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Fighting the Old Battles: Rangers and Sectarianism

As if there wasn’t enough to occupy the thoughts of Rangers fans at this moment in time, supporters have once again been drawn into debates about sectarianism, as has been brilliantly explored by John DC Gow for the Daily Record. The frenzied ignorance and exhibitionism of Stan Collymore on social media invites mockery or the sort of succinct put-down exemplified by the singer Amy MacDonald. Of greater significance is the regression seen in the stands over the past month or so, notably renditions of No Pope of Rome and the resurgence of the Billy Boys beginning with the League Cup semi-final against Celtic. The SPFL is to conduct an investigation after the match delegate at Stark’s Park referred to sectarian chanting coming from the Rangers support. In the context of the Collymore controversy, this was a damning public relations failure. Rather than allow him to dig away at the considerable hole he had already made for himself, Rangers fans decided to throw him a rope. But we should well know by now that such behaviour will be seized upon and rightly condemned without instigators like Collymore pouring forth his simplistic criticism.

Quite apart from the, often sweeping, public and media criticism, indulging in sectarian behaviour invites sanctions from the football authorities. Writing, not always fairly, in yesterday’s Herald, Michael Grant noted Scottish football’s overlords decided back in 2013 that they would not pursue UEFA and FIFA strict liability rules which would make clubs liable for discriminatory behaviour on the part of their fans. But that doesn’t mean such measures cannot be revisited, although Grant predicted the authorities would seek to brush the latest controversy under the carpet and comments from SPFL Chief Executive Neil Doncaster suggest this might be correct. There is likely to be increased pressure to adopt strict liability (note the letters from Nil By Mouth to the 42 SPFL clubs) if there continues to be coverage similar to that seen in recent weeks. Controversy surrounding the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012 will add to the clamour. There is a strange two-level sense of frustration associated with the Act. There are plenty who willingly criticise its subjective nature and implications for free speech, but there’s also a sense that Police Scotland should be more vigorous in pursuing the powers it bestows on them, whatever the practical difficulties. A review of the legislation will be published in the future but until then – and possibly even afterwards if little action is taken – the controversy that surrounds it will create a vacuum in which other stakeholders viewed to be in a position of authority will be urged to intervene.

Over the course of the morning of the game against Raith Rovers, the Scottish Government published three reports looking at sectarianism and public processions. Even a summary reading of these reports would make it clear that Rangers and Celtic lie at the heart of most people’s perception of the problem of sectarianism in Scotland. Indeed the report ‘Community Experiences of Sectarianism’ stated: “The rivalry between Celtic and Rangers was the issue most associated with sectarianism among our participants. Despite it not being explicitly asked about by the interviewers, a great many participants pointed to Celtic and Rangers as two of the principal sources of sectarianism in Scotland.” The report also found the terms Rangers and Protestant and Celtic and Catholic were interchangeable. It suggested the media played a role in “magnifying the issue of sectarianism, perhaps misleadingly” and there are questions about its ability to handle this complex issue with sufficient care. On the other hand, there has to be a recognition of the important role the media plays in shaping public perceptions of the issues involved and if Rangers fans give journalists cause to come up with negative headlines then of course readers will draw the obvious conclusions.

A report examining public attitudes to sectarianism based on the 2014 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey also contained some of the best information yet published on the links between football support and religion. Some headline figures first. 88% of respondents believed sectarianism was still a problem in Scotland and the same proportion mentioned football as a contributing factor, with 55% stating it was the main factor. The report found Rangers and Celtic were both supported by 12% of the Scottish population but concluded “relatively few Catholics support Rangers or Protestants Celtic”. For the purposes of full disclosure, the exact figures were 3% and 5% respectively. It also recorded that 56% of those who support Rangers described themselves as Protestants, while 23% did not identify with religion and 13% choose the generic ‘Christian’. Strikingly, 56% of Celtic supporters described themselves as Catholics and 23% of the Celtic support also did identify with any religion. The authors went on to conclude: “given that there are only half as many Catholics as Protestants in Scotland, these figures imply that a Scots Catholic is twice as likely to be a Celtic supporter as a Protestant is to be a Rangers supporter. Indeed, whereas only 22% of Protestants support Rangers, as many as 45% of Catholics support Celtic.” Filter that statement through your own particular biases and understanding of Scottish history.

