Michael Kelly: Alex Salmond wrong to take sides in Rangers fiasco

Celtic fans: unhappy with Salmond's comments. Picture: SNS
Celtic fans: unhappy with Salmond's comments. Picture: SNS
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First Minister has ensured no Celtic fan will be voting his way after backing crisis-hit club amid Old Firm bigot-fest, writes Michael Kelly

I am a big fan of conspiracy theories. There are many strands to be separated from the continuing Rangers’ saga. One is the establishment conspiracy that Celtic fans see is being organised to save Rangers. They argue that, when Celtic were in trouble, no-one from the banks, the media or politics was preaching how much their club’s demise would harm Scottish football. In fact, one tabloid in the middle of the struggle held a mock funeral complete with coffin outside Celtic Park. And I certainly do not recall any sympathy, never mind support, from the SNP.

Another theme is the depressing re-emergence of the religious intolerance which has surrounded the Old Firm for decades. Last Saturday, Ibrox saw the worst display of sectarian singing for years, with at least half the 50,000 supporters joining in. Yet there was only one arrest inside the ground for an alleged sectarian offence. How come the leniency?

The new anti-football law was one that the police welcomed. Yet they refuse to enforce it. And the First Minister, whose idea it was to restrict freedom of speech at football, has said nothing.

But, of course, sectarian singing was, for him, last year’s issue. The police raised it in the hope of getting more resources. Salmond outmanoeuvred them beautifully by turning it into an issue of new legislation. Now the police either cannot or will not implement it – and not just at Ibrox. Offensive songs were also clearly heard from the Celtic end during the TV coverage of the match from Easter Road.

But prosecutors are dropping sectarianism from charges because of the difficulty of proving it – as we saw last year with the one-man attack on Neil Lennon at Tynecastle. The new law has actually worsened the position. Before, judges were able to take into account any sectarian aggravation if an offence was proved. Now, unless it is there in the charge, they can’t.

This is characteristic of Salmond’s approach to problems. Seek a quick public relations success and move on, ignoring the long-term impact of his actions. Why otherwise would he not be up in arms about the police’s inactivity?

Now after doing nothing on Saturday, the police want to intervene in the timing of the next Old Firm game. The role of the police is to be told what events will take place and when. It is then their job to cover them, not bicker about time and location. We’ve got things the wrong way round.

As the First Minister becomes more and more complacent with his parliamentary majority behind him, we can see this once sure-footed politician beginning to make mistakes.

The first was to alienate both sets of Old Firm’s fans with his attempts to stop them enjoying themselves. Now he’s compounded this by his overt support of Rangers. Why? He surely cannot have misled himself into thinking that by saying a few sympathetic words about their team he will persuade the loyalest, most vigorously Union-Flag-waving section of Scottish society to vote “Yes” in his referendum?

He’s certainly ensured that no Celtic fan – people who might have had some sympathy with him – will now.

But much more fundamentally wrong than making a gesture of understanding towards Rangers was his plea that the tax authorities found some way of going easy on the club. This is a blunder, not of tactics, but of political principle.

The First Minister is the man who wants to have control of all of Scotland’s tax revenue. Yet at the first public challenge to the authority of Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs – and Craig Whyte has renewed his criticism of the taxmen again this week – he wants Rangers off the hook. His own team, Hearts, have been having their own tax troubles – no intervention call for them. And has he spared a thought for Dunfermline? They are owed £80,000 by Rangers. Obviously given the precarious financing of Scottish football, they are going to need a big chunk of that money to pay their taxes. Are they too to be a special case.

And what about me? I’d rather spend my VAT and PAYE on a skiing holiday, repaying it to the government over five years. Is that OK, Mr Salmond? He says he wants Rangers given time to meet their obligations. He has misunderstood the whole situation. The reason Rangers went into administration was to avoid their obligations. And liquidation could be the next step in that direction. Indeed, one wonders why the administrators seem so desperate to avoid a solution that would eliminate all of Rangers’ debts. For a business in these dire circumstances the focus must be on the creditors and not the customers. However, I would rule out any conspiracy as regards the company being allowed to appoint a “friendly” administrator who had previous business links with it. It seems to me unwise that a large international firm like Duff and Phelps would want to attract even the perception of a conflict of interest. But the statutory obligations on an administrator are so clear and with the penalties so personal that, especially in a high profile case like this with HMRC breathing over their shoulders, it is certain this process will be carried out to the letter of the law.

The tax authorities too will do their duty resisting the influence of the man who likes to think of himself as the UK’s most brilliant politician. Meanwhile, Rangers as a club and a team will carry on while a new owner is sought. Let us hope that the new owners not only run Rangers more prudently than in the past but that they make a commitment to end the sectarianism which hangs heavily around the fringes of the club. There are many people, including many Celtic fans, who want to see Rangers’ financial problems resolved. But they also want to see the bigotry which simmers just below the surface pulled out by the roots. Equally, Celtic must ensure that the triumphalism currently being enjoyed by the fans is not used as an excuse for unacceptable behaviour.