The Old Firm: The great divide

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After last week's Old Firm clash, Marc Horne asks if such a deep lying rained, shameful history can ever change

A SMALL-scale impromptu summit has convened outside Bairds Bar in Glasgow's East End. As cigarettes are passed around and lighters click, there is only one topic on the agenda; the spit-speckled, nose-to-nose stand-off between Celtic coach Neil Lennon and Rangers assistant manager Ally McCoist. "The whole thing left me shaking my head," states one middle-aged man, peering through thumb-stained spectacles.

"Aye, for the life of me I couldn't figure out why Lenny didn't knock the b*****d's teeth in while he had the chance." Shoulders heave as the small group of smokers join in wheezy laughter.

In cyberspace, football forums heave with anonymous threats which range from the sinister to the downright bizarre.

In recent years, cash has been poured into projects where youngsters are taught to respect religious differences.

Banning orders have been introduced to eject those singing sectarian songs at matches.

Both Celtic and Rangers have made strenuous efforts to make it clear that bigoted conduct will no longer be tolerated in their stadiums, while alleged offences now carry heavier sentences if they are "aggravated" by sectarian intent.

Despite all of this, next to no progress appears to have been made in halting the violence and lawlessness which appears umbilically linked to Old Firm games and their aftermath.

Last week, First Minister Alex Salmond was forced to intervene after the shameful on-field and touchline scenes at Celtic Park fuelled 200 violent or antisocial crimes, 40 incidents of domestic violence and left an 18-year-old girl in hospital with serious head injuries. A further 32 arrests were made within the stadium. On the pitch: three Rangers players were red carded, 13 yellow cards shown, three of them to Celtic players.

Images from the game were beamed across the globe to incredulous audiences, leaving people at home to ask: what can be done, if anything, to eradicate the persistent problem former First Minister Jack McConnell called "Scotland's shame"?

One man who has seen it all before is Archie Macpherson. In 1980, he was in the BBC commentary box when Rangers and Celtic fans fought pitched battles on the Hampden turf following a fiercely contested Scottish Cup final "We've got the equivalent of Passchendaele (the First World War battle] and that says nothing for Scottish football," he intoned as mounted officers swung batons and launched cavalry charges. "At the end of the day, let's not kid ourselves. These supporters hate each other."

The mayhem was debated at Westminster and, ultimately, led to alcohol being banned from Scotland's soccer grounds.

Now, the veteran commentator believes "draconian" measures are required to bring fans, players and officials to their senses. He said: "I think there needs to be a short, sharp, shock aimed at everybody connected with the Old Firm. You can take the heat out of the fixture if you stop people from going to it and play it behind closed doors.

"We should also look seriously at whether the television cameras should be there. If society really wishes to control the deep-seated social venom that exists then serious, draconian and traumatic measures need to be taken."

The former Sportscene and Scotsport presenter insisted he was deadly serious about the need for harsh sanctions to be employed.

"People will argue that the idea of banning fans and TV cameras is preposterous. But, when it gets to the stage when the First Minister has to intervene, then something has to be done. We need to waken up."

Macpherson believes sectarianism is not at the root of the age-old rivalry between the Glasgow giants.

"It has nothing to do with religion and never did," he said. "It is about tribalism, pure and simple. It's tribal identity and people looking to cause the maximumaggravation to the other tribe.

"We are living in a much more secular society and, personally, I'm delighted with that. But, these major changes have made absolutely no difference to the traditions of the Old Firm, which are deeply, deeply ingrained."

Dr Ross Deuchar of the University of the West of Scotland was commissioned by the British Academy to investigate sectarianism and territorialism in Glasgow. Part of his research saw him quiz youngsters living in the shadows of Ibrox and Celtic Park.

He said: "We found that they all knew the words either to the Orange anthems or the Irish rebel songs.

"However, very few of them actually knew what they were singing about or had any connections with religion or knowledge about history.

"One of our major conclusions was that these kinds of words, phrases, songs and attitudes are passed down like heirlooms through families.

"Youngsters are encouraged from an early stage to support Celtic or Rangers and that means that you must love one and dislike the other. It's all about football tribalism."

Deuchar is not swayed by suggestions that the problems are worsened by the current dire economic conditions or restricted to the very poorest in society.

He said: "Where people are socially disadvantaged they may reach out for some kind of identity through gang culture or football violence.

"But I don't think it has class boundaries. You only have to look at Donald Findlay to see that."

The flamboyant QC was forced to step down from his executive position with Rangers after he was taped singing Orange songs with supporters at a post-match victory party.

Ayr-based academic Deuchar agreed that radical measures should be considered if deep-seated societal divisions are to be healed.

He said: "Some people talked about how they were brought up to think of 'Proddy schools' and 'Catholic schools' and to believe that children who went to other schools were different to them.

"I can't help feeling that having separate schools does create a division. Children grow up together in the same street until, suddenly, they are separated and sent to different schools."

He is saddened that people in West Central Scotland seem unwilling to challenge or discard long-held prejudices.

He said: "I've got a student who recently moved to Glasgow from Belfast and she talks about how she has never been asked so much about what school she went to or what team she supports.

"Over in Belfast, they no longer ask these kinds of questions. They seemed to have learned lessons over the years, whereas we still seem to have some way to go."

Strathclyde's assistant chief constable Campbell Corrigan, who is charge of policing football in Glasgow, believes it is time to consider regulating alcohol on Old Firm days.

"What we have to ask ourselves is what is the long-term cultural cost of this game?" he said. "We have been arresting people around this fixture for years. Has it made a difference? I don't think it has.

"We need to talk about limiting access to alcohol immediately before and a short time after the game in Glasgow."

The senior officer added: "We can't arrest our way out of this. The time has come for a wider debate. The day after these fixtures we are literally mopping up the pieces."

Glasgow SNP MSP Anne McLaughlin has tabled a motion at Holyrood condemning the violence following the midweek match last Wednesday.

"This is not the kind of Glasgow that I want the world to see when they come here for the Commonwealth Games (in 2014]," she said. "The images of grown men tearing each other apart over a football match are abhorrent to watch."

Anti-sectarian charity Nil By Mouth called for decisive action to be taken, believing the issue has finally been brought to a head. A spokeswoman said: "Never was there a better time to start using football banning orders properly, nor a better time for those involved in professional football to rein in their egos and think about the example they are setting."

It has been estimated that the seven Glasgow derbies to be played this season will cost 40 million in terms of policing, prosecutions, hospital care and social services interventions.

Just a few weeks earlier, a previous game between the sides saw more than 300 arrests take place and domestic violence soar by 80 per cent.

At Tuesday's Old Firm summit one thing should be abundantly clear; we literally cannot afford to go on like this.

Back in the Gallowgate one elderly woman has some unorthodox advice for the First Minister. Putting down her bag of messages she points a finger for emphasis: "If Lennon and McCoist want to continue to behave like spoilt wee laddies Salmond should take them by the scruff of the neck and bang their heids together."

"Enough is enough."