Sectarianism - segregated in football and in life, Celtic and Rangers fans at a recent football match between the clubs.

 Deeply divided. Spectators at a Celtic versus Rangers match in Glasgow.

Where have all the Catholics gone, long time passing.

Where have all the Catholics gone, long time ago

SNP have nicked them every one

When will Labour ever learn?

When will they ever learn?

Archbishop Tartaglia for bishops story.jpg

Glasgow’s Archbishop Philip Tartaglia surrounded by Saltires and Papal flags. Picture by Bill Heaney

Catholics no longer go to church in their droves. Neither do they any longer automatically vote Labour when Scotland goes to the polls.

Maurice Earls, an Irish academic and Dublin bookshop owner, says: “Thursday’s election [result] confirms a 1918-style transformation in electoral loyalties.

“The Scots have returned a huge majority of MPs who wish to sever the link with Westminster.

“Sounds familiar, but Boris Johnson is determined to stop them.”

In an essay for the Dublin Review of Books, Earls asks the where to now question:

“What road will the Scots follow? The Irish road seems an unlikely one for Holyrood to choose.”

While in Glasgow recently, Earls attended a match at Celtic Park which drew a crowd of around 60,000.

Earls said: “Above the stadium numerous Scottish flags flew alongside a much smaller number of Irish tricolours. The Union Jack was conspicuous in its absence.

“The Scottish Celtic supporters who filled the stands were, to a large extent, made up of people who had once voted for the British Labour Party.

“In a remarkable transformation, the ‘Catholic Irish’ working classes in Glasgow have switched to the Scottish National Party.

“They are, it would seem, now engaged in a specifically Scottish political movement, and in this scenario it seems that Ireland may be receding to become ‘the auld country’, important for identity purposes and perhaps also as an example of successful independence from England, but not as a focus for political action.

“Intense engagement with the politics of Northern Ireland appears to be weakening. There was no sign of the pro-IRA banners which were once unfurled in the stadium. No doubt the Good Friday agreement has helped this dynamic along.

“The FA’s ban on political banners must also have had an impact but, significantly, banners have not been replaced by chants, certainly not at the match I attended. (An Old Firm match might be more likely to stimulate atavistic sentiment.)

“Notwithstanding, a commitment to the specifically Scottish cause of political independence cannot but reduce the toxicity of sectarian feeling. The enemy for SNP supporters is down south.

“The SNP in recent memory did contain a sectarian anti-Catholic element. But that element appears to have been purged. 

Coming together? Alex Salmond wearing a Papal tartan scarf and with the late Ian Paisley and his wife, Lady Bannside, at the opening of a new ferry terminal linking Scotland and Northern Ireland. Pictures by Bill Heaney

“It is said the purging was overseen by the last leader, Alex Salmond. Previously, Catholic Labour voters would have given the SNP a wide berth, seeing it as a force likely to turn Scotland into another Northern Ireland, where Catholics would be a permanent minority.

“But the SNP, it seems, is no longer a cold place for Catholics. It would be interesting to learn the details of this transformation. If the Catholic working classes of Scotland are backing the SNP and independence, they must not be worried that an Independent Scotland will reduce them to second class citizens.”

The evening before the match, Earls spoke to a taxi driver who, in answer to a question, dismissed the enmity between Rangers and Celtic as nothing more than a little bit of “harmless hatred”.

Earls said: “Looking at the flags above Celtic Park, I wondered if something comparable might be happening in Rangers’ Ibrox stadium. Could the Union Jack be giving way to the Scottish flag? Certainly, Rangers have moved on quite a bit from the days when they wouldn’t have a Catholic about the place.

“The decline of the shipbuilding industry, whose employment practices embedded sectarianism, no doubt has played a part. Indeed, the decline of traditional industry with its accompanying large trade unions has probably also contributed to the decline in Labour Party support.

“However, it is worth remembering that the first-past-the-post system can make transformations seem more dramatic than they actually are.

“In the old Labour seats won in recent years by the SNP, there was around 27% support for Labour, which the polls predicted would decline to 20% in Thursday’s election. Scottish support for Labour in yesterday’s election came in at 18%. The SNP won 45% of the vote.

“Under the first-past-the-post electoral system, which is a particularly limited form of representative democracy, substantial minorities are hugely underrepresented in the legislature. The system is not unlike a series of mini-referenda where the winner takes all. SNP seats would probably be halved under proportional representation. Perhaps it is not very surprising that switching to proportional representation is not one of the issues which animates the SNP.

“Labour has collapsed, having just one member in Westminster and with a level of voter support which, in Ireland, would yield a substantial number of seats.

“The devolved local parliament in Holyrood, on the other hand, is elected under PR-style rules and in it the SNP holds just under 50% of the seats and Labour close to 20%. Overall, around half the seats are unionist.

