Defending Rangers from football’s Thought Police

A lifelong supporter of Celtic explains why he’s opposed to the intensified policing of Rangers fans’ chants and behaviour by a gang of moralistic politicians, cops and commentators.

Kevin Rooney

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There have been many books written about football, but it seems that only a book about one of Glasgow’s ‘Old Firm’ rivals, Rangers and Celtic, could end up being overwhelmingly about politics.

Rather than being packed with references to great victories and tragic defeats on the pitch, It’s Rangers For Me? treats us to the details of other momentous battles including the ‘Murderous campaign of the IRA [Irish Republican Army]’, the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916 and IRA leader Sean Russell’s alleged collaboration with the Nazis during the Second World War. While all football fans reject the idea that football is ‘only a game’, this book really is about much more than a game.

A distinguished list of Rangers-supporting contributors (including academics, journalists, politicians, players, fans, a clergyman, a retired ambassador, an award-winning playwright, the leader of the Orange Order in Scotland and the chief executive of the Scottish Football Association (SFA)) reflect on why Rangers Football Club, once ‘pre-eminent and renowned for its self-confidence’, is now embattled, defensive and unsure of its place in Scottish society. As if to reinforce this fact, the publicity material for the book acknowledges that it was written partly to counter accusations of sectarianism made in two recent bestselling books on archrivals Celtic, whom, the editors claim, ‘appear to be winning the PR battle’.

It is true that these are not good times to be a Rangers fan – and it’s got nothing to do with having to watch their foes at Celtic win the league championship for the last two years and achieving greater success in the main European competition, the Champions League. Several contributors point to the fact that middle-class supporters tend to stay rather quiet about their favourite team while Gary Mitchell, a playwright, claims that in all his years working in television and the arts he has never met a single Rangers fan.

So why the crisis of confidence? Almost all of the contributors to this book identify a spate of campaigns aimed at eradicating sectarianism from the club as one of the key culprits for the current crisis. The joint editor, Ronnie Esplin, complains that sectarianism has too often been conceptualised as essentially a Rangers or a Protestant problem, making it deeply unfashionable to be a Rangers fan.

The campaign against sectarianism in Scotland is nothing new, but the concerted campaign targeted at Rangers fans has intensified in recent years as every shade of political opinion has united to identify sectarianism in football as a major scourge of Scottish society, and to back new campaigns to kick it out of football. Celtic fans’ support for the IRA has come under scrutiny. But much more so the language of Rangers fans, with their chants of ‘Fuck the Pope’ and ‘We’re up to our knees in Fenian [ie, Catholic] blood’. In May last year, Rangers were fined €12,000 by the governing body of European football, UEFA, for the sectarian chanting from a section of fans in a match against the Spanish club Osasuna. Rangers fans are now all too often described as a ‘problem’. with policymakers calling for more prosecutions alongside ‘re-education’ programmes.

Yet it is the reaction to the campaigns that interests several contributors, who point to the new defensiveness and confusion amongst previously cocky Rangers fans. Small incidents have sparked huge waves of media condemnation, prompting unprecedented soul-searching amongst Rangers fans who openly argue on their team websites about their attitude to songs like ‘The Billy Boys’. The issue now refuses to go away, not because of a UEFA fine, but because of the anxiety generated by the very public debate.

This book is really about how Rangers supporters have responded to the current accusations of sectarianism. Some of the individual contributions feel a bit like the desperate pleadings of an accused man in a courtroom. Unable to defend themselves against the main charges against them, they are forced to plead that their enemies, Celtic supporters, are equally guilty. It sounds less like a plea of innocence and more like a plea for sharing out the punishments. Yet, too often this defensiveness seems to swamp the insights and analysis of the contributors. Graham Walker, professor of politics at Queens University, Belfast, spends virtually his entire chapter condemning Celtic fans for their sectarian sloganising, their support for the reactionary teachings of the Catholic Church, and their less-than-flattering descriptions of Rangers fans as ‘Hun scum’. But Walker’s demonising of Celtic fans does little to further his argument that Rangers fans are demonised – in sporting parlance, this chapter is something of an own goal.

However, not all contributors fall into this trap. Gordon Smith, ex-Rangers player and currently chief executive of the Scottish Football Association, has some interesting insights about the modern obsession with ‘taking offence’ that runs through much of the debate about sectarian chanting: ‘You can’t simply make rules or laws because people say they are offended.’ Smith also reveals that he thinks these subjects become ‘hot’ topics and controversial at different times, and it’s important not to become overly sensitive to accusations just because they have a resonance at a particular moment.

One of the best chapters in the book is one that tries to tackle the most intriguing and key question – why is the anti-sectarian narrative dominating debates about Scottish football at a time when real sectarianism is all but dead? Dolan Cummings of the Institute of Ideas, and an occasional contributor to spiked, provides compelling evidence for a decline in real sectarianism in Scotland. He argues that the recent anti-sectarianism is more to do with an attempt by the new political class in post-devolution Scotland to seize on an issue that may give them a point of connection with the Scottish public.

