SNP deputy first minister John Swinney exhibited the necessary understanding in talking of an element of the supposedly title ‘partying’ Rangers supporters who reclaimed those streets having indulged in “vile anti-Catholic bigotry” and breaching covid rules in “loutish and thuggish fashion”.
The first minister Nicola Sturgeon herself also recognised as much, tweeting about being “appalled” and “disgusted”. “I’m also angry on behalf of every law abiding citizen,” she wrote. “In normal times, the violence & vandalism, and the vile anti Catholic prejudice that was on display, would have been utterly unacceptable. But mid-pandemic, in a city with cases on the rise, it was also selfish beyond belief.”
SFA president Rod Petrie, too, did not shirk in a statement in which he referenced the “sectarian singing”, the “vandalism” and the “inflicting [of] physical damage” in what was an “abomination not a celebration”.
Yet what has been missing from such condemnatory commentary – with Police Scotland equally unequivocal in calling out the carnage – is self reflection. That is required because all parts of civil society, our highest authorities and, in no small part, we in the media have all been enablers in allowing a corrosive sense of entitlement to be brewed with a cocktail of anti-Catholic/anti-Irish bigotry. The concoction percolates into a mindset that now twice inside three months – just ponder that, twice! – has resulted in Glasgow city centre disturbances that have been despicable in scale and nature.
We hear the word “minority” bandied about. The word was, predictably and depressingly, front and centre in an apology of a statement from Rangers that, astonishingly watery and mealy-mouthed, made reference only to “inappropriate behaviour”.
In itself, entirely inappropriate. The Ibrox club’s deliberate obfuscation on these fronts is fingers-in-the-ears and hands-over-the-eyes stuff. Of course, the miscreants were a minority. A sizeable minority, though...in a huge fanbase. It is no minority of the 50,000 crowd that were singing the Super Rangers song, with its line about “Fenian bastards”, or The Billy Boys chant, which talks about being “up to our knees in Fenian blood”, when Ibrox was full to the gunwales pre-pandemic.
These anti-Catholic/anti-Irish sentiments have been responsible for the club having sections of Ibrox closed by UEFA for European games twice – twice! – inside the past two years. They have never faced any such sanctions domestically, ever, for the fact that, what the European body called “racist behaviour - which includes sectarian singing”, is heard often in their Scottish football matches. When that happens, it is very rarely recorded in any media outlets, and practically never called out by government and police.
It can be little surprise then that people feel emboldened to behave as they did in and around George Square on Saturday evening.
The desperate, misplaced, desire to equivocate and suggest the wrongs in the conduct of a section of the Rangers support are shared city wide, hasn’t helped. The Ibrox club are on their own in this city and any other across the global game when it comes to the expression of anti-Catholic sentiment, and that should have been long since acknowledged.
It was in an interview run by this newspaper group, conducted by Graham Spiers for the Scotland On Sunday in 1995 with Walter Smith, that the then Rangers manager struck to the heart of what continues to be at play. “There is a Protestant superiority syndrome around here, you can feel it sometimes…”
It would be negligent not to acknowledge that other elements can be factored in over what unfolded in Glasgow city centre on Saturday night. The covid-lockdown has created tensions that can end up being released in intemperate fashion in such mass gatherings when heavy intoxication is entered into the mix. Especially in this corner of the world, which has a horribly unhealthy relationship with alcohol. But these weren’t the main drivers. Not the principal reasons why – what should have been – joyous outpourings over a first title in a decade, and on the back of Rangers’ 2012 liquidation and rise through the leagues, ended with supporters setting upon their own, as well as police.
There is a faction of Rangers’ fanbase – Protestant and unionist in hue – that is motivated by hate, pure and simple. Hatred of a closest rival, Celtic, because that club has roots and a culture firmly Irish Catholic, and republican. Ahead of Rangers’ admirable on-field renaissance, that rival had been lording it for so long in the game. Moreover, these fans have the ultimate slag for their Rangers counterparts with the new club/old club teasing, a consequence of malfeasance by previous owners of the Ibrox institution that has created desperate insecurities over sense of history.
All of these elements underpinned what has exploded into the public domain in recent times. As so often happens in such situations, these insecurities allowed for the fomenting of a bogus sense of victimhood, Rangers falsely presenting themselves as the oppressed. In these situations, so often the believed oppressed actually become the oppressors.
Ultimately, the pre-planned, publicly promoted, march to George Square – pushed by Ultras group the Union Bears – is one thread in that. Football supporters typically congregate at their own stadium to savour successes with their own tribe. They rarely demand to take over a city centre. The Union Bears wanted this to happen to affirm, in their twisted minds, that the city belongs to them, to put the Fenians in their place. It is akin to an animal urinating to mark their territory...which many literally did.
It is all entwined in Smith’s astute observation about the nature of Rangers supporters’ “superiority complex”. The bigotry and racism at its core cannot be allowed to go unchallenged any more. No more dereliction of duty, no more false equivalences. From any of us.
This piece was first published in The Scotsman on Monday 17 May 2021