Let’s stand up for the 90-minute bigots

Far from being a symbol of ‘deep hatreds’ in Scottish society, sectarian abuse at Celtic/ Rangers games is just footballing fun.

The back cover of Open Season by George Galloway tells us that this new book (come political pamphlet) is about ‘bombs, bullets and bigots’ and ‘how Neil Lennon refused to bow to sectarianism’.

The book details the shocking succession of death threats, violent attacks and general hatred heaped upon Northern Ireland footballer Neil Lennon since he started to play for Celtic in 2002. The campaign came to a head during a troubled season last year when Lennon, now manager of Celtic, was assaulted in full view of the television cameras and also sent a parcel bomb in the post. The targeting of Lennon has led to much soul-searching in Scotland and has also hit the UK national news, prompting articles like that in a recent Observer magazine asking ‘Why do people want to kill Neil Lennon?’. The threats to Lennon have also been cited by politicians as justification for a draconian new proposal, the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act (Scotland) Bill, which, if passed, will bring in prison sentences of up to five years for sectarian abuse at games or on football websites.

Galloway argues from the start that his book has the answer to the Observer’s question: ‘In this book I will tell the story of the hatred, racism, bigotry and even attempted acts of terrorism that Neil Lennon has been subjected to. I will debunk the kind of self-serving mythology which has surrounded his ordeal… And I will place the story where it belongs, in the context of a chronic, centuries-old Scottish bigotry against Catholics, Irish Catholics in particular.’

Galloway dedicates the book to the ‘O’Reillys, the Dougans, the Floods and the Feeneys’, the maternal side of his own family who came to Scotland ‘barefoot in cattle boats’ as Irish Catholic immigrants to provide cheap labour for Scottish industry. These were the days when ‘NINA’ (No Irish Need Apply) signs appeared in job adverts and accommodation and when, as late as the 1920s, the Church of Scotland could publish a pamphlet called ‘The Menace of the Irish Race to our Scottish Nationality’.

Galloway’s main argument is that this historic anti-Irish discrimination has not gone away, is endemic in Scottish society, and is being brushed under the carpet by the authorities. He is not alone in this view. Other high-profile people have also spoken out about the scourge of anti-Catholic sectarianism in Scotland, including Edinburgh academics Tom Devine and John Kelly and leading composer James MacMillan. In an interview at the start of the book, leading Catholic lawyer Paul McBride - himself a recent target of a parcel bomb - agrees with Galloway about the ‘historical failure of our politicians to get to grips with this cancer at the heart of society’.

But are they right? Is the vile campaign against Lennon a visible expression of a ‘widespread, sustained and virulent anti-Catholicism’ that almost everyone in Scotland is trying to deny?

Galloway provides examples of abuse: attacks on Catholic churches and clergy; the lack of sanctions against prominent people involved in circulating tasteless emails in the run up to the pope’s visit; the disproportionate reaction to child-abuse allegations by a minority of priests; the bias against Catholic schools, and so on. He makes much of the fact that the authorities have refused to publish statistics on sectarian attacks.

Given Scotland’s history, it may be the case that there is still sectarianism in Scotland. But Galloway provides a very one-sided account that fails to take into account changes in Scottish society that are more surprising and interesting than the legacy of sectarianism. I have been travelling to Glasgow to support Celtic for more than 30 years and most of my friends fit the profile of potential victims of sectarianism: they are working class, Irish or second-generation Irish, and Catholic. Yet they do not recognise the picture Galloway presents. None has suffered discrimination in employment, housing or education and none lives in fear of their lives. Granted, they dread meeting their Rangers workmates and neighbours in the immediate aftermath of a Celtic defeat and cannot wait to meet them after a Celtic win. But in that way they are no different to fans of north London teams Spurs and Arsenal, or any other football rivals.

And it isn’t just anecdotal evidence that shows things have changed. The most striking result of a major census carried out by Glasgow City Council in 2003 was that while the perception of sectarianism is very strong, the numbers actually experiencing it are minuscule: ‘While sectarianism is perceived to be endemic, there is less evidence to suggest that sectarian crime and discrimination are widespread.’

