It has been 22 years since the Good Friday Agreement was reached. After the 1997 General Election and the subsequent referendum on reconvening the Scottish Parliament for the first time in nearly 300 years, the April 1998 event was probably the third earliest political moment that I remember. At my tender age, I didn’t fully understand the details of the peace accord, but I knew it was a significant moment in the history of our country.
A couple of months later, our primary school group began reading a book called ‘The Twelfth of July’ by Joan Lingard, a Scottish novelist who lives in Belfast. The novel is the first in the ‘Kevin and Sadie’ series of books. The first book was written against the backdrop of the start of the Troubles in Northern Ireland in 1969, and follows the romance of Sadie Jackson, a Protestant, and Kevin McCoy, a Catholic. It’s a brilliantly written series, and as the curriculum didn’t feature all five books, I used my pocket money to purchase the remainder of the books to read at home. The later novels follow the couple to England as they embark on a secret marriage away from Belfast, such was the controversy during The Troubles around people in Ireland marrying if two people came from opposing religions.
Growing up in Midlothian in the 1990s, and I’m sure for most who grew up away from the West of Scotland, it didn’t truly matter to the overwhelming majority of people what religion your parents were. My parents, still happily married today after 43 years, got hitched in September 1977 in St Matthew’s R.C. Church, Rosewell. If you care about the details, my dad was raised in a ‘Proddy’ household in Loanhead, and my mum was one of eight children to Irish Catholic parents who emigrated to Britain and settled in Rosewell.
I now consider myself an atheist, but was taken to mass as a child. Though, just as you would be taken to the church that your mother frequented, it goes that the majority of us who are football fans go with the team our father supports. My team is Rangers, and very proud of them I am. I have been a season ticket holder in the past and try to visit Ibrox as frequently as I can. Supporting Rangers and attending a Catholic primary and secondary school of course meant those of a blue persuasion were vastly outnumbered throughout our school years, but any hostility was confined solely to matters on the football pitch. I left school in 2007, and wonder if the same could be said today, thanks to the explosion in anti-British sentiment we’ve seen in Scotland since the SNP came to power.
You may be asking what this trip down memory lane has to do with Scottish politics. Well, I want to explain my understanding of religion in Scotland and peace in Northern Ireland as a young child before I started to get older and realised how complex and divisive these issues are. I can only conclude from my experiences as an adult that the decades-old bigotry and grudges masquerading as ‘political activism’ that brought Ulster to its knees, during those dark decades, have now fully been imported into Scotland.
Christianity is becoming obsolete in Scotland quite rapidly, and politics is the new flashpoint in town. Instead of bombs and bullets, social media and the domination of local and national government are the Scottish Nationalist Party’s weapon of choice.
If you are active on social media and pro-UK, you will have no doubt been met by the sight of a cybernat with a Saltire emoji and an Irish tricolour emoji in their profile. They usually barge into friendly discussions, hunting down ‘Yoons’ and generally unleashing a barrage of abuse, accusing us of being ‘traitors to Scotland’ or ‘selling our souls for Westminster gold’, until they are muted or blocked. They view the dissolution of the United Kingdom as a ‘struggle’ between their righteous cause and big bad ‘Westminster’ who ‘stole Scotland’s oil’. These anonymous online foot-soldiers aren’t driven by a centuries-old dispute over territory, but by the words and deeds of party leaders living in the present.
In today’s more secular Scotland, Sturgeon, and many other Nationalist figures, including her ghost rival for the soul of the party, Joanna Cherry, espouse Ireland as what Scotland should aspire to be like, despite its dependence on Brussels. In truth, Ireland is held up as a shining example of virtue by Nationalists because there are votes in it for them.
There are many Scots of Irish descent who hold a romantic affinity with the Emerald Isle, and when blended with so-called ‘civic nationalism’, Nationalist leaders have tapped into the perfect formula for aspiring to be something that you actually can’t be, because someone or something (in their case, Westminster/England) is supposedly holding them back. There is significant political capital to be made by the Nationalists from playing, and let’s call it what it is, the sectarian card.
Although there is an extreme element to the Nationalist’s core support who see Scotland’s constitutional future being a ‘struggle’, I wouldn’t write this article without acknowledging that there are also many, many great Scots of Irish descent who are pro-UK, because they recognise that the UK is a powerhouse of shared economic, political, social and cultural interests. Although not necessarily patriotic flag waving Brits, they are comfortable with the constitutional settlement and resist being drawn into extremism.
It is, therefore, imperative for us to hold a mirror up to the ugly, divisive nature of Nationalist politics, while rejecting any civil unrest, such as the scenes we witnessed on a midweek evening in Glasgow’s George Square recently by a group of troublemakers going by the name of the National Defence League.
On either side of the police line, extremists are looking for a 21st century version of The Troubles to emerge, disrupting and poisoning our everyday discourse which is already toxic enough, placing us into tribes, dividing society down Nationalist vs ‘Unionist’ lines.
So, the next time you witness Nationalists trying to drive us down the path towards a sectarian war, call them out. Call out their bigotry, and let’s work to reduce them to the rump they once were, through facts, reason and good old common sense. We have the tools to win the argument all day, but need to use them wisely.
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In less than a year there’s going to be a Scottish election, and there is no doubt that Nationalists will use it to continue to agitate for a disastrous referendum.
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