The above figures will be enough for those who claim Rangers, at least in terms of its support, remains a Protestant club, while Celtic is its Catholic counterpart. Leaving aside the questions about whether people are drawn to the two club’s because of their religious background or if they instead form a sort of religious identity through following them, it is important to remember that debates about sectarianism take place against the backdrop of the advance of secularism and the decline of organised religion. The proportion of people did not identify with any religion jumped from 40% in 1999 to 54% in 2013. More people are willing to describe themselves having a religious identity than to describe themselves as belong to a particular church but the decline of institutions can’t but have affected the input of religion into public life. As the tide has gradually gone out on Scottish Protestantism, Rangers supporters have been left washed up on the beach. The club and support have been exposed, acting as a magnetic for the worst assumptions about the role of Protestantism in Scottish history and, with every avoidable transgression, confirming the distorted beliefs of those who would seek to portray Scotland as a cold house for Catholics or Irish people.

The issue for most, however, is not the expression of a Protestant identity, although there are those who would argue religion has no place in Scottish football, but its amalgamation with what looks and sounds like Ulster loyalist culture. For some, Rangers seems to bring their loyalist political and cultural affinities into focus. Ibrox and away ground across Scotland are the places where an otherwise imagined community comes alive, despite other fans resisting inclusion. There are a couple of points to be made here. The first is to underline the fact that Scotland is stony ground for loyalism. A new book about the identities of Ulster Protestants co-edited by Thomas Paul Burgess and Gareth Mulvenna recalls the journalist Henry McDonald’s observation that they formed “the least fashionable community in Western Europe”. The same disregard applies in Scotland when it comes to expressions of loyalist identity and Rangers suffers by association. To give one piece of evidence from the Social Attitudes Survey, only 14% supported the right of loyalist organisations to march, although this was admittedly higher than the 11% who supported the same right for Irish republican groups. Unionism in Scotland is currently on the back foot, never mind in your face and on your street loyalism. Among that measly 14%, it seems fair to assume, would be some who support them because they support the right to march in principle, not because they have any sympathy for loyalism.

The second point is that class is an issue that is rarely addressed in any great detail when perceptions of sectarianism are debated. Accusations of snobbery have not been absent, particularly in discussions about the Offensive Behaviour Act, but it’s not a factor that has been explored in any great detail. In the book mentioned above, it is argued loyalism has become a term synonymous with working class communities and it is worth acknowledging that this could be seeping into reporting about the Rangers support.

As a matter of urgency, Rangers requires new corporate and football strategies. Of secondary importance is a new strategy for engaging with issues like sectarianism that goes beyond the good efforts of initiatives such as Follow with Pride and gets into the cultural and political nitty gritty. Those charged with running the club in the past and future might not consider themselves to be well placed for such work and by training they may well not be attuned to the issues involved. But to pretend there have not been commercial implications from decades of negative publicity seems wilfully naive. In narrow business terms, there is a brand to be repaired.

Singing the Billy Boys isn’t a red, white and blue issue, it isn’t even a shades of grey issue except in the tendency towards sadomasochism. It’s a black and white issue. No surrender, some might say. Well, this battle was lost quite some time ago, surrendering doesn’t apply retrospectively. To draw on the report on public attitudes towards sectarianism one last time, 80% of Rangers fans believed sectarianism would always exists in Scotland compared with 76% of Celtic fans, 69% of fans of other Scottish clubs and 60% of those who were not football supporters. It is somehow odd that those deemed to be most responsible for perpetuating the problem are least optimistic about a resolution. This seems overly negative given the eradication of sectarianism in employment but attitudes can be harder to shift.

Adults, including Rangers fans, can take responsibility for their own actions, including the time and place they choose to express their political, religious or cultural beliefs. The need to take responsibility applies equally to those who are happy to luxuriate in ignorance about Rangers and its fans like the participants in the ‘Community Experiences of Sectarianism’ report who described Simply the Best and Rule Britannia as sectarian simple because they were associated with Rangers. The media needs to recognise that at times it appears evasive when it comes to dealing with the issue of sectarianism in its messy entirety. The perception of imbalance encourages those who are already predisposed to defiance: Why follow the rules at all when it looks like they are applied inconsistently? Rangers Football Club is not a sectarian institution, nor are the majority of Rangers fans bigots. It’s time to challenge all those who, through word or action, perpetuate such misconceptions.