Well, someone has to say it. Religious sectarianism in Scotland will never fully be eradicated while religious apartheid is written into the state education system. So long as children grow up to define themselves as Catholic or Protestant, in segregated schools, and associate predominantly with their own kind, then the old antagonisms and rivalries will remain. I have great respect for Catholic schools and their high educational standards - which cause so many non-believers try to send their children there, the Liberal leader Nick Clegg being one. However, they do discriminate on grounds of religion, and there’s no getting away from that.
Now, I know this line of thinking will outrage many of my Catholic friends, practising or lapsed, who believe that religious schools are a defence AGAINST sectarianism, Protestant sectarianism, rather than the cause of it. And of course, Catholic schools don’t cause letter bombs. It is from the darker recesses of Protestant Unionism, that come the death threats and the street violence. The nail bombs sent to Neil Lennon, lawyer Paul McBride and Trish Godman, the former Labour MSP, were probably assembled by paramilitary elements in one of the stagnant pools of Loyalist Orangism that still linger in the housing estates of West Central Scotland. Aye, and not only in the housing estates, but in some of the best addresses in Glasgow, in certain golf clubs and legal chambers.
Scotland’s half million Catholics rightly feel that they have been, and continue to be, victims of discrimination - from their exclusion from succession to the throne to harsh treatment by football authorities. It is to the eternal shame of my own grandfather’s generation of Clyde shipyard workers that Catholics generally did not get jobs in the major yards. However, the worst forms of discrimination, in council house waiting lists, in the workplace, in policing and the justice system, are surely a thing of he past.
Moreover, we live in a predominantly secular society. Sectarian violence is a bizarre anachronism - how many of the bigots who chant religious sectarian songs at old firm matches understand the theological distinction between consubstantiation and transubstantiation? This is tribalism - it is communal violence based on a barely comprehended historic identity. But the identity has a basis in religion and is rooted in the separation at five years old between Catholics and Protestants.
And I can’t see an end to this “Scottish disease” until Scotland’s religious communities become fully integrated, and I can’t see that happening while their children are educated in different schools. Even the prime target of the letter bomb attack, Celtic coach Neil Lennon - a man I admire immensely for his courage and fortitude in the face of death threats, street assaults and now letter bombs - has conceded that integration is the key. “It [sectarianism] starts in the home”, he said recently. “It’s passed down from generation to generation”. Absolutely - and the education system is one of the transmission belts.
Racial and religious integration begins and ends in school. It is only when young people - black, muslim, Catholic Protestant - start to establish relationships that cross the boundaries of identity that divide their parents, that they truly become citizens rather than representatives of an ethnic group. That is why muslim fundamentalists try to raise children in dogmatic madrassas. I fully accept that Catholic schools are not madrassas and that, as the Pope said on his visit to Scotland last year, many work hard to foster understanding and community. Nor, am I arguing for faith schools to be closed, or the 1918 Act repealed. I am opposed to private education, because it perpetuates class divisions, but I accept that, in a democracy, you cannot outlaw fee paying schools. However, I do believe that schools which are financed by the state should, as a condition of their funding, be non-denominational. Or at least should be seen to be moving in that direction.
The former First Minister, Jack McConnell, a politician who got a lot more things right than he got wrong, was on the right track in his attempt to encourage campus schools in which Catholic and Protestants are educated at least in the same geographical space, if not always in the same assemblies or class rooms. There have been petty troubles on the co-denominational campuses of Dalkeith and Lanarkshire - objections to religious iconography in public areas and the content of sex education lessons. But on the whole these campuses have been a reasonable success. However - it is a long haul.
In the mean time there needs to be pretty drastic action to control the worst symptoms of religious sectarianism. What we don’t need are more summits, agendas and instant initiatives designed to foster tolerance on the terraces. Curiously, I find myself agreeing with the old firm themselves that it’s too easy to blame football for sectarianism, or expect football clubs to change an aspect of Scottish culture that has its roots in the home and the school. However, that doesn’t mean that it is any more acceptable.
One way to keep two sides from fighting is to keep them apart. The police have made clear that they believe the letter bomb attacks to be linked closely to events at Celtic Rangers matches, such as the midweek fixture last month which saw Lennon and McCoist square up to each other like stags before a rut. If police believe that certain public events are likely to be the site of., or provoke public disorder, they have powers to close them down. Demand that Old Firm matches are played behind closed doors, or are abolished altogether. It may come to that.
This would be a disaster for Celtic and Rangers, two of our greatest sporting institutions, which depend on tickets sales for their survival. But we have been here before. The old home international fixtures between England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales were ended in the 1980s, partly as a result of hooliganism at Scotland -England matches, and partly because they fomented sectarian tensions in Northern Ireland. History may be about to repeat itself.
As someone said in a different context: we can’t go on like this. The Old Firm meet again this weekend. The slightest hint of trouble, and it could be their last for a long time.