Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 September 2014

Rangers and unionism - it's a question of identity

Rangers have always had a special relationship with Northern Ireland. Writer Alasdair McKillop looks at the link between football and unionism

Rangers fans show their support to the Union flag protesters in Belfast during the Irn Bru Scottish Third Division match at Ibrox, Glasgow.
Rangers fans show their support to the Union flag protesters in Belfast during the Irn Bru Scottish Third Division match at Ibrox, Glasgow.
Rangers football fans hold banners aloft as they show support for their club during the Clydesdale Bank Scottish Premier League match between Rangers and Kilmarnock at Ibrox Stadium

Rangers Football Club has been influenced by the exchange of people and ideas between Scotland and Northern Ireland. On the pitch, the club has been ably represented in earlier times by the likes of Billy Simpson, the tormented Sam English and Billy McCandless – famously referenced by the Rangers-leaning poet John Hewitt. Rangers have a loyal and fervent support in the province, one that thinks nothing of sending thousands to games at Ibrox as though they were travelling from Kirkintilloch or some other town in close proximity to Glasgow.

Shortly after Rangers entered administration in February 2012, a fundraising meeting was held in the Harland and Wolff Welders Club in east Belfast. The late Sandy Jardine, who would play a significant role in mobilising supporters and acting as a source of continuity throughout the crisis, represented the club on the evening. The meeting was attended by MLAs including Gregory Campbell and Danny Kennedy, as well as a number of other elected representatives. Linfield vice-chairman Billy Kennedy was also in attendance, representing a club with which Rangers share historically close ties. Indeed, friendlies between the two sides, usually at Windsor Park, are a regular feature of the summer calendar.

Fans travelling back and forth for games follow in the footsteps of earlier labour migrants, shipyard workers who travelled from Queen's Island to the Clyde, most famously in 1912 when Harland and Wolff established a presence in Scotland. The location for the crisis meeting in 2012 was, therefore, entirely apt. Also in 1912, Sir John Ure-Primrose welcomed Sir Edward Carson to Glasgow as he sought to impress the graveness of the Home Rule situation – a different constitutional crisis that coincidentally marked the same period in the previous century – on to a complacent public. Sir John was a liberal unionist, a former Lord Provost and Rangers chairman.

At the time, the workers would have derived a sense of pride from working in the pre-eminent industry of both Glasgow and Belfast. With the exchange of people came the inevitable ebbing and flowing of cultural, political, social and economic influences, all of which might be said to have contributed to a version of Britishness with reference points and concerns unique to Ulster and parts of Scotland. Rangers, it might be argued, was historically influenced by such forces, but the club has come to play a central role in their perpetuation and this is a cause of unease for some fans.

A recent conference at Queen's University sought to relate the Scottish question to wider UK concerns about constitutional relationships and identities. Writing afterwards, the Scots-born Professor of Political History and co-author of the Official Biography of Rangers, Graham Walker, observed that the marginalisation of Scotland's loyalist constituency – perhaps best represented in the Better Together campaign's unambiguous hostility towards the Orange Order – mirrored the perceived marginalisation of the Protestant working-class in Northern Ireland. Martin Mansergh, meanwhile, has predicted that Scottish independence would result in a reconsideration of the Ulster-Scots strand of unionist identity, an identity which arguably straddles the sea. The precise ramifications are impossible to predict, although Peter Robinson has stated that Northern Ireland would remain in the UK with England and Wales, reminding us that the Union has a functionality removed from existential questions of identity.

As such discussions have been taking place, Rangers have gone through one of the most traumatic periods in its history, following the corporate and footballing consequences of financial collapse in 2012. Rangers fans have in the past displayed banners describing their club as 'quintessentially British'. How curious that ructions at this great institution – captive to successive robber barons – have mimicked those of the state from which the club draws its image.

Indeed, over the last 30 years Rangers have served as a microcosm of the UK's fortunes. The arrival of Graeme Souness at Ibrox in 1986, with the attendant wealth, glamour and success, mirrored an upsurge in the City of London after Margaret Thatcher's 'Big Bang' deregulation of the financial sector. The 'Nine-in-a-Row' years in the 1990s, when Rangers dominated in both the footballing and business sense, tracked a UK economy buoyed by property, consumerism and retail. Rangers peaked with the high-spending Dick Advocaat boom of the early-2000s, just as the UK's credit market reached immense proportions, before the chickens of reckless borrowing came home to roost, and it became clear that the fiscal ambitions of both Rangers and the banks were not matching reality. For David Murray read Gordon Brown. For suffering Rangers fans read ordinary Brits.

Just as the rise of the SNP may prove to be a potential calling of time on Britain, so too did Scotland – at least, its various footballing tribes and organisations – turn a rancorous face towards Rangers at its lowest ebb. There has also been the controversial shadow of an SNP policy targeted at Old Firm fans, for better or worse: the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act. Some view this legislation as a well-meaning attempt to limit sectarianism, others a blow to freedom of speech.

While the rise and fall of the Light Blues in the last 30 years can be traced to economic, political and cultural patterns beyond the game, Rangers are, nonetheless, still a football club. Their symbolism can only be inferred and interpreted. It is true that Rangers FC make no attempts to hide its Britishness – a picture of the Queen, after all, hangs in the Ibrox dressing room – but it is also a Glaswegian entity, as prominent on the Scottish cultural landscape as whisky, golf or Billy Connolly. The club encapsulates the duality between Scottishness and Britishness.

It is often taken for granted, by combatants on both sides of the independence debate, that a Rangers fan will or should be a dyed-in-the-wool unionist, whose No vote is a foregone conclusion. No doubt there are many such Rangers fans. But there are also many who intend to vote Yes, just as there are supporters of Celtic, Aberdeen, Hibs, Dundee United and Hearts who intend to vote No. Are Rangers fans not as capable of free thought as their fellow Scots? Won't the pragmatic and practical implications win out over loyalty to a flag or, more to the point, a football club? As Rangers fan Gail Richardson has stated, simply but profoundly: "The scarf I am wearing tells you nothing about me other than the team I support."

Sport is an echo chamber of society and the idea that wider society is not affected by the reverberations from the coliseum is contested. As a ritualised form of combat, football can become a cauldron of symbols and themes. This year, the UK in general and Scotland in particular are going through a period of febrile, internal strife. As the referendum approaches, there's the increasing feel of a nation being cleaved in two. Rangers fans are used to being one half of a binary division, just not this binary division. What will emerge at the other side of the referendum – what kind of Scotland, Britain, Northern Ireland or Rangers – none of us yet know.

Alan Bissett and Alasdair McKillop are the co-editors of Born Under a Union Flag: Rangers, Britain and Scottish Independence, Luath Press, which is available now, £8.99

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