THE matchday subway train to Ibrox is packed so tightly that sweat is dripping from beneath light blue hats and "Simply the Best" scarves.
As the doors squeeze closed at the second attempt the carriage is rocked by stamping feet and deafening choruses of songs that relate more to 17th century Irish history than the looming football match with Kilmarnock. "We're up to our knees in Fenian blood, surrender or you'll die," they roar. "F*** the Pope and the Vatican."
Testosterone, hate and beer hang with the sweat in the air. A clearly mortified middle-aged woman clutches her handbag and stares at her feet. A couple of French tourists look like they might burst into tears at any second. But otherwise, virtually the entire carriage – a sea of red, white, blue and orange – join in the sectarian singalong.
Meanwhile, over in Motherwell, where the local team are playing hosts to Celtic, some fans walking to the game in green and white were singing their new favourite song, aimed at Rangers's star striker: "I hope you die in your sleep, Nacho Novo,/I hope you die in your sleep, I pray,/I hope you die in your sleep Nacho Novo,/With a bullet from the IRA." Young boys laugh along with their fathers as they sing the words, to the tune of a popular hymn. The new ditty accompanies some old favourites, some simply celebrating Celtic's Irish heritage, but others, such as 'The Boys Of The Old Brigade', in praise of the IRA.
Finding evidence that sectarianism is alive and well, in all its hate and bile, on the streets of Scotland today is never going to be difficult. What is harder to find is evidence of what our politicians intend to do about it. The vehemence of Jack McConnell's attack on Alex Salmond over sectarianism is certainly unprecedented. Convention states – both at Holyrood and Westminster – that former heads of office take something of a back seat, emerging only now and then to offer some sage advice. They do not, generally, describe their successors as "political cowards", nor postulate that they are allowing bigots to "get away with" sectarian crimes. However, the former First Minister is in the process of adopting a different approach to his position. More than a year since he was in power, and with the matter of Scottish Labour's leadership now sorted, McConnell has told friends that he intends to be a little more outspoken on a few select issues. Sectarianism is one – and how.
Wind back to 2002 and the anti-sectarian drive led by McConnell was one of the key initiatives he and his advisers hoped would cement his reputation. The MSP for Motherwell and Wishaw had seen sectarian abuse at first hand in his constituency, where abuse was daubed on his own front door. The anti-sectarian drive was very much McConnell's own personal crusade. He brought forward banning orders for fans caught singing sectarian songs at football games. Cash was poured into schools where pupils were taught to respect religious differences. New legislation meant that crimes would carry heavier sentences if they were 'aggravated' by sectarianism. And greater restrictions were placed on marches, allowing communities to block them if they felt that they were causing offence.
As the centrepiece of his campaign, McConnell held two 'sectarian summits' where, perhaps slightly embarrassed, Cardinal Keith O'Brien and Iain Wilson, the grandmaster of the Orange Lodge, were pictured together, as if bridging Scotland's very own peace line.
The initiative undoubtedly highlighted the presence of sectarianism in Scotland like never before. A survey of religiously aggravated offences between January 2004 and June 2005 found that the 532 incidents were found right across the country – and not just in the west. Claims that this was just a football issue were also confounded: only one in three cases related to matches. Cardinal O'Brien declared that sectarianism should, in fact, be described bluntly as anti-Catholicism – Catholics, it emerged, were five times more likely to be victims of a religious aggravated crime than Protestants.
It is Salmond's decision not to commission a third summit later this year – as planned by the previous administration – that has stirred McConnell to outright fury. McConnell believed that the Scottish Government should be commissioning more research on these offences (updated figures on sectarian crime do not exist) to get to the bottom of the issue. He also believed more pressure should be placed on football clubs to crack down even further on their errant fans. Two weeks ago, Celtic coach Neil Lennon was knocked unconscious outside a bar in Glasgow, his attacker heard describing him as a "Fenian bastard". In an apparently retaliatory measure, the address of Rangers star Nacho Novo was then placed on a Celtic fans' internet message board. McConnell raised the attack in parliament, arguing that his successor had been "weak" on the matter. It was just an opening salvo. His comments to the Scottish Catholic Observer this weekend are truly incendiary – effectively laying any increase in sectarian attacks in the future at Salmond's door.
Salmond's aides have responded furiously this weekend, saying McConnell's comments are "unbecoming of a former First Minister". A source close to the First Minister said: "We are tackling the problem within the Scottish Government's 'One Scotland' campaign, which prioritises real effort and hard work on the ground… there is general recognition that endless summits are not the answer."
They also point out that Salmond – unlike McConnell – has urged Brown to sweep away the institutionalised sectarianism contained in the Act of Settlement, which bars Catholics from the throne. One thing is clear: not only does there continue to be a divide separating Scotland's two Christian traditions – as represented in its crudest form on the terraces of Glasgow's two football clubs every Saturday – there is now a clear division in opinion over exactly how to tackle it.
