Historian Chris Bambery argues that anti-Irish racism has deep roots in Scotland’s ruling institutions, and that the new crisis of Unionism will likely inflame old bigotries.
I recall being arrested in 1979 at the Hibs versus Ranger Scottish cup final for having an Irish tricolour. The Scottish Football Association had attempted in the 1950s to kick Celtic out of the league for flying a tricolour (along with the Union Jack and other flags). As I was being led away, I looked up at the Rangers end to see a sea of Union Jacks, accompanied by sectarian songs being belted out.
Fast forward to May 2021 and what is commonly, but somewhat misleadingly, called ‘sectarianism’ continues to scar Scottish society. After Rangers finished their season as champions, crowds of their supporters gathered in Glasgow city centre, singing songs abusing Catholics and Irish people, brawling, fighting with police and attacking a paramedic apparently because his uniform was green. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, described the scenes as “selfish, thuggish sectarian” behaviour.
Whilst she was right to describe the behaviour as ‘thuggish’ there is something more that must be addressed.
Why is it that from Easter until late summer the Orange Lodge, an organisation rooted in Protestant supremacy, organises marches across Glasgow and the West of Scotland in particular? Traditionally these Orange marches have insisted on marching through areas with large Irish and Catholic populations, stopping outside Catholic churches in a deliberately antagonistic manner. No other section of Scottish society is sanctioned to engage in such activity.
The Scottish elite would like us to believe that anti Irish Catholic racism was just a problem for working class Protestants. But the truth is that throughout its history it has been as much in evidence in Edinburgh’s gentlemen’s clubs and the top golf clubs as in the slums.
The roots of Orangeism
Orangeism grew up in the north of Ireland in response to the rise of the first republican organisation, the United Irishmen, which was launched by Belfast radical Presbyterians amidst growing agrarian unrest which threatened the Anglo-Irish aristocracy. Orangeism was formed by the descendants of Scottish farmers who settled in Ulster to “pacify” the last, rebellious Gaelic province to resist colonial rule. Far from being some benign cultural organisation, the Orange Lodge was, from the very start, a sectarian organisation whose aim was to keep the native Irish down. It marched into their communities to intimidate the population. Violence was never far away.
The anti-Irish racism that continues to scar Scottish society flows from Scotland’s role in the colonisation of Ireland and in the creation of British imperialism. Scotland’s ruling and middle classes did not play a junior role in Britain’s imperialist project: for example they took a lead in the East India Company,. The first Orange Lodge in Scotland seems to have been formed in Maybole in 1799 by returning members of the Ayrshire and Wigtownshire Militia, who had served in Ireland in suppressing the United Irishmen’s rebellion of the previous year.
Anti-Irish racism also fed off the equation drawn since the Reformation between Presbyterianism and Scottishness which resulted in the exclusion of ‘the other’. First, there were the Gaels north of the Highland Line. These were largely Episcopalian or Catholic and were regarded until Culloden, when they ceased to be a threat, as savages. That carried over into the Clearances, enforced in the main by Lowland Scots and anglicised Highland nobles.
By then Irish immigrants were becoming the main ‘others.’ Sectarianism really took off with the large scale immigration into Scotland during and after the 1846-1851 Irish Famine. The 1841 census showed 126,321 people of Irish birth in Scotland, some 5% of the total population, 16% of Glasgow). Ten years later the number of Irish born in Scotland totalled 207,367, including 18% of Glasgow’s population.
A quarter of these new arrivals were Protestants from the north of Ireland. Orange Lodges were set up in Ayrshire, Lanarkshire and Inverclyde, and were involved in brawls and riots with immigrant Catholic Irish, and was seen as: “… a ‘party’ or fighting society and certainly not as a credible organisational mechanism for propagating militant Protestantism.” In 1852 when anti-Irish mobs took over the streets of Greenock attacking Irish homes, a man charged with trying to kill a Catholic policeman with a knife and pistol received a sixty day sentence. Central government intervened to suspend the local magistrates and town clerk. Then in 1854 miners in Airdrie struck, demanding the removal of the Irish.
These days, it is Glasgow that has the reputation of being the centre of ‘sectarianism’ (a phrase which, whilst not technically inaccurate, reduces matters to mutual religious differences). However, in the 20th century it was Edinburgh which saw the worst violence. In 1935, anti-Catholic crowds attacked a Roman Catholic Eucharistic Congress in Waverley Market and attempted to invade the Cowgate, traditionally home to the Irish population. They were driven back but then went on to besiege an open-air mass in Newington.
Protestant Action, which whipped- up the mob violence, was led by John Cormack, a councillor for Leith South from 1934 until his retirement in 1962. Protestant Action was far more successful than its Glasgow rival the Scottish Protestant League.
