John Kelly: Scotland's Shame is alive and kicking

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The past few months have exposed the poisonous reality of anti-Irish and anti-Catholic prejudice in this country's society

RECENT events have exposed the seeping wound that is Scotland's Shame, illuminating the country's ongoing problems with the ills of ethno-religious prejudice.

Often confusingly labelled "sectarianism", ethno-religious prejudice, particularly of the anti-Catholic variety, is still alive and (literally) kicking in 2011.

Just hours after Celtic manager Neil Lennon was physically assaulted by an opposing fan, to the apparent delight of many fans in the stadium, two people were arrested by police in connection with a supected letter bomb sent to the football coach.

While these arrests were being made, police were called to investigate yet another suspicious package addressed to the Northern Irishman.

Whilst Scotland is not Ulster minus the bullets and the fact that the problem has improved in the last thirty or so years, mixed marriages, increasing secularism, equitable employment practices and an increasingly internationalist outlook in Scotland, have not, it seems, led to the same level of cultural shifts in beliefs and behaviour.

Cultural shifts emerge out of residual legacies and these behavioural shifts lag behind the statistical facts and figures that paint a different picture of demographic harmony.

In other words, the times are changing and fewer people define themselves in everyday life as religiously separate, and alongside this so are the attitudes changing, but the attitudes are lagging behind.

Yet, while sociologist Bert Moorhouse once noted the Glasgow derby provided a convenient whiff of primitive savagery that titillated Scotland's southern neighbours, he failed to highlight the nauseating reality that sections within Scottish society foam equally at the mouth for such "rivalry". But is it simply a football problem?

It is patently flawed to revert to lazy soundbites about the problems of the Old Firm and the west coast when this year we have witnessed the hatred and intolerance transcend these much-maligned borders.

In addition to a politician and a QC - albeit both with Celtic FC connections - receiving letter bombs, Cardinal Keith O'Brien, Scotland's most senior Roman Catholic clergyman and an Irish cultural-political organisation have also received bullets and a letter bomb in the post.

This is, of course, in addition to Celtic players Niall McGinn and Paddy McCourt - both Northern Irish Catholics - receiving bullets in the post. The choice of targets here is revealing and tells us a lot about the essence of ethno-religious prejudice in Scotland.

A cursory analysis of the targets reveals the common denominators to be one or some of the following combination; high profile Roman Catholic in Scotland, Celtic FC connection, Irish. This hits at the heart of the issue.Forget the nonsensical half excuses, peddled by those who should know better, that Lennon "brings it on himself", that "he's a fiery character" or that he "has to shoulder part of the blame".

Apart from a naive determination and excitable approach to his new profession - shared by many other determined coaches, yet never precipitating such reactions - Lennon has done nothing wrong except to refuse to behave like the Irish Catholics of previous generations in Scotland and "keep the heid doon".

As others have noted in relation to racist societies, for many, racism becomes a normal pathology.

There are shades here of the McPherson Report's findings of institutional racism within London's Metroploitcan Police, and the English Police Complaints Commission's findings on institutional disabilism in England.

Rather than sections of Scotland being purposely anti-Irish Catholic, there is a lack of acknowledgment that the problem exists accompanied by a lack of strategic organisation to deal with it.

For example, in response to the mass choruses of anti-Irish Catholic signing witnessed clearly at the recent Scottish League Cup Final between Celtic and Rangers, justice secretary Kenny MacAskill described the event as a "wonderful advert for Scotland and "the final we all wanted to see".

Additionally, it is revealing that it is the European governing body UEFA and not any of its Scottish counterparts - or indeed Scottish members - that have been most active in dealing with the anti-Catholic chanting of a section of Rangers fans.

Recent events have buried the myth that anti-Irish Catholic bigotry no longer exists or that it is a symptom of paranoid fantasists.

Sadly, however, as we've seen with the Lennon affair, like the disabled and black minorities in England, the victim is either not acknowledged as a victim or if he is, he's held responsible and told to change his behaviour.

The elephant in the room has this year been exposed and it is that sections of Scottish society still harbour a culturally ingrained antipathy or sleeping bigotry towards Celtic, Catholics and Irishness, particularly when these three intersect, and it can result in the naked hatred Neil Lennon has been dealing with for large parts of his time in Scotland.It is true that football, for some reason, tends to provide the type of setting many deem to be appropriate for such prejudiced behaviour and this is due to two main factors.

First, football fans by their nature try to antagonise their opponents and this often results in derogatory chanting against a sporting rival (or besting an "Other" as sociologists call it).

Linked to this is the desire by many football fans, in an age of increasing uncertainty around what authentic fandom constitutes, to prove their credentials. Sociologists call this trying to make gains in distinction.

Second, in making gains in distinction and proving one's self as an authentic fan, supporters tend to engage in group behaviour, in what psychologists may call social desirability behaviours.

In other words, we end up with groups of supporters behaving at football matches in ways that they would never dream of in other social situations in the belief that this is not only acceptable, but down right desirable. Moreover, they react according to the situation and play up to certain stereotypes.

Hence the reason we see many more Union Flags and Red Hand of Ulster flags in the Hearts end when they play Celtic (and Hibs to a lesser extent) and also why we hear many more Irish rebel songs from Celtic fans when Celtic play Rangers or Hearts.

Unfortunately, like homophobia and sexism, ethno-religious bigotry is still deemed fair game in many a football stadium and supporters' bus and this is part of a wider cultural shift that is still in the process of modernising.

One should add, of course, that ethno-religious prejudice is only one of a number of prejudices one can be exposed to around British football matches.

In trying to deal with racial and disabled minority prejudices in England, stakeholders have realised that they need to recognise and understand the problem in the first place. At the heart of any solution to equalising uneven power relationships is the need to expose prejudice and celebrate difference.

Different identities are legitimate and rather than attempt to tell others how to think, we should try to understand why others think the way they do.

At the heart of any difference should also be tolerance. This is why the ethno-religious difference needs to be separated from political difference.

Political identity has at its heart the need to best the "Other". Religious and ethnic identities should not be celebrated by besting the "Other" or there is the danger that Neil Lennon may not be the last to experience such naked bigotry in Scotland.

• Dr John Kelly is a lecturer in the Sociology of Sport at the Institute of Sport, Physical Education and Health Sciences in The Moray House School of Education University of Edinburgh