For example, while McConnell may have chosen a Catholic newspaper this weekend to launch his attack, the Catholic Church's bishops are now firmly on Salmond's side of the argument. For them, the problem with McConnell's approach was that the focus on sectarianism allowed people to raise that most sensitive of issues for the Scottish Catholic Church – the status of Catholic schools. Nothing angers the church's bishops more than the claim that Catholic schools breed sectarianism, and McConnell's focus on religious bigotry opened the matter up for debate. A spokesman for Archbishop Mario Conti said: "The summits were useful for putting the issue on the agenda, but probably had limited impact on the ground and instead had the unfortunate byproduct of reopening the debate over Catholic schools when, in fact, Catholic schools are not the problem."
Even Catholic composer James MacMillan – the man whose electrifying lecture nine years ago on "Scotland's shame" brought the shadow of sectarianism into the open – adds: "Perhaps the initial summit organised by Labour was important at signalling intent, but many thought that subsequent events were too similar in covering the same ground with no new imagination or initiative. To some participants it was beginning to feel like a PR exercise for the Executive."
The bigger picture for MacMillan is the question of the schools. Earlier this year, Salmond offered cast-iron and enthusiastic support for Catholic education. "The marvellous and unambiguous support he has voiced for Catholic schools is a powerful sign that he is not prepared to play the smoke and mirrors games that Labour indulged in on this matter. It was always a pity that McConnell was never able to control the deep prejudices against faith schools that raged continuously in Labour ranks during his years in power."
Others take the view that McConnell's strategy was perhaps too narrowly focused. A spokesperson for Rangers Football Club said: "We do believe sectarianism is part of the broader issue of anti-social behaviour that is of real concern throughout society and goes way beyond football."
It is to be expected that vested interests – whether religious, cultural or footballing – might find the scrutiny of the sectarian summits uncomfortable. What about the greater good? The question remains: has the former First Minister's insistence that the matter be exposed to public scrutiny been ditched simply because some vested interests involved found it all too hot to handle?
Certainly, McConnell's allies now believe that it was pressure from an increasingly uncomfortable Catholic Church which led to Salmond's decision to ditch the strategy. Salmond has been assiduously cultivating Scotland's Catholics for years, they point out; little wonder now that he is giving in to their wishes. SNP insiders say that this motive is happily married to the Nationalists' instinctive distaste for highlighting a specifically 'Scottish' disease. One SNP source said: "Basically, Salmond doesn't like to talk about Scotland's shame. It doesn't go with the big theme. Plus of course, this was one of the previous Executive's big things and Alex didn't want to run with it."
The Kirk is also ready to get round the table again. "Just because it is an old issue, it doesn't make it a dead issue," said Ian Galloway, the minister who heads the Kirk's Church and Society Committee. "People are being hurt just because of their faith loyalties. People have been killed. There is no way that is acceptable."
The nuanced view, meanwhile, comes from Professor Tom Devine, who advised the old Scottish Executive on its anti-sectarianism strategy. The summits themselves may no longer be necessary, but, he argues, a specific strategy undoubtedly is. For Devine, it is time to call the problem for what it is. "We should be calling this for what it is: it isn't sectarianism, it is anti-Catholicism." He adds: "I totally agree with McConnell that this is a specific problem that requires a specific response. There was a recognition in the old Scottish Executive that this was going to be a hard slog which was going to require a lot of behind the scenes work."
Devine says a three-pronged approach is required. More education, a continuing attack on the anti-Catholic culture which he argues still thrives in families and communities across the country, and a high-profile, zero-tolerance approach to incidents when they spill into the public arena.
Devine highlights the recent abuse of Celtic goalkeeper Artur Boruc, who Rangers fans dislike for his habit of crossing himself. "He was subjected to an unremitting cascade of abuse during a game, and yet what action was taken? In these high profile events, firm action must be taken." Devine also says that the Scottish Government should be commissioning research into why there continue to be pockets of anti-Catholicism in broadly secular communities.
The SNP Government insists that quiet work behind the scenes is continuing. The question is whether a softly-softly approach does a better job in Scotland at large than the expose-it-to-the-lights approach favoured by McConnell.
Back at Ibrox, one vendor close by the stadium is doing a roaring trade in T-shirts. One delighted customer, a lad of 11 or 12, pulls the garment over his Rangers strip and wheels round in delight to show it off to his pals. The shirt features a picture of an inanely grinning anthropomorphic potato alongside the legend: "The famine is over so why don't you go home?"
He is challenged as to whether he thinks the shirt is sectarian or offensive. "Naw," he replies. "It's about getting a rise out of those Fenian bastards."