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.

By , Correspondent

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    Celtic's Joe Ledley scores against Motherwell during their Scottish Premier League soccer match at Parkhead Stadium, Glasgow, Scotland, Sept. 10.
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Growing up, Glasgow Rangers fan Graeme Strachan heard the songs and sang them like many of those in the stands around him.

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.

The Scottish antisectarian charity Nil By Mouth says that although progress has been made, "you will still hear the offensive language on our streets, at football matches, on public transport, in pubs and social clubs, and in some people’s homes. You will still see graffiti about Irish politics in some places in Scotland, you might still be unwelcome at the local golf or bowling club because of your surname, and when you marry someone whose family are from a different 'sect' within Christianity you might still to this day experience more disapproval than you had expected to."

Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond, the leader of the devolved government in Edinburgh, has insisted the country's national game could die if the bigotry problem is not rooted out of the game.

Sectarianism, he said, was "hating other people. The future of Scottish football is at stake."

But some experts say the incidents occurring around the two clubs should not be categorized under the hood of sectarianism.

"Most Scots are not football fans; most fans do not support Rangers or Celtic; most Rangers and Celtic fans are not religious bigots," wrote Steve Bruce, a professor of sociology at the University of Aberdeen, in the north of Scotland, in an op-ed for the Guardian earlier this year. "That some Rangers and Celtic fans wind each other up by falsely claiming to have strong religio-ethnic identities which are offended by the equally false religio-ethnic identities of the other side is not a reason for the rest of us to take such ritual posturing as the basis for judging the polity, society and culture of an entire country."

The Old Firm divide, nationwide

In Glenrothes, the main town in the eastern county of Fife, soccer fan Matthew Stevenson lets out a sigh as he ponders a problem these days seemingly almost synonymous with the game of soccer, a sport with which he has spent his whole life in love.

"I am a supporter of Glasgow Celtic, the country’s biggest Catholic-connected club,” explains the carpenter. “But I don’t support them because I’m a Catholic – I’m not. I like them because they play good football and there is a good atmosphere at their games.”

Tellingly, he was a Rangers fan as a child.

Despite the headlines generated by the outbreaks in the past year, the authorities insist it is a minority that perpetrates related crime. Others claim much of the issue is confined to Scotland's west coast, where Glasgow, Scotland's largest city, is located. Yet recent statistics showed that in rural Fife, for example, hate crime related to faith is on the increase.

Michael Alexander, a senior journalist at a newspaper in the region, says much of that crime is related to games involving Rangers and Celtic.

"Watching the London-based media and how it reports on sectarian flare-ups involving the Old Firm [Rangers and Celtic], you'd think it was rife throughout the country – and we should all be worried and ashamed if that's the image being portrayed to our English neighbors and throughout the world," he says.

"However, living on the east coast of Scotland, it's generally not an issue except for those weekends when Old Firm fans travel through to our football stadiums and bring their poisonous songs with them or when Old Firm games are shown on TV, allowing small town bigots who've probably never even been to Glasgow" to speak their minds.

Mr. Stevenson, meanwhile, paints a bleak picture of the prognosis for change. “It will never end,” he says, "as long parents bring up their children to think this way generation after generation.”

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