The gun aimed at the priest’s house in sectarian Scotland

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By Kenneth Roy

On a recent Sunday in Ayr bus station, a young, anxious-looking man in dark winter clothing was speaking to someone on his mobile phone when, to his astonishment and mine, he was approached by a tall, gaunt stranger pointing a mocking finger in his direction. I now know that the target was lucky. Better a finger pointed at you than a gun.

‘You’re in the [expletive deleted] Third Division now,’ he yelled at the top of his voice. The man on the mobile phone moved hurriedly away. As he was disappearing from view, I wondered how supporters of teams in the Third Division of the Scottish football league were so easily distinguishable. Then I noticed a small, unobtrusive badge bearing the logo of Rangers Football Club on the breast pocket of his jacket. What a very vigilant eye his aggressor must have had.

I used to enjoy the Third Division. I liked the idea of the semi-derelict terraces, the Abba songs blaring incongruously from defective loudspeakers before the game, the scattering of 253 forlorn spectators, the odd howling dog, the printed programmes with old-fashioned type unchanged since the 1950s, the pies at half-time, the hinterland of abandoned factories and gloomy bungalows, and the overwhelming bleakness of a mid-winter afternoon in the small no-hope towns of Scotland. I liked the sense of futility and checked the results knowing that they made no difference to anybody. Very little these days seems to make no difference to anybody. The Third Division was the last haven of pointlessness.

But I no longer enjoy it. I have given up following the lack of progress of East Stirlingshire, which for so long enjoyed the glorious distinction of being the worst team in all Scotland. Since the mighty Rangers joined the expletive deleted Third Division, it is not the same. Good heavens, it has become money-making. It is acquiring meaning. It is even provoking unpleasant incidents in Ayr bus station.

I have to say, because this is a sensitive subject, that I would feel the same if the mighty Celtic had been relegated to the Third. I have no interest in either of these teams. They bore me equally. When someone phoned me once and invited me to join him in the VIP box at one of their grounds – I can’t remember which – I pretended I was going to the moon and might not be back in time. I would rather endure grand opera, perform the Highland fling, or grow a beard than be seen alive or dead in a VIP box at a football match involving Celtic or Rangers. The sectarianism around these institutions is foreign to my experience, all the more repellent for being so incomprehensible.

But these are personal prejudices. So, holding our breath, we publish stuff about sectarianism. It invariably leads to trouble. We had to tell someone very prominent in Scotland – someone whose name you would recognise if I told you who it was – never to contact us again when he crossed a line in his response to a piece about this subject.

Last week, in the latest contribution to the occasional debate, John D C Gow claimed that sectarianism in Scotland is now ‘low-level and diminishing’. I was surprised though delighted to hear it, accepting that the incident in Ayr bus station – offensive as it was to witness – fell into the low-level category. But as soon as Mr Gow’s article went online, we received a letter from a regular reader of the Scottish Review which contested the article’s basic proposition and went on to illuminate an example of the darker side of sectarianism.

The letter was so disturbing that I’ll quote it more or less in full:

My brother is a Catholic priest and works/resides in Glasgow [I have deleted the name of the district. – Ed]. On a daily basis his house is attacked – once recently with a gun, and with bottles and bricks, and both the house and his church are frequently the subject of these vile, vicious sectarian attacks. Despite recent media attention, police, councillors, MPs, MSPs and local housing associations have given only lip service to any complaints raised. I dread the prospect of receiving a call to advise me that my brother has been attacked, is in hospital, or worse.

Had Mr Gow undertaken proper, unbiased research he would know that this problem is rotting the very core of our society and is still rife and running unchecked by anyone in authority. Even the police hold up their hands and say there is little they can do other than patrol on a regular basis. They state that the criminal justice system is flawed and has failed. They are virtually powerless to stop the main offenders (children between the ages of eight and 17) because possible areas of recourse such as the Children’s Panel ceased to be of any practical use many years ago. In six years of patrolling the area, one police officer has submitted ‘hundreds’ of reports but has only once been called in to give evidence in all of those cases.

The parents are just as guilty as their offspring. They do not care where they are or if they are drunk (yes, even the eight-year-olds) and what crimes they might be committing. These parents should be made legally and financially responsible for the behaviour of their children.

Because of his fear of reprisals, and concern for the personal security and welfare of his brother, the author of the letter asked me to publish it anonymously. I got in touch with him to satisfy myself that it was genuine. It is genuine; and I am now aware of upsetting details which are not for publication. Of course, this one case does not necessarily disprove Mr Gow’s argument that sectarianism is generally low-level and diminishing, but it is deeply alarming proof that, where it does exist, it is capable of causing enormous distress.

The case poses several important questions. Why do the authorities pay so little heed to the victim’s complaints? What is it about sectarian violence in this district of Glasgow that buttons the lips of our normally vocal elected representatives? Why do the police feel powerless to act? Why do so few prosecutions result from the reports they submit? If the attacks were racist rather than sectarian in origin, would they be treated more seriously? What support is being given to the priest by his own church?

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. I am simply one of those very sad people – perhaps we are in the majority – who fail to understand the phenomenon, who shirk from confronting it when it impinges briefly on our lives as it did for me in Ayr bus station, and who would rather the expletive deleted Third Division had been kept out of it.

Courtesy of Kenneth Roy and the Scottish Review