Tom Flanagan argues that the SNP administration in Holyrood, and Scotland’s political establishment generally, continue to ignore the problem of anti-Irish racism with misplaced efforts to target ‘sectarianism’.
In the wake of the anti racist demonstrations in 2020 following the death of George Floyd in America, the Scottish Government’s education department undertook a consultation with several groups of representatives from each of Scotland’s ethnic minority groups.
This was applauded by many as a much needed step in the right direction, for a country often in denial about its role in the empire. The one surprise was that the Scottish Government invited representatives from Scotland’s Irish community, including groups such as the anti-Irish racism group Call it Out, which was formed in 2018, and representatives from the Irish traveller community.
In the guidance released last week, however, the government did not think to mention anything about Scotland’s Irish community, which is the victim of 62% of the nation’s hate crimes. I’m sure many reading this may find this astonishing, but unfortunately in Scotland this is simply par for the course.
It’s Scotland’s acceptable racism. Ever since our ancestors got off the boats in the 1800s, it’s been no Irish need apply. While the days of dreading questions about your academic career in job interviews may have somewhat gone away, there’s still a culture that is permissive of the fact “All Taigs Are Targets” is spray painted on walls across Scotland.
If those words were replaced with any other ethnic group, there would rightly be an outcry. The Scottish Government’s advice contains a detailed account on how curriculums can best represent Scotland’s Jewish community -a community with proud traditions that enriches Scottish culture, but is ultimately of a size which pales in comparison to Scotland’s Irish.
Scotland’s politicians, civil servants, police, and all of Scottish polite society have for too long stood behind their biggest cop out word in their arsenal. Sectarianism.
Orthodox political thinking in Scotland is that in the west of Scotland there’s a problem that is exclusive to football and it’s a two-way bloody war between Protestants and Roman Catholics, but this is a deliberate distortion of the truth.
This imagined problem of sectarianism conjures up an easy boogieman for Scotland’s liberal middle class to deride. An angry drunk working class man who just simply hates someone else because he wears a different colour and prays to a different god. Everyone, who has anything about them, knows this is nonsense.
The issue of Anti Irish Racism has been given extra attention this week after, at the time of writing, six members of the ‘Union Bears’ Rangers ultra group have been arrested on charges of “racially aggravated offences” for singing a classic Ibrox terrace jaunt that poses the question to Glasgow’s Irish: “the famine is over, why don’t you go home?”
You’ll notice there is no mocking of transubstantiation. There’s no song about a priesthood of all men and how our heavenly fates are predetermined? That’s because this is not some religious debate. In an increasingly atheist country what would sectarianism even mean? This is racism, pure and simple, and why is it so? The answer, my friends, as it so often is is class.
I take great pity on those arrested on Sunday and in the subsequent days following the derby match at Ibrox. I don’t think that working class young men being arrested does any favours for our community. In fact I think it’s an easy plaster to place over a wound that’s festered for a century and a half.
I’m not the first to say this and certainly won’t be the last, but these are men (and they usually are men) with very little political power. They march with the Union Bears or the Orange Order. They do so to sing about an empire they’ve reaped very little benefit from, and by and large they face the same miserable lives of precarity or in the gig economy work that we all do. But they feel a sense of superiority over me and my family and friends.
They feel that for three key reasons. The first reason is that the bosses in Glasgow’s Shipyards after WW1 deliberately spread through the Orange Order and their football clubs the policy of not signing any Irish Catholics, disseminating the idea that us Fenians were inferior to them. This often manifested itself in a perverse false class consciousness where bosses had convinced workers that they were in league with each other against the ‘tarrier’. It’s not lost on me that when forty-five thousand at Ibrox sing of being up to their knees in my blood, they’re doing so in the name of the Billy Boys, a fascist gang of paid scabs, who broke up the strikes of the grandfathers of many on those terraces.
The next reason is policing that is similar to the one sided community policing in the North of Ireland. Many of the people who have been involved in the Call it Out campaign against anti-Irish racism have complained that when they’ve reported crimes to Police Scotland, they’ve received threats or abuse related to their race. They’ve actually reported comments from officers about hate crimes not being racial but “sectarian”.
The third and final reason is that Scottish political culture has been, at best, ignorant of the demands of Scotland’s Irish community, and, at worst, complicit in their problems, and I include the Scottish left, which has a less than impressive record on the Irish question. Since the mid noughties under the Blairite government’s of Jack McConnell in Edinburgh, Scottish government policy has been focused on a ‘both sides’ approach to the issue they refer to as ‘sectarianism’. The SNP government which is essentially continuity Blairism has done very little to change this approach. Everything that they have changed has been hard won by campaigns like Call it Out. Indeed it was notable that FM Nicola Sturgeon mentioned anti Irish racism rather than “sectarianism” when discussing the issue in Parliament.
What doesn’t need to happen is a return to the days of the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act where working class football fans both green, blue or any colour are harassed by police and blamed for an issue which permeates across Scottish society. A focus on football fans is a denial of the wider scale of the problem.
What needs to happen to resolve this is the Scottish Government needs to sit down again with community organisations such as Call it Out. They need to cut their funding to organisations such as Nil By Mouth which have for too long been stealing a living talking about how bad “both sides” are and comparing the occasional support for armed struggle in the north of Ireland with a systemic support for racism. They need to include comprehensive and thorough modules on Irish history in Scottish schools which are mandatory for every child to understand why Scotland has an Irish community in the first place. These are already optional, but many teachers in “non-denominational schools” are often terrified of the backlash they’ll receive from parents if they teach about anything Irish, as is the depth of depraved racism in this country.
Racism is always top down, it is always the result of policy decisions, of class conflict and often of the contradictions inherent in the capitalist system. When 62% of a nation’s hate crimes are against a community who aren’t even featured in advice on “decolonising the curriculum” (and those figures could be conservative considering how often these are reported as religiously and not racially aggravated) then this shouldn’t be any surprise. But it should shame every Scot that anti-Irish racism goes on, and we must all work to dismantle the system that has allowed it to continue some four generations following An Gorta Mor.