2007 - 2022

Joan McAlpine & Séamas Ó Sionnaigh

This is a guest post following on from Joan McAlpine’s writing on the anti-sectarianism bill and the impact of writing on it, (Sing out for a country free of prejudice and hate) and then the response to that on An Sionnach Fionn.

The Scottish Government is quite right to believe that measures are required to address sectarianism in our society. It is also correct to believe there is a need to urgently address violence, and particularly domestic violence, in the context of Old Firm matches. Unfortunately legitimate motivation has not yet resulted in the development of an effective strategy and the political point-scoring of the unionist parties seems to be resulting in an entrenched defence of well intentioned but inadequate proposals.

The reality is that making laws about what constitutes offensive is a difficult business. The BNP find immigrants offensive. I find the toe-curling obeisance the BBC regularly pays to the royal family offensive. Many people are offended by swearing. Are we going to ban swearing at football matches?

There are existing laws about inciting violence and inciting hatred. The policing of football matches would do well to more effectively focus on addressing these poisonous issues before looking for new laws (an all too common request from senior police officers in a variety of contexts).

And lets not forget that being offensive is one of the joys of being part of a football crowd. With a few noble exceptions (Hibs fans and Sunshine on Leith) much football singing and chanting is specifically intended to annoy opponents and their supporters (or referees). It is sometimes laced with humour. The best example I have witnessed was Luton fans serenading the sending off of Tony Adams with a chorus of ‘Where’s your donkey gone; far, far away.’ It was intended to offend. I have also seen Leeds fans singing ‘We’re not famous any more’ when visiting the MK Dons in England’s League 1, but I am sure they would be offended if it was suggested they were inoffensive. And most singing and chanting in Scotland, England, Belgium, Italy, Hungary and Ghana where I have watched club matches is quite deliberately offensive.

There has been a welcome move over a number of years to eradicate the singing of songs or chants which are racist, homophobic or explicitly sectarian. And Celtic and Rangers have made determined efforts to address sectarianism which they rightly point out is a broader societal issue. It is therefore particularly unfortunate that the Scottish Government seems intent on pressing ahead with an initiative for which they have been unable to get the support of the clubs.

Joan McAlpine argued that “there are circumstances in which these songs, for pragmatic reasons of public safety should not be sung. That includes a football match. The heated atmosphere of the Old Firm means “folk songs” take on a far more sinister tone.” But the most vehement supporters of both sides thrive on perceived (or sometimes real) injustice. These are actually the people whose behaviour we want to change. The blunt instrument of a vague law that pays little attention to the difference between political expression and incitement is almost guaranteed to be counterproductive. And speaking of counterproductive don’t mention rugby.

Séamas Ó Sionnaigh raises some valid issues in his attack on Joan McAlpine and the Scottish Government’s approach to sectarianism, but whilst I would defend his right to make a polemical defence of historical and more recent armed struggle, he actually misses the point. The challenge is how to move forward so that we can live together in these islands without killing each other, in Ireland and Scotland. A good first step would be to discuss our differences without disparaging those we don’t agree with. Séamas seems to have overlooked that Joan’s article was partly prompted by the vitriolic attacks she faced in the Twittersphere for having the temerity to raise the issue. And when Séamas talks of common ethnicity he treads on dangerous ground indeed.

The Scottish Government should not confuse demonstrating a determination to address the sectarianism which is a blight on Scotland with sticking to legal proposals which risk to infringe freedom of expression, provoke intransigence in those whose behaviour they seek to change and alienate the football clubs whose support is required for any successful strategy. And we should all try to lower the temperature of the discussion, even if it makes it less interesting.

Comments (24)

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  1. jimmykerr says:

    I think it’s very interesting that our Government is doing something about sectarianism now. For years and years, it was never even discussed. It was about a decade ago that it began to get discussed, and even then the discussion was limited to politicians and other elites. It was only five years ago, that the mainstream media started to discuss it in a sensible critical way, but even then they refused to shoulder any of the blame, despite being aplogists for the entire thing for years.

