Calum Steele, general secretary of the Scottish Police Federation, has warned that politicians should “dial the rhetoric down” as the frustrations of an extended lockdown have provided “no lack of opportunity for conflict”.
The union chief, who represents the rank and file officers at Police Scotland, was speaking exclusively to The Scotsman after at least five police officers were injured during violence that erupted after Rangers fans gathered in Glasgow to celebrate the club’s title victory on Saturday.
At least 28 people have been arrested in connection with the scenes, which turned violent after police issued a dispersal order.
Nicola Sturgeon labelled those involved a “thuggish minority” and criticised the actions of fans who gathered as “selfish beyond belief”.
Speaking to The Scotman’s political podcast The Steamie, Mr Steele warned politicians that polarised debates combined with months spent inside due to lockdown restrictions could create a perfect storm of conflict.
Warning of a potential “tinderbox moment”, the union chief said “politicians need to dial the rhetoric down”.
Mr Steele said: “At this particular moment in time there is no lack of opportunity for conflict in Scotland, there is certainly no lack of opportunity for conflict in the west of Scotland.
"Whether that is, and I am going to be slightly simplistic here, whether that is Celtic and Rangers, whether that is Catholic or Protestant, whether that is unionist or nationalist, whether that is pro-Palestinian rights or that is pro-Israeli rights, whether that is Brexit or whether that is pro-European, all of these issues are in the melting pot in the general societal activities in the west of Scotland.
"Further to that again, we have better weather, a frustration over months of lockdown and I think we are if not quite at a tinderbox moment, there is a danger we could get there very quickly simply through carelessness.”
Speaking on Monday morning two days after the violence in George Square, Mr Steele said coronavirus restrictions and the increased role of the police in controlling and reacting to government guidance had led to people viewing a lack of heavy-handed police intervention as unacceptable.
He also criticised the “political positioning” of politicians on issues they were sympathetic to and said the police often aimed to “maintain order” in a way that did not always result in them “maintaining and upholding the full extent of the law”.
The union chief said: “I think we saw very early on, certainly towards the tail end of spring and into early summer of last year, it resulted in the emergence of polarising positions, whether it was Black Lives Matter, whether it was colonial past of the British Empire, approaches to statues, approaches to climate change protests.
"Whether youths gathering and drinking in our parks were receiving a different approach to those gathering for anti-lockdown protests or anti-vax or anti-mask demonstrations [was an issue].
"All of these things resulted in the very early emergence of political positioning on some things and that undoubtedly did not help.”
Mr Steele said Police Scotland, alongside the Scottish Government, councils and protest groups, should engage with each other around potential issues, saying that without doing so the actions of polarised sections of communities could result in conflict.
He said: “I believe it needs to result in a fairly rapid assessment and engagement … to make sure that we are as far as possible looking at engaging and educating that whilst their particular cause may seem absolutely precious to them, that there will be an inevitability of the reaction from other parts of communities.
"As a police service that is a huge challenge that lies ahead of us but … if we don’t collectively engage in that conversation and many conversations, then we could be in for a summer of significant difficulty and disorder.
"Whether it is the independence movement wanting to assert the right to march and show their support for independence, or the Orange Order wanting to re-establish their inability over the past year and a bit or so to show how much their culture and background means to them.
“All of these issues, and that’s even before we get into the instability of politics in Northern Ireland and how that impacts on the west of Scotland, all of these things have a bearing on police activities and by extension public attitudes towards the police because of the side of a particular argument that members of the public find themselves on.”
On Monday morning, Rangers released a statement saying a “small minority" of the club’s fans had “besmirched" its reputation. But the club stopped short of detailing if it had plans to discipline fans involved in the violence in Glasgow on Saturday.
The club said in a statement: “Sadly, a small minority of people behaved inappropriately and in a manner not reflective of our support. Some of the scenes were unacceptable and have besmirched the good name of Rangers FC.
"These so-called ‘fans’ should reflect upon the values and ethos of our club, and consider the damage this does to the reputation of the club.”
The Scottish Football Association also issued a statement condemning the violence, with chief executive Rod Petrie labelling the scenes “an abomination, not a celebration”.
He said: “Those responsible for sectarian singing, for vandalism and for inflicting physical damage may attach themselves to football, but cannot be considered football fans. Police Scotland have made a number of arrests and more are expected to follow.
"Events on Saturday at George Square served only to depict our game in the poorest light and we condemn the behaviour in the strongest terms.”
Greater Glasgow Police also said it was investigating the contents of a video circulating social media in which Rangers players are alleged to be singing a sectarian song referencing the Pope.
The allegations were robustly denied by Rangers on Monday afternoon.
Deputy first minister John Swinney told the BBC the behaviour of fans was “thuggish” and “absolutely reprehensible", saying “every exhortation” was given by the authorities, Rangers FC and the police urging fans not to gather in large numbers.