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Demonising Celtic and Rangers fans

As the reaction to the recent Old Firm game shows, bashing fans is easier for politicians than solving Scotland’s real problems.

Kevin Rooney

Topics Politics

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Last Wednesday, in a dramatic, tense, fractious and exciting encounter, my team Celtic beat Rangers 1-0 at Parkhead to knock our arch rivals out of the Scottish Cup. Two Rangers players were sent off for dangerous tackles, and a third – El-Hadji Diouf – was red carded after the final whistle for arguing with the referee. There were a string of yellow cards for various clumsy challenges and, at the end of the game, Celtic manager Neil Lennon and Rangers assistant manager Ally McCoist got involved in an unedifying shouting match that lasted all of 10 seconds. After the match, Lennon and McCoist let it be known that they had made up and stated as far as they were concerned the matter was resolved.

So far, so normal. No one died. No one was even injured. In fact, by Old Firm standards, it was a pretty unexceptional night. If you were a Celtic fan, you would probably have described the game as dramatic and exhilarating. If you were a Rangers fan, the language may have been a little more colourful.

What has been exceptional, however, is the reaction off the football field. Not since the release of Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi in August 2009 has Scottish politics been headline news throughout the UK. Within hours of the game, Strathclyde police chief constable Stephen House was on the radio to demand that Scottish first minister Alex Salmond convene a Summit – the kind of event more commonly associated with sorting out military interventions or international economic crises. House argued that the events at the game were the culmination of a steady rise in violent incidents, revealing that there were 220 arrests at the previous Old Firm game and that arrested fans had to be bussed outside Glasgow because police cells were overflowing.

Annabel Goldie, the leader of the Conservatives in the Scottish Parliament, raised the temperature still further by revealing that police had informed her that every time Celtic play Rangers there is almost a doubling in domestic-violence incidents. The moderator of the Church of Scotland, John Christie, warned that some Celtic and Rangers players and staff were ‘besmirching the game and the name of Scotland’. The Labour politician and former first minister, Henry McLeish, demanded that Celtic and Rangers should atone for their sins by funding the anti-sectarian group, Nil By Mouth.

There is something quite bizarre about the spectacle of agitated police chief constables and MSPs who we have barely heard of using the Old Firm as whipping boys. Yet far from telling these people to butt out of football, the chief executives of Rangers and Celtic turned up to the summit like children forced to sit on the naughty step while Supernanny handed down the new rules to improve their behaviour. In an irony apparently lost on everyone, the warring teams managed to arrange their own pre-summit meeting in Hampden the day before and even came up with an agreed set of proposals.

There are some important points to be made in relation to the whole furore. First and foremost is that violence on the streets of Glasgow and domestic violence in the homes of the city are not, as the police claim, ’caused’ by football. It is true that there is a spike in levels of domestic violence and other crimes after Old Firm games, but there is also a spike at Christmas, bank holidays, or Hogmanay – that is, whenever people drink to excess. Any first-year social science student would tell you that we need to distinguish between correlation and causation. There may be a correlation between Old Firm games and drunken behaviour, but there is not a causal link.

Secondly, as I have pointed out on spiked before, the political class’s obsession with sectarianism today is in inverse proportion to the reality. There was a time, 30 or 40 years ago, when the ideology of sectarianism cut through many facets of Scottish society, particularly in western Scotland. Sectarian divisions and anti-Catholic discrimination were widespread in Glasgow, though to a lesser degree than in Northern Ireland. Today, that is no longer the case. Discrimination on the basis of religion is history; Catholics and Protestants live side-by-side, work together, and are often married to each other.

Of course, any remaining trappings of that tradition of sectarianism are more likely to be on display at Old Firm games than anywhere else in Scottish society, but they generally last for the 90 minutes of the game and probably now bear more resemblance to the more unsavoury side of other famous football rivalries, like that between east London neighbours Millwall and West Ham.

I believe that the hysteria over this game is not about football at all but about politics. Social deprivation and violence in Glasgow are problems, but we can never tackle these problems if we keep blaming them on a game of football. That kind of posturing may make political leaders look and feel good for a while, but it will not make a jot of difference to the endemic poverty, low aspirations and poor life expectancy rampant in parts of Glasgow. In fact, I would hazard a guess that the love of a football team may be one of the few positives in the lives of many young people in Scotland.

Another key thing seems to be a confusion between the respective roles of the football and political establishments in Scotland. In the past, you might have expected that it the role of politicians was to provide some sort of leadership and direction to society while football clubs provided entertainment. Now, in a strange reversal, it is footballers and their managers who, as role models, are supposed to provide a vision of civic purpose, while vision-free politicians simply cheer them on or criticise their failures.

Recent events have highlighted the steady increase in the policing of behaviour by the football authorities themselves. Celtic and Rangers fans have been banned from singing certain songs, banned from chanting certain slogans and banned from drinking on the way to and from games. Last year, Celtic promised to ‘hunt down’ and ban for life a group of anti-war fans who staged a peaceful protest against an imposed minute’s silence to mark Remembrance Day. This censorious approach has now spread to every aspect of the behaviour of players on the pitch and the mangers on the touchline. For instance, after last week’s game more than 200 Rangers fans contacted the police to complain about Neil Lennon using a racist word in an exchange with the black Rangers player, Diouf. The police interviewed Lennon who emphatically denied any racist language and Diouf backed him up. This episode shows how the atmosphere of football is being poisoned by a growing tendency to search out offensive behaviour.

One of the main outcomes of the emergency summit was a proposal that leading police officers come into the Celtic and Rangers dressing room and remind players of their duty and conduct on the pitch. Other proposals under consideration are that we are no longer allowed to watch an Old Firm game at the weekend so that we don’t spend too long in the pubs beforehand and that all pubs near the ground be closed immediately before, during and after the game. Such proposals are a serious restriction on the freedom of football fans. Yet, so demonised have Old Firm fans become that such proposals have raised barely a murmur of dissent.

As far as I’m concerned, the main responsibility of football teams is to provide quality entertainment and win games for their adoring fans. While I would be the first to admit that Scottish football has not lived up to that responsibility nearly enough in recent years, I for one thought this game was a nail-bitingly exciting game of football – with, of course, the right result!

Kevin Rooney teaches government and politics at a London school.

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Topics Politics

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