Sectarian worries as Scotland's 'Old Firm' renews its soccer rivalry
With Glasgow soccer teams Celtic and Rangers set to meet this weekend, Scotland is drafting new measures to stamp out Protestant-Catholic sectarianism rooted in the teams' culture.
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For this died-in-the-wool soccer fanatic, it was an eclectic match-day experience – the choir of fans at Rangers' Ibrox Stadium renowned for its varied songbook including favorites such as "We Are Rangers, Super Rangers," "Follow, Follow," and even an adapted rendition of Tina Turner classic "Simply the Best."
But lately it is the numbers considered in some quarters as offensive for their "sectarian" content – among them "The Billy Boys," "Derry's Walls," and "Build My Gallows High" – that are garnering the wrong kind of attention for the team that Mr. Strachan has supported all of his life.
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“There are many traditional songs about Rangers history that are not sectarian but unfortunately have had ‘add-ons’ attached over the years,” he says, “in fact, even [the tradition of] running out every week at Ibrox to 'Simply the Best' was stopped for a while" due to profane additions about the Pope and the Irish Republican Army.
Indeed, the mention of religious sectarianism in Scotland generally yields responses that revolve around soccer and the country’s top two teams: Rangers and their city rivals, Glasgow Celtic. For the Catholic-associated Celtic and Protestant-identified Rangers occupy two sides of a divide marred by bigotry and an alleged litany of sectarian-related crime.
And in recent times, critics have been given plenty of fodder. During the 2010-11 Scottish soccer season, hate crime associated with these two clubs stretched to the unthinkable after some bitterly contested matches: Both hoax and live letter-bombs were sent to several high-profile individuals connected with each.
Now, with the 2011-12 soccer campaign under way – and the first Celtic-Rangers match set for Sunday – a raft of new police measures and tougher legislation are being drafted in a bid to root out the problem. And all eyes will turn to Glasgow to see whether the new focus has any effect on the words emanating from the stands.
A new bill going through the Scottish Parliament involves the creation of new offenses, including the incitement of religious hatred at or around a soccer stadium. This would involve a significant raising of maximum sentencing powers available to courts. Offensive songs often heard at grounds, too, are to be banned.
Though Rangers and Celtic have voiced concerns over the tougher legislation – Celtic stated innocent fans could be criminalized – a survey found 90 percent of Scots agree with the new measures.
Is it really sectarian?
Yet, some fans on both sides of the Rangers-Celtic divide contend their songs are not sectarian but political. They point to lyrics' references to the Irish Republican Army, Northern Ireland's pro-British paramilitaries, and other groups involved in the violence that gripped Northern Ireland for decades. But just as the line between politics and sectarianism was blurred in "The Troubles" of Northern Ireland, so too is it difficult to find in Scotland.
The modern roots of this dispute in once Catholic Scotland, which broke with Rome in the 1500s after the Protestant Reformation, can be traced to the influx of Irish Catholics to Scotland during the 19th and 20th centuries, and institutionalized discrimination against Catholics. Later, bigotry found a theater in soccer.