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Sectarianism won’t be healed by legislative sticking plaster

It probably seemed like a very good idea at the time.  To start as they mean to go on, to show how they intended to take Scotland forward from the outset, the SNP Government needed a hit-the-ground-running measure.  Something that could be delivered fast and furious and showed the new government in tune with the zeitgeist and in touch with the burning issues of the day.

So, having sidelined sectarianism throughout the first term of government, until events forced the issue to the fore, it has now been placed firmly centre stage.  The rush to outlaw odious expressions and even, thoughts, of sectarianism is causing many brows to furrow, not least because of the legal complexity of the proposed remedy and the haste at which the legislation will be formed.

The First Minister and his government are absolutely right to tackle the issue of sectarianism head on.  It is a blight and a scourge, but its manifestation in football-related ditties and fan forum discussions is but an outward display of a hugely deep-seated problem in our society.  Applying a sticking plaster to the symptoms of this issue or trying to fix a centuries-old malaise in a matter of weeks is the wrong approach.  The Scottish Government’s instinct to address the problems besetting Scottish football is sound – we simply cannot have another season like the last one – but even to focus on sectarianism as a mainly football-related issue is misguided.

There is no quick fix to a problem like sectarianism, and it is multi-faceted in the reasons for its perniciousness.  To only tackle its football-related manifestation by ill thought-out and hasty legislation will simply mask the problem, not resolve it.  Yes, having a statutory offence of incitement to religious hatred might help but there are other sticks and indeed carrots, which need to be applied.

Songs, chants, banter and offensive remarks and anecdotes are tolerated not only by football clubs, the moderators of internet forums and social networking sites, but also by employers, colleagues, family and friends, and even churches.  Frankly, there are grown men who indulge in sectarian bile who should know better, who often hold down responsible jobs and have respectable lives, and use their football allegiance as an escape valve.  Few will even practise any form of religion:  they wear their sectarianism lightly, mostly on match days.

If the newly enacted law is used to make an example of one such, it will send a clear message and encourage others to clean up their act.  But applying the law must sit alongside other measures – a clear signal to football authorities to stop passing the buck, equality training and measures led by significant employers, an approach in schools that amounts to more than banning football colours and a peer pressure education campaign.

But even all this will not unravel the threads that cause sectarianism to persist in our society.  In a welcome move, the First Minister made the link between sectarianism and alcohol misuse in his excellent Taking Scotland Forward speech in the Scottish Parliament.  But its relationship with violence and poverty must also be exposed and addressed.

Just as the poorest whites in the United States choose poorer African Americans as their foe and not their friend in a wider struggle against inequality, so do Catholics and Protestants living cheek by jowl in some of the poorest areas of Scotland.  It is easier for families and communities to turn on each other, to fuel those fires with a sense of religious difference and inequality caused by such difference, than face up to the common enemy in their lives.  Sectarianism cloaks some inconvenient and unpalatable truths in their lives.  The state and the rest of society are complicit in this, for we do not want people united in protesting at their lot in life, and demanding a more equitable fix or distribution of wealth and resources.  Sectarianism has been allowed to fester in certain communities because it suits us, the haves, well.

Moreover, outlawing sectarian thought and deed, will not address the availability of cheap drink, nor the reasons why so many approach every football game as an excuse to get bevvied, nor why so many, once fuelled and fired up by a sense of religious outrage, resort to violence as the most appropriate way to express their feelings.  Violence towards their partner, their children, their friends and family, and towards people they do not even know, their football colours being sufficient flag to justify wholly irrational responses.  To dress it up as religious hatred is to miss the point:  religion has very little to do with the modern phenomenon of sectarianism.

Modern sectarianism, intrinsically linked to poverty, violence and alcohol misuse, is largely (though not exclusively so) a male culture.  Women and weans are bit-part players, along for the ride, the bruises and the broken bones, whether they like it or not.  The reason so many eejits can issue idle threats to opposition players and managers’ safety so casually is because they dole them out daily.  Yet, as a society we tolerate grown men behaving as boors, for it to be acceptable for the tribe to be more important in many cases than family.  We nurture their tribal allegiances by never questioning the appropriateness of them.

Until society as a whole is prepared to tackle the underlying reasons why so many men behave so inordinately badly, using football and religious affiliation as a poor excuse, then sectarianism and its travelling companions of violence, crime and drunkenness will persist.  It will take more than a legislative sticking plaster to heal this particular disease.

