a Masters in Research and PhD at the University of Glasgow’s Sociology department. My research involves adopting a case study approach to a small de-industrialised town in Ayrshire where I will conduct analysis on the relationship between perception and experience of sectarianism. Most significantly I will carry out life history interviews which will look at how, if at all, space is ethnic and how using narratives of location can help us understand the lived experience of Scotland’s Irish Catholic/descended minority (Anthias, F. 2002). Overall Professor Devine’s self proclaimed ‘resolutely controversial’ lecture does however add to the calls for greater research into this very Scottish social issue.


Anthias, F. (2002) ‘Where do I belong?: Narrating collective identity and translocational positionality’, Ethnicities, Vol. 2(4), pp.491–514.

Bruce, S.; Glendinning, T.; Paterson, I.; and Rosie, M. (2006) ‘Religious discrimination in Scotland: fact or myth?’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, Vol. 28(1), pp 151–168.

Kelly, E. (2005) ‘Review essay: Sectarianism, bigotry and ethnicity – the gulf in understanding’, Scottish Affairs, No 50.

Walls, P and Williams, R. (2003) ‘Sectarianism at work: Accounts of employment discrimination against Irish Catholics in Scotland’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, Vol. 26(4), pp. 632–662.


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Paul Goldie is currently completing an MRes in Sociology & Research Methods at the University of Glasgow, and will be commencing his PhD in September 2014. Paul holds a 1+3 scholarship from the ESRC and CoDE – Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity. 


First published: 31 March 2014