Should the Union flag be banned in Scotland?


by Hazel Lewry

That, in a limited fashion, is a conclusion to which logic appears to direct us after scrutiny of Paul McBride QC’s recent statements as reported in national mainstream media.  The essence of Mr. McBride’s statements was that the Union significantly moderated the force of sectarianism.

The question of banning of the Union Flag seems to be a very serious issue that that arises from a slightly more than cursory examination of the facts behind McBride’s recent article in the Scotsman, and the proposals of the new Scottish Government legislation.

Perhaps in light of both of these issues, we should all ask this question and examine the impact Unionism and its symbols have on daily life in our nation.

At the very least we should ask if a limited ban on the Union flag is desirable as in certain circumstances it is clearly both divisive and sectarian.  The Union flag appears to fall under the scope and remit of the proposed new law and contradicts Mr McBride’s assertions.

QC McBride has claimed that the influence of the rest of the UK prevents a more extreme form of bigotry in Scotland.  Mr McBride is closely affiliated to Glasgow Celtic football club. Glasgow Celtic and Glasgow Rangers are acknowledged in many areas as a substantial focus for sectarianism.

When anyone so closely affiliated to one of these clubs speaks to the nation on such a significant issue we should listen.  We should also verify.

Furthermore we should ascertain fact from fiction and opinion from reality.  If the person speaks from fact and a basis of reality and offers solutions then they should be lauded.  If not they should be ridiculed and identified as part of the problem.

With the undercurrent of sectarianism in Scotland most prevalent in the public perception through its association with Parkhead and Ibrox football parks, one would expect Mr McBride would have a good level of insight on the subject.  With Mr McBride being a QC one would expect an argument based on logic and fact.  Both seemed absent, on the surface at least.

One would further expect McBride’s insight to be accurate, unbiased and informative; he has after all represented both Rangers and Celtic football clubs at various times, and by all accounts represented them well.  Balancing this however are his outspoken remarks against the Scottish FA which subsequently required what could only be perceived by many as a rather humbling and credibility damaging apology.

It was of interest then to see which Paul McBride spoke the anti-independence diatribe, appearing designed to induce fear into many Scottish Catholics, almost coerce them into “going status quo” in any independence referendum.

Was it the careful considered and respected QC or was it the individual who can seemingly engage mouth before brain.  Both appear to inhabit the same body.  I had thought Mr McBride’s SFA comments were perhaps an aberration.

It was therefore interesting to read his account in the Scotsman newspaper where he claims that sectarianism would “blossom” in an independent Scotland.

This one time Tory advisor and former Labourite also claimed that an independent Scotland could have “serious” implications for Catholics, who he said should have “concerns” about independence.  I’ve read most of the SNP documents and have yet to perceive anything I would describe as anti-Catholic, bigoted or sectarian.

With these self-evident contradictions it’s appropriate to examine Mr. McBride’s claims further.

For the purpose of this examination we’ll primarily limit the scope to football sectarianism, and give a cursory look at “future implications for Catholics” as these are areas where Mr. McBride possibly has an inside track through his prominent position in Scottish public life.

They are certainly areas upon which QC McBride professes opinions.

Sectarianism is generally acknowledged in media reports as being most prevalent around the Old Firm.  Some Rangers and Celtic fans being considered the worst offenders.

Sectarianism and bigotry are not normally associated with our national team, and although it’s quite possible there have been incidents, I couldn’t find any in half a day of searching that did not include references to individual clubs rather than just the national squad.

I performed a Google search, “* football club sectarianism”, replacing “*” with Premier League club names.  Rangers and sectarian brought up 371,000 hits.  The same search for Celtic displayed 146,000 hits.

Delving deeper, many of Celtic’s hits were simple sheer ignorance and lack of respect for those who died to give them the freedom to sing.  I refer to disturbing a Remembrance Day minute of silence with sectarian chants.

This is where the base research diverged from maximum hit numbers – I’d expected to see Rangers and Celtic at the top of the list with the others propping it up.

Surprisingly Hearts came in strongly behind Rangers at a “mere” quarter of a million hits, however the most substantial proportion of these had references to Celtic and Rangers.  Ditto for Inverness Caley who appeared to prop up the group at about 63,000 hits, and whom I can’t personally recall being called sectarian.

When references to Rangers or Celtic were excluded from searches, hits for both Hearts and Inverness Caley dropped more to the levels anticipated, which was a small fraction of the original quarter million in Hearts’ case.

This exclusion of references to Rangers and Celtic put Hearts and other teams more where popular consensus might have them in the commonly perceived “most sectarian pecking order”.  In fact they grouped rather nicely by region, with West Central teams topping the list, East Central teams lagging quite a bit behind and the remainder propping up these two groups.

Looking quickly over the search results two items became self evident, although the sectarian problem is in Scotland, it is not specifically of Scotland.  The Celtic hits were festooned with references to Ireland and the Rangers hits were similarly adorned with references to the UK Union, in both cases most specifically centred on flags, music and religion.

So the problem appears to be in Scotland but substantially rooted in ties to both the Union and Ireland.  The obvious solution appears to present itself, break these links, the problem will reduce, perhaps in time eliminate.