Old Firm’s dirty money talks

Is there any point in adding my own ruminations on the parcel bomb incidents this week?  In fulminating against something so heinous and incredulous, it is almost beyond comprehension?  Especially when others have and will condemn more articulately than I could ever manage.

But the point is this.  By staying silent, we condone.  By pretending we see, hear – and heaven forfend – speak no evil, by turning the other cheek while muttering not in our name, not in our ken, not in our neck of the woods, we allow sectarianism and bigotry, and its erstwhile partners, alcohol abuse and violence,  to continue unchecked and untrammelled.  Not relevant to us and how we choose to live our lives, see?  Oh, but it is.  For this is how ithers see us and it’s time we all saw Scotland in the entirety of its inglorious multi-coloured hues.

The very idea that someone could be moved to try to maim and kill others because they hate with every ounce of their being someone else’s religious and footballing affiliation – in 21st Century Scotland no less – requires all of us to make and take a stand.

As a football fan, I have experienced the deprivations of both sides of the Old Firm fan divide.  I’ve watched them urinate in people’s gardens, throw locals out of their pre-match pub in order to indulge in their vile, evil chanting, seen them drink in public and then smash the bottles in front of police horses, witnessed them vomiting over children in a fast food restaurant, been intimidated by sexual threat and innuendo while in the company of my own small child, watched a grown man lead songs of hate while carrying a toddler in his arms, and removed my terrified child from his season ticket seat when the torrents of abuse from interlopers became too much for him to bear.

And on each and every occasion, I have complained to the authorities.  To management, to stewards, to police.  And each and every time, my complaint was met with a shrug of the shoulders.  Not my problem, what can we do.  They think they are untouchable because they are.

Indeed, for years, a policy of containment and appeasement has applied.  Why has it taken UEFA to act when the SFA had powers aplenty to step in and tackle the clubs’ unwillingness and inability to address sectarian acts and activities by its fans?  Why has the SFA bowed to media and legal pressure to rescind punishments on players and club officials who have indulged in inappropriate conduct?  Why has it taken the police years to speak up and speak out about the horror show of violence played out in communities and homes on the occasion of every Old Firm fixture?  Why have licensing boards continued to allow premises that condone and encourage sectarian violence and hate crime to trade?  Why have internet forums, whose stock in trade is bile, been allowed to flourish?  And why oh why, have politicians – on all sides – waited until an election to say something, anything about any of it?

Because money- dirty money – talks. 

We have allowed the fear and loathing that constitutes supporting the Old Firm to expand into the monster it has so clearly become, because lots of people have made money out of it.  The clubs themselves, of course, rely on “impassioned fans” buying season tickets and all the tops and tat, following cup runs from beginning to end, and rampaging through Europe, at least until Christmas.  Pubs and clubs – at home and away – rub their hands with glee at the prospect of an Old Firm derby or of the visit of one half to their sleepy hollow.  The SFA when faced with top dollar legal representation whose fees enable them to drive a coach and horses through arcane procedure, have crumbled and fumbled every time.

Do you think those 1000 police officers on duty this Easter Sunday – however much they wish they were anywhere else – are doing it out of the goodness of their hearts?  Did newspaper proprietors groan or grin at the prospect of seven Old Firm fixtures in a season?

In fact, the only ones who haven’t heard the kerching of Old Firm hatred and violence are the politicians.  But what we have had in the last four years is a Parliament of fearties.  Feart to rock the boat, feart to upset one side or the other, feart to do the job we pay them handsomely to do.

There is absolutely no doubt that Alex Salmond has been at his most statesmanlike in the last week.  The tone, the content, the pledges have all been completely on the button.  He has vowed to free our country of bigotry and yes, it will take more than “one match, one season and one year”.

But the time for talking and summits is past, and now we must act.  We must all stop standing by and allowing a culture of sectarianism to flourish.  We must challenge the questioner when asked what school we went to.  We must shut down the forums of hate and prosecute the perpetrators and the facilitators.  We must start applying the aggravated offence of sectarian hate crime to every act of violence committed before, during and after an Old Firm match.  We must close down the hostelries that have built a trade on bigotry.  We must protect those families whose lives are blighted and bruised – literally – by every losing score.  We must end the public cash flow to footballing authorities and clubs which refuse to meet their obligations.  We must educate our children on tolerance and inclusion and inculcate a sense of pride in shared communities and faiths. 

We must launder this dirty money right out of our economy and we must remove this stain from our society for good.

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