Cummings maintains that the campaigns against sectarianism will do nothing to reduce tensions between rival fans: ‘Official anti-sectarianism neither challenges prejudices nor encourages more mature or civilised behaviours.’ He adds that this approach fuels and reinforces elitist prejudices about the uncouth masses, in which Celtic and Rangers supporters are equally lumped together as unreconstructed, inarticulate thugs – when, in fact, we are just football fans.

For me, the most interesting insight in the book is the fact that this focus on sectarianism is reaching its zenith at the very time when sectarianism is disappearing from both Scotland and Scottish football. When I think of Rangers and allegations of sectarianism, my mind wanders back to Belfast where I grew up, amidst the political conflict that always fuelled the rivalry between Rangers and Celtic. I think of the ‘Bouncy, Bouncy, Bouncy, Bounce’ song Rangers fans would sing. This ditty celebrates the cold-blooded murder of Portadown Catholic Robert Hammill one night by a loyalist mob as officers from the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) looked on. The mob jumped up and down on his head repeatedly until his skull was crushed, hence the words, ‘Bouncy Bounce’.

In those days, Celtic and Rangers were about much more than footballing rivalry. Support for these teams was as much a political badge, part of our identity, a crucial part of who we were and which side we were on. Rangers represented Protestantism, Britishness, anti-Catholicism and maintaining the status quo – that is, the maintenance of British rule and Protestant privilege in Northern Ireland. For me, and many others, supporting Celtic was a sign of resistance; it was about immigrant Irish Catholics struggling against adversity; and it was about Brother Walfrid, who founded the club to help raise funds to feed the starving poor in 1888. If I had wanted to support a great football team I would have opted for Manchester United – if I wanted to support a local football team I would have supported Cliftonville. Supporting Celtic was a statement, not a lifestyle choice.

Marx once wrote about historical specificity and context, how objects and institutions that appear obvious and static to one person can take on different meanings according to social and historical contexts. He used the example of a chair and how in a different situation it can be interpreted as a throne. This is true of Celtic and Rangers today. When Rangers fans sang ‘bouncy bouncy’ and Celtic fans composed chants celebrating the deaths of British soldiers and RUC men, there was no campaign against sectarianism. In other words: at a time when there was real conflict and hostility between these two sets of fans, there were no campaigns to clean up Scottish football. Yet at a time when the conflict in Ireland is over, and sectarianism in Scotland is at its lowest for decades, the campaign against it is taking centre stage. At the very time when most of the fans have no clue about the historical events they chant about at games, they are being banned from chanting certain things.

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. Glasgow, in particular, experienced sectarian divisions. Anti–Catholic discrimination, although less severe than it was in Northern Ireland, was a fact of life. Catholics were under-represented in the higher echelons of the media, police, arts and law professions. 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. Sectarianism has shrunk dramatically, if not faded completely. The only time it tends to rear its head is when the Old Firm meets. And even here, it’s a mere case of ’90-minute sectarianism’, which is forgotten when fans leave the football ground. So why the huge focus on anti–sectarianism, when almost all the contributors to this book agree that it’s less of an issue than ever before?

The answer has little to do with sectarianism, and everything to do with Scottish politics. At a time when their legitimacy is on the wane, leading Protestant and Catholic Church figures, media commentators, and in particular many politicians in the relatively new Scottish Parliament, have latched on to the anti-sectarian crusade in attempt to appear relevant and morally upright. The anti-sectarian drive is now a gravy train with millions of pounds being pumped into new campaigns like ‘Nil by Mouth’ (an anti-sectarian chanting initiative), school projects, media campaigns and orchestrated photo-shoots of joint Old Firm ‘in the community’ schemes to combat sectarianism, always with a leading politician like Alex Salmond (First Minister of Scotland) or Wendy Alexander (leader of the Scottish Labour Party) on hand. Yet despite what the Scottish Executive would have us believe, Scotland is not a country riven by sectarianism.

Being a Celtic supporter, I must say I usually smile at Rangers fans’ misfortunes. But not this time. The truth is that today, I know their anti-Catholic chants are little more than the banter and hostility that all rival football fans indulge in. There was a time when those sectarian chants at Ibrox had a social force behind them; not now. It’s even true that in Northern Ireland, loyalist killer gangs identified with Rangers, and until more recently, sectarianism was a major issue. That said, the vast majority of Rangers fans are not sectarian bigots. If they wish to gather at Ibrox and sing ‘The Billy Boys’, they have every right to do so and I have no right to stop them.

There are several essays in this book that are simply weird in their obsession with things Catholic. I smiled when one contributor started discussing the Second Vatican Council, how the priest no longer celebrates mass with his back to the congregation and how Catholics are allowed to eat meat on a Friday! That aside, It’s Rangers For Me? is a book that football fans, even Celtic supporters, should welcome. A cultural shift has taken place in politics in which what fans say and do is open to restriction and censorship. This book is, in part, an attempt to challenge the policing of football fans’ behaviour. What we chant won’t always be pretty; in fact it may be obnoxious. But to paraphrase Voltaire: ‘I detest what you sing, but defend to the death your right to sing it.’ That’s one issue on which Rangers and Celtic fans can sing from the same hymnsheet.

Kevin Rooney teaches government and politics at a London school.

It’s Rangers for Me? by Ronnie Esplin and Graham Walker is published by Fort Publishing. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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