‘Dear Haters”, the banner at the top of the Scottish Government’s One Scotland web page reads, “you’re not going to like this, but we’ve had enough. Yours, Scotland.” The line, which promotes the country as a haven of tolerance, is a new refrain to an old song.
In Alba, we like to see ourselves as open and inclusive; an oasis of enlightenment. This conceit is not entirely without foundation; as the site suggests, the Scottish Government is strong on LGBT and gender equality issues, and many asylum seekers and refugees believe the welcome and support they receive here is superior to that on offer elsewhere in the UK.
We have a reputation, too, for tackling violence. So successful has the work of the Violence Reduction Unit been in reducing gang-related attacks, its approach is being emulated by the Metropolitan Police.
Yet, Scotland is far from perfect. On the Glasgow subway, passengers may be lectured on sexism, ablism, xenophobia, transphobia and religious bigotry, but in our football stadiums, sectarian and other abuse continues to be spewed out week after week; and politicians, the police, the individual clubs and the footballing authorities lack the will and/or the capacity to deal with it.
Last week, trouble erupted, as it is prone to do, at an Edinburgh derby. As tensions rose, the Hearts goalkeeper, Zdenek Zlamal, was punched by a Hibs fan and an assistant referee was assaulted. Most of the headlines, however, were dominated by the coin thrown at Neil Lennon.
This being an increasingly binary world, there have been two mutually exclusive takes on the incident. Either – as Lennon’s former team-mate and Partick Thistle manager Gary Caldwell would have it – the Hibs manager is an antagonistic figure who brings such attacks on himself; or he is the victim of a sustained hate campaign inspired by his Irish Catholic roots.
Outside social media, of course, more than one thing can be true at the same time. Anyone who has seen Lennon in action knows he can delight in taunting rival fans. At last week’s derby, he gestured for the Hearts fans to sit down after a goal was disallowed – an act the former Scottish Police Federation chair Les Gray suggested “could have caused a riot”; but no amount of crowd-baiting justifies the lobbing of a missile.
Proof that the hostility he encounters is at least intensified by his heritage is there in the “Hang Neil Lennon” graffiti daubed on the wall near Tynecastle before the game, and in the abuse he endured while playing for Celtic between 2000-2007.
In the wake of the coin-throwing, his agent, Martin Reilly, reeled off some of the worst incidents – the death threats, the physical assaults, the parcel bombs in the post – while Lennon pointed out that in all the time he played and managed in England he experienced no such harassment.
This latest football incident is reprehensible; but why it should have come as a shock in a country where sectarian singing and football thuggishness is still rife is a mystery.
Scotland’s Secret Shame was no secret even when the then first minister, Jack McConnell, came up with the phrase back in 2002. Now sectarianism is a taboo subject in the same way as immigration, which is to say it’s omnipresent. Nevertheless, it persists.
The same is true of more general anti-social behaviour. Every time I go to a match, I am struck by the aggression towards the ref and rival supporters. Hurling insults is not the same as hurling a coin; but violence is a continuum, and if you are willing to tolerate the first in the name of “atmosphere”, you should not be unduly surprised if it leads to the second. Last week, Police Scotland assistant chief constable Bernie Higgins said football was being blighted by a minority of trouble-makers and by a rise in the use of flares. Or “No pyro, no party”, as some ultras would have it.
Then again, officers were issuing warnings about football matches – and particularly big city derbies – before Police Scotland was formed. The last time the idea of matches played behind closed doors was mooted was in 2011 after the infamous Old Firm Scottish Cup tie dubbed “the shame game”. That match saw a head-to-head clash between Lennon and Rangers manager Ally McCoist.
Between then and now we have had the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act (OBFA), a piece of legislation cobbled together and derided from the moment it was introduced. Few mourned its repeal, but the absence of any alternative plan was a worry.
Then, earlier this month, it emerged the Scottish Government, Police Scotland and the Scottish Football Association were considering lifting the ban on alcohol at matches for a trial period during the Euro 2020 matches at Hampden. This makes sense in commercial terms; without a change of policy, Glasgow would be the only one of 12 Euro 2020 host cities where fans could not buy a drink in the stadium. But in terms of preventing disorder, it seems deranged.
With the SFA and SPFL apparently incapable of effectively policing football, a more promising approach is the one the anti-sectarian charity Nil by Mouth has been championing for years: strict liability. Under the present rules, neither Hearts nor Hibs will be punished by the SPFL if they can demonstrate they took adequate precautions to prevent trouble and have done their best to identify those involved. Strict liability rules, already implemented by UEFA and the English FA, would make clubs responsible regardless of any precautions.
SNP MSP James Dornan is currently working on a bill to introduce strict liability here. However, there appears to be little enthusiasm for the move amongst Scottish senior clubs. In 2013, they voted overwhelmingly against its introduction.
Strict liability wouldn’t solve the underlying problem of sectarianism, and particularly anti-Irish Catholic prejudice. Only education will do that. But making clubs financially accountable for the behaviour of their players and fans may be the only way to prevent the flagrant displays of bigotry and the violent incidents which tarnish Scotland’s reputation as an inclusive nation.
For decades, Scottish clubs have been given enormous licence, particularly in the central belt. Anyone who doubts the power they wield should try to make their way to work near Ibrox or Celtic Park when a match is on; everyone else’s needs are subservient to those of the scarf-wearing hoards.
If the Scottish Government wants its posters on tolerance to be taken seriously; if it wants its One Scotland image to reflect reality, then it needs to apply pressure on those clubs and the SFA and get a grip on football-related violence.
There is little point in patting ourselves on the back over our attitude towards refugees, if Catholic immigrants from Northern Ireland are still facing hostility. And there’s little justification for gloating that “love lives in this country, not hate,” if we continue to tolerate ugly confrontations in the name of the beautiful game.