Until 1860 Glasgow had no Orange Lodge, but by 1878 there were over 100 Lodges in the city. Orangeism fed off the anti-Irish racism which dominated British society from top to bottom; a reaction against the opposition to British rule in Ireland throughout the 19th century. In true colonialist terms the Irish were portrayed as sub-humans destined to be ruled by a superior race.
Anti-Irish racism was prevalent across Britain. As Karl Marx wrote in 1870:
“Every industrial and commercial centre in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he feels himself a member of the ruling nation and so turns himself into a tool of the aristocrats and capitalists of his country against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker. His attitude towards him is much the same as that of the “poor whites” to the “negroes” in the former slave states of the U.S.A.
The Irishman pays him back with interest in his own money. He sees in the English worker at once the accomplice and the stupid tool of the English rule in Ireland. This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class.”
Racist divide and rule benefits the elite. In the second half of the 19th century Glasgow had the worst housing in Britain, wages were lower than in England and trade union organisation weaker.
As in Belfast the Irish population in Scotland were marginalised, overwhelmingly unskilled and what middle class existed was made up of the clergy, publicans, lawyers and teachers. Job discrimination against Catholics, identified by their names and the school they had attended, was rife until relatively recently. They were excluded from skilled jobs.
Anti-Irish racism did not establish itself as aggressively everywhere. By 1851 Dundee had a higher proportion of Irish born residents, 18.9%, greater than Glasgow’s. The bulk of these were women, attracted to work in the jute mills, and few were from Ulster. The Irish population there were quicker to join the labour movement, helping elect two Labour MPs in 1906 and in unionizing the jute mills prior to the First World War.
It is important to recognise that hostility to Irish immigration and the Irish diaspora lay at the root of the phenomenon of anti-Irish racism, as it does today. Even when this took the form of dogmatic objections to Catholicism as a Christian tradition, nationalist, ethnic and political antagonism was typically the wellspring.
The relatively small groups who remained faithful to Catholicism in the north east andthe Highlands and Islands were not targeted in the same way. Indeed, the Catholic hierarchy drawn from those communities were initially very hostile to the large scale Irish immigration of the 19th century.
What transformed the fortunes of the Orange Lodge – setting the stage for its expanded role in the 20th century – were the Home Rule crises of 1886 and 1893, when the Liberal government was defeated in attempts to introduce devolution for Ireland, in the first case losing a vote in the House of Commons, in the second having it blocked by the House of Lords.
The Liberal Party split and, as a result, in Scotland the Tories, fearing home rule would weaken British imperialism, moved into an alliance with the Orange Lodge.
Across Britain from, the 1870s on, power was shifting with capitalists moving from the Liberal to the Tory Party. It was not simply because of Irish Home Rule, but because the Tories were recasting themselves as being aggressively pro-big business and pro-imperialist. The reality of having been overtaken industrially by the USA, and with Germany coming up fast behind, sharpened the need to cut labour costs and to boost productivity.
On Clydeside, the shipyard owner William Pearce and the ironmaster stood for parliament in 1880 as Tories, and enlisted the Orange Lodge in their support. By the 1892 Westminster general election, the Tory candidate in Bridgeton was an Orangeman, their candidate in the College constituency addressed a meeting of Cowcaddens Orange Lodge and, in the election’s aftermath, the West Renfrewshire candidate sent his sincere apologies that he could not attend the 12th July celebrations.
Between 1910 and 1914 the Tories allied with the Ulster Unionists to oppose a further Home Rule Bill presented by a Liberal government, threatening civil war and financing the importation of German rifles into the North East of Ireland weeks before the First World War broke out.
Once again the Tory-Orange alliance swung into action in Scotland but the response was more muted than they had expected. The reason? The working class was becoming organised.
In the cotton towns of Lancashire trade union struggle and the rise of Labour undermined Orangeism – but not in Liverpool. In Londonwith the great docks strike of 1889, the New Unionism which sprang from it (the organisation of unskilled labour) and the Great Unrest of 1910-1914, Irish workers played a leading role, ensuring anti-Irish racism was largely overcome.
But in Scotland Orangeism had deeper roots and enjoyed sympathy among the elite, the police and the Church of Scotland. Working class unity over economic and social issues was a first step to overcoming this, but it was only the initial step.
Trade union officialdom and the emerging Labour Party preached workers unity but ignored sectarianism and the Irish issue, which dominated British politics from the 1880s until 1921 and the partition settlement. The exception was John Maclean who campaigned hard in support of Irish independence.
Within the Church of Scotland there was a high level campaign to outlaw Irish immigration. In 1922 the Rev. Duncan Cameron of Kilsyth, a member of the Church of Scotland’s sub-committee on Irish immigration, stated that Scots could not be expected to live alongside “weeds.” He blamed Irish immigrants for the upsurge on the Clyde two years earlier: “Nearly all the leaders were Irish. In the course of time instead of a Scottish proletariat there would be a body of people who had no regard for the United Kingdom and who were prone to revolutionary ideas.”
This reflected a strong anti-Irish sentiment within the Kirk during the interwar years with constant warnings at General Assemblies about the danger of Irish immigration. Four years later a former Moderator of the General Assembly and co-convenor of the Kirk’s Church and Nation committee, the Rev. John White, argued that the Scottish “race” had to be protected from being “corrupted by the introduction of a horde of Irish immigrants.” 1928 saw a Presbyterian Joint Committee visit London to meet the Home secretary and Scottish Secretary to demand Irish immigration be halted and anyone of Irish birth on benefits be deported. Government officials were able to produce figures refuting their claim that there was a flood of Irish immigrants to Scotland.
In 1930 the Rev. White, now first Moderator of the re-united Church of Scotland, stated that the Kirk’s priority would be combating Catholicism and the “menace” of Irish immigration. In 1933 the newly formed Church Interests Committee urged the Church of Scotland to join the International League for the Defence and Furtherance of Protestantism (ILDFP). Based in Berlin this was Nazi-dominated, antisemitic and anti-Catholic. This flirtation with Nazism was a step too far and the Church of Scotland began to row back on its anti-Catholic, anti-Irish crusade.
Nevertheless, even as late as the 1960s, Alan Hassan, a minister of Bonhill Church, was a leading figure in the Grand Lodge of Scotland, riding on a white horse at the head of the 12 July walk.
The inter-war years also saw the Labour Party win the majority of Catholic votes. The old Irish Nationalist Party had been destroyed by the 1916 Easter Rising and its former supporters had little choice but to transfer support to Labour. The Conservative and Unionist Party was allied with the Orange Lodge, the Liberals were sidelined and the emerging SNP was hostile to Irish immigration and was identified with Presbyterianism. Labour also won the support of the Catholic hierarchy by supporting state funding for Catholic schools.
Sectarianism and the state
Unlike in Northern Ireland, however, sectarianism was not structured into the state. The state in Scotland was that of the UK, though sectors like the judiciary and the established church were autonomous. But the personnel that administered the state in Scotland, from the top to the bobby on the beat, were conditioned by Scotland’s central role in policing the Empire, and by anti-Irish racism.
The distinction may seem artificial. But the UK state was not sectarian in the ways the Northern Irish state was. Systematic disenfranchisement in democratic rights, housing and work did not reach the grim nadirs it did in Northern Ireland state. Nevertheless, a real sense of knowing your place was kept in existence.
After the Second World War things began to slowly change. The demise of the old staple industries meant there was little place for sectarian discrimination in the expanding public sector or in the new car and engineering plants established by multinationals.
By the 1960s free education meant a new, growing and assertive Catholic middle class was establishing itself. A new Scottish-Irish identity was also forged. In my view the movement which took to the streets in support of the 1980 and 1981 H Block hunger strikes was important here. In the face of police hostility and violent loyalist attacks it stood its ground and maintained itself.
Scotland was changing too. Religion in general was less important. Its identity was no longer associated with militarism, empire and Calvinism but rather a new secular Scottish identity emerged which in the face of Thatcherism and neoliberalism maintained a social democratic agenda. This would translate into the movement for independence.
The SNP from the 1990s on overcame its old Presbyterian associations and in the 2014 independence referendum a substantial majority of Catholics voted Yes. Polls found a majority of Rangers fans supported independence. The Orange Lodge declined numerically.
But that does not automatically mean anti-Irish racism will inevitably fade away. In fact immediately after the 2014 referendum we saw loyalist gangs attacking independence supporters in Glasgow’s George Square, belting out the old, sectarian songs while waving the Union flag.
More recent scenes we have witnessed speak to a deeper malaise in unionism, from Scotland to Northern Ireland. This deeper crisis is registered in the strain the Union is under, the shrivelling of the Protestant majority in Northern Ireland, and the retreat of Unionist identities in general.A wounded beast hits out, even in its death throes.
This is why the actions of Call It Out having been so crucial. In forcing a new language upon the Scottish political elite, and challenging the privileges of Orangeism (principally to march past Catholic Churches, regardless of the assault and abuse that follows in its wake) a marker for a response has been set down.
We cannot forget, as this short history has shown, the roots of this reactionary politics in the ruling elite and the state, and the necessity of united opposition to it. In the coming crucial years of the crisis of Unionism, these lessons will be vital.
 C, Bambery, A People’s History of Scotland, Verso 2014.
 K Marx, Marx to Sigfrid Meyer and August Vogt In New York, 1870
 C, Bambery, A People’s History of Scotland, Verso 2014.