Sectarianism in Scotland

On 17 June Glasgow City Council set the ground for an attack on political freedom of speech outside Glasgow’s four main football stadiums. Under new street traders’ licensing conditions the sale of items containing any ‘design, insignia or words which have a political, racial, religious or sectarian content’ will be banned. The catch-all ban was concealed in an apparent clampdown on sectarianism. In reality, as subsequent actions of the City Council show, it is an attack on all forms of progressive politics.

There exists in Scotland a significant antipathy towards Catholicism. This is linked to a deep-rooted intolerance of Irish culture. The division is mirrored in Scottish football, where supporters of the two dominant teams, Celtic and Rangers (the Old Firm), are divided politically and religiously. Celtic was originally set up by Marist priests as a charity in order to raise money for the poverty-stricken Irish community in the East End of Glasgow. As a result it has always claimed the allegiance of descendants of this community and Scottish Catholics in general. At the other end of the city, Rangers was until the early 1990s an exclusively Protestant club, which refused to employ Catholics on or off the pitch. Irish politics are expressed in these divisions with Celtic fans supporting the Republican movement, and Rangers’ identifying with Ulster Loyalism. Both sets of fans have been involved in violent clashes for most of their history so that some lazy commentators have suggested that sectarianism is merely a by-product of Glasgow’s football culture. Such crass analysis is designed to let the real culprits off the hook. Sectarianism in Scotland has always been a top-down phenomenon. With church leaders, the legal profession and senior police officers all getting in on the act, ‘Scotland’s secret shame’ was a subject no one dared to touch.

In the mid 1990s, this all changed when the Chief Executive of Glasgow Celtic Football Club, Fergus McCann, launched the ‘Bhoys Against Bigotry’ campaign. Celtic supporters accused the club of attacking their Irish political roots and handing the media a new stick with which to beat them and the Irish community in general. But Celtic had done wonders for their image as far as their shareholders were concerned, and in doing so had set a new precedent. More were sure to follow in this dishonest trend, and Cara Henderson certainly did.

After her friend Mark Scott was murdered in a brutal sectarian attack, the privately educated young woman from an affluent suburb of Glasgow got herself a degree at Oxford University before returning and setting up anti-sectarian group Nil by Mouth. The campaign, described as ‘naïve’ by the more genuine, grassroots Campaign Against Sectarian Attacks, was fronted by Cara herself. Praised for her bravery in tackling the issue, Cara and friends were awarded huge grants from the Lottery, both Old Firm clubs and both churches. The campaign, however, was nothing more than a soundbite provider for the Scottish media. Within a few years Cara gave it all up to go backpacking around the world.

Glasgow council’s ban gives powers to Strathclyde Police to decide what is and what is not ‘political, racial, religious or sectarian’. The council has offered no indication as to what guidance, if any, they will give to the police. Of the 12 councillors on the licensing committee, only two have responded to e-mails and letters expressing concern, and clarification was not on their agenda. In one of the new ‘exclusion zones’ outside Celtic Park, there can be bought flags and scarves proclaiming support for Irish Republicanism. From scarves bearing the name of James Connolly to tributes to the ‘H Block martyrs’ (the ten Republicans who died on hunger strike in 1981) there are many items on sale which could be deemed ‘political’. It is almost certain that such items will be included in the ban. It is not so clear if scarves calling on Scotland to ‘rise up and be a nation again’ will be banned from Hampden, the national stadium, or slogans of British imperialism such as ‘Rule Britannia’ from Ibrox. Outside Ibrox and Hampden, retail giant Asda has large supermarkets: will the music of artists like John Lennon or The Clash be banned, or magazines such as The Economist and Private Eye be taken off the shelves due to their ‘political content’?

The whole issue is farcically unclear, and cannot possibly be handled fairly. The second largest political party in Scotland is the Scottish National Party. The SNP has been known to leaflet Hampden in the past, as has the Scottish Socialist Party. Palestinian solidarity groups have been active around Celtic Park where they raise money for medical aid to Palestine by selling green and white kaffiehs to largely sympathetic supporters. There is a political fanzine Tíocfaídh Ár lá, written by Celtic supporters, which ‘endorses the political strategy of Sinn Fein’. FRFI is also sold outside football grounds. With the convenor of Glasgow City Council’s licensing committee stating that unlicensed traders will also be targeted, such legitimate political activity is under serious threat. More serious is the threat that all Glasgow could soon be covered under the new conditions.

What gives the lie to the City Council’s concern about sectarianism was its award of a civic reception to the Orange Order on 23 July. Sectarian bigots from all over the world were in Glasgow for the Orange Council of the World Triennial meeting which took place on 25 July. Members of the Scottish Irish community called a picket to highlight the council’s hypocrisy. FRFI alone of the Scottish left attended. Protesters held up placards stating ‘Not in my name’ and ‘Glasgow’s money for Glasgow’s poor’. Glasgow contains 78% of Scotland’s most deprived areas with 42% of the city’s population living in an area of deprivation. A Glasgow male has a life expectancy of five years less than his Edinburgh counterpart. In a recent league table showing the UK’s ten poorest parliamentary constituencies, the first three and the seventh are in Glasgow. Of the 20 most deprived council wards in Scotland, 16 are in the city. This did not prevent the Labour council from splashing out to reward an international band of bigots and showing that sectarianism is alive and well in the Scottish Labour Party.

Mark Suibhne

FRFI 174 August / September 2003


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