    I believe that what we have seen is a remarkable decline in the “cultures” around sectarianism. Twenty years ago, when I was a teenager, there were massive Orange Walks and Hibernian walks all over the West of Scotland, certainly in Ayrshire, where I gew up. These disgusting horrible booze fests, were like something out of “only a boys game” and they attracted all kinds of bampots, with many thousands flocking to parks, most of them “proddys” wearing rangers tops, spitting at known catholics etc. It was really bad.

    These events were extremely significant in the social calendar, but more importantly, certainly where I come from, there was a sense that being Protestant or Catholic or Rangers or Celtic formed a central part of your identity. When old firm day came, it was just accepted that there would be trouble, mostly restricted to the local pubs. The violence in the home that i witnessed myself at friends’ houses, again wasn’t even discussed. the madness was everywhere, in the school, on the parks, in the local disco and it was impossible to escape.

    Fortunately for me, my Mam and Dad were both activists and my Mam was a Communist, so I had been brought up to treat sectarianism, and religion with the contempt it deserved, so i never got caught up in it.

    What I have seen over the years is the steady subversion of this deep sense of identity, built up over many decades, which began I think as a side effect of the poverty and discrmination faced by Irish immigrants and then morphed into a Scottish cultural reality, but I think it was one that could never last in the face of rampant consumerism and materialism. I believe that the genuine culture of sectarianism has largely disppeared and what we are left with is pretty much a symbolic form of sectarianism, a convenient way for dysfuntional, desperate, working class men to fulfill an imagined macho fantasy, somehow tied in with our gender relationships and most crucially I believe, our relationshiop to booze and strcutural issues like poverty and inequality.

    For a long time, authorities, the media and schools, certainly in my youth, did not want to address sectrianism at all, probably because it was too painful, too deeply ingrained and too shameful.

    As far as the Sectarian bill goes. I don’t think it matters too much about how blunt it is as a tool. It’s use value is symbolic, just as todays sectarianism, whilst real in terms of its violent effects, is largely a symbolic form of hatred. I think that the attack on sectarianism will slightly encourage its demise and in a generation, we won’t even talk about sectariansim. A far bigger challenge and the one that will have much more profound effects on things like domestic violence is our booze culture, which is so deeply embedded, so deeply entwined with violence, that any moves towards tackiling it and I believe that Minimum Pricing is both a symbolic and genuine step in the right direction, will have lasting positive effects.

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      Thanks Jimmy, a really useful comment which chimes pretty much with our thinking on this subject, this is about a remnant hollow shell leftover from a bygone age. I’d add that both the faux-libertarians (Stuart Waiton etc) and the legal critics are missing the point.

  2. Davy Marzella says:

    Jimy Kerr wrote : ” What I have seen over the years is the steady subversion of this deep sense of identity, built up over many decades, which began I think as a side effect of the poverty and discrimination faced by Irish immigrants and then morphed into a Scottish cultural reality…..”

    I think that there might be some truth in that , though I’m not quite sure what Jimmy is referring to by “steady subversion”.

    One definition of “sectarianism” could be the legacy of that hostile prejudice and discrimination faced by those of Irish/Gaelic/Catholic origin in Scotland…… which many might feel has not been fully acknowledged in the formation of a modern Scottish identities.

    Coming from that context , it is maybe not surprising that some feel the outlawing of Irish rebel songs as being unfair and maybe even a further rejection and deletion of that contributing factor of Irish culture & struggle from what is now present-day Scotland.

    “The more you refuse to hear our voice…….. the louder we will sing ” ???

  3. Indy says:

    I think people are going to need to see how it works in fact rather than in theory, so in some senses we’ll need to wait 3 or 4 years to see what difference it makes – and by that I don’t mean simply whether people stop behaving in offensive ways but whether fewer people get battered.

