The Neverending Story of Old Firm bigotry
Royal 1 Radio’s Jamie Borthwick reports on an age-old topic from north of the border…
The reassurance of life comes from its cyclical nature. Just as you despair that a newer, rubbish episode of The Simpsons comes on telly, a cracker from the heydays will come on afterwards. And just as you’re beginning to wonder where on earth Radiohead are going with this new track, it bursts into a beautiful explosion of Greenwood depth and Yorke sonority.
Then, just as every Old Firm match goes by, a debate about sectarianism in Scotland will arise.
This particular chapter in the Neverending Story of the country’s tempestuous public relationship with archaic religious ceremony manifesting itself in sporting contests, was sparked after Sunday’s league cup final between the two main protagonists and perpetuators of a feud which should have been done and dusted some 400-years-ago.
As with most Old Firm contests, the box office appealing ‘atmosphere’ came mostly from songs of religious and ethnic intolerance. On this occasion, the Rangers fans watching their team deservedly scoop the first silverware of the season, were heard to be the loudest in the hate stakes.
The national audience was treated to lengthy doses of ‘No Pope of Rome’, the inflammatory and racist ‘Famine Song’ and were told repeatedly how far up one’s leg this ‘Fenian blood’ could reach.
On top of this was plenty of supplementary ‘Fuck the Pope’ shouts and a stout defence of Derry’s Walls from the surely long-past threat of King James II.
The episode in Glasgow’s southside appeared to show up how far each team has to go to get their house in order, with the Ibrox side’s support looking ludicrously far behind in eradicating bigotry – Depeche Mode’s 1981 debut single ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’ has become the unexpectedly belated terrace hit around Parkhead this year.
But the wall of hate coming from the blue and white end of Hampden only served to point to the absence of a riposte from their hooped neighbours. As the spectre of Celtic’s pro-IRA, anti-British, ‘Fuck the Queen’ styled chanting loomed silently in the background at Hampden Park, the trail of regrettable incidents in Glasgow’s east end of late cannot be forgotten.
The ‘blood stained poppies’ banner nonsense from a section of Celtic Park declaring themselves the Green Brigade, the pro-Irish Republican singing outside Falkirk Stadium around the same time of remembrance in 2009 and the continuing presence of the above mentioned songs, mainly among the travelling support of Celtic, are an embarrassment to the club’s board and thousands of agenda-less supporters.
The problem is exacerbated by small numbers of fans at other Scottish clubs wanting themselves a slice of the controversy limelight.
Hearts have a seemingly unending conveyor belt of supporters determined to imitate the Ibrox knuckledraggers with whom many of them must share an IQ. From the baffling flurries of Ulster flags which appear to surface only for ties against Celtic and Hibernian, to a cringe-making Union Flag emblazoned with the slogan ‘Gorgie Loyalists’ which was shaken at a largely mystified crowd of St Mirren fans on Saturday, it seems a desire remains among some of the Tynecastle faithful to keep a torch lit to the accusation that Hearts fans would be more at home taking in their football in Govan. It is no coincidence that the Celtic support’s pro-IRA sentiments crank up the decibels when they visit Gorgie.
More regrettable instances of this misplaced imitation can be seen among tiny pockets of crowds across Scotland, many too small to be considered a problem on the tongues inside boardrooms and local pubs.
If a solution exists, what can possibly be the catalyst for change? Supporters of Rangers, Celtic and every other team in the land constantly demand column inches in the country’s national media to be dedicated to a blow-by-blow account of ‘who-sang-what-and-when’. Yet writers in high circulation papers, such as Hugh Keevins, Gordon Waddle, Joan McAlpine and, repeatedly, Graham Spiers, have reported on the problem and we are still back where we were.
It is notable that when action was finally taken on the blight – Rangers were fined and threatened with banishment from European competition for their support’s singing of ‘The Billy Boys’ in Spain – the song disappeared from the Ibrox hymn sheet.
Why the SPL, SFA and SFL have failed to follow suit in taking punitive measure is anyone’s guess. There seems to be a desire to always punish each side of the Old Firm equally, lest the accusations of favouritism start to fly. The threat to the fans of their team being penalised on the pitch is a proven prevention method.
Not that docking points from a team will stop bigotry outside of grounds. Former First Minister Jack McConnell started an admirable campaign to reduce sectarianism during his tenure in office, the momentum of which has been lost under Alex Salmond. With an election in six weeks, now would seem as good a time as ever to grasp the nettle and pledge to invest more energy in working across parties at Holyrood to make a difference in the fight against sectarianism.
The emergency services are among the most adversely affected by the Old Firm hate-off, with police dealing with rocketing violence and domestic incidents on match days, and ambulances working overtime to treat the wounded. It is though there have been up to 20 murders in the aftermath of Glasgow derby clashes in the last 20 years – a statistic beyond shameful.
It’s time that across every concerned agency – at Rangers, Celtic, the SPL, the SFA, the SFL, the police, the Scottish Government and in the media where it is so often demanded to speak up – sectarianism, bigotry and racism in Scottish culture must be made an example of, ridiculed and chased out of town, not with equal attention to each side of the Protestant/British-Catholic/Irish divide invented by the followers of Glasgow’s giant clubs, but with due coverage afforded to each incident as it occurs, because when it comes to Rangers and Celtic, two and two always makes a five.