Bigotry lives on in Scotland

Observations on religious schools

If a Labour politician, in the old days of South African apartheid, had condemned its system of "separate development" while declaring himself determined to keep separate schools for black and white children here, he would have been condemned as a racist and a fool. But that is exactly the position of the Scottish Labour Party on educational apartheid based on religious creed.

A few days ago, Jack McConnell, the Scottish First Minister, hosted an anti- sectarian summit at Glasgow University. It involved Cardinal Keith O'Brien, head of the Catholic Church in Scotland, and Ian Wilson, grand master of Scotland's Orange Order, as well as representatives of football clubs. McConnell boasted that they had reached a "historic consensus" on tackling "Scotland's secret shame".

But the Scottish Executive shows no sign of confronting the issue of separate education. The closest it has come is an experiment with segregated schools on joint campuses; these have dedicated entrances for Catholic and non-Catholic pupils, and separate staff rooms, too.

Does sectarianism still matter in Scotland? After all, it is a very different country from the one in which the established church once published a document entitled The Menace of the Irish Race to our Scottish National Identity, and members of Protestant Action demanded forcible deportation. These days, Glasgow Rangers, the traditional Protestant football team, field more Catholic players than Glasgow Celtic, and neither club would compromise performance by selecting players on religious grounds.

Yet bigotry survives in the poverty-stricken areas of Glasgow, Lanarkshire and Ayrshire, where casualty wards regularly treat victims of drunken fight-ing between young Protestants and Catholics. This exists in almost precise parallel with separate schools.

The shameful truth, however, is that the Scottish Labour Party dare not abolish educational apartheid. In the west-coast strongholds that provide McConnell's power base, those who promote the idea are condemned as heretics. While that remains true, anti-sectarianism strategies will be meaningless.