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So, your house is burning down.

It’s a nice house in a nice area, but it’s in trouble, along with you and your family.

The smoke alarms did their job, and you were thankful for all those burnt toast moments where you waved a dishtowel underneath the appliances, trying to get them to shut up. You got everyone out, and they’re standing outside the house in the night, shivering in their pyjamas and dressing gowns and slippers. One of the kids is clutching a stuffed toy; they’re all crying, and so is your partner. The house is burning down. Not just smouldering, not just smoky, but with real flames. It might even be roaring at you by now, this fire. A big hungry beast. Too big for you to fight on your own. All your memories, everything you own, being consumed.

But you’re not daft. You’ve done the sensible thing, dialled 999. Lights are on in windows in your street, curtains are twitching. But some of your neighbours come out to help, because people are like that. Blankets and things for the kids, cups of tea, reassurance. Is there anything we can do? they ask. Thank God you’re alright, they say.

The fire brigade shows up. Your house is still burning. The lights wash over the engine and the blue light makes such a jarring contrast to the red engine, a sight that would have put your little boy in a state of high excitement any other time.

The lead officer approaches you to make contact before the firefighters can enter the house to put out the fire. There are a few of them, preparing their equipment, attaching a hose, their breathing apparatus ready.

And you stop them. You say you can’t let them all in, to save your house.

Why? You’ll tell them why. Because you don’t let Catholics into your house. And it could be that one of these firefighters, prepared to go into your burning home and risk their own health and safety to save it from destruction, is a Catholic.

Behind the mask, a monobrow could be lurking. There might be potato digging genes swimming around in there. In putting their best foot forward, it could be the left foot.

Okay, I’ll snap my fingers now, and you can go back to actually being you.

That all sounds far-fetched, I guess – it has the tone of an urban legend, or a pub joke in need of a punchline. But according to a recent STUC report, it actually happened in 21st century Scotland. And the house concerned was indeed in an upmarket part of the country, not somewhere deprived where many would suspect that such prejudices are more likely to flourish.

There’s a part of me that simply refuses to believe it. It’s almost too much, like the story of how there are catering staff at Ibrox stadium whose job it is to remove the green-and-white plastic straws from the dispensers, lest some of the patrons should be offended by anything of an even remotely Celticy persuasion polluting their fizzy drinks.

Surely the incident or the comment has been misinterpreted, I think; or it’s been exaggerated out of malice on the part of the teller. The guy must have been out of his mind. He made a joke, or something silly just slipped out of his mind in the middle of an extremely stressful incident. An aside, a jest, a bon mot. A non sequitur.

“I hope there’s no Celtic fans in there, mate! Heh heh!”

But, no. He was straight up. The fire leader was himself a Protestant. It’s all true. Even in the face of this personal apocalypse, the homeowner wouldn’t allow Roman Catholics into his house to render him a service.

The fate of the man’s house and its contents is unknown; but what I’m most curious to find out is: how much further would it have gone?

“The girl’s going into cardiac arrest! O’Flaherty – administer CPR, immediately!”

“Over my dead body, he will.”


“Okay, the papes are back in the fire engine, sir, and we’ve managed to control the blaze.”

“Excellent work, Patel.”

The homeowner splutters: “Patel? You didn’t mention anything about a Patel! I don’t allow Asians either. Get his arse out of there; wait two more minutes, I’ll compile a list.”

This tale, which emerged in the report conducted by the University of Strathclyde for the STUC, concluded that sectarian incidents should be monitored at work, with particular reference to making a clear distinction between harmless banter and prejudiced comments. It’s not particularly well-known outside Scotland that prejudice against catholics is rife in some parts of the country – institutionalised might be a better term, irrespective of social class or material wealth or education – and the STUC’s report has highlighted this. If forsaking your home in favour of an utterly irrational conviction isn’t symptomatic of a big problem, I don’t know what is. This was no one-off nut.

Recommendations such as the one above will run into inevitable opposition from people who might brand it “political correctness gone mad” to monitor what they would term “jokes”. But just as humour can be used as a deadly weapon against society’s oppressors, any bullying victim can tell you that it’s equally effective against those in the minority, too.

Sometimes, political correctness does indeed, to use a haggard phrase, go mad. But it’s there for a reason;it’s a safeguard. It sends a message that you’re not well within your rights to poke fun at Catholics, black people, Muslims, homosexuals, travellers, fat people, thin people, people who happen to have been born in other countries or, in fact, anyone who doesn’t fit into the tiny little ethnic, religious or cultural box you’ve squeezed yourself into.

It’s easy to tackle prejudice, and to help create a better world. You start with yourself. And you use your imagination. You just have to think yourself into other people’s shoes.

Melted shoes, perhaps, or maybe singed fluffy bunny slippers.

“Everyone is a prisoner of his own experiences. No-one can eliminate prejudices – just recognise them.” – Edward R. Murrow.


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