Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 25 December 2014

Old Firm still stuck in sick sectarian ways of the past

Bigotry clampdown: Rangers and Celtic fans face new legislation brought in by Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond
Bigotry clampdown: Rangers and Celtic fans face new legislation brought in by Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond

There was a time when a Rangers and Celtic soccer clash was as much a part of New Year's Day as haggis is to nips and tatties. Not anymore.

Continuing concerns over crowd behaviour and control meant the match was switched to last week - an encounter made all the more interesting in the light of the Scottish Assembly's new legislation to stamp out sectarianism in soccer.

A friend invited me a few years ago to fulfil a lifelong sporting ambition to attend an Old Firm clash in Glasgow. It was an experience I could never forget for the appalling bigotry I witnessed at first-hand, not only among the crowd in general, but in the supposedly more reserved and subdued corporate seats at Ibrox Park.

We shared a table with two young Scottish executives, who behaved with impeccable correctness over lunch.

However, as soon as the referee's whistle blew to start the match, the pair descended into a tirade of foul-mouthed abuse directed at anything which looked to be Celtic green.

It was as if a sectarian switch had been pressed inside their brains. The behaviour shocked - even by the standards of bigotry set in Northern Ireland.

Last week's match was a game low on footballing skills, but high on yellow cards and crowd passions.

Sky Sports could not convey the actual words which were being chanted and sung from the grandstands by both sets of supporters, but I doubt if they were in keeping with the new Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications law, which was railroaded through the Scottish Assembly last month.

This is the latest attempt to stamp out sectarianism in Scottish sport. Judging by the crowd behaviour last week, the legislation looks to have as much chance of succeeding as any Scottish team has of winning the Champions League in the foreseeable future.

When the final whistle blew, one question crossed my mind: has no one told Rangers and Celtic fans that the war is all but over on this side of the water?

There were tricolours and Union flags everywhere. The entire game was played against a wall of noise from 50,000 frenzied spectators doing their best to insult, abuse and annoy one another.

At least, when it was over, the two managers shook hands and embraced - the only fleeting sign of seasonal goodwill I saw all evening.

The new Scottish legislation for 2012 is aimed at 'sectarian and other offensive chanting likely to cause public disorder' and 'threatening communications' on the internet. Those found guilty could be sentenced to five years in jail.

I am surprised that the police and legal authorities welcomed the new laws, since they look to be unenforceable - given the atmosphere of sectarian and cultural abuse which continues to pervade Glasgow in spite of all that has happened for the better in Northern Ireland.

The difficulty, as we have discovered to our cost here, is not just in defining incitement to religious hatred, but making the law stick if enough people want to break it by their behaviour at matches and use of abusive language on the internet.

Rangers and Celtic have run anti-sectarian campaigns in Glasgow in the past decade and have shown more co-operation.

However, the evidence from last week's match suggests they are not succeeding and the new Scottish legislation may do little better.

The impassioned fans show no sign of departing from their traditional path of sectarian ill-will, ignoring the significant political and cultur al changes which have taken place in Northern Ireland and also recently in the Republic with the Queen's visit.

Those thousands who travel from north and south to Glasgow to support their teams have a part to play and an example to show to their Scottish counterparts, but how many are doing so?

In 2012, it should go without saying that sectarian abuse, the waving of offensive flags and emblems and displays of bigotry, should have absolutely no place in sport.

We are making belated progress here. Regrettably, the final whistle still seems a long way off in Scotland.

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