    And I think it needs to be looked at in concert with minimum pricing etc, because it’s very much drink-related. It’s heartening to read today that sales of beer have dropped by 14 per cent since the new law on bulk discounts was brought in. A lot of people said that the changes in the law wouldn’t make any difference but even in a short period of time it has made some difference.

    If people can see a difference as a consequence of the football related behaviour legislation that’s what will matter and it’s important because by taking on issues like the booze culture and sectarian football culture the SNP is showing willing to tackle some of the problems that have been seen as somehow being insurmountable, as though alcohol abuse and sectarian/racist abuse is somehow an intrinsic part of being Scottish, something we can’t really change. If we can show that these things can be changed, or at least the harm resulting from them reduced, then what else could we change?

  4. Ard Righ says:

    What do you get when you cross religion with imperialism?
    Interesting article, symptomatic of larger deeper issues I feel.
    Raising the public profile of sectarian insanity is important, that alone will have an effect of self policing in time. The drafting of laws to enact upon the drunken taunting of the opposition is pointless and will effect nothing other than to clog a release valve of society, regardless of what you think that represents. The high profile of football must also be questioned, it no longer has any basis in the tribalism it used to represent- native players….now financial pawns in a commercial engine.
    “The challenge is how to move forward so that we can live together in these islands without killing each other, in Ireland and Scotland.”
    That will not change until over-population is addressed and dealt with, it will manifest more regularly from different outlets a time goes on. Kick out the English- whatever happened to that maxim?

  5. MacNaughton says:

    Ard Righ – your anti-English comments are disgraceful, and really bring down the standard of the comments on these pages, as usual.

    I’m sure I’m not the only one who wishes you would shut your mouth, unless you have something interesting to say.

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      Agreed. Ard Righ is on final warning, abusive, racist or inflammatory comments won’t be tolerated. We’re trying to create a better level of debate, not hurl abuse about.

      1. Ard Righ says:

        As most here will be aware, true racism is acting upon the dislike of another race. It is an elephant in the room of which few comprehend. Calling a race a name, may be inflammatory, but it is not racist. The differential is much like envy and jealousy. The intention was to raise a joke about the nature of abuse, which neither of you got. Who’s fault is that?

        Lets have some more discussion elephants please, we could start with eugenics.

    2. Ard Righ says:

      Perhaps you ignored the rest of that comment and chose to ignore truth, merely reacting to what was intended as a joke, I actually meat to write the widely used graffiti slogan that was on every road and bridge near the English border for decades “English go home”, so I’ll apologies for that but not the poignant reminder of occupation of Scotland.
      I’m tired of institutionalised anti-Scottish behaviour against me, my kind and culture. You shoot me down for reminding everyone of the war, abject slavery, oppression and ethnic cleansing that the English nation has forced upon Scotland and Scots and many, many other nations for centuries. I will never allow that to be forgotten.

      1. Ard Righ says:

        So when we talk of the real racists, there is no question it is the English state. As Scots we have had to fight for what is ours, is that right? The illness or pathology the English have, is the constant need to be in charge and to therefore attack everything that may have benefit to them. I have lost count of communities I have seen split in two, due the settlement of some cliquish English types in remote communities- do you make everyone’s life a nightmare trying to accommodate that which is at odds with the harmony of a community or do you eradicate it?, you might ask yourself that question sometime, perhaps after you’ve opened you eyes.

  6. If Catholics had a different colour skin this problem would of been classed as racist and sectarianism must be treated in the same way.

    1. Tocasaid says:

      Though, anti-Irish racism is also covered by race-relations legislation. No?

  7. Derick fae Yell says:

    Jimmy K is on the money
    “As far as the Sectarian bill goes. I don’t think it matters too much about how blunt it is as a tool. It’s use value is symbolic.”

    Exactly. Hortatory.
    Policy which seeks to set a tone and change attitudes. And which will take 10-15 years at least to bear not at all strange fruit.

