Sports | The wounds of an old rivalry remain deep

Rangers FC and Celtics FC football teams keep historic tensions and violence alive in Glasgow

On March 4, 2011, The Guardian reported that 280 arrests had been made in Glasgow, UK in 11 days.  The Scottish government announced there would be a meeting in Edinburgh between the conflicting parties. Was this the aftermath of a strike? Riots? Gang wars? No. Try: a football match between two Glasgow-based teams.

Splitting the city of Glasgow, the Rangers FC and Celtic FC (known collectively as the “Old Firm”) have a long football rivalry in the Scottish Premier League. From the founding of both teams in the late 19th century to the present day, the teams have been known for a spirited and sometimes violent rivalry on the pitch. There is also a considerable amount of fan violence in the streets of Glasgow preceding, during, and following matches. This has resulted in fans storming the field on many occasions. Most notable is when fighting, which had to be broken up by police on horseback, erupted on the pitch in the 1980 League final.

While football-associated  violence in the rest of the world – and especially in Canada and the U.S. – has often acquired a nearly comic character, the nature of the fighting in Glasgow is no laughing matter. Western Scotland – and Glasgow specifically – has imported the Irish Troubles as cultural baggage, with many Irish immigrants and their descendants constituting the population of the region. This affects the football rivalry, which plays out along sectarian lines: Celtic FC fans overwhelmingly identify as Irish Catholic and Irish nationalist, while Rangers fans are typically Protestant and British loyalist.

The religious and political divisions involved have haunted the British Isles for centuries.

Traditionally, much of the population of Scotland has been Presbyterian, and was involved in the long colonization of Ireland, aiding in the eviction of Catholic farmers from their land. After the separation of Ireland, the tension between Catholics and Protestants, which follows the Irish-British divide, was carried as a cultural memory by Irish immigrants to Scotland; it remains an understood reality in Glasgow culture. It is manifested in the Rangers and Celtic clubs. Kate Sketchley, a McGill graduate now studying in Glasgow, says there’s a taboo towards speaking about football in the city: “It’s definitely come up whenever I’ve met a Glaswegian for the first time. Basically, the advice I’ve been given is to avoid the topic altogether.” The phenomenon is manifested to a lesser degree in Edinburgh as well, where Hearts FC and Hibernian FC take the respective “British” and “Irish” sides, but the ferocity of the violence does not match Glasgow.

Violence frequently occurs after games, often for reasons as simple as someone wearing the wrong colours. What distinguishes this from other forms of fan violence in sports, like those witnessed in Vancouver following the 2011 Stanley Cup, is the deliberate targeting and savage physical violence. Both the Rangers and Celtic teams have their hooligan groups, which are the Inter-City Firm and Celtic Soccer Crew respectively. These groups are responsible for organizing some of the violence, often resulting in vicious mob clashes between groups. However, violence is largely in the hands of the common fan. Murders, assaults, and beatings occur over individual allegiances, and Glasgow police classify a certain portion of the crimes they deal with as sectarian in nature.

The Scottish government has openly addressed the fighting. Jack McConnell, the previous First Minister, labelled it “Scotland’s secret shame” in a speech marking the beginning of government measures against sectarian violence in December 2002. On top of large-scale police presence at games, both McConnell and Alex Salmond, the current First Minister, have hosted conferences between both clubs, the government, the Catholic Church and Orange Order – a Protestant fraternal organization – to try and tackle sectarianism. Since June 2003, sectarianism has been “outlawed”: any offence or abusive language based on religious prejudice is considered a crime.  Current bills in Scottish parliament limiting free speech around sectarian words are hotly debated. Measures have extended well outside the pitch, exemplified by incidents such as the arrests of men who have created websites and posted threatening online comments towards Celtic manager Neil Lennon. The absurdity of these arrests based on internet activity is made sobering by the fact that at least two mail bombs sent to Lennon were intercepted by Scottish police in March.

However, speech laws may only increase the publicity of the issue rather than affecting real change: insults like “Hun,” “Taig,” “Tim,” “Fenian,” “Orange bastards,” and the like are just as much in common parlance between opposing fans at these games as before the laws were implemented. Songs officially outlawed are still loudly sung, including a Rangers’ fans’ favourite, “The Billy Boys.” The song goes, “We’re up to our knees in Fenian blood, surrender or you’ll die…” Furthermore, nothing has helped desegregate the stands of any of the three stadiums in Glasgow, where the hatred is palpable. In photos and films from matches, one sees Irish and British flags in their respective sections: a game appears to be more like an international than a local football match.

In addition to the public segregation and violence, the Old Firm football matches have created other forms of violence that are not as visible. The Strathclyde police – the territorital police force of the region around and including Glasgow – report that domestic violence in western Scotland increases dramatically after Old Firm games, from a 56.8 per cent increase after weekday matches and to up to 138.8 per cent after Saturday matches. This spike in violence is related uniquely to Old Firm games, and is not typical of a match between either Galsgow team and a visiting team. This type of abuse, fueled by frustration and anger associated with this rivalry, has no obvious comparison in any other developed nation.

Despite the clear sectarian nature of the rivalry, some have attempted to explain the violence as a result of Glasgow’s poverty. Certain authors and studies have suggested that sectarianism does not factor into the explanation for the intensity of violence and amount of crime committed on the streeth; instead, they argue, it is due to frustration bred by poverty. A Guardian article written by Ian Jack in March 2011, when tensions were running high, reported that, in Glasgow, 25 per cent of men will not see their 65th birthday. In the areas closer  to the Celtic stadium, the average life expectancy is age 55. These are working-class neighbourhoods, where alcoholism and poor health haunt homes with financial insecurity and lead to many failed marriages.

However, it seems the idea that poverty, rather than sectarianism, is responsible for the violence could not be further from the truth. While the urban conditions in Glasgow certainly contribute to the desperation of those who commit violence, the dismissal of sectarianism simply does not make sense in this context. If anything, sectarianism thrives in such desperation. Football clubs provide a concrete group identity and a chance to experience victory through a team, which is valuable to someone who may experience loss in other aspects of their life. Regardless, it should be emphasized that the nature of the violence dealt with extends well beyond the type of misery associated with one’s everyday lot. Instead, it manifests itself in targeted violence – like the letter bombs sent to Lennon – and often in unprovoked attacks. The worst cases of violence are not easily explained as simple outpouring of social misery, but as deliberate sectarian hate. After all, why would the extent of violence in the street and homes be higher after Old Firm games than when teams from other parts of Scotland visit if the violence was not a result of this extreme sectarianism?

All in all, Glasgow’s sectarian scene is an ugly mix of history, poverty, and bigotry. The situation is made all the more grave by the fact that there is no obvious way to bring an end to the violence. The Irish Troubles have been considered resolved since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, yet people still fear being stabbed in Scotland because of their associations with the same religious and national identities. While in North America, we may have to worry about a riot here and there following an important sports game, in Scotland, people who decide to throw their allegiance behind either the Rangers FC or the Celtic FC may have to fear for their lives.


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