This may be rather simplistic, but primary appearances are that the Union itself, its symbols and the inherent opposition to those symbols in sections of our society are a root cause and fostering agent of sectarianism and bigotry in Scotland.

Without the Union issues to rail against, energies expended on the Irish tricolour might appear rather wasted.

After Rangers and Celtic were consistently included, referenced and referred to in the vast majority of sectarian hits recorded, I went to their journals and cruised their online pages.

On Celtic’s pages my search picked up a club affiliated article built around the sectarianism issue, and highlighted in picture 1.

That took my search in a new direction; it was suggested without more input to look at that picture, and look for anything that’s out of place. At first to me it was just a picture of old firm fans at an old firm game. I was directed to look independently at pictures of the crowds from an Inverness or Aberdeen game, and for comparison a Scotland game.

After examining the pictures side by side, only two here for simplicity, the aforementioned picture 1 and also now picture 2 taken at a Scotland game the stark realization is stunning.

Why are the flags of another nation being flown in Scotland at a domestic sporting event?

These symbols appear quite literally “designed to incite and antagonise the opposing fan base”.

I looked at several crowd scenes of domestic matches in England, I failed to see a Saltire flying. I had no luck finding one in Ireland’s domestic fixtures either. I even looked into rugby and curling in these countries. Nope, no Saltires proudly waving, not even one flag that could be construed as a Saltire hanging limply. England and the Irish republic apparently have little use for another country’s flag at their domestic events.

At the Scottish national games it’s very hard to see anything other than a sea of Saltires, perhaps interspersed with the odd rampant lion. The presence of Union flags or the Irish Tricolour at a Scottish national event would now be as likely as a primary school team winning the Scottish cup.

While the odd arrest for inappropriate behaviour continues at most international matches it certainly appears sectarianism and bigotry at the Scotland games is very hard to find, ditto for games in Ireland and England. It’s also very hard to find Union flags prominently displayed in the Republic of Ireland or Saltires in England.

I took it one step farther.  I googled police arrest pictures from the relatively recent UEFA cup (Glasgow Rangers v Zenit St Petersburg) post-match riots in Manchester.  Again although not exclusively, they were predominantly featuring the Union undercurrent.

This Glasgow team was not representing the UK, it was representing Scotland, and these supporters happily gave the impression to the world that they are not Scots, but English troublemakers misbehaving in England.  For the Union flag is almost universally associated with England. Personal experience as I’ve travelled dictates that fact to me.

I freely acknowledge this as a very cursory overview performed in response to Paul McBride’s comments, and that under the respective umbrellas of both clubs there are a great many good and genuine people who are sadly tarred with what is the cloying sectarian and bigoted brush of the few.

These observations do however contain factual evidence and acknowledged issues apparently sadly missing from the foundation of Mr McBride’s assertions.

The result of this cursory view of QC McBride’s article would appear that his opinion that racism, prejudice or sectarianism would be worse without the Union is just that, it’s an opinion, and an opinion built on potentially very loose foundations.

For a QC who is trained to deal in facts and evidence it appears to me a surprisingly ill informed opinion that lacked any readily apparent facts or references.

In fact when his opinion is contrasted with the stated all inclusive policy of the SNP against Westminster’s still decidedly anti-Catholic stance, referencing not least monarchical succession – it’s plain Unionist, scaremongering, potentially panic inciting sectarian rubbish. It’s eminently arguable under proposed SNP inclusive policies that all minorities will be far better enfranchised in a sovereign Scotland.

Advancing on the above, with the disrepute that this issue brings to the use of the Union flag, and its possible inappropriateness at sporting events not UK represented, coupled to the obvious sectarianism and racist undertones within which it’s apparently perceived in these circumstances, is there not a very sound case for banning the Union flag from purely domestic sporting events inside Scotland.  Ditto the Irish Tricolour / Red Hand of Ulster.

A cursory review of the proposed legislation would certainly allow that interpretation. Perhaps the Union Flag requires a special section in the legislation, where it is either included or excluded specifically from it. Either/or, the situation does not bode well for international perception of that symbol, yet is it a place where we can afford ambiguity?

If racist songs should be banned, real or perceived, along with racist acts, why should the ban not extend to racist symbols, real or perceived – the proposed legislation can be interpreted that way.

It is a very credible argument that waving a Union Flag or Irish Tricolour, even the Red-Hand flag of Ulster at a Scottish domestic sporting event is a provocative act.

Then again the afterthought occurs, with this seemingly apparent level of Unionism and establishment entrenchment in the Scots legal profession is it any wonder that this self same legal profession has the potential of being viewed as more than somewhat assisting, perhaps very culpably assisting in a drive to bring disrepute to Scots law and thereby engineer its own very premature demise or abrogation. Many of its members have benefitted substantially from said Union after all.

Perhaps the upstanding senior officers of Scots law whose representatives first reportedly sold their votes to the Union in 1706 still prefer the ermine path of potential personal gratification to the alternate of freedom and self determination for their fellow countrymen. If this were proven fact rather than circumstantial supposition much could possibly be explained around Scots laws ongoing conundrums.