  8. The big question which remains unanswered is why does the CPS in Glasgow routinely block Strathclyde Police’s attempts to get convictions under the current footbal related violence legislation which would enable a court order to made to keep the accused out of the grounds?

    According to Strathclyde Police it is usually refused on the basis of ‘cost’.

    Secondly when Strathclyde Police can get the Glasgow CPS to agree to a convinction under these statutes, why does the Glasgow Sherrif Court fail to apply the full rigour of the legisaltion and often only fines the culprits with out any banning order?

    I suggest that if the current rule of law was applied the more extreme variants operating in a sectarian manner would be removed and fans who are ‘sectarian’ for the 90 minutes of a football match would start to reconsider their behaviour.

    It is interesting that, apparently, Lothian and Borders Police and the Edinburgh CPS routinely apply the current regulations, as in the recent case concerning Mr Lennon, the court applied a banning order to the guilty man and, better, Hearts Football Club banned him sine die.

    Possibly if the CPS in Glasgow did its job, rather than counting the pennies, the current law would be effective in dealing with the 700 odd record incidents last year. As it ducks the issue then sadly a hammer is needed to crack this walnut.

  9. Tocasaid says:

    A confusing and tiresome subject. As to the stories, I can sympathise with some of both Seumas’ and Joan’s thinking.

    Do not buy the ethnic thing though. Johnny Adair or Iain Paisley are as ‘Celtic’ as anyone else, if that’s what is being hinted at.

    My main question is ‘why football?’ Why not take these offensive/harmless/jocular/wind-ups/sectarian/political whatever to our workplaces? Weddings? Funerals? Shopping? Nights out?

    Some people do choose to offended – maybe like the many ‘new Irish’ who despite being Scottish buy into the Celtic mania (why not Hibs if they want ‘Irish’?). On the other hand, why go out to offend someone on grounds of their race, gender or national background? As to religion, surely we attack all or none? And, as I maintain in my own blog – the true sectarians will be found in the areas of strongest Presbyterian support in Scotland such as na h-Eileanan Siar. Anyone who’s heard or read the anti-Popey (and much more) hellfire stuff of the various Wee Free sects will know what I mean. And yet, sectarian violence in the most god-fearing parts of Scotland is unheard of. Equally though, I’d argue that the Wee Frees were as much ridiculed as Catholics. If they could find a football club to support, they might even be physically attacked too.

    Ultimately, we have to leave it all in the past.

    1. Indy says:

      The question why football only makes sense if you ask why is this an issue for football but not for other sports – it doesn’t make sense comparing it with completely different social contexts, ones where women hold much more sway. Team sport is inherently confrontationl – two teams made up of men go out to try and beat each other, their supporters (mainly men) put their colours on and face each other ready for metaphorical battle. I would have thought the difference between that context and a wedding or going shopping would be obvious.

      What is less obvious is why there is only a problem with violence and anti-social behaviour around football. Why not rugby? What is different about the culture? I remember one of the first things Kenny MacAskill did in 2007 was scrap the ban on alcohol at Murrayfield. Can anyone imagine even contemplating lifting the ban on drink at football matches? It is interesting to speculate why rugby fans, who are just as passionate as football fans about their sport, are able to keep everything in perspective where some football fans can’t.

      1. Tocasaid says:

        Am I right in thinking its quite a recent thing in football? Sectarism was not only around but promoted by the establishment in much of the 20th C. However, did it spill into football?

        My mother’s family are all Gorgie Dalry and Jambos to a man/woman. My auld dear who can remember her auld man going to Hearts games in the 20s and 30s has never mentioned any violence at games. Neither was there sectarian singing according to her,(unless the guys in her family hid it well). As her mum was an Irish Catholic its fair to say that it would’ve been mentioned. It also seems as if even Edinburgh Derby game crowds were mixed until the mid 70s. Did the crowds not move freely at the 7-0 game?

