THE moral high ground is not the best spot to gain perspective. It is one of the reasons Dave Scott keeps his feet firmly on the ground. In Sauchiehall Street, to be precise. “Once I had to stop 400 people there to ask about sectarianism. You can imagine, a guy with a Belfast accent, in the middle of Glasgow … Some of the answers were salty.”

Another was revealing. “A police officer when asked what sectarianism meant to her said: ‘Overtime’.’’

This inevitable connection between sectarianism and violence is a perception shared by many. It has its truth. Scott is campaign director for Nil by Mouth, an organisation set up in the aftermath of the murder of Mark Scott, a Celtic fan who was stabbed on his way home from a match in 1995.

It was thus born in death but stays alive, remains relevant, in a country that is in turn obsessed, bemused, concerned and confounded by what has been called Scotland’s shame.

Scott, who came to Scotland from his native Northern Ireland to study at Stirling University, is refreshingly clear about what he believes is the problem, its causes and its cure.

“I do not think sectarianism is one of the top 10 problems for Scottish society,” he says. “There are a lot of things more important … poverty, unemployment …where do you begin? There are kids going to bed without food in this country.”

This statement is not made to undermine the problem or even his job but to emphasise that he believes one of the issues facing the fight against sectarianism is perception. “It has been magnified, particularly by social media,” says Scott. It is also loudly promulgated at football matches.

“Passion, pantomime, poison … perspective,” says Scott as he views the vista of sectarianism.

He does not shy away – in an era of the dismantling of the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act (OBFA) – of aiming criticism at clubs. “I am a big fan of Scottish football but it does not have to hold itself to standards of other parts of the country. I don’t think that is right. I think there is a belief that they are above the law. Football has run away from the problem for generations and we have let them run away from it.” He accepts the OBFA was “flawed” but that strict liability may be the way forward.

He is aware, though, that the problem exists far from the football ground. “There is still an issue outside football,” he says. “We have worked with more than 120 employers to address the issue. That passive aggressive question is still asked: ‘What school did you go to?’”

He points out that one major employer put those who went to the same school – Roman Catholic or non-denominational – in the same working teams. The explanation? “They told me they found people ‘worked better with their own’.”

Scott, brought up in Lisburn at the height of the Troubles, has lost friends and members of his family to sectarianism.

He still finds the problems in modern

Scotland disturbing. “There is a Scotland where sectarianism doesn’t get into the day-to-day lives of people. But there is a Scotland where it does.”

He is criticised by both sectors. “Those who do not see it as a problem decry us as middle-class people with too much time on our hands,” he says. Those embroiled in sectarianism – as observers, victims and perhaps participants – also find cause to find fault with the organisation.

Scott, chirpy and positive, is not discouraged. He believes strides have been made. “Yes, absolutely, hugely and significantly and all for the better,” he says when asked about how the situation has changed in Scotland.

He asserts that the Nil by Mouth mantra is to seek to challenge not change a person or, more precisely, his or her perceptions. Sectarianism in Scotland is an expression of identity, he believes.

The organisation goes into schools, prisons and workplaces to spread its message. Scott believes at its core is the invitation for people to look at themselves in the mirror. “The question asked of people is: ‘Is this who you really are?’’’

He adds: “People think that solving sectarianism is about other people giving up something. It is about identity, though. It is sometimes about how you choose to assert that identity.”

He is fascinated by the political processes that have held Scotland in thrall in recent years, particularly the referenda on independence and Brexit. “The jigsaw has been thrown up into the air and we will not really know how the pieces land for six or seven years,” he says.

This turbulence has been accompanied by racist, homophobic and sectarian language from elected officials. Nil by Mouth has been drawn into these controversies but Scott is comfortable with his role and that of the organisation in these scandals.

“As I see it, we have three options when someone says something unacceptable, whether they be a private individual or an elected official. We can say nothing, a straight no comment. We can condemn it. Or we can offer to speak to the individual,” he says.

Nil by Mouth and Scott always choose the third option.

“A lot of the problem with sectarianism in Scotland is the gap between perception and reality,” he says. “We have to close that and I believe we are doing that.”

It is not about silence. “We need to stop merely talking about the problem and begin to discuss how we deal with it. That process has started,” he says.

The answer, of course, ultimately lies in the individual. “We suggest that it may be about finding a more positive way of expressing who you are,” he says, addressing the “powerful emotions of identity”.

He adds, though: “It is about working with people, not imposing solutions on them. You have to have a degree of flexibility. We are not an organisation that wants to stifle free speech.”

There is more than enough poison and passion articulated incontinently. Scott’s search for perspective must go beyond words. “Change can be made. It has been made,” he says.


Four of the best

Favourite book: Dark Trade: Lost in Boxing by Donald McRae. Honourable mention to Daniel Gray who writes love letters to football.

Inspiration: My parents. They grew up in a deeply sectarian country and that impacted on their life but they never let it through their front door. Gordon Wilson, greatest Irishman of my generation, who forgave the killers of his daughter in the Enniskillen bombing in 1987.

Music: I enjoy the Rolling Stones and Nat King Cole.

Favourite place: My mum and dad’s house. There is a little bit of you that never leaves home.