One of the episodes at the recent Labour Party conference that drew a great deal of attention in Scotland, though less so in other places, was the remark by the Chair,Andy Kerr to a delegate to the effect that making the sign of the cross would put him off allowing the delegate to speak.

A couple of corrections on the reporting: first the delegate was a man, not a woman as was widely reported and certainly he was not offended by Andy’s remarks in that he felt he was being insulted as a Catholic; he was church of England and therefore a Protestant!

And one piece of context. Andy made the remark in a situation where people try all sorts of ridiculous things to get noticed, including blessing yourself, so that they will get called to speak.

None of that excuses Andy’s remark, but I have to confess as someone brought up a Catholic, now an atheist Catholic, I have made similar remarks directed at both sides of the religious divide in my workplace in the past. Of course, workplace patter cannot be transplanted to the conference platform, but there was very little attempt at understanding by some folk, with threats of resignation and false equivalences being drawn between sectarianism and racism.

For at least half of the 20th century In Northern Ireland from whence mine and many other Scots antecedents came, and to a lesser extent in Scotland, religious oppression was a reality. Being a working-class Catholic reduced your chance of a job, a decent house and a decent education. Religious denomination came with real social and economic power, at least for some sections of the skilled Protestant working class, for others their lives were indistinguishable from poor Catholics.

In Scotland today (or Belfast for that matter), there is no such power in your religious persuasion. The shipyards and the engineering shops where religious discrimination flourished and gave the basis to systemic discrimination, have gone and so has the discrimination in housing and education. Beyond the bile of sectarian chants at football matches, anti-Catholic, or anti-Protestant sentiment has no potency.

In any case, I do not believe for a moment that Andy is sectarian. I think he made a thoughtless comment in a stressful situation and has rightfully apologised for it. Now let’s get on and win the next election together, for everyone suffering from austerity.

Vince Mills