Sectarianism is defined as: ‘Bigoted or narrow minded in following the doctrines of one’s sect’ (Oxford English Dictionary) and in Scotland has traditionally been viewed through the prism of disputes between members of the Protestant and Catholic communities.
Nil by Mouth (NBM) is a Scottish charity which seeks to challenge sectarianism wherever it manifests itself in society.
NBM was set up by Glasgow teenager Cara Henderson in response to the brutal sectarian murder of her friend Mark Scott in 1995 as he made his way home from a football match in Glasgow. Mark was killed simply because his attacker viewed the colour of his scarf as symbolising a different religion and culture from his own. Rather than seek revenget, Cara sought change. She began campaigning in the media; telling her story at community events and lobbying politicians and policy makers. She launched a ‘Charter for Change’ which outlined our vision for challenging sectarian attitudes in Scotland. This was a bold step and it is important to note that after decades of religious intolerance in Scotland the first person to really stand up and do something about it was a teenage girl. Cara won a Philip Lawrence Award for her work in empowering young people. She remains the charity’s Honorary Patron.
Former First Minister Lord Jack McConnell once described sectarianism as Scotland’s ‘Secret Shame’ and the arrival of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 presented an opportunity, indeed a challenge, for a society which had collectively shied away from this deep seated and complex problem. Like any bout of individual or collective introspection this has not always been an easy process. Grudges are passed down from one generation to the next, often with limited understanding of why they ever existed in the first place, each passing year adding new pages to an already depressing chapter of Scottish history.
In recent years sectarianism has once again become a topical issue, following the conviction of two men for sending suspected parcel bombs to three prominent public figures and a number of incidents in and around Scottish football. In response the Scottish Parliament passed the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act which sought to address the issue in and around football matches and on the internet.
However, laws alone can never solve the problem. The real battleground is the hearts and minds of people. Thankfully, we are seeing change in the national mindset: a 2011 survey, carried out by TNS-BMRB, showed that 91% of Scots recognised the negative impacts of sectarianism and wanted to see action to address it.
Nil by Mouth seek to work with people to break the depressing cycle of bigotry which has plagued Scotland for too long.
They are currently funded by the Scottish Government to deliver workshops and their ‘Champions for Change’ accreditation scheme in schools. This scheme recognises and develops best practice and encourages regular contact between young people from different religious and cultural traditions. They recognise that change cannot be limited to the classrooms and they involve teachers, parents and local communities in order to embed values of respect within school and wider society.
They also deliver similar sessions in colleges, prisons, young offender institutions, community education projects, workplaces, midnight leagues and youth groups across Scotland. These are supported by the charity’s own fundraising efforts and there is no charge to their partners for any of their services.
NBM seek to use these sessions as opportunities to break down many of the mental barriers which have divided communities and families for too long. Their workshops begin by asking participants to define what sectarianism means to them in 21st century Scotland. Some of the most regular themes include football, religion, schooling, marches, history and cultural intolerance. They then explore these themes through interactive activities, group work and personal reflection. While there are often strong views and frank debate, NBM stress the importance of participants asking as many questions of their own actions & beliefs as they do others.
NBM continue to deliver their pioneering ‘Beyond Religion and Belief’ workplace package which seeks to provide employers with training, advice and a framework for tackling intolerance in the workplace. They also offer ‘train the trainers’ sessions providing advice and support to nominated staff who in turn will go back to their organisations and create their own approaches to tackling sectarianism.
Additionally, NBM actively campaign in the media, engage with academics and researchers and last year published a nationwide ‘Action Plan’ to tackle sectarianism. They regularly appear in the media to provide informed comment and analysis of incidents, policy decisions and to promote their own campaigns. Nil by Mouth engage with politicians and NGOs to build alliances in order to defeat religious bigotry once and for all.
You can find out more about, and donate to, Nil by Mouth on their website.
Image by Debra Torrance
Written by Victoria Pearson