From Easter to autumn, there are loyalist order and Irish Republican parades across Scotland. Stephen Ashe explores the policing of these processions, focusing on racism and sectarianism.
In 2013, I was part of a research team commissioned by the Scottish Government to carry out research into the impact of public processions.
In 2012, 34% of all processions were in Scotland organised by loyalist order organisations such as the Orange Order, the Apprentice Boys of Derry and the Royal Black Institute, while just 2% of all processions were convened by Irish Republican organisations such as Cairde na hÉireann, Commemoration Committees and Irish Republican flute bands.
Our research found a significant gap between how members of the public in Scotland perceived loyalist and Irish Republican organisations and how these organisations defined themselves. Many associated loyalist and Irish Republican organisations with anti-social behaviour, or as causing tension in the community. Loyalists and their followers were more likely to be associated with sectarianism.
In contrast, loyalist organisations defined themselves on a religious basis, suggesting that processions played an important part-role in the ‘celebration’ of their protestant identity and culture. On the other hand, Irish Republican organisations defined themselves as organisations campaigning on behalf of, and supporting, the Irish community in Scotland, particularly in terms of challenging anti-Irish racism and sectarianism.
Two key findings of the research were (1) the perception that the police failed to respond to ‘hate-speech’ and racism, and (2) the police claiming not to understand what actually constitutes sectarianism, anti-Irish racism, Islamophobia and anti-black racism.
For comparative purposes, the research team observed a whole range of processions such as a Pride Scotia procession and a Scottish Defence League (SDL) procession. While observing the SDL, those demonstrating resurrected the infamous National Front chant of the 1970s, ‘There ain’t no black in the Union Jack’. While observing the SDL, we also observed examples of cultural racism which stressed the cultural incompatibility of Muslims and Islam with ‘Scottish’ and ‘British’ culture. While observing these forms of racism, more often than not the police took no action.
In discussion with police officers it was suggested that it could be difficult for them to determine whether certain behaviours were, or were not, racist, provocative or sectarian. For example, one police officer with 30 years’ experience claimed that he didn’t ‘… have a Scooby’ [i.e. a clue].
Police officers also claimed that it was difficult to identify or immediately deal with problems such as racism and sectarianism due to the presence of large numbers of people. We also found that the police were keen to avoid overt confrontations on the day of processions, while often not having sufficient numbers to prevent violent disorder.
The research team were informed that Police Scotland had introduced specialist resources, such as Hate Crime Advisors and Evidence Gathering Teams to target these ‘difficult to capture’ offences. Yet far greater transparency is needed to ascertain what these specialist resources actually do, what they advise and how Police Scotland, local authorities and the Scottish Government use their advice and evidence. Does it feed into local authority decision-making, policy discussions and retro-active police investigations and prosecutions?
There was also a feeling amongst the team that the police had made the strategic decision to prioritise the prevention of violent disorder and paid less attention to the racism and sectarianism. Irish Republican interviewees offered examples of where they had been subject to racist verbal abuse and violence by counter-demonstrators. They also claimed this left them feeling unprotected by the police, while they themselves were over-policed. This created a perception that racism and sectarianism were ‘state tolerated’.
Miri Song has recently argued that “We live in a time when our understandings and conceptualisations of racism are often highly imprecise”. Satnam Virdee has also demonstrated that there has been a long history of anti-Irish Catholic racism in Britain. This form of non-colour coded racism defines Irish Catholics as an ‘inferior’ racialised minority by assigning them particular essentialized physical, moral and cultural traits. I have also recently argued that there is also a tendency to reduce racism to colour coded forms of hatred and intent. What the processions research suggests is that there is also a problem when it comes to the police recognising and choosing not to respond to colour coded, non-colour coded and cultural forms of racism on the days of processions.
For Brendan McGeever, there is a longstanding, well-worn trope in Scotland that ‘there is no problem here’ and an entrenched ‘unwillingness to confront legacies of anti-Irish racism and Scotland’s ‘disproportionate role in Slavery and Empire’. There is also a tendency in Scotland for the police, local authorities and the state to treat loyalism and Irish Republicanism as ‘two sides of the same coin’ which need to be treated equally. However, if racism and sectarianism in Scotland is to be challenged, breaking with this ‘culture of moral equivalence’ is essential. This means acknowledging that loyalism and Irish Republicanism have different historical-political origins which are inextricably linked to Britain’s imperial project. This means recognising Scotland’s role in Empire.
Whether Police Scotland, the local authorities and the Scottish Government are willing to seriously engage in this type of discussion, rather than attempt to ‘civilise’ marches and parades in an effort to manufacture public consent for them to take place, seems unlikely.
Disclaimer: The views presented in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the research team or those of the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE).