by Bob Cassells
The man on the BBC national news (shouldn’t that be ‘international news’?) was trying to explain to his uncomprehending viewers about an incident in a small country far away of which they knew little: three people associated with a Glasgow football club had been sent letter bombs capable of ’maiming or killing’ their recipients.
He did not a bad job of it, I thought, covering all the usual shibboleths: Catholics, Protestants, Irish, Union Jacks, shipyards, poverty and so on. The usual naming of parts.
We saw the usual TV clips too – mounted police on a football pitch somewhere, the drunken mobs bedecked colourfully in red and blue and green and white and gold, cranes on a skyline by a river. And national politicians expressing the same (genuine) horror that all politicians of every background and belief have expressed for as long as anyone can remember.
I felt strangely unmoved. If I could summon up any emotion in relation to what was on my screen, it was embarrassment – ‘Dear God, how must this look to other people?’
But then, I’m from Glasgow.
For those of us who come from that part of Scotland, this is old news. We’ve lived with it all our lives, as did our fathers, our grandfathers and their fathers before them.
The chap on the TV did his best, but it’s hard to explain something as bizarre as West of Scotland sectarianism in a two minute segment for an audience who have little to which they can relate this stuff.
Bit like Belfast, then? Nationalists and Unionists at it again? Well, no, not that, although it does, at first glance, seem to fit: you’d expect one side to be staunchly Unionist, Union Jack-waving, Protestant; the other, Nationalist, Tri-colour waving, devout Catholics. (Strange how even language is conscripted – one side is ‘staunch’, the other ‘devout’).
Except it’s the wrong flag, of course. The ‘nationalists’ on one side draw their inspiration from a nationalist movement of another country and another time; their current political allegiance more likely to be to a UK unionist political party.
The Union Jack wavers are perhaps more in line with their brethren across the Irish Sea, although how many of them go home to Catholic husbands and wives, or break bread with Catholic sons and daughters-in-law? How many actually vote Tory?
In Northern Ireland this stuff is about politics and religion. It’s about communities who take up opposing positions on the union of parts of Ireland with the United Kingdom. It has a background of a religious division which cuts one part of a community off from another: no inter-schooling, no intermarriage, no easy disagreements about shared differences.
Beyond the green isle to the west, murderous violence can be found in other lands as part of a political struggle, or as the product of a hate-fuelled divergence of religious opinion, or even as an expression of a desire for self-determination.
What’s it about in Glasgow? It’s about football.
How do you explain that to people without embarrassment? That the tribalism in football in the west of Scotland (and, let’s be honest, it doesn’t stop at some arbitrary line drawn north to south through Falkirk) is such that the lives of people can be put at risk because some nutter wants to have a go at ‘the other side’.
The Roman Catholic Church in Scotland claim that sectarianism is the expression of anti-Catholic feeling embedded in Scottish culture, but it’s not as simple as that. Yes, of course, there has been bigotry and discrimination in the past – to deny that would be foolish in the extreme – but even that is not as straightforward as it may seem.
The discrimination of the nineteenth and twentieth-centuries was as much racial as religious – it was the fact that they were Irish Catholics that infuriated some among the general populace of Scotland. Scotland’s own Catholics – hold-outs from the Reformation – didn’t face anything like the opprobrium that someone with an Irish accent attracted.
It was the all-too-familiar story of immigrants facing prejudice and hostility from a receiving population fearful of losing their identity and their employment prospects to what they perceived as an alien culture. Asylum-seekers have been with us far longer than the term itself, as has the fearful bigotry that targets them.
But Catholic people in Scotland are not excluded from public office, nor are they denied access to housing, education or employment, unless you count the chief-bummer-in-Buck-House gig, but you’d have to live in London for that one.
The fact, sad or otherwise depending on your point of view, is that the Catholic Church is largely irrelevant to Scottish life; as is the Church of Scotland and all other forms of organised religious expression.
Letter bombs weren’t sent to three people in Scotland in recent weeks because they were Catholics; they were sent to them because they were Celtic supporters.
What we are living with is an atrophied sectarianism; an undead remnant in a tattered coat waving a blood-stained flag, marching amongst us to a tune from long ago than few of the rest of us can now hear. And so some delusional individual with those ghostly songs rattling around in his skull decided that the other side were getting too big for their boots, were asserting themselves too loudly, needed to be reminded who were the masters.
For those of you who don’t keep up with these things, probably because you’ve got a life, there has been much sound and fury recently about a perceived bias against all things relating to Celtic Football Club by those ‘in control’ (now’s your chance to use the word ‘oxymoron’ which you were taught all those years ago at school) of Scottish football.
Apparently, the Scottish Football Association and referees are institutionally anti-Celtic, constantly giving decisions which favour ‘the other side’ and generally doing all they can to do them down. Now, I’m as up for a conspiracy theory as much as the next man, but as a Partick Thistle fan I look at the two major trophies the Jags have won in their 135 year history and contrast that with Celtic’s European Cup, 42 League Championships, 34 Scottish Cups and 14 League Cups and think to myself, well, that has to be the least effective conspiracy in the history of the world.
So the footballing premise that Celtic are losing out because of who they are needs to be looked at with some scepticism. As does, I think, the view that their supporters are discriminated against for their Irish Catholic backgrounds. Celtic have a proud history of supporting the poor and the dispossessed, but a fair number of their supporters are now doctors, lawyers (some of them QCs) and media stars. Difficult to see the discrimination as they drive their four-by-fours back to Newton Mearns and Bearsden from the east end.
The problem for those on the other side of the divide is the perception that the moral high ground is being overrun by the undeserving, that ‘victimhood’ is being embraced by the opposition as a weapon to use against their supposed oppressors. This view is supported by the fact that in the world of football it is not unknown for a football manager to instill a siege-mentality amongst his players to promote cohesion and aggression – one of Govan’s favoured sons has been doing that with great success in Manchester for several years. Celtic’s current manager seems to have learned this lesson well.
So what are we left with? A house divided whose occupants find meaning and identity through an allegiance to one side or the other of a sporting (how that word is mangled) rivalry. How sad.
And yet as a football fan I’m not going to turn my back on what being part of a football community means. Who your team is matters.
I know why the two big clubs in Scotland gather about them such fierce loyalties, particularly from those who benefit least from Scottish society. If you led a life with little or no job prospects, no hope of social advancement, empty of belief or meaning, wouldn’t you be drawn to an institution that provided you with a ready-made identity, a community, a sense of who you were?
And, of course, a common enemy.
To be part of the in-group, we need to have an acute sense of ‘the others’, those who are not like us, those we must guard against, those who we oppose to make our group stronger.
It all makes perfect, depressing, sense.
We live in a wet and windy part of an island, our language and our culture eroded by the very presence of a larger neighbour. We borrow identities – ‘Protestant’, ‘Catholic’, ‘Unionist’, ‘Nationalist’, ‘British’, ‘Scottish’.
Time, perhaps, to claim an identity which we can all be comfortable with, to turn our backs on a past where we were defined by things that no longer have relevance.
Perhaps it’s the romantic in me – I am a Partick Thistle fan, after all – but I see the election on May 5th as another step on that journey to a re-invention of what being Scottish is all about. Part of a process we’re all involved in as we move towards a future where being Scottish is something you choose because it encapsulates a sense of who and what you are in a confident community at ease with its place in the world.
Free to all who want to live on this windy scrap of land with its shafts of sunlight piercing through the rain, irrespective of their background, or religion, or ethnicity.
Brothers and sisters, all. One house.