Thu, Oct 23, 2003 - Page 16 News List

Tackling Scotland's 'secret shame'

Sectarian violence in the UK is not exclusive to Northern Ireland, as football matches provide a spark-point for simmering violence in Glasgow

REUTERS , GLASGOW, SCOTLAND

Mark Scott was walking home from a Celtic soccer match when a Rangers fan attacked him in a Glasgow street and killed him by slitting his throat.

Two years later, in 1997, two fans were stabbed to death in a brawl involving at least 10 people after a match between the two Glasgow sides.

Mindless football thuggery? It looks that way, but here -- like nowhere else in mainland Britain -- attacks on soccer fans are as much about the sectarian divide between Catholics and Protestants as about football rivalry.

Sectarianism blights football in Glasgow and, according to campaigners, is not confined to the city's stadiums. They say it is ingrained in wider Scottish society and proving difficult to stamp out.

"There is often a poisonous atmosphere in the stadiums," said a spokesman for Nil By Mouth, a pressure group set up by a friend of Scott's in the wake of his murder.

"People then carry that poisonous atmosphere out onto the streets, quite often fuelled by alcohol, and they scar people for life," said the spokesman, who declined to be named.

"In the worst cases, they take lives."

While only 13 percent of Scots say they have suffered sectarian abuse, the figure is much higher in Glasgow, Scotland's biggest city.

Asked in a survey for the city council if they agreed with the statement that "sectarianism is becoming a thing of the past", two thirds of Glaswegians said no.

The problem is, to a large degree, a spill-over from the conflict across the sea in Northern Ireland.

Thousands of Irish emigrated to Scotland to escape the famines of the 19th century, bringing their religious beliefs with them. Those beliefs found expression in football.

Even now, 74 percent of Celtic fans describe themselves as Catholic and only 4 percent are Protestant. Some 65 percent of Rangers fans are Protestant and 5 percent Catholic.

It took until 1989 for Rangers to break the habit of a lifetime and sign a Catholic player -- former Celtic striker Maurice Johnston.

Celtic fans branded him a traitor while some hard-line Rangers fans returned their season tickets in protest and set fire to their scarves in front of the club's Ibrox stadium in disgust.

Since then, both clubs have taken steps to stamp out sectarianism but the regular "Old Firm" clashes between the two sides still generate even today horrific violence.

In May 1999, a Rangers fan died when he was beaten up after a match with Celtic and a 20-year-old Celtic fan was injured after being hit by a bolt fired from a crossbow.

In August the following year, a 23-year-old Celtic fan was stabbed to death by a Rangers fan near Ibrox.

His family built a shrine to him and covered it in Celtic and Rangers scarves. Someone in a less conciliatory frame of mind set fire to the shrine.

Scott, a 16-year-old schoolboy, was murdered by a member of a well-known Protestant family who was defended in court by a renowned Protestant lawyer.

The lawyer later caused outrage when he was caught on film singing inflammatory anti-Catholic songs during celebrations of a Rangers victory.

Now, it seems, the authorities in Scotland have decided enough is enough.

Scotland's first minister Jack McConnell, the country's most powerful politician, took the unusual step in a speech late last year of acknowledging the country's "secret shame" and vowing to tackle it head on.

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