Twenty years on from founding Nil by Mouth Cara Henderson spoke with BBC Scotland’s Andrew Picken to reflect on why she took a stand and what she thinks has been achieved….
Twenty years ago, in the aftermath of a senseless death, the anti-sectarian charity Nil by Mouth was born. While it came from a “tragic place”, it sparked a debate about sectarianism which was not really happening at the time in Scotland. But two decades on, its founder Cara Henderson says Scotland still has a long way to go in tackling the problem. The issue is “more in the open than ever before”, says Cara, but is far from fixed.
She set up the charity after the sectarian murder of her 16-year-old school friend Mark Scott – a Celtic fan who was stabbed to death as he walked home past a Rangers pub. The anti-bigotry drive “consumed” her life, she told BBC Scotland, and it took a long time to come to terms with Mark’s death. Nil By Mouth was “far from planned” and came out of a desire for some good to come from the loss of her friend. “We just wanted to get people to talk about the issue and ask questions,” Cara says. “Back then it was talked about in a sideways manner, not directly, it was this thing that was hiding in plain sight because we were so used to looking at it. “I think people were bewildered at me. I didn’t fit into any category, an outsider, and that worked more for me. I was a girl who didn’t know much about football, with no political affiliations as such.” Cara, now aged 40, says the campaign was a “weird way” to start her adult life and she often felt exposed and as uncomfortable with the praise as with the criticism.
“After I stepped back from Nil by Mouth it took me a long time to come to terms with everything. “The trauma of what happened to Mark, I got stuck in it emotionally for a number of years, it was almost too big for me to process. But I am proud of the charity, it came out of a very tragic place but some good has come from Mark’s death.” The murder of Mark Scott and the creation of Nil By Mouth sparked a period when the issue of tackling sectarianism was high up the political agenda. In 2002, the then first minister Jack McConnell launched a new anti-bigotry drive, calling sectarianism “Scotland’s secret shame”. The following year the Scottish Parliament backed new laws which for the first time made a specific provision for the prosecution of offenders for religious prejudice. In the following years Nil By Mouth evolved from a campaigning group to running education projects in schools and workplaces. Sectarianism hit the political agenda again in 2011 when “viable parcel bombs” were sent to Celtic boss Neil Lennon and there was disorder surrounding Old Firm games. This resulted in the controversial Offensive Behaviour at Football Act which was eventually repealed after critics said it unfairly targeted football fans and failed to tackle the problem.
One way used to understand the extent of sectarianism is to consider religiously aggravated offending in Scotland. Hundreds of arrest are made each year for such offenses – a result of the charity’s work with Donald Gorrie MSP and McConnell to create the law in 2003. The focus of sectarianism disorder switched to the issue of loyalist and republican parades last year when some marches in Glasgow resulted in clashes with the police and counter-demonstrators. Cara, who now lives in Switzerland and has stepped back from formal involvement in Nil By Mouth, says there has been progress in tackling bigotry in Scotland. “It used to be a more back page story, in with the football, and over the years it has become a front page story,” she says..
“It is sad but in some uncomfortable sense that is a measure of success, the issue is talked about, acknowledged and more in the open than ever before.”
She added there was a “lot to be positive about” with a range of anti-sectarian initiatives, especially at schools, now the norm and attracting significant Scottish government support.’ But the fact Nil by Mouth still exists is a negative because it “shows the problem is still there”, Cara added. Cara describes her role and that of Nil By Mouth 20 years ago as “starting the conversation” on Scotland’s sectarianism problem but insists she was tapping into a wider feeling in society that tackling the issue was “long overdue”.