THE Borders MSP at the centre of the storm over comments he made during a debate in the Scottish Parliament on new anti-sectarianism laws, claims he has received more than 500 emails with the majority in support of his remarks.
The Conservative justice spokesman and member for Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire, John Lamont, has come under fire from political and religious leaders over his claims that Scotland’s education system encouraged sectarianism.
Catholic Church leaders said Mr Lamont’s remarks were “inflammatory and insensitive” after he alleged segregated schools amounted to state-sponsored conditioning of sectarian attitudes.
First Minister Alex Salmond called on Mr Lamont to withdraw the comments or quit as his party’s justice spokesman.
Mr Salmond had wanted the new bill on the statute books before the start of the new football season. However, that plan is in tatters after he conceded that opposition parties should have more time to contribute their views.
During the debate, Mr Lamont told fellow MSPs he was concerned over what he alleged was a lack of consultation for the bill and the uncertainty of some offences it could create.
It was his allegation that sectarianism in parts of west central Scotland was much bigger and wider than just football matches that provoked the row.
He said: “The reality is that the young men who are at these football matches and are acting in the way that they are is as a result of conditioning which started from a very early age.
“I would argue that certain parts of society – admittedly small – in west Scotland have promoted this culture, including through our education system.
“This segregation of our young people has brought them up to believe that the two communities are to be kept separate.”
Mr Lamont said he had personal experience of the issue, having been brought up and educated in west central Scotland. He could recall the animosity between pupils of protestant and catholic schools, particularly around the time of Old Firm football matches.
“Clearly these attitudes are being entrenched at home and in the wider community. It is little wonder that parts of our society continue to segregate themselves in later life when that is what they are taught through the school system.
“Of course, I am not saying that all faith-based schools should be scrapped, but, in certain parts of west central Scotland, we need to acknowledge that this system is simply promoting the attitudes we are trying to control.”
There was an almost immediate and vociferous backlash. Catholic Church spokesman Peter Kearney said the remarks were inflammatory and insensitive and the Catholic Church rejected and repudiated them entirely.
“As a matter of urgency, the Conservative Party should issue a reassurance to Scotland’s Catholics that Catholic schools enjoy the support of the Conservative Party,” he said.
Mr Lamont’s Tory colleagues at Holyrood have said the Borders MSP’s views were personal, despite calls for him to stand down from the justice post.
Mr Lamont claimed to TheSouthern this week that his views had been misrepresented by some sections of the media. “It is obviously right the Scottish Parliament is looking at how to address this problem, but I think my views are basically the elephant in the room when it comes to this issue.
“This problem stretches beyond the confines of football grounds. I was speaking from personal experience and have now had around 500 emails, of which I would say 81 per cent are in favour of what I said.”
Deputy Tory leader Murdo Fraser has insisted Mr Lamont’s remarks were made in a personal capacity and did not reflect party policy.
The director of education and lifelong learning at Scottish Borders Council, Glenn Rodger, said historically there had been four Catholic schools in the Borders which have been fully supported by the council.
Mr Rodger told us: “The council seeks to ensure that all pupils in the Borders receive excellent education whether they be in non-denominational or RC schools.
“The fact that our young people go on to non-denominational secondary schools means that they learn together, form relationships regardless of religious background and are part of their local community as well as their parish.”