        Whatever, in Edinburgh at least things are complex. Not all Irish supported Hibs. Leith – ‘Hibs territory’ – was an anti-Catholic stronghold until the 60s (see Cormac and Protestant Action). Many families has mixed loyalties football wise despite whatever ‘ethnic’ or religious background they had.

        As to rugby – true, there aren’t fights at games but rugger fans are every bit as offensive. I was unlucky enough to be on the Fife train home 2 years ago after a Scots-England game at Mfield. The racist bile from some of the apparently ‘banker class’ was disgusting. Fortunately myself and some hard Fife ‘wifies’ challenged these middle-class pricks and they shut up without it coming to blows.

        Never mind alcohol at rugby… just ban rugby.

  10. Indy says:

    Yes but Tocsaid the problem is not simply that people sing or say offensive things. If the Government was going to ban that, there would be all sorts of people on the wrong side of the law. Frankie Boyle’s career would be over for a start. But I have yet to hear of people coming out of a Frankie Boyle gig and going on the rampage. Rather, it is the link between football and violence, abuse and intimidation. It is a public order issue. Somehow football culture has normalised that – not for the majority of fans of course but for a minority and the effects aren’t just verbal. That’s why they need to have so many police at the games and out on the streets afterwards. This bill is basically an attempt to change that culture. It may succeed, it may not but it’s worth the attempt.

    1. Tocasaid says:

      I agree with you. The precise causes are not easily defined. However we do have to change this culture and I applaud the SNP for making an effort. No other party has and the main fitba clubs in question have just made matters worse.

      One recent event was interesting but sad. It was the attack on Anthony Stokes home. In can’t be proved why it was attacked but I’m sure a guess at football tribalism wouldn’t be far off the mark. Sectarianism though? Stokes is Irish, but is he a Catholic? I don’t know. Plus how many Catholics are in the Rangers team? Put it this way, if he’d been a Spanish, French or German Catholic player playing for Rangers, I doubt it would’ve happened.

  11. Dave McEwan Hill says:

    Sectarianism is an historical union dividend and the result of England interfering in the affairs of two small neighbouring countiries. It’s called divide and rule. For a lot of the 19th century the United Scotsmen and the Unitied Irishmen behaved like brotherly organisations despite the very obviously different religious backgound in both countries and until fairly late in the 19th Century Sinn Fein in Northern Irland had many protestant ministers as branch secretaries.
    Then Britain played the “Orange Card” and very deliberately fostered poisonous division in Ulster while supporting Carson (family name “Carsoni of Italian stock) and turned a blind eye as Carson’s volunteers armed themselves to the teeth

    What we have in West Central Scotland is a reflection of this divide and two communities who hold different views about the constitutional futue of the six counties. This should have died out by now but our two major political parties – Labour and the Tories – played on this division for large parts ofm the 20th century and with the death of the Tories this has left Labour still playing wicked games with Scotland’s catholic community. As this community has a long memory of the horrendous discrimination it faced in Scotland right up to the 1930s and as institutionalised anti Catholicism still lingers on it is very easy to keep elements in this community suspicious of Scotland and suspicious of independence. This is the game being played at the moment and this is why “sectarianism” which is less prevalent than it was 20 or 30 years ago is now being given much higher media profile.
    The SNP has had no choice but to act but it would be useful if it was to be widely admitted that sectarianism in Scotland was basically anti Irishism and anti Catholicism for much of its history

    1. Ard Righ says:

      1st Paragraph, spot on, so many folks are simply unaware of the nasty devicive origins of colonial english poison that STILL infects our lives. It’s soooooooo last millennium!

  12. Davy Marzella says:

    Dave McEwan Hill wrote : “The SNP has had no choice but to act but it would be useful if it was to be widely admitted that sectarianism in Scotland was basically anti Irishism and anti Catholicism for much of its history”

    Agreed Dave. That could contribute to heal any legacy of that lingering wound. I think it is probably the denial of that – eg. “green & orange – both equally responsible” – which maybe prevents more effective understanding & progress.

  13. Dave McEwan Hill says:


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