Neil Lennon says ‘sectarianism is racism’ as SPFL accused of ignoring it

Celtic and Rangers fans have been guilty of sectarian behaviour in the past. Picture: SNS
Celtic and Rangers fans have been guilty of sectarian behaviour in the past. Picture: SNS
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Neil Lennon has described sectarianism as a “form of racism” following claims instances of religious prejudice are being swept under the carpet again in Scottish football.

Match delegates employed by the Scottish Professional Football League are reported to be dismayed by the lack of action after citing incidents during matches.

But Lennon believes the problem is getting better rather
than worse in Scotland.

“I didn’t like what I saw pre-season from some sets of supporters,” said the Hibs manager. “But certainly through the season I haven’t really been made aware of too much of it, to tell you the truth.

“In my opinion it has got better but maybe that’s because I’m out of the Glasgow goldfish bowl. But I do think that clubs are getting better at trying to deter it. Sectarianism is a form of racism and there is no room for any form of racism in this day and age.”

Asked about what he saw and heard in pre-season, he added: “Some supporters acting in a way and singing songs, abroad, in England and here in Scotland, and it was alcohol fuelled but it is in depth.

“I haven’t seen too much of it through the season or experienced it too much myself this season and I do think it is getting better. I certainly don’t think there is a sectarian problem at this club [Hibs].”

The former Celtic manager and player endured sectarian abuse throughout much of his career. He stopped playing international football for Northern Ireland in 2002 
following a death threat before a game against Cyprus. Lennon was told by police the Loyalist Volunteer Force had issued the threat via a Belfast newsroom.

Later, while manager of 
Celtic, he was also sent bullets in a package in the post.

A government summit was held after a so-called “shame game” between Celtic and Rangers in March 2011, when Lennon and opposite number Ally McCoist were involved in angry scenes at the end.

There were 34 arrests inside the stadium for a variety of sectarian, racial and breach of the peace offences. Hopes a long-term solution to the problem can be found could be dashed later today at Holyrood with the final stages of the repeal of the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act. The original legislation was pushed through by the SNP in 2012.

Clubs have always resisted a European model of strict liability where they are held accountable for all unacceptable conduct in their own stadium. If they prove they have taken all reasonable steps to prevent such behaviour then they can escape sanction.

The SPFL released a statement following a report on BBC Scotland where a former match delegate accused the league body of sweeping the issue of sectarianism “under the carpet”.

The story claimed delegates have reported at least four clubs this season for fans singing offensive or 
sectarian songs. Independent match delegates are assigned to every top-tier game and are usually selected from a pool of former players.

The SPFL explained that clubs agreed last year “to approve updated guidance that encourages clubs to develop proactive programmes and make progress towards raising awareness of the prevention and, where present, the elimination of unacceptable conduct in stadia in which matches take place.”

At the start of this season the SPFL started to collate and share information with both the Scottish Government and Police Scotland regarding incidents of unacceptable conduct at SPFL matches at regular intervals throughout the season.

However, the league body has declined to release figures relating to this season.