Journalist Trophy-Hunters Have Rangers in their Sights

Even from the vantage-point of this somewhat detached Celtic fan, Rangers officials sometimes appear to have a point when they occasionally complain about deep-seated hostility from sections of the media. A lot of fans believe there has been an attempt to drive them out of existence in the last few years with elements of the social media seeking to define public opinion on who is to blame for the misfortunes of the club.

But after last Saturday’s events at Ibrox, I have to ask myself is there any reason to make it so easy for the club’s media detractors? Rangers hosted soldiers from each of the three branches of the armed forces. It is an event that needed careful supervision. Rangers staff appeared to leave it to the army top brass to choreograph the occasion. After the soldiers marched into the stadium preceded by a pipe band, they were ‘allowed to disperse and wander about on the pitch’ as Michael Kelly wrote in his Scotsman column on 3 October. A group of them made their way to a part of the ground where supporters were singing. There is no agreement on whether the songs were sectarian, or whether these soldiers joined in. Strangely for some, the police were conspicuous by their absence.

Whether this turns out to be a storm in a teacup or whether charges result from a police investigation now underway, it is clear that the club and their military guests could have organized things with far more care and precision.

The avenging angel of Rangers, Phil MacGiolla Bhain approvingly quoted the tweet he had received from the never under-stated George Galloway MP who dubbed the event a ‘shameful fascistic frenzy of hate’. Roy Greenslade’s blog on the Guardian endorsed the social media claims that soldiers [were] chanting jingoistic and sectarian songs in unison with football fans’.

His chief ire was reserved for the conventional media which he complained had wilfully ignored the story. But the testimony of quite a few people at the match who commented such as Colin Armstrong on this blog was that the idea that a sectarian festival had started up was simply a travesty of the truth.

Both based for much of the time in County Donegal, Greenslade and Mac Giolla Bhain have never concealed their post-British outlook. They have both written on and off for Sinn Fein’s An Phoblacht newspaper and here there seemed to be a golden opportunity to undermine the image of the British Armed forces. As the appeal of the police, the civil service and even the NHS has fallen away, the army has continued to be an institution which still enjoys powerful levels of respect nearly everywhere in the United Kingdom.

It now remains to be seen if this story has legs or else is a non-story as the affair over Rangers’s tax affairs proved to be despite the energy and ingenuity of the Rangers Tax Case blog in breathing life into it. 

The caution and at times myopia of the Scottish press corps in exploring all aspects of the Old Firm duel has given an opening for externally-based journalists to mount safari expeditions into the Scottish jungle. If the trophy they are seeking is Rangers this big beast still continues to elude them. But it has boosted the profiles of these journalists, enabling one of them to produce two books which have been huge hits among an embattled section of the Celtic following.

At Ibrox on the same day, Jon Daly, a Dublin Catholic, scored 4 goals for Rangers, helping to lay to rest the claim that the club remained viscerally opposed to players with an Irish Catholic lineage. It would have been expected that the chief news reporter of Channel 4, Alex Thomson, would have made some reference to this small landmark in the quite lengthy blog that he devoted to that day’s events in Glasgow. But for a reporter lately engaged in reporting the horrific occurrences stemming from Syria’s sectarian conflict, an event which thankfully showed the limits of Glasgow’s sectarian rivalries, this was considered trivial. Besides it got in the way of the narrative designed to dramatise Scotland’s communal fault-lines.

Anyone going through the perhaps millions of words expended on Rangers and the wider West of Scotland context produced by Thomson, Greenslade and especially Mac Giolla Bhain would find it hard to find any event hinting that the British Army has perhaps been a force for integration in Scotland. Some of the Scottish regiments had a controversial reputation within Nationalist communities in Ulster. But former regiments like the Kings Own Scottish Borderers and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders included Catholics who made up anything between one-quarter and one-third of the soldiers even at the height of the troubles. Recruitment was therefore not subject to religious or denominational bias. Tensions from the world of civilian Scotland did not spill into the ranks, causing soldiers to doubt whether they could rely on comrades from another faith in life- threatening situations.

On one occasion, when Celtic was playing away in a European fixture, a Catholic former soldier recalls a bus leaving the regimental base of the Argyll’s in Minden, Germany decked out with Celtic colours and tricolour flags but ‘ the rest of the boys in the battalion just accepted it’.

These reminiscences are contained in a fascinating book, Time of Troubles: Britain’s War in Northern Ireland, published a year ago, the authors being Andrew Sanders and Ian S. Wood.

I believe that the ongoing upheavals in Scottish football have provided an opportunity to reduce the polarisation especially between the two main Glasgow rivals. Fans need to reclaim their clubs from corporate power brokers interested only in profit and not the present and future well-being of the clubs that they own. That’s why I was saddened by the self-absorbed approach of Celtic’s administration to the plight of their rival, one that is bound to negatively impact on them the longer the Rangers crisis persists.

It’s why I felt the need to devote a lengthy section of a recently published book of my own to criticising the writings of the talented but misguided Phil MacGiolla Bhain for dehumanising Rangers supporters with the language he habitually uses in his blogs (though not so much in his books). Alex Thomson coolly observed that ‘he wishes to see Rangers FC obliterated...and he writes about Rangers’ downfall with undisguised gee and mirth’.

It did not stop Thomson writing the preface for one of his books even though, if he stops and thinks, the language that this blogger uses is bound to deepen not reduce communal fractures in Scotland that is crudely shaped around religious and historical metaphors.

MacGiolla Bhain is an atheist as are many of the members of the liberal intelligentsia who applaud his efforts to bring the Rangers story to a shuddering end. The malevolent reaction to the army’s presence at Ibrox on 29 September shows that if Scotland jettisons religious belief in favour of indifference, the social climate will not necessarily be more harmonious. Ironically, the club which he sets himself up as the chief defender of would not have come into existence or endured such highs and lows but for the Christian fortitude of those committed to it in different ways.

Forgiveness and reconciliation are important parts of the Christian message . I still hope that they will play a part in reducing the rancour between Celtic and Rangers. Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see whether they have any role in deciding the fate of the young soldiers who, in the brave new Scotland, may face an abrupt end to their military careers if it is decided that they have broken the 2012 Offensive Behaviour at Football Act.

Argyll publications published Tom Gallagher’s book, 'Divided Scotland: Ethnic Friction and Christian Crisis' this summer. Books can be bought on Amazon UK or Argyll Publishing.