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Is there a big game today?

I gather there must be, owing to the news coverage of late.

For anyone else out there in the big wide world – many of you celebrating Easter Sunday – I’m referring to a football match taking place in a tiny corner of the planet known as Glasgow. It’s a derby, featuring two local sides, Celtic and Rangers. Together, they are known as the Old Firm.

Note how I ordered the teams alphabetically there; if this humble blog was read by a lot of people, someone will have taken note of that. It’s not quite right seeing as Rangers are at home, you see; they should be named first. I must have an agenda.

Well, I do; I’m a Celtic fan. Naturally I hope the Celts win this afternoon and take a big step towards the Scottish Premier League title. But in the past week you’d have forgiven a lot of fans of the so-called Old Firm for forgetting there’s an actual game on at all.

As lots of people across Britain, Europe and the wider world now know, the Celtic manager Neil Lennon had viable explosive devices posted to him in the past month. No-one knows for sure why this happened, but there can be little doubt that it was because he happens to be from Northern Ireland, is a Roman catholic, and is the manager of Celtic, which traditionally draws its support from the catholic population of Glasgow and further afield.

Well, they’re seen as the catholic side, but Celtic have always been open to all. Many of Celtic’s greatest figures weren’t catholics, from day one. One reason Celtic FC was set up, outside of charitable aims, was to provide a bond between the immigrant Irish population and the indigenous Scots.

The clue is in the title.

By contrast, Rangers had a sectarian employment policy until 1989 – yes, you read that right – meaning catholics couldn’t be employed there. Even to cut the grass.

A lot of Rangers fans sing songs about killing catholics, about how catholics and the Irish are not welcome in Scotland, and indeed that they should go home. The Famine Song, No Pope of Rome, The Billy Boys… songs of hate. And, strictly speaking, illegal.

Lennon wasn’t the only public figure to get a surprise in the post. Trish Godman, a Labour MSP, was sent a similar package for wearing a Celtic strip – for charity – in her last day at the Scottish Parliament, where she is also the Deputy Presiding Officer. Paul McBride, a QC, who has been outspoken in defence of Celtic and has represented Neil Lennon at disciplinary hearings with the SFA, also got a bombergram.

And, I hate to labour the point, but Neil Lennon has been assaulted twice – once to the endangerment of his life, for the crime of walking Glasgow’s streets alone. He has also had bullets posted to him. He’s been threatened with death ever since he became involved with Celtic as a player, a decade ago.

Rangers players and managers don’t get beaten up, mailed bullets and bombs or threatened with death. Celtic fans do not sing songs about killing protestants. We sing about ourselves, celebrate ourselves.

In the past week, a colleague of mine from London asked me why Neil Lennon was being targeted. I assumed he was joking; but people genuinely didn’t understand why this was happening. He’s not a naive guy, it struck me; just civilised.

The condemnation for the acts of terrorism has been widespread but this incident has drawn attention to a not widely-known fact; that there resides in Scotland a lingering anti-Irish, anti-Catholic sentiment. It’s not quite as bad as it was in the time of my father and grandfather – “No Irish need apply” etc – but the residue is still there.

Outside of the many Orange marches which blight Scotland, this feeling is manifest most obviously around Rangers FC and Ibrox stadium, where today’s league match will take place.

The media in Scotland don’t help. It’s not difficult to see why. One million catholics, roughly four million protestants…. do the sales figures, as our American friends might say.

And we’ve all got our favourite tabloid stories from the Daily Record and elsewhere. But most curious to me is the blatant line taken by The Scotsman newspaper. Its bizarre agenda against Celtic seemed to start from the time when former Celtic goalkeeper, Artur Boruc, who is Polish, received a police caution for blessing himself at Ibrox, on the grounds that this could be seen as inflammatory. Boruc’s religious observance – which he carries out prior to every match, regardless of the opposition – merited front-page condemnation on The Scotsman the very next day.

That’s right – blessing yourself in public is now a recorded criminal activity, right here in Bonnie Scotland, folks.

They castigated Boruc for this. But they’re not alone; I could point you towards one senior sportswriter who opined that Neil Lennon makes them feel “physically sick”, who is looking forward to “champagne” should Rangers win the title. There are other would-be intellectuals who argue that Celtic fans’ tongue-in-cheek terminology for Rangers fans – “huns” – stems from “Hanoverian”, relating to the English crown, meaning that it’s sectarian too.

And not, you know, anything to do with barbarian vandals, which of course Rangers fans have never been.

But now that the Prime Minister David Cameron, UEFA president Michel Platini and others have gotten wind of what is happening in this nasty little nook, the Scottish media are having to face up to facts long ignored. People are nosing around in their clubhouse, at long last.


Anyway. Regarding bombgate, you’ll get people arguing the toss. That it’s not representative of Rangers fans as a whole, that it’s just one nutter, that the problem has its roots in the Troubles in Ireland and terrorist campaigns in Britain. Nothing to do with honest, hard-working, loyal, protestant Scotland.

But I would say that recent events have placed the spotlight firmly on anti-Catholic sectarianism, ill feeling which has persisted since the Reformation and has been distorted by problems in Ireland and two football teams. Lots of Celtic fans have been murdered over the years, too. That’s not something you’ll read too much about at tourist information centres.

We don’t have time here to go into Rangers’ problems; just Google “Manchester riots”, “sectarian singing”, “UEFA”, “administration”, “HMRC probe”, “Whyte fakeover” or any number of other unsavoury incidents they’ve been involved in at home and abroad.

And – forgive me for indulging in that favourite tactic of Rangers fans, ‘whataboutery’- I know that some Celtic fans are no angels. Few large groups of football fans are havens of good behaviour and polite discourse. Pro-IRA songs have been sung in the past at Celtic Park.

But, as Roy Greenslade and Graeme Speirs have been courageous enough to acknowledge in the national press, although there are two halves of the Old Firm, one is far worse than the other.

But this isn’t a cheap points-scoring exercise. It is aimed at Rangers fans – the decent and indecent alike. To those of you at the game, or watching it in the pubs: I want you all to stand up, look the Celtic fans – your enemy – in the eye, and make a brave, bold statement.

I want you to say: “This is not being done in my name. I am a human being and I do not hate catholics. I do not hate anyone. I do not wish to see Neil Lennon harmed. For god’s sake, it’s only a game. It doesn’t really matter that much.”

Do that, and we will take a step towards some sort of enlightenment in the west and central areas of Scotland (though sectarianism is by no means confined to these parts). We will stop focusing the energies of the working population on this gigantic distraction and begin to tackle Scotland’s traditional and interconnected problems of unemployment, deprivation, violence, alcohol and drug addiction. For goodness’ sake, there is an election coming up in a few weeks.

Our mothers were right. It is only a game. But at Ibrox today, the blue half has got to get its act together. Things feel like they are reaching some kind of critical mass.

The hatred and bitterness has got to go.

It’s time to change.


One Comment

  1. Thank you for this highly accurate article, Pat. It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. And you’re correct: the sectarianism isn’t confined to Glasgow or even the West of Scotland; it is spread like cancer throughout the Lowlands and is rife here in the East, where I was brought up and still live.

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