Notebook by Bill Heaney
What plans does the Scottish Government have to tackle public displays of anti-Irish racism and anti-Catholic prejudice, the Labour MSP Pauline McNeill asked First Minister Nicola Sturgeon this week.
It was a speculative question because Ms McNeill should have known it invited obfuscation and lack of commitment, which is how it has been dealt with in parliament since the middle of the 19th century and long before the Scottish Parliament was reinstated at Holyrood.
The answer, of course, is nothing. This is something the SNP government cannot blame on the Covid pandemic for not tackling now. Public displays of anti-Irish racism and anti-Catholic prejudice have been going on in Scotland since Irish immigrants first fled The Famine, which blighted their country and killed thousands around 1843.
They landed at Greenock without the warm welcome (ceud mile failte) which First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told parliament all 21st century immigrants, including the Afghanis, can now expect to receive on arrival.
Lord save us, if the English can’t get a welcome without barriers being erected at the Border then just how warm and friendly to immigrants, no matter their colour or creed, are the indiginous Scots?
After all, the Irish and Catholics are still getting it in the neck, a disturbing fact which has thankfully surfaced and been given a high profile in recent weeks and months and which will, or possibly should, be a catalyst for Scotland to deal with racism and sectarianism and stamp it out for good.
Fine sounding words of condemnation from politicians and prelates have fallen on deaf political ears.
Orange Walks – an astonishingly big one is coming off in Scotland later this month – are one of the main bones of contention for Catholics, but they will go ahead come hell or high water.
Spitting on priests outside their church and people doing their shopping being assaulted for crossing the street have been acceptable for too long.
There are a lot of votes in Orange Walks – and few politicians appear to have the courage to speak out against them. Or the hatred or bigotry that flows out into Scotland’s streets and back into a significant number homes, in the wake of the sound of Lambeg drums and flute bands. It’s not as small a minority as some would have you believe.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Pauline McNeill MSP.
Nicola Sturgeon would disagree with this, no doubt, and she won’t do anything about it other than talking to the police. Again.
She told the Holyrood parliament on Thusday: “I say very clearly that there is never any excuse or justification for hatred or bigotry and I unequivocally condemn anti-Irish racism and anti-Catholic prejudice. It should be called what it is and it should be called out.”
She added: “Scotland is a diverse, multicultural society. That diversity strengthens us as a nation and that is why it is so important that we tackle all forms of prejudice and discrimination.
“Police Scotland is committed to protecting our communities and will act on all incidents of bigoted violence, disorder and vandalism, including follow-up investigations based on evidence that has been gathered.
“Those who commit criminal acts that are motivated by prejudice can expect to feel the full force of justice, and I know that, just this morning, the police have issued a comment about the progress of a particular investigation.”
She didn’t say which investigation, but a look at the newspapers and news websites doesn’t give much scope for doubt.
Pauline McNeill thanked Ms Sturgeon for her “strong answer” – “I thank the First Minister for that strong answer.
“I hope that she agrees that there is still a clear problem with a minority of people displaying anti-Irish and anti-Catholic prejudice, as well as a growing feeling that, if those terms were used about any other minority group, the sentiments displayed on our streets would be treated far more seriously.
Ms McNeill was obviously having a dig at the police there.
She added: “For the avoidance of doubt, I am sure that the First Minister is aware that the famine song contains the words “The famine is over, why don’t you go home?”, as confirmed by Lord Carloway in his judgment in 2009.
“I welcome the fact that there were three arrests last night in relation to that particular incident and I applaud the fact that Rangers Football Club has just announced an indefinite ban of the members who they identified as being involved in singing the famine song; that must be welcomed.
“I want the First Minister to reassure me that Police Scotland will respond proportionately to those offences and, in doing so, I offer my full support to the First Minister to work with her and everyone to ensure that all forms of racism and bigotry are stamped out in Scotland.”
The First Minister replied: “I thank Pauline McNeill for the question, the way in which she asked it and the offer of support, because we should all come together to tackle this issue.
“I say clearly—and I know that everyone across the chamber will support this—that I take the view that, for anybody who chooses to live in Scotland, whether they and their families have been here for generations or whether they have come to Scotland very recently, it is home. This is their home and we should not allow anybody ever to say—[Interruption.]”
Unless they are English was a comment that came from the Conservative benches from Tess White MSP who, it turned out, had been racially abused for the simple fact that she came from England to Scotland where she was legitimately elected to parliament.
Presumably without knowledge of this, the First Minister insisted in making a show of Ms White by holding her up to public ridicule for stating a fact.
The Presiding Officer said: “I would be grateful if members at all times in the chamber remember that we are privileged to represent the people of Scotland and that at all times in the chamber we treat one another with great dignity and respect.”
The First Minister pressed on: “Presiding Officer, I have just had a comment made to me from a sedentary position. I would not normally do this, but I am so deeply offended by the comment that I want to take it up with you after this meeting, so that, with your permission, the member might be asked to reflect on that and to withdraw the comment.
“It was a comment that would have been unacceptable in any context, but in the context of what we are discussing right now, I am deeply aggrieved that any member thought that that was an appropriate thing to say.
Police officers at a gathering of football fans in Glasgow.
“I go back to the very important question that was asked. All of us—all of us—have a duty to stand against racism, prejudice and bigotry.
“I dedicate myself, not just as First Minister but as a citizen of this country, to always do so. I look forward to working with anybody who stands with me and with people across Scotland in that. I thank Pauline McNeill again for her question.”
Ms Sturgeon gave no indication of what might be done about this. There are no plans to ban Orange Walks or gatherings such as the recent “celebrations” of Rangers FC’s league victory at Ibrox Park and in George Square where considerable damage was done to street furniture and the whole area was trashed.
Unless effective legislation is brought in then sectarianism, which was once described as Scotland’s Shame, is here to stay long into – and possibly even beyond – the 21st century.
Top picture: An Orange Walk being escorted through Dumbarton by mounted police officers.