“Traditionally, the majority of the Catholic working class supported Labour, as did the majority of the Protestant working class. Glasgow was a Labour city. Belfast might well have been a Labour city too if the main Westminster parties had not declined to organise in Northern Ireland. The cross-divide support for Labour, however, did not eliminate sectarianism in Glasgow.

“It was said to us that the Labour Party dealt with sectarian division by keeping it under wraps, that individuals joining the party were directed to branches where their co-religionists were predominant.

“Presumably, the hope was that, in time, sectarian feeling would melt away in the healthy sunshine of class solidarity. And indeed, it could be that the experience of Labour politics did reduce sectarian feeling. But if sectarianism is in decline this is not benefiting Labour.

“In 2001 Labour returned fifty-six MPs to Westminster. In 2015 they returned no members and in 2017 they won seven seats. Polls predicted that Labour would lose six or possibly all seven to the SNP in Thursday’s election. In fact, it lost six seats to Nicola Sturgeon’s party.

“It seems Scotland may now be experiencing the emergence of a political union between Protestant and Catholic, a holy grail which always proved elusive in Ireland.

“The SNP is, as the name suggests, a national party rather than a class party. It has a strong social democratic flavour, which must make the transition for traditional Labour voters easier.

“But how this will work out in the future, if the party has the responsibility of running an economy based on private property in bad times as well as good, may be another matter. Already, some working class voters are said to disenchanted after a period of SNP dominance at Holyrood.

“If a majority of the working classes appear now to believe that their vital interests involve unhitching from an unfriendly and anti-European England, many of those with property are conflicted and in a sort of half-way house.

“One recent poll shows that fifty per cent of Scots are unenthusiastic about independence; others put the figure higher.  Some in this category may even support the SNP.

“The interaction of Brexit and independence has complicated politics in Scotland.

“The complexity is possibly at its most bizarre for Scottish Tories. Tories are the traditional party of British unionism and of opposition to home rule. Under the leadership of the pro-EU Ruth Davidson, they did well in the 2017 election, winning thirteen of the fifty-nine Westminster seats. Remaining in the EU is clearly the best means of preserving the union so it is hardly surprising that the Tory vote came out in 2017.

“But Ruth Davidson’s pro-EU faction in the Tory party was crushed and extreme Brexiteers came to dominate the party in the south. In voting for Johnson’s party, Scottish Tories would be empowering the radical Tory forces who are prepared, if necessary, to see the union dissolve in order to secure full separation from Europe.

“A Britain-wide Tory victory, followed by a pattern of bullying of Scotland, would help the SNP’s separation agenda by driving neutrals into the independence camp. There is a Tory turkeys and Christmas dimension to the Scottish conservative dilemma. Corbyn’s soft or no Brexit politics, on the other hand, would offer a lifeline to the union. But that surely is a bridge too far for the self-respecting conservative. Staying at home may have seemed the best option to some Tories.

“On Thursday, the Conservative share of the vote declined by 3.5%. Overall they won 25.1% of the vote, which yielded seven seats, down from thirteen. The Scottish Tory narrative of hope must now be that Johnson’s huge majority will enable him to pursue the sort of soft Brexit that would help the union to survive.

Tory losses, in addition to the six lost by Labour, helped bring the SNP total to forty-eight. The Lib Dems won four seats in 2017 and, despite the loss of Jo Swinson’s seat, they again secured four.

“In their victory the SNP leaders will not spend too much time worrying about Labour-supporting unionists, Tory Unionists or the Lib Dem unionists. If they can force a referendum and win 50% plus one, it seems likely independence will be seized and the half-hearted will be taken towards political autonomy by the ear.”

Earls believes that today in Scotland, as the power of religion and other formative historical forces recedes, new historical possibilities emerge.

A post-sectarian independent Scotland, within the EU and in close alliance with Ireland and other smaller EU countries, is one possibility. But given the level of support that persists for the Union the pace could be slow and the legacy bitter.

 If there is a transformation coming and the SNP win their 50% plus one, the question may be asked: can the chasm be crossed in two leaps or must it be done in one? If the latter proves the only reasonable answer, the words of Shakespeare’s great Scot might apply. 

But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We’d jump the life to come.

Match result: Celtic four, Livingston nil.

Election result: SNP 48 (45%), Tories 6 (25%) Lib Dems 4 (9.5%), Labour 1 (18%)

  • The Catholic link with the SNP seems odd, if not entirely contradictory, given that abortion and same sex relationships and marriage, two things to which the fundamentalist Church is vehemently opposed, are equally strongly supported by the SNP.   Editor.


  1. What utter, utter pish. And dangerous too in your use of uniionist/nationalist badges. Why can’t you just retire Bill, and stop trying to pretend that you are stlll influential?

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