Roots of Old Firm violence run deep

Some shock news just in for those of you who have lost touch a little with the world of current affairs

Some shock news just in for those of you who have lost touch a little with the world of current affairs. There are reports that President John F Kennedy has been assassinated in Dallas, Texas. The FBI is working on a theory that it may have been the work of a lone gunman.

Turning to science and new research has indicated there is a distinct possibility smoking may be bad for your health. In sport, there have been as yet unconfirmed rumours sectarianism may actually have a part to play in the tension which seems to surround games between Celtic and Rangers, two football teams from Glasgow.

Listening to the overbearing earnestness which was wheeled out in response to the on-off visit of the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, to last Sunday's Old Firm game and the opening of the Carfin Famine memorial has been a salutary experience. On one level, it would be tempting to imagine this has been a week when a great cloak of sectarian darkness was suddenly lifted. Stop the presses and rewrite those headlines, we've just found out there are problems with sectarianism both here and in the west of Scotland and football is actually involved in some way.

Not surprisingly, the reality is a little different. Frank Roy, the Scottish MP who raised the issue in the first place, has paid the price for the ill-advised way in which he brought the issue to public attention and the manner in which he handled the fall-out. But the political storm that blew up between Edinburgh and Dublin should not be allowed to obscure the substance behind Roy's stance.


Viewed objectively, there was little in what the MP said that could reasonably be argued with. Roy voiced his opinion that the atmosphere in the west of Scotland in the aftermath of an Old Firm game can be less than pleasant. He then went further and attributed that unpleasantness in large part to a strain of sectarianism that runs through that section of Scottish society. The element of this viewpoint that is worthy of challenge remains a mystery. Celtic-Rangers games have for decades been surrounded by an undercurrent of tension that regularly spills over into violence.

In recent years, however, events have taken a more sinister twist with the emergence of a catalogue of stabbings in the greater Glasgow area after the games. When Celtic last took the league title three years ago a young boy who hadn't even been at the game died after being attacked because he was wearing the winning team's shirt. Only last Wednesday night, following part one of the Celtic-Rangers double bill at Hampden Park, one man was stabbed and 40 were arrested.

This is an enmity that clearly goes beyond that which is generally associated with some of the great football rivalries throughout the world. Jorg Albertz, Rangers' German midfielder, has been around a few football corners in his time but even he was moved to speak out publicly in the build-up to last Sunday's game about the proliferation of stabbing incidents.

Rangers-Celtic rivalry has an obvious context. The great tides of 19th-century Irish emigration, which contributed much to the founding of Celtic, generated a tension in Scottish society that still exists. This was most keenly felt in the west of Scotland, the area in which most of the Irish settled, as the arriving Catholic Irish culture found itself at variance with the indigenous Protestant Scottish version.

In times of economic hardship relations between the two deteriorated even further as each community competed for the same jobs. That this should all find expression in terms of football, the dominant recreation activity, was almost inevitable.

All of this has been public property and widely recognised for a long, long time. The rumbling controversy that has surrounded the Ahern visit can therefore be attributed to questions of timing and political sensitivity. On its own, the Taoiseach's attendance at Celtic Park would have passed unnoticed, as probably would his visit to Carfin. But join the two and place them in the context of a media hungry for new angles in the run-up to the biggest game of the Scottish season and you have a fairly heady mix.

Some of those angles were depressingly predictable. One thread that ran through the coverage was the endless musing over the supposed parallels between the situation in Scotland and that which we have here. This debate as to whether the sectarianism in Scotland is merely a particularly unwelcome Irish export has been around for decades as Scottish commentators attempt to explain away the fault-lines in their own society.

There are, of course, indisputable connections. The hordes of local Celtic and Rangers fans who throng the ports and airports every weekend are all the proof you need of that. But it is laughably simplistic to suggest if they didn't make the journey Celtic-Rangers encounters would suddenly be devoid of any sectarian overtones. The origins may be Irish, but Scotland has now developed its own brand of sectarianism that stands alone.

Despite the insincerity and civilised outrage of the past few days, the whole sorry saga has had its illuminating aspects. It was strangely reassuring to see that this is not the only place where sectarianism and its sporting expressions are blithely ignored in the misguided expectation that if you look away for long enough they might just quietly disappear.

After years of pretending it had confronted and neutralised its culture of religious intolerance, Scottish society has now been forced to re-examine the entire package. The Old Firm may be the sporting face of the problem, but it clearly runs deeper than a game of football. The surreal thing is it took a football match, a Taoiseach's visit and a memorial to the Famine to kick-start the soul searching.