The actual figures are instructive. While a shocking two-thirds of respondents said that sectarian prejudice still exists, when asked if they had been the victim of a sectarian attack, threat, vandalism or harassment, only 0.7 per cent, 0.8 per cent, 0.6 per cent and 0.4 per cent respectively said they had been. Similarly, while one quarter said they believed sectarianism was common in employment, only 1.1 per cent believed they had been turned down for a job, and only 0.3 per cent believed they had been unfairly treated by the police, because of their religion.

This begs the question: why is the perception of sectarianism so ingrained when the experience is now so marginal? One explanation can be found in the conclusions cited in the survey. Rather than acknowledging and celebrating the fact that sectarianism is on the wane, the report notes ‘it should be recognised that due to the nature of prejudice and discrimination, there may be areas where sectarian behaviour is hidden and difficult to define’.

Many in Scotland talk about sectarianism as a ‘cultural prejudice’ rather than something rooted in real material discrimination and inequality. Even Galloway is forced to concede that the form of discrimination is changing: ‘The institutional bigotry, which Catholics faced for many years, has been superseded by attitudinal bigotry.’ Like the Glasgow census, Galloway is keen to emphasise the hidden and subtle nature of modern sectarianism. ‘The subtle intolerance of the sectarian mindset is altogether harder to detect and harder still to eradicate.’

Yet while Galloway et al point to discrimination that is ‘hard to detect’, they fail to highlight the very detectable changes taking place around them, including the new and growing self-confidence and equality being enjoyed by Scotland’s Catholics. While Catholics of Galloway’s grandparents’ generation tended to stay quiet, melt into the background and avoid trouble, today’s Catholics are a more visible group, with growing numbers now prominent in professions that used to be Catholic-free zones, including law, politics, academia and journalism. As Kevin McKenna points out in his Observer piece on Lennon, ‘The Catholic Irish have educated themselves out of the ghetto’.

There is still a hardcore of sectarians in Scotland who spout anti-Catholic bile, no doubt including those who posted threats to Neil Lennon. But a few hundred violent bigots on a last-gasp campaign against the eroding of old certainties is a long way from the endemic sectarianism that Galloway and others see all around them.

It is Galloway’s claim that there is some kind of massive cover-up of sectarianism in Scotland that I find most difficult to recognise. He berates Scotland’s current governing party, the Scottish National Party (SNP), for caving into criticism of the new anti-sectarian laws and cites this as further proof of the establishment’s refusal to take tough action against the bigots. But the idea that sectarianism is a neglected issue in Scottish society is just bizarre.

It is much easier to argue the exact opposite, as Charles Lewis did in a piece for Scottish Review: ‘As public interest in religion wanes, sensitivity to perceived sectarianism has taken centre stage. Charities have been created with full-time positions. Newspapers jump on incidents with screaming headlines. Politicians make grave pronouncements. The police argue that they need more resources.’

My personal fear is that the modern-day identification of sectarianism as the real evil in Scottish society will serve to sow new divisions. The obsession with Scotland’s addiction to ‘attitudinal’ sectarianism risks fuelling fresh tensions. There is no better example of this than the proposed laws around sectarian abuse in football, which are already turning rival fans into the worst kind of snitches constantly on the lookout for sectarian offences to report to the police. It could well be the deluge of anti-sectarian policies, strictures and laws that will inject new life into religious divisions – divisions that have otherwise been dying out.

Many commentators in this debate have strongly objected to the idea of ‘the 90-minute bigot’, a phrase first coined by David Murray, the former chairman of Rangers Football Club, to describe the kind of Rangers or Celtic fans who play out historic hatreds on the terraces before resuming normal life. But this is one thing on which I will happily agree with Murray.

The hate campaign against Lennon was indeed shocking. But Galloway’s portrayal of endemic sectarianism is deeply unconvincing. Rather than trying to organise rallies against sectarianism and demanding that repressive new laws be rushed through without proper scrutiny, why don’t we organise a rally for free speech in Scottish football instead? Instead of indulging in Catholic victimology, Celtic fans (and Rangers fans) should raise their voices to defend the right to be offensive for 90 minutes when watching a football match.

Kevin Rooney is a teacher based in London. He will speaking at the debate Silencing sectarianism: football’s free speech wars at the Battle of Ideas festival on Sunday 30 October.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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