The Unexceptional Face of Scottish Sectarianism
The latest debate about “sectarianism” in Scotland only came to light because a man had spent so long out of Scotland that he’d forgotten that this was routine, everyday, normalised. Most managers, most fans, most broadcasters have become so inured to this state of affairs it has become just background noise.
The reality is that sectarian and racist abuse in Scotland is structured, institutionalised and commercialised through football and associated organisations and the abuse Steve Clarke faced is unexceptional and experienced week in week out.
This tells us something about the state of inertia and conservatism in Scottish society, in a country where about half the population are determined for constitutional change, and about half are determined to stay wedded to a Union.
And let’s be in no doubt, whilst there are nationalists of all hues and persuasions on a spectrum from republican to soft Yes pragmatist, there are also unionists ranging from true-blue loyalists to centrists nestling in unquestioning British conformity. But the persistent malignant form of sectarianism and anti-Irish racism can only exist in the context of British nationalism. Without it, it has no voice and no home. That’s an uncomfortable historical fact.
The responses to Steve Clarke’s appeal after his sides defeat at Ibrox were the routine and reflex of victim blaming and the construct of false equivalence.
Cat Boyd wrote: “Reading this morning that catholic schools are somehow to blame for ‘sectarianism’ and not the shameful legacy of anti-Irish racism and anti-catholic bigotry that has plagued Scotland for many years. Who knew.”
And Irvine Welsh noticed that “Everybody should go to the same type of school” is the liberal Trojan horse of sectarianism – though its proponents rarely advocate this for social class. (Though I believe that everybody should).”
These lazy myths are trotted out every time, but the advocates of school reform are curiously silent in-between.
Equivalence – the idea of “both sides are just as bad ” is bandied about but bares no scrutiny.
In fact what is neglected is the stark evidence that of the 7000+ religiously aggravated hate crimes 55-60% have been anti-catholic in nature. This is despite this community being only 16% of the population.
There is no equivalent to the Orange Walks to the scale of loyalist intimidation or to the threats against journalists that has been witnessed in recent years. This is not to say there isn’t racism bigotry and sectarianism in all communities and amongst virtually all football clubs, there clearly is.
As the writer and Co-Founder of the Rangers Standard Alasdair McKillop told us:
“Sectarianism seems to me to be a freewheeling form of intolerance, now devoid of any economic or political implications it had in the past. It speaks to a failure of common decency as much as anything. Occasionally it is more serious than that. So far as I can tell, the public debate seems not to have advanced a great deal in terms of sophistication, quality or, most importantly, honesty. It is characterised by inconsistency and the worst sort of tribal bad faith. The only valid starting point is to acknowledge no one has clean hands.”
But the equivocation and refusal to look at transparent evidence is part of the problem that goes through a media filter that can’t cope with addressing the source of the issue face-on and insists – as it does on other matters – in weighing everything up in a misguided search for a mythical balance.
If we have victim-blaming and false equivalence we also have a lot of hand-wringing and worried quizzical faces as if the answer was not well-known and well proven, as if nowhere else in the world had these problems and if nothing could ever be done.
The answer, as everyone knows, is Strict Liability, the system that works throughout Europe.
‘Strict liability’ is UEFA’s standard for fan behaviour and can see sanctions imposed, such as fines, points deductions or closing sections of a ground where offensive behaviour or crowd disorder has taken place. It has been used to great effect in European matches and over the last decade this has included fines for Scottish teams in European competition. In possibly the most serious sanction imposed under the principles, CSKA Moscow, having seen fans charged with racist behavior on three separate occasions during 2014, were forced to play three Champions League games behind closed doors and were banned from selling tickets for away fixtures.”
“No one is advocating that, in Scotland, we should simply leap into a round of ground closures but Strict Liability provides a clear framework for reporting and dealing with instances of disorder and offensive fan behavior including sectarianism and racism. Something you’ll struggle to find in the nearly two-hundred-page SFA rulebook.”
He concludes: “Strict Liability would not replace the law of the land; nor will it be a ‘magic bullet’ to solve all the problems. What it will do is provide a positive direction of travel for the game in terms of tackling anti-social behaviour and a framework to support or punish clubs as required.”
But if the solutions are staring us in the face, why aren’t we implementing them? Timidity and a complete lack of political will or direction is the answer.
In June 2013 Scottish clubs voted overwhelmingly against implementing UEFA’s ‘Strict Liability’ principles without any real public debate or, any fan involvement in the decision-making process.
The clubs don’t want it because it would force them to put their own (big) house in order.
We have clubs that are more powerful than our governing institutions and a media reliant on them for paper sales, and a government unable to act with any authority or strategy. That is a structural deficit.
Despite the death of the Old Firm we are required to maintain a fantasy that it still exists, and maintaining fantasies is something us Scots are experts in.
Rangers statement following Kilmarnock manager Steve Clarke’s comments about sectarian abuse at Ibrox: “Rangers wishes to make it clear unacceptable behaviour will not be tolerated at Ibrox. Everything will be done to eradicate this kind of behaviour.”
Nobody really believes this.
We’ve heard it for decades. It’s a drone of denial that has echoed down the years.
As the football writer Andrew Smith wrote this week: “Scottish football clubs and authorities have it in their power to rid the game of sectarianism, they simply choose not to do so.”
The Sports Minister must act with some authority, some ambition, some independence and impose Strict Liability.
Scotland can either stay stuck, broken, disfigured by bigotry, or it can begin to mend itself and change and grow. Unlike so many areas of our lives this is entirely within our own powers right now.