Dennis Canavan hits out over bigotry

VETERAN Scots politician Dennis Canavan last night accused police chiefs, football officials and the government of "turning a blind eye" to sectarian violence in recent years.

As Strathclyde Police mount their largest operation to prevent violence on the final day of the SPL season, the long-serving Holyrood and Westminster parliamentarian accused both the current and previous administrations of ignoring sectarian issues until they hit the headlines.

Canavan, who founded the Scottish Sports Group at Westminster and was convenor of the Cross-Party Sports Group at Holyrood, said the government, police and SFA had used the excuse that sectarianism is a societal problem not to act sooner.

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He also said clubs like Rangers and Celtic are not doing enough to tackle sectarianism among their fans and called for tough sanctions and point deductions on clubs whose fans indulge in sectarian abuse and violence on match day.

His comments come as 1,000 police descend on Parkhead for Celtic versus Motherwell and Rugby Park for Kilmarnock versus Rangers.

In an interview with Scotland on Sunday, Canavan said: "It's all very well to say that sectarianism is a societal problem, but the truth is that Scottish football authorities, the Scottish legal establishment, police and government all turned a blind eye.

"Clubs and police say that they're doing all they can. I don't accept that.

"They've got to use more subtle measures, such as the assiduous use of photography and sound equipment to identify the culprits, as the Manchester police did when Rangers fans wrecked their city.

"Loud music should be blasted out to drown out the sectarian chanting and points should be deducted every time that happens. Dundee had 25 points deducted for financial mismanagement. Are we saying that sectarianism is less damaging than that?"

Clubs also had to accept their role in tackling sectarianism," he added. "It was Lord John Reid (the Celtic chairman] who was responsible for undermining the respect for referees by insinuating that Celtic always come out worst. By doing so he pandered to the worst elements at Celtic, and he should hang his head in shame.

"Football must face up to its responsibilities because there are now people using these two clubs as the focus for their bad behaviour and it is tarnishing Scotland's image. People around the world must look at us and wonder what is happening. If this was going on in Colombia, we'd all be aghast."

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In response to the claims, a spokeswoman for Strathclyde Police said police chiefs were "satisfied" appropriate action was being taken against people who indulge in sectarian behaviour.She added: "We have always said we cannot arrest our way out of this problem and will continue to work with other organisations to tackle this issue."

Labour's justice spokesman Richard Baker said the 2003-2007 Labour-led administration had worked to tackle sectarianism and held summits with the clubs and key figures. "Jack McConnell took a clear stand on sectarianism and it wasn't in response to a particular incident, instead because it was an issue that was a historic problem for Scotland. I regret during the last (SNP] government those summits were not continued.

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said it has invested 1.6 million in anti-sectarian initiatives over five years and utilised legislation to ban more than 140 fans.